The Magic Happens in Revision
1) The internet is there to distract you
When writing, turn off the internet. The internet is amazing. You know that, I know that. It makes research so easy: no more trotting off to a library (!), finding the catalogue, finding the book, making a photocopy… It’s all there in a couple of keywords and a few quick clicks of the mouse. The internet allows a world of connections and community and, given writing is a solitary occupation, those connections offer much needed support. But when you’re writing, turn it off.
Do not give in to the urge to check a fact or find the perfect word. Do not yield to the temptation of checking social media updates or visiting your favourite writers’ site or – heaven forfend! – TV Tropes. That way lies the endless tumble down the rabbit hole of distraction.
When you are writing, write. You can revise later. But you do need something to revise and that means words on the page (or screen). Your words, not somebody else’s. So turn off the internet, lock the door, set a timer if you need to, and for an hour or so, concentrate only on your story.
2) Research is (sometimes) a synonym for procrastination
Research and writing form a feedback loop. Pre-writing, research is best done on a big picture level to give you a general feel for your setting. Think about common objects, beliefs and practices, styles of dress, the level of technology. If you can reach them, museums are perhaps the best resource. I particularly love the Pitt-Rivers Museum, which displays artefacts by theme rather than geography; for a writer of fantasy with a magpie mind this is perfect. Actual objects have a heft about them that pictures, alas, cannot reproduce. Likewise, read primary sources, if you can, to get a feel for people’s minds. Visit or read with an open mind, and read and visit as widely as you can. You don’t know at this stage which details will be useful later, nor do you know what will trigger that moment when a plot or character comes alive within your mind.
But don’t think your pre-writing research must encompass everything. The point will come when you’ve researched enough and it’s time to start writing. Don’t worry if (when!) you find gaps in what you know. If you realise, when you’re writing your Roman dinner party, you’ve no idea if whether they had sweet oranges, do not stop to check, and thereby break the flow of conversation and tense undercurrents that are the real purpose of that scene. That way procrastination lies. Make a note to check, but keep off the internet!
I’m not saying details are unimportant. Nothing breaks a reader’s suspension of disbelief faster than, say, sweet oranges appearing in a novel set in Augustus’ Rome. Sweating the small stuff matters hugely; in any sort of fiction, if you get the little things right, the things a reader knows or can check, you can get away with the huge, mindboggling lies that carry your story. I’m merely saying that, to stop research spiralling out of control, you need to focus on the details that matter and, often, you won’t know these until you have a story. The magic happens in revision.
And if, like me, you write secondary world fantasy the details still matter, even if in this case internal consistency is more important than historical verisimilitude. For the world building to be believable, the bits you borrow, magpie-like, from the real world must mesh together rather than clash.
3) Self-doubt is the story-killer
Writing is not always easy. As muses are flibbertigibbets who are seldom around when you need them, you can’t rely on inspiration; it helps, but you need hard work and concentration too. At the composition stage, I worry about whether my work is good or bad, if my story’s pace is too fast or too slow, if the idea is worth writing, if I’m the person to write it...
I am trying to stifle all such thoughts. These things are important, but not, I’ve come to think, in the first draft. That should be all about the characters and their story. I write very much in a make it up as you go along sort of way. I don’t plan ahead or outline; I’ve an idea of a story’s shape but it’s a will o’ the wisp sort of thing that disappears if I try to pin it down. I revise heavily, and backtrack often, jettisoning arcs and changing fates; goodies may become baddies between drafts, a minor detail a major plot point. It’s a slow process, and by some counts inefficient, but it works, and the end result is all that matters. The magic happens in revision, as long as there is something to revise.
4) Even good advice can be unhelpful
There’s no one, true way to write, fortunately. Anyone who tells you there is, is, at best, blustering. There’s a lot of advice around, most of it well-intentioned and some of it good, about How to write. You’ll find lists of words to avoid, passionate discussions of the merits and demerits of first and third person points of view, past or present tense, three or five act structures, planning…
Take only as much of this advice as works for you. Trust your own instincts. Remember, it’s the product that matters, not the process. I can use myself as a case study in what not to do:
A couple of years ago, I went through a bad period of writer’s block. When you’re struggling with a story, it’s very easy to compare your (perceived) failure with other people’s (perceived) success. So, desperate to write (that is, after all, what writers do), I did what I’d never done before: bought a book about writing, followed its advice, and outlined my story. Then I wrote it.
Reader, that (unpublished) story is the worst thing I have ever written. Flat, stale and most definitely unprofitable. The moral, I suppose, the thing I wish I’d known, is don’t force yourself against the grain. It was all good advice, and I know it’s helped many, many people complete their stories. It simply wasn’t right for me.
There’s a happy ending though: now, in a different frame of mind, I’m revisiting that book and starting over, this time making it up as I go along.
The magic happens in revision.
Harriet Goodchild: Biography
Harriet Goodchild is the author of two novels, After the Ruin and The Crooked Path, and two books of short stories. You can find out more about Harriet and her books at her website, where she blogs (occasionally) about writing. She tweets as @HMGoodchild. You can also visit her Amazon page.