Exclusive! John Scalzi’s Time Management and Career Tips
Last week, the publishing world was abuzz with the news that bestselling science fiction author John Scalzi signed a movie-star-like $3.4 million publishing deal for 10 books. Scalzi is someone I admire enormously, not just for his writing and career success, but because he’s a genuinely nice guy, both offline (I’ve seen him at science fiction conventions) and online.
Along with his time management and career strategies, Scalzi is a social media powerhouse, so I also interviewed him on his social media strategies. And he’s an out, proud, and smart feminist, antiracist, and LGBT ally who regularly speaks out in support of social justice; and who, in consequence, has been a target of some of the Internet’s obnoxious regressive elements. (Whom he handles with impressive good humor.) So another thing I asked him was about how he balanced his politics with his public professional persona.
Along with novels such as Redshirts, Old Man’s War, and the new Lock In, two must-read Scalzi pieces are his poignant blog post on growing up poor and his brilliant explication on white, male privilege using gaming concepts.
Thanks to John for the interview and all his good works!
Hillary Rettig: How do you manage your time? Do you use any specific method or tools?
John Scalzi: When I am traveling on tour or for appearances, I tend to offload my time management to PR folks and/or media handlers. That’s their job and they do it well, and they will keep track of where I need to be and when better than I will. At home, I keep things simple and use Google Calendar and my own brain. Seems to work so far.
HR: I know there’s overlap and variance, but roughly how many hours a week do you spend (a) writing books (or screenplays, etc.), (b) doing social media and other marketing, and (c) managing your business?
JS: When I’m working on a project, I tend to work on that project in the morning, roughly from 8am to 12pm, so about four hours daily, 20 hours a week. 1pm through 5pm is for everything else, so another 20 hours a week. I tend to think of everything else as “everything else,” rather than breaking it down more specifically. Note this is the ideal—things do get fudged in the real world.
HR: What would a typical daily schedule be when you’re in writing mode (versus, say, travel)?
JS: Noted above: four hours creating (typically in the morning because my brain is fresh), four hours for everything else relating to the business.
HR: You do a lot of social media. Why do you do so much, and how do you prevent it from competing, timewise and writing-energy-wise, with your book writing?
JS: I don’t think of it as doing so much, in part because I do it more to amuse myself than as a strategic part of my business. If you think of it as a thing I do rather than watching television, then why I do as much as I do becomes clear. And as with TV (or any other entertainment one uses to procrastinate) it is an attractive alternative to work. I find establishing and keeping to a schedule really helps.
HR: Do you consider yourself a fast writer? If so, what are some of your tips and tricks for writing fast?
JS: I can write 2,000 words a day without too much effort, which I do understand many folks see as writing quickly. The secret to this for me was to have spent several years as a professional journalist and getting used to writing quickly and on deadline. That said, I question whether for non-journalists writing fast is a virtue; the most important thing is finding the pace that works for you in terms of the quality of your work. Rather than focusing on writing fast, I would suggest people find their optimum speed for writing, and then build their schedules around that.
HR: What do you delegate, and to whom?
JS: When I’m on a project, and particularly closer to deadline, pretty much everything else is delegated to my wife, Kristine. I try to make it up to her other times. I occasionally consider hiring a part time assistant, but until and unless Krissy decides she doesn’t want to bother anymore, this isn’t likely to happen.
HR: You have made the choice to take public stands on political and social issues like feminism and gay rights. Leaving aside major blowups like GamerGate and PuppyGate—if that’s possible!—do you feel taking political stands has affected your career, and, if so, how?
JS: Not really, no, and that includes blowups like GamerGate and PuppyGate. I don’t suspect the vast majority of people who read my work know or care about my personal politics, and of those who do, I suspect the majority have decided that it’s fine for me to have political opinions as long as the work shows up and is readable. So that’s fine. There are a small number of people who will read me because of my positions; that’s nice. There’s also a small number who have decided not to read me because of my positions. That’s fine too. I’m not going to stop talking about political/social issues, pretty much ever, so anyone who has a problem with that should probably just bail out now and save themselves some time.
HR: At what point do you decide to take a public stand on a political/social issue, versus staying quiet and letting someone else take the stand? (Asking as an activist/author myself, and also author of The Lifelong Activist, a guide to sustainable progressive activism; I myself often find it hard to draw the line.)
JS:I have a pretty good sense of when I don’t know about something, and I don’t feel the need to be seen as a central figure in any movement, so when I don’t know about something I’m more inclined to study up on it and learn more than to jump in with both feet. This saves me both from making an ass of myself (sometimes!) or being an unintentional sideshow regarding a larger issue. If you see me talking about something, it’s either something I’m comfortable with my level of understanding about, or something where I feel my participation can be useful rather than self-aggrandizing.
HR: What was the smartest thing you ever did career-wise?
JS: Marry a partner who is smart and organized and engaged in my career and willing to put up with me. This isn’t just blather — Krissy’s organizational and financial skills gave us a solid foundation that allowed me to make smart long-term decisions about my career without having to worry too much about short-term, immediate financial/organizational needs. It’s been huge, and I recognize it.
HR: What was your biggest mistake or regret?
JS: I’m very happy where I am with my career so it’s hard for me to say I regret anything, because everything that’s happened has led to where I am right now. And while my career has not been flawless, I’m hard-pressed to come up with a mistake I want a do-over on. I suspect it’s because some potential incidents that could have been mistakes happened at the same time as events that minimized their effect. I think the only thing I would change, really, is that I wouldn’t have run for president of SFWA in 2007; I should have run for VP instead. This is a complicated story, too long to get into here. But even then, it didn’t end poorly for me, so.
HR: What do you find (or have you found) the most challenging or difficult aspect of growing a fiction writing career?
JS: The amount of non-writing work it takes, in terms of appearances, touring, schmoozing and so on. The good news is it turns out I’m pretty good at those things. The bad news is that the more successful you are as a writer, the more time you do the non-writing stuff. Because people are excited to see you! And that helps sell more books. But I had no idea that being a successful writer would take so much time away from writing.
HR: Talking in terms of career management and success (not writing), who have been your best professional influences?
JS: I tend to look at how writers one (or more) steps up in terms of career popularity are handling their business. So as an example I look at how Neil Gaiman handles things to see if something he’s doing (aside from writing what he does) is something I can use or adapt to my circumstances. Also with things like touring, I pick the brains of musicians and actors who’ve toured. My friend Mary Robinette Kowal helped me out immensely with this early on.
HR: What common business and/or marketing mistakes do you see writers make that inhibit their success? (Not talking about public obnoxiousness or bigotry.) And what advice would you give those writers?
JS: Two big things: One, doing social media like it’s a chore, and two, believing everything they read on the Internet about “traditional” and/or “indie” publishing. To the first, if you hate the idea of tweeting or using Facebook or having a blog, don’t do it; it’ll be clear you hate it and no one will like it (or you) as a result. There are many ways to do publicity; find the one that works for you. To the second, the signal-to-noise ratio about publishing online, in any version of it, is pretty low, and the loudest people are the ones who are invested in their own particular viewpoint. Be critical of any piece of information about publishing you see; ask who it is who is saying it and what their own biases are.
HR: You recently appear to have retired your longstanding “I like pie” tagline in favor of “All cake and hand grenades.” Why did you do that, and why are you now hating on pie?
JS: No, “I like pie” is still my Twitter bio. “All cake and hand grenades” is a quote from an NPR review of my novel Lock In. It’s a great image, so I stole it. That’s the subhead for Whatever, my blog. I change those subheads every few months on average.
HR: What else would you like people to know about your time management and career strategies?
JS: That I probably look more organized in the interview than I actually am.