Writers: using a Research Assistant is easier than you think

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HeatherGammageWhy do writers create historical or fantasy settings that require research, when they hate researching? I have no clue, but I do it myself. It’s one thing to swan over to Rome and Florence to research the Medici at the time of the Italian Renaissance, but when I get home and realize I’ve forgotten some details, I often resent time spent sourcing those bits and pieces.

If you’re like me, help in the form of an on-call research assistant could be easier than you think. Today I’ve invited Brisbane research assistant Heather Gammage (who I’ve worked with – hence the mock-strangling photo) to describe what she does for authors. Heather has a BA in history with a minor in Classical languages (Latin). Her specific “field” is in the medieval, but she admits to a fair to middling knowledge of other eras and is an expert in tracking down hard-to-find references and facts.

So without further ado, here’s Heather:

Thank you, Louise, for inviting me to write about why I love being a research assistant.

I have written stories since I was a small girl. My original inspiration was Enid Blyton and the Trixie Belden books. My very first book was, essentially, a Trixie Belden rip-off I wrote at seven years old–the names of the teenaged detectives were different, and it was set in Australia, but it was clear where my ideas came from.

At the same age, I used to set myself assignments from the encyclopaedia on various things that piqued my interest. One week, I’d be reading about dogs, the next, I’d be copying lines out about the government of Indonesia. They were not brilliant, by any means (and, again, were mostly plagiarized), but looking back, it’s clear that the “research is my life” moniker I jokingly adopted on an online gaming forum in the early 2000s was based in more fact than I realized. Even more recently, I came to the conclusion that, while I love story-making and writing, what I really love about writing is the busywork leading up to it–the research; the world-building and the diving into dusty libraries for things I do not know. Perhaps that is why Trixie, the girl detective, resonated with me as a child.

I still write (and I have workshopped my fantasy novel with the fabulous Louise), but the practicalities of my current life circumstances and my university studies don’t allow me to seek publication–yet. Meanwhile, as a part of those studies, I applied for the 2012/2013 Summer Research Scholarship with The University of Queensland as a research assistant to Dr Kim Wilkins. I was thrilled when I was accepted! Over that summer, I worked with Kim on the research for her book Ember Island (published under her moniker Kimberly Freeman in 2013) as well as referencing and fact checking for her Year of Ancient Ghosts. Ember Island was set in modern and 1890s Brisbane, a fictional prison island based on St Helena Island, and also the Channel Islands (Jersey/Guernsey). As Kim worked on draft one, she asked me to research the things she needed for her historical setting–which varied from trade routes into Guernsey to how a rich boy would dress in 1890s England and Brisbane to how many inmates were on St Helena’s and what the guards were paid.

It dawned on me that I was doing two of the things I loved most, and being paid for it, and oh-my-god-wouldn’t-it-be-fantastic-to-do-this-forever. I could apply all of my very “bitsy” work and life experience: parenting, horses, painting, writing (in fiction, for games, and for academics), referencing in a range of different styles, research, history, small business ownership, gardening, retail, western martial arts, birth experience, arts admin, teaching, Latin, gaming and beta testing, web writing — I am a jack of all trades from work and experience over the years, but there is nothing that screams “hire me!” for one particular job.

But, surely, don’t all authors love researching? Who would hire me? Kim had always done her own research, and done it very well; the research assistant work was due to her publishing time constraints.

Then, in early 2013, I took Dr Kim’s writing class as an elective for my degree, which was, quite suitably, a “doing research for writing” course. As a part of this course, Kim asked other authors to speak at the lectures about how they approached their research. One author mentioned that she despised the research process.

Despised it? Really?

A whole tonne of pennies dropped on my head.

Since then, I have done work for other clients, as well as Kim, and as my undergrad studies end mid-year I will increase my hours to allow for full-time bookings. I absolutely love working with clients on their research as they write and edit their books, and my current rate is $33 an hour which clients pay in advance, usually buying a block of my time to use as they require it. Quite apart from the vicarious thrill of seeing an author’s writing before it is published, my authors ask me questions, often, about subjects I know very little to nothing about (my specialty is the medieval period and Western Europe, but I have researched as widely as 1890s Queensland, 1990s Victoria and London after WW2). So, I am always learning, always searching. My job is to make the process easier on the author, and they can focus on story, while I focus on accuracy (as far as practicable, and to an author’s requirements). It’s win-win.

Thanks so much for sharing today, Heather. I can hear a whole batch of authors out there on the Interwebs thinking How do I get her to work for me! If that’s you, Heather can be contacted at: heather DOT gammage AT uqconnect DOT edu DOT au , and if you’d like to see what Dr Kim has to say about her beloved research assistant, you can read Kim’s blog On Having a Research Assistant.

If you’d like more info, or want to ask a question, please drop that into a comment below and either Heather or I will respond. Thanks for reading!

My favourite “How To” writing books

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Writing BooksI’ve read hundreds over the years, but I keep coming back to these ones + Stephen King’s On Writing which must be on loan. I can’t find it in my bookcase.

What are your favorite “How To” writing books?

Transition: you’re not delivering a baby, you’re writing a book

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Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I’ve had a revelation, and it’s going to resonate with mothers who remember that totally confusing moment during delivery called transition. It comes before you’re ready to push, and it feels like your brain just isn’t connecting with your body properly. You’re uncomfortable and confused and restless, but aren’t sure how or where to move. At this point, even the most circumspect woman can swear or grunt or do things that don’t seem to be under her control.

Believe it or not, for some writers there is a moment in drafting the story that feels like transition. I had one today. Instead of sitting quietly and writing, racking up word count, I kept getting up and going into the kitchen, not knowing why, making coffee I didn’t want, going out and checking if the washing was dry. I even found myself in the front garden with scissors, apparently getting flowers for the house. I have no idea why.

I am now in the study with the door shut (to keep myself in) and instead of writing draft I’m writing to you. But I didn’t want to lose the epiphany.

I’ve suddenly realized that this moment in the story that I’m about to ‘birth’ is what hangs everything together, and I’m just about to get it. If it was a conversation, I’d say, It’s on the tip of my tongue. I can’t see the words yet, or the actions my character is about to take, but they’re momentous. I’ve suddenly realized the whole book turns on this scene, and I had no idea until I got into it. Intellectually, nothing has changed. The hero still knows he’s going to have to kill the heroine to save his world, and he’s determined not to fall in love with her. They’re about to have sex for the first time and he wants it to be bad for her so she won’t like him, so there’s no chance she’ll get affectionate, because that’s his best chance for keeping her at arms’ length emotionally.

As the author, I knew all that and so did my hero. What I didn’t know, what’s clear to me now, is that the way he treats her when they make love will change everything between them. Not the plot. That will play out as relentlessly as duty commands for them both. Not even the romance which is also destined to follow a certain course because of their attraction and respect for each other. What will change is the dynamic between them, the nuanced and very human relationship that two people form when their lives are dependent on each other and things are complicated!

As the author, I’ve waited for this moment and dreaded it from page one. The characters in this novel are more ‘alive’ than any I’ve written in the past, and while part of me is elated to be pushing them into dangerous territory, another part of me dreads that I won’t be able to keep them who they are meant to be, who they were ‘born’ in my mind to be.

My revelation was realizing this was exactly the same way I felt before each of my children were born – dread and unutterable thrill warring inside me, pulling my mind one way and my body another.

SitAndStayI know I have said “Sit and stay!” in the past, encouraging writers to develop a consistent writing routine by showing up and being ready for the story to download through their fingers. But there are also times when you simply can’t stay, when the turbulence shows you that a story’s pivotal moment is about to be born.

Respect that. Give it the space it needs. Grunt if you need to. Swear. Cut flowers. Put the kettle on three times and forget to get out the coffee cup. At some point that ‘uncomfortable in my body’ sensation it will funnel into an imperative. The need to push.

The need to write.

Mine’s here now. I’m off! Wish me luck…

Motivation + Time = Maximum Productivity

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I’ve chatted to writers all year, and some have had a fabulous 2013. Some, not so great. One of the things I’ve noticed (not just this year, but every year) is that those writers who have a strong motivation to write, seem to get more done.

It sounds like a no brainer. If you’re dieting for no good reason, mud cake looks good. If your wedding is in three weeks (or your book launch) and you need to fit into that special dress, carrot sticks are the new chocolate.

So motivation – for characters and for writers – is key. And at the start of a story when the idea is fresh and the potential sales appear JK Rowling-ish, delusions of grandeur can take you far. As a mentor, I never knock writers off their lofty fantasy pedestals. It motivates them to get up early and work late (creating the time factor of the equation all by themselves). In fact, I encourage writers to pick a fantasy moment: walking the red carpet, getting a big advance payment in the mail, opening the box full of advance copies of their book and loving the cover, and then milking that fantasy for five minutes every day, wringing every bit of happy/ relieved/ satisfied/ thrilled emotion they can out of it. That builds motivation too.

The reality may end up looking like this:

The Bentley you thought you'd be buying with your first advance

The Bentley you thought you’d be buying with your first advance

Here Bentley, Here, Bentley. Good dog!

Here Bentley, Here, Bentley. Good dog!

So reality can dent your confidence, and therefore your motivation. How do you pick yourself up when you’ve had rejection in the past, you’ve lost perspective on your story, and you’re starting to doubt that it will ever get published, and if it does, that anyone will bother to read/ like it? Perhaps life itself has dealt you a crap year and those muddy glasses are making everything look terrible, including your writing.

Dear Manuscript, you look like this...

Dear Manuscript, you look like this…

Sometimes you have to start back at bedrock and just work at making yourself happy. My experience as a mentor has shown me that happy writers are productive writers and I reject the cliché that starving/troubled artists write the best work. We all experience life’s ugly moments. Some writers unfortunately have had more pain than others. And yes we do draw on memories of those dark times to bring our stories vividly to life. But we don’t have to be experiencing that pain now to be writing our best. We simply need to be good at remembering what it felt like, and luckily for us, really bad moments seem to be engraved in our memories!

Publishers and agents want to work with productive writers, those who can create saleable novels year in, year out, building readership and thereby sales and profits for all. If you can get happy and stay happy, you’ll have your best shot at being that author. The delightful side-effect is that you’ll also be a fab person to be around, and family and friends will stop doing this when you walk in the room:

Has she made her word count? Is her eye twitching. For godsakes, Marg, whatever you do, don't mention the manuscript.

Has she made her word count? Is her eye twitching? I can’t look.

So here’s my tip for the end of the year, to wash away any unpleasantness from 2013 and set yourself up for a cracker super-happy ultra-productive 2014. Make up a list like mine (takes five minutes in Microsoft Word) and sit down with a pen and paper and fill it in. Honestly, I had thirty done in ten minutes:

One hundred fabulous memories from 2013As you remember each fabulous thing that’s happened to you in the year, no matter how small, it will trigger happy feelings, and before you know it you’ll be glass half full instead of glass half empty about everything, writing included. My list included everyday things like:

  • Standing on the verandah watching a thunderstorm
  • Eating a perfect lime slushy on that really hot afternoon
  • Watching the Aussies win the Ashes on tv (cricket, for those who don’t know)
  • Laughing at the cat that time he rolled in his sleep and fell off the chair
  • Watching Meg’s eyes light up when she talked about her new home

I also included some personal peak moments that really meant something to me. So you get the idea. Fill up the list, really feel the emotions, reliving all their splendor as you write, then make time with your morning coffee each day to have a glance through it again and let the happy memories make you smile.

I pinky-promise it will help you let go of the negativity that weighs you down and squashes your creative inspiration. Then you’ll be all set up for a fabulously successful, productive, satisfying and fun 2014.

Go for it!

Encouraging writing and finding the right ebook

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If you’re not subscribed to my blog at http://www.louisecusack.com you might have missed some recent posts there on:

Encouraging grass roots writing (one local council gets it right)

and

Introducing…The Fussy Librarian (who suggests ebooks for you based on your interests and content preferences)

I’d love to hear your comments!

Perseverance: One Writer’s Journey

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I’d like to introduce a client of mine, Alison Mather, who’s recently signed with a prestigious literary agency in the UK. She’s had an interesting journey (to say the least) and has agreed to share it with you. I think you’ll find it inspiring:

Perseverance. It’s a word most commonly used when telling a person’s story of triumph, after they’ve triumphed – which is all well and good and serves as a reminder that your goal can be achieved, but is utterly horrible when you’re actually trying to do it: being perseverant. At least it is to me. I find it very much akin to what I imagine being lost in the wilderness to be like (without the constant threat of sudden death). What direction should I take? How do I know if this step is the right one? What if I’m just going around in circles? Why are the signposts so damned hard to find?

Okay, so that’s where the analogy ends because most people know that the best thing to do if you are physically lost is to stay still and that is absolutely, positively the worst thing you could do if you ever want to be a published author.

During my own journey as a writer I have asked all of these questions every step of the way, and a heck of a lot more. The results can be stultifying and very damaging to your chances if you are the sort to give up easily.

I am one of ‘those’ people who took time off to write. I am very lucky to have an extremely supportive spouse who encouraged me to do so. If you are now thinking that means I’ve had it easy, think again. Six months into writing my first manuscript I was diagnosed with thyroid disease, my husband was retrenched from his job and a 24 foot tree fell on our house during the big Brisbane storms. Add to that, I received nothing but rejection letters to every single query I sent out to publishers and agents. Things were not going to plan and it was very, very hard.

Somehow, though – and here is where the perseverance bit comes in – I managed to write a second, and much better, manuscript and tried again. Now, five years later, I have just signed with a literary agency and am starting work on editing the story – for what feels like the billionth time – in the more real hope of interesting a publisher.

Not the ideal journey to becoming an author, perhaps, but here’s what I’ve learned:

Your writing is key – do everything possible to ensure it is the best it can be, and I don’t mean asking your family. They will always be on your side and that’s not what you need. Join your local Writer’s Centre and find a manuscript assessor. I edited my own work three times and then hired Louise to edit it again. Is it really worth the expense? I sent my work, edited by me, to every publisher in Australia and it was rejected. I paid for professional advice and now I have an agent.

Listen to everything that’s being said to you by the people who know. I was rejected by a tonne of agents earlier this year but one actually took the time to write a personal letter of explanation suggesting that I was aiming at the wrong age group. I was so cut up about the rejection that I almost missed the significance of that particular crumb of advice. And they will be crumbs and you have to fall on them like they’re nuggets of gold, even if all you can hear is the criticism.

Cast a wide net – as in global wide.  My agent is in London. By all means go local to begin but understand that there are a handful of publishers and agents in Australia and a shedload of writers – unless you’ve written that must-have story in which case I’m struggling with my resentment. I smashed the internet doing research and you really have to look. I strongly recommend the following websites: www.literaryrambles.com for agents that rep in your genre, www.writersdigest.com for new agents alerts – you have far more chance with agents who are looking to build their lists, Sarah’s blog at www.greenhouseliterary.com for tips on query writing and many more that I can’t fit in here.

Remember, I was totally green, I knew nothing about the industry that I was hoping to carve a career in, but I dedicated myself to it utterly and I’ve made it this far. You can too.

Alison Mather signing her agency contract

Alison Mather signing her agency contract

Writing success really is one part inspiration and ten parts perspiration. Keep at it, and if you’ve got any tips on how to keep motivation up while persevering, do share them with us below. Cheers! Louise

How publishers want writers to behave (professionally)

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Harlequin Enterprises is the biggest publisher of romance in the world, and when their Australian digital-first arm – Escape Publishing – puts out a blog to let writers know how publishers would prefer them to behave, it’s sensible to take notice!

Click on the link below to find out how to interact professionally with a publisher, and note the actions that sabotage a writer’s reputation so you can ensure you’re not doing any of them yourself.

EscapePublishingBlog

The Guilty Pleasure of Solitary Writing

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solitary writingFor writers who aren’t already subscribed to my blog at louisecusack.com, my latest post is on…

The Guilty Pleasure of Solitary Writing

If you have a passion for creating stories but struggle to find time for them, take heart, inspiration is at hand!

Writers: The Power of Viewpoint

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Last year 7 of my clients were contracted for the first time by some pretty prestigious publishing houses. In the current publishing climate that deserves a Wahoo! But it also warrants a bit of analysis. Why did those 7 manuscripts get across the line and not manuscripts from the other 15 clients who I either mentored or did manuscript assessments for. In a word, their strength was…

Viewpoint.

Each of those 7 ‘lucky’ authors had a strong grasp of viewpoint hold (sometimes called point of view) and as a result their characters came alive on the page. We saw the world through the filter of the character’s senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing) and were privy to the character’s internal life (thoughts and feelings) which revealed inner conflicts that upped the ante of the external conflicts the character was already facing. Each genre has it’s own formula for how much of the character’s internal life should make it onto the page. Action adventure novels at the low end, romance and women’s fiction at the high end. But wherever your novel fits into that spectrum, you do need to understand and use viewpoint to make us care enough about your characters to read a whole book about them.

I recently assessed a manuscript that had viewpoint problems and I’d like to share here a small section of that report:

iStock_000017868898XSmallTo create an internal life for the characters and thus build characterization, we need to know what characters are thinking and feeling. If the majority of the novel is action and dialogue with hardly any thoughts and feelings expressed, it doesn’t help us get to know your characters. And if we don’t know him and care about his journey, why should we bother to read about it?

The proviso here is that you only give us the thoughts of the character who has viewpoint at the time. Stay deep in their thoughts, feelings, physical reactions, to help us bond with them and feel as if we are them for the period of time that we’re reading.

We need to feel the character’s fear, not just see the circumstances that would inspire fear. And I don’t mean to write He was scared. In a story written for adults you have to pull us into the character’s emotions by ‘showing’ them, not ‘telling’ us about them. Does his pulse jump when he’s excited? Does his heart slow when he’s scared? Does it thump unevenly when he’s terrified? Can he stride when he’s confident and stagger when he’s overwhelmed? Show us how his emotions affect him, and above all keep us in the loop with his thoughts. Not just thoughts about what’s happening right now.  Memories, and visualizations of what you think the future may hold, both have the power to evoke emotion. You need to create a depth to the story because action and dialogue just skims the surface of the character’s experience of what’s happening. You have to make us feel if you want us to care!

Whenever I meet agents or publishers and ask them what they’re looking for, they always give me some version of “An interesting story with characters that I care about.” Every time. Interesting story (plot). Characters I care about (characterization).

Your number one tool to build characterization is viewpoint. Learn it (there are heaps of resources on the internet to help you and I’ve got one on my website here). Practise it. Get published!

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