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same year; since then it’s been an on-again/off-again proposition and the road map for the series is almost laughably out-of-date.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 …)


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