Scalzi on Writing & the Writing Life: A Review of “You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop a Coffee Shop”

John Scalzi has been a journalist, a paid blogger, an unpaid blogger, an author, and an editor; and he has written corporate pieces and newspaper and magazine columns, as well as fiction and non-fiction. I think that qualifies him to talk about writing, the writing life, and writers. You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing is a collection of posts from Scalzi’s blog, the Whatever, written in 2001-2006. Right off the bat, readers should consider two things about this book. First, it was written before the recent economic downturn (whose effects on freelance writing are still being determined). Second, Scalzi’s professional history cannot be replicated today (even he admits he was lucky). Still Scalzi’s book is still useful to the beginning writer looking to get practical advice written in an entertaining style.

Chapter One is grouped around the theme of writing advice. Scalzi’s goal is not to teach you how to write, but how to make writing your business. Scalzi absolutely loves writing (and would likely do it for free, but getting paid is better). He knows it is his job, and he treats it seriously. He doesn’t have much time for those writers who would prefer to live some artistically pure, bohemian lifestyle (as evidenced by the title of this book). He suggests that you think seriously about the audience of your piece. Write well, and write for that audience. He suggest you listen well, work hard, and produce quality quickly. Give the client what they ask for the first time. If someone wants to make changes to your work, make the changes and don’t bemoan the damage to your artistic image. Scalzi has no time for jerks or whiners. He wants to put food on the table and pay his mortgage. This advice will rub some readers the wrong way, undoubtedly, but beginner writers like myself need this advice.

Scalzi also talks about rejection. Expect it. Scalzi provides the metrics he used when he was an editor, and he points readers to the metrics used by other editors. Bottom line–it’s really not personal. It’s about whether your material is submitted correctly, is of sufficient quality, and it fits their needs and timing. When you get rejected move on, and look for another place to publish. Scalzi also talks about how to develop an online audience and how it can help your chances of getting published. Time spent whining about your misfortune or envying those more successful than you is time wasted in Scalzi’s mind, especially when no one will take you very seriously until you are published. Yes, rejection hurts, but these essays will give you the support you need to keep submitting.

Lastly, Scalzi talks about when a beginner writer should give up his day job for writing (here’s a hint: not for a while, and probably not ever). A freelancer loses out on benefits and retirement packages most day jobs offer, so you need to be making more than you currently do before you jump ship. This will often require you to be working in multiple sectors, working on multiple projects. Of course, this will take time to develop. And expect those sectors and products to shift over time. Stay flexible and don’t put all your eggs in one basket. In fact, staying driven and flexible are central themes Scalzi returns to. You need to plan for change and be proactive in your response to it. I would have liked more discussion on marketing yourself and finding work within those other sectors (particularly the corporate sector), but this is a minor quibble with the book.

Chapter Two’s essays are grouped around the theme of the writer’s life. Scalzi is pretty open about his annual income: what it is, how it is derived, and how it has changed over time. He argues that your success as a writer will depend on your competence, opportunities available to you, and your willingness to explore new avenues. Basically, it’s all about the hustle.

Scalzi also talks about how he ranks book advances, and how his opinion, as a writer, will necessarily be different from that of a publisher paying out the advance. Scalzi also runs through the math of advances and royalties, and how this math will affect your future publication deals. Bottom line: fiction often doesn’t pay authors well, so consider the advance all you will receive. And find other ways to supplement that income.

Chapter two also includes a lot of essays detailing Scalzi’s personal preferences for typing over handwriting, his opinion on creative commons licensing, and online piracy of books. Although interesting, these essays are less useful for the budding writer.

The most useful tips in Chapter Three are those designed to help new writers avoid basic mistakes, such as don’t be a jerk to others (it’s a small business); don’t trash others publicly; don’t lie in submission letters; and while an homage might be okay in fiction (so long as you are open about it in your acknowledgments), plagiarism is never okay. You would think these would be common sense. If they are not, I’m starting to feel better about my chances as a writer.

Chapter Four is about the world of science fiction. The best takeaway from this chapter is that writers should resist the idea that science fiction is or should be a monoculture. There is room for everyone’s personal tastes. It should not be a small club for insiders only. Writers should feel free to write for a general reader who is not familiar with the latest ideas in science fiction. Although this is largely a response to criticisms of Scalzi’s book Old Man’s War, it’s good advice for the budding SF writer.

Although the chapters become progressively less useful for someone interested in launching their freelance writing career, I would still recommend readers look at Coffee Shop. Scalzi’s advice might seem harsh, and not as artistic as one might like, but you cannot deny Scalzi’s success as a writer. A firm grounding in the practical side of the business of writing is sure to be useful. Read Coffee Shop; learn from it.