Research = Yuck (Sometimes)

For some, research is the definition of tedium. I am one of them, which is why I like to write science fiction and fantasy. While rules of physics, biology and human nature must be followed – to a point – at least I don’t have to know what the weather was like on January 3rd 1872 in Portland Oregon, and whether or not the moon was full that day. I also don’t have to know where the local grocery store is, because when I’m building my world, I can put that grocery store wherever I darn well please, thank you very much.

My junior year of high school, everyone had to take an asset test to see where their academic strengths and weaknesses were, so the students and guidance counselors could determine more easily where they should take their next educational steps, if any. My worst score (if I remember right) was history at 83. No surprise there. I didn’t care for history in school. I couldn’t appreciate it as much as I do now, because being so young, I didn’t see how history greatly affects our present and future.

My best score at 99 was research. Looking up where to find things, regardless of subject was easy for me. So you can imagine how much I like the Internet . . .

Even my chosen profession of land surveying requires a slew of research, whether it be finding property owners, easements, or plats. Every new job we get requires all that research. I’m good at it (and relearning almost every day how important thorough research is).

You’d think that because I’m good at research, and at least as far as my job is concerned, I’d enjoy it. And I do. Sometimes finding the one document I need is like finding buried treasure. Finding a property corner in the middle of a forest set over a hundred years ago is even more so. When it comes to writing, however, I prefer to not have to research at all. That’s because I’d rather spend that time writing.

Another not-surprise is that I’m a pantser writer. I’ve tried the outlining, character detailing, etc., and I simply don’t have the patience for it. I appreciate the writers who take that route, because they don’t have to worry about going back and fixing stupid mistakes such as describing the character one way in one scene, and change them completely in another. I think the time they spend researching, building and characterizing saves them a lot of editing in the end.

I think they also excel at finding the right agent and publisher for their works. They know the importance of thorough research (especially those who write historical fiction), so searching for someone to accept their work has to come easier than an impatient pantser like myself.

But it must be done, so I have to put on my research hat and look for agents. I found a few so far that look promising. I won’t know until I research a little bit more (such as whether or not they have social media such as a blog or Twitter), and in the end eliminate them as a possibility, or swallow my fear and pride and submit my proposal.

Sharpen Your Trigger

I am currently in Nashville, TN attending the ACFW Writers Conference. It is over half over, but my brain has tried to absorb so much information, it feels like tapioca pudding. That’s a good thing, because I’m learning a lot. I’ve discovered I don’t suck as a writer – at least not completely. In the two classes I took so far, I do more things right than I do wrong.

I still have to go through at least one manuscript (the first few chapters anyway, but more on that later) to make several modifications, but luckily not too many. I could have those done tonight – if I’m motivated enough, that is. It’s a bit iffy considering my tapioca brain.

Because I didn’t want to chance missing an entire day of the conference due to delayed or cancelled fights, I decided to arrive a day earlier than most. Just in case everything went well, I signed up for an early bird session with Donald Maass, the literary agent and author of “Writing the Breakout Novel.”

This seminar was titled “Writing in the 21st Century”, which is also based on his newest book of the same title.

Did you know that literary fiction paperback novels remain on best seller lists for nearly ten times or more longer than any other genres, including hard cover and non-fiction? Donald was a bit surprised by that, and read the top books to look for what those books had that others didn’t.

Literary fiction does have a bit of a misconception surrounding it, namely that they’re slow and detail versus plot oriented, when in truth, that’s not always the case. What literary fiction strives for is to make every paragraph, every page make an emotional connection to the reader. It’s intent is to draw the reader in, to immerse him or her into the author’s world.

Me writing science fiction and fantasy, that’s also what I long to achieve. As I’ve said before, I’m not detail/description oriented. I prefer action, and my greatest strength is dialog. When it comes to detail, I groan and moan, and have to almost tie myself to the computer to force me to put it in.

What Donald revealed, however, is it’s not the detail and description that’s important. Description is by definition objective, and even cold. It is another form of telling. The trick is turning that detail and description into an experience. We don’t just see the sunset. There’s an emotional reaction to that sunset, that mountain scape where three people died in an avalanche, and that dark room that your parents always told you to stay out of.

Donald may have converted me into writing more literary fiction. Is there such a thing as literary science fiction and literary fantasy? At the very least, because of everything Donald shared (and I shared with you not even a half a page of the eight pages of notes I took), my readers will have a better, more fulfilling experience.

Today I attended a workshop called “How To Think Like Your Editor.”

During the first part, the presenter, Erin Healy, told us to read our first chapter, not as an editor, but as a reader. She told us to write down our emotional reactions as we read. I was intrigued by the prologue, but when I started on the first chapter, I felt a bit of boredom and frustration. I knew instantly why. I had added a few chunks of description for the sake of description. It was like reading a school book on architecture. While some of the description is necessary, I have to write in such a way to make it an experience.

When we enter a building we’ve never been in before, sure we notice the sights, but what else do we notice? We take in the smells, the feel of the air, and even its mood – often created by our own expectations of what that room should feel like. Sometimes the room meets our expectations, sometimes it doesn’t. The writer’s job is to show that experience.

Here’s the rub.

I met with a literary agent, and I showed her my one-sheets. She asked for my pitch and I said, “I too easily get tongue-tied, so can I read it to you instead?”

She told me to go ahead. She liked it, and when I mentioned the other two I brought with me, she was open to hearing my other two. She seemed impressed at my “world building,” and the fact I had three complete manuscripts. She asked me to send the first three chapters of all three.

Two are ready. The third (the one with the icky, boring detail), needs a bit of tweaking. Thankfully not a lot, so I bet I could tackle it tonight, let it sit until I get home, go through the first three chapters again, and send them off. While she’s perusing them, I’ll go through the rest and hopefully elevate my writing, and make it more literary.

I’m sure you’re dying to know why I chose “Sharpen Your Trigger,” as my title. It doesn’t make sense, since it’s an obvious mix of metaphors. It’s one Donald Maass used during his talk (which he noticed right away), and I liked it so much, I had to use it.

Are My Teeth Strong Enough?

Recently I was offered a volunteer editing job for an organization based out of Asia helping to start new churches and orphanages.

I’ve edited one newsletter so far, which took all of fifteen minutes to do. It was quite well-written, especially for someone who’s English isn’t his native language.

I was also asked how many I could edit a year, and I told them one every two weeks would be doable.

Thinking all requests would be easy like the last one.

I may have bitten off more than I could chew.

A few nights ago I received the following email (in part):

“I have a very rough story (it’s a bit difficult story). You will need to work on it to be developed into a story. What I have in the attachment is a basic story and very rough outline. Will you be able to develop it into a story? The audience will be our friends in the US. If you need to do any research on alcoholism, winter or the plight of slums, you can always do a Google search. If you need any specific information, do let me know.

But you do have full freedom to do this story. You will have to rework it completely. You have that freedom.

So how do I describe the sounds, the smells and the overall sense of a place I’ve never been? I found hundreds, if not thousands of photos of the slums, so describing the look will be easy.

To create an immersion of the place for readers will be difficult, and more than a little daunting. And not only the five senses, but the spiritual sense of the place, the despair, the anger, and sorrow. How can I capture that in such a way without being over-dramatic, but to someone who has been there can say, “She got it right.”

I’ve never sat down and consciously prayed before I wrote anything. I just wrote. In this case, however, I will have to pray quite hard before a single word is typed, because I don’t think I can write this on my own — and have it be believable, and honest.

I’m writing, after all, about real people in real circumstances. To over-dramatize or change their life story to fit my idea of what it should be is the height of disrespect, both to the people who live it, and the readers who want to know the truth of what happened, and is happening.

Surprise, surprise, surprise

If anyone knows where that line came from, it only proves how old you are.

Truthfully (as if I lie to my own blog), I am a bit surprised. For the last several months, I’ve felt God pulling me to research publishers and agents and get my query letter written.

I fought him a bit, like I always do. Part of it was lack of confidence. I haven’t written anything in a while (legal descriptions for my job not included), and I feel woefully out of practice.

Nevertheless, I finally gave in to God’s urgings and spent a few days researching.

In a word: Ugh. My novel is not in a genre largely accepted by CBA or ABA publishers. That’s the challenge I accepted when writing a Christian Science Fiction book; I knew it would be a hard sell from the beginning.

Still, I found one agent and one publisher possibility. Not a lot, but it’s better than nothing. I admit to teeth-gritting-until-I-got-a-headache frustration when researching publishers/agents and so many said “no science fiction.”

It’s enough to make a person throw up the hands and go Indie.

I have thought long and hard about the possibility. After all, I did publish “A Reason to Hope” through Amazon. Truth is, I simply don’t want to spend so much money and time doing it all myself.

The next step was to tackle the query letter — my one true writing fear. How does one boil a book down to a single page and make it sound interesting? After all, it took me almost five years just to come up with a title that I thought sounded good.

Because work was slow today, and it being a Friday, I decided to go home early and attempt writing a query letter. Less than an hour later, it was done, and to be quite honest, I like how it turned out.

Part of it was I let go. I shut out the internal editor and those horrific voices pounding at the back of my head telling me what a talentless fraud I am.

A little prayer helped, too.

That’s the awesome thing about God. Sometimes it takes but a small step toward him and his goal for us, and he smooths out the trail ahead.

A little praise is in order.

The work is not done, though. Not only does the agent I’m submitting to first require a query letter and synopsis, but a chapter-by-chapter outline. That shouldn’t take but a few days. Once it’s written I will set it aside for a while. A fresh eye always results in finding sometimes glaring mistakes.

Then comes the most difficult part: sending it off.

Once that’s done, it’s out of my hands and success or failure depends how well I sell my book through the . . .

Don’t you hate it when you forget the absolute perfect word? I just did that!

Dang it.

Anyway, to get back on track . . .

It’s the simple act of placing 26 letters in the right order that will either pique their interest and ask for more or they will send a terse email saying, “Thanks but no thanks.”

But one cannot succeed without first taking risks.

What? It’s Not Perfect?

I read a while back that to help gain interest of publishers and agents, a writer should have endorsements from other authors. Taking that advice, I asked Amy Deardon if she’d be willing to write me one for “Traitors,” but only if she felt it was good enough. I also asked if she found any boo-boos to let me know.

She kindly agreed.

A few days ago she mentioned there was a consistent mistake I’m making that’s reducing the tension in my story, and she would explain what it was if I wanted her to.

She emailed me back today and said that although she is enjoying the book, she’s found a consistent mistake that reduces the tension, but that it was a big enough problem it would take some work to fix it. My response was to email her back and nearly beg her to tell me. it’s not mere curiosity, but a fidget-in-my-chair eagerness to know what that is.

It’s funny how I no longer tense in horror at the possibility of criticism, or even take the blows with quiet grace. Instead I’m banging at the proverbial door for it.

Does that make me a glutton for punishment, a slight case of masochism?

Or perhaps I want to see my novel as perfect as can be before it’s released into the public.

Soon (I hope) I will have yet another editing project to add to my list.

In the meantime (so I’m not checking my email every three minutes for the author’s advice), I’m going to continue on with my Nanonovel.

From the Just ‘Cuz Files:

I’ve decided to reduce my inventory of “A Reason to Hope” by offering it at a 55% discount. See my Products page for more info.

My Strongest Weakness

Is that an oxymoron?

I’ve always known my greatest weakness as a writer is description. Dialog I could write all day, and I’m comfortable writing action sequences.

Describing the sights, sounds and smells, on the other hand? Blech.

When “Traitors” finalled in the 2010 ACFW Genesis Contest, I was supposed to receive the final scoring from each of the three judges. I completely forgot about it until the contest coordinator emailed them to me this morning. Her life had some upheaval including a pregnancy, so she also forgot until today.

She attached the overall scoring of “Traitors” including the judges’ comments.

One contained a score of 81 (the lowest score). Comments included a question about whether the “. . . CBA is ready for this type of futuristic.” The short answer is “no” unfortunately. As for the story it had “a good strong opening, then it dragged.” Characterization was good, conflict excellent and dialog good.

No arguments on any of those.

Second judge gave it a score of 91 with only one comment: “Definitely a good read and a fast read. I was sad to come to the end of the sample — I wanted more!”

Every author wants to hear those words!

The third judge was a bit more thorough. He/she gave “Traitors” an overall score of 93. Added to the score sheet was the 15-page sample along with specific comments to the story itself.

Most of them focused on small continuity problems such as the main character calling another one simply “a woman” then a few paragraphs later he recognized her with no explanation as to how.

The judge also pointed out several instances of telling where I stop the story to explain something. And here I thought I eliminated most of it. Darn it. (I know I’m telling here, but adding specific examples would take too long. Instead click HERE for the 15-page excerpt and comments if’n you’re curious). Also, the excerpt in question has since been revised since the contest. The first part has since been taken out and moved to a prologue although I haven’t decided to keep even that, because I’m not a huge fan of prologues.

The judge pointed out more than once that “Traitors” is missing a lot of description, a failing I’ve known about for a long time. In fact as I’m rewriting my current WIP I’m concentrating on adding a lot more details.

Part of a writer’s responsibility is plunging the reader into our story world. Without setting description how will the reader know if they are sitting in a comfortable living room or standing on a frigid street corner? I know, more telling, but you get the point I’m sure.

Considering the comments, I’m tempted to set aside “The Red Dagger,” and applying the suggestions to “Traitors.” The problem is it’s still at Marcher Lord Press. Would it be better to wait until I hear a yea or nea on publication with them, or go ahead with the changes regardless of the outcome? Or perhaps let the publisher know what I’m doing and ask if he’d be willing to look at a revised version, especially if he’s not even looked at my submission, yet?

I’m leaning toward adding the missing details and work on the other issues the judge mentioned for no other reason than they’re fresh in my mind. I’ve got nothing to lose either way. On the other hand, I could use the practice on adding description. If I do it enough, perhaps I won’t dislike it so much. I may even get good at it.

Definitely a good read and a fast read. I was sad to come to the end of the sampleā€”I wanted more!

You mean I get paid?

I finished the magazine edits on Thursday. At the end, only one article needed more help than I could give it. In fact if I were the editor of a paying magazine I would have sent back a rejection. The rest were fun reads overall, and I learned quite a bit from each one. I was pleased most of the articles needed little editing by way of the technical side, and one didn’t need a single edit, grammatical or otherwise. That was refreshing.

After I completed the edits and moved them to the proper online folder, I sent an email to the Editor in Chief to let him know I finished.

He emailed me back thanking me and asked me to send him an invoice for $250. My response was, “You mean I get paid?” Considering the magazine is free to subscribers and the writers don’t get paid for their submissions, I assumed the editing was also volunteer.

The editor did add I could contribute my services for free if I wanted, because it would affect my year-end taxes.

You may be surprised that I did think about it. Part of it was due to, what if they no longer want me to continue the technical edits because I want to be paid for it?

On the other hand, if my services are worth anything — that I did them well — then they won’t mind paying me.

So were my edits worth the $250? In the end, yes. And since they offered, I doubt they’s begrudge me for taking the money. In fact, I found my name and email on the home page of the AUGIWorld website, so they definitely appreciate my efforts and expect me to continue.

Plus it’s one more thing to add to my writing resume.

The timing could not be more perfect. We’re trying to spend as much time as possible with my dad, and adding in the traveling, gas and motels, the costs are getting up there. The $250 will go a long way in alleviating some of the monetary burden.

Thank you, God.

Because I can’t help myself!

I recently offered my services as Technical Editor for the CAD (Computer Aided Drafting) magazine entitled AUGIWorld (AUGI stands for Autodesk User Group International). I’ve written two articles for them so far. With no article ideas when the Editor In Chief asked for them as of late, I jumped at the opportunity when he asked for help with technical editing.

Basically my job is to go through the articles and make sure they make sense from a technical standpoint such as software command structure.

Grammar and such I don’t need to worry about, because that’s another person’s job. But I can’t help myself! Of the three I looked at so far, I found minimal grammatical errors on the first two (I still corrected them). The third article tended to not only be wordy, but extremely long sentences. And I thought I wrote long sentences. Oy.

To not tighten up the entire article is like asking me to ignore a chocolate cake sitting in front of me. Again: Oy.

I managed to restrain myself except for the more glaring errors such as using the incorrect word.

Some words of advice:

  1. Do not depend on your software’s spell check. It will not find words used incorrectly such as to, two and too.
  2. Read your work out loud. Some people balk at this, but if you tend toward long sentences this is important. As you read, you will naturally take a breath at the appropriate spot. If there isn’t a period there, add one.
  3. Read a hard copy. A lot of times what is missed on the screen will be found on paper. Don’t ask me why that is. It just is.

Since most of you write, those tidbits are more “Well, duh!” than anything else. Nevertheless, I needed to vent.

Let’s hope the other five articles don’t tempt the Grammar Nazi in me as much.

Making the Words Disappear

The hardest part about writing isn’t coming up with a good story. It’s not even the sitting down to write it or editing later.

It’s making the words disappear. How can we when we’re concentrating so hard on structure, grammar, proper wordage, etc? As writers we’re supposed to see every word on that page, whereas as readers, we’re supposed to ignore them.

Which is why experienced writers say, “If you can easily point out a favorite paragraph or phrase in your story, it likely shouldn’t be there.” When something jars the reader away from the story, such as a florid statement (unless it’s said by a character — and the statement is within character), it might take a while for the reader to get back into the story. Or worse, the reader will set the book down.

So on the one hand, we need to be aware of every word on the page, yet at the same time make them disappear.

Here’s where a good story comes into play. If it’s intriguing, the characters likable and sympathetic, and not too much backstory/narrative to drag it down, then the reader won’t care about the grammar, sentence structure, et al.

Do I have any sage advice to make that happen? Not really, except write from the heart as well from the head. Don’t try to copy another writer’s voice, and don’t try to follow writing rules to the letter. Study proper grammar, etc., but also don’t be afraid to break those rules. If we follow them too stringently, our writing will appear stilted and dry.

I actually miss the days when I started writing and didn’t know a thing about it. Writing then was like finger painting to a child. It’s messy, there are no rules, and I could let my imagination run wild.

Now I’m overly concerned about whether or not my story is intriguing, my writing is above average, and the plot (and subplots) are strong enough to grab hold of a reader’s attention from the first page through to the last.

Ah, to be a kid again.

Then again, knowing that, perhaps I could convince myself that I’m writing for the mere fun of it, and not necessarily for public dissemination. Let my imagination go nuts in a sandbox of words.

Besides, the best part about writing is that it can always be fixed later.

What’s My Purpose?

Is writing — or more accurately — seeking publication my true dream and passion?

I question that because I keep putting off writing and editing. I instead content myself with reading and watching television (admittedly more of the latter).

To help motivate myself, I picked up James Scott Bell’s “Plot & Structure.” He recommends all writers should write a statement of purpose to get motivated to write and improve their craft.

His statement was worded thusly: “Today I resolve to take writing seriously, to keep going and never stop, to learn everything I can and make it as a writer.”

I could easily copy that as my own, because at this moment I don’t take my writing seriously.

I’m procrastinating my time away, and if I don’t change my habits soon I will find there is no more time left to waste, or to write let alone get my stories published.

Another consideration is my goal to the reader. What do I want to say? Do I merely want to entertain or convey a message?

As a Christian I could easily say I want to either bring others to Christ or draw them nearer. A worthy goal, I suppose, but it seems to broad and even trite.

Jesus told stories to make a point, each one geared to a specific audience with a specific need.

I need to also to determine my audience and with God’s help determine and satisfy their needs. I can then wrap my story around it. I believe I succeeded with my novella “A Reason to Hope.”

My audience is the Christian who condemns the homosexual. My message was not to judge. We are all sinners and whatever the specific sin is each one of us commits is largely irrelevant. Our job is to show Christ’s love and sacrifice that we may be deemed righteous in God’s eyes no matter what we’ve done.

Did I succeed? I know of one person for certain it touched in a positive way. As for others, I don’t know, and that, too, is largely irrelevant. I wrote the story and sent it out for others to read. How it touches them is in God’s hands.

If I no longer write, edit, and send out my novels for others to read, then how can I convey the message or messages that ache to be heard?

I’ve said it countless times — it’s easy to dream, not so easy to make it come true.

I admit I’m terrified to make my dream of publication true. With a successful publication of my book comes the expectation of more, and better, novels. On a deadline no less. I don’t have enough confidence in my abilities to meet those expectations.

It’s one of those things I need to give to God and ask for help.

And have faith that he’ll deliver.

I must continue to remember:

“For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.”

(2 Timothy 1:7)