Category Archives: Writing Research

Thinking About Thinking

I’ve had a chance to do a lot of thinking lately. Okay, technically we think all of the time. I mean creative thinking. After being a bad master for a number of years, I’ve started to walk the dog for a half an hour or so on most days, and having nothing to clutter my thoughts, I’ve been mentally making, um, mental notes on a future novel project.

The thing is, these notes haven’t been for 8000 Days, which is the next book I plan to finish writing. But I haven’t been thinking about that one. And I haven’t been thinking about the UFO Novel, which is the big project that will follow.

No, I’ve been thinking about a whim I’ve had for a number of years, and it has been taking shape rather nicely on these walks.

But why haven’t I been thinking about the book – one that I’ve got about 1/3 written – that I’m about to start work on? I suppose because it’s such a slight thing. I know where it’s going, I have one-sentence descriptions of what is to happen in each of the remaining chapters, and each of those chapters is pretty much set in my head. There’s not much left in the way of mental gymnastics to perform.

So why haven’t these mental gymnastics covered the UFO novel, which may be my biggest novel yet, and certainly has a lot of blanks to be filled in? It could be that I’m not ready to write it yet. But I doubt it. I’ve got tons of notes, handwritten, typed, odd .doc files here and there, most of which have been incorporated into the book’s Scrivener file. Maybe because the idea has reached critical mass and I’m at the stage where I need to begin actually writing in order for the blanks to be property filled in.

But this notion of working in a genre that I’d never had much interest in, never wanted to work in, and that would involve far more up-front research than I usually perform?1 I don’t know. I thought I was over that whole crazy writer thing.

Maybe it’s because it’s been a while since I’ve had the opportunity to engage in unbridled, uninterrupted thought.2 See, if I were to list out the times/places where I tend to engage in the most independent creative thought outside of sitting at the keyboard, it would probably look something like this:

  • Driving/Commuting
  • Shower
  • Repetitive/mundane physical tasks (e.g. mowing the lawn)

Unfortunately, most of these have become compromised over the years. The price of gas has seen me carpooling with my wife, so conversation fills the car there. Even so, my car thought was waning because of my heavy use of the iPod. When I listen to music, I do it rather intensely, and it occupies my mind rather completely.3 Having a spouse and two children long ago put an end to the extended creative sessions in the shower, and allergies put a premature end to the lawn mowing.

To make up for this I developed a method of enforced creative thought where I consciously pick a topic and send my imagination down the resulting alleyway. It’s serviceable enough – so much so that I sometimes teach this method to groups – but it lacks the joy one gets from just letting loose with imaginative thought.

And perhaps that’s why my mind has wandered in the direction it has gone… simply because it can.

Whatever the case, it has taught me this: that it is good for creatives to be able to make such flights of fancy. They’re an important part of the process, and I’ve missed them.

But why… oh, why… that idea?

  1. I prefer to do what I call “on-going research”, wherein I simply read about things that interest me, and, well, if the shoe fits…
  2. Except for that close call with the skunk.
  3. While I can listen to music while I write, I cannot listen to complete albums by the likes of XTC and Elvis Costello. Their superb use of wordplay is just too good – and too distracting.

Breaking the Rules

Okay, I’ve been writing about Writer’s Rules on and off since firing up this blog in 2002. What about when the time comes to break the rules?

Depends on what rules you break. For example, I’m planning a novel in which nobody gets killed. For me that’s a definite leap forward. I’ve got one friend who always razzes me about the body count in my books – but I never try to make it gratuitous. However, the novel will still have a bar scene and a love triangle, both of which can also be found in most of my works.

But I don’t know if that’s so much breaking the rules as a personal pattern. Sort of like if Spielberg made a movie without some sort of running undercurrent of conflict with a father figure.1

I’m talking about breaking the rules of fiction as we know them – showing instead of telling. Breaking the momentum for lectures about one thing or another that the author finds relevant within his or her own little corner of the universe – you know, the kind of thing that Heinlein used to do all of the time. Well, by that time, Heinlein was Heinlein and could get away with that sort of thing.

What about a new author who does that sort of thing. Career death, right? Or at least a hard mash on the pause button while his/er writing style cleans itself up?

Yeah, pretty much. But occasionally you get a first-time author who breaks the rules but manages to pick up four dice and roll boxcars all the way across. Kind of like what happened with a book I just finished reading, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson.

So what did Larsson do that broke the rules?

First of all, he did a lot of telling instead of showing. That’s rule number one in fiction, you show something happening instead of telling. However, I think Larsson had his reasons for telling. There was an enormous amount of information that had to be conveyed in order for the rest of the story to function, and most of it was in the opening chapters. So much so that it made me wonder if he had been in touch with an editor at Baen books.2 It was so prevalent that, as I read the sample of the book on my Kindle, I seriously thought about not picking the book up. Still, there was something about the characters that had me curious – and I figured that at $5.50 for the Kindle edition, I could afford to not finish it if I really hated it.

I think part of this was because of Larsson’s background as a journalist. Telling was his natural storytelling medium, because showing was what his sources, the ones who appeared in the footnotes did. Eventually the telling faded out and the showing began, although it popped up again from time to time in annoying fashion. But by then the characters had their hooks in me.

Second, Larsson also had a few moments where he lapsed totally into journalismese and lectured us on certain aspects of Swedish society. Yeah, it fit what was going on, but it broke the flow of the story. At least when Heinlein lectured, he had one of his characters do it, in character, for the benefit of another character. It’s still annoying, but at least it was shoehorned into the flow of the story.

Note here that some of these complaints could also be attributed to the fact that the novel was written in Swedish, then translated into British English. I have no problem with British English, having lived for a time in Canada and watching a lot of British stuff on PBS and BBC America. So I knew what the word g-a-o-l spelled and some of the other British idioms that no doubt sat in for Swedish idioms. I was actually kind of surprised that there wasn’t an American English version – although maybe this was the case for the domestic hardcover and paperback. I don’t know.

Then there was research. As a journalist, I’m sure Larsson did his homework, but he overlooked one thing that was the most jarring mistake for me – he had a character threaten another with a Glock pistol. Then the character set the safety on the Glock before putting it down. There is no active safety switch on a Glock, unlike probably every other pistol made. And yet I see safeties being set on Glock pistols all over the place in thrillers.

People, go to the local gun shop and ask the friendly helping salesperson about the difference.3

Finally, there was the fact that he was running two mysteries at once, and for me the most interesting one resolved first, leaving a quarter of the book devoted to tying up the other one, which was much more obvious than the first. That and the remaining mystery proved to be a cakewalk, which I think hurt the book’s pacing in the closing section. I’m not sure how I would have handled something like that. I may have to write a book with two parallel mysteries in it just to see how I would.

So what did Larsson do that kept me reading until the end?

There were lots of little things. I liked the way Larsson took the concept of a locked room mystery and twisted it up. There were interesting references to literary characters, and I like the way he paralleled what was happening to two characters in two different places – the same thing happening to each, but with two totally different attitudes and results.

Most of all, the characters were fascinating. Larsson managed to build up a world populated by tragic and broken people, all with their own fascinating strengths and appalling weaknesses. The most fascinating was watching these characters collide and ricochet off of one another and the chain reactions they created. Great stuff.

And how did Larsson get away with this?

I suspect he knew the rules. There are references to mystery authors throughout the book as one of the characters reads thrillers to pass the time. If Larsson knew titles and authors, he no doubt knew the books, too. Which means he knew the genre. Which is the day’s lesson.

If you want to break the rules, you still have to know them. But you also have to have writing power behind you to offset those broken rules. Which means you still have to hone your chops and skills.

Finally, I suspect that as a journalist, Larsson had already written his first million words before he started work on The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

How far along in your first million are you?

  1. Although he may have by now – I just don’t follow him that closely.
  2. Baen was the house that wanted me to rewrite A Death of Honor so the entire world was explained in Chapter One. I had a polite conversation via letter with the editor about why I thought this was a bad idea, and in the end we agreed to disagree – and I would later place the book with Del Rey.
  3. Okay, maybe Larsson didn’t have this option open to him because I don’t know what the gun laws are in Sweden. But there is such a thing as the Internet, which is put to good use in Larsson’s novel.

Secret Agent Man

When I was a kid, possibly under the influence of The Man From U.N.C.L.E, I wanted to be a spy. I even did my own amateur spying and code breaking projects, some of which got me into trouble. I didn’t handle the being caught or almost-caught part very well, so I rethought the whole spy thing. Somehow I came to the conclusion that writing was just as exciting.

Anyway, a couple of days ago my day job needed me as a warm body for something, and I thought I might go along just because it would be a change of pace, get me out of the office. Then I found out that I would need a security clearance from the Secret Service.

I was hooked.

So yesterday I got to do some digital photography and videography of a client event that featured First Lady Laura Bush. My wife thought I should get to shake hands and get a photo with her, but that wasn’t in the cards. My goal was to get to talk to a Secret Service agent. Hoo-yeah!

It soon became evident that I wasn’t going to get near the First Lady, but that was okay. I got to hang out on the riser with the press corps and listen to them trade war stories. As vicious as the stations may be in competition with each other, the videographers and photographers all knew each other, and in a couple of cases even car pooled together (if my eavesdropping served me correctly). I filmed event setup, crowd coming and going, and lots of footage of security measures – police dogs sniffing around for forbidden things, agents scanning the crowd, officers on rooftops with binoculars, and so on. Oh yeah, I filmed the First Lady’s speech, too.

But the big moment of the day was when I was going inside of the cordoned off area. I had to be escorted to the press riser by security, and in this instance the security was a Secret Service agent. They had me walking with an official looking young man, probably in his late twenties, with the requisite dark glasses (I don’t think he’d earned his wire-to-the-earpiece yet).

My big chance. I’d wondered all day what I would say to an Agent if I had the chance, and the words came to me at the spur of the moment. And they were perfect.

I said, “So, you like your job?”

He said, “Better today than last week when the Prez was here. All that rain made things difficult.”

That was all there was time for – I was at the press riser, curse the luck. But hey, I got my wish.

Now this might seem like a real fanboy moment to you. Maybe it was. No, it wasn’t. Because if it had been a fanboy moment, I would have said something like “I think you guys are the coolest outfit ever, To Live And Die In L.A. is one of my favorite movies, and I have a daughter who will be of marrying age in a few years if you’re interested…” – THAT would have been a fanboy moment.

For all of the conversation’s brevity, it was still great moment. You have to remember that writers live for moments like this. It wasn’t just getting to meet someone that represented a heroic ideal of your youth. It was the surrounding experience. Yes, I got to talk to an agent, but I also got to see them at work, their ever-watchful eyes peeled, even doing things like checking what the caterers were bringing in. I saw trained dogs sniffing cars and shadowy figures on rooftops and local law enforcement officials plus National Park Service rangers and a troop of Girl Scouts for good measure.

And if you’re a writer, too, you’re already thinking, boy if I had been there, my brain would have been one giant camera recording every little thing because an experience like that is invaluable for its detail…

You’d better believe that this is what I was doing.

Am I going to have something like this turn up in a novel some day?

You’d better believe it.

One of the misconceptions about writing is that if you’re an author, you can stay in the house and type all day. But if you’re not out there living, you may be missing out on some great things – things that are fun for the sheer experience, and things that add grist to your writer’s mill.

The best things of all, of course, are the ones that do both.

NP – Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells 2003

Saving Trust

For some odd reason, my daughter recently brought home a book from the library called I Watched a Wild Hog Eat My Baby. It’s a history of the tabloids by Bill Sloan, who spent a good deal of his career writing for them. I’m not a tab reader, but I’ve long been fascinated by them for reasons I can’t quite explain, so I started to read it.

It’s a fascinating book, much better than Grossed Out Surgeon Vomits Inside Patient, which as I recall was more an insider’s look at the mentality of the reporters.

What is really interesting about this book, however, is that it gave me an idea that possibly could salvage my dead manuscript Trust. The basic conceit of that project was that a woman who was a tabloid reporter stumbled onto a huge, earth-shattering story – but nobody believed her because of the reputation of the magazine she writes for.

The notion I have now would deal more with how the lines between truth and fiction get blurred in the venue of the tabloids. This might also give me a chance to play with something that I might have mentioned in the original draft in passing, but regret not doing more with – the idea of a reporter becoming obsessed with a story. Or, as one editor put it, “Do you have the story or does the story have you?”

(Incidentally, this is a real quote that I appropriated from someone – many moons ago I was watching a documentary about a reporter who was covering a snake handling church – and in the process, became hooked on the act of handling snakes. The line was spoken to him by an editor who, in his wisdom, was afraid that the reporter’s obsession was going out of control.)

I’ll have to think about that notion for a while, and let it simmer. I still don’t know if Trust is worth repairing, but with this in mind, it might be. With everything that’s already on my plate, I have a lot of time to think about it.

A brief report now from my July 4th weekend. I finally got to see Matrix Reloaded and was unimpressed. It joins the ranks of films like Good Will Hunting that I feel would benefit immensely from the removal of at least twenty minutes worth of footage (although in MR, this figure creeps over the 30 minute mark because of boring expository dialogue, gratuitous and useless fights, plus a hint of idiot plot).

It also reminded me of a syndrome rampant in Hollywood: a talented director comes along and impresses the suits with his work so much that they give him all the money he wants to make the film he always wanted to make – with disastrous results. Don’t believe me? Check out this shameful legacy:

Stephen Speilberg
Impressed people with: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Movie made with all that money: 1941

James Cameron
Impressed people with: Terminator, Aliens
Movie made with all that money: The Abyss

Francis Ford Coppola
Impressed people with: The Godfather I and II, Apocalypse Now
Movie made with all that money: One From the Heart

Michael Cimino
Impressed people with: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Deer Hunter
Movie made with all that money: Heaven’s Gate

You get the idea.

Also saw The Truth About Charlie with Mark Wahlberg, a remake of the excellent Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn vehicle, Charade. What a mess. None of the character, excitement or suspense of the original. It brought to mind Roger Ebert’s argument against ever remaking a movie (I’m paraphrasing here): If the movie was good, it shouldn’t be remade because it couldn’t be improved on. If the movie was bad, it shouldn’t be remade because there was a reason it was bad to begin with.

Now I need to see a good movie to wash these two out of my head. The original Charade, perhaps? I’ve heard that The Italian Job is a good one… although it is another remake… with Mark Wahlberg…

NP – Phishcast (Internet Radio)

Research II

Richard Simmons’ Dalmatians or Madonna’s Chihuahua?

What is an unusual medical condition that would typically be found in an ostrich?

These are the things that sometimes occupy the mind of a writer.

I needed a celebrity pet tonight and went poking around on the Internet. For some reason, it struck me as the kind of thing that I didn’t want to put off until the edit. Ostensibly it was because this had the potential to turn into a running gag. But I think the real reason was because I really didn’t feel like writing and needed the excuse to do something that looked like writing without accomplishing a whole lot.

So to Google I went, and of course, because it was Google, I found what I needed disgustingly fast. I wasn’t able to waste nearly the time I should have on the search.

The first decision was easy. No to George Clooney’s pot bellied pig named Max. Not the kind of pet he would take to Indianapolis with him.

Madonna might take her Chihuahua, “Chiquita,” on tour with her. But I suspected that it has been a while since she has played in Indy. So I went with Richard Simmons, who has six Dalmatians. I suspect his relationship with the dogs is an ongoing one, one that would stretch far enough back to make it feasible that he would visit Indianapolis in the company of one. And I can just see him unable to keep his mouth shut on behalf of a friendly veterinarian who did a good turn for one of his dogs.

Then there was the matter, a few paragraphs later, of going back to Google in search of odd medical conditions found in ostriches. I found some interesting things there, too.

And, yes, this stuff really does fit together as pieces of a thriller about two people on the run.

What I found tonight should be quite useful On the other hand, I may end up cutting this entire bit of business altogether. It almost smacks of over-thinking things – I do that on occasion, too. But it did keep me going with the night’s writing. Not as much as I should have done, but as much as I was willing to do, counting the research.

At least it’s not like my early days of writing. While working on The Company Man, I read an entire book about brewing beer for one of the subplots in the book. Unfortunately, that bit ended up being cut. Completely. But I did learn a lot about beer in the process.This taught me that sometimes an entire book on a subject was overkill, when all you really needed was a little information to add a bit of verisimilitude. That’s where the Internet is brilliant. You can find little bits of information like that, fast. Really fast. Too fast.

I guess if I had really wanted to kill time, I could have gone to the library and gotten a book on ostriches, losing an entire week’s worth of productivity on reading it… all for the one line that ended up in my writing tonight.

Well, I determined when I started this blog that I was going to chronicle the good, the bad and the ugly of novel writing. This definitely fits into one of the latter two categories. I haven’t figured out which one, though.

I think I’m rambling now. Time to go.

Today’s Scorecard
Chapter Fifteen
499 Pages (+2)
110,458 Words (+ 454)

NP – iTSP [Joe Jackson, “You Can’t Get What You Want (‘Till You Know What You Want)” (Live in NYC)]


Back writing again, with only a brief pause to jump onto the ‘net to look up skin diseases. I do a lot of research on the fly like that, especially with a novel like this where a lot of travel is involved. I think my wife wonders why I’m always buying road atlases, but one of them has to stay by my writing desk (and they have a tendency to migrate to the cars after a while… imagine that).

I have done more in-depth research for book purposes in the past, but it never seems to work out. For The Company Man I read an entire book about brewing beer for a subplot, and then ended up throwing the whole thing out. The only bit that remained from that learning experience was some of the odd beers mentioned as products within the book’s universe.

It’s much more efficient for me to do research in two ways. The first is Passive research, which is what I call the act of simply reading about things that interest me. There’s no telling what I learn that will become grist for the mill at a later date, or what factoid I pick up that will come in handy at an opportune moment later.

The second type is what I described above. Research on the fly. For example, the bit I was working on this evening turned into a discussion of skin disorders as two characters looked at a wound on a third. I knew what kind of thing I was looking for, but I had to see if words like psoriasis and eczema were proper for the occasion. I found out some interesting stuff, and for once I wasn’t distracted by my search (resulting in spending all of my writing time reading up on something that’s momentarily fascinating, but will ultimately do nothing for the plot of the book).

There’s a third type, what I call Dedicated research, which I don’t do. That’s the process of researching things specific to what you plan to do in your novel, i.e., reading up on the Civil War if you are doing a novel on General Grant. It’s the type of research most writers do, and as I illustrated with my example of the beer brewing book, it’s one reason I’ll probably never do a historical novel.

That’s okay, though. Facts can help, but there are times when it is much easier – and more fun – to simply make something up.

Today’s Scorecard
Chapter Thirteen
429 Pages (+7)
95511 Words (+1177)

NP – Pat Metheny, Secret Story

Outline Work

Tonight was Parent/Teacher Conferences, postponing for the umpteenth time my guitar night with Randy. I am quite happy writing at the moment and haven’t felt pressed to play recently, but I miss it, and I miss getting together with Randy… so perhaps next week. Meantime, there’s an Alvarez in the bedroom that no doubt feels neglected.

With the remainder of the time I had tonight, I started going through the Reconciled Outline and getting it into shape. This is going to be a pain-in-the-neck process, I can tell, but I’ll be a more efficient writer as a result. I think what I will do from now on is keep the running outline as a separate document, simply cutting and pasting into the manuscript a chapter at a time. When I get changes or ideas, I’ll jot them at the end of the manuscript like I usually do, but then I’ll put those comments at the appropriate point in the running outline right away. That way I can save myself the annoyance of reconciling the thing.

I did some research earlier about Wicca in an attempt to get a better handle on the female character and found some incredibly useful information on the Internet. I wasn’t interested so much in the rituals, having researched that aspect earlier, but was looking for motivations for women to become involved with Wicca. Found some discussions on both sides of the fence that really made sense, and all of a sudden everything fell into place with the woman’s motivation and character. It was like whole great pieces of her past fell into place for me. It was all I could do tonight to make myself work on getting the outline put together instead of charging ahead with Chapter 10.

But plug away at the outline I did. I started with the “Retro” notes section, which consists of notes for things I had already written. There were just a couple of things to insert into the later couple of chapters, but once more a judgment is coming. For part of Richard’s character, I’m thinking about having him make references to movies all the time, which sets up a payoff that comes later. I’m not sure, though. It’s weird, but so far all the movie references in the manuscript were made by the woman. It’s an interesting irony. Maybe I can make something out of that. I’ll have to think about it.

So I ended up the night with the info for Chapters 10 and 11 done, and another page worth of material inserted into various points of the book. Reconciling the chapters is going quickly, though, and I’m thinking one good day of work will put an end to that. Then I can simply add as I go.

I am really excited about the results of that research today. I can’t wait to dig in and finish the book. It may be my best yet, and it may be The One…

Today’s Scorecard
Various Chapters – Retro Work
291 pages (+1)
67483 words (+225)

NP – David Gray, A New Day At Midnight