Pantser-ing: On Genre and Research
“The shake moves from Sam’s hands up his arms and into his torso. In his EVA suit, he looks like a wiggling white leaf. A second meteoroid plows into his tether and it snaps.”
- Trajectories, Jasper Woods, Chapter 2: Sam’s Hole
There is benefit to me as a writer to distinguish Speculative Fiction from Science-Fiction and further—hard-science fiction from fantasy-science fiction. In short, that benefit is how much I need to research.
Some consider Speculative Fiction as an umbrella term for all Science Fiction. Which is cool, but it’s not helpful to me as a writer. It’s more helpful to me to know how much I want to base on fact, how much I get to make up based on fact or just make up!
I recognize the difference between a belief and a fact (something Trajectories' explores in the far future timeline). For the description above of Sam and the surrounding action, I confirmed as a fact what I believed was the difference between a meteoroid and a meteor. I looked into where meteoroids could possibly spew forth from. Could they zoom inside the Daedalus Crater on the far side of the moon?
I didn’t do that before I wrote the scene. I did it after. I’m what the notorious “they” call a pantser––when I’m writing an initial draft. After I get done pantser-ing, I go back and ensure the events of the story could happen. Some moments are adjusted, others are spot on. (I ingest A LOT of science.) Throughout I'm making the impossible probable and the improbable possible. I find logic is helpful toward that end.
For some scenes, I do research before. When I do this I have a specific method of moving the science inside the story.
When the film version of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation came out, the director, Alex Garland said (I’m paraphrasing) I wrote the script as I remembered the book. Hence the film’s dreamy-ness which is, as I view it, very much inline with VanderMeer’s book.
The method I use to move science inside the story is similar. Here it is:
Research the topic—say a planet in our solar system
Rewrite what I read as I remember it
Put it in the voice of a character
Go back to the research and make sure the facts are still in tact
I classify Trajectories as: a speculative, cli-fi, hard-science fiction novel with a soupçon of fantasy science fiction. (Unlikely, we’ll be marketing it as such:)
I prefer Margaret Atwood’s definition of Speculative Fiction, which I’m going to sum up with this truncated quote of hers:
“Anything that could really happen.” (2005)
An adoring reader of her work, it helps me understand that I need to research the past to imagine what it might look like in the future–– Margaret'sThe Handmaid’s Tale, and what is possible in the future given the evolution of existing tech–– her MaddAddam Trilogy.
For Trajectories I did both. There are three threads in the novel:
the near future (where the story explores the tension between hope and a future of chaos due to climate change)
the far future (where the story explores our present choices)
and the very, very, very far past (where the story explores a choice that will impact all our futures)
While researching for this post, I came across Robert A. Heinlein’s definition of Speculative Fiction in his article, On the Writing of Speculative Fiction (1947):
“There is another type of honest-to-goodness science fiction story that is not usually regarded as science fiction: the story of people dealing with contemporary science or technology. We do not ordinarily mean this sort of story when we say ‘science fiction’; what we do mean is the speculative story, the story embodying the notion ‘just suppose—‘ or ‘What would happen if—.’ In the speculative science fiction story accepted science and established beliefs are extrapolated to produce a new situation, a new framework for human action. As a result of this new situation, new human problems are created--and our story is about how human beings cope with those new problems. The story is not about the new situation; it is about coping with problems arising out of the new situation.”
Each of Trajectories’ three interweaving timelines explore three character-driven what-if’s. Each of the threading stories that arise out of those what-ifs are about people coping with their individual inciting incident arising out of the new situation. Seems to match up.
After I pantser enough––get the bones of the story down, I move to structure. I employ Story Genius to fill out the what-ifs––the story told me. I experience writing as the story telling itself to me. At times, this is very fun and exciting. At times. At others, not so much. More so, harrowing.
When I’m done (as done as any story or novel ever is) I look at it and go––what is it? Hard-Science Fiction? Fantasy Science Fiction? Speculative Fiction? A gumbo of all? Does it matter?
After you read Trajectories, I would LOVE to hear how you classify it;)
References + Research