Dogs Can’t Meow: Why Even Fantasy Writers Need Research

As an editor, a writer, and a vocal member of the writing community, I hear a lot of strange rules that people make up about writing. As a matter of fact, our next CraftQuest discussion will be exactly about that (subscribe to our channel for updates)! One of my absolute favorite ones is this: If you’re writing fantasy, you don’t need to research. You’re writing about things that don’t exist in reality–why would you need to search for clues within reality? No. Just no. As a writer, you NEED to research. It’s a fundamental part of your work. And it doesn’t matter what you’re writing.

In real life, i.e. not your imaginary book land, there will always be things you don’t know. I know that the infamous “they” tell you to write what you know, but I’ve gotta tell you, if I wrote only what I know into every manuscript I work on, my work would be painfully boring. I’ve written about powered individuals who fight monsters. I’ve written about a girl who is best friends with Aphrodite. I’ve written about spiking your brother-in-law’s martini with coolant. I haven’t done a single one of these things, no matter how sorely tempted I’ve been. What have I done? I’ve been terrified for my life and I’ve been in chaotic situations. I’ve been friends with someone who wanted more for me, and I’ve been friends with someone who thought I should be something I was not. I’ve watched someone abuse someone I loved and wished for a way to free them from the neverending spiral of abuse.

So, how do you write about the things you do not know? You have to do research. You have to learn new things, understand different lifestyles, different histories. You have to dig deep. But what about fantasy and science fiction? You don’t have to do research for those, do you? I mean, they aren’t even real! Why would you need to research something when it’s all made up in your imagination?

Because the key to fiction is relatability. We enjoy books because we relate to their characters or their worlds on some intrinsic level. They reflect something about our world. Which means they have to, at least somewhat, feel similar to our world. On a planet where the physics are different? You have to justify that change. Create a world where someone is immortal? Why? How does their body work that is different from how ours do? You can’t just randomly have someone buried alive for a week and have them survive. You have to explain that they don’t need a whole helluva lot of food, water, and oxygen to survive. You can’t just have a dragon without wings fly through the sky. How does he stay up? Is some kind of magic at play? Without that, they wouldn’t be aerodynamic enough to swoop through the sky.

If your character rides a horse-like creature, you have to understand how to describe riding a horse and relate it back, because when we read, we base the adventures on our own somewhat similar experience. Your job, as a writer, is to come as close to capturing a relatable experience while still balancing that with the new and fantastical ways of the world you’ve created in a consistent fashion.

So how do you make sure your world feels relatable to your readers, even if you play with changing some of the rules? You take what you don’t already know and you…research it.

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When I Grow Up

Logan as a model again. I asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, and this was his face.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” We’re all asked a few hundred times throughout our childhood. And I realized that now that I’m, at least technically, “grown up,” nobody asks me what I want to be anymore. It’s an interesting thing that we’re all asked about our future vocation when we’re far too young to do much about it or to even know ourselves well enough to know what we want. And when do we lose that? When do we start to know ourselves well enough to know what we want for the rest of our lives? What’s the imaginary age that we decide what we’re capable of?

From the time I started school all the way up to my pre-teen years, I wanted to be an English teacher. Teachers are our heroes when we’re young, until we either fall apart under the pressure of expectations and testing and regimented thinking, or we realize they’re just human like the rest of us. I loved English in particular, and there was this amazing writing teacher in my school, Michael Shaw, who was incredibly quirky and pleasant and wasn’t afraid to be silly as hell if it made the kids in the school love to learn. Every year, he would dress up as Johnny Appleseed to teach us about Earth Day before people really cared about ecology the way they should. He was so engaging, that I quickly decided I wanted to be him.

That dream died when I realized I was decidedly not him. I was prone to outbursts of temper I was not good enough at holding back to work with tiny humans all day without being labeled as the monster teacher. I couldn’t even teach my full-grown adult of a mother how to use a computer mouse without losing my temper and treating her like an idiot. Not cool, I know. But I was journeying into teenagerhood with very messy role models and a burgeoning battle with depression and I wasn’t handling it well. And then I met Dr. Jonathan Dzik.

Doc, as all his students called him, took a chance on a moody student who purposely pressed his buttons for entertainment value. And, persnickety by nature, he had a lot of pushable buttons. While I actually attempted to drive him crazy, he actually attempted to guide my efforts to more useful things, like the school musical. He was right, I was a far better singer and actress than I was a teenage asshat. And just like that, I discovered a new answer to what I was going to be when I grew up. An actress and a singer, obviously.

The truth was, I wasn’t actually good at being a teenage asshat, my compassion and empathy often tripping me up and making me suffer after my various attempts at being an unfeeling wench. So, it wasn’t very difficult to be a better singer and actor than an asshat. Another truth? I sucked at acting. And while I still think I possess singing talent, that 1) often comes with a dancing requirement and I can’t do a choreographed step without tripping over myself; and 2) after a year and a half of auditions with professionals, I quickly learned that the industry was not ready for a singer who shopped in the plus sized section. I was in the era before Kelly Clarkson and Adele, when every singer looked like Britney Spears and were lucky if they even grazed the gorgeous sounds of Christina Aguilera’s vocal chops. I could have kept trying, but the constant requests to lose weight killed my self-esteem dead enough that I became determined to find a thing where people could value my brain and not my belly.

I had been writing since back in the days of Mr. Shaw, but I didn’t really think it could be anything. Mostly, I just wrote silly stories based on television shows. And then, one day, while I stood at the counter of the video store I worked at, stuck in the job-with-necessarily-flexible-hours I needed to go on auditions. It was an incredibly boring day. I was the only person on shift. So I picked up the pad I used for inventory lists, and started writing an idea that had been running around my head like a squirrel searching for a nut.

I’ve broken up with writing a few dozen times since then, but it’s always been a lie, and I always come back. My love for it birthed my intense desire to learn more about the hows and whys behind what works and what doesn’t. That led me to editing, to helping other people learn what will work best for their manuscripts.

That girl who thought she couldn’t possibly have enough patience to teach a room full of kiddies all about reading and language finds herself slaving over manuscripts written by authors of various skill and scope and helping to teach them what they don’t already know and guide them on the path to a more polished manuscript. And suddenly, I can hear that little girl’s voice, answering the question of what she wants to be when she grows up with a very self-assured “An English Teacher” and she doesn’t sound so foolish. Because she must have seen something within herself that the grumpy teenager somehow missed.

That kid wasn’t exactly right. She was close enough though, and it makes me wonder. I may not have known what I wanted to be, but I always knew I wanted to help others, to spread knowledge, to share. Perhaps we shouldn’t be asking children what they want to be when they grow up. I’m a legal secretary who writes and edits in whatever time she can scrounge up and that’s far from what I imagined. Perhaps we’d be better off asking who they want to be when they grow up. That, at least, lends them a greater chance of landing far closer to the mark.



Huge News

Hi all,

As of January 1, 2019, my editing service, The Inkwell Council, which is comprised of myself, my husband Ismael, and my sister-in-law Megan, will be merging with Craft Quest’s Maria Turead and Ari Augustine, to form a new powerhouse editing service. Our press release is below. We welcome and questions or comments you may have and hope that you’ll join us on this exciting adventure.


Writer friends! We have a very important announcement! 

As of January 1, 2019, The Inkwell Council and CraftQuest will be merging to form a new and improved CraftQuest! 

What does this mean for you? It means you have more choices for the optimum edit. 
When you visit CraftQuest’s website to request an edit, you can choose from five talented, high-demand editors. Each member of the CraftQuest team will have their own manuscript wishlist, so you can select the editor that best fits your story. Are you looking to edit a short story or a novel-length manuscript? We offer both. Select a first, second, and third choice editor to lower your wait time, or build a package of multiple editors for The Inkwell Council’s well-known critique style, in which the editors have the opportunity to discuss, and sometimes argue over, proposed changes to your manuscript. Need a query or synopsis edit? Need an aesthetic for inspiration? Need someone to Skype with you and hammer out the fine details of your manuscript? We offer those as well! All at competitive rates, so you don’t have to break the bank for a quality edit.

And if you’re wondering where The Inkwell Council’s monthly free three chapter edit lottery has gone, the answer is, it hasn’t gone anywhere! CraftQuest will continue to randomly select one manuscript per month to receive a free sample edit. CraftQuest’s video panels and short instructional videos will also continue in the new model.

All of this is provided by a tightly knit group of five experienced editors who love a good story–love to read them, write them, tell them, and edit them–and can’t wait to hear from you.

We hope you’ll join us on this journey. We can’t wait to see what great tales await. 

Editing And Why You Can’t Avoid It

In case you missed this weekend’s edition of Craft Quest, behold the archived video. This time around, we discussed the whys and hows of finding an editor with special guest star Jeni Chappelle.

Check it out here.

Learning to Fail and Other Rude Awakenings

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I don’t like to brag, but I’m really good at NaNoWriMo-ing. Like, really good. I have participated in many NaNos since 2012, and I have always completed my goal of writing 50,000 words in one month. I have also participated in the Camp NaNoWriMos, in that time, often pulling out 50,000 words in April or July, in any of the years I chose to participate. And then came this year.

In April, I already knew I was competing with a crazier schedule, and set my goal of Camp Nano (the version of this challenge that has changeable goals) to 30,000 words in the month. I managed to make that goal. In July, I did the same, hoping to finish out a decent chunk of the book I had started in April. By a week into the month, I could already see that I wasn’t going to get to 30,000. I cut my word count to 15,000.

You see, there was this scene. Or worse, there was this book. And it slowed everything to a stop.

When I started work on a new book while waiting for notes back from my edit-partner for my last completed first draft, Never Say Never, I intended to work on a light-hearted superhero tale. Often, to get myself into telling a story, I will first write my first draft of the book blurb, a teaser description to tell myself what’s at stake and who my main character is. I do this prior to outlining, just so I can get into the proper frame of mind. When I set out to do this, my simple superhero book became a dystopian novel about two teens living off the streets of a derelict city until they choose to fight for better. With zero superheroes. And I don’t know how. I often scoff at people who say the characters took control of the story, or who claim they need their muse, but this was definitely some kind of whacked out magic at work. I hadn’t had this idea before I set out. This was not the book I was looking for.

But perhaps it was the book I needed. For one, writing it scared the shit out of me. It required a level of worldbuilding I’d never done before. It required a set of research I’d never considered. Worse, as I started plotting out the outline, I began to discover the story was meant to be in third person, which I almost never write.

I went to a book signing a few weeks before, for one of my favorite authors–Patrick Ness. He said he always likes to scare himself with his book ideas. He said he didn’t want to write anything that didn’t scare him–it was part of the adventure of writing. So when this strange story sprang from my head, I went with it–I did the scary thing. I started outlining this story. I started doing the research. And perhaps, I jumped into writing the thing too quickly.

That was my excuse when I cut the word count in April.

But then, my life was changing. I started work with Craft Quest, continued working with The Inkwell Council, and started taking on occasional freelance editing jobs. I dove into a new fandom (I haven’t been part of a fandom in awhile), which was time-wasting, but also reminded me why it’s so damn fun to be a geek, and saved me from dealing with a lot of this next part–as I mentioned earlier this year, I recently was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. My symptoms had been growing steadily worse for the entire year before I figured out what was wrong, and have now continued cropping up in new and interesting ways. My husband and son got into a car accident, ending up in the middle of a seven-car bumper-to-bumper on the highway–they were fine, but the car was decidedly not. We frantically struggled to replace it. There was an awful slew of bullying at our son’s summer camp that was impacting him directly. And I got stuck, horribly stuck, on one scene in the story that I just couldn’t figure out. I crashed. HARD. I never made it to 15,000 words. That has never happened to me before.

From the end of July to now, I have written four pages. That’s it, folks. Four whole pages. And anybody who follows this blog regularly knows that’s a joke. It wasn’t even like I was editing Never Say Never. I got the edits, got stuck on the first thing that was said, and pushed that aside as well. I just didn’t know how to handle any of it, so I didn’t touch it. I put it all away.

I celebrated my son’s birthday. I handled that damn summer camp. I celebrated my best friend’s pregnancy, my sister-in-law’s new apartment, my other best friend’s journey through Thailand and Japan. I sat beside another dear friend as she struggled to (successfully, thank goodness) battle breast cancer. I got to work on another project close to my heart that I can’t discuss yet, but is arts-based and local, and should it take off, would touch on a long-standing dream of mine. I swam around in my new favorite fandom and made some new friends there. I lived my dang life. I took a break.

And I feel better. I feel clearer. I think this needed to happen to remind me I couldn’t do everything at once. I need to crash to remind myself that despite my protestations to the contrary, this illness has given me new limitations. I needed to crash to remind myself I had other priorities in life. I needed to crash to remind myself to have a little fun. I needed to crash because I don’t need to hit my goals every single time. Sometimes I’m allowed to miss them. I needed to crash to remind myself I didn’t need to get this story right on the first draft. That I could completely screw it up, go back in and rewrite it like I was bound to do anyway a few times, once I figured out what I was trying to say and how it was going to work. I needed to crash to remind myself that the work of sculpting doesn’t get done until the clay is on the damn table.

I needed to crash. I needed to fail. I needed that to learn how to take care of myself so that next time, I may succeed.

Tl;dr: I’m back, folks. How was your summer vacation?

How to Handle a Critique

Hi all!

Today I’m sitting in on Craft Quest’s YouTube page with a short video containing my 4 step rule for handling a critique. Check it out below, and be sure to join us live on Saturday at 5PM EST for a live panel on self-care for writers! Hope to see you then!