writing a science fiction novel is like launching a startup (part 1)

(part 1,
part 2,
part 3)

When I was eight I decided that someday I was going to write a science fiction novel.

…and then a third of a century passed.

Around three years ago, I decided to do something a little weird, and pay some stranger to give me advice on my small business. This was back before everyone and his brother knew about Josh Kaufman – back before his awesome book “The Personal MBA” was out.

So every other week for several months Josh and I had a phone call and he listened to my business progress and gave me advice.

The business advice was good, but one thing he said really stuck with me. I’m paraphrasing, but it was along the lines of “think beyond work and your company, and think about what you want to have achieved in life five years from now”.

Shortly thereafter I started writing the science fiction novel that I’ve been holding inside me for 30 years.

That was nineteen months ago.

The plan was simple: I’d write 250 words (one page) per day. That should take me an hour or so. By the end of the year I’d have written 365 pages, which was about the right length for a short novel.

Trivial, right?

The plan worked, for a month or two. At that point, though, I started to realize that (a) the story was a bit bigger than I’d realized, (b) there were technical details that I really REALLY wanted to get right, (c) I wanted my science fictional world to have a real sense of place, which meant that I needed to take notes on the geography of the moon base, the size of the tunnels, the brands of the food, and so on, (d) I wanted my characters to be real people, which meant creating back stories for each of them, relationships, family, and more, (e) I needed to weave together lots of different plots and concepts, so I needed to learn the skill of outlining.

Before I realized it, I was working two hours a day on this project, not just one.

At the end of the year I finished the first draft.

I had intended to make it 365 pages, and it was more like 650.

I sent it off to lulu.com, and a few days later I opened the envelope, took out the alpha version of my novel, and sat down with a red pen to what was going to be three or four weeks of light-weight revising.

After reading four pages I realized that this novel – this novel that a dozen friends had told me was exciting, fascinating, emotionally moving, and full of action was…


Pure shit.

Sure, the concept was awesome, the plot was great, the minor characters and the minor plot threads that wove in and out of the main action were great. The dialog was funny in some places, moving in others. Great space opera action scenes, cool technologies, lots of great stuff.

…but the details? The writing? A lot of it was crap. Characters changed names. Cool ideas appeared part way through without being foreshadowed. Sub plots were forgotten. Key characters disappeared then reappeared hundreds of pages later. Chapters rambled on, restating the same point over and over. Other chapters read as if I’d been afraid to show the story, and so featured recaps of what had happened off screen instead of putting characters onscreen to actually make things happen.

I’d worked so hard on this novel, and it was unreadably bad (to me, at least – friends still told me it was good).

It wasn’t going to take two weeks with a red pen – it was going to take major surgery.

Surgery that I didn’t want to do.

I wanted to be DONE with this project.

So I faced a decision: declare victory, or do the job the right way?

As Ferdinand Foch said: “My centre is giving way, my right is retreating, situation excellent, I am attacking.”

In other words: I wanted this book to be as good as I could imagine it being, not just “done”.

I returned to my word processor and started taking notes, then started rewriting. I outlined, revised character sheets, outlined some more, spent time on Wikipedia, and started rewriting. I opened the document in emacs, looked at the first paragraph…and then rewrote it.

I deleted chapters. I moved huge sections of the book around. I combined some characters into one, and split other characters into multiple.

And every single day, I replaced crappy paragraphs with better ones.

As I progressed, the work days grew longer. Two hours, three hours, four hours. Occasionally on a weekend I’d work for eight hours.

I did draft two as multiple revision passes: one per character. If John and the Uplifted Dogs were in chapters 1, 8, 19, 33, etc., then I’d revise each of those chapters, in that order.

After a month I finished the first character pass…and started in on the second. If Mike the industrialist was in chapters 2, 3, 5, and 19, then I rewrote those chapters in that order.

Occasionally I’d find that I was revising a chapter I’d already revised before. So be it. Revise. Improve. Polish.

Some chapters got worked over multiple times.

When this happened, I noticed something: the second delta was smaller than the first. The third delta was smaller than the second.

This was a hint that the process was actually converging. I was NOT one of those novelists you hear about, perpetually revising, never finishing. I was using the Getting Things Done methodology and maintaining a solid to-do list, knocking items off each day.

The second draft will be done in a week or so.

In the first year of working on this novel, I ramped up from just an hour a day to two hours per day.

In the second year, the novel split in half (at over 900 pages, the thing is really more like two 450-page books, each with their own theme and climax), and my hours per day climbed and climbed again.

And I realized something.

This all felt familiar.

Writing an audacious novel has a lot in common with running a start-up.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about the ways that it’s very similar…and a few ways that it’s different.

There will be quotes from Paul Graham.

(continued in part 2)

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3 Responses to writing a science fiction novel is like launching a startup (part 1)

  1. Brian Dunbar says:

    If John and the Uplifted Dogs were in chapters

    Sure, Brin wrote about uplifted Dolphins and monkeys – you write about uplifted Dogs and that is so very cool.

    I want to meet one, now.

  2. Boris Reitman says:

    Thanks for a great article. Bitcookie 8635 for you

  3. Traci Loudin says:

    This article made me laugh out loud, because I know exactly how you felt at each of those stages… Thanks for sharing. Sometimes what we need most is to the remember we’re not alone!

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