Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

CRAFT: JIT for Writers

Before I start, I want to mention a blog. Tess Gerritsen. What a classy web site and blog. I encourage folks to visit her site. Even if for some mysterious reason you haven't read any of her books, she has a beautiful web site and an exceptionally interesting and entertaining blog. If you are at all interested in writing, you really should read it.

Her web site is:
Her blog is:

And yes, I have to admit that one of the very best things I like about her blog are the creepy facts. Maybe it's because when I was young, I studied to be a biologist, although when I grew up I married one instead. Or maybe I'm just weird, but I *love* her site.

Okay, now that that is out of the way (for now - I can't promise not to revisit the topic of Tess' blog in the future) let's move on to JIT.

JIT. What is it and what does it have to do with writing?

JIT is Just in Time. I learned all about JIT when I was working for Federal Prison Industries (from the outside, not from within the Federal Prisons,, let's not go there). It's an idea from the manufacturing arena where you only get the materials you need to make your finished product at or right before the point where you need the supplies, because storing materials is expensive (warehouse space, security, investment of capital before you get reimbursed by selling what you're making--you figure it out).

JIT for writers is not wasting your time with meaningless research. Think of your research as the material you need to manufacture your finished product: your manuscript. Sure, you need enough to get you started, and maybe enough to germinate some ideas, but there is no point in spending days, weeks, months researching every nuance of something you may only include in one character's off-handed comment on page 212.

Personally, I have an overload sensor. I've used it for years when developing plans to install/upgrade/develop computer systems. I'll do a certain amount of research and then my overload sensor goes off. It says: ENOUGH! It is time to start doing something with all this information. Then I begin work. Inevitably, I find there was something I forgot, or something I still needed to look up, but I could get answers to those questions relatively quickly because I had already established a foundation. Once you establish that foundation, stop.

You have to work with information for it to be useful, so at a certain point, more information is just more garbage you're trying to stuff into the dustbin of your brain. Stop.

This is particularly relevant to writers of historical fiction who get lost in history, or writers of mystery/suspense that include a lot of law enforcement/forensics or other technical information. You can get so caught up in the research that you never write.

So how do you avoid that? I'm hoping that you all have an overload sensor and that if you're having this issue of non-stop research, it's because you've tampered with, shut off, or otherwise disabled your overload sensor. If you have, you simply need to listen to yourself. At some point, some wee voice in your head will say: Enough, already. I can't take this anymore, do or die. Write the darn book. Let me work with what I have now.

If you don't have an overload sensor, it is much harder. I would recommend then, that you simply set a time limit on your research. Certainly no more than a month unless part of what you're researching requires interaction with other humans and you have to stretch out your schedule to meet their schedule.

The point is, all you are trying to do is get your foundation poured. Once the foundation is there, you can just start writing. As you write, you'll find that you're missing some critical pieces or have questions, e.g. What did the cells in Newgate look like in 1820 again?

When you come up against a question, do this.
1) Look it up in Google. If you can find an immediate answer within 1 hour (that's GENEROUS so stop whining) then get your answer and move on.
2) If there's no immediate answer in Google, start a hot sheet. That's a pink (color is your choice) piece of paper on which you write questions you are going to have to research when you FINISH your rough draft.
  • Number your questions on your hot sheet.
  • Put a symbol (I like the * myself) and the corresponding question number IN YOUR MANUSCRIPT so that later, you can do a search for the symbol (i.e. *) and you can find all these places that will need to be fixed/answered when you edit.
  • When you FINISH your rough draft, THEN you can research your questions, get your answers and go back through your document (using the search function for the *1 and *2 and so on, and insert the pertinent facts).
  • If you require the fact to know which direction your story should take, well, gosh. I'm sorry. Write it anyway. Be flexible. Because you know what? After you write it anyway, you can usually find some way to bend your fiction to fit whatever facts you discover, after the fact. For example, if you say it takes 3 days to get lab results back and then find out it's more like 3 months, all you have to do is find an alternative, like, well, they could send it to a private lab because this is so urgent that they need it NOW. Or there is some experimental procedure they decided to use, to get the results faster. And you don't have to go on, and on, and ON about it in your manuscript, trying to excuse it. One sentence is usually enough to dismiss the discrepency and move on (Oh, Ms. Garner, we got the results back faster because we used my brother-in-law's lab...) That's all. You can usually find a way to work it in without too dramatic a change in your storyline, and besides, that's what edits are for.

Oh, I forgot to mention, I use the '*' because an '*' has no business being in a normal manuscript, so it's something I can search for without fear of finding things that aren't questions (0r questionable).

You should seriously consider using JIT in your writing if you have problems controlling the amount of time you spend doing research. Manufacturers use it to control costs. Writers should consider using it for the same reason. Every hour you spend researching and slithering down rabbit holes is an hour you are NOT writing. You're goal is to write, finish, and publish your book, not do endless research.

Your brain will also thank you for your newfound restraint in trying to stuff it full of things it doesn't really want or need in order to be creative. There really is a limit to how much information you need before you begin to work with it. And despite what you think, no matter how much research you do ahead of time, you'll have just as many questions as you write as you would have had, if you had stopped wasting time researching eons ago. Think about it. Or rather, stop thinking about it and start writing.

Show-and-tell time: if you've developed other strategies to avoid the dreaded over-research phenomena, let us know. JIT isn't the only technique but it's certainly a useful one.

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