Zoe’s Tale Follow-Up Q&A

Answering some questions I’ve gotten in the wake of finishing Zoe’s Tale, in comments here at Whatever:

Alan Kellogg asks: “What about revisions and rewrites?”

To date I’ve not had to do any significant revising or rewriting once I’ve turned in a novel, and Zoe is no exception to this: PNH sent me notes on things he wanted clarified, and I duly clarified in the text, but the overall change in the text was minimal, and it had no effect on the direction of the story. I sent in all the changes last night; the text is now, I assume, off to the copyeditor (we will know it’s been received when we hear the screams upon the winds).

This is less a reflection on my utter brilliance (alas) or my status as a writer who sells so well he no longer has to sully himself with dealing with editors (ha!) as it does with the fact — as I’ve mentioned here before — that I do a substantial amount of revising and rewriting as I write, and before I turn in the work. I’ve discussed this before, in the context of how computers can make the idea “drafts” obsolete:

Here’s an interesting fact: All my novels to date are first drafts that weren’t outlined in advance. Why? Because the computer makes that possible. I can edit on the fly as I write so many of the major tasks of additional drafts of a book (polishing of the text, sanding down plot lines, etc) occur as I go along. The rewriting I’ve been required to do for my novels (so far, at least) has been minimal because by the time I write “The End,” most re-writing has been done as I went along. I suspect it’s not accurate to call the draft I send to my editors a “first draft”; it’s more of a “fractal draft,” in that it incorporates several waves of on-the-fly editing, emanating backward from various points in the text, terminating at the point of completion.

Doing this sort of “fractal draft” would not be impossible on a typewriter (or on a pad of paper), but it would be difficult to the point of distraction, which is why writers did have second, third and subsequent drafts of their work. Drafts are an artifact of the technology. Now, I’m aware that many writers still make two or more drafts even though they use computers, and I won’t gainsay them for doing so — the writing process that works for you is the writing process you should use. But I’m glad I don’t have to do that, and I’m glad I work on technology that allows me to write in a manner that is both comfortable and natural to me.

Mind you, and also as I’ve noted before, if PNH came back to me and said “we have a big problem here,” I would revise and rewrite. I like that I haven’t had to do it so far (it makes me feel shiny and competent), but I like putting out good books more, and my experience with PNH has been such that if he said to me there was an issue, well, you know, he’s almost certainly right. Dude won a Hugo for editing, you know. May have a clue what he’s doing.

To be clear, none of this should be implied to disparage writers who turn in manuscripts and then do a chunk of revising off of editorial notes. I know a number of very excellent writers who turn in books and say to their editors “now help me fix it!” — i.e., they very much look forward to the editor’s involvement at that stage. And they should, because that’s what works for them. For me, I prefer it the other way, and so far, I’m happy to say it’s worked, in no small part because my communication with PNH is good enough that a lot of potential issues are sanded down before they even get into the writing.

Erik asks: “Regarding The High Castle, how is that coming?”

It’s fine; I have a couple things on my plate before I get to it. But I’ll be getting to it soon; it’s going to come out in early ’09.

Neil asks: “any amusing end of project rituals?”

Aside from sleeping? No, not really. I was going to buy something stupid and expensive, but then I remembered that there was nothing I really wanted to buy, and anyway not having a regular income means spending only when you have money in hand. Stupid fiscal responsibility.

One thing I did do, that I often do at the end of a writing process, is make a couple of print-on-demand copies of the manuscript, so I can have a printed and bound copy of the text to read and refer to (I don’t have a printer, so I don’t have a physical copy of the text). You’ll recall I auctioned off one of the bound copies of The Last Colony last year in order to benefit the Mike Ford Book Endowment, and that did pretty well; I’m likely to do the same thing this year with Zoe, although probably with a different charity as the beneficiary. I’ll let you all know about it when it happens, obviously.

htom asks: “Book tour in the fall?”

A full-fledged book tour seems unlikely, I would think. Tor just gave me one last year, and I suspect they have other authors they might want to promote, too. I’m game for doing whatever appearances Tor wants me to do, but I suspect it’ll be trade shows and one-off appearances rather than a full tour.

Any other questions? Feel free to ask them in the comments.

39 Comments on “Zoe’s Tale Follow-Up Q&A”

  1. Thanks for the answering my question John, that POD idea is a nice solution to hauling around a large manuscript.

  2. Congrats on finishing ZOE’S TALE. My questions:

    1] Trade show! Trade show! Trade shooooooooow!

    Will you please see if you can come to NEIBA in Boston in September?

    2] Also, will you please answer my “Last of the Red-Hot Short Story Readers” survey at Bookseller By Night?


  3. What is your sequence of writing and ideas? Do you start out with one idea and add to it or do you have a bunch of ideas, original and stolen er borrowed, and plot around them? Or do you have a rough plot and get ideas to make it work? Did that make any sense at all?
    Another question. Why doesn’t the CDF make a dozen SF soldiers from each dead pre-recruit? While they are at it they could also use the DNA from KIA soldiers for more SF soldiers. Oh! They could also use the dna from retired soldiers. I know in the book there is the trust issue of “normal” soldiers not trusting SF troops but at the same time there are places where it is implied that they are short of SF soldiers. More in Ghostbrigades than in OMW.
    Finally how do they pay for all this? I got the impression they don’t tax earth and many of the colonies are just holding on. I am guessing they are taxing the established colonies somehow.

  4. Do you keep old drafts around, though? Do you do a Save As and back up old versions every day or week, just in case you want to retrieve something you’d discarded?

    And also – congratulations! Glad you’re getting some sleep.

  5. Kristi Wachter:

    I have an “excisions” file for large chunks of text I take out of what I’m writing; otherwise, no, there are no previous drafts.


    Pick one of those questions.

    Patty Cryan:

    You’ll need to convince Tor I need to be there. Although interestingly enough, I will be in Massachusetts in September.

  6. Are you going to be making it up to the Great White North any time in the next while? Specifically around the Toronto Area? It would be great to see/meet/hear you.

  7. Considering your rant on staying on subject I will go with the first question which is closest to the subject of the thread.

  8. Jos Yule:

    It’s possible I will be in Toronto in October, but that will be on personal business, not promotional.


    I will usually have one or two scenes in my head and then work from those. ZT was actually an exception to this because I knew the basic plot outline from the beginning.

  9. Am I alone in loving the fact that I can give my money to Amazon today, and have Zoe’s Tale (marketed to me as pre-order package with Charlie Stross’s Saturn’s Children, Amazon’s crystal ball came up huge for them today) show up on my doorstep on Release Day? I mean, for those of us with serious ADD-like symptoms, it’s like dialing up a nice surprise for a summer day. Does any one else do this?

  10. John, ever considered a source control system for your novels? Like SVN or Perforce, I mean. I know, it’s a geeky question, but not that far-fetched; I used source control in the past for articles I was writing, and I found it very handy. Especially Perforce’s Timelapse View, lets you scroll through versions and see the incremental differences, it’s quite amazing :)

  11. I’m the same way, regarding drafts. My “first drafts” are pretty clean because I clean up as I go, do any necessary backfill as it occurs to me, etc. (Sometimes my first readers point out continuity errors or bits that could use expansion, but never anything of book-changing caliber). Of the four books I’ve turned into my editor, two required no changes beyond line edits, and for the other two she asked me to strengthen/clarify some character relationships, both of which were accomplished by dropping in a couple of new scenes and smoothing out the edges.

    The novel in progress has a significant crime/caper element, and I’ve never written something like that before, so it’s possible my editor will make me do it over again because I suck, but I’m hopeful I can avoid such a fate.

    (My editor is, however, perceptive and smart, and the fixes she’s asked for are great fixes. I’m sure if I did turn in a broken book she’d be able to make it work. So far I’ve managed to avoid that.)

  12. I’m sort of supposed to be focused on the convention while I’m there, and I don’t know what my schedule is yet. We’ll have to see.

  13. Neat to hear that you turn it in with the big stuff all plumb, square, and level. It means you have a pretty good picture of your goal and are competent at getting to it even if you don’t do the whole outline thing. Plus, judging from your sucess with your other novels, you pick goals that interest and entertain lots-o-readers.

    How about the little stuff, though? Does the copy editor have lots to do or is it just bits and pieces well hidden in a mass of text?

  14. I try to make it as painless as possible for the copy editors, but I’m not always successful in that task, I regret to say.

  15. Are you ever sufficiently surprised by where your writing takes you that you’re forced to go back and do some serious plot rewiring or character recalibration in order to keep things consistent? Like realizing that a support character needs to have a completely different feel, or that the ending you now want isn’t supported by the setup you built in the first third of the novel? And do you ever lose steam or momentum at that point?

  16. Phil:

    “Are you ever sufficiently surprised by where your writing takes you that you’re forced to go back and do some serious plot rewiring or character recalibration in order to keep things consistent?”

    Not to date, although I’ve certainly have had characters become more important to the story than I originally suspected. The character of Cainen in The Ghost Brigades was an example of that; he was supposed to be only in the first chapter but ended up being a major character through the book. But his surprisingly expanded presence didn’t necessitate any rewriting.

  17. Hi John, just following up with a few links:

    The definition: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revision_control
    The book (optional): http://www.ericsink.com/scm/source_control.html
    The software: http://www.perforce.com/

    I mean, book is finished, now you have time to indulge in a bit of information overload, right? :)

    The principle of it is quite simple. You have a repository server – maybe somewhere in the attic, maybe on the same machine. You start writing beautiful, haunting, breathtaking prose. You’re done with a chapter. You submit it to the repository server.

    One month later, you go through it again. You open your chapter for edit. You create a new point of view and have all your characters reflected through its eyes. You fix some plot holes. You add new ones. You submit again.

    Half a year later, you think: but the first version was so much better! It’s there still, saved as revision #1. Or you wonder: what have I changed between versions #1 and #4? You compare the two, with changes highlighted. Or, for the really cool stuff, you ask for a timeline of the chapter – and you can literally scroll through time, having changes highlighted as you go. (Not to mention the more mundane advantage of having a backup of your work somewhere in the attic.)

    Now, this stuff is incredibly useful when writing software (which I do on an almost daily basis). I was just wondering if it would help you as a writer. On the other hand, it might be just a tool that gets in the way of writing. But that’s for you to decide. :)

  18. How much research do you do for your books? My husband (who is not a writer) subscribes to email newsletters describing the latest discoveries in astronomy and advances in theoretical physics–do you subscribe to any such newsletters?

  19. One of the reasons I write science fiction is so I can make things up rather than research them.

    I do spot research when necessary, but research has not been a huge aspect of my fiction (as opposed to my non-fiction).

  20. Are you the coolest science fiction writer ever, or just close?

    And note that I said science fiction, so that you don’t have to compete with Steven Brust.

    Also note that “cool” is from the perspective of a geek, and therefore has nothing to do with “cool” as it is presented in mindless movies involving teen girls, James Bond, or Quentin Tarantino.

  21. Right now I’m eating Ritz crackers right out of the bag. Doesn’t seem particularly cool to me, but, hey. Maybe.

%d bloggers like this: