I have mixed feelings about research. On the one hand it can be dull because it’s not actual writing and can take discipline, but on the other hand it’s learning and it’s creative because I don’t know what exciting things it will bring to my story.
Research can also be a fearful process. Will I find the story hook I need? Will it give me the dramatic plot points I’m seeking? Will it fit with the story I have in my head? Or will it take me down rabbit holes? This depends, of course, on how much of your story exists in your head, and whether you’re a pantser or plotter.
There’s the danger too that research can become a procrastination point, as it has with me lately. Here are my best tips on how to research effectively and efficiently:
- Explore – First and foremost, research is about exploration. Perhaps you’re just looking for details that will make your story realistic like setting and costume, but maybe you’re looking for plot points and characters. Let your curiosity loose and see where it takes you.
- Read – Scour stories, articles, and other pieces you find on the internet. Devour books (fiction and non-fiction). Trawl through diaries and old newspapers. Investigate journals. Go where you need to go. Become a magpie.
- Watch films, documentaries, TV – Visual research such as watching films, documentaries or TV programs can be a rich source for writers. They can be emotive and give you pictures of things that might have been challenging to imagine. Use them as enrichment and to add authenticity.
- Conduct interviews – Talk to people. Is there an expert who could help you? Is there someone you’d like to use as a character? Were there people who experienced the kind of event you’re writing about? Most people are willing to help out so find your courage and ask. All they can say is no.
- Travel – My next story is going to require me to travel overseas during a particular event that will be the culmination of my novel. I also need to be there to see whose pathways I will cross and where that will lead me. I know one author who needed French WWII collaborator stories for her story so she went to a rural town there, sat in a cafe, told people what she was after and gradually locals came to her to talk. Travel can add colour, character and plot points. Create the opportunity for synchronicity to happen.
- Take organised notes – I use a physical book or sheets of paper to write up the details of each piece I research, then I highlight key information with a pen and rewrite it in a more meaningful way. For my first novel being published next year, I wrote up must-have points in sequential order because that’s how my story was organised. I ended up with 3 pages of notes that I used as a checklist. For any details, I had the longer notes. Also, I do separate notes for ideas that emerge during the process.
- Trust – With my last two novels I’ve had clear ideas of how the stories were going to work, meaning that while my research filled in gaps, I didn’t need it for plot points. With my current story I’m somewhat in the dark so I’m relying a lot more on what emerges during this process. Whether you’re a panster or plotter, trust that your research will give you what you need.
- Background only – Whatever you find through your research, your novel is fiction, not a lecture. Your research should inspire and inform you and provide authenticity where needed. It should never dictate your story or characters. Let it sink in to your mind and fall into the background.
- When to stop – Stop when you have enough critical information and can start writing your story. You could research forever, which can become an excuse for procrastination. Just dive in. You can always do research along the way to fill in specific details.
While all fiction and creative non-fiction requires strong characters with something to say, my next novel, a strained family saga, is especially character driven. I’m reading The Art of Character by David Corbett to extend and deepen my abilities, and (in theory), liberate my creativity. What are you doing to improve your work?
‘Life is like riding a bicycle.
To keep your balance you must keep moving.’
Is your book cooked when:
- You’ve put it aside for a while, and when you return to it you’re satisfied
- The story works well, including the ending
- You’ve found an agent or publisher
- You know you’ve done your absolute best
- You don’t care anymore, you just want to get it out there
- You’ve rewritten it 12 times and that’s enough
- Your beta readers, editor or writing group tell you so
- You’ve reached the standard required for your genre
- You’ve simply got nothing left
- Another book beckons
- You just know this is it
- The world can’t wait to hear your story any longer
I’m coming to the end of my final edit for my MS, unless a publisher tells me otherwise. The problem is, every time I look back I see new ways to improve my book. I believe this is because with every edit, my skills improve. But if I begin yet again, there’s a real risk of getting caught in an endless rewriting loop.
Set your work aside if you can, or seek an outside (objective) opinion to help you determine if your work is sufficiently cooked. If you’re a perfectionist, remember there’s no such thing as perfect because EVERYTHING is subjective.
With my manuscript, it’s definitely near ready to eat, which my writing group has confirmed. I hear the call of another story.
Success means different things to different writers. Perhaps you have a writer you aspire to be like, or you aim to publish in a particular way within a certain time frame, or you have technical goals about how you to ideally express yourself, or all of the above.
The question is:
- Are your goals realistic and achievable?
- Are they truly your goals (or some other ideal defined by people you know, writing mythology or your parents)?
- Are you flexible enough to adjust your goals as needed?
- Can you accept failure as part of the creative process, learn from it and continue?
Whose goals? Your goals
- Do you dream of fame and fortune like JK Rowling enjoys? That might be nice, but her writing journey belongs to her just like yours belongs to you. Don’t rule out producing five best sellers in the next five years if that’s your aim, but remember that good writing comes from authenticity. So cast away others’ expectations, stop worrying about what the market claims it wants (which would likely be outdated by the time you produced something similar, if you could that is), forget about proving yourself to your parents or whoever, and look inside yourself to discover what writing means to you. Write for that reason and persist. Relentlessly. Be you.
- Remember, few people are instant successes. Often, many years of learning and hard work sits behind such myths.
- Finally, understand that one person’s success is another’s failure. This is why you must define success for yourself. At the end of the day, once the flashbulbs dim, even JK Rowling has to sit down alone and create a book she’s happy with.
- There’s always another hill to climb with writing—the next story, the next competition, a better publisher etc.. When you achieve something celebrate it.
- To do this, monitor your progress. Break it up into bite sized achievements that you can celebrate along the way. Did you write 1k words each week for the last 8 weeks like you planned? Tick. Did you do a course on character building and bring yours to life? Yay. Did you approach five publishers like planned even if though didn’t hear back from the first two? Brave. Did you enjoy the writing process? Well done. Did you get lost in your love of language, or did the characters carry you away to unexpected places? Wondrous!
Learn to fail well
- Failure is a binary concept that requires success as its polar opposite. Failure and success are thus abstract and arbitrary. We’ve already seen how definitions can vary wildly. Don’t let your beliefs about them stall or stop you. They’re only ideas, which you don’t have to be bound by. Change your thinking.
- Writing requires failure
- If we weren’t willing to fail, new territory wouldn’t be traversed and creativity would cease to exist.
- Don’t let the redrafting process make earlier drafts feel like failures. They’re not, they’re simply part of the process. Accept this and keep going.
- Also, because many writers aspire towards perfection they’re bound to always fail. How can we ever succeed if we continually moved the goal posts further away? Even multi-published authors are often dissatisfied with their achievements. Get off the perfection treadmill.
- Above all, writing and publishing are about tenacity. In this post, I discuss how persistence beats talent. It can be a long process of learning your craft before you test the market to find the best, and sometimes only means to publish your work.
- If things don’t go to plan, don’t give up. If you expected to find a traditional publisher but that didn’t work out, consider self-publishing, research a hybrid model, put your book away or begin again until you produce something your kind of publisher wants. You might also need to lower the bar. Begin slowly but surely. Tortoise, hair – remember?
- If you do ‘fail’ to meet your goals, make use of it. Learn from it and continue writing.
- Remember, THE ONLY WAY TO FAIL WRITING IS TO QUIT.