how writing a science fiction novel is like launching a startup (part 3)

(part 1,
part 2,
part 3)

Continuing my comparison with Paul Graham’s essay about what it’s like to run a startup:

10. Change Your Idea

This is one item in Paul’s list that doesn’t map over to the novel writing realm (at least for me). When you write software it’s often the case that you’re building an engine that can be repurposed – a code base that is 95% similar to what you’ve already built can be wrapped in a new user interface and coupled with a new understanding of the customer’s problem to solve a (seemingly) entirely different problem. A recipe search engine can be recast as a menu planning tool, or a comic book search engine can turn into a baseball card trading website.

…but when you’re 95% done with your novel about lunar colonization and free markets, it’s utterly impossible to turn it into a high fantasy about wizards.

A current hot meme in the startup world is the “pivot” – you engage with the customer base, you find out that they like X about your product but dislike Y, and you change course.

Novels aren’t iterated – you release once. (the ultimate in “waterfall” development). Pivots don’t work.

Bottom line: the earlier you know what you’re writing, the better.

11. Don’t Worry about Competitors

At one level, this is 100% true – my novel about AI, genetically uplifted dogs, libertarian rebels, betting markets, CNC milling machines, and anti-gravity drives is fairly unlike anything being published these days, so I’ve got the sub-sub-sub nice all to myself. It’s not like I’m coming out with yet anothersteampunk / vampire / whatever novel.

…so I don’t have to worry that someone else is going to release a killer competitor novel three days before mine.

On the other hand, it’s hard not to read other novels and think “my book is so much better than this…and this guy got a book deal? …with a realpublisher?

Worst of all is reading about someone who writes Twilight fanfic who makes $1 million a weekoff of her crap.

My novels will have taken 1,500 hours by the time they’re done, and my hope is to make – maybe, if I’m really lucky – a $4,000 profit when I take revenue and subtract away fees for copy-editing, licensing cover artwork, Amazon and/or Kickstarter fees, etc.

My best case scenario, then, is to make $2.66 per hour.

Or around 1/3 of minimum wage.

So, yeah, there’s a temptation to obsess, to sneer at others, to lament the unfairness of the universe.

…but what sort of way is that to go through life?

So, I remind myself from time to time what my real motivations are

  • fulfill my life-long dream to write a science fiction novel
  • grow my range of competence
  • achieve something that few others have
  • create something that will last beyond my death
  • generate some pro-liberty artwork to encourage other liberty lovers in the same way that The Moon is a Harsh Mistress helped form and encourage me

…and try to follow PG’s advice and don’t worry about anyone else.

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5 Responses to how writing a science fiction novel is like launching a startup (part 3)

  1. lelnet says:

    It’s not always easy to keep in mind that when/if you give in to envy, you’re betraying both God and your own ideology. Certainly it isn’t easy for me. 🙂

  2. cruppstahl says:

    i enjoyed reading your posts. Since 7 years now i am really struggling to finish my SF novel. I just had to realize that writing code is far easier for me than writing fiction. But i’m also a follower of the Get Things Done philosophy, so I atteded a writing class and invested a bit of money to get help of an editor. I’m basically restarting the whole project, but it feels to me as if i am on the right way now.

    Good luck for your book(s)!

    • Travis J I Corcoran says:


      Getting Things Done is awesome – it’s helped me a ton in personal life, at work…and with this novel. I think you’ll have great success – it sounds like you’re getting yourself in gear!

      Good luck,


  3. Pingback: writing a science fiction novel is like launching a startup (part 1) | Morlock Publishing

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