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December 16, 2006

Writing The Sagan Diary

I promised earlier in the week that I would talk a little bit about writing "The Sagan Diary," and then I spent the rest of the week organizing my lint collection, so I hadn't gotten around to it. Let me correct that now.

"The Sagan Diary" was interesting for me to write because it's pretty much the opposite of what I know I'm already good at, as far as writing is concerned. For example, I know I'm at least reasonably competent writing novels, and writing very short, amusing pieces of two thousand words or less. TSD is 12,700 words, which means as a multiple that it's as far from my short writing comfort zone as it is as a divisor from my novel writing comfort zone. I'm very comfortable writing dialogue; this story has none. I generally don't spend much time inside my characters' heads; this story is entirely within Jane Sagan's noggin. My writing, while not without style, is largely declarative and to the point; TSD, while not overly ornate or flowery, nonetheless has an entirely different flow to its language than what I've done before. Basically, everything you'd characterize as "Scalzi" writing, this is not.

And for me, that was part of the goal. You know, I'm five novels in; I have a pretty good grip on the things I can do. At the same time I know there are things I'm not as good at. Some of those things, in terms of writing, I have no interest in, so it doesn't much matter to me if I'm not good at them. Some things I would like to be able to use, and I'd like to get better at. When I agreed to write TSD, I knew going in that it was going to be a story where I would try new things, and see how it worked out.

It turned out to be fairly difficult to write because of this. It's fun to try new things, but there's a learning curve involved, and even with a learning curve involved, my personal crap detector is still engaged. I'm not going to pass off to other people what I think is substandard writing with an excuse of "well, I'm trying new things." Yes, I am trying new things; I'm also offering this story for sale when it's done. At the end of the day "The Sagan Diary" is meant to be a commercial piece of work -- which means that even if it is different from what I've written before, it should still be as good as what I've written before. Anything less is ripping off the readers. We're asking people for $45 for the deluxe edition, and the standard edition is $20. If folks who shell out that kind of cash feel like I'm not giving them my best effort, I'm basically giving my career a head wound.

So for me, this meant a lot of writing stuff, looking at it, saying "this is crap," deleting it, and starting over, and then repeating the process a few dozen times. This, naturally, takes time. My own personal writing speed is such that I can write 12,000 very good words of writing in a day; I've done that while writing both Ghost Brigades and The Android's Dream. I've written other perfectly good 5k-to-8k word short stories in the space of a day as well. This one took about two months. Now, to be certain, it wasn't two months of constant work; I was doing other writing during that time. But I'm always writing something else when I'm writing fiction; that's why I don't starve. And sometimes I'd not write on it for several days, trying to puzzle out some damn thing or another. But no matter how you slice it, writing this story took drastically longer than other writing of similar length.

There was an additional layer of complication in that, aside from trying out various different sorts of writing, whatever I was writing had to stay true to the voice of Jane Sagan. Jane is, of course, already a very well-established character and personality; she's been developed over the course of three novels, and there are certain things we know about her, among them that she's plain-spoken, direct, efficient and dangerous. However, by and large over the course of the OMW series we spend hardly any time inside of her head -- we see her largely as other people see her. TSD is the first time readers will get to spend any substantial amount of time hearing Jane being Jane, talking about what she thinks and feels about things.

Jane Sagan's internal voice needs to be consistent with what people see externally -- she's can't be this badass on the outside and on the inside be a pink cuddly bunny full of gooey gooey lovey love, if you know what I mean, or to otherwise have an internal voice wildly at odds with her external one. At the same time I think its axiomatic that our internal view of who we are is more complex than is perceived by other people, even those to whom we are the closest. There's a lot of room to expand what we know of Jane, even while staying true to the image she presents to others. But it also takes work, to make sure I hit that tone.

In this regard, I am happy to say, I had help. It will come as no surprise to longtime readers here that Krissy, my wife, feels rather invested in the character of Jane Sagan, and made it her job to make sure I didn't screw it up. She also was a non-trivial motivator for getting the story finished; having Krissy asking you "where my next chapter?" with the subtext of because I will have to beat you if I don't get it soon is an amazingly efficient prod. Seriously, however, her input was invaluable; when I finished the first chapter I sent it to her immediately, because I knew if she wasn't buying what I was writing, no one else was going to either. She liked it; I could go forward.

In all, I'm very pleased "The Sagan Diary"; the birthing process was difficult but it was also necessary, if I wanted the story of be what I ultimately wanted it to be. Don't think there weren't times when I thought "screw it, I'll just write this all in dialogue and be done with it tomorrow," because, oh, did I ever have that thought. But then I kept writing it the way I was writing it, because the fact was I didn't want this story to be just like everything else, and I did want to see if I could make it work.

I think I have. This is a good story, and I think those of you who have ordered the story are going feel like you got your money's worth. I also feel like I've added some tools to my writing toolbox, and that's great news too, because it's nice to be able to work with tools you've used before and have some comfort level with.

Having said that, I mentioned to Bill Schafer, as I was turning in TSD, that sometime soon I was going to write a mindless, fun and easy short story in a day, just to remind myself I don't have to spend two months on 12,000 damn words. And I will, too. Just you wait.

Posted by john at December 16, 2006 05:17 PM

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Lisa | December 16, 2006 05:59 PM

I was once asked in a job interview how I knew I had done a good job on a project. I replied that most of the time I know it's a good job when it's done right, on time and it came in with expectations exceeded. However, every once in a while, I have one where I can sit back, look at the finshed project and say with quiet pride, "Dang, I'm good."

I can hear that second scenario in your voice, John, and I can't wait to read The Sagan Diaries. Bring it on!!!!

Lisa | December 16, 2006 06:00 PM

Obviously, I don't proofread very well when I'm in a hurry... That should be The Sagan Diary. oops...

Chang who love eat brainz! | December 16, 2006 06:24 PM

she's can't be this badass on the outside and on the inside be a pink cuddly bunny full of gooey gooey lovey love, if you know what I mean

For why? I's can be badass on outside and ooey gooey full of lovey on inside! Is how I's get down!

Seriously, it's cool to read the personal insights on how you challenge yourself as a writer. It makes it all the more exciting to read, so frigging oil the presses and let's get this done so I can read it!!!

In the meantime, I have Blinsight and Accelerando to keep me company until then. I got them from a library. Imagine that.

Chang who love eat brainz! | December 16, 2006 06:26 PM


Memo to self: If you're going to make fun of a favorite author's typos, don't leave any yourself. B-L-I-N-D-S-I-G-H-T.

chang is a j-hole.

Lisa | December 16, 2006 06:34 PM

LOL Chang, what goes around, comes around.

Dan | December 16, 2006 06:40 PM

Wait... Nope. I'm not quite finished pointing and laughing at Chang.

Cassie | December 16, 2006 06:42 PM

that Krissy, my wife, feels rather invested in the character of Jane Sagan, and made it her job to make sure I didn't screw it up.

This explains why I think Jane looks like Krissy.

Lisa | December 16, 2006 06:43 PM

ahh... internet blogs.... what a wonderful way to make a fool of yourself in front of an entire planet!!!

Steve Buchheit | December 16, 2006 07:17 PM

Chang, join the club. We've got jackets. And BRAINZ.

Congrats on the stretch, Scalzi. It's always good to grow. If this were easy, anybody could do it.

For me it is writing militaristic fiction (two recent shorts went that direction). I don't like that side of my past (although it was a crucial pivot in my life and some of it was just incredible). So there are parts of the writing that I don't like sharing or thinking, and typing while holding one hand over your eyes isn't the most ergonomic position. Right now I have to get over the wanton destruction some characters want to do. After all, they're the characters, not me.

I do think that our internal thoughts/positions can be different that our external projections. Personally I've been in the position of having to be the "brave guy/tough ass" while the internal conversation went something like, "oh shit, oh shit, we're all screwed. Can't let that show on my face or in my voice."

John Scalzi | December 16, 2006 07:49 PM

Steve Buchheit:

"I do think that our internal thoughts/positions can be different that our external projections."

To be sure, particularly when there is a moment or situation which requires a particular action to get through it. I'm talking more of who we are when we're not in that sort of moment.

Lisa | December 16, 2006 07:55 PM

I agree with Steve. On the battlefield of parenthood, I've had to project that same "brave guy/tough ass" when inside I'm shrieking and sobbing "NO NO NO, NOT THIS!!!".

CaseyL | December 16, 2006 09:23 PM

Pertinent question: So, when you finished TSD, did you feel you had been able to internalize the way you found to write it, or was it a seriously hard slog right up to the last sentence? In other words, how handy a new tool in the toolbox is this one, and how likely are you to use it again?

Impertinent question: How do you organize a lint collection? By color? size? source? And do you put it in a nice, velvet-lined box so you can show it off to visitors?

John Scalzi | December 16, 2006 09:25 PM

CaseyL: Writing it became easier after a certain point, so I suspect I'll be able to use these particular tools again with less aggravation.

Harvey | December 16, 2006 10:07 PM

Was in the military for 21 years and a member of a Veterans Org. for the past 16 years. While in service the one though that kept me partally sane was the hope and desire that I would not have my kids have to follow me in these endevores(go to war). I was once asked by my son to come talk to his high school Civics Class about my time in service. One girl asked me "What is the one wish that you (I) could see happen with the military", it took me all of one second for me to tell her that I thought that the Veteran organizations that we have today would close their doors thru attrition, meaning that we have no more Veterans.

After reading OMW and TGB I would not be surprised to Jane Sagan have the same feelings.

Bill Mullins | December 17, 2006 01:49 AM

[QUOTE] My own personal writing speed is such that I can write 12,000 very good words of writing in a day; I've done that while writing both Ghost Brigades and The Android's Dream. I've written other perfectly good 5k-to-8k word short stories in the space of a day as well. [/QUOTE]

12,000 words a day??? That's Walter Gibson territory.

Don't most pro writers think of 1000 words a day as good production?

Jacob | December 17, 2006 04:29 AM

"You know, I'm five novels in"
Agent to the Stars, OMW, TGB, LC, Android's Dream makes five. And what's this :)

Therese Norén | December 17, 2006 04:43 AM

"because I will have to beat you if I don't get it soon"

Did you write that just to see if any of the "OMG! Krissy is a horrible violent person!" people still hang around?

Mary Anne Mohanraj | December 17, 2006 09:11 AM

I write about a thousand words an hour, when it's going well -- i.e., when I have a clear idea of story and characters and voice in advance of sitting down to write. I think that's a bit high, but not so uncommon -- a fair number of pros I know write in the 500-1000 words/hour range. SF writer Jay Lake, if I remember right, writes about 2000 words/hr. Almost all of my short stories were composed in a single draft that took somewhere between a half-day and a day, with minor revisions done a few weeks later, after they'd had time to simmer, gel, and be critiqued.

Of course, there are many pros who write much slower, which really isn't a problem. A thousand words/day would, if you wrote every day, still have you finishing a novel within three months. You could, in theory, write four novels a year at that rate. Whereas I, with all my speediness, sometimes go three months without writing anything at all.

In the end, it's all about persistence, not speed. Be the tortoise, not the hare.

John Scalzi | December 17, 2006 09:47 AM

Mary Anne Mohanraj:

"Be the tortoise, not the hare."

I'm not noting my writing speed to show off, just to note how different the writing of this story was from others. It doesn't matter how fast or slow one writes if one's writing is poor, however. The ideal writing speed is the one that make the story the best one it's possible for it to be.

Bill Mullins:

"12,000 words a day??? That's Walter Gibson territory."

Well, to be clear: I can write 12k a day -- if I have a clear sense of where my story is going and I'm not distracted by things like having a life. Typically, I write substantially less in a day; usually between 3k and 6k words.


The link refers to a novel I haven't written yet. And as it happens, the link has the release date information wrong, too. That particular project's been pushed back so I can write an Android's Dream sequel.

Mary Anne Mohanraj | December 17, 2006 10:35 AM

Heh. I wasn't criticizing the hares, John, nor did I mean to imply that you were boasting. :-) Just that if you're aspiring, better to aspire for persistence than speed. Too many new writers get hung up on word counts/hr, I think. It becomes self-defeating...

John Scalzi | December 17, 2006 11:02 AM

I agree re: Word counts. It's one of the reasons I don't put up a word count meter on the Whatever when I'm writing.

Steve Buchheit | December 17, 2006 03:40 PM

As toward word counts, I hate you all. :)

I'm lucky to get 2000 words a week. Mostly I range in the 500 words. And then come the rewrites, which at least now number in the single digits. But then, writing isn't even my second job, it's the third or fourth (depending on how you count). I guess if I cut down on the blog commenting I could get that higher (right now I'm avoiding my freelance designer/3rd job, mostly I'm avoiding my first job).

The important part is that I am getting words out. Say, where's that tortoise going in such a hurry?

Kate Nepveu | December 18, 2006 12:09 PM

Typically, I write substantially less in a day; usually between 3k and 6k words.

You must have a really good keyboard and really good typing form. I once knocked off an entire brief on a Sunday afternoon (which happened to be about 3500 words), except I did it on my home laptop, and my wrists complained about it for the next two days.

John Scalzi | December 18, 2006 12:11 PM

Yeah, I'd avoid extensive typing on my laptop. On the occassions where I've written longer than a blog entry on the laptop, I make sure step away from the keyboard every fifteen minutes or so. It helps.

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