« Gendering Everything | Main | Agoraphilic »

July 02, 2005

The Coming of the Antiscalzi

(Posted by Jeff Porten)

It is perhaps no coincidence that John assigned me the last day of the week, for Saturday signifies the End Times, and I am Jeff Porten, the Antiscalzi.

I have no adorable and precociously witty urchins to write about. I live in the selfsame urban metropolis that sent John fleeing to rural paradise. And the only pictures you'll see of hot women dancing around my home office will be the result of Photoshop and a vivid imagination.

But most importantly, I'm not a writer.

Some people might argue with that. I wrote a book ten years ago. That book now sells for pocket change, which keeps me warm through the cold nights. I'm working on a new book, which should be published in a month or two (and you can be sure I'll pimp it here before the month is out). I've done a smattering of technical writing and academic pieces. But I still feel like Epimenides' countrymen when I call myself a writer.

Why? Well, let's compare with my gracious host. John gets hired to write about movies and video games. John gets a paycheck for blogging from the same people who own Superman and Bugs Bunny. And the kicker is... he makes it look easy. If there's a blood-spattered Underwood platen in the back of John's office, you sure can't tell when he writes about translucent supermodels and senior citizens getting frisky.

So as a public service, and as a change of pace for the Whatever, I thought I would introduce myself with a short primer on how to be an unsuccessful writer. Just do all of the things I did, and you too can dream to one day reach your largest audience on someone else's website. Ready? Here we go.

1) Sell your first book before you're ready to write one. I sold that book in 1992. The process was as follows: a) Buy a copy of Writer's Market. b) Send one query letter asking, "hey, would you be interested in publishing a book about the Internet?" c) Get invited to a very tasty lunch when that editor visits your hometown. d) Be utterly clueless about how you're not supposed to be able to sell a book without an agent, an outline, or pretty much any experience outside of writing humorous essays for friends. Be so clueless, in fact, that you only have a bowl of soup at that lunch because you haven't learned that the editors always pick up the check.

Which led to e) Write three chapters of stunningly turgid prose that would put a dissertation committee to sleep. I recall writing five pages about bang paths, which were these addresses you had to use in order to get prehistoric email messages where they were going. As that's all I can remember, I'm guessing this was the most interesting thing in the book.

2) Be stunningly obtuse about the marketplace. I put my first book out of its misery when Ed Krol published The Whole Internet User's Guide. I wrote my editor to say that I was having a lot of difficulty, and since "the Internet book" had been written, I didn't see a market any longer. We shook hands and went our separate ways.

Cue the violins a year later, when I couldn't walk into any bookstore without seeing shelves upon shelves of Internet books, most of which had the clarity you've come to expect from the computer science industry. Krol's book (which was excellent, damn his eyes) sold 250,000 copies, and most of the others did well enough to keep their authors knee-deep in scotch and caviar.

3) Agents start out hungry, too. At this point, I took a step away from the path of unsuccess and met my agent. In fact, I met John's agent, who at the time was just starting out himself. Finding my agent was a long, arduous journey. I went to a happy hour for the self-employed, drank most of a beer, and said to the chatty, amusing guy to my left, "You went to Penn? Hey, so did I!" An hour later, we had an idea for a book.

He went on to get me mentioned in Washingtonian magazine as a "young writer with an important voice." This was for the second book that I was unable to write. But I still have 30 copies of that magazine.

4) Actually get it right, eventually. That same agent managed to get me writing a year or two later, and the result was the book you can now buy for a penny. Which is not to put it down one whit—of all of the things I've done in my various self-employed guises, it's in the top five I'm most proud of. But the fact remains that I don't think it ever would have happened without his prodding.

(By the way, if you're wondering why I'm not naming him, it's because I don't want his slush pile to get any bigger than it already is. I've tried the man's patience enough over the years.)

5) Return to comfortable obscurity. I've come up with a number of other book ideas over the years, all of which were unmarketable, unwritable, or uninteresting. And faced with that challenge, I did what any self-respecting unsuccessful writer would do: I gave up.

Which is to say, I limited myself to writing only what I wanted to write, and if that didn't sell, then I just didn't write for money. Contrast that with the successful writer's credo of taking on marketing brochures for funeral homes, or trade publications for industrial lubricants. For some odd reason, I fell under the common delusion that my writing had to be "important" to be worthwhile. If I had taken the same attitude with my day job, IT consulting, I'd be asking people today if they wanted thin potatoes with their main course.

So that's why I wince when I call myself a writer. Yes, I get paid to write; a fair chunk of my income comes from writing technical analyses for my clients, and it's safe to say that one of the skills that earns my keep is my ability to translate binary into English. But that's getting paid by the hour, not the word. I'm a writer in the same sense that the Redskins and Arsenal are both football teams.

But I still have my merit badge. Like "Senator" or "adulterer," you keep the "writer" title long after you've lost the job description. Lifelong admission to the inner circle. I still get emails from my readers from time to time. Unpublished writers ask me for advice. And now that you've heard that advice, you can see why I start laughing every time it happens.

If you haven't yet decided on whether you want to be an unsuccessful writer, don't let me dissuade you. It has been a lot of fun, and useful to my other nonwriting endeavors. But I recommend that you choose at the outset to be my kind of writer or John's kind of writer. Read between the lines of his many essays on the topic, and you'll see the dues-paying he had to do to get to where he is now. I skipped over all that, and that's why I'm still a dilettante. Unsuccessful writing is easy. Successful writing only looks easy.

Tune in later for Part II, wherein I propose a great untapped market for unsuccessful writers, and hand out a free business idea to anyone with the moxie to pick up the ball and run with it.

Posted by at July 2, 2005 04:33 AM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Doug Hoffman | July 2, 2005 12:02 PM

Thanks for this post, Jeff. Your cautionary tale is an interesting counterpoint to the usual "How to Succeed" lists.

RooK | July 2, 2005 12:58 PM

All hail the Antiscalzi! Thank you Jeff. Your entry was a desperately-needed balm for all those who come here masochistically to remind ourselves of how much less successful we are as writers than John. It was soothing to not read about how easy he makes it seem.

Because, let me tell you, there was a part of me reading his entry mentioning signing 1.5 kilocopies of one page of Agent to the Stars that happily imagined it was mine on which his wrist snapped off mid-scrawl. Perhaps sending a splatter across the page, of whatever oily black blood I suspect oozes through his inhuman veins. But I somehow doubt that is the "special Scalzi gift" he promised when I preordered the book.

Brian Greenberg | July 2, 2005 01:43 PM

Interesting post, Jeff. When I first started visiting this blog (at Jeff's recommendation, by the way), I would have told you that the line between professional writers and everyone else was remarkably thin. I mean, come on - everyone writes. I'm writing right now, in fact. Professional writers, I used to think, just had the guts to write 24/7, and with that much practice, how could you help but get better at it? Until one day, people start publishing what you've written and you're off to the races.

After listening to John run through the process in intricate detail, though, I now think of professional writing as very similar to other professions. You need to start somewhere. You need to strike a balance between what's marketable and what's fun to keep you going in the beginning. And you need one or more "angels on your shoulder" that get you a break now and again.

As it turns out, I think the line I used to imagine between professional writer and everyone else was the line between someone like me and someone like Jeff. John's in a different profession altogether.

That being said, I also think Jeff's being too hard on himself here. He had a couple of false starts and an agent who pushed him through his first effort, but he did the work - no one else. And I'm sure if he thinks about it for a second, he'll realize that the same set of rules (except the last one - "giving up") describes how he got into his (successful) IT consulting gig.

The irony of the whole thing is that this was precisely the subject of his book ten years ago!

Jeff Porten | July 2, 2005 03:27 PM

Thanks for the nice comments. I'd like to point out that some of the negativity of the post was purely for humorous tone; in fact, I don't feel like a failure as a writer -- and anyone who does after being handed a plum platform like this one needs to have his head examined.

So, Doug, I don't think I'm necessarily being cautionary. That is, I caution people who act like dilettantes not to expect to be successful like Scalzi. But I encourage people to try their hands at being successful dilettantes. In fact, so does John and most other pros -- this would be the underlying meaning of "don't quit your day job".

RooK: er, yes, but not quite so vivid, okay? The only harm I wish on John is the kind that forces him to write more stuff for me to read. You know, like a head injury that makes posting to Whatever an OCD sort of thing.

Yes, it's easy to get green around the gills reading about the latest time someone ships him a check for having fun and writing about it. But only if you're not paying attention to how much work this takes. My post this morning, I'm hoping, reads like I wrote it off the top of my head -- but that's the seventh draft you're reading. Likewise with John's work, and likewise with all of the scut work I'm sure he had to do to be famous for being lazy today.

Brian: dammit, man, don't steal my next post topic! But yeah, that's the key difference: John made a business of this, and I made a hobby of it. But let's not forget the part about raw talent -- I've got some, and I think John's got (far) more, and the rules of the game are that I can't presume to say I can work at his level until I have actually done so. Like we say at the Hold 'Em table, money is how we keep score.

This isn't being hard on myself, this is just reality. My guess is that the reason the writing biz generates so much jealousy is that so many people feel they "deserve" to be more successful than they are. And maybe they do. That's why we use objective measures when evaluating such things.

Post a comment.

Comments are moderated to stop spam; if your comment goes into moderation, it may take a couple of hours to be released. Please read this for my comment moderation policies.
Preview will not show paragraph breaks. Trust me, they're there.
The proprietor generally responds to commenters in kind. If you're polite, he'll be polite. If you're a jackass, he'll be a jackass. If you are ignorant, he may correct you.
When in doubt, read the comment thread rules.

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)