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That empty feeling

Ten minutes ago I composed a brief email message to my literary agent, with an attachment around 1.2 megabytes in size. Then I hit "send" on fifteen months minus five days of work. I've been keeping a low profile on this blog because I've just worked for nine consecutive days on what I hope is the final draft of "Rule 34": if my agent doesn't raise any red flags over it, it should land on my editors' desks in something between 24 hours and two months.

Feeling dead, now. Working for nine solid days will do that to you.

Unfortunately, sometimes it's necessary. Novels are complex assemblages, and when they run to over 100,000 words (this one ran to 108,000 — making it about three pages longer than "Halting State") there are a lot of intricate cross-linkages and continuity glitches to fix. Explanations for bits of the action may get written up twice in different chapters if I forget about having done it the first time; and plot threads get dropped by accident, especially if the writing process is stretched across more than a year. The only way to get it right is to plough through the entire thing non-stop, intensively re-familiarizing yourself with the book so that you can spot the little inconsistencies between page 50 and page 120.

... And then it's gone.

Ever finished a job that, give or take vacations, sick time, and minor interruptions, took you more than a year of solid day-job working time? If not, it's a really strange sensation. Most human occupations are process-oriented, ongoing grappling with a continuous requirement for activity that never goes away — they may break down into sub-tasks, but the tasks in question seldom extend across more than a few hours or a handful of days. Stuff that happens once, in a continous process lasting months, is very atypical and more usually experienced as parts of life distinct from work: pregnancy, or higher education, or a terminal illness. And having it just end feels somehow wrong.

56 Comments

1:

Death March! Death March! Rah! Rah! Rah!

Now hopefully the book hits the racks before current events render it hopelessly obsolete.

2:

The idea that any worthwhile novel could become obsolete is absurd.

3:

Not to criticize your comment, which is clearly joshing, it's just that I've heard people say such things seriously and find it ridiculous.

4:

My PhD thesis took almost three years, from the point when I had enough research results to start thinking about it, to the thesis defence. I didn't even begin thinking about what to do next with my life until a week afterwards. For the first couple of days I felt completely drained, empty, fuzzy, like a bad case of jetlag. Of course, the hangover from the graduation party may have contributed, but still.

5:

Were you around in 1990-92? There was a flood of thrillers on the market back then, set in a peculiar alternate universe where the iron curtain hadn't rusted through and the Soviet Union was still strong ...

When dealing with the near future in SF, obsolescence is an ever-present threat.

6:

I think I've read that you've used scrivener? Do you not still use this? I've found it to be at least mostly helpful in keeping long complicated documents manageable.

7:

I sometimes use Scrivener -- usually for untangling the sub-plots of a book if they've gotten completely unmanagable by any other tool. For me, there are two big problems with using Scrivener universally: lack of cross-platform compatability, and poor handling of semantic style sheets (if I'm going to use a tool with any layout capabilities at all, I want to have proper structural tagging rather than "bold" and "italic" and similar inline nonsense).

8:

But it's NOT over,Charlie! I have a feeling this will prove to be only the second book of a FIVE-BOOK-SERIES!

Three More Books! Three More Books! Three More Books!

BWAHAHAHAHA!!!

Best & Congrats!

JKS

9:

Yeah, I used to get that feeling finishing an architecture job that had lasted for a couple of years. You hand over and that's it, finally you can forget the horrible intricacies. Hope you enjoy the rest!

10:

Yes, I felt like that after I finished my PhD too. I did mine part-time, and it took up most of my spare time for five years (and I was working on it for several hours a day, seven days a week for the last couple of months). Then, one Friday morning in October 2002 I handed the thing into the Graduate School office, and spent the next week wandering around in something of a daze, with the constant, nagging feeling that there was something really important I should be doing right now, if only I could put my finger on exactly what it was.

11:

Ditto to the previous PhD comments. We feel your pain Charlie (or can empathize at least). The process has the same triple-stumble finish too - full draft, viva or defence, corrections and final submission compared with full draft and the complexities of the editing process. What you (and university admin departments) need is a submission ritual - something at least two hours long, preferably involving a brass band, that will give the kind of closure the effort demands. Until the edits of course...

As far as the cross-platform Scrivener goes, I take it you've come across Storyline (part of Writer's Cafe)? Not as polished as Scrivener (some very poor interface decisions really) but has Mac, Windows and Linux versions.

12:

I'm at an industrial research lab where everything runs on a one year cycle. A project might or might not be continued into the next year; it could be cancelled sooner, though typically you do the full year. I was with a project once for ten years, but it's more usual these days for a project in my area to last a year or two.

My own solution is to save up vacation until the end of the year, when things have wound down, and then just go off and forget about the whole thing for a month, after which things will just be starting up again (and you find out if the project is going to continue). Taking vacation in the middle of something intense while it goes on without you doesn't quite work.

A feeling of emptiness is very understandable, but after a bit of this kind of rhythm you tend to lose that.

13:

Congrats - its out the door!

So, is the universe of Rule 34 still one wou wouldn't mind living in? To my eyes, its a lot grimmer than Halting State. Or are you just taking a tour of the seedy underbelly?

14:

Seedy underbelly sums it up: but what else is a crime novel going to cover? (The fact that in the world of "Rule 34" we've gotten to 2023 without anything much worse than a couple more fiscal crises and an energy crunch is probably borderline over-optimistic.)

15:

Congratulations on getting Rule 34 out the door - I'm very much looking forward to reading it.

The problem I've had with multi-year projects (all in software) is that they usually get canned rather than finished, either by management fiat or by the company going under. I'll take the emptiness of completion over the grief of cancellation!

16:

Congrats! Enjoy the fact that the empty feeling is caused by having accomplished your goal.

One of the only year+ projects I've ever been on ended with lay-offs and scrapping of the project.

17:

Charlie,

Dude, you've got to go out and celebrate. Seriously. I know you've written a lot of books, but if you don't do something to mark a positive ending on the death march, all you're doing is training your subconscious to hate death marches. That is NOT GOOD. Give yourself a happy ending, sleep it off, and get back to your normal life for a few days, whatever your agent says.

That said, congratulations. I've had that feeling several times, and I know what you mean.

18:

Huh - I hadn't thought of it like that. Thanks!

BTW, I have a multi-year project underway - her name is Gabriela Josephine and if I can get her to be a functional adult with decent judgement, I'll be thrilled. By that point, empty nest syndrome will be considered an acceptable price to pay.

19:

I was going to comment on academia, as have others; but it doesn't stop with the PhD. Last month I *finally* got into print the report of some work that's been going on since about 2002 - huge weight goes away, only to return in a couple of days with the realisation that the pile of such papers to get out is ever-larger!

I cannot, yet, imagine what it's going to feel like when our two boys are sent out into the world..

Oh: goal! :)

20:

2/3: Me? Ridiculous? Where'd you get that idea. I do suspect that you haven't hung around with a lot of computer types; "death march" is a pretty casual term for them.

As for novels going obsolete, the problem with this series, as our host has noted, is that galloping events have prematurely put the first novel into the past, or at least made it alternate history.

21:

Ugh. Do I ever.

Project Management is like that all the time, with Bonus Feature: you get to disect with the group what worked and what didn't afterward. At least your project committee meeting consists of just you, or maybe you and your editor and your agent, not three engineers, a program manager, four QC staff, five customers and a sales rep.

22:

You might think that ...

Last time I dropped in on my agent for a chat, what I found waiting for me was a conference table with: agent, senior partner, finance/foreign rights guy, intern, and a two-page agenda.

And the last time I dropped in on my publisher I got: my editor, an editorial assistant, and a guided tour of about six different managers in different departments for whom my output is a critical path element ...

23:

Actors do it all the time. That surge of effort then a rest becomes addictive. Other jobs never manage the same... arc.

24:

I've had that experience working on getting through legislation through Parliament. It takes over your life and, especially in the death-march run up to the final stage (last chance for amendments) you find you've lost your weekends, evenings and at one point, it even began colonising my dreams so I couldn't really escape through sleep (I can't help thinking that dreaming about meetings with solicitors to discuss consequential amendments is a sign of incipient mental illness really).

And then its over. And I'm left wondering where my life went. Took a bus down to he coast and went for a long walk down by the sea able for the first time in weeks to think about something else.

Congratulations on finishing the book - I look forward to reading it.

25:

Congratulations!

I think the last time I had a break like that I woke up feeling like I had something to do... realized I didn't. And then went for a very long walk. Following by a long sit in a park. Followed by another long walk along the water.

Take a long walk, breathe in life. You've only just finished breathing out a whole world!

26:

School is almost finished. Ten months of wiping runny noses, dealing with all the angst of childhood as well as trying to light a few candles and meet Ministry targets…

And then nothing. No marking hanging over my head. No lessons to plan. No labs to prepare. No parents to call.

Time to read a book because I want to, not because I need to. Time to pick up my Mandarin lessons, dust off my camera, and do stuff for me for a change. Or not do stuff, without feeling guilty! It's a very strange headspace.

Welcome to the start of my summer, every year :-)

27:

Congratulations! I've been through this a couple times: first the PhD (others have noted that experience) and later developing commercial software.

I'm curious: is there any advice you wish you could send back to the Charlie Stross of 15 months ago that might have made things go easier? (aside from incidents of aggravated Icelandic geography)

28:

Definitely agree with the acting & political comments. Having run campaigns for months/years at a time, the feeling after the election is one of complete emptiness. It's always tough explaining to other folks why you aren't elated & jumping for joy when your guy wins.

Congrats on finishing. I'm looking forward to reading it.

29:

Sounds like the day our old startup company finally shipped version 1.0 of our product to paying customers. Getting to that point took us over a year of development, and involved certification by huge, powerful financial institutions (it was a financial transaction engine), and then it was out of our hands and getting real-world use.

(But it's clearly not exactly the same experience as you're having, since our final version was something like 3.3. Version 2.0 was an almost-complete rewrite, but that's still certainly not the same thing as writing another novel in the same series.)

30:

That kind of reminds me of how I felt when my dissertation was done. Several years of intense (and escalating effort), and then... done. After that, there's this feeling of basically being spent.

Which is why I'm going to focus on a few articles before I try to actually do that monograph.

31:

I know someone whose novel is good--but he doesn't ever plan to say goodbye to it, unless we can bribe his wife to slide us the most recent version out of his computer. And even then he'll be bleating gently about a footnote, or something (_see_ GAUDY NIGHT).

Like that one guy said, celebrate. It is going to feel empty for a while.

But it's better than never letting go.

32:

I. Am. So. There. A week to go on my own personal death march, not counting the one-week extension I just requested. Working non-stop for days at a time ironically renders me monosyllabic or reduces me to vague grunts when it comes to real-world communication - until the deadline is past, at least.

33:

I've been there with 3 tech books - but, do I hope to be there someday with a book that's *entirely* full of lies. I could imagine the process would be somewhat more challenging.

34:

I've been there with 3 tech books - but, do I hope to be there someday with a book that's *entirely* full of lies. I could imagine the process would be somewhat more challenging.

Having just wolfed down books 4 & 5 of the Merchant Princes, I've got to give respect for keeping track of all those threads. Kudos on the latest deliverable!

35:

Congratulations, Charlie! Hopefully you've been dragged down to the pub for a pint or three by now.

I don't think I've yet had a project that went on full-time for a year, though I expect that will change soon. If it's anything like a high-powered college experience, I think I can sympathize with the feeling of emptiness when it's over, though. "Well, shit. Now what?"

there are a lot of intricate cross-linkages and continuity glitches to fix.

The thought of approaching this fills me with horror. I get enough of intricate cross-linkages and glitches in software, and no one has yet created automated refactoring tools for English prose. The fiddly little details are coming to EAT YOUR BRAIN.

36:

Big-contract engineers do this, as well .....
Think about a really big railway signalling project - where if you get it wrong, your'e going to kill lots of people, or a large bridge - my wife was peripharrally involved on the financial side with the Denmark-Sweden bridge/tunnel project. Think what it must have been like for the people at Arup's doing the main work!

37:

Re Scrivener - it's a pity that Open Office doesn't have a proper outline view. The sad truth is that MS Word is probably the best writing tool around: footnotes, commenting, outline view, easy semantic styling, and usable macro language for removing outline....

38:

Unfortunately, Microsoft Word's file formats are so inconsistent, and the majority of people who use it are unable to do so very well (they especially can't do the semantic styling), that the resulting files rarely import into page layout packages without being mangled in some way.

If you want to submit Word files, I will charge a lot more for my services to account for the extra time spent demangling them.

39:

I wasn't going to comment, but I used to be a QA clerk for a major projects E1-M1 company (the sort of people you employ to run the electrical, plumbing, heating and ventilation side of doing things like building a new parliament building [but I was not involved with the Scottish Parliament; I'd switched in software engineering by then]).

40:

"And having it just end feels somehow wrong."

Not exactly how I felt when I finished my dissertation. That was more like a huge sense of relief--"The mountain is off my shoulders"--followed by about a week of wondering what came next.

41:

And there were a number of sf writers whose futures had the Soviet Union as a superpower centuries from now.

Jack Chalker dealt with this the easy way: his hero pushed the universe's reset button.

The 2000 revision of Andre Norton's The Time Traders was updated to present-day (near future, actually) by having a new Russian dictatorship as a superpower.

42:

Congratulations, Charlie! There's always a gratifying sense of relief when a big project gets wrapped. I just hope your publisher gives you a decent break before sending you the list of changes they want... ;)

Mike

43:

When emailing 15 months worth of work via insecure SMTP, do you password protect/encrypt the file or do you assume the risk isn't worth the effort? Just curious. I'd probably just email it in the clear.

44:

I like to get started on the next project right away. Once that next project is underway, then take some time off.

This avoids what I like to call (actually, I just made it up right now) "explosive decompression" at project completion. I was numb for a month after filing my dissertation. No good.

45:

"welcome to the entertainment business"

that empty feeling is recognisable to anyone who works in an endeavour involved in the entertainment business. i get that same exhaustion and flat feeling after delivering a Con.

Of course it not actually over, there is still clearup, sorting out the books etc to do

And as you know it's not over for you yet either. There are still checks to be made, there is also publicity to be done, there is still the publishing mill to work through. In the meantime you can finally get down to that idea that been buzzing round your brain for far too long, desperate to grab your fingers, and in n months time it too will become a hopefully short death march to completion

I all sweetness and light aren't I?

well done on making it through

now go and STOP! and NO! Your brain/fingers can wait a few days, for you to have a LIFE!

hugs
kate (big)

46:

which parliament - there are so many in the world

47:

I was just reading tipjar and what I really want to actually to do is express frustration with the publishing process!

I want the book NOW!!!!!

I want to buy ten copies to give to ten of my friends who I meet first!

I want (more than) ten copies so I can actually talk about it with someone who isn't you!

I assume you cope because you've birthed the calf and you would rather leave it, to swim alone, since your pregnant again...

48:

I wonder if this is the reason that the Dead Dog party at the end of a con can be a major recruiting session for organisers of future conventions?

You're winding down after the con, the adrenaline has run out and you're feeling a little flat and someone comes over and suggests a fantasy con is in need of good ops personnel or a lighting tech and before you realise you're signed up for another major con and at least a month of burning the candle at both ends!

49:

I... I am continually astonished by the range of human experience, let me say.

If you're trying to do something that will be maintained, and has any length, WYSIWIG is not your friend; form/content separate and consistent automated output generation are your friend. For anything collaborative -- document assembled from files produced by various individuals, document worked on by multiple people -- WYSIWIG is _really_ not your friend.

Note that for an author, they're in a collaborative process with the publisher's various editorial staff *and* (as Charlie has been noting vehemently about this book) time-shifted versions of themselves.

So, generally, no, I'd suggest Word is not what you want for anything long or collaborative. (Leaving aside file format issues, various promiscuous default setting formatting misbehavior, and the more actively malign aspects of the character handling.) It can, in skilled hands, be very good for a document that a single individual owns and never, ever lets anyone else edit.

50:

I feel kinda cheated on not getting that feeling as a game programmer.

There is a big project. We work really hard on it for 2+ years usually. And it ends. But with the way it ends, particularly for programmers, I never quite get that Finished! feeling.

A good couple months before the project is really over most of the team is already off taking vacations and getting going on the next project. We fix bugs, fix fewer bugs, fix yet fewer bugs, it gets submitted, but we keep fixing bugs in case it gets kicked back out. Then maybe it gets kicked out and we work on it some more, or maybe it stays in submission for a week or two or even three. And then finally we hear it passed. But by that time we have already started taking days off and prepping for future projects waiting to see if it is really over. The clean break just doesn't happen. Then months later the game actually comes out and the parties are thrown.

All very unsatisfactory somehow.

51:

Shouldn't be surprised to find similar feelings in so many different industries. Fascinating to dip into someone else's life and see what their views are like (such as the fellow whose work for parliament ended up invading his dreams; there's a short story in there, I'm certain).

My personal slog ended up lasting 14 years, from the initial idea for the book to publication. A lot of it was downtime to be sure, but the project never left me head, with thoughts ranging from "I'll never get this done. No one will buy it." to sending the initial proposal years ago to general apathy (including my own, I had no confidence in my writing); to a renewal of spirit and the drive -- beginning, when, two years ago? -- to Getting the Thing Done.

And now it's done. I just received the MS that'll be my last look before production.

Bloody hell. I, who never thought I could do it, actually did it. And like y'all, it does leave a dazed feeling, with a dollop of feeling a little foolish, wondering what all the fuss was about.

(Remember Edward Gorey's "The Unstrung Harp"? The author stands at the bottom of the stairs leading to his publisher, feeling that all this trouble was silly and that he should dump the MS into the bin and forget about it. That kind of feeling.)

52:

Scottish Parliament. I worked on the Sexual Offences Bill and in the process ensured that a part of the plot of 'Halting State' doesn't work (or at least won't without an amending Bill.)

53:

Given the nature of the postulated offense in question, that's the kind of predictive failure in my work that I like to hear about.

(See here, for an example of what can go wrong.)

54:

Working in the entertainment industry, I get that feeling, especially after festival season is over.

I wear several hats. Nominally I'm often down as either assistant stage manager or monitor engineer. However I often stand in for the stage manager, be the crew chief for main stage, cover front of house sound whilst their engineer goes for a wee/beer/burger, run back then be artist liason, unloading wagons and vans, then loading them back up again and covering the production office whilst they go and do something... production-y...

The major university balls I work at my uni (Derby) are like a compressed death march, lots of pre-planning then 70 hours of work compressed into 3 days without sleeping/eating/functioning as a human. Once its done my life feels empty for a few days afterwards until something else comes along.

The live ents industry is full of GOGOGOaaaaaaaaand break GO GO GO etc etc

55:

Be careful with your health.

Seriously. There's a host of studies showing upticks in illness - everything from the common cold to heart attacks - after stress comes off. Just after project completion, just after retirement, just after a big tournament you've trained for, just after exams finish in your final year...

Now is a very good time to be just a bit careful.

cheers,

meno

56:

"And there were a number of sf writers whose futures had the Soviet Union as a superpower centuries from now."

Yup. Hilariously, most of them had the Cold War still going. And, of course, the world divided into two camps "Us" and "Them", as if that was all there was. An afflication that hit American writers more than the rest of us.

I don't know much about where the borders of Burgundy were, the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, or the boundaries of the Ottoman empire. I don't think someone 350 years from now will know much about the USSR or USA either.

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