Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Social Science to Genre Fiction: The Many Faces of Writing

Hello all,

Before I begin—a bit of shameless self-promotion. Years ago my mother ran an online business. One of the people she hosted ads for ran a newsletter/blog, and every so often this person would do a post of just “shameless self-promotion.” I thought that was hilarious when I heard it. My second thought was “that guy had balls.”

So I’m taking a stab at it. Follow/subscribe to my blog. I’m cute. I’m funny. I’d like to think I occasionally produce interesting content. You know you want to.

It’s lonely writing and thinking no one’s reading. Be my friend. And just look at that subscribe link. It’s so pretty. And it’s lonely too. So be a friend to me and the subscribe link. After all, writers and subscribe links are people too.

All right, back to business.

This Wednesday I’d like to take a look at a personal writing journey of mine. As I’ve said many times, I did my undergraduate work in psychology before changing gears completely and applying/enrolling in Seton Hill’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program. When I first entered the program, my writing was…well…not good. I attributed this pretty heavily to my lack of formal training. During my first residency critique session, my work was basically ripped apart (not unexpectedly), but among the constructive criticism, blossoms of good writing bloomed. I was told by the group moderator that my story had a lot of what was often seen from “1s” (first-semester students.) In short, this was “flow, a basic understanding of storytelling, and creativity.”

I took this and ran with it. My first two months of thesis were completely scrapped (for numerous reasons). It wasn’t until my third month in the program that I felt I started to make progress. The big reason behind this is simply that I was new. Upon closer reflection, I’ve realized that another part of it was forcing myself to make the transition between strictly dry academic writing to writing that told a story and engaged readers.

This was no simple task.

If you’ve never read an academic, social science journal article, they are wonderful insomnia cures. Lol

No, seriously, if you’re into that kind of thing (and I am depending on the subject) they can be very interesting. More often than not, however, they are dry as bone. Let me break down a typical research article.

We all remember the scientific method from elementary school science class. This is similar. The sections to a research article are as follows.


Pretty self-explanatory.

Let’s look at each individual section.

Abstract: The abstract is the blurb at the beginning that summarizes the following sections in a few paragraphs In the case of psychological research articles, it contains the hypothesis, a few sentences that nicely wrap up the introduction, a sentence that describes the methods, an abbreviated version of the results, and another few sentences outlining the conclusion. How simple would life be if we could just read the abstract? Answer—very, but that wouldn’t have gotten me through undergrad.

Hypothesis: It’s what you remember from elementary science class. “If this happens, then that will happen.” Or to be more exact “If this is presumed true, then this is most likely true.” Nothing in social science is “true” or “false.” Instead everything is “supported” or “not supported.” We never say “proven.” We never refer to statements as “facts.” Because the nature of the beast is typically human nature, nothing is definite.

Introduction: This is where all of the background information lives. All of the research articles I wrote included an introduction that was a compellation of five to ten already written articles on the topic. The introduction usually ranges in length from three to seven pages and is about as fun as reading the dictionary if you’re not interested in the experiment. It repeats itself quite a bit (because there’s overlap within the studies that were called upon to provide background for the current study), and, unlike in fiction writing, there is no shame in repetition for academic articles.

Methods: Who is involved in this experiment? How will they be tested? What are the variables? The participants section is the easiest part to write and, therefore, also the easiest part to understand. It usually looks something like this. “Two hundred college students between the ages of 18 and 22 who attended Harvard University during the Spring 2012 academic semester were tested during this experiment. Students came from a variety of ethnic backgrounds including (list ethnic backgrounds here).” Very simple, not terribly gripping.

The “Procedure” section is where the (you guessed it) procedure of the experiment is detailed. What were those 200 college students from Harvard University between the ages of 18 and 22 asked to do? Also, describe this in minute detail. Necessary for replicating an experiment.

Variables—what are the control groups? What are the different variable groups that were tested? Was there a placebo? (For those who don’t know, placebos are false variables. It’s the old “one group is given the actual test drug and the other group is given sugar pills” idea.) Be very specific here—how many students are in each group? Are the groups equally divided in terms of gender? Ethnic background? Exact age? It’s enough to make one’s head spin.

Results: Scratch what I just said. The results are enough to make one’s head spin. Statistics were my weakest class during undergrad. Thus, I didn’t do terribly well in my cognitive psychology class either (though my professor will attest that I passed, which I did—with A-s and B+s) But that’s not the point. The point is that unless you are a statistics person, the results section is a nightmare.

P > .05.

Looks so harmless, doesn’t it? These five characters were the bane of my existence. I don’t even remember what they’re for beyond that it is called the “probability value.” It has to do with the hypothesis and results, and it pops up in every results section followed by a long, completely incomprehensible to anyone but statistic-speaking humans section that (if interpreted by someone who knows what they’re doing) states the statistical outcome of the experiment.

Needless to say, I am not, and have never been, one of those people.

Conclusion: My favorite part of the article! You may be thinking it’s my favorite part because it means I’m almost done reading. That is only partially true. I enjoy the conclusion because it takes all of the may-as-well-be-Greek from the results section and puts it into English. Some conclusions sections contain subsections for potential future experiments, but the bulk of the conclusion is set to explaining the results and explaining the strengths and shortcomings of the experiment. It’s the part I always understood and also the part where I learned the most.

After all that, you may find it shocking that I gave it all up to write fiction (apply sarcasm). Contrary to what the above may sound like, I don’t hate psychology. Quite the contrary, there’s quite a bit of it that I find interesting, and I love applying it to my genre writing.

I don’t think I’ll ever go back, though. I’m not even sure I could. Want an example? Here’s a sample of the intro of a paper I wrote in undergrad. I wrote this for my Developmental Psychology class, and the topic was parenting styles and how they affect dating patterns. This is the first few paragraphs and outlines two of the four popular parenting styles.


Do parenting styles in childhood effect adolescent dating and maturity? As defined by Diana Baumrind and Eleanor Maccoby, there are four basic parenting styles: authoritarian, permissive, authoritative, and uninvolved. Each style is unique in how parents treat their children and how children react, both long and short term, to that treatment.
Authoritarian parents are those who value “strict, unquestioned obedience.” Parents who employ this style leave no room for discussion with their children. In this case, the parents’ final word is law and is not open to debate. Authoritarian parents come off as cruel, strict, unbending, and punitive. If a child misbehaves, this type of parent will often give a much too severe consequence for the child’s action with little or no explanation for why.
Permissive parents are those who are not consistent in their parenting approach. These parents do not see themselves as involved in their children’s outcome and put few, if any, restrictions on their children. They are laid back and, when they do get involved, their reaction to what their child has done is unpredictable and often too harsh or not harsh enough (2006).

Feldman, R. (2006). Social and Personality Development in the preschool years. Development across the lifespan (278). Uppersaddle River, NJ: Pierson Prentice Hall.


I happen to find this particular topic interesting (hence why I chose it for my paper). If I came across this article, I might read it. But I’d read that urban fantasy I’m writing that I’ve been featuring on Wednesdays for the last few weeks first (wink wink, nudge nudge).

But you can see where what I talked about above applies. The information repeats within the same paragraph. It’s just worded differently. If a fiction book repeated that much, you’d put it down. Yet that’s completely acceptable in the academic arena.

So where am I going with this? This is the part of the post where I spout words of wisdom. To any social science major who wants to write genre fiction (or literary fiction). There are a few things to keep in mind as you make the transition.

First—do not repeat yourselves in fiction. I found my self (still do) repeating ideas or narrations a few paragraphs apart in different words. And then my critique partners go through and comment with “You said this already.” Yes, I know…ugh. Or at least I would have known if I wasn’t still half in my academic paper mindset where repetition is (gasp) the norm.

Second—95% (that’s probably not statistically significant) of your readers are reading strictly for pleasure. There is the exception—scholars of literature and people in the Readings in the Genres classes at Seton Hill, but they will find the important things to focus on by themselves. By contrast, 95% of the readers of academic articles are doing so for research purposes. The important information needs to be up front and emphasized. It doesn’t need to all be frontloaded in fiction. Spread out your information.

Third—fiction readers need suspense and tension. As interesting as my article on parent types may be, the suspense is arguable at best (what will the outcome be?) and the tension is decidedly non-existent. Go back up and read my excerpt again. There’s no tension. It’s supported research backed up by citation after supported research backed up by citation. In most cases (as I’m learning, there are many exceptions in genre fiction) that will not hold readers of fantasy, science fiction, mystery, romance, etc. Microtension (to define it scientifically) is the element of the existence of tension in every line of a story. It keeps readers reading. Use it. Find what makes your characters/situations snap and write about it (preferably in non-research style).

There it is—how I came to be where I am today. And now I’ll give it up to my Wednesday Word Tally and the urban fantasy I was talking about a few paragraphs ago. ;)

Wednesday Word Tally

Character: Sam Johnson
Dude, he’s a shapeshifter. A shape shifter with a surfer dude personality. A shapeshifter with a surfer dude personality who was transplanted to New York. And as Vern puts it “I knew all about surfer dudes.”

Sam has the best interests of MIA and whatever case he’s working on at the time at heart. He’s often the one to call time out on Hanson and Markus’s joking. He’s also been known to turn into an elf and hang out in Vern’s office to confuse her. What? He’s allowed to joke around a bit too as long as it isn't during a critical moment. Besides, what’s the fun of having the ability to turn into different creatures if you never use it to play harmless tricks on your co-workers?

DayStart CountWrittenFinal Count

Total Words Written: 11,380
Average Words Per Day: 1626
Words Remaining: 12,718

At this point it’s looking like I’m going to need more than 80,000 words to finish this story, but my initial goal was 531-words-a-day to reach 80,000 by New Years. It looks like I’ll meet that goal, and, if indeed I’m not done at 80,000 words, I’ll make a new goal.

Thank you for your continued support in the form of reading my numbers! 

No comments:

Post a Comment