Archives: writing process

4 Questions Beginning Writers Need to Answer

4 Questions Beginning Writers Need to Answer

The internet is great for finding opinions on writing techniques and story elements. But how often do we seize on advice without thinking about what we already know? Let’s square away a few basics before rushing off to learn more.

A Few Good Questions

1. What am I working on?

Easy enough, right? But we can get so caught up the excitement of what-could-be or what-will-be and actually forget to write.

Also, if you like straight-forward answers like I do, labels can be troublesome. Are you see-sawing on a decision to abandon a short story? Or scribbling ideas about a new adventure novel? Does that count as work?

Yes, but frankly, I always felt odd admitting it.

If you’re in a fuzzy place when describing your current work, try pinpointing exactly what creative work is going on. Maybe that’s a “duh” for most of you, but I forget it pretty easily. Just a brief moment of clarity makes a big difference in my understanding.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Discovering how your writing is different can come by listening to others. Feedback from writers or avid readers gives us insight to how we surprised them. Are you funny? A wordsmith? Clever? It’s hard to see those things for yourself, but your readers will notice.

If you’re getting feedback but the comments focus on style, then your technique may be overshadowing your voice. That was true for me. I had many suggestions about improving my tendency to underwrite a scene (specifically settings!) before my readers noticed a bent of humor in my manuscripts.

3. Why do I write what I do?

Malorie Blackman, author of Noughts and Crosses, says British children’s books are too white. “Very, very few picture books are published in [England] that feature children of colour.” Her young adult books challenge stereotypes and racism. Clearly, Ms. Blackman knows why she writes what she writes.

Trouble is, you may be thinking, I don’t have that clear-cut vision. Or perhaps you don’t see your goal (i.e, just want to pay the water bill) as noble enough.

If fixing on a purpose is difficult, imagine yourself in a conversation with a trusted friend. Daydream through your answers about why you write. Which resonates with you as authentic?

4. How does my writing process work?

I collect writing processes like my nephew collects shoes.

In fact, my favorite fantasy is imagining one day I’ll start and finish a manuscript following a perfectly linear path.

Figuring out our best work habits brings clarity and energy to our writing. But obsessing over how we ought to work zaps us and is counter-productive. Avoid getting hung up on how other writers write.

This is a major struggle for me. I feel inadequate, even stupid, because I rewrite so often and so heavily. Each time I start a new draft the voice in my head tells me real writers don’t do this.

But when I shared my fear to my writerly daughter, she told me John Green wrote 284 drafts of AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES and 192 drafts of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS.

So, maybe I need to rethink my attitude on rewriting.

If you’ve overloaded your brain on good advice from others, take time to remember what you already know. Let’s clear the brain fog!

P.S. By the way, these questions came to me through a fun blog hop. Back in March, my teacher writer friend Suzanne Lily, author of GOLD RUSH GIRL, included me in her blog hop. And then, last week, I got another chance to join in through my sweet friend Martha Brady, who blogs at Gritty Grace, where the grace of GOD and grit of life intersect. (Isn’t that a great tag line?) Thanks ladies!

P.S.S. If you know a child who’d like a short summer read – only 14 pages – consider THE LITERATURE CLUB PROJECT. A short story for ages 9+. Only 99 cents! : )

 

3 Truths About Fiction Research

3 Truths About Fiction Research

Growing up I read a lot of Greek mythology. One story stood out and that was the story of Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to roll a rock up a hill only to watch the rock roll back down to the bottom after he reached the top.

Sometimes fiction research feels the same way.

For example, several months ago I rewrote chapters for one of my manuscripts. My focus was on creating a reality television setting. I had plenty of information but in the re-telling the setting came across as generic and dull.

In two days, I flipped back and forth between the internet and my word processor fourteen times in order to write a single paragraph. It was brutal, and felt like waste of precious time. I was discouraged.

Maybe I should cut the entire reality television angle from my plot, I thought.

On the third day, I compared the remaining chapters and my research notes. What I noticed is that my research had been drawn from the internet. Not one book. Not one interview.

As a writer with two historical fiction manuscripts sitting on her shelf (translate: lots of practice collecting oodles of interviews and books) this was an astounding revelation.

Why did I think a contemporary story didn’t deserve as much research as a historical? This setback made me doubt myself.

Building Story on Rock, Pebbles, and Sand

Have you ever experienced a moment like that? Thankfully, I’ve discovered it isn’t that unusual. Many writers confess they’ve wasted valuable time backtracking because of weak research.

Reviewing earlier projects, I saw stories were strongest when three kinds were used, like a mayonnaise jar filled with a mixture of rocks, pebbles, and sand.

  • I find the truly important facts – the rocks – come from books. Memoirs, biographies, how-to guides, and technical books are worth borrowing or buying.
  • Interviews, like pebbles, fill gaps that only personal experience can bring. Whether you do an interview through skype, email, or in-person, speaking to experts adds depth and nuance to a story.
  • Internet research is fun, weird, surprising information that gives a story texture. Like sand, it fills the nooks and crannies.

In the early days of a manuscript, exploring the internet is the fastest way for me to know what I don’t know. Once I learn a little, I start borrowing books. (I buy books only after I know they will be essential.) The last thing I do is interview.

Three Truths That Makes Research Worthwhile

  1. I have seen research transform ho-hum stories into must-reads. Sure, we all want to entertain our readers with great plots and characters, but adding a layer of details will transport them into another world (Hogwarts, anyone?) and make them feel as if they’ve actually visited it too. Those layers of details come from solid research.
  2. Wrong details yank readers out of the story. Historical fiction writers know if they dress a woman in a v-neck when she should be wearing a wide, scooped neckline, then some reader, somewhere is going to raise a ruckus.
  3. Research can enhance a story’s plot and theme. When I discovered that reality shows insiders judge a show’s budget by its location, I decided to highlight a small story thread about the reality show producers being broke which forced the cast to work out of a state park instead of a costly tall ship.

The best thing about research is that nothing is every wasted. Details that don’t make it into this story can turn up later in a short story or book, or at the least, a dinner conversation.

So if rewriting your manuscript feels more like pushing a boulder up a hill, then pull back and check your research. Like me, you may have filled your research jar with sand.

What about you? Ever felt like you were doing a lot of work, but not getting any closer to meeting your deadline? Let me know what you learned in the comment section below!

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