The Research Trap: How Much Is Too Much?

This entry is part of the “Spoiled By Supplements” blog series.

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Today I want to talk about the first issue that pops up regarding supplemental material, one that plagues pretty much every writer: research.

Unless you are a personal expert at a particular craft or profession, chances are that if you write anything, you’ll have to do some research. Whether that takes the form of interviewing those who do have that knowledge, spending hours following the rabbit hole of Wikipedia links, combing through physical books, or actually going out and doing the thing the characters are doing… it all counts as research. And it can be pretty interesting, although many times it’s a hard slog through reams of material, searching for that one fact that will make your story ring with authenticity.

But there are two traps within the larger trap:

a) Procrastination, and
b) Oversharing what you learned.

Continue reading “The Research Trap: How Much Is Too Much?”

Spoiled by Supplements: How Too Much Material Ruins Writers and Readers

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On Saturday night, my brother Richard and I were having a slightly tipsy discussion about Star Wars. Over time, I’ve grown to enjoy The Last Jedi more, but my brother continues to dislike it and finds a lot of the plot unbelievable. While I was trying to explain, he asked, “Where was that established?” When I told him it was in a Star Wars EU book I’d read, he sighed and said, “But it wasn’t in the movie. You shouldn’t have to read fifteen books or watch twenty films in order to understand why something is happening in this movie.”

While I think he’s still a little too harsh on Star Wars for this failing, he does have a point. As big franchises grow bigger and media becomes even more interconnected, the amount of supplemental material continues to grow… and it isn’t always clear what is supplemental and what is actually necessary in order to understand or appreciate the story. While it’s nice to have a story or characters enriched, and it’s interesting to hear what someone intended or was going for in a commentary or interview, when you leave key pieces of plot, character, and/or motivation to be explained or even addressed in a side comic, you may have a problem. 

The fact is, we as readers and viewers have been spoiled by all of this supplemental material. And I’m afraid it may have an impact on the stories we write and how we construct them. After all, if you’re sure that something will be addressed later in an encyclopedia or short story compilation, it can be easy to forget to establish it at all. That may not be a problem if it’s a side character, but if it directly impacts a major plot point or character arc, then the resolution can seem to come out of left field. Conversely, we can get too detailed if we have too much material to squeeze in or don’t know what to focus on, creating a jumbled mess rather than a streamlined story. We can’t assume that everyone is going to be a die-hard, balls-to-the-wall, completionist type of fan. It’s (usually) fun to find out more about a fictional universe you enjoy, and I’m not against the presence of supplemental material. But there is a Dark Side to the entire affair that I think creators and their audience should be aware of.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I want to address in more detail some main problems with being spoiled by supplemental material including a few (possibly overlapping) case studies:

Issue 1: The Research Trap: How much is too much?
Case study: The Earth’s Children historical fiction series by Jean M. Auel

Issue 2: Incomplete/Muddled Multimedia Story-Telling: Where and how can we access the story?
Case study #1: Star Wars and its sprawling Expanded Universe
Case study #2: Doctor Who and its numerous, often not-well-advertised “specials”

Issue 3: Overlapping & Long-Running stories: Where’s the entry point?
Case study: Marvel, specifically the MCU, but especially long-running comics and shows in general

Issue 4: When Canon and Commentary Collide: What is “part of the story”?
Case study: J.K. Rowling and the Sexuality of Dumbledore (among other misadventures in possible retconning)

 

I hope you’ll share your thoughts on supplemental material, both the pros and the cons, in the comments throughout this blog series!

Generating Ideas

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I don’t really generate a lot of ideas anymore. I don’t usually create stories from the ground up, working entirely from scratch. Even characters, which always seem to abound, don’t spring forth on their own anymore. (I don’t count characters created for fan fiction because they already have a ready-made world to plop into, and world does a great deal to inform the character.) I don’t think I’ve generated a “new” idea for a long, long time.

This might sound terrible, but it actually isn’t. Most of my story and idea generation came when I was a kid, before I’d absorbed over two decades of media. I made a lot of crazy, weird stuff up, and fortunately I wrote some of it down. The novels that I work on now really aren’t “new” in the usual sense. They’re refinements on something that had already been generated. It may seem like I’m coming up with new ideas, like with The Arcenciel Romances or Faylinn, but even those started out as pieces of fan fiction that evolved into their own thing. Everything else is moving stuff around, changing the trappings, figuring out structures and mores that make sense, and discovering the inner lives of the characters. I’m shaping the clay, not digging it out of the ground.

I think this process is actually a good one, at least for longer works. Youth generates ideas without regard for logical or logistical sense. The images and feelings are what get wrapped up in the idea and stick with it. Then, as one grows and gains experience, you can go back and pick through that motley crew of story ideas and characters and choose the ones that work. Sometimes you even combine parts of different ideas into something else, like I did with four short stories that became the basis for Rinamathair. Others can be refined, or discarded if they would take far too much time to shape into something coherent. The only time the lack of new idea generation gets me is with short stories. Novels are a slow burn, but short stories you’re supposed to just drop out and go. Obviously they require some refinement as well, but the shape of a short story is different and more difficult for me to tackle. I have trouble making characters feel fleshed out when I don’t have a lot of time to spend with them.

The only time I can say that new ideas are generated now is when I dream. I keep a dream journal by my bed, and if I remember something from a dream, be it a sequence, a snippet of dialog, an image, a character, or a feeling, I’ll write it down. (That’s how The Mariner Sequence got started actually.) There are dozens of story seeds and story parts littered among the barely-legible scribbles of that journal. It’s a little sad to think that I probably won’t have a long enough lifespan to turn all of them into stories, to use all of that material. But I keep it in mind, and when I get stuck on a current project, I check out those seeds to see if there’s anything I can use or incorporate. (Hint: Never throw any ideas away. Keep them in a folder; they may come in handy later.)

Let’s face it: it’s all a giant tossed fruit salad and mixing bowl of inspiration and experience, so it’s best not to get too hung up on the idea of “making something new.” Chances are you already have the ingredients to make something pretty spectacular. It’s just a matter of blending and seasoning to taste.

Plot Writer versus Character Writer

How do you start writing your story?  What creates that spark of interest that makes you commit your time and energy to a project?  Every writer has their own peculiar modus operandi.  Some free-write while others outline, some write chronologically while other start at the end and work their way backwards.  The genus of an idea and how that idea is developed is also unique to each writer.  However, I have noticed a general trend among my friends who write and authors who discuss their creative process.  I speak in generalities and understand there are exceptions to every rule, but, in my experience, this trend creates two groups of writers:  Plot Writers and Character Writers.

Continue reading “Plot Writer versus Character Writer”