Writing into darkness

There is a fine split in the world of writers, between those who outline and those to write by the seat of their pants. There are about ten thousand degrees of gradation between the extremes, but you’ll find proponents willing to declare holy war to defend the particular facet of planning that they undertake as the “only right way to do it.”

Which is a load of horse shit, but not why we’re here tonight.

Had a long week. Been snowed in since Monday (This is Thursday 9pm local now). Have gotten 24-28 inches of snow since noon Friday. Just got warm enough today to move my truck around, but not enough for me to try the long, sloping driveway that I can use to get out. Will save that for tomorrow.

But the long week has me in a weird place, so I’ll inflict it on you. Got a lovely glass of port sitting next to me, slowly disappearing. Laura Anne Gilman gave it to us as a present. Fantastic stuff. Had a long bath because I spent too much time outside shoveling snow out from under the truck so I could try to move it.

Got to thinking about writing.

I’m towards the tail end of a novel tonight. About 50,000 words done on WinterStar now, and it feels like it will come in around 60-65,000 when I’m done.

I normally write into what Fabulous Publisher Babe(tm) and I call “dimly lit hallways.” I come from a theater background, and before that I was a poet. I know what genre I’m writing before I start, so I work out the important 3-5 characters in enough depth to get started, toss them into a problem and let them tell me the story, with a pretty good idea how long it will be and where it is going. Dimly lit.

Frequently, I work up all these notes well ahead of time, planning about 2-3 novels out so I can finish one and start the next without any measurable gap. Or rotate through series back and forth.

Didn’t happen this time. This novel wasn’t even an idea five weeks ago. And when it was, it was a superhero story, straight up spandex. Tried several of those, but nobody buys them but completists. Not generally worth my time to write them for the return on the time invested.

But this story had an interesting kernel I wanted to pull out and pursue. And the four story points that would have been my lights in that hallway all fell early in Act Two. Seriously.

So I have to trust my craft. I will occasionally start with a blank piece of paper and commit literary graffiti upon it, but usually dimly lit hallways.

Not this one. I wrote the first three chapters just feeling out who the characters needed to be, because I knew what would happen to them in Act Two, but I had to get everyone there. Got everyone past that and it was only when I hit about the 46,000 word mark that I even figured out that there WOULD be a Book Two (and mind you, I write natively in long series format, so that surprised the hell out me that I might only have the one book and done with these characters).

Recovering from shoveling snow tonight, me and my sweetie were snuggling in the couch and I finally figured out how Book One even ended. And mind you, I’m not more than a few days from that end, so I need to be wrapping things up now, bringing the villains to the stable so we can have a rumble. Or something. I can’t call it hard SF, because most hard SF stories tend to be long on technically correct jargon, and short on interesting, Andy Weir notwithstanding.

I write stories about interesting people with human flaws, dropped into strange problems and trying to find their way through. Long on weird science hand-waving, usually, because trying to describe how an FTL drive even works is silly. It works. It gets you there. It has certain rules and issues that cause it to not be perfect, but force you to adapt to things and cause plot trouble when I need it to.

Whatever. Don’t get in the way of my storytelling by demanding that I explain how a technology works that nobody has yet to describe the underlying physics for anyway.

And I’m writing into darkness. Total, freaking darkness. Lay down at night and let the backbrain unhook so it can explore what we’ve done so far today and where we need to go in the morning. That’s about the limit of the planning this novel has allowed me.

I’m at 50,000 words and the damn thing finally told me who the villain was. The other villain. We’ve met one who’s a long arc villain, now that I know this is actually a series (learned that TODAY). Killed another one, but his death in Act Two was what kind of sets up everything else, and his metaphorical ghost will haunt everything. (And I’m not sure if he comes back to life, either. Writer-brain hasn’t told me. Probably not for several books. Maybe. Something.)

Dean Wesley Smith frequently writes into darkness. He trusts his craft to just generate story as he goes. If he’s in one of his universes, like Poker Boy, he already has the world and such.

Yesterday (YESTERDAY!!) I posted a cry for help from my nerdier friend to help me calculate the apparent gravity you feel on a spinning space ship, since these folks are too poor to afford gravity inducer fields (more hand-wavium). Found a website called SpinCalc that lets you plug in numbers. So now I know how big WinterStar needs to be to do the things I’ve had going on for twenty chapters.

When I get to the end, I’ll have to go back and add some real physics, and correct a few places, because the science was wrong enough to annoy someone nerdy, but not going to material impact anything more than changing something like three sentences. And I know which three.

But it is WEIRD, writing a novel so totally into darkness that I’m making up main characters as I go, rather than having that element hammered out ahead of time.

What methodology is your default?

7 thoughts on “Writing into darkness

  1. Big Ben

    First off, I’ve really enjoyed the Jessica Keller series, so however you feed your muse I hope you don’t run out of kibble.
    I’m certainly no physicist but I’ve long been skeptical of the practicality of spinning a ship to simulate gravity. It would work well for a large wheel-and-spoke station that’s, well, stationary.
    However a ship has to accelerate, decelerate and change direction on any number of axes. So the spinning part wouldn’t solve the biggest issue – getting squished when you swerve to avoid the drunken alien who runs an interstellar stop sign.
    I know there are plenty of theoretical and real world solutions to such endeavors … but for some reason I always think of an unbalanced washing machine on spin cycle, banging away as it goes hurtling through space …
    Maybe my muse needs a Valium.

    1. Blaze Post author


      WinterStar normally sits in one place, like a lifeguard for a group of other, smaller ships mining asteroids and comets, so you’re less likely to be moving quickly or needing to abruptly change directions. But yeah, I had the same thoughts when I asked all my crazy math and physics friends for help and they pointed me to the website above.

      In my mind, WinterStar is kinda like a capital T when seen from the side, or maybe a plus sign (+) with the sidebar actually being a big hula hoop attached in four or six places to the outer ring. Trying to avoid the hand-wavium of magical gravity in deep space, even though it is the standard (easier to film that way, but Andy Weir’s The Martian (movie version) had a ship like this in it.) in movies and television.

      Hope that helps. Lemme know if you have more questions or confusions I can maybe address


      1. Big Ben

        Here’s my own ship design that could possibly be built by us dumb apes in the next century … I’m feeling optimistic … and rereading lots of Mackey Chandler.

        Basically picture the Sears Tower (or whatever it’s called now) as a space ship.
        Big engines at the bottom/back to accelerate – flip the ship to decelerate. These (magical) technological marvels could push the ship at one gee for long periods of time.
        Smaller adjustable engines at advantageous points all around the hull to slowly change direction / orientation as necessary.

        The bottom/rear half of the ship is essentially like the bottom of the sky scraper – regular floors that the crew lives and works on while the magical engines push the ship along at one gee while accelerating and decelerating. You can go anywhere in our solar system surprisingly quickly if you can constantly accelerate at one gee.
        The top/front of the ship is a huge interior drum – just like a front loading washing machine or dryer. If it’s time to shut off the big engines to save fuel (or you’ve arrived at Pluto and it’s time to mine some ice to sell to the Eskimos) the crew moves into the drum, the interior of which is layed out “sideways” to the length of the ship.
        The big engines shut off and the drum spins up – the crew is still in “gravity.” The magical A.I. fires the small engines on the exterior of the ship to counteract the torque of the drum spinning up, keeping the vessel perfectly on course / station.

        The “extra” spaces between the round interior drum and the square outer hull could be used for fuel storage, miscellaneous engineering spaces that were not gravity sensitive, garages for your killer moon dune buggies or huge refrigerators for tons and tons of beer and tapioca.
        And guns. Lots of guns. We are Americans, after all, and those darn Plutonian Ice Aliens are no joke.

        1. Blaze Post author

          1) fuel (lots) if you wanna move at 1 gee anywhere, and that’s normally the problem today.

          2) gyros along the way to keep things stable would probably be easier than thrusters. Plus you just need electricity, which you can get off solar sails until you hit mars, and then nuclear outside that.

          3) When are you gonna write it?


  2. J. D. Brink

    Congrats on the snow!
    And on the new novel and its revelations. I also tend to write “into darkness,” or at least “dimly lit hallways” — I generally know the layout but only plan a chapter or three out from where I currently am. I tend to think of it as “fog of war,” like in the older computer games. You can see where you are, and the end, and a few places in between, but the rest of black–you don’t see yet how to get there. That’s how most of my process is. I know the main scenes and developments, but not yet how I’m getting there. 🙂
    And I agree with you that superhero books tend not to sell, though I’ve recently been assured by some folks who are selling that they in fact, do. As I have just finally pubbed book 2 to a book 1 that’s 4 years old, I’m now debating whether to keep pursuing that series/universe or jump to one of several more mainstream SF/F series I’ve been planning for years.
    Happy shoveling.

  3. D.W. Patterson

    My writing method is into total darkness. Even the main characters must assert themselves in the first few chapters to get recognition. I do however have a problem I want them to solve, like maybe to prevent the destruction of the universe. So if I get to the end of the book I guess they solved it.

    I also use the spinning crew wheel when a ship is stationary (and use spincalc to design the crew wheel). However when in flight I first spin down the wheel and then have it compartmentalize (for safety) and have the compartments spin 90 degrees in preparation for departure. As the ship accelerates some semblance of gravity returns. Then when halfway there the crew must prepare for the ship to come round and decelerate to the destination again providing a semblance of gravity. I think this would prevent any strange forces being felt by the crew during flight. Under a constant but small (say 0.2 g) acceleration I can also use a calculator like http://nathangeffen.webfactional.com/spacetravel/spacetravel.php
    to get the flight’s duration.

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