6.14.2018

Use Place Holders

Writing entails the assemblage of a vast amount of interesting tidbits. That’s why this is the rare post that addresses both fiction and nonfiction. In both fields you are tasked with providing nuggets that the reader doesn’t know. After all, if you have nothing new to add to your field, why are you writing?

A key sector of interesting pieces consists of research into a topic featured in the book. For a novel highlighted by the Battle of Trenton, for example, I compiled reams of facts about colonial farming, since the main characters lived on a nearby farm. Whether these bits lie in a desk drawer or in an electronic file, you may remember one that you know is appropriate for the passage you’re writing, but not exactly where it is. So you go hunting for it, flicking through hundreds of other facts. By the time you finally find the right one, the flow you were feeling when you started may have dissipated.

In the ranking of writing imperatives, I would place flow near the top. Feeling the Muse is hard for most of us, and when you connect with that mysterious current, you want to keep it going for as long as you can. In fiction, that is the way you can best commune with your lead characters, since so much of effective storytelling consists of a deeply felt narrative point of view. A research bit, by contrast, ranks as a nice-to-have, not need-to-have in most cases. If you are constantly breaking your flow to look up minutia, you are abdicating your responsibility to produce a story that envelops the reader.

As for nonfiction, the main objective of flow is thematic structure. You want to set out in order the topics you wish to cover in a chapter. If you are writing about hearing loss, for example, a chapter might consist of different types of aids you can purchase. You might have a Siemens booklet explaining facets of bone conduction, but one factoid from it is not as important as laying out the overall reasons why a reader might consider using this method.

To avoid hunting and pecking during a writing session, you can use place holders. In parentheses you indicate the nature of the item you need to look up. Then move on. I know that may wrankle that obsessive drive to make everything perfect, but you’re going to edit the draft at some point—so it isn’t perfect, anyway. That is a small trade-off for chopping short a magnificent waterfall of words you had going that day.

Exercise: Everyone has good and bad writing days. Use your bad days to hunt and peck. You can’t find the Muse to save your life, so do something useful. Comb through your notes for accurate descriptions, etc. In the process, you may come across tidbits that would help the story in other places.

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”
—Zora Neale Hurston

 Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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