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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