You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing

I’m warning you: this review is so totally non-objective. But as a look into the effects of pouring a strong solution of John Scalzi into my insane little brain, probably priceless.

I’m going to talk about how the book affected me. Just as John Scalzi comments that he’s writing from his own perspective of what worked for him, I’m giving you a mileage-may-vary review. Attempting to frame the text in some theoretical valuation of “goodness” is really not my strength.


This is my day job: pays well, 24/7 pager, team that is not, to put it mildly, gelling.

I thought about writing to supplement my sanity. You see, they let me write functional and technical specs because they want quality, and got it from me.

I can write! I realized. Maybe I could write fiction! That would be so awesome. That would rule.

But how do you get there?


I read all sorts of books about writing, all of which were helpful to some extent (I only pick up the good recommendations), but not many writing books answered some questions I really wanted to know. Such as:

  • Say I want to quit my day job one day; how much work is it and when can I safey do that?
  • Yeah, yeah, writing is not a well-paying gig. But surely not all full-time fiction writers, who aren’t King/Gaiman/Rowling, are starving and can’t have families?
  • So how do you do it? No, really, how? I’m pretty sure magic fairy dust is not necessarily involved.

Later on, my questions started getting more specific and kept me awake at night:

  • Hey, I kind of want to write this science-fiction mystery thing. But I’m not a sci-fi whiz. So even if I wrote it, all the sci-fi fans would hate my guts and the earth would open up and swallow me.
  • I like blogging, it’s rewarding to me, even with the insane schedules and crap when I start to take it seriously. But will it yield money or anything? Maybe the only way to make money is words on real paper.
  • I want to put fiction, that’s never been published before, online. That should be a good marketing technique, if the fiction is good. But I guess that means I screw up the publishing future of those works.
  • Is there something wrong with writing non-fiction articles and columns and such, if you want to be a fiction writer?.
  • … I don’t fit in. I know it’s my fault. I guess I suck and will never go anywhere.


Enter Scalzi and You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop.

This book is bigger than it looks like on the website and chock full of Scalzi’s experiences and opinions, all rendered in down-to-earth, pragmatic, “I’m telling you like it is” style. Freaking refreshing, I tell you!

A few of the things I learned from this book:

  • How he earned a living from just writing. The process was long, hard, and painful, but did not involve magic fairy dust, although luck certainly helped. That and connections. It’s not going to be how everyone will do it, or even can do it, but it certainly gives one ideas.
  • Don’t count on fiction to support you.
  • Writing non-fiction and copy for marketing does not steal your soul. And you’ll get to explore cool stuff, like astronomy, for money. And for the latter, you’ll make lots of money. This money you can use while you write the Great American Novel.
  • You don’t have to hit the big one right out of the gate. You probably can’t, in fact. Start with something of interest to publishers, that you’re sure you can do, and do well, and build up from there.
  • Publishers really can give you crap deals. Here are some guidelines to crap, decent, and “I’ll get the next round” money levels.
  • Posting fiction on the web is OK but a) doesn’t work for many people, b) but it HAS worked in some very prominent cases AND some of it has actually gotten paper-published, yet c) there’s so much crap out there that you won’t get respect for it even if you’re Scalzi or Doctorow or Stross, so d) get something published for real. Which your e-writings can help out with.
  • Writing online (professional blogging) really can yield direct money opportunities, and here are numbers to prove it in the Scalzi case. And there’s also indirect money opportunities to be had; see re: Penny Arcade.
  • Here are some stupid things writers have done. Don’t do them. With lovely details.
  • The multiple sub-cultures of the science fiction genre. What I want to write would appeal to someone there. Even perhaps be a nice gateway for people who don’t usually read science fiction.
  • There is always another way.
  • Stop caring about how other people think of you. You should be nice to people, and you should help others whenever you can, but the whole fitting-in thing… Whatever.
  • You can’t argue with success.


My 2008 resolutions are pretty much a direct result of reading this book.

I will:

  • Find non-fiction markets and write for them, and start that long road to being just a country writer.
  • Get into another area of the company that, while giving me more work to do, will actually give me fulfilling and useful work. If I’m going to keep my dayjob, I might as well be happy about it.
  • Concentrate on what I can do well now, and build up from there. I’ll start working seriously on Arcady and Zene.
  • Take a serious bent to blogging, understanding that this and the non-fiction writing is going to become one of those second job sweats.
  • Be fearless! and explore: new mediums, new styles, new money opportunities, new subjects I thought I’d never, ever write about.
  • Stop thinking that I suck. Because I don’t. I don’t even suck with writing lyrical text that entertains people.
  • Play more Wii. Okay, that wasn’t a direct result of this book. Unless I get a job writing Wii articles. Well, I should get some practice, you know?

You know what else?

I’d dump just about every other writing book I had for this one. In fact, the only books it seems I wouldn’t dump are on the level like Scalzi’s book is (Larry Young’s True Facts comes to mind, with respect to comics publication).


Some of you are probably thinking, “gods, what a Scalzi fan girl this Arachne Jericho is.” Well, duh. I have an entire tag label on my blog called wisdom of scalzi.

So yes, I’m a total fan of his. But I wouldn’t be if I didn’t think his words worthy of that tag.

This book totally deserves: [rating:5/5]


14 thoughts on “You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing

  1. You’re so right about the importance of being fearless. I’ve recently submitted one story for a contest and two to paying zines, and before I hit “send” for each of them I had a moment of panic, of “I’m not worthy.”Then reason returned. What’s the worst thing that can happen? I’ll be told NO? That’s it? No beatings, torture, mocking, ostracizing, no permanent writerly banishment to the outer fringes… just NO. That’s all.I can handle that. It’s worth the risk of being told “no,” to maybe hear the word “yes.”Be fearless, indeed!

  2. You know, right now Holly Lisle is working on some stuff for people wanting to make it on writing. You might pop over there and see if it’s to you liking.I’ve signed up for her newsletter, and while I haven’t read all of them yet, there are worthwhile.But you’ve made interesting points. At my day job, they have a pretty broad policy, yet their second job form does not fit the writer in any aspect. They want who you are working for, blah, blah, blah. But there is no way I could fill one out for every job I queried. There be way to many rejections and long response times. Their system is completely impractical to a writer, so I am going to have to ask someone how I should approach it.

  3. Ann, yeah, it’ll be a difficult problem for me to deal with too. I hope to overcome my feelings of trepidation and, as they say over at Absolute Write, “Just Hit Send”. :)Another thing that Scalzi mentions (in some detail, as he also acts as an editor from time to time, handling submissions) is that rejection is not personal.Tori, thanks for the info! This is her website, right?There’s many good things to be said for advice from writers Who Have Been There. (That’s something else Scalzi mentions, when discussing advice from writers.)I have also found out that you learn best by doing the writing. I learned far more from NaNoWriMo than I realized, and may cover that some day when I think I’m ready for it.I wish you much luck on finding out how to deal with the day job’s application forms successfully. If you can, I’d love to hear what you find out!

  4. Thanks for the review. I might have to order a copy. Sometimes I really like what Salzi has to say, other times we just don’t mesh for whatever reason.M

  5. You’re welcome!I suppose I’m lucky in that I always mesh with what he has to say. I mesh more with him than I do with Warren Ellis, and I agree with Mr. Ellis quite often.Perhaps we share the same star or something.

  6. Hey – I followed your link from your comments on Nathan’s blog. I’m in the same boat as you – tons of tech & business writing experience (I’m now a PM) – and wondering WHY THE HECK I can’t write fiction too?I’m a Whatever reader too – I really enjoy Scalzi’s advice and am partway through Coffee Shop.Great blog – I’m looking forward to reading some of your stuff.

  7. Hi Jeri! Whatever high-five!Yes, going from non-fiction to fiction, I’ve found, is like going from Toronto to Sydney. Fiction is a whole weird other place, but ultimately it’s on the same planet.(But, like, totally different.)I’m glad you enjoy my blog and hope that it won’t disappoint in the future. I plan to give it lots of care, love, and growth of good content.

  8. Thanks Auria! I’m glad you enjoyed the review.

    The book just jived with me so much. Inspired probably the first review I’ve ever wrote that I felt was really alive. And so many other things.

    For instance, I did make a move to a different position in my company, and it has improved my attitude two-fold, even though I’ve got lots more to do.

    I’ve been concentrating on Arcady and Zene, and have learned quite a bit, even from just the weekly 500-word segments I do—enough such that I actually could start to shape the plot of a YA scifi novel currently on the racks. Retargeting in terms of goals has helped me a lot.

    The non-fiction I’ve written so far has been on my blog, but I do my best to be rigorous (besides—no *good* blog content, no rise in visitors, which is Really Not Good). I learned about paying attention to audience, and am learning to keep on schedule. When I get my mind more settled and blogging more figured out, I’ll start to look around for freelancing.

    I am not yet fearless. I’ve got… some sort of scary barriers to overcome for a project coming up…. wish me luck.

    This book opened my eyes to so much. Truly, John Scalzi is wise.

  9. Thanks to auria for the link to this post and review! I personally have always had the fiction bug from the time I was very young (way too many moons ago) but my career has always required that I write all sorts of marketing copy crap for so many diverse audiences … you’re right, you do learn something from the experience. You have to if you want to sell sell sell. Hated it, but did it. It paid the bills. Happy now to be able to spend more time working on the fiction, for both (hopefully) business and definitely for pleasure.

  10. Hi Doug! Welcome to Spontaneous Derivation. :)

    I wonder if marketing copy is anything like… well. My job, technical though it is, is still full of non-fiction opportunities with the goal of appealing to specific audiences.

    I don’t mind it too much if I focus on the technique and approach of the writing.

    Yeah, pays the bills.

  11. I use blogging to hone my lowly skills. And to have fun. Money? For me, never gonna happen, ’cause I just never cared much for it. ($) I am a happy person. (I threw out the “How To…” books years ago.)

  12. Hi Diane, and welcome to Spontaneous Derivation!

    You write well on your blog, which is awesome (the fact that you write well, and your blog). If you ever wanted to, you could make money (although yes, it can be a hassle on the nerves to try).

    Me, I’m young and have a lively mortgage. I’m a little more material-orientated for now. :)

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