A Glimpse Into My Writing Brain Right Now

Just in case you’re wondering, the most annoying part of writing a novel, for me at least, is the part I’m at now, in which the entire novel is figured out, all the moving parts are in place and there are few if any surprises left for you as a writer — but the thing is still not done, because it’s not all written down. So paradoxically the moment that you stop worrying about whether the novel is going to work is also the moment you have to make sure you don’t get lazy or rush just to be done. Just because the novel will work is no guarantee you won’t still crash it through authorial stupidity.

The problem is compounded (again, for me at least) by the fact that since my brain knows the conceptual heavy lifting portion of novel writing is over, it’s begun to wander over to start thinking about the next thing (or in this case, the next possible things, as I have a a few different things I am considering for the next project), which makes the rest of me antsy to be done done done done. Which, again, means I have to be extra careful not to rush just to be done. This is why it’s the most annoying part of novel writing.

Don’t worry, this happens to me with every novel and every project. I keep myself from stampeding through the work because as much my desire to be done right now is more than amply counteracted by my desire not to write something that sucks. It’s worked so far, and it’ll work with this one too. But man, right now? So want to be done. Just thought I’d share.

39 Comments on “A Glimpse Into My Writing Brain Right Now”

  1. I think that urge is present in all occupations. When the “fun” part of an activity is done, we just want to move on, although the remaining 10% is just as important as the 90% we sweated over (even when enjoying it).

    Now that I am retired (have been for 6 years), I am thinking of writing a book, partly to keep my brain from drying up, and partly because, as someone who lost his wife several years ago, I almost feel an obligation to share some of what such a tragedy makes you deal with. It’s hard to learn something new, though. I envy your writing ability, while enjoying it at the same time.

  2. I know what you mean. It’s the final crafting and shaping – the details – that can make or break a truly great piece. I create garments from fabric that I have woven on my own loom, and If I am not paying attention to the finishing of the garment, then it actually diminishes all the work that I put into it beforehand in terms of measuring warp, dressing the loom and weaving. People will judge my work by the final piece, and not by all the planning beforehand.. So press on – press on in your project!

  3. So, the hardest part for you is #1 and/or #2? Of .
    1. You must write.
    2. You must finish what you write.
    3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
    4. You must put the work on the market.
    5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

    These rules appeared in the 1947 essay “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction.”

  4. Actually, last time I glimpsed into your “mind” I got “Bacon-wrapped bacon sandwich, hold the healthy”.

    But that’s just that one time.

  5. So you are in your late third trimester…where you just want the baby OUT already. (I’ve had a kid and have heard others talk about this phase.) Sounds like all creative processes have that kinda feeling then…

  6. “Done, right now!” vs “Done right, now!” Oh, yes. Once the drawings are done, building sets, painting, hanging, installing lights, focusing, cutting gel, … big big yawn. Same in every activity.

  7. I agree with several of the foks above. I’ve done a little writing, but mostly I’m a fiber artist. I think this is a universal part of the creative process. Being able to hold yourself in check and finish project “a” before flying off to start project “b” is the diffetence between being a pro and a talented hobbiest.

  8. I agree with several people above. it’s my least favorite part of writing a scientific paper: once you KNOW the answers to this piece of the puzzle you’re working on, 90% of the fun is gone but a majority of the drudgery may still be left to do before you can send it off.

  9. I’m curious, Scalzi: how long, on average, does it take you from the “aha!” moment where you dream up the idea, to the final typing of the last sentence? How long does it take from the moment you hand in your original draft to your agent/editor, to the moment where the first ARC comes off the presses? Do you find the amount of time you spend on a novel is roughly the same for each book, or do some take longer than others (I would imagine your first novel took a while, since you were just getting your feet wet and just getting used to the process; I’m wondering if it’s streamlined at all since then)?

  10. I’ve been doing embroidery for over 40 years and, yup, it’s the same process, particularly with the commission pieces. I find my brain leaping ahead to the next projects(s) more often when I’m making something for myself. It’s when I’m working on commission that I have to force myself to work carefully, stopping to take a good look at the work before going on to the next section. ( I do hand embroidery; commission work can take anywhere from a month to nearly a year, depending on whay else I’m doing.)

  11. I relate to what John Scalzi says, about writing Science Fiction, novels, and slightly differ from what coolstar says about writing Science research papers for refereed venues. In the latter case, it is fun (for me and my co-authors) to write the Abstract LAST, after the bulk of the paper is done. That makes it seem logical to get from the Abstract to the conclusion, even though the order of writing is the reverse of the order of thinking. A few times that has happened in a short story, novelette, novella, or novel that I wrote. FIRST I knew the ending, and then worked backwards to the opening hook. Except, of course, where we had to throw together an abstract sufficiently tantalizing to get the referees of an international science conference to agree to accept a paper .. which paper we sometimes had not yet started to write. It’s like the difference between story and plot. Like the difference between chronology and screen-time, especially in something tricky, like Pulp Fiction. Or Vladimir Nabokov writing his novel on oversize index cards, scene by scene, then permuting the order, and writing continuity scenes. But with equations.

  12. This is pretty common to creative occupations. I think the most entertaining take on it has been Bob Cringley’s description of what makes a geek vs. what makes a nerd in Accidental Empires. Geeks build the theortical model and then lose interest in the actual application of the solution; Nerds get hung up on making sure that the RSY-232 mode connector wire is transmitting the most efficent 4.2v signal with only 80% of the overall project finished.

  13. I am so comforted not to be the only one who goes through this. I recently finished an outline for my next novel and now my brain is full steam ahead on planning the next project while I edit the last manuscript. Thank god I’m fine with multitasking or I’d totally lose it.. :p

  14. I can sympathize. The book I’m writing right now is two thirds written and I really want to be done the first draft so I can take a break, write something else, and then start revision. Oh well, it’ll happen soon enough.

  15. And yet another parallel: yarn crafts. I’ve made all the pieces for my sister’s afghan, but putting them all together is a royal pain. What I want to be doing is browsing online pattern sites for ideas, and (most fun of all!) shop for more yarn! BUT, I already have patterns and yarn for both granddaughters’ Christmas sweaters waiting in the closet… and still about 40 of those 72 pink hexagons to put together. Ack!

  16. The hard part you describe feels even worse to me in tech writing. The fun part is figuring out the whatever-it-is, and what needs to be said about it. After that, it’s just typing, which I find dull by comparison, and editing, which I find downright tedious.. .

  17. When I was doing mainframe computer programming I used to love creating the program but testing it all out bored me. Documentation wasn’t too bad – it was actual writing and I liked making flowcharts.

  18. John, do you occasionally take a time out from your current writing, in order to jot down ideas and notes for potential future projects? Sort of a ‘mini-vacation’ to a fun place in your mind.

    Focus is great, until it isn’t.

  19. Ah yes, yarn projects; there are times when I’ve just wound 5 skeins and find myself feeling that I shouldn’t have to the knitting as well…

  20. “It’s all done except for the writing” was a favorite sign posted over many reporters’ cubicles at the newspaper where I worked.

  21. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the process, John. I really like this sort of post. And what you describe is similar to my own problem of always looking for the next ‘big thing’ to keep my brain sparkly.

  22. Yup. I work in logistics and do a lot of project work. Build the solution, negotiate the services, make the bid: all a ton of fun. Thats the creative part, where you’re working against the deadline and your competitors. It’s really quite a rush. Once the business is awarded, however, we actually have to *do* it. Yawn.

  23. No sympathy. I’m currently writing a contractually required report for a 2-year long project that failed. Try working up enthusiasm for that.

    Shut-up and write. ;)
    Jack Tingle

  24. This is pretty similar to where I am in my current project–all the scenes have been at least sketched out in summary form and now the next phase is to expand those sketchy bits into a coherent narrative. I have no externally-imposed deadlines, but I’m shooting for a complete draft by the end of October so my decks are clear for NaNoWriMo. Wish me luck.

  25. Can’t say I feel the same way. I mean, I enjoy the character-building, the world-building (a term that amuses me since what I build are mere settings, not entire worlds), and the plotting, but far and away the best part is when I finally get to sit down and actually create the story that’s been waiting at the gates in my head. I literally get goose-bumps when the writing is going well and the outside world recedes to infinity. Writing fiction is the best drug yet invented.

    @ Jonathan Vos Post

    Those only matter when you write for anyone else. Though I concede that the whole point of writing fiction is because you can’t not write, which is functionally equivalent to rule #1. And of course you should finish what you write for the same reason you should finish a fine desert, because why in heaven and earth wouldn’t you?

    But rewriting is also gratifying. I never understood why so many artists have such a taboo against going back and touching up their art. It’s your creation and you’ll have it, thanks to copy-technology in all its various forms, even if you give it to someone else (although I can see why a painter or sculptor might prefer the original given the limitations of copy-tech where material art is concerned), for the rest of your life. Why not tweak it?

    Perhaps a better description would be that those are the Rules for Selling Writing.

    Incidentally, do you really set yourself a writing quota? That seems, IMHO, like a great way to take the immeasurable joy out of the endeavor. From what you’ve said before, it doesn’t sound like writing is your bread and butter.

    Do people really write even if they don’t love writing, even if for them it’s actual work? Why? There are easier ways to earn a living. Nor are writers much rewarded in other ways by most societies. The best they can hope for is the dubious honor of a little short-term notoriety and a very slight chance of one or more of their stories being read for a few centuries or, much rarer still, for a few millennia. Most will sell a few stories and fade into out-of-print obscurity. Who would choose such a thankless task if it wasn’t for themselves?

  26. Oh, yeah. I may not be the queen of unfinished projects, but I have lots more than my share. Somebody at Chicon asked me if I write, and I said “Well, I start stories. When I figure out how they end, I lose interest and wander off…” I’m really glad you’re not like that!

  27. @Gulliver: “Do people really write even if they don’t love writing, even if for them it’s actual work? Why?”

    I doubt this is directed at me, given that most of what I write is nonfiction, but my answer is because I’m pretty good at it, and it’s paying the mortgage.

    Tech writing is essentially mansplaining as a career choice: become an expert at something, and then describe it to everyone else who cares enough to read the documentation. And there are parts of it that I find fun, and parts that suck, but ‘love’ is a pretty strong word.

    Last night, we had a fabulous dinner, and then I spent a lazy evening on the couch with a beautiful person, a dog, and a cat, watching the football game. I loved THAT, but sadly, I have yet to find someone willing to pay inside-the-DC-beltway money for me to do that every day.

    …so, back to the word farm.

  28. I’ve written long-form and short-form, and for long-form I agree, you can’t rush it. You have to let it do what it’s going to do, because sometimes what happens isn’t according to plan. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the characters take over, but what I’ve found is that in the planning stage I may have a very clear agenda for my characters, but as the action unfolds I realize they would do things differently. I think you have to have a strong ego to write good characters, but at the same time, good characters have to be *their own people* and not just facets of you (and by you, of course, I mean me).

    On the other hand, in short-form, I have been flogging myself to get specific projects done in specific time frames. Mostly for the exercise. I am trying to train myself to produce. And infinitely extended deadlines don’t accomplish that.

  29. @ alsohuey

    Yes, I meant fiction writing. Sorry for being unclear. I began my career in technology as a part time tech writer my senior year of high school. Years later, when it had nothing to do with necessity, I wrote two books for a technology publishing company as I was involved in developing then-unique data analysis tools. By the end of book two, I vowed never again to write another non-fiction book. It was 180 degrees from writing fiction. At best it was a nerve-wracking experience and at worst it took many productive hours I could have put into my business. That said, I understand the desire to share knowledge.

    I’ve just noticed that there are a lot of fiction writers who seem to be of the mind I want to be a writer, where to start… rather than of the mind I’m writing this stuff and I think I’ll try to make a career out of it. I’m not saying they can’t become good writers. I simply wonder why, unless they’d be writing that fiction anyway, they choose a career the difficulty of which is not matched by the rewards. If you have something you want to share with the world, then I understand that sharing it may be reward in itself. But if creating that art is work you wouldn’t otherwise do, what is the motivation?

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