About a month ago, I switched tracks from the chapter I put to bed (ready or not) so I could distill a paper from it. Anyone who's been reading my agonized posts knows that this chapter has been giving me fits. It was chock full o' facts, and even finally had an argument, but it just felt... flat. No, worse: it was simultaneously flat and bloated. How does that happen?
In any case, a few weeks ago I made the decision to put the chapter to bed. It was a draft; it had a beginning, a middle, and an end. I knew where the holes were, but I knew they could be filled later, and I didn't want to spend another month tinkering with it right now. Besides, I had a deadline: I had a paper to present at the Brain Ranch (not Hogwarts, but nearby) in three weeks, and I had to somehow condense something from the flat-yet-bloated chapter into 25-30 nice, tight, coherent minutes. Oh, and I had to make maps and genealogical charts.
I've always worked from small to large. I write a conference paper or two or three. Sometimes I expand them into articles. But probably a third of my first-book manuscript originated as conference papers. These gave me concrete deadlines and forced me to dig in and argue.
Here, I was trying to compress something big and sprawling into something short and compelling. And it was hard. I kept excising things. But here's what happened: that excision process forced me to think: "I've only got 12 pages. What's really important here?"
And in the process of writing that short paper, I finally discovered my chapter.
(Oh. And the maps and charts turned out nice, too.)