A rough draft, to me, is a conversation I have with the blank page. Like great conversations, great writing sessions leap from one thread to the next, often circling around the same themes but sometimes going off on wait-what-were-we-taking about tangents. The hands on clocks and watches spin and spin, and at the end you’re buzzing with the joy of connection, filled with new ideas, excited to hang out again and pick up where you left off.
Doing research in the middle of a writing session is the awkward pause when someone stops a conversation to check something on their phone. Once or twice might be okay, but when done repeatedly, it doesn’t bode well for the larger discussion. Even when you find yourself unable to come up with the name of that place you heard the quote from, it’s better to keep the conversation moving, because more important is the underlying thought, the idea or mood being expressed. Plus, you can always look things up later.
When I work on new writing, I leave little markers for myself on facts to check or details to look into, such as
<<town in Colorado>>. I’ll use it when
<<Mr. Mulligan>> talks about the oxygen content in the earth’s atmosphere during science class but his name sounds more like the name of the volleyball coach who at the last pep rally had his players run through a banner that said Let’s go
<<mascots>>.^[Ed. note, Jan 2021: And there’s always the go-to for journalists –
Early on in my drafts, plots and characters tend to change with more fluidity, so the research I do for something on page twenty could be irrelevant by the time I get to page sixty. Deferring research until later also has another benefit: when I see a lot of markers next to each other, or the same ones appearing over and over, it helps focus the eventual research. For the new book, my goal is to finish the full rough draft without going out of my way to looking up anything.
It’s a common practice for journalists, but for me personally, it might come more out of writing code – I’m not sure. I started doing it when I was working on new scenes for These Days, and I’ve been doing it regularly ever since. It gives me a name – albeit imperfect – for what I have not yet named, and thus lets me keep the conversation going, uninterrupted.