John Scalzi, You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your
Laptop to a Coffee Shop -- Scalzi on Writing
(Subterranean Press, 2006)

John Scalzi's You're Not Fooling Anyone etcetera is the latest book on writing to cross my desk, and has some unique qualities worth looking at. I should point out that "writing" books seem to have evolved into two distinct species. There are the books specifically about the craft of writing, such as David Gerrold's Worlds of Wonder or Mary Oliver's A Poetry Handbook, and there are the books on "the writing life," such as Anne Lamott's classic Bird by Bird or Betsy Lerner's illuminating The Forest For the Trees. (There are also several subspecies, but this is not the place to construct family trees. I'm sure you can make a good start on your own.)

What is different about Scalzi's approach is that he talks about a career as a professional writer as just that: a career writing what you are paid to write. The first section does contain the obligatory advice on the craft of writing (mostly fairly obvious reminders, such as "learn grammar and spelling"), and the second talks about writing as a business.

There is a somewhat anomalous section "about writers." Some of it is observations on some of the things other writers have gotten themselves into (not always snarky), and some of it is just plain dishing. The fourth and final section talks mostly about science fiction, on the surface, but, as I have long maintained and as Scalzi makes quite plain, outside the specific genre parameters of what I call speculative fiction, the concerns of science fiction are the concerns of literature as a whole.

There are also side trails, and some pretty fascinating ones. In any section, no matter what it purportedly talks about, there will be asides and snippets of things that probably should be in other sections or maybe just don't fit anywhere at all. It's not a problem, at least it wasn't for me. (Plopped into the middle of the "money" section is an essay entitled "15 Things About Me and Books." I found a lot to identify with there, although the first book I ever read was about a little lost cat. I was about the same age, though.)

If you can get past Scalzi's fairly confrontational style (which can sometimes be annoying simply because he's playing at being a smartass -- or maybe he really is a smartass), there is a lot of good information in here, particularly on working as a freelancer. It's not the bookkeeping/regular office hours/writing good book proposals sort of information, but more getting across the point that editors for popular science magazines don't have time to deal with your artistic neuroses -- and they don't have to. If you're going to be a professional, then be a professional, which means producing what you've agreed to produce when you've agreed to produce it, without histrionics and of good quality. That's how you get more work so you can actually be a professional writer. There are some parts that I question, particularly the section on writers (I don't really care about Bob Greene's midlife crisis), but the whole is entertaining and not all the advice is obvious. I found the comments on blogging especially interesting, since I do (blog, that is) regularly on a lot of different topics. I hadn't really thought about it being a forum for my writing before, but now that Scalzi has pointed it out, it's fairly obvious.

In fact, it's a book with more than a few "duh!" moments, which alone makes it worth the time. It's also one (and this is one of the ways I judge writing books) that makes me impatient with reading and anxious to sit down at the keyboard and start creating deathless prose (or at least fine tune that new short story a bit).

[Robert M. Tilendis]

Speaking of blogs, John Scalzi's "Whatever" is here. Subterranean Press, which brings us so many intriguing titles, is here.