I recently embarked on the research for the next picture book biography I’m writing. It’s about an inventor whose success has come (as the success of most inventors does, I imagine) through trial and error and ongoing improvement, be it through small increments or large leaps.
It’s appropriate, then, that for this book I’ve been consciously trying to improve my own research processes — even before the actual beginning of this project.
In the past, I’ve typically juggled — tried to, anyway — multiple projects at a time. I’d write fiction while researching nonfiction, for example. The thing is, I’m not as good at that as I thought I was. Instead of getting more things done, I get more things partially done. And as you may have noticed, partially done books tend not to get published.
So, this spring I waited. I waited until I was at the right place to stop in my most recent fiction project — namely, the completion, revision, and submission of a full draft — before I lifted a finger on researching the next thing. I could tell I was getting closer to being able to begin my research by the growing ache and anticipation. It had been a really long time since I started fresh on a nonfiction project, and I was raring to go. But I also wanted to be able to give my full attention to it by not having anything undone from the previous project hanging over my head.
When the day to get started finally arrived, on Monday of last week, I sprang out of bed at 5:30 a.m. and dove right into… creating empty documents. Not actually looking up information, but organizing the documents — the containers — where I’d keep what I’d found already and my plans for what to look for later.
This was new.
I’ve long thought of myself as a methodical, organized writer. Each of the 23 rejected submissions of The Day-Glo Brothers came about through what had seemed to me to be careful, thoughtful, targeted planning — and that same planning had managed to overlook Charlesbridge Publishing, which turned out to be the perfect home for that book. So, I had a lot to learn about submissions then, and I recently came to realize that I still had a lot of room for improvement in my research methods even after The Day-Glo Brothers, Can I See Your I.D.?, and my upcoming book about John Roy Lynch.
So, what exactly did I do that first day? In Google Docs, I created a new folder bearing the name of my subject, and within that folder I created the following documents:
In the very productive two weeks since then, those documents have allowed me to make progress, maintain order, and lay the groundwork for my next steps, in equal measure. It’s requiring more discipline than I knew I had — to some extent, it’s slowing me down, but to a much greater extent, it’s saving me time in the long run. And my excitement for this project is stronger than ever.
I expect that I’ll write more here about my process and progress as I continue working on this book. (What, exactly, goes into each of those documents listed? Maybe that’s what I’ll go into next.) If there’s anything you’d like to know about what I’m up to, ask away in the comments, or drop me a line.
I’ll let you and my other readers know as much as I can. Maybe I’ll even surprise myself with my answers.
Oh, you are such a good friend. I would have never even thought to think of these things, and here you are, reminding me.
You’re about a month ahead of me–I’m not even up to starting my new nonfiction project. But I know enough about it to try to start organizing–something that I never thought about trying to do from the outset. So thank you. And good luck. I can’t wait to find out more, in ways both selfish and not.
Thanks so much for sharing this, Chris! I’m always looking for new ways to organize the research phase of my nonfiction projets. It seems every book I’ve done has evolved a different process so far, but I’d love to find a system that works from the beginning every time. I’ve been starting to play with Scrivener for this purpose, and can see the same folder outline as you’ve laid out here being perfect for me to use there. Smart and generous, too–what a guy! :)
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[…] A couple of weeks ago, I listed the documents that I’m using to coordinate my research efforts for my new nonfiction project, but I didn’t say how I’m using them, or think I might in the future. So, here goes: […]