How to Improve the Details in Your Novel.

Old photo I took of mushrooms growing in the forest. Timely? I think not.

Old photo I took of mushrooms growing in the forest. Timely? I think not.

I have a guilty pleasure. I love to sit in the park, in the mall, whatever, with a coffee, and watch people go about their business. I started doing this a whole long time ago, around when I was ten or eleven–mostly because my mom, bless her heart, fights a mental illness that often gave me mixed signals.

My other guilty pleasure? Training myself to study details so I might incorporate the proper amount of focus to my novel. I don’t just refer to the main character, or secondary characters, or whatever: even if your MC doesn’t know how to skin a deer, or whatever, you should, especially if you’ve got a buck hanging by its ankles in the backyard of your MC’s friend’s house. Now, while that buck might seem like a ton of extra work you don’t have time for (or even interest in), it fleshes your secondary characters out. Period. And that kind of insight, or information, is reading gold for people like me, who want characters that exist.

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Why I Read, As a Writer

Again... I've read all of these. Not really.

Again… I’ve read all of these. Not really.

This’ll be a short post. As a writer, and as a seasoned critic (well seasoned. Old Bay is my favorite), I’m constantly fighting a tug-of-war battle with reading and writing and other forms of research. We all have jobs. We all have passions outside our jobs. And we all love to write (or want to love to write). It’s not easy for me to read for long lengths of time, mostly because I have so many other things going on (like diligently testing new video games as they come out. haha I could manage my time better).

The good news is I take as well as I give, and although I’m a pretty hard critiquer, I’m not a jerk. I’m actually a really nice guy. So, every writer should read. It’s powerfully important. Why SHOULD I be reading?

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The Importance of Proper Research (In the Age of Instant Gratification)

I've read all of these. Not really.

I’ve read all of these. Not really.

I went to college for writing, for English, and for words. I. Love. Words. I love to write. I love to read. The world is a fascinating place. There’s so much info out there it’s scary. YET I was terrible at writing a research paper because I didn’t understand how to properly research. I thought a quick scan was “good enough.” I still do. It’s an art to write good research papers.

I do not reference this idea in this blog post: MLA format, Chicago format, quotes vs. italics vs. underline, not in this post. I refer to researching for knowledge and not for publishable content (although this gives me a wonderful idea for a future blog post).

With the encapsulation of so much infotainment in the media, so much of what I call “instant research,” there’s a whole hell of a lot of information being lost in the annals of the internet.

I’ll explain why instant research is killing the writing community:

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Research!

I had a run-in with AT&T customer service last night. Since getting service with them, three years ago, I’ve logged about 30 hours of talk time with their tech support line. The details are unimportant to this story, so suffice to say they made a lot of mistakes with my service, and are still fixing them. Yet last night, while I was on the phone with them, I realized that, given all the time working with my outdated, unserviceable 2Wire modem/router, I actually knew more about what was going wrong with the piece than the person on the other side of the line. I know a lot of people “know better” than the expert, but in this situation I genuinely believe I knew more about it than she did, and diverted spending 100’s of dollars to do so.

This isn’t about bashing AT&T. It’s about research. Anecdotal evidence over, I now move on to the moral of this story. Learn as much as you can about something. About everything. In this world of technical advances, social networking and computer programming, you don’t need to be an expert to be knowledgeable. The computer is this generation’s muscle car.

Kinda. /adjusts nerd glasses

I’m not talking about disregarding specialists such as (writer alert!) cover artist, jacket construction, and graphics printing for your work. I’m talking about understanding everything it is you do, even if it’s just lame router work.

I put in the time to learn and understand all I could about my 2Wire with AT&T. I even went to Radio Shack and Best Buy to check out alternatives. In the end, I saved a lot of money by being smart about it. Just like going to a mechanic and spending 500 bucks on a refurbished starter (almost did this), having a working knowledge of what you’re messing with is a godsend.

This extends everywhere, but particularly to writing: people-watching (a common topic in this blog), studying unique “commonplace” situations at work (like, I dunno, how Dick’s Sporting Goods store policy is to wave at a shoplifter walking out the door than actually try to stop him, for instance), and of course researching weak areas in your understanding of what some of your characters do: a runner sometimes has achy knees. A demonologist is an actual profession, and not just a hobby, if you know how to market yourself. UHaul doesn’t always have trucks available for moving. Etc.

You’d think this is obvious, but I know of too many writers, friends, coworkers that truly don’t give two cents about what’s going on around them. They simply let it happen and are none-the-wiser for it. In the fifteen, sixteen, seventeen hundreds, the educated were truly brilliant people: an average intellect, back then, would put most intellects today to shame. They were worldly people. I’m not saying to try to be a scholar, but at least learn as much as you can about a topic. I see no downside to this way of working. Unless you’re OCD, ADD/ADHD or some other adventurous type, and prefer to stay away from it.

This is my inner Republican talking, I guess, but the more you suffer through, and the more self-sufficient you are, the more successful you’ll be, whether you’re a roofer, an engineer, or a writer.

~x

P.S. I might be offline for a week or three, because I’m moving to StL and am doing so by the seat of my pants.