Wednesday, February 12, 2014

On Book Research and Development

Some projects are fits of passion: it starts with an idea. The idea explodes, like a spark to a tinder pile, and envelopes you. You can't stop writing until it's all out, all done.

Other projects are steady, plodding, thoughtful. Sometimes a project or idea is so complicated it needs ten cups of planning for every half-cup of writing.

Most of the work I've done in the past is the fit-of-passion type, because I think being a new writer lends itself to that. You have to be consumed by passion to write a book on top of everything else life demands of you: day job, home life, social life, hobbies.

But once that starts to changeonce you're in it to survive, and to add more books to the shelves, and to make your editors' dreams come true so you can continue to pay the billsmore and more often, projects become more of the second type.

The mark, to me, of a professional writer versus an amateur writer is the ability to write on commandand to bring just as much passion and soul to it as any other project.


Lately, I've found myself knee-deep in research and development on a new book project. It's not the first time, nor will it be the last time, some stay-at-home writer spends hours on Wikipedia delving deeper and deeper into one rabbit hole of knowledge or another, either by necessity or by curiosity.

Nor will it be the last time I spend countless hours on character designs, image inspirations, and detailed plot outlines. Like many, I have an affinity for the complicated and complex. And isn't it great fun to plan out the tapestry before having to follow it up with work, action, and words?

Because research is alluring, and giving yourself permission to sit down and learn stuff is a huge deal in our culture of productivity-productivity-productivity, all the time, always, it's a rare privilege to actually give one's self leave to troll Wikipedia and link-dive. It's not like the research I do is particularly in-depthI'm not requesting primary documents from JSTOR or anythingbut it's still easy to spend hours down the link-hole... when I could be spending that time writing.

So when do we stop? When does writing the backstory get in the way of writing the fore-story? (Yes. I just made that up. You're welcome, it's yours.) 

The trick, with book research and with outlining, and with all sorts of pre-actual-writing development, is knowing when to cut the rope. When to, as they say, RELEASE THE HOUNDS!


Writers vary in how much they outline and prepare before putting those first words down. That's cool. I get it. It depends on the project. It depends on the person.

But I'm starting to take a new tack on the process of R&D'ing a novel. I call it:

The Pick Shit Up As You Go Method

I can see the amazed, inspired look on your face right now. And whewI'm with you. Because how often do you find yourself halfway buried in a manuscript like some kind of walking dead and all of the sudden, your main character hijacks the plot and carries it off in a totally different direction.

What about all that research and outlining and plotting NOW, hmm?

Thus, the pick shit up as you go method. I've cut down my planning and plotting and researching time by focusing my efforts instead, and mostly, on my starting point: What character information, place information, and plot information do I need to get the ball rolling in this story?

Then, I leave it thinner as I work my way in. The deeper into the story we go, the sparser the details. I've got the important landmarks planned out, as far as necessary, and then set aside building in the rest until the text itself starts to flesh out my requirementsto pick up the rest of the shit as you go along, once you know exactly what it is you're going to need to flesh out.

Because, let's all be honest: you never, ever know when that huge divergence in the plot is going to happen and all that careful work you did was for absolutely nothing. Well, perhaps, not nothing. I'm sure it's helpful, it shapes the world, etc. etc. But it's still a jarring feeling to leave days of careful planning behind as your heroine runs giggling maniacally off into the sunset.

Now, I realize this method probably wouldn't work for a super detailed rendering of 1800s Boston. That's all right. If you're writing a super detailed rendering of 1800s Boston, you don't need anything from me anyway.

Well, this ramble is over. Thanks for joining me today. Here's a pretty cool/weird picture of a horse I found doing research! This is why our jobs are awesome.

Read more of Kiersi's writing advice on her blog, The Prolific Novelista, or follow her on Twitter at @kiersi.

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