How to Have a Writing Career Like Mine

You can’t.

Which is not to say you can’t have a career as a writer; maybe you can. But you can’t have a career like mine. Because here’s what you would have to do:

1. Start writing freelance in college.
2. Get a movie critic gig right out of school.
3. Have your second job be for the largest online service on the planet.
4. Get laid off and go solo.
5. Start a blog and have it become very popular.
6. Sell four non-fiction books before you sell your first novel.
7. Sell your first novel off your Web site.
8. Have that novel be an award-nominated breakout success.
9. Etc.

Each of these steps is actually important to having a career like mine; each step informs the steps after it. Skip a step and suddenly your career isn’t like mine anymore; it’s something else entirely, and the map I used to get where I am is no longer useful to you. You can’t have a career like mine. The only one who gets a career like mine is me.

Other careers you can’t have: Neil Gaiman’s, Ursula Le Guin’s, Robert Heinlein’s, Cherie Priest’s, Nalo Hopkinson’s, Toby Buckell’s, Pat Rothfuss’, Mary Robinette Kowal’s, Cassandra Clare’s or Robert Silverberg’s, to name just a few people off the top of my head. Their careers are not replicable, because they are to a very large extent the product of time and personal circumstance — and in many if not most cases a healthy helping of luck, which matters, too. Learning how each of them reached their successes can be interesting, and may yield some general ideas that you might apply to your own career-building. But if you look at their careers with an eye to ape particular moves, you’re likely to be disappointed by the results.

If you feel you must look at other writers’ careers, a suggestion: Look at more than one, and see what they have in common. What did Neil do that Ursula also did that Robert did too that Cherie is now doing? Look at the things that consistently appear in the careers of multiple authors, and you’ll find the things that might be worth incorporating into your own. As a warning, they are likely to be boring things like “write regularly,” or “minimize distractions” or some such, which are the “eat less, exercise more” of the writing career world. But that’s life for you.

I can guarantee you this: If you try to have a writing career like mine, you won’t have a career like mine — and more to the point, you won’t be having the career you could have had. And that will happen no matter whose career you try to make yours like. So don’t try to have a writing career like mine or anyone else’s. Have your writing career. You’ll be happier.

48 Comments on “How to Have a Writing Career Like Mine”

  1. Nicely put, and I agree. I don’t want your career, I want mine. I respect you highly as a writer, and really enjoy your work, but I want to write about what I find interesting and what makes me say, “hey, cool!”

    Though I wouldn’t mind the whole “hanging out with really cool and creative people” thing you’ve got going. That would be nice to have a bit more of.

  2. I find it telling how regularly you return to #4 as a critical step in your success. I’m sure being fired is quite a life-event for anyone, but I love that you made a way to make it a positive event rather than a negative one.

  3. It’s like all the things that have to go wrong for a plane to crash. I think they call it the Swiss Cheese model. You have to get whole bunch of holes to line up if you put one slice of Swiss cheese after another (each slice being human error or a thingamabob failing). If you’ve got a hole lined up all the way through the plane comes down. Your career looks like that. Except for that all the holes line up for success.

  4. That sounds like an awful amount of work. I think that if I go into writing I’ll just start with steps 7 and 8.

  5. I know it’s not realistic to want to have a career like yours, but can I want to have an office like yours? Just a little?

  6. The two best tips I’ve ever seen from writers who have taken time from their schedules to advise would be writers are,
    1. Practice, practice, practise, it’s the only way to get good at it. There arte no magic tricks, even if you have some inborn talent.
    2. Study the business. I appreciate how much you emphasise this John.

    I would just add that you should keep your expectations and ego in check. Until and unless you get published it’s just one giant slush pile out there. There’s a lot more to it of course, but unless you get the basics down you won’t ever be as successful as you might have been. I’ve been writing for 15 years, and have yet to produce something I feel deserves to be published. I have my moments but a cohesive whole remains elusive. Heck I’ve just recently started to keep myself from writing completely deritive stories. I consioder it a hobby, if I ever do get published I’ll be happy about that, but I’m not counting on it.

  7. Anyone want to have a computer career like mine (supercomputer admin)? Just bomb out of jr. college, join the military, blow your GI Bill on art school but find out you’re good with computers, drop out, meet a guy at a funeral who lets you know an aerospace place is looking for Mac techs, get laid off, move across country, don’t find a job for months on end, ask local SCA group if they know of any jobs, get lead on job at secret gov’t lab, work ass off fixing desktop systems, volunteer for any new support program they have, get dropped feet first into the deep end of supercomputer system support, flounder around enough that they value contributions and they offer job. See, easy!

  8. But Scalzi you have such an awesome career!

    Oh, alright, I’ve get my own. Shuckie darns.

    I have no idea how I started off as an English major and ended up an IT geek.

  9. How true. I have what I think is a very successful writing career (my definition of success, nobody else’s, thank you), and looking at your list, I don’t think we have anything in common.

    1. Start writing short stories in college.
    2. Do so for years and years.
    3. At a boss’s suggestion, write a nonfiction piece for an organization he’s in. Get it published. Proceed to write more nonfiction pieces. Then lots of nonfiction pieces. For better markets
    4. Get a novel published finally.
    5. Then another.
    6. Trip over a really fantastic paying nonfiction market.
    7. And their sister publication.
    8. Go part-time on your day job.
    9. 3 months later quit your day job entirely.
    10. Publish more novels. More nonfiction. Win an award, etc.

  10. Actually the person whose career I most want is Dan Simmons’. He writes fantastic stuff in multiple genres–horror, SF, hardboiled mystery/PI–and no one bats an eye or insists he use a pseudonym.

  11. @ K.W. Ramsey

    1. With the addition of a little bit of swiss, I could turn my pet into Parakeet Cordon Bleu.

    2. Love the name of your website. Left Hand of Dorkness. hehe.

  12. Very true, John. My current career is combines technology and litigation, and I have had more than a few tell me how lucky I am to be where I am. In many ways they are right. When I left college the job I’m in didn’t even exist! Now it is growing by leaps and bounds. Since I started before computers were powerful enough to do some of the work I’m one of the few who understands both the paper world of litigation and the electronic once. I know there are parts to my job I could do better, but I also know that I am damn good at what I do.

    All that being said, I’m trying to transition over to being a writer. It is a tough process and its going to take some time. I write when I can, but I have enough trials in my life, literally, that even when I scrape up the time there is nothing in my head with which to write. So I’m working harder at doing those little things, practicing, writing a little each day, so that I can at least keep the progress I’m making.

    The Godsend for me has been #FridayFlash. People post complete stories of 1,000 words or less. It is challenging in many ways to get it done, but it lets you try different voices, perspectives, and ideas without losing too much. It is a way of sharing your practice with a community of others people from all over the world doing their exercises. If you you have not checked it out, i highly encourage you to do so.

    As for your career, I look forward to seeing what the next steps for you entail!

  13. Allow me to point out the relevant part of the link above:
    “Way back in the 1940s there was a very, very funny man named Jack Benny. He was a giant star, easily one of the greatest comedians of his generation. And a much younger man named Johnny Carson wanted very much to be Jack Benny. In some ways he was, but in many ways he wasn’t. He emulated Jack Benny, but his own quirks and mannerisms, along with a changing medium, pulled him in a different direction. And yet his failure to completely become his hero made him the funniest person of his generation. David Letterman wanted to be Johnny Carson, and was not, and as a result my generation of comedians wanted to be David Letterman. And none of us are. My peers and I have all missed that mark in a thousand different ways. But the point is this : It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound re-invention.

    So, at the age of 47, after 25 years of obsessively pursuing my dream, that dream changed. For decades, in show business, the ultimate goal of every comedian was to host The Tonight Show. It was the Holy Grail, and like many people I thought that achieving that goal would define me as successful. But that is not true. No specific job or career goal defines me, and it should not define you. In 2000—in 2000—I told graduates to not be afraid to fail, and I still believe that. But today I tell you that whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.” – Conan O’Brien

  14. Great advice. Its really hard to underestimate the value of failure. My own list of failures is almost as long as Gilmoure’s in post #7 (which is blazingly awesome). I remember once adding them all up one night with a good friend in a coffee shop, and in front of a young girl thinking of being a jazz harp player. She couldn’t understand why we were laughing about them either. Good times.

    I’m not even after a career in writing as much as finding a way to make my hobby pay for itself in my retirement. The day job is cool, but I’ve noticed a predominant number of kids in the field, and only a few guys hanging around with wrinkles around the eyes. And of the handful of old people I know doing this work, quite a few have left feet first, literally died at their desks. Poor planing, not learning from your mistakes (and those of others) is soo unattractive.

  15. I imagine that someone, somewhere is standing of the railing of a bridge contemplating a jump because of this stark realization….

  16. While you have a good point that nobody can have anyone else’s exact life or career course, I think you’re shortchanging the idea of career modeling. I don’t think anyone has ever suggested that an aspiring writer choose a successful writer as a career model, and then imitate every twist and turn of that writer’s series of jobs and activities, and if they did, that would be foolish. I think career models are great, however, as role models and inspiration for what you can do, what is possible, and how to make it work, especially for young people.

    Kids and young adults don’t have the life experience to weigh the value of various types of advice. One person’s advice for becoming a writer may be: Choose a college major that will get you a good paying job and write in your free time. Another person’s advice may be: Follow your passion and don’t waste time pursuing a career that will only make you unhappy. For science fiction, some authors have actual science backgrounds. Should a young person pursue a science major in college like I did? Or should they major in English, like this other successful writer did? I remember being told about one successful science fiction author who went to graduate school in either math or science, and writing science fiction stories was what he did when he got stuck on his grad work, and grad work was what he did when he got stuck on his fiction. Doing graduate study in math is not the right path for anybody, and yet there are probably people out there, reading this right now, thinking, “Hey, you can combine fiction and math graduate school? That could work for me!”

    Women writers need role models even more. When do you have children, and how do you fit them into your life? I have seen a huge number of talented women drop out of writing fiction when they had kids. Men take a hit, too, but children seem very costly to women. Looking at other women writers as role models, and seeing how they fit children into their lives (or not), can be very helpful in figuring out what’s right for you.

    Too many choices can be utterly paralyzing. Starting out in life knowing that there are 100 different ways to become a successful writer and all you have to do is choose the best one for you is not helpful. Looking at career models and figuring out which author matches your own life history, personality, and inclinations can be one of the most motivating things you can do. I myself have used career modeling many times to motivate myself and to overcome challenges, and my career path has been just as idiosyncratic as any other writer’s. It’s sort of like when you hand the same plot to two writers and they nevertheless produce unique stories. Hand the same career plan to two young writers, and you will see two unique writers with unique voices emerge.

  17. could I at least hold the Mallet of Loving Correction for a little while? Maybe pop it in the warmer for a little bit first?

  18. No fair. “Work your ass off” was nowhere on your list, but I bet it was at least one of the things you did.

  19. As Gilmoure pointed out, this applies to careers other than writers. You keep plugging on, paying the dues for years and years and decades, and then WHAZAMM! you’re an instant success.

  20. This can also be a liberating idea to know that your own personal experiences can guide you to a unique fountain of ideas, stories, and novels. It’s nice to know you don’t have to copy anyone else.

  21. I can trace my entire professional career to a connection I made at a high-school science fair in 1986, which gave me the very specific type of experience I needed to get things moving with a second contact I made with a bored HR guy at a job fair in 1997. These two events were far more crucial than my college achievements or the seven years I spent in graduate school in an unrelated subject. They were chance events that nobody could hope to replicate for their personal situation. But they happened in part because I put myself out there.

  22. I WILL have John Scalzi’s career! As soon as my face heals from the plastic surgery, I can take his place and then…. Scalzi’s next novel will be MIIIIIIIIINE!

  23. I don’t know. I actually know more than one person who has a career quite like Cassandra Clare’s fanfic maven turns pro career.

    I grant that everyone else you mentioned has an extremely singular path, though, and I agree with the main thesis of your entry.

  24. To get back to our host’s original post: Both Scalzi and Heinlein (and possibly others on the list of SF authors given) wrote “practice novels,” Agent to the Stars and For Us, the Living respectively. Agent was later published in original and revised forms, as has been explained by our host; likewise Heinlein’s manuscript served as a practice novel for him, even though he did send it to a few publishers who rejected it (even he must have known it wasn’t really likely to be picked up, given its weaknesses – anyone else here read it?). Seems like a worthwhile step even though not included in our host’s numbered list.

  25. I generally think lives are more interesting than carreers — even if they include a good deal of regular writing. Nevertheless, interesting post :-)

  26. Hmmmm. I’d say I’m ‘on target’:

    1. Start writing freelance in college.

    Yep for the old ‘Compute’ magazine; started with an interview with the guy that invented Pong (tongue. tip. thing.) Local papers, some business stuff

    2. Get a movie critic gig right out of school.

    Well, no. Started sitting in security shacks. Great for writing time though.

    3. Have your second job be for the largest online service on the planet.

    Ummm, kinda. Venture capital group at AT&T (and eventually Bell Labs) helping to create “interactivity” of a digital kind.

    4. Get laid off and go solo.

    Quit. For an editing position. Interestingly, I was able to augment the so-called ‘pay’ at this job using a trick I learned from Fred Pohl: write a lot of the copy yourself and then pay the writer.

    5. Start a blog and have it become very popular.

    Bit late to this one. And “popular” is such a dicey word.

    6. Sell four non-fiction books before you sell your first novel.

    OK. Only three. But I think that’s a bit mitigated by the several hundred feature articles (or maybe by the patent grants)

    7. Sell your first novel off your Web site.

    Not yet. Not. yet.

    8. Have that novel be an award-nominated breakout success.

    The obvious conclusion to the completion of #7.

    9. Etc.


  27. [in my best mad scientist voice]

    Oh yes I can! Just wait until my Beam-O-tron 3000 is complete!
    I will use it to have a career EXACTLY like yours. That and world domination. ‘Cause, really, the career thing would be great. Really great! Especially with all the bacon you must get. But world domination, well. You know. So… Right. Right. Then my career wouldn’t be exactly like yours, would it? It would be EXACTLY like yours would be if you also had world domination. So, rats. You may be on to something. Um. You weren’t thinking of adding to the list were you? Maybe world domination at #11 or so? ‘Cause that would really help my secret plans. I’ll await your reply. Thanks.

  28. I don’t want your career (for one thing I never want to be president of anything) and obviously no one could hope to reproduce all the specifics even if they did. But it’s been reassuring to me to see the variety of things that you do. I’m publishing both my first novel and my first nonfiction book this year and make the rest of my living (such as it is) writing for newspapers and whoever else will pay me. I have sometimes worried that I look like a jack of all trades and master of none, or like I spread myself too thin. People seem so concerned with specialization these days, you know? And although there are a few topics I do specialize in, I do all sorts of different writing about them. It’s just nice to know that someone very successful is making that sort of career work.

    Also, I was happy to find that you are one of those semi-mythical beasts who has different agents for your fiction and nonfiction. People in the business have told me that this happens, but could never point to examples. I feel more comfortable now querying fiction agents and admitting I already have an agent for my nonfiction.

    So dammit, you are a role model whether you like it or not.

  29. Wombatarama–I am a fiction/non-fiction person, too. I, too, have worried about branding, until I reached a profound conclusion: f*ck it. Anybody else’s problem with my eclectic CV is their problem, not mine. As long as the money keeps rolling in, I’m cool. ;-)

    I went to your web site and have decided to be your best friend. I am also obsessed with pets. Is that ok? Can I come over to your house, now? What kind of cupcakes do you like? Because I am making some for you now. Tell you what, I’ll just do a half a dozen different batches and we’ll try them all together.

  30. Thanks! Lemurs are all-purpose. I like your capybara page. Capybaras are cool. Plus it reminds me of a ferret web page I built way back in the 90’s. It was quite a hit, actually, in the paleoweb, at tens of thousands of hits per month. I should dig up the files and put them up again. Why not.

  31. Well said, John. I love it. : ) I can’t have a writing career like yours, and that’s okay.

    I can’t even have a writing career like mine — or at least, not like the one I thought I’d have. And that’s okay, too. Once upon a time, I had all these brilliant plans and schemes…and now, I’m in a place I never thought I’d be. And I like it here. It’s turning out better than I could’ve imagined.

  32. Thanks, John, essential points, but I have to point out that not too many of us know Any published authors that will talk to us except you. And, no, we aren’t trying to be You, we just enjoy learning a little of what it takes to be a successful author. As for advice career or writing (and I haven’t been published, so, grain of salt and all): Be yourself. No one else is qualified for the job.
    If someone came up with this quote-and it’s likely- please give me a name & date, thanks.
    Thanks again, John, for giving new writers somewhere to be heard.

  33. Or then again, many of us just write and don’t exactly have careers, or want them. Or we have careers and write but the writing isn’t the career.

    How to write without having a career: you just write, when it’s time to, which may be daily or occasionally or nonstop for two months and then a year off. Send it to other people, if that seems like a good idea. Accept money for it if the offer is reasonable.

    How to write full time and still not have a career: You live. You write. When necessary to keep living, you do something besides write, which might take up as much as half your waking hours. When there’s enough money around, you just write.

    But if by any chance you are one of those people where the only thing you like about writing is writing, then don’t be afraid. You don’t HAVE to have a career. You can just write, and treat all that publishing/selling stuff as the nuisance it is (i.e. like any real nuisance, you can deal with it or avoid it but there are consequences to either). Nobody will say you don’t write if you decide not to have a career. They’ll only say that if you don’t write.

  34. Can’t we just have an arrangement where I fight you in some sort of arena and assume the name ‘Scalzi’? I realise may run said career into the ground within a week.

  35. Well, I’m sorry, but you can’t have mine either… I’m keeping it all to myself and you can keep yours as well. I’m also taking my ball home as well :)

    Great post and advice well worth listening too…

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