And Now, For No Reason Other Than It’s a Lazy Sunday, a Ranking of My Creative/Artistic Abilities

Also because I figure it might be fun and interesting to list them. So here they are, in order of my own personal opinion of my competency with them.

1. Writing. I mean, duh. You don’t do something professionally and profitably for a quarter of a century without being rather proficient at it. I think it can easily be argued whether my writing is any one person’s particular cup of tea, but that’s different from me being competent at this particular skill (I mean, if you want to argue I’m not a competent writer, go right ahead; I won’t stop you. I just won’t be able to hear you over the sound of me signing book contracts). Likewise, it’s easily arguable that other writers are better or more competent writers than I am. I don’t disagree. However, I’m more than competent enough, both for what I want to do as a writer, and for making money at it.

That said, it should also be obvious that I am better at some types of writing than others. The two types of writing that I think I’m most competent at are novel writing, and column writing. If there’s a type of writing at which I am the least competent, I’m pretty sure it’s poetry, which I’ve only occasionally attempted, and the results of which I found to be mediocre at best (the lone exception being The Sagan Diary, which I wrote as free verse but then formatted and edited into prose form. I like to joke that it’s stealth poetry, but I don’t know that the description is actually accurate).

Be that as it may, I write well, and I write profitably, which are not necessarily the same. Writing: It’s my thing.

2. Public Speaking. I do a lot of this, especially in the last several years, in which I’ve done a book tour yearly plus various conventions, book fairs and one-off events. I’m good at reading my own writing, of course, but I’m also pretty good at speaking off the cuff and for being entertaining in Q&As, panels, public interviews and so on. I don’t get nervous speaking in front of large crowds and in fact enjoy it quite a bit (it’s exhausting, but fun).

I think my facility for public speaking and public events has been a positive thing for my writing career. It’s also profitable, both in the sense it sells my books, and that I make money from speaking engagements. I expect it will continue to be a part of my overall creative career.

3. Editing. A skill separate from but related to writing, and I do think it’s a creative endeavor, actually, thanks for asking. It takes creativity to look at a mass of words and see not only what’s there, but also what the author intended to be there, and how you can help the author get from the first point to the second. I was a professional editor back in the 90s, working intensively with other writers, and have done it sporadically since then. Aside from helping me become a better writer myself (in no small part by helping me to see that not everything I write is pure gold right out of the box), I learned that I was pretty good at helping people shape their work, to make it say what they wanted it to say. It’s not a skill I use very often these days, but it’s one I know I have and that I’m pretty good at, and one I could make money from.

4. Photography. I take a lot of pictures, and for an amateur I think I’m pretty good at it. I have a reasonably good eye for composition, and I’m competent enough on the photographic back end to get the mood and feel I want out of any particular picture I’m working with (well, that’s not entirely true; there are pictures no amount of tweaking will fix. But then, those stay in my archive, rather than being put out where other people can see them).

I’m not as good a photographer as any competent professional photographer is, but I believe that if made a concerted effort (and picked up some good equipment), and had a few years to focus on it, I could over time become as good as at least some pro photographers. This is one creative field where I have never worked professionally where I think I could work professionally, if I had time and resources.

Alas, the chance I will ever have the time to really focus on photography is rather slim. That’s fine. There are enough professional photographers, and I’m good enough as an amateur for what I want to do with my own photos.

5. Singing. I can carry a tune and I don’t embarrass myself in karaoke. If I’m singing in my natural range (I’m a baritone) I can occasionally surprise people with the not-suckitude of my voice.

So, I can acquit myself, but I’m not a pro-level singer, and if I wanted to be I would have to spend more than a little time learning breath control and actual performance techniques. I want to be a better singer than I am, but I don’t expect to get much better at it than I am now. I have fun singing in my car, though.

6. Dancing. I used to be a very good dancer; I took two years of it in high school, and I was never self-conscious about being on a dance floor. I’m fond of saying I’m one of the few straight white men who can dance while completely sober (I don’t think it’s true, really, but it’s amusing to say). These days if I do any serious amount of dancing, I pay for it the next day, which is more about my general flabosity than anything else. With all that given, at no point would I have said that I was a good enough dancer to do it professionally; that would be, uh, a little much. I’m good enough to have fun and to dance with my wife and friends, and that’s all I want from dancing.

7. Acting. This is different from public speaking, since with public speaking I’m being me, whereas with acting I’m trying to be someone else. I am a passably adequate actor, which is to say that if you saw me on Broadway you’d say I was terrible, but if you saw me at your local community theater you might say I was pretty good. I have reasonably good acting instincts in terms of playing characters, but mediocre ability in transferring those instincts into actual performance. I would have to put in a lot more work to be a better actor than I am. It seems very unlikely at this point that this will ever happen.

8. Playing musical instruments. I love playing musical instruments; I’m not great at playing them. I’m most competent at playing drums, which I’ve been playing since high school. If you need a meat-and-potatoes rock drummer who can 4/4 all night long, I can do that for you (uh, after I get back up to speed, as I’m kind of rusty at this point). If you need a versatile jazz drummer who can handle 8/13 time without blinking, well, you should probably call someone else.  I also play ukulele and tenor guitar in a minimally competent way, in that I can strum decently enough and make chord figures that usually correspond to actual chord figures. I have no idea how to solo. If we were in a band, I would be the rhythm guitarist, and you would probably fire me as soon as someone better came along. Nor would I blame you for doing so.

One musical thing I’m actually not bad at: Sequencing musical samples to make compositions out of them. I used a bunch of (royalty free) samples some years back to make an entire album of electronic music, and it wasn’t terrible. I might do that again at some point. I won’t be giving up my day job, however.

I’m also a pretty good DJ, in the classic “play a bunch of songs in a row that people want to dance to” sense, not the modern “drop the bass on a bunch of ravers” sense. I DJ dances at science fiction conventions. I have fun with it.

9. Cooking. I can make grilled cheese, ramen, and schadenfreude pie. Anything else you probably want someone else cooking for you. I mean, I won’t poison you, or anything. No one has died from eating food I’ve made. But don’t go out of my way to eat my own cooking, you know? Given the choice between making myself something to eat and ordering pizza, I’d pretty much always go for the pizza. I’m never going to be anything better than a “manages not to burn water”-level cook, and I’m just fine with that.

10. Drawing/painting/any non-photography visual art. Oh, man, I suck at these. I used to say that I could draw stick figures, but then Randall Munroe and xkcd came along, and I realized how much better his stick figure people were than mine. Now I know I’m not even competent to draw stick figures. Go to Hell, Randall Munroe! Go straight to Hell, damn you! Seriously, though, if I had to draw or paint to make a living, I would starve inside a week. There would be nothing left but bones.

That’s what I’m good at, creatively and artistically, and what I’m not.

49 Comments on “And Now, For No Reason Other Than It’s a Lazy Sunday, a Ranking of My Creative/Artistic Abilities”

  1. Does your drumming experience help with the rhythmic aspects of other instruments? lately I’ve been attempting to learn to play the 5-string banjo (bluegrass style) and… well… I could really use a better sense of rhythm and timing. (And perhaps a metronome that won’t break if I suddenly hurl it across the room).

  2. Acting: What would you say if the folks filming one of your stories — say, an OMW TV series — suggested that you do a cameo? I mean, Stan Lee’s acting abilities seem to be at the level of Hey Kids Lets Put On a Show, and *he* gets cameos.

  3. Bearpaw:

    I’m not hugely invested in having a cameo in one of the films/TV series, but sure, if asked and I thought it was appropriate, I might. For OMW, I would want to be an alien who died horribly.

  4. Have you done enough work with video to add directing/cinematography to the list, or is it under “any other visual art?”

  5. I would say you missed the two biggest ones:

    From your briefly allowed glimpses into you private life I would say that those skills (and they are are skills) should be listed as 1 and 2.

  6. Annalee:

    I’ve done almost no video work and would not describe any of the work I have done as anything other than basic.

    Mike Brown:

    Those are not creative fields in the same manner as writing or photography. I think I’m a decent husband and father, mind you. Although for a more accurate assessment you’d have to ask my wife and child, respectively.

  7. You know, it would be great to see you on Dancing with the Stars. That would be awesome!

  8. Writing has different aspects. You excel at the forward momentum in a story, but frankly suck at dialogue. To clarify: your dialogue sounds as if spoken by a smart, snarky 13 year old. Recently you’ve found a compromise by making everyone sound like a lawyer. Not everyone’s cup of tea, indeed.

  9. I’m glad you referenced ‘The Sagan Diaries’ in your strengths for writing. After reading that, I googled you because I had to know how it was possible for a male to write something so powerful from a female perspective. I want to say you nailed it, but that seems too crass for what you accomplished. It was brilliant. I felt a sort of kinship in your writing prior to that experience, and now realize it’s likely because we were born within weeks of each other. Cool.

  10. Brent:

    Dialogue from smart snarky 13 year olds sure seems to sell a lot of books, however, so I think I’ll keep doing it that way. You’re free not to read the books if the dialogue annoys you. I’m okay with that.

  11. Well at least you padded your resume well enough, you have cooking, singing, dancing and photography as backups.

  12. Scalzi, you don’t suck at dialog. At all.

    Just another knowledgeable opinion.

  13. Speaking of dialog… I’d never heard your speaking (or singing) voice today, and somehow it was completely not what I expected. Not in a bad way, just, not how I would have guessed. Which seems very strange, given how many hours I’ve spent with your “voice” bouncing around my head…

  14. @Zack: I had that same reaction. But then, I always think everyone’s voice is going to be deeper than it really is.

    As for smart, sarcastic teenagers: I actually hang out with a lot of them, because of a volunteer thing. Oddly enough, they do not all sound the same. Nor do they sound more similar to each other than they do to smart, sarcastic people of other age groups. It’s almost like they’re individuals or something.

    But hey, most of Scalzi’s characters sound like individuals to me, too. So in that sense, I agree that they sound like smart, sarcastic teenagers.

  15. Are you at the point of beginning speeches with Noel Coward’s “Desperately accustomed as I am to public speaking…” yet?

    (Of the various fields you list, I’m probably best at cooking – and even there, I’m a proficient amateur who can cook a decent meal for a family of four. I am NOT a professional cook or professional chef, and I wouldn’t want to be).

  16. when you wrote “Dancing”, were you referring to the type of dancing that we now associate with “dancing”, see how far you can be from your partner, or do you actually do ballroom dancing where you and your partner move in synchronicity…

  17. I’ve learned always to be suspicious of the culinary skills of anyone who says they can cook, but never of anyone who says the can’t.

    Having recently watched a youtube video of you and Wil doing a dramatized reading (something about a negligence lawsuit and a willingness to settle for control of a Death Planet), I have to say: I think you’re under-valuing your musical abilities. ;-D

    (Snark aside, speaking as a sometimes music teacher, and granted that I’m working from a limited data set, what I’ve heard of your musical talents would put it well above the “At least I don’t burn the water” level of competence.)

  18. Don’t be too quick to write off “Cooking.” I never had any interest in it either & revelled in the fact that Stouffer’s HQ is right up the street. Then all of a sudden 5 years ago I got intrigued by making a couple things myself, and now I’m jerry-rigging recipes a couple times a week. So you never know – life is long with lots of time to try new stuff. :-)

  19. I think you are a great writer and photographer but I don’t you sing that good. But then again, you sing way better than me so there’s that.

  20. There’s cooking and then there’s being a cook. I have decent talent at making something I personally will eat and that someone else might enjoy. Cooking efficiently and on demand to a particular set of averaged expectations (particularly expectations who don’t share your specific taste) is something else entirely.

  21. Old aggie:

    Oh, I never discount the idea I can get better at anything (including writing). But I think I have a reasonably realistic sense of my chances.

  22. Read the list through for me the most interesting thing is what’s not there. You don’t mention if you have any skills at programming, a very modern and very creative endeavour.

    I mean you end the list with things you are not good at yet don’t even seem to have considered programming.


  23. Simon Proctor:

    I am shit at programming (which is indeed a creative skill). I know very basic html and unix commands circa the 90s, and also some very basic css today. If I had any serious coding to do, I would hire someone.

  24. You have just inspired me to write the next space odyssey in free verse. I will graciously provide you with the beginning of my epic work (the result 10 minutes work while procrastinating at my day job):

    The smallest ships
    Were light years away.

    “Repent, oh sinners”,
    The oldest priest presided
    Over the feast of Easter.
    “What Easter is there in Space?”,
    I thought to myself,
    “Christ died so long ago
    we have all but forgotten
    his list of sins and glories.
    But here we are
    So far away from home
    And still he calls us from his grave”

    Alarm! Alarm! Alarm!
    The red button of panic
    had been hit.
    We had at last,
    at long last,
    and after eons passed,
    found them.

    White, like the morning sun,
    White and red
    and black eyes.
    And shiny metal ships
    With long, mean arrows
    And long, mean men.

    They were The Others.
    What comes behind them,
    It is night. And doom.

  25. Dear SyFy,

    Regarding a theoretical cameo appearance, John Scalzi said, “For OMW, I would want to be an alien who died horribly.”

    Make this happen and I will subscribe for life.


  26. Huh,

    That explanation for the Sagan Diaries may explain why I bounced off it so hard. It just didn’t seem like a coherent story with much of a point to me. Maybe one day I’ll go back and read it as a prose poem and see how it comes across.

    I think you’re quite good at writing. I feel your dialogue is often kinda samey, in that a lot of a characters in your novels sound a lot like your voice on your blog in cadence and levels of snark, but I like your cadence and your particular level of snark, so I enjoy your writing for the fun read that it is.

    Hmm. Now that I think about it, I think The God Engine is one of your best, and there is significantly LESS levels of snark and “I can hear Scalzi” in that. With most of your novels I think I could identify you as the writer by reading the text, but I wouldn’t have known it was you that wrote God Engine without the byline.

  27. Concerning poetry, I was struck by Maggie’s death poem in haiku form from Old Man’s War. I do not know why it resonated with me. I think that it was the context. At any rate I immediately thought of that when you stated that poetry was your weak point. Your poetry is, at least occasionally, pretty good.

  28. My smart (and sometimes snarky) teenage son and I both enjoy your books including the dialogue.

  29. I’m brilliant at writing silly comments on other people’s blogs.

  30. I wish authors would post some of these ‘please work for free’ requests on the web. I’m really curious what they say. I wonder if any are like this


    I just published my first novel. Its military sci-fi. I got inspired to write this after reading Old Mans War. Most of my fans are conservatives and they hate you. I can’t have them think I am a fan. Can you help a brother out and make a blog post about how I am a mysoginists or a homophobe , or just plane right wing crazy? Thanks Brother. I’ll buy you lunch at a con? Don’t make a lot money, but I got a coupon for a big mac and fries. Thanks Bro.

  31. All this time I could have been reveling in the horrible misfortunes of others and eating pie and I didn’t even know it. I sad. :'(

    Yet glad, because now I can make schadenfreude pie. Hopefully there will be no major horrible misfortunes before I get the ingredients and make this pie. Happy now. :)

    In order to maximize my enjoyment of the horrible misfortunes of others, I am going to use bittersweet chocolate instead semi-sweet chocolate chips. Besides, I eat those even when there are no horrible misfortunes around to enjoy.

  32. Anna Karenina, definitely make the pie. You will not be sorry. I have made it a few times, and it is delicious–and there’s always someone whose deserving downfall can be commemorated with a slice or two.

    (Also, yay, time stamps on comments are back! Retroactively, even!)

  33. I like John’s post as I sometimes wonder about my own skills on different efforts. I also like Mike Brown’s response about family life because from my experience : as a father and husband – I am always planning and yet improvising. explaining, but letting be . . . give and take . . . all things I experience in “artistic” moments. btw I embarrassed myself last week listening to “Red Shirts” on my iPod walking by the lake in Chicago and totally was visibly crying in a very public place !

  34. My great trauma is that I always wanted to be musical, but I’m almost completely tone deaf (I can’t tell male from female speaking voices, or distinguish individuals by voice alone), and I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. I’m not tone deaf enough to be ignorant of how bad I am at singing, although I’m told I have a lovely speaking voice, which I can’t verify.

    I am usually cynical about people who think they can cook, especially those who spend a lot of oxygen telling everyone how good they are, as someone else mentioned, and I don’t have the temperament to do it professionally (nor any desire), but over the years, with daily practice and reinforcement and coaching from pro friends, I’m now confident in my status as an accomplished amateur.

    Skills and maybe even talent changes over time, in my experience. Maybe that’s innate, maybe it’s the knock-on, reinforcing effect of interest+/- practice.

  35. Great stuff — I came across your blog via NYTimes ‘What We’re Readeing’ -and am hooked — despite my status as an octogenarian geezer, I ‘get’ what you are writing — I’ll return to your blog again and again…

    Here is the URL for a (short) post I wrote about writing a few years ago on my blog — when you have absolutely nothing better to do, you may wish to give it a look: Regards, Alan Mowbray Jr.

  36. Oddly enough, that sample of your singing chops reminded me of Britpop from the 60s or thereabouts. One of those groups that had maybe one or two American hits. It was the accent, I think. Do you always sound like that or was that because that’s how it was?

  37. Jean:

    I’m using British-y vocal phrasing on the song because that’s how I’m used to hearing it, thanks to Robert Smith, yes.

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