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!