Critical Mass

CriticalMass

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.

Connecting the Dots

Humble Beginnings

More notebooks: the humble beginnings of my fantasy and SF story universes

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been a fan of all flavors of speculative fiction. The first adult book I remember reading for fun was a battered copy of Star Trek 8 by James Blish that contained short story retellings of classic Star Trek episodes, and I still remember how amazed I was that the first story I read was an episode I hadn’t seen yet. My siblings were avid readers, so I had access to lots of classic science fiction and fantasy like Foundation or the Lord of the Rings. Pretending to be Legolas running to rescue the hobbits helped me endure running the mile in gym class (thank you, JRR Tolkien).

What I love about speculative fiction is the whole “what if?” attitude. What if humanity was part of an interstellar civilization? What if elves and dragons existed? What if teleportation worked? Every piece of fiction has a question embedded within, yet the questions embedded within speculative fiction address twists on what we know is real. Sometimes we can learn more about how humanity works by throwing characters into “unreal” situations and seeing how they dance.

While I love both science fiction and fantasy, I tend not to like stories that mix the two. My usual refrain is “Get your magic out of my science,” or on the flip side, “Get your science out of my magic.” I think my objections stem from the conflict between proof and faith. Magic tends to break scientific laws, therefore the use of magic in an SF story feels like a cheat, as if magic comes in to save the day because the science wasn’t enough. Likewise, fantasy stories tend to simply assume that magic works, so if science comes in to explain why magic works, the story loses the sense of wonder and faith.

I write both fantasy and SF stories, and up until now, I’ve been keeping the two universes separate.

Or so I thought.

When I began working on my SF universe, I used my fantasy universe as a springboard for character development. I’ve now come to realize I’ve been writing the SF stories using the same foundation and themes I’ve explored in my fantasy universe. Furthermore, I believe I can place all my stories within the same basic framework and make it work. My fantasy world can exist within the same galaxy as the Earth from my SF stories. At this point, I do not intend my fantasy and SF characters to ever meet, but it’s a valid possibility. By melding the two universes together, I can channel all the effort I’ve already put into world-building the fantasy universe and flesh out the SF universe.

No matter the framework of the story, whether it be spaceships and aliens or dragons and knights, a story is ultimately about people. A good story throws interesting people into interesting situations and shows how they attempt to survive. Both fantasy and SF showcase extraordinarily interesting places and situations.

I believe the mix of SF and fantasy that I’m heading toward is called “science fantasy.” My SF and fantasy characters are all manipulating the same powers, only the SF characters have quantified those powers, while the fantasy characters call it magic and go by instinct. I intend to make sure all the science is reasonable, and that I don’t unintentionally break any known laws of physics. Likewise, I intend to keep my magical system consistent so that my characters can’t simply wave their hands and use magic to solve all their problems. Story comes from characters working to exceed their limitations. I am a firm believer in happy endings, but the characters have to work to earn them.

So I’m now in major world-building mode. I look forward to what comes next.

Kicking the Can

KickTheCan

Play balls, the only equipment needed to play Kick the Can.

One of my favorite childhood games was Kick the Can. Almost every evening during summer, a bunch of us neighborhood kids gathered in my yard to play, although we used a ball rather than a can. The game began with someone kicking the ball away. Whoever was designated “it” fetched the ball and counted to 100 while everyone else hid, then “it” would go hunting. When “it” spotted someone, “it” could capture that player by jumping over the ball while yelling, “Over the can on <insert player name here>.” While “it” tried capturing everyone, free players could rescue the captured players by kicking the ball away before “it” captured them, in which case “it” needed to start over. A round ended when “it” captured everyone, then the first player captured became “it” for the next round.

I loved rescuing captured players. I wore a dark blue windbreaker that helped keep me hidden in the growing twilight, and I was good at sneaking up on the ball.

I absolutely hated being “it.”

The trouble with being “it” is facing the dilemma of staying close enough to protect the ball from rescuers and ranging far enough afield to catch the remaining free players. I wasn’t very fast, so I’d always end up in a futile race back to the ball trying to catch a potential rescuer. I can’t even count the number of times I lost the race to see victory kicked away and everyone I’d already captured running off to hide once more.

I still kept playing.

Nowadays, I’m noticing the same sort of dilemma while working on my writing projects. I’ve successfully written short stories and novel manuscripts, so when it comes time to choose the next project, it’s easy to choose something similar to what I’ve written before. Same characters, same setting, new situations, but mostly familiar.

Thing is, true growth comes from experimentation, yet whenever I try to stretch my writing self by trying something new, I feel the same sort of anxiety I did during Kick the Can whenever I had to leave safety behind to try to catch those elusive hidden players. What if it doesn’t work? What if I write myself into a corner and have to throw all the work away?

No writing is guaranteed to work.

All writing goes through awkward stages. Whenever I work on something experimental, I remind myself that what I now consider familiar was once new and strange. When I first started working on my fictional universe, I wrote a great many false starts. Scenes that never made the cut to stay in the finished draft. Characters who no longer had a place in the story. Ideas that seemed exciting at first but fizzled into boredom. But that’s all part of the process. Eventually, through time, effort, and perseverance, I’ve come up with a cohesive story universe that’s working for me.

I did it before. I can do it again. And again, and again…

The only “safety” is to hide all my pens and notebooks, shut down the computer, and never try writing again. This is not acceptable. Can’t fail if you take no risks. Can’t win, either.

I will still keep writing.

Open Time

 

An experiment in watercolor

Playing with water color and pen & ink

Painting has a concept called “open time” where the open time of a paint is the time between when you apply the paint to a surface and when the paint dries. During the open time, you can make changes to the brush stroke without applying more paint or scratching off what’s already there. Once the open time ends and the paint dries, that’s it. That brush stroke is set.

Depending on the type of paint, open time ranges from almost instantaneous to very long. Watercolors and acrylics dry quickly so their open time is from seconds to minutes, while oil paints dry so slowly that their open time can be from hours to even days. Making changes toward the end of the open time can be difficult since moving partially dry paint might lead to brush strokes that don’t blend well with the rest of the piece.

Writing also has its own concept of open time. During a rough draft, everything is open while the writer churns ideas and prose together until something gets thrown on the page. But writing is rewriting. During every subsequent draft, the writer refines the ideas and prose until the main concepts shine through until finally the writer declares this piece finished and moves on to the next.

In my experience, the longer the revision process takes, the harder it is to make necessary changes, especially with longer pieces such as novel-length manuscripts. Every time I reread a scene, it’s almost as if I’m using up the scene’s open time. That particular sequence of words and ideas builds a path in my mind like a river deepening its channel until I have difficulty imagining the scene in any other form. That can be bad, especially if the scene does not fit with the rest of the work and must be radically changed.

So how to preserve the open time of a piece of writing?

For early works in progress, I try to limit the number of times I reread what I’ve already written. During the initial draft, I’ll look back to reorient myself, but I focus on moving forward and reaching an ending. I try not to worry too much about continuity at this point since I know I’ll catch errors in the revision. Anything I notice while writing, I mark down as notes and move on. The goal is to get to the ending, any ending, so I can see the work as a whole.

For later drafts that seem set in stone, it’s time for the jackhammer. Figure out a different angle and rewrite. Perhaps change the point of view character and rewrite the scene. One way or another, I retype the scene. I’ll automatically make changes if the words are too tedious to type in again. This is the time for exploration. New angles leads to a reset of the scene’s open time.

And sometimes, for really old writing, the writing is old enough that I no longer have any emotional investment in the words. My loyalty is to the ideas hidden beneath the clunky words, not the words themselves, so the open time is both reset and focused. I know what I want to say, so now it’s a matter of figuring out how to say it most effectively.

This blog post is a prime example of the various types of open time. When I came up with the initial idea a while back, I threw words at the page to capture my thoughts, but couldn’t come up with a satisfactory conclusion. A lot of times, my initial draft is simply me wandering about on the page trying to figure out what I want to say. So I let the draft rest while I worked on other things. Now that I’ve returned, I’ve been able to carve away the half-formed thoughts and awkward wording to reveal a message worth saying.

Open time translates to enthusiasm. Even if the enthusiasm fades, the work-in-progress is still there waiting for attention. WIPs are patient. They’ll wait until you’re ready to return and pick up your tools again.

 

Marvin the Coffee Table

MarvinSketch

An extremely early sketch of my character Marvin.

When I started writing my first fantasy novel, one of my goals was to create a non-boring hero. Villains are pretty easy to make interesting – they break the rules and they go after whatever they want, usually in exotic and creative ways. But how to make a hero character, a character that by definition follows rules, at least as interesting as the villains?

My initial attempts were not successful. Marvin, my eighteen-year-old would-be swordsman/failed mage apprentice, had about as much personality as a coffee table. I was seriously tempted to write him out of the story. But, after much work and many more failed attempts, I finally realized the mistakes I’d been making.

My first epiphany was that this was Marvin’s story after all. In the initial attempts, Marvin had been a bystander with no vested interest in the outcome. The inciting incident was the theft of an artifact from a random stranger. Marvin wanted to see justice done (he’s a hero, after all), but success or failure didn’t truly affect him. My solution was to make him the artifact’s guardian, so when the thief stole the artifact from him, he couldn’t help but become involved. He had to act. Active characters are much more interesting than passive characters.

All was going well until I realized I still had not rescued Marvin’s personality from the realms of fine furniture. Something else was wrong. My second epiphany was that I was diluting his reactions. I’d included the character of his cousin, an older woman much respected by Marvin, so whenever the two of them were in the same scene, he would defer to her. Both of them have much the same viewpoint on life, therefore whenever a reaction was called for, she stole Marvin’s lines. My solution was to write her out of the story. She didn’t truly belong in this story anyway, and is a much better fit for one of the later stories. Having two characters serve the same story function dilutes the reactions of both characters. By taking her out of the story, Marvin was forced to speak for himself.

With those changes, Marvin’s character finally lost its wooden quality and came to life. The theft of something he’d sworn to protect leads him into an adventure where he must question his place in the world and his own definitions of right and wrong. Given the response from my writing group, he’s now a character worth reading about.

So if you’ve got characters in your story with wooden personalities who need to be rescued from their own version of coffeetableness, consider whether your characters are passive or active, and whether too many characters are serving the same story function.