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May 17, 2007

The Dictator of Writing Announces His Decrees, Part I

Certain events of the past few days have convinced me that most of writerdom has trouble finding its own ass without a claque of workshop buddies to comment on the journey ("I like the way you used your hands to search, but did you really need to use the flashlight?"). So in the interest of all writers, who I feel crave strong, confident demogoguery, I have staged a coup, and am now The Beloved and Inspirational Forward-Thinking and Righteous Leader Amongst the Scribes, or, more colloquially, The Dictator of Writing. Having "remaindered" all those who oppose me (or, even worse, sidelined them into SFWA board slots), I am now ready to issue decrees, which all writers must henceforth follow, on penalty of death and/or being eternally blue-pencilled by the sort of officiously tone-deaf copy editor who ate the Chicago Manual of Style when she was 14 and has been barfing it up ever since.

The decrees!

1. By Order of the Dictator of Writing, No Writer Will Be Allowed To Write Professionally Without Having First Taken a Remedial Business Course. Because, damn, people. You folks don't have a lick of sense about that whole "money" thing. Just as writers can write about anything as long as it's not what they're supposed to be writing, so can they spend their money on anything, as long as it's not what they're supposed to be spending it on (like, you know, bills and rent and taxes and food). Of course, it's not just you. Dostoevsky spent all his money gambling; F. Scott Fitzgerald drank a lot of his (he had help from Zelda) and was in the habit of asking for loans from his agent, which is clearly a trick I need to try. However, just because Dostoevsky and Fitzgerald pissed away their money doesn't mean the rest of you get to -- at least we got Crime and Punishment and The Great Gatsby out of them.

So: Remedial business courses for the lot of you. You will learn how to manage your money, by God. You will learn how to budget. You will learn how to stretch your income so that you don't end up eying the cat for its protein value during the final days of the month. You will learn how keep a ledger of accounts receivable, so you'll know just who is screwing you out of your money and for how long they've been doing it. You will learn the tax code, so you can pay your quarterlies on time and you can be clear on what's a business expense and what is not. You will learn how to save, damn you, so that when life hands you that inevitable surprise gut punch that costs two grand, you don't have to pawn your children. And for the love of Christ, you will learn that just because you have a $10,000 credit limit on that plastic rectangle of evil what resides in your wallet, it doesn't mean you have to spend it.

You say you don't need remedial business courses? Great! How much credit card debt do you have? How long have you been waiting for that money to come in? How many minutes per pound do you think Frisky the Cat needs in the oven at 375 degrees? And on what notice is your electric bill?

Hmmmm. Well, see. This is why you need a Dictator of Writing.

2. By Order of the Dictator of Writing, Undergraduate Creative Writing Programs are Abolished. Really, what a waste of your parents' $37,000 a year. Take a couple of writing courses, if you must (make sure one of them teaches you all the grammar you flaked out on in high school). You can even major in English, if you really want to. But shunting yourself into a writing program at an age where you don't know a single damn thing about life is a fine way to make sure you're never anything more than someone who is clever with words. We've got enough of those, thank you kindly. So no more of that. Learn something else, why don't you. Something you can bring to the table when you start writing, so what you're writing has something else going for it besides the vacuum-packed pedantry of a creative writing education. Or, heavens forfend, learn something useful and practical, so that you don't actually have to starve while you're giving writing a go once you get out of college. Related to this:

3. By Order of the Dictator of Writing, Every Person Intending to Get an MFA in Any Sort of Writing Must First Spend Three Years in The Real World, Hopefully Doing Something Noble and Selfless. Like, I don't know, teaching. Or forestry service. Or the military or Peace Corps. Or taking housecats out for refreshing walks in the countryside. You know. Anything. (Except working in a coffee shop. Just what the world needs: Another barrista who writes.) By doing anything else but writing, you will open up your brain to the needs and concerns of other people and things, because, among other things, empathy will make you a better writer, and it will also make you a whole lot less insufferable. Also all that craft you're learning won't mean a damn thing if the only sort of life experience you can model is the life of an MFA grad, since among other things, most of one's audience isn't going to be down with that. "His struggles in a setting of academic privilege are eerily like my own!" Well, yes, if all you're doing is writing for other MFA grads. Otherwise, not so much. Which reminds me:

4. By Order of the Dictator of Writing, Writing to Impress Other Writers is Punishable by Death. Honestly. You want to impress another writer with your emanations, set a pot of chili between you and then lock the door. Aside from that, think of the poor reader, who just wants to be entertained, and does not know or care that you are trying to impress that fellow writer whom you loathe, or want to get into the pants of, or both. Won't you please give a thought to the readers? Especially when death is on the line?

Perhaps to enforce this sentiment, and to cut down the number of needless deaths among writers, we should institute a program like the following:

SCENE: A writer's garret: WRITER is hammering out immortal prose. There is a knock on the DOOR.

WRITER (opening the door to find a large, burly man in the doorway): Who are you?

JOE: I am Joe, sent to you by the Dictator of Writing to help you in your task. I am a reader of average intelligence. Is that your latest work in your hand?

WRITER: Why yes, yes, it is.

JOE: Will you read it to me?

WRITER: Well, it's a work in progress.

JOE: Of course. I understand completely.

WRITER (clears throat): "I blanketed myself with wrath incarnadine --"

JOE punches WRITER in the gut. WRITER falls to the FLOOR.

WRITER (gasping and writhing): Why did you do that?

JOE: I didn't follow that sentence. And when that happens, I am authorized to beat you.

WRITER: Let me fix it. (WRITER crawls to DESK, grabs a PEN, and makes an EDIT)

JOE: What does it say now?

WRITER: "I got mad."

JOE kicks WRITER in the TESTICLES. WRITER collapses.

JOE: Now you're just being condescending.

5. By Order of the Dictator of Writing, All Writers Must Be Editors For At Least One Year. Because then you will understand why editors suggest changes: To save writers from themselves. Yes, I know it is hard to believe that your perfect prose can be improved upon a single jot, but once you've done heroic and dramatic rescues of other writers' unfortunate prose pileups, you will at least have an inkling of why those editorial types do what they do.

Also, a good solid twelve months of having to slog through a slush pile will serve to tighten up your own work, because every time something you do reminds you of some piece of crap you found marinating in the slush pile, your brain will actually revulse and your fingers will spasm in the phalangical equivalent of a gag reflex, and you'll find some other way to make your point, one that, incidentally, won't cause some poor bastard editor pain somewhere down the line. And that's good for you.

The Dictator of Writing is now bored with issuing decrees! More will come at a future time, when he has angrily stewed some more! Now go! And bask in my glorious rule!

Posted by john at May 17, 2007 03:44 PM

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gerrymander | May 17, 2007 03:53 PM

"You will learn how to stretch your income so that you don't end up eying the cat for its protein value during the final days of the month."

If the cat didn't want to be eyed for its potential protein value, it should have kept away from the tasty, tasty bacon.

Robert Rummel-Hudson | May 17, 2007 03:57 PM

"Because then you will understand why editors suggest changes: To save writers from themselves."

Good lord, yes.

anonymous coward | May 17, 2007 04:03 PM

Having worked as a publisher for years, I agree entirely with what you wrote here. What I really wonder is what event inspired this sudden dictatorship?

Steve Buchheit | May 17, 2007 04:06 PM

"Just as writers can write about anything as long as it's not what they're supposed to be writing,"

And our Grand Poobahness would know absolutely nothing about this?

"Or taking housecats out for refreshing walks in the countryside."

Too close to cat vacuuming. I'd rethink that career goal.

"Writing to Impress Other Writers is Punishable by Death."

Gulp. He he. What, me?

"Especially when death is on the line?"

Speaking of impressing other writers, what ever you say, Vizzini.

"your brain will actually revulse and your fingers will spasm in the phalangical equivalent of a gag reflex."

Where is Joe when you need him?

Jon Marcus | May 17, 2007 04:14 PM

"Also, a good solid telve months"

Demonstrating why writers need editors, are we?

Alma Alexander | May 17, 2007 04:14 PM


Dan | May 17, 2007 04:14 PM

Okay. I think I've met all your requirements. Do I get a sweet little lapel pin or something? Is there a secret handshake? Arm-bands, perhaps?

tim | May 17, 2007 04:21 PM

While creative writing programs may be a waste, I feel that there's something special about a top-level journalism program. Perhaps that's because I'm an alumnus of one (who ended up going to grad school in communication theory and never practicing as a journalist beyond my internships) who uses the basics of concise and organized writing on a daily basis.

Graeme Williams | May 17, 2007 04:25 PM

While you're still feeling benevolent, could we have a ukase against explanations in dialogue? You know, where Bob and Bill are calibrating the thingmatron, and Bob decides he'd better give Bill a detailed history of the development of the thingmatron, as well as its maintenance schedule and likely failure modes.

As for editors, perhaps what's needed is a sliding scale where the fraction of sales devoted to the editing budget increases as the author's success increases, eventually funding combat-hardened mercenaries who can slice a book in half before breakfast.

Jules Jones | May 17, 2007 04:28 PM

I am particularly fond of number 5. My Dark Past in fanfic included several years of zine editing, and a stint on that side of the slushpile has saved me from making a fair number of the popular mistakes of baby writers. Including the most basic one of RTFG...

John Scalzi | May 17, 2007 04:28 PM


"While creative writing programs may be a waste, I feel that there's something special about a top-level journalism program."

I don't think they're particularly useful in undergrad; graduate programs I have no problem with, although, as with MFA folks, I think j-school folks are well advised to get some real life under their belt. Indeed, I think in most grad school/professional school situations, a little real-life experience is not a bad thing to have going in.

Sally Lou Lix | May 17, 2007 04:30 PM

Is this mandatory money management course limited to writers only? As I read the first paragraph, it struck me that many of my friends, and other assorted aquaintances need this kind of help. Or perhaps, just someone to handle the bills and dole out an allowance. Hmm. Sounds mighty like how my husband lives (snort giggle).

Also, a good solid telve months

Was that a Freudian typo??

Dot | May 17, 2007 04:40 PM

"JOE kicks WRITER in the TESTICLES. WRITER collapses.

JOE: Now you're just being condescending."

I need to borrow Joe and his kicking abilities.

JonathanMoeller | May 17, 2007 04:42 PM

I feel obligated to point out that if you *do* wind up cooking the cat, you are far more likely to get optimal results at 425 degrees, rather than 375. Furthermore, since cat meat is rather pork-like in consistency (especially for fatter felines), a nice marinate with some basil and a side of carrots goes down well.

Also, it helps to first shave the cat.


kurt | May 17, 2007 04:44 PM

Bravo John,

The thing you said that I feel matters most was the part about spending a few years actually "learning something usefull"
getting out and having a life...peace corps, military, forestry service, ect, ect, is a great place to start. and like you pointed out, its really nice to have a marketable skill to fall back on if the writing thing dpesn't work out!!

Syd | May 17, 2007 04:45 PM

I think everybody could benefit from that mandatory business course--Bog knows the "senior studies" class they foisted on us in high school was the next best thing to worthless--but perhaps the artists (of all stripes) most of all. There does seem to be this lame perception that artistic people either should be above mere monetary concerns, or are too flaky to bother, and neither view helps pay the rent or the cat-walker.

And I have to think that "telve" was an intentional typo to see if we were paying attention, because I've now read the post twice, my proofreader's antennae aquiver, and that's the only flaw I can find. (But like a good proofreader, I will check again... ;)

Marvelous post, O Dictator of Writing! Don't recall if I ended up here via Wil Wheaton or Neil Gaiman, but boy howdy, am I glad I did!

Martyn Taylor | May 17, 2007 04:45 PM

There is just far too much good, solid sense in those articles.

Are you sure you're a writer? Really sure? Really, really sure? Cross your heart and hope to die sure?

rick gregory | May 17, 2007 04:46 PM

Dammit Scalzi you can't publish this stuff when I'm eating lunch! I JUST washed that t-shirt!!

Clay | May 17, 2007 04:48 PM

Do you have to edit as an editor for publication? Or does editing people's work so that you don't die of shame when your developer sees it count?

Clay | May 17, 2007 04:57 PM

375 is for bread. 450 for roasting a well marbled housecat. Depending on the amount of activity in its everyday life, baking it in a salt crust will help keep the more active kitties moist. Lower activity cats you'll want to butterfly, and bake under a foil wrapped brick.

That goes for housecats. Free range you may want to consider braising. They're a little tougher, but the supply is better.

Joe Hass | May 17, 2007 05:00 PM

Question from a non-writer: did Krissy give you permission to put that "Dictator of Writing" title on the mailbox yet?

Jette | May 17, 2007 05:02 PM

Oh, boy, I would love a course on what is a legitimate business expense for writers (for tax purposes) and what is not. I've never been able to find a good resource on this, and even the accountant I used one year seemed a little vague about it.

Rachel | May 17, 2007 05:06 PM

Um, I'm hoping these aren't comments based on having visited my class.

John Scalzi | May 17, 2007 05:13 PM

No, Rachel. Your students were lovely, and I loved meeting them.

Tim Walker | May 17, 2007 05:13 PM

Bravo, sir!

Joe | May 17, 2007 05:13 PM

As an editor, thanks. Now if I could only get some of our reporters to believe this applies to them.

Brenda | May 17, 2007 05:17 PM

Wow, you really don't want to meet any more starving writer types, do you? Does this have to do with talking to fans/wannabe writers on your book tour? Tell us more!

From a non-starving librarian type.

John Scalzi | May 17, 2007 05:18 PM


No, it has nothing to do with people I met on tour. All the folks who came out to see me ROCK.

D. | May 17, 2007 05:19 PM

A Gentle Reminder re: Joe: some writers do not have testicles.

Condescension is also effectively met with sarcasm, mockery, and Dorothy Parker.

ben | May 17, 2007 05:21 PM

Wow. Sarcasm and irony are definitely fashionable

TCO | May 17, 2007 05:22 PM

It's a good post. Much better than your norm. Almost like the Gipper-like figure of Ashcroft dealing with Gonzales.

Only thing is that "I got mad" is not condescending or poor writing. The problem is that writer spend too much time on bon mots and too little on real stories, real things that touch. It doesn't matter the words at the end of the GRAPES OF WRATH. It matters that a poor woman who has miscarried her baby feeds a starving man from her breast.

Laura | May 17, 2007 05:30 PM

Let's hear it for real life experience.....but oh my, that cat is looking mighty tasty.

Dan | May 17, 2007 05:41 PM

I think I'd rather slow smoke the cat over a combination of cherry and hickory woods. And, oddly enough, I'm willing to bet that my cat shares the same opinion on how to cook me.

Barbecue is pretty popular in this house, after all.

Dan Bailey | May 17, 2007 05:46 PM

1. At the very least, let's ask publishers to tack on a Quicken install and a copy of Quicken for Dummies with every first book sale. Because really? Nothing drives the point home faster than "HOLY F$(K! I SPENT 15% OF MY TAKE-HOME ON FAST FOOD??!! WTF?!"

2. Yeah, as one of those dimwits who got his undergrad degree in Creative Writing, I think I am fully qualified to say: what a fucking waste of time.

The B.A. in Creative Writing involved: classes that were one giant ego-stroking session, drinking an excessive amount of beer at open-mic nights, and being fucking grateful I'd taught myself web design/dev in my excessive free time. It actually allowed me to land a non-fries job after graduation.

In retrospect, I should have majored in something just as useless -- sociology, perhaps?

3. Fortunately, I got 3 years of military service in before my undergrad work. That count?

4. Shit, I can't even impress myself with my writing these days.

5. Who has time? :-)

I, for one, welcome our new writing overlord.

John Scalzi | May 17, 2007 05:47 PM

Dan Bailey:

"3. Fortunately, I got 3 years of military service in before my undergrad work. That count?"

Hell, yeah.

Jerry | May 17, 2007 05:51 PM


Ryan | May 17, 2007 06:01 PM

Cats are kind of tough. They would do better in a crock pot with rice, onions, and some basil. Kittens would roast nicely at about 425. Or so I suppose.

ChrisB in SEA | May 17, 2007 06:04 PM

Can I borrow Joe for a little while? There's a poetry open mic here in Seattle that could use him.

Wait... there may be too many open mics at this point. Does Joe have a brother or five?

Teresa Nielsen Hayden | May 17, 2007 06:08 PM

All hail the Dictator of Writing, may his reign last a thousand years!

My latest addition to my own corpus of rules: Writing isn't about you. It's about what you can do to the reader.

John Scalzi | May 17, 2007 06:11 PM

TNH, you will be my Minister of Information. Go forth!

Jennifer | May 17, 2007 06:13 PM

I suppose by the dictator's rules, I am doing relatively well.

1. haven't done AT ALL, but I also don't know of any such classes to take. Then again, I also haven't professionally written in years :P
2. Does double majoring count?
3. Skipping the MFA! Huzzah!
4. Don't care!
5. Used to do newspaper editing, does that count?

Pat J | May 17, 2007 06:18 PM

Where does one apply to be one of Joe's cow-orkers? I know a couple people that could really bring some style to a job like that. One used to be a Hell's Angel. One is me.

Do I have to punch myself for that last paragraph?

Pat J | May 17, 2007 06:22 PM

1. Probably a good idea, and there might be something at the local community college that would fit the bill.

2. Computer Science, with Physics and Math for a double-minor.

3. Not interested in spending more money on some letters that I wouldn't ever use behind my name.

4. My mom thinks I'm cool.

5. Uh... I edited a yearbook, like, 15 years ago. I might have to work on that one. > slinks away <

Queenie | May 17, 2007 06:27 PM

Dictator of Writing, I agree with all your points. Here is one I would like to add: "Don't have your main characters be writers." Do you know why? Because it's uncreative, boring, narcissistic, and just plain Sucky McSuckerson.

Annalee Flower Horne | May 17, 2007 06:46 PM

My school actually doesn't offer a creative writing major, because it's their position that learning to write is useless unless you learn something to write about.

1. I haven't taken a business class per se, but I have no credit card debt (or any other kind of debt, excepting student loans, but I feel like that's an acceptable thing to go into debt for). I live way below my means, give money to my parents instead of taking it from them, and the family quadrapeds are safe because I'm a vegetarian.

2. Peace and Global Studies. One might posit that this is, in fact more useless than creative writing (We joke sometimes that PAGS also stands for People Against Gaining Salaries), but a good PAGS program eschews all the hippie bullshit and actually prepares you for social justice work (it also teaches you that we will not achieve world peace by holding hands and singing, or by disbanding the world's militaries).

3. Nope. Law School, thanks. And then perhaps an MLL in international law. Or possibly just a Masters in international conflict resolution.

4. It's much more fun to write to impress your friends-- they're nicer.

5. Does volunteering to help your friends kick the passive voice out of their term papers count? No? Didn't thinks so.

Linda | May 17, 2007 06:50 PM

Asking writers to learn the tax code might be a bit overboard. Most tax attorneys don't know the tax code! Understanding paying estimated (quarterly) taxes and what is an is not a business expense seems like a good requirement. At least to me.

John Scalzi | May 17, 2007 06:52 PM


"Dictator of Writing, I agree with all your points. Here is one I would like to add: 'Don't have your main characters be writers.' Do you know why? Because it's uncreative, boring, narcissistic, and just plain Sucky McSuckerson."

Yeah, generally. Now, John Perry of the Old Man's War series was a writer (and advertising copy writer, actually), but he wasn't doing any of that in the book, so I guess he slides by on a technicality.

Kate | May 17, 2007 06:52 PM

*buys you a plethora of pinatas for your doubtfully agnostic balding dictatorship in writing*

I think I will keep the noble profession of being a single mom. That gives more than enough experience.

In fact on the ficlets site, I get more comments on stories dealing with my kids (and the ones involving pie) than I do with my serious stuff.

Not that the other stuff is bad, but I guess kids and pie are fun. In fact, I should write about both!

RooK | May 17, 2007 06:55 PM

I didn't realize that Joshua A. Norton was Scalzi's hero.

TNH, do paper cuts count? If so, I'll make sure my next slush pile contribution to TOR is printed on extra-sharp paper.

Mary Dell | May 17, 2007 07:13 PM

Amen to the thingy about the MFA programs. I spent a miserable year in an excellent MFA program (On the poetry track. Yeah, I'll cop to it.) One day in workshop, all of us white, 23-year-old Hoosiers were reading our boring free verse about breaking up with our boyfriends or noticing that our grandparents were getting on in years or how spring was different than when we were children, etc.

Then a student from China, who was older than the rest of us, read his poem about the day the police came and took his friend away for expressing forbidden political opinions.

It opened my eyes. Not because he was the best writer in the class (he was!) but because he'd actually lived a life that we wanted to read about.

Mary Dell | May 17, 2007 07:53 PM

I have never taken a remedial business course, by the way, and my cat Ahab still has three of his legs.

Because you don't eat a cat like that all at once.

Chris Pasley | May 17, 2007 08:05 PM

Amen on #2. Although I'm one of the rare few whose Undergrad degree in creative writing actually landed them a job, you know...writing...I wanted to punch every single writer in every single class in the throat. Especially this one guy who decided that since we're in the south he'd adopt a "Southern Gentleman" persona and walk around with a hat, bow-tie and white suit while pretending he had enough experience and depth to write about something like abortion from a female POV. Grr.

I've been guilty of #5 before, though I try to only impress myself these days (which is actually probably worse.) I do try to avoid using big words at all cost! So...do I get half a point? Maybe?

Pat Logan | May 17, 2007 08:26 PM

God, yes.

Mark Tiedemann | May 17, 2007 08:26 PM

You're dashing a lot of peoples' illusions here, y'know.

But don't stop.

Chang, for rizzle. | May 17, 2007 08:30 PM

Not taking that SFWA defeat so well, huh, John? Gotta declare yourself dictator and impose martial law? I suppose you'll be making everyone wear their undies on the outside now? I mean, those of us who don't already.

David Chunn | May 17, 2007 08:40 PM

I absolutely agree with Queenie. No writers writing writers. Exceptions can be applied for, but with a large upfront fee to discourage all but the best from even thinking about it.

I'd like to add graduate students and professors to the list but make the application process for those a little easier. Unless time travel is involved. I will not read a time travel or travel to alternate world story with academics involved unless they are selected by a government agency. Ok, that's pretty cheesy, so I won't do that either.

#1 applies to the average American. I wonder how writers stack up against the average? And against other artists?

With good instructors, poetry classes can be quite productive. I had one of the best. But in my experience, fiction classes and critique groups are a waste of money and time.

I wonder how many editors could transition to writing? After finishing the last stages of a novel, I have to decompress to get back to writing new fiction. I practically paralyze myself by trying to write while still in editing mode.

Tatiana | May 17, 2007 09:15 PM

I've been thinking about getting a new job. Can I be a Joe? Because my current position never offers the opportunity to say "And when that happens, I am authorized to beat you."

Scorpio | May 17, 2007 09:58 PM

Oh my!

but ...

"The ONE THING you MUST NOT DO with your three years is move to Texas and cut brush. This has been proved deletereous to mental processes."

Subspace | May 17, 2007 10:15 PM

"(Except working in a coffee shop. Just what the world needs: Another barrista who writes.)"

Whoa, hey, what? Why the low swipe at baristas? The fact is that I have a minimum wage day job and the day job is serving people coffee, and that means I should quit either it (and by consequence living independently) or writing?

I mean yes, all very funny, but my heart actually dropped when I read that. It's hard enough getting respect as a writer without my heroes taking punches at me also.

John Scalzi | May 17, 2007 10:18 PM

Well, see. Those who already had their barrista jobs before I became dictator are grandfathered in. So you're fine.

Subspace | May 17, 2007 10:22 PM

Phew. I was worried I was going to have to reevaluate my life AGAIN. This week.

Gillian | May 17, 2007 10:31 PM

I'm going to use my newly-developed business skills to set up a Bureau for Readers of Average Intelligence. I intend to hire them out to publishers and other interested parties. Rates very reasonable.

Joyce Reynolds-Ward | May 17, 2007 10:36 PM

Okay. I'm fine with #1 (married an Econ major who used to be a dairyman, we've got the small business management down; I also did the beaded jewelry and freelance clerical gig for a while).

But may I suggest a.) a course in Bookkeeping 101/Accounting 101 followed by a Real World Stint in Bookkeeping for a Small Business Owner Who Hasn't a Clue?


#2 I grumped and grouched my way through all my college writing courses because I had two excellent writing teachers in high school who taught me all I needed to know about writing research papers and essays. I've yet to find a creative writing class (college or otherwise) that doesn't send me off screaming. MFA program? No freakin' way. The best thing I did for my writing was to go through a Masters in Education: Special Education and learn to write Individual Education Plans. Talk about learning to write well to a deadline...

#3 Lessee, cannery worker, receptionist, concession stand worker, paralegal, convenience store clerk, resort worker, industrial clerical temp, secretary, bookkeeper, teacher...how's that for experience?

#4 Man, these days I don't even wanna have someone workshop my writing. Does that count? If I want to impress another writer, I'd sooner do it in a social situation. Want to ski or ride horses, anyone?

Anonymous | May 17, 2007 10:36 PM

Where is this going?

John Scalzi | May 17, 2007 10:45 PM

It's not going anywhere. It's here!

Steve Taylor | May 17, 2007 10:49 PM

Queenie wrote:

> Here is one I would like to add: "Don't have your

> main characters be writers."

I'd go for a compromise position:

Each writer to be permitted to have a writer as their main character *once* in their career, but only after their third novel has been published, and only if they are prepared to sacrifice one of their little fingers, yakuza style.

I'm sure the Dictator of Writing (or one of his minions) could administer the agency which monitors this and removes fingers as needed.

TCO | May 17, 2007 10:55 PM

Subspace, I'll have a tall, latte, skim, mocha frapacino with extra vowels.

TCO | May 17, 2007 11:06 PM

I think it should be the peepee that is chopped off.

JJS | May 17, 2007 11:30 PM

Having a writer as your main protagonist worked well for Ellery Queen.

Scorpio | May 17, 2007 11:40 PM

Yeah, well "Ellery Queen" was a house pen name. Theodore Sturgeon wrote one "Ellery Queen" novel. So "Ellery Queen" doesn't quite count.

Ian Randal Strock | May 17, 2007 11:41 PM

All right, so I've taken business courses, spent more than three years in the "real world," don't write to impress other writers, and have been an editor for far more than one year. So how come I ain't a famous writer? (Alternatively, how come a dozen stories in Analog hasn't made me famous?) [wink]

Soni Pitts | May 17, 2007 11:49 PM


Scalzi's on the warpath again! Hee Hee!

*runs around in happy circles, then flomps down in front of the computer with chin in hands, wide-eyed with excited anticipation of further screeds*

Lucy Kemnitzer | May 17, 2007 11:53 PM

Yes, you've got to rework that testicles part. I'm thinking you were overidentifying with the WRITER in that scene, when you ought to have been identifying with JOE (which would have allowed you to visualize a long stream of writers with various bodily equipment).

"kicks in the most painful available part of the body" probably doesn't ring right, but I'm not doing your work for you.

There also has to be some remedial self-promotion course somewhere for some folks.

John Scalzi | May 17, 2007 11:56 PM

It was just an example. I would assume the actual technique would vary from writer to writer.

ben | May 18, 2007 12:17 AM

You write:

"But shunting yourself into a writing program at an age where you don't know a single damn thing about life is a fine way to make sure you're never anything more than someone who is clever with words."

Which explains PDQ why the thought of going into a history or English major never occurred to me.

More than fifteen years later, well, I build Web sites. And I've heard it said that I'm not too shabby at the Writing About Sitebuilding Thing.

But an ink-stained wretch capable of parlaying a broad variety of life experience into brilliant and evocative fiction?

Not so much.


Max | May 18, 2007 01:12 AM

I qualify! I meet all your requirements! VALIDATE MEEEEEEeeeeeeeee!

Blue Tyson | May 18, 2007 02:42 AM

You hiring for your death squads then?


Thena | May 18, 2007 07:28 AM

Well, that explains it. I'm out of debt and haven't contemplated roasting the cats since, oh, about 3:00 this morning (but that was due to a rousing game of Who's Guarding This Bedroom Anyway?); I majored in Math (eventually, by way of German and Religious Studies) and haven't gotten around to graduate school despite my passably good grammar; I've held an assortment of dubious-wage jobs for about 15 years without offing any of my bosses or cow-orkers; and while I've not yet had the opportunity to slog through a slushpile I'm the person who gets asked, on a regular basis, how you spell "annihilation" and whether that should be a comma or a semicolon. (Which is different from content editing, but the informal context in which I do that is related to fiction.... not so much.)

So, clearly, I just need to start writing again and see if it entertains other people as much as it entertains me.

Jules | May 18, 2007 08:26 AM

Re: cooking cats

Traditionally-roasted cats are too tough for most people's taste, unfortunately. May I recommend low-temperature roasting?

Preheat an oven to 58 celsius (135 fahrenheit). You may need a thermometer to ensure you get this one right. Take one cat and skin (you may use the method of your choice). Heat a large pan on a hot stove and melt some butter in it. When the butter begins to caramelize, add the cat and turn regularly until thoroughly browned. Transfer to the oven and roast for three hours per kilo plus an additional three. This approach can also be used for beef or lamb.

Chryss | May 18, 2007 08:43 AM

I am respectfully disagreeing with one tenet of our Beloved Dictator. With this, I know I am going to be visited in the night by his Minions of Doom, but that's OK--I, for one, welcome our new Scalzi overlords.

I was an undergraduate writing major. I didn't waste my parents' $37k a year, as I paid for it myself, and I went to Antioch College, where you get sent out into "the real world" every other semester as part of its cooperative education program. I was already a published short story writer, as were a lot of my peers.

Wouldn't trade it for the world, no matter what the Minions do to me in the middle of the night.

Other than that, RIGHT ON!!!

John Scalzi | May 18, 2007 08:54 AM

Well, if it was your money, Chryss, by all means, you could do what you wanted. The minions are still on their way, however.

Mike Crichton | May 18, 2007 08:56 AM

As someone who spent 8 years in the military, I _resnt_ that "noble" characterization. It is a baseless slur against all the selfless lowbrows in uniform! Your apology can take the form of strippers and beer...

Mike Crichton | May 18, 2007 08:58 AM

See, would a noble person have misspelled "resent"? Proof, sir, PROOF!

Julia | May 18, 2007 09:12 AM

I, for one, welcome our new Overlord, and petition him to ban all alienated-young-man coming of age stories for the next forty years or until Less Than Zero falls into public domain, whichever comes first.

Tricia Sullivan | May 18, 2007 09:30 AM

Great post. I'd really like to borrow Joe, but first I'll need to stock up on ice packs.

Emily | May 18, 2007 09:40 AM

I majored in creative writing as an undergrad, and I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world. (Okay, it was an English major with a creative writing concentration, and I tacked on History, but you take my point.) The thing I loved about creative writing as an undergrad was that the students chose wildly differing subject matter and had many different ideas on what made writing "good". This doesn't sound like a benefit, but it was. I believe I can tell by reading the first five pages of a book if the writer graduated from an M.F.A. program because there's a peculiar style and vocabulary so well-loved in M.F.A. programs that it's stamped on every graduate. I saw this in many of the M.A. students in my creative writing classes (our seminars mixed grads and undergrads). The grads were all submitting carefully crafted pieces about loss and disillusionment; the undergrads turned in manga, sonnets, language poetry, anything they could think of. The grad students were far more advanced writers, but it's the women I was an undergrad with that I'm keeping an eye on; I want to read *their* books.

Anonymous | May 18, 2007 09:57 AM

1) I’m okay with that. (In real life I’m a CPA. Don’t let your kids grow up to be accountants!)
2) I had a creative writing class as an undergrad. I didn’t learn much but the Professor was very amusing.
3) Amen to that! You can’t write about life if you haven’t lived it.
4) I agree. I can’t imagine anyone writing to impress other writers (of course I’m a CPA, we don’t think that way.)
5) Trouble – I’m too old to get a job editing and refuse to quit writing. You may send in the Goon Squad at your leisure. Please let them know that I live in Texas and thanks to the new law passed by our state government every household in Texas has to have two firearms on the premises at all times. I’m harmless but my wife has been a little trigger happy ever since she found a stack of “the watchtower” pamphlets on our front doorstep.

Additional Recommendation For Our Beloved Dictator : All writers must be compulsive readers.

Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) | May 18, 2007 09:58 AM

Queenie wrote:

"Don't have your main characters be writers."

I'm sure there's a C&W song in here somewhere.

And while I'm at it, your Hindmostship, you really ought to think about expanding your writ to other artistic fields. My wife has a BFA in visual art, which was just enough to get her a job as an art teacher in Special Ed*. My younger son, having toiled for years in the Help Desk vineyards is working towards a degree in Graphic Arts, which means that if he's very, very lucky he'll be able to get a non-paying internship at Dark Horse**. Neither one of them has so much as heard of a course in how to market your work. All the accounting in the world doesn't protect the cat if you never sell anything.

* Ed was thrilled.

** And that's a good thing.

nisleib | May 18, 2007 10:12 AM

Queenie Wrote:

Dictator of Writing, I agree with all your points. Here is one I would like to add: "Don't have your main characters be writers." Do you know why? Because it's uncreative, boring, narcissistic, and just plain Sucky McSuckerson.

I disagree slightly. I loved Zach Helm's "Stranger Than Fiction" and Warren Ellis' "Transmetropolitan."

Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) | May 18, 2007 10:35 AM

A minor point of ideology. your Warshipfulness: is acceptable to write to impress yourself, as long as you wash your hands afterwards?

Mary Dell | May 18, 2007 10:43 AM

"Don't have your main characters be writers."

Or symbologists.

Heatseekers | May 18, 2007 10:54 AM

True, so true. And don't forget "keep at it" - and "work as hard at writing as you would at any other job; this is not a hobby".

Kristin | May 18, 2007 10:58 AM

#2) You know, that applies to more fields than just writing. I majored in communications at a fancy expensive school and currently work in publishing... and I learned more about office politics, public relations, management, event planning, and just general people skills by waiting tables at TGI Friday's for a year.

I spent $160,000 I can't afford to pay back, on a degree that taught me nothing useful, when all I really needed was a few more pieces of flair.

maidstragedy | May 18, 2007 11:23 AM

TCO. Following on from what D said above, the writers who don't have testicles probably don't have peepees either.

Djscman | May 18, 2007 11:42 AM

All hail to the Dictator of Writing, the Singularity of Scripting, the Colonel of Characterization, the Pugilist of Plots, the Tyrant of the Thesarus! Scalzi! He who wrote about how he made the trains run on time! Scalzi! No "Stet" could constrain him! Scalzi! He who led his vicious Press Gangs through city streets, herding women and children into the Book Manufactories, where they slaved unto death at the massive printers or forest-pulpers, and their cries for deliverence were swallowed by the din of the machines, and in any case he cared not. Scalzi! No matter who is the victor, he shall write the history. And under his government, his books shall be bestsellers. By law.

Djscman | May 18, 2007 11:43 AM

But seriously, who pissed in your cornflakes' ad copy?

Melanie Fletcher | May 18, 2007 12:10 PM

So, does this mean you'll have to wear a double crown (Campbell Winner Tiara/Dictator Diadem) ala the Pharaohs? And where should we send tribute?

Chris S. | May 18, 2007 12:23 PM

Once again: you're my hero.

Mark | May 18, 2007 01:01 PM

WARNING - Boring factual discussion of earlier comment follows. Probably a good idea to skip this unless you're Scorpio or JJS.

Scorpio wrote:

Yeah, well "Ellery Queen" was a house pen name. Theodore Sturgeon wrote one "Ellery Queen" novel. So "Ellery Queen" doesn't quite count.

End Quote

That's not quite true.

While many (most) of the late Ellery Queen novels were ghosted, Ellery Queen started as the joint pseudonym of two cousins - Frederick Dannay and Manfred Lee. All hardbound Queen novels from 1929 to the early 1950's were written by Dannay and Lee. There were paperback original movie novelizations etc. from the 1940's on that were not Dannay and Lee, but ghosted.

"Ellery Queen", particularly in the 1930's, was extremely popular. These were bestsellers and there were roughly a dozen movies 1935 to the early 1940's. There was also a radio show that ran in the 1940's. At its peak of popularity "Ellery Queen" was only and specifically Dannay and Lee. Later hardcover novels were written by others following supplied outlines.

Besides Sturgeon, Avram Davidson did several novels. (They're quite good) And Jack Vance did several paperbacks in the 1960's that did not feature "Ellery Queen" as a character but only as the author.

So JJS was right:

Having a writer as your main protagonist worked well for Ellery Queen.

We now return you to humor.

Jenny Rae Rappaport | May 18, 2007 02:18 PM

*Mew!* I have a B.A. in Creative Writing... =(

But I did start off getting a B.S. in Computer Science, so that has to count for something, right?

barb | May 18, 2007 02:27 PM

About the cat...

"First, jug your hare."

All the cats around here seem to belong to Joe...

Diane Patterson | May 18, 2007 02:55 PM

One of the best classes I took at USC Film School (where I got an MFA in Screenwriting, thankyouverymuch) was the business class on the business of showbiz, how to interpret box office receipts, and why most of the reporting you read on Hollywood is fantastically off base.

Unfortunately, I don't think the teacher is there any more (he may have passed away, I can't remember right now), and they stopped *requiring* the writers to take the class, so most of my compatriots didn't take it. FOOLS.

Madeline F | May 18, 2007 07:29 PM

We've heard from the writers, now we hear from the cats.

David | May 18, 2007 11:35 PM

1. I surround myself with people I trust who know how to handle money, and I'm quite the Scrooge McDuck myself. No need to torture myself with business classes.

2. I like taking creative writing classes not for the strange and useless workshop critiques I get, but because they force me to write regularly throughout a semester. It's carried on where I now write regularly even if I don't have a creative writing class.

I hope you have a decree later on that forces writers to read read read read read. Read in the genre they want to write and outside it. It's probably the most important thing a writer must do (other than write write write write).

Jonathan | May 19, 2007 05:46 AM

While I'm most entertained and find this rant most insightful, two things:

1) Creative writing courses aren't a waste, it's just that people shouldn't expect it to make them better writers. I took a creative writing course in university and had loads of fun, especially since I had several friends in the course. Everything I wrote, even if it was cute, was absolutely horrible and I would never submit it to an editor. (Some folks in that room were convinced of the opposite regarding their own output.)

The price was pretty foul in the end, though: I punted the only offering I could take of an analog electronics course to be in that creative writing course.

I wish I'd taken analog electronics.

2) This whole rant makes me think of the rules George Orwell enumerated in "Politics and the English Language". I will repeat them here, since this is a convenient forum:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I am not a writer, excluding approximately 150 pages of 20-30 page chunks of "novels" I wrote that litter my childhood, and I'd never show to anyone--but as writers go, Orwell is like unto a god to me.

Matthew Farrer | May 19, 2007 07:27 AM

"I blanketed myself with wrath incarnadine --"

The next time you do a contest on here this HAS to figure in it somewhere.

punkrockhockeymom | May 19, 2007 09:37 AM

John, I don't think I ever took a business course, but I was the "boss of the money" for our family of three during the years our annual household salary ranged from $19,000 to $25,000 per year gross, and we had a bunch of hospital bills too. I got very, very good at the whole money thing. And I'm now a lawyer, so I can read the tax code. In fact, I've always done my own taxes.

Can I test out?

Of course, NOW there is the "decided to go to the best law school that would take me instead of the one offering me the most financial aid" problem, which has resulted in my having in student-loan debt what it would take me to buy a really nice vacation house on Lake Michigan.

I'm good on everything else. Hurray! Now all I need to do is actually write something.

JerolJ | May 19, 2007 01:42 PM

I've got 5 Maine Coon cats. You don't eat them, they eat you.

Mike Cane | May 19, 2007 02:32 PM

>>>5. By Order of the Dictator of Writing, All Writers Must Be Editors For At Least One Year.

I will kill you for this. Unless having done fanzines count! (You know I always look for the damned loophole. No, not *that* one...)

Branko Collin | May 19, 2007 05:53 PM

A monster to scare all the other monsters hiding under the bed.

Branko Collin | May 20, 2007 07:29 PM

Argh, that was for the Things That Would Be Cool thread. Sorry.

dichroic | May 21, 2007 03:16 AM

About that editing thing... I just finished Android's Dream yesterday. I loved it; it was funnier and sillier than anything I've read since the first Tuesday Next book. However, maybe next time you could include a Jew (rather, someone with a good Jewish education) among your proofreaders? As it happens, people who keep kosher can are not forbidden to eat animals with cloven hooves; they can only eat animals with cloven hooves who also chew their cud. (So cows are fine but the latter condition prohibits pigs.) Also, Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage, not porridge. Lentil soup, if I recall correctly.

And there are a couple of typos toward the end, but I'm sure those will get fixed in later editions.

Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little | May 21, 2007 03:16 AM

I'm going to join the Creative Writing Undergraduate Study Perpetrators in the mass self-outing that's going on here. Mine was a B.A. in English with Creative Writing emphasis from the University of Washington. The classes I took there gave me my first useful writing workshop experience, taught me a lot about writing fiction, lacked in the anti-genre snobbery (I'm told this is rare), and caused me to write regularly to deadline. Also, a majority of the stories I wrote in those classes have been published. So, not a waste of time or money (partially my parents', partially my own).

But I can totally see that without the right sort of teachers, the right sorts of classmates, and the right sort of attitude, undergrad writing courses could be a waste of time and money.

I'm glad I did it, not least because I haven't set foot in a graduate-level program yet and perhaps never will.

I'm curious, though: There are several schools of thought on what purpose undergraduate schooling is supposed to serve. I've heard people decry journalism majors as being too focussed on a career, that higher education isn't supposed to be just vocational training; while John here seems to be saying that an undergraduate degree ought to be focussed on Real World Stuff and you shouldn't be allowed to study writing before you study said Real World Stuff. Where do y'all fall in that great debate? What's an undergraduate course of education really supposed to do?

(I always figured it was for more specialized training in the field you want to, well, specialize in. Hence my choice of degrees. I very nearly minored in Communications for the same reason.)

Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little | May 21, 2007 03:26 AM

Er. s/focussed/focused ... but I want the "s" to be doubled, dang it! I get in the same trouble with busses/buses.

John Scalzi | May 21, 2007 05:42 AM


"As it happens, people who keep kosher can are not forbidden to eat animals with cloven hooves; they can only eat animals with cloven hooves who also chew their cud. (So cows are fine but the latter condition prohibits pigs.)"

Remember this data is being provided in the story second-hand by someone who is not a Jew; i.e., it's a mistake someone like that might make. Also, of course, for the purpose of the story, it's an error that makes no difference.

That's my excuse and I'm running with it.

Mary Dell | May 21, 2007 02:05 PM

Nicole said:

"What's an undergraduate course of education really supposed to do?"

I've always believed an undergraduate education should, foremost, teach you how to educate yourself. I majored in English Lit and minored in Anthropology/Archaeology, because that's what interested me at the time. I learned to do research, write expository prose, read swiftly and critically, memorize text, and how to draw conclusions from evidence. I also learned how to work to a deadline and how to budget my time.

Ever since then, when I settle in to learn something new, I have a clear methodology for doing that. That's worth every penny my B.A. cost me.

My abandoned M.A./M.F.A., on the other hand, taught me only to see how much I hated grad school, and it cost WAY more than my B.A. Sigh.

Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little | May 21, 2007 03:51 PM

Thanks for responding, Mary. Your answer makes a lot of sense to me, too. In light of my creative writing classes, I think it absolutely holds true there--one of those classes was my first experience at the peer critique workshop. I not only began learning how to evaluate twelve different, sometimes contradictory critiques for the useful and the ignorable, I also learned a lot about self-editing. Which is what the peer critique experience is supposed to teach you, I think.

Anyway, I think that counts as learning how to educate myself. Sort of. Learning how to improve myself on my own outside the classroom. That kind of thing.

(Someone on critters.org was heard to say to someone else, "After you get done critting someone else, immediately turn around and start editing something of your own.")

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