I’ve decided that this will be the end of The Science of Writing series for my blog. The idea for this series came about when I was debating in my head what aspects of my scientific career had helped me with my writing. (I have quite a bit of time during the day to argue with myself, and as a scientist, I need someone to argue with!) It was a way for me to work through what I had learned as a scientist and what I was learning as a writer–what I am still learning, in fact–how to respond to criticism and reviews, how to tighten and cut until only the essentials are left, the importance of precision in word choice, and polishing every aspect of your work until you are as near to perfection as is possible in this imperfect world.
However, the more I thought on it, the more I debated with myself, I realized that it’s all been said before. Any aspect of writing that I can speak to, that I want to speak to, has already been addressed somewhere out there. The world does not need another how to write series out there on the webs, forever saved by Google’s data empire. Especially a series from a noob. 🙂
In the past few weeks, there’s been a series of articles on Slate about the value of getting a PhD. Even though I would go through it all again to obtain my PhD, I found myself agreeing with the article that said that it was a waste of time and would turn you into a wreck of a human being. The academic system tends to view all those who do not grab the brass ring of a tenured professorship as waste, as failures in the great machine churning out data, papers, grants, and all the rest of it. And that’s a shame.
Of course, Slate also ran a piece defending the idea of spending all those years toiling away in your own nearsighted speciality to get that terminal degree. The author argued that working at your PhD taught you to commit to your ideas, which people don’t do enough outside of the ivory tower.
I don’t buy the idea that people in general don’t commit to their ideas; I can think of a dozen instances of people fiercely committing to their ideas just in the last hour on my Facebook feed.
No, the real benefit of completing a PhD is learning how to DEFEND your ideas. You learn how to think about ideas, how to marshal evidence in support of your conclusions, how to express your ideas in the most elegant, succinct, and convincing way.
In other words, a PhD is a strength training program for the mind.
But what does that have to do with writing?
As I continue this process of becoming a writer, I find that writing is, at its heart, about defending your story.
Anyone can make up stories; in fact, my four year old is doing it right now. A writer is a special class of imaginative fibber–one who asks others to spend time and money on their stories. And as a writer, you need to be ready to defend that story, to justify the investment of time and money you’re asking the reader to put in. That means that your plot has no holes, your characters are worth the emotional investment of the reader, your grammar won’t make a reader’s eyes cross, your typos have been eradicated, and more. As a writer, I recognize that all of that is a lot of work. But it’s necessary if you want to defend your story, just as necessary as statistics and background reading are to a scientist. It’s not always fun (in fact, it’s usually deadly dull), but you have to do it if you want to defend your ideas.
The same goes for writers. Every story requires some deadly dull work sometimes, in order to render it defendable. Of course, this also applies to your research (particularly if you’re a historical author) and your characterizations. The debate on how accurate you need to be in your historical is not one I want to rehash here, but the issue of characterization is one I want to touch on. if you haven’t thought over every one of your character’s actions and their motivation for doing so, how are you going to defend your story? Your character’s actions make the story, especially in a romance. if you haven’t properly laid the evidence for why a character reacts as they do, you’re not defending your story.
All of this defending can take a long time, both of ideas and of stories. My PhD took seven years to complete, and not every experiment I did even made it into my thesis. And that doesn’t even count the decades of research done by others that formed the background for my work. My first novel is probably going to take about two and half years from first word written until now, when I’m finally getting ready to start querying it. Many scenes aren’t going to make it into the finished draft, and quite a bit of the research I did won’t be mentioned at all in the book. But it was all necessary, every bit of it, for me to properly defend this story. To believe that it is worth someone’s time, and perhaps one day, even worth someone’s money.