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Apr 11, 2017

How Hugo Award Winning Sci-Fi Author John Scalzi Writes: Part One

The Hugo winner and multiple New York Times bestselling science fiction author, John Scalzi, took a break from his whirlwind new book tour to chat with me about The Collapsing Empire, the timely importance of great storytelling, and what makes a writer truly great.

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His wildly popular debut novel, Old Man’s War, began as a serialized blog before attracting attention from an agent. Its 2006 publication earned him a Hugo nomination and multiple awards.

Since then he’s written dozens of novels including New York Times bestsellers The Last Colony, Fuzzy Nation, Redshirts (2013’s Hugo winner for Best Novel), and Lock In. His work has been translated into over 20 languages and multiple projects have been optioned for film and TV.

It’s no surprise that the prolific author has been a professional writer since the early ’90s. In addition to his award-winning blog, “Whatever,” John has written: freelance journalism, novellas, short stories, a wide-range of non-fiction, video games, been a Creative Consultant for a hit TV series, and remains a Critic at Large for the LA Times.

In 2015 the author signed a multi-million dollar deal with Tor Books for 13 titles over 10 years, and the first of those is The Collapsing Empire, a bestselling interstellar space opera that’s been described as “Game of Thrones meets Dune.”

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.

In Part One of this file John Scalzi and I discuss:

  • How publishing is like giving birth
  • The secret behind most overnight successes
  • How a prolific sci-fi writer researches ideas
  • On beating laziness, and the author’s daily ritual
  • The writer’s greatest challenge

Listen to The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience below ...

The Show Notes

The Transcript

How Hugo Award Winning Sci-Fi Author John Scalzi Writes: Part One

Voiceover: Rainmaker FM.

Kelton Reid: Welcome back to The Writer Files. I am your host, Kelton Reid, here to take you on another tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of renowned writers. This week, the Hugo winner and multiple New York Times bestselling science fiction author, John Scalzi took a break from his whirlwind new book tour to chat with me about The Collapsing Empire, the timely importance of great storytelling, and what makes a writer truly great.

His wildly popular debut novel, Old Man’s War, began as a serialized blog before attracting attention for an agent and editor. Its 2006 publication earned him a Hugo nomination and multiple awards. Now, since then, he’s written dozens of novel, including New York Times best sellers The Last Colony, Fuzzy Nation, Redshirts. Also, Hugo winner, Lock In.

His work has been translated into over 20 languages and multiple projects have been optioned for film and television, so it’s no surprise that the prolific author has been a professional writer since the early 90s. In addition to his award-winning blog, Whatever, John has written freelance journalism, novellas, short stories, a wide range of nonfiction, video games, been a creative consultant for a hit TV series, and remains a critic at large for the LA Times.

In 2015, the author signed a multimillion dollar deal with Tor Books for 13 titles over 10 years and the first of those is The Collapsing Empire, a best-selling interstellar space opera hit that’s been described as Game of Thrones meets Dune. In part one of this file, John and I discuss how publishing is like giving birth, the secret behind most overnight successes, how a prolific sci-fi writer researches ideas, on beating laziness and the authors daily ritual, and the writer s greatest challenge.

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How Publishing is Like Giving Birth

Kelton Reid: All right. We are rolling once again with an esteemed guest today, Mr. John Scalzi, the acclaimed, prolific, New York Times bestselling author, Hugo Award-winning science fiction writer and writer of dozens of novellas, short fiction, nonfiction, journalism. What don’t you do, John?

John Scalzi: I don’t do windows.

Kelton Reid: Oh, you don’t do windows, okay. Well, I’m very excited to have you on today. I understand that your new project, your new fantastic book, The Collapsing Empire, is doing quite well, so it must be an exciting time for you.

John Scalzi: It’s wonderful, actually. It was one of those things where you put your baby out into the world and you want everyone to tell you you have a pretty baby, so we’ve learned that so far most people seem to like it. It’s shown up on a lot of bestseller lists. It’s sold more in its first week than any of my previous books and we just announced a television deal for it, so things are going great.

Kelton Reid: That’s so cool. Yeah, I mean, it seems like things are working out for you in the writing department. You’ve also got this vastly popular blog. Are you still doing a column or editor-at-large for some reviews?

John Scalzi: Yes. I’m still a critic-at-large for the Los Angeles Times as well.

Kelton Reid: Wow. To say that you’re busy, would be an understatement but I understand you’ve got a weekend off to kind of take a deep breath and take it all in.

John Scalzi: Yes. The nice thing that my publisher Tor has learned is that I don’t mind going on the road for weeks at a time but they do have to send me home after about 10 days, otherwise I run out of clothes.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, to say that there’s some writing out there by you that listeners can find, obviously another understatement, because there’s so much out there to find. And probably would seem that the best way to connect with you would be the website and that’s, am I right?

John Scalzi: That is correct.

Kelton Reid: Okay, cool. And it looks like the tour, the expanding tour is yet expanding. You’ve got a lot more dates on there. I’m going to try to catch you in Boulder coming up later next month but I will point at that and the website, your Twitter, of course. You are a prolific, as we discussed earlier, a Tweeter. I hope I’m saying that correctly, so Twitter’s a good place to get news from you. So, maybe for listeners who kind of aren’t familiar with your fantastic journey from … I guess you’ve been a freelance journalist since the early 90s, it would seem.

John Scalzi: Yeah. I started off my very first job out of college was as a film critic for a newspaper in California called The Fresno Bee and I did that for about five years and then I left there to go work for AOL where I was their in-house writer and editor. I did that for a couple of years. I’ve been freelance since 1998. I published my first nonfiction book in 2000 and the first novel in 2005.

Kelton Reid: That is an amazing story to me, also, kind of your origins as a sci-fi bestselling novelist. The Old Man’s War, which won you quite a few awards and was acclaimed, Hugo nominated, was your first true novel, correct?

John Scalzi: It was definitely the first one published. I had written a previous book called Agent to the Stars, which it did eventually get published but I wrote that one as a practice novel, meaning that I had never written one before, wanted to see if I could do it, so I wrote it. But Old Man’s War was the one that I intended to try to sell, and I would have if I hadn’t just been so lazy.

What I ended up doing was I put it up on the website because I was like, “I could send it out, but then it would take so much time. I have people who will read it here on the website and that’ll be fine.” And I put it up, and we serialized it. I serialized it in 2002, a chapter a day during the month of December and then when it was done, I got an email from Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who was an editor at Tor Books at the time. He’s now associate publisher, and he said, “I know you’re committed to this whole electronic publishing thing, but I really like your book. Do you mind if I publish it too?”

Kelton Reid: Amazing.

John Scalzi: I was like, “Oh, fine, if you must.”

The Secret Behind Most Overnight Successes

Kelton Reid: Right. Well, since then you’ve had some successes, quite a few bestsellers under your belt, Hugo Award-winning. I mean, the list is just impressive. I’m looking at Red Shirts and Lock In, which is a more science based thriller and all the way now through the Old Man’s War series and now into this new universe, which is fantastic. I mean, you’re starting out with a bang and I understand, since then obviously, you’ve signed this massive deal with Tor Books in 2015 and man, you’re kind of hitting your stride, I guess?

John Scalzi: What’s really nice about that contract, it was a 10 year contract in which I would write 13 books, 10 of them for the adult market and three that are going to be YA. One of the really nice things about that, aside from the immense vote of confidence that Tor was giving me was quite frankly, it means for the next 10 years, until I am in my mid-50s, that I don’t have to worry about whether or not the book I’m writing is going to sell.

I have to worry about still making them good and readable and interesting, because Tor’s not going to publish just me writing 90,000 words of, All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. But so long as I hit my marks and do what I’m supposed to do, in terms of quality, I don’t have to worry about whether that effort is going to make it out into the eye of the public or that even if it does get out into the eye of the public, that it won’t be marketed and advertised and the people won’t find out about it.

It’s an extraordinarily fortunate position to be in and a lot of it was based on, as you alluded to, the previous track record. And this is the thing about hitting one’s stride, is absolutely we’re at a point where things are really taking off, but it’s based on a decade s worth of work in the science fiction and fantasy field. It’s that same thing of scratch under overnight success and you will see years and years and years and years of work you didn’t even know was happening.

How Literary Success is Not Always Easy to Transfer to the Screen

Kelton Reid: Yeah. Yeah. Well, congratulations on the success of the book and I understand it’s the top selling sci-fi hardcover in the US at the moment. Lots of other good things going on, including that TV deal that you mentioned, so that’s exciting. Do you get to actually help … I know that you were actually a consultant in another sci-fi series for the Stargate universe, right?

John Scalzi: Yes. I was creative consultant for Stargate Universe, so what that meant was they would send me the scripts and then I would tell them every single thing that they were doing wrong, which was actually really good, because the whole idea of it is you never want to throw out an audience member from what they’re doing, whether you’re writing a book or doing a TV series or a movie, you don’t want to give them the opportunity to go, “Wait. That’s not how that would work. That makes no sense whatsoever.” So my job was to help them get everybody watching through 60 minutes and over to the refrigerator before they would say, “Wait a minute. That shouldn’t have worked that way.” But, if we got you all the way through the episode, then you’re going to come back for the next one.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. Okay. Cool. Well, The Collapsing Empire, which we keep mentioning, obviously has been called … It’s a interstellar space opera about an empire teetering on the brink of collapse. I know I’m not doing it justice at all, but I guess Booklist said, for fans of Game of Thrones and Dune. I mean, it’s been compared to all these different fantastic other things, but it’s really hard to sum up, but it’s really great. I mean, it’s a really fun reading.

John Scalzi: Thank you. The way that I tell it to people is basically, imagine there is a way to get from one star system to another, faster than light, and it operates basically like a river or an ocean current and you can t control it, but you can ride it. So you build this empire basically around ports of call all along this great river in space, but what happens when, just like happens with river in the real world, that river changes its riverbed. And all of the sudden all the ports that you’ve created, all the civilization that relies on this thing, they are left away from that river. That’s basically what’s going on.

It’s a question of, we have taken for granted, as we so often do, is certain natural features of the world in which we exist and we assume that they are always going to be that way. But in fact, nature and the universe isn’t actually interested in our wants, needs, or desires. It’s going to do what it’s going to do and when that happens, as it happens in this book, how do the people who are living in those cities, in those ports of calls and those star systems, how are they going to respond to that? The answer is, in the book, some people plan, some people panic, and some people deny. Again, strangely, like what happens in the real world.

Kelton Reid: Well, pretty timely stuff, but yeah. It’s a cool book, so listeners should seek it out if they haven’t already found it. Yeah. That’ll be interesting also to see on the small screen. Hopefully it makes it to the big screen someday too. That’d be pretty cool.

John Scalzi: The way that I tell people about that is, believe it will happen when you actually see it on the screen. Until then, it’s a nice idea.

Kelton Reid: That’s right. That’s right, because you’ve had lots of … your stuff has been optioned for TV and film and you’ve worked on video games, all that stuff. I mean, you’ve worked in all these different mediums so you kind of know that, yeah, having something optioned, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will make it to the screen, but fingers crossed, right?

John Scalzi: Yes, exactly.

How a Prolific Sci-Fi Writer Researches Ideas

Kelton Reid: Well, I would love to dig in your productivity, because you are a prolific, prolific writer. I imagine that you’re probably already sketching the next in the series for-

John Scalzi: Yes. Absolutely.

Kelton Reid: You still have this Hugo Award-winning blog. You’re constantly reaching out and letting people know what you’re up to, which is really cool. So how do you … I mean, I just want to know how you do it. How much time per day are you putting stuff in, like researching or reading kind of the input part of the creative process?

John Scalzi: The funny thing is that, that part of it, the intake part, is just indistinguishable to anybody who is observing from the outside from farting around, right?

Kelton Reid: Yeah.

John Scalzi: I will be on the Internet just reading articles or reading Wikipedia or Encyclopaedia Britannica entries or just reading and tooling around and it looks like there’s nothing going on, but each of those things feeds into the ideas that can cultivate in your head. I’ve always been a reader. I’ve always been constantly with a book or a magazine or a newspaper. I used to joke that if someone wanted to assassinate me, they would put a bomb under a book on a coffee table because that’s where I would grab things. I go, “Look, there’s a book.” Off I go.

It doesn’t look like work. It doesn’t look like my brain is working. It looks like what I’m doing is just sitting around reading, but in fact, all of that kind of goes into the pot. And it’s not just reading, watching TV. Obviously, Redshirts, which is a commentary about the poor starship extras that go down to the planet with Kirk and Spock and Scotty, and somebody has to die, and it’s not going to be Kirk and Spock and Scotty, because they have season long contracts. That was something that had been running around in my head for years and years.

You’re always researching when you’re a writer. You’re always looking at things. You’re always observing things and any one part of it can be the thing that hooks you. So, in terms of that, I think a writer is never not on the job. You’re always processing information and ideas are always going to present themselves. So that aspect of it is, that’s just life, that’s a writer’s life.

On Beating Laziness, and the Author s Daily Ritual

Kelton Reid: For sure. You’re incubating stuff all the time for future projects and reference. So on a novel like The Collapsing Empire, then maybe just walk us through like a writing day. Crack your knuckles, brew a pot of coffee. How do you get to the desk and get going?

John Scalzi: The good news is that the desk is like 10 steps away from where I sleep, so getting there is not the problem. I’ve had a home office in my house in Bradford, Ohio where literally every single novel that I’ve written, with the exception of Agents to the Stars, has been at least started and substantially worked upon. And for me, one of the things that I learned early is that I had to have a process.

Now, as a background, I am a super lazy, slothful human being who doesn’t want to have to do anything more than he has to do, so having a process makes me feel resentful and angry. Like, How dare the world require me to structure my life in any sort of way? That wasn’t part of the deal. But, it turns out that if you are a lazy, slothful person like I am, you can spend hours and hours and hours being on Twitter or watching TV or doing something else and not actually getting any work done.

So, the system that I use basically is pretty simple, which is between the hours of 8:00 am in the morning until noon, which are prime creative time because I’ve just woken up, I haven’t seen what’s going on in the world, and my daughter is off at school and my wife is off at work. Between those hours, I turn off the Internet. I turn off the phone and I write. I write for those four hours or until I reach about 2,000 words, which is kind of my daily quota, which is based on the fact that I used to be a journalist, so I’m used to writing quickly, and it’s a speedy and relatively clean copy.

Kelton Reid: Yeah.

John Scalzi: If I get to the 2,000 words before the end of the four hours, then I usually kind of find a reasonable stopping point and then quit for the day. And if I get to noon and I don’t have 2,000 words, that s basically telling me, “Well, your brain’s thinking about other stuff.” But, the point being that four hours a day of writing or 2,000 words a day of writing, is enough that I feel like I’m making good, substantial, useful progress, but at the same time, doesn’t make me feel like my brain is going to explode.

When I started writing, years ago, I would write 8,000 words at a time and then I’d be like, “All right, now I’m going to take a week off and then I’ll write another 8,000 words,” and I found as I got older, I couldn’t do that anymore, just like you find in your 30s and 40s that you can t do the athletic things that you did in your 20s. No matter how much you want to try, your knees will give out one way or another.

By the same sort of way, I wasn’t recovering as quickly from writing 8,000 words at a spot. I would, instead of taking three or four days to get back to it, I would take a week or two weeks and that became untenable, because as we know, 13 book contract and every book has to be in in 10 years. I’m on a rodent wheel and I do have to get them out, so I had to get a process where I got enough where I got done, but my brain still felt fresh enough that it could keep doing in the background all the plot thinking and character issues and everything else so that when it came to it the next day, I could get back on the wheel and keep going.

So that’s my process, four hours a day, 2,000 words a day. And I should say that that is the ideal process. I for some reason or another, I actually do, was like, “Oh, well. I’ll just check to see what happened on Twitter.” Poof, I’m done for the day. Because, especially in the last year or so, I’m sure you know this, it’s become kind of an interesting place.

Kelton Reid: A little distracting, we could say.

John Scalzi: A little distracting. The world has caught up with Twitter in oh so many ways, or Facebook or my blog or checking my email. And it really does become a real issue, the whole idea of you have to work not to distract yourself, and especially these days where it feels like you need to be up on everything because the world could end today. It almost feels like just blocking off four hours where you’re not going to talk to the world, almost feels selfish and there’s no logic or rationality to it and it’s not just me.

A lot of writers I know have just been, “I dread going on to the Internet, but I can t help it. I feel like I need… that there’s something I should be doing,” and Twitter always has been … makes a really good substitute for doing something. It’s like, “I’m going to write that 140 character tweet that’s really going to bring them down now.” So you have to be careful. You really have to say to yourself, “No. It’s okay to make the time to do the thing that I’m actually supposed to be doing with my life, which is creating.”

How Music Can be an Inspiration as Well as a Distraction

Kelton Reid: Yeah, for sure. Well, it seems to be working for you, this process. I think so much of your work is cinematic in scope. I kind of imagine you with headphones on listening to some sort of soundtrack music. Do you like to listen to music while you write or do you prefer quiet?

John Scalzi: I usually prefer quiet because as a recurring theme in my life, I’m super easily distractible. When I was younger, I would be able to listen to music, which would be kind of white noise in the background, but these days, it’s harder for me to do. I will listen to music when I’m doing a lot of process stuff. For example, when I’m researching or answering emails or talking to people about stuff in an electronic way, I will put on music that I’m familiar with or music that doesn’t really distract me.

For example, when I do the daily answer the whole wadge of email thing or put up a big idea piece on the blog, which are pieces that other authors write about their new books, I will put on standards from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, like Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, that sort of stuff because it’s like the great American soundtrack. You know all the songs, but at the same time, it’s very pleasant and helps what can be sort of a mechanical thing just go along in a very efficient way.

I will listen to a lot of music as sort of intake doing creative stuff, like imagining, because I find that that can be helpful. I, one time, wrote a entire outline for a YA series that I was going to do for a publisher to the album Fast Times at Barrington High by The Academy Is… because it was … It was about 2008. It was what the kids were listening to those days, aside from the fact that I really liked the album itself, and also it kind of helped put me in the mind space of, “I’m 17 years old and the world’s going to end, how do I deal with it?”

That can be really useful when you are trying to get yourself into a specific mindset, but when it comes down to actually sitting there and writing, I usually leave it aside, because otherwise my brain will spend all its time actually paying attention to the lyrics or some other aspect of the music and not focusing on the writing itself.

The Writer s Greatest Challenge

Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. All right. Well, here’s the million dollar question: Do you believe in writer s block or do you have any feeling about it at all?

John Scalzi: My answer to that is I don’t believe in writer s block as in the inability to write anything. I do believe in the ability of writers to psych themselves out, and I can use myself as an example. The hardest thing for me to do is start a book. Once I start it, once I am chugging along, I can write super quickly. I can get through everything. I solve all my problems that I want to solve.

But getting to the point where I start, where I actually sit down, I’m like, “All right. Now I actually am going to do this thing,” is something that again and again I’ve had a problem with, so I will check my email for the thousandth time. I will go on Twitter. I’ll do social media. I will run those errands that I was supposed to have done three months ago. Whatever it is, aside from actually starting the book, so in some ways, like I can write a book fairly quickly. Redshirts, which won the Hugo, from start to finish was five weeks, as an example, but I can spend an equal amount of time or more not starting a book.

Like, I have this is the time that I’ve allocated, April, March, May, June. And I actually start writing somewhere in May because the rest of it, you know, you can make all the excuses you want. I’m letting it develop in my brain, or, There are other things that I need to do, or “Oh look, I have this piece that I need to write for the LA Times,” or whatever it is that can distract you from it.

And I don’t think of that as writers block, because it’s not a question of me and the confidence of Will the words come? I know the words are going to come. But, for me, it is more of my usual but particular set of writing anxieties. And the way, again, to eventually get over that, for me, was again, just decide, “It’s time for you to say goodbye to the world. Go ahead and get along.”

Now, with that said, I think it’s really important to say that every writer experience is an individual writing experience and I think, to some extent, the question, “Do you believe in writer s block?” can be, “I don’t believe in it for myself, but I believe it’s possible for others.” Because, I’m not in the head of other writers. Writers are, bless our hearts, we are so neurotic in so many different ways and the way that that neurosis can manifest can absolutely be the inability to write or the inability to write what we decide is actually worth reading or sharing with people.

I think it’s easy for writers to be arrogant about other writers processes. Do you know what I mean? It’s like, “Well, I don’t have a problem with writer s block and I don’t see why any other writer should have a problem with writer s block,” and the response to that is, “Yeah, but you’re not that other writer.” There are lots of ways for writers to not write. My not writing tics are, fortunately, fairly benign. It’s just the, “Ugh. I got to start this thing. Ugh,” whereas other people are, “My electricity’s about to go out,” or, “I have to care for a parent with dementia,” or, “I have a special needs child,” or, “The world is blowing up and I’m gay or lesbian and trans and I thought I was safe and I’m no longer feel safe.”

There are so many ways the world can intrude. There are so many ways for humans, not just writers, but humans to get off the track that allows them to do their work in the way they’re supposed to do it or the way that they feel that they should do it. In some ways, it’s a miracle we do anything at all, instead of just running around like our hair is on fire.

So in that respect, it’s easy for me to say, “I don’t have writer s block,” but I am also you said it, New York Times Hugo Award-winning author with a contract that means that I don’t have to worry about being published for … or that I won’t be published for 10 years. It’s easy for me not to have writers block, and I would be foolish if I didn’t acknowledge that and that I am in a special position where the worst thing that I have to think about is how long it takes me to start.

Kelton Reid: Some great, great thoughts there and I mean, all I can come back to is that it seems like now more than ever at any time in history, we do need these great stories, don’t we? We need great storytellers like yourself to help us through.

Thanks so much for joining me for this half of a tour through the writer s process. If you enjoy The Writer Files podcast, please subscribe to the show and leave us a rating or a review on iTunes to help other writers find us. For more episodes or to just leave a comment or a question, you can drop by WriterFiles.FM. And you can always chat with me on Twitter @KeltonReid. Cheers. Talk to you next week.