8 Jobs of Modern Writers–Plus One: DOGGED TRUTHSEEKER
Spotted an excellent essay on the consistently fine My Name is Not Bob blog by Robert Lee Brewer, in which he lists these 8 Key Jobs of Modern Writers: Writer; Editor; Copywriter; File Clerk; Negotiator; Accountant; Marketer; Speaker. I believe Bob left out one key skill: RESEARCHER (or, more accurately, “Dogged Truthseeker“).
ALL writers must be master researchers. This is harder than it looks (and it looks pretty darn hard). Today, information is everywhere and truth is hidden. The online world is filled with hamster-wheels of mock expertise. Yet without a strong foundation in well-documented facts, a writer will ultimately lose readers and self-respect, and in my humble opinion, contribute to the degradation of civilization as we know it. To put it lightly.
Research in Fiction
Your job is to create a believable world, one that wraps up your reader in a cozy blanket of self-forgetting trust. Your books are inhabited by identifiable people in specific places at certain times. If the characters (what they do, how they think, how they dress, how they talk) ring true to the place, time and personality you have created, we keep reading. If they act in ways that ring false, we are jarred out of your world and lost. Creating that world accurately means: solid research, yes as a keen observer of humanity, but also as a student of the historical period in which you are writing, and of the facts behind each aspect of your fiction. Are wounds accurate to medical fact? How fast did trains run in Argentina in 1940? Do ten year-olds know geometry? Even fantasy must ring true both within the world you have created, and our understanding of humanity. Glenn Beck notwithstanding.
Read other writers to discover yourself. Whether you’re writing genre or literary fiction, the best genre fiction writers (rule makers and rule breakers) have studied the conventions of the genre. They know the rules–they’ve read and learned from the writers who have preceded them. Originality is born of knowledge. The best way to break a block: research those who have come before you. Read. Be inspired.
You must know where your work fits in the canon of your genre when you submit to agents and publishers, and as you map out promotional plans. An understanding of competitive and complimentary books is the single most important writing and sales tool for any writer.
Research in Nonfiction
The importance of accurate research in nonfiction is pretty obvious, yet I often see even schooled journalists drop the ball. Give yourself the title of “author,” published or not, and you take on the burden of the reader’s trust. A standard Internet search won’t do; with the printed word comes the obligation to be trustworthy, and facts gleaned from anyone you haven’t vetted are only words.
Beware of Internet information; it truly clouds the challenge of finding independent documentation of material. You may find the same “fact” in many places on the Internet, but look closely–most Internet articles are reprints, not independently verified. As a nonfiction author, your research must focus on primary sources–real people.
No author is a master of his subject who hasn’t studied related works. Again, perhaps obvious–unless you were sitting at my desk, and saw the number of “expert” pitches by authors who had no sense of the context in which they were writing. Perhaps more common–when some nonfiction projects either take years, or reflect years of immersion in a subject, it’s very easy (and very human) to miss the latest entries in a field.
Research in Selling
To agents and publishers
Wow, I’m already tired just writing this. But yes, as noted above, where your book fits in terms of competitive and complementary books, and your documentable readership, should permeate your pitches to publishers and agents. You must research your market, and know how many people, and who, is likely to want to read your book
IN agents and publishers
And you must research the agents and publishers (and self-publishing resources, too, if you’re going that route). Are you submitting to an agent who has expertise in your work? Who is a member of the AAR? Who is open to new submissions?
And Research Your Research
All sources are not equally reliable. If you see a particular agent has been badmouthed, does that mean she’s “bad,” or is it sour grapes? Some quick tips: People and sources who make blanket generalizations or one-sided arguments aren’t to be relied upon (except me, making that blanket generalization…) PublishersMarketplace is wonderfully trustworthy. The AAR is a good organization. People quoting the same people all the time are suspect. WriterBeware is a marvelous resource. And Denver is a nice place to live. (Just checking to see who made it this far.)