Wanting to Be a Writer
Posted on August 19, 2005 Posted by John Scalzi 14 Comments
Per yesterday’s request for topics, I picked two to discuss today.
First: Athena picked “Karma Scarebear” as the name for her bear, and she thanks everyone for their suggestions. She was very excited to see that so many people had made an effort on her behalf (although she didn’t put it in quite those words: She said, “Coooool. So many names.”).
Second, sxKitten asked:
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer, and what motivated you to start writing seriously (writing in hopes of being published as opposed to writing just for fun)?
As for the “wanting to be a writer” thing, I think I’ve mentioned before when it happened, but just in case I didn’t, here it is: I started thinking about being a writer about age 12, when it became clear I was good at it (good relative to being 12, mind you) and also coincidentally it became clear that I wasn’t likely to become an astronomer (my first choice of professions) because I did math only slightly better than Clever Hans, and that wasn’t going to be acceptable if I wanted to be a truly useful astronomer. The confirmation that I was going to be a writer came to me when I was 14, when I was the only kid to get an “A” on a writing assignment that the Freshman English composition teacher (John Hayes) assigned to his classes, and I got it for a story that really didn’t require all that much effort to write (and was fun to do as well). No stupid kid I, I made the connection: Writing = pretty easy; Everything else = more work than it’s worth.
The matter of what my future profession would be was pretty much settled then, and I never really considered doing anything else as a profession after that. This was useful because unlike most people I didn’t have to suffer through the existential angst of wondering what I was going to do with my life, with the commensurate academic and emotional casting about trying to figure out what fit. Indeed, as friends who knew me during my developmental years would no doubt tell you, I was actually fairly driven toward those things I thought would be useful in a writing career and rather deeply apathetic toward those things that were not.
This (combined with my own inherent laziness) was why I maintained a steady 2.8 GPA through high school and college; I would ace my “useful” classes and get Ds in the classes I didn’t care about, because, really, I didn’t care. This drove both my mother and my college girlfriend absolutely nuts for differing reasons, although I’m reasonably sure if you asked them about it now, they would grudgingly admit that in retrospect I knew what I was doing. I’m not entirely sure I would admit I knew what I was doing, and I suspect that if I had to do it over again, I would probably try harder in the classes in which I didn’t try — not necessarily for the grades but because knowledge is useful, and wasting it because you don’t think you need it is stupid. But life doesn’t give you do-overs in that respect (although you can make it up in extra credit!), and in the end I was fortunate that my cavilier attitude toward my own education seems not to have caused any lasting damage.
As to the question regarding what motivated me to start writing “seriously” — well, after the age 14 revelation that writing was easy and fun and most other things weren’t, I would suggest that I was writing “seriously” from that moment forward, since I made the decision to make writing my profession. Writing “seriously” should not be confused with writing professionally or even writing well — but I was aware that what I was writing was part of a continuum which would (hopefully) lead to a career in writing.
Now, I don’t want to suggest that I had a huge amount of sagacity or perspective on the matter when I younger. Like many teens who are good at something to a degree that most of their friends and acquaintances aren’t, I had a rather outsized opinion of my writing and its quality, a fact which now leads me to recall a number of incidents involving me and my writing which cause me to cringe today. Indeed, allow me a moment to say the following:
To all the people the younger me forced my writing upon when you were merely being polite about my enthusiasms: So sorry. Really. It won’t happen again.
I have friends from high school and college who haven’t read much of anything I’ve written since those days because they had to suffer through what I wrote then, and I was also aggressive about making them suffer through it. As a result I am much more circumspect today about doing that sort of crap. This is not the same as saying I’ve entirely quelled the little needy “Look! Look! Aren’t I so good and clever and funny and don’t you just love me?!?!?” demon that I have, because, oh, it’s there. And it’s not entirely unuseful, especially when it transmutes into a capability to tirelessly work the publicity rounds. But I do try to keep it in its cage most of the time, and not spring it on people who are actually interested in me for things other than my writing, or are just being polite.
(Not entirely surprisingly, the Whatever is very useful for this, since it allows me a space to be my show-offy and sometimes appallingly arrogant self without having to take the commensurate step of forcing it on other people. After all, no one’s putting a gun to your head and making you come here every day to read this (as far as I know). It’s exhibition without the psuhy pushy pushy that gives exhibition that queasy edge. Yes, I want to be liked, and seen as a clever writer. But these days I don’t want to be liked so much that I need to rub myself (or every little bit of my writing) on other people. My days of being literary frotteur are largely over.)
To go back to the point after this long, self-flagellating digression, whatever my earlier estimations of my writing abilities, most of what I wrote when I was younger was written with an eye for it being published and read by other people; I have almost no personal writing of any sort — what little there is exists in the form of high school and college-era poems and song lyrics. Otherwise, what unpublished material I have exists as failed book proposals. Of that stuff, I think it was almost all fun, otherwise I wouldn’t have done it, but it’s all also “serious.” Generally speaking, I didn’t distinguish between the two. Even the Whatever, which began as an uncommercial site (and still is, mostly), was also begun to keep in practice for commercial writing. And over time, I’ve sold quite a few things that were originally published here, and I’m aware how this site has helped my career by helping me build an audience. When I wrote Agent as a “practice” novel — i.e., for fun and not for profit, after I was done I put it up and offered it as shareware (i.e., for an audience, and for them to pay me if they liked it). And of course, I’ve sold it as a book since then. So you see that the line is very blurry between my “fun” and my “serious” when it comes to writing.
If anything, I’m somewhat less concerned as I get older about what’s “fun” and what’s “serious” in terms of writing. At this point in time, with seven books published and two more in the pipeline for 2006, reasonably good prospects for selling books after that point, and a solid career in writing outside of books, I’m very comfortable with who I am in a professional sense. I don’t really feel I have to prove any more that I’ve “made it” as a writer or measure up to a particular standard. I have goals, of course, in terms of writing: I want to write things I like; I want to write things my publishers can sell; and when at all possible I’d like the two former statements to be well-integrated with each other so I can continue in this happy cycle until I croak.
But I don’t think I’m going to worry about it much. After I’m done with The Ghost Brigades (which God willing will be very soon), if Tor doesn’t immediately beg for a book 3 in an OMW universe, I’m going to pencil in what I’m going to write next. Right now I have three ideas that are the front runners. One is explicitly commercial — A big contemporary Crichton-like thing — so that we can see if I can reach the folks who like science fiction but get twitchy when it gets called that. Another is a science fiction idea which is, I think, not especially commercial at all, but which I think would be really a kick to write. The last one is a non-fiction book on writing and the writing life, which I’ve been mulling since at least 2002 and think I may finally be at a point where I can write it and not look an ass.
Which of these will I choose to put on the platter first? You got me. But it’s likely it’ll be the one I think will be the most fun, because I’m at a point where I don’t really want to do anything I’m not going to enjoy the hell out of. If I want to just grind away at something, I’ve got lots of corporate work I could be doing. It’s less complex, less aggravating, and pays a hell of a lot better. If the least commerical thing I’m thinking of looks like the one that’s the most fun, well, why not? It could end up being very commercial, for all I know, which would just prove that no one knows anything, and more to the point, I’ll like writing it, which will show through in the final product. And that does matter.
(In case you’re wondering: Yes, if Tor asks for a book 3 in the OMW universe, I’m ready (no, I won’t tell you the details). And yes, I’d write it. I like the universe. Well, the OMW universe itself is a nasty place and I’m glad I don’t live there. But I don’t mind visiting and I like the people there. Which goes to the point: It’s serious work, but it’s fun to do, too.)
I recognize that a number of writers — many excellent — make a strong distinction between their “serious” and “fun” work, or can register a point when their writing stopped being simply about the joy of expression and started angling toward something more cash and attention-generating, but I’ve never been that way. I’m not an Emily Dickinson type, either, content to write stuff and keep it in a drawer for the spiders and the executor of my estate. For better or worse, I’ve always written with an eye toward my writing being seen and (hopefully) enjoyed by as many people as the medium allows. What you see is what you get. An interesting question, which I can’t answer, since I’m inside of it, is whether the notably “popular” tone of my writing comes initially from my own personal voice, or the narcissistic desire to reach a large audience. I suspect it’s the former, but then I would.
Having now asked that question, I do wonder what I would write if I decided to write something that I didn’t intend other people to see. To be honest, the idea is so alien to me, I’m having a hard time thinking of anything at all. Which is, of course, fascinating in itself. I’ll have to think about it some more.
You could so use bits & pieces of this for your nonfiction writing book. Which I suspect you knew, but just in case your little demon needed some petting: There you go. Fangirl, at your service.
Yeah, if I do a writing book, I’ll be merrily strip-mining much of what I’ve written on the Whatever about writing. This is a given.
Wow! Thanks, John. That’s a lot more in-depth than I’d expected, although in hindsight, I probably shouldn’t be surprised. Asking a writer to write about writing isn’t like asking a butcher to write about meat. At the very least, you don’t have to put down your cleaver and wash the blood off your hands before you start. Or do you?
A perhaps related question:
I’ve enjoyed your writing for years now, and have formed a “vision” of a person based on your writing here and elsewhere. And in my vision, if I had a conversation with you, you would be as entertaining and well-spoken in real-life conversation as you are entertaining and well-written in your various writing.
But the question arises – is there any truth or plausibility in that? You’ve acknowledged that you are good at writing, but could that mean that you’re totally at a loss when finding words for spoken conversation? Do the two necessarily go hand-in-hand?
“You’ve acknowledged that you are good at writing, but could that mean that you’re totally at a loss when finding words for spoken conversation? Do the two necessarily go hand-in-hand?”
This question should probably go to the people with whom I’ve had face-to-face conversations, as to whether they find me as entertaining and well-spoken in real life as in writing. I personally believe that I am a reasonably fluent conversationalist, but one never quite knows how one comes across to others. So if anyone who has had a conversation with me in real life wants to jump in and answer that, by all means, please do.
I don’t think writing fluency and speaking fluency go hand in hand, however; they are two different communication skills. I know excellent writers who have no skills (and possibly no desire) when it comes to the face-to-face interpersonal communication, particularly with strangers, and I suspect that in science fiction this is more the case than with other genres. Likewise I know people with marvelous conversational skills who couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag.
I would say that in general one should not assume that an excellently fluent writer will be an excellent fluent speaker/conversationalist (or vice versa). It may be true from time to time but I don’t suspect it’s the usual.
One advantage in writing over conversing is the ability to form what you want to say before unleashing it.
Would that more people writing online would take advantage of that fact.
Expressing my thoughts in written form vs verbally. I’ve wondered how many other writers have that same problem.
I think I was 16 when I decided I wanted to be a writer. But it’s only been in the last year that I kicked myself into being serious about it. I went to post-secondary and worked my way through an Anthropology degree. Of course, it hasn’t done a thing for me career-wise.
Since then, I finished my first book, and in the last month, finished the first half of my second. Now the ‘serious’ part of serious starts.
I was reading a friend’s Jungle Law Best Of how-to-be-a-lawyer articles a couple of days ago and suddenly noticed that the (unusually informative) quiz/article about becoming a law firm partner was written by John Scalzi. Ah, the joy of worlds colliding… (I answered most of the questions correctly, too. Clearly I should go to law school and take over the world.)
What, you’ve never written (or at least thought about writing) a story or piece based on people and/or incidents that would be too recognizable, and too hurtful to put out in public? I’ve piled up a batch of that sort of stuff over the years.
Whoa, which issue was that? (And sadly, you need more than going to law school to take over the world. Until you hear a decree from Supreme Overlord Mythago, that’s just the truth.)
“Literary frotteur” was just so not a mental image I needed. On the other thand, I think it beats cat-sodomizing.
Bruce A. asks:
“What, you’ve never written (or at least thought about writing) a story or piece based on people and/or incidents that would be too recognizable, and too hurtful to put out in public?”
No, not really. Semi-autobiographical fiction doesn’t really interest me. I’m sure there are a lot of psychological conclusions one could arrive at based on that statement, but I think it’s more to the point that most of the people I spend most of my time with are reasonably stable; also, as I spend most of my time in a room, typing, I’m not a huge ball of excitement myself.
I hope you don’t take offense to the question I’m going to ask because it has nothing to do with your writing or writing in general, or pretty much anything a fan of yours would ask you. My sixteen year old son is a fan, if that helps.
I stumbled upon this particular page when Googling the words “writing to be read” because that’s my goal and like so many other things they offer, I thought perhaps Google had the answer.
What I noticed in reading the page was that Tor books is your publisher and I have a close relative who is the art director in New York. I have seen many of your covers and I was wondering if you knew the person who does yours ?
I think it correct of me to withold the name at this point in case you find my inquiry in very bad taste and decide to take it out on him. Or her. I haven’t specified the gender, have I ? Anyway, just sign me, Curious and let it go at that.
Best of luck in your future books and I hope someday you will be writing to me on my site to ask a like banal question.
I’m not entirely sure what your question is, there, J Abraham, nor why you feel like I would retaliate against a third party because you asked it.
The name of the artists who have worked on my Tor Books covers are Donato Giancola, John Harris and Shelley Eskar. Tor’s art director is Irene Gallo. I think highly of all of them.