Jump-starting Your Writing Adventure, Part 2 of 6: Do Your Research!

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Welcome back to my blog series featuring (what I consider to be) essential advice for writers seeking publication. In the first installment I covered the act of writing itself (the stop-dreaming, start-doing part of putting words on the page). Today, let’s talk about research.

Many different aspects of writing and getting published call for diligent research. There are countless resources for honing writing skills: conference seminars, workshops, webinars, books—make use of them if you find you’re lacking in a given area. But perhaps the largest body of writing advice is the published fiction itself! You’ll see it everywhere if you haven’t already—a major element of writing successfully is reading voraciously. The benefits are two-fold (at the minimum!). First, reading in the genre in which you write will help you get a feel for what is and isn’t currently popular, what sorts of stories are being done to death and what is underrepresented, and the different styles the genre is written in. A phrase I see repeated often is “taking the pulse” of your genre. This information can be invaluable when determining how your own stories may “fit” into the existing body of literature. Second, reading outside your genre can enrich your own work and make you a more versatile writer. Did the knight and the countess in your epic fantasy manuscript have an affair, but you don’t have a clue how to write romance? Tip: read some current romance stories. Did your alien starship captain find a dead human aboard his vessel, and now must determine how it got there? Time to crack open some mysteries or crime dramas! Reading outside your own story’s genre can help make your characters, your settings, and your plots more three-dimensional and engaging.

Your characters are also bound to stumble into real-life subjects or settings you know little or nothing about. Don’t shy away! But do put the time in to learn about new things so that your portrayals of them can be reasonably accurate. If the subject seems too extensive or daunting, or you need more information than can be found through conventional means, find yourself an expert or two! (This is one instance in which social media may come in handy, so see point #3 below). I needed to read up on several different historical eras and events for one of my projects, and I think it really paid off. It also sparked my newfound interest in historical nonfiction, fattened up my bookshelves, and improved my Jeopardy-from-the-couch score. Every last minutia doesn’t have to be accurate, but gaining at least a passable knowledge of things your pesky characters get themselves into will serve you and your stories well

Last but not least, research isn’t confined only to your actual writing. It’ll be great to have a completed, polished manuscript at the end of the writing and revision process, but then what? You really need to have some grasp of what you’re getting yourself into. It behooves writers to research their chosen process of publication (traditional, via a literary agent/publishing house, or self-publishing, such as on Amazon). Both are herculean undertakings with their own specific hurdles and pitfalls. In the case of traditional publishing, an author-to-be should research which literary agents or agencies represent their manuscript’s genre. Also pay strict attention to each agent or agency’s manuscript query submission guidelines. What do they want? Just the query letter? Also a synopsis? Samples pages? Attached as a document or pasted in the email body? Wait, what exactly is a query letter? It’s an art form unto itself, and you should absolutely dedicate time to researching effective (and ineffective) examples of them in order to learn how to write them and, thereby, succeed in your quest for an agent or publisher.

All this talk of spending time on research may seem daunting, or that it would take away from the actual writing, or just a waste of time. Try to think of it more like an investment. Taking some extra time now to broaden your experience, strengthen your writing, and figure out how to put your best foot forward will pay off in the long run as you seek to introduce your writing to the world.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you found something valuable to take away from today’s post. Stay tuned for the next installment on building an author platform!

30 songs in 30 days: #30 – Up on the Hill (The Fun Lovin’ Criminals)

Day 30: Your favorite song from this time last year

It’s the final entry! (Read to the tune of Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” of course.)

I’ve been looking forward to this post since I compiled the entries for my song challenge list. Looking back on my selections, I’m pretty satisfied with the diversity of bands, genres, and eras represented. Yet there are so many artists and groups who didn’t make it on, for whatever reason. So I’m going to start today’s post by giving a bunch of them the shout-outs they deserve, and since the topic today is my favorite song at a particular time of year, I’m going to do it in the form of a calendar tour.

I tend to form strong associations between new music and the time of year during which I start listening to it heavily. I think I first noticed it in college, when I began exploring the entire catalogs of bands I liked from their radio hits. It happens regularly now, so much so that as a season begins waning and I crave the beginning of a new one, I also want to listen to those same songs and bands that remind me of the weather to come. So what gets me in the mood for a given change in seasons? Winter will always be ‘80s U2, Keane’s Perfect Symmetry, Blink-182’s self-titled album, and Linkin Park’s Meteora. Spring brings to mind ‘90s U2, the catalogs of Nirvana, Oasis, and the Spin Doctors, and Eve 6’s self-titled debut. Lazy summer days are perfect for the Beastie Boys, Everclear, the Dave Matthews Band, Third Eye Blind, Matchbox Twenty, Weezer, and Sublime. And then there’s possibly my favorite season (or at least it’s in heated competition with spring) – autumn. So much great music reminds me of harvests and Halloween, new school year beginnings and the family gatherings of Thanksgiving. The Smashing Pumpkins, the Black Crowes, System of a Down, John Mayer, Incubus, and Rob Zombie fill my earbuds as the summer winds down and the leaves begin to change color. Even Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP sparks memories of moving into my sophomore-year college dorm room. In short, music always plays a huge part in my preparations for seasonal shifts.

This time last year, autumn 2015, I was exploring the catalog of the Fun Lovin’ Criminals, whose debut album Come Find Yourself (a “spring” album) I purchased in high school solely on the merits of their surprise hit “Scooby Snacks.” I’d always liked that album; it’s one I can listen to beginning to end. To my elation I discovered that I liked a lot of their other material as well. The taste of diversity in musical styles from Come Find Yourself broadens even further in their other albums, as they infuse their brand of laid-back hip-hop with jazz, funk, blues, latin, rock, dance, and even country. Soon their catalog was on repeat in my car and headphones (I get a little obsessive when I find good new music). I was listening to them as I decorated my apartment for a Halloween visit from my brother, sister-in-law, and six-year-old niece. I also listened to them while driving to and from a coworker’s very casual wedding reception at a local brewery on a sunny fall afternoon. Now most of the Fun Lovin’ Criminals’ music has joined the list of that which reminds me of autumn, and today’s entry is one of my favorites. Hope you enjoy it too.

30 songs in 30 days: #29 – “Back in the Saddle” (Aerosmith)

Day 29: A song from your childhood

Okay, yes, today’s entry is not actually “from” my childhood. It came out about 5 years before I was even born. But I was a kid when I first heard it, so I’m counting it.

As mentioned previously in this series, a lot of my early musical tastes came from my older brother, with whom I shared a bedroom for a number of years. Some of the atypical music in my collection I owe to his influence: the Beastie Boys, Cypress Hill, and a lot of 80s music that I might otherwise have been too young to notice on my own. But he introduced me to a lot of the classics as well: the Beatles, by way of our parents, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Led Zeppelin, and Aerosmith, to name a few. I associate Aerosmith especially with my brother and my childhood. He had their first “Greatest Hits” album (the red one with the best of their 70s songs), which served as my initiation to their music. And “Back in the Saddle” is one of my favorite songs not only from that compilation, but from the entire first decade of Aerosmith’s career. Hearing it instantly takes me back to childhood summers, long before I knew what the lyrics were about. For me, it’s a reminder of the days when bro and I would play Wiffle ball in the back yard, or when I emulated him as he organized his extensive baseball card collection. It also exemplifies my budding awareness of music, especially rock. It was a simpler time, before alternative, grunge, post-grunge, alt-metal, nu-metal and heavy metal dominated my music library. Thanks, bro, for laying such superb foundations for the development of my musical tastes.

30 songs in 30 days: #28 – “The Righteous and the Wicked” (The Red Hot Chili Peppers)

Day 28: A song that makes you feel quilty

Often when I start listening to a song that’s new to me, I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the meaning of the lyrics. I focus initially on the instrumentation, the rhythm of the vocals, how the various components blend together and play off each other. The lyrics might not strike me until long after the song has entered my library. Then, a random line will suddenly prick my ears, and the song might very well take on a whole new meaning for me as I begin to pay attention to the lyrics. Such was the case with today’s entry, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “The Righteous and the Wicked.” When I first started listening to the album it’s from, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the song felt like filler to me. It had a decent groove but nothing terribly memorable, compared to the great tracks on the album. It didn’t hold my attention for a long time, until I caught the line “The killing fist of the human beast.” Suddenly intrigued, I read the lyrics and discovered the song is a denouncement of the human race’s treatment of itself and its home planet. Antiwar to the extreme of wishing for a “global abortion” for “Mother Earth,” the song suddenly meant so much more and rose in the ranks of my Chili Peppers music collection. No longer filler, the song makes me feel a little guilty for being a member of a species constantly killing itself and its planet, or at least for not being more involved in efforts to curb our self-abuse and matricide. Maybe I’m being a bit melodramatic about a deep cut from a rock band, but isn’t art supposed to stimulate thoughtfulness and introspection?

30 songs in 30 days: #27 – “Paradise City” (Guns ‘n’ Roses)

Day 27: A song you wish you could play

It begins with sonorous guitar, ringing like bells on a clear spring day. The spare rhythm of a bass-and-snare-drum duo marches in, keeping time as a chorus of voices beseeches soulfully to be taken home. The vocals are replaced by euphoric, slightly distorted guitar chords, which are then overlaid with an at once proud and wistful guitar solo. And then, when the beauty of the introduction peaks, the blare of a safety whistle un-tames the beast, and all hell breaks loose.

Little seven-year-old me was captivated by Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Paradise City.” I would eagerly play my brother’s vinyl 45 on the family stereo’s turntable as I rocked out with a toy guitar-and-microphone set. I never seriously tried to learn guitar and be in a rock band; the closest I came was playing around with my brother’s briefly-owned acoustic guitar and growing quickly frustrated with it. But what kid or teen hasn’t dreamt, at least fleetingly, of being on the stage and performing, whether it be rock, pop, classical, or even some non-musical pursuit like acting or dancing? Hell, I still air drum whenever I’m alone with music. And I’ve always said if I were to learn a rock-band instrument, my first choice would be bass guitar. But for Paradise City, I’d be satisfied with playing any part in the band. Hell, I’d even be the guy standing off to the side, blowing the safety whistle at the end of the intro. Close to thirty years later, there are, of course, tons of songs I wish I could play, but the badass Paradise City was certainly the first, inspiring my rock-star dreams and introducing me to a music world beyond the beloved oldies I grew up on.

30 songs in 30 days: #26 – “Harlem Nocturne” (Earle Hagen and Dick Rogers, performed by the Viscounts)

Day 26: A song that you can play on an instrument

I used to play alto saxophone when I was in school. I still have it; I lug it around with me whenever I move to a new home, and every now and then I open its case and fondly recall playing it for holiday and spring concerts in elementary and middle school. But it’s not in playing condition anymore; there’s significant discoloration inside the bell, which I’m assuming is indicative of the rest of its interior, and all the keys’ pads are likely all dried out after sitting in its case for close to fifteen years. Sad, really, considering how much I enjoyed playing when I was younger. The only other items in the case aside from the disassembled sax are some rumpled sheets of staff paper, with hand-written musical notes on them. The one that’s always on top contains the melody to the jazz standard “Harlem Nocturne,” and it reminds me of my first and only solo performance as a young musician.

My elementary and middle schools organized student band and choral concerts twice a year for us student musicians, so for the winter holiday season and the spring, my bandmates and I performed once for the school and once for our families. In middle school, the full-band concert programs became peppered with interludes, including jazz and pop ensembles, as well as solo performances. When my parents noticed the solos, my mother suggested I play “Harlem Nocturne,” one of her favorite jazz pieces which she had on an old 45 (the vinyl equivalent of a single, for you younguns). I first transferred it to a cassette for ease of rewinding and fast-forwarding, and then began the painstaking process of transcription, matching the melody note-for-note from my sax to staff paper. It was an amateur effort, but I didn’t need to know music composition. I had the rhythm of the melody in my mind; I just needed to know where to put my fingers for each note.

The night of my final school concert came, and when it was time for my solo, I walked out to the front of the stage, smiled at Mom in the audience, and played “Harlem Nocturne,” unaccompanied, for her. Part of me wishes I could say that my first solo performance launched a successful bout as a musician, but in reality I would put down my sax after that last year of middle school, picking it up briefly in college when I joined a student-run jazz ensemble. But I haven’t played in any capacity since then. I’m thinking about getting an estimate for the cost of a complete instrument overhaul, at least to give myself the possibility of playing again. For now, though, I can think back fondly on the memory of my mother inspiring my first, and only, solo sax performance.

30 songs in 30 days: #25 – “Song for the Dumped” (Ben Folds Five)

Day 25: A song that makes you laugh

Ben Folds makes a rare second appearance on my song challenge list! His first was for a song that makes me sad, so showing up today for a song that makes me laugh just demonstrates his versatility as a songwriter. Coming from Ben Folds Five’s sophomore effort Whatever and Ever, Amen, “Song for the Dumped” is exactly what the title implies—a cathartic outlet for someone receiving the short end of the stick in a non-mutual breakup. Not necessarily an inherently funny situation, but I don’t think Ben Folds has ever been known to take himself too seriously. In no uncertain terms, he rails against his dumper, demanding just compensation for the time and effort he invested in the relationship while hammering away at a piano. Whenever I hear the song, I get the mental image of 1990s Ben on the big wraparound porch of a woman’s home, punishing the ivories of an upright as his brand-new ex endures his aural assault. An amusing scene, to say the least. I don’t make a habit of laughing at another’s suffering, but this song never ceases to put a smile on my face. Besides, it’s okay to laugh if he’s making fun of himself a bit. Right?