Cat Vacuuming


At the end of this week’s short story workshop with Cat Rambo, she mentioned a particular term I’d never heard before: “cat vacuuming.” The general gist being all the little distracting things writers can do in order to not write.

For me, the necessary step of worldbuilding can rapidly, rapidly turn into cat vacuuming. I learned that with the novel I was trying to write in 2001, where I got cheerfully about halfway through the novel and then decided I really needed to sort out a few things about the world. OK, great, right? Except, I went down that rabbit hole and never came out. I made maps, histories for all the cultures, side stories about future and past people, songs, a language with poetry, a slang for that language and a dialect, and… Well. That story never got finished.

These days I’ve tried many different tactics to combat this. One, just make it all up as I go along and sort it out after the thing is done. (I did this, for the most part, with The Red Box. I got very very briefly distracted for a month or two with trying to determine what sort of planet they were on and then wondering if I shouldn’t have set it on a space station.) I’m not sure it’s the best tactic, as, for instance, I ended up with several *different* sectors all referred to as the 4-2 because I’d just type any old number and figure I’d “sort it out later.” I should’ve doodled a quick, crappy map.

The latest strategy which I’ve used with both The Motley Star (40% done) and the new novel, whatever it’ll be called, is to use a private install of Doku Wiki to keep track of my on-the-fly worldbuilding, AND, to do a little pre-writing worldbuilding. In both cases I let myself play with the world for a few weeks, tried to at least do a very brief outline of the story, and then started writing.

Inevitably, in both stories, stuff changed. Names of races, names of people, languages. But at least there is always a place to keep track of that, where I can flip back and reference. It’s insanely useful to me. I love that it’s online so I can get to it from where ever I have an internet connection, and I love that I can change it as much as I need, but also use it like my own private encyclopedia.

Thus far at least, I haven’t gotten sucked into the worldbuilding black hole of doom. The methodology of entering things into the wiki is JUST fussy enough that sooner or later I get tired of it. So I don’t keep going, and going, and going. I’ve gotten slightly distracted now and then–for Motley Star, it was trying to pick the perfect planet, and then trying to sort out the reasons for various aliens in my story–and for this new novel, it was coming up with sound sets for four different sounding languages–but I hope this keeps up.

Motley Star did get stalled out by plot troubles, which I hope to solve and eventually come back to. With the new novel, I’ve written the first outline I actually feel comfortable with enough to use, instead of fighting every step of the way. (I’m not by nature an outliner. I prefer to follow the story where ever it goes and then go back in and clean up once I’ve hit the end. This works with short stories. It’s really damn hard with longer works.)

But for now, I think I have temporarily averted the cat vacuuming with the wiki method. Wait… except, there’s this blog I seem to have… 😉

So what’s your doom when it comes to writerly distractions? What beckons to you when you sit down to write? The garden? Your next meal? A conlang? How do you beat these distractions and get back to writing–or do you?

Leave a comment


  1. camille

     /  January 3, 2012

    Rereading what I’ve already written until it’s late and I’m tired and have to either stumble into bed or watch cartoons. Also: the Internet. Also, letting Internet excoriations of others’ work cause me to think ‘why am I bothering with this again? I am an editor, that is my place.”

    • Ahh yes, the rereading trap. I’ve fallen into that one a lot too. With my longer works I try not to allow myself to read back more than one chapter, but even that is dangerous, as I end up just fussing with the previous chapter. And agreed, the internet is a big black hole of doom. See: blogging when I should be writing, or reading ridiculous things on the internet or getting lost in gigantic tumblrs.

      You are definitely a writer AND an editor so don’t sweat it.

  2. Love ‘cat vacuming’! Recognise all the traps you mention. Find sci-fi much harder than fantasy because of all the ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ questions that you get bogged down answering. Or never manage to answer. Writing can be hard work!

    • It’s such a perfect term! And there are so many rabbit holes to go, er, haring down if you’re looking for a reason to procrastinate, I suppose. And yes– the danger of all the “why” and “how”s… ! Since you know many sci-fi readers will be looking for certain things to be anchored in real science or at least plausible scientific theories… Then again, I did love the science-fantasy elements of Star Trek a lot, and that sort of boundary-less thinking inspired people to try to really invent some of the technology. Which is cool in and of itself! So I guess you can always fudge some things!

      Writing is definitely hard work–good thing when it’s enjoyable, it’s so very, very enjoyable.


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