John Scalzi’s Utterly Useless Writing Advice

People wrote me: “Hey, as long as you’re reposting old crap, why don’t you repost your “Utterly Useless Writing Advice”? Well, okay.

I’ve made some minor changes to get certain personal facts up to date, but otherwise it’s the same cranky bit of advice it was when I wrote it in 2001. I do have the urge to write something else about writing, but inasmuch as I actually have real writing I need to do, it’s going to have to wait.

Anyway, here you go.

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Even More Long-Winded (But Practical) Writing Advice

For various reasons which I will not go into at the moment because I don’t feel like it, I have the urge to provide wholly unsolicited but practical advice to writers. So here it is. Why should you as a writer listen to my advice? No reason except that I published two books last year, will publish two books this year and am likely to publish another couple of books next year, and aside from that I make a whole lot of money doing what I do. On the other hand, I am also famously a cranky blowhard who readily admits to having his head up his ass a lot of the time. So take it or leave it.

1. Yes, You’re a Great Writer. So What.

Let’s be clear on this, so there’s no confusion on that matter: No one cares that you’re totally the best writer ever. They just don’t. Because while people want their writers to be many things, “the best” isn’t usually one of those things. Readers want you to be entertaining. Editors want you to have commercial appeal and not be a pain in the ass to line edit. Publishers want you to fill a hole in their production schedule. Book stores want you to stimulate foot traffic in their store. None of that inherently has anything to do with being a great writer. If you can do one or more of these things and be a great writer, nifty. If being a great writer keeps you from doing these things, well, pal, expect to be deeply underappreciated in your time. Somewhat related to this:

2. I Don’t Care If You’re a Better Writer Than Me.

Because why should I? Yes, words drip from your pen like liquid gold skittering across the finest vellum ever pounded out of a lamb. Trees weep with gratitude that their deaths afford you the paper upon which you will cast your thoughts. That’s very nice for you. Meanwhile, I’ve got my own books to write, projects to develop and clients to make happy. Your preternatural ability to weave filigreed musings into deathless prose impacts my life not at all.

I of course accept your superiority to me in the great hierarchy of writers — clearly, confronted with your brilliance, how could I not? I just don’t care. Unless you intend to spend all your time trying to thwart my career because you can’t bear to contemplate my muddy work sullying the field of endeavor over which you float, carried by the angels, simply as a practical matter what you do and what I do will have very little to do with each other.

I suspect my feeling here will be echoed by other writers. Be as brilliant as you want to be, friend. Just don’t expect the rest of us to look up from our toil to stare agape as you waft by. And somewhat related to this:

3. There is Always Someone Less Talented Than You Making More Money As a Writer.

Why? Because life (and publishing) is capricious and cruel, that’s why. Some fat bastard has been rewriting the same book for the last 25 years, and each “new” book is even more of a pointlessly smudged photocopy of his last book than the one before it, which in turn was a smudged photocopy of the book before that. And after his thick, retarded lummox of a book is planted in its own stand-up display smack in the middle of the store’s primary traffic pattern, the author is going to take that money, buy a gorgeous house on Lake Tahoe with it and use the excess cash to charm smart, pretty, ambitious girls and boys to have rampaging sex with his flabby, liver-spotted body while he watches Nick Jr. on his 83-inch high-definition plasma television. Because he can. Meanwhile, you’re lucky if a single copy of your achingly beautifully-written trade paperback, for which you were paid barely enough to cover three month’s rent on a bug-infested Alphabet City 5th-floor walkup, is shelved spine inward in a forgotten limb of the bookstore for a month before its cover is amputated and sent back to the publisher as a mark of abject failure. Welcome to the literary world!

Just remember when that happens that someone else’s retina-blindingly gorgeous manuscript — which is so much better than the tripe you write that you hardly deserve to know of its existence — lies neglected in a slush pile at a publisher, to be pawed over by a summer intern with as much taste in books as a heat-addled aardvark, before being returned 15 to 22 months after it was submitted. Yes, that’s right: You’re one of the lucky ones.

4. Your Opinion About Other Writers (And Their Writing) Means Nothing.

In one of the comment threads on this site, a correspondent mentions that another writer was telling her that no editor would ever buy my novels — and later that very same day I announced that I’d been signed to a two-novel deal, and that the books would be coming out in hardback. Why on this subject was this other writer so clearly and obviously wrong, wrong, wrong? Well, simple: Because he knows nothing — or at the very least, he knew nothing useful about the market in which these books would be in play. His opinion was that I was a bad writer and my books stank, but the reality was someone in a position to buy my work thought I was competent enough and the book good enough to purchase (and to justify another book purchase from me, sight unseen).

This is not to pound on this particular writer for knowing absolutely nothing about the market he was presuming to comment upon. Well, actually that’s a lie: it is. But allow me to be the first to note that there are a lot of books out there — really successful books — that I wouldn’t have given a snowball’s chance in Hell of ever being published. And yet, there they are, selling millions. Why? Because I know nothing, too. As writers, our jobs are not to know anything about other writers and their work; our jobs are to work on our own writing.

This is not to say one can’t have opinions about other writers and their work; we can. We all do. But we shouldn’t bother pretending that our opinions have any relation to how that writer and his or her work will fare in the world. Speaking as a writer, and someone with an opinion, I don’t need to validate my opinion by assuming it has a greater significance than being my own opinion. I have enough of an ego to feel that it merely being my opinion is good enough.

5. You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop, You Know.

I mean, Christ, people. All that tapping and leaning back thoughtfully in your chair with a mug of whatever while you pretend to edit your latest masterpiece. You couldn’t be more obvious if you had a garish, flashing neon sign over your head that said “Looking For Sex.” Go home, why don’t you. Just go.

Admittedly if everyone followed my advice the entire economy of Park Slope would implode. But look, do you want to write, or do you want to get laid? No, don’t answer that. Anyway, if you really want to impress the hot whomevers, you’ll bring your bound galleys to the coffeeshop to edit. That’ll make the laptop tappers look like pathetic chumps. We’re talking hot libidinous mammal sex for days.

6. Until You’re Published, You’re Just in the Peanut Gallery.

This is regarding your thoughts on the publishing industry, mind you (you’re still perfectly entitled to your opinions about what you like and don’t like. I know, it’s nice of me to let you have that, right?). And no, CafePress and the various Publish-on-Demand iterations don’t count. There’s nothing wrong with those, in my opinion, and of course I “published” my first novel on my own Web site, and I think that novel is perfectly good.

But it’s not the same, because (among other things) if it were the same then people who get published that way wouldn’t have to spend so much of their time defensively suggesting that it is. You have to be really published by someone who is going to pay you money up front, and then get walked through the secret handshake and all the mysterious Gutenbergian rituals, and that thing with the hot type pressed searingly into your trembling but willing flesh, before anyone who is published gives a crap about what you think (and even then they don’t think much of it — see previous points).

Yes, it’s snobbery. So what? You make it sound like snobbery is a bad thing. Anyway, not being published yet doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer, it just means you’re not published yet. But writers feel about people spouting off about writing like Marines feel about civilians spouting off about the Corps; unless you’ve done your time, you’re just farting through your larynx. Get published and then come back and tell us what you think about things.

7. Did I Mention Life’s Not Fair?

Well, it’s not. Take me. I got my first book sale because my agent thought of me when a publisher was looking for a particular kind of book. No effort required. Sold my first novel off of my Web site. Not much effort required there, either. Sold my second novel off a one-sentence pitch; see above (the writing of that novel, however, required a lot of effort). And now I’ve got myself a nice little book franchise with the Book of the Dumb books.

Lucky? Well, duh. However, it’s worth mentioning that around the same time I sold my novel for a modest little sum, some 19-year-old named Christopher Paolini had his self-published fantasy book called Eragon snapped up by Knopf for $500,000; now it’s a best seller and they’re going to make a big expensive movie of it for Christmas 2005. So I’m lucky, but our young friend Paolini hit the friggin’ jackpot.

Is it fair I have a book career through little effort of my own (aside from the trivial but necessary step of writing the books), while others of equal or greater talent plug away for years with no success? Nope. Is it fair that Paolini is a best-selling, fairly rich author at 20 years old while I have to wait until I’m 35 to have my first novel in the stores — and others have to wait even longer (if they ever get published at all)? A big fat “nope” to that one, either. Life isn’t fair. It really never has been and it seems awfully naive to expect it to become that way anytime soon.

I am happy to grant that some of the success I have had has been a matter of being in the right place at the right time, but I don’t feel obliged to feel guilty about taking advantage of that fortuitous positioning, since the end result is a good life doing what I want. And if you’re in a position to take advantage of similar luck, you shouldn’t feel guilty about it either. Chalk it up to an advance on your karmic balance; try not to screw it up.

8. Don’t Be An Ass.

Did you know that writers, editors and publishers will forget their own names and the names of their children, spouses and pets before they forget the tiniest of slights that you as a fellow writer might inflict upon them? It’s true. Verily, they could be in the throes of an advanced, prion-twisting affliction that wipes their memories clean like a Magna-Doodle in an MRI, and yet if your name is but whispered from across the room, their eyes will blaze and they will exclaim “that bastard!” before lapsing back into the blank darkness. That being the case, why would you go out of your way to antagonize these people unless it is absolutely necessary — which it almost never, ever is?

In this life, and in this field, you’re going to have enough problems as it is. Don’t make any more enemies than you have to. Try to be nice. And if you can’t be nice, then shut the hell up and go stand in the corner with your drink and leave all the rest of us alone. Yes, yes, you’re right and everyone else is wrong. That — like your immense talent — is a given. But just because you’re right doesn’t mean you should be a dick about it.

9. You Will Look Stupid If You’re Jealous.

Just as there will be writers with more success and less talent than you, some of your writer friends will do better than you, by whatever standard you decide “better” counts as. And you know what you should do? Be happy for them, you neurotic twit. Because it’s more than likely that their success has almost nothing to do with you — which is to say that if they were less successful, you would probably still be no more or less successful than you are. Life is not a zero-sum game; the fortunes of others do not mean our own fortunes are diminished. I mean, for God’s sake, there are 280 million people in the United States. Do you really think the success of one of them in your field of work negates your ability to be successful? Jesus. A little self-centered, aren’t we.

So, suck it up. Be happy for your friend. Not only is it what you’re supposed to do as a friend, and thus its own very good reason, but it’s also the way to make your friend get the idea that now that he or she is successful, they’re going to go out of their way to help you. So if you can’t be happy for your friend for his or her own sake — optimal — do it for the career opportunity it affords you — less optimal but we can’t all be cheerleaders, can we.

(And if turns out you are the most successful among your writer friends, well, you know. Be a pal.)

Being jealous of people you don’t even know, incidentally, is so rock-dense stupid that I’m going to pay you the compliment of assuming that you wouldn’t do something as pointless as that. You’re welcome.

10. Life is Long.

So long as you don’t intentionally step out in front of a bus, chances are pretty good you’ll make it to 70 or 80 or some bone-deteriorated age like that. That being the case, what are you worried about? Enjoy yourself. Enjoy the process of writing. Revel in the joy of creating whatever it is you’re creating and don’t worry. For some people writing success happens early, for others later, and for most somewhere inbetween. Did I think I’d be in my 30s before I sold my first novel? No, but there’s lots of things about my life I didn’t expect — and since I can’t imagine why I would want my life to be any different than it is, I guess that this is good thing.

Life is long. You can write all the way through it; this ain’t gymnastics, after all. Live life, do your writing, and get used to the idea that things happen when they happen. There’s no timetable. There’s just life, and any part of it can be as good as any other to be the writer you want to be.

I’m done.

Group Participation: Good Advice You’ve Gotten on the Craft of Writing

I’m drilling down into this novella today, so while I’m off banging it out, a question for the writers in the crowd:

What’s some good advice you’ve gotten on the craft of writing? I’m not talking airy, metaphysical revelations that someone dropped into your skull on what writing means, or anything like that. I mean, actual useful tips on the practical matters of stringing words together, and then editing them. Stuff anyone can implement to improve their writing.

Here’s mine, which I received from an editor whose name is now unfortunately lost in the pudding that is my forebrain: Read what you’ve written out loud. I’ve noted this before, but it bears repeating. Reading what you’ve written out loud will allow you to catch basic copy errors that your brain will skip over (your brain knows what you meant to write, after all, as opposed to what you actually did write), and will also let you know if, for example, something you’ve written as dialogue actually sounds like people speaking (good!), or like exposition sandwiched between two quote marks (bad).

When I read what I write out loud, I reduce my copy editor’s burden substantially. When I don’t, I end up getting e-mail, tweets and comments from people letting me know I’ve made some basic, stupid copy error. Don’t let this happen to you.

So that was some very good, practical, “craft of writing” advice I’ve gotten. What good, practical writing advice have you gotten? Answer in the comments.

More Writing “Advice”

Not from me, from Stephen Granade. Here’s a sample:

Here’s the thing that you, the would-be fiction writer, have to understand about writing and publishing: it’s a big conspiracy. It’s a cabal. There are probably robes and secret handshakes and driving around in tiny cars while wearing fezzes. You can tell because every published writer denies it, and if there’s stronger proof than that, I don’t know what it is.

I for one deny it. Deny it emphatically.

Announcing: Don’t Live For Your Obituary, A Collection on Writing, in December, From Subterranean Press

Hey, did you know it’s been ten years since You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop, my last collection of essays about writing and the writing life, debuted? That’s a pretty long time, especially when you consider everything that’s gone on — in the world, in publishing, and with me — in the time since 2007. So it seemed like a very fine time indeed to collect up another set of essays.

And thus: Don’t Live For Your Obituary: Advice, Commentary and Personal Observations on Writing, 2008 – 2017, out this December from Subterranean Press and available for pre-order now. It’ll be available both as a signed limited hardcover (that’s the version that’s available for pre-order) and also in ebook. And it comes with very excellent cover art (see above) by Nate Taylor, whose work you might remember from my The Mallet of Loving Correction collection, for which he also provided a very excellent cover.

What’s in this book? Well, let me just quote the flap copy here:

Between 2008 and 2017, author John Scalzi wrote fifteen books, became a New York Times bestselling author, and won numerous awards, including the Hugo, the Locus and the Governor’s Award for the Arts in Ohio. He also had book deals crater, lost more awards than he won, worried about his mortgage and health insurance, flubbed a few deadlines, tried to be a decent parent and husband, and got into some arguments on the Internet, because, after all, that’s what the Internet is for.

Scalzi wrote about it all—the highs and lows in the life of a working writer—and gave his readers, and other writers, a glimpse of the day-to-day business of navigating a writing life in today’s world. Sometimes these essays offered advice. Sometimes they commented on the practical business of publishing and selling books. Sometimes they focused on the writing issues, arguments and personalities of the day. And sometimes, Scalzi reflected on his own writing life and career, and what both meant in the larger scheme of things.

Don’t Live For Your Obituary is a curated selection of that decade of advice, commentary and observations on the writing life, from one of the best-known science fiction authors working today. But more than that, it’s a portrait of an era—ten years of drama, controversy and change in writing, speculative fiction and the world in general—from someone who was there when it happened… and who had opinions about it all.

Yup, that pretty much sums it up.

If you want the signed, limited hardcover for yourself or as a gift (just in time for the holidays!), I really recommend pre-ordering it now. The hardcover edition is limited to 1,000 copies, and when they’re gone, they’re gone. You’ll want one, not just because I write all pretty and suchlike, but because Subterranean Press makes gorgeous books, and when you have it in your hands, you’ll pet it and tell it how it’s special and no tricksy hobbitses will ever take it from you, precious. Trust me on this. Here’s that pre-order link again.

Novel Writing and Related Topics FAQ

Hey, did you know I write novels? And yet, I haven’t done one of those FAQ articles to refer people to when they ask me the same questions I always get asked. Let me take care of that right now.

Who are you and how many novels have you written?

I’m John Scalzi. Here are the novels (and other books) I have written.

What inspires you to write novels?

My mortgage and the knowledge that everything else in the world is actual work.

How many words do you write a day? What is your daily schedule?

When I’m writing a novel, I try for 2,000 words a day, more or less. I also tend to do that writing between 8am and 12pm on weekdays, because that’s when my brain is most fresh and I’m not distracted by the rest of the universe. If I’ve been writing since 8am and it’s noon and I’m still not at 2,000 words, I tend to knock off for the day anyway. If I hit noon and I’m on a roll, I will often keep going until I feel like I’ve hit a good stopping point. The closer I get to the end of a book, the more I tend to write a day, and the longer I tend to write, because I want to be done.

How long does it take you to write a novel?

It depends on the novel. Generally speaking most novels I write are in the 90,000 to 100,000 word range. If you note my standard writing speed above, you’ll see I aim for 10,000 words a week, which means ten weeks to write a novel. In reality, the time to write a novel has been as short as five weeks (Redshirts) and as long as nine months (The Human Division) depending on several factors including but not limited to plotting and structuring, time able to spend writing each day, and real life getting in the way of my writing time.

Do you outline?

Not generally. I usually start writing and make it up as I go along. I know writers who outline, however, and it seems to work for them. I think writers should do what works for them.

How many drafts do you do?

One. However, as I write I also edit and revise, because you can do that when you work on a computer. So a lot of the work that other writers do in second and subsequent drafts gets done by me as I go along. I call this “fractal drafting.” However, I know authors who write a complete first draft and then make second (or additional) drafts. Because that’s the process that works for them. Again, writers should do what works for them.

Where do you get your ideas for novels?

Writers generally hate this question; I personally find the question puzzling. Finding ideas is not hard. They’re everywhere and my brain naturally comes up with tons of others on a regular basis. The issue is not getting ideas. The issue is separating the relatively few really good ideas from the vast sea of bad ones. That’s the real challenge. I solve that problem with time — if an idea is a good one, it will stick around. If it’s still in my head months or even years after I first think of it, it might be worth pursuing.

Are you ever going to write fiction that’s not science fiction?

Maybe. We’ll see.

May I be one of your beta readers?

I don’t typically employ beta readers outside of my wife and one or two close friends, and when I do I solicit them directly. So thanks, but no.

Are you going to do any more novels in the [name of a novel] series?

The answer to this, barring an actual signed contract, is always “maybe, we’ll see.”

Are they going to make a movie/TV show/video game/etc of [name of novel]? 

The answer to this, barring an actual signed option contract, is always “probably not, but we’ll see.” When there is an actual signed option contract, the answer is “probably not, but at least someone is trying and I’m getting paid while they do.” Also, the answer to “You should make a movie/tv show/video game/etc of [name of novel]” is “Give me $60 million to make it, please.”

Any writing advice?

Yes.

I have a great idea for a novel. Can I tell you about it?

I wish you wouldn’t. I don’t need any more ideas (see above) and I don’t want you or anyone else thinking I stole a novel idea from you or anyone else. Related to that, I’m not interested in collaborating with you (or anyone else) on a novel, especially when that “collaboration” is “I give you the idea, you write it, we split the profits.” Sorry, no.

Do you mind if I write fan fiction/make fan art set in the world of your novels?

Generally, I have no problem with this. Have fun. Here’s my long-form fan fic/fan art policy.

Can I send you my unpublished/self-published novel/story for critique?

No.

May I send you a fan letter?

Sure. Thanks. I read these all and try to respond if I’m not otherwise squashed by work and commitments.

If I send you a book to sign will you sign it?

Sorry, no. Here’s why, and how to get signed books from me.

You made a factual error in [name of novel]. Can I tell you about it?

Sure, send me an e-mail. If it checks out I’ll send a note to my publisher to fix it in future editions. Be aware that unless the book has just come out, however, I’ve already probably been made aware of the error and you are one of several dozen people to let me know of the error. If the book is more than a year old, you probably shouldn’t bother. Also, be aware I may not respond to e-mail noting errors, excepting the one that initally spots the error.

You made a poor creative choice in [name of novel]. Can I tell you about it? 

Try to resist. The book has already been published and I’m not going to change it. I wouldn’t have sent it in to be published if I wasn’t happy with it. Go ahead and write a review about it somewhere. You don’t need to tell me. I don’t tend to respond to these e-mails.

I have writing advice for you. Can I tell you about it?

Unless you are someone from whom I’ve solicited feedback or are actually my editor, no. I’ve been doing this writing thing professionally for two decades now. I don’t want or need unsolicited writing advice, particularly from people who I don’t know and/or who are not professional writers/editors. Offering it will just annoy me. I will delete your e-mail.

Your novel is not available where I live/not in a language I prefer to read/not in a format I prefer/not at a price I find congenial/not published in a manner I find philosophically aligned to my own worldview and desires. Can I tell you about it?

If you must, but be aware that in nearly all cases there’s not much I can do about it. All of that is under the control of the companies who publish my work and/or the retailers who carry it. The most I can typically do for you is say “sorry,” and then suggest you go talk to the publisher/retailer. Please do be aware that if what you’re really doing is writing to me to get on a hobby horse about ideal book prices, traditional vs. indie publishing, global markets or etc, I’ll probably delete your e-mail as soon as the hobby horse becomes apparent. You could save us both time by skipping that.

Other (brief) questions that make sense to be in this particular FAQ? Ask them in the comment section; I might add them to the FAQ in the future.

The Trouble With Mid-Career Advice

Recently Jay Lake, Tobias Buckell and Sherwood Smith have all been discussing mid-career writer advice, and why it’s harder to give advice to people in the middle of their careers (let’s call that 5+ years in the business) than it is to people who are just starting out. Well, there’s a good reason for that, and it’s noted by the authors I’ve linked to: When you’re starting out, your writing career is pretty much like everyone else’s, and the advice you can use is going to be generally applicable to anyone else. When you’re in the middle of your career, it’s its own damn thing. The advice that works at mid-career for one writer may not be at all useful for another, because their careers may be dramatically different.

To make this point, let me trot out a group of people for you: The Campbell Class of 2006, being the six writers who were nominated for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer the same year I was. You’re eligible for the Campbell when you first professionally publish in science fiction, and you’re eligible for the award for two years. This means that everyone nominated for the Campbell when I was first got professionally published in science fiction in 2004 or 2005, and this means we’ve all also crossed the five-year threshold that constitutes being mid-career.

So in 2006, we were all just starting out and our careers (as most of us got onto the ballot with first novels) were more or less in the same place. At the moment:

* One of us writes comic books and media tie-in novels in addition to our own original work.

* One of us has hit the number one spot on the New York Times Best Seller list.

* One of us will be publishing our next novel under a pen name after the modest sales of our(critically acclaimed!) previous series of novels.

* One of us has a fourth book which has been published in the UK but not in the US.

* One of us publishes a novel about once a year on average and makes a good living from it.

* One of us has not published a novel since our debut novel several years ago.

That’s a pretty wide spread of career states there.

Now, ask yourself: What professional or creative advice could you give that would be more or less equally applicable to the lot of us? There’s a little (I’m a big fan of “get a good accountant”), and there more that is applicable to some of us, if not all. But overall the specifics of our careers are divergent enough that blanket advice doesn’t really work. And this is just six of us who are now mid-career in our writing endeavors. Spread this out to all the other sf/f writers in science fiction/fantasy who are mid-career and you sense the scope of the issue. Now apply it to everyone writing fiction in general — and then to those writing any sort of books at all — and you can get overwhelmed.

And thus, the difficulty of giving good, useful, general mid-career writing advice, especially relative to the ease of giving good, useful, general advice for people at the beginning of their writing careers. This doesn’t mean mid-career writers can’t or shouldn’t give advice to other mid-career authors. I do think it means they should be aware that the advice will be the very soul of “your mileage may vary,” and that the advice is likely only to be a starting point in a larger discussion. Which is, of course, not a bad thing at all.

Unasked-For Advice to New Writers About Money

I made $164,000 last year from my writing. I’ve averaged more than $100,000 in writing income for the last ten years, which means, for those of you who don’t want to bother with the math, that I’ve made more than a million dollars from my writing in the last decade. In 2000, I wrote a book on finance, The Rough Guide to Money Online. For several years I wrote personal finance newsletters for America Online. When I do corporate consulting, it’s very often been for financial services companies like Oppenheimer Funds, US Trust and Warburg Pincus. I mention this to you so that you know that when I offer you, the new, aspiring and dewey-eyed writer, the following entirely unsolicited advice about money, I’m not talking entirely out of my ass.

Why am I offering this entirely unsolicited advice about money to new writers? Because it very often appears to me that regardless of how smart and clever and interesting and fun my fellow writers are on every other imaginable subject, when it comes to money — and specifically their own money — writers have as much sense as chimps on crack. It’s not just writers — all creative people seem to have the “incredibly stupid with money” gene set for maximum expression — but since most of creative people I know are writers, they’re the nexus of money stupidity I have the most experience with. It makes me sad and also embarrasses the crap out of me; people as smart as writers are ought to know better.

The following advice is not complete; there’s lots I won’t be covering here. Some it is repeated from things I’ve written before but are so far down in the archives I know you’ll never find them. Some of this advice may not apply to you; some of it may apply to you but you may be too delusional or arrogant to acknowledge it, or you may decide you don’t like my tone and ignore it all because of that. Most of it is applicable to writers who are not new, too, but I don’t know how many of them are interested in taking advice from me. This is US-centered although may be generally applicable elsewhere. It’s meant for writers but may have application to you in other fields; decide for yourself.

I do not guarantee this advice will make you a more successful writer or a better human being. Follow this advice at your own peril. That said, know that it’s generally worked for me. That’s why I’m sharing it with you.

One more thing: This is long.

1. You’re a writer. Prepare to be broke.

Writers make crap. Why do they make crap? For many reasons, beginning with forces outside their control (publishers pay as little as humanly possible; lots of would-be writers willing to work for pennies, keeping the pay rates low) and working up to forces entirely within their control (writers playing with their XBox 360s instead of writing; willingness to be to paid stupid low rates for their work). Most salaried writers in the US are lucky if they get above $50,000 a year; most freelance writers in the United States (which includes novelists, screenwriters, etc) could make more money being assistant manager at the local Wal-Mart. It’s not a joke.

(But, you say to me, you’re a freelance writer and you’ve made at least $100,000 a year for the last decade. Yes I have. And I’m an outlier; I’m over there to the right of the writing income bell curve. I’m there for many reasons, luck, skill and business sense being the big three, and all three interact with each other. Skill and business sense you can work on; luck happens, or doesn’t. There are lots of writers I know who have two out of the three. Many of them make less than I do. It’s not necessarily fair. Funny how that works.)

(Also, and not coincidentally, before those last ten years were the seven in which I was making rather quite a bit less. Oh, my, yes. That income didn’t come from nowhere; I did my time in the salt mines, trust me.)

It’s possible to make a good amount of money as a writer. Most writers don’t. You should assume, strictly for business purposes, that you won’t, or at the very least, won’t for a very long time. It’s not all about you, it’s also about the market. Don’t get defensive. The median personal income in the US in 2005 was $28,500. You have a lot of company in the bottom half.

More to the point, coming to peace with the fact that writing is likely not to make you a lot of money means that you can realistically look at that money going forward, which will put you in a better financial position than someone who just blunders along assuming that any minute now people are going to start tossing money at them for their lovely, lovely writing. These people become bitter and intolerable soon enough. You don’t want to be one of them.

Noting all the above, we come to point two:

2. Don’t quit your day job.

Lots of wanna-be writers wax rhapsodic about how great it would be to ditch the day job and just spend all their time clickety-clack typing away. These folks are idiots. Look, people: someone is paying you money and giving you benefits, both of which can support your writing career, and all you have to do is show up, do work that an unsupervised monkey could do, and pretend to care. What a scam! You’re sticking it to The Man, dude, because you’re taking that paycheck and turning it into art. And you know how The Man hates that. You’re supposed to be buying a big-screen TV with that paycheck! Instead, you’re subverting the dominant paradigm better than an entire battalion of college socialists. Well done, you. Well done, indeed.

People who aren’t full-time writers tend to have a hazy, romanticized view of the full-time writing life, in which writers wake up, clock four-to-six hours of writing truth, and then knock off for the rest of the day to be drunk and brilliant with all the rest of their writer friends. They tend to gloss over the little things like all the time you spend worrying about where the next writing gig is coming from, or all the e-mails and phone calls to publishers reminding them that, hey, they’ve owed you a check for nine months now, or (due to the previous) deciding which bill you can allow to go to a second or third notice, or the constant pressure to produce something you can sell, because you’ve heard of this crazy idea called “eating,” and you think you might like to give it a whirl. The full-time writing life isn’t about writing full-time; it’s about a full-time quest to get paid for your writing, both in selling the work, and then (alas) in collecting what you are owed. It’s not romantic; it’s a pain in the ass.

Think of all the writers whose work you love. The vast majority of them have day jobs, or had them for a significant portion of their working lives, usually until it became quite clear that they were shooting themselves in the foot, economically speaking, by not writing full-time (this happens rarely). But even then, their having had a day job was a good thing, because it meant that they actually developed some life experience, not the least of which was consorting with real live human beings who weren’t writers. Yes, they exist. Try the grocery store; they hang out there and buy things.

Yes, having a day job takes time away from your ability to write. So does watching TV or playing video games or sucking on your toes or posting angry screeds on the Internet. Unlike any of those things, however, a day job gives you money, which is something you as a writer will generally find hard to come by. Your day job is a friend to your writing career (not to mention to your family, your mortage, and to your eventual retirement). Don’t be in a rush to give it up. Instead, prioritize everything else you do, and see where you can find writing time in that.

3. Marry (or otherwise shack up with) someone sensible with money, who has a real job.

Hear me now, and note well what I say to you, because I am dead serious here: The single smartest thing I ever did for my writing career was to marry my wife. And this is why:

a) She is incredibly good with money by training and temperament and handles the domestic finances for us, leaving me free to focus on making money through my writing;

b) She has a real job with benefits, which gives us a month-to-month income (i.e., a secure economic baseline), shields us from the classic American financial disaster of the medical emergency, and has allowed me to take chances with my writing career I might not have been able to otherwise.

Also, you know. It’s nice to have someone to listen to me whine, to cheer me on, and generally to go through life with. But economically, which is what we’re concerned with here, a fiscally responsible spouse with a solid bennies-laden job is a pearl beyond price for writers.

Let me note strongly here that one thing I’m not saying here is that this sensible, fiscally-responsible spouse should expect to have to support you for years and years while you fiddle away on your Great American Novel (which is code for “playing Halo 3 from 9:30 to 4:30”). Letting your spouse support you while you tinker pointlessly makes you no better than all those heavy metal bassists who spend entire careers sponging off a series of girlfriends. You better be working, and contributing to the household income. For us, that meant using a fair amount of my writing time doing consulting work (not romantic writing but pays well) as well as writing books. It also meant being the at-home parent, which saved us a bundle on day care (which kept our costs down, which counts as “contributing”).

Or to put it another way: Your spouse is giving you a gift by giving you security and flexibility. Make sure you’re making it worth their while, too. And make sure they know you know how much they’re doing for you. Don’t be a heavy metal bassist.

Let me also note that this is the one piece of advice that I suspect writers will have the least control over. It’s hard enough getting people to like you anyway; finding one who is fiscally responsible and willing to pitch in for you while you develop your writing career is a tall order. What I’m saying is that if such a person comes along, grab them with both hands, make snarly territorial noises at all the other writers hovering nearby, and then try really hard not to screw up the relationship. In addition to being likely to make you happy as a human, this person will also likely be an excellent economic complement as well. It’s nice when that happens.

4. Your income is half of what you think it is.

When you work for someone, the employer withholds your income and Social Security taxes for the IRS, pays part of your Social Security, automatically deducts for your 401(k) and health insurance, and (if you’re not an idjit) also kicks in a bit for the 401(k). When you’re a freelance writer, none of this happens. The problem is, lots of writers forget that and spend everything they get when they get it, so when taxes come due (which is quarterly, because per the earlier notation, the government quite sensibly doesn’t trust freelancers to pay their taxes in one lump sum) lots of writers go “oh, crap” and have to suck change out of sofas and the few remaining pay phones to square the debt. This is also why many writers never get around to funding IRAs or other retirement vehicles, and spend their lives hoping they don’t slip or catch cold or get hit by a taxi, because they have no health insurance.

Simple solution: Every time you get a check, divide it in two. One half is yours to pay for bills, rent and groceries, and if there’s anything left over, to play with. The other half, which you deposit into an interest-bearing account of some sort, goes to federal, state and local taxes and your Social Security taxes, and anything that’s left over goes to fund your IRA (do the Roth IRA, it’ll pay off in the end) and, if you’re not lucky enough to have either number two or three above, your health insurance (have a day job or a spouse with bennies? Save it anyway. Be one of the wacky single-digit percent of Americans who actually save something in the bank. Also, and more usefully, that money you’re saving becomes a “buffer” for the times when you have bills but no income on the way. The buffer is your friend. Love the buffer. Fund the buffer).

Yes, it sucks to take half of your money and never see it again. But you know what else sucks? Owing the IRS a huge chunk of money sucks. Hospitals playing musical chairs with you because they don’t want your uninsured ass cluttering up their emergency room sucks. Not ever being able to stop working because you didn’t plan for it sucks. All of these things, in fact, suck worse. So suck it up and put that half of the check aside.

Related to this and extremely important: The money you have in hand is all the money you have. For the purposes of budgeting, do not allow yourself to think “oh, well, such-and-such publisher owes me this, and then I should get royalties for that, so that’s more money coming in…” That’s a really fine way to spend money you don’t have and maybe aren’t going to get.

Is the money in your hands? Then it’s yours (half of it, anyway). Is it not in your hands? Then it doesn’t exist.

5. Pay off your credit cards NOW and then use them like cash later.

If you’re anything like the average American, and economically speaking you probably are, at some point or another in your life you bought into the idea that the credit limit on your credit card was actually money you could spend — and should spend! On an iPod! And a big tv! And on pizza! In Italy! — and now you have close to $10,000 in consumer debt at 19% APR which you are making monthly minimum payments on, which means that you’ll still be paying off that debt when you’re 70. Congratulations, average economic American! You rock.

Okay: Remember when I told you to put aside half of your income for taxes, and then if there was anything left, to invest it an IRA and otherwise save it? Well, if you have more than a token amount of credit card debt, forget about saving it and apply it to your credit card payment instead. Why? Because it makes absolutely no sense to save or invest money if the return rate for that investment is less than the annual percentage rate of your credit card debt. Net, you’ll lose money (especially if you’re investing from scratch). You need to buy down that credit card debt as quickly as you sensibly can. It is your number one debt priority. Once you’ve paid down your debt you can begin saving and investing. But pay that debt first.

So, now it is some indeterminate amount of time later and you’ve paid off your credit card debt. Do you tear up all your credit cards and swear never to use them again? No, because as sensible as it would seem to be, there is some benefit to using credit cards. For example, I use a card for all my business-related purchases because at the end of the year I get an annual statement, which makes it a hell of a lot easier for me (or, actually, my accountant) to do my taxes. And like it or not, regular (and responsible) activity on credit cards is useful for your credit rating.

No, what you do is you get rid of all your credit cards but one, and when you use it, you only put on it what you can pay off at the end of the month — you don’t carry a balance, since carrying a balance is the root of all credit card evil. You treat it as cash, and if you don’t have the cash to pay off what you’re charging, you don’t buy it. Simple. Personally, I use American Express because it is technically a charge card, not a credit card — i.e., it has to paid off at the end of the month, and Amex looks askance at you if you try to carry anything over. This helps keep me from overspending, and as mentioned earlier also helps me keep track of my business-related purchases.

Just remember that credit cards are not your friends; their entire purpose, from the point of view of the bank that gives them to you, is to make you a consistent and eternal source of income, forever and ever, amen. If you want to be in economic thrall to a bank until the very moment you die, that’s your business, but it’s a pretty dumb way to go about things. Especially if you’re a writer, who doesn’t necessarily have a solid month-to-month income anyway.

Related to this very strongly:

6. Don’t have the cash for it? You can’t have it.

To reiterate, the reason that Americans are as generally economically screwed as they are at this moment in time is because they bought into the fundamentally insane idea that buying tons of shiny crap they didn’t need on a high-interest installment plan made any sort of rational sense at all. And as completely idiotic as it is for the average American, it makes even less sense for a writer, who often doesn’t know when or even if they’re going to paid again. Committing to a non-essential monthly cost when you don’t have to is stupid. You need somewhere to live, so a monthly rent or mortgage payment makes sense. You don’t need a monthly charge for two years to pay for that 42-inch 1080p TV. Use your brain.

But you want that 42-inch 1080p TV! I understand; I want it too. What you do is save for it. When you save for something, it’s like you’re making a payment on it, except that you don’t have an evil credit card company charging you 19% for the privilege. I realize it’s condescending to put it that way, but, look: If people actually knew this, they wouldn’t have thousands in credit card debt, now, would they? And yes, it’s true that while you’re saving for that HDTV (or whatever), you don’t have it, and we as a nation are no longer used to the idea of not having what we want now now now now now. Well, get used to it, you insolvent jackass. Otherwise some bank owns your ass well into the next life. Really, that’s all I have to say about that.

And in the meantime, there’s always the local sports bar. Pay your $3 for a beer and watch the game on their massive HDTV. That’s why they put the HDTV there in the first place. And while you’re packing away the money to buy the 42-inch 1080p widescreen TV, there’s likely to be a bonus, in that the cost of that TV is likely to come down a bit, because that’s what happens with so many consumer goods over time. It’s like getting cash back on your purchase.

The other advantage of having to save for things, incidentally, is it makes you ask yourself if you really need it (or, at least, want it so much that you’re willing to part with your money for it). You are likely to be surprised at how many things it turns out you don’t really need if you have to wait to get them, and can actually see the mass o’ cash you’re laying out for ’em. And that’s all to the good for you.

7. When you do buy something, buy the best you can afford — and then run it into the ground.

I am not now, nor have I ever been, an advocate for cheap crap. Cheap crap sucks; it’s badly made, it breaks, and then you have to go buy a replacement, so effectively the cost of whatever cheap piece of crap you bought is twice what your originally paid for it (or more, since having learned your lesson, you didn’t buy cheap crap the second time).

I am an advocate for thrift, however, and in my life, being “thrifty” means that you buy well, and then you use what you buy until it no longer has value. You buy it for the long haul. This was something that came naturally to people of my grandparents’ generation (the Great Depression kind of drummed it into them) but these days, when the marketing folks at Apple strive to make you feel a wave of intense, personal shame that you didn’t pony up for the Mac Air the very instant it was released, this is a virtue we’ve lost track of. And it’s true enough that if every single American thought like this, the economy would collapse even faster than it is doing at the moment. But you know what? Let the rest of America worry about that. We’re here to worry about you.

I practice what I preach, here. In 1991, when I was out of college and starting my first job, I bought the best car I could afford: an ’89 Ford Escort, Pony edition (i.e., even more underpowered than the average Escort!). I paid $4800 for it and I drove it for 12 years until it could barely chug into the dealership to meet its replacement (not an Escort). In 1997, we bought Krissy a Suzuki Sidekick; she still has it 150,000 miles later. Going back to 1991, I bought a stereo system for $400; I used it until just this last Christmas, when it finally gave up the ghost as it spun a holiday CD. The TV I bought for myself in 1991 still chugs away in my bedroom; we’re likely to replace it when the switchover to digital happens next year, but then again, we might not (it’s hooked up to Dish Network, which will scale down the signal to 480p). Hell, our answering machine is seven years old; I think it may use a tape.

Point is, we’re not afraid of spending money, but we don’t spend money just to spend money; we look for something that we can live with for a long time. That usually requires spending a bit more upfront, in order to save a lot more on the back end. As long as you combine this with point six, and buy with money you’ve already saved, this shouldn’t be a problem.

It does require, as writer Charles Stross would put it, the ability to make a saving throw against the shiny; i.e., internalizing the idea that you don’t need every new thing just because it’s nice and pretty and can do one thing that thing you have like it can’t do. This is a tough one for me, I admit. I do so love the shiny, and sometimes I give in when I shouldn’t (as long as I have the money for it). But most of the time, I buy well, and buy to last — and then use it until it begs me to let it die. And then I use it for a year after that! Grandpa would be proud.

8. Unless you have a truly compelling reason to be there, get the hell out of New York/LA/San Francisco.

Because they’re friggin’ expensive, that’s why. Let me explain: Just for giggles, I went to Apartments.com and looked for apartments in Manhattan that were renting for what I pay monthly on my mortgage for my four bedroom, 2800 square foot house on a plot of land that is, quite literally, the size of a New York City block ($1750, if you must know, so I looked at the $1700 – $1800 range). I found two, and one was a studio. From $0 to $1800, there are thirteen apartments available. On the entire island of Manhattan. Where there are a million people. I love that, man.

Admittedly, mine is an extreme example; I don’t think very many writers want to live where I live, which, as I like to say, is so far away from everything that the nearest McDonald’s is eleven miles away. At the same time, between the bucolic splendor of the Scalzi Compound and the insanity that is the Manhattan real estate market is rather a lot of America, most of it quite tolerable to live in, and almost all of it vastly cheaper than the cities of NYC/LA/SF.

But, I hear you cry, I need to live in New York/LA/San Francisco because that’s where all the work is. To which I say: Meh. I will tell you a story. From 1996 through early 2001, I lived outside Washington DC, which was a great place for writing work, because I had a lot of clients in the area for consulting work, and I could fly up to New York quickly for meetings and whatnot. But then my wife decided that we needed to move to Ohio so our daughter could be closer to my wife’s family. I agreed, but I warned her that the move was likely to compromise my ability to get work. She understood and we moved. And two weeks after I moved, all my clients called and said, more or less “so, you’re moved in now? You can get back to work now?” and started sending me work. Nothing had changed.

Now, maybe that’s a testament to how awesome I am, but all ego aside, I think it’s rather more to the point that thanks to the miracle of the Internet and such, it just doesn’t matter where people are. Look, we live in an era where people working in adjoining cubicles IM each other rather than exercise their vocal cords. Leaving aside the interesting pathology of this fact, IMing someone half a continent away feels no different than IMing someone ten feet away. Distance hardly mattered when I was doing my consulting work, and now that I’m mostly writing books, it matters even less.

Don’t get me wrong: I love LA, and San Francisco, and New York. They are some of my favorite places. I’m always excited to have an excuse to visit. But we’re talking about money here. Your money — of which you will have little enough as it is — will go further almost every other place in the United States than these three cities. Your living space will be cheaper and more expansive. You will have more money for bills and to draw down debt. You will have more money to save. It will cost you less to do just about everything. People don’t realize this when they are in thrall to NYC/LA/SF, but once they leave, as if people coming out of hypnotism, they shake their heads and wonder what they were thinking.

Think about it this way: once you’re hugely successful, you can always go back. And now that the housing bubble is popping, it might even be cheaper then! Go, recession, go! But until then, find someplace nice that you like and feel you can do productive work in, and try living there instead.

9. Know the entire writing market and place value on your own work.

A few years ago I was at a science fiction convention, on a panel about making money as a writer, and one of the panelists said something I found absolutely appalling, which was: “I will write anything for three cents a word.” This was followed up by something I found even more appalling, which was that most of the other panelists were nodding in agreement.

I was appalled not by the fellow’s work ethic, which I heartily endorse (I, too, will write pretty much anything, although not for that quoted rate), but by the fact that he and most of the other folks on the panel seemed to think three cents a word was somehow an acceptable rate. It’s really not; in a word, it is (yes) appalling. The problem was, this very talented writer, and the others on the panel, had largely confined themselves to the science fiction writing markets (and other related markets), in which the major outlets pay the grand sum of six to nine cents a word, and in which three cents a word is considered a “pro” rate.

Well, not to be an ass about this, but this pro doesn’t consider it a pro rate; this pro won’t even roll out of bed for less than twenty cents a word. Anything below that rate and it becomes distinctly not worth my time; if I do it, it’s because it has some other value for me other than money (i.e., mostly because I find it amusing or interesting in some way). I can have this snooty attitude not because I’m so damn good, but because I know that out in the real world, I can get 20 cents a word (and usually more — 20 cents a word is the lower bound for me) writing other sorts of things for other markets, and so can many other writers with anything approaching a competent work record. To be sure, this can often mean doing writing that’s not typically described as “fun” — things like marketing pieces or Web site FAQ text or technical writing. But this sort of writing can pay well, expand your repertoire of work experience and (paradoxically) allow you the wherewithal to take on the sort of stuff that doesn’t pay well but is fun to do or is otherwise interesting to you.

There is nothing wrong with writing as a sideline and not worrying overly much about payment. But, if writing is something you want to do full-time, it needs to be something you can do full-time; that means finding ways to make it pay and be worth the time and energy you put in it. Part of that is understanding the entire universe of writing opportunities available to you, not just the ones that appeal to you (a Writer’s Market is a good place to start). Part of it is understanding that getting that writing gig that is dead boring but pays off the electric bill is in its way as valuable as selling that short story, or humor piece, or music review, all of which will pay crap but which you enjoy.

Be willing and ready to write anything — but make sure that you’re making the attempt to make more than three cents a word off it. Because I will tell you this: If you only value your work to that amount, that’s the amount you’re going to find yourself getting paid. Over and over again.

This brings us to our final point today:

10. Writing is a business. Act like it.

Every writer who writes for pay is running a small business. You have to create product, track inventory, bid on work, negotiate contracts, pay creditors, make sure you get paid and deal with taxes. Work has to be done on time and to specification. Your business reputation will help you get work — or will make sure you don’t get any more. This is your job. This is your business.

If you don’t mind your own business then others will do it for you — and make no mistake that you will lose out, not because the people you are working with are evil or shifty, but simply because they are approaching their end like it is a business and will naturally take anything you leave on the table. That’s business. That’s how business works.

Lots of writers miss this, or ignore it, or try to pretend that it’s different than this. Lots of writers assume or just want to believe that the only thing they have to do is write, and the rest of the stuff will take care of itself. It won’t, and it doesn’t. This is why so many writers find themselves in financial trouble: they don’t have enough money because they valued their work too cheaply, or they weren’t wise with the money they received, or they lost track of the money they were owed.

If you can’t or won’t approach writing as a business, then think about doing something else with your time. Stick with the day job as your main source of income and think about writing as a hobby or side gig. There is nothing wrong with this. Some of the best writers did their work “on the side” — as recreation away from their primary profession. Writing part-time does not lessen the work; the work is its own thing.

But if you are going to try to write as a serious profession, primary or otherwise, treat it seriously. As a writer, you’re going to make little enough as is; why give any away through negligence or lack of focus? That’s just silly. But it really is up to you. This is your work, your money, and your business. Respect the first two by paying attention to the third.

Done now.

Update 2/12/08: A rather considerable discussion of points #3 & 8 in the comments and elsewhere online compels me to write more on those points. See it here.

10 Things Teenage Writers Should Know About Writing

Dear Teenage Writers:

scalzi17coke.jpgHi there. I was once a teenage writer like you (see goofy picture to the right), although that was so long ago that between now and then, I could have been a teenager all over again. Nevertheless, recently I’ve been thinking about offering some thoughts and advice on being a teenage writer, based on my own experiences of being one, and on my experiences of being a teenage writer who kept being a writer when he grew up. So here are some of those thoughts, for your consideration.

I’m going to talk to you about writing as straight as I can; there’s a possibility that some of what I say to you might come off as abrupt and condescending. I apologize in advance for that, but you should know that I sometimes come off as abrupt and condescending toward everyone, i.e., it’s not just you. Also, I hope you don’t mind if I don’t go out of my way to use current slang and such; there’s very little more pathetic than a 36-year-old man dropping slang to prove he’s hip to the kids. I own a minivan and the complete works of Journey; honestly, from the point of view of being cool, I might as well be dead. You might find what I have to say useful anyway. Here we go.

1. The Bad News: Right Now, Your Writing Sucks.

It’s nothing personal. When I was a teenager, my writing sucked, too. If you don’t believe me, check these out: A short story I wrote in high school, and (God help us all) the lyrics to a prog-rock concept album I wrote in my first year of college. Yeah, they suck pretty bad. But at the time, I thought they were pretty good. More to the point, at the time they were also the best I could do. No doubt you are also pounding out stories and songs to the best of your ability… and chances are pretty good that your best, objectively speaking, isn’t all that good.

There are reasons for this.

a) You’re really young. Being young is good for many things, like being flexible, staying up for days with no ill effects, not having saggy bits, and having hair. For writing deathless, original prose, not so much. Most teenagers lack the experiential vocabulary and grammar for writing well; you lack a certain amount of perspective and wisdom, which is gained through time. In short: You haven’t yet developed your true writing voice.

Now, if you’re really good, you can fake perspective and wisdom, and with it a voice, which is almost as good as having the real thing. But usually, sooner or later, it’ll catch up to you and your lack of experience will show in your writing. This will particularly be the case when you have a compelling, emotional story, which would require the sort of control and delivery of your writing that you only get through time. You may simply not have the wherewithal to express your very important story well. Yes, having a great story you’re not equipped to tell pretty much bites. Normally, this is when teens look for help from the writers they admire, which brings us to the next reason your writing sucks:

b) You’re besotted by your influences. If you look at those two pieces I linked you to earlier, they rather heavily bear the mark of people like whom I wanted to write — humorist James Thurber in the case of the short story, and Pink Floyd lyricist Roger Waters in the case of the would-be concept album. If I were to subject you to other writing of mine from the time (and I won’t), you’d see the rather heavy influence of other favorite authors and lyricists, including Robert Heinlein, Dorothy Parker, HL Mencken, P.J. O’Rourke, Bono, Martin Gore and Robert Smith. Why? Because I thought these people wrote really, really well, and I wanted to write like them.

You are not likely to have my influences, but you almost certainly have influences of some sort, who you love and to whom you look as models and teachers. But since you’re young and haven’t gotten your own voice worked out, you’re likely to get swamped by your influences. My concept album lyrics aren’t just bad because they’re the work of an immature writer, but also because it’s clear to anyone who cares to look that I was listening to whole hell of a lot of Pink Floyd when I was writing them. Extracting Roger Waters out of those lyrics would require radical surgery. The patient would not likely survive. That’s bad.

c) When you’re young, it’s easier to be clever than to be good. Now, when you’re older, it’s easier to be clever than to be good too, and you’ll see a lot of writers doing just that, even the good ones. This is because “clever” gets laughs and attention and possibly sex (or at least flirting) with that hot little thing over there who thinks you’re so damn amusing. And none of that ever gets old. So this is not just a teenage problem. Where teenage writers are at a disadvantage is that you’re not always aware when you’re genuinely being good, or merely being clever. It’s that whole lack of experience thing. Yes, the lack of experience thing crops up a whole lot. What are you going to do.

There’s nothing wrong with being clever, and it’s possible to be clever and good at the same time. But you need to know when clever is not always the best solution. Even older writers find this a tough nut to crack, and you’ll find it even more so.

(Update, 6/18/07: I’ve noticed that in the comment thread, quite a few folks seem to stop reading right about here in order to post messages complaining about how I said that teen writing sucks. If you’re about to be one of them, let me suggest two things. One, read the rest of the article first, particularly the next point. Two, read this, which covers most of the major complaints people have had about this assertion. If these do not address your particular complaints, then by all means leave a comment. Otherwise, don’t, because my response will be to refer you to one or the other. Thanks. Now, back to our regularly scheduled entry.)

So those are some of the reasons your writing sucks right now. There may be others. But, now having told you that your writing sucks and why, you’re ready to hear the next point:

2. The Good News: It’s Okay That Your Writing Sucks Right Now.

Because, look. Everyone’s writing sucked when they were teenagers. Why? Simple: Because they were just starting out. Just like you are now.

Writing is tricky thing, because everyone assumes that the act of writing to move and amuse people with words is somehow only slightly more difficult than the act of writing to place words into vaguely coherent sentences. This is like saying that playing professional baseball is only slightly more difficult than hitting a beach ball with a stick. Most everyone can hit a beach ball with a stick, but very few people would think that means they’re ready to play in the World Series. Given that, it’s funny that people think that they’re going to be really excellent writers from the first time they try to tell a story with the written word.

Excepting the freaks of nature, which very few of us are, anything we decide to do takes us time to get good at. It’s just that simple. The figure I hear a lot — and which I agree with, mostly — is that it takes about a decade for people to get truly good at and creative with their craft. The prime example of this is the Beatles; at 17 John Lennon and Paul McCartney were beginning their musical collaboration together, and ten years later they were writing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The “ten years” thing is a guideline, not a rule — some people hit their stride earlier, some later, but the point is that there was work involved. This is even true of the people you’ve never heard of before — scratch most “overnight sensations” in whatever field and you’ll find they did their time outside the spotlight.

Understandably, no one wants to hear that you’ve got to wait the better part of a decade to hit your stride — who doesn’t want to be brilliant now? — but I think that’s looking at it the wrong way. Knowing you’ve got years to grow and learn means you’ve got the time to take risks and explore and figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. It’s permission to play with your muse, not stress out if every single thing you bang out is not flat dead brilliant. It’s time to gain the life experience that will feed your writing. It’s time you need to write — and time you need to not write and to give your brain a break. It’s the time you need to learn from your literary influences, and then to tell them to piss off because you’ve got your own voice and it’s not theirs. And it’s the time you need to screw up, make mistakes, learn from them and move on.

The fact that your writing sucks now only means that your writing sucks right now. If you keep working on it it’ll very likely get better… and then comes the day that you write something that really doesn’t suck. You’ll know it when it happens and then you’ll get why all that time banging out stuff that sucked was worth it: because it’s made you a writer who doesn’t suck anymore.

So don’t worry that your writing sucks right now. “Suck” is a correctible phenomenon.

3. You Need to Write Every Day.

I’m sure you’ve got this wired, and I’ll note that for teenagers today, it’s easier to write every day, because there’s an entire social structure revolving around writing that didn’t used to exist: Blogs and blog-like things like MySpace, or whatever thing has replaced MySpace by the time you read this. Writing isn’t the isolating experience it (mostly) was before.

Now, be aware that writing in your blog or journal isn’t the same as writing stories or songs or whatever your writing aspirations might be. Blogging very often takes the form of what writers call “cat vacuuming,” which is to say it’s an activity you do to avoid actual writing. You want to avoid doing too much of that (yes, there’s some irony in me writing this in a blog entry — particularly a blog entry being written when I could be writing part of a book I have due to a publisher).

“Cat vacuuming” though writing in a blog may be, any sort of daily writing will help build the mental muscle memory of sitting down to put your thoughts into words, and that’s not a bad thing. So write something today. Now is good.

4. I’m Not Going to Tell You to Get Good Grades, But, You Know, Try To Pay Attention.

High school is often asinine and lame — I’m not telling you anything you don’t know here — but on the other hand it’s a place where you’re actually encouraged to do two things that are a writer’s bread and butter: to observe and to comment. Provided your teachers are not entirely defeated drones who have bought into the idea that their sole purpose is to detain you in soul-numbing classes so you and your fellow students won’t set fire to the school with them in it, they will actually be pleased if you ask a few pointed questions now and then, and as a result, you might learn something, which is always a nice bonus for your day. School is a resource; use it.

(Also, for the love of all that is holy, please please please pay attention in your English composition class. You should know English language grammar for roughly the same reason you should know road rules before you go driving: It avoids nasty pile-ups later.)

Being writers, I don’t need to tell you that observing your fellow students is also hours and hours of fun, but don’t just look for the purposes of wry mockery. Any jerk can do that. Work on your empathy — try to understand why people are the way they are. This will achieve two things. One, it’s a good exercise for you to help you one day create characters in your writing who are not merely slightly warped versions of you. Two, it’ll make you realize there’s more to life than wry mockery.

5. Read Everything You Can Get Your Hands On — Even the Crap That Bores You.

And here’s why the crap that bores you is worth reading: Because someone sold it, which means the writer did something right. Your job is to figure out what it was and what that means for your own writing. It should also give you hope: If this bad writer can sell a book or magazine article, then you should have no problem, right? Excellent.

This suggestion is actually more difficult to follow than you might think. People like to read what they like, and don’t like to read what they don’t like. That’s fine if all you want to be is a reader, but if you want to be a writer, you don’t have the luxury of just sticking to the stuff that merely entertains you. Writing that’s not working for you is still working for someone; take a look and see if you can find out why. Alternately, pinpoint why it doesn’t work. Fact is, you can learn as much from writers you don’t like as you can from writers you do — and possibly more, because you’re not cutting them slack, like you would your favorite writers.

A corollary to this is: Read writers who are new to you. Don’t just stick to the few writers you know you like. Take a few chances. You don’t have to spend money to do this: Most towns have this wonderful thing called a library. We’re talking free reading here, and the publishing industry won’t crack down on you for it. Heck, we like it when you visit the library.

6. You Should Do Something Else With Your Life Than Just Write.

There are practical and philosophical reasons for this. The practical reason: Dude, writers make almost nothing most of the time. Chances are, you’re going to have a day job to support your writing habit, at least at first. So you want to be able to get a day job that doesn’t involve asking people if they want fries with that. Just something to keep in mind.

The philosophical reason: the writer who only writes isn’t actually experiencing much of life; his or her writing is going to feel inauthentic because it won’t reflect reality. You want to get actual life experience outside of being a writer, otherwise your first novel will be like every other first novel out there, which revolves around a young writer trying to figure out his life, and then sitting down to write about it. People who write books where the main character is a young, questioning writer should be shot out of a cannon into a pit filled with leeches. Don’t make us do that to you.

“Doing something else with your life,” incidentally, also includes your college major. There are people who would advise you to be English majors and then go after an MFA, but I’m not one of them (I’m a philosophy major myself — useless but interesting). The more things you know about, the more you’re able to incorporate your wide range of knowledge into your work, which means you’ll be at a competitive advantage to other writers (this will matter). You might worry that all those English majors and MFAs are learning something you really need to know, but you know what? As long as you’re writing (and reading) regularly and seriously, you’ll be fine. Writing is a practical skill as much as or even more than it is an area of study.

Now, I’m sure many of those English majors and MFAs might disagree with me, but I’ve got ten books and fifteen years of being a professional writer backing me up, so I feel pretty comfortable with my position on this.

7. Try to Learn a Little About the Publishing Industry.

If you’re going to be a writer for a living (or, if not for a living, at least to make a little money here or there), you’re going to have to sell your work, and if you’re going to sell your work, you should learn a little how the business of writing works. The more you know how the publishing industry works, the more you’ll realize how and why particular books sell and others don’t, and also what you need to do to sell your work to the right people.

This is not to say that at this point you should let this information guide you in what you write — at this point you should write what interests you, not what you think is going to make you money one day, if for no other reason that the publishing industry, like any industry, has its fads and trends. What’s going on now isn’t going to be what’s going on when you’re ready to publish. But there’s nothing wrong about knowing a little bit about the business fundamentals of the industry, if you can stomach them.

If you think you’re going to write in a specific genre (science fiction or mystery or whatever) why not learn a little about that field, too? A good place to start is by checking out author blogs, because authors are always blathering on about crap like that. Trust me. Also (quite obviously), authors are prone to offer unsolicited advice to new writers on their sites, because it makes us feel all mature and established to bloviate on the subject. And sometimes our advice is even useful.

There’s no reason to be obsessive about acquiring knowledge of the industry at this early age, but it doesn’t hurt to know; it’ll be one less thing you have to ramp up on when you’re ready to start putting stuff out there. Which reminds me:

8. Be Ready For Rejection.

It’s very likely the the first few years that you submit material to publishers and editors, or query them for articles, your work and queries are going to come back to you unbought. Why? Because that’s just how it is. I’ll give you an example: Recently I edited a science fiction magazine. For the issue of the magazine I edited, I had between 400 and 500 submissions. From those, there were about 40 I thought were good enough to buy. And of those, I bought 18. That’s a 95.5% rejection rate, and an over 50% rejection rate of stuff I wanted to buy, but couldn’t because I didn’t have the space (or the money, because I had a budget, too). Now, as it happens, for this magazine I also managed to give first sales to four writers because I wanted to make a point of finding new writers — but I imagine if you asked them how long they’d been submitting work before that sale, you’d find most of them had been doing it for a while.

There are things to know about rejection, the first of which is that it’s not about you, it’s about the work. The second is that there are any number of reasons why something gets rejected, not all of them having to do with the piece being bad — remember that I rejected a bunch of pieces I wanted to buy but couldn’t. The third is that just because a piece was rejected one place doesn’t mean it won’t get accepted somewhere else. I know that at least a couple of pieces that I rejected have since been bought at other places.

Rejection sucks, and there’s no way to get around that fact. But if you’re smart, when you start submitting you’ll consider pieces that are rejected simply as ready to go on to the next place. Keep writing and submitting.

(Which brings up the question: If you have pieces now that you want to submit, should you? Well, I’m sure submissions editors everywhere will hate me for saying this, but, sure, why not? If nothing else it’ll get you used to the rejection process, and there’s always a chance that if it is good, someone might buy it. But, on behalf of the submissions editors, I implore you not to submit unless you really think the work in question is the best you can do.)

9. Start Getting Published Now — Yes, That Means the School Newspaper.

I know, I know. But, look, you’re going to have to deal with editors sooner or later. And you know how many editors in the real world were editors of their school newspapers? A whole lot of them. Lots of writers were, too (I was editor-in-chief of both my high school and college newspaper, so that makes me a two-time loser). Basically, as a writer you’ll never be rid of these guys, so you might as well learn how they work. But also, and to be blunt, school newspapers may be piddly, but they give you clips — examples of your writing you can show to others. You can take those clips to your tiny local newspaper and maybe get a few small writing assignments there — and then you’re professionally published. And then you can take those and use them to get more serious gigs over time, and just keep trading up.

You can also also use those high school clips to help you get on your college paper, and when you’re in college, working at the college newspaper can be very useful. I used my college newspaper clips to freelance with the local indie papers in town and also with one of the major metropolitan newspapers… and those clips help me get my first job out of college, as a movie critic at a pretty large newspaper. And all of that started doing little articles for my high school newspaper, the Blue & Gold.

What does this teach us? First, that it can be worth it to deal with the high school newspaper editor, even if he or she is an insufferable dweeb, and second, that all the writing you do can matter, and help you to continue on your writing career.

10. Work on Your Zen.

Being a writer isn’t easy; it’s a lot of mental effort for often not a lot of financial reward. It takes a lot of time to get good at it — and even when you are good at it, you’ll find there’s still more you have to learn, and things you have to deal with, in order to keep going in the field. It takes a measure of patience and serenity to keep from completely losing it much of the time, and, alas, “patience” and “serenity” are two things teenagers are not known to have in great quantities (to be fair, adults aren’t much better with this). Despite that, you’ll find as a writer that there is a great advantage in keeping your head, being smart and being practical, even when everyone around you is entirely losing their minds. It helps you see things others don’t, which is an advantage in your writing, and also in the workaday aspect of being a writer.

So: Relax. Spend your time learning, observing, writing, and preparing. Don’t worry about writing the Great American Novel by age 25; don’t worry about being the Greatest Writer Ever; don’t worry about winning the Pulitzer. Focus on your writing and getting better at it. As they say, luck favors the prepared. When the moment comes, if your skills are there, you’ll be ready to take advantage of it and to become the writer you’ve been hoping you would be. Your job now is to get yourself ready for the moment.

You’ve got the time to do it. Take it.

Update: Hey, teens — before you rattle off what are some of the now standard complaints about the entry above, why not check out the follow up entry, which has me addressing some of those complaints. It’ll save you time in writing out your complaint, and save me time having to point you at the piece later. Thanks!

Update 2: A number of you have taken to asking me to read your work, or sending it unsolicited for me to read. I can’t do that, sorry. Here’s a longer explanation why.

Title Change for Writing Book

Just as an FYI for all y’all, I’ve made a change to the title of the writing book. It is now:

You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing

Yes, it’s long. So what. I like it. Although I do like the runner-up, too: “Sailing the Ramen Seas: Notes on the Writing Life.” If Bill thinks the first title is too much, I’ll fall back on the ramen. Which really is a writer thing to do, is it not.

You may like the chapter titles as well:

1. Writing Advice, or, Avoiding Real Work the John Scalzi Way
2. Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Writer’s Life For Me
3. The Schadenfreude Needle is Buried Deep Into the Red: On Writers
4. Science Fiction, or, Don’t Skip This Chapter, You Goddamned Writing Snobs

Only four chapters. Each between 10k and 20k words, however. Total book length is 70k words.

Also, the book is compiled, sequenced and sent. January 24, and I already have a book done for the year. Only three more to go! Please kill me.

What Writing Online is Good For, October 2005 Edition

This line in this entry over at TechRepublic Site made me twitch a little:

Apparently, the trendy new way to get noticed by book publishers is to serialize your novel online and let the editors find you.

Well, okay, if one defines "trend" as this maneuver working for three speculative fiction authors over three years (actually two-and-a-half, as one of the authors noted was an odd-duck combination, in that portions of her novel were spotted online, and the physical manuscript of her novel was also rescued from the slush pile). Meanwhile, probably more than a thousand books were sold in the spec fic arena in the same timespan by the traditional method of submitting work for editorial consideration. If you’re an aspiring first-time author, I would, you know, look at at the odds involved before making a decision.

The author of the linked article does thankfully note the long odds involved:

every one of the authors discourages people from relying on the tactic as a way to get discovered (sound advice, by my analysis), but do recommend it as a way of getting your writing before an audience and working the kinks out.

To be entirely honest about it, however, if you are going to take the time and effort to put your writing online, I think it’s far less useful to put your fiction online than it is to spend some time creating an interesting blog and cultivating an audience for it. This is not an "either/or" situation, of course, as I have done both. But I will say that one of these you should do first, and that’s to work on your blog.

The reason why should be reasonably obvious if you look at your blog in strict marketing terms (which you shouldn’t do in real life, because no one likes reading a site that is obviously tacked up for marketing purposes. I’ll get to that later). Blogs are fabulous marketing tools because what they’re good for is getting people involved with you as a writer; they’re tuning in to read what’s going on in your head and in your life, and to a very real extent are sharing your life with you. They commiserate when you suffer a setback, and congratulate when you get ahead, and otherwise view you as part of their circle of acquaintances — not just some writer, but someone they know and (provided you have comments and/or answer e-mail) interact with. In other words, at some point some percentage of them stop being merely readers and become fans.

Fans — and again, we’re talking in strict marketing terms — are useful. They’re useful because they’re likely to be proactive not only in buying any non-blog-related writing output you might create, but because they’ll also help you sell your work to others, just like fans of other creative people help those folks as well. They (probably) won’t be able to help you sell a book to a publisher, but once you sell the book, they can be there to help give the book a decent send-off. That in turn will be useful to your publisher.

Indeed, I think as more time goes on, more and more publishers will be looking at first-time authors and asking what sort of "fandom" they already have. If I were an editor and I was presented with two first-time authors, one of whom was not online, and another who was and had a couple thousand people visiting their blog on a daily basis, all other things being equal, I’d go with the writer who is already online. That’s a couple thousand people I don’t have to introduce this writer to, and possibly a couple thousand people who can help me sell that writer as an author. First-time author unit sales are usually low enough that a couple thousand blog readers can make a real and significant impact to a first time author’s sell numbers. 

I don’t expect such considerations will trump competent writing — given the choice between an exquisitely-written novel by a nobody and a crap novel by someone with a popular blog, I would hope an editor and publisher would decide the exquisitely-writing author was worth cultivating. But when the two writers are of equal competence, why wouldn’t an editor go for the one that brings readers to the party? I certainly know the relatively large readership of the Whatever is a selling point in my publishers’ eyes.

Having said all that, I think it’s also true that the moment you start treating your site readership like monkeys to be marketed to, you run the very real risk of losing them. I think one’s readers are happy to celebrate one’s achievements, but they know the difference between you celebrating with them, and you marketing to them. Not every reader wants to be treated as a consumer, and this is even more of the case in the online world. If you’re a writer and you’ve spent the time cultivating a relationship with people (and they with you), they’re going to feel betrayed if the tone of your site devolves purely to "and here’s another thing of mine to buy!" I don’t think people mind when an author says such things — authors write books with the hopes of selling them, and most people get that — as long as it’s not the only thing an author says. Such things need to be part of the conversational and narrative flow of a blog or journal, not a disjointed break from it.

To hammer this point one final time: Yes, a blog is a great way to market yourself. And the minute you think of your blog primarily in marketing terms is the minute you kill its usefulness. People aren’t coming to your site to be marketed to; they’re coming to be entertained and to catch up with you. Be real, or you’re going to lose them.

Now, if you do want to post creative work online, I strongly suspect it helps to have already been engaged in the online world in other means. I posted Old Man’s War on the Whatever after I’d been online for more than four years; by that time I had a couple thousand people a day coming by to see what I was up to. The reaction to OMW was stronger and more immediate than the reaction to Agent to the Stars, which I posted in March of 1999, when I only had a couple hundred people visiting every day (see what I mean about it taking time to cultivate an audience?). No matter how you slice it, if you want whatever fiction you post online to be appreciated and noticed, you need to develop an online presence first.

If you don’t want to bother generating an online presence before posting creative work online, here are some of the problems you can expect: Posting creative writing out of the blue just means you have this big mass of verbiage online; no one knows its provenance, which means they’re less willing to take the time with it, because, after all, who are you? Creative writing is also more difficult to produce on a constant basis (particularly if you’re aiming for quality), meaning that you can’t update on a daily or near-daily basis, which is the most desirable frequency for writing online. Finally, creative writing is something akin to a performance, while blog writing is closer to a conversation. By and large I’ve found people want to talk back when they’re reading online.  Upshot here: If you expect simply posting creative stuff online is going to open doors, you’re probably delusional. It takes time — lots of time.

The good news is that it’s now easier to develop an online presence than it was before. There are more options to do it simply,and  the communities are significantly more developed (particularly in places like LiveJournal and AOL Journals (nb: I work for the latter)). There are also indeed a number of editors and agents online, particularly those focused in genre like SF/F, Horror and Romance, so it’s not entirely inconceivable that you might get to know them and they might see your writing. You might even be asked to send in some writing, even if you haven’t put your fiction online (ask Jo Walton about that). But the real advantage will be that people get to know you, and get to like what you have to say. And that might have useful carryover into the rest of your writing life.

Can you plan on it? No. But you can work with it, if it does happen. And in the meantime, you might just simply enjoy writing online, which is a reward in itself.

Writing On Spec

Got an e-mail today from a reader who asked me what I thought about writing “on spec,” and being the helpful sort of person I am, I thought I’d address it.

For those of you who don’t know what “on spec” means, it simply means that you are writing something for a publication without the promise, implied or explicit, that the publication is going to buy it from you after you’ve finished it. Basically, as a writer, you’re taking a shot in the dark and hoping the editor says “nice aim.”

The fact that this person is asking about writing “on spec” at all suggests they are coming from the world of non-fiction writing, since writing on spec is so much the standard in fiction that as far as I know very few writers even think about the fact that is what they’re doing. It’s utterly non-controversial. For example, later on this year I’ll be acting as an editor for Subterranean Magazine and opening the doors for fiction submissions. All of those submissions will be “on spec” — which is to say that their writers hope I buy their submission but haven’t been guaranteed anything. If I don’t buy the piece, it’ll be a bummer, but then the writers will do what fiction writers have done since the beginning of time: Stuff that story in another envelope and send the story to the next editor in the line, and repeat the process until either the story gets bought or the writer runs out of editors. It’s relatively rare that a fiction story is so specific to a market that it couldn’t be sold somewhere else, especially if the writer is willing to do a little touch-up work.

Non-fiction is a different kettle of fish because in fact the writing is often specific to the market. If you’re writing a piece for (extreme case) Bug Crush Quarterly, the magazine by and for erotic bug crushing enthusiasts, there’s a somewhat reduced secondary market for the piece you might produce. Therefore writing on spec is a rather riskier proposition. This is why the submission process for most non-fiction markets is designed to reduce risk for both writers and editors: Non-fiction writers query with a story idea and previously-published story clips (if any) that are on point to the proposed story. The editor looks at the story idea and the clips and tries to determine whether this particular writer is a good fit for the story. If he or she is, usually (but not always) the writer is contracted to write the story for an agr)eed-upon fee, with something called a “kill fee” (i.e., a smaller sum if the piece is found unacceptable or is not run for whatever reason. If he or she is not a good fit, then the writer is out only the effort of writing a query, not of writing an entire piece.

(Kill fees in themselves are controverisal — not unreasonably writers feel that if they’ve done their job competently, their efforts should be rewarded no matter what happens to the piece. My personal opinion is that kill fees are acceptable if the piece is unsatisfactory or if the piece is still in the early stages, but otherwise you should get paid for what you write. When I’m an editor, this is how I structure my kill fees, and if you ever get a kill fee from me it’s not going to be a good thing for any future writer/editor relationship between us.)

By and large I think non-fiction should proceed as above, which is generally why I don’t do non-fiction on spec. Having said that, I’m not violently opposed to non-fiction markets saying that material written for them is on-spec through purchase, as long as such is made clear as possible. The Uncle John Bathroom Reader people, for example, buy all their material on spec from all their writers, even people like me who have been working with them for a reasonably long time (the exception being the Book of the Dumb books, for which I am the sole author, and for which, quite naturally, a contract was in place detailing conditions of acceptance of the work). The Uncle John folks have a contract which spells out their process, so as long as you read the contract, there are no surprises. So, you know, always read your contract (certainly no one should assume a “no on-spec” default in any event).

The Uncle John books are actually a good test case for writers as to whether writing non-fiction on spec makes sense for them. On one hand, there’s no guarantee that one’s work will sell to the Uncle John’s people. On the other hand, they pay well (better than some well-established magazines) and are willing to look at work from new writers, which some non-fiction markets are reluctant to do because the editors use clips to gauge the writer’s competence, and without clips they’re at a loss. So for a new writer needing to generate some experience, the Uncle John books (and other markets like them) might make sense. Likewise, for a writer who reliably bangs out competent work that makes editors happy, writing on spec my be a non-issue. I write on spec for Uncle John’s, but on the other hand I’ve been writing for them for several years now, know the editors and their expectations, and usually can hit the target. I’ve had pieces I’ve written for them go unbought, but as a percentage it’s low and so for me on average it’s a good deal.

But they are an exception to the rule for me, because I have the experience of working with them. I will say that with new markets I am rather less willing to write non-fiction on spec, because I’m at a point in my career that I know what I’m capable of writing, and I have enough of a track record with my work that an editor should feel reasonably assured I can do the writing. If an editor still feels that after nine books and fifteen years of supporting myself as a writer they still need to hedge their bets with me by requiring me to write on spec, I’m apt to see this as a warning flag about the editor instead of as an opportunity. As they say, your mileage may vary, depending on who you are and where you are in your writing career.

As I said, with fiction, by and large this isn’t an issue: Until you get to a certain point in your career where editors are pre-emptively asking you for work, everything (short fiction-wise, at least) is assumed to be on spec. With non-fiction, it’s a matter of judging the risks and rewards. If the rewards make sense for you as a writer, it might be worth the risk of putting together a piece that you might not be able to sell elsewhere. Whatever you do, make sure you understand clearly what you are doing and why, and what the upsides and downsides are for you and time you are spending (and possibly wasting). Of course, this is good advice in every situation in which you’re writing something.

The Big Idea: Karen Healey

Author Karen Healey has some very specific advice about the use of apostrophes, and prologues. What is it and how does it have an impact on The Empress of Timbra, the novel she co-wrote with Robyn Fleming? Healey is here to fill you in on the details — with all the apostrophes in the correct place.

KAREN HEALEY:

There are two pieces of high fantasy writing advice, often given, that I think are thoroughly sensible:

  1. Don’t use apostrophes in characters’ names.
  2. Don’t write a prologue.

Don’t use apostrophes in names, because it’s a cliche. You’ll annoy your readers. Don’t write a prologue, because your world-building should be incorporated into the main plot; there’s no point in getting the reader interested in events that happened a generation or a century or a thousand years before your main narrative. You only run the risk they’ll be more intrigued with your prologue than what you’ve decided is the real story.

But just because you’re aware of the guidelines doesn’t mean you won’t convince yourself it’s all right not to follow them, especially when you’ve read enough high fantasy to know stories that have got away with breaking one or both of these rules to spectacular effect.

About a decade ago, my co-writer Robyn Fleming and I wrote an epistolary fantasy novel in the style of the Letter Game, exchanging emails back and forth across the Pacific Ocean. Like us, our protagonists were separated by an ocean, and like us, they were two young women who were close friends. But unlike us, they lived in a second-world high fantasy setting. They were discovering a vast conspiracy, getting embroiled in politics and romances, and saving two nations with a combination of smarts, luck, and magic.

They had apostrophes in their names.

We started the story as a game, but we realised pretty early on that we had something interesting, maybe even something worth developing into a real novel. So we showed it to some friends.

(For the record: Our apostrophes were meaningful. They were significant. They indicated status, linguistic drift, cultural detail, and history. They were the good kind of apostrophe!)

“Ditch the apostrophes,” our early readers said.

“But they are very important,” we told them, and each other. (The biggest joy–and biggest problem–of having a co-writer is that you can easily reinforce each other’s ideas.) “One might even argue that the apostrophes are essential to the very heart of the narrative! You wouldn’t ask us to cut out the heart of the narrative!”

We took the book to a WisCon writing workshop. Every single critique told us to ditch the apostrophes.

“Fine,” we said. “Fine. We guess the world isn’t ready for our apostrophes.” We cut the goddamn apostrophes. The narrative retained its heart. We learned a valuable lesson about murdering our darlings.

Nobody told us to cut the prologue, and the reason for that was because nobody, including us, actually knew it was a prologue until long after we’d finished the sequel to the first book. The sequel wasn’t told in alternating letters, but in alternating chapters. The protagonists are Elaku and Taver, aged eleven and fourteen, the children of one of the main characters in the first book. The story follows them as they meet for the first time, figure out how to grow up, and, just incidentally, get caught up in a political plot that could destroy their homeland.

We had two protagonists again, and political machinations, and hefty doses of smarts, luck, and magic. We had blacksmithing and dangerous herbivores, religion and treachery, pirates and battles at sea.

This time, we left out the apostrophes.

The Empress of Timbra was undeniably a better book than its predecessor. Our villains were more interesting. Our world-building was stronger. The events of the first novel had sparked a period of rapid social and religious change, and through Taver and Elaku, we were able to explore the implications of that from the perspective of characters who were growing up in a world marked by those changes. And then we wrote a direct sequel to that book, still with Taver and Elaku, and plotted a third and realised… the first book was a 90,000 word prologue.

And we had to cut it.

I don’t regret writing that book. The prologue novel gives a depth and vividness to The Empress of Timbra that makes it feel like part of a larger, older world–which it is. Writing it allowed us to explore some big ideas. But when we gently folded that prologue novel away into a virtual drawer, we were able to concentrate on the even bigger ideas that followed it.

The real story isn’t about the women in that prologue novel. It’s about Taver and Elaku, two bastard half-siblings drawn into dangerous conspiracy in a changing world, relying on their smarts, their magic, their luck, and each other to prevent disaster.

So this is our advice to high fantasy writers who might be starting where we started:

  1. Go ahead and write a prologue. But if it doesn’t help you tell the best version of your story, let it go.
  2. Seriously. Ditch the apostrophes.

—-

The Empress of Timbra: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Kobo

Read an excerpt (at the Kobo site). Visit the co-author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

Don’t Live For Your Obituary is Out!

Let’s end 2017 on a high note, shall we: Don’t Live For Your Obituary, my collection of essays about the writing life, is now out, and available both in (increasingly hard to find so hurry if you want it) signed, limited edition hardcover, and (not at all difficult to find!) eBook. The hardcover, as it is a signed, limited edition, will run you about $40. The eBook is about $5.

For those of you who don’t know, the book is a compilation of writing-related essays I’ve created between 2008 and 2017, most of which were originally published here on Whatever. I’ve arranged the book into five overlapping chapters of roughly twenty essays each:

  • Golden Nuggets of Writerly Wisdom, or, This Is Where I Offer Up Some Writing Advice, Take It or Don’t;
  • The Fine Art of Putting Your Books and Yourself Out There Without Wanting to Drink Acid, or, Let’s Talk Publishing and Online Presence;
  • This is the Section Where Scalzi Snarks on People More Famous Than He Is, So Get Your Popcorn, or, Thoughts on Writers and Other Notables;
  • Don’t Type Angry, Well, Okay, Fine, Go Right Ahead, or Writing Controversies and Other Such Nonsense;
  • Jeez, Scalzi, Does it Always Have to Be About You? Why Yes, Yes it Does, or, Notes From My Career

We’re covering a lot of ground here, basically. It’s not a guide to writing, precisely (although there is writing advice in the book). It’s more about what it’s like to be living the writing life over the last decade or so. Is it useful? Publishers Weekly thought so; its review said “[Scalzi] writes accessibly and so commonsensically that this book should appeal to writers in all disciplines, and even to SF readers who have no ambitions to write themselves.”

Where can you get the book? Subterranean Press has the hardcover on their site if you’d like to buy directly from the publisher, but it’s also available (ebook, hardcover or both) at these fine institutions:

Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Indiebound|Kobo|Powell’s

And you can try special ordering the hardcover from your local bookstore, too.

Not in the US? The ebook is available on Amazon worldwide, at the very least — I just checked the Canadian, German, Japanese and Indian Amazon stores and it’s there in each.

(Also, how awesome is that cover? It’s from Nate Taylor.)

I’m excited to have this book out in the world and I hope you enjoy it, and find it useful. Onward to 2018!

The Big Idea: Alaya Dawn Johnson

Writers know that sometimes there is the writing you are supposed to be doing, and then there’s the writing you want to be doing. Prudence dictates doing the former over the latter. But sometimes, as Alaya Dawn Johnson found in writing The Summer Prince, there might be something to telling prudence to take a hike.

ALAYA DAWN JOHNSON:

I tend to write my novels the way other people quilt, in a somewhat-ordered patchwork of varied materials that have arrested my interest. Which means that whenever I discuss my inspiration for The Summer Prince I end up babbling about matriarchies and fame and what a non-heteronormative society might look like when projected into the future of African diaspora culture in Brazil, plus music and art and human sacrifice (I thought about including reincarnation, but that seemed like overkill).

But since this series is called “The Big Idea” and not “a dozen or so somewhat large ideas,” I’ve had a long, hard think about the one idea that really made this book work.

And I finally realized: it wasn’t any of those good ideas I babble about. The catalyzing ingredient was, in fact, a very bad idea.

Namely, writing it.

What The Summer Prince taught me is that some bad ideas are very, very good. Of course, most are very, very bad and figuring out the distinction is not for those with a surfeit of common sense (luckily I’m a writer). But The Summer Prince turned out to be the best bad idea that I’ve ever had. When I described this novel to friends, they would paper their shock with kindly smiles and tell me that they were sure I’d figure it out. My sister told me to write out the idea, then put it in a drawer and get back to it when I finished that pesky novel I had under contract. You know, the one that would give me money to pay my rent.

Rent? I said. Sure, just as soon as I buy this train ticket to Vancouver and spend three weeks running away from home with nothing but my extensive Brazilian music collection, my computer and some coffee money.

So I traveled and I wrote what sounded like my least commercial novel ever, just because the idea gripped me so ferociously I could not help but put it to paper. This, in hindsight, was actually a great idea. Because it meant that I wrote my science fiction novel about the transformative power of art in a matriarchal society. It meant that I wrote my YA novel with characters whose fluid sexuality is neither belabored nor obfuscated, and with a romance that does not, to put it mildly, end happily ever after.

I let myself go. I freed myself from what I perceived were the expectations of the market and the genre. Heck, I even freed myself from the expectations of my landlady. I wrote that book because there was nothing else for it, and despite some months of teeth-gnashing and self-despairing, writing The Summer Prince was one of the best experiences of my life.

What I didn’t expect was that publishing it would also turn out to be one. This novel got me my current agent, one of the best in the business. It put me on the radar of Arthur A. Levine (a.k.a. the editor of one J.K. Rowling) and the wonderful team at Scholastic. They gave me unicorns and sunshine–well, okay, but they did give me the best cover of my career and the sort of promotion that I had previously thought was a fantasy from a bygone era (like, the eighties).

Putting off the writing of a contracted novel for the deliberately anti-commercial novel of your heart probably isn’t fabulous writing advice. But since no one’s paying me for fabulous writing advice, here’s what I learned:

Write what you love. Whatever that is, even if it seems like an absolutely abysmal career move. Because if it doesn’t work out, at least you wrote something you’ve always wanted. If that carefully positioned market-friendly idea you only sort of like tanks, then you’ve spent years working on something that doesn’t excite you. If something you love tanks, then at least you spent that time creating art that you know, in your heart, is worthwhile.

And it turns out that agents and editors and publicists and readers can tell when your heart is in it. So my big idea was to do myself a favor, and put it there.

—-

The Summer Prince: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read a preview. Follow Johnson on Twitter.

The Offer on Old Man’s War: A Ten-Year Retrospective

Today is a notable day in my personal history: Ten years ago today, I sold Old Man’s War to Tor Books.

People who have been following me for any amount of time know how this happened, but might not know the full story, and the newer folks might not know about it at all.  So here’s how it happened:

In 2001, I began writing a military science fiction book, the conceit of which was that the soldiers were old, but were given new lives in exchange for their service. I finished the book in October of 2001 and then sat on it for more than a year, mostly because the thought of whole tiresome process of submitting the book to agents and publishers filled me with ennui, and I couldn’t be bothered.

So instead I serialized it on Whatever in December of 2002. I had some precedent for this: in 1999, I took an earlier novel, Agent to the Stars (my “practice novel,” i.e., the novel I wrote to see if I could write a novel), and posted it on Scalzi.com for people to read, and if they liked, to send me payment for. That had grossed me a couple of thousand bucks up to that time — a not inconsiderable sum in the days when people had to physically mail me a dollar — so I figured I could do it again. My plan was to serialize a chapter a day through December, and also offer the whole novel as a single document, so if someone was impatient, they could just send me $1.50 through that new-fangled PayPal, and read the whole thing at one time. Then after the serialization was done the book would sit on my site, and I would go on doing what I did at the time, which was writing for magazines and newspapers and putting out the occasional non-fiction book.

I finished the serialization on the 28th, and for the 29th, I wrote an essay on the experience of writing the novel, called “Lessons from Heinlein.” At the time I was a reader of Electrolite, the blog of Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who was (and is) the senior editor of Tor Books, and I recalled him and his readers having a recent discussion of characters in science fiction. I thought he might find the essay interesting, so I pinged him about it. Here was the e-mail I sent him on the evening of December 28:

Hi, there. I’m John Scalzi, who writes the “Whatever” online column.

Over the last three weeks, I’ve serialized a science fiction novel I’ve written on my site. Having completed it, I’ve added an afterwards called “Lessons From Heinlein,” in which I discuss how RAH’s style of writing holds some important lessons for would-be writers, specifically relating to character development (I am an actual published author and science fiction writer, so I don’t feel too hinky about dispensing writing advice). The link is here: http://www.scalzi.com/w021229.htm. Some of the afterward necessarily relates to Old Man’s War, which is the novel I’ve serialized, but the comments about Heinlein are general enough in the matter of writing to be of interest even to those who have not read the novel.

Please note that this isn’t a backdoor attempt to get you to read the novel itself; had I wanted you to read it in your official capacity, I would have done the old-fashioned route of printing out the manuscript and shipping it off to your slush pile (being a former editor myself, I do appreciate when people follow submission guidelines). I simply thought the afterward might be in itself of interest to you and the Electrolite readership.

Best wishes to you and yours for a happy and prosperous 2003.

Less than 36 hours later, ten years ago today, I got this as a response (e-mail posted with Patrick’s permission):

It’s an interesting afterword, but it’s an even more interesting novel.  I read the whole thing last night; as the blurb cliché goes, I couldn’t put it down.

I understand being tired of the schlepping-to-agents-and-publishers thing, but would you be willing to entertain an offer for hard/soft publication of OLD MAN’S WAR?  I’m not talking about life-changing amounts of money, but this is exactly the kind of action-oriented-and-yet-not-stupid SF we never see enough of, and I’d like for Tor to publish it.

(If your first response is to point out that this or some other work by you has sat neglected in hardcopy our slushpile for $BIGNUMBER of months or years, I promise not to be surprised.)

Let me know if you’re open to this.

And, well. Yes. Yes I was.

I remember where I was when I read this e-mail, which as it happens is almost exactly where I am as I’m writing this: At my desk in my home office in Bradford, looking at a monitor, staring at the words there. It was morning (Patrick sent the e-mail at 8:22 am, which is not coincidentally the time I had this entry scheduled to publish on the site), and I was the only one up in the house; my sister and her family were visiting for the holidays and everyone was still crashed out. So there I was with some really big news, and no one awake to tell it to. Of course I told them, eventually, after they were all awake.

I date today as the anniversary of the sale of Old Man’s War, but Patrick has additional details:

I’m certain that I made the actual offer-in-detail on January 2, 2003, because that was the first day Tor’s offices were open after the holiday break, and I distinctly remember that the first thing I did on returning was go straight to Tom Doherty to enthuse about this terrific SF novel I’d found. I conveyed the actual offer to you in a phone call. But it makes just as much sense to date it from December 30, since my email of that date pretty clearly says I intend to make you a detailed offer if you confirm that you’re up for one.

(January 2, 2003 was, by coincidence, my 44th birthday–and I think most acquiring editors would agree that scoring a book that good makes a heck of a fine birthday present.)

This conforms to my memory of it as well. I held back until January 3, 2003 to tell people about it; Patrick followed up with a post on his own site. At the time, ten years ago, people selling books they originally published on their Web sites was still novel enough that neither Patrick nor I could come up with another example of it happening. When it did happen with me, there was a bit of conversation about it online. These days a blog-to-book conversion is less unusual, although at this point, with all the more direct ways to self-publish online and to get that work into the retail channel, putting a book on one’s blog first might seem a little roundabout. It’s a reminder that the world of 2002 and the world of 2012 are different places, publishing-wise.

I was asked then and am still asked whether I posted OMW on my site as a way to get around submitting into a slushpile. The answer now is the same as then: No, I posted OMW on my site because I didn’t want to deal with submitting the book. I fully expected the novel to live its life as part of my site, and maybe be a calling card to sell another novel somewhere down the line. The skeptical response to this is, yeah, but as soon as the whole thing was up you sent an e-mail to an editor at a science fiction publisher, so who are you trying to fool? My response to this would be, yes, but it was not about the novel itself, and I went out of my way to point out that I wasn’t attempting a backdoor submission. To which a further skeptical response would be, then why mention the novel at all?

At which point I will throw up my hands. After ten years I can admit that as I writing the e-mail to Patrick, yes, part of me was hoping that he might be intrigued enough to check out the novel itself, and that when he did and made an offer, one of the first thoughts to come to my head was, well, that worked out nicely. But honestly it wasn’t the intent. Having been an acquiring editor myself, I was well aware of how irritating it was to have someone try to get around the submission process because they think they’re special. I assumed Patrick wouldn’t look at the novel because if I were in his shoes, getting the same e-mail, I probably wouldn’t have. At the time, I knew Patrick hardly at all; I was a reader on his site and had commented there just enough that I felt okay sending him an e-mail. I had no idea at the time how he would respond to it. I know him better now, I will allow.

The original plan, as noted in Patrick’s first e-mail, was to have the book out sometime in late 2003, with paperback to follow. In fact the book came out January 1, 2005, so there was a two-year gap between when the book sold and when it hit the stores. At the time, this gap was frustrating; I was a newbie novelist, I wanted to be published now now now now. In retrospect, I think it was a very good thing. It gave people in science fiction time to get to know me, so that when Old Man’s War was published it seemed like I had been around longer than I had been — which worked, because when it was published some folks were surprised it was a debut novel. It also gave me time to grow Whatever; between December 2002 and January 2005, the readership of Whatever tripled, which was useful for a writer with a first novel. And the book benefited from certain intangibles — for example, it seems like in January 2005, just enough people were missing a particular flavor of Heinleinian/Campbellian science fiction that Old Man’s War offered to help the book take off like a shot.

The idea that waiting to publish to better position your work seems sort of heretical in these “do it now” days, but for me it paid off with benefits. It’s something to consider when you as an author (and especially a new/newer/newish author) are weighing the pros and cons of various publishing options and strategies.

Patrick making an offer on Old Man’s War quite literally changed my life, and almost entirely for the better. The eight novels I have written since are because of that offer and everything that’s resulted from it. I have worked on a television series and on a video game because people read and loved Old Man’s War. The book itself is in the (seemingly endless) process of being made into a movie. If actually becomes one, is likely to have interesting knock-on effects. I have sold hundred of thousands of books in 18 different languages, which have made hundreds of thousands of people happy (and a few unhappy; that’s life). Professionally, I have become who I wanted to be when I grew up. It’s amazing.

Personally — well. There are so many people who I have met because of Old Man’s War and everything that’s come from it that it’s hard to know where to begin with that. I think the best way that I can put it is that just before Patrick made an offer on Old Man’s War, I remarked to Krissy that I suspected I had by then met every person who would be important to me in my life. The thirty-three year old me was thankfully, laughably wrong. There have been so many people I have met in the last decade who are so much part of my life now that I can’t imagine it without them. People I like; people I love; people I wouldn’t want to have missed in this world, and gladly, did not have to.

So. Ten years ago today, my life changed. I thought it would be worth making note of the day.

Thank you, Patrick, for making an offer on the book. Thank you, Tor, for publishing it. Thank you all, for reading it.

Just thanks.

Now let’s see what happens in the next ten years.

Most Trafficked Whatever Posts of 2012

It seems unlikely that in the next two and half days the numbers will change all that much, so without further ado, here are the most visited entires of Whatever for 2012, in order of highest number of views.

1. Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is

2. Guest Post: A Doctor on Transvaginal Ultrasounds

3. A Fan Letter to Certain Conservative Politicians

4. Being Poor

5. A Self-Made Man Looks at How He Made It

6. Who Gets to Be a Geek? Anyone Who Wants to Be

7. An Incomplete Guide to Not Creeping

8. Speech and Kirk Cameron

9. “Lowest Difficulty Setting” Follow-Up

10. Ten Things Teenage Writers Should Know About Writing

I’ll note that “Straight White Male” was far and away the most viewed piece of the year, with more than twice as many views as “Transvaginal Ultrasounds.” Between here and Kotaku, which reprinted it, it was viewed (and hopefully read) a couple million times, and engendered (heh) quite a bit of discussion out there on the tubes. It’s easily the site’s biggest hit, as it were, since “Being Poor”; it was certainly interesting being the center of attention of the Geekosphere for a couple of days.

Speaking of “Being Poor,” the piece was highlighted on CNN.com’s front page this year, which boosted its numbers considerably. It’s likely it would have been in or near the site top ten for the year anyway — it really is a perennial, with new people discovering it every year — but it’s nice to see the piece still having a significant impact after seven years. Likewise, “Ten Things” keeps trucking along, in no small part, I would assume, to its Google search placement, which puts it at the top or near the top of all the search variations of “teen writing advice.”

It occurs to me that of the pieces in the top ten this year, they fall into two very wide categories: Me explaining something  or me thumping on people (or some combination of the two). Explaining things and thumping on people have their downsides, of course; do them poorly in either case, or both, and you become a textbook example of a blowhard. I don’t doubt there are at least a few folks out there who would say “yup, that’s you, all right.” And, well. Fair enough. I do try to use my blowhard powers for good, not evil.

This year I also managed to arouse the ire of a whole stack of racist, sexist, homophobic dipshits with the above posts as well as several others. If I did nothing else with my year, this would have made it delightful to me. They also gave the Mallet of Loving Correction plenty of use when they would drop by the site and learn to their surprise that the sort of smug trollery that passes for thought in the land of epistemic closure doesn’t get past the door here. This is not a delight to me — trolls are always irritating — but whacking them so that the conversational level here remains high has its own grim level of satisfaction.

In all, a spirited year for Whatever, in terms of posts. We’ll see what next year brings.

The Big Idea: Nick Mamatas

Nick Mamatas is a hustler; just ask him. As a writer, he’s always moving, always looking for the next gig or assignment, always finding a way to use what he’s got and push it to his own advantage. So it’s not terribly surprising that when he got a Big Idea slot to promote a new book, he went ahead and decided to promote two new books: Starve Better, his book on writing, and Sensation, a new novel. But Mamatas maintains that despite the difference in the formats of the books, the two works are tied together by a particular set of circumstances. Here he is to tell you what they are.

NICK MAMATAS:

We can blame the current global economic crisis for the existence of my books Starve Better and Sensation, and two previous recessions for the way they were written.

I started teaching myself how to write in the mid-1990s, during the recession and subsequent “jobless recovery” of the Clinton years. I had a bit of a knack for words, but limited access to computers—I depended on the lab at the New School for Social Research, where I was studying media—and a great and growing need for extra money. When a professor asked me to write something for a special digital-themed issue of Artpapers he was editing, I cranked out a portentous little piece on TinyMUDs, and got a hundred bucks and five contributor copies for my troubles. I was hooked.

Being hooked on anything, especially in New York City where everything is possible, is bad news. I can write some short thing, then sell it, I thought, but really had no idea where to begin, despite already having begun. My friend Kap Seol and I took on a project we actually thought was commercial—translating and editing a first-person account of the US-backed Kwangju Massacre in South Korea—and yes, we were those doofuses who ran home to check the mail every day in case there was a big check waiting for us from whatever tiny left-wing publishers we had submitted the book to. I started writing sample text questions and answers for the TOEIC exam for a Korean publisher, and then drifted into the disreputable world of “academic ghost-writing.”

Term papers were short, and I could sell them. I was using an ancient 286 PC with a 2400-baud modem to research and write them. My life really changed in 1998 when I managed to save $300 to buy a used 386 that could actually run Windows.
Then the recession was over and the dot.com boom was on. I’d been online since 1989 as a college freshman, so I knew my way around. And I even had a clip thanks to that old Artpapers essay. I started writing the infamous Disinformation, and from there moved up to the Village Voice, Artbyte, and Silicon Alley Reporter. My little left-wing book even found a publisher, a division of the University of California Press. The peer-review letters referred to me as “Professor Mamatas”…if only they’d known about the term papers.

I was never a millionaire on paper (remember that term?), but I bought a house and made a dollar a word writing for SAR and other major magazines, got involved in the “punk publishing” scene of the Lower East Side to keep from vomiting all over my SAR checks, and things were going very smoothly. I even started dabbling in fiction, and blogging. Then the dot.coms all crashed, and then the World Trade Center was attacked and I spent a morning and an afternoon cleaning loose papers and cinders drifting over the Hudson River from my porch and nothing was left of either my business contacts or my political contacts. I did still have fiction, with its “pro rate” of three cents a word. Clearly, I was doomed. A doomed dabbler with a blog. War was in the air.

I had to move from dabbler to pro, and quickly. Luckily, I’d made some contacts at a men’s magazine called Razor, and wrote a feature for them. Fifty cents a word, baby, on Genesis P-Orridge, who told me that magick was being fifty years old and never having had a day job. When my contributor copies arrived, I was amazed to see that in addition to the usual “lifestyle” stuff, they’d published an actual short story from a prisoner. (It was about prison.) I knew I needed to write something for them that they couldn’t get from anyone else, so I combined everything I knew into a new set of stories. I nailed them four times with fiction—crazy “downtown” writing about art and punk and 9/11, but mixed with aliens and alternative universes and splatterpunk—for a thousand dollars a pop, and also wrote more non-fiction for them. I even did a political piece on the Iraqi election, and a less political one about crazy ex-girlfriends.  Suddenly, I wasn’t too concerned about cracking the Big Three markets for science fiction and fantasy. I’d found that thing writing teachers were all very concerned about their students finding: “my voice.”

I wrote and sold a short novel, to an independent press, of course, and started publishing stories in a variety of venues—horror, SF, porn, and offbeat markets of all sorts. Then I sold another novel, also short, to some old punk publishing friends who were straining to go legit. People even started reading my blog, where I’d occasionally work through some ideas I’d had about writing. There was another economic bubble, and it burst. Razor was long gone, the Village Voice editorial staff had turned over three of four times over the course of months, my new legit publisher’s distributor went bankrupt three days before my book was released, and I’d foolishly failed to choose a blogging platform that I could monetize with a million annoying ads.

But I’d spent fifteen years learning how to do that thing I woke up every day thinking about: I can write some short thing, then sell it. I’d also started co-editing Clarkesworld Magazine and decided to give every submission some form of editorial feedback, which helped me work out my own ideas on the nature and structure of short fiction. When I’d post my theories on my blog, or link to a new essay I’d published elsewhere, I’d get comments reading, “You should write a book about writing one day.”

In 2008, when capitalism shuddered and nearly collapsed again, a lot of people began asking me for advice on going freelance. They didn’t need advice on how to write a novel in a year, they had a car insurance payment due this month. They didn’t need subtle encouragement—write every morning before dawn in a cozy spot with a cup of tea and your favorite pen—they needed to keep the lights on. Basically, my friends and readers needed to know how to fix a story and sell it now; they needed to find some venue about a topic they were expert in, and get some kind of clip and some kind of payment from a magazine or journal, immediately. All stuff I was aces at.

Advice is always autobiographical, so Starve Better is a writing advice guide for people like me. It’s about short subjects, both fiction and non-fiction, and is comprised of pieces published in the Village Voice, The Writer, the fun Tim Pratt and Heather Shaw-edited fanzine Flytrap, various blog essays, and some new essays.  I’d found that a lot of traditional writing advice can lead to bad writing. “Hook the reader,” means “Write an exciting first paragraph, then get boring.” “Create a narrative dream, to make a movie in the reader’s mind,” boils down to, “Use scene breaks like they were television commercial breaks.” “Make sure to tie up loose ends,” ends up as “Write a story that there’s no reason to re-read, and thus no reason to publish.” Starve Better is a corrective. I also cover query and cover letters, finding freelance work, interviews and reviews, and content mills—non-fiction still pays better, and makes it easier to starve better, after all.

Then there’s Sensation. I wrote that novel as a lurch toward commercial respectability. My fiction often mixes the genre writing I love with the postmodern material I’d gobbled up in my New York days—Barnes & Noble was the state to which I’d pledged allegiance, but just two blocks away St. Mark’s Books was my church. My agent had a great idea: I should write a more serious novel, perhaps in the mode of Don DeLillo. What would be my version of him? I could take on the social questions of life after the Internet, show off literary technique, put in a married couple and a divorce, maybe. Make fun of capitalism, I thought, we can sell that for a lot of money! So I wrote it. I’m not actually a huge fan of novel-writing, so I decided to create a novel out what I do love: short subjects. Of what I’ve been doing for the past fifteen years.

Sensation is a mix of fictional blog posts, faux newspaper and magazine articles, text messages, police interrogations, personal correspondence and business letters, YouTube missives and performance art, the results of psychological examinations, you name it. It’s a novel as collage, as told from the point of view of another species struggling to figure out humanity, while both controlling our world and directing our potential as agents of history. Sensation certainly pokes fun at capitalism—China Miéville called me “the People’s Commissar of Awesome” in his blurb—but it was capitalism who had the last laugh by promptly falling over and playing dead. Sensation didn’t even get rejection letters. It got this-editor-no-longer-works-here letters. It got this-imprint-is-defunct letters. We got the occasional please-don’t-blog-about-this-letter letter too.

I’d moved to California and got my first ever full-time job at Haikasoru, an imprint dedicated to Japanese science fiction and fantasy in translation. Honestly, I suspect that I was the only person in publishing to get, rather than lose, a job in 2008. And out here I met some people who led me to some people who introduced me to PM Press. Anarchists! You might call PM a small anarchist publisher, but really it’s a huge anarchist publisher. And its owners are not doctrinaire at all, so PM publishes crime fiction by Gary Phillips and Benjamin Whitmer, science fiction by Terry Bisson and Ursula K. Le Guin, vegan cookbooks and anti-vegan jeremiads, and when the shit hit the economic fan they didn’t flinch. Almost as though they had been expecting another global meltdown all this time! Clever little buggers. I even ran into the publisher, Ramsey Kanann, in the grocery store. I’ve been to his house and he showed me all his spreadsheets. It was punk publishing all over again. I was hooked. I wrote something short, and sold it. Because of an economic crisis, not despite it. The struggle, and the hustle, continues!

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Starve Better: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Sensation: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

See a preview of Sensation. See a preview of Starve Better. Read the author’s LiveJournal. Follow him on Twitter.

February One Notes and Reminders

As we at the Scalzi Compound prep ourselves for the second half of Icepocalypse ’11, I have a few notes to get out there today, mostly involving things relating to science fiction.

1. If you were thinking of applying to the Clarion writing workshop this year, at which I will be teaching for a week, this is a reminder that as of today, you have exactly one month to get your act together and apply. As a reminder, aside from me, the other instructors will be Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Elizabeth Bear, David Anthony Durham, John Kessel and Kij Johnson, i.e., pretty damn awesome writers from whom you will learn an amazing amount. Plus you’ll be in San Diego, where they have excellent fish tacos. Indeed, it’s the only place I’ll eat fish tacos. Everywhere on the planet messes it up. In fact, while I am at Clarion, I will eat naught but fish tacos (and Double-Doubles. Because, come on). But this isn’t about me, or fish tacos. It’s about you, getting amazing writing advice. You can get it. As long as you get your application in. Which now you have a month to do. Get to it.

2. If you’re a SFWA member, a reminder that we are now in our organization’s election season, and we have put out a general call for candidates for our board. So if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to have phenomenal cosmic power be an integral part of science fiction and fantasy’s largest writer organization, this could be your chance. And, before anyone asks, yes, I’m running for a second term as president. I’ll make a more official statement about that soon.

3. An additional reminder that in less than two weeks now — assuming both they and I have managed to chip ourselves out of the encasing of ice into which we will soon be plunged — I’ll be in the Chicagoland area as the author guest of honor at Capricon, February 10 – 13. I’ll be doing panels, a reading (from which I will read from Fuzzy Nation plus possibly the current work in progress), a Q&A session and a book signing, plus a light night session in which I will offer advice for all your erotic conundrums (warning: a) My answer to all your erotic conundrums will be “use more Miracle Whip!”;  b) I’m lying, and “John Scalzi: Erotic Counselor” is not actually on the sked). It’s not too late to join in on the fun.

4. After I posted plans for the Germany trip, I was pinged by people who wanted to know the status of the US book tour this year. The answer is: There will definitely be one, and it will very probably be in May, and that’s all I can tell you at the moment because my publicist is still talking to bookstores and such. It’s a tricky thing because among other things we’re scheduling in and around other commitments I have, including this year’s Nebula Awards Weekend, in Washington DC, May 19-22nd (which will be awesome, by the way). But we’re making progress. When we have everything pinned down, I will let you all know. Because I want you to know! Because I want you to come to the tour events. Oh God, please come to the tour events. I’ll stop now before my pleading becomes too pathetic.

A Little Historical Perspective

Ten years and one week ago, I was mulling writing a second novel, the one which would eventually become Old Man’s War. I think it might be useful for folks to see now what I was thinking then, particularly in light of my recent entry on finding the time to write.

Oct 2, 2000

I think I want to write another novel. This is something I talk about a lot, or at the very least think about a lot, but it’s not something I’ve actually put high on the priority list. Why? Mostly because I’m in a pragmatic frame of mind recently — I’ve been doing well writing non-fiction, both in the form of my book and in the form of my consulting work, and it’s been reasonably intellectually fulfilling while also being reasonably easy to do. This is opposed to novel writing, which is a thankless freakin’ task, in that it requires a lot of brainpower to actually make something up, and also that the chances of one actually making any money off of it are damn close to nil.

I mean, hell. I wrote one novel, which I thought was pretty decent, and I ended up putting it up on my Web site. People have been nice enough to actually send me money after  reading it, which was very kind of them, let me be clear. But the amount of money I got off writing that novel comes out to something like .2 cents a word.

But this is actually part of why I want to write another novel. First, among friends and the occasional person who shoots me off an e-mail looking for professional writing advice, I always say that the reason one often takes “non-creative” work is that it provides a little financial headroom so that one can work on stuff that is fun but might not make any money — novels, of course being a perfect example of this. However, although I say this, I’m not actually doing it recently — all my writing recently has been for cash on the barrelhead. Nothing wrong with this, of course (this is what I do for a living), but I ought to practice what I preach.

Second, I think it’ll be good for me to write something that doesn’t already have some sort of built-in economic benefit for me, since lately I’ve been thinking entirely too much about money. Not about spending money or even having money: I don’t live extravagantly by any means, and as far as physical possession of my cash goes, I don’t have any; I literally sign my checks over  to Krissy and then she does whatever she does and I frankly don’t think about that money again (it’s better this way becaue when Krissy handles the  money, bills actually get paid).

I mean just about money, and what sort of money writing will get me. A client calls for a project and little money signs ring up in my head; I look at potential things to write, and whether or not I’ll make a decent amount off of it is one of the first things I consider. Again, nothing wrong with this, since this is my line of work — but it’s also the thing I love to do. I need to write something simply for the exercise of writing, and I need to do it without the little money signs dancing in my brain. Sure, it’d be nice if I could sell whatever novel I write, once it’s written. But it’ll be even nicer not to have that be a primary consideration, and just to write something I enjoy for itself.

And there’s the other reason to try a novel again, of course: I’ve got a couple of stories that are just about to pop in my skull, so it’s the right time creatively as well. Now we’ll have to see if wanting write another novel actually translates into writing another novel. I think it will. I hope it will.

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I will say that that I’m still mostly in agreement with myself a decade on, and I do find it’s especially important to make time to write stuff for the fun of it without worrying terribly much about whether it can sell. And lest anyone ask me when the last time I did that was, I’ll note that I wrote Fuzzy Nation last year specifically for fun and without regard to whether it would sell. Not to mention a little story about yogurt. I still do practice what I preach.