Book Review: You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop



Vision 68


Book Review:

You're Not Fooling Anyone

When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop

Reviewed By

Erin M. Hartshorn


Copyright © 2012, Erin M. Hartshorn, All Rights Reserved


You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop:

Scalzi on Writing

By John Scalzi


This book collects many of the blog posts John Scalzi wrote between 2001 and 2006 on his blog Whatever ( As he says in his introduction, this is meant to be a book on the practical side, the business side, of writing -- how to conduct oneself as a writer, not how to construct sentences or paragraphs or three-act structures. Despite the length of the book (318 pages), the material is collected into just four chapters, segregated by main topic: "Writing Advice, or Avoiding Real Work the John Scalzi Way," "Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Writer's Life for Me," "The Schadenfreude Needle Is Buried Deep into the Red: On Writers," and "Science Fiction, or Don't Skip This Chapter, You Damned Writing Snobs."


The first chapter covers topics such as dealing with rejection, publishing as a business, and writing online (as Scalzi does with his blog). The next moves on to talking about money, contracts, criticism, Creative Commons, piracy, and yet more about money. The third chapter is mostly about doing it wrong -- how not to behave as a writer (envy, whining, libel, plagiarism, and similar misbehaviors). The final chapter covers topics specifically as they relate to science fiction (because Scalzi is a science-fiction author), but which have wider implications -- the presence of a message in the story, the vileness that is Publish America, and politics of authors (and irrelevance to the authors' work) among them.


If you've read anything by Scalzi, you know to expect well-presented, clean prose. He also doesn't shy away from saying things you might not want to hear. One example would be from "Even More Long-Winded (But Practical) Writing Advice," first published March 19, 2004: "There is always someone less talented than you making more money as a writer." This whole entry is about talent and writers' opinions meaning nothing to the world of publishing. Life's not fair, don't act like a jerk toward others, and remember that you can keep writing as long as you're alive. As he said: practical advice.


In the second chapter, he includes his famous (or perhaps infamous) post, "Real World Book Deal Descriptions," wherein a bunch of writers hanging around a bar decided to re-label the amount of money given for advances -- based on Publisher's Lunch's categories, but the descriptions state what the money actually means if you're someone wanting to make a living at writing. The new labels include such titles as a “contemptible” deal, a "meh" deal ("It's not great, you know. But you can pay some bills."), a “not bad” deal, and a "Shut up!" deal. He also includes a follow-up because a small press publisher took exception to the definitions at great length. One of Scalzi's points is: "It's a list from the perspective of the writer, not the perspective of the publisher." And that's the primary value of this book -- it's from the perspective of the writer, about the business of writing and how to treat it as a business. Part of that does include acknowledging that the best deal a publisher can offer you still isn't going to pay the rent or the mortgage or the heat on its own.


Scalzi's attitudes toward genre are refreshing, as well. Although he primarily reads science fiction, and that is the fiction area he is most known for writing in, he acknowledges all genres as having worth. "Literary fiction is French cooking. Science fiction is Thai. Romance writing is all about chocolate. You can get good and crappy versions of each, and the snob who won't try some of each is merely missing out." Even if you don't read science fiction, remember that he does have useful things to say about being a writer, and you may find the entries about science fiction have greater applicability.


Because this book is compiled from Scalzi's blog, all of the material in it (except for introductions to each chapter and to the book as a whole) is available free online. However, this book distills the topics into useful ones. These are curated entries, chosen and organized to provide a point of view -- a way of looking at being a writer, a way to think about being a professional -- whether you've sold anything yet or not, whatever genre you may write in, or whether you agree with any of his specific points on things like rewriting or fanfic. It's an overview of working as a writer, and well worth a read.


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

Subterranean Press (Hardcover)

ISBN 978-1-59606-063-0

Kindle edition

ASIN: B0050C69ZI