Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Research: The Gateway Drug

Research is a gateway drug for procrastination. The secret to writing is putting new words on a page, not obssessively noodling with the words already there. On your first draft, make something up or put a pin in it and move on.

This year, I was a pedestrian walking alongside the freeway that is NaNoWriMo, and as I watched the authors whizzing past, ignoring my outstretched thumb, I noticed something... a lot of them stopped. Not for me, or because their book ran out of gas, but because they felt like they needed to know the number of bolts in the nosecone of an Ares rocket, or the exact color of the bed sheets in the Lincoln bedroom, or did Gladstone really have a Gladstone bag?

And all too many of them exited their novels, went up the steps into the library that is the internet... and never came back out.  And the few who did had trouble starting their novels again.

I'm a huge fan of libraries, both personal and public, and the Internet really is an amazing tool for researching your novel. Within easy reach of this chair, I can find the lineage of Galileo Galilei and detailed instructions on lock picking, plus everything in between.

But if I hit a section of my novel where I need to show Galileo's grandmother picking a lock, I don't reach for either of those books. Either I know it or I don't, and if I don't, I write "Galileo's Grandma picks lock." highlight it in yellow and/or append a footnote so I can find it again and move on.

Research is my favorite part of the novel writing process. I enjoy the heck out of following a fact down the rabbit hole and not coming up for days. My wife has to remind me to eat when I'm in that mode. I devour the esoterica of any given subject and squirrel it away in the dark warehouses of my mind according to a filing system that even I don't fully understand.

If you want to be a writer, the first order of business is to nail down a handy and reliable source of research material. Whether it's an overburdened eReader or a colonnaded building, or just an impressive list of websites and online journals, you will, you must, acquire that eccentric collection of Stuff No One Else Knows. And you owe it to yourself to know it backward and forward before you start writing the book.

That's not to say you have to know everything before you begin, but you should have at least the broad outlines of your research nailed down before you start writing in earnest. The rest should be details that can be filled in later.  Even if you do hit something big, I'd still advise you to do your best to skip over it or write around it, or put a pin in it and keep going, because even if you aren't writing in November toward that imaginary deadline, momentum us critical on that first draft.

Research is my favorite thing. For other's it's a horrible slog akin to having all your teeth pulled.  But I've noticed that even those who hate research, it's nevertheless a very popular gateway drug for procrastination.  And it's the most insidious variety of procrastination too, because it feels like you're working, it feels like you're Getting Stuff Done.

But you aren't.  Because we all know that one question leads to another, leads to another, and before you know it, you're having tea with the Mad Hatter and the March Hare and wondering what life is like out in the real world where your novel is still idling alongside the road.

One of the great things about Facebook is that I've a group of writer friends and I can spot them when they're doing this and I can help. Whether it's how many whales were caught in the 16th century or the color of ink used by Charles Dickens' editors when they corrected his manuscripts, I'm only too happy to find the answer and shout it to them as they pass me.  

They would do the same for me; they have, in fact.

Whatever it is, tag it and move on. First drafts are supposed to be messy. Get it later. Make a note. Write the next word. Ask a friend if you have to. Just. Keep. Going.

Scott's Rules of Mid-First Draft Research

  1. Don't do it unless you literally have no other choice.
  2. See Rule #1

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).