how writing a science fiction novel is like launching a startup (part 2)

(part 1,
part 2,
part 3)

Paul Graham wrote a great essay about what it’s like to run a startup.

I’ve launched two, and I can’t find a single thing to disagree with.

So, how does writing a science fiction novel compare with launching a startup?

1. Be Careful with Cofounders

The vast majority of fiction books are written by one person. Still, I’ve had people express interest in getting involved: “I’d love to work on the outline with you!”, “Have you thought about making this a shared universe? I’d write a story!”, etc.

As we all know from the startup world, no one is going to treat your baby like it’s their own. If you want your vision to be realized, you have to write your novel by yourself.

2. Startups Take Over Your Life

This novel has taken over my life – to the point where I’ve sort of back-burnered my day job (after years of working on the firms I’m a bit burned out, and with this novel asking for more and more of my time, it’s rare that I exceed 35 hours per week in the office).

I now often get up at 6am and work on the novel till noon. Subtract a bit out for cooking breakfast and walking the dog, but that’s still a big chunk of my day. …and I obsess over the novel the rest of the time.

3. It’s an Emotional Roller-coaster



On a given day I’m either convinced that this is the best space-opera science fiction novel in half a century or – more frequently – overcome with self doubt.

The truth, almost certainly, is in the middle. When I can be objective I think that this is a damn fine novel – better than 1/2 or 3/4 of what’s out there on the science fiction shelves at my local Barnes & Noble.

…but those objective times are rare. I’m usually riding the roller coaster.

4. It Can Be Fun

Hell yes. There are scenes that I’ve written that are more memorable to me than things I’ve witnessed with my own eyes. Ewoma, the young Nigerian girl, racing to get her family’s cash out of the restaurant safe before the battle between remotely piloted vehicles destroys it…and being caught in a massive blowout that sucks kilometers of air out of the lunar tunnels. Darcy trying to pilot a crashing cargo ship down to the surface of the moon by the seat of her pants while twitchy bad guys hold a gun to her head. Gamma, the AI, conspiring to bring vast quantities of batteries and machinery to the lunar base…


I’m having fun just THINKING about these scenes.

And to remember that Ibrought all of this to life?

It’s a rush.

5. Persistence Is the Key

Man oh man, yes.

By the time it’s done, this project is going to have taken about 1,500 hours. The temptation to give up is strong.

6. Think Long-Term

Enough people have told me that they love the world and want to see more of the characters that what started as a 365 page book has grown into two 450 page books, with an outline for a book of short stories, and then two more novels to tie it all up.

I’ve even had people ask me if I might translate some of it into an RPG, perhaps using D20 or GURPS.

One supporter has told me that I’m a much better fiction writer than I am a small business owner, and I should keep writing until I’ve got enough of a stable of work that I can go full time.

I’m not sure I’m in love with that idea, but it does get one thinking “how can I monetize this? …and how many years do I have to work until the real pay off?”

7. Lots of Little Things

I’m a stickler for details. I’ve got 25,000 words of notes (that’s 125 pages).

I know where the character Leroy Fournier went to school (McGill University) and what his family is like (he’s the second oldest, his father is named Etienne, his brothers have jobs at X and Y and his sister is married to Z).

I know that when Tudel is pushed off a crater wall by a cargo mule reprogrammed by an Uplifted Dog, that he falls 50 meters, and under lunar gravity he’s travelling at 46 meters per second.

I know that the spacesuits use closed circuit rebreathers and they have potassium superoxide cartridges.

I know how the expat heros of the book get air to the moon, and under what compression ratio.

There are scenes set in the White House, and I know the color of the rug in the hallway in the West Wing hallway leading to the portico.

Now, note, this could all be hideously boring, if I had characters info-dump it all to each other. In the world of science fiction writing this fatal flaw is called an “as you know, Bob” when it’s used in sentences like “as you know, Bob, our space suits use potassium superoxide which gives off oxygen as it absorbs carbon dioxide according to the formula 4KO2 + 2CO2 = 2K2CO3 +3O2”.

When this vast trove of information is used correctly it can add versimiltude to writing. E.g.

“Damn. He needed a shower, some food, and a break. …but as long as his men were on the surface, he was going to stay with them. ‘Pierrick, hand me another PSO canister from the stores.'”

But just as in launching a startup, a large percent of the details aren’t about code, they’re about the product, or the customer, or the act of running a company, in writing a novel, a large percent of the work isn’t just in getting the research done. You’ve got to write, rewrite, edit, research book lengths, research publishers, learn about kickstarter, find a cover artist and negotiate prices, find copy a editer, establish a twitter presence (you can follow me on twitter at @MorlockP), and on and on and on.

8. Start with Something Minimal

I did. On January 1st, 2011, I wrote 250 words. I’ve kept going ever since.

9. Engage Users

For the first year of the project I posted my daily progress in a blog. This allowed a dozen friends and family members to read along.

The intention was mostly to keep myself honest – by making a commitment and demonstrating it in public, I’d create a mechanism to shame myself if I fell behind.

…but the result was much better than I’d expected: people started leaving comments and emailing me, telling me how much they liked the story.

That customer engagement motivated me and gave me the incentive to keep at the project.

I’ll continue with the second half of Paul Graham’s list tomorrow, check back!

P.S. Please follow me on twitter @MorlockP and on RSS.

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