Monday, September 27, 2010

How the Brain Enters Orbit

My friend Susan had an interesting post about the trick of choosing what to write next. I've always found this interesting, and often think of it in terms of momentum; but, since Susan loves sci-fi, today I'm gonna talk about it in terms of gravity.

How do we choose what to write next?

Sometimes things choose us, or it is, at least, a shared responsibility. I'm one of those writers who always has a lot of story ideas, a lot of books (or short stories) I want to write. How to choose (or be chosen)?

The different stories, to me, are like planets. Each is its own world; some are full of life, teeming with living things, with interlocked ecosystems, while others are dead and inert - still others are just starting to bloom, deep chemical processes ripening beneath the surface and spawning a series of evolutional changes. And each of these planets has a gravity, a pull, a specific density working on the vast space around it.

My brain (my soul, my muse, my whatever) is like a comet whizzing by this clustered system of planetary bodies. Each one attracts me, swings me close, drawing me in. And yet I am hurtling fast indeed. Perhaps I fly close to a small one (short story) and spin once around it and then away. So little time is needed.

A novel, on the other hand, is something else entirely. It is not quick, or easy. You cannot whiz by a vast planet and take it all in, translate it for the world you left behind and to which you wish to return. To map such a planet you must enter orbit. You must circle again and again, each time sharpening your view, learning more, recording deeper impressions.

A novel idea requires a deep gravity if it is to reach fruition, an incredible pull. If it's not strong enough, this pull, my little comet will slip away into space befoe the story is ever completed.

And the interesting thing about these planets is that their gravity changes. So strange! One novel I'm revising (in theory) had an idea with a steep gravity at first, one that pulled me in, started my surveying passes from orbit, mapping out ideas and future trajectories. And yet there were problems, and the planet shrank, became porous and soft and thin, its gravity weakening until I was slung away, dragged off by the gravity of a monster red planet that seemed to suck up space all around it, drinking in vast seas of matter and growing and growing and growing.

I mapped that world (and am still mapping it), and yet on a service run back to the ol' home world (everyone needs a vacation now and again) I passed by that first planet once more. And in an instant the planet became dense and strong, its weight fastening me into orbit. I had inadvertently solved the problems that once hampered me, and now the planet had the requisite weight to keep hold of me for the duration.

The terrestrial surveys are almost complete.

And for you? What has the most weight? What's drawing you in right now to that wonderful orbit overlooking the genesis of a strange new world?


Matthew Rush said...

What a beautiful metaphor Bryan. So apt because like a mathematical theorem it matches perfectly that which it describes.

I've only ever written one novel, and I'm nowhere near done, so who knows, but I've also only ever had one idea worthy of a novel length story, so it makes sense to me how you describe the idea of large planets and deep concepts that just don't have quite enough gravity to make it.

I've had plenty of short story and flash fiction ideas though. I've always had the philosophy that stories, or any creative pursuit, don't come FROM people, but rather THROUGH them.

In that way a great tale is something deeper than the universe itself.

Nate Wilson said...

That's an excellent analogy, Bryan, and very fitting. I'm glad to hear you're so close to completing the terrestrial surveys.

As for me, although I've made a couple short side-trips to its moons, I've been orbiting one planet for a while now. The mapping is almost done, but I know earthquakes and other factors have changed the landscape since my initial pass, so I'll have to go back and re-collect all the data.

The problem comes when my work here is complete. At that point I'll have three planets of equal size bidding for my services. I sure hope one of them somehow increases its gravity in the interim; otherwise, I have no idea where I'll end up.

Claudie A. said...

I like that metaphor, Bryan! Sadly, I am so easy to pull in, I tend to alternate between 3-4 planets during a single year. Increasing my inertia to remain orbiting around the same planet is one of my greatest challenge.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Science metaphors! You sure know the way to a girl's heart. :)

I love the idea of circling, being drawn deeper into the gravity well with each pass. For my last book, I had to allow myself to be completely drawn in to finish it, to fully realize the world I had been creating.

Once I broke free of that, there was a twin planet nearby, ready to snag me in it's orbit. I've just finished the first pass, and am rocketing toward the second. It holds me in it's grip, falling toward the surface and just missing every time.

And yet I'm still pondering that next planet, wondering which will capture me with its pull. One story has gained some heft, simply by being loved by a boy with a birthday coming up (Sir Lenny). I won't know for sure until I get there, but I'll be carrying your metaphor with me on the trip. :)

Scott said...

My space ship has been slung around the galaxy so much I am losing track, but recently I revisited an isolated moon and found it had grown into a small planet ripe for terraforming. Seventy-something thousand words and counting (which is great for YA), on a three-year-old project I never considered seriously until now.

I think one of the most important elements of these planet-ideas is accessibility. An idea may seem vast and mysterious and wonderful, but if you just can't quite get there with your current spacecraft, it will have to wait (maybe forever) while the accessible and friendly little moonbase near at hand gets the action.

R.S. Bohn said...

I'm so in love with the universe-at-large that I found your metaphor beautiful, even if it didn't quite speak to me. My own experience seems somehow smaller and more compact and more... violent. You're a space voyager, I'm just a storm on Jupiter, I suppose.

The title of this post, however, has had my head spinning. I don't even care for YA, and I can imagine it as the title for a book in that genre. "How the Brain Enters Orbit" sounds like the teenage experience. ;)

Donna Hole said...

I have the one trilogy I return to for vacations, and a new novel idea and short story idea both, which pulled me in fast and hard, then stuck me on mid entry. No thrusters. I'd just about say they are both pushing me away, not pulling me in.

Stasis is no fun.

I like your analogy, and I so happy your nearing your completion. Its wonderful when the pull is still strong and inspirational.

Good luck.


Bryan Russell (Ink) said...


I'm guessing your novel idea had pretty steep gravity indeed! To get you through that many pages. Always a good sign.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...


I usually find that one idea will grab me in the end. I'll sort of play around inside a few ideas for a bit, and then something (whether character, image or voice) will grab hold of me. It will come alive in a way that just won't leave me; it will demand to be written.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...


I don't know how people write a whole bunch of stories at once. I need that momentum of writing that one story day in and day out, otherwise the vividness fades and it's hard to find my way back into the story.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...


Hope you didn't mind me riffing on your post!

And in my experience some big gas giant always shows up. :)

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Scott, I understand completely. The one novel I mentioned was like that, and I'd almost forgotten it. I was thinking about what I wanted to write next, and my wife said "What about X idea?" and the story came back to me suddenly vivid, and I knew in an instant that I knew how to fix the old problems that pushed me away. I'd almost forgotten it, and yet within days it was burning merrily away within me.

And I also have one story sort of stored away, waiting for some later version of me down the road when I can really do it justice. Hopefully I shall.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...


Feel free to use the title! What's a little borrowing between friends? :)

And storms are always entertaining.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...


I shall send you a booster rocket for re-entry into orbit. :)

M.A.Leslie said...

Love the metaphor. I know the feeling that you are describing. The amazing thing is that when I started my journey there was only one ship and one planet. Once that was finished the galaxy opened up to me and I have been flying from one planet to the other. The hard part for me is getting someone other than me to discover planets in my galaxy.

Mira said...

Really like this piece, Bryan. :)

Right now, I'm dealing with the gravity of school, yanking me in and flinging me around per whatever capricous and bureacratic whim happens to pass through its dear, sweet little heart.

Ahhhh. Being educated.

I'll be glad when I can pay attention to my own gravitational pulls. Someday!

Anonymous said...

Really interesting topic.

Like you, I have many projects in the sea of possibilities that want for my attentions.

Right now, I am considering either finishing a BIG project or starting one in a new vein.

The new ones always have their shiny appeal.

The thing is, the selling of a project is so huge and such an obstacle that I am easily in need of smaller different projects to take me away from all that.

There comes a time, in a BIG project, when it can squash you. Sometimes, that means you've burned out (for a while) or you're done or you need to break for the beach.

Will I continue the big dark epic or turn the light onto the literary fiction that angsts at me?

Sometimes, I let the characters or the plot hash it out. If they are loud enough and develop enough, they will have me or call me back.

That's what I'm doing right now: waiting to begin November 1st (NANOWRIMO - a month I devote to a LOT of writing and focusing) and listening to which one is loudest BEFORE I chose... That's a whole lot of screaming inside my head, so I guess it's the squeaky wheel theory once again. (sigh...)

Victoria Dixon said...

Love the analogy, Bryan. My first novel was a Jupiter-sized gas giant I still love to orbit, but the on board computer system tells me I need to break free of gravity soon. LOL There are two other novel-lenth ideas on the event horizon, but neither one has exhibited much gravitational pull yet. I keep sending out probes and all I receive is loads of galactic radiation and garbled plot details. Maybe the on board computer system needs to reboot and clear out the viruses. ;D