Various and Sundry 2/4/08

I sent Zoe in to Tor last night after one last quick-read through and edit (chopped up a chunk of dialogue; added 1,000 words through the book to make things clearer; put in acknowledgments) and now my brain has said “see ya,” and appears to be on vacation for a couple of days. So in lieu of actual coherent thought, here’s some little bits about what’s going on with me right now.

* Two nice things in the mail today: First, my Geffen Award, for Best Translated Novel, voted on by the visitors at Israel’s ICON convention. The translated novel in question was Old Man’s War; the other nominated books were The Stars My Destination, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The Naked Sun and Lost in a Good Book, so I’m pretty pleased to have won. The award’s on the top of my bookshelf now. Thanks, Israel!

Second, the 2008 Rough Guide catalog, in which I learn that the second edition of The Rough Guide to the Universe is going to be released in April, which is in between the two released dates I heard of earlier, March and May (that’s the UK release date, I suppose; Amazon here in the US has it as May 5). I’m pretty pleased with that release date; it means I’ll have a book out in April, August, September and November/December. That’s not a bad spread of books for one year.

* The Android’s Dream debuts at #2 on the Locus Paperback Bestsellers list this month — go TAD! The book seems to be chugging along decently these days, which gives me hope for The High Castle when it comes out in 2009.

* The Last Colony makes SFRevu’s suggested list for Hugo nominations, which is nice. The rest of their suggests for year are also excellent; it’s a pretty strong field for Hugo nods this year.

* I have nothing to do with this. I wonder who does. And why. But it’s definitely not about me; I’ve never been known as “Johnny.” My childhood nickname was “John-John.”

* Completely unrelated to any of the above, some has asked me in e-mail why I don’t put up those “progress bars” many writers do, showing the progress of their writing on their various projects. The short answer is that it just doesn’t have any interest for me; the long answer is I don’t write at a regular pace anyway, so putting up one of those little bars won’t actually tell you anything about my progress on a book.

Zoe’s Tale is actually a really excellent example of this. It took me the better part of six months to write the first half of the book; the second half of the book I wrote in the last two weeks. And more accurately, it took me about five months to write 30,000 words, another month to write another 18,000, and two weeks to write 48,000 words. So if you were watching the little bar graph on my Web site, it would like I was drinking cough syrup, then I started drinking caffeine, and then I started doing crank.

But there’s a reason for this, not simply related to a cycle of procrastination and panic. Basically, while I’m establishing characters and laying out the various plot threads in the book, things go really slowly, because I’m making things up as I go along and I have to get it straight in my head what’s going on with whom and why. But eventually the characters are there, and the plot threads are as teased out as they’re going to get, and it’s time to start tying them all together again. When I’m at that point, everything gets easy because I know everything that’s going to happen from that point; all I have to do is write it. I call this part of my writing “the downslope,” and to be entirely honest about it, when I get to that point my major concern is writing too fast — I’m in such a rush to get everything down I’ll sort of skip over details just in a mad rush to write “The End.”

Incidentally, 48,000 words in two weeks isn’t my record for the most words gushed out; when I was writing The Android’s Dream I did 30,000 words in about three days, the last 15,000 or so in one crazed 24-hour push. I don’t recommend that. However, 48,000 in two weeks is not too hard for me; that’s about 5,000 words a day with a couple days in there to reinflate the brain. It’s quite doable, especially when one is on “the downslope.” And when, for example, one stops writing on one’s blog and focuses just on writing one’s book.

But the point is putting up a bar wouldn’t actually tell you how the work is going. Even when the writing is going slow, I’m still doing tons of work. And when I’m writing fast, very often most of the hard work on the book is already done. The bar wouldn’t tell you what the progress on the book is. It would just tell you how fast I was typing. As a picture of my writing process, that’s incomplete to the point of being unrepresentative. Better not to have a “progress bar” up at all.

Mind you, this is just me; for other writers it may actually be accurate, as regards progress. We all have different processes. But for me, it doesn’t work.

26 Comments on “Various and Sundry 2/4/08”

  1. Our Beloved Host Said:
    …the long answer is I don’t write at a regular pace anyway, so putting up one of those little bars won’t actually tell you anything about my progress on a book.

    There’s a programmer’s maxim that’s another reason for not wanting those kinds of bars:

    “The first 90% of the work takes the first 90% of the time.
    The last 10% of the work takes the other 90% of the time.”

  2. They didn’t eat the Mennonite. And maybe. You’ll have to read the book to find out.

  3. Is the award for the translated novels given based on the quality of the translation? I’m guessing no since you got the trophy. Unless you have secret translating powers you’ve never mentioned.

  4. Okay. I *seriously* need to get me a copy of “Milchemet Ha’Adam Ha’Zaken,” It’ll go nicely with the Hebrew translations of the Harry Potter books and Neil Gaiman’s “Smoke and Mirrors.”

    (and let me tell you, Gaiman’s a *bitch* to read in Hebrew if you’re a non-native speaker. The later Potter books aren’t too easy, either.)

  5. Homie Bear:

    The award was given to me, and also, I believe, to my translator, Roz Greenberg. Clearly, I am happy to share the award.

  6. I note that particular seller lists 1.3 million variants of that t-shirt on Amazon. The sell one with my name, my girlfriend’s name, etc. I suspect that they submitted a huge set of phantom “I love <name>” t-shirts to Amazon, perhaps assembled from a list of common names or perhaps even by combinatorially applying a list of first names to a list of last names. Presumably rather than maintaining an impossibly large inventory, they simply print a t-shirt after it is ordered (the Amazon seller lists their time to ship as 6 to 10 days).

    Kind of clever actually. Almost anyone who egosurfs Amazon will get a hit under Apparel from this company.

  7. Progress bars are almost never an accurate representation of real progress. Whether they are for software installation progress or download progress their true purpose is to keep the users(gullible audience) entertained/distracted until it is done so they don’t reboot or or click the reload button mid-process thus putting them back at the start and possibly really messing things up in the case of an install. So go ahead and put one up when writing a book and just advance it proportional to the number of days gone from the start date to a date one week beyond the deadline. It will keep us members of your gullible audience entertained/distracted while we wait for your next post.

  8. I also noticed that all their shirts with copyrightable and/or trademarkable names/logos on them are listed as “currently unavailable.” Yeah, they run out whenever they get a cease & desist letter….

  9. Belated congrats on finishing and delivering the book, John! I’m looking forward to reading it. :)

    “The first 90% of the work takes the first 90% of the time.
    The last 10% of the work takes the other 90% of the time.”

    This is true for concept art, too. I love the first part (where one creates and sketches and has fun) but the second part (where one seems to inevitably need to create a photorealistic rendering of the created object, because producers can’t grok anything that doesn’t look like they can go buy it somewhere) is a grueling slog through the land of pixel-by-pixel image manipulation. To me, anyway. I know some artists who like spending a week rendering widgets, but my patience runs out about day 2.

    And God help you if you don’t have everything broken out on Layers and saved separately, because they ALWAYS want to change something – usually some micro-detail that will never be seen on screen in the final version, but that trips their nit-pick switch somehow.

  10. What definition of “1 word” do you use for your wordcount? I’ve heard of “all characters bounded by whitespace” and “every 5 characters including whitespace”. Are there others?

    Related: is it worth relying on the Word Count function of a word processor (eg. MS Word) when calculating word count for a novel?

  11. John, do you outline your books or do you just start writing and figure out how to connect the points later on in the process? I read an article from another writer in which he stated that his first draft is essentially the outline and he does extensive revising and re-writing to come up with the final draft. I am curious as to what your process is.

  12. I’ve never seen a progress bar on anyone’s blog, but then again, I’ve never looked for one either. With me I write that first draft very quickly. I can usually get out 80,000 words in about a month’s time. Before I start I’ll have a good idea of what the plot should be, how it ends and how I want to get to that point. I will get an idea of what I want. Think it out, and then go for broke. Then I’ll break until the next surge develops. It’s like I know I have to get that down. My last two novels were written in that manner. Unfortunately, I haven’t had any luck marketing them. Still trying and refusing to give up.
    Good luck with the Hugo and the other awards. I know you can do it. I saw An Old Man’s War on Ethen Ellenberg’s web site when I emailed a query last week.

  13. “Did you resolve the whole thing with the wolf people who ate the Mennonite?”

    Ah— perhaps he meant Marmite. Easy mistake. :)

    I met some very nice Mennonites on the California Zephyr train. I got to point out prarie dogs to them and hear them talk in that weird Pennsylvania Dutch hybrid to each other on their walkie-talkie’d cell phones.


    I hate outlines. Always have, fiction and non-fiction. Brain no worky that way. I think progress bars would be just as bad, because most of my work— in any format more complex than basic— is in my head right up until near the end.

    It took my algebra teacher three months to train me to show my work.

  14. “that’s about 5,000 words a day with a couple days in there to reinflate the brain.”

    All hail the Great Scalzini! The most I have ever written in one day is 1,000 words.

  15. Does any one else get the impression that the last half of this post was written too fast? Blathering is fine. As long as it’s not rushed, or on crack .

    More details in my book “You’re not fooling anyone when you start blogging from a crack house: Mike on Blathering“.

  16. “The first 90% of the work takes the first 90% of the time.
    The last 10% of the work takes the other 90% of the time.”

    Except that’s almost exactly the opposite of what John said about his writing style. I think it’s more like what my father used to complain about when he was a building contractor: he would take a couple of months pouring the concrete foundations and basement of a house (which has to be done right, otherwise the house will fall down), and people would nag him about not getting anything done. Then, when the time came to frame up the rest of the house (where the walls and roof go up in a matter of days), they’d say “See, you can too work fast! Why did you dawdle so much over the basement?”

  17. Congrats on the awards!

    I think you are also to be commended for broadening the scope of readership by venturing into the young adult world with ZT.

  18. Oh to have such freedom. If you worked for a “faceless corporation” you would be asked to weight each task in such a way that your bar (or graph) would show steady progress.

    Then your weightings would be reviewed and debated ad nauseum.

    I learned a long time ago that all a manager really wants is a graph that goes steadily up and to the right. This is something that I never fail to give them.

    Put another way – be careful what you measure and reward, because we devious humans will always find a way to give you that.

  19. Hmm. Can’t say I like the translation of the title, which backtranslates as ‘The War of the Old Man’ (or, given the gender issues with Hebrew, possibly ‘Old Human’). They could have done better, for example ‘Milchama Shel Zkenim’ would be closer to “An Old Folks’ War” or “Old Men’s War”, and “Milchama Shel Ish Zaken” would be exactly “An Old Man’s War”.

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