A Little Historical Perspective

Ten years and one week ago, I was mulling writing a second novel, the one which would eventually become Old Man’s War. I think it might be useful for folks to see now what I was thinking then, particularly in light of my recent entry on finding the time to write.

Oct 2, 2000

I think I want to write another novel. This is something I talk about a lot, or at the very least think about a lot, but it’s not something I’ve actually put high on the priority list. Why? Mostly because I’m in a pragmatic frame of mind recently — I’ve been doing well writing non-fiction, both in the form of my book and in the form of my consulting work, and it’s been reasonably intellectually fulfilling while also being reasonably easy to do. This is opposed to novel writing, which is a thankless freakin’ task, in that it requires a lot of brainpower to actually make something up, and also that the chances of one actually making any money off of it are damn close to nil.

I mean, hell. I wrote one novel, which I thought was pretty decent, and I ended up putting it up on my Web site. People have been nice enough to actually send me money after  reading it, which was very kind of them, let me be clear. But the amount of money I got off writing that novel comes out to something like .2 cents a word.

But this is actually part of why I want to write another novel. First, among friends and the occasional person who shoots me off an e-mail looking for professional writing advice, I always say that the reason one often takes “non-creative” work is that it provides a little financial headroom so that one can work on stuff that is fun but might not make any money — novels, of course being a perfect example of this. However, although I say this, I’m not actually doing it recently — all my writing recently has been for cash on the barrelhead. Nothing wrong with this, of course (this is what I do for a living), but I ought to practice what I preach.

Second, I think it’ll be good for me to write something that doesn’t already have some sort of built-in economic benefit for me, since lately I’ve been thinking entirely too much about money. Not about spending money or even having money: I don’t live extravagantly by any means, and as far as physical possession of my cash goes, I don’t have any; I literally sign my checks over  to Krissy and then she does whatever she does and I frankly don’t think about that money again (it’s better this way becaue when Krissy handles the  money, bills actually get paid).

I mean just about money, and what sort of money writing will get me. A client calls for a project and little money signs ring up in my head; I look at potential things to write, and whether or not I’ll make a decent amount off of it is one of the first things I consider. Again, nothing wrong with this, since this is my line of work — but it’s also the thing I love to do. I need to write something simply for the exercise of writing, and I need to do it without the little money signs dancing in my brain. Sure, it’d be nice if I could sell whatever novel I write, once it’s written. But it’ll be even nicer not to have that be a primary consideration, and just to write something I enjoy for itself.

And there’s the other reason to try a novel again, of course: I’ve got a couple of stories that are just about to pop in my skull, so it’s the right time creatively as well. Now we’ll have to see if wanting write another novel actually translates into writing another novel. I think it will. I hope it will.

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I will say that that I’m still mostly in agreement with myself a decade on, and I do find it’s especially important to make time to write stuff for the fun of it without worrying terribly much about whether it can sell. And lest anyone ask me when the last time I did that was, I’ll note that I wrote Fuzzy Nation last year specifically for fun and without regard to whether it would sell. Not to mention a little story about yogurt. I still do practice what I preach.

13 thoughts on “A Little Historical Perspective

  1. That said, if you write something for fun, and then decide to sell it, please re-engage your business-oriented brain. You’ll likely benefit from doing so.

  2. I’m inclined to say this was timely for me, but honestly–it’s ALWAYS timely for me. I too am a freelance writer and it’s what I do for a living. I also write and publish novels, although they’re a teensy tiny bit of my writing income–which is where the psychological problems occur. And sometimes I need to be reminded that, yeah, it’s okay to sometimes just write something for FUN… because, y’know, that’s why I started doing it in the first place. So thanks.

  3. This sounds a lot like where I am mentally right now. I’m about to start writing my first novel, in fact I’ve picked Nov 1 as the kick-off date for starting. (Not for NaNoWriMo though, I’m not a complete masochist). I don’t need to do this. I have a job that pays my bills, not in the writing field but communications are a part of it, and there are plenty of other things I could be doing outside of work other than writing, but in the end writing is what I come back to. As hard as it is to create something I love seeing the end product and knowing I created it. I love having others read my stuff and seeing them enjoy it. The story I wrote for the Wheaton/Scalzi fanfic contest had my friends howling with laughter. I loved that!

    Thanks for putting that up. It adds another goad to spur me on to get going come November.

  4. thatneilguy:

    At the moment I’m not doing the same sort of corporate consulting I was doing back in 2000, no. I’m not opposed to doing it again, however.

  5. I thought the story behind Old Man’s War was that you had a look at the bookstore and saw what was selling in SF, and decided “I’ll write one of those.” Which, while not exactly “write what’s fun”, is still evident from how you’re musing over wanting to write a novel but fearing it won’t be worth the time. Honestly, it seems like good advice for an aspiring novelist; while writing for yourself is fun and all, you’re more likely to have fun *and* make cash if you write something that sells while putting your own spin on it to make it interesting to you. Certainly you’re more likely to write something unique.

  6. Merus:

    Shortly after writing this I made the trip to the bookstore and did some market research. And then I also wrote a book which was fun for me to write. The two thoughts aren’t mutually exclusive.

  7. Personally, I’m glad you went on to write Old Man’s War. It was recommended to me by a very reliable employee at my local bad-ass bookstore (3rd Place Books in Seattle – thanks, Vlad!), and was the first I’d heard of you. I’ve read most of your work now and stop by the Whatever fairly regularly. Keep up the good work, John.

  8. This is pretty much how I came to write my first few short stories and a novel (unpubbed). Because I wrote technical manuals and instructional guides and meeting minutes and all manner of boring uninteresting-to-me stuff, and I wanted to see if I could still write something for fun. Nice to see that this sort of though process is more common than I knew.

  9. Coincidentally, I just re-read Old Man’s War a couple days ago, and The Ghost Brigades last night, and, at the risk of sounding cringe-inducingly sycophantic: they are both truly damn fine reads. Both fall into a very small category of science fiction novels I’ve actually re-read. And I must admit, even as a man who has lived just slightly more than half of his statistcal average allotment of years, I teared up reading the last scene of The Ghost Brigades — perhaps because although I do not have children of my own, I am the co-eldest of seven offspring (Catholic, the fecund-if-lacrimose-and-dypsomaniacal Hibernian sub-species), and now have a gaggle of nieces and nephews, all under 10 (actually I think the collective noun is a commotion of young children), so I know children well. I find that final conversation between Jane Sagan and Zoe sweetly poigant because it is so completely true and believable. It is convincing.

    So, Mr. Scalzi: bravo, sir. For people like me (and I am sure I am in good company, in this virutal hereabouts), a relentlessly entertaining novel is something sincerely cherished. It is a temporary buffer against and salve for life’s disappointments, a sometime-surrogate for missing friends, a band-aid for loneliness. A truly good book brings comfort and solace — and you’ve added at least two such volumes to the world’s collection. For me, anyway. So again: bravo. Corny though it may be: I really am grateful.

    And now, to leaven the mush-fest… a few other SF novels I’ve re-read, off the top of my head and in no particular order: Anne McCaffrey & S.M. Stirling’s The City Who Fought, and most of McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series; all of Charles Stross’ Bob Howard novels (The Atrocity Archives, etc.); many of William Gibson’s early cyberpunk novels, Mona Lisa Overdrive more than the rest; Bruce Sterling’s novels Islands in the Net, Heavy Weather, and Holy Fire; Michael Swanwick’s In the Drift; Larry Niven’s Ringworld; Haldeman’s The Forever War; Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, Friday, Farnham’s Freehold, and, but of course, Starship Troopers; Sterling E. Lanier’s Hiero novels (all both of ‘em, but I particularly love Hiero’s Journey); Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz; KSR’s Three Californias; Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow; Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash and The Diamond Age; Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker; Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game; Michael Crichton’s Timeline; the first three novels of David Brin’s uplift universe series, Startide Rising more than the others; and finally, the current top contender, weighing in at a chart-topping 6 re-reads (for those math-challenged, like me, that’s 7 reads, total ;-) ) is, I am a little embarassed to admit because I’ll bet few people have read it or remember it, Piers Anthony’s stand alone novel Mute.

    Why has this last book, among so many others, become my own personal SF novel Catcher in the Rye, read every 6 years or so? I think it is because it features interesting characters, snappy dialog, a plot that moves well, intellectual stimulation of both the moral-philosophizing and scientifically-speculative variety… so it is both entertaining and stimulating, and holds up well over time. I keep coming back because I remember it fondly, and a re-read generally doesn’t disappoint, even when I remember some sections of dialog or scenes almost word-for-word (and really, who could ever get tired of reading about the combat poultry of planet Chicken Itza?)

    And I just impressed myself, because I really have written this post off the top of my head (did I spell Hoban’s first name correctly? Does his protagonist’s first name have one or two d’s? It is “Liebowitz” rather than “Leibowitz”, right? ), because my browser has partially crashed, so I have been unable to check references (the Internet is the ultimate memory prothesis), so … Doan’ applawd, doan’ applawd, juss throw munneh… I’ve probably sacrificed so many brain cells in the composition of this post, I’ll forget how to program my alarm clock radio or lose the ability to taste citrus… ;-D

    “Good night ladies, good night sweet ladies, good night…”

    P.S. I’ve never read anything by Ayn Rand because the people in college I met who were rabid Rand fans were generally a-holes or in a-hole phases. But I’ve also never read a whole bunch of 19th century British literature (Wuthering Heights, The Mill on the Floss, Tristam Shandy, etc.) yet, somehow, I’ve managed to carry on…

  10. Speaking of word rates, after a fashion—

    And asked only in hopes of an answer within the bounds of classification—

    If you were forced to live on nothing but royalty payments from your novels, what word or phrase best describes the lifestyle that would result?

    (I’ve witnessed lots of grumbling over Q2 statements in my corner of the world, and ignorantly grumbled until I looked at mine again, thus the question.)

  11. Thanks John, for all the posts you do about the craft of writing. I was a journalist for 10 years before moving to a new occupation (marketing for a beer, wine and spirits company — still a good gig) because the money at a small daily newspaper just sucked. Now I’m writing my first novel, a project I’ve wanted to do since I was nine. You’ve heard variations on the theme before.

    Reading your thoughts on writing have been a solid inspiration over the last year (I discovered you thanks to “Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded”) and I am proud to report that I rank your advice just behind the brilliant “On Writing” by Stephen King.

    Thanks again.

  12. Like several other people who responded to this thread, I’m a professional writer and this is timely for me.

    I started freelancing in January. It’s my second go at freelancing, the first one was in 2002 and lasted a year. Unlike the 2002 gig, I don’t see this one ending with a full-time job, and I’m fine with that. I’m actually doing pretty well, and enjoying it.

    I’m learning now that it’s important to separate the gigs I do for fun (blogging at Tor.com) and the stuff that’s work. It’s easy to get confused which is which, even though the difference is obvious. The work pays well, the fun-stuff pays little or nothing. Sometimes the work can be fun too, but they’re different approaches. I’ve found it’s easy to get confused when you’re lost in the weeds.

    Yesterday I had a busy and productive day at work, writing about 2,000 words and having good meetings with clients. So, to reward myself, I did *more* writing — fiddling with a post for Tor.com about an early Poul Anderson novel.

    And, indeed, what am I doing right now to reward myself for a productive Tuesday morning and early afternoon?

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