Standard Disclaimer: This post contains no mind-numbing, seizure-inducing animated GIFs. It does, however, include profanity worthy of Stephen King.

Alternate titles:

Why Academics Make Great Novelists

If You Can Write 400 Pages About Consonant Weakening Processes in Florentine Italian, You Can Write Anything

What to Do when your Academic Reputation Goes South because You Took that Career-Smashing, (but Lucrative) Job in Another Country When You Should Have Stayed on Your Butt in Jolly Old England and Become the Queen of Phonetics

I particularly like that last one. It’s just too damned long.

Fellow academic-and-writer Fred Senese (who I “met” when his ultra-violent flash piece got picked over my wishy-washy flash piece in The Molotov Cocktail’s July Flash Fury Contest – note to self: be more furious) and I had a bit o’ Twitter banter the other day on the topic of how our doctoral studies helped us out on the road to becoming writers of fiction.

I am not making this up. We really did:

So I thought I’d write a bit about exactly how that could be true–how writing the Great Academic Monster can prepare you to write fiction (and maybe even make you good at it). Ready? Here goes. I’m tailoring this specifically to my preferred format–the novel.

1. 400 pages? No problem!

Let’s face it–400 pages sounds like climbing Everest starting from the bottom of the Mariana Trench, but if you got that sheepskin on your wall, you did it. And you did it fucking fast. A year, maybe two. Why? Because you had to. That bountiful stipend of $18K a year doesn’t last forever. Or maybe you got the post-doc offer starting in September and it’s contingent on your having finished the diss. Or you saw that fifty-year-old dude at a party last night who puts “ABD” (all but dissertation) on his resume, even though he’s been ABD for twenty-five years and ain’t never, ever, gonna swap out the AB for the PH. (Trust me, ABD is a glorious little acronym–on the first day it applies to you. Its glory diminishes geometrically with each passing hour.)

If you can write 400-pages about X without losing your mind, you can write 400 pages about Y. Period.

2. Non-fiction is Creative, Too

Yep. What I just said. You didn’t get the Ph.D. by rehashing some old baloney someone else wrote. It had to be new. It had to be never done before. It had to be your very own genetically-unique baby.

This doesn’t (necessarily) mean you’ll be conjuring up the next Quidditch or drawing human-vampire-werewolf love triangles, but it does mean you can at least write something fresh.

3. Research, Schmesearch

In other words, if you can dig up some fossil in a dusty library on the other side of the world, translate it, read it, figure out the take-home message and what the authors left out, you can find a way to do some of these:

  • make that sword play in your high fantasy novel realistic
  • write knowledgeably about firearms and police procedure
  • get the spelling right on that foreign language your characters speak
  • learn how teenagers talk
  • assess the relative advantages of strychnine over arsenic

The resources are out there, easier than ever to lay your hands on, and you already know how to navigate them.

4. Why, yes, You Are Self-Taught

When I was a fledgling graduate student, my morphology professor accepted a post teaching semantics at another university. [English translation: a dude who taught the rules of word-building switched over to the scary dark side of predicate logic, lambda calculus, and Generalized Quantifier Theory–totally different stuff.]

I asked him how he was going to deal with the switch, and he said, “Writing a dissertation is all about teaching yourself something. If you can teach yourself morphology, you can teach yourself semantics.”

(For the record, I’m not sure that’s true–semanticists are a breed of their own.)

My point is this: in graduate school and your academic career, you learned the ins and outs of one type of publishing market. You knew the rules of formatting your work, choosing appropriate journals, and submitting. You learned that you should never, ever send a piece out until your colleagues had a look at it. You learned (I hope not the hard way) that you really shouldn’t submit a morphology paper to a phonetics journal.

The other hemisphere of the publishing world is different, but not without its own rules, all of which are easily learnable by someone like you:

  • Pay attention to literary agents’ and editors’ formatting guidelines
  • Send only the material an agent/editor asks for
  • Don’t submit that first draft, ‘cos (trust me) it sucks
  • That high fantasy/sci-fi novel you wrote might not be the best fit for an agent who loves cowboy romance and children’s picture books

(For more on how to query a literary agent, check this post.)

5. He Said, She Said

My friend Fred (see above) touched on this in his Tweet. You’ve got three (or four) pros on your committee–your advisor, a couple of internal readers, and maybe an external one. They all want something different; they all have unique comments.

Your impossible mission is to please every single one of them.

This is not unlike juggling the input you’ll get from your novel’s beta-readers, your agent, your editor (if you’re lucky enough to get one of those), and your own ideas and plans for the characters in your book. You’ve figured out how to do it once, how to push back, and how to get past that dreadful defense.

Guess what? You can do it again.

6. From 400 Pages 3 Pages to 250 Words to 140 Characters

That’s right, I said characters. And I didn’t leave out any commas or zeros.

Once you’ve written that bugger of a book, it’s time to query agents and start pitching (either in the virtual elevator of Twitter or in a real elevator). And that means you’ll need three brand new documents:

  • A 3-page synopsis
  • A 250-word (or thereabouts) query hook/synopsis
  • A 140-character Twitter pitch (actually, less than 140, ‘cos you’ll need to include those pesky hashtags)


While everyone else in the #amwriting #amquerying universe is moaning about having to write a–gasp!–synopsis, you’re playing it cool. Why? Because you’ve already done that with your dissertation. In Ivory Tower Land, it’s called an abstract, but it amounts to the same thing. You wrote one for your diss, you boiled down papers to submit to conferences, and when you presented at said conferences, you squashed everything into that 13-minute window. (Don’t believe me? Try distilling eight months of Principal Components Analysis into 13 PowerPoint slides and managing to get your point across before the moderator shuts your lame ass up with her “STOP NOW” card and your colleagues pretend they don’t know you.)

In short, you own the art of the synopsis.

Now, when they turn you down for that tenure-track position or fire you for political incorrectness or when you realise your eight years of hard work and ramen-noodle diet ain’t quite turning out the way you expected…

Try something new. Write a novel. You’ve already got the toolbox.

One thought on “From Dissertation to Novel

  1. Totally! I never got to the PhD level, but my MA level thesis work taught me some very similar things… I decided NOT to go after the Doctorate for a variety of reasons (at least, not just now) but the skill-set that makes me even consider it puts me in a great place for this novel-writing.
    Also, the fine art of productive procrastination… it’s an art-form that comes so very much in handy.

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