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