Sunday, January 13, 2008

Review: You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop

I am a fan of John Scalzi, and this book has made me a bigger fan of him. It's a book about writing, but not a book about how to write! It's really a book about the business of writing, which to me is much more interesting than yet another how-to book. First of all, Scalzi is very funny. For instance, in his title column he makes fun of writers, posers acting like writers, and self-pompous asses. What's not to like?

What intrigues me, though, that Scalzi came to writing the way I came to programming --- it was easy for him. And like him, I also came to recognize that my vocation turned out to be real work, if you didn't want to turn out dreck. (In my case, it was having to program DBase III as part of a work-study program) He also has a very professional attitude towards work, which is that clients pay him, and he delivers. That's what being professional means, and I wish someone would write a column directed to many programmers too snobbish to write code in C++, Java, or whatever. He is by turns sarcastic, funny, and even once in a while sympathetic, but he's always honest, and I respect that a lot.

That honesty comes through even when discussing compensation. His writing nets him $100,600 a year, as of 2005. This might sound like a lot, but then you have to realize that despite having published a few novels, his novels are a small portion of his income, and most of his work comes from writing commercial copy. A good technical writer can expect that much, and my friend Larry Hosken probably blows Scalzi's income away. This is not a strike against technical writers (who I respect a lot, and am happy to have on a sailboat any day), but a reflection that if you expect to write fiction for a living and aren't the next Stephen King, you're probably dreaming. And note that despite writing being easy for him, Scalzi's work ethic has him writing 1 million words a year. That's a lot of output, and probably the only other person I've heard public say that he's done that and more is Mike Mearls, who has a reputation for being a caffeine-powered robot.

Another interesting column is one about rewriting, where Scalzi mentions that he rarely goes through multiple drafts. I was very relieved to hear this, since I'm glad to hear that it's possible. (Most of my blog posts don't get rewritten, for instance, though I do trash paragraphs, etc., while writing them) Perhaps this column might come across as arrogance, but I think it is very honest, and a validation of the way a high output writer has to work.

Finally, I really like Scalzi's attitude towards piracy, books online, and Amazon.com's search inside the book feature. All in all, I think this collection of blog entries is very much worth reading (hopefully I haven't cost him too many sales by linking to the three most interesting ones), and is highly recommended, not just for aspiring writers, but for those interested in the business of writing from a writer's point of view as well.
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