When people find out I’m a writer, they sometimes venture into uncomfortable territory. They sometimes have the audacity to ask how I write.
What is an easier question. I can fend them off with a mumbled “I write speculative fiction.” Alas, that sometimes means I have to explain what speculative fiction is, which means I don’t get to flee for a few minutes. (I’ll tell them to look it up on Wikipedia henceforth.) When I’m not wishing to give away the fact that I am, in fact, writing a novel, with all of the uncomfortable questions that entails, I just tell them I blog and give them the URL. They’ll find out soon enough I do more than babble about science, occasional pollyticks, the Universe and everything, but by then they’ll be out of questioning range and online, where I can just direct them to explanatory links.
Anyway. Most people stop at what. My answer usually leaves their eyes slightly glazed, and they discover they really weren’t that interested after all. But a few curious sorts go on to ask prying questions, and when they do, a few get around to the how, and I am at a loss. How the fuck do I explain how I write? They’re expecting an easy answer. They end up looking a little frightened when they discover that the process entails holding long conversations with imaginary people. Oh, yes. I’m clinically sane, and yet I can babble for absolute hours with people who aren’t there.
The majority of questioners remember a previously forgotten appointment at this point in the proceedings. It’s amazing how quickly you can clear a room by informing the people therein that you talk to figments of your imagination, and that they talk back.
Those who haven’t fled are genuinely interested in the process, often because they’re just beginning the long struggle with it themselves, or because they love learning how authors’ brains work. I can’t answer that. I can tell the aspiring folk the tricks of the trade I’ve learned, point up my Dojo posts and several useful books. But as far as those wanting to know how I, Dana Hunter, write, that takes more time to explain than a casual conversation will allow.
And I don’t think they shall understand when I tell them my recent realization, which is that for me, writing is very like doing science. And that’s not just because I have to study a lot of science in order to build worlds.
It didn’t used to be this way. In the past, before I had the whole shape of things in my mind, I’d just scribble. I wrote tons of stuff – short stories, an actual complete novel, scene after scene, free-form journaling in which I explored people and relationships and plot points. Quite a lot of it was like taking dictation: my characters told me what happened, and I wrote it down. I studied a little science, mostly physics and psychology, just the stuff I needed to get a general understanding. As time went on, I found myself doing a lot more research: on war, on autism, on cultures, on art, on myth, on a great many various bits. The more research I did, the better the stories seemed to get. I went from hating research to loving it. Fell in love with our world, in fact, by attempting to create my own.
Everything I write revolves around the core series of novels; every short story is another piece of that puzzle. Somewhere along the way, exploring avenues I thought were at best side trips, I began to see the shape of the whole, and discovered that it was something quite different than I’d had in mind all those decades ago when I first got started. Things suddenly settled into a specific form, a history of events that stretched out well over sixteen thousand years. I knew the beginning, and I knew the end, and I knew quite a few bits in between. I realized that I would have to know a fuck of a lot more science in order to accomplish what I’d set out to do. So I dove in. Science blogs, science books, articles, papers, the lot. And as I became familiar with the way scientists work, I started applying some of those methods to my own writing.
You see, I have this enormous body of work, all of these events that feed in to each other. Things are tremendously interconnected. And I have a lot of things that don’t quite make sense. They fit in, they must make sense, but they don’t.
This is where writing starts to look like science, for me. I look at my worlds the way they are and ask why. Why are things this way and not another? How did this happen? What causes it?
I’m not talking about things like character interactions, per se. That stuff’s easy enough to figure out, once you know how people think. It’s things that I took for granted before. I’ve got quite a few aliens created. All right, then, so why are they the way they are? What is their evolutionary history? Why do they think the way they do? It has to make sense. It has to hang together. So I look at a feature, and I try to explain it, not by making shit up but by building from what I’ve learned of biology and neuropsychology. We’re still in the early stages of that, but it’s been instructive so far. And my aliens will be all the richer for having their own evolutionary histories.
Same thing with geology. There are certain features that are clear in my mind: the way a valley looks, what the weather’s like. So what caused it to be this way? I have to look at the totality. I have to know the geology of a place. I have to know the plate tectonics of that world. I have to know the strata, which tells me about its geologic history. I have to know geography: latitude, longitude. I have to know something about astronomy, because where a planet is in a solar system, what its tilt is, rotation, orbit, the kind of star it orbits, its place in its galaxy, all of those things dictate certain features. Imagine going to a place on Earth no geologist has been to. Imagine being taken there without knowing where on Earth you are. You can sort some of it out from the clues around you, using science. I do the same thing with the major planets and cities that popped into my mind and have been a certain way in my mind since very nearly the beginning. I don’t build worlds from the basics. I build them around places on them I already know. But the whole has to hang together. It has to be a place that’s plausible.
Things I used to take for granted, I can’t take for granted anymore. “God did it” is not a valid explanation in my universe. I need a particular kind of crystal not seen on Earth. It’s vital for the end of the series. What is it? How does it form? Why can’t it form on Earth when it formed on this other earthlike planet? Answering those questions takes me down entirely new and interesting paths, far more interesting than they were when the answer was, “Because the author said so.”
And the more I know of science, the more interesting things can become. I used to think science was a straitjacket to the imagination. I know now it’s the key that opens an entire universe. Explaining something with physical laws doesn’t make it mundane. Supernatural, believe it or not, is a hell of a lot more boring than natural. Because the universe does things we could never imagine. It does things we didn’t imagine.
And when I apply the principles of science to things I’ve written, things I can’t change because they’re too vital to the shape of the story but seem to make no scientific sense, I find them becoming far more interesting. I can tweak them a bit in ways that brings them more into line with the possible rather than the totally-made-this-shit-up, and suddenly I’ve got stuff that’s no longer derived from all the similar stuff fantasy authors have done. It’s at home in its own universe. It opens up ways of getting to the end of the series that I never considered before. Same journey, far more fascinating route.
Like a scientist, I can even run experiments, of a sort. Set the parameters, run the experiment (i.e., write the scene), fail miserably. Tweak the parameters, run the experiment again. Often fail miserably again. But out of failure comes inspiration, new hypotheses that can be tested until they earn the status of theories. Only difference is, I can change the world, at least a bit, if I don’t like it. Scientists, on the other hand, are stuck with the world they’ve got. But even though I can change the world, I can’t change it solely for my own convenience. It has to make sense. It has to fit with what comes before and after.
So that’s part of the how. A scene burns like a meteor across my mind: I sit, I write it down, then I stare at it for weeks or months or years after, asking questions of it, just as scientists ask questions of the world. Why is it this way? How did it come to be that way? How does it work? Does this fit with what else we know? Is there some other explanation for what we’re seeing? What are the implications? How does it affect everything else?
I imagine that sounds intimidating to people thinking they’d like to be writers. It’s a hell of a lot of work. It’s difficult. It’s sometimes frustrating. Well, the good news is, not all writers write this way, and they frequently still get published. The even better news is, this isn’t really work, no matter how hard you work at it. It’s too enjoyable to be work. If you don’t believe me, ask any scientist if they think their work is work. Bits of it are, and they’ll probably have plenty to gripe about, but you’ll have a hard time taking them seriously since they’re grinning like kids set loose in the biggest candy emporium in the world. Same thing with writers, even those who, like me, put in endless hours researching, plotting, pondering, writing, rewriting, tearing down, building up, researching and rewriting again. Hell, no, it’s not easy, but if it was, it wouldn’t be any fun, now would it? And it is fun.
There is nothing more rewarding than finding out how the world works. That includes made-up worlds. And I think that if more people realized that science is this amazingly adventurous enterprise that turns the entire universe into a wonderland, if they only knew how much richer it makes your life, that it can be such a boon to the imagination, they wouldn’t fear it. They wouldn’t hate it. They wouldn’t do their level best to avoid it. They would dive in, drink deep, and their only complaint would be that a human lifetime is far too short to explore it all.
They would look at a world, whether real or imagined, and delight in asking, “Why are you this way? How do you work? What does this bit of you tell me about the rest?”
They’d do science, and they’d like it.