Tag Archives: Writing Advice

Sucked into the research vortex

time-and-space-vortexIf you are a writer, you must do research. That is sort of a given. One of the staples of the writing life. Even if you write fiction, and purport to make it all up, there will come a time when you will want to know the definition of a given word, or the infinitesimal difference between one word and the next. Then you must consult something, whether it’s a quick internet search or a large tome on a stand. It’s surprising, actually, how much research you will find yourself doing.

But if you are writing historical fiction or any nonfiction, or really, even most fiction, you will need to know more. You can make up a whole world but you will still need to know how people do certain things given certain parameters.

And in my world, with my story set oh so many years ago, there are many parameters.

I had always written essays and poetry. I had tried writing a novel a couple of times, but it just fell flat. Then I got an idea, and I realized it was an idea that could actually work. It was something I was interested in and that I wanted to know more about, and there was a story there. However, it required me to find out an awful lot about a time and place that I knew little about. Lucky for me, I was obsessed.

Because when you start to pull that world together, and the words flow onto the page, it’s like magic. When you have created a scene where something happened, where before there was nothing – that’s a kind of magic, isn’t it? Probably the closest I’ll ever come to doing magic. Conversations that never existed, until now. And if you’re a pantser like me, each day brings these new surprises. New delights, but at the same time, the whole thing is playing like a movie in my head.

Until, of course, it’s not. When a time comes that the character must do something concrete, like take off a shoe. And I have to figure out what that shoe looked like. Laces? No laces? Leather or fur? Or the boat they ride in, or the dishes they eat off of. It’s all so fascinating to me, I can’t help but describe it.

After I spend hours looking it up. Oops. Sucked into the research vortex, I made the oft-repeated mistake of falling in love with my research. I pitched the book at a conference and couldn’t help myself from telling the agent all about the archeology it was based on. I caught myself, but it was close.

I have seen cases where the author’s research was showing. Where the corset of the character was described in too much detail. Where we know they spent time researching something, because it has absolutely nothing to do with the story, and yet here they are describing it. It doesn’t add anything.

This is something to be wary of, my friends. What your story is about, and the backstory research that you have to do to make that world come alive, should not intersect. That backstory, though, is so very necessary. You must fully flesh out the world yourself, before you can fully bring it to life. And it shows, but not in ways that are obvious. That is known as depth.

So be careful out there. Do a lot of research, but not so much that you don’t write the story. And write the story, but don’t show so much research that the story takes a backseat. Unfortunately, I don’t have any tips or guidelines for realizing you are in too deep and pulling yourself out, or where that fine line is when the research overtakes the story. I am just starting out here, and I hope that I can tell the difference. I already know that the time has come to stop doing the research for a little while. We’ll see how that plays out on the page.

How many of you have been sucked into the research vortex? How did you haul yourself out of it?

X is for Xacto, or, The Joy of Editing

You may have read the famous quote by Emily Dickinson, once addressed to an editor, “Thank you for the surgery; it was not so painful as I supposed.” Who has not had this surgery, as a writer? How does one deal with what can amount to killing your babies? How do you slice and dice, excising the bad and keeping the good?


I don’t deal with it well, I know. I find that many times when my work is edited (when I am edited!), the meaning is lost, the changes are arbitrary, the personality is gone. Sometimes, though, sometimes, you light upon an exceptional editor, someone who leaves your voice but makes it better. This is the goal, folks.

Because it is true, physician, you cannot heal thyself (to continue with the medical metaphor). Dickinson also said, “While my thought is undressed, I can make the distinction; but when I put them in the gown, they look alike and numb.” Sometimes, if you leave a piece for a bit and let it gel, you can come back to it and see it fresh. But this wouldn’t work, I wouldn’t think, for larger pieces. You really do need that extra set of eyes. The best editors I have worked with asked questions. They did not simply make changes. They looked for motivations, relationships and reasons behind the writing. That is a wonderful experience.

I know, many of us are erstwhile editors, but that’s only comparatively speaking. We spontaneously edit restaurant menus, chuckling to our table mates. We compulsively spot typos and erroneous grammar in print and online. We even, dare we say, correct reporters’ and news anchors’ grammar on live television (like we would be immune). But once it comes to your own work, your own baby, best leave it to a professional with a little bit of subjectivity.

I have worked as an editor for many years. I have been managing editor of five different publications (which, I know, is a very different skillset). I have done manuscript critiques (which I love doing!) and worked as a copyeditor. I much prefer the big picture to the niggly detail. I know my grammar rules fairly well – better than the average joe – but I don’t want to worry every day about split infinitives and dangling participles.

So in my client work, it’s big picture, but for my own work, I’m hiring out the line editing. I suggest that everyone hire a good copyeditor at least once during the process to go over their manuscript before submitting it to an agent or publisher. You may even go round more than once. I would actually recommend that.

Once you have your complete manuscript, start with a manuscript critique. Take those suggestions, and move on them. You may find someone who is willing to do a second pass on a manuscript critique, or if the changes were extensive, you may want to just have another one done. Then a copyedit, preferably with someone very experienced in the genre and form. You don’t want to hire a business writer to copyedit your romance novel.

Organizations like our own Professional Editors Network (PEN) and the National Writers Union are good places to find editors. PEN here in Minnesota is great. If you have something like that in your area, take advantage of it. As with many things, it’s best to start looking local. I think it’s exceedingly beneficial to have an editor in your local area. You may even find someone who will sit with you and go over edits and proposed changes. Most editors charge by the hour, so this is something you can work into the plan.

Above all, find someone that you can connect with. If you ask for referrals from friends and colleagues, you’re starting already with a good idea of how this person is to work with. I suggest a face-to-face meeting if you can swing it. Make sure they understand your work, and that they are reasonable to deal with. It’s often hard to discern this via email, so even a phone conversation can be helpful. If you feel uneasy about any of the aspects of the relationship, keep looking. Don’t be rushed.

Done well, a good editor-writer relationship can be wonderful. Last year, I participated in a panel (with my editor hat on) that talked about this relationship from the editor’s perspective. One of my comments that drew the biggest response was simply, “It’s all about trust.” You have to trust that your work is in good hands, they have to trust that you are doing your best, and you both have to trust that each other are committed to making the best result possible.

Don’t let your baby go out into the world being anything less than the best it can be. Find an editor to work with and take the time to do it right.

U is for Unplug

Time away from the interweb universe is a good thing. It is especially a good thing when you consider that as a writer, the internet often functions as a serious distraction. But even if you are not writing, it is good to unplug if only to recharge your own batteries.


I typically like to unplug over the weekend, if only from work devices. Which means I don’t like to check my email, or even sit in my office, during the weekend. I stay off Facebook, for the most part, but I have been known to be on Twitter on weekends. It’s the desktop that I avoid. Ironically, I am now sitting at my desk on a Sunday afternoon writing a blog post about unplugging, because I am trying to catch up before the end of the April A to Z Challenge.

I believe unplugging is very important for a writer (hey, for anyone!). You can find any number of articles, opinions, or writerly advice columns to back me up on that one. In many ways, I think that writers of the past had it easier than us. Not so many distractions. But then hey, they didn’t have the internet (for research, now) and they didn’t have the bliss that is copy and paste or the ease of printing multiple copies.

I remember back in college, when computers were first being used, and I was still using a typewriter. I had a professor who would allow us to make certain changes in our papers for a better grade. But in order to do that, we had to type the whole paper over again. For a 10 page paper, that was two hours of work for me. For one paper, I told her that I was okay with the B. She asked why and I told her I didn’t have time to retype the whole paper. She allowed me to retype only the section in question, so I did. But she had assumed (as many of my profs did) that I was living on campus and so was using the rudimentary computer center in the basement of the library (which used BankStreet Writer!), and so could easily make the change (inserting my floppy disk) and print out a new paper. But I wasn’t, so I couldn’t. Okay, but that’s a different story.

This is just to illustrate the beauties of modern word processing (as we used to call it back in the day). However, as we all know, it has its foibles and its snags. If you are typing away on your home computer or laptop, you are likely on a machine that is hooked up to the internet. So if you hit a snag, like what is the capital of Bulgaria? you can simply search for the answer and you are done. You might even check a couple sites to be sure. But then while you’re online, hey, you want to check to see if that book is in at the library, and oh, there’s a new message on Facebook, and you really should post about that upcoming event that you’ve been meaning to share. And then you see a link to an article that sounds interesting…

And so it goes. Suddenly, an hour has gone by and whoosh, you have written like one paragraph. There are several schools of thought on this. The old-school of thought, that I tried to practice (and that made more sense back when using typewriters), was to just get it all down. Type it all up. If you need to look something up, make a note and look it up later. Don’t let it slow you down, don’t get bogged down in research, don’t go chasing facts while you’re in the midst of the writing process. Research is research and writing is writing.

Only now, it’s so easy. It’s so easy to just go over and click that icon. Mozilla, my friend! So nice to see you! And then go down a long rabbit hole of indeterminate length. But it doesn’t have to be like that.

In addition to the old-school method of just getting it down – or perhaps in tandem with it – there are several things you can do to avoid that rabbit hole. There are apps and programs that will effectively shut off your internet (I know someone who uses the ironically named program Freedom and swears by it). You can have a separate device that you use just for writing. This can be a different laptop, or a device designed solely for this purpose. Or you can, maybe, use your indomitable will to resist the urge to click.

While I was at AWP, I saw one such device being demonstrated. It is called the Hemingwrite (no subtle play on the writer’s name), and it is only meant for writing. There is no internet connectivity, except for the fact that your file is saved to the cloud. There is also no revising, no saving of files. No hard drive. I’m not really sure how this would work. You could likely retrieve your file from the cloud and then work on it later. But this is for pure generation. The best part, though, may be the fact that it actually looks like a typewriter. The Old Man would be proud (truth, the Old Man would likely be horrified, but well, that’s another story).

I liked the feel of it, and I liked the nostalgia of it, of course. Bear in mind that this is from someone who still has her old Smith Corona in the closet (I remember how excited and proud I was when I bought that – correction all the way to the beginning of a line! Oh my gosh!), as well as an old black metal Royal in the basement (which I’ve been meaning to promote to the office). There is nothing quite like having to bang on those keys to get your point across. In fact, if the Hemingwrite has any flaws, it’s that the keys are too soft, and it doesn’t have that clackety clack sound (not like the app called Hanx Writer designed by Tom Hanks that lets you type on your tablet while making the noises that evoke thoughts of yesteryear. Yes, I downloaded that).

Or you could, you know, just go commando. A pen and paper. The old yellow legal pad. My favorite is a notebook that my husband bought me, wrapped in suede, with a tie-closure. It’s soft, yet firm. And works on the deck, never needs battery replacement or wifi connection, and is fairly durable. I take it on trips. Go ahead, go old school. Or go for a walk. That works too, if you really want to unplug.

I is for Inspiration

Do you ever just run out of things to write about? Do you ever feel like you’re just typing and that what’s coming out is bland and boring? Do you need a fresh injection of creativity juice?

I rarely if ever have gotten what they call ‘writer’s block.’ I typically sit down and write when I get an idea. I know that many people say that it’s better to have a scheduled writing time, and I can see where that would be helpful (more on that later).

But sometimes, even in the middle of a project, I feel like the page is just not alive. At this point, I usually abandon the project and move on to something else. I’m not writing under contract and I don’t have any deadlines. But if you are a writer who has to come up with ideas due to definite obligations, you may need a shot of inspiration now and then. Oh, what am I saying? Everyone needs inspiration!

There are many ways to change up your writing. I have a pack of 52 Creativity Cards, which include writing prompts and activities, called “52 Ways to Nurture Your Creativity” by Lynn Gordon. It’s basically a book in card form. The form is nice because the cards change it up. I also have a little writing prompt pamphlet that I got from the Loft Literary Center. It has some great little suggestions. And it’s so portable! And there’s always a good post on the Loft blog, The Writers’ Block.

Some of my favorite places to go for inspiration are books. On my desk I have a copy of Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman. It is the text of a commencement speech that he gave in 2012 at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. It’s beautifully laid out with design by Chip Kidd, and it is full of inspiring take-aways, like ‘Don’t work for the money.’ Gaiman says that whenever he has taken a job just for the money, the work has been uninspired and unsatisfying. He also goes into detail about how he broke into writing (which wouldn’t work these days, unfortunately), and how he set his goals. It’s a lovely little type-designed book, in which I find inspiration just by flipping it open to just about any page.

The other book I have on my desk is a darling little hand-made book called From Tiger to Prayer by poet Deborah Keenan. It was published by broadcraftpress, a press run by her former students. This is hand-bound with a unique paper cover. The book is full of different types of prompts, like she will give you a title and you have to write that poem (“Look at These Altars”). Or questions to ask yourself. Exercises to do with visual art. Lots of questions. So good. I was fortunate enough to take a class with Deborah Keenan back in the old days, and I can attest to her wisdom and expertise. And gentleness.

One other place that I love to look for inspiration is the website run by Hazel & Wren, a sister duo that clearly have a dedication to literary arts. Hazel is a graphic designer, and she does a feature each week called Three Things. Because Hazel is a visual person, she uses three images to spark her writing prompt. Sometimes you are left to yourself to just let the images take you, but sometimes she will ask a specific question or give you something specific to do. This is great if you are inspired by art. Well, and who isn’t?

Other things you might try include writing your character’s bio, writing a scene from a different point of view, writing out an interview with a character, or somehow visualizing a scene or setting, whether you draw it or make it out of Legos.

Hope these ideas help you create that spark! We all need a little help from time to time. What inspires you? Where do you turn for inspiration?