Tag Archives: John Scalzi

Old Material

I once read somewhere that you should save all your old writings and go back over them occasionally to see what you’ve learned since. I’m not sure where I read it. If I knew, I’d give credit where it’s due. It’s sort of a moot point, though, because others have said it, too (and, naturally, I can’t remember who any of the other sources are, either).

Anyway, thanks to this piece of advice, my documents folder has more aborted mss than I’d care to count. I’m a great starter, but not as good a finisher. John Scalzi, on his blog Whatever, recently posted that he always reaches a point in whatever novel he’s writing where he knows just how it’s going to end and he gets impatient to finish it and move on to the next project—so much so that it’s difficult to complete the current work.

Well, for me, I’d get story idea, think about it a day or two (maybe), and then sit down and write. When you write seat-of-the-pants as I do, most times you need to sit down and write something when you get an idea or it’ll escape from you, never to be seen again. And for a long time, that meant I sat down and started writing the story idea down. I’m very good (usually) at getting beginnings, followed by endings. It’s the middles that usually bogged me down and tended to end all forward momentum.

A lot of these truncated mss have become more rare as I’ve learned to just jot down the idea as a sort of mini synopsis that I can refer to later. That way the idea’s not preying on my imagination—the initial idea, I mean—and my mind’s free to wander on and see if it can develop further ideas to support the beginning. I’ve also learned that just because I have an idea doesn’t mean I’ve got a book—and since I’m kinda terrible at doing short stories, I generally need to give it time to develop and see if it plays out.

I carry a small notebook around with me at all times and jot ideas down if I get them, then transfer them to a document on my computer next time I get a chance. I scoffed for years at the idea of carrying around a notebook when an author recommended it. I actually have to credit my lady love Carolann with encouraging me to carry a notebook—she bought me my first one, though it was so I could remember everyday things I needed to keep in mind. I’m the kind of person who needs to make out a list when I get ready to do things much of the time, or I’ll forget. I need shopping lists, a list of things to look up online when I make it to the library, a list of books I want to read—heck, it’s a wonder I don’t need a list of my lists.

At any rate, I don’t seem to have as many false starts these days, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I switched genres. I still get the occasional idea for a fantasy or sf story, but I rarely jot them down—though maybe I should. And since I started writing crime fiction, the ideas haven’t seemed to come as fast and furious as they once did. I actually consider that a blessing, as it allows me to focus on one or two things at a time.

I think maybe another reason it doesn’t happen is that I’ve learned the difference—thanks to a book by Lawrence Block, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit—between an idea and a plot line. See, an idea is good for a short story—you don’t need a fully developed plot for a short, just an idea to explore. A plot, however, is what you need to sustain a novel—a fully developed idea that has more detail than a short story does.

The confusing part can be that they often sound the same. For instance, my Pipeline story started as an idea, but it continued to extend itself as I wrote. Same with Spree. The more I wrote, the more of it was revealed to me. Very much as Stephen King says: it’s like you’re a sort of paleontologist, carefully uncovering the story bit by bit. The more you see, the more of the overall structure makes itself known to you. For me, it seems to do it exponentially, too.

But either way, there’s still all that old stuff I’ve got in my documents file on my computer—not to mention a few old spiral-bound notebooks with handwritten mss in them. A lot of those old handwritten mss have been typed up, though, and reside in my computer.

What to do with them?

The idea behind keeping all your old work, as I’ve stated, is to enable you to look back and see how you’ve improved. I can understand that. Thing is, though, I almost never go back and look at my old stuff, so what good is it doing me? Sure, I can scroll through these old works, some of which are so unfamiliar I have to open the documents to see what the heck they are—and maybe revisit ideas, maybe even entertain the idea of trying my hand at them again.

Of course, there is another aspect to keeping all these false starts: maybe you can take them and make them a section of something you’re working on now. But since I’ve switched genres, I’m not sure how much of my old sf/f stuff I can use. Yeah, we’re all writing the same stuff, it’s just the costumes and sets that differ, but still…when your idea is about the meeting of a vampire and a mage (one of the last things I ever did in the sf/f field, and I finished it, as well), how do you transpose that to a crime novel?

Still, even though I can’t see much use for these things, I’m a packrat by nature and can’t quite bring myself to delete them. Like I said, sometimes I like to look through them and revisit old memories. And you never know what’ll happen when you do. You might see something that’ll work in a different way if you just tweak it a little bit.

What about you? Do you believe in keeping your old writing? Has it done you any good? Or is it just taking up space on your hard drive (or maybe an old filing cabinet)? Is it worth keeping this stuff, or should we empty out our (virtual) closets? Drop me a line, let me know what you think.




I’m doing another book review again this week, but I think you’ll find it worth your time. The book is Redshirts by John Scalzi, author of Old Man’s War, and it’s a science fiction—for folks who don’t normally read sf.

If you’re at all familiar with TV sf, you’re familiar with Star Trek. Heck, I’m sure you’re familiar with Trek even if you don’t watch sf as a rule. It’s become such a part of our culture that it’s hard not to know about it.

And, if you’re like most folks, you know that, especially in the original series, the redshirts were killed on a regular basis. They were the extras who barely had names and were always members of the away team. And they usually died before the first commercial break. This…tradition, I guess is the best word for it, is one of the things Trek is known for.

Well, Redshirts isn’t a Trek novel, though Trek does get mentioned partway in. The concept, though, comes quite obviously from the show, but Mr. Scalzi treats it with some intelligence.

Now, full disclosure here, I’m a fan of Star Trek. Have been for years. Unlike a lot of Trekkies, though, I don’t worship the show. I don’t go to conventions or dress up as a Klingon or Ferengi (or however you spell that). It’s got its faults, but hey, it’s TV sf. Whaddaya want?

Anyway, back to the review.

The protagonist of Redshirts is Andrew Dahl. He’s just been posted to the Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union, commonly known as Dub U. He’s excited to be assigned to the xenobiology department, which means he’ll get a better than even chance to serve on away missions. What more could you ask for?

Dahl is greeted by Science Officer Q’eeng (pronounced king) and given a quick orientation tour. On the way to the xenobiology department, he notices that crew members part before Q’eeng like water in front of a ship, and that they all look extremely busy. But once Q’eeng is past them, they all slow down to normal pace.

Okay, he can handle that. He also remarks to Q’eeng that he requested being stationed to the Intrepid because the ship seems to be on the cutting edge of science. In fact, it’s so cutting edge that they had trouble replicating it back at the academy.

Soon, other anomalies start popping up. For instance, it seems that everyone onboard is obsessed with avoiding away missions, to the point that they disappear when any of the top officers show up.

When one of those officers named Lt. Kerensky returns from an away mission infected with a flesh-eating disease, the xenobiology department is tasked with finding what Captain Lucius Abernathy calls a counter-bacterial. Of course, Dahl is the only one around when Abernathy and Q’eeng show up, so he gets the job. The moment the two officers leave, the rest of the department shows up and explains a few things to him, such as that Kerensky is always getting hurt somehow, but he never actually dies. And he gets better really fast, too, it seems. Anyway, they have six hours to find this, um, counter-bacterial, or Kerensky will die. So Dahl is introduced to the Box. It looks just like a microwave, and they use it anytime a miracle is needed. One of Dahl’s crewmates explains that it’s “…an experimental quantum-based computer with advanced inductive artificial intelligence capacity, whose design comes to us from an advanced but extinct race of warrior-engineers.”

The Box.

So. Put the sample of the disease in the Box, push the green button, and wait. In this case, five and a half hours, just to be dramatic. Sure enough, at five and a half hours, the Box goes ding. Though he doesn’t understand it all, Dahl is told to take his work tablet with the data to the bridge—he can’t mail it in this case—and to give it to Q’eeng. When he does, he’s to point at the data scrolling by and say that it’s almost there, but they have a problem with the protein coat. Or that maybe there’s some enzyme transcription errors. Or the RNA replication is buggy. Doesn’t matter, just act like there’s one small thing wrong. Q’eeng will fix it—dramatically—and transfer the data to the ship’s computer. Kerensky is saved just in the nick of time.

Commercial break.

You see where I’m going with this? Or, more precisely, where Mr. Scalzi is going with this?

The redshirts know something hinky is going on, even if they’re not entirely sure what.

As the story progresses, Dahl finds out about Jenkins, a crew member from xenobiology who lives in the cargo tunnels. Jenkins is a computer geek who’s designed a way for department heads to keep track of the senior officers with their phones. That’s how they all suddenly disappear when one of the cadre approaches.

Turns out Jenkins has done some research. The mortality rates for redshirts is higher than any ship in history—except one: the Enterprise. When Dahl and his friends say they’re not familiar with this ship—or even it’s weird design—Jenkins tells them that it’s from a TV series from the twentieth century.

And get this: it turns out that the Intrepid is the subject of a TV show called Chronicles of the Intrepid in an alternate timeline. And the sad part is, it’s not even a good show. It’s a ripoff of Star Trek, too. When there’s nothing going on, things on the Intrepid go normally. But when there’s an episode of Chronicles being filmed, the Narrative takes over. People know things they shouldn’t normally know. The laws of physics don’t work like they should (i.e. it’s possible to go into a black hole as long as a senior officer is along). Things like that.

I’ll stop right there, since I don’t want to spoil it any more than that.

This is the first book I’ve read by Mr. Scalzi, though I have intended to read Old Man’s War for quite some time now. He’s past president (and I think present, too) of SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and, if this book’s any example, a damn good writer. You’ll find a link to his blog, called Whatever, in the links over there on the right. It’s a good place to find out about quality upcoming sf/f, if that’s your bag.

I will add this note: Redshirts probably doesn’t end the way you think it might. I know it sure didn’t end the way I thought it would. But it’s a more than satisfactory ending, nonetheless.

So, go out and obtain a copy of Redshirts by John Scalzi, whether you’re a Trekkie or not, or even an sf fan or not. I think you’ll get a kick out of it.



Why I Write

No, I’m not trying to rehash my first post.  That post was about why I started writing, while this one is about why I continue writing. After all, it’s not like the old Dire Straights song: money for nothing and your chicks for free. I know the music biz doesn’t work that way because my brother is in it, and he’s in Belgium as I write this, performing with his band Cletus Got Shot (yes, that’s a shameless plug. There’s also a link on my blogroll). Nor is writing an easy field to be in. It’s very easy to procrastinate about writing, because sitting down at the computer and looking at that blank screen (and I use Word, so it looks like a blank sheet of paper) can be daunting: You mean I’ve got to fill all that up? You’re nuts!

Ask any writer: it’s not easy filling up all that blank space. Or, at least, it’s not easy getting started. Sometimes it looks like some infinite void that’s fraught with unknowable dangers, and stepping foot into it is…well, scary. It’s an unknown, whether you outline or write from the seat of your pants.

So why do I do it?

Well, the short answer is because I don’t have a choice.

Okay, well, in a sense I do. I mean, if I want to lay there every night and spend an hour or so tossing and turning because I have random sentences running through my mind because I didn’t discipline myself and sit down at the computer, sure, I can go for days, weeks even, without writing. (Wow. How’s that for a run-on sentence?)

But that’s the rub, as they say in England. Lying there listening to my creative voice run random sentences through my head gets old. I fully understand what Hawkeye Peirce says in the final M*A*S*H movie, Goodbye, Farewell and Amen (and I’m paraphrasing here): “Sometimes I think I think too fast. If I could just get my brain to slow down, I could go to sleep.” Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.

But more than that, I love writing, just as my brother loves composing songs. It’s a drive from within, and there’s nothing quite so satisfying as the feeling I get when I sit back after having finished my current writing session. There’s a sense of satisfaction there that I’ve never really felt from doing anything else. Of course, I’m pretty happy when I finish any job (especially the ones I hate and know I won’t have to do again), but that satisfaction isn’t quite so fulfilling as what I feel after my daily writing. It’s that special feeling of finishing a job well done, and done within my particular calling. I have the talent, I’ve been told that since high school (I just don’t exercise that talent as well or as often as I should), and when I use it  the way it’s meant to be used I’m doing something that feels somewhat holy to me.

Does that make me special? Nope. Everybody has a talent of some kind. I guess I’m just lucky, because not everybody discovers their talent or, if they do, exercises it. So, yeah, in that respect, I’m lucky. I just gotta follow my muse.

And further, I write because I want to entertain. That’s my way of “passing it on.” I’ve spent countless hours being entertained by other writers, from Asimov to Weber. They have taken me to other worlds, from Asimov’s Foundation universe to Weber’s Honor Harrington. So now it’s time to give it back, to hope that I can pass on that entertainment to some other person, whether or not they feel the need to pass it on. More often than not, that person will pass it on by telling someone else about my story, and that’s good enough for me. Not all of us want to sit down at the keyboard and, as somebody once said (and I wish I could credit the author, but it’s been too long ago), open up a vein. Writing is that creative.

And, on a final note, I  encourage all procrastinating writers (me included) to jump over to John Scalzi‘s blog (you can click on the link at the bottom of this page) and scroll down to his September 16th entry called “Writing: Find the Time or Don’t.” It’s a fairly straightforward look at motivating yourself to write.