Process Notes on Starter Villain

John Scalzi

As I sometimes do when I finish writing a novel, here are some behind-the-scenes notes on Starter Villain, which I have now completed and which will be available (knocks wood) in August September of 2023.

1. The book took longer to complete than expected because in June I got COVID, and while my physical symptoms were mostly pretty mild, it did a number on my ability to, you know, think. More specifically, I could easily superficially think — answering emails and farting about on social media wasn’t really a problem — but when it came to things that required some substantial brain power, like plotting a novel or building characters, my brain was very much “Hey, I’m not here for that.”

The very overt “me no brain I am COVID-y” phase lasted for about a month. After that came a period where I thought my brain fog had lifted, so I wrote steadily for about another month. Then the brain fog actually lifted, and I looked at what I had written during that month, and I went. “Oh. Oh. Oh, no.” So out that month of work went.

And then after that… well, see. I’ve never been the world’s most focused person, but over the course of three decades of professional life as a writer, I’ve developed a number of strategies to keep myself on target. You can’t say they haven’t worked: Just this year I had a novel, a novella, an episode of television and an EP of music come out. But post-COVID, focus was especially hard to come by. I don’t know if it was some sort of long COVID thing, or just that I so disrupted my usual working tactics that I couldn’t easily come back to them, or some combination of the two.

Whatever it was, while I wouldn’t say writing this novel took longer than it should — “should” is not the right word when factoring in the effects of COVID — I can say that writing this novel took longer than I had hoped.

The good news here is I got actually a whole lot of support from Tor in dealing with the after-effects of COVID, particularly from my editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden. They let me write on it until the last possible production moment, which was, uhhhh, today. I was and am extremely grateful for that support, and also, I still don’t feel great about turning it in at literally the last minute, because people at Tor are going to be working during the holiday season on something I had wanted to get into them months ago. It is what it is, but for the future it’s incumbent on me to get a better grip on how my brain is currently working and factor that into my writing process, so the folks at Tor can factor it in to their production process.

(And before anyone makes the suggestion in the comments, why, yes, I will be making an appointment with my doctor to see if the borderline ADHD I’ve had most of my life has finally tipped over into a place where some medication might be necessary. Maybe so! We’ll see.)

2. One of the interesting things about the novel taking so long to write is that 2022 was the year a bunch of malignant people, many of them billionaires, decided to go full villain themselves; the last 12 months is choc-a-block with these dudes looking around, going “fuck it, mask off” to the applause of their boot-huffers. The saving grace of this is that it turns out most of them are actually really bad at it, and while I can’t say it’s been exactly fun to watch them fail and flail — the real-world implications of at least some of their actions have gone beyond mere schadenfreude to actual tragedy for others, and the world in general — it has been useful in calibrating the book I was writing.

More to the point: You can’t write a book about fictional villainy, even one that’s meant to be (mostly) light and (mostly) funny, by ignoring the effects of actual villainy being practiced in the world around you. When I suggested this novel idea to Patrick in 2021, it’s not like I didn’t have real-world examples to consider. But the tenor of real-world ultra-rich villainy, the sort I am essaying for fictional purposes in this novel, took a bit of a darker turn this year, and I had to incorporate that in — if not directly, then at least as an awareness of how practical villainy works these days.

Which is to say this book will reflect 2022 like The Kaiju Preservation Society reflected 2020, warped and funny, but you can see the reflection all the same.

3. I wrote this on Twitter today, regarding a complaint that Kaiju was clearly written by a “rabid liberal”:

And, listen, it’s true: If you thought I was an intolerable liberal before, this upcoming book really ain’t gonna make you happy. Hey! Lots of billionaires are toxic and even the “good” ones often end up being highly problematic! And most of them are trust fund babies who are not actually all that smart! Unions and collective bargaining turn out to be positive for most people! Valorization of “the ends justifies the means” ends up being a bad thing in nearly every situation! I don’t personally think these are particularly “screaming liberal” positions, but then that’s exactly what a screaming liberal would say, so there you have it.

In general I don’t go out of my way to stop the narrative of a story, get on a soapbox and spout doctrinaire political positions — I think when most people get to the bits about unions in the book they’ll enjoy the incongruity of the moment more than they will be exasperated about the plumping for collective bargaining, for example — but I do understand that for some people, any deviance by an author from the reader’s own baseline assumptions of how the world works will throw them out of the work in question. Which, you know, is fine. But also is not going to stop me from doing what I do, particularly for a book that takes place in contemporary time, which touches, mostly implicitly but occasionally explicitly, on real world events.

Anyway. I’ve been writing novels for 20 years now and I’ve had people yelling at me about the public display of my politics for longer than that. I feel at this point who I am should all be baked into ground assumptions. So, yeah.

4. I know many of you will have questions about audio books, releases in various formats and in various countries, so before you ask those questions in the comments, please peruse the New Book FAQ I wrote a couple of books back. The answers will probably be there!

5. Here’s an important thing: I like Starter Villain. It took longer than I anticipated to write, and the story went in some directions I did not anticipate it would go. But the end result, I think, is a better novel than it would have been otherwise. As a writer, I think that’s ultimately what you want: A good book that you’re happy with, that you can give to readers and say “I like this. I hope you do too.” That’s what I have, here. I’m looking forward to sharing it with you all.

— JS

41 Comments on “Process Notes on Starter Villain”

  1. You have so far completely failed to disappoint me with your writing. I’m sure the trend will continue. As for Covid fog, I completely get it. I have had persistent lack of focus since surviving Covid last February, and I didn’t even have symptoms! I am lucky in that I write mostly for myself, having no publisher, agent, or deadlines, but I still like to put out a book every couple of years.

  2. Well I am looking forward to Starter Villain.

    I like all of the world views you’ve stated here. Unions and all that go with them.

    Billionaires are such an endless topic.

    A Merry Christmas to you and your family if you celebrate.

  3. I was diagnosed ADHD Back in 1971, long before it was trendy, and on Dexedrine until I was in 6th grade. At that time my parents took me off of it and I’d learned how to stay focused enough to cope. The past several years, going back to 2017 really, have taken a bit of a toll, but I’m still able to cope.

  4. I really hope you regain your focus and leave the covid-brain behind! It must be terribly frustrating to be sidetracked after years of successfully managing. All best to you.

  5. Sounds like you wrote it just for me. Thank you!

    re: Unions– not my favorite thing (see Police Unions, for example), but we live in a world of second best. If the Powers that Be didn’t want more unionization then they should have increased the federal minimum wage and put in more worker protections before unions became necessary.

  6. Thank you John, for providing us with such honest insight into your writing process and experiences. I’ave been a long time fan and I am very eager to read this next gem that is forthcoming.

  7. Hi John,

    I am curious about something, and you are of course under no obligation to indulge my curiosity: Would it ever have been a realistic scenario for the folks at Tor to respond to your adjusted ability to write by pushing out the book’s release date?

    Yes, I know that you have written before about how release schedules are planned far in advance and there are boatloads of interconnected activities that all have to be completed on schedule for that release date to be made, but is there ever a contingency for, hey, shit really happened here and the first part of the process, you completing that raft and getting it to them, has to be delayed?

    And I ask because (a) I can’t imagine that having to catch up from your down time was all that good for your physical and mental health–I’ve done those before and they are exhausting–and (b) your genuine concern for those who work with you having to work over the holidays could be mitigated.

    Let me tell you a semi-related story. About 20 years ago I was working at a small company where I was the only technical writer. Product management was planning a big new release and the programming and design and QA teams were all estimating the work it would take to get this feature out by the desired release date. I spent no small amount of time planning the effort to get my part done, and my estimates put the completion of my work 6 weeks past the desired release date. I spent several hours in a meeting with my manager going over my estimates, and she agreed that I was spot on. She then went back to the management team–and they pushed the release date out by 6 weeks.

    That just doesn’t happen in Silicon Valley, or anywhere in tech. Oh, sure, if programmers find that their work will take longer than planned or if QA finds a big blocker bug, a release will get pushed out, but never, ever if the product documentation isn’t finished. (That, by the way, along with companies hiring people to do the work that are objectively not qualified, is a big reason why product documentation is so bad for so many products.) I was utterly gobsmacked. It would not have been out of the ordinary at all for management to say “you’re just going to have to work harder so we can release on time” and then I would have done so and had no life putting in all sorts of crazy hours to do, as they said in “Avengers: Endgame,” whatever it takes.

    But “whatever it takes” takes a toll. I am sure you are ready to take a nice break and I’m looking forward to hearing about your adventures on Post, but I still wonder if it would ever have been reasonable for Tor to come back at you with something along the lines of “let’s push this out a bit so you don’t run yourself into the ground trying to make our original deadline.” (And asking that, I’m pretty sure your response would have been, as mine would, something along the lines of “Thanks, but I’m gonna figure out how to get this done” and then push yourself as I imagine you did to do just that, in large part because we both probably believe bigly that keeping our commitments is tremendously important.)

  8. Mr. Scalzi,

    We have never met in person, let alone spent any time together. But I am sorry to point out that none of your writing has given me any impression of “screaming”. Unless, of course, a particular character is screaming.

    Looking forward to “Starter Villain”.

  9. Chuck Martin:

    “Would it ever have been a realistic scenario for the folks at Tor to respond to your adjusted ability to write by pushing out the book’s release date?”

    It moved from June to August, so, yes. Additionally, they offered to move it again if necessary, but I said I could make the deadline for August. So this deadline was of my choosing.

  10. @nicoleandmarie, you might find the history of unions in the US interesting.

    John, wishing you further recovery from COVID. Good move seeking help with ADHD and generally wishing you the best.

  11. Heh. To those of use who remember the 70s, today’s flaming liberal was yesterday’s moderate. Solidarity Forever!

    Let’s say I have a friend who is being treated for depression and their main triggers are news items mentioning politics, war, or global warming. If I actually knew someone like that, who found Kaiju Preservation Society immensely cheering, well, they would really, really be looking forward to this book. Thanks, John! I know it’s not true, but I like to image you perched on a stool at the pulpit of your church, banging away on an old Olivetti typewriter.

  12. The right ADHD meds can be great.
    Almost-right ones can make you very productive at ranting on Twitter all day:-)
    (Of course, with the current supervillain setting Twitter on fire, that may not be a problem for long.)

  13. I’m glad to hear you’re improving and hopefully continuing to improve. That’s good news. I’m autistic and have family members with ADHD. And my youngest likely has both, though formally diagnosed only with the latter and several other things. (The overlap between the two is quite high.) It makes sense to me that cognitive changes likely didn’t make your ADHD worse, per se, but may have impaired executive functioning coping mechanisms you developed over your life. Which is probably more or less the same thing you said when I read it again. Good luck with that too.

    And yeah, the neurological impact of SARS-CoV-2 infection (and reinfection) and all the different ways studies are showing that can play out concern me a lot more than the risk of death. (That has to do more with my own personal lifelong struggles with the desire to ‘not be here’ at times than anything else.) The documented impact the virus has on the brain definitely worries me. And though studies on both shorter term impacts and ways brain functioning changes are growing, there obviously hasn’t been time to know what impact those changes have over the long term. There are lots of things to reasonably worry about with this virus, but that’s my personal bogeyman.

    Looking forward to the book. BTW, I’ve introduced a number of my kids to the Dispatcher audio novellas now. They all love them too. Everyone wants to know when the movie or TV show is coming. [g]

  14. Good on you for making unions and collective bargaining a story element.

    Unions do get mentioned now and again in SyFi but not so often for it not to be noteworthy when it happens. Too mundane they are perhaps, or maybe in a techno-magical utopia, who would need a union or solidarity when you have techno-magic?

  15. @Lisa R. Hirsh– I’m a labor economist. I’m aware. The history of labor unions is not all sunshine and roses. They don’t protect and have never protected everybody, by design. (Heck, they’re even partly responsible for us not having single-payer health care– without union opposition, we might have had it under Nixon, IIRC.) They are an imperfect solution to real problems.

    That said, they are one of the only solutions we have right now (and even then only in non-right-to-work states), so it makes sense to have them be heroic in current fiction.

  16. There’s a bunch of memes based on the “Unions: Because it’s very unlikely three spirits will appear and scare your boss into doing the right thing.” quote going round the UK at the moment for some unfathomable reason…

    (Don’t get sick or injured, try to go anywhere, expect christmas cards, try and get in or out of the country, or take a driving test for the forseeable)

  17. firstly, I look forward to living long enough to read your newest title

    secondly, is there a central inventory — please do not suggest Amazon given how many ads are embedded — of all your published works? if I recall there’s been several new novellas about the dude legalized to snuff folks

    thirdly, I lack the science expertise to judge the content of these embedded links but deem it all has credibility given editorial quality…

    of the chunks I’ve read — 50/50 grokked the details — what looks to finally bubbling up is that, yeah a million Americans died, but ooooopsie 10 million (20? 30?) have lingering after effects at long last acknowledged as “long covid”… but next to nobody is seriously gaming out the impact… not just cost of treatment but smackdown on national productivity given widespread ‘brain fog’…

    fourthly, I cannot find anyone seriously examining behavioral shifts post-covid, given ‘air rage’ & ‘road rage’ being shrugged off as WSCN-originated anti-mask-anti-vax paranoia… I’ve been seeing more (not less) people who are struggling to speak coherently in shoppes and folks who are not so much drunk-stoned-high as having behaviors associate with drugging but do not smell boozy or weedy… if indeed long covid includes successive brain damage, we are looking at millions experiencing early onset dementia and potentially ‘ahead of schedule’ loss of self-care… imagine what it does to economy if we suddenly need another 5M slots in longer-term care for adults in ‘second childhood’…?

    Life expectancy is precious. Take a day away from each American (331.9m) and you’ve “killed” 909,315 years of living. As if you’d killed 10,000+ people outright.

    Given how #Longcovid after treatment is being denied by insurance companies, loss of life expectancy has robbed each victim of months. So. Do. The. Math.

    fifthly, I am only snarking when I write about pineapple on pizza being weaponized by Trump’s secretive army of Russian trollz hellbent upon destroying our military-pizza-industrial complex as prelude to invasion… those icky ‘trading cards’ are just nasty… much of the artwork taken from Tom Of Finland’s “body of work”…

    sixthly, as example of the brain fog I’ve been enduring, I’ve had to modify my habitual shoot from hip posting mode… instead write out my longer posts, take a break of at least an hour, then re-read-revise-only-then-post… this post took three such cycles to become coherent and only after ruthlessly trimming digressions and mine own flashes of paranoia… pineapple is not a gateway drug to avocado toast

  18. Looking forward to “Starter Villain”.

    John, I know writing is what you DO, and the sometimes-stressful professional aspects thereof aside, it’s what you LIKE doing. But I think it still merits a “thank you for writing so much entertaining stuff”. So, thank you. You coulda gone in the journalism/commentary direction, or any of a number of other choices. But you write tremendously enjoyable fiction with interesting exploration of contemporary social and cultural phenomena seamlessly embedded both as light humor and as though provocation.

    So that’s cool and thank you.

    Beyond that, the “my brain isn’t working the way it used to/I would like it to” thing:

    Resist the temptation to pathologize this. While there are plenty of exogenous phenomena that can and might be affecting you, most of them are transient.

    Which isn’t fun to be reminded of when you want your brain to work more like you think it should be working NOW. But… be patient.

    Also, the human brain continues to evolve and change throughout life, and we don’t have nearly enough research about the changes in various stages of maturity to have a good sense of ‘normal range’ for how cognition changes.

    All of which is to say that apparently you still have the capacity to think just fine with all the creativity, humor, curiosity, etc. that is essentially YOU. But if the pace and on-demand availability may be changing, that might actually be normal for you, you may just need to work out how to respond to it.

    And I suspect you will, once you get past the sense of frustration and the nagging belief that it’s not like it used to be and therefore problematic.

    And all that advice is worth what you paid for it, so… you know.

  19. Dear John,

    Regarding your concerns about mental acuity, fortunately, the brain is infinitely retrainable, but it takes a little doing. Fortunately, as well, you have available to you the perfect retraining facility in your very own basement… Music.

    The performance of music retraces mental pathways by involving the senses: hearing the music, the feel of the strings, the sight of fingers on strings, the aromatic qualities (okay that could be the litter box), all connecting physical presence with the mental exercise of playing. And, because for you, playing is enjoyable, it increases joy, which increases competence and confidence, which increases trust in yourself, which increases your ability to focus.

    For me, it is learning French: The methodical study via sight (see the word) taste (say the word) audio (hear the word) touch (connect objects in hand to their nouns) to retrain the brain in confidence and competence, trust and focus. The additional benefit is the motivation, that I may spend a year in Paris writing my next screenplay, so future vision.

    Maybe try the music first, before prescriptions. Just sayin’

    As always, thank you for the Cat Pics and your brutal honesty about the world. Keep going!!!


  20. I have found I often like books that John Scalzi likes. And the correlation is even higher when it comes to books that were written by John Scalzi.

    So, in one regard, I feels useful to hear that an upcoming work has an authorial “I like what I write” stamp. But on the other hand, I’d probably seek out something with the opposite “I don’t like this” stamp out of morbid curiosity or some such, so it doesn’t seem to be relevant to my net behavior.

  21. Congrats on turning in the new book. I thoroughly enjoyed KPS so will take a gander at the new one when it arrives.

    As someone who had to adjust to a new way of thinking after brain surgery and then again after covid, I say good on you for looking into doing the same, whether the cause be long-covid, an adjusted ADHD level or some combo of the two. I wish you well on this journey.

  22. I’m very excited about this book. (I just pre-ordered it.) N.K. Jemisin’s latest book reflects some of the issues you had. Her trilogy turned into a duology. She had planned the events before the 2016 election and all of a sudden the evil president she had planned to write needed to be revamped. As I read the book, I thought, wow, I can tell she was pretty angry when she wrote some of this. (Or maybe not. That’s just how it read to me.) Real life can mess with your writing. I still enjoyed it and look forward to her next.

  23. In the vein of “I know those feels!”:

    In the wake of the pandemic, I realized my executive dysfunction had gone from “not amazing” to “atrocious” and finally reached out to an ADHD therapist in August.

    It took 2 sessions for her to go, “so… you’re already using all the coping mechanisms I could suggest to the best of your ability, let’s get you a diagnosis. It might be time to try meds.”

    October, I got the psychologist scheduled.
    November, I started meds. (non-stimulant, so daily, not ‘as needed’ like will work for some peeps).

    As of last week, we’ve determined the meds they’re trying me on don’t give me bad side effects and upped me to an actual therapeutic dose, just in time for the holiday chaos. So… I’ll be seeing if the meds work in the new year.

    I’ll be following to see if you follow a similar path!

  24. Thank you, Mr. Scalzi, for this book and for all those that preceded it.

    KPS got me through some rough times this summer when I really, really needed a healthy dose of mental popcorn to counter some real-life crap that was happening. You made me laugh at a time when I really thought my world was ending, and that got my head out of the bad place it had gone to. My sister the STEM prof who works in a deeply misogynistic chem department is getting KPS from me this week because she needs the same kind of mental popcorn to get her through the crap she’s dealing with.

    Your work is a mitzvah, and I am grateful. And I’m looking forward to the next book with great anticipation!

  25. I’ve had post-COVID brain fog for about two and a half years now. It seems to slowly get better, and then I catch COVID again. (Interestingly, my COVID bouts have each been somewhere between mild and asymptomatic.) Each time I get COVID again, I renew my brain fog subscription.

    In the absence of well-accepted therapies, I’ve been educating myself about what brain fog is and is not. I offer a few salient findings for the benefit of anyone here:

    Brain fog is not dementia. It’s not depression. It’s not an emotional problem. It gets diagnosed as all of these.

    What brain fog IS, is a specific symptom: a disorder of the brain’s executive function, as Morgan Hazelwood mentions above.
    Brain fog includes susceptibility to a pattern called Post-Exertion Malaise, or PEM. This is an instance of the patient being able to rise to the occasion (for example, in taking a neurological panel of tests, or coughmeeting a deadlinecough) and being subsequently wiped out and mentally ineffective for days or weeks. The exertion that can cause this can be mental OR physical. It’s comparable to paying rent with your credit card, except with worse interest.

    There’s a substantial body of thought that says that long COVID brain fog involves inflammation that starves areas of the brain of oxygen. Don’t know if that’s right, and YMMV, but I have had noticeable benefits from turmeric supplements, which are demonstrated to have an anti-inflammatory effect. (Placebo effect? Very possibly! But it’s still an effect, and I’ll take it.)

    Whatever the actual physiological mechanism, brain fog seems to be best handled by strategies rather than medications, at least for now. Strategies include things like making lists, making plans, doing daily meditations or music or something… and, most appallingly, disciplining oneself NOT to just power through. We all try to do that, and with brain fog it’s deeply counterproductive.

    I hope these points are of use to somebody. Especially you, John Scalzi! I adore KPS with a solid adoration, and am looking forward eagerly to reading Starter Villain… and whatever comes next.

  26. Curious if you start with a villain versus hero in writing stories? Without Magneto, x-men wouldn’t be the same. Batman is great because all his villains have such great backstories. Spiderman has couple of intriguing ones. Captain America not so much. Who didn’t route for Vader a bit or loved seeing Khan win – if only for a moment. Super villains rule but only if they end in the end. And live to try again.

  27. I am REALLY glad I read this to the end. I’ve worked with a lot of creative professionals (I used to run a tiny indie record label), and it always makes me sad when someone creates something amazing, that fans are going to love, but which they themselves don’t like.

    Your work has given a lot of people a lot of pleasure, and I’m truly glad to know you’re happy with this latest book and are looking forward to sharing it with your readers.

    That’s a wonderful thing.

  28. I have been struggling the last few years with a similar situation regarding ADHD. Is “adult-onset” ADHD a thing? Was I always borderline/sub-clinical and didn’t realise it? My current theory is my previous job was very stressful, and then Covid happened, and together they caused decompensation (a new word for me), and all the tricks I had been sub-coconsciously using no longer worked. Medication has been very helpful for me. It would be nice if there was more information out there, but we seem to be a very new/evolving cohort for ADHD, and lots of research is still needed. Good luck with your journey!

  29. As far as I know, I’ve never had covid, but I still seem to have increasing covid brain fog. Actually, maybe I have adult onset ADD. (I don’t have any H—if anything I have sloth.)

    Also, I’ve never understood the problem with “the ends justifies the means”. If any given end doesn’t justify its means, what does?

  30. Justin: “Who didn’t route for Vader a bit”


    Vader is wish fullfillment power fantasy. Absolute power, murder the guy who so much as disagrees with you in a meeting, commit massive genocidal murder, never held accountable, never felt guilty, never apologized.

    Look, i like Star Wars, its a fun kids show. I pay a little money and i get some nice feelings. But that doesnt mean i forgot what im watching. Star wars and xmen and marvel and dc comics are all gross simplifications that take complex real world sytemic problems and replace them with simple good versus evil plots where the problem plaguing the world can be solved if the one hero can find the one bad guy behind the problem and punch them hard enough.

  31. @Granny Roberta:

    My issue with “the ends justifies the means” is when the means are unethical — which is when that phrase is usually used. I’m often not okay with unethical means even if the end is highly desired and a large improvement. For instance, I’d love to see single payer healthcare but not at the cost of, say, blackmailing half of congress. Bribing maybe, as that’s more acceptable in our current system, but definitely not blackmail.

  32. I heart unions, OK?

    My wife taught – and taught other teachers and administrators – for 34 years in the NYC public school system. As she was rightly told, you may be grossly underpaid and often treated like crap, but the benefits and pension are a whole nother thing.

  33. The existence of a highly-public billionaire class showing their asses also influenced my novel Questland — I had the idea for it in like 2003, but it didn’t gel, it didn’t gel, then about five years ago… “oh, hey, billionaires with high-tech vanity projects causing problems? Oh yeah…”

    So yeah, it’s a thing, I’m actually surprised we haven’t seen more of it in fiction…

  34. Is it too much to suggest sending a fruit basket to the Tor folks as an apology for getting the book in the middle of the holiday season?

  35. Peter: the offices are vacant at the moment (holidays and also a lot of folks are still working from home), but I’ll definitely be showing my appreciation at a later date.