Research 101 by Bonnie Schroeder

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Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter. Her debut novel, Mending Dreams, was published by Champlain Avenue Books.

 

Science and I have never been good friends—except for high school physics, which was very cool because we learned how to make a hydrogen bomb. And lest this set off any Homeland Security alarms, I write “learned how to make” very abstractly here. It’s not like they gave us a recipe; the teacher merely explained the difference between fission (atom bomb) and fusion (hydrogen bomb), but my 17-year-old brain found it fascinating.

Flash forward several decades and I began work on a new novel, about a woman who suddenly and inexplicably begins growing younger. This has nothing to do with hydrogen bombs, but rather than writing the story as a fantasy—a gigantic case of wish fulfillment—I started asking questions. Could such a thing happen? How?

And this, inevitably, led me back to science.

Full disclosure: I did not find the Fountain of Youth in my travels, but I did learn more than I’ll ever need to know about genetics and cells and chromosomes. I’m not going to lay all that out for you, but I will share a few of my research techniques. Sooner or later, most writers will find they need knowledge, scientific or otherwise, that they don’t yet possess. Here’s how I went about getting it.

  1. I did some general reading first

I began my quest by reading several articles about the work doctors and scientists are doing to slow the aging process and extend our healthy lifespans. I noticed several names popping up over and over. Googling these names, I discovered contact information for several scientists—at places like Harvard and the National Institutes of Health.

2. I was audacious

I sent emails to several of these doctors and scientists, explaining my project and shamelessly asking for a few minutes of their time to review the initial premise I’d constructed and tell me if it seemed totally preposterous.scientist

Most of them never replied, but three did, and I learned something from this exercise: Scientists are really nice! They like to be helpful and to share their knowledge, and they can talk in plain English when they want to!

The first scientist I spoke with—via Skype, at his suggestion—reviewed my premise, diplomatically explained it was, in his words, “too specific and too unbelievable,” and sent me on a quest to learn about epigenetics (for the uninitiated, this is “the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself.” Got that?) He felt the clue to my premise lay in this area.

  1. I then read more specific material

My next stop was Amazon, to buy a book called Genetics for Dummies. Yes, there actually is a book by that title. I understood little of what I read, but it gaGenetics.jpgve me the vocabulary I needed to comprehend the technical articles I encountered as I chased down epigenetics and followed the threads that spun out from there.

  1. I was flexible

One of the scientists I contacted responded that she didn’t work with writers as a general practice, but she gave me the name of another scientist who was not on my initial “hit list.” This kind man turned out to be a goldmine of information and enthusiasm and not only gave me notes on my story’s outline, but also offered to read the narrative once I get to the point where science enters the picture and tell me if I got the jargon right.

  1. I was respectful of my sources’ time

This goes without saying, of course. Experts are busy people, so if one of them suggested a time and a method of contact (both Skype and teleconferencing seem popular), I was prepared to cooperate, and I was punctual.

  1. I expressed my gratitude often

There are not enough words in the language to thank these fine people who generously took time from their work to help a struggling novelist. I did thank each of them copiously during our discussions, and of course I will include a big, gushy acknowledgement in the book when it’s published. Because I was dealing with scientists in government and academia, I made sure to get their permission to mention them, because this won’t be the usual place where their name appears. And of course they will all get signed copies of the book, because without them it would have been banished to that box in the garage with all my thwarted projects.

Now I have to write the darned book, of course, and as we all know that’s a long and winding road itself. I have extra motivation on this particular trip, however, because I want to apply the knowledge I gained from my new scientist friends and prove their time wasn’t wasted in talking with me.

Has anyone else out there ever tackled a subject way beyond their area of expertise? How did you go about it? How did it turn out?

Step by Step with Bonnie Schroeder

with Bonnie Schroeder 
Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter.
One morning last week as I was brewing coffee and contemplating the novel I’m getting ready to write, it all seemed overwhelming. I felt like shelving the whole thing; it was too, too much. I’ve sketched out the premise and drafted a few opening pages, but that’s it. The book will require a lot of research, I don’t know my characters, I’m not even sure I like those opening pages, I’m facing a long road of drafts, critiques, rewrites, and blah blah blah. “How am I ever going to do it all?” I muttered to myself.
A few sips of coffee later, I quit whining. The last two or three years have been focused on writing/revising/editing my latest project (for which I hope to find a home this year), so I haven’t started a novel from scratch in a long time. But I went through my preliminary notes for the last one, hoping to find a clue as to how I did it, and I rediscovered a nifty technique I learned about through the recommendation of a writer friend. It’s called “The Snowflake Method.” You might have heard of it.
Lest I be thought an internet pirate, let me give full credit for the technique to Randy Ingermanson. I do not know Mr. Ingermanson personally; I found his website by Googling “Snowflake Method for Writing a Novel.” You can buy his book on Amazon, but he also offers the basic technique for free on his website, and I took advantage of his generosity.

 

The principle is simple: you start with a brief premise, then expand the premise, get into character descriptions, sketch out your scenes, and so on. The narrative is developed via a logical progression that takes you deeper and deeper into the story and the characters. Each step leads to the next, more complex step, much the way that an actual snowflake is structured.
On my last novel, I of course deviated from the original design work with each revision, but I’d never have gotten started without the guidance of the Snowflake technique.
The beauty of this approach, for me, is that it breaks down the writing process into separate specific tasks. It is very freeing to realize that I don’t have to do everything at once. By breaking it down into bite-size chunks, I can tackle one at a time without worrying about the road ahead. Looking ahead, at this stage, just freaks me out.
Some of my fellow dog-owners and I like to hike the trails in Griffith Park, and one of our more challenging climbs is up to Mt. Hollywood—a 1600 ft. gain. I invited another friend to join us, and when she looked up at our destination, she started to cry. Honest, she did. I knew she could make the climb okay, she’s in good shape and works out at the gym, so it wasn’t the physical challenge that daunted her; it was the mental one. The end point seemed too far away, the road too steep. I explained to her what the rest of us knew: the secret is not to look up. Focus on the trail in front of you, and take it one step at a time. It keeps you from getting discouraged and it’s safer, too—you won’t trip over any rocks if you keep your eyes on the road just ahead.
There are times, of course, when it’s good to take the long view. On our climb we stop midway for water (and to catch our breath.) And we take in how far we’ve come before we look up at the top of the mountain. Somehow, at that point, it doesn’t seem all that far away. Then we shoulder our back packs and focus on the trail right in front of us, and we do that all the way to the top.
My friend made it just fine, by the way. We were all sweaty and out of breath, but we did it. And the view from up there is always—always—worth the exertion.

 

So that’s what I’m doing now. Since I have the premise and a couple of characters, I’ll move through the design process and eventually begin to write the manuscript, with my Snowflake roadmap to light the way. And one of these days, I’ll be able to look at the stack of paper on my writing table and think, I’ve come this far. I can make it to the finish line. One step at a time.

SLASHING AND BURNING (IN OTHER WORDS, EDITING) with Bonnie Schroeder

Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter.

SLASHING AND BURNING (IN OTHER WORDS, EDITING)

My current Work in Progress initially weighed in at 121,000 words—waaaay too long unless you’re Marcel Proust or David Foster Wallace.
I am therefore in the midst of that excruciating process known as editing. With the help of my critique group, I’ve carved away over 5,000 words so far without sacrificing storyline or character development. Because I tend to overwrite, some of this was fairly easy. Other parts, not so much.
Here’s an example of an easy fix: “Now how on earth had he remembered that old saying of hers, after all these years?”
Streamlined, it reads, “How had he remembered that old saying of hers?”
Seven words gone, in only one sentence!
I have a lot more darlings to kill, of course, and here are some techniques I’ve found helpful so far:
1.   Eliminate unneeded words and phrases.
In other words, to quote my writing gurus Strunk and White:
“Avoid the use of qualifiers. Rather, very, little, pretty—these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words. The constant use of the adjective little(except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do a little better; we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one, and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then.”
Here are some egregious examples from my own work:
“It’s basically an open and shut case.”
“The light flickered and blinked.”
“Suddenly, she stood up.”
2.   Don’t have one character tell another something the reader already knows.
For example, if you’ve written a scene where a character is mugged, and she later on tells someone about it, don’t recreate the whole event in dialog. Instead, simply write, “Her voice trembled as she described the mugging.”
3.   Get rid of redundancies, e.g.
“absolute certainty”
“capricious whimsy”
“garish caricature”
“wretched misery”
The above are more embarrassing examples of my very own.
4.   Trim long descriptions. Or, in the words of Elmore Leonard, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Easy to say, and oh so hard to do!
5.   Consider combining two characters, if they both serve the same purpose in the story. I did this with two secondary characters, and the storyline crystallized without the distraction of both people echoing each other’s moves. Another thousand words saved.
6.   A radical suggestion I encountered in another writing blog is to try deleting one paragraph per page, one sentence per paragraph, or even one word per sentence. I was amazed at how well this worked.
You need to take a deep breath and trust your reader, but it can enhance the story in unexpected ways if you allow said reader to fill in the blanks and participate in creating the story.
I obviously still have much to learn about editing, and I’d love to hear about other techniques for managing this phase of the writing process.

 

Now, back to ruthlessly wielding my red pen/scalpel. Only about 10,000 more words to excise!

R.I.P., Alameda Writers Group

R. I. P., AWG

The Alameda Writers Group, aka AWG, went dark this year after a long and productive run as one of the premier writers’ support groups in the Los Angeles area.

I was a member for many years, and only now that it’s gone do I fully appreciate the benefits I derived from AWG.
At the General Membership Meetings I heard speakers like acclaimed novelist Diana Wagman, as well as writers from TV series like “Rome” and “True Blood” and had a chance to tell them in person how much I enjoyed their work. Some speakers discussed their craft and others told encouraging stories about their long and winding roads to publication/production.
It was a priceless networking tool, and I owe many of my friendships—including those of ALL the Writers in Residence—to the AWG, either directly or indirectly.
The relationships I formed through AWG were instrumental in my producing a published novel, thanks to the critique groups I joined. In them, I experienced the “tough love” that only fellow writers can provide: honest but compassionate feedback on what worked in my writing, and what didn’t. I heeded their comments, went back to my novel-in-progress and reshaped it until it did (mostly) work.
One of my peak AWG experiences, in fact, came when I joined fellow novelist Heather Ames (whom I met in those critique groups, one of which she moderated) to address the membership and describe our paths to publication.
Why am I going on and on about a now-defunct organization? Partly it’s guilt. AWG began to founder, and I did nothing to prevent it, so this post is a big mea culpa. When new leadership made some missteps, and many of the members felt the organization began to drift off-course, all I did was gripe about how AWG had lost touch with fiction writers. Some of my colleagues did try to intervene, but they were rebuffed, and I used that as an excuse for inaction.
Membership dwindled. New leaders came on board and tried to redirect and re-energize the group, but the damage had been done. Finally, the meeting venue closed down for renovation, and it became obvious that it was time to turn off the lights. All good things must come to an end and all that.

But I think it’s important to recognize the value of AWG, and I know that if I ever find another group like it, I will try to do more to keep it going. Good old hindsight.
When I joined AWG, I’d left a career in the business world and had a vague notion that I would devote myself full-time to writing. However, I wasn’t sure I had what it takes to be a “real” writer. Over time, I began to believe that I did have the makings of novelist, if I was willing to work at my craft and be open to feedback, and the result of all that was, among other things, Mending Dreams. I wrote my novel, and I found a publisher, and I honestly don’t know if that would have happened if I hadn’t joined AWG all those years ago.
And so, with apologies to Lerner & Loewe, “don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot. . .” where writers of all kinds were welcomed, acknowledged, encouraged, and given a chance to improve their craft.
For that, AWG, I thank you.
THE DOG ATE MY . . . [FILL IN THE BLANK]
 
Novelist Bonnie Schroeder shares some of her favorite excuses for not writing. Visit her Author’s Page on Amazon.

 

Meet Thunder, the newest addition to my family. She is a Swiss shepherd, close cousin of the German shepherd. She blasted into my life on November 1, 2014. As it happened, I was working on the final act of my new novel, and I was stuck. I didn’t have a satisfactory, or satisfying, ending.
So I shoved the manuscript aside, having been handed the best excuse in the world: I had a new puppy. Housebreaking. Crate training. Socializing. Bonding. And generally enjoying the fun, excitement and disruption a new baby, human or animal, introduces to one’s life.
The trouble was, three months later I hadn’t picked up the threads of my novel, and by then Thunder had fairly well merged into the household routine. But, somehow, I still “didn’t have time” to work on my novel.
Normally, I am pretty adept at squeezing maximum usage out of my time. I wrote the first few drafts of Mending Dreams while working ten-hour days with an hour-long commute tacked on both ends of the workday.
So what was up? I avoided thinking about it as we started obedience school and I focused on training my puppy. Thunder, however, did some teaching of her own. Among other things, she made me realize I needed to curb my perfectionist tendencies. A six-month-old puppy will not and should not become an obedience champion overnight. She’s a work in progress.
That got me to thinking about my unfinished manuscript, and—duh! I finally figured it out. I did not have the perfect ending for the book. I was stumped. It wasn’t lack of time that kept me from working; it was lack of direction.
Somewhere along the line I’d forgotten a crucial fact about being a writer: you can’t fix what isn’t on the page. I’ve made enough false starts over the years that this lesson should have been permanently engraved in my brain. But it wasn’t.
So I took a deep breath and dived into the chilly waters of revision, crafting a new ending, better than the one that had left me stuck. Well, maybe “better” is an overstatement. It was different.
And something very weird happened, although I should have seen it coming. As I typed up my hand-scribbled draft, ideas began to float around in my brain. Hey, maybe instead of ABC, let’s try XYZ. Yeah, not bad. But maybe MNOPQ would make more sense? Try it. And try again, until you have something that kinda sorta approximates the vision in your head.
That’s how I did it, bit by bit, while Thunder was taking naps. Puppies sleep a lot, so I had many half-hours and hours to do what I thought I “didn’t have time” for.
Another thing Thunder taught me is that imperfections aren’t fatal. My puppy was born with a stubby tail, which some might consider a flaw. But to me she’s unique and special, and that little metronome tail is always wagging. Likewise, no piece of writing is perfect, and often it’s the flaws that give it depth and worth.
Thunder is flunking novice obedience—well, I’m flunking, and I’m taking her with me, but we’re learning a little. Next time around, or the time after that, we’ll do better. But if we didn’t start somewhere. . . Well, you know how it goes.
As I worked through all this angst, I came face to face with some truths about myself: I’m lazy. I like excuses. But underneath all that, writing is in my DNA. I may not be the world’s best dog trainer, but I am nothing if not persistent (some would say “stubborn”.) And, most important, I am a writer, and always will be.
So let me ask: what’s yourfavorite excuse for avoiding stumbling blocks in your writing? And how did you overcome it?

 

Writing Stuff – A Tough Project

Author Kate Thornton shares her thoughts about the process of bringing new life to old projects. Visit her Author’s Page on Amazon!

WRITING STUFF – A TOUGH PROJECT



I finished a Christmas story last week and sent if off to a magazine that has a tracking application online. Of course, I check it daily. Five days in slush and still not read – I may have to volunteer as a slush reader to get it going.


I always write seasonal stories out of season – that way there is really no looming deadline and magazines really like to get their seasonal stuff lined up ahead of time. Writing short stories is not easy – they must be tight, have impact, be satisfying and, well, short.

But the really tough writing project I am working on is a novel I wrote in 1998. Back then, I thought I was a novelist and knocked out 3 or 4 long works – adventure/mysteries – that I thought were really good. Hah! Shows what little I knew! They needed a lot of work. So I shelved them (one was actually agented and had some interest from St. Martin’s Press, only back then I didn’t know enough about revisions to do the necessary rewrites.) The event that triggered this effort was lunch a while back with an old friend, a dear friend, who asked about that particular book and remembered it fondly. Bless my beta readers!

So I am re-reading it first (I have a copy printed on my old laser printer) then doing a page-by-page rewrite into my computer. I used to have this work on an ancient five-inch floppy disc, but who knows what happened to that and what I could use to extract the info anyway. Also, I think it was in one of the very first iterations of Word Perfect. Yes, I am old!

I once heard you must write a million words before you learn how to put them into the right order. I am sure this old effort was part of my first million, and therefore should just be counted as practice, not the real deal. But I want to salvage the basic story, change the main character to one I have been developing, and update the technology (both in the storyline and what I use to write with.)

Maybe it will be a successful project. If so, I have at least three more “Trunk Novels” that could get the same treatment, if they’re worth it.

So, how about you? Do you save your old stuff and use it – or parts of it – later? I like the idea of doing this, but it sure is a lot of work. An author of my acquaintance recommends just ditching it all and writing something new. There is certainly a lot to be said for that approach. But there is also something about an old friend, a character you have created, coming home to the present and being with you again.


So, for now, I want to revisit this person and see if they can get used to the world as it is now. And I think maybe it will help me to accept the world of today as well.