Writer Research: How Real Do I Have to Be?

May 9, 2013


Authors always ask this question because research is time consuming, and they’re itching to get writing. I can sympathize. It took me a year to write my novel, and it was because I researched the medical and metaphysical world ’til the cows came home. I went the extra mile because I wanted my writing to be beyond reproach. I was rewarded by lots of people in the medical community asking what kind of medicine I practiced. BoOya! I bless those docs who kept me on the straight and narrow.

Because of that endorsement, readers trusted me. And that’s what you want for your book. If you half-ass something because “Well, it’s a minor thing, and no one will notice,” then think again. Someone will ALWAYS notice. Keeping a reader engaged is about trust. If you blow something, or make something up, then readers will feel bitten. Bite them too much, and you’ll lose them. It could something as minor as how a Catholic ceremony is performed, or as major as an MS patient’s ability to move around.

I remember reading an author’s first pages at a writer’s conference – a romance. She had her couple taking a long romantic walk by the Amazon, where they eventually got down to some serious horizontal calisthenics. Big problem, though. I just happened to spend 17 bug-filled days in the Amazon, and I can assure you that the only thing you’re doing on a hot Amazon night is showering in a Deet bath and zipping your tent. Romance is the furthest thing from your mind.

The idea was lovely, but completely unrealistic, and as a reader, I would have tossed her book across the room. You simply cannot take short cuts with your readers. It’s unfair to them because they invested in your book. You owe it to them and yourself to be unimpeachable…even if it’s a minor scene. To do anything else is admitting that you’re lazy, and when I see blunders like this in submissions, I reject them.

Not researching every element of your book is a noob blunder, and when I see it, I always think, “Well, if they blew this important element of writing, then what else do they not understand?” Editors avoid working with noobs.

So if you’re tempted to short cut your way out of writing a medical procedure, what kind of weapon Army Rangers use, or what your characters are doing in a certain setting, always remember that your readers be watchin’ you, so keep it real!

Have a plan

January 23, 2012

“If you don’t have a plan for yourself, you’ll be a part of someone else’s.”

I love this because it’s simplistically brilliant and sage. I bagged it off one of my author’s manuscripts that I’m editing. It resonates because I see so many authors, excited by a story, sit down to write…only to finish and begin bumping into walls. Many of those walls are filled with publishers who don’t provide authors what they’d hoped for.

And this is because those authors haven’t created a plan and became a part of someone else’s…like an inferior publisher, or crummy agent.

Dear, dear authors, you MUST have a plan for your literary career. And I’m not talking about the one where you sell your book for a gabajillion dollars, buy Hawaii, and sip margaritas all day long while cabana men peel you grapes and tell you how utterly brilliant and beautiful you are.

No. The plan I’m talking about focuses on researching the industry (I hear The Writer’s Essential Tackle Box is a stellar choice) so you have enough information that allows you to make informed choices. There has to be a reason why you query those particular agents, or those particular editors. Authors who send me cookbook or fiction queries don’t have a plan. They’re little pinball machines that bump up against any agent or editor that happens to be in their current field of vision. And that can spell disaster for you and your book if one of those are scams.

Don’t be a part of someone else’s plan. Have your own. That’s the only way you can publish on your own terms. And who knows…maybe you will buy Hawaii…

Look BEFORE you leap

January 7, 2011

The most powerful words in the industry are “What have you heard?” Whether it’s about a book, an agent, or a publisher, there is always SOMEONE who knows something and can offer an opinion. So there’s no excuse for jumping into something before you know the score, right?

Word of mouth is the breakfast of champions.

But what drives me a bit loony is when I hear this: “I queried a publisher/agent and they asked for pages. Anyone know anything about them?”


My first question is why on earth are you querying ANYONE you haven’t researched? It’s like being on an operating table and asking the nurses what they’ve heard about the surgeon. Yikes! You’d never allow someone to jumble about your innards without knowing whether they knew the difference between a scalpel and a butter knife, so why would you do any differently with a book that took you ages to write?

And yet I see this time and time again – on writer’s boards and at conferences. Writers will ask me what I’ve heard about Publisher ABC or Agent XYZ because they sent them their full manuscript. It always takes me aback because I worry about their blind trust. Trust must be earned. Just because someone calls herself an agent or editor doesn’t mean she knows what she’s doing. I’ve seen way too many writers burned this way because they figured that person was “someone important.”

And they might not be. They might be a scam, or someone who’s only been in business for five minutes. My point is that you don’t know until you’ve checked them out. So please, dear authors – in the interests of a brand new year and fresh starts – look BEFORE you leap. It’s the difference between making a terrible mistake and a knowledgeable decision. After all, you’d hate to make the beagle cry, right?

If you don’t read, how do you know?

November 3, 2010

Over the past several months, I’ve been hither, thither, and yon, talking at conferences, giving library seminars, and reading queries, and I’ve noticed some consistencies:

Those who didn’t read
Those who were trying something entirely new

Those who don’t read

A number of the pitches I read and heard sounded unmarketable. So unmarketable that I asked who they felt would read their books. Um…well…head scratchie…

Ok, here’s an easier question, sez me, where does your book fit? Who’s your competition? Um…well…head scratchie…I have no competition because there’s nothing on the market like my book.

Ohhh…the exclamation point speech bubble pops over my head…how much reading have you done? Author’s eyes search the heavens…um, not much.

Pricey goes head bangy. How on earth can you know you have something unless you’re well read in your genre? I’ve heard all kinds of excuses – “I don’t want someone else’s book getting inside my head.” “I don’t have the time.” “Oh, that’s important?”

See, the thing that bugs me about these comments is that the writers aren’t taking their craft seriously. This isn’t an industry where someone decides to write a book and whamm-o, out pops a bestseller.Words come to mind: sacrilegious, hubris, certifiable.

Look at it from our standpoint; are we going to spend thousands on an author who doesn’t take his craft seriously. Sure, there are the odd accidental hits, but of those few, there are tens of thousands of books that aren’t hits. They have to make it the old-fashioned way; by understanding what it takes to be a writer.

And one of those elements to being a writer is understanding the unique qualities of your book. But you can’t know that unless you’ve read your competition. Believe me, at some point, an editor or agent will ask – and won’t you look the green jellybean for stuttering over your tongue?

Read, people! Know your competition and understand how your story fits in nicely with theirs, yet lends a new voice.

Those who were trying something entirely new

Then there are authors I’ve encountered of late who were trying to break new territory. I’m always happy to entertain these writers because they may be on to something quite cool. But what I’ve been seeing are those whose new territories reside on other planets. It’s like trying to blast a new tunnel through a mountain. Without knowing what’s on the other side, you have no idea how much dynamite it’ll take to do the job.

Breaking new territory in a book requires a lot of dynamite because it’s new. No one has done it before, so you need to have a solid foundation – meaning that there needs to be some familiarity to it. Take Stephanie Meyers…we already had vampires and we already had romance. But we didn’t have vampire romance. Voila! She combined two genres that the reading public is already familiar with and made some serious lemonade.

But I’ve been seeing things that I’m not sure the reading public is ready for quite yet because there’s no frame of reference. And even if readers are ready for plumber/alien romance, or vampire botanists, I’m not sure the genre buyers’ loins have been properly girded. In other words, it helps if the story makes sense. I love quirky just as much as the next person, but I’d like there to be a plausible reason for the story to exist.

And this comes from reading and researching your genre. After all, there are only so many rotten beagle secretary stories one can exploit, yanno?


Research – plausibility

March 9, 2010

I was bouncing around to the various writing boards and found this particular question noteworthy:

Do you care more about the author suspending belief in the laws of nature or our man-made laws of society? Or both? Or neither?

Hoo boy, talk about a publisher’s nightmare. Readers are soooo smart and savvy, and there is nothing worse for a publisher when caught with their Victoria Secrets down around their ankles. If a story isn’t labeled science fiction or fantasy, where the laws of physics and, well, every other law as well, can be manipulated into whatever you want it to be, there is a responsibility to remain as factual as possible.

And this involves research.

Suspension of disbelief has its limits. How many of us have been engrossed with a story only to have something pop up that makes us groan, “There is no way that happens in real life?” Things like, according to our resident lawyer and author Donna Ballman, a lawyer can’t change sides in mid-case. Legally, it can’t happen. Or, as one author put in on the writer’s board, ice that sinks.

Many readers may gloss over it, never aware of the lack of plausibility, or they may throw the book across the room because their suspension of disbelief just took a U-turn.

Contract with your readers – trust

Many writers may shrug and say, “who cares? It’s all about the story, so what’s the big deal about a little muff up here and there?” Well, a lot. I believe writers have an unspoken contract with their readers, and it goes like this:

If you read my book, you can be assured that I researched every bit of information that’s in here.

This is a sign of respect for your readers and yourself. You’re telling the world that you care enough about them and your integrity to get it right. I write medical fiction, and I spent nearly a year researching every facet of my book and asking author, surgeon David Page, author of the brilliant Body Trauma, to keep me factually correct. The ultimate compliment was being at author events and doctors asking me at author events what kind of medicine I practice.

On the flip side, we once had an author whose main character had MS. I’d read it and thought, ok, she’s got MS. My editor, however, has MS and was furious at the way the character was depicted. The author got everything wrong. I asked the author how this could be. Her reply was that she hadn’t really bothered to research MS and didn’t think it was a big deal.

Well, hell’s bells, it certainly is a big deal to the millions of people with MS, who may read the book. She unwittingly broke her contract to her readers. She basically said, “I don’t respect you – or me – enough to get my facts right.”

Since the whole story was wrapped around this character’s MS, the story fell apart. There was no story. I learned a tough lesson that day. Had my editor not had MS and known better, this book would have been the laughing stock of my lineup. Hardly good for credibility – for the author, or for us.

It’s not just your neck on the line

“You?” you ask? You betcha. Us – the publisher. Just recently Holt had to pull a book off the shelves due to the questionable veracity of the author and his sources. I hate to even guess what that cost them. While Holt will be able to absorb the blunder, a massive recall could put a small indie trade press out of business in under five seconds. So before you get upset at your editor for questioning the authenticity of that Catholic ceremony in Chapter 14 – yes, the very ceremony that’s pivotal to the plot, keep in mind they bear the financial brunt of your lack of research.

This is also about trust. If you get something wrong – a big thing, like performing an emergency heart transplant in the ER – you’ve breached your reader’s trust. How likely are they going to be to trust anything else in your book? If they no longer trust what you’re telling them, then what do you think the reviews will be? In short, their suspension of disbelief just got blown out of the water.

The point  is this: There is always someone who knows more than you about any given subject, so it’s your duty to get it right. Some may gloss over it and forgive you. Others will deride you and say nasty things about your book.

Yes, but did you actually read the book?

November 15, 2009

kitteh with glassesI love it when queries include books from our own lineup – as in, “my book is reminiscent to Tornado Siren…” (a deliciously good book) I appreciate it because the author has taken her time to know our company and analyze the kinds of books we publish.

Or have they?

The trick is not blow their cover, meaning they didn’t really read the book and are merely using one of our books for suck-up points. They look at our front and backlist and throw a dart.

I had an author do this a couple weeks ago. He insisted that his book had the same kind of theme  as Barry Petersen’s riveting book, Jan’s Story.

That’s nice. Great, even.

Except one thing…

Barry’s book won’t be published until June 2010.

Whoopsie…Mr. Liar Liar Pantsonfire just exposed himself – which tempts the beagle to commence the cocktail hour at noon.

Lying is so unnecessary. Do I care if an author includes one of our books as a comp title? Not at all. If an author happened to read one of our books and discovered they shared some common elements, that’s great because it’s heartfelt and genuine. If you’re busted, though, anyone with a working brain cell will reject out of hand because no one wants to work with someone who would be willing to lie about something so silly.

Why bother reading a publisher’s books?

On the flip side, there was an author who had very obviously read one of our books. She went into detail about the conflict and the similar elements that comprised her book as well. You may not think that’s such a big deal, but it got my little black heart thinking about promotion. If I had two books that drew on the same key elements, I can successfully exploit that into all kinds of nice promotion.

If I’m busy reading, when do I query?

I agree that if authors stopped to read books from every editor they were interested in querying, they’d never achieve their goal. Quite silly, indeed. But for those who do read a few because the books are genuinely interesting to them, they are one step ahead of the author who zooms over editors’ email addresses with a power mower.

There are a ton of small trade presses who publish fabulous books. Because they are small, it’s important to know who you’re dealing with. If they have a book that looks good, read it. From this you’ll be able to tell about their editing and qualities of their stories.

I always say, a smart author is a well-researched author. If you tell an editor you read their book, then you better make sure you really did. Otherwise you could be viewing the world through the egg that’s on your face.


Research what you don’t know

June 17, 2009

There is nothing cooler than a well researched story. There is nothing more fraudulent and lazy than a poorly researched story. With that in mind, I want to address this question:

Why am I letting the research dictate the story? Do I have to back off reality and let the fiction flow, or is realism really that important to the general reader?

Obviously it depends on what needs to be researched. If we’re talking a street in Big Town USA, then who cares? Make it up; we’ll play along. But it’s a real buzzkill if the author blows ingredients for scones in the 1800s or the mating rituals of the bluebelly sapsucker. Readers will fillet an author if they get their facts wrong, and they lose all credibility.

I had an author whose main character had MS. I didn’t think anything about it, but my editor has MS and she went ballistic, saying there was no way an MS patient would behave in the manner the author had written. The author’s reply; “I didn’t bother researching MS.” Argh! Since this novel’s foundations were based on MS, the lack of research pretty much blew a hole in her entire story.

Research doesn’t just stop once you found out what you need to know. You need to “over-research” in order to know what’s important and what’s fluff.

An editor told me to never let the facts interfere with good fiction.

I see things like this and I’m forced to send the beagle out with her hit squad of unruly German Shepherds. Writers who take this advice literally risk having their readers skewer them. The first thing they’ll think is, “If they were wrong about this, then they’re probably wrong about that.” They lose faith in the writer.

As an example, I read a book that took place in the Amazon. The story had this big emotional love scene on the banks of the Amazon. I nearly fell over laughing because that would never happen. I spent 17 bug-filled days in the Peruvian Amazon (doing research for my second novel) and I can attest that the couple in question would have passed out from blood loss due to the ravenous millions of mosquitoes that come out when the sun goes down. This blatant disregard for researching her surroundings ruined the rest of the book for me.

Don’t go overboard
Now, this isn’t to say that readers will want your head on a platter if you have a scene in a made-up bar in Washington D.C. on a particular street. That is fictional license, and that isn’t what I’m talking about. Make up your bar, street, school, town, whatever. This is fine. However, if you have a Catholic ceremony, you better make darn sure you have it right or you may find yourself dodging lightening bolts.

Readers notice every little niggly detail. They don’t mind made-up things, but they do mind getting established facts wrong. Getting it wrong takes the reader right out of your story. They begin to look for other faults. That’s why Body Trauma: The Writer’s Guide to Wounds and Injuries by Dr. David Page and our upcoming release The Writers Guide to the Courtroom: Let’s Quill All the Lawyers by Donna Ballman, J.D. are so important. They offer one stop shopping research for writers so they can avoid the common problems that often accompany stories that involve these elements.

Having gone through exhaustive research myself, I can verify that research oftentimes makes writing the story easier because you’re in possession of all the facts. You are now fully immersed in your story and confident that you have a good handle on your subject. You know you’re believable. It helps round out who your MCs are, how they react, how they think, how they work.

Don’t fear the time factor:
Research takes an inordinate amount of time. I spent an entire year researching and writing my novel, and my payback was a bevy of medical people asking what kind of medicine I practice. I also heard from readers who used my book as a resource for coping or inspiration, complete with bookmarked pages and highlighted passages. Had I blown one single detail, those readers would have tossed the book down and called me a fraud, even though this is a character-driven story. The long and short of it is this; if I expect my readers to follow my MCs into the abyss, I have to make sure all aspects of the little parts are bulletproof – no matter how long it took me to get it.

I’m positive that it took me longer to write my novel because I got so engrossed in my research. There were days I’d slip into my best pair of cranky pants over what I perceived as wasting many hours that could have been spent on writing. I quickly realized that even though most of the stuff I researched wouldn’t make it into the book, it might very well be used elsewhere – like the second in the series. The research was fascinating, and I felt like I was connecting to my MCs on a much deeper level. The long and short of it is that writers have a job to tell the best story they’re capable of telling. Research is normally a part of storytelling, so why would anyone want to shortcut such a vital piece of the puzzle?

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