Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Research and Procrastination

This is not turning out to be a very productive week, in spite of the enormous to-do list. I guess I'm still a bit tired, and the to-do list is time-consuming and distracting. I think my subconscious is also in high gear, which makes me inefficient in anything requiring logic or focus. I did start trying to outline the plot of the Misty Idea yesterday, only to realize that even though I have the opening scenes mentally written and the ending planned, I had no idea what happened in between. There was nothing to stop the book from ending in chapter one. So I need to think of what obstacles there might be for the characters to overcome on the way to the ending.

This week's writing topic is a timely one for me, as it represents my current work phase. Research is a double-edged sword for writers. On the one hand, good research is absolutely essential in writing a book. Bad research can derail your plot (if you find out along the way that the thing you've pinned your plot on is actually impossible), and it's one of the big reasons for readers throwing books across the room or giving scathing reviews on Amazon. Inaccurate information or just plain wrong facts will pull a reader out of a story right away. So you really need to do research. On the other hand, research can fall into the category of Advanced Procrastination Methods because it's something that looks and feels like work, so you can do it guilt-free, even though you're not actually writing. If you do it right, you can be "working" on a novel for years without writing a single word of the book, so you can feel like you're making progress without having to face that fear of failure (or of success) that comes with actually translating all those thoughts and ideas into words. Even after you start writing, research can sidetrack you. If you get stuck, then you can spend hours looking up that one little fact to make sure a throwaway line is accurate, and it still counts as work. Then again, getting the facts right is essential.

I tend to think of research as coming in two phases. The first phase is preparation research, and it comes before you start writing. That's when your story idea is still vague enough that you aren't entirely sure what will happen, and you need the research to let you know what's possible or impossible in the realms your idea covers. That can include setting, time period, technical information, careers, folklore, etc. Even if you're not writing fantasy or science fiction, you're still building the world of your story, and learning about these things can give you ideas that may shape your plot. You need to find out what can't happen, but knowing what can happen can give you all kinds of ideas for story possibilities. You may not use all or even most of what you discover in this research, but it all goes into the idea generator in your subconscious, where it will go on to affect your story as you write it. This research can include online searching, books, blogs by people like your characters, personal interviews with experts and visits to locations.

One thing I also like to do in this phase is look for the most common or famous pop-culture representations of what I'm writing about, both classic and current. That's not because I use someone else's fiction as a research source (a big no-no), but because I like to get a sense of what the general public expectations are in this area. Considering that during jury selection they make a point of talking about how the real world doesn't work like TV crime shows and juries can't hold real-world police departments to the standards of TV cops who can get DNA results in half an hour that firmly pinpoint the killer based on one hair left at a crime scene, what people think they know can affect the way they view things. There may be about 10 percent of the readership who will know or care about the real way things are, but about 90 percent of the readership will expect things to be a certain way based on what they've been exposed to, and may even think that the real information is false. Not that you should go with what isn't right just because that's what people in general think they know based on what they've read or seen on TV, but I think it helps to be aware of what expectations you may be dealing with. You can even refer to those expectations and compare them to the truth. For instance, if you're writing a mystery novel, your cop characters can joke about how they wish they were TV cops who could get DNA results in half an hour instead of having to wait six months because the crime lab is so backed up. I don't know what you'd do, though, in a historical novel where your characters won't know what people in the future will think about them based on movies or books.

It is easy for all of this pre-writing research to become a procrastination tool to avoid starting to write the book -- and that's actually a good thing, up to a point. I have learned the hard way that the ideas I don't have to research because they're based on stuff I already know or have already researched, so I can just plunge in and write, never come out well. I'm going with the first thing that comes to me, so there's no real depth or complexity, no refreshing surprises. The process of researching before writing doesn't just load your brain with information it can use, it also serves as a way to distract your conscious brain so your subconscious has room to work and mull over and develop the idea. More time to think before I write means a better book.

Up to a point, of course, because eventually you do have to write something if you want it to be published. How do you draw the line between the good procrastination to give the idea time to percolate and develop and the bad procrastination that keeps you from writing? One thing to do is make a checklist of the things you need to know to write the book. You may add to the list as you research and come across something else you need to know, or you may delete from the list as you realize that a certain topic is irrelevant. Once you've checked off everything on your list, you should be ready to start. You may still find new sources and continue to do research as you write, but the list lets you know if you've covered everything so that going beyond that is just procrastination. You can also set a start date based on the amount of research you have to do. Between now and that start date, you can do all the research you want, but you have to start writing on that particular date -- and you can't start before (which usually has me eager and excited for the start date). How long you need for research will depend on the topic. If you're writing a historical novel set on another continent in another century, it's going to take you more time to do the research than if you're writing something set in the present in your hometown where your characters have the same career you do (though there I'd recommend getting some other perspectives and viewpoints instead of focusing entirely on your own experiences).

The other phase of research involves finding individual facts either as you write or as you revise. That's the nit-picky stuff -- exactly how many miles from point A to point B, is there a flight to or from that location at that time, about what does it cost to buy that thing, what does that really taste like, etc. This can easily become a procrastination tool if you're stuck in the story and suddenly that one little fact becomes the most important thing ever. My general rule of thumb is to stop to do research only if the answer to the question will affect the way the plot goes. Otherwise, it goes on the list of things to look up before doing revisions. It's amazing how something that seemed so important at the time and that could have killed a whole writing day can actually be dealt with in a couple of words after a quick Internet search when I force myself to wait.

Then again, this could be another time when your subconscious needs to send your conscious brain off on an errand so it can figure out the problem. You need to learn to recognize the difference between not being sure what should happen (which may mean allowing yourself to go down the research rabbit trail for a while) and a plain old case of the don't wannas where you'd rather do anything other than write, either out of laziness or fear. This is another case where a deadline and firm goals can help. If you give yourself a tight deadline or a production goal for the day, you'll force yourself to decide whether that procrastination is necessary or a hindrance.

And I may have just gotten myself blacklisted from being allowed to give writing advice by actually advocating procrastination as a good thing. I feel like such a rebel.

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