Tons of material and nothing to write?

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writing process

A book project is big — it’ll take a ton of great content and a series of solid connections to get from A to Z. You get there by absorbing and synthesizing material until you have enough puzzle pieces to complete the picture.

You are deep into a book project. You are thinking and researching and building your ideas. You are exploring, but you aren’t writing. You are “word mute” because you are in a process of story expansion.

Is this okay? Does it bother you? Are you afraid you may never get things into an ordered state, or do you sit back and know you are in a special period in the writing process and just patiently wait it out?

A growth period

If you are in your project’s growth period, enjoy — you are building up great content. Growth is about absorbing and synthesizing, not writing, per se.

Of course, you can write during this time, but you might just spin your wheels. Ideas might not stick. You might write and tear it up the next day. You might write and decide to tear up a different part of the manuscript. You could end up with less than when you started.

A lack of construction — and potential destruction — happens when we are still in the process of absorbing, synthesizing, and finding the whole. We don’t yet know the right direction.

Once we discover it, the words fall into place.

Absorbing information

Absorbing material can be fun. It can also be frustrating if you see no end in sight. As new options stream in, you see new paths.

During periods of absorption, you are learning about your subject and seeing it in new ways. Great books present ideas from many sides, so readers can see their complexities and nuances.

You can absorb material through active research. Maybe you are studying books on a subject or visiting an archive. You could be gaining a new experience — perhaps you go skydiving to find out what it feels like to fall out of a plane because you want to use it as an element in your story.

Maybe absorbing for you is mostly about listening to your characters and seeing the story play out in your mind.

Where and when you draw the line on your absorption period is up to you. When you have the right quantity of quality material in hand, it’s time to move to the next phase.

Synthesizing what you’ve found

As details come in, you are naturally synthesizing, attaching them to other bits of content, seeing patterns, drawing conclusions.

You are thinking about the best ways to explain what you need to present to readers. You are amassing vocabulary that fits the story. You are inventing details that best paint the pictures you want to transmit. You are learning how your characters act and think and how they fit into the story-world you are creating.

You can absorb and synthesize, and synthesis can productively drive your further research. But at some point, you need to finish absorbing so that you can make a final synthesis of what you have.

If you’ve absorbed a lot of new material and need to make sense of it all, you might be overwhelmed for a while. What’s the best way to present it? What should you use and what should you leave in your notebook? Which facts provide the best evidence of what you want to convey and which facts work best together? In what order should you present these onion layers of your story? What is still missing? How might readers misconstrue something you want to include? How can you anticipate their questions or criticisms and bolster the text to keep readers inside the story?

It’s all progress

Books are long and book projects are big. You are birthing a major text with many chapters and a lot of intricate structuring.

This takes tons of great content, a well-thought-out ordering, and a series of solid connections to get from A to Z. You get there by developing your material — that means lots of absorbing and synthesizing, starts and stops, bolts out of the gate and dead ends — until you have enough puzzle pieces to complete the picture. Then you have figure out how to fit them all together.

If it takes a long time to package things up into text for your project, it’s perfectly okay. Ride out the growth period until the structure and style take form. It’s all going to improve the quality of the final draft.

If you feel you need to write something during an extended growth period, consider writing snippets or sketches. Try writing in another format, expand your authorial horizons, and step outside your project and write about whatever comes to mind. It’s all part of exploring your craft, and you can harvest these efforts or throw them away as you like.

Be patient and know what’s ahead of you. Some books need a lot more factual research than others. Some need you to spend far more time deep in the folds of your imagination.

Actively scheduling for extended growth periods is good thinking. You can have one before you start writing, again after you start and fill up with new questions, or at any time your story takes a new direction.

Then, while you are waiting for feedback on drafts, you are in another type of growth period. You are seeing how your story holds up to reading — is your instinct to change or keep everything the same? When you get your feedback, it might be time yet again for another growth period. Do you need to rethink or go back to the starting line? Do you need to flesh out certain ideas or go deeper into some aspects you need to research further?

The whole

A prolonged growth period might be an unsettling process for less experienced writers, but it’s a natural part of the process of collecting and organizing the quantity of information that goes into a book.

It might still unsettle seasoned professionals, but they recognize this process as fundamental and necessary. Authors need time to get all their facts and ideas straight and put them into a form that readers can absorb and synthesize with pleasure.


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