Category Archives: Research

All Q, No A

I have spent a full month writing (but not finishing) the first short story of a planned collection of ten. (Eight, actually—I expect to ditch the weakest two. They don’t know it yet.) At this point, I can safely say I have more questions than answers. The opposite would probably be worse, though; having more answers than questions might feel like a multiple-choice test, and tests are stressful.

In the last four weeks, the following mysteries, among others, have presented themselves to me:

  1. QsHow much craft should go into a first draft? I’m a poet and I didn’t know it.
  2. Do they call it a draft because it has holes? Come on, I’m serious.
  3. Which is more important: sticking to the schedule, or taking the time to get it right? Within reason, as defined by a perfectionist.
  4. How much is too much backstory? Do you need a narrative providing the history of this question?
  5. Is it normal to crave frozen yogurt? Chocolate-vanilla swirl with rainbow sprinkles.
  6. Is it okay to write to entertain, rather than to be literary? My dream is to have a story published in a middle-school anthology.
  7. Literary magazines have length limits, so am I shooting myself in the foot (or accomplishing some other gory metaphor) by writing 5,000- to 6,000-word stories? Sounds like a job for an editor!
  8. How fully realized should the main character of a short story be? Same question for secondary characters. Screw the tertiary characters.
  9. How much time should I allow for research? Isn’t it easier to make facts up?
  10. How important is it to follow rules about writing? I’m not much of a lawbreaker.

I welcome answers to any of the above, and the sooner the better!


Heavily Metallic

The twinge of guilt lasted as long as it took the Kindle edition to download to my tablet. “Yet another book I will never find time to read,” I thought.  But I was pleased that the knowledge I desired was now safely in my library, if not yet in my brain. Besides, it was an important resource for my novel.

I had heard Jean Haner speak several times about her expertise in Chinese face reading, an ancient branch of Chinese medicine. Based on an issue of her excellent newsletter, I knew that my facial features indicated the personality type of Metal—the Perfectionist. The other four types are Water (the Dreamer), Wood (the Pioneer), Fire (the Fun-Lover), and Earth (the Nurturer).

The Wisdom of Your FaceHaner’s The Wisdom of Your Face remained unread for about a day. I went straight to the Metal chapter and was amazed to discover that I possessed all eight of the defining qualities presented for that element. Haner says, “If you have all of these characteristics, which is rare, you’ll know that you’re a very Metallic person!” These features included

  • Large nose
  • Prominent upper cheeks
  • Fine bone structure, small wrists and ankles
  • Pale complexion for racial heritage

If you don’t know how accurate these descriptors are, check out my photo on the About page.

Sample observations of Metal that resonated for me:

  • “Your precision and care also create success in professions such as surgeon, software designer, accountant, editor, and artist.” (I am an editor.)
  • “The worst thing someone can do to you is to offer some ‘constructive criticism.’ You’re already so tough on yourself that knowing someone else noticed when you did something wrong can be too much to bear.” (Excruciatingly true.)
  • “Metal is more affected by visual clutter than any other Element, but this doesn’t mean that you’re a total neat freak. Open any drawer or closet, and you may find a chaos of confusion.” (It’s like she has a camera in my house!)

The book goes into depth about the meanings of various facial features. For example, the major indicator of Metal on the face is the nose, which represents the capacity for power. Furthermore, the larger your nose, the more you’ll feel driven to achieve in your 40s—and the more powerful a decade it will be!

What a great spin on having a big schnoz.

Ten Random Things about My Novel

Well, I met my goal to write 5,000 words of my novel in the month of November. It feels pretty good to open up the file and see a word count of 5,078. My husband asked if the words were good ones, which is a fair question. I believe a sampling—portal, secrets, it, gold, sauerkraut, grammar, taxi, her, the, marveled, apricot, stretch, chimney—shows a range from banal to mildly intriguing.

In the spirit of randomness, here are some additional observations about the experience of starting my novel:

  1. I wrote the second chapter first.
  2. There is a sex scene in the very first chapter. Who saw that coming?
  3. I kept misspelling the heroine’s name (not a good sign). Then I stumbled upon the perfect name, the meaning of which is virtually the working title of the novel. (Home˃Replace)
  4. Dark and StormyI had a general outline in mind, but I didn’t know what I was going to write from one paragraph to the next or even from one sentence to the next. I often thought, “Okay, now what?”
  5. Because I was writing for volume, there was the temptation to be wordy. I admit to using the word very eight times (though not in a row).
  6. On a related note, I avoided editing, because editing almost always shortens.
  7. I discovered that you can research the small things as you go.
  8. Okay, now what?
  9. I am very, very, very pleased with my novel so far.
  10. Publicly stating my goal motivated me to achieve it. (Humiliation is one of the five basic fears.)

The big question is, “Okay, now what?” I should probably call my writing coach. She’s the last person who would think I’d ever write something.

Not the Most Novel Idea

I am researching a novel set during the Holocaust. I had never intended to write about the Holocaust, or about anything historical for that matter. History was never my favorite subject. I even liked math better. All I can say is that the subject chose me. Then it quickly overwhelmed me. The volume of information available about the Holocaust is, conservatively, infinite. I am reading five books on the topic right now.

The Shortest Distance Between You and a Published BookMy writing coach, in our first session, added another resource to the mix: The Shortest Distance Between You and a Published Book, by Susan Page. As a would-be writer, I was excited to learn how to ditch the “would-be.” I was especially intrigued by the author’s presentation of the three main categories of fiction: literary, mainstream, and genre. As a former English major, of course I wanted to write something of literary merit! But could I remotely hope to pull it off?

Literary fiction does not rely heavily on plot for its appeal, but instead on the strength and power of the writing. Characters tend to be complex and filled with nuance. Literary novels are read not so much for action as for superb writing, rich character development, and originality of vision.

Character Development from the Inside OutI believed I could convey a unique viewpoint using decent grammar. But I didn’t know the first thing about creating psychologically rounded characters. I needed help. Three-quarters of the way through Scott Morgan’s Character Development from the Inside Out, I found myself reading about character clichés. Examples included “the rogue,” “the flaky genius,” and “the tortured artist.” Of course I would avoid these trite, stereotyped figures in my own writing! Then I arrived at the section’s final entry:

Nazis. Please, if there is nothing else you take from this book, let it be this: Don’t write about Nazis. Seriously. You can’t add anything new. Seriously. Stop writing about Nazis. A more interesting idea: Not Nazis.

AriesThe author’s strongly worded advice/plea/mandate touched on my own insecurities about the subject matter. But instead of throwing cold water in my face, it lit a fire under me. Maybe because I have so much Aries in my chart. Aries is my sun sign; I have an Aries rising; and Saturn, my north node, and my ascendant are in Aries. I don’t know what all that means, except that it’s a lot of Aries.

And Aries is a sign that welcomes a challenge.