Don’t Fear the Iceberg

I was recently introduced to N. K. Jemisin’s workshop on world building. As I absorbed, the more I realized that her ideas can apply to nearly any artform.

The myth of the Iceberg goes like this: only 10% of the research you do on your story (or art) should be visible to the public, with the remaining hidden underneath water.

As artists, we constantly toil behind the scenes, figuring the ins and outs of our current project — how it relates to ourselves, and how the different aspects interact with each other. The road from idea to finished project can be long and arduous.

Research can be your friend. The more you flesh out your idea, the more authentic it will feel. You need to be able to live in the world you are creating, be it a novel, and album, or an art show. 

Yet the dangers of research addiction are all too present. Looking back at Boice’s twelve Rules of the Road for Writers, you should spend as much time pre-writing as you do writing. In other words, you should spend half your time outlining, researching, fleshing out, but balance that with an equal amount of time actually producing your art.

How is that possible, you ask? If you’re writing a novel where a high level of fantasy or science fiction are essential to the plot, you might seem like you’re stuck at the starting line. No you’re not. 

Stephanie Meyers (of Twilight fame) had an awesome fix for just such a dilemma. When she stumbled onto something she needed to research, she just put in a placeholder (like that the word “research”) and moved on. Why does this work? Because the essentials of fiction are the same whether you’re writing genre or mainstream.

Finally, you can’t research everything. At some point you’ll need to forge ahead. You’re still creating fiction and your main objective is to engage your audience, not educate it. 

Looking at the iceberg again. The public need not be limited to the top 10%. Certainly not in the modern internet-centric world. Much of the backstory or creation process can be documented and posted on line as a way for viewers to get a deeper view of the story or artwork. 

Tim Kane

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