Tag Archives: research

Passion and Knowlege: writing foes or companions?

My Dear Hubby runs a farm implement dealership.  He started at the bottom and moved his way up.  As a teen he mowed the lot.  After college he took care of the lawn and garden division.  Over the years, he worked in parts, sales and service before stepping into the big office.

He earned his position through experience and is a great manager because of it.  He knows the business and cares about it deeply.  His lot always looks fabulous, his showroom floor organized and tidy, his employees perfectly matched for their positions.

During our 17 year marriage, I’ve watched other managers fail miserably at running a dealership.  The number one reason is lack of experience as a well-rounded employee.  They are businessmen who don’t get or care about a farmer’s timeline.  They have no passion for the ag industry, but signed on for the office job.  In short, they are not passionate enough to learn the nuances involved in running a dealership. 

A business degree is a bit like research in the writing world.  It gives a basis of understanding.  It teaches you the facts.  And it leaves you ill prepared to tackle a dealership on your own.  Some things just need to be experienced to be learned.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen discussion in the cybersphere regarding experience versus research.  In the writing world, it is often said, “Write what you know.”  The flipside of that argument is, “Write what you are passionate about.”

Just Jemi asked a valid question on her blog the other day: Are fearful people better horror writers because they KNOW fear?

Regarding tragic stories: Can we effectively portray a character and situation if we have not lived through the tragedy ourselves?

What about disabilities or prejudice or chronic illnesses?  Can writers write authentically without experiencing these things first hand?

I’ve thought long and hard over these questions and have concluded that this is not really a black and white issue.  It is not a matter of running a dealership with a business degree and no experience/passion or running it with all experience and no formal education. 

It is not knowledge versus passion.

Sometimes research/knowledge is sufficient–if it goes beyond google and wiki.  Want to know what it’s like to be blind?  Strap on a blindfold the second you wake up and don’t take it off until you’re in bed for the night.  This can give you the teeny, tiniest taste of being visually impaired. 

Fear?  No amount of research, in my mind, can allow a writer to truthfully write about fear.  “Her heart raced.”  Ugh.  Of course it did.  The physical aspect can be researched until the second coming of Christ.  But until someone has smelled their own sour sweat, felt that trickle of urine as it ran down their legs or tried to reason through the irrational to no avail, a writer will never accurately portray fear on paper.  They will lose the voice of authenticity and come off sounding crass and condescending.

Other topics are a matter of degree.  Does a writer have to be raped to understand the feelings of fear, guilt, shame and hatred that follow a sexual assault?  I don’t think so.  Being the victim of inappropriate touch is enough to elicit those same feelings.  Careful research can do the rest.

And sometimes, the closer a writer is to the topic, the more poorly they write about it.  They have no distance and can’t separate themselves from their writing.  Their stories become agendas.  Conversely, a lack of passion for a topic comes off like a bad blind date.  Everyone is uncomfortable and can’t wait to bail.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that balance is the key and every topic requires a different approach.  The best writing is a combination of research, experience and passion.  Compassion and empathy can go a long way if writers care about their topics.  When paired with solid research, the story thrives. 

A business degree doth not a manager make.  Rather, it enhances the experiences employees bring to the dealership.  In writing, research enhances the knowledge, passion and experience a writer brings to the project.  Without both, we will fail to grasp the nuances that can make or break our bottom line.

The Word from the Woods: Write what you know AND are passionate about.  Use research to strenghthen your experiences, not to bypass them altogether. 

Okay, I’ve blathered on about my opion.  What’s yours?

Research Beyond the Net–Way Beyond

Last night I had the Mac Daddy of all dreams.  That’s saying something because I dream often, I dream vividly, and my dreams are almost always off the wall.

Suffice it to say I slipped a mouse into my son’s overalls.  How he ended up one again eludes me, as does the exact reason for dropping a rodent into his drawers.  Except, it was on an editor’s request.  For some reason Editor felt it would be best if someone found out what would happen–before he accepted my manuscript. 

Apparently it had something to do with the novel I had pitched, though I swear I’ve never written about a mouse in someone’s pants.  Needless to say, a short time later, a very disheveled little field mouse tumbled out of Son’s bibs.  According to the idea behind the project, this was an epic fail, and I faced telling Editor the bad news.

I promise you, getting rejected in your dreams is no easier than getting rejected in real life.  Even for a reason as stupid as the mouse not staying put long enough. 

But I digress…

In terms of research, even a novel must be factually based.  For my fantasy-and I use the term very loosly-chapter book, I had to research ships for  my pirate family.  For my middle grade camp tale, I had to know how many kids played on a soccer team and what year root beer was first made.  I even researched how long it takes to start puking after sipping syrup of ipecac for my YA. 

I wanted to try it myself, just to know, but I truly feared the gut-wrenching stories I read about.  Note to self, syrup of ipecac is nah-sty.

My current WIP called on me to test color-making on paper using natural ingredients.  I spent an entire day smearing flowers and rocks, weeds and sticks, pork chops and grapefruit onto the paper to get reds, purples, yellows, greens and browns. 

So, my question is this: how far do you go to research your novels? 

Would you drop a mouse in your kid’s drawers?  Would you throw back a mouthful of Pop Rocks and swig soda just to see if it really explodes?  Have you cooked odd recipes for your historical fiction just to describe the taste and smell?

What is the craziest thing you’ve researched for your writing?  Did it turn out the way you thought it would?

I’ll take one agent with a side of fries…

Shopping for agents and editors is a bit like going out to eat.

There’s the fast food method where purchases are made at the drive-thru based on a picture menu and a price.  I would equate this to a random search on the internet or a bound writer’s market of some kind. 

These are impulse buys at a time when we are rushed and excited and don’t really consider the fine points of an agency or publishing house.  We see something appealing (instant gratification) and subsequently spend our money on heart, not nutrition. 

Sadly, there are too many unreputable individuals in the publishing industry for us to make informed choices at the window.  Often, we choose poorly and end up paying for it in loss of rights, poor representation, or worse yet, being swindled out of our hard-earned money on services that reputable agents and editors do not charge for.

Next we have the smorgasboard buffet purchase where we can physically see and smell the goods rather than relying on a facsimile at the window.  Is the lettuce as crisp as it looks?  Is the pizza topped with one pepperoni in real life or the twenty-seven it shows on the menu?  Does it smell appetizing or greasy? 

Another advantage of walking through the buffet is the ability to see who else is eating there.  If everyone in the room weighs 700 pounds and is dressed in thread-bare clothes, we may consider that the food isn’t healthy or cheap.

If, on the other hand, the customers range from the beautifully dressed and svelt to the Average Joe in a pair of working blue jeans, it may indicate a balance between health and the price tag.

The problem with buffet submissions is that we often waste oddles of time.  Ours and agents.  Not everyone on the buffet will be into our type of story.  However, the temptation to sample everyone is strong and we end up querying our picture books to hard-core sci-fi agencies.  This benefits no one and frustrates everyone. 

Buffet queries often get returned as form rejections.  Submitting in this fashion is a matter of quantity and the return is iffy.  Some writers mass mail up to fifty agents or editors at a time.  If it’s a number’s game, they figure, eventually it will pay off. 

I don’t roll that way.  Instead, I prefer quality over quantity.  This would be the equivalent of finding the right restaraunt to take your beloved to on your first wedding anniversary.  Classy, good reviews, excellent food, specialized. 

This is the kind of agent I want. 

I want to know who I’m submitting to and why.  I want a track record, stellar word-of-mouth, good connections and experience in my genre.  If an offer for representation comes in, I want to say yes without scrambling to see if there is a “better” agent available. 

 So how do we find the five star agents?  The same way we find the five star food joints.  We research.  We speak with others who have worked with them.  We check out books they have repped or published to determine how our manuscript fits their tastes or needs.  We become selective in our search and submission process.

Resources to aid your seach:

  1. A market guide such as Writer’s Market.  There are choices besides the Writer’s Digest based books and can be found in print and online.  These are great starting points in my search. 
  2. Preditors and Editors: a low down on who’s got the goods and who doesn’t in the publishing arena.  If your initial targets score poorly here, it may be time to cross them off your list.  Another resource is Writer Beware. 
  3. Websites geared toward helping authors and agents connect.  Agent Query is incredible.  Query Tracker is spoken highly of in my writing communities in regards to helping writers pinpoint potential markets for their manuscripts. 
  4. Writing organizations that provide a sense of community.  On or offline organizations can be found.  I belong to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.  They provide timely and accurate information as well as many opportunities for writers of juvenile literature.
  5. Other blogs or websites that cater to the emerging writer and provide well-rounded advice and recommendations.  They can be found everywhere.  Howevever, pay attention to the author of such blogs and sites.  What do they have to gain by providing their POV?  Writer Beware has a section on blogs.
  6. Agent or Publishing House websites.  Be specific in your research.  What do they want and how do they want it?  Their home site should always trump printed info.
  7. Conferences: track down your top choices and see if they’re speaking.  Meeting agents or editors personally can go a long way in understanding their visions and whether you’ll click with them or not.  Editors and agents also give far more specific insight into their tastes and wants than you can find elsewhere.

Consider all the time you spent writing and revising your manuscript.  Do you really want to order a side of fries and a milk shake?  Or do you want to wow your beloved with a prime-rib dinner in a quaint atmosphere?   My advice: 

Seek quality agents and editors to handle your baby.  Don’t just pass it off to the assistant at the drive-thru window.

What’s your advice on finding an agent or editor?  Have you shopped in the wrong place before?  If so, what tips can you provide to help others from making your mistakes?