Research thoughts

Joe’s Post #128

Research Insights … OMG, not ‘research’, again, right?

sharpeWell, I decided to take a look at some books that I loved. You know, historical books. I didn’t read through them, again, but just took a look at the first pages and a few chapters. And it gave me a few insights I’d like to share. The books I looked at were Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon, the Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwall, the Brother Cadfael series by Edith Parteger (Ellis Petters), and Dorothy Dunnett’s books (Lymond, Niccolo series).

So, are you ready?

  1. Jamie Fraser from Outlander

    I read them all for the characters. Yup, that’s right, the characters. So if you’re going to get anything right, get the characters right, right?

  2. Setting is a character. I know I just said that I read them for the characters, and now I say setting is a character, but with these writers, it’s not just a place to set a scene, it’s an active part of the story (like a chase across the red-tiles roofs of Venice.)
  3. None of them bog us down with details. A few writers that I’ve read (and honestly couldn’t finish) had vast swaths of information about the period they researched, like they wanted to show us how much research they’d done.
  4. The characters live and breathe in their world. By this I mean the world for them is not a collection of facts, but a real place, with real smells, and sounds, and all of that seen THROUGH the character’s eyes.
  5. spoonDetails are (mostly) added sparingly. Like a sprinkling of salt. “Picked up the wooden spoon”, vs “picked up the wooden spoon carved from a spruce branch that was cut in the summer which was, in fact, the best time to cut such things”.
  6. windowsWhen they spend time on details, it’s because it matters to the character. Like the first time they see something or when it’s a wow moment for them. I mean, hey, the first time I saw Chartres Cathedral in all its glory, I was gobsmacked (yes, that’s a word). That we, as human beings, took hundreds of years to create perfection in stone and glass and wood, that every detail, every window, every carving had a purpose, made me stare in wonder at what we could do when we put our minds to it.
  7. food hollandFood, dammit, food. That Don Maass guy know his stuff when he talked about food being a vital part of taking someone back in time. Why? Because we are all linked to food. But all these masters of writing do way more than just sit someone down with a nice cup of tea, they add tension, smarty-pants dialogue, mood, and even suspense in that scene as well.
  8. Story is key. Outlander, for example, is a time-traveling story, perhaps more science fiction than historical fiction, but the tale she tells of Claire and Jamie is one that’s hard to put down. I honestly can’t remember if she got the kilts right, but damn, she nailed the romance.

So, that’s all for today. Just a few insights into research while I work away on my novel. Now I’m going to bug my Netherlands experts on what they would have eaten.

So what makes a good historical novel for you? Come on, I really want to know!

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Best show last week – Being sick for most of the week, I watched a bit more TV than normal. The Killing is perhaps the most depressing show I’ve seen in a long while. It’s unrelentingly grey. Brilliant, but grey.

Book that I’m reading at the moment – Alan Furst’s, Mission to Paris. Nope, still not sold on this. It’s going to be a slog to finish. Not that there isn’t interesting stuff happening, but it’s happening to other people. His protagonist is not the hero of the story, or even the narrator.

Pages written on new book  40 (Could be more, I did a lot of rewriting this week.)

Social Media update – Trying to do a bit more on this blog. Have you seen the changes?

Health  Still sick. Dammit.

Best thing last week  Down 10 lbs now. Awesome. Forget that it was due to sickness.

Worst thing  The flu. Yup, still the worst thing. Yuck.

The BEST book he's written so far IMHO.

Lastly, again, my favourite author, Sean Slater, had his newest book released in Canada. I honestly believe it’s his best book he’s written, and he got virtually no support from the publisher, so if you see it anywhere, buy it. Or hit the Amazon link below.

Slater

10 best things I learned at Surrey International Writers’ Conference

Surrey International Writers' Conference banquet

Surrey International Writers’ Conference banquet

Silk’s Post #106 — I’m still coming down from a three-day weekend up in the cloud where writers live. Sometimes that cloud is a lonely place. Sometimes it rains for weeks. Sometimes thunder and lightning make you want to crawl under your desk.

But at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference – #siwc2014 or #siwc14 – the sun is always shining when hundreds of writers and their gurus come out to play for three days every year. It rocks!

Bar time with Trish, Karalee, Silk, Joe and Chris

Bar time with Trish, Karalee, Silk, Joe and Chris

While I’ve been recovering (okay, the late nights in the bar and various social gatherings did have something to do with that), Joe has already done two excellent posts on his SIWC experience, and he only came for a day. I better get with the program.

This was my eighth SIWC. So here are a couple of fair questions:

  1. How come I keep going back – haven’t I been-there-done-that?
  2. How come I don’t have a book published by now?

First answer: I keep going back because every year I learn new stuff I need to know, and because it recharges my writing batteries, and because I’ve come to know and love the citizens of SIWC, and because it’s one of the best writers’ conferences in the world (even the big-dog presenters from New York say this).

Second answer: I don’t have a book published yet because I’m still a learner and I haven’t yet achieved a polished manuscript that’s ready to put in front of an agent or publisher. When I embarked on this second career after I wound up my design/advertising agency, I came to the party with 35 years of writing experience. I thought I’d be churning out a novel a year in no time. HAH! I must have missed the Steep Learning Curve Ahead sign when I turned onto that road. Oh, alright alright, my questionable post-retirement work habits and tendency toward procrastination does factor into it too.

That’s why I love the SIWC log line: This Day We Write! This came from a conference keynote a couple of years ago by bestselling author Robert Dugoni, who graciously let SIWC adopt it as their own. It’s the perfect rallying cry in this nebulous writers’ cloud we all live in, tucked away by ourselves most of the year, but connected to each other in a kind of virtual community.

This year at SIWC I attended one 3-hour Master Class, 4 keynotes, 3 panels, 5 workshops, 3 luncheons, 2 banquets, 1 agent pitch, 1 blue-pencil session, 1 theatrical presentation, 1 cocktail party, 1 book fair, and a late night book launch. Plus bar time.

Seriously, I really did need a day to recover.

I also took rather voluminous notes, and will share some of this rich trove in more detail in future posts, but today I want to give you my 10 top take-aways – some new things I learned, some things I thought I knew but now finally understand, and some things that just resonated with me.

1. Emotional impact trumps everything else in fiction. Story, setting, premise, characters, action, plot, voice, style, and subject are all important ingredients – but the real magic only happens if you can cause the reader to experience a powerful emotion. (Thanks to Don Maass for this insight from his Master Class “The Emotional Craft of Fiction.”)

2. To avoid obvious and clichéd emotional reactions in characters, evoke rather than report. We’ve all heard “show, don’t tell”. This is a kind of corollary. Make big emotions – the ones with a lot of gravity – like dark stars that affect everything around them without being overtly visible. (Inspiration by Don Maass, weird planetary analogy by me.)

3. A writer’s number one platform on the Internet is his/her own website. It’s the one thing in cyberspace that’s totally in your control, where you own the space and content. Think of it as the centre of your own online community. Use whatever social media and other channels you are comfortable with – and have time to keep up – to steer people to your website. (This point was driven home repeatedly by multiple social media experts, including two of the best: Sean Cranbury and Sarah Wendell.)

4. The most powerful social media tool a writer can use is (wait for it) … email. There are 3 times more email accounts than Twitter and Facebook combined. 92 per cent of adults use email, and 61 per cent of them use it every day. Email is 6 times more likely to get a click-through (to your website or blog) than a tweet, and 40 times more likely to generate new clients/relationships. (Thanks to Sarah Wendell for doing the math).

5. The 3 most important things that build your social media currency are: generosity, consistency and authenticity. Joe already mentioned this, but it’s so important that it can’t be said too many times. Social media are, first and foremost, about relationships and sharing – not marketing opportunities. Don’t be the person who only reaches out to others when you want something from them. Do more giving than receiving. If you support and share with people 90 per cent of the time, you get to talk about yourself 10 per cent of the time. What a surprise … cyber life is just like real life! (This theme was universally emphasized by experts Sarah Wendell, Sean Cranbury and Chuck Wendig in their “Social Media Smackdown” panel).

6. Characters drive story. Characters need to have agency. Active characters push the plot around, they don’t just get pushed around by the plot. Every character has to have a problem (a want) to be solved (fulfilled). In the gulf between the character’s problem and its solution is the story, which must wind its way from the problem to the solution through a minefield of complications. (While these principles have been repeated by many, in many different ways, Chuck Wendig in his “Kick-Ass Characters” workshop, brought terrific clarity and insight to these essential concepts).

7. To create tension, the writer has to walk a tightrope between withholding and revealing information to the reader. Tension occupies the space between what the writer allows the reader to know, and what the writer allows the character to know. The reader always needs to be slightly ahead of the character, which stimulates worry … but not so far ahead that the character seems slow-witted. (A great panel of suspense writers, Hallie Ephron, Robert Wiersema and Chevy Stevens illuminated this dark corner of writing in their discussion, “Tension: More Than the Edge of Your Seat”).

8. Planting questions makes readers turn pages. While this seems like the simplest and most obvious piece of advice in the writing world, it is a deliberate technique that’s hard to remember when you’re in the flow of writing, and easy to make too obvious when you strew questions around retroactively. The compelling need to know “what happens next” is the most delicious form of tension for the reader. (Another trick of the trade from the “Tension” panel).

9. Dialogue should only consist of things that need to be said, or are inherently interesting. Another seemingly obvious principle that gets wantonly violated by throwing all sorts of debris into dialogue such as backstory, pointless conversation meant to mimic “real life” and other content the author didn’t know what else to do with. (Thanks to Outlander author, Diana Gabaldon – the mistress of dialogue – for this reminder).

The one and only Jack Whyte

The one and only Jack Whyte

10. Read aloud. SIWC’s favourite Scottish icon, author Jack Whyte, is probably the best reader I’ve ever heard. With his rich baritone and dramatic flair, he can make the telephone book sound like gorgeous literature. Listening to him read the finely-crafted opening of his new book, The Guardian, at a special pre-release book launch on Saturday night, I was reminded of another excellent piece of advice that I’ve often received and always forget to do. Read your book to yourself out loud, especially key passages or dialogue that needs to be “just right” to the reader’s ear. It’s amazing how every awkward turn of phrase, bit of unnatural dialogue, misplaced word and run-on sentence will suddenly become obvious.

To wind this post up, I want to share the best word I heard at the conference, and its context:

Avoid online douchebaggery.

Surrey Writers’ Conference

Surrey International Writer’s Contest

surrey IWCAnyone going?

I’m still making up my mind. Last year, I had a lot of ups and downs, but the ultimate result was a complete failure to interest anyone in my book. Worse, some of the agents never even got back to me, which I find increasingly odd in an age where indie publishing is becoming (or has become) acceptable and profitable.

sean ranHowever, let’s take a look at this year. There’s a good social media presence, and some very accomplished people, which could be very interesting for us 5/5/5. There’s even a masterclass on owning your online space by Sean Cranbury. I like owning my space and Mr. Cranbury knows his stuff.

diana G

Diana never put her arms around me, but then I’m not a highlander

Diana Gabaldon will be back, as will Jack Whyte, and frankly, they’re both worth the price of admission, both great speakers, great story tellers. I have a secret crush on Diana so whenever I get near her I go back in time and become 9 years old, again, blushing and mumbling and looking at my feet. I think I said to her last year, as I stood beside her in the food line up, “Errr, uhm, book, you, that thing, you know, ack, character, highlander, urm, erp, ah, oh look there’s a muffin.”

There’s a pretty good selection, as always, of workshops, and one of my favourites, Hallie Ephron is giving a keynote speech. She written one of my writing bibles, “Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock ‘Em Dead with Style,” and she’s amazingly approachable.

Same with Don Maass. I often learn more in one of his two hour workshops, than I could learn in a year at college. He’s also written one of my other bibles, “Writing the Breakout Novel,” and while I haven’t written one yet, there’s still good advice in there. Totally good advice.

I guess it’s up to every individual (and their finances) to determine if this year is worth attending.

IMG_1557

That’s me on the left

For me, even being a card-carrying introvert, I have fun talking to the people there. When I’m not sweating like a used car salesmen at a tax audit, I can actually have some fun, talking craft or experiences or even learning a thing or two from the person sitting beside me.

If the other writers decide to go, then I’ll probably tag along for sure. I mean, I’m the only guy in the 5/5/5 so I’m sort of like their pet. Like a bulldog or pet pot-bellied pig.

But everyone, please at least check out the web page. Check out the writers, agents, editors and gurus who attend.

And maybe I’ll see a few of you there.

 

Cruising Sunny’s turf

Bell Harbor Marina, Seattle (Silk Questo photo)

Bell Harbor Marina, Seattle (Silk Questo photo)

Silk’s Post #95 — Our summer cruise down the Puget Sound to Seattle this year is immersing me in the setting of the book I plan to finish over the next few months. Re-visiting the haunts of my heroine, Sunny Laine, is plunging me back into the story I started in our 5 Writers challenge in 2012, but never finished. After nearly a year in the bottom drawer, Catch and Release (working title) is back on my desktop.

A couple of days ago, we sailed the sinuous length of Whidbey Island’s west shore, past the beaches Sunny loves to stroll, past the bluffs where she goes to watch the sunset, past the community where her crazy family lives, past the bridge where … but let’s not give away too much here.

I do have to keep a few surprises to myself, for now.

Tomorrow we begin a 5-day stay at the Bell Harbor Marina, just three blocks from Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market. It’s about as close to a major city downtown district as a yacht harbour can get. There, I’ll be scouting locations for the book’s scenes. Capitol Hill, where Sunny lives. Washington University, where she studies law. Belltown, where she hunts for … but I’m getting ahead of myself again.

I’m looking forward to soaking up as much of Sunny’s world as I can (without turning our whole summer vacation into a fact-finding mission), knowing I’ll need to come back in late fall when the book’s action takes place. Seattle in late November will be a different world from Seattle in high summer. A much darker world, as befits the plot.

When it comes to writing an authentic setting, there’s nothing quite like being there. (Living there is even better.) When you read James Lee Burke’s New Orleans, or Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles, is there any doubt that the writer has the setting deep in his bones? These living, breathing settings are not simply backgrounds against which action takes place. They are more like characters in the story, with a heartbeat all their own.

Yet fantastic settings have been created by authors who never set foot in the place they’re writing about. Obviously, historical novels are set in places and times that can never be experienced again, except through research and the imagination. Fantasy and sci-fi stories often are set in places that exist only in the mind – worlds that the author literally has to build. I marvel at the skill of writers like Diana Gabaldon and Jack Whyte who transport us to vivid historical settings. I’m in awe of fantasy masters like J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin and J.K. Rowling who have imagined worlds so vast and detailed that they take on a life of their own. And even readers who don’t delve deeply into the sci-fi genre are transfixed by greats like Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, who invented their own cosmos.

I’m starting with a more modest goal: to see and feel real places through the eyes of a made-up character who’s different in age, temperament, background, experience, wants and challenges than myself. That seems like a pretty tall order already.

And then I’ll be looking for some beta readers who really do know the settings intimately. What gaffes might a reader who lives in the actual setting find? Will there be local expressions and shorthand names for local landmarks that I’m blissfully unaware of? Did I get the food right? The weather? The character of the neighbourhoods? Ethnic mix? Local transportation habits? Dress codes? How about longstanding local tensions, or points of pride? It only takes one tone-deaf sentence to reveal to a reader who really knows a place that the writer … doesn’t.

Real “local knowledge” shines through (even if the place is imaginary). When you read a book whose setting rings with authenticity, it’s a transporting experience. You’re there. You can see, hear, smell, taste and feel it.

Now, there’s no shortage of advice for writers on the subject of settings. Plenty of how-to books and articles and workshops. But for me, the most important thing about a great, authentic setting is that it’s not just a place. It’s a whole culture. A world that’s specific and unique, and at the same time full of the diversity that makes the real world … real.

Some writers are terrific researchers. Others are blessed with soaring imaginations. Creating a memorable setting takes both skills in spades. It’s a challenge I’m looking forward to with enthusiasm – and not a little trepidation.

And I’m open to suggestions! How do you research, conceive, imagine and polish your settings?

Confession Part 1

Joe’s Post #50

imagesCAEI7Y1ZI have a few confessions to make. Writing confessions. This week…

<< No, no, that’s not it. I mean, it may be true, but that’s not what I want to confess.

This is something much darker. Much more embarrassing.

I have a hard time with sex scenes. Wait, that came out all wrong. What I meant is that they are difficult for me to write. I’m actually not bad at romantic scenes, or flirty scenes, but when it comes to inserting X body part into Y body part, I get all red-faced and gigglie and that scene dies an ugly, boring death.

I think it’s because a sex scene is the last bastion of a secret phobia I have. Shhhh. (It’s of being judged.) I honestly don’t care if you read a scene I wrote about someone dismembering someone else (which may say some scary things about me) or a scene about emotional loss that’s linked to some very personal real-life experiences. No. But I DO seem to worry if you read what I write about a penis or what I call a certain female part I can never really find a good name for.


What would my mom say?

My grade 1 teacher?

My grocery store bagger?

OMG, he wrote what?

teacherWhat’s worse is that the line if pretty far out there now. In the old days, like 2009, erotica was erotica. Porn was porn. The romance might be the odd kiss and cuddle, often with a few somewhat explicit details and humor (Diana Gabaldon is great at this.) But holy heck, read 50 Shades (or in my case, I read Sylvia Day‘s book, Bared to You), and you’ll see that bar is now way, way out there. The things those women write about… wow.

Don’t get me wrong, not every book needs a blindfold, a banana, and a chandelier, but the fact that I can’t seem to write one bothers me. The fact that I won’t even put words in this blog that make me blush kinda says it all.

With this confession, however, I can’t say 10 hail maries and it’ll be ok. I can’t ask for forgiveness. What I need to do, what I will do, is do what I do when I’m afraid of something – I go do it … and do it … and do it, again, until I’m over it (with the exception of leaping off of tall buildings which, I imagine, is pretty much a one time event.)

Zip-lining, done. Dentist, done. Coffee date with super cute girl, done! So, sex scenes. You’re next.

Any advice?

Deja vu all over again

i_write_therefore_i_rewrite_mugPaula’s Post #25 — Guess what I’ve been doing this past week? That’s right, editing. As of Sunday, I’ve actually managed to slog my way through the first 100 pages of my manuscript. I’m about a quarter of the way through the rewrite of what I’d like to think could be a ‘final draft’, but in my heart know is more likely to be the first of many rewrites.  I know I need to tighten up the plot, rev up the action, polish my prose and make my characters more compelling.

Sounds simple enough, but for me, the process of editing is hard slogging. I know what I need to do, but execution is another story (pardon the pun). More often than not I find myself falling into the trap of merely ‘copy-editing’ my manuscript instead of actually fixing what needs fixing.

Why is that?

I think part of the problem is a lack of objectivity. If you’ve ever been in a serious critique group (and by that, I mean the kind that can occasionally reduce you to tears) then you know what I’m talking about. Each month, you send off your 30 perfect pages to the other members of the group. Each month you’re filled with hopeful anticipation. You’re proud of your baby. You’ve worked hard to advance the plot, write sizzling dialogue and imbue your characters with dazzling complexity. Then the fun part starts. How can it possibly be that you didn’t notice that you’ve ended up with ten straight pages of your protagonist’s internal dialogue? Or that your characters have suddenly become little more than talking heads spewing out info that you need your readers to know.  The dreaded “As you know Bob…” info dump. Your critique group members see it right away and the second they point it out, you see it too, and then it’s back to the proverbial drawing board.

In our critique group, we’ve usually just shared first draft stuff. You only get one kick of the cat, so most of us use the critique group process to hammer the kinks out of our first draft, and the feedback we receive from the other members of the group is invaluable when it comes to rewrites.

But now I don’t have that luxury. During round two of this 5writers challenge, I’m more or less working without a net so to speak. In other words, I’m on my own, baby. So maybe this is the perfect time for a little primer on the fine art of rewriting. Not that I claim to be an expert on the subject, far from it. But hey, I can google with the best of them, so this week, I’ve ‘mined’ the internet for some sage advice from the masters:

Elmore Leonard‘s Ten Rules of Writing

ElmoreRewriting1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. 
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Phillip Roth:

I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning.

Michael Crichton:

Books are not written – they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it…

Diana Gabaldon

I get asked, ‘How many drafts do you go through?’ all the time. The answer is either ‘one’ or ‘infinity,’ but I don’t know how to tell the difference. I don’t write, leave, come back later and revise.  I work slow and fiddle constantly, so the revision is pretty much done as part of the original writing.  By the time I’m done with a scene, I’m done with it.

Truman Capote:

I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.

Anton Chekhov

My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying. 

Peter de Vries

I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork. 

Barbara Kingsolver

Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.

Somerset Maugham 

All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary –  it’s just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences.

James A. Michener

I have never thought of myself as a good writer. Anyone who wants reassurance of that should read one of my first drafts. But I’m one of the world’s great rewriters.
I find that three or four readings are required to comb out the cliches, line up pronouns with their antecedents, and insure agreement in number between subject and verbs … My connectives, my clauses, my subsidiary phrases don’t come naturally to me and I’m very prone to repetition of words; so I never even write an important letter in the first draft. I can never recall anything of mine that’s ever been printed in less than three drafts.
You write that first draft really to see how it’s going to come out.

Vladimir Nabokov

Only ambitious nonentities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts. It’s like passing around samples of sputum.

Isaac Bashevis Singer

The wastepaper basket is the writer’s best friend. 

Unknown

Inside every fat book is a thin book trying to get out. 

Thanks for the advice guys. I hope that this time, I can sharpen my scalpel and find my story somewhere within the first draft. Or the second, or the third, or…

Happily, believe it or not, turns out March is NaNoEdMo: National Nano Editing Month.

NaNoEdMo