John Scalzi is a Hugo award-winning author of science fiction. He’s also an occasional columnist, a regular (and often hilarious) blogger, an active Tweeter, television consultant, and more. And when people mention Scalzi’s name, it’s usually followed by “how does he write so much?”
The answer is, apparently, by sitting at a corner desk with a ukulele at the ready. His newest novel is The End of All Things, part of his Old Man’s War series. That’s actually just serendipitous: people kept mentioning John to me as to who they wanted to see featured, so we reached out to learn a little about how he works — and as it happens there’s a new book, because when it comes to John Scalzi, there’s always a new book.
Location: Bradford, Ohio
Current Gig: Writer, mostly of science fiction novels but occasionally of non-fiction books, columns and video games. I’ve also written a mostly-daily blog, Whatever, since 1998. I tweet an embarrassing amount.
One word that best describes how you work: Bathrobically
Current mobile device: Droid Turbo
Current computer: Desktop is a Cyberpower Zeus Mini-I 980 with an Acer 4k Gsync monitor. I, uh, use it for writing. Yeah, that’s it. Laptops are a Dell XPS 12 (the one with the flappable screen) and an Asus Chromebook Flip.
What apps, software, or tools can’t you live without? What do you use for writing?
For writing I use Word or Google Docs, depending on project (shorter projects tend to be in Docs; longer projects tend to be in Word). I have writer friends who swear by Scrivener but honestly I don’t understand it; it’s overly complicated for my own writing process. In any event Word is the publishing industry standard, so sooner or later everything gets put into it anyway.
I use the WordPress web interface to write on my blog. For Twitter I use the Tweetdeck web interface even on my mobile devices, because I mute a truckload of obnoxious people and I don’t want to have to mute them across several Twitter apps. Facebook I also tend to use a web interface for, even on mobile, because their strategy of extracting parts of their mobile interface as separate apps is wearying and stupid. I use Gmail and Google Inbox interchangeably.
On my blog and elsewhere I have use for a lot of photography. I use a Nikon D5100 or my Droid Turbo to take the photos, process them with Photoshop and/or CameraBag 2, and then store them using Flickr, which I am used to and enjoy working with. For occasional audio work, I use a Blue Yeti microphone and Adobe Audition to process it.
What’s your workspace setup like?
I have a home office with custom-built shelving and desk, built for me by local business Overholser Cabinets. As a writer I need lots and lots of shelves for books, and even with that my workspace is overflowing with them. My desk is purposely designed to be small to keep it relatively distraction-free. It holds my monitor, computer (which is relatively small and hidden behind the monitor), a landline phone — yes I still have one — my Blue Yeti and an Amazon Echo, which I use at this point primarily to play music on. I keep a ukulele around for when I’m thinking about a plot point and need to keep my hands busy, otherwise they will reflexively check email.
What’s your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?
When I’m writing a novel or other long project I will turn off the internet from 8am to noon. That’s when I’m the most focused and creative, generally.
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?
Not what, who: My wife, Kristine, who will remind me to do critical things when they need to get done. Likewise, on book tour, my publicist and media handlers keep me on schedule. When not relying on one or the other, I use Google Calendar, because I’m reasonably integrated into the Google ecosystem already, which means I don’t have to think about it much.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?
For travel, which I do a ridiculous amount of these days, I have a pair of Bose QuietComfort 25 acoustic noise-cancelling headphones, which have saved me from murdering hundreds of people on aeroplanes.
Do you ever write away from a computer? Have you used or do you use a typewriter or pen and paper?
The very first Mac came out my freshman year in high school, which is also the year I started taking writing seriously, so in fact my writing process is very intimately tied into using computers. With the exception of an occasional high school poem or song lyric (which you don’t want to see, trust me), everything I’ve ever written is digital-native.
Do you find yourself always working on something? Or when you finish a project, do you take time to let your mind wander without concern for what’s next?
I recently signed a long term contract with Tor Books, so in one sense I know what I’ll be doing for the next decade, and I will always have something “next” to write. But that also comes with the luxury of not having to hunt for work in order to pay the mortgage. So when I’m done writing a novel or large work, I will usually take a week or two off to relax, during which time my brain sits there and basically goes “duuuuuuuh” for a while.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?
I’m faster on the draw with snarky comments than most anyone I know, and when you know the sort of people I know, that’s an accomplishment. Here’s my favourite story of that skill, involving Terry Pratchett. I think it’s genetic; my kid has it too.
What do you listen to while you work?
I tend not to listen to music while writing novels or serious projects because it will distract me. When doing less labour intensive projects (or housekeeping like answering email) I will listen jazz standards or classical music or 80s pop tunes, usually via Rhapsody’s “unRadio” channels. I don’t listen to new music when doing anything brain-intensive; I get distracted. I save new music for down time.
What are you currently reading?
Just finished Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. Now I’m writing a fiction project, so I’m mostly avoid other fiction, so as to not unconsciously (or consciously!) steal tone or plot elements from whatever I’m reading. When I’m finished, The Fifth Season, the new N. K. Jemisin book, should be out, so that’s probably next up.http://www.amazon.com/Seveneves-Nove…
How do you recharge?
Naps and video games and hanging out with my family. I’m boring!
What’s your sleep routine like?
When I’m home, I tend to be in bed by about 10pm, because a) I’m old, b) DVRs mean you can watch late stuff early. A pet will often wake me up around 2 or 3 because pets are terrible people like that, and then I’m up for an hour or so, which I usually spend reading social media. Then I go back to sleep. I’m usually up for good around 8am. Unless I’m not! I’m a writer! I work from home! I don’t have to get up! Bwa ha ha ha hah ha!
When I’m touring or doing events, I tend to go to sleep not long after the event is finished (if it’s an evening event) because inevitably I will have, like, a 6am flight which means I have to be up two hours earlier. I may doze on the plane. This is not optimal, but that’s the touring life.
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _________ answer these same questions.
Charlie Kindel, director of product, Alexa and Echo at Amazon (and former schoolmate of mine in high school).
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Life is not a zero-sum game.
Is there anything else you’d like to add that might be interesting to readers and fans?
Depending on when this goes up, my latest novel, The End of All Things, has either just been released, or is about to be, on August 11.
Also, I’m standing directly behind you right now. Try not to panic.
We’ve asked a handful of heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Every week we’ll feature a new guest and the gadgets, apps, tips and tricks that keep them going. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.