Book Research

I recently finished my latest submission for my critique group. My usual routine is to take the week off while waiting for my critiques to come in. The time away from writing lets my story simmer for a bit and refreshes my mind in preparation for the next round of 8,000+ words. Something fun I like to do during this time off is look back at what I researched for my latest submission.

My obsession with research comes from two sources: my career as a tax professional and a science fiction literature class. First, substantiation plays a huge role in the field of tax and accounting. An auditor is not going to buy your explanation without proof substantiating your claim. The key to indisputable proof is thorough research of the law as it applies to your facts and circumstances.

Also, a college literature course ingrained the concept of plausibility in my mind. Readers must be able to suspend their disbelief in the created worlds of speculative fiction. Plausibility is achieved on several levels, but research is essential for factual believability. In my created world, a human subspecies is threatened by extinction. In order to be credible, I spent the good half of a day researching extinction.

Hence, research accounts for a lot of my time at the computer. Sometimes, I spend more time researching a topic than writing about it. While I’m a firm believer in doing my homework, I stress about the time it takes away from adding word count to my manuscript. An inner struggle inherently ensues to rationalize that this time is well spent. When I find myself in this place, I remember what I learned from a virtual class with best-selling author, David Baldacci.

An entire lesson of Baldacci’s lecture series was dedicated to research. During one part, he talked about his collection of binders full of notes. As an example, he referenced a 3-inch notebook with his research about nuclear weapons. He used these notes for only two paragraphs in one of his books. Vindication; my research time is a good investment. Oh, and I have a lovely collection of binders, too.

For my last submission, my research topics included:
~ Burns as in first, second, and third-degree burns.
~ Swordsmanship for one never knows when a character might need to lob the head off of a menacing creature.
~ Smaug, the dragon from The Hobbit
~ Body language of horses
~ Ancient woodlands
~ Barn floorplans

Always a fun exercise, but heaven help me if my computer is ever search by authorities of any kind.

Dear Critique Partner

Let me start by thanking you for your thoughtful feedback about my recent submission. It’s apparent you spent a considerable amount of time on it.

First, I hope my effort to provide a good clean copy for your review didn’t go unnoticed. I don’t believe in submitting a first draft because it inevitably includes more telling than showing, the dreaded info-dumping and careless grammar mistakes. I don’t want these obvious issues to hinder your review. I want you to focus your expertise on the story elements like plot, characters, dialogue, and worldbuilding. I think I accomplished this goal as most of your comments are related to what I’m looking for.

I noticed several of your comments were tagged “it’s only my opinionandit’s your story.” Yes, it is my story, and I want your opinion. I want to know what you learned about the world in which my story takes place in. Do you understand their culture and customs? Their magic system? Do my characters have depth, their own voice? Do you know what they look like? Do you care? Are my descriptions flat? Or over-the-top and distracting? In your opinion, what do you think about the pacing, dialogue, the rhythm and flow of the prose? Was there enough tension? So please, please give your opinion to me.

Where you commented you couldn’t remember or recall certain details, I understand. There are gaps in time between the review of chapters. I have the same problem at times. But being a hoarder pays off when it happens to me. I think I have every critique I’ve ever written. The hardest part about looking to see if I missed something is the time it takes to find the right submission. Most of the time, it’s my forgetfulness. If it’s not, I let the writer know to make the detail in question more memorable.

Another favorite comment of mine is “I’m not very good at explaining myself.” I’m sure you’ve gotten it a time or two yourself. I struggle with this remark because we’re writers. Describing a character’s thoughts, their emotions and actions and settings are the essence of our work. So shouldn’t we be able to convey our thoughts in a critique? I know it can take some time to find the right words to express ourselves, but take whatever you need to voice your impression. Otherwise, don’t make the comment if you can’t explain it. Right?

Many thanks for a couple of your suggestions. One of them triggered an ah-ha moment about how to fix a pacing problem that’s been testing my patience. Another inspired me to approach the description of a scene from a different angle. The result was a black and white noir-type setting. Escorted by the detective, the protag trudged down the shady hallway in a surreal daze. Nondescript gray walls, gray doors, gray linoleum. The dim overhead lights cast shadows as they marched towards their destination. The sterile morgue. White walls, shiny white floor, bright lights, and the stark reality. A truly wonderful writing experience for me. Thank you so much for the inspiration.

Oh, and by the way, my main character is a woman, not a man. Just want to make sure you knew since you used the masculine pronoun “he” throughout your review.

Sincerely,
Suzanne

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The above post is my cynical look at the critique process. It is a vital part of writing, and I honestly appreciate and enjoy the feedback I receive. But at times, I question its authenticity. Yes, we are reminded to take critique comments “with a grain of salt”, which literally means to not take something literally, but to view it with skepticism. What’s the point of the critique then?