Monday, May 31, 2010

Monday Funny

From the Los Angeles Parade Magazine, May 30, 2010

Friday, May 21, 2010

So how much research is enough, anyway?

by Scott Rhoades

Last time, I wrote about using the right amount of detail from your research. But just how much research should you do?

The answer, as usual, is: it depends.

It depends on your story and how much realism is important to it. You can often get away with very little, just enough to provide a flavor of the time and place. The problem is, somebody who knows that place and time might read your story, and that's the reader you need to write to.

If your story is set in a real city, you want to get the streets right. You want the geography to match. When I read "A Man In Full," I was disappointed when some of the details of an area where I had lived weren't right. The story lost its credibility.

If you write about a small town and have a character stopping for gas or staying in a little motel, you should make sure the town has services and lodging.

And if you're writing about a place you know well, but in a different time, find a map and pictures. Don't assume streets have the same name they used to have, or that streets were the same size.

You can often get away with peppering the story with a few little details, just enough to show that the place is real, and to fool the reader into thinking you know what you're talking about. Again, it's the experts you need to convince, but you can often do that with a well-placed detail or two.

Or, if you like doing research like I do, use this as an excuse to dig and find out as much as you can. You still won't use it all, but you'll have a good feel for the setting and it will show. But be careful. I know how easy it is to use research as an avoidance technique. If I'm reading about my setting or looking up obscure facts that I find incredibly interesting, I can claim to be working on my story, even if I don't set down a single word. Research is fun and, these days, easy, and almost always interesting--all the things that actual work often is not.

So if you're writing something that requires a lot of research, do something to make sure you write. Set a time limit on your research, or set a word goal and make sure you meet it, even if you're researching. Maybe your goal is a little lower than it might be otherwise, but at least you're getting something down.

Usually, though, you'll know when you're overdoing it, or when you haven't done enough. Pay attention to detail, and be honest with yourself. Follow your gut. If you need to, ask somebody else, preferably Someone Who Knows.

Remember that the goal is to create a realistic setting for your reader, not to show how much you know. Like any other detail, pick and choose the little details with a big punch. You wouldn't describe every tiny detail about your character, and the same goes for the setting.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Writing Thoughts from Kristin Chandler

"I tried to give up writing. I really did. Lots of times. I had lots of good reasons. I needed real money, I had papers to grade, I had kids with serious health issues and no one was buying the two novels I had written. Then I moved to Utah and my life fell off a cliff…and then I really couldn't stop writing, dang it. During this time I met Ken Baker, who introduced me to a group full of wonderful people. I was writing to keep from losing my mind but the group wanted a little more than that. One writer told me my first chapter was boring, of course not in those words. Another told me I needed to read more. Another told me I needed to try her salsa and I might consider using a comma every once an a while . Still another, you know who you are, told me she was writing five books a year. Sheez. Today my first novel was published. I just found out yesterday it's going to be featured by Mountain and Plains Booksellers in June. Thanks to all the people that have cared about me enough to give me suggestions about what to read, introduce me to other writers and editors, tell me when my writing wasn't working, feed me, and finally, who told me not to give up! "

Be sure to check out Kristen's website for more info about her first book and about her.

What do you do......

....when you'd rather kill your computer than write on it? When the thought of writing fills you with agony and dread? What do you do? How do you get over it? Leave your comments below.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Publishing Myths

You don't have to listen to anyone else when they suggest changes to your story.

When I first began writing, I was assured by other aspiring authors that I should always do whatever I thought best for the story. That others were welcome to provide suggestions, but that I didn't have to take them.

If you want to get published, you don't rely solely on your own opinion.

As I've surfed through the many, um, interesting works on authonomy, I've read many rants from potential authors, where they've adamantly refused to change anything about their writing.

I can only imagine how agents feel when they've spent hours reading a manuscript and making suggestions, only to hear that the author didn't agree. Yes, it's our perogative not to change our own work, but did we actually try implementing those suggestions? Almost every time I've gotten feedback from an agent or editor, I've tried it out and discovered it made me sound much more brilliant than I really am.

An author friend of mine (3 published works) always advises me to make the changes agents/editors tell me to make. Yes, it stings to know my manuscript isn't perfect, but if I take a day or two to think about it, I almost always end up agreeing with the suggestions.

What do you think about making changes based on agent's/editor critique?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Researching Time and Place

I usually post on Fridays, but I'm on the road right now and didn't have the chance. Yesterday was a busy workday in San Francisco, a city on my short list of favorite places. Today, though, I have some time, so I wanted to write about something I was reminded of while posting my story, "Danube So Blue," last month.

"Danube So Blue" is set in 1899 Vienna, Austria. I know Vienna fairly well, but the several times I've been there and the six months I lived there were all long after 1899. Because I wanted the city to play a major role in the story, that meant I had to do some research.

Now, I love doing research. That's one reason why much of what I write is historical. It gives me chance to both write and research, two of my favorite things. And I did a ton of research. I had a friend over there find a map from the period (it wouldn't do to give streets names that didn't exist back then), and he went the extra mile and found me a book of photos from the period. Armed with those and materials I already had, plus my knowledge of the city and how it feels, I was ready.

But having that much material brings a whole new set of issues. When I've done all that work and have copious notes and piles of details, I naturally want to use everything I've gathered. In this case, when Franz ventures outside and walks through the city, I wanted to describe all of the landmarks, give a street-by-street accounting of where he walked, and hopefully let the reader benefit from what I've learned by giving him or her this detailed view of one of the world's great cities in its heyday, shortly before its fall.

A noble goal, but bad for the story.

So what do you do with all that research? Go ahead and use it. In the first draft. In fact, you can go ahead and refine all those great descriptions in the second and third drafts. Make it detailed and make it shine. Use all of your skills to describe that time and place. Have fun with it. Make the story depend on these details.

Then rip them out.

Every beautiful description you take out hurts. Every brilliant passage describing the sights, sounds, and smells of your setting has an important place in your manuscript and is there for a reason, and you've done everything you can to convey the realism of the place and make it a vital part of your characters' lives. You can't imagine the story without all of that detail. It's some of your best writing. But rip it out anyway.

Examine every detail and decide whether it furthers the story. Sometimes you'll be convinced it does, or you'll want to be convinced it does, but deep down, your sense of story tells you that these details are not moving the story. So you rip. And you bleed. Kill your darlings, as the saying goes. If it makes you feel better, paste your deletions into a separate file so you can use them later in another story. Chances are you never will, but don't worry about that now. Cut mercilessly, then cut some more. Don't leave a single phrase that doesn't affect your characters' lives in an important way or doesn't relate directly to the plot.

After you're done cutting and the wounds have started to heal, although some pain lingers, you'll be surprised at what happened to your story. All of that thorough research, all of those beautiful descriptions, all of those poignant reactions to the setting by your characters, they're all gone. And you miss them. But what remains, almost magically, is the sense of the place. Everything you wanted to convey with all that detail is still there, even though the detail that created that sense of place is gone. It's hard to understand how it's possible that you end up with this result but you do.

"Danube So Blue" was the first time I tried this technique, so it was the one that hurt the most, I've used it since then when describing Viking-Age Iceland and medieval Germany, and even another part of Vienna in another story--or even when describing playing for a modern Major League baseball team, and the result has always been the same.

So put in all those details, and make them shine like the chrome on a 1957 Chevy. Then rip them out. You'll be left with everything you hoped to get out of the details, but they won't be in the way of your story.

If you don't believe me, give it a try. You'll see. All that time you spent will not have been wasted. You'll have your sense of place, and a much better story.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Thanks to All!

Many thanks to those who were brave enough to share here and thanks to those who took the time to leave comments. Our "30 Days, 30 Stories" project for 2010 went great!

We'll get back to posting regular posts soon so keep checking back.