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I discovered my interest in writing a few years ago. I was extremely stressed out from work, and so out of the blue, I sat down to write science fiction every night for a week. Although I have been writing for three years now, I still consider myself an aspiring author. I have never been published -- my efforts never get past a few chapters.

I started a novel about memes, chaos theory, and the weather, and I formulated a long list of questions that I think the novel would need to answer. I think I've made a wonderful start, but I get bogged down with my science fiction writing when I feel like I need to do extensive research. I don't know if this normal or healthy.

I found this article interesting: "The Real Science Of Science Fiction". I understand it to state that oftentimes writing science fiction does involve a great deal of scholarly research. Indeed, I am good at pursuing search strategies: Right now I have compiled upwards of ninety books, articles, and websites that I could use for inspiration and to answer the questions on my list. That number of resources could potentially triple. I guess it is a good thing to have resources. I am learning an awful lot too -- I do consider myself a lifetime learner.

I seem to have put myself in a double bind: I feel like I should be busy writing actual prose, but I give myself a trip that my prose isn't researched enough. How can I resolve this crisis?

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    The short answer is "yes," to the point where this has a name: World Builder's Syndrome. This question belongs on WorldBuilding SE, where they all have the same malady and can help. Or enable you. Or at least commiserate. :) I'll ask the mods to migrate. – Lauren Ipsum Mar 10 '17 at 19:50
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    Thank you Lauren. The World Building Stack Exchange forum seems like an excellent resource. Please do talk to the mods for me. :-) – user9885 Mar 10 '17 at 19:56
  • @MonicaCelio what do you think? Would Worldbuilding consider it a constructive question? – Neil Fein Mar 10 '17 at 21:14
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    Ask yourself: Why did the original Starship Enterprise, from the first Star Trek TV series, have a red flashing light at its top? Was it so the thing could be seen? Didn't they have stuff more advanced than radar? And, did anyone really care? For that matter, why did the original comic book Superman have big muscles? Wouldn't it be impossible for him to bulk up by lifting weights? My point: Don't fret the little things. – user23046 Mar 11 '17 at 18:10
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    @LaurenIpsum The poster doesn't seem to be asking for answers to their worldbuilding questions; but rather help dealing with the immense task of worldbuilding they've already set out to do. Seems like an on-topic writing question to me :) – Standback Mar 11 '17 at 19:26
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I would suggest that the key question you should be asking yourself is whether you actually have a story to tell. The heart of any story is a decision. The protagonist (and possibly other characters as well) have to make a decision which is hard for them. Either decision they make will cost them something.

The meat of a story is, what is it like to be faced with that decision, what circumstance bring the protagonist to this point, and what will it cost them to decide and to live with the decision they have made. (Think of The Little Mermaid -- the real story, not the Disney travesty -- in which in choosing to have legs she accepts that every step will feel like she is walking on knives.)

The world of a story is simply the set of circumstance in which the character is brought to this decision. This does not mean that world is not a concrete and vivid place -- it must be, because a story is not an abstract philosophical treatise of values, but a recounting of an actual human being in an actual place and time being faced with such a decision. The particularities of time and place are vital to making it a story rather than a thinly veiled essay.

There are a thousand ways to bring a character to the point where they must decide what suffering they are willing the bear for love. Andersen creates a mermaid and an undersea kingdom to dramatize that decision, and all that must seem real and concrete within the frame of the story or we will not be moved to tears by the mermaid's sacrifice, or by her disappointment, or by her eventual fate. We cannot feel it if we do not feel all of it.

But that is all that the setting does for the story. If you are doing research or worldbuilding beyond what is needed to create the concrete circumstances in which the protagonist will be brought to the point of decision, you are doing something that is not only unnecessary, but antithetical to the story. The point of decision is the magnetic pole of a story and everything else points to it.

The question is, why are you continuing past that point? One reason might be that either you do not know what the central decision that will defines your story will be, or that you are afraid to face it. Being afraid to face that decision is legitimate. To write it convincingly, you have to imagine your way through it, which essentially means you have to face it yourself. How much emotional detachment you can maintain and still write the story in an honest and convincing way, I am not certain. I suspect it may vary from one person to another.

But if you want to put a limit to your research, you need to face up honestly to what is holding you back from telling your story.

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I would suggest that first of all you divide your questions above in two groups: the ones about society and the ones about...well, the rest.

You can start with either group of questions. Say you start with society: try to answer those questions before you write. Ideally, give them short, summarised answers and, if necessary, add one or two readings for deepening your knowledge on the subject.

If possible, talk to someone (one or two friends with open minds, no more) and let them ask questions that might help you find loopholes and inconsistencies in this society. Make sure you feel satisfied with the general picture of the society. If necessary, ask questions on the World Building SE; you'll get lots of nice feedback. Do not take more than a month on this set of questions.

Try to answer the other set with your current knowledge. Again, make the answers short and add one or two reading if necessary. After that, go back and mark the answers which you aren't sure about. Then go back and mark the questions that are essential to the plot.

Say that you have a question about new ways of transport. Would it affect the plot if that new transport had to be nixed? No. This means that researching this particular point is not essential and you can start writing before you research it. You can easily replace a car with a bike, it just makes the trip a bit longer.

Now say the question is how memes work. This can potentially affect the plot. Imagine you write a whole chapter about how the farmer is having his work messed up and then you realise the science you used was faulty. It isn't an easy fix. You can't just replace A with B. So that question needs researching before you start writing.

Research just enough to create the rules of how the "physics" of your world work. If it makes you feel comfortable, mark the ones you know are scientifically accurate and the ones that you made up (and maybe the ones that are half way). Then tell yourself, as @FlyingPiMonster says, the important thing is that the whole is consistent. So look at those rules and make sure they are consistent.

Keep in mind that you can write and research at the same time. So, research enough to create a solid scientific (not necessarily accurate, and seldom to a fault) frame before you write; then start writing and do a little research on the side as necessary.

While doing research is very important that you keep the story in mind. A fascinating topic can catch your attention and make you lose yourself investigating it. But does the story really need you to research it that deeply? Really? Keep a sketch (in diagram, timeline, or as it works for you) by your side as you research. Tick the points you feel confident you've got all the answers and rules straight. Do not investigate those points further.

Once you've researched enough to answer a question confidently, stop investigating. You can always say "well this is fascinating and I want to read more about it" and it's fine. You can start writing and at the same time keep on reading for your personal satisfaction and completely apart from the story.

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Here are a few principles I think can help you in your present difficulty:

  • Research is great as long as it isn't blocking you from writing.
  • Assume your first draft and your final draft are going to be nothing alike.
  • Unresearched ideas are great stopgaps for researched ideas.
  • "Easy" answers to your questions are great stopgaps for "good" answers to your questions.

As others have said, the key challenge is to get writing. Some degree of research can be fantastic, ground you, give you ideas to spin off of. Ninety books of research, before you even start, is not what you need to accomplish those goals.

Your goal here should be to get yourself, as quickly as you possibly can, to the point where you're writing something. It might be a character scene that has nothing to do with the science or the worldbuilding. Or it might be all about the setting and your concepts, but probably only one or two or three of these questions, and then you only need to answer those right away.

You might get something wrong. You might change things later. Your answer to some of those questions, if you answer a couple of them today, tomorrow, off of an idea that sounds cool instead of thorough research, might not be the best possible. That's OK.

Because here's the thing: stories evolve in the writing. What you think you need now, might be very different than what you turn out to need three chapters in. Something that would take a month of research might turn out to not even be mentioned. And, so much of the research you want to do, you'll do better and be more effective, if you're already writing -- if you've got the focus of knowing what you need and what's necessary for your story. So you can write a rough scene today, answering a few questions with answers that are simple, or random, or that just seem cool at the moment. And once you've done that, researching in order to rewrite the scene or fix it up, can be much, much easier.

Researching and writing are two very, very different muscles. You can probably do them both in parallel -- write in the morning, research in the evening; write one day, research the next. I'm not saying "don't research." I'm just saying, balance research with getting writing done -- and try assuming that research will often come in more for the rewriting stage, than for the initial draft.

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The golden rule when writing sci-fi is 'just enough to tell the story'. If you've spent 3 years on this and you're still doing research then, basically, you're doing it wrong. Write the story. I can't emphasise this enough WRITE. THE. STORY. Then go back and fill-in the gaps where it makes sense or is necessary, always remembering that if it doesn't 1) move the story forward or 2) reveal something about a character, then it can probably be cut.

You're not writing a scientific paper, you're writing a story. Real science and good research can help sell the plot, but it's not going to rescue a poor story. And remember, 99.9% of your audience won't have a clue and won't care whether the science is right anyway, they're not scientists.

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    And if you have good suspension of disbelief, especially if your mechanics are internally consistent, most scientists won't care either. Just think about how many fantasy stories egregiously violate the laws of thermodynamics, and how many scientists still enjoy a good fantasy story. – FlyingPiMonster Mar 10 '17 at 21:57
  • Both of you raise excellent points. I just want to clarify that I worked on the story for one week three years ago, but let it sit until now. I have only worked on researching it for one month now. I do want to get on with writing. – user9885 Mar 11 '17 at 3:50
  • Thank all of you for the comments. Very much appreciated. However, would the moderators consider migrating this discussion to the World Building forum? I would like to see what responses I get there too! – user9885 Mar 11 '17 at 18:08
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Answer: YES. I know, It happened to me!

The genre wasn't science fiction, but it was a kind of fiction that had one fantasy premise in what would otherwise be an every-day, credible story.

I agonized for a long time about the limits between what is merely to be accepted, and what is to be explained.

In the end (and I highly recommend this to all readers) I settled on just accepting the basic premise, and ignoring the science. Made for better reading.

Remember: The original Starship Enterprise had a blinking red light on top. But why?

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A simple answer to your question: Yes. Research can be a distraction , even an excuse, for not writing. Of course, you need to do research, but it isn't actually writing. I would suggest get writing and then do the research that you find you need to do to fill holes. The answers to the questions will either become obvious as you write or will need work at the time. However, if you never start writing because you think more research needs to be done, you will never actually write. Notes and questions aren't a story.

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I found myself with research rabbit holes when I tried to write about the Middle Ages. I've studied it my entire adult life. I eventually realized that I just like researching that time and let my stories go. Now I am trying to write science fiction and I find myself falling into the same trap. I give myself "writing time" where I'm not allowed to research. I just write. If I come across a question I make a note of it and keep going. As much as I love science my stores are about people, what they say, what they think.

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Research can always reach a point where it becomes excessive, no matter what field you're in (even if your field is research, you do want to occasionally turn your attention to publication!). But the real question here is whether the amount of research you are doing is excessive.

The answer depends on what kind of writer you are, and what kind of book you want to write. A lot of the most influential fantasy and science fiction has been created by obsessive world-builders building on a foundation of years of research and imagination --"Lord of the Rings" and "Star Wars" are two good examples. If you're passionate about the world you're creating, putting the time in may not be such a bad idea. Given that you started this process in order to relax, and you seem to be enjoying the research process and gaining from it, I wouldn't stress about rushing on to the writing phase until you actually feel ready.

However, at some point, you need a compelling story, and you need to actually write it --if writing science fiction is what you actually want to do. You might find at the end of the process that you really want to write non-fiction, or to teach, or to use your invented world as a setting for a video game. In my experience, if you really have a story in you, you'll reach a point where you can't help but let it out. If that never happens, your talents may simply be leading you in a different direction.

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