Kage Baker loved jigsaw puzzles.
She was great at them, too. Even when she so ill, at the end, that she had to use a wheel chair or gurney to get in and out of the radiation therapy clinic – she had me stop in the waiting room every time, so she could do a few more pieces on the enormous puzzle laid out there. She did a lot of that puzzle. It was still not finished when she stopped coming in, so I have no idea how it ended up – but Kage was a whiz bang at it.
She liked puzzles with enormous numbers of pieces, and complicated patterns; but sometimes I got her puzzles that were all one colour and she beat those, too. She had heard that Meave Leakey, wife of Richard Leakey and one of that remarkable family of anthropologists, liked to assemble her jigsaw puzzles back-side up, to sharpen her skull-assembly skills. Kage took that as a personal challenge. I can say, with fair confidence, that Kage would have made a good physical anthropologist. If she had been able to overcome her revulsion at the sight of bones …
Which brings me to the subject of research notes. I am still spending a lot of time, today, doing research, even while I write – that’s just the way it goes, at the beginning. No matter how carefully you lay out your plot and the things you need to learn, new angles and ignorances pop up and you have to go tearing off to answer the urgent questions. Half the time, they change the actual course of the plot, too, requiring other avenues of inquiry that had not previously occurred to you.
That’s how I wrote thousands of words of notes yesterday, and 497 words of actual story. Which greatly amused some of you Dear Readers, I think, who also happen to be writers yourselves and have thus found yourself in this position. You MUST prepare for a story – I really believe that, as Kage did, and cannot overstress the importance of doing your research first. But you can never prepare enough. There is always something untoward blinking at you from the underbrush, whispering smugly: Forgot about ME, dintchya?
Crappy little overtones and metaplots and implications and second thoughts! I’d step on their spongy over-inflated heads, except they often turn out to be the best parts of the stories.
One of the best ways to combat this problem, I learned from Kage (of course). Keep your notes literally attached to your story document.
When Kage wrote on a typewriting machine and paper, the notes were paper-clipped to the inside of the folder where every day’s finished copy went. As Time increased both, she usually ended up with two bulging folders, rubber-banded together. Or one of those Cordovan-leather-red cardboard artist’s folios with the shoestring ties, with separate piles of paper and notes stuffed in it. I’ve got samples of both methods stuffed in my desk drawers even now.
When Kage changed to a computer, she simply tacked the notes onto the end of the story document. She added to the story at one end, and the research at the other – ideally, she worked her way down through the notes until they were all represented in the text, and she could separate the story from its placenta. When that time came, sometimes the original first draft was saved with all the notes intact. Sometimes she dumped them – over my loud objections every time, I must add; but it was Kage’s decision on whether she could stand the sight of the original ideas after the finished version was breathing on its own. And sometimes she couldn’t. That aversion to bones, you know.
Me, I save ’em both. My few finished projects still have their cauls to hand. All the unfinished ones will get to keep theirs, too, as I go on. Mind you, the notes for Knight and Dei are so old that they are just a thousand sheets and scraps of Corrasable Typing Paper and flattened-out candy bar wrappers: but I’ve got ’em, and I’m keeping ’em. (For one thing, if it sells – well, the notes for the sequel are in there somewhere … )
What happens, though, is that as you go through the notes and the actual writing, it gets a lot like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. You transfer entire blocks of rough copy from one end of the document to the other – sometimes, whole passages come straight from the notes you took, merely tidied up when you insert them. And of course, whenever you insert a passage, it sticks in your mind – it’s permanently tagged with a glowing label that says “You added this! Is it right!” And if you need to move things around, that paragraph is likeliest to get cut and pasted again.
That’s a lot of what I have been doing today. Some paragraphs have been moved and moved again, all over the place – the whole tone and direction of the opening keeps changing. The protagonist has changed genders twice and address once – and I have to get Kimberly to take me driving up in the Hollywood Hills tomorrow, because Google Earth doesn’t go close enough to the tower at the top of Hightower Drive, or anywhere on the streets that are only staircases and cannot be driven on at all. Wimpy Google Earth!
Some of my notes are now in the prologue. Some of the prologue is now in the notes. An entire clinical progression of zombie pathology has been developed, moved into long-term storage, and then abbreviated for use in about 10,000 words. It may yet end up buried in peat and recycled into fire starters.
I never, ever, understood Kage’s fondness for jigsaw puzzles. I always preferred crosswords. Now, I think I’ve invented some eldritch, insane hybrid of the two.
Gotta go, Dear Readers. I have to fill in one up and three across, and then move it 5 pages in.
If they’re 497 GOOD words, your output yesterday is nothing to sneeze at. I don’t know how writers got all hung up with word count, and setting a minimum daily goal, as if they worked in a widget factory.
A lot of the obsession with word count can be blamed on editors – who tend to want certain minimums and maximums met. And in genre fiction, especially, on editors who insist on paying by the word … But word count is, indeed, a 2-edged sword. You need it, because it is a very simple, accurate judge of progress. You hate it because it makes you feel like you are being constantly graded – and there is always the problem, as you note, of quality versus quantity. Some writers go for a time limit, instead: dedicating themselves to writing at least so many hours a day. Others, those who still write by hand or typewriting machine, go for pages completed. But it’s all just a way to keep score without going insane, so you have to find the method that works best for you, individually.