John Scalzi on Old Man's War, being adaptable and how to write 14 thousand words in one day

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Mar 1, 2018, 6:02 PM EST

I just spent a week on the ocean with John Scalzi. One might assume that’s not a sentence many people can say, but, in fact, at least a couple thousand of us have done it—most of those more than once—thanks to the JoCo Cruise.

The cruise, a nautical creation of Jonathan Coulton with comedy musicians Paul Sabourin and Storm DiCostanzo (known simply as Paul and Storm), is part convention, part summer camp, all aboard a massive cruise ship. The 2018 cruise boasted heroes from the worlds of genre literature and comics (like Patrick Rothfuss, N.K. Jemisin and Kelly Sue Deconnick), music (like Aimee Mann), comedy (like John Hodgman, Michael Ian Black, Maria Bamford and Cameron Esposito) and those wonderful spots where they intersect (Jean Grae, Wil Wheaton, Molly Lewis, and so many others).

Photo courtesy of John Scalzi.

And if anyone deserved a week floating on a boat full of board games, cosplayers and at least one night DJing an '80s dance party (yes, that happened), it’s John Scalzi. The prolific author’s The Collapsing Empire was released last spring, the first in his Interdependency series (the second is slated for a fall 2018 release) and next month will see the release of Head On, the follow-up to 2014’s Lock In. And getting Head On out into the world was no small feat. Doing so involved one very, very busy day following a very, very difficult year. As he said in a JoCo Cruise panel on Modes of Storytelling with Amy Berg, Open Mike Eagle and Wil Wheaton, “The story is broken, but the story can be mended.” Here’s how John Scalzi mended the story, thanks to hard deadlines and a little inspiration from the humble cockroach. 

One thing I heard you talk about this week was writing 14,000 words in one day for Head On. I mean... how?

I usually write 2,000 words a day and it works very nicely; it’s from that journalistic training I’ve had. But the last year, I was just usually distracted, because the world’s on fire. The number of words I was writing on a daily basis went down, and I was doing a lot of, "I wrote 200 words, now I’m taking the rest of the week off." Finally I just got to the point where my editor called and said, “Yeah, it’s due tomorrow. We can’t put it off.” And I was like, great. Because at that point, the story, the outline, everything that I needed to know about the story was done, and all I had to worry about at that point was the typing. So in one sense it’s sort of like, wow, 14,000 words—and yes it’s a whole lot and I slept for two days afterward—but in terms of writing the story, the story was already done and it was just the point of actually getting it out to the page. It was really useful to have my editor say, “No, it’s due now.”

Did that make those words better or worse, or just different maybe?

I don’t know that it’s better or worse, because the thing is when I write books, I actually usually accelerate during the end for the same reason, that eventually the story’s done and I just have to do typing. So while 14,000 words seems like a lot, usually when I’m doing a book I’ll write 6,000 or 8,000 on the very last day, just to get it done. So it’s not unlike my usual process at the end where you hope you don’t smash into a wall.

Last year, you discussed your aspiration to be a cockroach when it comes to writing. How are you able to adapt yourself and your work based on its modality? 

So, very briefly, there’s three types of writers: dinosaurs, mammals, cockroaches. Dinosaurs are the ones that are tied into a previous business model, so when that business model goes away, their careers suffer for it. Mammals are the ones that are rising with a new business model and their problem is they eventually morph into dinosaurs because no business model stays constant. They always rise, they always fall. And then the third type of writer is the cockroach. It doesn’t matter what’s going on, they’re like, “How do you want these words? Alright, I will put them in that format. Here we go.” So, you aspire to be a cockroach. You aspire to be the one who is format and business-directive agnostic. Audiobooks have completely expanded what I do, so they are saying “Hey, can you do some original audio stuff?” and I say, “Absolutely, if you’re going to pay me for that.”

Speaking of alternate modes of storytelling, how goes the Netflix adaptation of Old Man’s War?

We’re at the point now where we’re looking at screenwriters, so that’s always kind of interesting. It’s been fun because you do get the feeling that, once Netflix buys into what you’re doing, that there’s a lot of forward momentum, "Let’s do this thing, let’s make it happen." It had previously been optioned for eight years, and in one sense that’s great, because they had to pay me every year. So it was like, thank you whoever optioned it for eight years; you paid for my daughter’s college tuition. But at the same time, it would have been nice to actually see it out there. 

Does this time feel more real?

Yeah. Well, it feels like a lot of forward momentum. I’m always cautious about saying anything in Hollywood feels real. My old adage is the time to feel something is real in Hollywood is when it’s on its third season. Because before that there’s lots of places where it can fall down. But it certainly feels like it’s moving forward in a very quick fashion, like they have a plan. They have things they want to do, and they want to have it out and on the service. Netflix is at a point where previous models that they had aren’t working anymore because Disney, for example, which they had a contract with through 2019, they're gonna do their own streaming service. So all that Disney material is going to go away. They need to have the original material to replace it, and it’s great for me because, “Well, I have original material for you.” But it makes for a very exciting time. Netflix is throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks. They are committing to doing feature-film-length stuff and figuring out the model of how that works and how it doesn’t is kind of interesting. And there is some evidence that the things that are going to work for Netflix aren’t necessarily 100-percent what is going to work in theatrical release, like for example Bright, which, whatever you think of the film, they did a masterful job marketing. I like it so far; let’s hope it works out.

What are you looking at in terms of screenwriters?

I was very clear when we were talking with the folks at Madhouse and Jon Shestack, the other producers, that we don’t need to go with the people who are already known, we can go with people who are new and hungry and who are looking for the breakout and that allows us to build a diverse cast and crew which is really important to me but even among the people who are looking for the breakouts, they’ve done stuff that I’ve seen before and that I’ve liked and they seem to have the chops. So it’s exciting. 

What is it like for you being a stalwart member of this JoCo family?

This is my sixth [JoCo Cruise] and I remember the first time I came on, I told Paul [Sabourin], “OK I will come but if I am bored, I am taking you down with me.” Because I am easily bored. But for me it’s not the fact that it’s on sea, although being on sea and being away is a dynamic which should not be ignored, but the fact that I’m with so many people who I like as people and admire as creative artists and then a whole bunch of friends and fans who are just hanging around and we get to do it for a week away from the world has been great. People who are so smart and so great, and that cross-pollination you wouldn’t get anywhere else of people from disparate points of view, disparate creative disciplines. There’s always those opportunities for hybrid vigor among creativity and I think this is one of the few places that can really happen. 

How's it been having a week wholly absent of Twitter and "the real world?"

When I come on the cruise, I don’t want to know what’s going on in the world. I love Twitter, I really do. It’s a really good mode for me in terms of communication, but having a week not knowing what’s going on there or participating there has been great. I had a minimal internet package to check in with my daughters, like, “Are you alive? Are the cats on fire?” If the answers are “yes” and “no,” we’re good. 


JoCo Cruise 2016 group photo and header photo by Michael Bain

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