The Writing FAQ

FAQ: Middle-School Style

These are the questions I know for sure I'm going to be asked every time I do a school visit. You will be asked them, too, so start practicing your answers now.
1. Where do you get your ideas?
This is every author's most frequently asked question, and we all hate it. Ideas are the easiest things in the world to come by. You strike up against a fact or a sight or a smell, and a spark goes off -- a dozen, fifty, a hundred times a day. Maybe you do something with it, maybe you don't. Otto from Otherwhere sparked when my husband mentioned that the fog on Woodlawn Lake one January morning looked thick enough to walk across into another world. Switching Well happened because I always, always wanted to live "a hundred years ago," and had the good fortune to live in San Antonio, where the past is visible right next door to the present. Stories are everywhere, and if you only keep your eyes open, you'll see them. Picking the most interesting ideas, and executing them in the most interesting possible way -- that's hard!

2. How much money do you make?
Yes, middle school kids ask personal questions like this! On the one hand, your instinct is to say: "None of your business," and this is a legitimate response. On the other hand, if the kid's considering a career in literature, this is a legitimate thing to want to know. I answer, not with specifics, but with the theory. Most books are sold on an advance against royalties. The publisher will usually pay a 10% royalty on an author's book -- ten cents for every dollar's worth of books sold is to go to the author. Say the book sells for $13.00 apiece -- that means the author gets $1.30 per book. But the publisher usually pays the writer a lump sum of money up front -- say, $5000.00 for a children's book by an unknown author. This is the advance. When the book has sold enough copies to earn the author that initial $5000.00, the author starts getting money again. Sales of paperback rights, movie deals, and so on, will count towards earning back the advance as well as actual copies sold. The more copies sell, the more everybody makes, and the more eager, in theory, the publisher will be to take the writer's next book.

Incidentally, you must not count on the publisher making any active effort to promote your book. They don't do it. It's not important why (and I couldn't tell you; I don't know any authors who know the answer to this question). They don't; or, they do it capriciously. Be prepared to advertise youself. Do not assume that it is the publisher's job.

3. What is your favorite book that you have written?
All of them.

4. How many books have you written?
This is one of those cases in which people are asking the wrong question. They really mean: "How many books have you published?" I always answer the question as asked, however, because it's important to know, before you get into this business, how much unrewarded work is involved. So, let's count this up:
  2 written in middle and high school, which taught me my limitations
  2 written for adults, which no one has bought yet and which I've gotten tired of marketing.
  9 sold to Margaret K. McElderry.
  1 sold to Dutton Children's Books
  1 sold to Henry E. Holt
  1 sold to Henry A. Abrams Books, publication pending
  4 which I'm presently trying to peddle
  1 in revision
  3 sitting in my dormant file waiting to see whether I have what it takes to make them publishable
  1 existing only in hardcopy waiting to be read and evaluated for salvagability
 25 completed books, for 12 of which I have received payment.

So, have I wasted the effort of writing 13 books? Does a basketball player waste the effort he puts into going to practice and playing the games his team loses? No. Even when I can't sell, the effort of writing and marketing keeps my brain supple and keeps me in the game. When I take time off, I get rusty and I feel less alive. I want to be read - no one out there except other writers understands how desperately I want to be read! - but the act has its own reward which should not be neglected or despised.

5. Why don't you have any kids when you write for them?
Another personal question which I opt to answer. A surprising number of adults think they have a right to ask this of me, too, and they should know better! I decided a long time ago that writing the books was the most important thing in my life. I believe strongly that, once you have children, the children have to be the most important thing. Since I never want to look at my kids and think: If it weren't for you, I could have done this, I will not have any. Many good authors have been parents and writers at the same time, but I do not know how they did it. I only know that I don't have the capacity.

It's also true that I believe that every problem the world has today is made worse by overpopulation, and that I have a bad temper and am not sure I would be a good mother. I also think I wouldn't be able to write for young people if I had any of my own. That sounds wrong, but I sometimes have these moments of double vision looking at kids, seeing them as another kid would see them ("Hey, he's really good at jumping!") and as an adult would ("Hey, he's going to break his neck!"). Parents can't afford this double vision, because if they have it, there's a danger of them allowing their children to break their necks! But those truths only support my initial decision. We all do what we're going to do and justify it afterward, and we all deserve to have our decisions respected.

6. Does your husband do anything special? Does he help you with your books?
Maybe you won't get this question when you do your school visits. It continually arises in mine because I can't keep Damon out of my conversation. Damon could write if he wanted to, but he doesn't want to. This is okay with me, because it's good to have one person in the family whose head is in the real world and not in an imaginary country. He's the one who handles the money, makes sure the bills get paid, and makes the computer do what I want it to when it gets contrary. He gives me titles. He was the one who suggested I write a mystery, and helped me work out the plot to The Treasure Bird, when I didn't think I was smart enough to write a good mystery. Sometimes he's my only face-to-face human contact for weeks at a time. He forgives me when I'm bad tempered and brings me chocolate when I'm depressed. He gave me no argument on the question of having children, which I had decided before he ever came on the scene, and which he might reasonably have asked me to reconsider. So the answer is yes, but he doesn't get payment or recognition for it. Except from me, and I hope that will continue to be sufficient, because I don't know how I could do this without him.

7. Why go to all that trouble, just for a story?
This question comes up when I describe the amount of work that goes into researching, writing, and revising a story. At first I tried to explain it by talking about the obligation of the writer to the reader, but I wasn't sure if I got through. So the next time it arose, I asked the questioner: "What do you like to do most in the world?"
"Play basketball," was the prompt response.
"Do you care if you double dribble? Do you care if you make the basket?"
"Of course I do."
"Well, I care if the story is right, if it's the best I can make it. When you're doing what you like to do best in the whole world, you want to do it right, and you don't care if other people care of not." I don't know if that kid got it, but several others in the class did, and that's a start.

8. Are you working on anything right now?
I am always working on something unless my life is in deepest darkest chaos. As of revising this FAQ in April 2008, I am preparing for a school visit, revising a YA novel, looking for an agent, shopping completed stories to publishers, trying to wrap up a D&D campaign, and organizing my house.

The above is all copyright 2008 by Peni R. Griffin. I freely grant permission to all readers to quote from it, as long as proper attribution is appended.

Find out more about school visits.

Go to "Peni and Damon's Wonderfulness on the Web"index page.