08/20/2010 09:26 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Making of a Novel: What You May Find Getting Lost on the Web

My oldest daughter is about to go off to college, and so my brain is very full of thoughts and ideas that start with the phrase, "When I was in college...." As in, "When I was in college, no one had a computer," or "When I was in college, we had to leave written messages for people on their door if we wanted to meet them for dinner." I wasn't a novelist in college, but I can imagine how intense the hunt for kindred spirits and information must have been. Today, of course, we can travel the world with a click of the mouse -- and I don't know that I'll ever get over the thrill of it.

I sometimes hear beginning writers who are afraid of spending too much time wandering around the Internet, as if they're certain they're going to get lost, and as if they're certain that writing is all about words on the page. Getting lost on the web it a wonderful thing, and depending on how you get lost, you'll find the kindred spirits you crave and the information you need to move forward with your work.

Here's what happened to me today:

  • I clicked on the New York Times Book Update, which I get in my email.
  • From there, I noticed a review of Morning Miracle, a book on The Washington Post, and since my novel concerns a Post article from 2007, I clicked through to the review.
  • The review is fascinating, and I bookmark it to read in depth at a later time. (There are a lot of links in it, which I want to explore.)
  • On the page with the review, I notice a button for Paper Cuts, the Times' book blog, and for an entry on novelist Jennifer Egan called, Gallery of a Writers' Impulses. I love this title, and know of Egan's work, so I click thought.
  • The Paper Cuts piece talks about how unusual Egan's website is, and how inspiring, so I go to Egan's site. It's such an unusual-looking website for a writer, that I immediately try to see who made it -- information you can usually find at the bottom of the site, or in the contact information, but there is nothing. So I go back to the top and start clicking on the locations and dates Egan features -- and it's a treasure trove of stories about story. Exactly as the title mentioned, it's a gallery of impulses. It's the coolest thing I've seen in a long time.
  • I bookmark the site to study later (there are a lot of things to look at here) and poke around Egan's site. I end up on the Interview page, and the first interview on the list is from Riff City. It's a piece about how Egan's writing about music is better than any music critic.
  • I am writing a book with a music critic character. So I read the entire interview -- am amazed and impressed and inspired by the whole thing -- and make a note to read Egan's book, A Visit From the Good Squad.

It was a thoroughly productive use of time, this web wandering. And I didn't write a word.