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March 19, 2004

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.

Posted by john at March 19, 2004 09:12 PM


Kelley | September 28, 2004 04:58 PM

Love it! Good for a laugh and a smile, plus a hearty shrug and a sigh when you realize it's all 100% true. :) Nice site.

Samantha Banks | December 27, 2004 02:58 PM

Between #3 and #7, writing to get published sounds as chancy as expecting to finish a Las Vegas gambling trip with any money in your pocket. Not that I wasn't already aware of that. It just makes me wonder why I still want to do it.

Robert Retter | February 11, 2005 08:03 PM

Very entertaining. And that's what a posting should be, isn't it. And none of that annoying question-mark-after-a-question stuff, either. Much easier to read that way, don't you think.

marrije | February 13, 2005 02:25 PM

'Someone' (moi) already suggested that you should write that book on writing with Teresa Nielsen Hayden, and this post just reinforces the idea.

Though I'm not sure what she thinks of all those italics :-).

Matt McIrvin | February 13, 2005 05:29 PM

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.

This is pretty much exactly how I feel about (a) the software industry and (b) marriage. By any rational standard I've lucked into having a viable career and a charming wife by a series of accidents instead of paying the dues that other people pay. (I did toil in obscurity for years, but it had nothing at all to do with my current career, and with magical foresight I could have skipped it.)

I can't give any reasonable advice to anybody about how to replicate this. Which bothers me, because I know a lot of people who are suffering and I'd like to be able to do that. Maybe I need a bit more of your attitude.

Larry Kestenbaum | February 13, 2005 11:49 PM

And politics works pretty much the same way, too.

There are plenty of folks far more brilliant or personable than I am, and even some more hardworking, but I'm the one who got elected, and I'm having the time of my life.

Anonymous | February 20, 2005 09:48 PM

Are you really Blipperton?

Sheena Bandy | February 21, 2005 08:20 AM

Well, that made me feel 120% better Unfortunately, I am one to be jealous of those formula writers *blushes* but I've been known to get jealous of those darn sylvan commericals too! lol

Mark A. York | February 22, 2005 11:44 AM

Good rules. Real rules that are bound to offend some newbies that would and will be weeded out if not followed.

Blipperton? Who knows? Has Scalazi been to Breadloaf?

John Scalzi | March 5, 2005 05:42 PM

What's Breadloaf?

Mya Bell | March 31, 2005 12:54 AM

The "short-winded" answer, Mark is that Breadloaf is the "who's hot--who's not" writing conference. I'm sure John can provide a "long-winded" answer.

Enjoyed the "rant" John.

Dean | April 6, 2005 07:16 AM

Nice advice for newbies like myself funny and informative, what more do you need?

Annie G. | June 16, 2005 02:24 PM

"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?"

And this goes double-- triple-- quadruple for their editorial assistants...who are the editors/writers/publishers of tomorrow.

Lenny Bailes | March 28, 2006 05:23 PM

I dunno about some of this:

"You're a great writer, so what?"

If you are, maybe try to aim high and avoid succumbing to the temptation to phone it in.

"I don't care if you're a better writer than me."

If you are, I might want to study what you do, to see whether I can learn something from your work.

"Your Opinion About Other Writers (And Their Writing) means nothing."

Maybe what you want to say here is that your opinion about the *commercial potential* of other people's writing means nothing. Although I might want to pick a bone with that, too. What if I'm an interested s-f reader who talks to book buyers and gets hold of some real sales statistics?

"Until You're Published, You're Just in the Peanut Gallery."

I enjoy reading essays and opinions on science fiction (and sometimes the S-F publishing industry) from people who have not written or sold s-f novels. Even by people who have not sold essays and book reviews. Of course, I'm just another member of the peanut gallery. (I assume you'd be willing to award the Clarabelle seltzer bottle to Charlie Brown, by virtue of his essays being *professionally* published in the Gardner Dozois anthologies. Claire Brialey, Donald Keller, Michael Driussi, and others would need to smuggle their own squirt guns in past the SFWA security guards.)

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

As I've said to you before, this one may speak to your own inexperience as an habituee of coffee shops (or "coffee houses") outside the state of Ohio.

Yrs, trusting that the linebreaks between paragraphs will show up after I hit the post button.

John Scalzi | March 28, 2006 05:39 PM

Lenny Bailes:

"Maybe what you want to say here..."

Maybe what I want to say is what I wrote, Lenny.

As with anything anyone writes, your mileage may vary.

Lenny Bailes | March 28, 2006 06:52 PM

"Your Opinion About Other Writers and Their Writing Means Nothing" strikes me as arbitrarily snotty (and possibly bad) advice to give to a new writer. Why wouldn't you look at someone else's work and decide (for instance) "I don't like this. If I find myself doing the same thing, I'm going to cut it out, right now."

The context of your explanatory paragraph suggests that you're talking about the pitfall of trying to judge the commercial potential of other writers and letting that judgment warp what you do. ("That's hot, I'll do it, too," or "that'll never sell, I won't even try it".) This seems more reasonable to me than the flat statement that your opinion of other people's writing means nothing. Nothing to who? Obviously, it means something to you. And it might mean something to your readers, in terms of what it inspires you to write and to ignore.

John Scalzi | March 28, 2006 07:58 PM

Lenny Bailes

"'Your Opinion About Other Writers and Their Writing Means Nothing' strikes me as arbitrarily snotty (and possibly bad) advice to give to a new writer."

And I might find your analysis of why this is so equally possibly bad, largely because it appears you want this piece to be something other than what it is, both in tone and approach. Which is like complaining that chocolate cake isn't steak. It's not meant to be a huggy-squeezy affirmative piece, because otherwise it would be. Someone else can write huggy-squeezy advice; this is the sort of advice I chose to write. I think it's useful, based on my experience as a writer; you may not. That's fine.

If you feel this is bad advice, by all means feel free to give out advice other than this. You're perfectly entitled to your opinion, and your advice style clearly differs from mine.

Be that as it may, this particular piece says exactly what I want it to say, how I want to say it. As I say in the piece itself, take it or leave it.

Matt | January 31, 2007 01:30 PM

"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."

Absolutely right. If there's nothing you can do about the bad luck you get, it would be quixotic to a ridiculous degree to refuse undeserved good luck. Some might argue, "Be the change you wish to see in the world" but it just doesn't apply to luck.

Sounds like these could be summarized as, "Shit Happens, So You'd Better Love Writing For The Writing, 'Cause No Other Part Can Be Depended Upon." Substitute almost anything else in life for Writing, and it holds true, too.

Goldilox | February 14, 2007 06:13 PM

I write two, just got tow boosk pubished.......first ones called "Whisper", second I name "Bubby the Puppy",and u might wnat to read it, its about a puppy without a tail and she looks for the tail in the whose tale and finds it at the end and then Dick gives Buppy her treat. YAAAAYYYY!!!!

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