Writing The Sagan Diary
I promised earlier in the week that I would talk a little bit about writing “The Sagan Diary,” and then I spent the rest of the week organizing my lint collection, so I hadn’t gotten around to it. Let me correct that now.
“The Sagan Diary” was interesting for me to write because it’s pretty much the opposite of what I know I’m already good at, as far as writing is concerned. For example, I know I’m at least reasonably competent writing novels, and writing very short, amusing pieces of two thousand words or less. TSD is 12,700 words, which means as a multiple that it’s as far from my short writing comfort zone as it is as a divisor from my novel writing comfort zone. I’m very comfortable writing dialogue; this story has none. I generally don’t spend much time inside my characters’ heads; this story is entirely within Jane Sagan’s noggin. My writing, while not without style, is largely declarative and to the point; TSD, while not overly ornate or flowery, nonetheless has an entirely different flow to its language than what I’ve done before. Basically, everything you’d characterize as “Scalzi” writing, this is not.
And for me, that was part of the goal. You know, I’m five novels in; I have a pretty good grip on the things I can do. At the same time I know there are things I’m not as good at. Some of those things, in terms of writing, I have no interest in, so it doesn’t much matter to me if I’m not good at them. Some things I would like to be able to use, and I’d like to get better at. When I agreed to write TSD, I knew going in that it was going to be a story where I would try new things, and see how it worked out.
It turned out to be fairly difficult to write because of this. It’s fun to try new things, but there’s a learning curve involved, and even with a learning curve involved, my personal crap detector is still engaged. I’m not going to pass off to other people what I think is substandard writing with an excuse of “well, I’m trying new things.” Yes, I am trying new things; I’m also offering this story for sale when it’s done. At the end of the day “The Sagan Diary” is meant to be a commercial piece of work — which means that even if it is different from what I’ve written before, it should still be as good as what I’ve written before. Anything less is ripping off the readers. We’re asking people for $45 for the deluxe edition, and the standard edition is $20. If folks who shell out that kind of cash feel like I’m not giving them my best effort, I’m basically giving my career a head wound.
So for me, this meant a lot of writing stuff, looking at it, saying “this is crap,” deleting it, and starting over, and then repeating the process a few dozen times. This, naturally, takes time. My own personal writing speed is such that I can write 12,000 very good words of writing in a day; I’ve done that while writing both Ghost Brigades and The Android’s Dream. I’ve written other perfectly good 5k-to-8k word short stories in the space of a day as well. This one took about two months. Now, to be certain, it wasn’t two months of constant work; I was doing other writing during that time. But I’m always writing something else when I’m writing fiction; that’s why I don’t starve. And sometimes I’d not write on it for several days, trying to puzzle out some damn thing or another. But no matter how you slice it, writing this story took drastically longer than other writing of similar length.
There was an additional layer of complication in that, aside from trying out various different sorts of writing, whatever I was writing had to stay true to the voice of Jane Sagan. Jane is, of course, already a very well-established character and personality; she’s been developed over the course of three novels, and there are certain things we know about her, among them that she’s plain-spoken, direct, efficient and dangerous. However, by and large over the course of the OMW series we spend hardly any time inside of her head — we see her largely as other people see her. TSD is the first time readers will get to spend any substantial amount of time hearing Jane being Jane, talking about what she thinks and feels about things.
Jane Sagan’s internal voice needs to be consistent with what people see externally — she’s can’t be this badass on the outside and on the inside be a pink cuddly bunny full of gooey gooey lovey love, if you know what I mean, or to otherwise have an internal voice wildly at odds with her external one. At the same time I think its axiomatic that our internal view of who we are is more complex than is perceived by other people, even those to whom we are the closest. There’s a lot of room to expand what we know of Jane, even while staying true to the image she presents to others. But it also takes work, to make sure I hit that tone.
In this regard, I am happy to say, I had help. It will come as no surprise to longtime readers here that Krissy, my wife, feels rather invested in the character of Jane Sagan, and made it her job to make sure I didn’t screw it up. She also was a non-trivial motivator for getting the story finished; having Krissy asking you “where my next chapter?” with the subtext of because I will have to beat you if I don’t get it soon is an amazingly efficient prod. Seriously, however, her input was invaluable; when I finished the first chapter I sent it to her immediately, because I knew if she wasn’t buying what I was writing, no one else was going to either. She liked it; I could go forward.
In all, I’m very pleased “The Sagan Diary”; the birthing process was difficult but it was also necessary, if I wanted the story of be what I ultimately wanted it to be. Don’t think there weren’t times when I thought “screw it, I’ll just write this all in dialogue and be done with it tomorrow,” because, oh, did I ever have that thought. But then I kept writing it the way I was writing it, because the fact was I didn’t want this story to be just like everything else, and I did want to see if I could make it work.
I think I have. This is a good story, and I think those of you who have ordered the story are going feel like you got your money’s worth. I also feel like I’ve added some tools to my writing toolbox, and that’s great news too, because it’s nice to be able to work with tools you’ve used before and have some comfort level with.
Having said that, I mentioned to Bill Schafer, as I was turning in TSD, that sometime soon I was going to write a mindless, fun and easy short story in a day, just to remind myself I don’t have to spend two months on 12,000 damn words. And I will, too. Just you wait.