How the Research Vampire Can Suck the Life Out of Your Book

SAMSUNGWriters frequently find themselves searching for answers to the strangest questions.

What’s the difference between telepathy and telekinesis? Have the Rolling Stones ever played a show in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania? What actually lives in underwater caves?

If you’re writing a story—any story—chances are that you’ll run into questions that need answers. And these answers are usually relevant, if not essential, to your storyline. When you hit an impasse like this it suddenly seems urgent that you stop writing and turn to research instead. The rational, logical part of your brain steps in and advises that you can’t possibly go on creating your story if you don’t have all the facts yet.

The Research Vampire is just waiting for an opportunity like this. It’s been watching you quietly from the shadows the whole time, papery bat-wings tucked discreetly away, ready to slither in and drink off your creative energy when the moment is right.

And when you break your creative momentum to look something up on the internet, for the Research Vampire, that moment is perfect.

There’s a reason why you see the word “creative” paired with words like “leap” or “flash”. Creativity is an energy that works off momentum. That’s why a lot of writers feel the best when we can get into that white-hot groove we love, with our hands flying across the page or the keyboard, barely able to keep up with the words as they come. The process of creating anything has its own rhythm, its own cycle and pulse. Interrupting that rhythm throws everything off kilter.

Although it is possible to pause here and there while you’re writing to fact check, the real problems arise when you’re stopping every other minute, or you make the decision to halt all writing activity for the day before your creative muscle has even gotten warmed up, in the interest of research. Some creative writers can be blocked for years by this obstacle, telling themselves they have to devote hours to studying the materials of others before even writing one word on their own. That’s the Research Vampire exercising its sinister powers as it sucks away at the thing a writer needs most, the lifeblood of their creative juice.

So what’s a writer to do when we run into a question that needs an answer but we don’t want to break our momentum?

We use brackets.

That means if you’re writing along on your merry way, and your character runs into a situation that calls for you to insert specific knowledge that you don’t have at the moment, like this:

Paul stepped toward the fuse box and showed Henry the problem.

You can put brackets around the blank spots, noting the information you want to fill in later:

He motioned to [find out how fuses work] and said [Paul’s technical explanation here]. When the lights blinked on again Henry stared at him, amazed it could be so easy.

Of course, there are times when you will need to do some hardcore research into your topic, whether you do it before or after you sit down to write. I’m not at all suggesting that you skip this important gathering of evidence or skimp on the details of your story. The use of brackets is simply a tool to keep you moving along in the actual process of writing. Just as there is a difference between writing vs. editing, there is also a big difference between writing and researching. To get a solid draft of anything down on the page, we have to move forward with writing as our first priority.

And if you are a writer who has put off starting your project for many months, or even years, due to research that must be done, then you should be writing something else in the meantime. If you’re not writing anything, and you’re spending all your creative time on research instead, the problem isn’t the research. It’s fear. Feeling scared about beginning your book is the most natural thing in the world for most writers, you’re not alone. But the only way to get past it is to begin.

Excessive research, or research that consistently throws a wrench into your creative momentum, is just another manifestation of resistance. When you break past it, you will probably feel uncomfortable and have the disorienting sensation of “flying blind” but the reality is that you can always go back and fill in details, or revise your work. What you can’t do is make a story out of no words at all.

Every single writer who has ever existed had to begin somewhere. And most famous writers in history didn’t even have the luxury of Wikipedia! Remember, whether it’s good, bad, or ugly, when you’re writing—keep it moving.

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39 Comments

  • Reply QuanishaA 16 July, 2013 at 8:53 am

    I had a problem with this, researching too much, with my SciFi novel that I had to put the novel to the side because it became homework instead of having fun writing. Great Post! 🙂

  • Reply doverwhitecliff 16 July, 2013 at 9:10 am

    Awesome post! And so true…I have to set a timer to keep me on track in addition to highlighting the place I need to pop additional research in…

  • Reply Christy Birmingham 16 July, 2013 at 9:52 am

    I sometimes use “???” in the areas that I want to research later. You give great tips here and it’s true that research can get in the way of the creative bursts. Well done.

  • Reply christophermwilt 16 July, 2013 at 10:08 am

    If you’re writing fiction, then no research is necessary; you can just make up anything you want. Redefine whatever you want however you want, you might find it to be an interesting exercise.

    • Reply jguenther5 16 July, 2013 at 11:20 am

      Unless you’re writing a totally talking heads novel (not recommended), your characters must interact with the real world. It must be… well… real. Factual. I’ve been working on a mystery and have had to research such esoterica as track widths for various vehicles. Even scifi must adhere to actual physical principles. You’d better know them, since those principles pertain even on the far-off, purple horizons of Zimtok-5.

      • Reply christophermwilt 16 July, 2013 at 11:55 am

        Depends on your book and what you need. You’re writing a book in which the laws of reality and physics are necessary for the story to function. It all depends on how you frame your writing. I don’t write sci-fi, but I do like Phillip Dick and H.P. Lovecraft and both regularly deviate from reality. If you read David Foster Wallace, Broom of the System is loaded with absurdity as is Infinite Jest; he was massively intelligent and I’m sure did research on his subject matter, but one gets the feeling that most of it was just out of his head.

        Just a matter of opinion and style.

        • Reply jguenther5 16 July, 2013 at 7:39 pm

          True, the amount of research depends on the genre, but the broad generalization “If you’re writing fiction, then no research is necessary; you can just make up anything you want.” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

  • Reply kmalexander 16 July, 2013 at 10:11 am

    Excellent post! I have struggled with this myself and your solutions are spot on.

    In the past I often found myself drawn to extraneous research rather than actual prose just because…well…it was easy.

    “But wait,” I would say to myself, “I need to really *DRAW* out this symbol not just describe it.”

    Then I would spend an hour doing *that* instead of writing. Once I learned to spot the “vampire” lurking I have found myself getting better and better at making notes and moving on quickly, rather than interrupt my flow with 5 hours at the library, or worse… wikipedia.

    • Reply writecity.wordpress.com 16 July, 2013 at 1:04 pm

      Oh Wikipedia, I love you so…I have heard that if you follow enough links through Wikipedia entries the end result is always “Philosophy”. Although I haven’t yet tested this myself!

  • Reply kabirgandhiok 16 July, 2013 at 10:43 am

    So true! A very helpful post, thanks for sharing!

  • Reply jdsfiction 16 July, 2013 at 10:54 am

    Awesome! Thanks for the kick in the pants. I’ve been stuck for days on a new project and turned to research to figure it out. And behold- even more stuck. Back to the writing, with brackets this time. Great stuff, thanks for the bump I needed.

    • Reply writecity.wordpress.com 16 July, 2013 at 1:06 pm

      Oh I’m so glad this resonated with you today! Good luck with the writing. For me, it’s always a challenge 🙂

  • Reply Morgan 16 July, 2013 at 11:21 am

    I agree with you and love this idea….I do something very similar. Once the creative juices are flowin’ I don’t stop for anything! (except possibly a tornado) Great Post 🙂

  • Reply jguenther5 16 July, 2013 at 11:37 am

    Valid point. I’ve probably put in over 500 hours of on-line research in the past 2 years, much of it superfluous. The trick is to not be led down numerous garden paths leading to interesting but off-topic ephemera. When I’m on a roll and hit an unknown, a name or fact or gap of any sort, I insert zxc. It’s fast to type and fast to insert in a search, allowing me to quickly find the loose ends. For timeline unknowns, I use zxct. And so on. Brackets are good, too, but a little harder to type.

    Another cheat I just learned is to put the “fact” in the mouth of one of the characters. Then, if it’s wrong, it’s the character’s mistake. (From Writing Mysteries [MWA]) Don’t use this for anything crucial, or it may bite you.

    • Reply writecity.wordpress.com 16 July, 2013 at 1:07 pm

      I’m so glad you posted this comment! I write my novels out in longhand and that’s why I use the brackets. I didn’t think about what it would be like if one were typing! GREAT point on using zxc and zxct for typing purposes. Thanks for this suggestion.

  • Reply Rachel 16 July, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    Thanks so much for this post! I have a massive fear of writing something that will make readers think I don’t know what I’m talking about! I guess I’ve been letting this fear put me off writing things before I’ve researched them. Thanks for the advice on this!

    • Reply writecity.wordpress.com 16 July, 2013 at 1:09 pm

      You can always go back and edit and revise things too. I have a massive fear that every one of my first sloppy drafts will be somehow set in stone, so I really have to remind myself that I can always do revisions on the things I don’t know about. Thanks for reading!

  • Reply scottishmomus 16 July, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    Great advice.x

  • Reply Creative Mysteries 16 July, 2013 at 1:20 pm

    Thanks for the great tips! I sometimes find myself researching to the point of mental exhaustion, then I end up not writing at all. I think the bracket idea will really help in the future. The sooner I practice this technique, the sooner I’ll get a lot more writing done 🙂

  • Reply Cate Russell-Cole 16 July, 2013 at 5:35 pm

    It took me 4 years to write Unleashing Your Creative Spirit as I had researched so deep, I had no idea how to pull it all together. I love libraries and research… there is just too much temptation.

    Another excellent post Lauren, thank you.

  • Reply wordrew 16 July, 2013 at 6:38 pm

    Lauren,

    This is, yet again, another fantastic post. Your ability to boil down common and complicated blocks ion the writing process into bite-sized kernels is impressive. I have been using this lately (the bracket method) and I really like the idea for zxc searches as well.

    I have recently come to terms with the fact that it is okay to forget the name of a character that you wrote about earlier in the draft. Just mark it and come back later to spot check and fill in the gaps! I have made great progress lately by letting go of my fear of making a mistake or omitting something that was mentioned earlier. It is okay to do so and yr article reinforces that fact.

    As always, thank you for being awesome and insightful!

  • Reply Kate is 17 July, 2013 at 12:50 am

    Research can often lead me in so many different places with countless options that I get lost in it. Excellent post 🙂

  • Reply morrighansmuse 17 July, 2013 at 1:30 am

    I know this oh so well. I killed one of my first novels with research, lots of historical research that after all the research was done, my novel was DOA and couldn’t be resuscitated at 35K words.

    • Reply writecity.wordpress.com 17 July, 2013 at 3:12 pm

      Oh wow. Did you find that you ended up incorporating the knowledge you gained into other stories?

      • Reply morrighansmuse 17 July, 2013 at 3:20 pm

        Not yet. After I finish this modern day novel I’m writing for Camp NaNoWriMo, then I’ll tackle that old one. It was set in 1890 when the US won the Spanish-American war and gained a few colonies of their own.

  • Reply Phillip McCollum 17 July, 2013 at 2:10 pm

    Excellent post. That vampire is a sneaky one, but depending on the material, his bloodsucking skills are sometimes necessary. I like that you mentioned the following:

    “And if you are a writer who has put off starting your project for many months, or even years, due to research that must be done, then you should be writing something else in the meantime.”

    This is exactly what I’m doing. I have this novel I’ve been wanting to write involving feudal-Japanese immigrants, Shintoism, and Gold Rush-era California — things which I had a very skimpy amount of knowledge of just six months ago. So I’m doing a lot of research up front.

    But in between reading and taking notes, I’m currently working through four short stories and will continue to work on more until I wrap up my research (I’m thinking in another couple of months, but here is where I need to beware that vampire! 🙂 )

    It’s good to keep on writing!

    • Reply writecity.wordpress.com 17 July, 2013 at 3:14 pm

      Your novel on Gold Rush-era California sounds amazing! And good luck on the short stories. I find that short stories are actually more difficult for me to write than novels, although they take less time. I have trouble being succinct.

  • Reply dramaquill 17 July, 2013 at 5:16 pm

    This was a great post. Looking forward to checking out more of your site. Awesome!

  • Reply Cheri L. 17 July, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    Happens to me ALL the time! Now I know how to deny the vampire entrance, and that it’s ok to do so. Love the blog, I’ll be back. Meanwhile, thanks for stopping by The Brass Rag. Come back and see us soon.

  • Reply colorfulpen 18 July, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    I’ve been away and missed your insights! I have a love/hate relationship with research. So easy to get lost in it, and then nothing gets written. Brackets are helpful, especially right now with NaNoWriMo when time is *not* on my side.

    • Reply writecity.wordpress.com 19 July, 2013 at 9:34 am

      I’m so in awe of all you NaNoWriMo soldiers right now! I’ve been following along on progress on a few different blogs and it’s really impressive. Good work on sticking with it!

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