Book Review: You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing (2007) by John Scalzi
For the most part, writers are solitary creatures. Unless you’re collaborating with a group of other writers, you’re probably spending long hours, either looking for inspiration, or trying to take the inspiration you have and get it down on paper, or into that laptop you lug around, and you’re doing it by yourself. You could do that just about anywhere, like in a library or in your bedroom, but writers, almost without exclusion, flock to coffee shops to write. It’s the ‘writer’ thing to do, and, as John Scalzi points out in his book You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing, it’s pretty cliché. Writers go to coffee shops not because it’s a tranquil place to work (we all know it’s not), but because it a) has the kaffe which most of us writer types drink and b) because it’s a social – a sexy – thing to do, even though we likely sit there with headphones on and scowl at anyone who talks too loud or invades our space. Writers are an odd bunch. And Scalzi, in this book, is pretty good about pointing that out, while at the same time doling out advice on writing that goes well beyond the craft of the task.
In fact, You’re Not Fooling… is far more a book about the business of writing than it is about the craft. Want to learn about how to arc your plots or remove melodrama? Find a different book. But you want to know how to make money writing – what it’s really going to take? By all means, read this.
The book is a collection of blog entries written by Scalzi between 2001 and 2006 on his blog whatever.scalzi.com and was published in 2007. There are some intros to the chapters and to the blog entries to put the content into perspective, but for the most part, what he wrote in 2001 or 2002 (etc.) is there, as best I can tell. The blog entries all have something to do with writing, whether it be how he got his start, or how the publishing world works, or they discuss some kind of controversy that was brewing in the publishing world at the time. For the most part, the entries hold up well. There are a few things that are a little dated (i.e. ebooks prior to 2006 were nearly non-existent.), but even those entries are still worth reading because they talk about just how unimportant the medium is for writers. Those who get all upset because of the number of printed books they aren’t selling and don’t look at the e-market as an equivalent and viable market, are doomed to fail. Scalzi was all over that fact ten years ago, and it’s a major reason why he’s the success he is today.
If you’re a writer and you’re writing for the romance of writing (and enjoy being that misunderstood, under-appreciated, literary genius that isn’t published because, man, those idiots in the publishing house just don’t get just how much of a genius you truly are), Scalzi would like to slap you with a carp. This book isn’t for you, unless you’re in the mood to get the ass-whooping you’ve been needing. Writing, as Scalzi reminds us, is a business, and successful writers treat it as such in every way. You produce product. You refine your product. You market said product. You produce more product. If your product is good, you sell the product. Hopefully you make money doing it, and even better, hopefully, you enjoy the process as a whole, at least more than you could enjoy any other type of job you could get.
This is the second book of Scalzi’s blog entries that I have read and reviewed here, with Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded being the first. I enjoyed this one just a tad more because, as a writer, hearing the details of someone else’s writing career is inspiring. Scalzi’s blogging style is tremendously readable. His acerbic wit and immense vocabulary makes me a tad bit jealous of his skills. He makes me want to be a better writer. And frankly, reading books like Your Not Fooling… does make me a better writer, because, damn it, writing these days is so much more than just the art of the word. It’s the business of the word, and a matter of creating a platform and a strategy for your career that allows you to be the most successful writer you can be. It doesn’t mean just writing novels. If you want to be a full time writer, then diversify your income base around multiple streams: freelance, fiction, non-fiction, etc. It means building a platform where the readers and the jobs chase you, so that you’re not spending so much time chasing them. It’s a business and it must be treated so.
In a way, Your Not Fooling… is a complete rip off, because, well, Scalzi originally wrote all of these entries for free, and posted them on his blog to draw in more readers, who bought his other books because of liking these entries. And now, a couple years later, that free material becomes another revenue stream. “Suckers!” he says as he gleefully counts his loot. Damn he’s good.
But I’m ripping him off now, too. I’m taking that advice… the advice I paid a pittance for, and I’m using it to break into the business too. I’m stealing his ideas. I’m learning from his mistakes. If you’re smart, and you’re a writer, you’ll do the same.