Friday, February 1, 2013

Brainstorm and Research: How to Improve Your Novel when You’re not Writing

What makes a book memorable? Beautiful, perceptive writing? Yes. Unforgettable characters? Yes. Vivid description and crafty dialogue? Yes. I could keep going. Some of our favorite books are a synthesis of this and so much more.

Now let’s take a look at your book. You know it has the potential to be this, but you also know it’s not currently there. Nothing is more frustrating or disheartening. Today I’m not going to let you wallow or think you’re a failure. Today I want to talk about brainstorming and research, and how they can revolutionize your writing.

Brainstorming: Creating Meaningful Content
For those of you who have written a first draft at one point or another, you all know the story at this point is rough at best—and if you don’t, take it from me or anyone else in the business, it is. At this stage in the process, the most important edits are those that establish the content of your book. This can be more difficult than it appears.

There are a surprising number of writers who, when told that the content of their book has a problem, offer up the first idea that comes to mind. These ideas are often the low hanging fruit, the equivalent of patching up a tear in your clothing. For me, this is a red flag that the writer is not doing enough brainstorming.

Instead of jumping to the first idea that comes to you, spend fifteen minutes thinking about it. The great thing about brainstorming is that you can do it anywhere. Use that initial idea as a springboard into other ideas. Your goal should not be to patch the tear, it should be to rework the text so the tear was never there in the first place.

I’ve encouraged writers to keep a notebook of edits they need to make. Brainstorming is a great way to work a number of those edits into the story in a single attempt. For instance, say you need to add a minor character into the story who gives the main character a clue. Perhaps you also noted that you have a lot of extra characters. Maybe you’d even like to introduce another detail at this point in the story.

A little brainstorming might make you realize that this minor character can be combined with another minor character already present in the novel. That eliminates the need for an additional character, and it strengthens the depth and importance of this current character. In addition, you might realize that this character is the perfect individual to introduce one of those pesky details the main character needs to know.

Now your single edit—to add in a scene—has additionally worked in a detail you needed, and strengthened a minor character already present in the story. That’s three edits you solved at once, all because you brainstormed. It doesn’t always work this way, but it can more often than you’d think, all because you gave it a little extra thought.

Research: Writing is a Craft
There is this misconception that writing is a gift, much like singing or drawing. Some people are better than others, and that’s the end of that. This is blatantly untrue. There is no doubt that writers begin on different levels. But even that is not necessarily a product of raw talent. Avid readers tend to initially be a little better at writing simply because they subconsciously see a structural pattern to published books.

Learning to write well doesn’t take talent, it takes persistence. Now, don’t let yourself off the hook just because you’ve written five different manuscripts throughout your lifetime. Getting good at writing requires you to look outside yourself. This means research.

Read books on the craft of writing, read my blog posts, read other novels to find what you like and dislike about them. Then critically analyze your own work. Do you tell rather than show? Is your main character a passive agent in your book? Do you have too much description? You’ll find that once you begin to educate yourself, you can better attack the flaws in your own writing.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services

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