A Detour Leads Me Into a New Chapter

Today I’ll take a bit of a detour from the reading-around discussion, because today took quite a detour, too. I met with my writing partner Tanya this morning for one of our frequent gossip-and-work sessions at the chocolate cafe. I was thrilled to get the latest installment of her current project, but it felt quite odd not to have some sheaf of paper to give to her in return. For the past two or so years, we’ve been regularly trading work, whether poetry, memoir, or fiction. This may have been the first time I ever showed up to one of our meetings empty-handed.

In this month after having given my agent the “final” version of Jacob Wrestling, It’s not as though I haven’t kept busy. I’m teaching, working on the magazine and scheming about new marketing strategies for the magazine to help get great work into more readers’ hands. When I wasn’t working on those projects, I was busy finding novel ways of injuring myself (see earlier blog posts for more gory detail). I also felt I needed to recoup some of the emotional and mental energy I expended writing Jacob and taking the story through its many edits and revisions. Then, I wanted to research the new project as another way to recharge.

But the research, as with any preparatory measure that delays the work itself, has its pitfalls. It’s possible to research too much, to follow too many rabbit holes in the process, to get lackadaisical, and to forget the initial energy and wildness of the project itself. I’ve been filling notebooks, re-reading craft books, asking myself detailed questions about what’s at stake for my characters, and thinking out the narrative arc to perfection.

But as I sat with Tanya today, talking out my vision for the opening of the novel, she told me to go home and write the first chapter. I had enough material, I knew what I wanted to do with it, and it was time to put it to paper. Yes, there was more planning to do, more thinking to be done about point of view, character and even some important plot points. But I had enough to get me started, and it was time I got on with it.

Four hours later, I emerged from my writing room feeling exhausted, but knowing I’d gotten a good start on the chapter. The research I’d done, while not coalesced into the kind of clean notes I usually like to work with, all came back when I needed it. This skeletal attempt at a chapter is going to need a lot more work, and may even have to be completely revamped before it’s ready to build on. But it feels fantastic to be back to work.

6 Replies to “A Detour Leads Me Into a New Chapter”

  1. What kind of research did you do? I recently moderated a panel with Cara Black and Kemble Scott, in which we covered that in regards to setting. I’d also be interested in talking marketing.

  2. Well, I’m not quite ready to spill the beans on the topic of the next book just yet. But I will say I’ve been reading a group of primary documents that describe a particular phenomenon experienced by people in physical danger. I hope never to be in such dire trouble myself, so I likely won’t get first-hand knowledge of the phenomenon, but I’ve been collecting a good bit of source material nonetheless.

    This book will be tricky with regard to setting, as the action’s going to necessitate some extreme locales I’ve never seen, and will have characters doing some things my crummy health wouldn’t allow me to do. Getting things right is going to be an interesting balance between good textual research and some wild imagination!

  3. I think that writers who haven’t yet attempted a book based on research do not realize how dangerous the library can be! Disertators and their advisors know this, but non-acdademic writers would do well to heed your warning and take Tanya’s advice!

  4. Congratulations for getting back to work! It’s sometimes hard to plunge into a new project when you’re waiting to hear about the fate of your just-finished book, but it’s the best cure for the waiting blues. And then when you do hear the good news, you’ll be so glad you are well into your new project!

  5. I’m doing research for a new book too and I’ve found it’s distracting me no end, and I’m not normally distractable! I had to keep reminding myself to just get what I need and move on. I write fiction, this isn’t another dissertation.


  6. I CAN’T WAIT to get my hands on that first chapter! So exciting! This book is going to be your best yet–I can just feel it.

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