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Answers to Questions About Writing

Because my life is completely entangled with writing—I’ve written three novels, hundreds of articles and essays, and I teach creative writing to kids—I get a lot of questions about writing from students, friends, friends of friends, third cousins of former neighbors, and strangers. So here are some of the questions I get asked most often and a few I’ve never been asked but wish I had (with answers to them all):

How did you get your first novel published? Several key factors helped me get my novel published. 1. I wrote a good book. It’s far from perfect and not nearly as good as the books I wrote later, but it was a good story and it carried some emotional truth. It was the result of the hard work we all put in: Four years of writing early in the morning and late at night and on weekends, in my kitchen, on trains, on vacation, at college reunions, as well as several novel-writing classes, a critique group with other writers, and feedback from friends and acquaintances. 2. I researched agents thoroughly and followed instructions well. I only sent query letters to agents who were clearly interested in the kind of fiction I wrote (contemporary women’s fiction) and I followed directions exactly. If they wanted the first chapter and a synopsis, that’s what I sent. If they wanted a synopsis only, that’s what I sent. I didn’t send a full manuscript unless they requested it. 3. I picked an agent who loved my book and loved the way I wrote, not the most famous agent. 4. I was lucky. I finished my book and got an agent in 2003, before the onslaught of e-books and $0.99 price points for novels changed the publishing industry into the crazy mess it is right now.

What is the first book that made you cry? When I got to the part in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe where the Witch’s servants shave the lion’s mane, I started crying and couldn’t stop and couldn’t bring myself to finish reading the book even after I stopped crying. What I learned from this: I was only eight or nine, but I learned that books are powerful enough to make you weep, haunt your dreams, and feel more real than real life.

Do you believe in writer’s block? Sure; I know it’s something real that real people experience so I don’t doubt it exists— unlike, say, the perfect haircut, which I’m pretty sure doesn’t exist. Have I ever experienced it? Not really. As long as I’m writing about something I care about, something I feel emotionally invested in, I can always get words onto a page. The times I’ve gotten stuck in writing fiction have been the times I wasn’t honest enough with myself to admit that I didn’t really care deeply about my story or characters.

What did you do with your first advance? My first advance was what Publisher’s Weekly would call “a good deal,” which was a lot of money for me at the time. I bought a car (a very exciting Subaru station wagon for hauling around my kids and their sporting equipment), some furniture for our screened-in porch, which had been empty since we’d moved into our house, and bought myself a ring, a band of hammered sterling silver with a topaz set in gold. It wasn’t expensive—around $100—but that was my reward just for me, and I still wear that ring often and it makes me smile because I remember the huge high and sense of accomplishment of selling that first novel. I put the rest of the money into savings.

How did you think of all those characters and all the stuff that happens in your novels? This is always one of the hardest questions to answer. I lived a lot of it—not those exact situations, not those same personalities, but those feelings of fear and desperation and excitement and giddiness and joy and doubt and grief are all feelings I know. I wrote about places I’ve been to and some I haven’t, jobs I’ve worked and some I’ve dreamt of working (or dreaded working), and I researched anything I didn’t know inside out until I had the understanding and knowledge I needed to create a believable world. I created characters out of all the people I’ve ever met and the human foibles and greatnesses they embody.

*What fuels your writing? Honestly? Dark chocolate.

How would you answer some of these questions? What questions do you get asked about writing? What question would you most like to ask one of your favorite writers?


About Kathleen McCleary [1]

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as HGTV.com, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (http://thenobleapp.com), because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.