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On finishing

I'm feeling pretty weird right now; I've just finished a novel.

(Writing, not reading.)

Of course, a novel isn't really finished when the author writes THE END — it goes through a whole series of editorial stages, then shows up for the first time as a real book, and even then it isn't over; there are errata and unspotted typos to fix in subsequent editions, translators' queries for versions in other languages, and so on. But there's something distinctly final about the sensation of writing THE END when you get to that point in the first draft beyond which the story doesn't want to continue.

This novel is unusual in that it was premature — very premature. In fact, I'm feeling slightly guilty about having written it, in fact — it diverted time from other scheduled projects, time I can't easily claw back elsewhere, and I suspect it means I'll be working over the festive season. But despite being premature, it's not an unwanted novel — it is in fact one I've already sold, there's a contract and everything — but the deadline is July 31st, 2010. I've got two other novels under contract that I really ought to have written first. If artistic inspiration ran on railroad tracks I wouldn't be setting finger to keyboard on this one until October next year.

Be that as it may; this book (which I knew I was going to write eventually) crept up on me out of nowhere and mugged me last month. I was sitting in front of the word processor, dully staring at an empty file and wishing I was somewhere, anywhere else — and some imp of the perverse prompted me to open a 2000 word stub of notes that I'd jotted down six months previously, and then it seemed the most natural thing in the world to write some more, and more, and moreandmoreandmoreandmore ... and suddenly I was unable to stop.

Creativity is a weird thing. You can plod along a steep uphill road for months, or it can hit you like an express train. I've learned to go with the flow when this happens: if a story wants to escape it's best to let it out, to go with the flow and worry about cleaning up the schedule afterwards. Once you pass forty, it doesn't seem to happen so often. This is the first such novel-length outburst I've had since I wrote the first draft of "Glasshouse", back in 2003, and I hope to live long enough to experience it again some time ...

Anyway, I've been writing compulsively, for about six to eight solid hours a day, pretty much seven days a week for 32 days. (When I say "six to eight solid hours a day", I'm not talking about the typical intensity of work you'd expect to put in during a day at the office; I'm talking about six to eight hours of being present in the office and nattering to fellow employees around the water cooler; I'm talking about the kind of work flow when you eventually glance up from the keyboard, uncramp your fingers, realize you're hungry, and wonder how the hell it got to be so late.) And during that time I bolted together the first 101,000 word draft of "The Fuller Memorandum", third book in the series beginning with "The Atrocity Archives" and "The Jennifer Morgue" — a job that would normally take about four to six months.

(Whether it's any good or not is a question I can't answer yet. Sometimes writing in a rush lends coherency and intensity to a project, but it can equally well result in clunky prose and over-hasty visualization. I'm still too close to it to judge the quality of handiwork; whatever happens, it's going to take at least one very careful editorial pass before I'm ready to hand it in. And that's not going to happen for a while. As I said, I have other books and other deadlines: now I've got this one out of my system I have really got to work hard to get the next one out on schedule.)

What I really want to talk about here is the sensation of finishing a project.

Writing a book in a month is hard time, roughly equivalent to putting in an eighty-to-ninety hour working week for four or five consecutive weeks on a normal job. But it's a job with a very well-defined ending. You work yourself up to a peak of mechanical performance, managing to produce a regular week's output every two or three days: and then suddenly ... you've run off the edge of a cliff. And as soon as you look down you're in free fall, just like Wile E. Coyote.

My first reaction: naturally, I want to crow about it from the rooftops! This is perfectly normal and age and experience have taught me that, present company excepted (hey, you're here to read my blog, right?) most people don't want to hear about it. So consider yourselves crowed at.

My second reaction: I need a vacation! (Writing is weird. It creeps into your skull and inhabits your dreams. This week I've had some really weird ones ....) Luckily all I have to do is finish working over a fat pile of page proofs in the next week — checking for errors and redlining them — them I'm off to the Bokbierfest in Amsterdam for the weekend, with my wife for company instead of a laptop. (I hope she remembers my face. When I'm head-deep in the guts of a novel I'm very poor company. Even the cats complain.)

Finally, there's the third reaction: emptiness. This job has an addictive quality to it. It's an art form as well as a business, and it's one in which you eventually get to hold in your hands a physical product and know that it's touched thousands or tens of thousands of other people, and there is the moment that you learn to live for, those two ultimate words: THE END. They zip past really fast, and then they're gone, until the next time. And you know what? It's a lot of work to get back to that place ...

So: the crash. Me, I just start another novel. (In this case, I'm taking a luxurious, lazy two weeks off then diving straight into "The Trade of Queens".) How do you deal with it?

50 Comments

1:

I'm dealing with this now.

I crashed, and crashed hard, after finishing an RPG thing this summer. Manuscript submitted, along with quips for the marketing page, then . . . fumes.

I'm using the time I should be writing the next thing with compulsive twitch-gaming. Frigging Desktop Tower Defense.

Seeing the just finished project actually published (it is due out next month) and having people comment on it might get me out of this.

2:

Charlie - congratulations on finishing! Any chance it would go to publication faster as a result? Or does it just sit in your drawer until late 2009 before you pick it up for an editorial pass?

On to your question - when I finish a big project, I definitely hit the crash - usually a couple of days (at least) where it's really hard to concentrate or get motivation. Usually spend the time catching up on administrivia or the like.

3:

Will: I have no idea when it's coming out. However, it can't come out less than 12 months after I hand it in. That's because it would have to go through editorial and production processes, have a marketing slot allocated to it, and so on. It was originally scheduled for delivery in 2010 and for publication in 2011, but that's an artefact of the original delivery deadline. If I hand it in 18 months early it might sit around for 18 months, gathering cobwebs -- or not. Hopefully not.

Luckily tomorrow I have a birthday party, so I can distract myself from the crash for a while. Stefan: yup ... fumes.

4:

Nice one.

Do you have contracts with several companies, or are they all with one publishers? You'd think, in the latter case, that they'd have better protocols for dealing with prolific authors like yourself....

I think I can identify with that empty feeling you mention... but from a reader's pov. I get like that when I finish a book I've been heavily involved with, without a sequel to dive straight into.

5:

I'm very glad you're taking two weeks off. Now... will that be two weeks actually off, or will be you be pushing yourself on the other book?

6:

Sounds like the geek holy grail: hack mode. When I was eighteen I could get into hack mode really easily; now it's a lot harder. And I think it's because I'm usually hacking on things I don't give a damn about now, whereas when I was a kid nobody was telling me what to hack on.

Anyway, congratulations. I rejoice for your good fortune, and hope it visits you again soon (but after your vacation). :')

7:

Yoga.

Binge eating/drinking/shagging.

A good cry.

Or a mixture of all.

8:

With video games it tends to trail off more gradually. You build up to a frantic push to complete the game, submissions to publishers start going out, and then at some point you just suddenly stop putting in new work because hopefully "today's build is totally getting approved". Generally your sitting around, being on call, fixing bugs that crop up last minute, and then at some point you realize you've mostly been goofing off web-surfing for the last two weeks, and then the boss comes around and says the game was approved by the publisher and you starting dreaming about what you are going to make in the next one. :)

9:

er, need a proofreader...?....

Only (half) joking.

I'm the same with my music, I have deadlines, I have stuff I HAVE to do, but sometimes, something that's been tickling the back of my mind just jumps up front. It can't be ignored.

Afterwards, the crash is worse than the usual deadline finishing type thing, because the Uber-creative phase has finished and it's back to bread 'n' butter stuff.

As for dreams, it's almost as if my mind is working out string arrangements as I sleep, then they're (nearly) all ready when I wake up. A consequence of being 'in the zone' for protracted periods I suspect.

As for the new book Charlie, you write, you publish, I read. Happy there's a new one coming. Especially as the Laundry novels are my favourites (old Cthulhu lag, me)and I loved Quiller when it was on, there must be repeats somewhere....

10:

Well done!

In my case, the few projects i have finished, I feel a bit tired and not bothered, because by the time they've finished they have usually become a slog, although there is a small feeling of happiness.
Then there are the work projects, which just go on, and on, and on.

11:

Rosy @4: multiple contracts, multiple publishers. The same book will typically sell to somewhere between 5-10 publishers -- the US publisher, the UK publisher, French, German, Japanese, Russian, Italian, Spanish, and other publishers. But it's the first two I deal with directly and who buy rights up-front; the others buy reprint/translation rights after the event.

I'm currently writing books for Tor and Ace, and I will admit that dealing with two major publishers (each of whom prefer to see a novel every 12 months) makes for a tough treadmill. (The thing about this book that's embarrassing is that it's for Ace, when the book I really need to be working on is for Tor. On the other hand, if I didn't think I could still make their deadline I wouldn't have been able to divert energy into a side-project. Deadlines come first.)

12:

Charlie: How different is your feeling about the end of a novel to the end of a coding project? Isn't it similar? Isn't editing rather like the bug fix stage (only shorter)?

While I don't always code to deadlines, I do find I go through intense bursts of activity when I am on a roll. I also find myself diverting to other projects that seem to be more interesting than the current one and demand to be coded.

Vacations or doing something completely different help me wash away the project and distance myself from it, prior to starting the next.

13:

Alex: it's similar to coding a big project, except that the language I'm writing is nondeterministic and the compiler cross-targets a bundle of different CPU architectures (many of which contain bugs) and the code doesn't run quite the same way on any target platform :)

But the feel is indeed similar.

14:

Congratulations on once again crossing the finish line. Maybe if we all wish really hard for you, and earnestly declare that yes, we do believe in fairies, then this time the Fates will see fit to reward your efforts with great fame and riches.

No? OK, then I guess we'll just have to convince everyone we know to buy the book.

15:

Well done.
It's funny how the grass is always greener. I have dozens of things I want to write about. I sadly forget far more than I have time to explore. (I do jot them down).

Talking about dreams. I finished The Atrocity Archives last night and then had a dream where I was being tortured by having my legs twisted off. Great book though.

16:

Quite selfishly I'm glad that you have jumped the queue with a Laundry novel. I just found them, love them and have been recommending them around. I hope Ace takes it and runs so that I only need to wait a year until I can read it. Enjoy your vacation.

17:

so, does that mean that The Fuller Memorandum will not be a Golden Gryphon book? 'cos I like those a lot. They sortof feel right. As an object to touch, I mean. Tor Hardcovers, not so much, prefer the Orbit ones (i.e. british).

18:

What is this word "finished"? For a couple of decades there my standard .sig was "Engineering means never having to say you're finished."

But when management screwed up and we actually did ship a product, and we were waiting around for someone to formally propose a new product, I'd usually dive into simple games, like XConq, or spend a lot more time reading SF than reading developer manuals. One thing that usually took away that feeling of emptiness was that I had a family with a couple of children and a house to take care of, so there were always things like homework and yardwork, and taking the dog to the vet because he tried to get friendly with a cat.

Of course it makes a difference if you work in a team. I never had a whole product all to myself before this job; I think it's a lot more like your experience writing a book than working with a team of 10 or 15 other people. If nothing else, you don't have to drink alone at the wrap party.

19:

Turning nothing into something, no matter what it is, is like giving birth (says he, cough).

It's something that has to be done, in its own time. However its giving of yourself and it takes a little time to understand what it means and who you now are. If it means anything it should change you, you shouldn't be the same person as before. Ya can't go and get pregnant again straight away either.

Plus there are all those people who says your baby is ugly to be punched first.

Something very different is required to give your mind time to settle. Go do a tax return.

20:

My creative work these days is mostly beading and crocheting, and while I feel great when I finish a project, I have a long line of other projects to move on to, so I don't really have the drop. Here's what I finished Thursday and mailed today. The cab is polyclay made to look like mokume gane, and it was made by Cat Therien.

21:

I completed my first novel at before age sixteen, and despite the utter lack of quality, I remember sitting outside on the front step and staring at the garden for a little while, thinking absurdly optimistic thoughts. Now when I complete something of any length, I vacillate between exhausted emptiness and the shuddering pleasure of having finished it all.

I really admire your ability to let go and just push through and count on the editorial process, though. (Maybe it's because your first drafts are exceptional.) Lately I can't silence the devil on my shoulder. But I'd like to get my next project finished before my twenty-sixth birthday this year, so I should learn how to let go in a similar way.

22:

Weirdly I had almost the exact opposite experience today.

6 months of work to get a migration ready. I go into work all set for a 48 hour marathon cut-over. I have my sleeping bag and an airbed in case I actually get 3 hours to get some sleep, bags of goodies to keep me going through the weekend and I've ditched the suit for jeans and T-shirt because this is out-of-hours.

5 minutes before I hit the button on the first script - they cancel the project for 2-3 weeks because someone cocked up the data on the source system.......

I suspect the writing analogue to this would be your word-processor crashing just as you were about to write the last paragraph :p

It should happen in a couple of weeks time - but that feeling of anticipation just won't be the same.

23:

Seeing as how it's Saturday where you are, Happy Birthday!

24:

@13:
"it's similar to coding a big project"

So it's a brief burst of elation, followed by complete mental and physical exhaustion? You're killing any notion of me ever putting anything down on paper.

I do a bit of lathe turning and when I finish a well-turned bowl, the feeling is entirely different. More joy than anything else.

So, that being said...
Congratulations on finishing your novel.

25:

Congrats, Charlie.

Saw some article the other day about full feature movies being released directly on YouTube. How long, do you think, editing cycle non-withstanding, until you bypass a publisher and upload directly to my Kindle?

26:

Oddly enough, I do that exact same thing twice a year. And have for the last decade. I'm the head tech guy for the animation studio that produces South Park, and we do so at a very unique pace. The show you see on the air was finished less then 5 hours before you see it. As you might expect, this is unheard of in the animation industry. Even more insane is the fact we usually don't start production on an episode until about 6 days before it is due to air. There are a myriad of reasons why this is so, but it has enabled us to get away with some amazing stuff. And we do this 7 weeks straight. And then we all collapse. What do I do after each run? I used to go out and party, but as the stress has started taking a toll on my health, now I just try to recover enough to do it again. The danger now is avoiding burnout. The downside to such an addiction, I would imagine...

J^2

27:

The Trade Of Queens!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

YaAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaYYYYYY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

28:

I like getting into the Zone (and I've done it in coding, in writing, and in technical translation -- I once famously translated 16,000 words of SAP XML book in one single day) but the crash afterwards can be a dangerous thing for me; I tend to go depressive if I'm not careful.

The worst, though, is surfacing from a month-long creative binge to realize I've forgotten to invoice anyone for a very long time. The last time was after tracking the Storm spam this summer; once I managed to shut the Code Muse up on that one, I realized I hadn't done billing for three months. Or paid bills for two. Fortunately they didn't shut off the power, but it was touch and go for a couple of days. And so I vow "Never again," until next time, of course.

101,000 words in 32 days, though -- that would definitely crash me, not to mention hurt my left pinky from my improper shifting habits. Good on you, though; just imagine how much more relaxed your life will be when you catch up on the deadlined work!

29:

Honest answer? Well, I've just spent ten back-to-back 20-hour days getting a server farm back from on it's knees to functioning as well as any microshaft product ever did and what am I going to do? I'm going to take a 10 hour sleep vacation and then go back in for the weekend and try to figure out what the experts from the consultancy firm thought they were doing to a couple of mail servers. That should certainly seem like a vacation after the last ten days.

30:

So the question is, when is this novel set? Do you have to worry about any sociological or technological developments in the next year and a half that will render this novel obsolete and make you a laughing stock to the SF community if it's published?

31:

Congratulations Charlie ! I'm an avid reader of your books, so knowing there are some goodies in the future like a new edition of your book makes life worth living (ok, ok, there are other things I get fun out as well, of course).

I recognise the feeling-great-and-then-crash feeling from after realising a project (either big or small). Lately only from small projects that I did mostly from start to finish. Nowadays the large projects are so huge that everybody in IT wants to get its mits in and consequently it peters out to become a watered-down version of my original dream with me no longer able to guide (politics!). And so it's only crash and the feeling great is left out. :-(

Thank you for writing these great books !

32:

W00t!! I hope this novel gets out fast. The Laundry series contain some of your best work IMO :-)

Congrats on your achievement and happy birthday!!

33:

Wow. That work sounds sort of super-human. You are human aren't you?

I've nothing equivalent, but when I come close, it is usually:

Scotch, Sleep and great Scenery

(I'd certainly be careful about crowing to any fellow Edinburgh author drinking pals....)

Oh, congrats.

34:

I was going to comment yesterday but was just too damned tired. Well done - not that you need any more good natured back slapping :)

Perhaps you should get some of your geekier fans together and put together an ARG to promote it, seeing as there's going to be quite a delay between now and publication. Lets all get it on the Times best sellers list :)

I'll be looking forward to it.

35:

Happy Birthday!

36:

Happy Birthday, and congratulations! So (cough) if you happen to be looking for beta readers any time soon.... I'm going to have a hard time waiting 2 years for this particular book.

37:

how do i cope with it? i go buy another cat...

just kidding.

i write academically (not fiction), but after an intense bout (typically lasting several months) i spend a couple of days catching up on all the bad teevee i missed (right now i'm going through last season's house eps), sleeping way more than normal, and then i'll start something else and do it all again.

wish we could bottle the creative bursts and sell it. i have often thought mine are related to hormones and the moon's cycles. c'est la vie!

38:

Awww crappola - forgot to say happy birthday before! Hope you enjoyed the day/night matey.#

P

39:

Hey, I saw you and Feorag about to cross Dundas Street at Queen Street Gardens from the number 27 bus today. That's the first time I've ever seen you out and about in town. I nearly waved but I was so shocked the bus moved off on it's diversion before I got a chance. (not that you were looking into the bus anyway, you were too busy talking and watching the traffic).

40:

I always get up immediately after typing "the End" on a novel. It makes me feel kind of light headed. Then shortly thereafter it's back to work.

41:

Ooh, I know the feeling, except my thesis was shorter in length but took three months of 6 to 14 hour days (most notably a three-day period during which I wrote for forty hours), practically seven days a week. Pure madness, and I crashed hard after it. (And no, I'm not bipolar. Or so the shrinks say.) A few days before the end I started hating the thing and just wanted to get it out of my hands. Oh, and it was the first text of notable length I wrote. At least I graduated and have used it as a reference, so it was actually useful.

Happy belated purrfday :)

42:

Congratulations, Charlie! Looking forward to reading it!

Oddly, enough, I'm in no rush. When I was a teen-ager, I couldn't wait for books I was anticipating to arrive in my hands. Now, I'm more patient. I'll buy and read "The Fuller Memorandum" when it comes out. If it's a year from now, that's fine. If it's 2011, well, I'll be looking for good science fiction then, too.

I take it you don't do a lot of revising, that when you've finished a first draft, the book is mostly done. At least with this one. Correct?

43:

Congratulations on finishing.. and happy birthday. May you live happily for at least fifty more years ..

Unlike the previous poster, I'm barely out of my teens, and kind of impatient to get my hands on the book.
You and I are both lucky I don't live in Scotland. Otherwise, I would be sorely tempted to conduct a bit snooping and then some B&E .. just to get to read the damn thing :)

44:

Hmm, not sure that I go with that relaxed view Mitch@42

I have a morbid fear that as I go under the wheels of a London Omnibus that I will have a split-second where I contemplate all of the fine SF titles which I'll not be able to read...so I make it my life's work to be as up-to-date on favourite authors as I possibly can.

Unless Frank Tipler is right in which case its the best of all possible worlds,

-- Andrew

45:

Congrats Charlie, I look forward to reading it.

I'm a fashion textile designer, and am subject to the predictable rhythms of the seasons and the unpredictable lurches of fashion. I'm familiar with the plodding/express train/go-with-the flow you've described. When you're hot, you're hot, when not, not. I've learned that trying to force creativity is generally counter-productive and frustrating.

When the 'gift of [sound and] vision' strikes, I can be a couple of weeks to a month, like you, in front of the workstation, oblivious to time, current affairs, friends and family, eating pizza and Chinese, my waistline ballooning, skintone becoming more and more appalling. I end up looking like a 1930's hobo about ten years older than I am. Domestically, my house ends up looking like a squat.

When the collection is finished, I definitely feel a sense of release - almost amazement that I've achieved what I have. There's also a sense of relief, that I HAVE managed to do it. Also there's relief that I can again take care of domestic and personal matters - I clean the house and mountain bike almost obsessively (I live on Royal Deeside) until I and the house/studio get back into some sort of acceptable condition.

Then, unpredictably, the muse strikes again...

46:

I recently (well, beginning of September) finished off a paper analysing 13 months of collected data that pertains to scanning of not-quite-there computers (it's not a TRUE model of not-there, yet, but it's as good as I can make it). When the bulk of the words, tables, analysis and graphs were in, it did the round of close people who didn't run away fast enough, then went through another few weeks of muilling over, fixing up obvious errors, fleshing out the analysis prompted by insightful questions and then came the next scary bit, trying to push the paper.

But, now, three weeks after the initial release to the world, I actually feel at ease. There may, possibly, be a speaking engagement coming up from the publishing, but other than that, it's just mentally gearing up for the next performance (a 12-month analysis of data collected between 2008-01-01 and 2008-12-31). There will most probably be some coding happening taht's only (at best) peripherally connected with that paper, though, as most of the code I'll be needing is already written.

47:

This was entirely too syncronistic. The SAS, according to an article in the Washington Post, ran a Laundry in Belfast. All the laundry went through a machine that detected bomb residue. They correlated hits with locations by issuing color coded discount coupons to different neighborhoods.

48:

The paradox of fully executing the Discipline/contract writing paradigm and the lightning bolt/Muses/inspiration paradigm has rarely been so well described, Mr. Stross.

My approach for the 4+ decades as a paid writer/academic/slave to Muses is a tactical tweak to smooth the peak/pit crash volatility.

I always have a statistical distribution of ongoing projects of all lengths with which I'm familiar:

1-paragraph 1-equation submissions to the On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences; and/or haiku\
(many hundreds or a few thousand)

1-page short-short story; and/or sonnet; and/or paper abstract (many tens, or a few hundred)

10-page short story; and/or draft short academic paper; and/or lesson plan; and or film/TV treatment; several of which may be fix-upped (many ones, or a few tens)

100-page draft academic monograph (may be cut up into several shorter papers); or major chunk of novel
(several, up to ten-ish)

1,000-page items are rarer, and include 5,000,000 word web site, planned trilogies (but must sell one novel first before seriously seeking trilogy contract).

If this were a math blog, I'd not have given this in powers of 10, but in powers of "e."

As the protagonist of Dune points out, the issue is not prophecy, but prophecy management.

49:

You are an amazingly prolific author... no one understands how you do it!

50:

Congratulations! Enjoy your vacation.

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on October 17, 2008 7:20 PM.

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