Think you might be in a research rut? My guest today, Abria Mattina, has seven signs and solutions to get you out of research hell and back where you should be—with the words. All yours, Abria.
I used to be the absolute worst at research. It wasn’t the research process I couldn’t handle—just that my research never ended. I didn’t know when I had enough information to reinforce my outline. I never called my research “done” and turned my attention to writing.
A lot of my story ideas languished in the research phase, never making it to draft form. Certainly part of the problem was my inexperience. I didn’t know how to slap myself on the wrist and say, “You’ve googled enough.” But insecurity also played a big part. I had convinced myself that I didn’t know enough to write my stories well. I thought that if I just read one more book, watched one more video, visited one more museum, I would finally have “all the information” to write the story.
I was stuck in a cycle of pseudo-productivity, doing research that made me feel like I was progressing while simultaneously doing nothing to advance me toward my goals. It didn’t help that I love to write genre fiction. I’m editing a science fiction at the moment, and gearing up for another stab at my historical fiction manuscript.
Maybe you’ll recognize yourself in one of the items on this list: the signs you too are stuck in research hell.
Your story sounds like a textbook
People read textbooks to learn. They read fiction for entertainment. A book that is dry, lacking a compelling plot, and devoid of sympathetic characters will lose readers’ interest within five pages.
If this sounds like you, the problem might be that you’ve spent so long reading academic and technical books for your research that you’ve shut off your “fiction brain.”
Solution: Take a break from both researching and writing, and use the time to read novels in your genre. See if you can’t reawaken the part of your mind that yearns to tell stories.
Your story sounds like a catalogue of facts
Textbooks are at least educational and interesting, but you know what murders people with boredom? A list of facts, thematically connected or not.
When I see this in the stories I beta read, it’s almost always a sign of confidence issues. A writer who doesn’t feel secure in their ability to tell the story may lob evidence at the reader in an attempt to claim, “See? I’m qualified to do this!”
Solution: Put your research archive out of sight. Lock it in a drawer if you have to, or give it to a friend and tell them not to return it to you before a certain date.
You’re cutting yourself off from a crutch, and without it, you’ll have to give yourself over to your storytelling instincts. When you can’t look up and insert every factoid in your archive, you’ll have to forge ahead using imagination. You’ll likely find that you know more than you think you do, as the lessons you learned through research start to make their way into the story organically.
You’ve forgotten what your story is really about
Maybe when you started it was a retelling of Beauty and the Beast set at the height of the Mongolian empire—and now there’s all kinds of stuff in there about bow mechanics, religious rituals, horses, a side plot about tattooing, and what was the climax supposed to be again?
It’s okay to be inspired by your research, as long as that research doesn’t send you off on a tangent (or twelve) that will confuse your view of the plot.
Solution: If your manuscript is more tangent than plot, head back to the drawing board. Compare your original outline and ideas against your draft, and decide what can stay to enhance the plot and what has to go. Be ruthless with yourself, cutting anything that doesn’t serve your core plot. When it comes to subplots, be reasonable about their number and the amount of page space you can devote to each.
You’ve lost your passion for this book
Every writer comes to a point where you would rather gouge your eyes out than look at your manuscript for one more second. If you feel that way when you’ve barely started to write the book—or worse, haven’t started yet—you’ve definitely overloaded your brain with research.
Solution: If you’re already sick of your subject, give yourself some time to detox. Think of everything but your story. Read books that are vastly different from your research texts, and come back to it with fresh eyes when you feel ready.
If you come back after the break and find that burnout is still creeping up on you too soon, try writing a research-oriented outline. Take the outline you crafted at the beginning your writing process. In a separate column or beneath the notes for each scene, make a list of the facts and details relevant to that scene.
Writing the research-oriented outline will help you reframe your understanding of the story’s scope, and your mind will be less likely to wander as you write. Your list of topics and details will be set in advance, so you won’t have to dive into your archive every time you sit down to write.
You can no longer see the difference between useful information and cool but meaningless factoids
At the start of this process, maybe you were able to decisively tell the difference between information that belonged in your story and facts that were just “kind of cool” but irrelevant. When you lose sight of that critical boundary, a lot of fluff and clutter ends up on the page. It’ll plague your beta readers and torture anyone who buys the book.
Solution: You need a stronger outline. As you write, your story may end up deviating from that outline, but during the research phase your outline is your shopping list. If you know you’ll have a scene set in a candy factory, you know you’ll need to research some very specific things: factory standards, equipment, labor practices, and workflow. Deviating from the list is a sign that you’ve gone too far, and you can get back on track before you overwhelm yourself with useless details.
Your library’s extensive collection of books on your topic is starting to seem “too small”
Your librarian may also know you by name; you may have a designated spot in the library; and your overdue fees may exceed the GDP of a small developing country. The bottom line is that you’re not satisfied with the resources you have and need more to get the job done.
Maybe you feel like you’re required to read every book ever written on your subject—you’re not. It is incumbent upon you as an author to read as much as you need in order to understand the subject and convey it to someone else.
Solution: Open a new notebook (I love the wide-ruled softcovers from Indigo*) and make a catalogue of the facts you’ve learned. One caveat: don’t look at your archive while you make the catalogue. Work entirely from memory, and see how far you get.
You’ll probably find that you know much more than you think you do. With all that information set out in front of you, worries about “not knowing enough” will start to seem unfounded.
You don’t feel ready to write the book yet—even though you have 1500 pages of research at hand
This one is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you use research as a procrastination exercise until you gather the confidence to write, you’ll train yourself into a cycle where you keep researching... and never get around to writing.
Solution: If research feels easy and writing feels impossible, take some initiative to get the gears of imagination turning. Pull something inspirational out of your archive, set a timer (ten minutes will do), and free-write about that subject. Remember that your goal isn’t to draft something publishable, or even something that will end up in your book—just write.
Make a habit of free writing a few times a day. You’re developing a writing practice, and over time your mind will shift away from research and orient itself toward storytelling. Basically, you’re working up to the task of writing a book through low-pressure exercise.
Did you recognize yourself in any of the problems on the list? I’ve been all seven of those writers at one point or another.
This year I’m joining NaNoWriMo again, and I’m planning to tackle a book that I’ve been drafting and re-drafting since January 2008. That’s right—eight freakin’ years of writing this thing. Eight years of making every mistake a new writer can make.
I had to figure out how to tell the story, because 3/4 of the way through the first draft I realized a linear narrative wouldn’t cut it.
I had to learn how to manage my research, because it is the best procrastination tool ever. I had to learn how to make an archive, because for two years mine was a messy binder full of total garbage. I had to learn how to write an outline and turn it into a shopping list for targeted research.
It took me the better part of a decade, but I’m confident I nailed it. I’m going to share my research strategies and tips on my blog over the next month, so come check it out if you’re struggling with the research process too.
And if you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year, I’m always on the lookout for awesome writing buddies.
* Disclaimer: I work for Indigo and came across these books as I unpacked them on the receiving dock. They’re awesome regardless of how much I love working for Indigo.
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