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You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing
John Scalzi
Subterranean Press, 280 pages

You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing
John Scalzi
John Scalzi was born in 1969. His first job out of college was as a film critic at the Fresno Bee newspaper in California. Since 1998, he has been a full-time freelance writer. As well, he is the Chief Entertainment Media Critic for Official US Playstation Magazine. He lives in the small rural town of Bradford, Ohio with his wife and daughter.

John Scalzi Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing
SF Site Review: Old Man's War

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

Pundits are getting younger. Time was when it was a writer in the pomp of his career who would deign to dispense tidbits of advice to the young scribblers coming up; or at least a decent midlist author at some hiatus in mid-career who would plug a gap between books with a little 'how to' volume. But John Scalzi is barely past his Campbell Award, and to judge from everything he tells us in this book there is no looming hiatus in his career. In fact his busy-ness is one of the abiding themes of this book: he begins by explaining that writing was the lazy option as a career choice, then fills up the rest of the volume by detailing how much work he actually does. Always scribble, scribble, scribble, Mr Scalzi?

Which leaves you wondering where he finds the time to fit in a book like this, but in truth he didn't. Part of the grind of his writing career (fiction is really the least part of it, both in terms of time and income) is his regular blog, Whatever. He has simply abstracted entries to the blog that in one way or other relate to writing, arranged them thematically, and hey presto, a book. There doesn't even seem to have been much in the way of rewriting, since every so often you come across link copy to another site which of course in book form takes you nowhere.

In blogging about writing, Scalzi is in no way unusual. These days it is hard to think of any contemporary writer who doesn't maintain a blog, and most of them use it, in among keeping track of progress on the current project, to discuss the nuts and bolts of their craft, the machineries of their trade. Whatever, in terms of visitor numbers at least, appears to be one of the top SF-related blogs, but that doesn't really make it different from many others. What does make it different, and makes the entries (in the main) work in book form also, is that Scalzi is an acute and acerbic commentator with a no-nonsense attitude to what he does and an unwillingness to suffer fools, gladly or otherwise.

There is nothing here that will come as a surprise to anyone who already writes. Most of what he has to say is plain, rather old-fashioned common sense, though it is dressed up in a short-tempered demotic. (When did 50-odd-year-old Holden Caulfield become the voice of the young and digitally hip? 'This chapter is mostly about money,' he tells us at the beginning of Chapter Two. 'Oh, it's a little bit about me and how I got into writing and what some of the day-to-day experience of being a writer is like, and all that huggy, affirmative crap.') The common sense bears repeating, of course, and in among this there are nuggets of real value. What he has to say about rejection, for example, is something most of us learn only by painful experience, but distilling it into clear information about the inevitability of rejection, the reasons for it, and the best response is something every would-be writer needs to understand.

What is particularly unusual and refreshing about this book, and about Scalzi's whole take on writing, is that he does not confine himself to the writing of fiction. This is not a book that follows the old, old pattern of taking us through the various stages of worldbuilding, character creation, dialogue and the like -- in fact Scalzi treats all these with a studied disinterest. For him, writing includes journalism, writing for websites, even advertising, all of which he does or has done. From these skills (normally not even mentioned in such books) he learns very different lessons from those usually passed on to novelists, lessons about meeting the deadline and fitting the brief which infuse this book. This view of writing as business rather than writing as art isn't going to be useful to everybody, and I find myself in disagreement on a number of detailed points. For one, I do not think that most authors would be well advised to follow Scalzi's own example of checking out the bookshop shelves to find that military sf sells, and then setting out to deliberately write in a sub-genre he wasn't previously familiar with. Nevertheless, the overarching attitude about the basic job of putting words on the page that is implicit in everything he says here is something to be applauded.

To be fair this isn't intended to be an old fashioned 'how to write' advice book, he tells us so several times. Rather, this is a book about Scalzi's own experiences of what it's like to be a writer today. As such there are lessons that can be learned, but this is no bible, this is not the whole story, and anyone reading the book would be advised to take it with a fistful of salt and apply its lessons only with caution. Instead, take it as a glimpse of what really concerns the modern writer, the tax returns, the advances, the rejection letters. Thus, after the opening chapter on how to write (the most predictable part of the book), he moves on to other topics. There's a chapter on finance in which he is surprisingly open about how much he earns and how much his fiction contributes to the whole. The long familiar message that, unless you are Stephen King or J.K. Rowling you are not going to make a fortune as a writer becomes a lot more convincing when spelled out in actual dollars and cents. This is followed by what he calls the 'catty' chapter, where he takes various authors and public figures to task for stupid mistakes. There are lessons to be learned here, though they are in the main fairly obvious lessons (such as 'don't lie on cover letters'). Still, the fact that there are targets for him to hit suggests that, no matter how obvious they may be, these are still errors that are regularly perpetrated. Given that Scalzi's normal online voice seems to hover somewhere between the pained and the disdainful, this tends to be the funniest chapter, though it is dispiriting that any of this advice should still be necessary. Finally he has a chapter on science fiction which doesn't actually tell us much about SF (beyond the fact that he really likes Accelerando by Charles Stross), but does reveal, unwittingly, how defensive he is about the genre.

All told, we learn an awful lot about John Scalzi's experiences of being a writer, though how much those experiences would map on to the lives of other writers has to be open to question. Even so, it seems that these basic gobbets of advice need to be restated every so often, and here they are recast in the idiom of the blogging generation.

Copyright © 2007 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.

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