The Cynical Writer

Pyr Books editorial director Lou Anders has some kind things to say about Old Man’s War here, which is very nice of him. Anders’ stewardship of Pyr has resulted in the imprint publishing some fine books, so for him to give OMW a thumbs-up makes me feel shiny and happy. He also says I’m a genuinely nice guy, and that my breath is fresh and minty! Okay, he didn’t actually write the last part. Although I am chewing peppermint gum right now. I am entirely mintilated.

I note Anders’ write-up for OMW, however, not for the praise but because he notes that he was initially not interested in the book:

Not only is it "not the sort of thing I normally read," but initially, I quite deliberately held off checking it out. First, because I had heard that Scalzi admitted to (cynically?) seeking out what sells (military SF) and then writing same, and second because Scalzi put me off on his blog by quoting my most hated cliché, "If you want to send a message, use Western Union." I read for entertainment, yes, but part of what is entertaining to me is the act of learning, of bettering myself, and I have always held the occupation of writer as something laudable on the level of that of teacher or scientist and expect writers to be somewhat smarter than average. I read to learn, and when a writer tells me upfront they have nothing deep to say, I take them at face value and go elsewhere.

Both of these objections make me smile, not in the least because they are objections absolutely based in fact: I did use the "Western Union" quote (although not at the Whatever, but in an interview for Strange Horizons) and I did quite intentionally write a military SF novel after a trip to the bookstore to see what kind of SF was selling. It’s all true! And with your indulgence, I’ll chat a little about both.

Let’s start with the "Western Union" comment, which is in response to this question:

DB: You note that Agent to the Stars was not a story "near and dear to [your] heart." Was Old Man’s War that story, or do we get to look forward to another great story yet to come?

JS: Well, to be clear, I like Agent’s story very much—it was a lot of fun to think about and to write. But I think a lot of beginning writers try to write about something really important to them right out of the box, and to be successful in doing so, which I think is a little like expecting to hit a hole-in-one your first time at a golf tee. With my first novel (which, remember, I had no intention to sell), I just wanted to hit one on the fairway. So I chose a story about space aliens and Hollywood, which seemed to me a doable enterprise. And if I had mangled Agent beyond all recognition, it wouldn’t have killed me or my desire to write.

I’m a little wary about consciously trying to sit down to write a "great story." There’s that old saying: "If you want to send a message, use Western Union." I want to write a good story, one that keeps a reader wanting to read. I think that within the confines of a good story one can write some fairly significant things, so long as they are in service to that story. In Old Man’s War, I think I touch on a number of significant topics, but the operative word there is "touch." If you start calling attention to what you’re doing, your story is likely to grind to a halt and you’ve pulled your reader out of the world you’ve created to go "Look! A significant point is being made!" I mean, it’s better to assume your reader isn’t stupid and can handle some subtlety.

In other words, the moment I say to someone, "I will now sit down to write My Great Story," I hope they will do me the courtesy of braining me with a shovel. For now, I’ll stick to trying to write good stories, and see where that gets me.

I don’t think Anders and I are in disagreement in terms of what writers can offer as entertainment and as entertainers. I’m certainly happy when writers offer more than mere plotting, and many of my favorite writers do. Entertainment doesn’t have be vacuous, even when it is light. But as a reader, I live in fear of what I call the "John Galt Maneuver," in which a character stands in one place over an entire signature of pages, barfing up the author’s political rhetoric like a bulemic Mary Sue. Science fiction’s history is not exactly devoid of such blatant Galtery, which I think is to its detriment; as a writer of science fiction, I want to be more facile than that when and if I have a point to make.

Old Man’s War is an interesting case for political/rhetorical messaging because its universe is so extreme: Everyone is at war with nearly everyone else. Also, the political implications of this are only lightly touched on in OMW, in no small part because it’s a "grunt’s eye view" of that universe, and our hero has other things on his mind than social-political structure of the Colonial Union. His exposure to it is limited in any event, due to being a soldier and focusing on combat. But I think astute readers will have no doubt formulated some thoughts on what sort of government and society the Colonial Union actually is. In The Ghost Brigades, that story thread is explored rather more significantly, and should there be a third book, I think many of the consequences of what the Colonial Union is and how it is constructed will come to a head.

Certainly there is some authorial messaging going on in all this; I do have a point of view, after all, and anyway someone has to make decisions as to what’s going on in this universe. It might as well be me, being that I am the author and all. But as noted, the goal is to have any messaging come through in the story, not in some character expounding at length (I do have characters expounding, mind you, both in Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades. But I try to keep the expounding to a couple of paragraphs at most, and also try to let other characters get a word in edgewise). Also, as I writer, I want to make sure I put the story first, because that’s what people have come to the book for. Any messaging has to fit the story, not the other way around. The OMW universe is a fictional and extreme sort of universe — any messaging has to play by the rules that the universe is constructed by.

(Indeed, that’s one of the things that differentiates science fiction from "mainstream" fiction: Moral, political and philosophical choices are in the context of a created universe, not necessarily the one we live in. Some messaging won’t map perfectly (or at all) into this universe, which (among other things) bugs people who don’t want to have to stretch their smug little minds to accomodate a new set of rules — you can tell who these people are when they say things like "Science Fiction isn’t real literature." Just smile, pity their tiny inflexible brains, and move on.)

One thing to point out (and which I suspect that Anders probably wouldn’t take issue with) is that while entertainment can have a message, a message is not always required: Sometimes something can just be kiss kiss bang bang (and in the case of science fiction, also rocket rocket). The Android’s Dream, the book I keep mentioning but which almost none of you have seen — it’ll be out late ’06 from Tor — is, as far as I can tell, almost entirely message free. Indeed, the first chapter is just one extended fart joke, and believe me you, other than in an intestinal sense, there’s nothing deep about that. Having said that, I think that chapter is one of the best things I’ve written — certainly one of the most fun, in any event.

Moving on to the "I wrote military SF because military SF was what I saw selling," I’ll first note that Anders’ reaction to this has not been unique: I know of several other people who were at least initially put off by this admission of mine, either because they’ve told me personally or because I’ve read it in their blogs (yes, I ego surf. This should not be news).

In a real sense I can sympathize. I think most people who experience art above the level of mere consumption want the art to be authentic, and to have that art created from a genuine place within the artist (bear in mind I’m using "art" and "artist" in very encompassing definitions of the words). You could very well argue that Old Man’s War comes from a non-authentic place, creatively. I entirely admit I had no real love for military SF prior to writing Old Man’s War — I didn’t dislike or disdain it (which I think is important), it just wan’t something that resonated with me in any significant way. I liked some books that could be classified as military SF but was neutral or disliked others. If I had gone into the bookstore that day and seen another subgenre of SF taking up most of the shelf space, it’s entirely possible (and likely!) that I would have attempted a book in that subgenre instead. For someone approaching my book, knowledge of the novel’s backstory of blatant calculation doesn’t do much for its credibility, or mine. Granted and noted.

But the book is what it is, and I am who I am. Hi, I’m John Scalzi, and I write books to make money. I also write books to enjoy myself and to amuse others. When the conditions are right, these latter reasons take precedence over the former — but I don’t worry about it too much if it’s the other way around. What matters is whether what I write is any damned good. I’m very concerned about that, for both business and creative reasons. I want to write good books so readers feel like the books have been worth their time and money, and I want to write good books so that publishers feel like they’re going to do well by publishing me.

This is why I’m not in the least concerned about sharing Old Man’s War’s publication history. Yes, I decided to write military SF because it’s what I saw selling, and as an unpublished fiction author, I wanted to maximize my chances of selling a book and having it do well in the market. Having made that decision, I wrote a story in that subgenre that I would want to read, and generally speaking, I don’t appreciate reading crap. So there was the motivation to write something that would sell, and also the motivation to write something good to read. The former motivation can reasonably be described as cynical, to the extent jumping through any set of hoops can be defined as cynical; the latter motivation, I would argue, is genuine and authentic.

One of the great and interesting debates regarding art of any sort is to what extent intent is part of the evaulative process of the work — whatever a work stands independent of its creator’s motivation for creating, or whether it has to be considered in that context. I’m a creator, but for more than a decade before I was a creator I was a critic, and that time as a critic has made me wary of factoring motivation when considering a work. More accurately, I think one can factor in motivation only after one has examined whether the work works; an artist may pour his heart and soul into a book or album or painting or whatever, but you know, if that book or album or painting sucks, it really doesn’t matter if the intent was pure; it’s still a bad book (or album, or painting or whatever). A really excellent work of art, on the other hand, may be enhanced by knowing the motivation behind it, but it has to be an excellent work of art on its own merits first.

Readers don’t read process, they read finished books. Music listeners don’t hear process, they hear the finished symphony. Moviegoers don’t watch process, they watch the final cut of the film (until the director’s cut DVD, anyway). Process is opaque and largely irrelevant; results are transparent and open to evaluation. Now, as it happens, people do often judge on process, if they know the process. But the funny thing about process is that it doesn’t last — the work does. Sooner or later the work itself will stand alone.

I’m open about the process of writing Old Man’s War because I think it’s interesting (whether or not I think process is artistically relevant, I think it’s fun to know about), and also because I’m comfortable with how the work came out. I think it’s a good book, and it stands on its own in terms of being a good read. Will how the book came to be made affect how people see it? In some cases, sure; it already has. These things happen. But when it comes to cracking the cover and reading what’s inside, people eventually deal with the book and the story. One hopes for a happy outcome when and if that happens.

31 Comments on “The Cynical Writer”

  1. For the record, when I first read “I wrote military SF because military SF was what I saw selling”, I didn’t think it was cynical, I thought it was ballsy.

    (I should admit I haven’t read =OMW= yet. I’m planning to read =Ghost Brigades= first and then backfill. I’m not sure why.)

  2. David:

    Interesting — I hope you do. My plan was to write TGB so it could be read as a stand-alone, so your plan would let me know if I actually managed to pull it off.

  3. Since Heinlein was the obvious (and credited) inspiration for OMW, it should be noted that he used both Mary Sues and John Galt maneuvers (and in some cases his John Galt maneuver was performed by his Mary Sue)…

  4. Ahh, The John Galt maneuver. The primary reason I will never purchase another Terry Goodkind novel.

    (I admit I had to Google to get the reference. I have thus far resisted reading any Rand because of my deeply held suspicion that, if the people who really love her work are any indication, I would be irreversibly brain damaged from doing so.)

  5. As long as you remember that Rand’s philosophy only works in a science fictional universe where everyone is an idiot except her heroes, and that this world has no relation to reality, her writing is pulpy good fun. If you find yourself taking her seriously, just slap yourself and make a contribution to UNICEF.

  6. Frank Herbert also had this tendency to leave big gooey streaks of Galty emission all over the pages of the Dune books.

    If I really, really, want a book to be “about” something, then I’ll buy a do-it-yourself-cabient-repair book.

    In fiction, the more explosions and sex the better, I say!

  7. I think those would be perfect. Make the cabinet, blow it up! and then repair it. And then have sex in it! If you’re very small.

  8. I sense an emerging market for exploding cabinet pr0n. Excuse me while I register a couple web sites.

    Peter P

  9. sorry to redirect from exploding cabinet porn (really sorry), but back to the original posting:

    john, maybe people wouldn’t be so put off by your process if you told them the rest of it. i.e.: “i went to a bookstore and saw that military sf was selling. so then i starting thinking about military sf and an image flashed into my mind of an old man transferring into a young man’s body and i …” or whatever actually happened to you.

    i think the reason for all the mary sues out there–as well as reader wariness of overly abstract processes–is that so many readers and writers don’t realize that fiction is only successful when it’s built around living images. the story can start anywhere, with any thought or impulse. the desire to write the great american novel can result in wasted reams if it doesn’t lead to living images and characters. the desire to make a shitload of money can lead to the best read of the year if it does lead to living images and characters.

    OMW (orchestral maneuvers in a war) is a great read because you obviously moved on from the desire to write a book that sells into a process of creating a living world.

  10. I didn’t get the John Galt reference either, but immediately thought of The Incredibles:

    Syndrome: You sly dog, you caught me monologuing!

    With any luck, that movie killed a lot of bad monologues in print and film for the next few years.

  11. Claire writes:

    “john, maybe people wouldn’t be so put off by your process if you told them the rest of it. i.e.: ‘i went to a bookstore and saw that military sf was selling. so then i starting thinking about military sf and an image flashed into my mind of an old man transferring into a young man’s body and i …’ or whatever actually happened to you.”

    Well, the funny thing there is that I don’t really remember how I came across the elderly soldiers thing. I do recall being mildly surprised that no one else had thought of it yet (as far as I knew — I’m sure someone has but I don’t know when or where), but that came afterward.

    One other thing I do remember about the idea prior to writing is discussing it with a friend and having the friend say flatly that it would never work for various reasons, which naturally caused me to flatten my ears back (metaphorically speaking). Later, when the book came out and did well, I refrained from ever bringing my friend’s comment up with him again, because he hadn’t intentionally been negative, and he was genuinely happy for the book’s relative success, so bringing it up would have been an example of me being slightly dickish.

    Which isn’t to say I’m always resistant to criticism — people who read OMW who mentioned that it seemed like earth was just like it is today caused me to formulate a good reason for that fact — a formulation which as it happens will play a critical role in the second book (and possibly the third).

  12. Hey, John, thanks for the nod in the Amazon link. I actually just ordered OMW from Amazon last week on Lou’s recommendation, and look forward to checking it out when it arrives.

  13. Jonathan Moeller writes:

    Frank Herbert also had this tendency to leave big gooey streaks of Galty emission all over the pages of the Dune books.

    If I really, really, want a book to be “about” something, then I’ll buy a do-it-yourself-cabient-repair book.

    Actually, Dune was originally published by Chilton, whose more usual product was do-it-yourself car-repair manuals.

  14. The “writing to what sells” idea has been expressed before by Lynn Viehl aka “Paperback Writer.”

    I think part of the shock expressed from this viewpoint comes from the slew of hot-to books and writers who absolutely forbid this.

    Now, I can understand the idea behind that. It’s crass and opportunistic to do so, and if you’re not sincerely interested in the subject, that will show in the writing.

    And that’s the key difference. Lynn mentions that if the book idea is marketable, she asks herself if she’s willing to live with the project for the time it takes to do it. She knows that she can’t fake it (and I would conclude the same goes for J. Scalzi).

  15. Yeah, basically. There’s no point writing something if it’s going to make you miserable. I mentioned about a week ago I passed on a book project because it just held no interest for me, and aside the issue of whether I was competent to do it (I am) there’s the question of whether I would be happy doing it (I wouldn’t be). I’m fortunate to be in a space right now where I can pass on stuff that won’t make me happy.

  16. John, I was hesitant about picking up Old Man’s War at first, not because I thought you were cynical in choosing your sub-genre, but because I’m just not very interested in most military sci-fi. I only gave it a chance because of my experience with your writing on this site. (I’m glad I did.)

    Speaking of military sci-fi, though, did you ever get around to reading Forever War? I’m still interested in your reaction to that one.

  17. Re: Forever War — I bought it from the Science Fiction Book Club and it never arrived. I need to get on them about that.

  18. I’ve found that whenever one of Rand’s characters goes off on a multi-page lecture it can be safely skipped. The only parts of the book that are less informative and entertaining are the flypages.

  19. The key is to get your message across without using Galt as a model.

    For instance, China Mieville’s novels do have an underlying, consistent message, informed from his background as a (particular kind of) socialist, but this message is integrated in the book, not interrupting it.

    Providing just entertainment is fine as far as it goes, but I’ve noticed the writers I enjoy the most are exactly those who do more than just entertain.

  20. Reading your blog and Agent to the Stars online makes me want to pick up your other books at that Borders in South Portland. And you ( and some other bloggers) are inspiring me to get off my butt and organize my writing on line. I haven’t read science fiction in years but I have read most of the classics and used to love it.

    You inspired me to go ahead and put my whole first children’s novel on line.( and ask for a dollar!) And your blog writing helps me clarify my thoughts on why I write what I do.

    My first attempt at a book for kids is really sweet and for a while I felt like no one, especially kids would like it. Then a group of kids read it and liked it. The adults liked it too. Then I and my husband saw a movie ( An Angel for May) that was also totally sweet and we both loved it so I thought maybe there is a place in this world for sweetness.

    And, after reading your book on line, I thought there is no reason to keep my stories sitting in a drawer. I also have a non-fiction book I want to do and that plan is going on line too.

    I don’t know if that will eventually make me a published writer. At this time, what I care about is doing the writing and writing stories that interest me. It took me a long time to get to that point and more time to understand that just writing a good story is meaningful enough.

    Did you get your Mac fixed?

  21. I have been thinking about the intersection of art and commerce lately, because there was just a big Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit at the Art Institute and he did so much work in the form of advertisements. Surely the crassest form of (literally) commercial work, yet in the end it stands on its own.

  22. Zuleme:

    “Did you get your Mac fixed?”

    You know, not yet. And I’m sad how little I actually miss it.

  23. The Terry Goodkind comment floored me. I’ve been working my way through his Sword of Truth series… I say working, because that’s what it feels like. Now I understand why. The story has me hooked, but reading it is a lot like eating uncooked oatmeal.

    Writing what sells is as foreign to me as, well, cabinet porn, but I must admit a certain knowledge of furniture porn. (google it, it’s hilarious)

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