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Revising Your Novel: Beware, Your Research Is Showing

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I love hearing authors read aloud, especially when they talk about the genesis of their work or the craft of writing it.

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to hear a presentation at the Newburyport Literary Festival by Barbara Shapiro, author of The Art Forger, a bestselling novel based loosely around the art heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. Aside from enjoying Shapiro's lively reading from her fast-paced, clever suspense novel, what really kept me riveted were her writing tips, two of which struck me as the best advice I've ever heard on the subject of writing fiction:

1: Don't Let Your Research Show

As someone who holds a doctorate in sociology, Shapiro is an avid reader and researcher; fortunately, she also has a writing group that critiques her work and is always poised to shout: "Your research is showing!"

No matter what kind of story you're writing, you're probably doing some background reading as a way of gathering information to infuse into your novel. In my new book, The Wishing Hill, for instance, I have flashback scenes set in a snuff mill -- snuff is a powdered tobacco sniffed up the nostril rather than smoked -- and, before writing those scenes, I researched how snuff was manufactured, where it was sold, what it was like to work in a mill, etc.

Did I need all of that material? Heck no. I just needed to layer in a few details, like what color the snuff was and what kinds of containers it was packed in, to give an accurate feel for what it was like for one of my main characters to work in a snuff mill. Other than that, anything I put in there about manufacturing snuff was just going to clog the narrative. It took me three drafts to finally take out the extraneous passages, but after hearing Barbara talk about this, I'm sure my readers will be grateful I did!

2. Avoid Eye Bumps

Shapiro also tries to avoid the "eye bump," her phrase for the moment your reader is happily immersed in your fictional world, trotting along nicely until she stumbles over an awkward narrative section that is too dense, too long, or too detailed, leading the reader to pop out of the story and bump her head on the real world.

The whole point of storytelling is to draw your reader in so deeply that she forgets entirely about the world outside, that pesky place filled with children who need lunch money or a job with deadlines or a husband who really ought to pick up his own socks.

So, if you do have a lot of research or back story that really is essential to your book, don't lump those more static, informational passages together. Instead, scatter them throughout the book in smaller chunks so your reader can have a smoother journey and absorb the material more easily.

Thanks to Shapiro, tomorrow I'm going back to page one of my work-in-progress to see if my research is showing -- and to ensure that my poor reader doesn't get jolted out of the world I'm creating.