10 Mistakes SFF Writers Make With Research

Research, hate it or love it, is something every speculative fiction writer must deal with at one time or another. Most deal with it often. Research is an easy thing to neglect for many reasons. Above all, it’s usually less fun than writing and creating and it’s time consuming. Still, research is necessary. Here are ten mistakes writers make with research. Consider the costs of making them yourself.

1) Skipping the research. I don’t need no stinking research. Mistake number one. You may be able to fudge some things, especially in science fiction stories set in worlds far distant from our own, for example, but in your historical fantasy, your contemporary urban fantasy or your medieval epic fantasy, you’d better know the facts. If you don’t, readers will and they’ll be unhappy you didn’t care enough to make sure you did. In any world building or story crafting where facts and details readers could know or research are required, research it yourself. Know what you’re talking about. That’s usually impossible without research.

2) Relying on novels by other genre writers. How do you know Terry Goodkind or Patrick Rothfuss got it right? Where did they get their facts? People make up inaccurate facts all the time and write them into their novels. (I am not saying Goodkind and Rothfuss did. I have no such examples. Just using them as examples.) There’s nothing worse for fantasy fans than reading another stereotypical novel set in a stereotypical fantasy world that gets it wrong. Don’t trust anyone but yourself to do the research and do it well, unless you can afford to pay a research assistant, in which case, be sure and hire a trustworthy one.

3) Using only one source. How do you verify facts? Check them against multiple sources. Don’t assume the source you are using has it all right. Check their facts against other sources. The internet is a great resource as are libraries. You can find multiple resources on almost any topic you’d want to research. So make use of that and be sure you’ve got it right.

4) Researching only when and what they have to. To a degree, you only need research for a science in your science fiction, so to speak. But that doesn’t mean you should stop there. How do you know your world makes sense geographically? How do you know the dietary patterns and plants you place in various locations are correct for the climate or environment? Who cares? Informed readers, that’s who, and all it takes is one to blow the whistle and cause other readers to doubt you. Once they doubt you, they have trouble trusting the stories you tell and if they can’t suspend disbelief, your science fiction and fantasy can’t succeed very well. So research details whenever you can. Even if you’re not sure they’re important. This doesn’t mean you need to research every word, of course, but play detective and ask yourself what you can research to make your story better and more skeptic-proof and true to life and then get busy.

5) Using questionable sources. Just as one source may or may not be reliable, the validity of any source must be verified. A good sign is when you use sources commonly used by many other people. You can also check data about the author and publisher. And you can find reviews and evaluations as well. There are many ways to check the sources, even comparing them to other respected sources to see how they compare. If you find one source that says “it happened like this,” and no other source agrees, perhaps that little factoid might not be the best one to put in your story.

6) Thinking every iota of research must be in the novel. Info dump and listen for the thump as readers drop your book on the floor. They may never pick it back up again, either, so don’t make this mistake. In world building, you have to know everything but your readers don’t. Neither do your characters.  Include what’s necessary to tell the story and make the world come alive and leave the rest for a sequel or your files. The point of researching wasn’t to add fluff to your novel but knowledge to your head. The more you know, the smarter you write. And smart writers don’t info dump.

7) Making stuff up without checking. Making something up is part of fiction writing, yes, I get that. But if you make something up which actually exists and the facts are wrong, you’ll look foolish. And nothing turns off a reader more. Make sure that things you invent don’t exist before you put them in your story and make up facts or science to explain them.

8 ) Including research that’s hard to understand. Just because you understand it, doesn’t mean your reader will. If you think the story needs it, make sure the research is explained well when you write it in. Quoting scientific jargon from your sources is one way to blow it. Put it in simple, every day language so readers of all backgrounds will get it. Include only what’s necessary and forget the rest. Tom Clancy used to spend page after page describing weapons in intimate detail. If his books hadn’t been so compelling, readers would have left. Instead, they just jumped ahead. His books sold, so he kept doing it, but unless you’re a bestseller, don’t count on getting away with it. Explain it simply, fast and well, then move on. It’s the same as anything else in your prose, communicating with the reader is the goal. If you don’t do it well, your work won’t succeed. So first, make sure you understand it well before you write it, then write it as if you’re explaining it to a child.

9) Underestimating readers’ expectations. A lot depends on the genre and subgenre, of course. Space opera fans and hard SF fans have different expectations. But don’t make the mistake of assuming since you don’t know, readers won’t either. I struggle with this myself. Research is one of my least favorite past times, but when someone comes along who knows better, the illusion is blown and it can turn off fans and readers in droves once word spreads. Take the time to be informed so you can inform your readers. Assumption is the mother of all screw ups, they say. Don’t assume your readers aren’t smarter or more informed than you are. Most often they are.

10) Rushing through research. As the other 9 points prove, research takes time. Just like writing prose does. While you probably shouldn’t include time spent researching toward your writing word count goals, you should set aside quality time for research. How much you need depends on what you’re researching, how much you already know about it, the subgenre, genre, and many other factors. But research, when done, should be done right, like anything else. It’s an element of craft and quality writing as with anything else done to complete your novel. Treat it accordingly and don’t rush it. Research is just as much a part of the writing job as creating prose and thinking up ideas are.

Well, there’s ten common mistakes speculative fiction writers make in regards to research. I’m guilty. What about you? And do you have other suggestions? I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.

‎3 5-star & 8 4-star reviews THE WORKER PRINCE $3.99 Kindlehttp://amzn.to/pnxaNm or Nook http://bit.ly/ni9OFh $14.99 tpb http://bit.ly/qIJCkS.

Excerpt: Chapter One – The Relic Of Aken–My Sword & Sorcery WIP

Ordinarily I wouldn’t share something so early on but since this is a teaching blog, I thought it might be interesting to post an early chapter of this work in progress, a sword and sorcery book, and then perhaps look at it later when it’s published or at least further along. So for what it’s worth, here’s Chapter One (1st draft with a few polishes) of my sword and sorcery novel in progress The Relic Of Aken:

Chapter One:
Thieves

Bel made his way through the crowded market ignoring the stares. Father just had to send him to the market on traveler’s day. He could pretend it was the sight of someone like him in the brown monk’s cloak, but he knew better. The Degan locals were used to seeing him, a towering figure with greenish skin, slightly pointed ears and canine tusks protruding above his lower lip on each side. “Beast” was a word he’d often heard used to describe himself. “Sub-human” and “Perversion” were others. He had to be careful not to seem brutish. It wasn’t easy for a person his size to move through tight spaces packed with stalls and people without bumping into others, and, with his size and strength, even the slightest bump could leave a bruise. The gods had cursed him from birth, he figured.

He focused his attention back toward where he’d last seen Holly. The short human girl’s ability to easily blend into any crowd was a liability here. If it weren’t for Bel’s height, he’d never have been able to track her movements. She moved way too quickly. The smell of human sweat mixed with animal droppings, leather, fresh meats and dust. It was a smell locked into his memory, one he detected blocks ahead, every time he drew near the market.

A red-haired human head bobbed ahead as it ducked under a large basket being carried between them by two fat human males. As she returned to normal height beyond them, Holly glanced back and their eyes met. She smiled. Who’d have ever thought a human girl and a half-orc could be best friends? The warmth in her green eyes melted the tension of his frustration. She stopped and waited for him.

He weaved past a man arguing animatedly with a young cock-eyed vendor, then arced around a wagon where other humans were unloading fresh, round melons into a stall and joined his friend.

“Try and keep up, will you?”

Bel snarled at her. “Try being my size in a place like this.”

Holly laughed. “Just roar and they’ll clear the way.”

“Father instructed me to avoid drawing attention to myself.” The way the old priest said it had been more like an order.

Holly rolled her eyes. “Where’s the fun in that?” Then she was off again, leaving Bel with the same quandary as he hurried to keep up.

Pale skinned, with hair down past her waist, Hollyanna was beautiful by human standards. Bel had heard boys outside the monastery talking about her many times. Sweet as a fresh picked grape, the apprentice blacksmith had befriended him from the week he arrived at the monastery. It had been her more than anyone else who’d taught him how to feel at home amongst humans. He wouldn’t have survived without her playful guidance and cheerful encouragement. They’d become fast friends and spent every spare moment they could together. Bel often wondered if it was his presence alone which had kept her from having many suitors. She never groused about it but he imagined she got lonely. After all, many other girls her age were married or betrothed and Holly was the best pick in the entire village.

He heard a grunt and stopped as he bumped something soft, looking down into Holly’s crossed eyes. “Uh, pay attention. I’m standing here.”

“Sorry.”

“What are you so busy thinking about that you’d run me over like that?”

Bel shrugged. “Fresh grapes.”

Holly’s mouth twisted as it always did when she was sure she’d heard a lie. “You’re hungry already? Gertie stuffed us before we left. You really need to shrunk that orcan stomach of yours.”

From anyone else, Bel would have regarded it as an insult. But Holly accepted him for who he is and her honesty was one of the things he treasured about their relationship. Other than Father, she was one of the only humans with guts enough to speak honestly to him.

“How much further? Are we sightseeing or shopping?” he cocked his head so he could roll his eyes upward as he looked at her.

She laughed. “I’m scoping the best prices, Bel.”

“You haven’t spoken to anyone but me that I’ve seen.”

“I don’t need to. I have acute powers of observation.” She grinned and turned abruptly down a narrow corridor between stalls.

Bel followed, drawing immediate ire from vendors as their tents vibrated every time his shoulders rubbed against the overhanging tarps forming their roofs. Hanging fruits thumped softly, seashell necklaces jangled, and crystal strands twisted as he made his way through.

“Your short cuts are not meant for half-orcs,” he commented as he stopped at a stall beside Holly. He recognized it as one they’d passed earlier on their way into the market.

“You made it, didn’t you? Just relax and let me negotiate so we can go home.”

As soon as the vendor’s eyes met hers, she was off to bargaining. Every item he showed her was the finest quality, he said. Nothing satisfied her expectations though. Bel chuckled to himself as he watched the vendor’s face redden with rising irritation.

Three young human males nearby stared and chattered, but their eyes were focused on Holly not him. She’d taken off her leather smithing apron before they’d left and was dressed in brown c otton pants that stretched tightly over her waist and thighs and a loose, low cut blouse which showed more flesh than Bel remembered seeing before. Was she trying to draw attention? He stepped forward a foot and glared at the boys, who quickly disappeared to busy themselves with other tasks.

Okay, so he didn’t want her lonely but that didn’t mean just anyone was good enough for his best friend.

In a few moments, she’d purchased several herbs and potions and began winding her way back through the crowded masses. This time, Bel stayed close on her heels.

“You didn’t have to scare them off,” she said as they left the last row of stalls and moved along the wider, less crowded cobblestone street which led to the stables.

“Who?” A glance told him she’d meant the boys. “They were young and derelict. You deserve better.”

“It’s not like I’ve got men pounding down the shop doors, Bel. It wouldn’t have hurt to let them admire me.”

“Father sent me to protect you. I was obeying his wishes.”

She leaned over and punched him hard in the arm. “From danger, not harmless stares.”

“Staring’s how all the danger begins.”

They turned a corner and Bel saw two men in the shadows watching a store across the street. A woman appeared, dressed frilly from head to toe, beautiful white lace decorating every curve and junction of her very expensive dress and hat. She carried a large bag draped over one arm as she hurried across the street toward an alley near where the men were waiting.

“Someone’s about to prove me right right now,” Bel said as his eyes turned back to the two human males. They were about to do something very stupid, he knew the signs.

Moments later, as the woman entered the alley, oblivious to their presence a few feet away in the shadows, they slipped in after her and Bel quickened his pace.

“Where are you going?” Holly sounded annoyed. “We’ve got to get back in time for lunch or Krell will never let me hear the end of it.”

A scream came from the alley, and Bel ignored her and raced forward through the shadows the two men had just vacated.

Entering the alley, he saw the woman backed against a wall, her pale face even whiter as her brown eyes widened with fear.

“Give us the bag!” A hairy bulk of a man said as he skinny, taller companion grinned lasciviously at her.

“He can have the bag. I want more!”

The bulky man tore the bag free of her grasp as his friend lunged, ripping the dress with a loud snap as the woman screamed again.

Bel let the roar rise from deep within, a soft rumble at first that soon rivaled a clap of thunder. Both men spun, startled, as the woman’s scream loudened at the sight of Bel.

“Leave her be!” Bel growled it.

The men’s eyes widened and the bulky one both dropped the bag as they bumped into each other trying to get away from the woman and take off down the alley away from him. Their footsteps pounded the cobblestones, dust flying with every step.

Bel turned to the woman, trying to soften his eyes. “Stay here. I’ll be back for you.” The woman’s eyes widened again and she screamed as Bel raced off after the two men.

His own boots boomed on the street as he turned a corner, closing on the men. The bulky one glanced back, panting. He was slower and clearly less in shape than his companion. Both were dressed like farmhands, worn wool pants and pull over shirts stained with the dirt of their labors, now turning steadily to mud from their sweat.

“Hurry!” the skinny one mumbled as he lead the way into another alley across the street.

The bulky man squealed as Bel’s large hand wrapped around his neck and ripped him off his feet and over the half-orc’s shoulder.

“Struggle and I’ll toss you like a catapult,” Bel warned as he continued running forward after the skinnier man.

The bulky man fell quiet, except for a few whimpers each time Bel’s running stride jostled him against muscled shoulders.

The skinny man turned a corner and stopped, puzzled. Bel hurried toward him and the man spun, running back straight at them, a knife appearing in his hand. The blade was long but looked worn and dull, having no shine.

“Stop! Now!”

The skinny man waved the knife. “Let me go, orc, or I’ll hurt you good.”

Bel could smell the alcohol on his breath from several feet away. The stench just strengthened as he approached. “Go ahead. It’ll appease my guilt if I have to kill you.”

The man growled and swung the knife in a wide arc. Bel pounded a boot hard on the pavement, sending vibrations through the cobblestones and causing the human to lose his balance. He swung an arm straight forward, intercepting the swing ing arm at the wrist and twisting. The man cried out in agony as the knife dropped, clanging against the stones of the street.

“This is a human town! Your kind are unwelcome here!” The skinny man screamed it as Bel yanked him off his feet and swung him over the opposite shoulder from his bulky friend.

“Shut up or I’ll make you do it.”

“She stole from us! We were just getting it back!”

The bulky man mumbled in agreement.

With one motion, Bel yanked them off his shoulders and sent them hurling to the street. They landed side by side in a pile of refuse, heads banging against the stones, leaving them dazed.

“I warned you.” He grabbed them again, this time encountering no resistance and swung them back over his shoulders, carrying them back the way he’d come.

“I thought Father instructed you to resist your violent tendencies.” Holly was in the street, waiting, her arm around the crying woman, offering what comfort she could.

“They started it,” he said with a shrug.

“Let’s get them to the authorities and get on our way then, okay?”

Bel nodded and followed as she led the way.


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog. His second novel, The Returning, sequel to The Worker Prince, is forthcoming in Summer 2012.

3 5-star & 6 4-star reviews THE WORKER PRINCE $3.99 Kindlehttp://amzn.to/pnxaNm or Nook http://bit.ly/ni9OFh$14.99 tpbhttp://bit.ly/qIJCkS

Self-Publishing v. Traditional Publishing: Why Quality Still Matters

On my Facebook page, the other day, I lamented the fact that lost in the present debate over PC terminology surrounding the Self-Publishing v. Traditional Publishing debate are some good points about contracts, quality and other concerns. This led to a discussion between fellow author David Boop and I about what distinguishes good from bad and the key element mentioned was editing. Self-Publishing authors, even Print On Demand presses, who do not approach publishing with the same professionalism as traditionally published pros in regards to edited, polished presentation of their work are the ones who tend to cause both readers and fellow authors a lot of frustration and concern. Of course, editing standards and taste do vary, so people might still find nitpicky complaints, but at least the polish and shine would be evident and the resulting works would meet a higher standard more comparable with other items you see coming out of more traditional presses.

But then someone jumped in with this comment, which really concerns me:

Regarding SP crap and typos, maybe there is a new day coming. Imagine, as John Lennon said, a world in which new authors are routinely forgiven, not condemned for typos and a few lapses in story development. Instead, readers seek out and find authors who have something new or entertaining to say, not giving a thought to the odd error here or there, because readers understand newcomers have little help, just their native storytelling ability. Don’t forget, it’s really all about readers and what they think these days, not publishers.

The commenter here is a writer and scientist. Although I have not read his work in either area so can’t verify credentials, let’s just take him at his word and instead address what concerns me about the comment. (To be fair, he now says he agrees with me on quality that he did not mean to imply that at all but I am still discussing this because the notion of authors being forgiven for lowered standards still disturbs me. And this quote is verbatim though I shall not name him.)

I hope that era never comes. Quality matters. Professionalism matters. Presentation matters. Grammar matters. Clear communication matters. It’s not just about ideas. It’s about craft. It’s an art. And I don’t believe it will ever cease to be an art nor should it. There will always be discerning readers and undiscerning readers. But any writer who is not concerned with growing and constantly striving to do better is short changing themselves and their readers both. There will also always be people who don’t care about such things but I hope they remain the minority because the lowest common denominator is no standard I want to work by. Do readers matter? Of course they do. The consumer always matters in a business. But taste is very subjective. And what helps you appeal to the broadest base of consumer has always been putting out consistently quality merchandise onto the market. The day quality stops being a concern because “people don’t care” would be a sad day for the literary arts and would ultimately lead to its destruction. Because the day people stop caring about making quality work is the day we begin to not care how our work engages, challenges, teaches, touches, and interacts with our audience. And the minute you start down that path you aim yourself at a standard which eventually means nothing you produce will be worth consuming.

The commenter’s point was he got ignored by traditional presses, self-published, got Hollywood interest and success so who needs them. My point back was that he’s an exception not a rule and one case does not a pattern make. In other words, he got lucky. It doesn’t negate concerns of quality nor the validity of traditional publishing as a route to success. I personally think any author who fails to educate him or herself about the business and every possible option to sell his/her work as well as how to achieve professionalism is playing the fool. If you don’t care enough to make your work the best it can be and to utilize all options to make it available, why should someone else care to go out and find it and spend money on it?

Books have gotten expensive. So have movies. I care very much about where my limited money goes in regards to such entertainment and I think I’m in the majority not the minority on that. If I pay $10 or more to see a movie and it sucks, I get pissed, which is why I don’t go to movie theaters as much any more and when I do go, it’s to matinees because they are cheaper. It’s why I don’t buy unknown hardbacks but instead buy paperbacks because until I know a book is worth adding to a permanent library with investment in a hardback, I am not risking my hard earned money on one. There are authors whose quality I consistently trust. I’ll go straight to hardback with them every time. I have rarely been disappointed. And that just brings me back to quality again. The only reason I know those authors’ work will be quality I can trust in is because they care about professionalism in how they prepare and present their work. I would buy work by any of these authors regardless of the publishing medium–traditional, self-published or POD–because I know their standards for themselves and their work and know that I will be getting a quality product in any of those cases if their name is attached. I won’t have to forgive lots off typos or gaps in story development. Those things won’t exist to distract me from the work itself. (Put aside for a moment the fact that I have yet to buy a single book where I can’t find at least two typos–that’s a lapse in copyediting practices and the nature of the beast rather than a failure to seek quality. And editing is far more than just grammar and typos–eliminating cliches, knowing tropes, positioning a book within the genre or market–there are so many factors an editor can bring to awareness and help polish).

I don’t buy the argument that newcomers have little help and that’s an excuse to put out work that doesn’t meet professional standards. There are editors and others who are available to work with anyone who is willing to invest the time and money to get it right. No one can really say those things are not available to them. They may be too lazy to look for them. They may not care (for more often the case, I fear). But they could achieve professionalism if they really cared about it and wouldn’t necessarily cost them an arm and a leg.

If the day comes when we don’t care about such things, it will be a great loss for all of us and for our society. We will have lost not only an opportunity to achieve greatness in literature (or at least try) but an ability to communicate well. And any society without good communication is doomed to ridicule from other societies which hold higher standards (they will always exist) and from future generations who recognize the failure, the trap it leads to, and how destructive it was. It’s a denigration of our legacy, in a sense. And that’s something I care not to be a part of. So, my commenting friend, I do hope you’re very wrong indeed.

For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming in Summer 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.

‎3 5-star & 8 4-star reviews THE WORKER PRINCE $3.99 Kindlehttp://amzn.to/pnxaNm or Nook http://bit.ly/ni9OFh $14.99 tpb http://bit.ly/qIJCkS.

Thank God For Beta Readers

Working on the sequel to my debut novel has been an interesting experience because of the unique pressures of a) trying to live up to the first novel which was well received enough to sell and generate some buzz from readers of excerpts and b) being a write as I go non-outliner in the midst of an employment crisis and divorce, focus has been hard. I have often felt lost. But I have the good fortune of some smart friends who volunteered to beta read and they have saved me in one very simple way: feedback. First, I deliberately chose three beta readers who had not read the original novel because I wanted to be sure the back story was a) poured out like sand through a tight hourglass and not b) like dropping a huge load of sand off a 747. I wanted to introduce only what was needed when it was needed and avoid the trap many writers struggle with and critics complain about in 2nd books of trilogies. I wanted a book which could stand alone for new readers. The advantage was of new readers was a) getting three creatives who are fans of space opera who can analyze the book on a level some of my non-creative readers couldn’t and b) getting feedback as I write which can help me better shape the book. In the process, they have had to wait for long gaps between chapters, deal with me rewriting earlier stuff to make new stuff work (I frequently just make stuff ut up as I need to to make the story work and go back later to make the other chapters work with that). They have been very patient. But recently I reached a point where I just felt totally lost. Writing the last half of chapter 5 and all of chapter 6, with 7 or 8 being the midpoint of the novel, I just felt like I had it wrong. So I brought in a beta reader from novel 1 and had him go over it. Boy am I glad I did. 1) he assured me right away that it felt like a novel that flowed from the other in style, voice, etc. 2) the characters were developing well and things seemed paced well and 3) he helped me sort out some ideas on story I really need to clarify to keep this thing going. Not only did Chapter 6 come together with a fun 10-page action scene at its close, but I also immediately outlined Chapter 7 which came together with good ideas for the various twists I want to include in the rest of the book. Oh, I don’t know everything that will happen yet, but I know the ending and I know the twists leading there, so the rest should flow. Thank God for betas. Some writers tell me they like to write in a vacuum, letting no one see their work until they’re sure it’s ready. The advantage is the manuscript may have less warts when readers see it, but the disadvantage is, when you’re on you’re on and you’re stuck, it’s all on you. My readers know the final draft will be much better: a) because one of them has seen the progression of book 1 and b) because they are also writers. And as they now all read the final book 1, they’ll realize that I will polish this up and add many nuances and fine details later, right now I just want to get the story down. I also know that I learned from the many drafts on novel 1 and novel 2 won’t, hopefully, require as much work as a result. And I know that they will enjoy rediscovering the book in its final form because other betas have and that’s the joy of publishing–taking a rough cut stone and polishing it into a precious gem. So you may decide you don’t need betas, but I am thankful for mine because they’ve already kept me going when I felt like it wasn’t worth the effort, and they’ve reminded me it’s actually pretty good, in spite of my distracted lack of focus, even when I don’t feel it. That alone is worth the trust I’ve placed in them. For what it’s worth…

It’s here!!!

I couldn’t resist apply my own post on making ARCS in Create Space to create a custom copy of the edited version of my novel. Other than copyedits, this is the version which will be going out soon for blurbs and to reviewers, and ultimately, to you readers. It’s just a good feeling after a crappy, stressful week to hold this in my hand. Very proud of how an idea I had 27 years ago and have worked on since August 2009 to write and polish has turned out and can’t wait to share it with you.

Lessons From Editing

We finished the final edit on my debut novel The Worker Prince today. And while there’s still a road to publication, from sending out ARCS for reviews and blurbs, to racheting up marketing, to copyedits, artwork, etc., it’s a good feeling. This was my first time working through this process with an editor. And I put on hold writing the second book in the series to do it. Am I glad I did.

Amongst things my editors did, besides grammatical corrections and questioning passages for clarity, was to help me bring out nuances and aspects of the characters and story which I had glossed over or failed to exploit fully. This will make the novel richer and more meaningful overall, and it also had the bonus of helping me identify strains which can be exploited in the sequel. Their insights also went to worldbuilding, allowing me to exploit things like terraforming which are appropriate to my world but which I had not specifically touched on. Overall, I know the finished book is a lot stronger than it would have been without their help and I will be forever grateful to Randy Streu, Jen Ambrose and earlier editors Paul Conant and Darlene Oakley for their insights.

I continue to evolve in not just my craft but my approach to writing, and experiences like this only push me to self-examination and discovery of new ways to approach my work. For example, The Worker Prince being only my second novel, I have done more drafts of this book than I will of future novels, I suspect. In this case, my first draft was a basic concept of plot, characters and scenes. A lot of the gritty nuances and details came out in later drafts, where I sought ways to lend not only balance but connectivity throughout using various elements. For example, my protagonist has two names: his birth name, Davi (Dah-vee) Rhii, and his adopted legal name Xander Rhii. For much of his life, he goes by Davi, a name his adoptive mother liked because it was unique and non-stereotypical in their culture. But many of his colleagues and his uncle refer to him as Xander. As Davi seeks to come of age and discover who he is as a man, he really comes to own one name over the other. But the nuances of having some characters refer to him by one name over the other were important aspects of characterization and development of story I missed–which we discovered during editing.

There were also times I overstated things, either by repeating them too much or telling too much, which I could do better in showing or hinting at and letting the readers sort it out. Those are areas where my editors’ voices helped me find a wiser path for which I am grateful.

There were also little details, such as using more military-style language in battle and fight scenes, and setting up even minor characters as potential catalysts for action in the sequels, which came out in the editing. These things helped point me to a more focused understanding of what Book 2, The Returning, needs to be, and even to discover the arc of that story in a clear way I had failed to even as I’d started writing it. I typically write with a let the story unfold as it comes approach. But writing a three book series where the story has to flow from one to the next and the overall arc has to be well considered, this editing process on The Worker Prince helped me come to clearer understandings of the books to follow in ways that still allow some “letting the story come as it will” while also writing with a clearer plan. That will, no doubt, make those books stronger and better, and I am indebted to my editors for their assistance with that.

I don’t always get as detail oriented as I should in drafting stories. I tend to go back and add those things later, but learning to note little details and how they can be used throughout a story to bring out themes and deepen the world has been a great lesson for me.

So how does this help you?

1) Names/Language Matter–not only in the origins and meanings they may imply but in how they are employed by characters. How can you utilize the formality and informality with which characters address each other to not only reveal their relationships but deepen tension and characterization? How can you use terminology better in your story? Adding military language or creating formal language for various settings enriches the realism of your world for readers and adds a richness in texture to your story.

2) There Are No Little Things–little things like the necklace a character always wears, a notebook he/she always stops to write in, etc. can be employed to develop not only character but deepen the symbolism of the story. Do you employ any off these and are you using them to their fullest? Every little detail you include has the potential to be exploited for stronger nuance in the story. A few throwaways may exist but be careful to examine what you include and why and how they can be used to provide stronger meaning for readers.

3) Don’t overtell–We’ve all hear the warnings about Showing v. Telling but sometimes we feel the need to revisit plot aspects or character details we’ve already introduced because we fear the reader might not remember them. It’s a fine line to know when to do this and when not to but seeking specific feedback from betas and others on it can be of great help because this is one area where you can end up talking down to readers and nothing turns them off more than that.

4) Consider Future Stories–if you go in knowing you will be writing multiple books, spend time looking for ways you can exploit characters, props, and other details in the first book to set up things which will complicate or be expanded upon in later books. You may not be able to see it in the first draft or two, but as you move further in, you need to really look for this and develop those things well enough that readers will remember them by the time the sequels roll around.

Just a few lessons which I hope can help you on your writing path as they have helped me.

For what it’s worth…

Write Tip: 7 Tips For Being A Good Beta Reader

One of the things I’ve learned in the past year from working with editors and beta readers is how important a role these folks play in the creative success of any published product. Now there are good editors and bad editors, good beta readers and bad beta readers. I’ve been lucky with my editors so far but had a few beta readers who left things to be desired. (Actually my current crop are fantastic but took a while to find them.)

What you need to understand as a beta reader is that the author needs your focus and honesty to make a good book or story. In fact, without you, the story can’t be all it can be, so you’re actually participating in the creative process and can have huge influence over the final product. If it’s good–and even better because of your thoughtful attention–you can proudly brag about that, and I’m sure the author will credit you in the Acknowledgements as well.

So what does it take to be a good beta reader? Here’s Seven Tips:

1. Pay Attention. You need to read with focused care. Note everything that engenders a response in you. You don’t necessarily have to report them all in your notes, but pay attention, nonetheless, and analyze how that works as you assess the story. Because the author needs to know what works, what doesn’t, etc. This requires you to read with more effort and thought than you might be used to. So it may challenge you. But it will also enrich your reading life in later efforts by teaching you to look at things more deeply in ways you hadn’t imagined.

2. Ask Questions And Seek Answers. If you have unanswered questions or are confused, those are the first notes the author needs. Often we’re so wrapped up in our story with all its details, we don’t realize we’ve underexplained things or done so in a convoluted way. We desperately need you to point it out to us. And we’re thankful when you do. Sometimes what seems perfectly clear to us won’t be to you. This has happened many times editing my novel, and I’m always grateful for those chances to make it better.

3. If You Get Annoyed, Let Me Know. If I over explain or over foreshadow and ruin the surprise, I need to know. I need to know what bores or annoys you. You’re smart enough to realize when it was unintentional, so tell me, because I need to know.

4. Offer Me A Little Praise Too. I’m nervous and excited to put my work out into the world. I need to know the bad stuff, yes. But it’s also helpful to know what you liked. What made you laugh or smile? What surprised you in a good way? What made you want to shout and read it to someone else? Those things matter, and hey, the process is so long, I need the encouragement to keep going. Please let me know.

5. Don’t Be Afraid Of Hurting My Feelings. If I ask you to beta, I am giving you carte blanche to be honest. I need it to make my work all it can be. If I asked, you’re probably someone I trust or at least whose opinion I value enough to believe you can help. And although some of your notes may frustrate me, I won’t take it personally or hold it against you because I need your help. And in the long run, my writing will be better for it not just with this project, but every project to follow.

6. Take good notes. Either on the manuscript itself or via comments in Microsoft Word or on paper. Whatever the case note page and paragraph numbers and be as detailed as you can. The more you give the author, the more helpful your notes will be and the more impressed and grateful the author will be for your time and effort.

7. Check your political, religious and other opinions at the door. You should do this any time you read if you want to actually be informed by the experience. If you are only reading to reinforce existing opinions, your goal is not to grow. Being a beta reader is a challenge, growth is inherent for both you and the writer. It is liberating to set aside preconceived ideas and look at things in a new light, through someone else’s eyes. Reading it fairly doesn’t mean you have to agree or change your mind. But if you intend to help the author, you cannot operate under your own prejudices. Writers are human, our own biases do shape how we see the world and how we project it in our writing, no matter how hard we try to avoid it or how often some deny it. But it’s not your book. The beta reader’s responsibility is fair feedback, untouched by bias, to help the author make his or her book the best of theirs that it can be.

Well those are my seven. No list is perfect. But if you take my advice, you’ll have good success as a beta reader and probably get lots of chances to read stuff before anyone else. How cool is that?

For what it’s worth…

Can you really tell within a few paragraphs if something is good?

Guest post by Patty Jansen
Many people are surprised when agents and editors say that they often don’t need to read an entire story to know that they’ll reject it. Some writers are even insulted. But if you read five to ten story submissions a day, and you keep this up for a few years, you tend to develop an eye for picking the 10% or so of submissions that show reasonable promise to pass onto editors. How do you do it? Here is a quick checklist I use to weed out the stories that I’ll reject immediately from the ones I’ll continue reading—in the first few paragraphs (I usually do read a bit more, or skip to a different part of the story to see if the story redeems itself). I want to stress that this is my list, and that other people may well have different criteria. That said, the issues below will raise their ugly heads at some point in the selection process.
A decent magazine gets hundreds, or even thousands of submissions each year. They typically have a number of first-line slush readers. Those people will see hundreds of submissions. They don’t need to read an entire submission to know that they’re not going to pass it to the next level. Sometimes they don’t need more than the first sentence.
Why?
There is a myth in aspiring writer-land that grammar and style don’t matter all that much. That it’s the story’s content which determines its publishability, and that beautiful prose alone won’t sell your work.
Yes, yes, and yes.
That said, what sinks a lot of stories is a lack of what I’ll call natural flow in the text. It comes both from not listening to writing advice to taking it way too seriously. It comes from trying too hard to sound interesting and from lack of cohesion in the writing. It comes from tics every writer picks up somewhere along the line.
The most important reason a story gets rejected after a paragraph or two is that there are issues with the writing style and occasionally the grammar.
What do I mean by this, and what sets red flags?
Apart from the obvious (is the text grammatically correct and are there spelling mistakes?), an experienced slush reader will see:
If first few the sentences are unwieldy and trying too desperately to fit in too much ‘stuff’. Chances are that the rest of the story follows this pattern. Sure, this is fixable, but a lot of work for the editors, and a lot of communication with a writer who may not be ready for quite this much red ink. Too much effort. Reject.
The first few sentences contains odd word choices. The writer may be hanging onto the ‘no passive language’ or ‘use interesting verbs’ mantras too much. Again, this takes a lot of effort to fix because it will be insidious throughout the piece. Too much work. Reject.
The first sentence and the second sentence don’t follow one another. There needs to be a flow of logic in the text. If the first few sentences jump around like crickets in zero-gravity, chances are that the author has a problem expressing logic in a format readers can follow. This takes a huge amount of time to fix. Reject.
The first three sentences all start with the same word, usually a pronoun. A quick scan reveals that this continues through the text. Or the sentences start with some other repetitive pattern, like a participial clause (a clause containing the –ing form of a verb) or a prepositional clause, like: In the kitchen, there was…, or, After he did this, he… Writers often use these and participial clauses to avoid some other structure (never start a sentence with ‘There was…’ says the bogeyman), but the end result can become a repetitive mush of too-complicated sentences and death by ten thousand commas.
The story starts with an unnamed character and a quick scan reveals that there is no reason for the name of the character to be mentioned for the first time only on the third page. That by itself is not a great sin, but often, the lack of a character’s name will signal POV problems that may be more confusing.
The first few paragraphs contain words that are repeated several times, for example a four-sentence paragraph in which the word ‘door’ is used five times. Again, this is fixable, but if the writer hasn’t pick this up him or herself, it will likely occur throughout the story.
And an experienced slush reader will see these things even before he or she has started to take notice of the story’s plot or its central premise. The easiest way to make it past a first slush reader is to polish your style, and the best way to do that is by writing more and reading what you want to write. Meanwhile, try to volunteer as a slush reader some time. It’s a crash course in what works in fiction.
Besides a writer of crazy fantasy and hard Science Fiction, Patty Jansen is slush reader and editor at Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. She blogs at http://pattyjansen.wordpress.com/, about writing, about science and about editing and slush piles. Patty is a winner of the second 2010 quarter of the Writers of the Future Contest and has published in the Universe Annex of the Grantville Gazette and has a story forthcoming with Redstone SF.

Second Draft

Preparing to revise my third novel, the first in a multi-part epic fantasy series.  It’s tentatively titled “Sandman,” for reasons obvious to the story. It took 9 months to write the first draft, and although I knew where it needed to go, I never really ended it completely.  I got most of the way there and burned out. I struggled for six weeks to write something and finally decided I’d do better to set it aside and then come back to it. There are a number of things I had already made a list of which needed to be addressed in the next draft and I really believe clarity on how to write the ending will come as I work those into the manuscript, so here I am.

I don’t know how others approach their revisions. For every writer, the approach tends to differ, so I can only write about my own process. In first drafts, I try and get the scenic structure, characters and plotlines down. I focus on the key conflicts and personalities and less on full character arcs and detailed descriptions. Some might call it a skeletal approach, but what I end up with is often a lot of stuff I can use but which needs editing to cut excess and then thickening to fill in the meat on the bones. I also make a lot of notes as I go about things I need to foreshadow, flesh out, etc. For example, as with “The Worker Prince,” I reached a point in the first draft of “Sandman” where I needed something to happen which I had not set up in the parameters of my world building. Rather than stop and go back, I just made it happen and made a note that I will need to set that up earlier to make it plausible for readers.  I also found character traits which I want to emphasize throughout and need to go back and add in. Character relationships developed which can be mined for humor and also character growth, but I need to set that up, too.  The biggest development was finally sorting out what secret there is about a central character everyone is fighting over. Now I have to go back and foreshadow the reveal earlier and revise scenes knowing many of the characters already have that knowledge and it will underscore their actions. Lastly, there are themes/motifs which have come forward as the first draft unfolded which I now need to also thread throughout.

This is a good thing. I know many writers who end their first draft thinking it’s crap and embarrassed for all the time they wasted. Me, I feel like I have a really good foundation but know that without the bricks, cement, shingles, glass, paint, etc. it isn’t ready to open. Those things can be added. And I won’t have to start from scratch. I’ll probably add a scene or two in various places. I may cut one or cut it down or take sections of it for elsewhere. But I have stuff I can move around, which is much easier for me to deal with than the initial blank page.

I also have research to do. I have a book called “English Through The Ages” which I will use to revise my prose to reflect the time period in which the book is set. It’s set on a colonized planet where the people live in medieval type times, so I don’t have to be 100% accurate but realistic enough to their Earth ancestry as I can manage. I will be working in some other research I’ve done on magic, dwarves, and things like wagons and cities to make it more realistic and alive.  This is the fun stuff though. Much easier to deal with when the basic structure is already there, and, despite the ending issues, the structure is there. Somewhere in this process I’ll also be sorting out where the story goes from here in the next book so I can set that up well, too. I have a rough idea, but I need to rough that out more, too.

I expect the second draft won’t take as long as the first. Anywhere from 2 to 5 months I’d expect. So from now until April, this will be my world. I have other projects waiting in the wings though as well, so if I have off days, I can work on those. After all, with “Worker Prince” coming out mid-2011, I do have a sequel to write for that. In any case, I’m excited about this book because it’s not based on another story, as “Worker Prince” was. It’s totally from my own mind, so it’s my first fully original speculative fiction book. It’s also my first fantasy. So that’s good career progress as well. Now, I just need to get this thing in shape for the betas.

Second draft. Beta readers. Third draft. Then out to querying agents. That’ll be the process.  Maybe this will break me into the mass house world. Either way, it’s good to have something positive to focus on which helps my career progress forward.

For what it’s worth…

AUTHOR’S TIP: Thesaurus Abuse No

I got criticized once that my writing style uses simpler words.  Why not show off your vocabularly or use more sophisticated verbage, they asked.  My answer:  I’m writing for a wide age group, and vocabulary is only useful if it adds to understanding, not if it takes away from it.

For example, my friend, a talented writer, just tweeted this from his WIP:  “Her soul was gnawed through, suffocating, sensitive though numb.”  Out of context, that does very little for me.  Intriguing use of words? Yes.  But meaningless without more context.  Knowing this friend, he’ll give it the context.  So I’m not worried about him, but I’ve seen plenty of writers who use words like this and end up with a jumbled mess.

Have you ever been reading and come across a word you had no idea the meaning of and it ripped you right out of the story and world?  Do you hate that?  I know I do.

Publisher Candlemark and Gleam offers this comment:  There’s a difference between having a good vocabulary and a good grasp of wordplay and being overly clever; think of the poor, overused thesaurus before running amok. Trust us, saying “her violet orbs welled up with viscous, salty fluids” does not, in fact, work as well as “her eyes brimmed with tears.” Won’t someone think of the thesaurii?

It’s not that I’m not impressed with a good vocabulary.  Well used, it can be both educational and intriguing.  I often go through during polishing and substitute words using a thesaurus.  This is to keep it from being stagnant with overly repeated words.  But I’m very careful where and what I replace.  It does you no good to show off words when the reader has to look them up constantly and step out of your story.  It’s distracting, annoying, and, in the end, insulting.  Writing is communication.  Communicate with your readers.  Fiction is story telling.  Telling them a story doesn’t work if they don’t understand it.

So when I’ve heard people criticize my lack of sophisticated words on occasion, I point to authors who are quite successful and don’t need that.  Authors like Mike Resnick, Orson Scott Card, Kevin J. Anderson, Timothy Zahn, to name a few.  I’d much rather have words a lot more people can read than words only suitable for a select few.  How about you?

Part of having a vocabularly is knowing when and how to use the words.  If you can’t do it well, you don’t really own those words.  So don’t try and fake it, because, trust me, readers will know.  And it won’t give you cred.  It will take away cred.

For what it’s worth…

AUTHOR’S TIP: How I Edit

It’s been too long since I posted something helpful for writers.  I really do intend to do that more often here, but as life around me is chaotic, so goes my blogging and everything else.  So if you found the previous posts helpful and were waiting, sincerest apologies.  I hope I haven’t chased you off.

Since I am currently halfway through a polish draft of my first novel, which has a contract pending from Diminished Media, I wanted to talk about how I edit.  Everyone has a different method and approach to such things, and there is no wrong or right way.  This is just how I’ve come to do it and I’m sure even that will evolve with time.

Before I talk about how I edit though, it might first be helpful to talk about my writing process.  I am a writer who doesn’t rely on outlines much.  I tend to like to know who my characters are in some rough sense, know a few key plot points, have a TV Guide story pitch sentence and then write and see where the story takes me.  This works well with first novels in series, but as I approach sequels, I am finding outlining a more necessary evil and I’ll likely be embracing that more and more.

My first drafts have one goal:  get the plot, characters and basic arcs down as fast as possible.  I want to get the major characters, scenes, and a sense of the pacing all on paper.  I don’t spend as much time on fancy descriptions or even in depth emotional monologues.  Those I can flesh out later.  I just want the framework to build on.  Now as I learn my craft and develop my skills, I find I put more of this stuff in first drafts, but my goal is just to get the story told.  I have plenty of time to fix things and make it all pretty and bow-wrapped later.

Because writing is a series of questions and answers for me, I aim to ask questions in each scene.  I keep track of these questions on a list and as I go along try and answer one for every new one I ask once the set up has been done.  This helps keep readers satisfied that they are figuring things out and that the story has more surprises.  It keeps them turning pages.  But forgetting to answer any of these questions is deadly annoying, so I keep a list to make sure they all get addressed by the end.

The second draft, at least a month after the first draft’s done with no peeking in between, I go back and read and pay special attention to setting descriptions, character descriptions, character arcs, etc.  I also look for themes or motifs I can use which have just appeared naturally and I find ways to work all of these things into the story and strengthen them, building on my basic blocks.

My third draft is my Ken Rand’s 10% Solution draft where I go back and cut absolutely every non-essential word.  I look at overused or overly repeated words, and I use a thesaurus to find words which can replace these and make the prose more interesting.  I also aim to just tighten wherever I can.

There are often subsequent drafts or even drafts in between some of these to work on particular specifics, but those are the three basic drafts.  Each is usually spread apart by 3 weeks to a month for some perspective and I do my best to immerse myself in other projects and flush the thing from my mind as best I can in between.  It’s very hard to have fresh eyes for your own work, and you cannot hope to make it the best it can be if you don’t find a way to do it.

So that’s how I write, in succinct summary.  How do I edit?

The one advantage of editing is it uses a different half of your brain.  It’s a different thought process and focus than the writing itself, so once you’ve done all those other things you can really start looking at mechanics like grammar, punctuation, word usage, etc.  The Ken Rand draft is editing in a way, and I do much the same in my editing phases, cutting whatever unneeded words I can, etc.  But on the other hand, I am looking primarily for how can I make this as shiny as it can be.  What repeated sentence patterns have I gotten stuck in that I can rework in places to keep it fresh?  Which places can I use more emotion to make action more powerful or build the character-reader connection?  Where can I use more of the five senses to make it more real to readers?  What questions did I fail to answer?  Which did I answer incorrectly or incompletely?  Is anything unclear or convoluted?  Is anything missing — holes, etc.?

I also read the manuscript out loud, word for word.  It’s different when you read out loud.  First of all, most readers read like this only silently to themselves, so you’ll get a sense of the flow for readers by doing this.  You’ll also find awkward phrasings, run-ons and other issues which you don’t always find just by reading your overly familiar prose.  You can find where you need a better mix of sentence sizes.  You can find where you need to break up paragraphs differently.

I always find I’m overly wordy.  No matter how many times I’ve tried to cut before.  Here’s where I find out how much I overstated and how much I needed more color.  I add more interesting setting decriptions or emotional descriptions.  I trim repeated dialogue and phrases.  I realize I have repeated things too many times and annoyed the reader and cut as many of those as I can.  If I have to keep them, I make them tighter and rephrase them so they don’t sound the same each time.  I also look at where the story lags in pace.  Are things out of order in sentences or paragraphs.  Etc.

The editing can take a while or go quickly, but I always make at least three passes on these things, the middle being the read aloud one, to make sure I don’t miss anything.  After all, when this book gets printed it will represent me potentially well after I die.  I want to be represented well.  Oh I know I’ll write better as time goes on, the more I learn my craft.  And I know publishers, agents, editors will all jump in with improvements as well beta readers.  But I don’t want any of those people to feel their time was wasted so I’ve got to make this the best it can be before they even see it.

I am impatient.  I don’t like to wait.  And I have jumped the gun on stories and novels with betas, agents, etc. too many times.  Burned markets and readers.  It’s too bad.  Because now they might never realize what the book and story came to be.  The potential they saw or didn’t see won’t be realized in their eyes.  Hey, I want everyone to read my stories, because I think I have something important to say.  That’s why I write.  Isn’t that why anyone writes?

In any case, when I’m done I get that feedback and make adjustments to that.  It takes a lot of effort to do all these drafts and editing phases, I know.  It takes a lot of time to wait through them.  But in the end, I want to be proud of what I write, and as I prepare to sign a contract on this novel, my second ever novel attempt and first science fiction novel, despite all the missteps I’ve made in sending it out too early, etc., I’m proud of it.  I’m pleased how it’s come out and I know all the work has made it better.  I can’t wait to see what it becomes after the publisher and editor do their thing.  And I hope it pleases you, reader, so I can write another one and another after that.

In any case, that’s a summary of my editing process.  If you have questions or want more details or just want to say hi, please comment below.  I look forward to hearing from you.

For what it’s worth…