Advice on writing a novel, part five

Part Five: Research

Writers need to be omniscient as far as their writings go.

Any sentence in your book needs to be justified. If you don’t know what the hell you are talking about, don’t write the sentence. In general, you need to know more about what you are writing than anyone likely to be reading it, and be able to pass muster with those who do know more than you.

A book is a world the reader enters. The experience must be complete. Seamless. Ideally, the reader is actually paying attention, and will notice if things don’t make any sense. Holes in the fabric of the tale woven ruin the reader’s experience. Stupid gaps in a narrative’s logic tell a reader they may as well not bother. The author is not up to maintaining their end of the bargain.

Every plot point needs to be solid, especially important ones. You can maybe get away with not being sure about less important points; but if they aren’t important, why are they there in the first place?

What all this means is that tonnes of the work of writing is in research. Research is pound for pound going to take up at least as much time as the actual writing. (This is one reason they say write what you know… if you already know it, you don’t have to research it.) Luckily, finding out shit is half the fun. There is an arcane joy to be had in suddenly realising it is vitally important you understand something utterly obscure to make sense of a character’s decision, and then going off to figure it out. Life, the universe, and everything is pretty interesting. Some parts are more obviously interesting than others, but hell, basically anything is pretty fascinating once you scratch beneath the surface.

You will probably never use most of what you come to learn while researching. (It has to come out somewhere. Thus writers make wonderful, if potentially insufferable and boorish, dinner party guests.) There is definitely a line beyond which the returns diminish – you need to know when to grit your teeth and just write – take the leap, enter the flow, and make shit up where necessary. And you will discover that all that painstaking detail you have learned will in fact be omitted to make the story flow. But what is left out is what makes things work as much as what you put in. What matters is that it makes sense. That it has the feel of a tangible whole. This quality – and its absence – is obvious on reading.

Another way to approach research is the understanding that, from the point of view of writing, everything is material. Every random fact, perspective, or experience, can someday find a home in a piece of writing. Be interested in everything. Insatiable curiosity is a strength in a writer. Notice things. Wonder why. (I think Burroughs’ first piece of advice to writers came down to “keep your damn eyes open”.)

But yeah. As fun as research is, you got to sweat blood out your eyeballs and write something someday…

[See the earlier parts in this series: 1, 2, 3, and 4.]

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