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[GUEST POST] Kevin J. Anderson on Writing an Epic at Warp Speed

Kevin J. Anderson is the bestselling author of the epic nautical fantasy series Terra Incognita, several books in the Dune series (with Brian Herbert), as well as novels and comics for Star Wars, X-Files, JSA, Titan A.E., StarCraft, Star Trek, Batman/Superman, and many others. He is also the author of the 7-volume Saga of Seven Suns series and its spin-off series which launched this month with The Dark Between the Stars.

Headlong Writing – Producing an Epic at Warp Speed

by Kevin J. Anderson

The Dark Between the Stars is finally out. And what an exhilarating, exhausting effort that was!

Due to a series of unfortunate commitments, travel schedules, and other book obligations, I found myself facing a tough deadline for the first book in a new trilogy set in my popular Saga of Seven Suns universe — The Dark Between the Stars. I had been planning the novel for a year, but there was always some emergency, some crunch proofing deadline, some quick project that took precedence. So I didn’t get around to starting when I thought I would.

Besides, when facing a manuscript that would be close to a thousand pages long, it was easy to procrastinate.

I had been thinking about The Dark Between the Stars for a long time, but I’d been away from the Seven Suns universe for more than five years, and so I had to reread all seven volumes, take notes, and re-load all of those details into my head. I worked on developing character sketches, fleshing out how the fictional situation had changed in twenty years since the end of the previous series.

For months, I worked on the plot, pouring out ideas, juggling them to see which storylines fell into Book 1, which ones fit better in Book 2. I wrote a very detailed chapter-by-chapter outline (itself over a hundred pages long), a full-fledged blueprint with a paragraph or two summarizing each of the book’s 130 chapters.

All of this was prep work, like a race car revving its engine, building up power, just waiting for the green light to shine. When I had my full outline in hand, I was ready to go.

Since the draft manuscript was due to my editors in January, I needed to get writing! On October 1, armed with my detailed outline and a reasonably clear schedule — and a lot of coffee — I yelled “Banzai!” (metaphorically) and dove in.

Back in 2000, when I began to write Hidden Empire, the first volume in the Saga of Seven Suns, I went to hike a nice local trail leading up to the Palmer Lake Reservoirs; on that day and that trail, armed with my microcassette recorder, I wrote the first three chapters.

Hoping to recapture that magic, I did the same this time. With my notes in hand for the first few chapters in The Dark Between the Stars, I hit the Reservoir trail, digital recorder in hand (technology upgrade). I was ready to go, with 130 chapters ahead of me.

I’d had the novel’s first sentence in my head for months. “He had to run, and he fled with the boy out into the dark spaces between the stars.” From that point, all I needed to do was write the next sentence. And the next. On that day’s hike, surrounded by mountains and under clear blue skies, I wrote the first four chapters. I was off and running.

126 more chapters to go.

Each day, I would set out in the morning to do a minimum of two chapters (approximately 2000 words each). Sometimes in the afternoon I’d go out again and write another one or two. During this marathon, my maximum was six chapters in a day, or about 12,000 words. After each session, I emailed the digital audio files to my typing service. During my most intense pace, I kept three typists busy nearly full time just to process my output.

Every day another two chapters, or three, or more.

But I was interrupted for three days to go to Toronto as a guest speaker at RushCon and then attend the Rush Clockwork Angels concert at the Toronto Air Canada Center. Then another three days in Fargo, ND, where my wife Rebecca and I were guests of honor for ValleyCon, then a five day trip to LA for Disneyland (Rebecca’s birthday), the Anaheim Rush Clockwork Angels concert, a book signing in Burbank at Dark Delicacies, and various meetings with friends. Then up to Denver one evening for a Vertical Horizon concert.

(Even if I write all the time, I do occasionally have a real life, too.)

Then back to writing to make up for lost time.

As a counterpoint to all those distracting appearances and commitments, I carved out a few days to go out to Capitol Reef National Park in Utah, where I hiked in the canyons and dictated enough chapters to get back on schedule again. I dictated new material day by day, and when transcribed chapters came back from the typists, I would try (and fail) to keep up with a first edit.

Exhausting, yes. But there was an advantage, too. The sheer fact of being so immersed in the world, the characters, and the intricate plot of The Dark Between the Stars gave me a heightened sense of focus, a momentum that kept me rolling along at full speed. I didn’t want to do anything else, just get back to those gigantic cosmic problems, throw my characters into traumatic situations, and save them (or maybe not).

Another looming distraction stood in my way, however — on December 2, Rebecca and I had to leave to be instructors on the Sail to Success Caribbean writing cruise. I most certainly did NOT want to be derailed from my daily writing just as I was approaching the big finale! I needed to finish before we started the cruise.

So I pushed harder, wrote an extra chapter per day… and finished the final piece, chapter 130, with four days to spare.

220,000 words in 47 writing days, 900 pages… which I then had to edit, while letting my brain rest and recharge for the next project.

Which I started two weeks later.

I’m now holding the finished novel in my hands, a very satisfying feeling. Weighty, beautiful, designed by someone who clearly loves books, loves reading, loves the feel of a BIG story. It’s inspirational… which is good, because I’m now in the middle of the second volume in the trilogy, Blood Of The Cosmos.

4 Comments on [GUEST POST] Kevin J. Anderson on Writing an Epic at Warp Speed

  1. I think its badass you can dictate novels while hiking. Especially at altitude.

  2. Such an interesting way to write a book. I am a polymer clay artist and occasionally my husband and I go out to the river to hike and sit around. I am always thinking about designs for my polymer clay when I am hiking around,.

  3. Dictated.
    Not written. His transcription service did the writing.
    And like a lot of doctors, I suspect it was “Accepted, not reviewed.”
    Big difference between dictation and writing, especially in the dialog.
    And it shows.

  4. I really enjoy reading about the writing process. I’m always on the look out for something to make it easier.
    I’m not sure how to to interpret Trey’s comment. The typing service did the typing not the writing. Just because the novel was dictated doesnt mean it’s inferior.
    In the same way, most people type their story using a computer rather than handwrite the whole thing. If I use technology to get the words on the page, does that mean it’s not real writing?
    The idea of dictating a whole novel is very appealing.

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