When I set out to write backstory in order to better write the draft of my current work in progress, I hadn't expected to write over 20,000 words of backstory. I thought 10,000, maybe. Just enough to sketch out a couple of defining events that brought my characters into the situation that starts my story.
One thing I have learned very well over the past five years of writing is that I suck at estimating how many words any one scene idea is going to take. I always think it'll take less than it does. Always.
But that's OK. In this case, it was perfect, particuarly because I was able to write over 8,000 of those 20,000 words in one week, and the rest over three weeks. I don't mind spending a month on writing backstory. Or, at least, I don't mind it when writing the backstory reveals a gaping plothole that necessitated a change in my antagonist's plans. A significant change. I can just see how writing the draft would've been like pulling teeth with the original concept. I would keep writing and writing, trying to find through each new scene and chapter what was wrong and how I could fix it. Introducing new plot angles, maybe even new characters, throwing all manner of tangentially related ideas into the draft in the hopes that something would stick.
I can just see it because that's pretty much how I've written every idea before.
The backstory, though, revealed my plothole before I even had a chance to write my way around it, simply because it forced me to ask a particular question: What exactly did Toby do to escape his previous life and get himself stuck in his current one? Without the answer to that question, it was impossible to write one particular piece of backstory. Three days of mind-probing later, and I realized that the science I had set up for the story--terraforming--wasn't going to work. It just wasn't logically possible (no, not the concept of terraforming, just its place in my story).
This brought me around to the concept of theme. For a while now, I've been asking myself what the theme of this book is supposed to be. What point am I trying to make? I could never shake anything clear out of my head. I could feel something there, a whole mess of mental connections and thoughts and ideas, but I couldn't articulate it. When I asked that question after 20,000 words of backstory and a clear outline of the requirements of my story's science, I got a question in response: What trends have I noticed in my pre-writing?
That simple question gave me both the beginnings of a theme and a science concept that works for the story.
I've still got that last backstory scene to write, but I need to do a few bits of research first, so I'm not trying to talk cybernetics out of my ass (or, at least, not entirely out of my ass). I'm also ready to start writing draft as well, at least the first two chapters that don't yet involve the science because my two protagonist POV characters have no clue that the current problems they are twisting themselves around are because of a science project that will mess with their lives so much more.
I think this experience has finally kicked away the fear of writing a full novel's worth of words that have to be tossed out as I did with Shadow of Zehth. I know the hallmarks of that problem. I recognized them pretty quickly in just writing backstory. I figured out the right questions to ask, and I figured out how to organize the information I did know so I could tailor my search for answers.
Also, I figured out that, yes, it's possible to look at the draft you're creating and realize that it needs work before it's a finished product and to fix it as you go. But, I've also realized just how productive I can be when I stop thinking of the draft as a stepping stone to a finished product and just get on with telling the story. I'm less concerned with the work of revision now. Something finally clicked in my brain to tell me that revision is a separate step, and I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. That's going to be some monstrous process examiantion then, I'm sure. In the meantime, I've got a story to finish.