Category Archives: Research

Writers’ Conferences

2015 OCW keynote speaker Jane Kirkpatrick

2015 OCW keynote speaker Jane Kirkpatrick

I had the privilege of teaching a workshop last week in the Oregon Christian Writers’ Conference held at the Red Lion Inn in Portland. I hadn’t attended a writers’ conference in a number of years, so it was a delight to be back with familiar faces and people of like interests.

Mostly, though, I was reminded of how valuable writers’ conferences are.

First, I was inspired—to write well and to write for a greater purpose. OCW had two keynote speakers—one a pastor known for his nonfiction and the other a sought-after speaker and fiction writer (pictured here).

In the extended learning classes held each morning, I also received excellent instruction. Some classes dealt with marketing and promotion, others about writing certain kinds of nonfiction, and others about the craft of fiction writing, from novels to screenplays. I chose a class about novel writing, taught by agent Sally Apokedak. Though directed at children’s book writers, the information was relevant to all levels of fiction.

The afternoons offered a variety of one-hour workshops (such as “Blogging And Blog Tours—The Whys and Wherefores,” which is the class I taught). Again, there was something for everyone during these afternoon sessions which included such topics as self-editing, essentials for a nonfiction book, voice, marketing, story beginnings and endings, synopsis writing, and more.

Third, I had a chance to attend both an editors’ and an agents’ panel during which these professionals answered questions from the audience. These panels offer a window into the business side of the publishing industry, and I never tire of hearing from those on the other side of writing talk about their work, their expectations, their advice for those of us who have not broken into publishing.

Another important part of writing conferences is practical, hands-on learning. OCW offered a pitch session, in which writers could learn how to write a brief pitch they might wish to use when they met with agents and editors, or to hone the one they already had.

The second night I led a critique clinic which allowed writers to break into small groups, and with the guidance of a more experienced writer, offer each other critiques of the first three pages of their work in progress. At the same time there was a poetry class and one on web design.

All this learning and inspiration is important, but another vital aspect of writers’ conferences is the opportunity to schedule an appointment with editors or agents. In some cases a writer can also request a pre-conference critique from the professional of their choice (some conferences offer this service as part of the conference package and others make paid critiques available), meaning that the professional with whom the conferee meets may have already read a sample of his writing before their meeting.

In other words, the agents or editors likely have an idea about how the conferee writes, if they’re interested in seeing more, and what she might need to do next.

OCW provides something I hadn’t encountered before—mentoring sessions. These are thirty-minute meetings with available staff—usually more experienced writers who can field questions, give encouragement, and offer advice to those who aren’t sure what direction they should take next. With so many changes in the publishing industry in the last five to ten years, this kind of help is so valuable.

Writers’ conferences offer one additional help—time to meet, talk, and connect informally with other writers. There’s something encouraging and challenging in getting together—beginners with multi-published authors and mid-list or self-published writers. Conferences seem to point to our commonalities, but beginners can be spurred on to greater heights by seeing successful writers who were once like they.

And published authors can remember how they started, the work it took, and the drive, determination, and enthusiasm they had to keep going. They can give of their time to help others as a way of paying back those who helped them.

Certainly writers’ conferences aren’t essential. As technology improves, and instructional sites such as Udemy and WOW (Women On Writing) proliferate, writers can receive instruction in the comfort of home, saving travel and lodging expenses. These classes can even bring writers into contact with an agent or an experienced writer or a freelance editor. In addition there are Facebook groups and Goodreads groups where writers can congregate online with other writers.

And yet . . . Writing conferences offer the intangibles of face-to-face contact. In a post back in 2013, I included the following information (with some minor editing) about writing conferences:

There are hundreds of writing conferences. Wikipedia has compiled a partial list, but a Google search will uncover many more. The key is to refine the search based on genre and location. Some of the more well known conferences include Writer’s Digest (East and West), SCBWI (LA and New York, as well as smaller local gatherings), and RWA. Christian writers’ conferences include Mount Hermon, Colorado Christian Writers, Oregon Christian Writers, American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), and Blue Ridge.

Conferences may not be essential, but they are valuable. My recommendation is to plan ahead—pick a conference that seems to be a good fit and start now saving for 2016.

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Filed under Goals, Research

How Important Are Details?

Are details important?

In more than one article critiquing the 2013 Mark Burnett/Roma Downey TV mini-series The Bible, reviewers pointed out “picky” details—Adam portrayed as a European-ish white guy, not an African or a Middle Easterner. And beardless. More than once I read remarks about the angels outfitted much like Ninja warriors.

My first thought was, Come on, people, quit being so picky.

But hold on.

Aren’t the picky things noticeable when they pull readers (or viewers) out of the story? Some time ago I read a post by agent Steve Laube about inconsistencies in novels that editors don’t catch but readers do. It reminded me of a book I read in which basketball details were wrong.

For example, Team A faced off against Team B in the NBA finals, with Team B hosting game 1. Some pages later the series is 3-2 and game 6 is being played at Team A’s home court.

But hold on. Fans of pro basketball would know that at that time the NBA finals were a 2-3-2 format—games 1,2,6 (if necessary), and 7 (if necessary) were to be played at the home of the team with the best over all regular season record. Games 3, 4, and 5 (if necessary) were played at the home of the two-seed. So no way could game 6 be played on Team B’s home court if game 1 was at Team A’s.

There was a similar stumble earlier connected with basketball (in the NBA, only one free throw when a technical foul is called) and another one with the weather in Southern California (a week of rain in May? Right! Doesn’t happen!) And another one on a cross-country drive. Three days, the character determines. It will take three days to reach her destination. She starts out on a Sunday and arrives … on a Sunday. O-o-kay.

But here’s the thing. If I were writing a review of this book, I would feel like I was being overly critical to point out these slips. I mean, did any of those matter in the long run? No. Will people who are not basketball fans, or residents of SoCal, even notice? Probably not. Does the day of the week really matter? Not really. Then what’s the big deal?

Do the details in fiction matter?

Actually, yes, they do. The details give the story a sense of credibility. I’ve said before, one of the things I think J. K. Rowling did so well was construct an incredible fantasy world. Others say she merely played off British boarding schools and that may be true. But through the details Ms. Rowling included, the world of magic came alive.

Horseless carriages that convey themselves, a sorting hat, a whomping tree, portkeys, food that appears in dishes on the dining tables, a ceiling that reflects the weather outside, broken wands mis-repaired that send spells incorrectly—on and on, each detail woven into the story with a high degree of consistency. There weren’t three school houses in one book and four in another. The new students weren’t placed in houses by the Sorting Hat in one book and by the Sword of Gryffindor in another.

Of course, the longer the book, the greater number of details there are to keep straight. An epic story like the seven Harry Potter books requires a great deal of work to keep all the details straight.

But I’ll come back to the point—why does it matter? I said credibility or realism, if you will, and that’s perhaps the greatest point, but in tangent is the fact that inconsistencies may pull readers out of the “fictive dream.” Rather than living side by side with the characters, the reader stops: Wait a minute, didn’t she say the trip took three days, and didn’t she leave on a Sunday? Then how can they be arriving on a Sunday? Did I miss something?

Lack of clarity can do essentially the same thing. The details might be right, but if they aren’t expressed clearly, the reader is still stopping, still looking back and checking to see why what she thought had been conveyed actually was something different.

So yes, details matter. At least they should.

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Filed under Description, Research, Revision

Do Your Homework

Harbor_Fwy_One of the reasons why writing fantasy appealed to me many years ago was because I was under the delusion that fantasy writers didn’t have to do any research. Since those days, I’ve learned that (1) fantasy writers aren’t immune to the need to do research and (2) research these days is pretty quick and easy.

As I’ve learned more about writing fiction, I’ve discovered that we all must do some measure of research. Contemporary writers, for example, need to research the places, professions, and devices they include in their stories.

Some years ago I read a novel set in the Los Angeles area–near where I live. At one point there was a car-chase scene that took the protagonist onto a freeway with which I was quite familiar. Sadly, the author didn’t paint the details anywhere near the way they actually are. As I read, I started yelling at the book: A sidewalk? There’s no sidewalk there. Pedestrians? No one who wants to keep living would walk along that freeway. And he wants us to believe there are dozens of people? Paa-leeeze!

Clearly, the inaccurate description of the area pulled me out of the story. Of course, not everyone knows the specifics about an area, but careless handling of the particulars is bound to stand out to any local residents who read the story.

The same is true of activities and events. I read another contemporary novel that featured a basketball player–a professional whose team made it to the NBA finals. The problem was, the author hadn’t done her homework, apparently, and didn’t know that the format for the finals is different from the early rounds. Consequently, the team with the best record opens the seven-game series at home for the first two games. They then move to the lower seed’s home for the next three games before returning, if necessary, to the home of the higher seed. So this author had her protagonist playing games five and six in the wrong cities.

Does it matter? For writers who want readers to immerse themselves in the fictive dream, yes, it should matter. Inaccuracies pull readers out of the story.

Mysteries, military thrillers, suspense, even contemporary romances all have similar requirements when it comes to getting the details right.

Writers of historical fiction or of history or memoirs, for that matter, have an even greater burden. They need to know the details of a place but also the details of the time period in which they’re writing if they are to avoid anachronisms. Hence, they must be sure their character actually could be listening to the radio or talking on the phone–that those things had been invented and were in common use. They must be sure that Benny Goodman had become a national figure, that cars had starters instead of cranks, that bifocals existed.

Again, some might question whether these details are important. My guess is, those who read historical fiction, and surely those who read history or memoirs, are already familiar with the time period in which the story or events are taking place. Consequently, these readers will quickly recognize mistakes. The credibility of the author is undermined with each error. The seriousness of the work comes into question.

Hard science fiction carries a similar stringent requirement. The science needs to be accurate and the futuristic suppositions tied to what already exists. Consequently, the writer needs to know about that science.

Big_Cypress_National_Preserve_swampWhich brings me back to fantasy. Aren’t the worlds pretty much all imagined? They are. And yet, a swamp must still have the properties of a swamp and a desert, those of a desert. Otherwise, there is no swamp. There’s a new thing that requires a new name with a description of its hybrid properties.

An author is absolutely free to make up a swamp in the middle of the desert–if he can make it plausible and if he is consistent with its use. Certain conditions can’t create a swamdirt, for instance, in one location and a wilderness in a different location. The conditions would have to be different and the author needs to keep track of which elements create which geological feature.

The key to good fantasy, then, is consistency. The real “research” is nothing more than keeping track of the rules of the imagined world. But that, too, my friends, is homework, and it needs to be done.

Fortunately in this age of the Internet, research is easier than ever. I’ve had a variety of magazine article assignments over the years, most on subjects with which I had little first hand knowledge. A few hours on the Internet, however, and I have learned as much or more as I might from an afternoon in the library.

Of course Internet research comes with a few cautions. First, not all information is accurate. Some is intentionally misleading if the subject is controversial–the author may be using the old tricks of indoctrination, such as the use of emotionally charged words, the exclusion of some facts, and the exaggeration of others.

Some information on the Internet is incomplete or lacking supporting data. Consequently, it might be true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far.

And thirdly, some Internet research uncovers facts that are flat out wrong. Perhaps the source is misinformed or ill equipped to present information on the topic.

The point is, a writer needs to verify Internet research or to check the reliability of the source. For instance, in doing research for an article about Victorian homes, I discovered a collection of sites saying much the same thing about restoration methods. The quantity served as a good check, but so did the credentials of the site writers–all owners of Victorian homes who were involved with renovations or had already completed them.

Homework. It’s the best kept secret of good writing–fiction and non-fiction. Writers who do their homework can separate themselves from the crowd.

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Filed under Research

Help For The Stalled

From time to time it seems writers of fiction or non-fiction get stuck or stalled. Some people might even say blocked. There are pressures that may contribute to a mental attitude that screams, “I can’t,” but I’m not addressing those factors today.

Rather, I want to look at specific things a writer can do when the next scene or non-fiction article point doesn’t take shape in his head, when “what comes next” doesn’t have an answer.

Consider first that you might not know enough. You love to garden, perhaps, and have been to the nursery more times than you can count, so certainly you know enough about plants to make your protagonist a landscaper, right? Maybe you do, but maybe not.

Aine Greaney, in her Writer’s Digest article “How to Resurrect a Stalled Manuscript” says

if your main character is a landscaper, it may be time to consult your Yellow Pages to set up some informational interviews or job-shadowing. Writing a family memoir? Check out the hours at the local museum or the archives at your public library to deepen the historical context of your family story. Ask family members you have already interviewed who else you should talk to: Is there someone in the extended family who can enrich the story?

Ramping up the research can unearth some fascinating details, or it can help you to understand your characters — fictional or real — in a whole new way.

“Research” might simply mean, taking time to think through who your character is on a deeper level. Do you know what she fears? and why? Is she socially inept or particularly kind or fascinated with philosophy, and if so, what contributed to her becoming who she is? Was there a traumatic event she experienced as a child, an ongoing situation she lived with, a person who modeled a lifestyle or pointed her in a direction?

Knowing our characters well, especially knowing what he or she wants, can open up many possibilities for our stories to move forward.

A second step to take to get unstuck is to ramp up the conflict, even in non-fiction. Again from Ms. Greaney:

Fact or fiction, short story or novel, every story is about conflict. The conflict is the fulcrum on which the story tips, rises and finds its balance. Some conflicts are big and loud and bloody (Braveheart). Others are quiet and small and introspective (Mrs. Dalloway).

Large or small, true or made up, your story’s narrative tension derives from the fact that two people, two sets of sensibilities or two life situations are at odds with each other.

A good question to ask is, “What does my character want in this scene?” A corollary might be, “What is making it difficult for him to be successful?” And finally, “Why does it matter?”

Conflict, of course, can be inner conflict and not just a clash with another person or with external circumstances. One place to look to create more conflict, then, is inside your character.

Does he have warring values that you can bring into play? Perhaps he loves his job as a professional baseball coach, but he loves his family who he must leave every time his team takes to the road. Two values, both good, but at war with one another.

Your character might also have fears that war with her desires. She wants to spend time with Mr. Perfect, but his hobby is to rock climb. In fact he’s invited her to go on the next trip, which she desperately wants to do — except she is deathly afraid of heights. What’s she going to do?

If you aren’t at the stalled stage yet, read over your manuscript and see if you’ve introduced your character’s fear early in your story. If so, it can serve as a tool to ratchet up the conflict when you need it most.

Stalled may not feel like blocked, but it is nonetheless a detriment to our writing. Thankfully there are practical steps to take which should soon have the ideas flowing and our fingers once again flying over the computer keys.

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Filed under Inner Conflict, Research, Writing Process