Reader Request Week 2011 #9: Writery Bits ’11

In which I write up some stuff about writing, based on your requests:

Mike Young:

If something horrible were to happen to you, is there any writer you would feel comfortable having them finish you work? Or would you want all notes/manuscripts burned, their ashes scattered across the hills of Ohio?

I don’t have any unfinished or unpublished manuscripts lying around, actually, so anyone hoping to collaborate with me after my death will be sorely disappointed. If I die in the middle of writing a novel, then whoever is assigned to finish up the manuscript is going to have to make it all up from that point, since I don’t write down notes or make novel outlines. I have no idea who I’d pick to finish a manuscript. Assuming the book was being written for Tor, I’d let Patrick Nielsen Hayden make that call. I have confidence in his editorial choices.


I’d be interested to know what a professional SF writer makes of the distinction between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ science fiction. In academic circles, quite a lot is made of certain writers (Atwood, Dick, Butler etc.) and a great deal less of others–with the latter usually including those capable of making a living from the business. Does this annoy you? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter.

It doesn’t annoy me, no, although I’m not sure about the implication regarding “Lit SF” writers not being able to make a living in the business, since among your examples, Atwood has done decently for herself saleswise, and aside from any other commercial success, Butler received a Macarthur Genius Grant, which financially would have put her in pretty good stead. For my part, I don’t really expect my writing to light up the academic world, so I don’t know what the value would be of me harrumphing about how no one has me as the subject of their doctoral thesis, or is teaching me to grad students.


I just read Among Others by Jo Walton, and I’m part way through George RR Martin’s Dreamsongs, and the really cool thing about both of these is that the authors are talking about the books they read as kids, and I’m finding it fascinating. So, when did you first encounter SF&F, and what stuff did you read?

I’m pretty sure the first science fiction I encountered that I knew was science fiction was Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky, which was followed in rapid success by other Heinlein juveniles, plus A Wrinkle in Time, The Martian Chronicles and Dogsbody, by Diana Wynne Jones. That would have been fourth grade or so.


For you, what is the hardest part of the book-writing process, and how do you overcome it?

Starting is the hardest part; if I’m not careful I can avoid starting writing for months. Once I get started it’s never all that difficult. I overcome it by realizing that I have to eat and pay my mortgage, and yes, I’m being entirely serious.


If the phone went one day and it was your agent saying there was a new Star Trek tv show and they wanted to you come on board as a writer, would you? And also, if the phone went and this time it was the BBC wanting you to write a Doctor Who script, whould you want to do that either (and if you did would you use the Daleks)?

No on both counts. I don’t have an interest in going full-time on a TV writing staff, because I have other things I want to do. With Doctor Who, I don’t watch it enough to feel like I would do a creditable job with an episode. One of the things I really liked about the SG:U gig was that I could do it, be useful and still do my own things. That said, I had a standing invite to pitch an episode to them; if we had made it to a season three, I probably would have.


Why are novels always (or close enough to make the exception prove the rule) divided into chapters? For the convenience of the reader? The writer? Because it has “always been done that way”? Because it provides a convenient way to shift the focus or advance the timeline without having to say “Meanwhile…” or “The next day…”? John, do you tend to write chapters of the same length across all your novels?

I think chapters are useful for both the reader and the writer. For the reader, it breaks up a very long text document into manageable chunks, making it easier to fit into life; for the writer, it helps impose structure on the novel and also give the writer a chance to make the reader excited on regular intervals (for example, by ending chapters on cliffhangers). My chapters tend to be a more or less consistent length through each book, although the length of chapters varies from book to book. They do tend to group fall out in either 2k – 4k word groups, or 4k – 6k word groups.

Erin L:

I would be interested in your views on Science Fiction and sexism. One of the reasons I particularly enjoy your work is that women are portrayed as real, capable humans – even main characters. Older SciFi so often has a particularly misogynist bent in women’s roles and with phrases like “rape that” being used as slang.

What are your thoughts about the progression of equality of the sexes in SciFi, and will the genre – and in particular MilSF – become a thought leader in equality, or always face an uphill battle because the dominant author and readership will remain gender-skewed towards maleness?

I should probably break this out into its own entry, and my do so later, but for now I’ll say a) thank you, b) the reason women are portrayed as real, capable humans in my fiction is because I know they are real, capable humans, and it would be stupid for me to portray them otherwise, and c) I certainly hope science fiction continues to get better at how it portrays women in a general sense. I don’t think the genre skewing male needs to impede this; after all, most of my books probably skew male in readership but my at least attempting real, capable female characters doesn’t seem to have hurt them any.

Steve Bainbridge:

If you were to write an alternate history novel, I’m confident you wouldn’t choose one of the cliched points of departure (South winning Civil War, Nazis winning WWII). So what obscure historical point of departure would you select and why?

You know, I’m not sure I would specify the actual point of departure; I’d just write a contemporary novel in which the world was manifestly different than it is and build out the consequences of that as the story developed. I would know where the point of departure was, of course, I just wouldn’t go out of my way to make it clear and obvious to the reader. I think it might be more fun that way.


Since you have a pre-teen child, what are your thoughts on Athena reading books above her level of understanding. Are there books you can’t wait to share with her that you waiting until she is older? Generally, is it every okay to keep a child from reading a book that is above a level of comprehension?

Athena can read any book she wants to read, as far as I’m concerned, and I’m happy to discuss with her anything she doesn’t know about or understand in the book. When it comes to reading, I don’t think there’s any problem with a kid’s reach exceeding her grasp, because your brain doesn’t grow if you don’t stretch it. I don’t suppose it’s entirely surprising I feel this way.


Which do you think is more important for writers; talent or skill? (Assuming you’d be heavily weighted towards one or the other)

I think they exist in an inverse relationship in that the more you have of one, the less you need of the other, but I’d also note that you can’t only have one and not the other; you do need both. Be also aware that it’s possible both to have a lot of talent and skill, and conversely no talent and no skill. Sucks to be the latter.

Amber K:

Would it make you feel uncomfortable if a reader (who you don’t know) came up to you to say hello while you were out & about? Say, at the grocery store or in a coffee shop…provided that the reader is not interrupting what is obviously a family outing.

No. If they were polite and could take a hint about when it was time to go, then I would be delighted to talk to them briefly, or sign something/take a picture. This has happened to me more than once and it’s been generally a positive thing. But then I am at a level of fame (low) where it doesn’t happen to me often, and maybe that makes a difference. If I couldn’t go anywhere without being bothered, I think it would eventually get to me. I don’t expect ever to get to that level of notability, however. Which obviously suits me fine.

25 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2011 #9: Writery Bits ’11”

  1. I actually know of a grad school class (a Children’s Lit F/SF survey) that has Zoe’s Tale on the syllabus, so you couldn’t harrumph about that even if you wanted to.

  2. Ah yes, cliffhanger chapter endings. I find them to be quite common, making it difficult to stop reading (I have to go pick up grandma at the train station, but I can’t stop reading this darn Scalzi book!) when the writer is good. I have found that in order to stop, it is actually easier to stop reading at one of those extra spaces between paragraphs that create a pause in the narrative, as they are often not cliffhangers.
    True story: A couple of weeks ago I bought Agent to the Stars (I know, I know, how come I hadn’t read it already). I downloaded it to my Nook. I came home from work and started the book. About 10 pages into it I said aloud, “Uh, Oh.”
    My wife said, “What’s wrong?”.
    “Sorry honey, but my conversation will be kind of limited for a while. I just started reading this John Scalzi book, and once I start reading him I can’t stop.”
    She fully understands this, as she is an avid reader too. She did, however, want to know when I was going to start the barbeque and cook the bacon-wrapped (Nueske’s – the best bacon ever!) pork tenderloin. It took me a while, but I finally found a decent place to stop reading so I could start dinner. For me, it is best to stop at one of those pauses, as chapter endings always make me go right into the next chapter. I almost burned the pork.
    Anyway, thanks for your great books and the blog, John. We may see you in Minneapolis at Minicon46. We live in St. Cloud, MN and may go to the con. We have never been to one, but are considering giving it a try.

  3. “I am at a level of fame (low)”

    If you would get breast implants, dye your hair blonde and wear fishnet stockings your fame would rise….

  4. Hopefully you never start huge sweeping series with lots of fans and plenty of volumes and then pass on like Gordon R. Dickson or Robert Jordan. Jordan at least had a fantastic author finish his. Dickson ended up with the extremely disappointing Antagonist written by David W. Wixon that didn’t even finish the series. (Hey, maybe you should try finishing the Childe series!)

  5. Your description of the alternate timeline story you would write instantly piqued my interest. There are not many of those types of stories that approach the material with subtlety and it would be interesting to read your take on it. Get on that.

  6. “I would know where the point of departure was, of course, I just wouldn’t go out of my way to make it clear and obvious to the reader. I think it might be more fun that way.”

    Damn right it would. I’d read that one, if I could get it before someone ran a spoiler before my eyes. If you put that on your “novels to think about writing some day” list, you won’t here any complaints from me (he said gently).

    “If I couldn’t go anywhere without being bothered, I think it would eventually get to me. I don’t expect ever to get to that level of notability, however.”

    John Lennon, who did exist at that level of notability, once said that what he liked about living in New York City is that he could walk down the street and do ordinary everyday things without being bothered by fans, because there are so many celebrities in New York it’s no big deal to see one on the street. Of course, one day things did not turn out well for old John, but I don’t think that’s because he lived in New York.

  7. Athena can read any book she wants to read, as far as I’m concerned, and I’m happy to discuss with her anything she doesn’t know about or understand in the book.

    I have to say, I eagerly await the day she discovers Mills and Boon or any of their brethren.

  8. Re: my comment (#10), the reason is because I assume you will blog about this incident, and I eagerly await blog posts about something like that (fodder for hilarity, if I anticipate you correctly).

  9. I’ve gotten into a number of arguments with people who feel I should monitor what my son reads the same way I monitor what he watches (TV, movies, etc). It’s nice to see someone with the same view that I hold. I don’t think he gains anything by watching more grown up TV shows. But I think he can gain a great deal by reading a book even if he doesn’t fully understand it.

  10. I read my first “adult” book in 5th grade. It was story collection edited by Robert Silverberg. Thanks to the wonders of the Google, I found it.

    My own kid is eight and doesn’t like “scary” books. Honestly, he edits his reading more than we do.

    As far as “reading comprehension” goes…you learn by stretching yourself. I’d never ever stop my kid from attempting to read something that was “too hard”. And honestly, there’s a never an age where you stop reading things you might not fully comprehend. There are books I read in my twenties and then reread two decades later where I noticed a ton of things I’d completely missed the first time around.

  11. If it’s any consolation (re: teaching your books to graduate students) there are still some schools where while the professors won’t teach your books to their grad students… but the grad students are quite possibly teaching them to THEIR students. I’ve used Old Man’s War in my first year composition class, and I know of at least two others in my program who’ve done the same.

  12. I am one of those with no sign of either writing talent or writing skill. What I do about it is not attempt to write.

    Others are writing enough bad books so I don’t need to add to the supply. Fortunatly, another group of others, your august self included, who are busily writing good stuff. As long as I can read good stuff, it will stave off the temptation to write crap.

  13. Dogsbody – I remember that book! That was one of my favorites when I was younger. I can’t remember the last time I heard someone mention that one.

  14. We lived 10 minutes walk from a gorgeous library (now closed) when I was little. I borrowed Dogsbody regularly even though it made me cry. It’s a wonderful book.

    I got my own copy of that one early on, but I have to say how much I love the internet for helping me to work out the titles of some other, half-remembered favourites. And for enabling me to order them from Australia, where necessary.

    I’m still mourning the library though.

  15. In my parent’s house there was no such thing as a forbidden book. And that included the library. I haven’t grown-up to become an Evil Overlord. (yet. assuming that I have grown up, which I am not planning to do.) I think I read my first fantasy books at about 5 or 6, Oz books and The Hobbit, followed soon by Narnia and so on. SF followed/lead at about the same time.

    For me the real discovery was Dr. Asimov, who wrote not only SF but such a far ranging selection of non-fiction on ever so many subjects. That happened at around 8. I owe Dr. A entirely for my hopes of someday becoming a Mad Scientist (a major life goal, though taking over the world is optional).

  16. a question for you: If your computer malfunctioned suddenly and without warning and deleted all of your work, (or work that is not yet finished, published, ect.,) how would you react? I imagine a little swearing would be, to say, involved, but what else would you do? What measures would you take to fix it, if any measures at all?

  17. In the early years of Whatever, could your envision (fancy, daydream about, whatever) your blog becoming one of the most popular blogs in the SFF world? If not, when did it become apparent that you were a leading voice on the SFF blogosphere? Like before signing to a publishing house, or like months earlier?

  18. I’d be interested to know what a professional SF writer makes of the distinction between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ science fiction.

    @Lodore: Obviously, I can’t speak for our host (and wouldn’t dare to try) but the distinction pisses me off no end. You see, there are “real” writers like Atwood and Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy who can go slumming in genre fiction without getting cooties, unlike those other crass vulgarians… Feh. YMMV, of course, but the problem with Oryx and Crake or The Plot Against America isn’t that they’re “literary” SF but not very good novels, full stop and period.

  19. Yea for you re: not limiting Athena’s reading. That attitude was one of the best things my dad did for me when I was that age. He wrote a note for the library to keep on file, allowing me to check out any item I wanted from the adult library (at that time, in that place a note was needed each time a child wanted to check out an “adult” book); and he suggested books to me.

    He’d check something out, read it, and then toss it in my lap as he finished. “Here, you may enjoy this.”

    And he was always ready to talk about it, to explain (as he was about the TV news, which at that time had a lot of very confusing things about Vietnam going on).

    I believe that without his support and encouragement, my reading tastes wouldn’t be anywhere near as broad as they are, nor my vocabulary. I can only imagine that it will serve Athena well also.

  20. Fourth grade, Robert Heinlein, “Space Cadet”. I was hooked, on both reading and science fiction. Fifth grade, I figured out that I could get ten books a week if I got five from the bookmobile that stopped by the school, and another five from the different bookmobile that stopped by the church. Sixth grade, they were bringing me adult books (yes, I needed a permission slip for each bookmobile, and for the library itself.) Seventh grade I discovered intra-library loan, and wrote a very bad science fiction story (but it had great science and a smart girl.) Eighth grade, I was pulled over by the police chief, riding home on my bicycle, while reading a book, and lectured on my foolishness. I didn’t do that again (on a busy street.) See what you’ve done to me, writers!

    You continue to delight me with your parenting skills.

  21. Oh, and you can harrumph that only “Zoe’s Tale”, a juvenile, has been taken up.

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