Research Junkie

Research is a wonderful tool for a writer, no matter if you’re word wrestling a term paper or writing a potential best-selling fiction novel. Factual evidence plays a part in either story or should. We are living in a world of pictures with words slapped on them that are peddled as the truth. The reality of alternative facts used as a hot button phrase to spin a false narrative into a factual baseline. Even numeric statistics can be skewed and strong convictions can sway someone from questioning a statement—even when that statement is proven completely false. We have to make a concerted effort to weed through the muck of misinformation and refute it with a solid counter. Several paths will take us on our journey to knowledge. We must but step forward and ask for claims to be supported with citations from credible sources. Good journalism, it would seem, is a rare commodity.

As a writer, I love the prospect of researching a topic—sometimes to the point of burning days on one particular oddity for a story. I understand the value of not relying one source for information. For example, I’ve bought books written by experts on guns that go into depth on the mechanics and what type of ammunition each type would use. What I couldn’t get from reading was how to hold a gun or the distinct sound one makes when fired. Sure, I could ask law enforcement or one of my military friends but that gives me their perspective. How could I write with emotion with someone else’s words? My solution was to ask a friend to take me out to the firing range. Through that, I felt the deadly power pulsing in that little piece of constructed metal bits. Each buck as the bullet discharged from the 9mm or the impact to my shoulder when the shotgun shell hurled at top speed through the barrel. With this information gathering, I can be confident in inserting this knowledge into any future novel.

On the other side, deciding on the exact audience I want to capture is a little more tenuous. I’ve written in several genres. I could take the approach that most people might be like me and read more than just one type of fiction. However, that would be a big assumption based on nothing but shaking the magical eight ball of faux wisdom. When I read an article online, I honestly can’t pinpoint the intended audience. I know I’m part of the key because I clicked the link and was engaged. So I could rationalize that people of like mind would also enjoy the article. That still gives me little to go on. Presumption isn’t a very good virtue. It’s a fallacy we carry in our pocket.

Still we must learn the art of research to succeed in college. Every subject employs the tactic in one form or another. Our teachings go beyond the textbook. By using multiple sources, distinguishing fact from falsehood will be easier to spot. This isn’t going to convince everyone to your side of the line. An impassioned plea could stir emotion. That human element is a strong ally. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech, for example. In the end, supporting your argument with facts—whether by expert opinion or diligent research—will be the cornerstone to the validity of your statements. Think of The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare. Petruchio claims that the sun is the moon yet Katherine rebukes his claim. This is a test of wills between the two would-be lovers and while the statement of Petruchio is false in every sense of the word he expects Katherine to see it as truth. These are the circumstances we could find ourselves embroiled in today if a conscious effort is not made to question one’s reasoning. To ask why someone believes their opinion is rational and all knowing. We are the seekers of knowledge. Otherwise, we wouldn’t grasp debt and sleepless nights like a newborn.

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Writing Process as Peddled as a College Paper

I envy no one that has to do essays over and over. Sadly, this was just one of three courses required. 😡

Every November is a furious race to fifty thousand words known as National Novel Writing Month, or NaNo for short. I have participated in this crazy event since 2007, with the exception of last year. Schoolwork was more important than earning a badge for hastily written words. Besides, the draft is often ripe with typos, poor grammar, and weak prose. However, I have managed—after extensive revising and editing—to get most of my NaNo works published. I have also amassed quite a collection of unfinished manuscripts. One, in particular, comes to mind as the most irksome to complete.

The year was 2009 and I decided, for some insane reason, to try something completely out of my comfort zone. My main character, for example, had such an odd personality. Far from the typical hero I wrote about. This character was homage to my son who was a unique individual himself. Plus, I was taking a big step back from the romance genre I’d built my brand on to mainstream. At least, that was the direction I wanted to take the novel with paranormal undertones. It would take me three years to figure out the formula to complete this manuscript. NaNo is twisted fun but not your friend.

As often the case when I sit down to pound the keys, I had a few plot ideas and research completed but no solid outline. I’m what the writing worlds refer to as a “pantster”. Meaning, we fly by the seat of our pens. Not that I’ve never tried a stiff outline. It’s just not something I’m comfortable doing. I have the tendency to stray from the plotline that I lock the manuscript away for years in disgust. Ever hear an author say they’re waiting for the characters to speak to them? That’s the method I love. It’s served me faithfully for many years. Think of it as method acting but with pen and paper. So prewriting as a whole is a few notes of how the story begins and a possible ending plus any weird research I unearth.

By the end of November in 2009, I had a nearly completed novel at 50,002 words. Or more precisely, a jumbled mess of words. Exhausted, I didn’t even want to look at a page much less figure out the final ending. To say I loathed the whole thing would be putting it mildly. I tried to finish the laboring novel or at least clean up the mess I made. Something this long in word count had never been my forte. Novellas were more my speed. I had to step away and rethink the mish-mash of characters crying for attention. That was the problem with my original concept—too many points of view. A head-hopping extravaganza hated in the publishing world. Unfortunately, I had no solution to the problem. I had become attached to minor characters and wanted their voices to be heard. One more novel on my hard drive I would never finish. Fifty thousand useless words cranked out in one month.

Sometime in 2011, I stared at that long forgotten file on my computer and something clicked. Why not transform this mainstream monstrosity into a young adult novel? The main character was sixteen years old and had the central storyline over any other character. I felt renewed until I realized how many words had to be culled. To my horror those minor players took a good chunk of the story because of my quest to get to fifty thousand. Panic set in. All my publications meant nothing and self-doubt almost had me quitting again. This wasn’t my preferred genre. Why bother? If I allowed one more manuscript to go unfinished, I’d start spiraling down into that endless cycle again but I loathed revising. Where to start this onerous task? First, I narrowed down what I wanted to work on. In the publishing business, the first three chapters must be strong. From there on out I continued to trick my anxiety issues by tackling little chunks instead of the novel as a whole. I called this my horse-blinder technique. Concentrate on what’s ahead and ignore the distractions around you. One open call for the first five pages of a young adult novel and I had a publisher interested in my manuscript. So in the summer of 2012, I buckled down and finished my first full length novel in a genre I’d never attempted.

Throughout this whole process, I learned that writing for the sake of getting words on the screen isn’t an asset as a writer. My creation had to be completely dismantled because I sputtered out nonsense. While the novel ended up being over seventy-five thousand words, the self-editing process had deleted over twenty-five thousand from the initial draft. Countless hours wasted because of the preconceived notion that any words on the page mattered. I got my novel published but suffered the setback of the publisher closing its doors less than a year after its release. This is not a failure but a lesson learned. My haste to get something different and build another brand made me reckless. I should have done a little internet investigative work on the publisher. Hindsight is a curious animal. I will use my experience to continue to expand my knowledge by trying subject matter that isn’t in my comfort zone. Writing is more than a passion for me. It’s a second job. I look forward to use my word craft in various ways. You only fail if you don’t try. To quote Galaxy Quest: Never give up, never surrender.

 

Course Selection: The Crapshoot

When I first attempted college in 1987, I dove straight into something that lacked complete and utter direction. Lost in the whirlwind of my parents happy that I had decided higher education was a good thing, I picked courses that had about as much meaning as the tar bubbles I used to pop along the side of the road in my youth. Seriously, what was I going to do with a meteorology class? I thought that Liberal Arts Degree was genius as well. Needless to say I failed miserably. My harried combination of working and going to school full-time broke my barely adult will. The youth of this country really do need direction more than a participation ribbon.

Now I was at the precipice of middle age and as a newly unmarried person, it was time to get serious about what I want to do for the rest of my life. Twisted Sister’s anthem of “I Wanna Rock” wasn’t going to cut it. For the past twenty-two years I’d been in the exciting world of retail sales. A field that, while that long tenure could be construed as a career, wasn’t at all challenging at this point. I have, however, been able to gain experience in reading budgets, managing stock levels, and learning Microsoft Office. In that, I found my goal—or more importantly—my next career path.

For me, failure was not an option. I must succeed and not muddle by—not only in the first term but every consecutive one following. Those days of carefree dreaming had past. Unfortunately, being the sole income in a household of one human slave and three furry overlords, attending classes at an actual campus was not going to be possible. Unlike my youthful self, I had the ability to take online courses. This afforded me to be in the most comfortable environment to learn. At my house, in my jammies, and rocking to whatever music struck my fancy. I’ve taken a page from my directionless youth and decided part-time would suit my needs best. The dishes don’t wash themselves, and I didn’t want the house to turn into a Wild, Wild West theme with furballs starring as the tumbleweeds. I also learned through my experience in completing mandatory training at work that distractions bombarded me no matter how big the headphones I donned were. I called it the curse of trying to learn everything about your job no matter how mundane or unattractive the position could be. How we perform, whether a transitional dishwashing jig to a high-powered office environment, will shape our skills to not only handle the job market but our personal lives.

I am the cornerstone to my success. However, I cannot rely on just myself. Pride has no place and asking for help doesn’t make me a lesser being. The ultimate goal is using the resources afforded to me to reach the end goal. I can do this.