A Q&A with sci-fi author John Scalzi

Science-fiction writer John Scalzi has such an amazing literary biography that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Let’s start with the fact that though he is now very much of Ohio, he’s not originally from Ohio. John, who now lives in Bradford with his wife and daughter, grew up in California, graduated from The University of Chicago, wrote for The Fresno Bee and America Online, and in 2001 moved from Washington D.C. to live in rural Ohio in order to be nearer to his wife’s family.

"I've grown to appreciate living here. Ohio is beautiful. Shortly after coming here, I looked up and saw the Milky Way for the first time in my adult life. And people here are friendly and kind, willing to help without being asked."

Ohio has proven a great setting for him to work as a writer. He began writing his “Whatever” blog in September 1998, long before “blog” was really a popular term or concept; thus, his blog is one of the longest running on the internet; his blog now has more than 8 million “views” by readers from around the world.


Content from his blog has been collected in three books, all published by Subterranean Press: “You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop Into a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing;” “Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: A Decade of Whatever 1998 – 2008;” and “The Mallet of Loving Correction.”

In 2002, John serialized his novel “Old Man’s War” on his blog; Tor Books published it in 2005, and the novel was later nominated for a Hugo Award, the top literary award in science fiction. Since then, John’s science fiction has garnered much success, both among critics and readers.

He is a New York Times bestseller in fiction, with works translated into more than 20 languages. His novels include six titles in the “Old Man’s War” series, including “The End of All Things” which came out in 2015 and five stand-alone novels, including “Redshirts,” which won the 2013 Hugo for Best Novel, and “Lock In,” which came out in 2014. He has also published quite a few nonfiction books and short stories.


Other notable career achievements: John was Creative Consultant for the “Stargate: Universe” television series, writer for the video game “Midnight Star,” by Industrial Toys, and former president (July 2010 through June 2013) of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. He is Executive Producer and Consultant for “Ghost Brigades,” based on his second novel in the “Old Man’s War” series, currently in development for television.

In May, 2015, John made quite a splash in literary and publishing news with a breathtaking book deal with his publisher, Tor: $3.4 million dollars, for 13 novels, to be written and published over the next 10 years. The deal quickly made headlines in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and many other media outlets.

John’s other accolades include winning the Locus, the Seiun and Kurd Lasswitz awards.

In 2016, he was a recipient of the Ohio Governor’s Award for Individual Artists.

Learn more about John and read his "Whatever" blog at www.whatever.scalzi.com

Q. Why science fiction?

A. Because science fiction — and mysteries — were what I read when I was younger! For example, in science fiction, I loved Robert Heinlein's works. In mysteries, I loved John MacDonald. These are, of course, just two examples of the many authors I loved.

Anyway, when I decided to start writing novels, I wanted to write in a genre I already knew and loved as a reader. So, it was either going to be science fiction or mystery. I decided to flip a coin. Heads was science fiction. Tails was mystery. The coin came up heads.

Q. Wait—you really flipped a coin to select your writing genre?

A. I really did!

Q. Science fiction has, of course, many stories featuring alternate timelines. Do you ever wonder how life would have gone for you if that coin had come up tails for mystery?

A. Occasionally. But the truth is that I have no idea what my writing life would have been if that coin had come up tails. Would I have had as much success as a mystery writer? I like to think so, but I don't know. I do think about how I'd have developed a different set of friends, and how odd it feels to think about not having my friends in my life. I was at the Iowa City Book Festival several years ago and talking with a current mystery writer I very much admire — Sarah Paretsky — and I thought, huh. I would have a mystery writing set of friends if I'd pursued mystery writing. Which would be cool … but I'm very happy with how my life has gone, personally and professionally.

Q. So as a writer who found his way into his genre as a reader, what do you love to read now?

A. I'm sorry to say I don't read as much fiction as I used to. I just can't read fiction when I'm writing my own. But I read quite a lot of nonfiction, as well as essays and articles via the Internet.

Q. Do you have a particular process that you follow for each book?

A. I set a quota for the day of 2,000 new words for the project I'm working on. That's every weekday, with weekends off to spend with my family. That way, I see steady sustainable progress, but I'm not writing so much new material at a time that my brain feels like it's collapsing in on itself.

I usually start by tweaking what I wrote the day before to get some momentum going and to ease back into the material, and then I fulfill my quota for 2,000 more new words. After that, I heavily revise material that was created on previous days, and after that work on the business end of my career — social media and business correspondence, for example.

I write on a computer and by the time I’ve finished a “first draft” using this process, it’s usually pretty solid. I go back over it for a bit more tweaking, but then turn it over to my agent for feedback.

Q. Do you have an outline when you start? It seems to me that those first few days of a new project would be pretty tough if you truly have no idea where you want to go with the novel.

A. I start with a high concept idea — a "what if," — a world of some sort, and some questions about what could go wrong in that world. And then I populate that world with characters. But I'm more than happy to eventually cut large amounts of copy. I keep an "excise" file for depositing huge chunks of draft material.

I have no patience for pre-writing. Exploration is part of the process for me. This is how world building and character creating works best for me. For example, with “Lock In,” I was six or seven chapters in when I realized I needed to relegate every single one of them into my “excise” file for that novel. But that was fine. I needed to write that much to gain an understanding of the world and story I needed to create.

I’ve been writing since I was 14 and finally this is the process that works for me. Obviously, I’ve been at this for a while now. I used to panic if I’d created, say, 30,000 words of material that I realized I wouldn’t use. Now I just understand that that is part of my process, and I’m more relaxed. The result is that I’m able to create more robust worlds and, I think, more interest concepts and characters.

Q. Hmmm. This sounds like good advice for other writers. Any other tips?

A. Besides putting your butt in your chair and doing the work? Well, my big tip is "don't panic." That means don't worry about whether or not what you're writing is going to be useful, or worry if you're not sure of the plot as you're writing your first draft. Diversions, even those that don't end up in the final book, are good for you as a writer so that you know what's going on in the world and story you're creating.

Q. You have been working on adapting and developing some of your material for television and film. How has that changed you as a writer — or has it?

A. Before I began writing fiction, I was a music critic all through college. After that, I was a film critic for several years. I got that job right out of college, but it didn't start until September, so I spent the summer between college graduation and day one of the job immersing myself in movies. I watched three a day, read everything I could about filmmaking, and read all the Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel reviews that I could find, as well as other reviews. Looking back, I sort of created my own self-taught film school to prepare for that job.

Then, I became immersed in my film critic job. What that experience really taught me was the value of “high concept” in story, meaning, how can I create a story that is fresh and compelling but that I can describe from a bird’s eye view in just a few words that people will really get? So, for example, the high concept for my first novel, “Old Man’s War,” was what if people are compelled to sign up for the army at age 75? Well, that’s a concept that, I think, is immediately intriguing. It flips the idea of what we expect — young people drafted into the military. The concept begs a lot of questions: why would this be the case? What happens in battle? From that, we can build out something of a world. Then, of course, we start wondering about the people who would populate such a world — and from there, we have characters.

So, to get back to your original question, working on telling stories through the medium of film hasn’t changed how I approach story as a fiction writer. In a way, it’s coming full circle back to my beginning.

Not only that, but in college, I majored in philosophy, which taught me how to research and look at the world from different angles. My angle was definitely language, and how people to with one another. That has really informed my use of dialogue, and much of my stories are told through dialogue.

Q. Speaking of coming full circle … that coin flip led you to write science fiction. Why do you think people love science fiction — or is it yet a genre for general readers?

A. I think science fiction is very much for general readers. Or, to put it bluntly, it's not just for nerds!

People love watching science fiction in movies and on television, and usually don’t think about it as science fiction or fantasy. I don’t think many people say to themselves, “I’m going to go watch the new Star Wars movie, which falls into the genre of science fiction.” No, they say, “I’m going to go watch the new Star Wars movie.” This is true of many other movies, television series and video games, and I think this opens people up to also reading more science fiction or fantasy.

Frankly, independent of what I’m doing, now is one of the best times to be reading science fiction. We’re in a second renaissance for the genre, with many more diverse writers — whether by that we mean gender, ethnicity, point of view — than ever before. That means more interesting and challenging stories, and richer literary material. As a reader, fan and supporter of science fiction, I’m thrilled by that. I don’t want to only read about people just like me but in a different world. I want to read about all kinds of people, reflecting the people in the world around me, but in different worlds and high concept stories. I’m seeing more of that, and it makes me glad to be a part of this particular literary field.

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