The Toughest Question

The other day in the shower, which is a good place for ideas, I got to thinking about the kinds of questions I’ve been asked since I “came out.” Yes, I write fiction. What’s it to ya?

I began to ponder what, as a writer, is the most difficult question someone has asked me. I decided pretty quickly that the most difficult question is not: what’s the most difficult question someone has asked me. In fact, that one’s pretty easy.

I thought of a few good posers and have listed them below with some added insights and possible strategies for dealing with them. Writers: feel free to use any of my suggestions.

Where do you get your ideas?

For me, this is by far the hardest question. For any one story, the ideas might have hundreds of sources, from newspaper articles to books I’ve read, to experiences I’ve had and people I’ve known. And let’s not forget to credit pure imagination. Clearly, there’s no single answer to this.

On the few occasions I’ve tried to articulate where I get my ideas, I’ve managed to blather incoherently at length as if speaking in tongues, or perhaps I spoke goat in a former life or some dialect of chimpanzee. Either way, my patient listener always looks troubled by the end. Possibly thinking I need some kind of help of the men-in-the-white-coats variety.

However, if my listener is bound to end up thinking I’m a bit crazy anyway, I’ve devised another strategy. I shall pull out a hat-shaped piece of tinfoil and place it upon my head (shiny side out) and say, “Lord Xanax of the planet Prozac sends me ideas using a combination of microwaves and invisible lasers.” That ought to do it.

I guess the best answer to this one is no answer. Bite my lip, smile coyly, change the subject.

What’s your story about?

This one should be easy, right? I wrote the damn thing. Surely I know what it’s about. Well, of course I do, but conveying that in a few articulate sentences is not as easy as it sounds. Unless you’ve memorized your “elevator pitch” (which is defined as that quick-sell speech you’d give if you happened to be trapped in an elevator with an agent or editor for two minutes; unless the contraption breaks down in which case you might have as long as a couple of hours before panic sets in) you find yourself scrambling for words. In trying to relate the gist of my story, I’ve certainly resorted to spewing the incoherent, goat/chimpanzee-influenced blather mentioned in the first question, above.

However, I have a new answer to this question and I’m definitely psyched to try it out. Ask me what my story’s about, go ahead: It’s about 300 pages.

Why do you write?

I don’t think I, personally, have been asked this question, though I know several author friends who have. My first thought for the cheeky asker is, “None of your bloody business.” But that lacks a modicum of tact, I think. After all, I still want people to buy my work.

Turning tables is a possibility. Ask your dear inquirer what they do for a living. Now ask them why they do it. Who walks up to an accountant or lawyer or surgeon and asks, “Why do you account/law/surge?” Just doesn’t happen. We assume they do what they do because they’re good at it and enjoy it. And because they can make money at it. Well, two out of three ain’t bad. I think I’m good at writing, I know I enjoy it, but only time will tell if I can make enough money at it to do it for an actual living. I know a lot of writers who make a living doing what they love, and some of them are even novelists. Most novelists, however, hold a day job so the repo man will allow them to keep the plasma HD TV with the amazing picture quality and surround sound.

If not for the money, why, pray tell? Simple, I love to write.

What kind of stories do you write?

Again, this should be a no-brainer. I wrote the stories; surely I know what category they fall under. The problem here lies not with the stories, but with the methods of categorization. This is further complicated by my own predilection to write each book in a different genre. The middle grade novel and young adult novel are easy: MG and YA (or it would be easy if my YA novel wasn’t originally written for adults and is actually “edgy” YA).

But the adult-oriented novels I’ve written are more difficult. I could say literary, but people then pipe up, “Like Margaret Atwood?” Well, no. Only Margaret Atwood writes like Margaret Atwood. “Oh, then like Alice Munro.” No, again. I don’t write short stories (at least not ones that sell) and my work isn’t exactly like hers. The only way to get out of the dilemma is to revert to describing the story, which again has me speaking chimpanzee, possibly while wearing the tinfoil hat.

I suppose I could get all high dudgeon on your ass and say, “My work defies categorization.” Because that would just be cool.


So, if you’re a writer, what’s the toughest question you’ve been asked? Feel free to comment on the post and vote for your favourite.

2 thoughts on “The Toughest Question

  1. Allison Baggio

    I’d say the “what’s your book about” one is hard, even now that it is about to be released. I always stumble because I want to find the right angle for each person that would make it seem attractive to them. Sometimes, this means just saying… “Corey Hart” and leave it at that (kidding!).

    The other day in the check-out (when I was buying three copies of the same Chatelaine magazine and the cashier asked me why)…. she told me I was the exact person she wanted to talk to and said she had a friend who was a great writer and he wanted to know how to get published. I started talking about how you just have to keep at it, and then about how he could look at the Writer’s Market books in the library… but she stood looking at me totally dumb-founded, as if to say, “You mean there isn’t a magic secret about getting published, you actually have to work at it for years and years?”Yes, I told her without her actually asking. It took me seven years to get mine published.

    I think that will be a difficult question to answer if it keeps coming…

    1. Caroline Post author

      Thanks for your response, Allison. I see what you mean. Those who get published don’t have magical insight. They’ve just worked hard and put in their time. Took me five years for Voiceless.

      I have Girl in Shades on order and can’t wait to read it!!


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