A Novel Idea
I spent this morning reading Agent to the Stars, a novel by John Scalzi, who may be best known as one of the main contributors to the Uncle John’s Bathroom Readers series of trivia books. I myself am the proud owner of the 14th book in the series, which holds a place of honor in the bathroom frequented by visitors to our house.
The novel itself was great fun, especially for someone like me who grew up in LA and knows the peculiar nature of the movie industry. I’m a big fan of what may be the smallest genre in fiction: Satirical novels about the business implications of humanity coming into contact with alien life forms (Greg Costikyan’s “First Contract” is the only other book I’m aware of in this genre, also highly recommended).
But what stuck in my mind, besides such memorable lines as, “I made her grovel like the she-dog she is,” is John’s introduction to the novel, which he makes available online for free:
“In the summer of 1997, I was 28 years old, and I decided that after years of thinking about writing a novel, I was simply going to go ahead and write one. There were two motivations for doing so. First, I was simply curious if I could; I’d had up to that time a reasonably successful life as a writer, but I’d never written anything longer than ten pages in my life outside of a classroom setting. Two, my ten-year high school reunion was coming up, and I wanted to be able to say I’d finished a novel just in case anyone asked (they didn’t, the bastards).
In sitting down to write the novel, I decided to make it easy on myself. I decided first that I wasn’t going to try to write something near and dear to my heart, just a fun story. That way, if I screwed it up (which was a real possibility), it wasn’t like I was screwing up the One Story That Mattered To Me. I decided also that the goal of writing the novel was the actual writing of it — not the selling of it, which is usually the goal of a novelist. I didn’t want to worry about whether it was good enough to sell; I just wanted to have the experience of writing a story over the length of a novel, and see what I thought about it. Not every writer is a novelist; I wanted to see if I was.
Making these two decisions freed me from a lot of the usual angst and pain that comes from writing a first novel. This was in all respects a “practice” novel — a setting for me to play with the form to see what worked, and what didn’t, and what I’d need to do to make the next novel worth selling.
It worked. I picked a fun, humorous story — aliens from another world decide to get an agent — and I just let it take me where it wanted to go. I banged out the chapters on the weekends, using the weekdays to let my mind figure out what to do next. The writing was fun, and for the most part it was easy, and in three months, the whole thing was done (and just in time for my high-school reunion).
Once the novel was finished, I decided, what the heck, I might as well try to sell it. This was not particularly successful. The agents I shopped it to liked the writing, but said humorous SF was hard place; the publishers liked the writing but said humorous SF was hard to sell. I wasn’t terribly put out about this; this was a practice novel, after all. But on the other hand I thought it was good enough to let other people see it.
So in early 1999, I decided to put it online as a “shareware novel.” The premise was simple: People could read it, and if they liked it, they could send me a dollar, or whatever sum they liked (even if that sum was zero). If they didn’t like it, well, clearly, they wouldn’t have to send me anything. It was a no-risk proposition for the reader. I didn’t expect to see a dime from it, but as it turns out, over five years I made about $4,000 (well, I think it was about that much. I stopped counting after a while. I know I made enough to buy a laptop and lots of pizzas. More than enough).”
I think that John’s experience should be inspiring, not just to aspiring novelists, but to entrepreneurs as well. If you want to write a novel or start a company, just do it. Don’t worry about writing “Ulysses” or starting Google on your first try. Just see if you can do it, and more importantly, if you have a taste for it.
If it flows, it will probably be pretty good, and you may even make some money off of it. Heck, $4,000 is a lot more than a lot of folks see for their first novel!
I only wish that I had read this back when I was in college. Rather than wasting my time in summer school, I could have banged out a couple of novels! Or companies….