Writing Novels One Novel at a Time

Elizabeth Bear expounds on the oft-quoted idea (most frequently attributed to Gene Wolfe) that when you write a novel, you’re not learning to write novels, you’re learning to write that novel. As she’s on her 15th novel at the moment, you can imagine she has some thoughts on the matter.

I think whether writing a novel gets easier or harder as you go along depends on what you’re trying to do as a writer. I think if you’re content to bang out books that are fundamentally indistinguishable from one another — which, in itself, is not a bad thing, especially if your initial standard of competence is high — what you take from writing one novel will get applied easily to others. If you try to do substantially different things each time out, what you’ve learned in earlier work might not translate over. I think most authors — including me — inhabit a space between those two extremes when they do from one book to the next; you want to do things you know (and that you know you do well), but you want to use some of the credit you’ve been extended from earlier work to fiddle with the forms.

In my particular case, thanks to writing four other novels, I don’t actually doubt that I can write novels. But with each of the novels I’ve done so far, I’ve attempted something new to me. With Agent to the Stars, I was trying to see if I could write a novel. With Old Man’s War, I wanted to see if I could write a novel I could sell. With The Android’s Dream, I wanted to see if I could write in 3rd person. With The Ghost Brigades, I was looking to see if I could create a continuation of a universe without it being a direct sequel. Now with The Last Colony I’m wrestling the mechanics of putting a bow on an entire created universe. And a little further out, the Secret Book Project Which I Don’t Talk About will, in fact, present what I expect is my most daunting writing challenge yet.

Each of the novels I’ve written has created a foundation of story and writing skills that I used for the next novel, and has also allowed me to do a bit of stretching, and to try something new (or, at least, new to me as a writer). To put it in video game terms, I’m constantly in the process of leveling up the skills. I’m pretty sure there will come a time in which not every novel I write will present a new and major skills challenge, but in the short term, at least, I don’t see this happening. I’ll hopefully be expanding my writing toolbox for a long time.

At the same time, however, I don’t necessarily see me taking a huge leap away from what I know I know how to do to attempt something wholly unconventional, or entirely new to me. There are reasons for this. One is that I like using the writing skills I have; I think they lend themselves to telling interesting and accessible stories, which is nice because those are the kinds of stories I like myself. Another is that I like to sell books, which is to say that I like writing stories I think people are going to like to read, and I’m not averse to throttling back a bit so that I don’t lose the audience who has come around to hear a tale.

This last bit can irritate the folks who like to posit the whole “are you an artist or are you an entertainer” false dichotomy debate, but you know, screw them. There’s nothing wrong with taking your readers into deeper water one step at a time. The Beatles didn’t go directly from Please Please Me to the White Album, and if they had, we’d remember them, if we remembered them at all, as that funny band from the 60s who blew their second album and now all work at various cheese shops around Liverpool.

(Please don’t read this to suggest I am as good a novelist as Lennon/McCartney were songwriters. It’s just an example of a larger point.)

Also, of course, the other practical reason not to go nuts as a novelist is that sailing out into uncharted waters makes your publishers nervous; they don’t want you to screw with a good thing. If you’re lucky you get a publisher who encourages to continue to expand your repetoire of writing skills but also reminds you to dance with those what brung you, i.e., they’re paying attention to your needs as a writer and also your needs as someone who wants to pay your bills with writing income. To date, Tor has been really good with this (you’ll see just how good with this they’ve been when the Secret Project hits the shelves), and that’s allowed me to feel pretty secure in continuing to grow as a novelist at the right pace for me. I think it also helps that we’re both aiming toward the same thing in this regard.

In the end I think the optimal novel-writing experience is the one in which you feel the novel you have just written was written as well as you could write it, you’ve gained a new skill for future novels, and you have a desire to attempt something with your next novel that may be just ever-so-slightly beyond what you’ve tried before. That’s generally the experience I’ve had so far, and hope to keep having.

24 Comments on “Writing Novels One Novel at a Time”

  1. Ok, so you’re no Beatles, but you’re no Air Supply either. So you’ve got that going for you.

    I have some opinions of my own on this topic, but as I’ve completed and sold exactly zero novels, I’ll hold off on adding them here…

  2. Hey I picked up OldMansWar and really liked it. Good stuff!

    I’m about 20K words into my first novel so I am lurking on your site for inspiration.


  3. “that funny band from the 60s who blew their second album and now all work at various cheese shops around Liverpool”

    Hey, I thought we weren’t going to be revealing the hot idea behind the Secret Project!

  4. Hey, “Air Supply” was pretty good.

    If anyone wonders why the baby boomers are fat look to our pop music – Meatloaf, Bread, Cream.

    Mmmmmmm. Is it supper time?

  5. I think I actually have read that book. Except it was a bar instead of a cheeseshoppe and they were more folksy singers than British Invasion band. And the bar transported through space. Or maybe time.

    I have got to stop posting while in testing checkpoint tele-conferences…

  6. So in the Secret Project ™ is John Lennon dead?
    Cause a zombified corpse working in a Liverpool cheese shop would be really…something

  7. Yay! High-five to Tipp! Stickin’ up for the musical Russells of the world!

    (A neighbor friend of mine, also with the name Russell, would blast the greatest hits album out his window while we shot hoops across the street. Sometimes he’d switch it out for Barry Manilow’s double Live album.)

  8. Scalzi, you’re a ******** tease. Either tell us about the novel or stop yakking about it.

    You’re making me crazy with curiosity.

  9. The flip side to this post is how somebody like us, the readers, views novels from the same author.It’s the authors who don’t seem to try something new (whether they are stretching themselves or just showing another side) who ultimately turn out formulaic and, ultimately, not that interesting third, fourth, fifth novels. I won’t always like all of an author’s novels — for some reason, I only like about half of the Greg Bear novels I’ve read, for example — but that is usually just a case of subject matter, rather than style and I know I can still give the next book a fair chance.

    Even (particularly?) multi-volume sagas written in the same style need an incredibly rich universe and still some variation in the story telling not to become boring after the second or third book. Some series that I really enjoy and read again and again — authors like Peter F Hamilton and Traci Harding — do not hold up in the final few books because the universe runs out of excitement and the story is still being told in somewhat the same way.

    So, thanks, to those of you, John, who do try something new and to stretch yourself all the time. It is noticeable to the reader and even if you miss once every now and again, the credibility will remain when the next novel comes up.

  10. “not adverse”? I think that one costs you points on your Writers License!

    Okay, so this isn’t like catching Safire in a grammar gaffe, but still.

    (Really enjoy your books, love the blog. I just love nitpicking. :-))

  11. “the optimal novel-writing experience is the one in which you feel the novel you have just written was written as well as you could write it”

    I always think that the novel I’ve just finished sucks wet farts from the arse of dead pigeons, but I’ll be able to make it all better with the next one. Even though I know that when I’ve finished that one I’ll think exactly the same thing as last time.

    Why, exactly, am I doing this for a living?

  12. Why, exactly, am I doing this for a living?

    I suspect some of it has to do with having your name end up on a book cover. But in any case, it’s the way many, many people feel about any activity (paid or otherwise) they’re involved with, especially one of a creative sort. So it’s not a psychological condition found only in authors.

  13. “my most daunting writing challenge yet”

    Secret Book Project: Daunting the dauntable since 2006.

  14. I’ve always admired Jane Smiley for being able to write distinctly different books. She can do the book that’s more or less about nothing (“Moo”) just as well as she does something heavier, like “A Thousand Acres”. Of all her books, the only two that felt the same were “Moo” and “Horse Heaven”.

    As for me, I’m still trying. I scrapped the last attempt at my Great American Novel and am finally accepting the fact that I actually need to outline it, rather than just sit down and write.

  15. Nicole,

    Yay! High-five to Tipp! Stickin’ up for the musical Russells of the world!

    I can’t take much credit – the heart loves what it loves. I suppose I get some credit for being willing to expose my tastes on the “Whatever” but this has been a pretty safe place so far and my tastes tend more towards the mundane and less towards the shocking.

  16. A related topic is the problem that readers have with writers: We liked the first book we read, and then the author followed it up with something completely different, for the reasons you list above. And the best description of that phenomenon that I’ve seen is what Neil Gaiman told Time Magazine:

    Somebody said that writers are like otters. And otters are really hard to train. Dolphins are easy to train. They do a trick, you give them a fish, they do the trick again, you give them a fish. They will keep doing that trick until the end of time. Otters, if they do a trick and you give them a fish, the next time they’ll do a better trick or a different trick because they’d already done that one. And writers tend to be otters.

    So will the secret writing project be a different enough trick that it will upset those looking for one of your old tricks?

  17. …and I just found out who the “Somebody” mentioned above is: Teresa Nielsen Hayden. So I’m sure she’ll be along soon to tell me that I and Neil missed the point.

  18. Omg. That’s the most fantastic 404 msg I’ve ever seen: >

    That clinches it; I’m buying all your books, John Scalzi. :)

  19. Steve Brust always amazes me on how he writes entirley differnt novels in the same universe, with the same chrageter again and again.

  20. An interesting article. I enjoyed reading it. It sounds like your novels have truly been a learning experience for you. In writing those different ways – do you feel that your tone remained consistent? I read some author’s and I can just tell the work is by them, whether it’s in first person POV, flashback heavy, or 3rd person. Their “feel” is always present.

    What are your thoughts?

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