I read Agent to the Stars too

I recently read John Scalzi’s Agent to the Stars which, to quickly summarize, is about a Hollywood agent tasked with helping an alien species introduce themselves to Earth.  It’s really great, funny and well written, which didn’t really surprise me. What did surprise me is that it’s actually Scalzi’s first novel, despite not being the first he published. He wrote it as a practice novel, posted it on his blog, and told people to donate a dollar if they liked it. I think he make like $4,000 over several years before he stopped accepting donations.

The whole point was to see if he could write an entire novel, which he did, and he did quite well. I think its an excellent exercise, and one which I’d like to engage in eventually. The rest of 2013 has recently gotten very busy for me, so I don’t think I’ll be starting on a practice novel anytime soon, but I certainly want to. I think sitting down to simply write a novel, and not worrying about publishing it, is a pretty good idea. I expect this is something a lot of fan-fiction writers, whether they conceive of it this way or not, end up doing. I don’t really want to talk about fan-fiction here, I’m not real familiar with it, but writing about other people’s characters or in other people’s settings seems like a good way to work on your craft. I don’t really have any interest in doing so, unless I were to write for an established comic or show at some point, but the concept seems useful.

I read once somewhere that Ray Bradbury would start a story on Monday, finish it by Friday, and send it out on Saturday. Now, this is kind of crazy to me, and Bradbury was a champ, but the concept seems like it would work for me with a practice novel. Not that timeline per se, but the idea of just sitting down and writing every day. My advisor for my master’s thesis has given me similar advice, telling me that when he’s getting started on a new project, he sits down and writes at least 500 words a day, before he does anything else. It might lead to writing all day, or it might be like pulling teeth, and it might never see the light of day, but writing is a muscle, and you have to train it.

I’ve been unsuccessful at doing the 500 word thing every day, though I have done it a couple of times in the process of writing my thesis and it has helped. In fact, holding myself to a twice a week blog schedule is kind of the same idea: to keep myself writing regardless of how busy this semester gets.

This post hasn’t really had anything to do with Agent to the Stars, but I don’t want to spoil things and I certainly don’t just want to spend another post rambling about how much I like Scalzi. I think I can say this though: Scalzi is a pretty inspirational writer for me. Reading Fuzzy Nation was the kick in the pants I needed to get back into reading fiction on a regular basis, something that I’d fallen out of due to the constant reading required of grad school. Reading fiction again also really makes me want to try my hand at writing fiction again, something I also haven’t done with any regularity in a while. I might not get back to it until the beginning of 2014, but I damn sure want to get back to it.

Upon completing Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Yesterday I was thinking about posting blogs on this site because, nominally, Owen Street Press is basically a vanity project allowing me to publish whatever I want. At the moment, my focus is on Giant Monsters Exciting Battle!, but eventually that will be done, and I’ll need to do something else. In the mean time though, I have things that I’d like to post about from time to time, and I figured “hey, why not start by ranting about how great a writer John Scalzi is.”

I’m not going to  grandstand and make statements like “He’s the Joss Whedon of novels,” or “He might be able to dethrone Terry Pratchett as my defacto favorite author,” or “Just how quickly can I buy his entire catalog of novels?” The answer to the last one is “by Monday, because I have Amazon Prime.” Or possibly, “by Friday, because I have an iPad with the Kindle app installed.”

But I digress.

My friend (who is also one of the first playtesters for GMEB!) handed me Fuzzy Nation on Tuesday, and she instructed me to read it. I had basically no experience of Scalzi’s writing; the extent of my knowledge about him was that A) he was on Wil Wheaton’s TableTop (a show I love and should blog about at some point), that B) he once got pizza in Chicago with Felicia Day (we’re Facebook friends, and she posted the picture on Instagram, it’s not weird), that C) he wrote a pretty good introduction to the 2009 edition of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (go read that book, right now, I can wait, if you’re like me you’ll read it in two days, and it’ll only take that long because your weak human body needs sleep) and that D) apparently he was a pretty good writer. D was pretty well undersold, thanks Internet.

She sold me on the book in part because it’s not part one of a googilogy (I think I just made that up?) of books. I love speculative fiction, but I don’t need or want to read about the same characters for a dozen books in a row. If I wanted to watch writers run characters into the ground for decades, I’d read superhero comics! ZING! Have I mentioned that I got a subscription to Marvel Unlimited the other day and I’ve been using it to start reading Fantastic Four, in order. Starting with issue #1?

I like stand alone novels, because even the best epic series can get bogged down. I’m looking at you, parts of A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. I kid, I bought three copies of Dance and got them signed by Martin (two were for my friends, what would I do with all of them, build a house?).

She also noted that Scalzi writes characters who are people that you care about. This is my other beef with speculative fiction: it tends towards waxing on about settings and technology and kind of puts characters on the back burner. This is especially true of cyberpunk, which I love, conceptually, but have a hard time reading because, well, I just told you why.

The result of these feels about speculative fiction is that there are six books on my bookshelves right now with bookmarks in them, which I haven’t so much as been reading, as feeling guilty about not reading. I’ve found myself starting but not finishing books with alarming frequency lately.

I read Fuzzy Nation in two days (with a day in between). This is because it’s great, but also because it’s a nice, manageable size (341 pages), the pacing is perfect, and it’s great. I may be repeating myself. I hate spoilers more than anything that isn’t important in the grand scheme of things, so it’s hard for me to talk about the book much. I’ll say this though: I’m a historian, and a humanist, and a great lover of courtroom acrobatics in fiction, and this book did it for me. Did it for me like whoa. Imagine, if you are able, Tiny Tina (of Borderlands 2) describing something she loves. Now imagine I am saying these words, and the thing being described is Fuzzy Nation, and you will have an idea of what I mean.

To bring this down to a more stable level: the book is excellently written, with a pacing that makes you want to continue reading. The characters are interesting, their relationships are realistic, as are the ways in which they react to things. The twists do not come from nowhere, but are the logical conclusion of events that preceded them. It’s lean: there’s no padding, no extra verse, no bogging the reader down in details they don’t need, or expounding upon a setting at the expense of exploring characters. Scalzi does not rely upon violence to give the events of the book gravitas, there’s some violence sprinkled in there, but it’s violence the way a proper noir film uses it: sparingly, and chillingly. The social commentary is crisp, it’s not a club with which to pummel the reader, but nor will it miss its mark.

It was really hard not to make an Upton Sinclair joke with that last sentence. Although I guess I just did.

I remember at one point in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, one of the characters, possibly Crow, said that a good movie makes you want to make your own movie (I think the movie being watched had the opposite effect). I’ve kept that as something of a mantra, but inserted various forms of media as appropriate. So a good movie, game, book, whatever, makes you want to create one of those things. Fuzzy Nation makes me want to write a novel. A good science fiction novel, with characters who are characters, and a plot that feels real and manageable. I won’t do this any time soon, of course, but bear with me. It also makes me want to read more of his work. That I think I can pull off sooner, rather than later.