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June 20, 2003

Reader Request #8: Writing

Bill Peschel wants to know about my writing. He asks:

OK, a chance to annoy a writer. How about this:

where do you get your ideas?

Just kidding. Really. But I am curious about a few writing-related subjects.

1. What kind of freelance work do you do. I'm not so much interested in the record reviews, which you've linked to before, but the other work that don't get mentioned as often.

2. The recent Writer's Digest ran another article by Robert W. Bly about how to make $100,000 a year freelancing. (Basically, work hard, make your time count, charge high prices, work for the big companies, write books about how to make $100,000 a year freelancing, etc.) Are you nodding your head in approval or spraying Coke at your monitor?

3. Fiction writing. Do you prefer plotting or letting it rip? Have you discovered some insights into the mechanics of writing over the course of these novels? Do you have specific goals as a fiction writer?

The answers:

1. Well, aside from the aforementioned CD and DVD reviews, much of my freelance work is in the corporate sphere. A significant amount of my income comes from writing for marketing companies who subcontract with me to write text for their projects. Most of these are in some way financially related; if you ever wander into a broker's office and he or she hands you a mutual fund brochure, there's not a bad chance you're looking at my writing (that is, if the fund brochure makes sense. If it's obtuse and confusing, that's somebody else).

Another recent project had me writing collateral for a trust company that primarily deals with the very rich: $25 million in assets and above. So I spend a reasonable portion of my writing time figuring out how to get wealthy people to hand over their assets. I need to figure out how to make that work for me personally.

Aside from financial services writing, I also do marketing collateral for other types of businesses ranging from book publishers to high-tech companies, and I do a fair amount of work with a non-profit Web site called Network for Good.

I've mentioned before that much of this writing is not what people romantically consider "writing," but I enjoy it for a number of reasons. First off, business writing pays well, which provides me a financial foundation for other less profitable writing (I think of it as my "day job"). Second, speaking as a writer, it's often a relief to have "directed work" -- that is, work with definite, achievable short-term goals. When you're slogging through writing a book and wondering what the hell you're doing and if the pain will ever end, it's nice to switch over and do a short, quick job where you quickly see the results in terms of client appreciation and pay.

Third, it's an interesting writing challenge -- you might think it takes no great skill to write a financial brochure, but since I not infrequently get calls from clients begging me to take over a piece from another writer who's not quite getting the hang of it, I would have to differ with you on that. We can have the conversation as to whether the skills needed for commercial writing are as exalted as the ones needed to create telling fictional prose, or a good sonnet, but that's another matter entirely.

Not counting my ongoing gig with Official PlayStation Magazine, I also typically write a few magazine and newspaper articles a year on various things (most recently a cover story for JD Jungle magazine). But freelance-wise, I'd have to say my primary focus is in the business sphere.

2. I'd be nodding my head, particularly about the "charge high prices" bit. One of the things I learned early on about writing -- and specifically about writing for business -- is that when it comes down to it, many clients are not primarily concerned with what you charge, they're concerned that the work they need to get done gets done. Much of my business writing work comes to me by people recommending me and then me getting a phone call that goes something like this: "We hear you're good. We've got this project. It's due tomorrow (or yesterday). Can you do it?" For that person at that point, money's not so much an object. The project just needs to get done. That being the case, I can charge a pretty solid amount, and I do.

(As an aside, I can also charge a high rate because I'm honest, which is to say that I charge clients for actual writing time, as opposed to time when I'm, say, reading blogs or writing here, and because as I writer I tend to follow directions, which means relatively little rewriting. Clients tell me of writers who charge less per hour but end up costing them more for various reasons. I don't point this out to toot my own horn -- relatively few of my clients read the Whatever -- but to point out that good business practices pay off. The short-term advantage of padding your hours nets a long-term loss in loss of clientèle. It's just that simple.)

I know anecdotally that I make more than the average writer, and the reasons for that are myriad, ranging from luck (I've been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time on more than one occasion, and I'm not shy about exploiting that) to certain aspects of my writing abilities (like the fact that I write fast, which increases my bandwidth for work). But one of the underappreciated aspects of doing well as a writer has nothing to do with writing per se; it's the fact that I approach it as a business. I have a reasonably good business mind (much to my surprise) and I have extremely competent financial help in the form of my wife, who handles much of the accounting both of my business and of our overall financial life. It's hard to overemphasize the importance of the business aspect of writing, if you intend to make writing your business. I've always been upfront -- I write for many reasons, but one of the big ones is to make money. It's my business and I treat it that way.

3. Typically with novels, I make 'em up as I go along. I have a tendency to have one or two scenes in my head, usually the opening scene and the end scene, but how I get from one to the other is usually a mystery to me before I start writing. This means that I'm often as surprised as anyone else at the stuff that comes out of my head. It also allows me to go where the story takes me; more than once in my writing I've found a story heading off in an unexpected direction because something that I've written has suddenly seemed really interesting. This also relieves the pressure of freaking out because I've deviated from an outline.

Most of the time I like writing this way but on occasion it can lead to angst; Sometimes I'm writing something I'm really enjoying but I know I'll have to kill it later because it's way too far afield. Still, even these excursions have their value, since I can often repurpose that material in a more sensible way, or at the very least have it as the "background" stuff that writers have for their work that everyone else never sees.

As far as the mechanics go: Dunno. Much of the mechanics of structure and plotting come automatically through the simple fact that I've been writing more or less constantly since the age of ten or so. The way I approach the writing is fairly simple: I want to write the sort of books I like to read. Most of the time I like to read books with fast dialogue, action and at least a shiny coat of ideas; underneath all that I like characters who are actually concerned with each other's lives. So that's what I try to write, and what I keep my focus on.

At this point, part of the mechanics of writing is not writing to my weaknesses. For example, description tends to bore me; I have a tendency to believe that a lot of writers enjoy description because it allows them to use obscure, multisyllabic words. But not very many writers use those words well. Those that do are glorious (for example, Mark Helprin, whose Winter's Tale is arguably my favorite book ever, and one I could never write in a million years), but they're rarer than you might expect. The fact is, I get bored writing description, and if I'm bored writing it, I assume readers will be bored reading it.

So I tend not to have a lot of description in my novels. For example, in Old Man's War, you'd be hard-pressed to find any indication of the main character's race (I think he's white. But maybe not). I do think that as I continue to write, I get better at many of the things I don't like to write, and learn to see more value in them. But I let that experience happen as it happens, while focusing on what I know I do well.

For example, dialogue. I tend to use dialogue heavily in my writing because I find it easy to write and easy to convey information in. It also speeds up the reading pace, which I find (in a mechanical sense) to be very useful. One of the interesting comments about my novels is that people tend to think that they're short, but in fact both Agent and Old Man's War are close to 100,000 words, which is on the longish side of average length. They seem short because they're dialogue-rich; you don't get bogged down in long paragraphs of description.

I'll note here that there are those who do criticize my dialogue, the main beef being that all my characters sound alike -- and sound like me. I don't believe this is true myself, but I can see where the folks are coming from. I do have a tendency to make most of my primary characters have certain similar traits, primarily a well-educated smart-assery, on the principle that it's more fun to write and read dialogue coming from smart, interesting people than dull, boring ones.

But the point to be taken from the criticism, and it's a fair one, is that I need to increase the diversity of voices in my writing. And indeed, it's on my "to do" list as a writer. In the meantime, however, I'm pretty happy with the level of dialogue in my work as it exists: It's clear, it's interesting, and in terms of plot, it's load-bearing. It does a lot more than many writers expect out of their dialogue.

Also, as an aside, there's a lesson to be learned here, which is that if you wait as a writer until all your "tools" are at their highest level to really begin writing, you'll never actually begin writing. My dialogue, for better or worse, is good enough to get published; getting published is the best way to continue to be published. It's perfectly acceptable to learn on the job; that's what writers do. Nearly every writer gets better after their first novel, and those who don't (like, for example, Joseph Heller) have a karmic load to bear that's difficult for anyone to imagine.

In other words, the correct answer to the question "How good does my writing have to be to be published?" is "just good enough."

As for my specific goals as a fiction writer, they're pretty simple: I want to be able to write more fiction, and I want to get paid reasonably for it. That's pretty much it. I'd be happy to be a best-selling author, of course, and to be JK Rowling rich. But if all I ever sell of my books is just enough to get to write the next one, that's no so bad, either, as long as I'm enjoying myself with the work. When I was 20, I wanted to write the Great American Novel; when I was 25 I was slightly obsessed with the fact I hadn't written the Great American Novel yet. By the time I was 30, I realized that the author doesn't get to decide what the Great American Novel is, anyway. At 34, pretty much what I want to do is write novels I'd be happy to read. Does this signal a diminution of ambition? It might, although I'm still pretty ambitious. If you think I'm not going to do everything I can to promote myself, well, just you wait.

But it might also be a recognition of the idea that the best writing you can do is the writing you want to do. The Great American Novel is an abstract concept; the novels I'm writing exist in the real world as actual things. People attempt the Great American Novel primarily for everything but the actual writing; I'm writing what I write now because I enjoy what I'm doing, and I enjoy watching my experience grow. I used to worry about being hailed as brilliant from the very start; now I don't mind learning on the job. If each novel I write is a little better than the one before it in terms of craft, I'll be ahead of the game.

So that's the goal: To keep doing it. I'll let everything else happen as it happens.

Posted by john at June 20, 2003 11:39 AM

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MAB | June 20, 2003 02:04 PM

Speaking of JK Rowling, what do you think of the Harry Potter books (and associated "phenomenon")? Have you already ordered "Order of the Phoenix"?

John Scalzi | June 20, 2003 02:11 PM

I've not read them, actually (I read the last few pages of one in an airport once, to get clarification on the ending of one of the movies, but that's about it), although in principle I'm all for them. What's not to get excited about when kids beg to stay up late so they can buy books? I think some people may think the Harry Potters suck out the oxygen for every other juvy book out there, but I don't suspect that's the case.

RON | June 20, 2003 02:46 PM

On the earth for 34 years without a Nobel or Pulitzer, you lament.....that's the cheapest shot any writer has ever chiseled on his own epitath for not writing the Great American Novel. Shoot yourself with some rubber bullets and bury the cadaver in a sandbox or join the club of the rest of the defunct paperback writers in the elephant's graveyard. And I thought SARS was bad. Enter a nunery and scare those lesbians with your song of the Mariner. What you are writing now, is the Great American Novel. On the Road...The World According to Garpo...Iron Weed...Grapes of Wrath...and The Armies of the Night all chronicled the events of their day. Screw my spelling, my keyboards smoke.

John Scalzi | June 20, 2003 03:03 PM


JH | June 20, 2003 05:46 PM

And speaking of "Order of the Phoenix," what do you think of Rowling's $100 MILLION lawsuit against the New York Daily News for publishing an early excerpt?

As for your descriptions, I LIKE that they're vague, for the most part. I don't want a clear picture of the protagonist, I want to be able to inflict my own image upon him. I DO like more detailed descriptions of non-human things, though.

JH | June 20, 2003 05:49 PM

Link: http://abcnews.go.com/wire/Entertainment/ap20030619_194.html

Bratsche | June 20, 2003 06:03 PM

A related writing question:

How do you go about writing these essayish, blog-type pieces? Do you have some kind of structure in mind when you start, or do you just start with a vague topic and type away?

John Scalzi | June 20, 2003 06:21 PM

Re: Lawsuit -- I don't think much will come of it, since among other things it will be difficult for Rowling to show that she's suffered some sort of economic setback because of it. I mean, the book has pre-orders of 750,000 books and an unfathomable first printing of 8 million copies. Unless the Post printed long stretches of the book (i.e., used more than would be allowed under "fair use"), they're pretty much in the clear. They *did* print a picture of two pages with legible text, so it would be interesting to know if that presents a "fair use" issue. Anyway, as to the suit, I chalk it up to Rowling both genuinely not wanting the surprises of the book to be spoiled for the kids, and a fundamental misunderstanding of the first amendement (being that she's British).

Re: entries: I usually just write 'em and post them. Sometimes I'll do a quick edit to make them more coherent, but not usually.

RON | June 20, 2003 09:27 PM

John, what I meant..was..if your enthusiasm for writing the Great American Novel, is waning, that you shouldn't overlook that your daily-writings chronicle the passing events of our world today, just as the Great American Novels of the past have recorded their own contemporary events. A Great American Novel would show how a social movement or a societal condition effects its protagonist. The protagonist of today is you or at least what you're doing on the web. How to get this embryo to win the Pulitzer or a Nobel? Simple. Eat a lot of Campbell's brand alphabet soup.

[My allusion that my keyboard was smoking is from an original line in MacBeth. MacBeth's sword smoked while he slayed, by himself, a whole enemy platoon. In a sense I was slaying the phantoms of pessimism that I detected in your article of today with my keen sense of RPG. Perhaps, it was the lack of sleep last night. Be kind and strike the previous post altogether. I promise to buy a coffee mug.]

Gordon | June 20, 2003 09:31 PM

"If you don't think I'm not going to do everything I can to promote myself, well, just you wait."

I'm almost positive that's not what you meant to say- right? (It suddenly occurs to me that I may in fact be a born editor. I'm much better at critiquing the work of others than I am at actually writing, although I have an intuitive appreciation for the mechanics of language.)

On the subject of "commercial" writing, I must say that writing is anything that involves stringing words together to achieve a desired effect. If that effect is to aid someone in understanding something, then so be it- that's as valid a form of writing as any other.

I also agree with your focus on dialogue over description- I generally like to picture locales and people in books in a hazy sort of manner, rather like a dream. I don't need pages of description trying to substitute for a photograph. Dialogue, on the other hand, ought to provide the means for establishing everything else. Good dialogue is infinitely more important than good description.

By the way- since Reader Request Week appears to be just about wrapped up, I'd like to ask that you do it again sometime soon. You see, I wanted to ask you something about Kant's categorical imperative, but I realized I wasn't sure I remembered it properly such that I could pose the question correctly. So I began reading up on Kant again, but obviously I haven't managed to finish in time. So, pretty please, can you do this again- just as soon as I grasp enough of Kant to come up with a decent question?

John Scalzi | June 20, 2003 09:56 PM

Ron wrote:

"John, what I meant..was..if your enthusiasm for writing the Great American Novel, is waning, that you shouldn't overlook that your daily-writings chronicle the passing events of our world today, just as the Great American Novels of the past have recorded their own contemporary events."

Hmmm. Well. I don't really consider this to be much in the way of literature, and others have already turned their Web sites into novels (I'm thinking of Pamela Ribon, proprietress of Pamie.Com, who mines her Web site for her upcoming novel). I don't know that I have any ambition to repurpose what I do here for novels and such. This is sort of my free play zone.

And I'm not pessimistic about my writing, or about my prospects of writing the Great American Novel. Rather, I find the aspect of not worry about writing it both freeing and optimistic. When you stop worrying about writing the Great American Novel, you free yourself up to write *your* novels, one of which (who knows) might actually turn out to be a great American novel. The point is, you stop worrying about writing something great and start focusing on writing something good; it's the difference between obsessing about something and actually doing it.

Bill Peschel | June 21, 2003 12:39 AM

Thanks for answering the writing questions. I've learned through the years how far simple competence will get you. Be there, do the work, turn it in on time, don't be an ass about it, and you'd be surprised how many people would be grateful for it.

RON | June 21, 2003 11:04 PM

John. what I meant was: The *dharma* of writing a blog, not--the compilation of the journal's entries, itself--is the substance of the Great American Novel. In the international arena, Salem Pax is an exception in the compilation department, and who knows, he might be nominated for the Nobel prize for literature if there's a groundswell generated by political inertia. Anne Frank's diary would also be a notable exception. A fictional character--based on the life of a real blogger--is suitable for the protagonist in the next Great American Novel because a blogger muses daily on the events and topics that are relevant in our age and may infact develop an intuition into its cultural manifestation and the narrative would incorporate naturally, the hypotetical blogger with a commentary on societal trends, and altogether, it's possible that the body of the story would accurately capture the spirit of a particular epoch. The chronicles and contemporary curios of our age, per se, simply functions as stage props--plates and saucers to make the protagonist palatable. Even a non-blogger could write such a story, quite well infact. While a real-life blogger could write the next Great American Novel and contribute to the authenticity of the persona of the protegonist, my experiences are that blogs are not a talent-show of good writing. Overall, a lot of linkers and blinkers and air-guitarists of information. Myself, a bona fide hitch hiker off an webauthor's knowledge, would be better off to buy opium on some days. A example for an episode in the Great American Novel would be Willem Defoe in Platoon, with his arms out-stretched as a U.S. helicopter gunship belatedly perforates his immediate radius, . The symbolism of this scene is all too-well known. I just mentioned this because the scene was supposingly ad libed and to acknowledge that an idea for the Great American Novel is as elusive as a camera shy yeti, more a creature of the sub-conscious. One morning while you're still asleep, you get a glimpse of an idea for the next Great American Novel, and while you're chasing the idea, your puppy licks your face, waking you up, and there goes another Pulitzer.

Alex Elliott | June 23, 2003 09:36 AM

You write: "I'll note here that there are those who do criticize my dialogue, the main beef being that all my characters sound alike -- and sound like me."

I kind of noticed this -- more specifically, I got the feeling that your characters all have the same sense of humor (or maybe different degrees of the same sense of humor). I suspect that it's very difficult to do otherwise though; I've read many, many novels where some characters (the ones most like the author, presumably) seem funny and spontaneous and the others seem like unfunny mannequins assembled from second-hand stereotypes.

Anyway, as a gay physicist, I will promise to buy your on-dead-tree version of "Old Man's War" if (and only if) you can promise that the gay physicist character in the on-line version will still exist.

Guy Matthews | June 23, 2003 09:58 AM

Insofar as characters all sounding the same, I've noticed it to some degree, but you're not particularly terrible in that respect. The worst culprit in that department is by far Brian Lumley, to be sure I'd worship at that man's feet given a chance, his storylines really get the imagination going and the levels of detail he can go into are very gratifying, but his books are nonetheless very painful to read, mostly because abasolutely everyone sounds the same! Male, female, british, russian, earth-born, sunside-born, human, not-so-human, sooner or later it's just one big soup of words, like an extended inner dialog inside Lumley's head, ARGH! Tho to be fair I expect they don't sound like Brian Lumley at all, rather they sound like Brian Lumley trying not to sound like Brian Lumley :P (yes I know, I'm sorry, here's some aspirine and a gun to shoot me with :P).

Since she's been brought up I want to note I really REALLY don't like JK Rowling, I have issues with her, everyone's so focused on how popular her books are (and yes it *IS* a great thing that kids want to read this stuff that badly), that no one much notices she's done a few horrible things that to me scream money-grabbing [bleep]. I'm still looking for a single word from her condemning WB's actions when they started going around suing kids with harry potter fan sites a couple years back, correct me if I'm wrong but last time I checked she was still keeping nice n quiet on that so as not to upset any people who might jeopardize her movie deals. Really shows how much she cares about her young readers that. This latest pointless lawsuit is just the same attitude manifesting on another front. The woman doesn't give a damn about writing good children's books for childrens' sake, she wants to get [bleep]ing rich, that's all. Not that there's anything wrong with making as much money as you can from your talents, but aren't you supposed to still have some kind of positive motivation as well to qualify as a good guy? :P

Dennis | June 23, 2003 11:02 AM

"Still, even these excursions have their value, since I can often repurpose that material in a more sensible way, or at the very least have it as the "background" stuff that writers have for their work that everyone else never sees."

So, after your death Athena will be able to "continue" your fiction, like Christopher Tolkien, Brian Herbert and whoever kluged together "A Salmon of Doubt" after Douglas Adams' death? Burn those notes now! :>

John Scalzi | June 23, 2003 11:22 AM

Alex Elliot wrote:

"Anyway, as a gay physicist, I will promise to buy your on-dead-tree version of 'Old Man's War' if (and only if) you can promise that the gay physicist character in the on-line version will still exist."

He's still in it; it'd be somewhat difficult to extract him, plotwise.

Dennis: No publishing after death, promise (not counting already-completed novels tucked away in drawers).

MadJayhawk | June 23, 2003 11:28 AM

I wandered into your blog from another called Electrolite. I am looking for things to steal. You write the way I want to write. Your style is so easy to read. There is nothing pretentious at all about how you describe your thoughts or activities.

Many professional writers and those who write as part of the their jobs, use their blogs (and comments to posts on blogs) to try to impress, not us - the unwashed, their fellow writers and former professors with how clever and insightful they are by using a dazzling array of what I call English major tricks that got them A's in courses that I got D's in. The way you write is clear, concise, and, in a way, beautiful if I can use that word. I really admire it.

John Scalzi | June 23, 2003 12:08 PM

Thanks, MadJayhawk. I do try to be clear and accessible to most people, and I assume the ex-professors and fellow writers will be able to follow the writing anyway.