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.