1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Twenty-Five: Writing

Writing has gotten simultaneously easier and harder over the last twenty years.

Easier, because, bluntly, I’m better at it now than I was 20 years ago. Better at which parts? All of the parts. There are literally no technical aspects of writing (including the technical aspects of creativity) that I don’t just simply do better. Much of that would obviously be down to experience. Twenty years on from 1998, in which I was still in my twenties and hadn’t written much in the way of fiction, I have a wider range of writing experiences, and I’ve written more in each sort of field. I have gotten feedback from editors and readers and from my own observation, have incorporated all those, to greater or lesser extents, into my writing practice.

This means that here in 2018 I am generally in control of my instrument. Let me give you an example. When I set down to write my first couple of novels, I had very little idea of what I was doing, and basically had to discover the story in the writing. Not only could I not have told you at the outset what twists and turns were coming into the story, but I didn’t know what I wanted out of the characters or the action until I was in the middle of the writing. I was a good writer back then, but I wasn’t entirely in control of my instrument: my creativity, my technique or my intent. My first few novels are good novels, but the process of writing them was creatively very messy indeed.

Contrast that with, say, The Collapsing Empire (or its follow-up, which is out in three weeks(!)). For that one, I knew what I wanted it to do, I knew who I wanted the characters to be, and I knew how to make the writing do exactly what I wanted it to, when I wanted to do it. That book is exactly the book I intended it to be when I set out to write it — which is different than, say, Old Man’s War, in which I didn’t know how it was going to turn out until I wrote it.

Does this “control of the instrument” matter to the reader? No, it shouldn’t — because in both the case of Old Man’s War and The Collapsing Empire, or indeed any other book I write, the process is not visible to the reader, only the output. There’s a whole side to the publishing industry designed to take what the writer does and make it all look as smooth and intentional as possible; it’s called “editing.”

But it makes a difference to me, the writer. When I started writing novels, it was like throwing myself off a high cliff and inventing a glider before I hit the ground. Now I launch with the glider, and get to tell it where to go. And not just with books — again, every type of writing I do, I do better now than then. Experience counts.

But it’s also become harder, because I don’t have the same life as I did in 1998. In 1998, my life was relatively simple. I had to hustle for freelance gigs, which is a thing, but the goals of each freelance gig were relatively small and executable. It’s not that difficult, for example, to write subheads for a brochure about investment vehicles, or a short review of a music CD. It could be done fast and the stakes were low (and if I didn’t do it right, it was also easy to implement an immediate fix). I mostly stayed at home and I mostly had a low profile in the world.

Here in 2018 I write novels, which are long (by definition) take time to write. I have a significant contract and I am well-known in my field, so what I write has at the very least commercial significance, and people are counting on me in a non-trivial way to do what I do in a way that’s competent and commercial and robustly marketable. I also have to be reliable, so that when (for example) I have to turn in a novel under a tight deadline, I can be relied to do that, and to address the follow-up editing quickly.

I travel extensively to promote the work I do, which eats into my writing time. I have multiple projects in the air at any one time, many of which require work that is not directly related to writing, or at least writing that’s public-facing. The audience for my notes about treatments for TV/films projects is limited indeed.

Also, life! It’s busy and complicated as it is, I dare say, for most people, especially these days, when the world is on fire in a way that it hasn’t been before, which is distracting and enervating. But even moving away from the monumental distraction that is our current political shitpile: Kids and spouses and family and extended family and friends and all of that, too. To be clear, most of that is pretty good! But even when it’s pretty good it still takes time. It’s supposed to take time.

Plus, I’m old(er). I don’t want to say my brain is slower than it was when I was in my twenties, but one, just because I don’t want to say it doesn’t mean it may not be true, and two, even if it’s not slower, it’s still true that it handles the writing process differently. I write novels differently now than I did when I started writing them; hell, I write them differently now than I did five years ago.

To put it more directly, in the last twenty years, and especially in the last few years, my writing process has to make way for the world far more than it used to, for all the things that the phrase “the world” can encompass. And you know what? That makes it harder.

And, yes, I know: World’s tiniest violin, oh, poor Scalzi. I get that. But, look: I’m not actually telling you to pity or sympathize with me. I’m merely fulfilling the brief of this series. I’m telling you, on this subject, how things are different for me now than they were two decades ago. I want to be clear I don’t regret most of the circumstances of my world right now (I regret Trump is the president, a lot, but I didn’t vote for him, so at least on that front my conscience is clear), but I think that even good things have some consequences, and they have an impact on your life. And in my case on my writing life.

So writing today is both easier and harder than it was twenty years ago, and the end result of both of those is… mostly imperceptible from the point of view of the reader, I would guess. The books come out more or less regularly, the other work also appears in a predictable fashion, and at the end of the day, experience seems to replace what the world takes away — or at least, offers a way to compensate for it, which is not quite the same thing, but works very similarly.

I think from your point of view, nothing much has changed, in terms of my writing. I’m happy to keep it that way.

The Big Idea: Ryan North

I am not saying I am a time traveler. For all most of you know, I am not. But if I were, and remember I am not saying I am, then I would be very interested in Ryan North’s new book How To Invent Everything. Very, very interested. Theoretically.


I wanted to write the most dangerous book in the world.  Assuming time travel exists, I think I’ve succeeded.

The big idea in How To Invent Everything is this: is it possible to collapse our modern civilization into a single text which anyone, regardless of experience or education – or the time period in which they’re stranded – could use to rebuild our world from scratch?  I wasn’t at all certain that it was, but if it were, it sounded exactly like the sort of book I wanted to read.  And the more I thought it, the more it excited me, because this would be a book which – once you’ve gone back in time with it – would absolutely make you the most influential, powerful, and decisive person in history.

So, all I had to do was write it.


I’m probably not the person you’d choose to write a book like this.  Up to now, all of my writing has been fiction: comic books about a girl with squirrel powers, short story anthologies about a machine that knows how you’re going to die, and choose-your-own-path versions of Shakespeare.  This was obviously something different, and I had no idea where to start.  So I began with what I knew: fiction.

I made up a future in which time travel existed and was practiced routinely.  It was a world in which time machines are rented like cars: generally painlessly, though sometimes with the risk that your too-good-to-be-true deal of a vehicle breaks down.  It was a way to ease myself (and readers) into the concept, and it helped me set up some ground rules: you, as a reader, are a temporal tourist.  You are trapped in the past in a broken rental-market time machine.  There is a repair guide, but it very quickly reveals a unfortunate truth: that time machines are for sure the most complicated pieces of machinery humans have ever produced, and that there aren’t any user-serviceable parts inside.  Time machines are so complicated, in fact, that it’s actually easier to tell you how to rebuild all of civilization than it is to explain how a 45.3EHz chrotonic flux inverter works.  So that’s what this time machine repair guide does.

With that, I had my in.  The “corporate repair guide” angle gave me an absurd tone to play with, and it let me keep things funny, light, and entertaining, while still sharing actual (useful!) information.  The only challenge now was to fill the rest of the book.  No problem, right??

I began by researching the inventions I knew I wanted to include.  I’d always wanted to have computers in there – because come on, how awesome would it be to go through life knowing you can build a computational engine from scratch in any time period you care to name? – so that’s where I started.  And I discovered something fascinating: once we’d invented electrical logic gates – the things modern computers are based on – we started seeing them everywhere.  You don’t actually need electricity.  You can build logic gates out of ropes and pulleys.  You can build them out of water.  Heck, you can even build them out of living crabs.  And this meant that there was lots of potential there for a knowledgeable time traveller to invent computers centuries – if not millennia – ahead of schedule.

I soon found that it wasn’t just computers that could’ve shown up much sooner in history than they actually did.  I was honestly shocked to discover how many inventions fit into this category.  An example: we had the raw materials for compasses in 200 BCE: that’s when we noticed that some rocks stick together, or in other words, discovered magnets.  But it wasn’t until 1000 CE that we actually invented compasses.  And here’s the kicker: to get a basic compass (which, I remind you, unlocks navigating the entire world), you don’t need the “tiny sliver of metal balanced on a pin wrapped in plastic” fancy compasses we have today.  You just need to tie your magnetic material to a string.  The string lets the rock rotate freely, the rock points towards magnetic north, and hey presto: that’s your compass.

Figuring out how to tie a rock to a string took us over 1000 years. 

You might think that’s embarrassing (and, you know – you’re not wrong) but I actually found it really inspiring.  And the more examples I found of low-hanging fruit throughout history, of inventions that could’ve been invented at any point in time but which for one reason or another we only figured out relatively recently, the more inspired I got.  Sure, it meant there was tons of room for a time traveller to optimize our timeline (great for my book!) but also meant that it was – and is – very likely there’s still things like that in our own time that we ourselves haven’t yet figured out.  What are we missing today, right now?

That last one is actually the one question How To Invent Everything doesn’t answer.  What fundamentally world-changing invention are we not seeing, even though we’ve already got all the parts we need?  What will people 1000 years from now laugh at us for not figuring out already?

What’s the equivalent of tying a rock to a string, for those of us living here at the end of 2018 CE?

I probably won’t be the one to figure it out, but I can’t wait to see who does.


How To Invent Everything: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s 

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

My Home Internet is Down and My Cell Phone Hotspot Connection is Totally Crawling so No Whatever Digest Today

I’ll be posting a Big Idea and a Whatever 20/20 piece in a bit, although I may have to go down to the public library and use their connection to do it. Like a prole.