Pantsing the Research
I am a pantser. This is not to say that I gleefully jerk the shorts off my story leaving it standing there confused and vulnerable to the giggles of the crowd. No, instead that refers to flying by the seat of one’s pants, the point of contact between pilot and plane, the fundamental sensation of vibrations that will mean life and death to correct interpretation and translation to movement of the plane of travel. Over a mountain rather than into it, shall we say.
When writing, the corrections are not nearly as vital to me, but if I play them wrong, they can kill the story. So I have to constantly be aware of where I’ve been, and trying to figure out where I’m going. With the current work in progress this has been a slow journey, and the result is going to be a work that needs a LOT of editing. For instance, when I started it, I had a nebulous idea, which evolved into another idea, which in turn became… what it is now. I’m hoping, that at half-through the book, it doesn’t morph on me again. I have a pretty good idea of the plot from here to an end, which isn’t the originally planned end.
Last night, as I started writing again after a vacation break (4 days, 1800 miles, no real internet while driving), I asked my First Reader to take a look at the last chapter or two I’d done, because he’s often helpful in catching my ‘mental shorthand’ where I haven’t fully unpacked an idea onto the page. I took the laptop into the backyard to write, and he came wandering out soon after, to sit down and tell me that I was going to have to go back a chapter and make some major edits.
The gist of the story that I’m working on is a young man (age unknown) on a trading ship, sailing through the stars from planets or stations, and selling goods to them. His ship is large enough he can actually transport livestock, and one cargo hold has been permanently transformed into a garden. Last night, the First Reader pointed out that it’s like a South Sea schooner, in that he’s locked into this route, and to deviate from it would be essentially to sail against the wind. I looked up at him and said ‘I’m going to need to read more about that…”
So here I am, looking at researching while pantsing. I’d done some as I was working on the beginning of the book, but as I didn’t really know what was coming, I couldn’t do a lot… and I’m going to have to stop and do some reading now. Or keep writing ahead on what I know about the story, while reading so I can go back and fix the mess I made of the last bit. See, I have the young captain – who has been sailing alone, except for his dog – mildly incapacitated and in a gesture of thankfulness for his services in a search and rescue, the station he was on came aboard and cleaned and refurbished his ship. The First Reader pointed out that not only was that like his private home and place of business being invaded, but it could have legal repercussions, too. We discussed what I need to do to fix it (and I was writing in mental shorthand, so I didn’t put enough of the young captain’s outrage of feelings on paper to begin with).
Would having left this miscalculation in have killed the story? I’m not sure. I suspect many readers would simply have thought ‘how nice’ when they read the scene. But some would have winced over the invasion of the ship by even well-meaning helpful sorts. Now that I’m aware of it, I cannot simply leave it in place. I try to be a better writer than that. Actually, going back and fixing it will foreshadow the next development in my captain’s life: the need for a crew. The mental shorthand I have the (very bad) habit of doing tends to get in the way of foreshadowing properly, so this is a good thing. Even though I find myself annoyed at the need to go back and edit, it will make it a better story in the long run.
I’m very conscious of hard deadlines with this book. Since I depend on my writing income, I must finish, send to editors, and publish this novel as soon as humanly possible. Which means that I’m going to research, keep writing, and resign myself to backtracking and inserting when needed. I’ve always written clean manuscripts that needed relatively little to make them ready for public consumption, and this one being so messy feels like a step backward. I’m trying to persuade myself it’s part of my learning curve as an author. I have a long way to go yet, and I’ll probably always be learning as I do so. But I can’t let it stop me from writing!
If you’re curious and want to read snippets, you can find Tanager’s Fledglings on my site, here. It is my first real attempt to write science fiction at novel length since The Eternity Symbiote, which was my first written novel (Vulcan’s Kittens was the first published). I am hopeful that I’ve become a better writer since that. My first love for writing was science fiction, the fantasy was sort of an accident, so I’m looking forward to seeing what the reactions are to this series.
Anyone know any good books on South Sea Traders?