Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Research Your Topic, Setting and Characters

Factual details add depth to every short story and novel, especially in terms of plot (killing a character in a murder mystery) physical location (the names of streets for a chase scene in Rome), activities performed by your characters (the equipment required to scuba dive in Norway compared to snorkeling in the Bahamas) and character descriptions.

Good research makes your story more believable because the author presents verifiable facts, interweaving “what if?” scenarios and implausible actions in a logical format. While some of these details can come from the author’s personal experience, it never hurts to perform additional research.
Internet search engines such as Google, Bing, Ask, Yahoo and others are all excellent sources of information, especially when researching specific topics.

Check news sites for stories on your topic of choice. For example, a search for the Zika virus had more than 44 million matches on Google alone.

In the pre-internet days, authors used libraries and books for research. While many people consider libraries and paper books obsolete and outdated in today’s technological world, books are still a very valuable resource.

For example, let’s assume you are writing a murder mystery. You want to have a victim die of poison, but not something exotic. Your villain needs to be able to whip up a deadly dose using common kitchen items. Where can you find a resource that helps you concoct just such a poison?

One answer is Deadly Doses: a writer’s guide to poisons. Part of the Howdunit Series of non-fiction books (currently 17 books) by experts in their fields, Deadly Doses was written by Serita Stevens and Anne Klarner. One online review of Deadly Doses is, “This book goes into detail about various poisons, the ease of access in obtaining them, and everything else that would help to explain why a character would choose a certain poison.”

Look hard enough and you can find answers to most of your questions. Can food crops grow in Martian soil? Andy Weir, author of The Martian, did his technology research.

Good authors take copious notes, copy web page links or both. When they get to a section where they need to describe a product or past event, they can look it up. This author uses two monitors: one for writing and one for research.

Another great research tool is Google Earth. Do you want to describe a foreign land without paying a fortune to visit it, or clutter a table with paper maps? Google has a free version for casual research and a fee-based pro version that uses data layers.

Authors can also use research to determine a character’s appearance. Novelists can get sued for libel and defamation of character by describing an individual too closely. For example, describing an ex-spouse or friend to the level of detail where that person could reasonably assume the author was writing about them—even with a different name—could get the author sued.

A vivid imagination lets you determine what kinds of personality traits the character might and have what kinds of experiences they went through to become the person they are. Research allows the author to describe physical characteristics (e.g., scars, tattoos, eye color, hair color, etc.) can be associated with those traits.

A method I use during the writing and rewriting processes is asking questions. A heroine sees she is about to be attacked by a mugger in park. How can she defend herself? The author can include some references to moves common in karate or tae kwon do to ensure the moves seem real.

The more accurate your research, the more real and enjoyable your book becomes to your reader, Believable descriptions make a huge difference in generating positive reviews, which translates into sales.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Critical Steps in Writing a Publishable Book

Note: Blog titles and links to the posts will appear when each section is written.
Please leave a comment for the author with any  comments, ideas or suggestions for future posts.

Blog Title
Perform market research.
If you…
find a market for your idea
·         write your story.
·         go to step 2.
do not find a market for your idea
·         revise the idea until you find one that is in demand.
·         go to step 2.
Research your topic.
Write the first draft.

Perform steps 1 and 2 for a second story.

Revise your first story’s first draft.
Repeat several times.

Submit the story to test “beta” readers for comments, ideas, suggestions and general feedback.
If the reader feedback is…
go to step 7.
·      review your story paying particular attention to suggestions on how to improve it.
·      revise your story.

Submit a query letter to a publisher.
Note: Submit to one publisher at a time since most publishers do not allow simultaneous submissions.
If the query feedback is…
·      submit the complete manuscript.
·      go to step 8.
·      revise your story paying particular attention to suggestions on how to improve it.
·      submit the revised version to a different publisher.

Determine if the publisher offers you a contract.
If the publisher feedback is…
·         work with your assigned editor until the book is published.
·         Go to How to Market Your First Book (not yet created).
·         revise your story paying particular attention to suggestions on how to improve it.
·         submit the revised version to a different publisher.

Step #1: Research Potential Publishers

Many people have these ideas and think, “Hey, this would make a great story. I’ll sit down and write a novel. People will love it, they will buy it and I can ride my idea to fame and fortune.”
Unfortunately, though, the odds are heavily stacked against Joe or Jane Average becoming a published novelist, let alone a successful one.
Using hard work and a method I’m sharing in a series of blog posts, I managed to beat the odds and have a publishing company pick up my first novel. Love Comes With a Leash is now available at Liquid Silver Books.
There are a lot of obstacles authors tend to place in their own paths, plus pitfalls that can doom even the best intentions. With that warning in mind, an author’s first step after they have an idea is to research the market for it.
Marketing professionals will tell anyone willing to listen that good companies look to see what already exists before they decide what products to produce. There is no sense spending the time and money required to bring a product to market if the market is already flooded with similar products.
A critical point in marketing is positioning your product so it can succeed, not fail. The best way to do that from a potential author’s perspective is to examine publishers’ writing guidelines before you start.
For example, Karen Fox has a detailed list of Romance Publishers on her website.
Read the comments as a starting point before following a link to the publisher’s guidelines.
·         Some publishers only accept stories from established literary agents representing authors that have a proven track record of above-average sales. Skip these publishers until you have several books published.
·         Concentrate on publishers willing to accept unsolicited manuscripts since your first book will likely fall in that category.
Examine several website for notes, hints and guidelines in terms of what each publisher will consider or reject outright. Avon Romance is a good starting point. Liquid Silver Books is another.
Common comments include preferred genres (Steam Punk, Historical Romances), minimum and maximum lengths (in words), types of language, situations to concentrate on (super sexy heroes or heroines) and situations to avoid (anything remotely resembling rape when used for titillation).
Examine the FAQ (frequently asked questions) sections. Here you can find questions you might ask when submitting your book.
Taking notes will help you decide where to eventually submit manuscript and which publishers to avoid.
Only after you complete the publisher research does it make sense to research your topic and eventually start writing.
 Author’s Note: I am a Certified Technical Writer, former weekly newspaper editor and now published author of Love Comes With a Leash.

Commonalities Between Technical Writing and Fiction

At first glance, technical writing and fiction have nothing in common beyond being documents Technical writing is frequently about process steps: how to get from here to there. Fiction is a story from the author's imagination.

Ah, but fiction stories also have a starting point and an end, just like technical writing. Even serial stories generally come to a conclusion at the end of each story, though they leave the door open for more to come.

First-time fiction writers can learn a few techniques from technical writing that can improve the quality and appeal of their stories, simply by applying a similar logical, methodical process to their stories.

Start by looking at process technical documentation. This form of writing generally uses a Step-Action table listing a series of steps, many of which contain multiple actions. A common single step in a Step-Action table document includes:

  • The first sentence, known as a "stem" sentence, which introduces the reader to the action.
  • Level one bullet points list what actions to take. A single action is not bulleted; two or more actions are.
  • Level two bullet points provide additional details related to the level one bullet point directly above. Not all level one bullets contain level two bullets but all level two bullets must be preceded by a level one bullet
  • Notes provide additional clarification for a bullet point but do not require action on the reader's part.
Some process steps within a Step-Action table include embedded tables such as "If... Then...",  "Step, Who... Does What..." or lists of terms and definitions or actions.

Embedded tables contain at least two rows since they list actions and a single action is not a list. For example, an "If this... Then..." table has different responses for each action. If the answer is...  Yes, Then... take this action. If the answer is... No, Then... take this different action.

So how does this method apply to fiction?

Consider the example of a hero responding to a phone call for help from a friend. The stem sentence is, "Harry, I need to your help, right now," one character says in the story. That creates a starting point. The end point is the hero delivering (or failing to deliver) the aid.

Level one bullet points, but written in paragraph style, are:

  • How is the request for help sent? Is it a voice call on a cellphone phone, a text message, an email or a blood curdling scream heard through an open window?
  • How does the hero or heroine get from the current location to the victim's? Does the hero run, take a private car, use a taxi, jump on a bus, or fly?

Level two bullet points could be descriptions of the vehicle used to get from one spot to another. For example, "She ran down to the street, and jumped into her older, bashed, rusting but still powerful Ford Mustang before laying a streak of rubber on the asphalt while tearing off to the rescue.

An "If... Then..." moment could refer to a decision the hero has to make on the route they use to drive to the victim. For example, "Cheri thought, "do I take Broadway, which is likely to be jammed with traffic right now, or the back way through the bad part of town, which I never use?"

These are just some examples of applying technical writing to fiction. Keeping these non-fiction techniques in mind while writing fiction allows novelists and short story writers to keep readers engaged using believable plots and action sequences.

Note: David B. Reynolds is a Certified Technical Writer and author of Love Comes With a Leash, available now through Liquid Silver Books