No, this blog is not debating which of these processes is superior to the other. This post is talking about the uncanny similarities I’ve found between writing fiction novels and conducting scientific research. So, because that sounds so marching ridiculous, I thought it deserved a post!
These are the stages you will encounter if you decide to write a fiction novel or start a research project:
- Ideas — unmitigated fun
- Work — two steps forward, one step back
- Publishing — ugh
This stage is the most fun, in my opinion. There are ideas constantly flitting in and out of your mind. Most of them are inconsequential. It might be something to do with premises, like, “A murder mystery, but it takes place in a fantasy world where the different suspects have different magical powers,” or “An urban fantasy world where the Incan gods are actually real,” or “The Warriors series, but with wolves and actually accurate wolf behavior.” Maybe you have ideas for characters, like a comic relief who is also the leader of an elite crime-fighting team, or maybe you have ideas for plot twists, like the murderer was his own twin the entire time (Google “human chimerism.”). (Note: if anyone wants to write any of those books, PLEASE DO I WILL READ THEM.)
Or maybe your ideas are more fact-based. Maybe you’ve heard that laboratories all around the country hate having to replicate DNA because of the laborious process of constantly adding in your enzyme, increasing the temperature, adding in more enzyme, increasing the temperature, on and on for like forty times in a row. Maybe you think you want to conduct research to solve that problem. Maybe you’ve heard that there are tons of species in the ocean that haven’t been classified, and you want to be the one to do it. Maybe you’ve heard of a new kind of microbe called archea and want to study them.
But all of these ideas are big in scope and small in inspiration. You want to be excited for the project you’re going to spend the next several years on. In my experience, that excitement comes when two ideas collide. Once those two ideas are stuck together, the ball gets rolling. Like a snowball, more and more ideas just keep sticking to your original two, until you have a massive snow-boulder of ideas with incredible momentum.
Take Alloland for example. For years, I’d been wanting to write a book about the different ways societies could regulate genetic engineering–something that wasn’t just a technophobic dystopia. That was an idea, but there was nothing else to it–no other world-building, no characters, no plot, no nothing. Then, my freshman year of college, I was in anthropology class when someone asked why all the authors we’d read were man-woman duos with the same last names. Our professor replied that many anthropologist teams are married couples and visit foreign cultures together–the wife gets to hear about all the women’s secrets, and the husband gets to hear about all the men’s secrets. So that put another idea in my head: wouldn’t it be a cool story to have a small team of anthropologists island-hopping from culture to culture? A few minutes later, that idea connected with the genetic engineering idea: why not island-hop to different cultures to see how each one is handling genetic engineering?
BOOM! The snowball begins. Soon, the anthropologists in that story have identities, then names, then appearances, then arcs. Soon, the islands they go to have idiosyncrasies and their own useful medicines and questionable enhancements. The ball was rolling, and has been rolling for the past three and a half years (with a year off for thesis writing).
What about your science project? Well, the reason your colleagues need to keep adding enzyme to replicate the DNA is because the enzymes they’re using are heat-sensitive: you need to up the temperature to get the DNA to replicate, but it kills the enzyme. But maybe you just read a cool article about thermophilic bacteria that live in the super hot geothermal springs in Yellowstone. But…don’t those bacteria need to replicate their DNA? And don’t they need to use enzymes that can withstand scalding hot water in order to do that?
BOOM! The snowball is rolling. Suddenly, you know of a way you can revolutionize molecular biology. You’re getting ideas about the supplies you’ll need, journal articles you need to read, what experiments you want to conduct to prove this works and what control groups you’re going to use in those experiments. You apply for a grant, and now you’ve got three or four years to gather as much data as possible on your new process: automatic PCR.
Now you’re excited. Now you’re pumped. Now you’re writing down your first words, now you’re running your preliminary experiments. And now everything is suddenly failing for no marching reason.
What went wrong? Why isn’t this character as badass as you pictured in your mind? Why can’t you seem to get the exposition down without going through pages and pages of word vomit? Why isn’t your enzyme working? Why are your bacteria dying?
Well, that’s what you need to figure out. When you do figure it out: hooray! You’ve made progress. It just took about three times as long as you were anticipating. And was very frustrating. But at least now you can move onto the next chapter and the next experiment.
And then that goes to march, too.
This process repeats itself: two steps forward, one step back, two steps forward, one step back. Eventually, if you were excited enough about the idea in the first place, and were diligent enough to carry it through past all the frustrations, then you reach something that can reasonably be called the end. You have your draft, you have your data. Now you just need an editor and a publisher.
Now you just need to convince someone that your work is worth publishing!
Why are these two processes so similar? Is this an overgeneralization, and I’m writing about an illusion? I don’t really think so. I think they’re similar because they are both inherently creative processes that rely on inspiration, diligence, and problem-solving skills. Scientific research isn’t an exact science, in that it’s messy and you have absolutely no idea if you’re even going to find anything. It’s not the physics problem you got in high school where you have all the info you need and know for certain that there’s one correct answer. Same with creative writing: it only exists in your mind, meaning that it can go a hundred different directions in theory, but you need to find out the “right” direction if it’s going to “work” in the real world (ex. if you want that villain to be sympathetic to your audience, you need to figure out how to accomplish that.). Neither of these processes are as straightforward as we’re led to believe, both of them have far more failures than successes, and both of them are dependent almost entirely on ideas. So if you’re still in the snowballing idea phase, enjoy it while it lasts! The other stages are worth it, but not quite as fun.
I’m very curious as to how people in other fields view this process? Does song-writing feel similar? How about architecture? Computer programming? Painting? Inventing? Let me know about your field in the comments below!