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To TK or Not to TK?

Image by Stefan Chinof via DeviantArt.com
Image by Stefan Chinof via DeviantArt.com

How much do you TK? That’s the question.

TK in a manuscript means “to come.” So if you’re writing a scene in a historical novel set in, say, New Jersey in 1777, and you’re missing necessary facts but don’t want to stop writing at that moment in order to find the relevant information, your draft might look like this:

Mary inclined her head toward the parlor, letting him know they were not alone. The [TK-appropriate rank soldier] hesitated, then turned and walked outside. Mary checked the pocket of her skirt again to make sure the [TK-medium for message] was still there, then followed him onto the porch.

You know where you’re heading with the story and what your characters are doing, but you haven’t yet worked out some of the details. So you drop a few TKs and keep going.

Do you TK when you write? Or does writing with TKs make you feel like you’re preparing a savory recipe like Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic but omitting the garlic, the wine, the herbs and anything else that contains any flavor? In which case, why bother making the recipe at all?

I’ve always been in the latter category; I’ve never liked any but the most particular TKs. I prefer to do my research first, then draft. Why? I like to feel like I really know my characters, the pieces of their lives, the settings. I want to have gathered all of the ingredients that could factor into my characters’ story when I write, because I want to know everything they know. Of course, there may be a small factual detail here or there that needs to be filled in later—for example, how to translate a brief foreign phrase. But for the most part, even if I need to know the weather on a particular day, I’ll look that up first because I’m going to write a scene differently if it’s rainy and cold than if it’s sunny and warm.

You see where this is going, right? I came to a point in my writing where this approach, which had once served me well, began to hold me back in a big way.

I’d been scribbling notes in contemplation of the next draft of my WIP for, well, let’s just call it a very long time. This draft was going to be a major rewrite: I’d ripped out a huge piece of the plot, and needed to write a new section of the book in order to replace it. I’d determined on a basic level what had to happen in the story, but I faced a problem: the characters needed to journey to a place I’d never been and to which it would not be possible for me to travel, and they needed to do this at a time in recent history in which very specific, difficult-to-discern conditions were in place. I was eager to get to work on the draft, but my enthusiasm was for the writing—which I didn’t feel I could begin until I completed a substantial amount of new research. And I had no desire to conduct more research on top of the substantial amount I’d already completed for this book. I just wanted to write.

So, because I didn’t possess the knowledge I needed to write my characters’ experiences, for months I accomplished…nothing.

I can be prone to inefficiency in my writing process, but this was ridiculous.

Knowing how frustrated I was that I wasn’t writing, an author friend suggested that I plunge ahead and write the draft anyway, using TKs. Horrified, I argued that I couldn’t do it. How could I write events, descriptions and actions without knowing what I was talking about? (Shouldn’t we leave that to some of our presidential candidates?) But she persisted.

“You do know what it’s like. You read. You watch movies. You listen to people. You have a sense. Write what comes to you, drop TKs everywhere, and get the story out. You can go back and fill in details later when you’ve done the research, but this way you write now.”

I considered her words for days. The more I thought, the more her words made sense. What I yearned to do was to commit to paper my characters’ story—what they did, why they did it, what happened as a result and what happened after that. I surely knew enough about where they were going to write the outline of this story, like the black outlines on a white coloring book page. I could fill in the colors later. If, at a later point, I had to make adjustments to what I’d written, well, that’s what future, hopefully less drastic rewrites would be for.

In January, I began my new draft. I’m now 300 pages in, and I’m beginning that new section. Almost every word from this point on will be new material. There will probably be TKs on every page, because I’ll be doing the research concurrent with the writing. My frustration has disappeared as I’ve produced words on the page, and I’m actually a little excited to begin writing the new section without knowing everything I need to know. I’ve been working on this WIP for a long time, and being forced to work outside of my comfort zone will shake things up a bit. It may even turn out to be a positive development for both me and my manuscript.

How will this experiment turn out? I’ll have to let you know. Results TK.

About Tracy Hahn-Burkett [1]

Tracy Hahn-Burkett has written everything from speeches for a U.S. senator to bus notes for her eighth-grade son. A former congressional staffer, U.S. Department of Justice lawyer and public policy advocate for civil rights, civil liberties and public education, Tracy traded suits for blue jeans and fleece when she moved to New Hampshire with her husband and two children. She writes the adoption and parenting blog, UnchartedParent, and has published dozens of essays, articles and reviews. Tracy is currently revising her first novel. Her website is TracyHahnBurkett.com [2].