Posts in Category: Writing

Call for Samples (free coaching!)

I’m preparing a presentation on the value and usefulness of story coaching for the September 15th AWG meeting. I would like best to use a handful of examples from current works in progress.

Image courtesy of Andrew Steinle via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Andrew Steinle via stock.xchng

This is an opportunity for a few of you to get free feedback or help in a place you may be stuck. To be considered for inclusion, send a ½-page summary of your novel or memoir/non-fiction manuscript and the type of help you need or challenge you’re facing.  If you have a one-sentence summary, include that too.

For interested folks who haven’t developed a story or writing project they’re ready to share, Feel free to submit any writing questions you have about getting started I’d like to make this presentation as tailored and helpful to our group as possible.

Once I decide how many examples will fit the presentation, I will contact those writers and request pages, along with setting up an abbreviated (20-30 minute) coaching session over the phone.

The cost of participation will be flexibility on your part in scheduling (turnaround will probably be within a week), and willingness to have your work and coaching process used publicly, in the presentation and/or on her blog. Writers can ask that their names be used or withheld in relation to their work, based on their comfort level.

Submissions and contact information may be sent via the contact sheet below.

The talk itself will be at 7pm in the auditorium of the Noel Wein Library, in Fairbanks. Please come and bring a writer-friend.

Make Up Your Mind ~ Is this a game, or something More?

Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine. –Margaret Atwood


The writing life is essentially one of solitary confinement – if you can’t deal with this you needn’t apply. — Will Self

Image courtesy of Armin Hanisch via

Image courtesy of Armin Hanisch via

Five days into NaNoWriMo. I had passed 25,000 words (due to a lot of hours from my husband Jay right before he left the country).

I was about 25% of the way through my story, according to the four-part outline I worked up the month before, and I enjoyed a speed of ~ 1200 words/hour.

2,000 to 10K is a terrific– and terrifically inexpensive– introduction to the type of prepwork that let me believe this was even possible.

I have been writing since high school, over 20 years, now. This was the first time I had an entire day for composition, and it was also probably the first time I would have known what to do with it.

I dove in on day-one and didn’t slow down for five months.

(Okay, technically I slowed down, but that’s just because of “real life” not from any hesitation or writers’ block. This is my point.)

By contrast, in my first NaNo endeavor, this five-day mark was the time I wanted to quit. I was making or passing my 1,667-word/day minimum, but I wasn’t sure I could maintain the pace.

I wanted to quit before I failed.


The idea of really trying and not making it terrified me.

I don’t remember anymore what I expected. Looking at it now, I can see that whatever word-count I got would be more words on a story than I’d had before– but the risk of not making goal seemed to be taunting me.

It was as though I was afraid that failing would mean I wasn’t cut out for this. This noveling thing. And since I knew with a wordless knowing that I had to tell this story, the risk of failing felt like the pall of death hanging over all.

Sticking it out proved some important things to ME.

  • Noveling is WORK
  • It is worthy work
  • That I am capable of.

Practice what you want to perfect.

Consider what you are doing– what you spend your hours on– as practice.

I fell into noveling (and NaNo) not knowing more than I had stories that I wanted to tell.  Writing was a mystical state that had rules and laws that I vaguely saw or could recognize, and that I wondered about very much.

I didn’t know if I could “make a living” in this alternate reality, but I was drawn to it– the way I’ve heard some people describe being drawn to Alaska, their whole lives.

I am still learning about writing. Still delighted in discovery– of other authors and of my own abilities. And rather than cringe at my “old” stuff, and worrying about how this will look in X-number-of-years, I am thankful for marked growth, and the reality that varying levels of skill don’t have to destroy a story.

~ ~ ~

When we decide that this story needs to be told– that we are the only ones who can rescue it from the netherworld of imagination and “potential”– we hang on.

If the last eight years of noveling have taught me anything (and believe me, they have), the loudest thing I’ve heard is about endurance. If you’ve got the trajectory right and you keep moving, you will eventually reach your destination.

My point? I am simultaneously working on my first and fifth novels (hence the slow blogs).  I started the first novel eight years ago, the fifth just last year. Both will be finished this fall. Lindorm Kingdom I plan to self-publish, and I’ll experiment  with shopping Dazed and Bemused around for a traditional publisher.

This is a huge deal that has been years in the making, and there were weeks when I didn’t think I’d finish one novel, let alone two within a year. But it’s real.

footprints in sandI am not yet holding a book of my own, but I am closer than I’ve ever been, and just as good, I’ve seen what time can do, however incrementally.

For you other writers, be encouraged: Now isn’t forever,  and the now we choose today can help us toward the future we’re wishing for. We are doing this writing thing because we are actively choosing to live the life we desire. We are those taking action, rather than those being acted upon.

We, my writing friends, are the interesting characters that others wish they had the nerve– or freedom– to be.

Dream Boy Blog Tour: Authors’ Interview (and GIVEAWAY!)

Dream boyI am so excited to talk some more today about the book Dream Boy that I reviewed last month.

And the publisher has said I can give away a copy of the book (trust me, you want this in your hands), so be sure and leave a comment after you read the interview.

You probably noticed this novel was written by two authors (Mary Crockett and Madelyn Rosenberg). This continues to be noteworthy, I believe, because it’s uncommon.

When I imagined working with someone else on one of my novels, it honestly gave me the heebeegeebees, so I went looking and read Mary’s explanation of what she loved about writing with a friend.  I also read where the story came from, which is a pretty awesome story, and that answered my first and most-obvious questions.

Madelyn’s video explanation took a completely different tack…

Despite my inclination to write alone, anyone who knows me knows that healthy relationships, emotions, and brains are kinda my big-deal whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction, so that was the angle on my mind when I created my interview questions.

 ~ ~ ~

Amy Jane: When you write together, how do you keep ego or possessiveness from getting in the way of the story?

Mary: You just concentrate on the story and that takes care of all the ego crap that could get in the way. And if there did happen to be a disagreement that we couldn’t immediately resolve, I just told Madelyn I was going to hold my breath until she let me have my way. That worked surprisingly well.
Madelyn: It’s hard to go about trying to get published these days with your ego intact. Any ego I had left when I started writing with Mary I just checked at the door. We were really honest with each other about what we thought worked and what we thought didn’t. One of Mary’s rules about writing a joint project was that the initial idea couldn’t be something you were completely possessive of/iron-fisted about. Because if it was, you should just keep that project for yourself, right? That way when you went forward to create something, you were truly working together.

Amy Jane: That makes me feel better, Madelyn. So far my novel ideas are arriving personal and specific, so those aren’t the kind to share. (I was afraid my resistance to cooperation made me a selfish control-freak…).

Amy Jane:  You did a really good job showing the humanity—accessibility—of traditionally negative roles (the popular kids, the ex-boyfriend). Was that on-purpose? Can you think of any specific choices you made—reactions, appearances—that were calculated to keep the more negative characters from going too far?
Mary: Thanks! I guess there wasn’t any calculated move on my part. I just set out to show people as I understand people to be–with good parts and bad parts.
As for going too far, Madelyn did keep me from giving Daniel a mustache because she didn’t want him to seem gross. Also, she wouldn’t let the nightmare eat bugs even though I tried repeatedly to get that little girl some protein.
Amy Jane: HA!
Madelyn: We actually had way more back story than even ended up in here. We know exactly why Stephanie ended up the way she did, for instance. And we tried to make Annabelle realize that some of her feelings about Daniel were actually about herself (which was a lesson I learned about an ex boyfriend I hated, though it took me 20 years).
Amy Jane: I was also happy (it’s embarrassing how much of my enjoyment of a book is so self-centered…) happy to see so many minor tensions resolved while they were still minor, and people really seeming to try their best to be civil, rather than racing to take offense. Is that something that’s part of your style as writers, and/or did you consciously include that?
marymadelynpub1Mary: I think there’s a reason we didn’t start the book right after Annabelle broke up with Daniel. She had a real rough time with that break up. So, when Dream Boy begins, she’s been through some emotional stuff and she reacted pretty badly to it in the past, but she’s trying to learn to be better about it. It worked better for the story for her to be at that point in her life. Also, I don’t like writing a bunch of weepy drama.
Madelyn: Actually, I think it’s more interesting when things are wrapped up a little less neatly. I feel like one of the reasons we did what we did was because we didn’t want those things to detract from some of our other plot points. (And I don’t like weepy drama, either.)
Amy Jane: Medium *SPOILER* warning here: when Annabelle chooses the fugly dress bought for her over the one she picked for herself, did you mean that as an abdication/succumbing to manipulation—a move away from her true self—or rather as an effort on her part to compromise within the relationship that she was still trying to build?

Mary: I don’t see that choice as abdication or manipulation or even as an attempt to further her relationship with Martin. I see it as an act of kindness to another human being who was trying to do something kind for her. Also, she was pushing back against her friend Talon a little in that scene. Talon was poking at holes she suspected might be in Annabelle’s relationship with Martin, so Annabelle was presenting a untied front by choosing the dress. So her motives are kind and a little defensive and a little self-delusional in the same moment. But mostly kind.

Madelyn: I agree that it was an act of kindness, but I think that kindness was a way of moving the relationship forward 🙂

Amy Jane: It was one of my favorite moments, with different levels or ways to interpret it. I love that you both see the same act a bit the same and a bit differently.

It’s so neat to see the gentleness of your relationship and your shared delight in your story.  Thank you so much of “visiting” my little blog!

Mary: Thanks again, Amy, for having us.

And now for the GIVEAWAY!

(My apologies, but this is limited to mailing addresses the U.S. and Canada):

To enter, leave a comment and tell me if you are pro- or anti- spoiler in your reading (or book-review reading). Do you want to know any extras beyond the blurb on the back of the book?

[Contest will be open for two weeks: I’ll draw a name on July 4th sometime in the midst of a celebratory family day.]

Just for Today: The Writer’s Voice Competition

It begins with a lottery— Which I get, but means that we won’t know if we’re playing along until the drawing. Fortunately, the wait is no more than a single day, and we can be excited and/or move on with our lives quickly.

But if you have a completed, polished manuscript, click through, check out the requirements and throw your name in the hat.

For the competition (if I get chosen) the completed manuscript I’m working with is Lindorm Kingdom, my very first NaNo novel that I began by winning NaNoWriMo in 2006, when my youngest was 6 months old, and the oldest of my three kids was three years old.

Image courtesy of Sanja Gjenero via

Image courtesy of Sanja Gjenero via

I think that was when I knew I knew I was a writer. I mean, I’d majored in journalism, and have always been good with words (I still remember, at 13, showing an essay of mine to a high school English teacher, and glowing to hear her say she expected that kind of work from a 10th-grader). What I didn’t know was how enlivening writing was. How I was capable of prioritizing and persisting.

Knowing that, now, is what keeps me going on: I don’t know when I’ll see (more) outside acknowledgement, but the question was settled for me about day-10 (and day-15, and day-17, and especially day-30), that this was real, and not a game.

Whatever it was.

I fought for years to keep Lindorm a sane length for a single novel, at first because I thought all multi-book stories came in threes (and I knew there wasn’t enough story for three books). When I knew more, I still resisted splitting into two because I saw a natural break and there wasn’t enough in the first half to make a story that satisfied me.

Three years passed, then five, and six.

Image by Krzysztof Szkurlatowski;

Image by Krzysztof Szkurlatowski;

In 2010 and 2011 I participated in NaNoWriMo again, because I realized this (at the time) 4-year-old story was too important.

I couldn’t get the distance I needed to revise and cut and re-vision it, because it was the *only* story I’d ever created. It was a fluke. A blown-glass egg that was fragile, and if I did the wrong thing it would be shattered beyond my ability to repair.

That’s how I felt, and my rational mind objected to the constraints this other, unfamiliar, part of me put on my writing. I was angry at how strong it was: keeping a fabulous story captive because I didn’t know (yet) how to make it perfect.

I didn’t trust my own skill. I had no proof yet is was skill.

So I wrote a second novel in 2010. I wrote a third novel in 2011.

And finally I was steady enough to move forward.

My kids enrolled in “away school”  (the opposite of homeschool, you see?) for the 2012/2013 school year, and I finished a re-write that fleshed out the first half of Lindorm into something better, more meaningful, than I could have discovered before this point in my life and experience.  I nailed down an actual premise (Yes! a premise: a single, thematic statement I believe in that the novel would demonstrate).

The purpose of Strength is to create Safety.

For the first time, the novel felt cohesive, but now I was more than 7 years past my opening skill level.

The duo of Lindorm novels is based on a deliciously complex Scandinavian folktale, and as I built it into a novel, drawing on all the reading I did about craft and technique, I wondered if I was putting my heroine through “enough”.

We soft-hearted writers are often reminded that we can’t– shouldn’t– protect our characters. And I questioned whether Linnea had been through enough, even though hundreds of years had already outlined her struggles.

Image courtesy of Armin Hanisch via

Image courtesy of Armin Hanisch via

In a similar way, I have wrestled with whether I know enough to be doing this. This noveling thing. There are so many books I haven’t read, so many great writers I feel that I’m “late” in discovering, and every time I do anything but actually create Story I feel like I’m playing catch-up.

But the stories don’t go away.

I guess that’s one of the advantages of building on the timeless: it will always be old, and it will always be new: familiar and fresh at the same time.

If we do it right.

That is the excellence I’m striving toward.


For a long time I had that word above the door in my writing room.

It is a command. An urging: Try.

The word essay, that now makes most school kids cringe, started out as an experiment.  The name is taken from the Old French word, essai, meaning ‘trial.’

Gandalf, early in Lord of the Rings mentions that many magic rings were made before ‘the one ring’ central to that story.

“The lesser rings were only essays in the craft, before it was full-grown, and to the Elven-smiths they were but trifles– yet still to my mind dangerous for mortals.

I see essays the same way: They can be seen as empty or powerful– the same ones– by creator or reader. They are a snapshot of thought. An effort to capture they way a writer is thinking at that moment, and with that same immediacy affects each reader based on their own circumstances.

Essays as a writing form are a fabulously flexible tool. Seeing them as “practice” is a really great start (no matter how long you’ve been doing it: Doctors after X-teen years of schooling and decades of employment are still said to be practicing medicine).

I can’t tell you how many blog posts I’ve hit publish on in the last 8 years with the thought, ‘Good as I can make it. On to the next [diaper change/read-aloud/meal to make/tragedy to grieve].’

This has been a tremendous help as I reach the end of a novel or publish an official article or column.

footprints in sandTurns out as good as I can make it can be pretty good. And the fact that I’m better later isn’t shaming, it’s the reminder I’m growing. I wouldn’t grow if I didn’t keep trying.

This isn’t only about writing, it’s about everything we must stay with in order to see growth and the competency we crave.

Essayez. Try. We only have time. Don’t worry about “maximizing” it, just use it.

Little things add up. It doesn’t matter how small the steps are if you’re pointed in the direction you want to go.


New Writing Group Start[ed] January 30!

The challenges of the writing life often parallel those of the Christian life—undermining confidence, freedom, and self-respect. This is a group designed to encourage writers and believers at any level of experience.

Image courtesy of Vangelis Thomaidis via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Vangelis Thomaidis via stock.xchng

Beginning Thursday, January 30, I will be leading a “small group” [topic-specific midweek meeting] in connection with Journey Christian Church.

Time: 7-8:30p.m.
Place: Noel Wein Public Library, Conference Room #1

All-ages child care provided off-site: Community Covenant Church, 6:45-9p.m.

Because of the meeting location, group is limited to a total of 10. Call ahead to sign-up: 750-2419

Emotion in the Process (NaNo Prep 31)

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader. — Robert Frost

I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of. — Joss Whedon

When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable. — Madeleine L’Engle

Clear back on Day 3 I said I said I try to work around the Dislikes as much as possible.  In part that’s because we (as a culture) frequently treat the stuff we don’t like as somehow inherently better for you (think veggies vs. ice cream).  But one of the things I’ve learned about myself along this noveling journey is that imaginary conflict can sometimes be as hard for me as real conflict. (Biologically, your brain can’t tell the difference).

Sometimes my story has to be on-hold because my life is so stress-laden.

Image courtesy of Erika Thorpe via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Erika Thorpe via stock.xchng

Interestingly, sometimes my stress can be managed better when I have access to my imaginary world where I (in my god-ness) can see bigger and farther than the poor helpless characters who (post-modern as they are) don’t even know to hope for a happy ending.

And a deadline is one way to press on through the anyway.

 ~ ~ ~

My first tears while writing came when copying a poem at age 15.  I found the the story that framed the poem unremarkable, but the poem struck me so deeply I told myself this was going to be applicable when someone I loved was gone.

I wonder if Edna St. Vincet Milay cried while she wrote A Dirge without Music.

My first tears while creating was when I wrote a short story about the religious persecution and genocide in southern Sudan.

Maybe 19, I had just discovered that my university had laptops for check out, and for the first time in my life I typed in the privacy of my own room. And I felt the things I wrote about. The 7-year-old who watched his baby brother hacked to pieces, saw his mother brutalized before she was sold off and he was conscripted as a child soldier.

If I had been “in public” and by force of my will none of that had made me weep, I am convinced a part of me would have died.

I have wrestled with depression. I have been overwhelmed, buried by the intensity of my grief. And these are not the same thing. As much as we may remind ourselves that “none of this is real” (and those of you embarking for the first time may need most to hear this), nothing comes from nothing.

Especially in a hurry, especially when we file away our inner-editor, self-judgement, and concerns of what others may think, truth will emerge.

Image courtesy of Erika Thorpe via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Erika Thorpe via stock.xchng

Not until I wrote my first novel– in fact, not until I gave it to an editor-friend for feedback– I did not realize that one of my deep inner battles revolved around a fear of abandonment. It was all over my main character, but since it was my battle as well, I couldn’t do that basic, useful exercise I urged on Day 6 and tell you what her core issue was.

Many times over my noveling years (seven, now) I will be struck by a deep truth that there are few words for. I will weep or be angry that I can’t communicate it better, more-clearly. But we do what we can.

A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day. ~ Emily Dickinson

The goal in my writing is to bring life. To bring hope.

Writing Hope is my goal, my motivation for pursuing and creating imaginary worlds.

Prepare for Imperfection (NaNo Prep 29)

Words are not as satisfactory as we should like them to be, but, like our neighbors, we have got to live with them and must make the best and not the worst of them. — Samuel Butler

I think that all artists, regardless of degree of talent, are a painful, paradoxical combination of certainty and uncertainty, of arrogance and humility, constantly in need of reassurance, and yet with a stubborn streak of faith in their own validity no matter what. — Madeleine L’Engle

Image courtesy of Cris Watk via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Cris Watk via stock.xchng

Lack of faith in one’s own strengths necessarily results in a less-effective human being. My favorite example (though non-human) is of the squirrel who could do no better than a C in swimming, and the fish who got an F in tree-climbing.

There are some very important things I am just. not. good at (keeping up with laundry and healthy food is a perennial joke among parents, but sometimes we laugh about things so we won’t accidentally cry). I mean, stuff like food and clothing is not the stuff of life– the stuff we live for or want to be remembered for– but they are the things that make the stuff of life possible. They are essential, and they’re dead weight.

A lot of the time they seem to be won by those with the greatest endurance.

And this is not my strong place.

But, even though I know this is my weakest part, even knowing that writing is a greater strength, that doesn’t mean that everything I write is good, effortless, or even enjoyable (to me or a reader).

This can lead to some stinkin’ thinkin’: I’m not even good at ____________. Why is *everything* so hard?!.  Be careful about thoughts like that.

Shifting your expectations is a good place to start. Assume everything will be work. Then, when you make the happy discovery that some work can be fun, life balances out a little more positively.

Image courtesy of Joseph Mankin via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Joseph Mankin via stock.xchng

Every time something gets too hard and I want to wig out, I’m reminded of an inevitably recent example (in my homeschooling livingroom) that recently was on display. On a nearly weekly basis one of my brilliant, beautiful children will realize what they’re doing is not. perfect. and life will cease to hold any meaning. Bones will loose their rigidity, voices will leak through half-opened mouths, and the sound of despair will foul the sweet, wood-smoked air.

The words I use continually on them: This isn’t the end. Did you expect to be perfect the first time? For Pete’s sake, how much does this matter?! Are you locked into this forever? No! You will continue to grow!

These are the words I tell myself, before I melt out of my chair, sobbing. Because I am an adult, doggonit! I will NOT act like a child (if I think about it ahead)!


Whatever age you are, drink your milk (or take your calcium), let your bones do their job:

Stay in the chair and do the work.

Image courtesy of mihai9 radu via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of mihai9 radu via stock.xchng

If it is not everything you want it to be at this moment, celebrate that you see clearly enough not to be blinded to its imperfection by your closeness.

Remember this is just the beginning. Celebrate progress, silence that critical voice. If it needs acknowledgement, give it a pat on the head and tell it you’ll listen better after the 30th.

Cross-Cultural Inclusion (NaNo Prep 27)

Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself. — Unamuno

Those who believe they love all kinds of people, but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, love only what they can control, and not humanity as a whole. — Amy Jane Helmericks

Image courtesy of ddrccl via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of ddrccl via stock.xchng

I am a white, upper-middle class woman.

And I write “people of color.”

This discussion makes me feel awkward, but I have a few words to put down anyway.

I feel awkward because I assume there are things I don’t know I don’t know. It is never my intent to hurt anyone or be insensitive, but since I don’t (anymore) go around apologizing to people for interacting with them, I figure the best I can do is treat folks with respect while opening myself to experience as many different types and personalities as possible.

The example I have to offer is how I feel as a woman when I read stuff written by men. Sometimes it makes me roll my eyes, but honestly, there is enough variation in humanity that I can usually suspend disbelief and accept that, yeah, humans can act they way sometime, and females are human.

Image courtesy of Aline Dassel via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Aline Dassel via stock.xchng

My reasoning is that we can’t exclude any kind of person, and when we can help it we shouldn’t force one person to represent all of their type.

That is, when I have a culture or skin tone represented, I try to have more than one when I can.

This comes from the great weight I experienced when (for a few years) I had only ONE novel I was working on.

For all those years, that novel consumed my story-mind. I had to get it *right*. There was no room or option for imperfection, or process, or second-guessing or setting it aside. ALL my hopes and expectations and even my image of myself was bound up in this one snarled mess of a plot.

And you can’t create like that. You can’t live like that.

A few people have asked me why I start a new novel when I haven’t published (or even finished) all my earlier ones.  I have a couple answers.

First, I am still learning the craft, and NaNoWriMo in particular is an opportunity to exercise that learning with the blessing of my family– who understand it contains the madness to a minimum.

Second, it is a dilution.  The more you have written, the less power any individual story has.

Image courtesy of Matthias Engel via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Matthias Engel via stock.xchng

In a similar way, when a story has a token minority (audaciously women– 50% of the population– are included in this “token” treatment) it often represents a check-list function being fulfilled.

By having more-than-one (granted, none of this was conscious when I started) I wanted to be able to let peoples be peoples: broken, redeemable, surprising, and predictable.

This first crossed my radar when the only female on Dr. House‘s team was criticized for being not XYZ enough, and too QRS.  And here I thought she was just written well. But, no, as a front-and-center “role model” for young girls everywhere (?!) she needed to be stronger and more exemplary.

Ever since then I’ve been aware of white-male-as-default (they can be anything without hearing about role models), and I’ve tried to respond by making sure I’ve got jerks and gents (or ladies) in as much of a skin-tone spectrum as the setting will allow.

Image courtesy of Silvia Cosimini via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Silvia Cosimini via stock.xchng

Here is a good place to direct you again to the “I hate strong female characters” essay. I think this is applicable for any character of any skin tone or cultural background.

I will probably continue to feel self-conscious about the dark-skinned character (largely because it frustrates me to have to redirect people’s predicted assumptions by specifying a color), but I’d rather do that than act like every character has to be white or young, or conventionally (who defines that anyway?!) beautiful in order for the story to be told properly.


Research Ahead (NaNo Prep 26)

Life is tough, but it’s tougher if you’re stupid. — John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima


Image courtesy of hvaldez1 via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of hvaldez1 via stock.xchng

I used to say that the reason I loved to write fantasy was because I didn’t have to research anything to make a whole story. I’ve since decided that’s not exactly true.

Everything in my stories comes from something else, and same for you. Our brains collect an store and shuffle and recombine, and no matter what you’re writing, the job is easier with a greater supply of raw material.

The point is to stay open, and keep shoveling stuff in. And that’s anything you enjoy. As writers, we enjoy one of the most unique of realities: no rabbit trail is ever wasted. No time dinging around on YouTube or, no random novels that I start and keep me entranced enough to finish.

It’s all fodder for writing.

Confession time: I am a chronic non-finisher. I have (At least) 6-8 books going at any given time. Most are non-fiction, granted, so they aren’t necessarily gripping page-turners, but they interact with a sort of synergy that gives me new or deeper insights than either author might have had in mind, initially.

Image courtesy of Jean Scheijen via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Jean Scheijen via stock.xchng

There are probably dozens of books I’ve never finished, but none of them was wasted. I believe that our brains are so amazing that we never really forget anything. We may not have it at command, but it’s always there, waiting to be brought back with the right hook.

The same thing happens with life and fiction and non-fiction when you stay open and let the ideas mix and mush. All of my stories contain cross-cultural marriages as a sort of microcosm of of the differing approaches to life we bring to relationships.

The stories themselves are mash-ups of traditional tales from different cultures. And all this came from reading broadly, and enjoying the movies and TV shows I do.

My advice: embrace your loves. Follow your interests: this book suggests that getting ahead in anything is largely a question of endurance, and we’re all more likely to stick with something we find interesting.

As to the how of research, I am a big proponent of the dive-in-and-swim mode of research.

You might say my research style is opposite of my plotting style.

Image courtesy of Piotr Bizior via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Piotr Bizior via stock.xchng

You see, I know a lot about a lot of stuff (you probably do, too: it’s part of being a grown-up), so I can make a lot of reasoned assumptions where I don’t have facts at my fingertips, and failing that I can make most of my story hinge around human interaction that will be the same almost anywhere you find humans.

The trick comes when you want to do technical writing or (as I am learning in my novel this year) mystery writing; where the answers hinge not just on quirks of human experience, but also on physical laws of the universe or items of expertise in a specialized world like dog shows.

In these cases I tend to work from the broad to the very specific.

For example, in a mystery, there are the classic motivations to consider: jealousy, fear, extortion, greed, anger, etc.

Motivation may help pin the perpetrator, and that (working backwards, as we may, creating the story) can shed light on method, since knowing who’s responsible narrows down means and opportunity.

Once the broad strokes are identified, I can now consider where specific detail-searching comes into play.

My example:

I have a niggling memory of a news clip describing special visas for girls freed from the sex trade. The goal is to reduce the hold their captors have over them to keep them from coming forward or seeking help.

Since my story is set largely in London, I began my research by looking to see if there’s any sort of analogous safeguard in the UK. What I found is that the state of the courts is currently in something of an overhaul, and more research is needed, but I also confirmed that the discussion about “modern day slavery” is also happening “across the pond,” so my premise (a teen-Sherlock television episode where the characters are facing the questions of human trafficking) does fit, and I am now reading the public report from the Center for Social Justice.

“It’s okay, I found it on the internet” is becoming much less of a joke than a reality these days, and especially as we prepare to dive into a month of unbridled creation, the facts are guidance at this point, more than boundaries.

If something comes down to that tight of a specific, it should be something researchable in the midst. The point at this stage of the game, is not to stress about details that are not inherent to the core of your story, and if you’re not sure what’s at the core, some quick Googling will get you started.  There’s no shame in internet research, especially at this stage in the process.

Image courtesy of Odan Jaeger via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Odan Jaeger via stock.xchng

If you have (or guess you will have) serious questions, don’t hesitate to get on the internet and search for what you want to know (the NaNoWriMo forums are also a great place to fish for leads).

And if you’re really adventurous, you can use the internet to track down phone numbers or email addresses for experts in your area of facts for you your novel. That is, you could ask a sculptor or a garden-designer if they were willing to answer a few specific questions. You could call the business office of a police station 6 states over and (if they have time—preparing your questions will help them trust you) verify how they do things in their neck of the woods where your story takes place.

Just, don’t be afraid to ask questions—of yourself or anyone else. Questions can be the best way to make progress on a problem.


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