2017, Word Counts and Writing Process
Today I wrote 1,850 words on Head On, my novel which is coming out next year. In any year previous to 2017, 1,850 words from me in a single day would be an okay day — slightly below my general average of 2,000 or so that I can reliably pump out on a daily basis, but not so far below that I would worry about it. The 2k daily goal is fungible. Some days I’ll get 1,850 words, some days I’ll get 2,300, and over time it all comes out in the wash. I get a novel done in roughly three or four months, a span of time which leaves room for false starts, snipping out dead ends, and otherwise revising and fixing the novel as I go along.
Here in 2017, 1,850 words on the novel in a day — 1,85o usable words — is an actual goddamned miracle. I started Head On in January with the plan to be done in the first half of the year, to leave the rest of the year open for other projects, including getting a head start on the next book in the Interdependency series. And here we are in October and I’m still not done, and generally speaking I’ve been lucky if I’ve gotten a few hundred usable words out of a writing day. I have never had as hard a time writing a novel as I have had with this one.
Not because this particular book is hard to write. The novel, which is the sequel to Lock In, is complicated — it’s got a mysterious death and lots of twisty and turny bits — but I’ve done complicated before. Complicated is not inherently difficult to write. It just takes attention to detail, which normally I’m able to do just fine. When I write on it — when I have those stretches of being able to write — it all works. The plot flows well, the characters are doing their thing, and everything chugs along. What I’m writing is good. There’s just so much less of it than usually happens for me.
I’m not trying to be mysterious about what it is about 2017 that is different. The answer is obvious: Trump is president, and he’s a peevish bigoted incompetent surrounded by the same, and he’s wreaking havoc on large stretches of the American experience, both in his own person and by the chaos he invites. But to say “well, Trump,” is not really to give an answer with regard to what’s different. We’ve had terrible presidents before — George W. Bush springs to mind — and yet my ability to create work was not notably impacted. When Dubya was in office I wrote five novels. The Dubya era was a crappy time for America (recall the wars and the Great Recession) but from the point of view of productivity, it was just fine for me.
The thing is, the Trump era is a different kind of awful. It is, bluntly, unremitting awfulness. The man has been in office for nine months at this point and there is rarely a week or month where things have not been historically crappy, a feculent stew of Trump’s shittiness as a human and as a president, his epically corrupt and immoral administration, and the rise of worse elements of America finally feeling free to say, hey, in fact, they do hate Jews and gays and brown people. Maybe other people can focus when Shitty America is large and in charge, but I’m finding it difficult to do.
Here’s one way to put it: Twelve years ago, when Hurricane Katrina hit and the US Government flubbed its response and hundreds died, I was so angry and upset that I almost vomited in sadness and anger. It’s not an exaggeration, by the way — I literally felt like throwing up for a couple days straight. I eventually had to write “Being Poor” because it was either do that or go crazy. That was a week of feeling generally awful, and it wrecked me for another week after that. It took two weeks for me to get back on track with the novel I was writing at the time.
Got it? Okay, listen: 2017 has been me feeling like I felt when Katrina hit every single fucking month of this year.
Because, well. Pick a month, guys. Every month of 2017 has been a treat. Travel bans, white supremacists marching, awful health care repeals that just wouldn’t die, and not one, not two, but three historically massive hurricanes and the scouring of Puerto Rico. Russia. Fucking Russia, man. Not to mention Spicer, Scaramucci, Flynn, Price, Bannon, Gorka and the rest of that ridiculous cast. Any one of those is enough to get me (and not just me, lots of people) spun up and distracted. And it’s not just any one of these things. It’s that all of these things keep on happening. When you’re already spun up, it doesn’t take all that much more energy to stay spun up and distracted.
Well, just unplug! Well, see. Here’s the thing about that: I have. And I’ve found out it doesn’t really work like it used to. The world gets in anyway, because the world is in worse shape and wants you to know. It’s not just a matter of unplugging from social media, although it does help to get away from that. But short of building a Faraday cage around my house and then never, ever leaving it, the news of the day arrives.
Now, I want to be clear: It’s not just the news. It really is also me. I have never not been politically engaged — remember I wrote an opinion column when I worked in newspapers, and that I was writing here on Whatever for years before Old Man’s War was published. It’s hard for me to disengage; more than, I suspect, many other people. In a very real sense, this is part of who I am and what I do. I find it difficult to walk away from it, because I know it doesn’t stop just because I’m not paying attention to it.
(And also, while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about the fact that even if it is hard for me to tune this shit out, I could tune it out, with relatively little penalty to me. In Trump’s America, if you’re a straight white rich dude, none of his bullshit is aimed at you personally. Meanwhile lots of people I know can’t tune it out, because the bullshit is aimed right at them. It’s not accurate to say I feel guilt about this. It is accurate to say that I feel uncomfortable not standing with my friends and others who don’t have the luxury I have, of tuning out when it’s inconvenient to be tuned in. Note also this is also about me — I know folks who have to tune out in order to stay outside of a depression spiral, and I encourage them to do so. This about my own struggle with this stuff, not anyone else’s.)
What 2017 has been doing for me is making me realize that I can’t do work in the same way I used to. It’s too hard to tune out what’s going on in the world, and because of it I have to make some changes — to my workflow, to my understanding of what’s a good writing day, and in allocating time to get work done. In effect, I have to learn how to change my swing in order to work effectively in this chaotic new environment. It’s taken me longer to figure this out than I would have liked; I’ve spent a lot of time this year trying to get make the old workflow function rather than reconfiguring my process to the new facts on the ground. Part of this was, simply, hoping things would settle down and get back to normal. But it’s October 2017 and it’s time to face the fact that, at least as far as my writing process goes, the old “normal” is gone.
Why am I talking about this right now? Basically, because I know it’s not just me. I know a lot of writers have seen their process take a hit here in 2017. It’s hard to focus when the world is on fire, and with novelists in particular, I suspect that sometimes it’s hard to focus when you’ve got the suspicion that your fiction is almost frivolous in the context of what’s going on right now. Well, and maybe it is. But, speaking as someone who spent an hour retweeting pet pictures today to break up the horror of mass shooting news in people’s tweetstreams, sometimes frivolity helps. And for all writers (and probably other creative people as well), knowing that you’re not the only one having a fucked-up world messing with your process might make you feel less alone.
(Yes, yes, Scalzi, solidarity with writers and all, but what does this mean for Head On? From the reader point of view: Nothing. The book will be written in ample time for the April release date. And it will be excellent — like I said earlier, what I’m writing is good. It’s just slower this time.)
So, yeah, writers: this gig is harder here in 2017. It’s not just you. And I feel you. I really do.