Nobody is born proficient in anything. We all have to start somewhere when it comes to learning new skills. Sure, there might be a prodigy or two out there, but instances of individuals with extreme natural talent are rare. Writing is just like any other skill. Nobody starts out knowing everything about it or how to do it. Consequently, I’ve seen a lot of the same questions pop up in online forums from new writers who are just trying to get a handle on this skill. Some are trying to improve, but many don’t know what they don’t know and seem to ask some fairly basic questions. Since I’ve recently realized I’ve been a published writer for over a decade, I thought I could shed some light on some frequently asked questions (FAQs) that I’ve seen from numerous new writers.
Q: I want to write X. Should I write it?
The addendum to this question is usually, “It’s already been done before.” I say, as long as you’re not straight plagiarizing it, you should write it. After all, your life experiences inevitably shape your worldview. If you write something similar to an existing work, you’ll still put your spin on it and create something new. Heck, there are tons of fanfiction stories out there that aren’t original because they already use a pre-existing universe created in another context. Besides, when it comes right down to it, every idea has already been done before. It’s not like anyone is original anyway.
Additionally, this question is often asked with the caveat, “Would anyone want to read it?” This gets more into the commercial viability of your writing. In the end, if you want to read it, then that means someone does want to read it. There’s always a niche market out there for your work as well, so it really doesn’t matter what you write, someone out there will likely want to read it. Basically, if you want to write X, do whatever you want. Nobody is stopping you from writing it.
Q: I don’t know anything about Y. What should I do?
While finding subject-matter experts is ideal, sometimes the best resource is the internet. A quick Google search can answer most simple questions. Before you ask a question on an online forum, try Googling it first, as you’ll likely get your answer much quicker than waiting for someone to reply. Furthermore, while it’s frowned upon for academic writing, Wikipedia is a fantastic resource for anyone writing fiction. You might not become an expert in thermonuclear engineering overnight, but you can certainly educate yourself enough to make what you want to write believable.
Q: What should I name my character/location/item/etc.?
These types of questions inevitably get some backlash. If you’re asking an online community to name everything in your story for you, why not just ask them to write the whole story? I do know (from personal experience) that finding the right name for a character, location, or item can be a challenge, but you’ll likely get random names if you ask for them online. The better bet would be to go to websites like Behind the Name for your names. Often, you have little clues about your character, location, or item that can help guide you to the right name. For instance, in my short story, Soul Photographer, I wanted a male name that had something to do with vision or sight. When I cobbled together the name Elioenai Adler (which is Jewish for “my eyes look to God” and “eagle”), I then had inadvertently settled on this character’s background as well. Not all names have to have meaning, though, and it’s useful to peruse through a list of them to find the one that jumps out at you.
Q: How long should my scenes/chapters/book be?
The answer to this is, “it depends.” Depending on the genre you’re writing in, the book could be long (high fantasy), or it could have short chapters (thriller). A lot of this comes down to what the natural breaks of the story are. I don’t suggest forcing yourself to write an exact amount of words or pages. Instead, let the story flow and then worry about cutting it up into smaller pieces during the editing phase. After all, you can’t edit what you haven’t written, and once it’s written, you can tweak the flow so it’s paced well.
Q: I’m terrible at grammar/style/editing. How can I get better?
At some point, you’ll finish your first draft. It’s essential to do some self-editing before letting others see it (mostly because they’ll pick up on little errors instead of the bigger picture). While the best way to get better at grammar and style is to read well-established authors (and even independent authors, to see the errors in other people’s writing), sometimes finding your blind spots as a writer can be difficult. This is where feedback from others is useful. Before you hand it off to them, though, try running it through the grammar checker on Microsoft Word. It’s not perfect, but it has gotten better over the years. Additionally, while it does cost a little bit for the Premium version (but is only about $6 a month if bought on sale), I have found that Grammarly has been useful in identifying some of the more complex errors in my writing. It is also not perfect, but it gets you closer to something polished enough for someone else to read.
Q: Where can I get a cover for my book?
While a quality cover will often cost a few hundred dollars to create, this question is aimed at getting one for free. I’d urge anyone looking for images to use for their cover to be careful that these images are available for you to use. Often, the pictures that show up in a Google search are from stock photo sites or other websites that license these images for commercial use. If you don’t pay for them, your book could be in trouble, even if you aren’t selling it. With this in mind, I do suggest using Canva.com to create a cover that looks better than the ones provided in “cover creator” online software. Some options in Canva do cost money (again, buying the rights to the pictures), but there are also plenty of free styles.
Q: My book is done! Where can I get it published?
OK, so you wrote your book, self-edited it, and even gave it a cover. At this point, you can self-publish. I’d still suggest hiring a professional editor and getting a professional cover made up if you want to sell it and have it taken seriously. If you don’t care about that, then you can use Amazon’s KDP to get an eBook out there to the world (just be prepared for any negative reviews it might receive). If you’re looking to be traditionally published, then your journey just got a lot longer. The first step in this process is to find an agent, and I’d suggest using QueryTracker.net to help you in your search. A lot of agents can sometimes take up to a year to respond, so if you have the patience to go this route, be prepared for a lot of rejections and (possibly) the delight of eventually being traditionally published.
These are just some of the questions I’ve seen over the years. I might add to this list as I see more common questions, but I hope that I’ve provided a few resources for new writers to get started.
Are you a new writer?
What questions do you have about writing?
If you’re an experienced writer, what common questions do you see?