Whatever X, Day XXVII

Now, here’s a choice piece of Whatever archaeology, and of some relevance considering that I’ve just spent a week teaching at a writing workshop: the entry I wrote right after I finished Old Man’s War.

OCTOBER 29, 2001: Finished With the Novel

Well, I’m back. And moreover, during the break I accomplished what I set out to do, which was to finish the novel. It’s done, all eighteen chapters and 91,400 (or so) words. Is it any good? We’ll see. What happens next is that I send the novel to a select group of beta testers, who will read the book and offer suggestions on where I might do some tweaking. After tweaking, it’s off to find an agent (my current agent, fine human being though he may be, only traffics in non-fiction) who will then schlep the book to publishers. This could take years, which pretty much sucks. Kids, take it from me: It’s not the writing of a novel that breaks your heart, it’s the attempt to sell it. Don’t cry me a river, since now that I am done with the novel I can concentrate on the book that I did already sell; namely, the astronomy book. So while I’m waiting for the novel to sell, I’ll still see a new book of mine on the shelves. There are worse situations for a writer to be in.

This novel is actually the second one I’ve written, and took longer and was harder to write than the first. The first (Agent to the Stars, which by now I shouldn’t have to tell you is available for reading and download right here on the Scalzi.com site) I wrote in 1997 and cranked through in a little under four months, working on the weekends, while Krissy was at work. The motivation on that one was not to sell the book (which was good because, uh, I didn’t) but simply to see if I could write a novel-length story. This time around Krissy was around on the weekends, we have a child, and the plot of the book was more complex, all of which conspired against easy writing.

The result is that this one took nearly twice as long as the first one, even though it’s the same length (it’s actually just a little bit shorter than Agent, although both are well over the 60,000-word demarcation that denotes “novel-length”). Part of me is annoyed that this one took longer to write — I’m a busy man, you know — but I don’t see how I could have written it in any less time, even if I was doing no other writing. Much of my plot development process takes place on the fly; I usually start off knowing how the book will begin and end, and several of the major plot points inbetween, but how I connect those dots is accomplished during the writing process.

As a result, there were several points where I had to stop and say to myself, How the hell am I going to get myself out of the corner I just wrote myself into.  Then I’d have to go off and think about it for a while. As a result, the strict “write every weekend” rule I had for Agent got tossed out the window for this book while I wrestled with knots in the plot. I managed to untangle most of them (and those I didn’t I simply hacked off, Alexander-like), so at least it was time well spent. I suppose I could simply try to plot out the entire book ahead of time, but I don’t see why I would want to do that. It might save time, but part of my enjoyment of the process of writing is in seeing what comes out; there were several points in the writing of the book where I came up with something that I had no idea I would think of — and it worked perfectly, both in illuminating the moment and in carrying along the plot. It’s fun for me to read something I just wrote and wonder how I came up with it. It’s the writer’s equivalent of working without a net. You trust that you have the skill to make it to the other side. Sometimes you don’t (I have at least one unfinished novel because I fell off that particular tightrope), but often you do.

Also, this way you end up surprising yourself a bit. I really like my new novel (it’s tentatively titled Old Man’s War, in case you were wondering), but it’s not the novel I had written in my head. The novel I had written in my head, the one before I started writing, was a mordantly funny commentary on man’s warlike nature, along the lines of a Catch-22 for science fiction; the novel I’ve written has some blackly amusing moments, but it sure ain’t Catch-22. It’s more sentimental and meditative, although hopefully not in a painfully squishy way, and contents itself with tighter focus than War in General. This isn’t to say the novel I originally had in my head is better than the one that came out — We have to ask ourselves if the world really needs a Science Fiction Catch-22, or at the very least, the version of it I would write. I think it’s more to the point that the book that finally came out of my brain is the one I actually had the interest and skill to write.

Now that I’m done with the novel, I’m shelving fiction writing at least through next June — the astronomy book awaits, and it’s going to take a huge amount of work (I have to design the constellation charts, among other things). But, of course, I do have an idea for the next novel rolling around in my skull. Having written two science fiction novels in a row, I think I want to try something else now; I’m pretty sure the next one is taking in place in the “real” world. If it’s eventually the one I’m thinking about right now, it should be very interesting (for me, if no one else). We’ll have to see. I have to think about it some more.

10 Comments on “Whatever X, Day XXVII”

  1. @2: An idealistic young man, fresh from a west coast prep school, butts heads with a cynical middle-aged professor transplanted from the Ivy League when they both arrive at a midwestern university during the Reagan era. Just as they seem about to surmount their philosophical differences, both are captivated by a dark exotic temptress.

    National Book Award material, baby. Take the fight to Chabon! He zigs this way, you zag that.

  2. “Old Mans War” is probably my favorite work of science fiction. I just picked up your new book and am excited to crack it open. Maybe when midterm season passes.

  3. I wonder if he still has that unfinished novel in a trunk somewhere. I hope so. It’s usually interesting to see someone go back and finish something like that. Not always great literature, but always interesting.

  4. Hmmm. It’s not just the relevance of the fact that you’ve just taught at a writing workshop contrasting with the post-OMW entry; it’s the “could I have but imagined WHICH writing workshop, with which co-faculty member, who did WHAT with OMW?” that tickles the present-day reader’s fancy :-)

  5. My favorite part:

    You trust that you have the skill to make it to the other side. Sometimes you don’t (I have at least one unfinished novel because I fell off that particular tightrope), but often you do.

    Great advice.

    By the way, did you suffer from “post-novel depression”? Just curious. A lot of writers do.

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