I had the good fortune a few weeks ago to meet John Scalzi whilst he was a manning the SFWA booth at the World Science Fiction Convention in Denver, as well as sitting in on a couple of panels in which he took part. For months I’ve been seeing and hearing in the web-o-sphere how great John Scalzi’s science fiction novels are, and I have to say, a few chapter’s into Old Man’s War, it is indeed a cracklin’ good read. With several novels behind John now, he’s become a certified pro in the science fiction field, but strangely enough he won a Hugo Award this year for Best Fan Writer, presumably for his long-running blog that started before there were blogs. John’s blog is called simply Whatever, and it’s fun and entertaining, as well as an interesting glimpse into the professional and personal sides of science fiction publishing.
JS: It’s pretty simple: Started writing professionally in 1991; never not been a full-time writer ever since. First book came out in 2000; first novel in 2005, and now I spend most of my time making things up and getting paid for it. Sweet.
TH: What kind of writing did you do between 1991 and 2000?
JS: I was a full-time movie critic and newspaper columnist from 91-96; America Online’s in-house writer and editor from 96-98, and from 98 onward I’ve been a freelance writer, with gigs which have included music, DVD and video game reviewer, corporate consultant (clients included Oppenheimer Funds, Network Solutions, and Zagat’s), and magazine writer. Basically, I little bit of everything.
TH: What is The Story of John? Is it a novel? A short story? An epic space opera? A limerick?
JS: I don’t think it’s any of those things because I don’t know that you’d get anyone to publish it regardless of format. My life is in itself not tremendously exciting; what I do is sit in a room and write for several hours a day. There’s not too much plot there. Which is not to say I find my life boring; I like writing, which is why I do it. But it’s not a huge thrill from outside.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
JS: I knew when I was 14, when I was the only person across three classes of freshman English composition to get an “A” on hi short story assignment. That’s also when I realized most other things (math, science, etc) were hard. And why do difficult things? Such is the thinking of callow youth. Of course, it turns out that writing is easy, but writing well, is somewhat more difficult. Damn it.
TH: Do you remember any of the steps you took from “writing” to “writing well?”
JS: A very important step, actually, was being an editor for a while. There’s nothing that improves one’s own writing than looking at other people’s writing and trying to figure out how to make it work. Because then you go back to your own writing and can see all the things you’re doing wrong, which your ego blinded you to before.
TH: A lot of established writers seem to have a stack of writing somewhere that will never a see the light of day. I’m talking about stuff that perhaps helped you learn and develop your craft, like the five novels the author had to write before he could get to the good one. Do you have anything like this?
JS: No. In science fiction, I’ve sold everything I’ve written. Yes, this makes me something of a freak.
TH: Of course, most writers want to have bestsellers or make some sort of artistic or literary impact. Is there some unrealized accomplishment that you’re striving for in the near future?
JS: Not as such. I like writing and my goal is not to have to do anything else for a living, and I like telling the stories I like to tell; outside of that I let other people the rest of it. Worrying about whether you’re going to be a bestseller/will have an impact/will be remembered 100 years after your death/whatever is a fine way to be neurotic all the time. I would prefer not to be any more neurotic about my writing than I absolutely have to be.
TH: What neuroses do you currently harbor about your writing?
JS: Very few, actually. At this point in my career I’m very comfortable about my general competence and my ability to perform. My major problem is neurosis but simple old fashioned procrastination, of which I am, alas, a master. That said, I do have the occasional blip where I think too much about a project/story that doesn’t need to be thought about that hard; I’m working on not thinking too hard and just going ahead and writing.
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
JS: I think the usual: paying my mortgage and other bills, buying groceries, people who I want to impress in some way for whatever reason. “Inspiration” as such doesn’t enter too much into the equation with my writing other than in the mundane senses such as the above, or in the sense of developing a cool writing idea. If I waited around to be inspired to write, I would end up having to do something else with my work life, because only writing under the influence of inspiration doesn’t typically bring in sufficient income.
TH: You bring up an excellent point about the clear difference between professional writers and an amateur. Professionals write even without inspiration. Insert Butt ‘A’ into Chair ‘C’ and leave it there. What’s your typical workday like?
JS: Wake up, take daughter to school, come back, work on longer projects (books, etc) while she’s at school, pick up daughter from school, work on shorter projects (blogs, etc) in the afternoon, spend time with family in the evening, do a little bit of reading, etc before sleep, sleep. Lather, rinse, repeat.
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you?
JS: Playing with words and ideas; I do a lot of plotting while writing, so that’s always fun. I also like the actual physical act of typing. It’s fun to see my brain work through my fingers that way.
TH: What are the most successful ways you have used to promote yourself and your work? Are there any promising marketing avenues that you might yet explore ?
JS: I think having Whatever has been extraordinarily useful in my career, but most manners of promotion have their uses. I think people like to think there’s a great trick to promoting one’s self, but it mostly boils down to being personable and being available. If you can manage those two, you’re doing things right. All the bells and whistles don’t matter much if you can’t manage those two.
TH: Have your reached the point at which you realized that you had “made it” as a writer and author? If so, can you describe the milestone or circumstances? Do you recall how that felt? If not, what is the milestone you’re seeking?
JS: I’ve been a professional writer since I left college, so to some extent I haven’t felt the same pressure of “making it” as some other folks have, simply because I haven’t had to do anything else with my professional life. In science fiction specifically, I would say I “made it” — in the sense of popping onto the radar of most folks — in 2006, when I was nominated for the Campbell and the Best Novel Hugo at the same time. And of course, I thought it was pretty cool. That said, I think too much attention can be paid to “making it” and not enough on “keeping it,” which is what I think most writers really need to focus on, and which is, relatively speaking, the harder task.
TH: How do you intend to go about “keeping it?”
JS: Write well, write constantly, get paid and not be too precious about the whole writing process, basically. I’m not under the illusion that my fiction career will be a constant ascent; fortunately I’m comfortable with (and enjoy) writing other sorts of stuff, so I expect to be able to keep writing in one form or another no matter what.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach?
JS: I certainly do have a brand; I also think if you start thinking of yourself as a brand too much you forget you’re a person. One does have to strive for a balance in how one presents. People will get turned off if all the get when they look at you is “brand.”
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
JS: I’m working on The High Castle, which is the follow-up to The Android’s Dream, and after that, at the moment, I have no solid book plans. Shocking, I know. But not to worry, since I’ll think of something.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
JS: It was pretty neat when I got the first set of hardcovers for Old Man’s War, and then when they first started showing up in stores. Because it was, like, “game on, people.” And it’s been pretty good ever since.
TH: Looking back on your career fifteen years from now, what do you hope to see?
JS: That I didn’t have to do anything with my professional career other than write. Everything else (awards, recognition, etc) is not stuff I have any sort of control over, and I try not to worry about things I can’t control. It makes life less stressful.