John Scalzi on writing for a living

By Phil Plait | February 11, 2008 3:30 pm

I write for a living now. It’s my job.

That’s a weird thing to write (and yet, in some fun meta-way, I got paid a wee bit for writing it). I used to be a research astronomer, a programmer, an educator. Now I write. I’m actually an author, I guess; my second book is in production and will be out in October.

But at the moment this blog and some other venues (and some stuff coming up I’ll share soon enough) are, basically, my job. They’re my source of income. Leaving a full-time salaried position was a tough decision, and lots of my friends and readers ask me if it was the right thing to do and all that. Writing full time is really different than I imagined it would be, and it’s harder. A year ago, if I didn’t feel like writing, well, I wouldn’t. I don’t have that luxury now. I simply make sure I always feel like writing. Happily, it’s fun, so it hasn’t been an issue yet!

John Scalzi is a science fiction writer, and I’ll be up front and say I haven’t read his works yet (I haven’t read any science fiction in ages, a problem I plan on fixing)– but he writes a blog, and Wil Wheaton talks about him all the time, so I started reading it. I like it!

He posted a longish entry about what it’s like to write full time and aimed it as advice to the hopeless romantics who think writing is all wine and roses. And I have to say, he nailed it. He’s precisely correct. I don’t make as much as he does, but I can mentally replace his salary with mine, and the facts still line up. I too married a business-savvy person, for a long time I didn’t quit my day job (I’ve had this website since 1998, and my first book came out in 2002, so I’ve had jobs while doing most of my writing), we try to pay off the credit cards every month. I am prepared to be broke, but that hasn’t happened yet, and the trajectory I am following appears to preclude that (though we’ll see what the economy does in the next few months… not to mention my book sales).

It’s easy to romanticize this job, and some of it really is pretty cool. I don’t have to put on pants! I mean, c’mon. That rawks.

But money is an issue, time is an issue, quality is an issue. Expansion is a major issue. I need to do more things, better things… and those I plan to do. I have ideas I’m working on, and I’ll implement some of them very soon. You’ll see (wink). But in the meantime, I hope everyone will keep reading (tell a friend!). And if you want to do this full time, well, be prepared. Read what Scalzi wrote, and take it to heart. He knows of which he speaks.


Comments (23)

  1. Bad Albert

    Interesting post and link BA.

    A few years ago I found myself unemployed due to corporate downsizing. Luckily it came with a golden handshake and in addition I was debt-free at the time. So I thought I would try my hand at being a freelance writer. What did I have to lose? I had lots of savings and a low-cost living situation so what the hell. This went on for about a year or so. I had some sales, did some traveling and was actually enjoying myself.

    But alas, all good things come to an end. I found a real job that paid a lot more than I could reasonably hope to make as a writer so I gave it up. All is not lost though. I gained some valuable experience and I plan on doing it again once I get my finances to the point where a modest writing income will pay the bills. I’m looking forward to it.

  2. Hey, I used to be a research & teaching astronomer, and now I’m a computer system engineer.

    And **I** can work without pants :)

    The joys of telecommunting….

  3. tacitus

    Heh. I started writing a few years ago and have long understood the advice Scalzi imparts. However…

    I still quit my day job a year ago. But after 20+ years in the computer software industry I was just burned out and needed to do something different. I am fortunate that I have no debts and enough money put aside that being without an income for a while isn’t too much of a hardship, but giving up $132k per year wasn’t easy all the same!

    As for the writing, well, I can vouch for what BA says–it ain’t easy. I’m slogging my way through the second draft of a novel, and finding that the editing is much more of a chore than the actual writing was (that was the fun part, after all!). Discipline is the key… or so they tell me :). I wish I had some. As a result it’s taking a lot longer to finish than it should have.

    Then there’s the little issue of finding a publisher. You see, I am unpublished, and even the best unpublished writers have great difficultly finding a willing publisher. Being (in)famous gives you a much greater chance of being published, even if you can’t string two sentences together. So, since I don’t even have a popular blog to hawk my wares, I’m under no illusion as to my chances of getting published.

    But, having said all that, writing a book has been a life-long dream of mine, and whether it’s published or not, it will have all been worth the effort.

  4. Sparhawk

    BA, bought your first book last month, and am looking forward to getting your next one (when they hit the shelves). Any plans on doing an International book tour when it’s released?

  5. cc petersen

    Heh, I’ve known whereof John writes for many years now. I’ve been a writer (freelance, non-freelance, etc.) for nearly 30 years (ever since before grad school). And, I’ve given similar advice to his to several folks each year who write to me asking what it takes to be a writer and get paid for it.

    I have to heartily second and third and fourth his statement:

    Writing is a business. Act like it.

    And another piece of advice: never throttle people who say “Oh, anybody can write.” They may get your goat, but guess what, sometimes they turn into clients!


  6. Michael Lonergan

    After an injury at work 11 years ago knocked me out of the work force, I decided to try my hand at writing. It was something I had to do with one of my previous jobs anyway, and something I’ve always enjoyed. I have just started to actually put some effort into it this past year. I haven’t had anything published yet, except a few articles for a small community newspaper. I would like to make some money at it, but my motivation thus far has been for the pure enjoyment of using my mind. I look at it as being therapeutic in some ways. I’m doing research for a book at present.

    Oh, BA, thanks for the info, that was, well, maybe too much info. Now I cannot get the picture of you without pants sitting behind my screen waiting to reach out and touch me…. Blahhhhhh!

  7. zeb

    I like to fancy myself a writer too, but I haven’t sold anything. Mostly, I like writing sci-fi. Fortunately, I don’t have any idealistic dreams about writing being all romantic and awesome. For me, writing a story is its own reward.

  8. I write for the sake of writing.

    And that’s only because nobody has been stupid enough to pay me for it.

  9. gopher65

    That’s interesting tacitus. I enjoy editing my short stories, while writing them is so-so (and a lot of work). Editting takes a lot longer than writing, but it is more fun.

    Maybe I’m in the wrong business ūüėČ (which certainly isn’t writing, cause I’m unpublished).

  10. Marty

    You’re lucky, and a bit clever, if you can write full time and actually live off those earnings! I have to add my experience to this one…

    After years of working for those corporate bullies I decided to make a break for it…follow my often dreamed about writing career …or at least get paid for some of my publshed work…I did manage to do it for about 1 year…but not enough to live on…so guess what…I am back writing part-time and working part-time for those damn corporate bullies (but I’m in disguise!) LOL!


  11. I’ve been trying to make a living from my writing for a long time now. I first sent in a book to a publisher in 1974, when I was fourteen years old. I had my first acceptance thirty years later, and that book still isn’t on the street. On the other hand, I’ve had more than two dozen short stories published.

    It’s a brutal market out there, and if you’re not psychotically persistent, you’ll never get in.

  12. Daniel

    Very interesting read.

    I’m an art student, and I’ve been told much of the exact same stuff over the last few years. Sure, writing and illustration aren’t the same, but the approach to living off of your work is.

    Also, Boston should be added to that list of expensive places you shouldn’t live in if you can’t afford it.

  13. Quiet_Desperation

    Didn’t he write Old Man’s War? Bought it on a lark and seriously dug it. He was totally channeling Heinlein.

  14. DaveKan

    Be sure to check out Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” for a good sci fi read…I really liked it.

  15. More things
    Better things.

    I agree

  16. Well, I had a second novel accepted last night, so I’m moving closer to my goal.

    Novel submissions to publishers and agents 1974-2008: 186.
    Acceptances so far: 2.
    Hit rate: 1/93.

    Persistance, guys, persistance. Keep sending in those books, and sooner or later some first reader or editor or agent is going to slip up and let you in the gate.

  17. Indeed, nothing quite rawks as hard as blogging with no pants on.

  18. Nihilodei

    I must be losing my marketability….

    I was a science fiction black hole… i loved it, rolled around in it, stayed up all night reading it, forgoing the pleasure of my then lovely (now) ex wife.

    Then I started working hard on my degrees… there isn’t much good “science” fiction. Its all fantasy… Hard science fiction is dead.

    All I have to read is “antimatter” and I groan… not one science fiction author has bothered characterising “antimatter”. I could have dealt with the magical powers of anti-carbon…

    I realise now that the only science fiction books that I can deal with are the approach to mechanical or non human sentience or sci-fi humour.

    Can someone please explain after 40 years how you can have warp drive ( I assume one warp is one c) and travel just a few weeks between vast sections of the galaxy?

    At least Philip Jose Farmer’s disgraceful religious patronage makes damn sense, even if you are stuck with eternal dictators (and you believe his trite expansion into Sufism).

    Sorry mate, I am not going to read another sci-fi book. It will probly be a wheel barrow load for the price of a good kitchen tool!

    Afaedontism, pulp is pulp in the enduring abscesses of life!

  19. Nihil —

    If you can shrink space ahead of you and expand it behind, you can move locally under the speed of light, but on a very large scale travel FTL and move between stars in weeks or days. Miguel Alcubierre showed this in a paper in Quantum Gravity in 1994, using the tensor calculus applicable to general relativity theory. Unfortunately, the recipe requires matter of negative energy density, which we have no clue how to make and which may not exist. A 1997 study suggested that the amount of energy required made the whole thing impossible, but I believe a still later study found ways to cut the energy requirements severely. Still, that’s the basic idea. A “warp” drive.

    There’s also the thought that you may be able to create a “wormhole” between different points in space, or even in time, and that you could traverse this thing very swiftly even if the end points were thousands of light-years distant. Again, though, you’d need exotic matter to stabilize each end.

    Warping space to travel faster than light is apparently compatible with general relativity. But we have no practical idea of how to do it, and we may never.

    On the other hand, it’s hard to write about interstellar contact and travel and relations between different intelligent species if you’re limited to the speed of light. Some SF writers have tried it, like Robert Silverberg and Vernor Vinge. But it makes the writing a heck of a lot easier if you stick in some kind of faster-than-light drive. Then other planets become other countries, and many more plots are possible.

  20. Sorry, the correct name of that journal is “Classical and Quantum Gravity,” not “Quantum Gravity,” of course. My bad.


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