Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Researching the novel: Making it real and getting it right

In his book ON WRITING, Stephen King said, “Do the research, but don’t overdo it for the reader.” Writers like me should probably take that to heart. But it’s tough, because I love to make things real.

In my last book, LILITH, I wanted the reader to feel like they were there on the USS Gerald R. Ford with me. Being ex-navy, I spent many a day sailing the ocean blue on several different ships, so that experience came in quite handy when it was time to write. I also managed to spend some time aboard a carrier, the USS Harry S. Truman, which was pretty awesome. I got to stand right out on the flight deck while the jets were taking off and landing, rattling my bones until I thought they would fracture. The picture below is one I took myself of a navy jet landing in 2010.

For LILITH, I researched several different types of weapons used by Special Forces and CIA, the CIA and its methods, nuclear fission and nuclear power, DNA and genetic mutation, animal tracking, New York City, especially Manhattan Island and its layout, the abandoned New York City subway tunnels, hurricanes and weather patterns, the offices and buildings used by the mayor of New York, the type of security used by the mayor, on and on and on. I used Google maps to see exactly what the parks and buildings looked like at street level and videos to see what the abandoned subway tunnels were like. I even enlisted the help of a retired navy commander to get my facts straight about the USS Gerald Ford, which has yet to be commissioned. 

The research itself took a good six months, the writing another six months. In the end, I had to cut 10,000 words out of the book to secure a contract with DarkFuse, most of it having to do with the back story, via the musings of the ship’s chaplain, Commander Crane, of the creature that takes over the ship. But it was worth it, because the back story will be fleshed out in the sequel, PRIMORDIAL, which I am now writing.

For PRIMORDIAL, as with all my other books; DIABLERO (Nightbird Publishing, Oct. 2010), GOD PARTICLE (Crossroad Press, June 2013), and THE BLACK CHURCH (DarkFuse, Dec. 2013), I did most of the research beforehand. Most of the action for PRIMORDIAL will be set on the island of Crete in the Mediterranean, but there are also scenes in Romania, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Sicily, and Washington D.C.

Since I am not an archeologist and have limited knowledge on the subject, I enlisted the help of archeologists and geomorphologists from Boston U. and NC State, and even picked up a book about the basics of archeology, just so I could get the jargon right. I looked at videos of several different dig sites on Crete, researched modern Crete and its ancient Minoan civilization, which figures heavily in the plot, and did more research on the CIA, nuclear radiation, DNA and genetic mutation. And that’s just the basic stuff.

Sometimes it seems like the research will never end. I just want to turn off the computer and say, “Forget it! I’m going fishing!” But even though I make my share of mistakes, I am a stickler for realism, and getting it right. If I say, “He walked through the gate and into the park,” you can be sure that I have either been there, or I looked it up on a recent video or photo and saw a gate in front of that park.

But in spite of all the necessary research, a writer can’t forget the most important element of any story: the human element. But I’ll save that for next time.

Are you a writer? Do you do a lot of research before you write? How do you go about it? Leave me a comment and tell me about it. If you have a question about research, feel free to leave a comment, as well.

For more information on me and my books, find me on the web at www.tobytatestories.com. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Why writers need good editors

I’ve done the self-publishing thing, if for no other reason than to say, “I did it.” It was not my first book, however.

DIABLERO, a supernatural thriller that featured a resurrected, demon-possessed Blackbeard the Pirate, was published first in paperback by Nightbird Publishing in 2010 and then by Crossroad Press as an eBook in 2011.

So why do a self-published book, you may ask? Well, I think I can sum it up in one word: vanity. I wanted to get my collection of short stories out there, and none of my publishers wanted to publish a short-story collection. So I figured, what the hey, I’ll just do it myself. Shadowland was published as an eBook in 2011 with Amazon, Sony and elsewhere. 

I won’t say it was a bad decision—it was what it was. But only one of the stories, Gray Area, had gone through any kind of rigorous editing. The rest were stories that I had written and reworked several times. 

I hate to admit it, but it shows. Although several of the stories have since been edited and published elsewhere, (see Shadowland inVoluted Tales Magazine #2), they weren’t really the best they could be. Unfortunately, I didn’t have access to any editors that charged less than $1,000 per manuscript, which really wasn’t in my budget. 

I said all that to say this: editing really does make a difference. I love my editors at DarkFuse and Crossroad Press—they give a professional edge to my writing by making sure the story has continuity, catching grammatical and punctuation errors that I otherwise would have missed, and even helping reword things that could be said in a better, more concise way. I would have to pay someone several thousand dollars to do what they do, so I am eternally thankful to have their expertise.

For my second novel, LILITH, a supernatural thriller that puts a mythological creature aboard an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean, I was ready to pay a tidy sum for a good editor. But DarkFuse made an offer before I did so, and author Greg Gifune ended up being my editor, so I was happy.

My next book, GOD PARTICLE, a young adult sci-fi thriller that features Chloe Johansson, a globe-trotting sixteen-year-old MIT prodigy, is due out June 4, 2013 and will be published by Crossroad press. My editor there, David Dodd, did an excellent job catching all my dumb mistakes and I think improved my chances of getting good sales. Not a bad thing. 

If you decide to self-publish, my advice is spend the money and find yourself the best editor you can afford, one that knows the business and knows what to look for in a manuscript. Believe me, the money will be well-spent. Don’t put a half-assed manuscript out there, because readers judge you by the quality of your writing, and if one manuscript isn’t up to par, it could affect the sales of any other books you publish.

Michael Garrett, who once worked with Stephen King and other big name authors, offers an excellent service at a reasonable price for anyone who is interested. I only mention him because I was so impressed with his attitude and work ethic. There are probably many other good editors out there, but do your research and make sure they know what they’re talking about, otherwise you’ll spend a fortune and have nothing to show for it.