Novel Writing Status, January 2021

Picture in which people who do not want to talk about politics talk about politics
Cartoon by Emily McGovern. Visit her site by clicking on the image.
John Scalzi

So, Scalzi,” you ask, “how is the writing on the next novel going here in January?

Thank you for asking. The answer is: Not well at all!

And the reason, of course, is [gestures at the world]. I made the comment a couple of weeks ago that it wouldn’t actually be 2021 until January 20th at 12:01pm, but turns out neither I nor anyone else really had any idea just how 2020 the first couple of weeks of January 2021 would be.

Here’s my here’s how my January novel writing has gone so far:

January 1-3: Hey, it’s New Year’s weekend, maybe actually relax and get ready for the first work day of 2021 on January 4.

January 4: Here we go! Aaaaand: 250 words. Okay for the first day back!

January 5: Another 250 words. All right, but, gotta bump up those numbers, those are rookie numbers.

January 6: Well, fuck.

January 7 – 10: Seriously though what the actual fuck

January 11: Okay, focus! Sooooo here’s another 100 words plus moving some stuff around to see if it’s any better in a different configuration, okay, no, not really, fine, but still, you did something, that’s a victory, take it

January 12 (today): Gaaaaaaaaaaah fuck where is my brain

And the answer to that is the same answer as I think most other people have at the moment: Following the news to find out what Our Seditious President and His Traitorous Party are up to today. To recap: The president just ordered a hit on Congress and also American democracy; his enablers in Congress are in deep denial about that and/or trying to pretend, like the abusers they are, that it’s somehow the Democrats’ fault; and all the president’s little insurrectionist foot soldiers are apparently waving their Trump flags and screaming “we’re coming back to do it again next week!” This is not conducive to writing novels, folks, or at least to me writing them.

(“But you’re writing this, how is that different?” Well, because this is reaction. It’s me processing events; I don’t think after 22 years of this site being around that it will come as a surprise when I tell you that one way I contextualize and get a grip on the world is to write about it here. Reaction is a different writing muscle than creation, and my creation muscle works best when its owner (that’s me) isn’t freaking out about the world (or is sick, which is a thing that happened last November and December).)

(Also, I think it doesn’t help that the current novel I’m writing is meant to be a little darker than what I usually write, is a war story, and has a political subplot (in the context of that universe, not this one) which helps drive the story. To the extent that writing fiction can be seen as escaping this world into a different one without the problems of our own, the world I’m “escaping” to is, as a matter of structure and story, not at all better for my overall mood.)

The next novel is meant to come out in October; it’s January and I’m nowhere near done with it. I can still get it done in time for October, depending on when I do finish it, and how much of a crush we put — again — on the editing and production processes. Tor gave me extra time with this novel so that I could get it in early enough that we could have a leisurely production process and have more time to market/promote it. This was a fabulous idea, which happened to run smack into 2020 (and this bit of that year’s hangover), and the various physical and mental challenges that year offered.

As they say, it is what it is. I’m responsible for getting my work done, and while Tor and the people I work with there have been more than understanding about where my brain is and how it’s had an impact on my productivity — in no small part because they’ve seen that impact with other of their authors, and themselves — I still feel bad about the current state of my novel. One of my great selling points is reliability; like the Post Office, I deliver in rain and snow and sleet and dark of night. But like the Post Office, our current situation is really fucking with my reputation.

I feel bad about that — but I feel bad about it up to a certain point, and not much after that. Without qualification, we live in extraordinary times, times that have no exact parallel in our country’s history. I wrote this on Twitter the other day:

And the thing is, it’s true. January saw a bomb go off under our democracy, put there by a president whose own emotional frailty made it impossible for him to accept that he was voted out of office, and by a political party who saw a concrete benefit in pretending that a legitimate, legal election was anything but. Both the president and his party spent months energizing the worst among us into the violence that we saw last Wednesday, violence which may continue in the week to come, and perhaps even beyond that. To be clear, the events of last Wednesday are not a direct parallel to 9/11 (Twitter folks immediately started nitpicking that, because of course they did), but they are on the same level of wrenching national impact.

And, well. How bad should I feel about having my ability to write a novel impacted by that? How bad should I feel for at this moment prioritizing the real world over a fantasy world? In both cases: Not all that much! Right now, I feel intellectually that the real world is where my attention should be. And also, even if I did not feel that way intellectually, on an emotional level my brain is going to focus on the real world anyway. I can either fight it or accept it. I’m going to accept it.

Here’s my plan from now through 12pm January 20: I’m not to preclude the idea of getting work on the novel done, but I’m also not going to fret if it doesn’t, because, after all, [gestures at the world]. After 12pm January 20? Well, I suspect I’m probably going to need a day or two to see how things shake out immediately after the switch in administrations, and then we’ll go from there. Please know I don’t expect the world to immediately change into a happy land of cakes and flowers in the week after the inauguration. I’ll just be looking for the signs that it’s all right to start thinking about other things again.

Why do I tell you these things? Two reasons. One, to the extent that it’s useful for me to say “Hi, I’m an award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of many books and someone who has been writing professionally for 30 years, and this last week has fucked up my brain, don’t feel bad if it’s done the same to you,” I’m happy to do that. You and your fucked-up brain are not alone.

Two, if in fact my next novel doesn’t get released in October, and is punted down the schedule a bit, the events of this month, and a bunch of the stuff leading up to it, is some of the reason why.

I’m okay with that, and you should be, too. Neither I nor Tor, nor any other of my publishers, has any interest in putting out something that reads like I was distracted and unfocused. If the book comes out in October, it means I was able to get back into the novel’s world on time. If not, then you’ll be glad I took the time to get back into the novel’s world. Simple as that.

That’s the state of my novel writing, right now.

— JS

51 Comments on “Novel Writing Status, January 2021”

  1. Also:

    Generally speaking I’m fine, albeit like (I suspect) most other people, I’m fatigued and pissed off by recent events. January 20 cannot come quickly enough. This is not a hug-trolling post (although I like hugs, or did in the Before Times), rather a post to share where I’m at with various things. Hopefully it’s helpful to you.

  2. My January novel writing experience has gone EXACTLY like yours, with the exception that I actually managed two days of 600 words before it all went to shit again. Not gloating about that, mind – I’m just rather chuffed that I managed that as I’ve been in a writing drought since my hard drive crashed and lost me several chapters back in May of 2018. Yeah, it’s been a rough few years for me creatively (the state of the world also impacted me artistically). I fully completed Inktober for the first time ever (with 2 bonus drawings, even!) was starting to get excited about my story again after the election seemed settled, and then gestures at the world.

  3. I would submit that, in a way, last Wednesday’s insurrection was worse than 9/11 in its emotional impact because the attack came from domestic enemies of the government, domestic enemies with whom many fellow citizens are in solidarity, to one degree or another. The 9/11 attacks unified our country because we united against a common, foreign enemy who “hates America.”

    What to do when the folks who hate American democracy are our fellow Americans?

  4. I don’t agree with your “2020 starts Jan 20” comment. January fifth was an awesome day and while January sixth very much wasn’t, at least it appears to have consequences. We’ve had four years of that guy, his party, his enablers, sycophants and followers saying and doing things without consequences, but now we have a new year and finally consequences. Starting with losing a very winnable election on the fifth.

    2020 is over.

  5. I have a crazy demanding job that has multiple deadlines every single work day. How many of those deadlines do you figure I met in the last few days? Even having been on a staycation all last week, I’m having difficulty doing anything but reacting to the news. (And all the reading I had hoped to do during the staycation? Pffft. Instead of 10 books, I read three. But I read a lot of Twitter!) Yes, it does help to hear that you — and the others commenting here — have had the same difficulty.

  6. I REALLY appreciate your sharing your process, and difficulties and distractions in the face of the horrible news. So affirming, and I share these posts with other writers who are struggling. Thank you!

  7. Yeah, I’m not bothering with writing projects any more either like I had planned to.

    I just arranged to take Inauguration Day off from work because ain’t no way I can pretend to give a fuck about my job that day while I wait for the capital to be mobbed, blown up, shot at, whatever.

  8. Well, john, you and your fucked up brain are not alone either. I am broken.

    About the 9/11 thing….all this because someone lost an election. I mean, I admit I have no political ambitions, but I mean, big whoop. You’ll get them next time tiger.

    Nope, let’s burn the fucker down.

    I mean, this is way worse than 9/11 for me. More people have already died as a result of this than at the embassy in Benghazi. This shit is fucking real, people, as much as it feels like a joke. Twit mob notwithstanding.

  9. I hear ya.

    I am not creative by any stretch of the imagination. I’m an accountant, and creativity is generally frowned upon by my profession, as it all too often leads to things like Enron and the Madoff Ponzi scheme. I have a very number-intensive job that focuses on data analysis, and there is just about as much creativity in what I do for a living as there is in watching paint dry.

    So you’d think that I’d be just fine in the middle of insurrection, sedition, riot and death, right? Nothing to worry about, no creativity in crunching numbers, just keep at it, right?

    Wrong. So very wrong. I have gotten almost nothing done since last Wednesday (e.g., here I am commenting on Scalzi’s blog instead of working on that project that’s due this coming Friday). And every time I say to myself “ok, enough slacking, just sit your butt down and get back to work,” my brain turns to Jell-O.

    Do what you need to do to get through this. Take the time, use the resources, do what it takes. That’s all any of us can do.

    And be safe. Especially those of us who work in the public sector and whose workplaces (and in some cases, our lives) are under direct threat of attack by racist insurrectionists. Be safe.

  10. Yes, it IS helpful, thank you. I’ve been holding on to the “this is actually December 43, 2020,” concept ever since you first mentioned it. On a personal level, last week when the world was going crazy, my dog was entering the end stage of her (long and beloved) life, and so… yeah. This is still 2020, because if it’s not, then 2021 is shaping up to be even worse. And a good book delivered a few months late is dramatically better than a not good book delivered on time.

  11. And, I have to add, all this during a plague every day of which thousands of people die horribly.

    What should we do while everyone’s dying? Overthrow the government! We’ll show that virus! You can’t kill us–we quit!

    Basta. Good luck, John. I hope your novel rocks.

  12. “Reaction is a different writing muscle than creation”… Thank you for this… Having patience with myself, patience with my feature Producer/Director, all passengers on this flaming garbage scow. Love to you and all, at the Scalzi Compound.

  13. Thank you. I have a deadline too and brain is refusing to cooperate. In the hopes of writing 500 words, I sat down & opened the manuscript file. Read the last 2 scenes. Deleted one. Net word count for the day: -450. This is NOT good.

    From the Gloom & Doom department: what are the chances Biden and/or Harris and/or democracy will survive 1-20-21?

    Please, please, please.

  14. I started an extremely complicated chunk of computer programming in October. What with the distraction by current events it has not gone well, and continues to go less and less well on pretty much a daily basis. I’m running out of ways to tell my boss that my brain is mush. I’d really like to get more than a couple of hours of productive work done per day one of these weeks…

  15. You ain’t kidding, brother. This year – or the end of 2020 – is determined to kick us in the teeth and just as we were getting up. Not cool, 2020, not cool.

    My ability to do almost anything other than read the news and feverishly refresh FB to share updates and outrage is about nil. Crappy eating habits, not exercising, doing just enough for work to keep the lights burning. I did cook about 60 million servings of t”use it up” as a coping mechanism, so Future Me is going to love Nuts Kicked In Me for preparing work lunches for ~weeks~.

    One small happy note: I was today years old when I learned there is a Firefly cookbook.

  16. I tend to question myself rather harshly even in good times, but I do acknowledge that these certainly aren’t good by most measures and try to give myself some understanding. Still, I struggle with how much of a pass I can legitimately give myself as I try to process current events and deal with the resulting anxiety.

    What you’ve shared helps greatly as a reminder that these are indeed extraordinary times and I’m not just making excuses for myself. Thank you for that. As much as I enjoy your novels, I often think it’s the ongoing conversation which you continue that has the greater effect on me and so I’m grateful for all of your writing.

    May we all stay safe!

  17. I am in the last sprint of my third novel, and the world has been killing me. I was unable to write much at all after last Tuesday (Wednesday I gave up at roughly noon; the rest of the week was the same). I’m back to it now, but ever so grateful the publisher offered me another few weeks to polish it up before submitting.

  18. Yep. In fact, I was working on worldbuilding for a fantasy trilogy that faces “what happens after you kill the Evil Emperor” when I learned about the insurrection in progress.

    I haven’t been able to pick it up again. I may go back to a short story in the Martiniere Legacy world just to kick writer brain back into shape because the Martinieres are easy to think about right now. Meanwhile, I’ve written a political screed and just spent the morning typing up one of my college Political Science papers that looks at the foundation of the New Christian Right in Oregon. Some of those quotes are…yeah.

    But other than that…doomscrolling and trying to cope. Brain is broken except for political rantage. Which, considering my past political activism and my Poli Sci degree, may not be so damn bad after all. I was pleasantly surprised about the degree to which that paper didn’t suck.

    So yeah. It’s going up on my political Substack today.

  19. I want to rent Walter White’s New Hampshire cabin for a month just to escape the constant anxiety, of the world. Stocked with “The Classic” novels that I should have read.

  20. On Wednesday, I was at lunch with my BFF (who is in my quarantine pod because I do childcare for them) and my godson was playing nearby in the sand when I got the news. I had checked CNN to see if they had finalized the Georgia senate results and…..breaking news, Capitol Hill. I was so stunned, I literally just shoved my phone in my friend’s face because I couldn’t articulate what was going on without screaming. We spent all day refreshing the news and quietly panicking, while also trying to pick up children from school and go through our daily routine. The comparison to 9/11 is particularly apt for me, as I recall trying to go through my day — and then the following weeks — raising toddlers while wondering what I was supposed to be doing because nothing felt right.

    So, we just got collectively whammied, again, and probably nothing will feel right for a while. If you can accomplish something, more power to you! I am trying to take comfort in the fact that the mundane bits of life still require doing and if I can’t brain, I can at least launder. And I will happily accept everyone’s creative output even if it’s late; as a teacher, I can promise you that we really just want you to get it done to the best of your ability!

  21. Maybe creative folks can take a page from Scalzi and start doing a different FORM of writing?

    Anybody for a dirty limerick contest?

  22. I write for a living too, though it’s not the sort of writing that gets sold. The brain fog of the past year is real, even without any viral infections. I try to be kind to myself about it. Fortunately, my boss does too.

  23. I think you’re being optimistic that anything will change Jan 20th. You know what scares me more than Trump? His 74 million followers and the realization that we have gone exactly nowhere in race relations since 1964. For awhile I thought maybe we had made some progress but it had all just moved underground. I am now quite sure things won’t be appreciably better in 2064. This country needs a whole lot of change and healing!

    I have been encouraging my teenage twins to settle in Canada.

  24. Government attorney, here. I can only focus when forced to, in front of my computer during Zoom court hearings. Those of us at the office on Wednesday spent hours, appalled as we received news updated from D.C. We shook our heads as we watched and listened to the “TrumpTrain” of honking vehicles circling the courthouse campus. We scratched our heads at the Buffalo horned hat wearing protesters outside the courthouse. Nooses, Auscwitz t shirts, a confederate flag in the Capitol building? Yes, America, this IS who we are, deal with it by holding the insurrectionists and the cowards who inspired them fully accountable. Bear witness. Mr. Scalzi, thank you for this post. I am not happy you are in a less than optimal place right now but that’s what you and all of us are doing, bearing witness to our disgust. That’s what we are all doing, if not the granular bits of our jobs. We bear witness.

  25. Sorry, but you get a hug.

    As one of your loyal (okay, semi-rabid) customers, I certainly want you to happily keep cranking out brilliant work. But I also want you do take care of yourself so you CAN do so. If that means that the world going insane dents your productivity, then that honestly just makes me that much more supportive and eager to get what comes next – whenever you’re capable of saying “That’s what I wanted to publish.” If that comes out late, well, I can just gnaw on the other arm for a bit longer.

    Hang in there, take care of yourself, and never apologize for caring about what’s important.

    Of course, if you can contact any of your alternate selves from another universe where none of this is happening, and convince them to send along the manuscript for what he knocked out, feel free to do so. Maybe you could work out an eventual trade. Barring that, do what you have to do to keep yourself sane.


  26. Remember, folks, this is an extinction burst. We knew the beginning of 2021 was still going to suck because of Trump and virus. Both of those situations will eventually start improving. The goal is to have 2021 suck less by the end of i!

  27. My inner pessimist believes that the several days after the inauguration will be less than wonderful, due to the horrific but as-yet-unknown events which will be precipitated by a small-but-armed gang of angry Trumpsters.

    February could see some normality.

    I hope the IP is wrong.

  28. jenfullmoon: “Extinction burst”? Good term, but myself, I prefer the phrase “dead cat bounce.” I sincerely hope.

  29. My editing experience is the same — and this is my first major client that isn’t somebody I already know personally!

    Focusing is tough when the world seems to be going mad….

  30. I said it in another post, I won’t begin to relax until the end of January minimum. I reserve the right to push that date out. Again because of the number of otherwise reasonably intelligent people who are buying the lies about how the election was stolen. If the election was in fact stolen armed revolt is a reasonable response.

  31. I don’t suppose you’ve contracted to write a book about fluffy kittens doing hilariously cute things, because if you’re having trouble writing dark stuff, I’m having trouble reading dark stuff and maybe TOR would let you swap out?

    I mean, it doesn’t have to be kittens. Bunnies would work. Hamsters do well in literary circles. Not dogs though– they tend not to survive which is always a downer.

  32. The way forward for us, at the moment, is not clear at all. I have faith that we will eventually make it to the other side. When and how remains unknown. But one thing I do know is that my coping mechanism from 3 November forward has been re-reading the Terry Pratchett Discworld books and the books of one John Scalzi – from Agent to the Stars to the Last Emperox. The inherent wisdom, humor, and humanity of these two authors have convinced me that this, too, shall pass and the world be better. Thank you John

  33. Thanks for this post. My writing this month (or, rather, non-writing) has followed almost exactly the same trajectory.

  34. @gwangung Dirty limericks?

    (Oldie but goodie)
    There was a young woman from Norway
    Who hung by her heels from the doorway
    She said to the man
    Laying on the divan
    “Come here–I just thought of one more way.”

  35. Wednesday’s events have deep roots. This, together with every other objectively terrible (not to say apocalyptic) process underway in the world? For sure, it doesn’t bode well for a happy future for humanity in general, or for one’s own sweet self in particular.

    @Margaret, commenting on the “But what if we didn’t?” blog entry, wonders whether the natural state of Homo sapiens is to reject even-handedness and rationality in favor of strongmen, hatred of outsiders, mayhem and superstition. I can see how the latter approach might have conferred evolutionary advantage in a low-tech world, but today it might just finish us off permanently.

    As with the BLM protest at Lafayette Park, there will be enough footage of the Capitol mayhem to identify every person there several times over, much of it (again) uploaded to social media by the participants themselves. Never imagine that the relevant law enforcement agencies not be across all of it in short order – if they aren’t already.

    So much for the here-and-now. What about the sweet hereafter (should one’s worldview encompass one)?

    I picture the scene. MAGA Man shuffles off this mortal coil and arrives at the triage desk. The clerk, barely raising its eyes, says, “Christian? Counter number three, mate.” Behind Counter 3, the Intake Angel consults its HUD. “Quite the record of infractions here, uh, fella. Deliberate lying, multiple counts. Taking things not given to you, multiple counts. Murder… you haven’t actually killed anyone as such, but that’s quite the vicious ideation there, wow.”

    MAGA Man bridles indignantly. “I did it in the noblest possible cause! I will be forgiven!”

    Intake Angel retrieves two stone tablets from under the counter and thumps them down. “You see any fine print on these? Your eternal reward is to mop floors and empty bedpans in the Lepers’ Hospice. Hallelujah.”

  36. Re Nicoleandmaggie – ” Not dogs though– they tend not to survive which is always a downer.”

    We live in a time when ‘Old Yeller’ would be considered a ‘feel-good film for the whole family.’

    Personally, I avoid the tragic. Except for the news of the day…

  37. I know you’re not hug-trolling, but if a virtual hug from an Internet stranger is welcome, you can have one from here. And strength in these trying times to all of you. Being understanding to yourself is probably a good strategy right now.

    I live in a Nordic country that appears stable and democratic and stuff (no violent insurrections; a very popular young female Social Democrat prime minister; one of the lowest Covid numbers in Europe), but our local fascist party just emerged from a latest opinion poll as number one. Apparently largely because the traditional centre-right party, unused to being in the opposition, has started to mimic the fascists’ rhetoric but on a slightly-less-appalling way, so they’re bleeding supporters to all directions. So looking at what’s going on up Stateside, I’m worried about what might happen here, too. And not doing great at getting any actual work done. At least I can still cope with basic survival – I’m telecommuting from a family log cabin, wood heated, and it’s -20 centigrades outside, projected to be -30 by Friday…

  38. If it makes you feel any better (and it won’t) I’ve suffered the same creative block during these stressful times, and the same is true for most people I know. Last year sucked, this year sucks so far, but things will get better at some point. Unless of course, they don’t.

    But they will. Happy new year.

  39. I think I may be a little weird. What seems to help me in these situations is reading and watching history from even worse times. Back last spring when the pandemic was just starting I read “Journal of the Plague Year” by Daniel Defoe. Now I am binge watching the Ken Burns series on World War II. It makes me feel better – those people had it much worse and they got through it. Maybe I can too.

  40. @John:

    I’m sorry this is happening to you.

    I’m not a creative writer but I play one when crafting department mandated “encouraging” and “supportive” comments on student papers.

    My own deadline brandishes a belt from seven days away, and I haven’t even logged onto the learning management system to check for submissions.

    I stay glued to the news because I fear that I’ll be caught by surprise when the Trumpist orcs take control of all fifty state capitols and turn our country into an Attwood novel.

    At any rate, I’ll join others in hoping you remain patient with and kind to yourself as you try to create while the country bleeds.

    @Shrinking Violet:

    Thanks for that; it’s the first and best fictional thing I’ve read this year.

  41. I wrote a satisfying number of new words over New Years weekend. Since then, to the extent I’ve accomplished anything outside the Day Job, it’s been minor cleanup, bits of author business, and trying not to look at the news more than once a day.

  42. About a month ago, I wrote in a comment about the Georgia runoffs “No rest until January 6th.” Boy, was I wrong.

  43. I’m with Nicoleandmaggie in voting for a happy book. If you cant write it because its too dark and too close to current events. I don’t think I would be able to buy a book that you described this year (even in october) it would still hurt to much read it.
    I need time to recover.
    Save what you written so far for another year please.

    Light hearted comedy sci-fi escapism or fantasy or red shirts 2 or any escaspism is what I need. I’ll get the docotor to send the prescription to you right away.

    “I got stuck on a desert planet for 2 years with talking camels because the tv seris was canceled!” Is it camels that spit on you when unhappy?

    Ur delete that last sentance Scalzi it don’t make sense.

  44. Virtual hugs to John and all the other writers here. Don’t forget that everybody’s dealing with COVID stress as well, and cut yourselves some slack.

    @Joyce Reynolds-Ward
    I’d really like to read a book like the one you’re struggling with. Rebuilding always seems much harder than smashing.

  45. Sarah Marie, I’m glad you enjoyed my little excursion into the fantastical! Best of luck with your own mandated writing exercises. (smile)

    I’m confident, Mr Scalzi, that you will overcome what is surely just a temporary setback, and that you’ll hit it for six. (Or knock it out of the park, if you prefer.)

  46. @msb–Thanks!

    It’ll be out late this fall or else early in 2022 (selfpub does have the advantage of shortening the turnaround time, depending on editor and cover artist availability). I ended up switching to work on a collection of short stories tied to the world I just finished working in, but I anticipate being able to get back to that tough book after January 20th. Gabriel Martiniere is a LOT easier to work with at the moment than the problems of the Empress Witmara.

    But once I get back to the Darani Empire without the real world blowing up around me, it’ll come back quickly. Until we get past the immediate situation, though, science fiction is a lot easier to write than fantasy.

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