18 July 2006

Author Answers with John Scalzi

This week’s spotlighted author, John Scalzi was nominated for a Hugo Award and is a writer whose first two sci-fi offerings were named as "Sci-Fi Essentials."
He got his start writing for a newspaper (brownie points in Word Nerd’s book) and as he says, was extremely lucky with getting his novel published.

For more about his books and to read his blog, click here.

Word Nerd: What’s your writing process like from when you get an idea to when it gets published?
Scalzi: There's a writing process? Why didn't someone tell me this before?

My writing process is pretty spontaneous -- I don't typically outline my books but instead have one or two scenes in my mind that I know I want to get to in the book and then set off writing in an attempt to get to them. This is fun, in that I usually surprise myself and have fun getting there, but it's also nervewracking, because sometimes I don't know where the heck I'm going and I'm too stubborn to pull over and ask for directions. Eventually it all gets sorted out. Once that's done, it's off to editor, who will come back with some notes, a bit of a fiddle to make the editor happy, and then nothing to do with that book until it comes out. Usually by then I'm faking my way through the next book anyway.

WN: Why did you decide to become a writer?
Scalzi: Because when I was 14 I realized I could write well, and also that for me writing was easy and everything else was kind of hard. I'm lazy so I said, well, I guess I'll do the easy thing. Having decided that, I've worked my butt off writing, so stupid me for ever thinking it was easy. Nowadays I write because I'm supremely unqualified to do anything else with my life; it's either this or greeting people at the local discount retail store. And you know, I'm not that much of a people person, so I doubt I'd be as good at that.

WN: How long did you have to work to get published and what made you keep working at it until your name was on the cover of a book?
Scalzi: Well, I've been a pro writer since I left college -- my first job out of school was as a movie critic at a California newspaper -- so in that sense I was getting published pretty quickly. With books, I was fortunate that both my non-fiction and fiction debuts came easily. In the case of non-fiction, a publisher mentioned to my agent that they had need for a particular kind of book, and my agent, ever-resourceful, said "well, I have just the guy for you" and hooked me up. Not much effort there. With the fiction, I didn't bother to submit my novel to any publisher; I just serialized it on my personal Web site and when I was done, my soon-to-be editor asked if he could buy it, and I said, "well, okay." Before I am stabbed to death by other writers, let me assure all of them I am well aware of how ridiculously lucky I have been; I chalk it up to excellent karma accrued from a past life and I try in all ways to be deserving of the luck, although I suspect I'm not.

WN: Two of your books have been dubbed as “Sci-Fi Essentials” – how did this make you feel to be in the same category as some of the long- standing names in the genre like Ben Bova and Frederick Pohl?
Scalzi: Heh. To be clear, in most critical ways I'm so very *not* in the same category as that pair of legendary SF writers, so any comparisons get filed under "unearned praise," and I work to try to earn out that praise over time. I have been extraordinarily fortunate that so far the novels I have written have been well-received -- Old Man's War was even nominated for the Hugo this year, and that was a gobsmacking moment, let me tell you -- but I'm not under the delusion that I've become a master of my craft simply because people *like* what I've written so far. I know myself well enough to know how far I have yet to go.

WN: What is the best/most influential book you have ever read and why did it inspire you?
Scalzi: Influential: It was probably "The People's Almanac," which I read when I was six and which contained so much information on so many subjects that my younger self suspected it contained the sum of all human knowledge to that point (I was corrected of that notion when "The People's Almanac #2" came out a few years later). It was influential to me because it suggested just how much there was out there to know, and how much fun you could have learning about it. I'm still having fun learning stuff, so well done, People's Almanac.

WN: If you had to live the life of one of your characters, who would you pick and why?
Scalzi: Well, you know. I already live the life of *all* of my characters, as their lives are defined by my writing of them, so I'm not sure I can settle on just one. And I know I wouldn't want to trade my real life for any of their lives, because not only do I like my life -- I am what I wanted to be when I grew up -- but the fact is that I put most of my characters through hell, purely for the sake of having an interesting plot. Fun to read, not so much to live. I'm pretty sure all my characters hate me.

WN: What piece of advice helped you out the most as a writer?
Scalzi: The most useful creative advice: Don't panic. This works in nearly every situation you can think of, writing or otherwise. he most useful practical advice: It's called "Yog's Law": "Money flows toward the writer." This means that if you want to make a career of writing, make sure it's you who is getting paid for your work, not anyone else. Too many people who want to be writers are either unaware of this law, or willing to ignore it. Don't be either of these.

John Scalzi, Freelance Troublemaker

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