Whatever X, Day III

As an FYI, the novel I was writing in this 2001 Whatever entry was Old Man’s War.

JULY 16, 2001: “Working on the Novel”

What a wonderful phrase: “Working on the novel.” Writers know exactly what the means: Not a damn thing. Everyone who is a writer, was a writer, or wants to be a writer is “working on the novel.” There’s not a single journalist I know that isn’t always “working on the novel” — usually a crime thriller in the journalist’s case, don’t ask me why. I think that’s just what journalists are supposed to write, much in the same way women who have lots of candles and listen to Stevie Nicks are supposed to write fantasy novels, or Bennington alumni are supposed to write about their nihilistic drug and bisexual experiences. However, there’s a vast difference between working on the novel and, say, actually writing the novel. Writing involves actually typing. And we all know what a pain in the ass that is.

Working on the novel, on the other hand, merely involves thinking about the novel in a pleasantly detached sort of way. Coolly observing the scene, you know. Taking notes. Discerning the little nuances in behavior others (i.e., people not “working on the novel”) miss. And so on. That takes up a lot of time. And given the typical writer’s disposition and ability to rationalize any behavior in terms of generating raw material for writing, one is more or less always working on the novel. The drawback is that time spent coolly observing is not actually time spent writing, and if one is not careful one can coolly observe all the way to the grave. You can see that epitaph: This is great research for my novel.

Writers feel compelled to state they’re working on a novel for the same reason your waiter feels compelled to inform you that he also acts; it supports the idea that one is doing something noble with one’s life (or has plans to), even if what one is really doing at the moment is entering in box scores or fetching you your iced tea. There’s no real harm in it, as long as the box scores are entered and the iced tea delivered, but the fact is, until you have the novel in hand or the play on the stage, very few people care what you’re doing in your secret, offstage life.

I try to be honest with myself regarding “working on the novel.” If I’m actually writing, then I’m working on the novel; if I’m not writing, then I’m not working on the novel; I’m procrastinating, screwing around or (as the civilians like to call it), “having a life.” I think that in a general sense, writers who are not actually physically working on writing a novel shouldn’t say they are; the Writing Police will not beat you with truncheons if you dare to state that at the moment you’re not working on a novel, nor do you have plans to do so any time soon. The Writing Police don’t exist, anyway, because if they did, Tom Clancy would be serving hard time in a SuperMax facility, and fashioning a shiv out of his toothbrush for an encounter in the yard. And he’s not, damn the luck.

If you want to write a novel, don’t “work” on it — write the thing. It’s a simple enough process: Turn on the computer. Write for 90,000 words. Stop. Then comes the rewriting. And that could take years.

Hey. “Rewriting the novel.” That sounds ever so much better. But for the record, I am working on the novel. And for what it’s worth, I also act.

34 Comments on “Whatever X, Day III”

  1. I am sure I’m not the only Whatever reader who feels personally indicted by this post! Shame can be an excellent motivator for any writer, and also the scpectre of the novel-less life.

    But here’s my question: once you actually get to work, typing or scribbling away, what do you do with those voices that come into your head to tell you (not necessarily you, John Scalzi, but the impersonal “you”) that what you have written is not only terrible, but is possibly the worst thing ever written. How do you fight past them long enough to keep working? No matter how good the final product is, or previous novels have been, most writers say they struggle with these voices.

    How did you (not the impersonal you, but the Scalzi “you”) force yourself to stop “working” on your novel and actually, you know, write it?

  2. I think I am getting it. “Working on the novel” also involves taking your laptop to the coffee shop, right?

  3. Ah yes. Definitely I am rewriting the novel. (While actually, you know, goofing off at work reading blogs.)

    Also, aaaaagh, the voices, the voices.

  4. Evan:

    I’m not a novelist, but I know an answer to your question.

    To deal with/combat your inner critic (IC) do one of two things:

    1.1) Regress to your inner four-year-old (I4yo), and write your first draft with crayons on construction paper (metaphorically or actually). Stick out your tongue and tell your IC, “So? You can’t boss me.” Finish the draft, then invite your IC back for revisions.

    1.2) Adult alternative—Own it and lose your mind completely. Tell your IC, “This blows? Cool. Watch me fuck it up some more! Wheee!” Finish and invite your IC back for revisions.

    B) Ignore it. Get mad. Tell your IC, “Yeah, well as a voice in my head you’re not fit to lick Jiminy Cricket’s balls. I’ll show you, you know-it-all pain-in-the-ass.” Do your best out of spite. Play “Song of the Volga Boatmen” on a loop. Finish, then make-up and invite your IC back for revisions.

    Easy. (said the not-a-novelist)

  5. In my case, it was ‘working on the dissertation.’ It took a threat from the university to cease my degree program to motivate me to actually produce it.

  6. @6 – I think it would be more productive regressing to my inner 14 year old, although finding an ASR-33 teletype with punch tape reader (my weapon of choice at the time) could prove difficult.

    The great thing about being 14 again is that I know everything and any corrections regarding punctuation, grammar or my personal favorite to mangle — shifting tenses — can be disregarded as mere stylistic concerns or differences of opinion.

    John you are overlooking Neal’s Payoff Principle (the procrastinator’s reductio ad absurdum): If I’m not doing it now because it will be better later, I will dictate 10 entirely perfect novels on my death bed. The difficult bit is obtaining a line of credit now on those future works, so that one can enjoy a writer’s life of luxury.

    See you and Mr. Clancy on the slopes in Aspen.

  7. You must have known a weird sample of journalists, Scalzi, because I was a journalist for 20 years and I never met even one who told me he was “working on a novel.” Non-fiction books, yes, occasionally, but usually I only knew that after the book came out.

    Come to think of it, I’ve never met a waiter who told me he was an actor. But then, I neither act or work on a novel. Perhaps it starts with what you tell them?

  8. I forget if this has been asked before, but the thread’s relevant so what the hey.

    What are your thoughts on NaNoWriMo? As something actually geared towards writing, that is; I’m setting aside the fun social activity crazy busy thing aspects of it. Some people believe it’s a good kick in the pants towards actually writing that novel, or, failing that, getting into the habit of 1) Apply Butt To Chair 2) Write. Some people think it’s counterproductive because it’s not real writing; that is, you’re not going to keep up that pace forever so it doesn’t teach you long-term good habits, plus you’re likely to get burned out on writing what was essentially an exercise rather than an actual Novel.

  9. I wrote the first draft of a novel. There were chunks of the narrative I just didn’t feel like writing, so I left a placeholder (“Exposition – Bob explains plate tectonics to his nephew.”) and moved on to the more interesting bits. The end result was around 55,000 words.

    I should have realized that if didn’t enjoy writing it or re-reading what I’d written, then the reader probably wouldn’t enjoy reading it, either.

    Now, every time I try to pick it up and begin the “rewriting” (read: finishing), I get reminded of why I liked the idea of the story, why I liked the characters, and why I liked the general plot. I also, unfortunately, get reminded that the current plot details stink, and that the mountain of work that remains between all of the notes I wrote on how to fix everything must eventually be turned into actual writing.

    Back to the day job…

  10. John you are forgetting what Hollywood will do to your script. You can be the foreign secret service agent trying to steal the US’s secret youth / rejuvenation program, and the love interest to our impossibly beautiful counterspy assigned to you. I suggest Scarlett Johansson for the part.

  11. Lol thanks for demystifying the act of “working on the novel.” A few close friends of mine are working on a novel, yet none have allowed me to peek at their brilliant novel beginnings yet!!! Now I know why…
    lol that being said, I am working on finding an idea for a novel, so I guess I’m just as guilty!!!

  12. I (sadly) remember this post. I was (and still am!) working on my novel.

    What I didn’t remember was Scalzi taking a dig on Tom Clancy.

    What is wrong with Tom Clancy? Without him we would be deprived of many an escapist fair. To say nothing of society’s loss at not getting to see Sean Connery do a Russian (but not really) accent.

  13. Evan: Do like I do and tell the voices in your brain to STFU. And then freak out anyway… but go back to writing in spite of yourself.

    I don’t know many people who say that they’re “working on the novel.” What I *do* meet are people who say (when they hear that I’m a writer and have finished a draft and some rewrites of a novel) “I’ve always wanted to write a book.” If I had a dollar for every one of those … well, I could kick back and wouldn’t have to work on that novel that I’m not working on right now.

  14. I would say I was rewriting the novel, but this week I’m actually rewriting the article for the non-fiction book.

    My troubles with the (re)writing is when to stop rewriting the book and actually send the damn thing out.

  15. That’s it. If I can’t even claim to be working on a novel unless I’m, you know, *working* on the novel, I need a deadline to finish the first draft. Halloween it is — I need to get this draft done before I can participate in NaNoWriMo. If I’m going to finish my draft by Halloween, I will, ergo, ipso facto and Carthago delenda est, need to spend more time working on the novel and less time “working” on the novel.

    Those are finger quotes, not just ordinary quotes, BTW. Sarcastic, self-deprecating finger quotes.

    Thanks for the motivation, John. I may have to tear myself away from the television and miss Sarah Palin’s speech in order to be actually working on the novel.

  16. Ha! That part about writing vs rewriting is sadly so very true.

    First draft of the novel I’m ‘working’ on took 19 days to write.

    The rewrite? You know, that thing I’m actually writing on (minus this 15 minute break for sustenance and blog checking…) Going on two years…

  17. re: your potential cameo: Can’t you just appear as a colonist running down the haul to protect his family from that 4″ coating of ooze in the imaginations of the CDF troops? I mean, so long as we see you actually get swallowed up and choked by the goo.

  18. If women who listen to Stevie Nicks should write fantasy, does that conversely mean that a woman who writes fantasy (say, me) must listen to Stevie Nicks?

    ‘Cause I’m really more of a Rage Against the Machine kind of girl…


  19. Old entry or not, this is still pretty damn funny – not to mention true. I was especially tickled by the Bennington alum bit, being one myself. (Well, sort of. I transfered after two years.) Let’s see… bisexual hijinks I can do. Drugs are also doable, albeit not as interesting. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t get up any enthusiasm for nihilism. I just can’t.

    And now, I’m off to procrastinate from Working on My Novel by actually doing my damn class work.

  20. Argh. I was scanning my friend’s list on livejournal, because I should be writing. I caught wind of this post there, and clicked over, because I should be writing. The whole time I’m reading this post, I’m thinking ‘I should be writing.’ I guess I should be writing…and so I will. Peace.

  21. I can relate. (Hi, me new. :D )

    I am “working on” two theses (Thesises? Much doubtness), a novel (Has dwagons! Wheee!), and a scientific article on our humano-centric view of time (Muh?). And yes, I am indeed an (Amateur!) actor as well.

    Many thanks for making me see I am not alone and that there might still be hope for me (!).

    *Pads off to hunt down and strangle the parantheses-beast*

  22. W00t! Back again after my earlier comment. I finished a rough draft tonight on a short story that’s been in the eternal start-over cycle forever. Feels great!

    It’s not the novel, but, heh, I’m working on that. ;->

    Thanks for the kick, John.

  23. You should best Clancy at his own game, then, Scalzi. Just grab a manual to, say, your car, and write a narrative concerning it. Make your protagonist, perhaps, married to a medical professional. Nurse or doctor, doesn’t matter much so long as she can stitch him up after the gunfights. Also, he has to be Irish-descent.

    Now, here’s the tough part. Should he be the grizzled exsoldier whose personal tragedies haunt him to this day, or the simpering exsoldier whose failings haunt him to this day? They’re very different, you know.

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