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A few comments about why novels don’t get finished

February 16, 2013

I remember a couple of the rules for writers Robert A. Heinlein had, and two of them were:

You must finish what you write, and

You must keep it out there until it is sold.

(I hope I recall those correctly. I confess I’m too lazy to go look ’em up right now. If it wasn’t RAH, it was either Jerry Pournelle or Larry Niven. The second one sounds like Niven.)

Still, my point: none of that rearranging of electrons or scribbling on paper means anything unless you finish it. Okay, sure, you might learn some things from abandoning a project or two – if the idea wasn’t good enough, dump it and find another.

But I’ve been writing the marching band arranging book for a year now, and it’s out for first reading by some band director friends of mine, so I can start looking at something else. I have commitments to write two marching band shows for clients but I can’t write music all day every day. I have to assemble some ideas in the back of my head and then get them committed to notation.

The first novel I wrote takes place in S.M. Stirling’s Drakaverse. It is titled The Righteous Stuff, and as I was writing it bits and pieces appeared on this blog, a few years ago. I finished it three years ago,  I think, submitted it to Baen (who published Stirling’s Draka novels back in the 1990s) and waited for it to be rejected.

Which it was. I wasn’t surprised. I started writing it around 2000 or so, when the Draka novels were still fairly well known. Stirling hadn’t written the Nantucket series yet, or Dies The Fire and the rest of that series, and the concepts in the Draka novels were so unsettling that it was still bouncing around the internet a bit. I got about 50K words done and then didn’t touch it for years. Once I pulled it out I had it finished in about a year, writing off and on. I have two more books in the back of my head in that series.

Besides, I knew that the Draka novels always made Jim Baen uncomfortable, because SPOILER ALERT! the bad guys, essentially, won in the end. I didn’t submit it until after Jim Baen had passed, but even if the story was good enough, and I don’t know if it was, it would have required Stirling’s approval. His books are now published by Tor, I think, so maybe that would have been an issue as well.

Once it was officially rejected, I submitted it to the main Stirling fanfiction site. It’s run by a friend of Stirling’s, one of his first readers, and she handed it off to two other folks who were more familiar with the Draka. They provided me with a couple of pages of great notes on how I could make the book more consistent with the Drakaverse.

And…I’ve not touched it since. I should, since the changes aren’t that big, and it would only take me a month or so to get it finished so at least the book would see the electronic light of day. I toyed with the idea of “Fifty Shades of Gray”-ing it; no, not sexing it up, you dirty-minded readers – but taking out the Draka references and converting it into a stand-alone alternate history novel.

But the Draka are just such damned fine villains! I couldn’t figure out how to take them out and still make the book work. All the alternate universe US people and events are influenced by the presence of the Draka, past and present.

So maybe I will make the changes and submit it to the fanfic site. At least that way people could read the thing. I learned a lot writing it, but I don’t know that it would be worth my while right now to write the sequels. And the bad guys do win in the end, dammit.

My second novel, not related in any way to the Draka book, is about half done and I got stalled. Not for lack of a plot line, or because I was unhappy with the characters, or any of the usual reasons writers stall out on a book. It’s because the physics keeps changing.

See, there’s a major plot point that involves the creation of, and control of, a micro-sized black hole. I was going to have it created in the Large Hadron Collider, and confined and carried off. Now I’m not even sure the LHC can make micro black holes, or if it can, if they exist long enough to capture them. This long-term search for the Higgs boson has caused several reevaluations of quantum physics, apparently. I’m no particle physicist, that’s for sure, but I’ve tried to read all the relevant polarizations of the concepts of a reality with at least eleven dimensions, how some could be “rolled up” and therefore not perceived, how string theory works, and a lot of associated stuff.

And my major plot idea is dissolving because of the physics. I could do some hand-waving and ignore the last couple of years of research that’s gone on since I started the book. I could do the science-fictiony thing and postulate some new force or discovery that would make my story work. I could ignore logic and go ahead anyway. I’d still like to make it sound at least a little bit plausible.

See, the story is really about a crisis and how a group of people handle a potentially dangerous situation that no one understands. There will be no cable-company employee who quickly writes a virus that will drop the defensive shields on an alien ship, and do it in twenty minutes on an old Macbook. There’s no one super-smart person who is the only one who sees the answer while everyone else acts like fools and gets in the way. There are super-smart people, because those are the ones you need when you are dealing with the real unknown, but in this case they have to work together, use each other’s strengths, and behave like adults should.

In other words, a completely implausibly situation, right?

I’m happy with the character mix, and their backstories. I liked where the plot was going, and how quickly it was getting there. I wasn’t having to pad anything to stretch out the dramatic tension.

But I don’t believe my own physics. Part of it involves “force fields.”

Force fields have been used in skiffy for nearly a hundred years. Call them what you will, but tractor beams, repulsor fields, defensive shields, containment shields, all of these things have one thing in common: so far as I know, we don’t know how to project any of them.

Electromagnetic fields, sure. But to do so, we usually need some kind of conductors, and those are physical structures. A magnetic field requires something to shape and contain it. Nobody can project a directed magnetic field over a long distance, in a confined beam, except Magneto.

If I’m wrong about this, for God’s sake tell me! I admit my physics training is severely lacking, but I just couldn’t bring myself to write space opera, where nobody worries about such things.

I need a confinement field for gravity. Nobody really understand gravity, except maybe Roger Penrose or Misner, Thorne and Wheeler. If Penrose understands it, then the rest of us don’t; he has a completely different view of how the universe is put together. But the little I understand of twistor theory doesn’t help with what I need.

Not to reveal too much, I need to be able to control a “beam” of gravity, from a micro black hole, and have the ability to point it in one direction, so it attracts to a specific point, but not omnidirectionally. I’m faking it by confining it in a sort of makeshift Faraday cage right now, but that won’t work as the story develops.

Maybe I should do the hand-waving, finish the book, and then figure out the physics. But I could miss a completely good plot device or seven if I don’t understand the physics first.

So – you see why novels don’t get finished. It’s not laziness, or lack of inspiration. The universe gets in the way!

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6 comments

  1. Hello,

    I have on my blog a description how to make an artificial gravity field based on the assumption that two discoveries are made. I’m very hopeful of one in the long term and think that other may be possible. See http://rosieoliver.wordpress.com/?s=gravity The principles behind this artificial gravity can be used for your beam with slight yet obvious modifications.

    The constrained tractor beam has been ‘invented’, but uses a different physics principle to what most science fiction writers would expect. It can turn objects towards it to a very limited extent.

    I hope this helps… at this rate me thinks I ought to set up a surgery for consulting science fiction writers… hm…


    • Thanks for your comments, Rosie! I read your own blog post (and quite enjoyed your blog, by the way) and you’re right. The gravity-blocking material is pretty much exactly what I need, if I use the black hole as a point gravity source.

      Trouble is, apparently black holes of a “manageable” size – heh – would pretty much immediately dissolve back into the quantum foam, if I remember my reading. If they didn’t – and if the LHC had created any – we wouldn’t be having this discussion. The black hole would have eaten the Earth by now.

      And, of course, from what I’ve read even the concept of the graviton, or gravity waves for that matter, really are more constructs of language for discussion than anything really observable. Sigh.


      • Hello Jeff… why do you need a black hole? Is it there for other story purposes? If not, then tachyons ought to replace your black hole.
        Good luck!


      • Well…it’s there because somebody trapped it. It was created in the LHC, even though last I read they said none were created in the Higgs search, of if they were, they dissolved right away. If you could trap a micro black hole, and feed it a little, you could maybe have a controllable gravity point source, right? As long as you could control how the gravity “dispersed.” I’ll have to look into the tachyon idea, though. Thanks!

        Then again, in brane theory gravity could be a lot stronger on another brane and just “leaks” into ours, I think. Although finding a way to plausibly access the other brane is most likely even more confusing.


  2. Not sure about gravity leaking from one brane to another, but then I don’t know about brane theory. However, there is a little know mathematical theorem that makes things interesting for gravities in n-dimensions. In our universe we have what is called the one over distance squared law (sorry if this sounds basic, but not sure what level of tech you know in which specialism). In n dimensions for n greater than 1, the force of gravity has to proportional to one over the distance to the power n-1 for that universe to exist in a stable configuration…

    Not sure whether you can use this… but it’s interesting nevertheless…


    • Using small words and short sentences with me is always a good idea! 🙂 I’ll have to see about the stuff you referenced. The brane stuff is from Lisa Randall’s books, Warped Passages and Knocking on Heaven’s Door…and I may not have it correct. I’d have to reread it to be sure.

      My training is in music education, not the sciences, engineering, or mathematics…but my father was a civil engineer for many years, and I kind of grew up with that mindset and still have some of those interests. It put me at odds with some of my musician friends, of course!



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