Reader Request Week 2009 #2: OMW and Zoe’s Tale (and Angst and Pain)

Pwstrain asks:

Compare and contrast the pain, angst, and horror of writing, agenting, selling OMW vs. Zoe. Differences in process / time / fear of failure?

Just in case anyone doesn’t know (which given the crowd seems highly unlikley), “OMW” here is Old Man’s War, my first published novel, and “Zoe” is Zoe’s Tale, my most recently published novel. I think this question, aside from asking about the specific books, is asking about how things have changed for me from the beginning of my pro career to where I am now, with an emphasis on the existentially dreadable aspects of it all.

To be blunt, however, there wasn’t much pain/angst/horror in any of it. Talking specifically about the books in question, writing OMW was a breeze, frankly, and I had a lot of fun doing it; when it came to selling it, I didn’t bother, opting instead to put it up on my Web site, where it was found by Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who then made an offer on it. Total angst there: Close to none. I got a fiction agent after I sold OMW, and that was relatively painless as well, because agents are easier to get when you already have a contract in hand (that said, the first agent I went to passed on me, which I found puzzling, but not angst-inducing, since I still had my book contract. And I found another agent soon enough).

As for Zoe, well. It’s not really that difficult to sell a fourth installment of a highly-selling, well-regarded series, and it fact it went pretty much like this:

Me: “Want me to write a fourth OMW book?”
PNH: “Are you kidding?”

Agenting it was likewise a breeze and in fact what we did was have it take the place of a book in a two-book series I had planned but abandoned for the reason that stinkin’ Max Brooks stole my idea (the oral history part, not the zombies part, and he didn’t actually steal it, he just came out with it first). So it was quickly and easily done. The writing of Zoe was more difficult than writing OMW for the reason that I needed to get down the voice of a teenage girl, and that gave me considerable trouble at first. But once I got that figured out, the writing was fairly simple. As these things go, it was not a horribly difficult process, or that much different from when I first started; ultimately it was a matter of ass in chair.

In neither case was there really a fear of failure, because it’s hard to say what constitutes failure at this point. It wouldn’t have been a failure not to have sold OMW, since I hadn’t planned to sell it at all; likewise the failure of Zoe would have been not getting the voice down, and if that had happened you’d’ve never known about it, especially since we didn’t publicize the book in any way until it was mostly completed. If I had failed, I simply would have written a different book. The closest I’ve come to failure in any of my books so far is pushing The High Castle off the schedule, because it wasn’t working as I had envisioned it. However, I don’t see that as a genuine failure; the failure would have been grinding it out despite my issues with it and releasing a substandard book. Pulling it back into the workshop and retooling it is a good thing, since it means when I release it I’ll be happy with it, which means (hopefully) you’ll be happy with it too. And in the meantime, I’m getting to do other cool stuff.

In a general sense of my career to date, it’s difficult for me to generate a whole lot of angst/pain/horror at my writing life or process, because in fact I am indisputably one of the luckiest sons of bitches in the history of science fiction literature. I am stupid lucky, people. Yes, yes, I’m also good at what I do. But you know what: I’m not that good, particularly relative to the success I’ve had to date. Very few people are. Understanding that I have been lucky does a number of things for me. One, it gives me a sense of perspective on everything, so I don’t labor under the illusion I am actually the second coming of Heinlein, or whatever. Two, it keeps the angst/pain/horror at bay because it’s insane to feel any of these things when confronted with the good fortune I have had. Three, it motivates me to pay my good fortune forward, because my luck has given me the ability to be useful. The last of these is the hardest, mind you, because I’m also naturally lazy. But I do work at it.

Getting back to angst/pain/horror of writing, one of the ways that I avoid this, at least in fiction, is that I know at the end of the day I have other writing skills that I can use to pay the bills, including doing various corporate consulting work. I did that when I was writing OMW and could easily do it again if I had to, or do other freelance work. This means that I don’t have to do something, fictionwise, that makes me unhappy; I have the luxury of being able to do stuff I like, or to put something on the back burner to cook a little while longer, or whatever it is I need to do. I know a fair number of fiction writers consider day jobs or non-fiction writing as an option of last resort and possibly an admission that they can’t hack it as fiction writers or whatever. I see it as an insurance policy that makes sure I never (intentionally) write crap. And that makes me happy.

So, in sum: Very little angst/pain/horror, either at the beginning of my fiction career or now. I don’t mind saying I hope it continues that way for a while.

(You can still get in requests for Reader Request Week! Put them in the comment thread at this link. Please note: I have all the writing questions I want to deal with already. Ask me something else!)

21 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2009 #2: OMW and Zoe’s Tale (and Angst and Pain)

  1. Hey, How many books do you have in the pipeline at this point? I’m sure it has been mentioned here, but I just lost track. What’s coming out next and what are you writing?

    I’m thinking this is related to this post and not a reader request.

  2. The exact number is up in the air at the moment because I’m in the middle of negotiations. I can’t say much more about it right now.

  3. Somewhat in inline with the last two posts; when Zoe was released there was some discussion of having a targeted YA version published, but I haven’t seen anything about that recently. Is that something you’re still considering?

  4. Of course!

    It just really sucks for us ‘cus we’re hungry for your brilliance!

    Hopefully, some of those negotiations include a video game contract or similar. I’d love to see what you would do! Personally, I think a video game based off the OMW universe would be absolutely stunning.

  5. Blocksmash:

    Not up to me. I wouldn’t mind having one, but there are a lot of factors that go into a marketing decision like that.

  6. If you weren’t so silly/fun to talk to/helpful with the writing stuff/and, yanno, logical, I think I’d hate you :)

  7. Not even Heinlein had what one could call a secure career as a fiction author until he had been writing at least as long as our host. For example, the introduction to the Virginia Edition of Starman Jones (which I just read today) says that Scribner’s ordered an initial print run of 15,000 copies – a big increase from his previous book for them, The Rolling Stones. (No paperbacks in those days – these were all library hardcover sales.) If we assume that Heinlein had a steady writing income starting in 1953 with this larger print run, then 10 years of publication (14 years, 1939-53, minus 4 for the war) elapsed before he reached this threshold at age 46.

  8. “the failure would have been grinding it out despite my issues with it and releasing a substandard book.”

    Scalzi, how do we get this across to so many greats, especially in the scifi, mystery, and fantasy genres, who have put out dozens of books, enjoyed massive popularity, but who are now releasing what is utter CRAP (or have been doing so for years) and trusting that the people who believe in the power of the author’s name to make it good? You know it. Most fans know it. How do we get the greats to assimilate it and act immediately, and the will-be-greats to adopt it as gospel for epic future win?

  9. Hmm, I seem to have failed at some grammar. How about “…trusting that the people who believe in the power of the author’s name will buy it and make the venture good?”

  10. There is no such thing as luck. There’s just hard work that you didn’t realize you were doing at the time.

  11. MasterThief:

    Well, no. Some of it was luck. Lots of people do lots of work and don’t catch a break. What the work does, however, is allow you take advantage of a break you do get.

  12. On the topic of Luck.

    That has potential to be a good reader’s request. The Expounding of What Luck Is by John Scalzi.

  13. “I am indisputably one of the luckiest sons of bitches in the history of science fiction literature. ”

    Well okay, as I see it, you’re very effective at building and maintaining and audience. You had a platform to launch from by the time PNH came across your OMW. That wasn’t lucky, that was persistence and pioneering on the web before the blogosphere was known as the blogosphere…and is there a more kharmic way for a blogging pioneer to have his/her fiction writing discovered? I think not.

    But if you want to call it luck dude, it’s your blog, I’m just a squirrel…

  14. I’ve enjoyed your work. Should I buy Zoe’s Tale for my 10 yr old daughter? Trust me, i’ll read it after she does, but not before. If she thinks it’s a book her dad likes it’s unlikely she’ll read it for herself.

    Same question about Doctorow’s book.

  15. Miles:

    If she’s a precocious 10-year-old she might be interested in either book, but both were written with 12 and above in mind. In either event, I have a sample online and Little Brother is available for free download, so you can check them out first.

  16. what we did was have it take the place of a book in a two-book series I had planned but abandoned for the reason that stinkin’ Max Brooks stole my idea (the oral history part, not the zombies part, and he didn’t actually steal it, he just came out with it first)

    Wait. Am I misunderstanding you here? Are you saying that you planned to write an oral history book about a subject that was not zombies, but abandoned it after another writer wrote an oral history that was about zombies?

    That seems odd to me. Fictional oral histories are not terribly common, but its not like Max Brooks invented the style or something.

    Will you ever return to the abandoned book idea?