Tuesday, 26 July 2011

You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing by John Scalzi

Lowdown: A collection of articles conveying the insides of the writing lifestyle.
John Scalzi is a household name at mi casa, so much so that the household’s toddler “wrote” a song about him: John Scalzi on the Boat. He often pronounces it as Scalgi, but that is not the point; the point is that for the first time ever he borrowed someone’s name and used it in a sentence. That name could have only come from hearing me discuss a fine author’s work, which – I believe – says something of my regard for this fine author. Further on that point, you need to realize the only other full name our toddler has been known to use is that of Cars 2’s Finn McMissile.
The type of regard that makes me buy a book the minute I hear it’s out, as has been the case with You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing (a book I’ll politely refer to as Scalzi on Writing from now on). Scalzi on Writing is not your typical book: it’s a collection of posts from Scalzi’s popular blog, Whatever, that were written between 2001 and 2006. All these posts share a common theme – writing.
The book deals with several core issues, each at its separate section; each section is made up of similarly themed posts. Things start with discussions on the writing process itself, move on to discussing the life of a writer, and then stray to discuss various issues on the periphery. The trick, though, is not to expect a book that tells you how to write. This one is firmly on what life is like for a writer, both in terms of work and in terms of states of mind.
There are not that many straight writing tips in the book; what there is could be summed up into one word: practice. However, where the book excels is in conveying what living like a writer, as seen through the eyes of one uprising science fiction author. Scalzi is not afraid to share some intimate information with us, including his income figures and their different sources. More interesting, at least in my book, is Scalzi sharing the finer details of how he grew to become the writer that he is. Scalzi doesn’t settle with telling us what happened, he also tells us what he felt inside as things happened.
That last point makes a whole lot of difference with me; it touches on a soft nerve. You see, it didn’t take me much time since I’ve started regularly blogging, back in 2005, to realize I really enjoy it. It took me much longer to realize that in an ideal world, this is what I would like to do for a living. As in, hey, why shouldn’t I be allowed to make money out of doing one of the things I like to do the most, the thing I keep on doing despite years of sleep deprivation? Obviously, I’m passionate enough about writing to give it a shot.
Having read Scalzi on Writing I fully intend to give writing (as opposed to blogging) a shot. As per Scalzi’s advice, I already ordered my copy of the most recent Australian Writers Marketplace. That book contains a repository of Australian publishers from all shapes and sizes as well as information on how to submit them your material. Currently
I’m browsing and looking for ideas on how to approach the task, but I also intend to do the same with the American version (the 2012 Writer’s Market will be published in September).
There are catches, though. First, and most obvious, is the fact that my writing is not half as good as Scalzi’s. Some of it is the result of my limited English vocabulary, other the short amount of time I dedicate to editing my posts, and even more is to do with inefficient composition skills. According to Scalzi all those can be addressed through further practice, potentially aided by the feedback received from my attempts at publishing.
There is, however, a much bigger catch that places my personal writing career in that fantasy realm over the rainbow. That catch is to do with having a day job: it may bring me all my income but it also occupies most of my resources, so much so that straying into foreign fields is bound to include sacrifices I am probably unwilling to make.
Scalzi describes how the perception of his ideal reviewer’s job at a newspaper was suddenly shattered when his editors took him in to tell him they are turning him into a news reporter. At this particular moment of typing this review I am at a similar crisis, having been assigned with a work task that seems way too boring for me to accept without turning my time at the office into an agonizing hell. Scalzi solved his crisis by utilizing writing connections he had already established to upgrade his position as a writer and land himself an even better writing job; the problem is that I do not enjoy the privilege of having such potential opportunities waiting for me. There will always be that hurdle that needs jumping over as I make my way to become a writer, or for that matter most other big dreams I may have. The reality is that without hard work and a lot of luck these hurdles are pretty hard to jump over and are even more scarier to approach in the first place. Scalzi did his hard work and I take my hat off for him; I take another hat off for sharing this experience with me in this book of his, because as writing lessons are concerned this is the best lesson anyone could have given me.
Am I jealous? Sure, but so what? I’m happy for Scalzi and I am now in a much better position to face the challenges ahead of me. Knowing what’s ahead removes a lot of the uncertainty and anxiety, and through his candour Scalzi’s contribution there is significant. So much so that in more than one respect you can regard Scalzi on Writing as a self help book; compared to the famous Who Moved My Cheese, which Scalzi mocks in his book and which I have been mocking for years as well, Scalzi on Writing is actually a source of genuine, applicable advice. It has the potential to make your world a better place. It will take a lot of hard work, though.
It is at the latter stages of the book, where it diverges and touches on the here and there, that Scalzi of Writing sags a bit in the mire of direction lacking. Still, as with the rest of the book, the writing is always funny and interesting.
One area in that latter part of the book that touched a soft nerve was the discussion on the status of contemporary science fiction writing. As someone who grew up on the likes of Asimov and then generally abandoned science fiction for a decade, I am known to be lamenting at the current state of science fiction things (see here for one example). Scalzi addresses the same issue, suggesting there are two sub genres in science fiction: the first is old style Heinlein like, the type I grew up on, which also happens to be the more approachable type; he classifies his own Old Man’s War there. The second is the cutting edge science fiction coming from the likes of Charles Stross. I have been known to have a problem with the latter sub-genre, and I am happy for Scalzi to have pointed this division out for me. Now I know why my attempt at refereeing this year’s Hugo awards has been less than enjoyable!
The point remains the same, though: science fiction has an approachability problem. In my opinion, it needs more writers like Scalzi to get back into mainstream public domain. Scalzi laments the fact that since Asimov the world of science fiction lacks a face familiar to the general public. Well, grow your sideburns, John, because you’re probably one of the better candidates to achieve that target. You're not only a writer of fine and humor filled plots and blog posts, you're a writer with whom I can identify and a writer who happens to think like me more often than not. As an example, both Scalzi and I agree that sex with 18 year olds is not as attractive a proposition as most people would make it out to be. Read Scalzi on Writing if you want to know why.
3.5 out of 5 stars.
What, I hear you say? Only 3.5 stars? Yes, I answer. After all, Scalzi on Writing is not the world’s greatest piece of literature; it a collection of posts from Scalzi’s blog.
Regardless of the score this particular book receives, the book did further fortify Scalzi’s position as the person who is probably my favorite author at this moment in time. To him I am just one of many fans, but to me he is a special person that became more a part of my life than many others physically closer people are. Here is an author whose books I read slowly so they never finish; a writer whose books I read to cure the pain following a particularly tedious read; or a writer whose books I defer reading special occasions despite the fact they're already waiting on my Kindle (here’s to you, Fuzzy Nation). You can’t do these things with an author you don’t fully trust; me doing this with Scalzi therefore says more than any score can.
P.S. I allow myself to refer to Scalzi in first person because he claims to ego surf. That is, there is a certain likelihood he might read this post.

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