Don’t Live For Your Obituary by John Scalzi



*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

Don't Live for Your Obituary: Advice, Commentary and Personal Observations on Writing, 2008-2017 by John Scalzi is a collection of posts taken from Scalzi’s popular blog, Whatever. Scalzi gave each post some light editing, but otherwise if you’re a long time follower of his, you’ve probably already read many if not all of this material. The benefit of this collection is that you’re getting those same posts in a somewhat logical (as opposed to chronological) order since Scalzi put them into loose categories as follows:

  • Golden Nuggets of Writerly Wisdom, or, This Is Where I Offer Up Some Writing Advice, Take It or Don’t
  • The Fine Art of Putting Your Books and Yourself Out There Without Wanting to Drink Acid, or, Let’s Talk About Publishing and Online Presence
  • This is the Section Where Scalzi Snarks on People More Famous Than He Is, So Get Out Your Popcorn, or, Thoughts on Writers and Other Notables
  • Don’t Type Angry, Well, Okay, Fine, Go Right Ahead, or, Writing Controversies and Other Such Nonsense
  • Jeez, Scalzi, Does It Always Have To Be About You? Why Yes, Yes It Does, or, Notes From My Career

From looking at the categorizations, one might expect to find posts with topics that vary widely. Consider such expectations correct. You’ll find everything from Scalzi’s opinion on the latest drama going on within the inner author circles, to how to react to reviews, to an egotistical look at the author’s many successes, and, last, a fairly good amount of advice on how to grow and sustain a career in writing. That last point comes with the caveat that everything stated is what worked for Scalzi and that your mileage may vary.

So, bottom line, Don't Live for Your Obituary: Advice, Commentary and Personal Observations on Writing, 2008-2017, is the kind of collection you might want to read if you’re a fan of Scalzi’s blog or his internet persona, but if you’re looking for substantial, informative views on writing there just isn’t a whole lot here. I think Scalzi would have been better served by writing a book such as Stephen King’s On Writing. Scalzi has the genre cred and the success at this point in his career to author such a book. Instead, though, he went the route of recycling blog posts. That in itself is kind of disappointing.

My "Go to" Reference Books

I'm in full edit mode now, hammering and chiseling away at the first draft of The Nullification Engine (The Alchemancer, Book Two). As part of my first pass edit, I'm rewriting or removing anything that doesn't fit with the final narrative, cleaning up anything that was left in a messy state (whether intentional or not), substituting "better" words or descriptions where appropriate, and, last, cleaning up any questionable grammar and incorrect spelling.

All the fun stuff.

While on this journey, I'm finding myself with four essential reference books by my side at all times. These books, as shown above, are: The Emotion Thesaurus, The Synonym Finder, The Chicago Manual of Style, and the Flip Dictionary (which, unfortunately, has gone out-of-print). I've written about The Synonym Finder before (in fact, it's one of my all-time Top 10 viewed posts), but wanted to take a quick look at each of these books right here in this post.

Hopefully you'll find one or more of them useful as well.

The Emotion Thesaurus

The Emotion Thesaurus breaks down the myriad ways for a writer to convey emotion.

An example:


Definition: to lack confidence in or consider unlikely

Physical Signals: brows drawing close, face tightening; looking down or away; running hands through hair; tapping fingers (more omitted)

Mental Responses: Searching for ideas on how to circumvent the situation (more omitted)

Cues of Acute or Long-Term Doubt: Avoiding speaking or agreeing openly (more omitted)

You get the idea. There are about fifty or so emotions given similar treatment. I've found it a quick guide to find other ways to highlight a character's response to something as I tend to use the same set of emotions too often. This allows me to better match the emotional response of a particular character with their actual make-up, making each character just a bit more unique.

It's an Amazon Top Seller too, so someone else other than me must find it useful.

The Synonym Finder

The Synonym Finder is, at its simplest, a thesaurus. In my previous review, I had this to say:

The Synonym Finder reads like a dictionary, except instead of word definitions it's chock full of synonyms. To find a synonym, you simply flip open the book, find your keyword alphabetically, and you're presented with a listing of synonyms. Straightforward and simple.

I think that pretty much says it all. This is a great reference book to have at-hand.

The Chicago Manual of Style

Among U.S. book publishers, The Chicago Manual of Style is the most widely used guide to style, editing, and design. My own editor asked at the start of our business relationship if I was alright with him using it as his de facto reference guide. I said 'yes', but then realized I probably should get a copy for myself to use as my own reference. It's not something I refer to very often while working on a first draft, but it is something I intend to keep close as I'm working on subsequent revisions.

Flip Dictionary

Unfortunately, the Flip Dictionary has gone out of print. Bummer. You can still find used copies on Amazon and elsewhere, though. I frequent Half-Priced Books every once in a while, so that might be another option if you have one in your area.

The Flip Dictionary is the reverse of a dictionary. You think of a meaning, such as "the study of glands", and the Flip Dictionary provides the word (in this case, endocrinology). It's another handy tool to have in the tool-belt.

Why I Don’t Write About Dragons

In fantasy, dragons are huge, and I don’t mean literally (though that’s obviously true). They’re so huge that you often don’t see them in a novel or series unless they’re the center point (Dragonlance, Pern, and many others) or at the very least part of the climatic finish (The Hobbit).

Dragons in literature have been around since antiquity. The Leviathan, often thought of as a sea serpent, was first mentioned in the Hebrew Book of Job. Tiamat of Babylonian myth was a many-headed dragon that Dungeons & Dragons turned into an amalgamation of their different colored dragons. Beowulf combats a dragon and defeats it (though he dies of his wounds shortly thereafter). Saint George also fights and kills a dragon in the aptly named tale, Saint George and the Dragon. In various ethnic mythos, dragons of one sort or another show their scales, whether it be European, Chinese, Indian, or others.

In more recent times, dragons have made appearances or been featured in such books as the Dragonriders of Pern, the Dragonlance Chronicles, the Temeraire series, The Hobbit (of course), and many, many other novels (Robin Hobb comes to mind).

Writing about dragons is not an easy task, especially if they’re right at the center of things as they often deserve. That in itself is the problem for me. They are such majestic, overwhelming entities that they simply must be the focal point. Anything less and I think an author is selling them short.

Much like elves, one might argue that dragons have been “done to death”. Yet authors like Novik and Hobb continue to bring fresh perspectives and interpretations of them to readers. Dare I even attempt to follow in their footsteps? Not right now. I’m already going down a path of my own with my blending of alchemy, elemental magic, sorcery, and pseudoscience in The Alchemancer series. That doesn’t mean there aren’t dragons somewhere out there waiting for Aaron and co. to find. I can already picture in my mind the conversation Aaron would have with a dragon were he ever to encounter one! Now that would be something worth writing about. Or maybe it would just be another Eragon. I'm quite certain the world does not need another one of those.

How Much Time Should Writers Spend Blogging?

From time to time I like to put on the ol' hazmat suit and delve into the dusty archives of this blog. There's some gems hidden deep inside its bowels, but with so much dust covering them they don't get the attention they crave. Here then is a post from my archive. I've only touched it up a little, just to keep the facts straight. Or maybe I've touched it up a lot because my voice has changed over time. In any case, here it is.

IMG20002There was a pretty good take on the Vigorous Writing blog (which apparently, as of 11/28/08, has disappeared) concerning the question of how much time one should spend blogging.

Of note:

"Newer writers still trying to build their credibility and client list might protest that they have much more free time than Bly has and they need to find a way to market themselves so blogging is a great, forward-thinking way of doing it. There's something to that, but honestly, I think it's an easy way out, the path of least resistance--what new writers should probably be doing, instead of blogging and reading other blogs and commenting on other blogs and brain-storming ideas for their latest blog post, is what many writers hate doing--cold-calling for leads non-stop."

This guy's talking like a freelancer, which is all well and fine if that's what you do. But I like to look at things from my own perspective, and I'm not a freelancer. However, his point—that writers need to have a pipeline—is very relevant for all writers. What I really don't agree with is his take on blogging. Despite social media, blogging remains relevant as a marketing tool, a way of increasing exposure, and as a way to connect with like-minded individuals. However, unless you're really stupid and trying to blog every day like I am, it can really become a time sink.

According to one referenced blogger in the article, one shouldn't spend more than 10 minutes/day or an hour/week blogging. How in the world are you supposed to have any quality posts with such time constraints? Geez.

Another blogger says to blog in moderation--only post every 4-6 days. That way each post has time to stew, be read, and garner comments.

Robin Hobb weighed in on the issue in a decidedly negative (but productive) way. Her reasoning is that time spent blogging is time NOT spent writing. (2013-02-13 - Unfortunately I couldn't find the post where she said that, but it's funny as I look at her blog that it appears she's now blogging quite regularly. Guess she changed her mind). In a way, blogging is a distraction, and we all know that distraction is the enemy. Another way to look at is this: ask yourself if you are a creator or a consumer? Or, are you a writer or a reader? Writers write, including blog posts.

What it really boils down to is finding a happy medium between the two. For some that medium might be more of one and less of the other, or it might be both in equal portions. It's up to the individual and, ultimately, one's goals.

Backup Your Stuff... Please?

I'm interrupting the regularly scheduled blog post, which would have been Part 2 of my Smashwords: All Function and No Form series, for this brief public service announcement about backing up your data.

First thing yesterday morning I discovered my web site was not behaving well. Long story short, my web hosting provider had somehow switched the version of .NET out from underneath my site. If that makes no sense, suffice to say they rendered the site unreachable. We only discovered this and got the site back up and running after speaking to three different customer support reps and wasting an hour and a half of my morning. I then spent a couple more hours throughout the day and last night fixing the last lingering problems. But the site was up and, most importantly, I didn't lose any data.

This little episode reminded me that it's been a while since I'd copied over the data folder off my server onto my local hard drive. I use GoDaddy to host this and other sites, and I've no idea if they perform backups of my content. I know they have something called Managed Backups, but that's an extra service you have to pay for. Besides, I don't want to have to rely on them. I need to know where my backup is and that I can do a restore at a moment's notice.

Here's how I do backups and restores of my web content. Restoring is so important a lot of IT people call it a "Restore Plan" rather than a backup plan. It makes sense. If you can't restore, what's the point of having the backup in the first place?

Backup Plan

  1. FTP files from web service down to local disk. This doesn't happen as often as it should and really is the weak link in my plan.
  2. Each blog post is emailed to me at the end of the day. This email goes in a special folder.
  3. Windows Backup runs weekly on my laptop, rolling up a backup to my home server.
  4. On my home server I have Carbonite running. Carbonite is a great, cheap service that allows you to have continuous backups running to their cloud storage with no limit on the amount of data. This means that as any file changes on the server, including my Windows backup files, those changes are uploaded to the cloud.

Restore Plan

I have two options: restore from my Windows backup files or restore from Carbonite. I've tested both approaches, so I know they work.


This is by no means a sophisticated backup/restore plan. My worst fear is I lose the hard drive on my laptop before Windows backup has had a chance to run. That's a distinct possibility. But then at least I already have everything on the web server. If that were to then go down, I'd lose a week of posts. That's not really that big of a deal.

As for my novels, works-in-progress, etc., I store those in my Dropbox folder. Dropbox provides continuous backup to the cloud and even keeps a version history. Their versioning actually bailed me out about a month ago when I accidentally deleted the draft for a post which for some reason I thought I'd already posted.

So, there you have it. Hopefully this will serve as a reminder to all to make sure your data is backed up. You just never know what's going to happen.