An Interesting Fact About The Consuming Fire
Posted on December 3, 2018 Posted by John Scalzi 69 Comments
Last night on Twitter someone recounted a convention panel he’d been to, where the panelists were (jokingly) annoyed with my writing speed and publishing frequency. To which I replied, “It’s a good thing they don’t know I wrote The Consuming Fire in two weeks. That would not help things.”
To which I got more or less the following response from other writers on Twitter and in email (and I paraphrase, here): “YOU FUCKING DID NOT.”
Readers: I most sincerely fucking did.
Specifically, nearly all of The Consuming Fire was written between June 4 and June 18 of this year, the latter date being when I turned the book in, at 7:30 in the morning, having written through the course of the night. I then tried to sleep but was too tired to do so, so I went to watch cartoons and then turned them off ten minutes later, because they were too complicated to follow. Krissy tells me that by her estimation it took a full week for my brain to get back up to full speed, and that in the interim I mostly shuffled around the house with a blank look on my face. This feels accurate to me.
Why did I write the book in two weeks? For many reasons, but the simplest reason is that I had no choice. The book had a drop-dead turn-in date of June 18, and as of June 4, I hadn’t really started on it, for various reasons, some reasonable and some really not. If years in journalism taught me anything it’s that you don’t blow a deadline. So that meant I had to write the thing in two weeks.
How did I write the book in two weeks? I turned off the Internet, hid from social media, asked Krissy to occasionally slip food underneath the door, and then set a goal of 8,000 words a day. Some days I hit that goal, sometimes I didn’t, and on the final day I wrote something on the order of 12,000 words. I didn’t sleep much. I looked a fright.
More generally, I was able to write a novel in two weeks because a) my journalism training prepared me to write quite a lot of words, relatively cleanly, at speed (not to mention writing here on the blog), and b) I had at that point written 14 novels, so the muscle memory, as it were, of pacing and formatting kicked in.
Also, and this is actually important, when I say I wrote the book in two weeks, it’s rather more accurate to say I typed it in two weeks. I had been writing the book — figuring out who was doing what to whom and how and why and when — in my head for close to eighteen months at that point. When I sat down to put it into a document, the majority of the story and plot beats were figured out. There were a few surprises as I was writing; a few things happened I didn’t plan for but which turned out to be really useful, which I chalk up to my brain figuring things out on a subconscious level and surfacing them when I needed them. Well done, brain! Sorry I abused you during the writing process!
(Oh, and before you ask, I did it pharmaceutically straight, with nothing stronger than Coke Zero in my system. But there was indeed a lot of Coke Zero in my system.)
Even if I was mostly typing during those two weeks, the experience of doing such a thing is, bluntly, just a fucking horrible miserable thing which I did not like. I mean, it’s nice to know I can write a novel — and not just a novel! A good novel! That’s popular with critics and readers and has sold really well! — in just two weeks if I have to. It’s nice to know that the writing skill is there to write at speed, cleanly and coherently. But I also never ever want to have to do it again. Sure, it’s fun to be all casual about it now, and to toss off lines joking about it on Twitter like it was no big thing. But it hurt, physically and mentally, both during and directly after the writing. I’m almost 50. I can’t being doing this shit on the regular.
More to the point, not only do I never want to do it again because it’s terrible for me, but I don’t ever want to do it again because it’s not fair to the other people who work on my books. Everything about The Consuming Fire production got crunched because I turned the book in at literally the last minute. Everyone involved came through like a champ, and novel came out when it was supposed to, and looks and reads great. But I don’t want to have “crunch” be the usual mode. I don’t want to be the problem child.
This is (among other reasons) why I don’t have a book out from Tor next year. I’ll be writing a book for Tor next year (almost certainly the next book in the Interdependency series), but it’ll come out in 2020, so we can have a nice, sane production process and also, have nice sane production processes for every book that follows. I don’t regret having two books out in 2018 — they both did very well, critically and commercially — but building in a better process moving forward is going to be the best for everyone.
So, yes: I wrote The Consuming Fire in two weeks. I’m glad to have had the experience! I wish not to have it again, if it’s all the same to everyone else.
I love this. I write my books in speed sessions too, and then set them aside to revise and polish over months later. I like your tactic 🤔
I dont know how true it is, but I read a reference ( I think it was brought up in ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck’) about an NYT best seller writing the same way! Keep up the good work, my friend!
On the other hand, now we know we could have the next book in the Interdependency in two weeks AND WHY THE HELL ISN’T IT FINISHED YET?!?!?!?
And this cruel taunting just makes it worse!
I haven’t even gotten the chance to READ it yet and I’ve had the book for over two weeks! Now I feel even more inadequate…
Hey, if two people can write The Cabin in the Woods in three days, I guess this seems reasonable. For painful values of “reasonable”.
I feel almost like I should stop reading it in disgust, but I really need to know what happens, and where that [REDACTED] came from. Just as an FYI, I love Kiva Lagos. I mean, I like several characters, but I love her.
Oh god, crunches. I don’t hit one very often, and I’ve always (I think) made my deadline. But when I do have to crunch, there’s this litany that goes through my head on a nonstop loop: “Why do I do this to myself? Why do I do this to myself? Why do…?”
Tl;dr: ick feh. You have my admiration, and my condolences, sir.
I genuinely wish Warren Ellis hadn’t just put his newsletter on its annual Christmas break yesterday. I think his reaction to this would have been one for the ages….
It was wonderfully put together, but yes please don’t do that again. The thought of you burning out is a very unpleasant one.
Most people I’ve worked with have agreed with Douglas Adam’s view of deadlines, rather than yours.
I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by. – Douglas Adams
The end of “The Android’s Dream” felt different to me than the rest of the book, and I think I found out later that you wrote something like the last 15,000 words in one shot. It wasn’t better or worse, and it still fit together just fine. I could only describe it as a different “flow.”
So you could give us 26 books a year and you choose not to? I see what you’re like.
“as of June 4, I hadn’t really started on it, for various reasons, some reasonable and some really not.”
I gather that the insanity of the Trump presidency had something to do with it?
Wowzers. This sounds actively painful. And it was a fun book! I enjoyed reading it! Made me want to get the next one! I kind of thought you must have enjoyed writing it too, because it doesn’t feel laboured or forced. I guess not. Did you at least enjoy parts of writing it?
Wasnt this about the time you started putting… unique… foods into burritos? Might explain some of those recipes.
I enjoy the book! I think it’s immensely readable.
FWIW, Philip K. Dick compared writing to downhill skiing. He could bang out a novel in a matter of days . . . . sitting in his tar paper shack and eating dog food.
“12000 on the final day.” I’ve done that once only and it about killed me. Bravo, John. Glad you’re not making a habit of it.
What would have been a less killer pace?
3 weeks? 4 weeks?
All kidding aside, it sounds like you hit the zone on Consuming Fire.
Yep. I once wrote like that for two weeks and the same zombie-like state happened to me too. I won’t be doing that again if I can help it!
I totally understand this. When I was still writing (which I hope to do again soon), my physical writing is mostly transcribing my brain.
The historical ignorance of your writer critics is a bit depressing. A little knowledge of the history of popular publishing, which one might suppose a writer would possess – or a quick visit to google – will come up with plenty of examples of authors who kept up this level of productivity for years on end. I guess that they mostly treated it like a day job: sit at your desk for eight hours a day and type. What’s more they didn’t write the book in their mind before they started typing (as they were using that time to type up the previous book).
It would be really nice for readers if you could complete the rest of the books in your current publishing contract on 2019 – should be easy, write a book in two weeks then take two weeks off dreaming up the next one – but you would have a lot of authors pissed off at you for stealing all Tor’s publishing slots.
By the time I finished “Consuming Fire”, I liked it better than I thought I was going to mid-way. And I DID like it. Thank you for your work.
You have a week to turn in the next in the “Interdependentcy” Series
Oh, man, John, I can empathize. Back when John and I had the same nonfiction agent, I showed up in Las Vegas for what was planned to be my valedictory “my first book is finished” vacation with two chapters and the outline in my book proposal, several days past deadline. Received a call from Robert the agent, telling me that my publisher could, at any time, demand reimbursement of the entirely-spent advance.
Result, I literally locked myself in the closet of the first hotel room so as not to disturb the buddy I was traveling with, and when I arrived at the second room that had a writing nook, I didn’t leave it for a week. Even then, I only managed to finish because a snowstorm shut down the East Coast and I was stranded in Vegas for two extra days (with my friend’s gambling comp covering the room).
Average output was 7,000 words a day, without the benefit of John’s journalism training, but with the benefit of undiagnosed bipolar disorder and a hypomanic high. And hey, the book was good. A few passages I’d change now, but literally last week I found a stunning review by a reader on Amazon who said, “I bought this 21 years ago and it changed my life.”
John has the emotions of this pegged: it’s a great ego stroke to know I could do this, and man, I wish I had never found out.
There’s a saying: “Plan, plan, plan, plan….DO!” It sounds like you took this to the extreme. I could see this working as it was a continuation of strong characters in a universe of former stability and current chaos. I could also envision moments in the grocery store when your mind would stray from burritos and on to juicy bits of dialogue. Did you speak the lines aloud? Are you no longer welcomed in certain groceries?
“Also, and this is actually important, when I say I wrote the book in two weeks, it’s rather more accurate to say I typed it in two weeks. I had been writing the book — figuring out who was doing what to whom and how and why and when — in my head for close to eighteen months at that point.”
so… when other writers say, YOU FUCKING DID NOT… they’re absolutely right.
Which is not to say that the typing part doesn’t count. I wrote a third of a book one weekend, and it just about burned me out on writing for years. (Again, deadline.) What’s worse, it affected the next four books I did, and that DID burn me out for years.
So, I believe you. And boy do I sympathize.
I write software. A boss used to get nervous because I wasn’t “doing anything”. Just about the time he was going to panic I’d start writing the code and bam! it was quickly done. As Scalzi points out, all the work was done and in my head or some notes on paper. It just needed to come out the finger tips.
I’m not happy to write this, but it all makes sense. This book is a good yarn but it’s unfortunately written like a fanfic.
I’m sorry I wrote that but I really mean it. Everything that happens should have happened in the over-arcing story, but the prose is the least effort from you I have ever read.
Don’t write books like journalism works.
Damn. I’m sorry is couldn’t have deleted that. Damn, I shouldn’t have written that.
At least you had a plan! Enid Blyton, the famous children’s writer knocked out thousands and thousands of words a day without one. The downside of such a process is that the plot is barely coherent and the characterisation really thin, the upside is that you can practically see a creative person figuring stuff out right there in front of you, which is pretty cool. Did you ever do any shorter stories freeform like that?
So far, I can barely handle a long short story. I am in awe :)
I read it in two days! Symmetry!
Goes to show how varied the ‘creative process’ can be across a spectrum of writers.
If I recall though, you have missed a few deadlines before. Was this one just completely non-negotiable for practical reasons? Could you not have pushed the release back a few weeks?
Regardless, I’m glad everything worked out. Loved the book!
Reminds me of my approach to writing papers in college. Think, think, think…write the whole thing the night before.
Note: I did not graduate. I got decent grades on the papers, but that method did not lead to long term success for me…
For what it’s worth, Georges Simenon wrote nearly 500 novels. They typically took him 11 days apiece. And most of them were damn good.
First I enjoyed this book, so I am not bashing it, and the answer might be “we will never know” but now that you have had some distance so you think a more “sane” production process would have resulted in a even better book?
We may as well get this one over with first: You’re frequently charged with producing too much.
JOYCE CAROL OATES
Productivity is a relative matter. And it’s really insignificant: What is ultimately important is a writer’s strongest books. It may be the case that we all must write many books in order to achieve a few lasting ones—just as a young writer or poet might have to write hundreds of poems before writing his first significant one. Each book as it is written, however, is a completely absorbing experience, and feels always as if it were the work I was born to write. Afterward, of course, as the years pass, it’s possible to become more detached, more critical.
I really don’t know what to say. I note and can to some extent sympathize with the objurgatory tone of certain critics, who feel that I write too much because, quite wrongly, they believe they ought to have read most of my books before attempting to criticize a recently published one. (At least I think that’s why they react a bit irritably.) Yet each book is a world unto itself and must stand alone, and it should not matter whether a book is a writer’s first, or tenth, or fiftieth.
from her Paris Review interview* – and note that that’s the very first question they ask her. Personally, John, your post reminds me of Joseph Epstein’s quote about how, “Envy is the only deadly sin that’s no fun at all.”
No. My output is remarkably consistent in tone/quality no matter the amount of time it takes to write it. Whether one likes that tone/quality, of course, is another thing entirely.
There are deadlines and there are deadlines.
Next time think before you post, my friend. Then you won’t live in regret.
Also: I’m happy with the book, or I wouldn’t have turned it in. It’s okay that you’re not, however.
This reminds me of Inside the mind of a master procrastinator:
Fine art painters like me who do it professionally, entering juried competitions and having, or being included in, exhibitions can face a similar time crunch. I retrospectively did too many pieces for a solo show years ago and the quality was overall ‘acceptable’, which really wasn’t good enough. But I learned how many pieces I can paint at what sizes in a given amount of time and not compromise on quality. So that was a good thing. Around here we call it being a “professional” and you, John Scalzi, are a terrific example of exactly what that means.
Waiting for the next Interdependency installment *drums fingers on table*.
Oh my goodness. I am in awe.
Please don’t do that to yourself again, but I am in awe that you did it.
Yeah, I wrote all my college papers like that, but they were only 5-10 pages, and I was 20. What you did is just frackin’ scary.
I can imagine what could have led up to that outcome. And I dearly hope that you will find it easier to take better care of yourself the next time you embark on a project of that magnitude.
That is partly selfish, of course – I freely admit that I would very much like to read more of your work in the years to come. But I’d also like very much for you not to work yourself to death, just because I don’t like it when people do that sort of thing.
Thank you for all your efforts on The Consuming Fire, sir. It was an unmitigated delight to read, and I’ve ordered another signed copy from Jay and Mary’s to give to my sibling, who will love it as much as I did.
And thank you also for engaging in better self-care for the next installment.
I once stayed up all night writing a major Poli-Sci paper in college. The next morning at 8 I arrived at my engineering class to a pop quiz. Not only could I not work the problems, I couldn’t really understand the questions. Fortunately, it was a minor part of my grade in that class but I learned never to try that again.
Wow, that’s serious output. I was always impressed that a friend of mine wrote his doctoral CS thesis in ten days at Disneyland. Apparently, that was where his brain worked best. As with your book, he had done all the thinking. He just had to do the writing.
Be thankful you are not Barbara Cartland. She was cranking out a book every two months for decades. Then she hit 77 and started cranking out two books a month. It killed her. She died at 97. Even she could only take 20 years of it.
“(Oh, and before you ask, I did it pharmaceutically straight, with nothing stronger than Coke Zero in my system. But there was indeed a lot of Coke Zero in my system.)”
I was going to say: Stephen King needed a different kind of coke to manage these kinds of word counts in the early 80s.
Stephen King needed a different kind of coke to manage these kinds of word counts in the early 80s.
King’s very methodical, though – or at least, that’s how he describes his process. He does 2k words every single day, without fail. He writes a lot, but it’s at a consistent (and, day-to-day, not particularly mindboggling) pace.
Well done on doing it, well done on knowing you don’t want to do it again. My writing partner pulled ‘typing a 300,000-word draft in a few weeks’ once, and in his case, not only did his health suffer for a while, but the draft was an editor’s nightmare (around 220,000 words in, a supposed evil mastermind’s efforts began to … well, it worked for Cobra Commander a couple times in G.I. Joe…). Very glad things turned out better for you, but it’s important to look after yourself.
Like others here, I pull all-nighters writing essays during college, too. Once did two 10 page essays in one night and was useless for the rest of the day… (Had a crazy roommate who threatened to jump off the balcony a week before, too; so I had to write them on a laptop at a friend’s apartment)
I remember it. When you announced the start of the quest on Whatever, I immediately thought of “going to the mattresses” and felt the urge to begin lighting candles. The Before and After pictures spoke volumes, so with respect…
Thanks *very* much; please don’t do it again.
One thing I really respect about journalists is that “writer’s block” doesn’t even enter the picture in their work. They need to write something so they sit down and do it.
Reminds me of a few occasions in my life as a programmer that feel pretty similar. At this late juncture in my career I now mostly provide technical leadership and architectural design for enterprise wide infrastructure technologies with acronyms and descriptions that are often heard as gibberish to those outside IT (and sometimes those in the field) but much of my career was spent primarily designing and writing applications. I remember a couple of occasions with deadlines that really mattered and which, for a variety of reasons (like you, some reasonable and justified and others less so) I had very little time to write the application. On one occasion I wrote the key and most complex elements of one over the course of about two weeks. On the other, a simpler application, I literally wrote it overnight before presenting it to the user the next day. In both cases, as you mention, I understood the problem domain and had worked out how the application would function. It was more a matter of transforming what was in my head into functioning code, not exactly the same as writing, but a process that feels pretty similar to me. The larger two week effort especially felt much like you describe. And I was pretty useless for a while after doing it. It’s an incredible drain on both mind and body. Like you, it was nice to know I *could* do it if I absolutely had to. (Thanks brain!) And never want to experience anything like that again.
Jesus Christ, that’s something. Especially since *I couldn’t tell*. “The Consuming Fire” didn’t read any differently than any of your other novels to me, prose-wise.
Better than some, in fact — I found “Lock In” oddly unsatisfying, though I loved “Head On”.
I know that you’re a fictional internet character but I really like you because you included Not Screwing Up Everyone Else as a good reason not to do that again.
This reminds me of J. Michael Straczynski’s description of the season and a half of Babylon 5 that he wrote all the episodes, consecutively. This in addition to his official job as executive producer, so he had to go to various script meetings, department meetings, answer questions on the set, meet with Chris Franke to score music, do final editing in the post-production bay, etc. He was getting about 4-6 hours of sleep a night. His hair went from salt-and-pepper to all gray in that time and his health worsened.
He was also adamant that he would never do that to himself again. Especially after an incident a couple of years later when an electrician came by the warehouse and all but condemned his office, because it was also where the entire warehouse’s electrical power came through and the electromagnetic field levels were unfit for human presence over four hours per day. (B5 had its offices and soundstages all in one big warehouse that used to be part of a spa factory, well away from the Warner Brothers lots, to help make sure nosy rubberneckers didn’t come by and interrupt them.)
Reminds me of the old pulp writers, like Walter Gibson, who’d have several typewriters on a shelf so he could move to a new machine if the one he was pounding broke down. He published about half a million words a year.
I hate the feeling of being up against a deadline (self-imposed or professional), yet I keep letting it happen. Born two weeks late, and I’ve been procrastinating ever since.
When I was paid (poorly) by AOL (never work for them) to write a fiction column, I’d let it get to the last day then pound out 5000 words in a kind of fever. Ridiculous way to work. Exciting, but stupid. Never missed the deadline, but one illness or household emergency and I would’ve.
I’m 58 now, working on a novel while doing a full-time day job. Can’t take all-nighters anymore.
Actually, I like the second book in the now trilogy considerably better than the first one. Granted that there was a lot of set-up going on in the first book but the pacing was much better in “The Consuming Fire.”
J. B. Priestley wrote “An Inspector Calls” in a week (sometime around the mid-to late 1940s. He also said too that he would never do it again if he had a choice. (oddly enough if performed first in Russia because all the theaters in London were booked).
An interesting author, John Scalzi ( “Scalzi does it again” ) who puts out very interesting emails…thanks for making the holiday time even more interesting for people who may be home due to winter storms…etc….great stuff you post in email…and amazing how you offer up a way for unknown authors to get their material out…thanks from H R ( the human race )…
That’s some serious, high-quality, productivity. In your copious amounts of free time . . . ahem . . . you can give this job a shot:
shoulder to wheel
nose to grindstone
butt to chair
fingers to keyboard
see what john scalzi hath wrought
In my worst summer ever, 2010, I wrote 302 of 351 pages of my doctoral dissertation in between Memorial Day weekend and July 6 – the deadline for submitting a copy for format check. Definitely a hard deadline; there are never any exceptions. This included edits suggested by my major professor. I wrote 9-10 new pages per day, and also either did the edits suggested, or supplied the argument against the edit (he was a very reasonable man, fortunately). It was the best writing I ever did in graduate school, especially the last chapter. I was on the brink of literally going crazy. I could feel it. I slept through most of a day after turning it in. I have a very good idea of how you felt.
Your feat doesn’t surprise me at all. Mainly because it’s you. If a regular person like me could crank out what I did, then someone like you could do a really good novel in a shorter time. Of course, yours is entertaining to more than a very narrow audience. :-)
I’m the editor (read: sole writer of/reporter for) a small town local weekly newspaper. In any given week I write (after doing the necessary interviews and research) between 8,000 and 16,000 words. Yes, you can write that many words. Deadlines do concentrate the mind wonderfully.
I am personally very impressed and grateful for authors like yourself, Brandon Sanderson, NK Jemisin, Larry Correia, etc… that have a strong work ethic and commitment to deadlines. It is nice to have confidence when you pick up a new book at the beginning of a series that the author treats the release of the next book very seriously and has reacted well to deadlines in the past.
The advantages of having a background in journalism:
1) any tendency to writers’s block is burned out
of you within a few weeks of starting work by
unsympathetic news editors;
2) you very quickly learn the direct link
between writing and eating;
3) you pick up a style of sorts;
4) you get to hang around in interesting places;
5) you learn to take editing in your stride, and
tend to be reliable about deadlines;
6) you end up with an ability to think at the
keyboard and reduce the world to yourself
and the work in hand; you have to do this
to survive in a world of ringing telephones
and shouting sub-editors.
None of this makes you talented or good, but it does
help you make the best of what you’ve got.
Because I’m always interested in other writers’ processes:
Are you normally a binger or a plodder? Writers usually fall into one category or the other.
The plodders — when they are in the mood to write — sit down and turn out a more or less steady chunk of words day after day.
The bingers go for long and unpredictable stretches of time producing no copy and then their muse gets inspired and a torrent of words pours out.
I think that most authors binge-write. I’m in the minority that plods.
“How to be a successful writer” panels tend to be disproportionately loaded with plodders, because if you are that sort of writer and you can turn out decent prose (two big ifs) you are pretty much guaranteed a measure of success. That doesn’t make it the only way to be successful — I know plenty of very successful bingers.
It’s why aspiring authors should always take advice from such panels with a grain of salt, because they will often tell you that what you should do is chain yourself to the keyboard each day until you have generated your X words. Which may work if you are a plodder but is a guaranteed failure mode if you’re a binger.
– pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
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I played the Krissy role when my OH did a similar thing last year – a 90,000-word novel in a month. Only this one wasn’t plotted in advance and he was renovating our house in the daytime and writing at night. Very interesting to watch, but I don’t think either of us could do it again. My sympathies, as always, to Krissy – not that she appears to need them!