Novel Writing and Related Topics FAQ

Hey, did you know I write novels? And yet, I haven’t done one of those FAQ articles to refer people to when they ask me the same questions I always get asked. Let me take care of that right now.

Who are you and how many novels have you written?

I’m John Scalzi. Here are the novels (and other books) I have written.

What inspires you to write novels?

My mortgage and the knowledge that everything else in the world is actual work.

How many words do you write a day? What is your daily schedule?

When I’m writing a novel, I try for 2,000 words a day, more or less. I also tend to do that writing between 8am and 12pm on weekdays, because that’s when my brain is most fresh and I’m not distracted by the rest of the universe. If I’ve been writing since 8am and it’s noon and I’m still not at 2,000 words, I tend to knock off for the day anyway. If I hit noon and I’m on a roll, I will often keep going until I feel like I’ve hit a good stopping point. The closer I get to the end of a book, the more I tend to write a day, and the longer I tend to write, because I want to be done.

How long does it take you to write a novel?

It depends on the novel. Generally speaking most novels I write are in the 90,000 to 100,000 word range. If you note my standard writing speed above, you’ll see I aim for 10,000 words a week, which means ten weeks to write a novel. In reality, the time to write a novel has been as short as five weeks (Redshirts) and as long as nine months (The Human Division) depending on several factors including but not limited to plotting and structuring, time able to spend writing each day, and real life getting in the way of my writing time.

Do you outline?

Not generally. I usually start writing and make it up as I go along. I know writers who outline, however, and it seems to work for them. I think writers should do what works for them.

How many drafts do you do?

One. However, as I write I also edit and revise, because you can do that when you work on a computer. So a lot of the work that other writers do in second and subsequent drafts gets done by me as I go along. I call this “fractal drafting.” However, I know authors who write a complete first draft and then make second (or additional) drafts. Because that’s the process that works for them. Again, writers should do what works for them.

Where do you get your ideas for novels?

Writers generally hate this question; I personally find the question puzzling. Finding ideas is not hard. They’re everywhere and my brain naturally comes up with tons of others on a regular basis. The issue is not getting ideas. The issue is separating the relatively few really good ideas from the vast sea of bad ones. That’s the real challenge. I solve that problem with time — if an idea is a good one, it will stick around. If it’s still in my head months or even years after I first think of it, it might be worth pursuing.

Are you ever going to write fiction that’s not science fiction?

Maybe. We’ll see.

May I be one of your beta readers?

I don’t typically employ beta readers outside of my wife and one or two close friends, and when I do I solicit them directly. So thanks, but no.

Are you going to do any more novels in the [name of a novel] series?

The answer to this, barring an actual signed contract, is always “maybe, we’ll see.”

Are they going to make a movie/TV show/video game/etc of [name of novel]? 

The answer to this, barring an actual signed option contract, is always “probably not, but we’ll see.” When there is an actual signed option contract, the answer is “probably not, but at least someone is trying and I’m getting paid while they do.” Also, the answer to “You should make a movie/tv show/video game/etc of [name of novel]” is “Give me $60 million to make it, please.”

Any writing advice?

Yes.

I have a great idea for a novel. Can I tell you about it?

I wish you wouldn’t. I don’t need any more ideas (see above) and I don’t want you or anyone else thinking I stole a novel idea from you or anyone else. Related to that, I’m not interested in collaborating with you (or anyone else) on a novel, especially when that “collaboration” is “I give you the idea, you write it, we split the profits.” Sorry, no.

Do you mind if I write fan fiction/make fan art set in the world of your novels?

Generally, I have no problem with this. Have fun. Here’s my long-form fan fic/fan art policy.

Can I send you my unpublished/self-published novel/story for critique?

No.

May I send you a fan letter?

Sure. Thanks. I read these all and try to respond if I’m not otherwise squashed by work and commitments.

If I send you a book to sign will you sign it?

Sorry, no. Here’s why, and how to get signed books from me.

You made a factual error in [name of novel]. Can I tell you about it?

Sure, send me an e-mail. If it checks out I’ll send a note to my publisher to fix it in future editions. Be aware that unless the book has just come out, however, I’ve already probably been made aware of the error and you are one of several dozen people to let me know of the error. If the book is more than a year old, you probably shouldn’t bother. Also, be aware I may not respond to e-mail noting errors, excepting the one that initally spots the error.

You made a poor creative choice in [name of novel]. Can I tell you about it? 

Try to resist. The book has already been published and I’m not going to change it. I wouldn’t have sent it in to be published if I wasn’t happy with it. Go ahead and write a review about it somewhere. You don’t need to tell me. I don’t tend to respond to these e-mails.

I have writing advice for you. Can I tell you about it?

Unless you are someone from whom I’ve solicited feedback or are actually my editor, no. I’ve been doing this writing thing professionally for two decades now. I don’t want or need unsolicited writing advice, particularly from people who I don’t know and/or who are not professional writers/editors. Offering it will just annoy me. I will delete your e-mail.

Your novel is not available where I live/not in a language I prefer to read/not in a format I prefer/not at a price I find congenial/not published in a manner I find philosophically aligned to my own worldview and desires. Can I tell you about it?

If you must, but be aware that in nearly all cases there’s not much I can do about it. All of that is under the control of the companies who publish my work and/or the retailers who carry it. The most I can typically do for you is say “sorry,” and then suggest you go talk to the publisher/retailer. Please do be aware that if what you’re really doing is writing to me to get on a hobby horse about ideal book prices, traditional vs. indie publishing, global markets or etc, I’ll probably delete your e-mail as soon as the hobby horse becomes apparent. You could save us both time by skipping that.

Other (brief) questions that make sense to be in this particular FAQ? Ask them in the comment section; I might add them to the FAQ in the future.

43 thoughts on “Novel Writing and Related Topics FAQ

  1. What you call “fractal drafting” was one of the two commonly observed writing behaviors we saw back in the early days of research into computer-aided writing instruction: we called those behaviors “Mozartian” (what you call “fractal drafting”) and “Beethovian” (barreling through to the end of a draft before revising).

  2. An FAQ is always useful :). A couple of other questions to consider:

    - how did you get published?
    - have you had lots of rejections?
    - when did you start writing/know you wanted to write?

    The first is probably a reasonably serious Q, the other two are a bit more fannish.

  3. I shall point my 5,000 Facebook friends towards this nice summary.

    They have seen me rant about unprofessional agents and editors who lose novel manuscripts, and then ask why you never sent them. And other hair-tearing-out tales (to which author friends chimed in with their horror meta-stories).

    I have written and serialized 15 novels on Facebook in the past 3.5 years and then, frustrated by nonresponse of agents and editors, restricted myself to writing a collection “Tales from the Ultraviolet Fairy Book” whose 58 short stories and poems are selling to major Markets one at a time; and a double set of linked novellas, the latter adding to over a half-million words.

    Following advice from Ray Bradbury and Stephen King, my quota is 2,000 words per day of fiction writing, which has been 2,695,800 words since I doubled my quota to that in 6 July 2010.

    I rewrite per comments from facebook friends, face-to-face writing workshop at Caltech, email comments from friends, suggestions by agents and editors who encourage me but don’t currently want contractual arrangements.

    I keep fresh by breaking between chapters to write poems (also workshopped, also often published), and by daily reading/writing on Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Cosmology, Economics, History, Linguistics, Mathematics, Physics, and other subjects that I’ve taught.

    I’ve been waiting half a century to be an overnight success. The achievements and good humor of John Scalzi is part of what keeps me going, as are wife, son, and dog. The dog has dictated some nice haiku.

  4. I’m really anxious to see your new book The Mallet of Loving Correction: Selected Writings. It has to be incredible to have not only things you have written since 2008, but also things you will write for the next 18,000 years! (2008 – 20012).

  5. @Johnathan Vos Post
    “Tales from the Ultraviolet Fairy Book”

    Gotta say, I love that title. (I own all twelve of Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books.)

  6. This was a great read. It gives me inspiration as someone trying to become a serious fiction writer, and while I’m nowhere near 10,000 words a week, I do want to step up my game on word count and finished drafts.

    Definitely sharing this with my friends!

  7. I have writing advice for you. Can I tell you about it?

    I experienced something similar this week. My band was playing a street fair. Two different very drunk guys accosted us at different points of the evening to give us pointers on how to better program our sets. If only they were simply emails I could have deleted…

  8. I loved Barry B. Longyear’s answer to the ‘where do you get your ideas?’ question. He said that members of the SFWA are supposed to answer that question with a post office box number in Schenectady, NY. You send in a SASE containing one dollar, and in return you will be mailed an idea.

  9. Technology question: when you fractal-draft, are you versioning or change-tracking or do discards just go into the void? I’m sure you’re using something to back up in case of gremlins, which might do in a “crap, I needed that” emergency, but are you deliberately doing anything in case you need to reverse edits?

  10. RE: SSteve: I think that the unwanted advice thing is universal. I’ve worked as a custodian and had people advise me on how to vacuum, what vacuum would work better, etc. Whatever job you get paid for, some amateur knows better. We all make mistakes and accept advice, but unsolicited (Is there an emoticon for an eye roll)

  11. I would suggest you mention your preferences regarding when fans should and should not feel free to approach you in person. It might be helpful in avoiding an inconvenient fan encounter when you aren’t “on.”

  12. Cally, I did notice that this post isn’t actually about me. However, I get the same questions, pointed 5,000 people to Mr. Scalzi’s answers, and am a confirming datum, also with a quota of 2,000 words per day of fiction writing; and I did say: “The achievements and good humor of John Scalzi is part of what keeps me going.”

  13. Suggested question: Why aren’t you self-publishing? You could make a lot more money.

    (I’ve already heard your answer to this question, and I think it’s a very reasonable one. I’m just suggesting it for the FAQ).

  14. remembered from Piers Anthony…
    “I have discovered where you live – what’s a good time to come visit?” [seriously. ppl have done this to PA - random strangers!]
    “I have this present for you. how should i ship it?” do people send random presents to authors anymore? it’d make life difficult, i’m sure [bcuz so many want a present BACK...]

  15. Similar to @denelian’s, “You have been an inspiration to me, and now I have published my own artwork, which I would like to send to you, by way of saying thank you. Is that okay, and how do I do that?” For the FAQs, and ’cause I’d like to send you a copy of my recently published book, by way of saying thank you…

  16. I’m a beta reader (I didn’t know that was the name) for a couple of people — what type of feedback from yours do you find most useful?

  17. Reblogged this on L.P.'s and commented:
    Scalzi is not an author I’ve read, but he intrigues me, somehow. Here’s a page on some fan FAQs. There may be some good info in here for you.
    -lp

  18. My mistake, I’m apparently an alpha reader. Who knew? Anyway, same question. What’s useful, and what harms the process for you? Because I don’t want to do that. Harming. No.

  19. Your comment about ideas puts me in mind of something Lois McMaster Bujold said, to the effect of when she was first writing the ideas come thick and hard but here writing was rocky. Now that she’s much farther along in her writing career, the writing is smooth(er) but the ideas are harder to come by. I find myself wondering if this is idiosyncratic or common to many writers.

  20. I noticed you end your work at 12pm. That is 12 afternoon. I always get confused at which 12 is after noon, so I set my computer notifications to 11:59 or 12:01 since they don’t set to 12 noon. Is 12pm noon or midnight? Is that convention accepted everywhere?

    (By the same token, I am more confused in setting a date for midnight).

  21. “Why have you not written a sequel to [pick a book name]? You owe it to your fans! We are your employers, because you would go broke if we quit buying your books. So get with it and write what we want.”

    I know you have answered this somewhere, but I suggest it would go nicely in the FAQ.

  22. WilliamB said:

    “Your comment about ideas puts me in mind of something Lois McMaster Bujold said, to the effect of when she was first writing the ideas come thick and hard but here writing was rocky. Now that she’s much farther along in her writing career, the writing is smooth(er) but the ideas are harder to come by. I find myself wondering if this is idiosyncratic or common to many writers.”

    Off the top of my head, I suspect the biggest difference is in the idea filter – from experience, she’s become better at filtering out the ideas that won’t work (at least in that story).

    I know in my field it takes me longer to come up with a theory for a problem I see (computer networking) than it used to, but my hit rate is a ton higher.

  23. Another undoubtedly annoying question it seems most writers get….

    “I have a great book idea. Can I have the name of your agent?” (or contact at your publishers)

  24. I second questions re: publishing and getting agents and all that jazz. This might also be a good place to address questions re: your connection to SWFA with a link to your retirement post, so that you have a place to point people.

  25. howardbrazee: You are right to be confused because there’s actually no such thing a 12 am or 12 pm. AM = ante meridiem, or before the midday. PM = post meridiem, or after the midday. 12 = the meridiem. So there’s no such thing as 12 am because that would translate to “12 before the 12.”

    In practice the norm for this nonexistent time is 12am = midnight and 12 pm = noon. And if right now it’s 11.59 pm of July 28, then one minute from now is 12am of July 29. (But it’s still wrong!!!) (Obligatory nod to XKCD’s “someone is wrong on the internet.”)

    PS: Hi, Howard, long time no talk. My fault, I know.

  26. It doesn’t seem like people ask writers the best questions… I think these are more interesting. Most people ask the same generic questions.

    1. how much time do you spend thinking about your novels outside of sitting in front of a computer and writing? Iain Bank’s widow wrote that though Banks would write a novel in a few months, he would spend months planning it out and thinking about it in advance. This isn’t necessarily outlining.

    I’m a programming which is not nearly as creative as writing(I work for someone so I don’t have to come up with a new product idea unlike a self employed writer), but I solve most of my most complex technical problems when I’m not working. Then I go in the next day and implement.

    2. Are you a big believer in the ‘wit of the staircase’ or do you get most of your ideas during the 4 hours per day you spend writing?

    3. How about giving us some examples of where a few of your coolest ideas come from? For example Robert Jordan got the idea for a ‘bubble of evil’ from a roach infestation in his office.
    This is what I think people mean when they ask you where you get your ideas from. They just want a few examples.

    4. so you spend 4 hours/day writing? I have heard writers say that there is a ‘tank’ and after that tank runs dry you really can’t add new material. Do you spend many more hours editing your ideas and brainstorming? I am sure you work more than 4 hours/day.

    5. What is a typical week like as a self employed writer? Ok 4 hours/day writing at your computer. What else does the job require? 4 and 5 could be answered a 1 question.

    6. How do you handle time management? I can see this website sucking up massive amounts of time without noticing it. It strikes me that self employed people (not just writers) need to budget their time very precisely.

    7. do you work on more than 1 book at a time? I know you have other revenue streams to break up your day, but this is different.

    8. Have you ever gotten far into a book just to realize this isn’t working. What do you do?

  27. I think the big divide for most people is that most of us work for someone. Most fiction writers are self employed. I have had my own business before, so I can see the difference. There is alot more to do when you are self employed and more risk.

    I don’t think most people realize this. Writers are essentially small business owners.

  28. oh and here is a dirty little secret… most programmers are only productively coding about 4 hours/day. the rest of the time we do other stuff (much of it involves reading blogs in my case). There is a good software blog called joelonsoftware.com. He says he is the same way. I get the ‘tank’ runs dry part.

  29. I find that I simply never have ideas for Creative Projects; even when it’s for a skill I already have, even worse when it’s a skill I’d like to learn but do not yet have. For instance I’m a professional computer programmer but (a rarity among programmers I know) I almost never write code in my spare time – because I almost never have an idea for a Program I Should Write.

    Which is why I sometimes ask people where there ideas come from. However it seems that some people Just Have Ideas, and it’s not something that can usefully be taught.

  30. On the one hand, calling noon “12:00 p.m.” seems to violate the literal meaning of “p.m.” as “post meridiem”. On the other hand, there is a certain logic in saying that “12:00 p.m.” is the time that is exactly one minute before “12:01 p.m.”.

    According to Wikipedia, the US Government Printing Office style manual used to recommend “12:00 p.m.” for midnight and “12:00 a.m.” for noon, but the most recent edition has it the other way around.

  31. Suggestion for the FAQ/another post/to be ignored/whatever you feel like doing with it.

    What is the definition of science fiction?

    If he’s already answered this somewhere else, other people can feel free to point me in the direction of that.

  32. Mitchell: Damon Knight once wrote: “Science fiction is what we point to when we say ‘science fiction’”. That’s probably the best definition I’ve seen.

  33. I’ve heard that definition before, but I dislike such nebulousness. Which is why I’ve been trying to find out if anyone has a better one.

  34. What is the answer to
    “Here is $60 million to make a movie/tv show/video game/etc of [name of novel], will you do it?”

    I imagine that isn’t a frequently asked question, though I’m sure you’d like it if it were.

  35. Warning: personal musing, re: editing.

    First off, I’m reminded of the old joke about Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein.

    Second, I get a bit of a writing bug every, oh, 2 to 5 years. Whenever I’ve acted on it (or tried to, anyway), I get so bogged down in editing, on a line-by-line basis, that I can’t get past the first page or so. *le sigh*

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