#62: How to Organize Research Material

Dear Story Nurse,

I have many writing problems, but I have finally have isolated one that may respond to advice!

Here is the question: how do you organize a large body of research for a novel?

The book project I’m concerned with is set in a different country from my own, during a couple of years of significant historical events. I have about 45,000 words of a rough draft, though mostly I plan to completely rewrite it.

I have an idea of the basic point-in-time facts I need to acquire—”who did what when” stuff—and the beginnings of what I want to know about the setting—what a cheap flat in [blah decade] in [blah city] smelled like and what sort of kitchen appliances people had in that neighborhood (though I have issues with something like ADHD so it’s very hard for me to organize even that).

But a big part of the story is more psychological and emotional, and trying to figure out how personal and national history shapes a person, and what things come to the surface when you put people under pressure at a moment that is clearly historic: and this is proving very hard to research indeed. I’ve purchased twelve books of history about this country covering periods and topics I thought could be relevant to how a modern person might view themselves (I realize this was a bad idea, please don’t yell at me). I’ve read a couple of these, but I’m struggling to process them into what’s relevant and what’s not.

To be clear, it’s not that I think that there is exactly such a thing as “national character”—but I do think that the stories that we are told about our histories, our countries, our cities, our families, and ourselves over and over and over again do matter to how we think about life and how we see ourselves and others. So I’m looking for facts about what happened and where, but I’m also looking for historical events that have national and personal emotional resonance.

How do you suggest organizing all these layers of research for my story—the purely factual, the experiential, and the spiritual/emotional stuff?

Best regards,

Disorganized Potato (they/them)

Dear Disorganized Potato,

This is a wonderful question. Fortunately you have a lot of flexibility, because any organizational system you come up with will be solely for your use, so you can fine-tune it to suit your needs. And turning those nebulous concepts into organizable chunks of data isn’t as hard as you might think.

Continue reading

An Update on #47

Some of you may recall letter #47, in which an aromantic writer received an unpleasant critique of an aromantic character and felt stymied and blocked by it. She was unable to work further on the story, and worried that she would have trouble selling it. She just wrote to me with a brief update:

I thought perhaps you would like to know, that the story I wrote in about has been accepted for publication.

Thank you.

LW, I’m so thrilled for you that you were able to set that unkind critique aside, revise and submit your story, and find a good home for it. Thank you for letting me know!

Past letter writers, I’m always glad to hear updates from you—how are you doing?

Delightedly,

Story Nurse

#61: Encouraging Beta Reader Follow-Through

Dear Story Nurse,

I just finished a first draft of a novel. I’m fairly happy with the broad strokes of the story and the characters, but I’m at a point now where I really need outside input. I’ve done what I can on my own in terms of editing and refining and letting the thing rest and picking it up again. I need a fresh set of eyes. I’ve been at this point for over a year now.

I’ve contacted just about everyone I know whose opinion I value and asked them to beta-read for me. All of them enthusiastically agreed, then disappeared off the face of the earth. It’s gotten to a point now where I joke that if you want someone out of your life, just ask them to read your damn novel.

I understand that beta-reading is a huge commitment. I always, always mention that if someone changes their mind for any reason, that’s absolutely fine. Just tell me you’re out, no nagging or interrogations from my end, just a no is fine. I’m very happy to repay them any way they see fit if they need help themselves. But not a single person has gotten back to me.

So friends and family are apparently out. I’ve tried online workshops, but while a chapter critique can be very useful, what I really need is for someone to read the entire thing. Again I fall into this cycle of people committing and flaking without explanation. I’ve done a few manuscript swaps, which were very disappointing. Maybe it was bad luck, but I only seemed to get people who clearly weren’t interested in providing thoughtful critique and just wanted their own manuscript read. I must have written hundreds of pages of critique for other people and gotten almost nothing back. I’ll go back to these swaps if necessary, but I’m pretty burnt out on them at this point.

I honestly did some soul-searching to see if the problem was me, and I don’t think it is? I don’t nag people after I’ve sent them the manuscript. I’ll ask once or twice over the course of a month or three, but I’m very careful not to pressure anyone. I try not to come across as desperate, but I am, so maybe it shows? I know the manuscript is rough, but it’s not so shitty or offensive that it should prevent people from reading it through. Dunno. Can’t tell.

Apart from the fact that it breaks my goddamn heart to have people I care about (including my own damn husband) consistently flake on something they know is pretty damn important to me, I can’t for the life of me get this manuscript read by anyone. I am saving up my pennies for a professional developmental edit, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon. I know a professional editor is very important and I need one, but we’re at a stage now where we can barely afford food, so.

Is this the normal process? Am I going about this the wrong way? And since this is so emotionally draining to do all this while also on the rejection treadmill for a bunch of short stories, should I just give up for a while and pick this up later?

—C.S.H. (they/them)

Dear C.S.H.,

That sounds really dispiriting and difficult. I’m so sorry you’ve been having a rough time getting someone to make and keep a commitment or explain to you why they can’t.

Asking beta readers to start reading, finish reading, and talk to you about what they read doesn’t seem like a lot, but it can feel pretty daunting from the other side. In my experience, there are three main reasons beta readers flake on giving crits:

  1. They didn’t finish or like the book and feel bad saying so.
  2. They don’t know how to write a crit or give useful feedback and are embarrassed to admit it.
  3. Other things take priority over unpaid commitments.

Here are some ways to prevent these problems. Continue reading

#60: Starting Small

Dear Story Nurse,

I took a really long break from writing partially due to mental illness and chronic fatigue and partially because I was looking at it as something I *had* to do, and I’d forgotten why I actually love writing. So I’m trying to figure that out, and I’m only really writing fanfic right now because it’s easier for me, but I seem to have run into the same problem I run into with my original fiction.

I really want to write longer works, but as soon as I decide that’s something I want to do, I basically lose all interest on whatever I’ve been working on. I pretty much never finish anything that I want to be longer than 5,000 words. Occasionally, I’ll accidentally make something a little longer, but I get kind of antsy about that too, even things I’m initially really excited about writing. I’m not sure how to fix this.

—Briar (they/them)

Dear Briar,

I’m sorry you’re having a hard time coming back to writing after so long away. That’s something a lot of people struggle with (see my posts on returning to writing after a long hiatus and when creation feels like a chore), especially if you took the break on purpose and for good reasons. Having filed not-writing under mental health self-care for so long, it can be challenging to now believe that writing will be not only safe but actively beneficial.

Continue reading

#59: Accepting Your Writing Style

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m a fantasy writer currently trying and failing to kick my brain into producing a novel. The problem is that I have lots of story ideas, but no plots. All of my ideas are for cool settings and themes and imagery and emotional beats, not plots and conflicts and scenes. Even when I force myself to come up with a problem in my world and a character to solve it, I am immediately unenthused. I’ve tried to write through my boredom before, and I have three documents full of irredeemably listless garbage to show for it.

I think one of my major problems is that all of the problems I want my characters to solve are enormous and complicated and vague. For example, I’m currently kicking around a fantasy idea where a corporation-run government has driven everything it considers useless or harmful to extinction, and has sterilized and leashed magic to specific words and gestures. Now magic is striking back, choosing prophets to speak for it and worming wild roots into the cracks of buildings to shatter them. It’s SUCH a cool idea and I’m so excited about it, but there’s no really concrete beginning and end and one thing that one character can do with a satisfying ending.

How do I take a messy pile of colors and feelings and turn it into a thing with bones in it? Please help, Story Nurse!

—Perplexed Plotter (she/her)

Dear Perplexed Plotter,

That does sound like a challenge! Fortunately for you, it’s a challenge that many other writers have also faced, and there are some good resources and time-tested tricks for you to try out.

Before we get to any of that, though, I suggest practicing acceptance. You are the type of writer you are, and the type of writer you are is a GEE WHIZ GOSH WOW conceptual writer. You’re probably never going to be the type of writer who naturally comes up with plots. If you accept that about yourself, you’ll have a much easier time emotionally than if you keep trying to make yourself be a plotter.

Acceptance might mean looking for ways to work with this rather than against it, such as writing little vignettes or flash pieces, or teaming up with a visual artist to create a set of stunning images, or collaborating with a writer whose strengths complement yours, or hiring an editor to take your beautiful messes and organize them. It might mean stealing a plot from somewhere else or beginning to write with no plot or structure or outline in mind at all. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being more of an ideas person. Many, many, many writers are ideas people. Celebrate your glorious ideas rather than treating yourself as a failure because plots are trickier for you.

Acceptance also means realizing that any plot will feel clunky to you because writing it won’t have that natural grace and ease of coming up with grand sweeping ideas. Before you give up in despair, run that “irredeemably listless garbage” past someone else and see what they think. You may be surprised how hard it is for a reader to tell which parts of a story came from sweet easy inspiration and which were crafted in sweat and agony. And remember that every story has some component of inspiration and some component of craft; the all-inspiration all-easy story is a mirage, so don’t bother chasing it.

Finally, acceptance means realizing that your “unenthused” feeling goes beyond not naturally being good at plotting; it sounds to me like a real aversion to writing plotted work. Take a look at my post on what it means to be blocked and see if you can identify any underlying emotional or psychological causes of that very abrupt switch from “my ideas are glorious” to “my writing is trash” as soon as the element of plot is introduced. Maybe you only like coming up with ideas and don’t actually like writing. Maybe the weight of should that drives you to look for plots also makes you feel really uncomfortable and averse to continuing with a project. Maybe the act of writing feels like a scary first step toward someone else seeing your work. Maybe someone once told you that your writing is bad and now it’s hard to stop hearing that voice in your head. Whatever it is, there’s something going on there that’s worth investigating.

Resources for plotting exist in abundance. I list several in my earlier post on when settings are fun and stories are hard, which responds to a letter that’s similar to yours. You can also get into reading books that break conventional ideas of plotting, and see whether their approaches appeal to you. But none of that will get you anywhere until you come to terms with being where you are in your process and being the type of writer you are. Let go of all your shoulds, even the ones that seem incontrovertible (like “every story should have a plot” or “every plot involves a character solving a problem”), and begin from where you are with as little judgment as possible. You might be surprised how far you can go from there.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!