Last night I finished reading John’s Scalzi’s You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing. The book is a compilation of blog posts from The Whatever, Scalzi’s blog, from about 2001-2005. I had heard great things about how this book talks about the business side of writing, and the first half of the book delivered.

This book came to me at the perfect time. I’m taking a fresh look at my day job/career, and this book along with another one I’m reading (Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? by Seth Godin) are definitely giving me many ideas to consider.

I liked Scalzi’s message about day jobs: they are insurance for your creative writing career, so hold on to them for as long as you can. Only consider letting them go when your writing work brings in at least 30% more income than your day job (this is to make up for insurance and pensions and other things you don’t get working on your own). The exception, of course, would be if your day job is hurting your mental health. Then find another day job that works better for you.

Scalzi starts the book describing how he decided to write for a living in order to get out of doing “real work.” But he then goes on to say he soon discovered that writing — if you do it as a job, for income — *is* real work, though probably more enjoyable than flipping burgers.

He holds down a number of different contracts, writing for magazines and newspapers, doing high-paid corporate writing, and, finally, doing his creative writing. He says his novels bring in the least amount of income — if he had to live on that, he wouldn’t be in very good shape at all. But, through contacts he’s created after more than a decade of being a journalist with traditional and new media, he holds down a number of fairly stable writing contracts, the odd corporate job, and then he fits his creative writing into that. His schedule reflects this. He writes about two hours a day, and then turns to his other writing gigs.

Scalzi emphasizes that if you try to make a living off of writing, then you’re going to end up writing things you don’t necessarily want to write. If you don’t want to do that, then keep your day job and write what you want on evenings and weekends. There’s nothing wrong with that — he wrote his first novel that way, and many other people do, too.

But if you want to write full time, then it’s unlikely you will be able to make ends meet, let alone live comfortably, by your creative writing alone. Scalzi himself does pretty well. He boasts an average of a six-figure income from his writing gigs. He finds it best to branch out into multiple areas of paid writing — that way if and when some areas run dry, you can build on your other writing competencies.

I found this information very helpful. Scalzi outlines what has worked for him, saying that what works for us, the readers, will be different, but this gives us some ideas to start with. Though I have a degree in journalism, I am not interested in freelancing, which is a path Scalzi, as a journalist, recommends. I would rather centre my writing around creative writing. According to Scalzi, that means I should hold on to my day job. This comes at an opportune time, since my day job is changing, and with this new perspective, I think I can make those changes work for me.

His varied paid writing sources also gives me ideas for what would be appropriate for me. I have a master’s in history, and I do a lot of contract work with history professors, usually in historical research. But currently I have another contract, and guess what that is? Writing. Academic writing, but it’s still writing. I didn’t think about it in this way when I took the contract, but after reading Scalzi’s book I am very excited to realize that academic writing could be my version of his corporate writing. Not as well paid, I’m sure, but definitely a viable day-job replacement or supplement.

Scalzi’s thoughts about the business and monetary side of writing comprise about 1/4 of the book, and clearly I got a lot from these sections. These were definitely the strongest part of the book. Another 1/4 was devoted to writing and publishing tips, and those parts were also interesting and useful, though perhaps less unique.

The blog entries in the second half of the book (with sections on his various gripes with writers and his genre, science fiction) were hit or miss for me. Some blog posts did not translate well to book form, often referring to controversies long over and which only came to a vague writerly point near the end of the piece. Some of these had good messages for writers, but these tips got lost in specifics that are no longer relevant or, frankly, all that interesting.

There are some gems in these sections, though. The post on The Cynical Writer (where Scalzi talks about how, yes, he did find out what sci-fi books sold well before deciding what to write for his first novel) is very unique and interesting. I haven’t seen many creative writers talk in this blunt (though not heartless) way. You can see Scalzi’s journalism career shine through here (he approaches novel writing as a journalist would approach any other story), which is a theme throughout the book.

Another gem is Workshop Fracas, where Scalzi lights into writers who expect to be coddled and to have any criticism of their writing couched in niceities. In it is this wonderful, raving quote:

Writers … need to learn to stand their ground in the face of withering criticism. If your response to being slagged is to run away and write whiny letters about how your critic was unfair, man, are you ever in the wrong line of work. If you believe in your work, you fire back and you give as good as you get. You take your fight to your critic and make him or her back up the criticism. When your critics have a point, you learn and you move on. But when you think you’re right, you argue it, tooth and nail, and you win or die trying.”

The whole book is worth a read, but if you are pressed for time, the first half is definitely a must-read. And I just love the title. It made me laugh and laugh.


Originally published on WordPress on March 16, 2010