Research in fiction writing: Thoughts on popular writing books, part 2

Now that I’ve read through a list of “academic” writing books, I’m working my way through a set of more popular writing books in search of information on the role of research in fiction writing. Rather than devote whole posts to each individual book, I’ll just be sharing some brief thoughts as I go along.

Today, I’m taking a look at How Not to Write a Novel by Howard Mittlemark and Sandra Newman and No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty. I’m also briefly revisiting On Writing by Stephen King.

How Not to Write a Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman: The premise of this book, as you probably suspect from the title, is to identify 200 classic mistakes that unpublished authors often make and then tell you how to avoid them. As gimmicks go, this isn’t terrible but I’m not sure the way the authors execute it quite works. Like, the book is framed as though you are someone who wants to write a book that will be rejected by an editor…in which case, why are they offering you solutions to the mistakes you presumably want to make in order to avoid getting published? Confusing. Yet I admit that I liked this book a lot more than Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, which is basically a more straightforward approach to the same information. The humor worked for me even if the overall premise didn’t and the advice is actually useful while being presented in a way that doesn’t make you feel bad if you happen to be guilty of some of the mistakes the authors discuss (which I certainly am). Also, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers doesn’t directly discuss research but it does have a lot of (negative) stuff to say about amateur writers and their pet hobbies which seems to be about the misuse of research. Here, Mittelmark and Newman have an entire section on research which gets at some of the same ideas but also manages to make it seem like it’s possible to overcome these problems even if you are not blessed enough to be a Great Writer. I do find it interesting that so much of the information I’m finding about research in writing books is focused on what not to do. Though the authors here do include some good ideas on how to use research effectively, the nature of their schtick is such that they can show you a lot of examples of what bad use of research looks like but when it comes to how to use research effectively, all you get are a few vague tips (which is more than a lot of other books offer, but still). I guess showing an aspiring writer what research looks like when it’s done well comes with an added level of difficulty because research done well in a piece of fiction is going to be largely invisible. Still, the focus on what not to do suggests that techniques for using research well do exist but no one ever talks about what those techniques are or what they look like in good writing.

No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty: This book is more of a marketing tool for National Novel Writing Month than it is a book about writing but, to my surprise, there actually is some information in it about research. If you’re not familiar, National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo, as it’s more commonly called) is a sort of marathon writing event in which the goal is to produce a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. It takes place every November and anyone can participate. I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo on and off for the last ten years or so and have a small collection of certificates from the times I’ve “won” hanging on my office wall. It’s a fun challenge (though, as it turns out, I usually participate as a “Rebel”—someone who adds 50,000 words to a work in progress rather than starting a new project at the start of the month. I had no idea that was technically against the rules until I read this book). When I first started doing it, it was also key to the development of a daily writing habit which has helped keep me productive. Anyway. When I was reading the academic writing books, I complained a lot about how most of treated writing as something that should only be taken on by Serious Writers looking to produce Great Literature. Baty’s book is the opposite of that. Maybe a little too much the opposite. I like how he treats writing as a form of play, one that anyone can do. But there are places in this book where he literally equates “writing” with “typing” and advises something that sounds like actual plagiarism to pad your word count when needed (by having characters in your novel quote Beowulf at length). It really kind of trivializes the writing process. Because NaNoWriMo is so closely focused on word count with little interest in craft, you would think that research wouldn’t come up, but it does. Baty includes a section on the “preparation stage” that’s supposed to take place a month before you start your novel writing. He recommends spending no more than seven of these days for research and describes a research strategy he calls “Five-Click Google” in which, if he needs to research something, he Googles it and then reads five of the results and counts this as “research.” As an information literacy librarian, this had me cringing in so many ways. Not because of the use of Google, mind you, but because Baty doesn’t say anything about taking the time to actually evaluate your sources or anything like that. This is so the opposite of what we try to teach when we teach information literacy. But hey, I went into this project knowing that the research methods of fiction writers was likely to be a lot different from the ones I’m used to teaching, so no judgment. I was just glad to see research came up at all.

On Writing by Stephen King: On Writing is the only book that appears on both the “academic” and “popular” lists of writing books based on the criteria I’m using for this study. It’s not hard to see why: even though the book was published in 2000, Stephen King is still such a popular and recognizable name that it makes this book an easy choice for any writing classroom where the teacher wants students to actually read the assigned text and for any aspiring writer who wants to read about writing on their own. This is far from my favorite book about writing or my favorite Stephen King book, but it does have one of the more substantial passages about the role of research in fiction writing that I’ve found in any of the 30+ books I’ve read so far. Which is to say, that passage is only about 2-3 pages and mostly talks about research as a necessary evil rather than a process that can enhance fiction writing, but still. What’s interesting about this is that when I talk to most people about my investigation into the role of research in fiction writing, they often immediately point to King as a writer who probably doesn’t need to do research because he can pull stories completely from his imagination yet here King offers a relatively in-depth look at the role research does, in fact, play in his work, even if his attitude toward research appears to be fairly negative. To be fair, outside of On Writing, King is a little inconsistent on whether and how he does research. In The Secret Miracle, which was published after On Writing, he claims not to do research. But more recently he’s publicly commented on the amount of research that went into writing books like 11/22/63. So my impression is that King does do research (or has assistants who do research for him)…but that he doesn’t particularly enjoy that aspect of his work. Which is entirely fair. Anyway, if you’d like to read my original post about On Writing from the first 10 Books Project, you can find it here.

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