Ah, the writing life and its bountiful ironies and contradictions. Not long after I posted my bit about how I felt I was ready to start in on the draft only to discover I wasn't, I started getting very involved in writing backstory and finding my characters' voices and avoiding getting back into the actual novel draft. This is not to say that I did excessive backstory writing or pointless character navel gazing. Rather, in focusing on the backstory scenes and letting them reveal what they would about the characters, I better understood the plot of the novel itself. And in better understanding the novel's plot, I had a better grasp of just what it would take to write my way from Chapter 1 to The End.
One of the benefits of organic, completely fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writing is that you have a vague destination or goal in mind and this lets you focus rather completely on the journey. It's a great metaphor for life, and you do get lost in the joy of exploring a world or a set of characters or a story without worrying about the destination. It's my comfort writing. It's not how I want to write professionally, though, because it's damn inefficient and frustrating when you'd like to boost productivity. It's possible that I have yet to channel my muse appropriately to allow for the best organic writing experience. Maybe one day after I've finished at least one more novel I'll try it again and see what happens.
But even as I've figured out how to get out of truly organic writing while still avoiding rigorous outlining, I hadn't considered what it might be like to have worked out enough of the plot and character arcs--in the sense of staring down a daunting 100,000 words. It's one thing to broadly outline where you're going and why and who's going to be doing what when they get there. It's quite another to sit down and type in all the details of that journey. Nevermind that I've done this before for Human Dignity. I'm still a little twitchy from writing 82,000 words of Shadow of Zehth and realizing I had to go back to word 1 and start all over.
So I might be writing a bit more backstory than I though was necessary when I first realized I wasn't ready to start the draft. But I'm getting a lot more puzzle pieces for this book in doing so, and I'm getting to know my characters very well. I'm also getting a good sense of the further research I need to do to write some key scenes better and incorporate stronger details into the going. This is the benefit of doing backstory, at least for me. It's like taking a practice test. The pressure's off, so you can play around a little, figure out where the strengths and weaknesses are, if it's possible to use this character in this way or not (found out that one of the plot arcs I had set up for a non-POV major character wasn't going to work because that character, when I wrote backstory from her POV demonstrated a slightly different set of morals than I expected).
But, of course, this could become excessive very quickly and thus allow me to stall when I should really start digging into creating the novel. So I've limited myself to one scene per character that I want to learn more about. I have a cast of six characters, and I know I want to write backstory scenes from five of them. I've already written one and a half of those scenes. My backstory has also yielded a seventh character who will play a major role in a subplot (and a minor role in the plot), and I think I might want to do a scene from her POV. But that scene and the odd man out of the first six I mentioned will be extras as things stand now. I might use them to kick start me out of any potential future stalls.
The one very good thing about dodging the draft is that I've seen how vital backstory free-writing is for me. It's solidified plot and characters. It's highlighted weak spots that will need attention either in research or revision. It's given me surer footing in the world of this novel, but it has its limits.