Critical Mass


Critical mass of ideas stored in many notebooks


Critical mass refers to the point where enough pieces are in place for a bomb to explode. Too little mass, and nothing happens. Just enough mass, the chain reaction takes place, then boom. I’ve been noticing something similar with my writing projects, only instead of an explosion, a “critical mass” of work is necessary in order for a story to bloom.

I’ve been working on my SF “first contact with aliens” story. At first, I thought I had enough ideas in place to dive into writing, but once I finished the first few scenes, I couldn’t figure out what happened next. In the past, I’ve jumped into projects by writing whatever came to mind, and that’s been somewhat effective. Attempting to solve story problems by simply writing is a great way to generate the right sort of questions to ask. I’ve had novel drafts fizzle due to not enough pre-planning. I’d get part of the way through the story, then the story stalled due to lack of direction. This time I’m trying to create a compass and map before venturing too far into the unknown.

What’s really valuable is working to answer the questions. I’m trying to build a setting which can be background for more than one story. When I first started writing many years ago, I hit the same stumbling blocks. I was trying to write high fantasy without knowing enough about my world, so I kept stopping to do research which completely derailed my story train of thought. I solved the problem by stepping back from writing for a while and instead focusing on research. I had to understand my setting well enough to determine what sort of people would live there and what stories I could tell about them. Once I reached a critical mass of ideas, I was able to proceed with writing.

Now I’m facing the same retreat into research, only this time I’m looking up topics like orbital mechanics, corporate politics, and medieval alchemy. Whenever I get frustrated by not being able to just write, I have to keep reminding myself that the research is necessary. By learning about the real world, I can extrapolate how things might work in my world. Without some hard facts to stand on, I have trouble letting my imagination soar. But I also need to remind myself that research can be its own trap. Learning can be a way to avoid writing when I’m uncomfortable with my subject matter. When research becomes an excuse not to write, it’s time to put aside the questions and get back to writing.

Research and writing is a cycle. I don’t have to answer every question before I pick up the pen; I just need enough to get started. Next time I get stuck writing, I can return to research and add get enough answers to get moving again. The goal is to write to the end; that is, write all the way to the end of a first draft.

The good news is that I think I’m finally hitting critical mass on my initial research. I’ve got a much better understanding of my world, my characters, and potential stories. Do I still have unanswered questions? Of course, but I’m confident now that I can start crafting scenes and discover the next round of questions.


Curtain Call


New Curtains

New curtains, old view

When I first moved into my house many years ago, the curtains the previous owners left up in the extra bedroom were so pathetically worn, they’d been taped to the curtain rod. I replaced them with some nice, simple curtains that served me well for years until the plastic tabs broke off and the curtains drooped in the center. Droopy drapes were not a good look, so I picked up replacement tabs and pulled down the curtains to fix the rod. While the curtains were down, I decided to wash the accumulated dust of years off them.

Big mistake. The curtains tore themselves apart in the washer. And guess what? Modern style has moved away from pinch-pleat, so I couldn’t find direct replacements. I had to replace the entire curtain rod as well. The new curtains look nice now, but more work than I expected.

The whole experience got me thinking about the nature of curtains. Curtains cover up windows, right? Without curtains and window glass, we’d have gaping holes in our walls. So curtains are for both decoration and privacy. Curtains keep our neighbors from seeing inside, and on the flip-side, they keep us from seeing outside. Sometimes, that’s more important.

My writing desk is positioned so I’m facing the window within touching distance of the curtain. Yet sometimes when I sit at my desk in the morning to eat breakfast and begin writing, I make no move to open the curtain. Might be cloudy outside, might be sunny, might be raining or snowing or hailing, yet I’m not ready to see. A thin piece of cloth like a curtain is by no means a physical barrier. It’s a psychological barrier. By blocking sight, the world reduces to the confines of the walls. Sometimes I crave the coziness of my room. Maybe it’s a holdover from childhood and the sense of safety offered by blankets against the monsters under the bed. Adult fears aren’t as easily dispelled. Sometimes the world is too big, so keeping things small for a time helps me regain my perspective so I can expand and face what’s beyond.

Sometimes I sit at my desk sipping my coffee and listen to the sounds from outside. The rustling of trees, the neighbor kids, traffic noise, tools in the distance, birdsong… I listen and imagine what might be out there considering that the only barrier between my imaginings and knowledge is this thin piece of cloth blocking my sight.

Then I open the curtains.

Going Camping: Update


Camp NaNoWriMo July 2017 Stats

My word count statistics for the July, 2017 Camp NaNoWriMo. Ah, well….

It’s the beginning of August and the end of this year’s second Camp NaNoWriMo. As the picture shows, I didn’t even come close to hitting my word count goal, yet I’m still considering this NaNo attempt a success. I had two goals for this NaNo, and neither of them translated well into word count.

The first goal was to create a backlog of blog posts. While I wasn’t able to create much of a backlog, I greatly expanded my list of ideas for blog posts and maintained my self-imposed goal of posting once a week. That’s definitely a win. Building a habit takes time and persistence, and I want posting to this blog to become a habit. I discovered that each week I managed to write a first draft of a post by Wednesday, so I had plenty of time to revise and post on Saturday. So far, most of my post ideas are about the writing process since that’s what I’m currently wrestling with, but I hope to explore other topics in future.

The second goal was to work on my new idea in my SF universe. I ended up falling into full-blown world building mode when I came up with a way to link my fantasy and SF universes (see post “Connecting the Dots”). When I’m world building, I find it difficult to generate words; instead, what I generated was ideas. Lots and lots of ideas.

When I first started taking writing seriously, NaNoWriMo was invaluable in helping me learn how to start at page 1 and just keep writing. The NaNo deadline and word count goal gave me the incentive to push through dry spells and throw words on the page. I’m still surprised by how many great story directions evolved out of the NaNo need to just keep writing. Some of my best scenes were written during NaNo along with a lot of words that need to be drastically revised and/or cut. It’s a variation of the comment that 50% of every dollar of advertising is wasted; you still need to spend the whole dollar because you can’t tell ahead of time which part won’t work.

But now that I’ve actually completed novel manuscripts, I’m finding it difficult to just let loose during NaNo and let the words flow. I want my stories to have depth and texture. Yes, I know that comes during revision, but as I mature as a writer, I’m feeling the need to have an understanding of my story’s theme before I start writing a rough draft, not after I’ve wandered around in the dark bumping into walls. How can I put my writing experience to good use and cut down on the amount of random words? I spent a lot of time this NaNo thinking about how to work smarter, not harder. I’ve also been studying Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. She’s got lots of valuable advice about ways to make stories resonate with readers, and I’m finding her suggestions are helping me plan out my current work in progress.

So as I enter August (still can’t believe it’s August already), I’ve got enough blog posts in the queue to last for at least the next few months. I’ve got a better understanding of the story universe in which I’m writing, and I’m getting to know my characters much better, too. Today I wrote a new first line for my first contact story which will take the story into a much different direction than I’d originally imagined. It’ll be a little darker, but on the whole, I think the change in direction is needed to make my protagonist more of a participant than an observer. At this point, I think I’ve got enough critical mass to make headway on the story.

So full steam ahead in August, and let’s see what I can accomplish by September.