Apr 22 2009 1:06pm

Death March

I’m supposed to be blogging here regularly this month. So sorry: but I’m delinquent, and consequently my presence is likely to be a little erratic. The proximate cause of my delinquency is a deadline (long overshot) and a promise—to deliver a manuscript to my editor, David Hartwell, some time before the next ice age. I am, in short, embarked on the final death march to the end of the sixth Merchant Princes novel, The Trade of Queens, and on the off chance that some of you are curious—what does this mean?

This novel has been a long time coming. I wrote the original proposal for this series back in 2001, and finished the first book the same year; since then it’s been an on-again/off-again proposition and the road map for the series is almost laughably out-of-date. I originally posited a four book series: this is book six, but going by the original road map it’s actually the climax of book two. I originally posited books in the 600-800 page range: yeah, well, that plan didn’t survive contact with the enemy, or in this case the economics of book binding and production. And there were a couple of other setbacks along the way, I admit—illness, insanity, and the competing demands of other publishers among them.

I’m at home, sitting at my desk, in front of a laptop. I ought to be sitting in front of an iMac, but what do you know? The iMac decided to die on me when I got back from Eastercon. (Typical: it knew what I had in mind for it and committed suicide rather than put up with the indignity. But I am a cunning and experienced writer and I have a superannuated and dusty degree in computer science and I know that the machines really are out to get me—and so I always keep my backups up-to-date, and maintain a spare machine in good working order.)

I have been working on this novel in earnest since, um, last September. Not continuously—I’ve taken breaks to go to SF conventions, hole up in bed with man flu, do the tax, and visit my parents to threaten their computers with a Cat5 cable—but I write discontinuously, in bursts, typically averaging 10,000 words in a seven-day stretch and then falling over for a few days.

Being a full-time novelist is a lot like being unemployed, or an inmate in one of those circadian rhythm experiments where they make you live in a cave for six months: your grasp of clock and calendar goes haywire, and you end up working weekends, taking Wednesday off, and feeding the cats without complaint when they bug you at 5am (much to their surprise).

A month ago I hit a brick wall in the process, and had to go to my editor for advice. He helpfully looked at the 80% of a novel I’d handed him and said, “this is 80% of a novel.” At which point enlightenment dawned, and I realized that I had to stuff another 20% of a novel up the dilated rear end of this frozen turkey. (Believe me, the metaphors get worse the further into the process you go.) In my case, the four stages of grief, anger, confusion, and despair all come into play at various points in the process, because I’d like nothing quite so much as a year or two off from the series at this point: it’s 40,000 words longer than War and Peace. (If you handed me the keys to a time machine tomorrow I’d go back to 2001 and take great pleasure in feeding the manuscripts to my younger self as a caution and a warning about not trying to bite off anything bigger than your own head. But I digress ...)

In case you haven’t worked it out yet, I’m so deep into burn-out that I’m out the other side. But do not worry: burn-out is just one of those things that hits me cyclically, every three years or so. The novel will still be cooked on time. Trust me, I’m a professional, and I’ve been here before.

So, back to the death march.

I’m sitting in my office in front of a hot laptop, staring at a hastily-updated outline and groaning. The cats are asleep on the study sofa behind me. My wife is elsewhere: she’s figured out that I’m impossible to live with when I’m at this point in a book, and as her favorite band is touring for the first time in 24 years, she’s taken a road trip. I’m trying not to spend too much time reading the blogs of other writers moaning in their own personal oubliettes of occupational anomie, and I’ve drained my email inbox of everything of significance. Good. That means it’s time to write. And write some more the next day. Write something, go eat, remember to bathe and feed the cats, write some more, and sleep. I’ve just done 10,000 words in the past four days. At that rate, it’s a novel in six weeks. Eat, sleep, type, that’s all I live for: the rhythm of writing my way down the final slope to THE END.

(Did I say I hate my job? And if so, do I have to remind you that my job is telling lies for money? But sometimes it’s more fun to tell the truth ...)

Eric Scharf
1. EricScharf
I'm about to quit my regular job with health benefits to pursue the romantic life of a novelist. But before I tell my boss to go jump in the lake, please enlighten me, what is "man flu"? Can it be avoided by not using UNIX?
piaw na
2. piaw
Unfortunately, I read a couple of the Merchant Princes books and couldn't stomach the idea of reading any more (I'm not a series hater, but I'm getting to the point in my life where I'd rather read a book if it wasn't part of the series). I was hoping to see more in the vein of Saturn's Children or Singularity Sky, or even The Atrocity Archives...
Blue Tyson
3. BlueTyson
There is more Atrocity Archives, actually. It is called The Jennifer Morgue.

Plus the short story here, etc.
Clifton Royston
4. CliftonR
... and Charlie has copped to having already written the next novel of the Laundry books, The Fuller Memorandum, in a fevered frenzy when he was supposed to be writing this book instead.

Last his readers had heard though, its publishing time-slot still hadn't been moved forward, so it probably won't be revised and released for another couple years. Arrgh!

Not that I'm desperately jonesing or anything. I deny that.
Charlie Stross
5. cstross
CliftonR: I'm awaiting a decision on whether The Fuller Memorandum is going to be rescheduled; I'll probably know by late May or June.

(As my schedule is currently a train-wreck -- next year's Ace novel is due in July and is currently, er, 1200 words long -- I suspect TFM will probably get bumped forward to 2010. Then I really have to write the HALTING STATE sequel before I write the fourth Laundry novel ...)
Owen Strawn
6. Owen Strawn
Oooooh... a fourth Laundry novel!!
Nicholas Alcock
7. NullNix
The publishers do know what will crawl from the pages if they don't move the slot forward, right?

(btw, Charlie, I had to sit through a six hour training session today, mostly on the exciting topic of how we are to escape from a forty-story-tall building if the bad guys run an airliner into it (those four hours came down to "you don't"). I'm afraid, y'know the part of _The Jennifer Morgue_ with the PowerPoint presentation? It's even less fictional than you thought, but you can avoid complete neural atrophy by thinking about type theory or by being a marketing manager.)
Owen Strawn
8. David Scholes
I've often wondered what it would be like to be a full time novelist.

I think I would find it very difficult and I'm sure I would have frequent mental blocks.

I've just been published in the US, the link is:

However I have a full time job as a Government economist and perhaps it's best that way. I can switch between my full time job and my writing. To some extent moving from one to the other (it's contract/consulting work) as I get tired of one.


David Scholes
Soon Lee
9. SoonLee
If you handed me the keys to a time machine tomorrow I’d go back to 2001 and take great pleasure in feeding the manuscripts to my younger self as a caution...

But that would leave him with manuscripts to the first five books & eight-tenths of the last book of the series which he no longer has to write (you've done the work for him). Doesn't do much for your own situation except perhaps the perverse satisfaction of having violated causality ( and your younger self).
Charlie Stross
10. cstross
Oh, and I think I just finished the death march :)

(Which for those of you following the series means that book #6 should be out more or less exactly 12 months after book #5. And yes, there's a series-sized climax instead of a cliff-hanger ending.)
Owen Strawn
11. dad_of_frederik
(no, I'm not addicted, not at all)
Owen Strawn
12. Molly Moloney
Oh, happy news. The Merchant Princes books are by far my favorite Stross books. :)
Owen Strawn
13. Jon MT Dowland
The merchant princes books are my gateway drug from the comfortable world of scifi to that fantasy genre I've never really "got". Now I absolutely drink the merchant princes up and I am eagerly awaiting the US release of book 5 in the next 5 or so weeks. Thank you!
Owen Strawn
14. C, Woody Butler
Ok - light gray on white? sigh.

I have to ask - what's your wife's favorite band that's touring after 24 years?
Owen Strawn
15. Hal O'Brien
C, Woody Butler: Just to save Charlie some time as I know -- Ultravox.
Owen Strawn
16. trevayne
re 13. Jon MT

Err, The Revolution Business - Merchant Princes book 5 was released in the US 1 April 09. at least thats when Amazon sent me my copy. :)

10. ctross - Thanks for announcing a series climax instead of another cliffhanger. I don't think my copy or the wall would survive the resulting impact if vol 6 had another cliffhanger like 5.
Owen Strawn
17. Robert Baird
Have finished Merchant Princes (Book 5) shortly after Amazon delivered. Look forward to Book 6. Looks like this turned into a very long project for you, but so far, your readers have been richly rewarded.
Owen Strawn
18. Mike Mayne
Re: "The Revolution Business", clifhanger++. I'm just *amazed* at the number of characters that got killed off in this installment. Charlie, remind me to never be a character in one of your books... :).
Owen Strawn
19. Clay Kallam
Hi ...

I read a lot of science fiction (and a lot of everything), so by the time I get to the next installment, I've read many, many books inbetween -- and consequently it takes me about 100 pages to remember who people are and what's going on, and how the last book ended.

So why not a synopsis, or at least a cast of characters at the start of the book? There aren't even any good summaries I could find on line ... very frustrating. I love the series, and got back in gear for the last couple hundred pages, but I was very confused early on.
Owen Strawn
20. childhoodsend

I know I don't speak for anyone else here, but I am grateful for what you have created and you don't owe any of us anything.

I know that having the background as an IT pro it is hard to let go of something, even if you need to but, if you are tired of the writing game please for your own good and those of us that care about you and your work take a sabbatical.

We will all be waiting for you when ya come back.

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