Monday, February 26, 2007

WHAT IF??? The difference between readers and writers...

By Lonnie Cruse

What if? It's an interesting question.

Whenever I attend the Love Is Murder conference in Chicago, the most interesting things seem to happen in the elevator. This year that happening was a quick discussion with someone between the first and second floors who introduced herself to me as "just a reader." There were three or four of us writers in the elevator and as many readers riding between floors. I'd checked this lady's name tag, in order to say "hello," and that's when she made the "I'm just a reader" statement. We writers quickly assured her that we couldn't do our job of writing unless she did her job of reading what we wrote. "Just readers" are extremely important to us "just writers." Although, I have to say I've never heard a writer confess to anyone, "I'm just a writer." Ego? Confidence? Whatever.

For me, it isn't about talent or lack thereof (which may be what readers are saying about themselves when they use the "just" word, that they don't believe they have the talent to write, but maybe they do? Where was I?) I believe it's the "What if?" question that sets the two groups apart.

"Just readers" see an item in the newspaper or on television, or overhear a snatch of conversation in public and think it's interesting, then they quickly move on with their lives.

"Just writers" see or hear the same thing and screech to a halt, fumbling for notebooks or napkins to jot an idea or phrase down, all the while asking themselves, "What if?" What if that wasn't an accident, but a murder? What if that young couple is faking a public marital spat while they check out the store for a possible robbery? What if? It's what makes us writers tick. It's that, ahem, weird imagination that allows us to take something ordinary and everyday and transform it into a whole new story. A story, hopefully, that "just readers" will want to read.

But "What if?" is really a two edged sword for an awful lot of writers. Not only is it a necessary question in order to keep us looking for new ideas, plot lines, scenarios, etc. but it can bring us to a grinding halt, staring at a blank page, as if hypnotized. As in:

What if I can't come up with an idea to write about?
What if I have the idea for the beginning and ending of the novel, but I can't fill in that awful saggy, baggy middle? (Which, by the way is MY very own, very personal "What if" bugaboo.)
What if I can't come up with another idea good enough to write a sequel to the last book?
What if my latest book doesn't sell well enough and my publisher drops me while I'm in the middle of writing the next one?
What if I die in mid-manuscript and the world never gets to read my current work of genius? (Which is bound to happen to an awful lot of writers, since we're nearly always in the middle of writing a new manuscript.)

These "What ifs" are a writer's worst nightmares. Not to mention daymares. Lack of self-confidence, an internal "editor," difficult to turn off, that constantly whispers in our ears, "This stinks," "You can't do this," Nobody is ever going to want to read this." Helpful little phrases like that. Then, of course, there are the guilt "What ifs":

Should I be spending all this time tied to my desk, writing about characters who don't really exist when I have a family who need me, a job to do at the office, a house to clean, groceries to buy, etc. ???

Writers are plagued with self-doubts, and "What if" is often the gateway to those doubts. We have to find a way to shut them off and concentrate on the "What if" of the story. How we can entice you lovely "just readers" to read our stuff.

If you've ever introduced yourself to a writer as "just a reader," please, let me encourage you to leave off the "J" word in the future. You ARE our bread and butter. And remember, it isn't any easier on our side of the desk than it is on yours.

Now, "what if" I get busy on a new story line slithering through my head?


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Lonnie, I've heard that the germ of the story lies in a "what if." I might even blog about that some time. I've also heard that "just a writer" is used in Hollywood--often, probably, in the third person rather than the first. ;) I guess the Oscars are an exception.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Well, I'd certainly be happy to accept an Oscar and be JUST a writer. Snicker. Thanks, Liz!

Deb Baker said...

Seems to me too many things happen in the elevator. Didn't the ceiling fall on one of our own at LIM?

Anonymous said...


Enjoyed the post; particularly the line about screeching "to a halt, fumbling for notebooks or napkins to jot an idea or phrase down."

Painful subject, those "What ifs". Makes for long days, short nights and manical drive to write efficiently. That's a losing battle here.

Thanks for the shared insight; Hope you're never at a loss for a notebook or pen as you go racing to work on the latest storyline.


William Spear
Lit Between the Ears

# 30 #

Lonnie Cruse said...


Thanks for stopping by!

Lonnie Cruse said...


Yes, the elevator ceiling fell on Luisa Buehler at LIM. She went to the ER for treatment, but was back at the conference working hard as one of the board members and as an author in quick order. Gotta love that woman!