Saturday, 16 July 2016

Internet research is crack for procrastinators By Alan Glynn

Still, to this day, people ask me about day-trading. They assume I have some sort of inside track on the matter, and can maybe hit them up with some stock tips. That’s because I wrote about it over fifteen years ago in my first novel, The Dark Fields (Limitless), and with what appeared to be a degree of authority. But that was just the result of research, a lot of it, mostly consisting of articles and textbooks. I did find some stuff online, but back then internet meant dial-up, which took aeons to load, so what I used was largely expensive business magazines and often hard-to-track-down books. For that novel, and in this same way, I also researched the 1939 World’s Fair, the career of Raymond Loewy, antique furniture, product liability trials, Mexican art, the interstate highway system, corporate mergers, and brain chemistry – as well as a thousand other things, small stuff, technical details, names, dates, whatever. For subsequent novels, I would still buy magazines and books at the drop of a hat if I felt they might be useful sources of information (and very often they weren’t), but when high-speed internet service became the norm, online research gradually took over and the whole process went into hyperdrive – instant access, as you write, on a sentence-by-sentence basis, to all the information in the world. Nice!

Except . . .

And you know what I’m going to say next, right?

Online research has become a dangerous, all-consuming addiction – and what it consumes is your time, your attention span, and specifically your resolve to focus only on what it is you need to find out in order to continue working. It obliterates all in its path, and that path is as wide as the planet. Now, the problem here is that research is important, vital even, and especially for the kind of stuff that I write – which is not, let’s face it, what I know. That piece of advice never made much sense to me, and as a result I have to spend a great deal of time mining the web for information or else I won’t be able to make it seem as if I know what I’m talking about.

In Bloodland, for instance, I needed to find out about the Congo, and even briefly considered going there, but I had two small kids at the time, and couldn’t afford the trip in any case (plus, I’m a coward), so I was going to have to rely exclusively on online research. I read countless articles and downloaded upwards of a dozen books, way more stuff than I needed, and of which, in the end, I probably only used about one or two percent. For my latest novel, Paradime, I needed to find out (among many other things), what it’s like to work in a restaurant kitchen, so I embarked on more or less the same research process. For a while, as a result, I was an expert on these subjects, but only for a while – only for as long as it took to write the relevant section of the book. After that, the knowledge fades. Last summer I might have been able to give a decent answer to a question about restaurant management systems or kitchen supplies, but don’t ask me now.  

In one way, of course, this is all wonderful, an embarrassment of riches, something that would be the envy of writers in the past, but it’s also a trap, a black hole of abundance where too much information is never quite enough. So what exactly is the problem here? Well, you could spend a few hours online trying to find out, but let me spare you the effort and tell you that there doesn’t seem to be a scientific consensus yet. There’s lots of so-called “anecdotal pseudoscience” about constant novelty seeking and clickstream dopamine hits. And the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is playing around with the notion of “behavioural addiction”, i.e., gambling and porn – so maybe online research is next, a new pathology for a new age. Neuroscientist Robert Cooper says that distraction is pleasing to the brain and that it mistakes motion for progress. “In the blur of noise and distractions in technology these days,” he adds, “the brain can dabble, coast, feel entertained, hide, and while doing little of anything, it nonetheless hopes for something good to happen”.

Oh dear. I think he just nailed it.

But what is to be done? Willpower? It turns out that that’s a chimera – a resource we rapidly deplete and can’t rely on. Intervention? What, as in the Franzen Solution? Disabling your internet connection so you can write something “of meaning”? Or the Zadie Smith Solution? Web-blocking apps like Freedom and SelfControl? Or the Will Self Solution? Get a grip, sunshine, and use a typewriter? These are all commendable, but the way I write requires on-the-fly research capability – I can’t move on to the next point in a novel until everything preceding it has been locked in. Maybe I’m doing it all wrong, but if so, I’ve been doing it all wrong for eight novels, five of them published, and I can’t see myself changing now. I suppose this does mean that I get the job done, but I feel compelled to add a big fat “eventually” here, because I just wish it didn’t take so long.

Short of hiring a research assistant, perhaps the best solution, as with most things these days, is a new app, a sophisticated filtering system that can extract –

But wait.

Someone has to have thought of this already. And sure enough, a quick internet search
throws up multiple articles detailing the Top 20 Must-have Apps for Writers and Researchers. Again, technology like this is a wonderful thing, a testament to human ingenuity . . . but instead of spending the next few hours (days, weeks even) researching and pilot-testing these tools, I think I may have to go a different route. I Google, “Where can I buy a typewriter?”. The last one I had, in the late 1970s, was a Brother Deluxe 900, and I wonder if they’re still available. Hhmm, maybe on eBay or Oodle or OfferUp . . .  

Paradime by Alan Glynn (£12.99, Faber and Faber) Out now.
 After a stint as a private contractor in Afghanistan, Danny Lynch is back in New York. But nothing’s easy. Work is hard to find and his girlfriend owes more than $30,000 in student loans. Danny is also haunted by something he witnessed at the base – a fact that could ultimately destroy him. Then he spots Teddy Trager, tech visionary and billionaire. These two men couldn’t be more different – except for one thing: in appearance, they’re identical. Danny becomes obsessed with Trager, and before long this member of the ninety-nine per cent is passing undetected into the gilded realm of the one per cent. But what does Danny find there? Who does he become? And is there a route home?

More information about Alan Glynn and his books can be found on his website. You can also follow him on Twitter @alanglynnbooks

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