You’re never entirely sure what you need to know to write a book.
Even a well defined project like a non-fiction research project will have avenues that arise based on your initial research. Things will strike you that you hadn’t thought about when you first started the project. And this is a really good thing. Writing projects aren’t just about sharing what’s inside you, it’s about learning more about the world around you. Even the things about which you consider yourself an expert have whole areas yet to be exposed.
But sometimes this can get in the way of writing a good chapter.
Writing and researching are two really different sets of skills, or at the very least two different mindsets. Writing likes to flow, to keep going from one word to the next, without stops for an hour to figure out a single word or the correct way to describe something. You can always go back in revision right?
Take the latest section of Surreality revision, which is back in full swing. I went downtown last summer to do some site research, both to map out several of the more critical locales and action sequences, but also to get a good sense of place, and of course tons of pictures. You’d think that with a picture of the thing I’m describing in front of me I’d be all set. But as it turns out I don’t have a knowledge of how to describe different architectural styles coded into my brain automatically.
My method sometimes is just to plow through on what I do know. To muddle out a description that sometimes involves made up words, obfuscation, and educated guessing. This is fine for keeping the story moving when writing. The description is important, but I’ve always been a more plot oriented writer so it’s not something I dwell on except when the details are important to the story.
But this approach can be a bear in revision, particularly when my editor (the Little Red-Haired Girl) comes upon a mangle of sentences in the middle of a scene. Fortunately, we’ve learned that it’s best to edit together, with the book up in Google Docs, so I can give instant feedback on what the hell I was trying to say, and she can ding me for my lack of research.
While the end product is a lot better, it would probably remove a lot of initial frustration if I just wrote [insert description of staircase here] and moved on. Maybe put down a note to do that research later. That way the flow of my draft writing would not be interrupted, and I could come back on a different day to take a deep dive of that particular paragraph.
Because I do like picking apart a single sentence or a string of a couple and making it the best I possibly can. For someone who writes a ridiculous amount of words, I can admire what an economy of them can do, especially if you know the right word.
Funnily or not this is not a problem I have as much with non-fiction work. I think this is because the the focus of a non-fiction project is fairly specific to one topic, and as deep a dive of that topic as possible. Plus, a lot of the research is done up front, with the writing process only happening once you’ve got a pretty good sense of the research. Fiction is one of those animals where you can be plodding along and suddenly bump into a topic you never realized you needed to know something about.
What’s the weirdest thing (or the thing that took you the most time for maybe only a sentence or two of payoff) you’ve had to research for a story?