Helping Writers Become Authors

4 Questions You Should Never Ask About Your Book

“No such thing as a stupid question.”

Sounds good, right? Sounds like, “Yay! Let’s be inquisitive and creative and learn stuff!” But here’s the problem: there is such a thing as a stupid question, and the bigger problem is that stupid questions are not just missed opportunities, they are actually counter-productive to curiosity, creativity, and learning.

As any writer can tell you, the writing life is full of questions:

“Why doesn’t anybody like my protagonist?”

“How can I ever find time to write?”

“Why is this so hard???”

These are all good questions. They’re specific, and they’re focused on the problem—which means they’re ultimately focused on the solution. But not all questions are created equal, and if you’re not disciplining yourself to ask good questions, your best-case outcome is a long, circuitous bout of flailing before, if you’re lucky, you finally find a suitable answer.

Why Asking Good Questions Is a Crucial Skill for Writers

Writing, perhaps more than any other art form, is about harnessing creativity with logic. As historian David McCullough says:

Writing is thinking clearly. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.

This starts and ends with the ability to identify challenges and frame appropriate questions about them. Mystery author Sue Grafton once said something that has become the paradigm for my entire approach to writing:

If you know the question, you know the answer.

In short, good writing is not about finding the right answer. It’s about finding the right question.

Mind-blowing, right?

But it’s not as easy as it sounds. Finding the right question is first and foremost about developing the logical skills to strip away all the wrong questions.

The Difference Between a Good Question and a Bad Question

So what’s the difference? What makes one question “good” and another “bad” to the point of uselessness?

I receive a lot of questions from writers. Most are pretty simple; most are the same questions I see and answer over and over again. Some are so brilliant, they help me see answers I hadn’t previously realized was looking for. Others, however, demonstrate that the writer’s primary obstacle is not whatever it is they’re asking me about, but rather a failure to look deeper into themselves and do the hard logical work of figuring out what they’re really asking. Because if they did that, half the time, they wouldn’t even need to ask.

The common pattern in good vs. bad questions is simple:

Good questions: specific.

Bad questions: vague.

This goes for just about anything in the writing life, whether it’s plot-specific questions (“Why isn’t my story working?”) or personal questions (“Why am I blocked?”). If you’re struggling to find an answer, it’s probably because you haven’t yet made the question specific enough.

Instead of knowing your story isn’t working and just leaving it that, you have to drill down to find the question at the crux of the issue: “Why is my Second Pinch Point missing?” or “Why is the Big Bad acting like this for no reason?”

Suddenly, boom. The answer (or at least, the road to the answer) is staring you right in the face.

4 Questions You Definitely Shouldn’t Be Asking

Today, I want to go over four of the most common “bad” questions I receive. I can’t give you the answer to any of them. But I can show you how to ask better questions that will help you find your own answers.

1. Don’t Ask: Will You Help Me Write a Book?

My Reaction:

Well, yes. I mean, no. I mean, of course, I’ll help you write a book: here’s the link to my website!

The Problem:

Here’s the thing. You don’t need help to write a book.

*cue panic*

No, really. Writing is a solitary endeavor. Writing is nothing but hard work down in the trenches of your soul. I can’t follow you there. You don’t need me holding your hand down there. Will I cheer you on? You bet. But I can’t help you write a book. No one can. Only you can do the hard work of reading, writing, learning, and thinking. Frankly, I can give you all the answers there are, but they won’t mean a thing until you’re ready to start asking the right leading questions.

Questions to Ask Yourself Instead:

What is my specific roadblock? Why am I not yet writing a book? What knowledge and/or tools do I need to make that first step forward? What is the best entry point for writing that first word? What am I afraid of? What is holding me back? How did other writers before me learn how to write a book?

Questions It’s Okay to Ask Other Authors:

At this point, after asking yourself all the above questions, you should have plenty of stuff to work on for the time being before you require feedback from others. Although it can sometimes be worthwhile to ask other authors how they started writing their first book, be real about whether you’re just chatting things up as a procrastination technique from the load of work now in front of you.

You won’t have a legitimate question for other writers until you’ve dug down so deep into the process you’re getting to questions like: “Which is better for my story: omniscient or third-person POV?”

2. Don’t Ask: How Do I Write a Book?

My Reaction:

Uhhh, sure, but… where to start…? You just, you know, start typing. Oh, wait, but then there’s, like, story structure and outlining, and theme and character building. You could maybe take a workshop or two. Or, you know what, here: [link to website]

The Problem:

This question wins the award for Most Vague. Basically, all this question does is establish that you want to write a book. That’s totally awesomesauce. But it’s not a good entry point to the actual process. Honestly, I’m still learning how to write a book. Basically, you just jump in and start swimming. Start typing, start studying, start thinking.

Questions to Ask Yourself Instead:

What do I already know about writing a book? What holes does that yet leave, leading me to specific areas in which I know I can start studying? How do my favorite authors put words together in a way that makes magic on the page? How can I mimic that?

Questions It’s Okay to Ask Other Authors:

What was your first breakthrough insight as an author? What was the biggest mistake you made in writing your first book? What resources have you found most helpful in improving your writing?

Your goal should not be to get another author to lay out the entire path for you (they can’t, if only because their path is going to be totally different from yours), but rather to gain insights from the specific steps they took to get that first book written.

3. Don’t Ask: Where Do I Start?

My Reaction:

Why, you begin at the beginning, of course.

The Problem:

Although similar to the above question, this is the better question since it’s ever so slightly less vague. At least it’s acknowledging the need for an obvious starting point! However, it still demonstrates the disadvantage authors are at when they fail to dig down for specifics.

As already acknowledged, this question has a very obvious answer. But if “start at the beginning” is not the answer you’re looking for (and no one ever is), then you already have a leg up on knowing you need to ask a better question to find the answer you’re really needing.

Questions to Ask Yourself Instead:

Am I ready to just start typing this novel? Do I feel I’m lacking some crucial understanding about either writing or storytelling? What information do I need to find before I can move forward? Do I need to do some research? Do I need to understand more about the story itself before I start writing? Should I outline before writing the first draft? What’s the best way to outline a story?

Questions It’s Okay to Ask Other Authors:

Remember, you’re not looking for other authors to tell you how to write (because, really, when you’re asking that, you’re mostly just wanting them to hold your hand through the process—or maybe even do all the hardest work for you). Instead, you’re looking for insights you can learn from their own way of doing things.

To that end, ask questions such as: What is your first step in your writing process when you start a new book? Do you outline? Why or why not? What are some key elements for a good opening chapter? What are some pitfalls to be aware of in beginning a new story?

4. Don’t Ask: What Should I Write About?

My Reaction:

*opens mouth* [confused face] *closes mouth* Why, would you even…? *clears throat* Dear Person, I am about to save you a life of misery and wrist pain: If you can not be a writer, then don’t.

The Problem:

Okay, for starters, I really, really don’t get this one. If you don’t have something to write about, why do you want to write? Writing, like all of art, needs to come bursting out of you like a volcano. We write because, first and foremost, we have something to say—or even, perhaps, to discover what it is we have to say.

If you don’t know what to write about, then wait until you do. Or, if what you’re really asking is, “What should I write about that will sell a million copies?”—then stop right there and gut-check yourself. First of all, I cannot tell you what story will sell a million copies (after all, if I knew that, I’d write it myself), and second, you’re not writing for the numbers, remember, you’re writing for the words and your own love of them.

Questions to Ask Yourself Instead:

What kind of story do I want to write? Do I really, really, really want to write it? Can I not write it? Why do I want to be a writer anyway? How can I take this little kernel of a good idea and make it better? What kind of story do I wish my favorite author would write for me?

Questions It’s Okay to Ask Other Authors:

Honestly, on this one I have to say: just don’t. You could maybe ask for feedback on whether someone thinks an idea is a good one. But, personally, I wouldn’t go there. If an idea is good, you just know it. You love it. You can’t stay away from it. Your own passion is what will drive the project forward and turn it into something great. You don’t need another writer’s permission to do that—and why risk their cold water if, in their own subjective opinion, it doesn’t do it for them?

***

Asking worthwhile questions about your writing is ultimately about taking responsibility for your writing. Vague questions are very often lazy questions. Lazy writers do not succeed. Successful writers do the hard work of learning how to think clearly, logically, and specifically, so they can immediately zero in on the questions most likely to help them find the right answers.

This does not mean you can’t or shouldn’t seek advice or feedback from your peers. We all need objective opinions to help us see ourselves and our work clearly. We can all benefit from the knowledge of those who have traveled the path ahead of or beside us. But neither should we rely on them. It’s not their job to find answers to our questions. Writing is, after all, a solitary journey. You have to make your own way. And the best way forward is always via informed, purposeful questioning.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is your process for finding the best answers to your pressing writing questions? Tell me in the comments!

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