The Click Of Critical Mass

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Crossposted to the Deadline Dames. Check us out!

I have a theory about corporations–I am certain it isn’t my theory, but I can’t dig up where it started. Anyway, the theory is this: after a certain point, a company stops acting like a group of disparate people who have a vision and turns into an organism with its own set of priorities (top of which is self-preservation) and preferred methods. A lot of corporate behaviour makes sense once one views it thus. (Or at least, is slightly less puzzling.)

I mention this because there is a certain point during the writing of a book (usually around 30K) or a short (usually somewhere right before the crest of the plot arc) where the story, for lack of a better term, jells. It stops acting like a bunch of separate pearls on a string and more like an actual necklace. It acquires its own momentum and its own shape, and at that point, the act of writing is less like hammering together a houseframe and more like excavating an already-built structure.

This does not mean it gets easier, mind you. There are still the long dreadful shoals of God, Please Help Me Stab This Book So It Will Die, Stab It Again, Stab It Again to get through. This is where a lot of ‘new’ or aspiring writers stumble–they think the book is broken, when really what is happening is that it’s behaving like its own thing and requires multiple wounds before it will lay down and die.

…you can tell I have a bitch of a cold today, can’t you? Anyway.

A book can be broken for any number of reasons, but it’s hard to tell if it’s broken or just unfinished. (I talk about broken books a little more here.) A finished broken book can most likely be fixed; a broken unfinished book can be strip-mined for other stuff. Nothing’s ever really wasted, even the unfinished trunk novels that sit in the graveyard and clatter every once in a while. How can you tell the difference? It’s difficult, but finishing a few books (broken or not) will sharpen whatever ability to tell you do have. It will also teach you loads about your own process for getting a whole corpse on the table for dissection, so to speak. (See: Finishing Requires Finishing.)

It will also accustom you to the particular “click” that happens when a book acquires critical mass and begins behaving like an organism instead of a Frankenstein jumble of parts. For me it’s a very physical sensation. I feel it in my chest and fingertips, and suddenly the world of the book, which had a narrow focus like a pencil light’s beam, broadens and I can see every shot in wide-angle. Not only that but the colors take on the peculiar cast of the series’ (if it is a series) “lighting” instead of a sort of tinted sepia. It’s gotten to the point, after several books, where I wait for that click and then shift over, kind of like dropping a car into a different gear, into “excavation” mode instead of “building” mode. It requires a different set of mental muscles, and I think that shift throws a lot of ‘new’ writers for a loop. All of a sudden the work is behaving oddly, and the circle of “am I doing this right, oh Christ, why is it different, what the fuck?” panic bleeds off energy needed for writing. And that’s no good.

After all, the name of the game is to keep on, correct? Keep on, and stab the goddamn manuscript…

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Lizzie Lewis
Lizzie Lewis

Have you ever read “How Institutions Think” by Mary Douglas? Your opening paragraph reminded me of the book.


In “stab it, kill it, god why won’t it die?” mode right now, so this is encouraging. Thanks!