Do You Have The ‘Authority’ To Write A Novel?
By Larry Kahaner
My non-fiction books like AK-47 and Values, Prosperity and the Talmud (pretty wide range, eh?) demand a lot of research. Not only do I read and study but I interview tons of people, which comes naturally to me as I earned my writing chops by being a newspaper and magazine reporter. Actually, I prefer interviewing people to book research although they complement each other and both have their place.
As the research process continues, I continually ask myself: “Is it time to stop researching and start writing?”
The answer for me is when I see the book’s overall theme materialize in my mind. This doesn’t mean that I know everything I need to know. It does mean that I know enough that the ‘big’ story is clear and apparent. I actually can see a beginning, middle and an end.
Nothing is set in stone, though. It’s subject to change, even major changes, but I am confident enough to begin.
The same goes for fiction. Novel writing requires research. Some stories, especially historical fiction, may require a great deal of research. But the question is the same: “When do I have the authority to begin writing?” And the answer is the same, too. When you see the overall story clearly. When it all makes sense to you not just as a writer but as a reader, too.
A fiction-writing friend of mine said that she knew it was time to write when she could explain her book to someone in five or ten minutes including some of the clever tangents she was going to include. Another friend, who blogs under the moniker of The Thriller Guy, noted in a recent posting: “Beware of research; it is a wonderful thing for a writer, but a great thief of time. And also a wonderful excuse, as in: ‘I’ll start my book once I feel I really know my material.'”
He’s right. Many writers overly prolong researching their novels because it’s easier than writing and you can still believe (and tell your friends) that you’re legitimately working on your book.
Thriller Guy suggests using ‘tk’ as you write which means “to come.” I learned this technique many years ago in the news business when you didn’t have a fact, figure or someone’s title as you were writing on deadline. Tk kept you moving and didn’t disrupt your train of thought. (Why tk and not tc? This may be apocryphal but I was told that it was chosen because there are no tk letter combinations in the English language so newspaper editors new that it wasn’t a leftover piece of a word or a misprint.) What I like about it now is that in an age of ‘global search’ you can find these necessary fill-in prompts easily and not get stuck on other words because the t and k combo won’t exist in your text.
I think there’s a balance between starting too early without a roadmap and being paralyzed by research that never seems to end (or you don’t want it to end). However, when in doubt start writing and fill it in later. Even big chunks of emptiness. Writing has a way of stimulating the brain in such a way that patterns emerge and story lines appear more sharply once you see the words in front of you. If you keep hacking away, you will see your story materialize, flowing from start to finish, tk’s and all.
I will also let you in on a secret that a former editor of mine once told me. “You don’t have to tell people everything.” This was a major revelation for me. If you omit the color of a building because you don’t know it, no one will notice. If you skim over the type of horse the hero is riding, no one will ask. If you don’t describe in detail the kind of knife being thrust into your villain’s belly, no one will question it. Just keep the story moving forward.