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Thoughts on Scalzi’s “You’re Not Fooling Anyone”

I’ve read a lot of books about writing. I’ve read books on character. I’ve read books on plot. I’ve read books on structure. I’ve read literary critique. I’ve read about genre, about symbolism, about publishing, about inspiration, about the creative process, about screenwriting, about fiction writing, about novel writing, about short story writing, about all sorts of things. And, in their own minor ways, each has been helpful to me. As it goes. I wouldn’t say that any of them have been truly inspiring, but when have you ever read a book about the mechanics of your craft that blew your mind? Yeah, I can’t think of one either.

A while back I stumbled across John Scalzi’s You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing. I have been a regular reader of Scalzi’s blog Whatever for years and was a fan of his novel Old Man’s War, so when I saw that he had released a book about writing I naturally spent the 5 bucks for the Kindle version. And there it languished for ages as other books came and went and life passed us all by in a torrent of images and sounds and happinesses and sadnesses.

Recently, I was between books and decided to read something from my shelf that was on dead trees which is fine and all, but sometimes I don’t feel like carrying the book with me when I am not taking my backpack to and from work. The advantage of the Kindle is that it syncs with the Kindle app on my phone so even if I leave the device at home, I can continue to read on my phone while riding the train or waiting in a bar or doing whatever the hell it is. That’s not possible with a book on, you know, real paper. While riding the train one morning I decided to start into You’re Not Fooling Anyone. I have a hard time reading more than one fiction book at once, but no problem at all keeping track of a novel and a non-fiction book. Weird, I guess, but it also makes a sort of sense.

You’re Not Fooling Anyone is a collection of articles Scalzi wrote for Whatever between 2001 and 2006 that deal with many aspects of writing, but not with craft. Instead they deal with the lifestyle of a working writer, how to sell fiction, what to expect in the marketplace, what pitfalls to avoid as a working writer, what you can expect when working with publishers and editors, and a whole mess of opinion on the state and future of the market. They cover a whole lot of things that nothing else I’ve ever read covered in a Scalzi’s utterly matter-of-fact, no bullshit, this-is-how-the-real-world-works voice. And I appreciate that.

To explain that, let me digress for a moment. I have never considered myself an artist. I am uncomfortable with that label. I firmly believe that art is for other people to decide and my job, as a creator of things, is to do the damn best job I can on whatever the hell it is I am working on. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about writing or photography or editing video, I always strive to do the best I can at my craft. And that’s the important thing: to me, it is craft. It is no different than a skilled cobbler or builder of homes or tailor. What I do as a creative person is to craft things the best way I know how, to learn from the process, and to try and do even better the next time. I have always, and will always, prefer the term “craftsman” to “artist” and “craft” to “art” when referring to myself. “Art” gets stuck up in the clouds; “craft” is firmly rooted in the real world.

What resonated with me in You’re Not Fooling Anyone is that Scalzi clearly has the same opinion of the writing process I do. Specifically, that it is a craft, not some high-falutin’ higher calling from the muses. It’s not. That’s crazy. It’s no more a higher calling than driving a bus is. That doesn’t mean it’s not damn fun work that can be incredibly satisfying, but it is still work. Work work work. When I read him reiterating my opinions relatively early in You’re Not Fooling Anyone, I suspected that I had found something special. As I progressed, that suspicion was confirmed over and over again. The book is, possibly, the only book I’ve read so far on writing that got my brain buzzing with ideas. Not because he says, “Write this way or that way,” but because he got me thinking about my own writing in a different way by discussing the way he thinks about his writing. That’s the important thing. It’s so easy to get stuck thinking about your work in just one way that you can get mired in it and lose steam. To have someone or something come along and say, “Hey, have you thought about it this way?” is often all you need to work through it. Because that’s what we do, right? We’re creative people and we create, even if, as imperfect meatbags, we sometimes get stuck.

Lord knows regular readers of The Black Laser have read many thousands of words of me rambling on and on about my creative process (or lack thereof), so reading the same musings from someone else is a real kick for me. And makes me want to inflict even more rambling on all you poor sons of bitches.

If you are a writer, you should read this book. If you are a person who makes things that might not be words, you should read this book. If you are not a creative person (WHO THE HELL ARE YOU PEOPLE?) but are curious what the brain of someone who makes a living being creative is like, you should read this book. It’s that good. And it’s incredibly accessible. There are no academic blatherings about post-modernism here, just opinion earned through years of hard work and experience. I sincerely hope we get a second volume of 2007-2012. It’s been five years and I would happily spend another 5 bucks on the Kindle version.

A Brief Review of Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen

I cannot stop talking about this book. Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen is one of the most moving, masterful collections of short stories I’ve ever read. I literally (read: figuratively) cannot believe how good it is. Reading it even upset me because I am fairly certain that I will never in my life be able to write something this good. It is so good.

I picked up the book one afternoon last summer at Word here in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It’s a lovely independent book store and if you’re ever in the neighborhood, you should go there and give them your money in exchange for books. Who doesn’t need more books? It was with that thought in mind that I entered Word and browsed through their well-curated selection. Stranger Things Happen was one of the four or five books I bought that day and as soon as it got home it went directly onto my bookshelf and was forgotten. Such is the fate of many books languishing upon my shelves.

After putting down The Girl Who Played With Fire, the second of the dragon tattoo books, which was entirely unremarkable and didn’t warrant my continued attention, I pulled Link’s book off my shelf, dusted it off, and threw it into my bag for the train. I swear I nearly missed my stop because I had my face buried in the book. I didn’t want to get off the train. And I always want to get off the train. I hate the train.

The book contains 11 short stories on all sorts of topics with all sorts of characters (and a lot of cats). They are magical without being ridiculous, difficult without being abstract, feminine without being saccharine, fantastical yet completely real. (Isa, I wrote yours first.) She has managed to blend the real and the unreal into a wholly believable tapestry. The stories are full of mystery and sadness and love and death. I can’t believe you have not already purchased the book. It is SO good.

The quote by Jonathan Lethem on the cover sums the whole thing up quite nicely.

Kelly Link is the exact best and strangest and funniest short story writer on earth that you have never heard of at the exact moment you are reading these words and making them slightly inexact. Now pay for the book.

And guess what? You don’t have to pay for the book! You can download it for free at her website. But I think you should pay for the book because it is amazing and you would be a fool not to support her efforts. I ordered her second collection of short stories yesterday (which is also available for free) directly from their website. Read the book and then come back here and tell me how much you loved it. I loved it. I am sad it is done. However, I intend to do a TBLR of one of the stories. Look out for that.

Thanks for kicking ass, Kelly Link.

A brief summary of Pineapple Express as experienced by me this evening

Perhaps I shall endeavor to watch this Pineapple Express film I have heard so much about. Oh, look, it is offered by Netflix for streaming. How convenient.

Joe presses play.

FLASHBACK! FLASHBACK ENDS!

YELL YELL YELL!

POT SMOKING.

YELL YELL YELL!!! YELL YELL YELL!!!

POT SMOKING!

YELL YELL YELL!!!!!!

GUNS!

YELL YELL YELL!!!

MORE GUNS!!

GUY FROM FOOT FIST WAY GETS SHOT A BUNCH OF TIMES!

YELL YELL YELL!!

CREDITS!

Well, that was certainly something. Perhaps I should share my impressions with my loyal readers on The Black Laser?