I've been doing a lot of background work on my scifi novel (new working title: Cast Into the Deep Sea of Stars
). I've been dealing with three major tasks, more or less simultaneously:
- learning about how to write a novel (I've read thousands, studied hundreds, taught dozens, but never written one);
- world-building, i.e., developing conceptually the future world in which my story will take place; and
- planning/plotting my story, incorporating the ideas I've been gaining from my reading on novelistic technique.
I know a lot of first-time novelists, impatient to get their story on paper, just jump into writing with both feet (or hands) -- those are the "pantsers," or seat-of-the-pants writers. They are probably the ones who gave rise to the commonplace idea that a writer's first novel will be unpublishable, and should be looked on as a learning experience. Well, I'm too old to waste years on unworkable drafts, and I've learned the value of learning the theory first and then re-learning it through practice, and that's what I'm trying to do.
Although I haven't written a novel before, I have successfully written one scholarly tome, my doctoral dissertation. Believe me, there are no (sucessful) "pantsers" in the world of writing academic theses or dissertations. For one thing, such an approach wouldn't be allowed -- the degree candidate's work is monitored, and must be approved, by qualified scholars who, theoretically at least, won't let sub-par work pass muster. In this way, at least, the process of writing a dissertation is kinder than that of writing a novel, because there is someone standing by to shoot down bad ideas before you've wasted a year or more writing them down. (I once tried to "pants" a master's thesis and found out that was a big mistake, which is why I say there are no *successful*
pantsers in the academic realm.)
As different as a dissertation is from a novel, the process of writing the dissertation was one that taught me a lot about writing, particularly about writing a lengthy, complex work such as a novel. Since I was faced with such a daunting task -- I had never written anything longer than 30 pages, and the dissertation was bound to be about 10 times that long, and much more complex -- I spent a lot of time on preparation before actually beginning the writing. Sometimes I suspected that my lengthy prep was really just avoidance of the actual writing, but that wasn't really true. The prep helped me write a good, solid, well-written and well-thought out opus, when I finally got down to it.
By the time I got to the writing, I had done lots of research, mentally gone over my argument and plan of attack, thought through all the implications of my thesis, etc. I had also lined up all the tools I would need in the writing: a good bibliography/note program, chock full of my research, a page template with the page set-up and paragraph styles that would mean my finished draft would already be in the format required by my graduate school, even a daily routine that helped keep me on task. When it came time to write, I simply created an outline of what I planned to say, made each major point a chapter, and then sat down and wrote.
Each morning, I would edit what I had written the day before, and at the end of each chapter, I'd edit again to make sure each paragraph was unified and coherent, each section of the chapter was internally coherent and fit well in the overall scheme of the chapter as a whole, etc. When I sent each chapter off to my First Reader for her scrutiny (someone I had chosen, in part, because I knew she'd be really picky and not sign off on sloppy work), it would come back with virtually no suggestions for improvement, except noting the occasional comma fault. In the end, she said it was the best-written dissertation she'd read.
I don't know if any editor will say something similar about my novel when I've finished it (yeah, don't I wish!), but I do know that taking time for preparation will help me avoid the writing of multiple bad drafts that often precede any good drafts written by many pantsers and others who start writing without a clear idea of where they're going or how they're going to get there. I'm sure that for almost any new novelist (and some writers who've already written several novels), it takes time to get to a good draft, and I don't suppose I'll be an exception to that rule. It's just that I'm going to be spending that time constructively, preparing to write and planning my course, rather than spending it writing "discovery drafts" in which I try to figure out what story I'm trying to tell and how I'm going to tell it.
But the good news is that things are rockin' along. I'll keep you posted.