On Research

Writing is make-believe, plucking characters and settings from your head and dropping them onto the paper like Rorschach blots, hoping the reader will see a coherent image. But if you want to write something convincing, your story has to be rooted in reality. And if it’s a reality you know nothing about, there’s only one thing to do about it—research.

Oh, hey. I’ve got this, you say. Pull up Wikipedia, copy and paste, and voila.

Not. So. Fast.

The internet is a wonderful thing and it makes research easy, but according to Merriam Webster, the definition of research is: careful study that is done to find and report new knowledge about something.

Careful study.

That implies a little more than copy and paste, doesn’t it?

This isn’t to say that you can’t use the net, but you have to be willing to dig deeper than the first link you find, to pick through the mounds of information and find the good stuff, the right stuff.

(Did you know that the first seven astronauts did their survival training in the Nevada desert? Before I wrote this post, I didn’t. Thanks to some research, I now know that those seven astronauts were left for four days with a spacecraft mockup, a parachute, and a survival scenario. Pretty cool, eh? And yes, I got that information from the net; however, I’m pretty confident I can trust www.nasa.gov.)

If you want to write a story about a cellist and you know nothing more than the music the instrument makes is so beautiful it makes you cry, you better do research because you can bet that at least one person who might read that story will know more and will spot your errors a mile away. That isn’t to say you need to root everything in truth. Maybe your cello is a space cello with magical wormhole properties. In that case, you have a little more leeway, but still, you can research how instruments are played in space and wormhole theory. At least I hope you would.

But research isn’t just to make that one reader smile and nod and say yes, this author got it right. If you’re writing a story about a cello, why wouldn’t you do research? Why wouldn’t you want to know the lowest note a cello can play? (Two octaves below middle C.) Why wouldn’t you want to know that when Yo-Yo Ma plays, his instruments of choice are a 1733 Montagnana cello from Venice and a 1712 Davidoff Stradivarius? Even if you’re not a fan of the cello, you have to admit that a musician using a 300-year old instrument is pretty damn interesting.

You might spend days researching, slipping from one rabbit hole to another, picking up bits and pieces of information along the way. And maybe you won’t use those things in your story. Maybe you won’t even finish your story.

That isn’t the point.

Better to do the research and not need it than leave your story full of holes you should’ve filled. You owe it to yourself; you owe it to your readers; you owe it to your story.

Working with Others—A Primer

Unless you’re a jack-of-all-trades type (and a master of all, too), chances are you will need to work with others on your path to success. Of course there’s the obvious ones: editors and publishers. But there’s others you may encounter with varying degrees of involvement, and you may possibly even employ: web designers and developers, graphic designers for layout and covers, illustrators and artists—the list is long. Here’s some tips to improve your working relationship with them.

Know Their Work Schedule
Many are freelancers and may have day jobs. Even if they work full time in their field, they may not work 9 to 5. That’s one of the perks of working for yourself—choosing your own hours. Find out when the person is available, and work out the best times to contact each other (and don’t be calling them at 8 in the morning if this isn’t organized ahead of time). Don’t forget, time zones can greatly influence this—freelancing through the net means people could be anywhere and work with you.

Work Out the Means of Contact
There’s email, phone calls, SMS, IM, Twitter, Facebook messages, Skype, and many more—all potential ways to get in contact with someone else. For me, I’m not generally fond of phone calls. They’re great for focused attention, and I’ll rely on them if the client seems unable to process long emails, but generally my preference is email (it can be detailed, thorough, there’s a written record of everything, and I can read or write at my convenience). I also don’t generally give out my cell phone. Others will have their own preferences. Of course, like the time of day, your input is important here, too. If they insist on working through Skype and you’re video shy, let them know—maybe it’s not the right fit.

Remember You’re Not the Only One
Very rarely will you be the only client the other person is working with. You have every right to expect people to stick to agreed-upon timelines, but it’s unrealistic to expect their full attention to be on you. Don’t message them several times a day, don’t micro-manage the project, and give them space to do their work (for you and others) and get back to you in a reasonable amount of time.

Be Respectful, and Be Direct
While politeness goes a long way, being direct is also important. If you are unhappy with how something is progressing, you need to raise those concerns at the first opportunity. During a website design, the designer should be showing you steps along the way—wireframes, color schemes, design concepts. Other work may have similar steps. You don’t have to be a jerk (there’s always ways of saying something nicer than others), but if you’re not communicating clearly you may leave too much room for misunderstandings.

Should a project get to the point that you need to walk away from it, realize there may be a kill-fee (where you owe something even if it’s not finished or usable). And even if not, come to a solution that works for both—if someone just spent a week of their time doing something for you, there should be some monetary exchange.

Come Prepared
There’s a lot of leg work you can do yourself before engaging someone else. Is the project something visual? If so, find pieces that represent what you’re looking for, and other examples of what you don’t want, and convey your thoughts on it all. This works for website design, book design, covers, illustrations—you name it. Take photos of physical goods (or buy a copy or two), bookmark sites, build Pinterest boards. Show this when you start working with someone else and see if they’re even comfortable with your goals—they may not be, and it’s best they walk away before getting involved.

Use Written Agreements, and Stick to Them
There should be a contract in place when work is being done and money is being exchanged. At a minimum, you should have an email with the project listed out, including deliverables, timelines, rights, and costs, and have an acknowledgement from both parties that it represents what is to be done.

My agreements always contain responsibilities for clients—these include quick turnaround times for feedback, getting sign-offs for work, and getting any assets in a timely manner. Without proper follow-through on my client’s end, I am unable to perform my job and delivery dates may well be missed. You should know what your responsibilities are to assist someone working for you, and do everything you can to take care of them properly.

There’s more posts to come in the future, but hopefully this works as a primer. You will need to work with others, and it can either be a rewarding or challenging experience—it’s at least partially up to you.

Writing When You’re Broken

There would be a post here, but life got in the way.

Seriously, though, life sometimes does get in the way. Vacations, family responsibilities, illnesses, day jobs. But what about the days when you have several hours free and you sit at the computer, staring at the screen, willing the words to come?

What about when you get in the way?

I’m not talking about the distractions of social media. Everyone knows they can shut off their net connection if they have no willpower otherwise, right? I’m also not talking about writer’s block, at least not in the way you think.

What if the illness is a big one? What if the day job is suddenly gone, along with the paycheck and the health insurance? What if your partner or spouse just packed his or her bags and took a permanent vacation away from you?

How do you find the mental will to write when your brain is slowly crumbling from the stress and chaos?

The first choice is the easy one. Don’t write. Step away from the computer completely or limit your use to Twitter and Facebook. Maybe you have that luxury. Maybe writing is just a hobby.

But what if you have a deadline waiting and not writing is not an option? What if the bats in your belfry are not just lingering but swarming in a chaos of ammonia and fluttering wings?

Use your stress.

Yes, gather up those bats and channel them into your writing. Feed your words with anger, with sorrow, with hurt. Do terrible things to characters, give them the life you wish you had at the moment, or give them the life you fear most. Write dialogue that says all the things you wish you could.

Your writing may very well end up with a different, stronger, resonance. You may be able to see things from a different point of view. Strong emotions don’t have to work against you. They can be the incendiary fuel for your phoenix of words instead of immolation.

But maybe you can’t. Maybe what you feel is too big, too much. So escape from your stress. Disappear into your fiction. Use it as the buffer from the chaos. Maybe things outside the word cave are terrible but inside, you are the master. If you wallow too much in your chaos, you’ll end up spinning your wheels on a stationary bike to nowhere.

View your writing as a toy. Ever notice that kids like to play even when they’re sick? Sure, you say, they’re kids. They have that endless energy. Maybe so, but maybe those towers made out of blocks help them not pay so much attention to their illness. Use your words in the same way. Build your own tower. Slay a dragon. Banish a ghost. Break a heart.

Words can cut, they can wound, but they can also help you heal. Even when you’re not aware they’re doing so.





So long, Stan.

You don’t know the things that shape you.

And I mean it. You don’t. They’re so big and so important to you that you have no perspective on them. They’re such a constant presence that you can’t tell them apart from air. You can’t feel them affecting you, influencing you. To you, they’ve always been there, and always will be.

But maybe you get a chance to understand them, when you move away from them. When you grow up, move on, seek to explore. And once you’ve moved on, once you’re wandering a strange new world, you see things and think, “Haven’t I seen this before?” Or you find yourself thinking along a certain process of logic every time, looking at the same things and doing the same things with them.

And you wonder, “Where did that come from? How do I know this? Why do I do this? Why is this so interesting to me?” And you start to think about it.

I stopped reading Ray Bradbury when I went to college. I haven’t really returned to him since then, not in earnest: I started writing, and to write better I felt you had to read things you’d never read before, and expand your horizons.

But the more I write, and the more I think about the things I want to write, the more I find myself returning to Bradbury’s world, to his ideas, to what he wanted things to be like, and what he wanted to warn us about.

It made me proud to hear people say The Troupe felt, in parts, like a Bradbury story. And when they said that, I realized he was who I’d gone to for my next one, one I was still writing, American Elsewhere. I’d been writing in his shadow. I’d sought him out specifically, without even knowing it. I was continuing a conversation I’d been having with his work since I was a child.

It’s okay to write in his shadow. It’s too big to get outside of, really. It falls across so many genres, so much of history. It’s layered in the earth like strata of stone. We carve pieces out of his stories without even knowing it, and stack them up on top of one another. And we work and live with them beside us, unaware they’re in the background. And I think they will be for a long, long time.

So long, Ollie.

So long, Stan.