Me and novels and writing: a FAQ

John Scalzi did a novel FAQ today, which was both informative and entertaining – par for the course with him – and it also looked kind of fun, so I thought I’d steal the idea and do one of my own.

novel-writing-ideasBecause clearly I don’t need to be putting my entire life in boxes so we can move next week or anything.

How many novels have you written?

Oh, God. Um. Something like six? And I’m working on a seventh. Two more are in the planning stages. Of those, two have been picked up for publication (Line and Orbit and Crowflight) and two more are likely to be (the sequels Fall and Rising and Ravenblood). One (Wordsinger) is out trying to land me an agent. The other two written novels have been shelved. The moral of the story is that sometimes you have to do this multiple times before you start getting not-awful at it.

Where do your ideas come from?

Everywhere. Seriously, I don’t even know. They just come. At least the first ones do. Sequels clearly come from somewhere in particular. I should also say that when I’m writing something that I know will have a sequel, I usually have at least a very rough idea of where the next book will go, and while I don’t subscribe to hard-and-fast rules in writing, I recommend that.

How do you know if your idea is a novel idea or a short story idea?

Some ideas just feel bigger. When I get ideas for plots the very basic idea tends to come in mostly complete form, and from that it’s generally easy to get a sense of how long it’s going to have to be to let me do what I want. Sometimes I do get fooled, though. At least two short stories that I’ve written have ended up being either planned or actual novels.

Do you plan everything out ahead of time? Or do you make it up as you go?

A little of both. I like to start with a basic outline of the trajectory of a story, and then the details come as they come. I find that more enjoyable, because it means that I’m continually surprised as I write, which makes it more exciting for me. The one novel that I really did plan out scene by scene – which became Crowflight – ended up being underwritten and frankly felt less organic, though I did manage to finish the first draft in only a month. I suspect that not doing excessive planning means that I’m not equipped to handle really complex plots, but I have faith that once I want to write a story like that, I’ll muddle through. Again, even after six of these I’m still learning how to do it.

How did you get your novels published?

Research and time and patience. I mean, the obvious most important initial step is to write the best book you can, but after that there’s still a huge amount of work to be done. You need to know the market. You need to get a sense of what the best  home is for what you’ve written. If you want to go the agent route – which is probably still the best one for most people, if you really want to make money doing this – you need to know about agents as well. Once you know where you want to send it, you need to be ready to repeat the process multiple times, because odds are, you’ll get rejected more than once. And rejections add up to a lot of time. It may be quite a while – months, years – from when you finish your novel to when you actually sell it. And then longer than that to actual publication.

I should note that to date, I haven’t sold a book via the agent route because I don’t yet have an agent. There are some benefits to doing it the way I did. There are also a lot of drawbacks. That might have to be another post.

How many words a day do you write? When do you do your writing?

I try to do at least a thousand words a day, which is twice as much as my minimum used to be. When I’m working on more than one long project simultaneously – which I do not necessarily recommend – I try to do a thousand words a day on each. When I was really burning through the end of Fall and Rising, I was doing between five and nine thousand words a day and it was exhausting.

I try to get my writing done early in the day, before noon if possible, simply because I’ve found that I suffer from brain fatigue as the day gets later. It can also serve as additional motivation – I can’t do anything else until the day’s work is done. I should be clear about the fact that I’m hugely privileged to be able to write that way – one of the pluses of being in the kind of PhD program I am. One of the reasons why I try to write so much right now is because I’m very aware that this state of affairs won’t last forever, and I probably won’t be able to be this consistently productive for more than another year or so.

How long does it take you to finish a novel?

Depends. Line and Orbit took approximately nine months to finish, and so did the two novels I wrote after that. Then Crowflight took, as I said, only a month, and both Wordsinger and Fall and Rising took four or five months. Generally I’d say I’m getting faster, but speed depends on so many different variables, many of which have little or nothing to do with writing itself.

How many drafts do you do?

Generally no more than two or three before I submit for publication. I’m incredibly lucky in that first drafts for me tend to emerge almost fully formed, and usually don’t require a tremendous amount of initial work. As I said, Crowflight was underwritten, and I ended up adding about 30k words to it, but the basic form was fine. The two novels that I’ve shelved were complete as far as it went, but I also just didn’t think they were all that good, and I didn’t feel like I was invested enough in putting in the extensive work that would have been required to make them better. It just seemed like a wiser use of my time to move on to other things.

How do you feel about fanworks based on your writing?

Go for it.

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