Lockdown Marshmallow Contest Time! Highlights from John Scalzi’s r/Books AMA

John Scalzi is the Hugo Award-winning author of the Old Man’s War series, Redshirts, the Lock In series, and much, much more. Last week, his Interdependency trilogy concluded with the release of The Last Emperox, out now from Tor Books. While on his digital tour (full schedule here), he dropped by r/Books for an AMA, where he dispensed writing advice and book recommendations, updated fans on upcoming books and adaptations, and opined upon nearly every conceivable topic, from cats to burritos to the marshmallow-eating prowess of Patrick Rothfuss vs. Scott Lynch. Here are the highlights!

On the origins of Agent to the Stars (plus a quick peek at his writing process):

Agent to the Stars was my “practice novel” which I wrote to see if I could write a novel. So I gave it a high concept idea rather than an immensely personal one (so I wouldn’t be emotionally wrecked if I couldn’t make it work), and I also used a world I knew — the film business, because I was a film critic/journalist at the time.

My writing process is: Wake up, turn on a nanny app to block social media and news, write from 8am until noon.

On why his writing style isn’t heavily descriptive:

One, because generally description bores me and so I don’t tend to put it in unless it’s directly relevant to the plot.

Two, because I think I do describe characters enough — in how they think and talk and interact with other characters.

I don’t mean to suggest other writers who go in for detailed physical descriptions of their characters are doing it wrong or anything — we all write our own way, and find audiences who like what we do. But for me, it’s not something I generally spend a lot of time on, and it doesn’t seem to have impeded me much.

On dialog:

The trick to making thoughts (and dialogue) sound natural: Read them out loud. If it sounds stilted, change it until it doesn’t. Simple! And YET.

On coming up with names for non-Earth settings:

I take words that exist in the real world and then I remove the first and last letter. No, really.

For example, at the moment I am drinking a Sprite. So I could make an alien species called the “Prit.” It works!

On general writing advice (in 10 words):

Butt in chair. Write. It’s okay to suck. Write more.

On why no one else came up with Redshirts before he did:

I honestly don’t know — it was really such low-hanging fruit and I couldn’t believe no one had done it to that point. I think the thing was people just assumed it as a five-minute joke, not something you make novel length, so no one addressed it to that length. So I was kinda all “Hold my Coke Zero” about it.

On “fun bits of worldbuilding” that didn’t end up in the Interdependency books:

I did write a short story about the origin of The Flow, which didn’t go into the books but was useful for me to have done for my own self. I did actually publish it on Whatever, my blog:

https://whatever.scalzi.com/2019/11/02/and-now-a-new-short-story-the-origin-of-the-flow/

On the possibility of Lock In being adapted:

I can’t talk about where Lock In is in terms of being adapted, and the fact I can’t talk about it should tell you something. OMW and the Interdependency books are currently under option but they’re really the only things I can talk about publicly, and even then not much. But I’m happy with where both of them are at the moment.

On writing science fiction vs. other genres:

When I set out to write my first novel some 24(!) years ago now, I rather famously flipped a coin to see which genre I would write it in — science fiction or crime/thriller, and it landed on heads, which meant science fiction. At this point people expect science fiction from me, and I can write other genres while also writing science fiction (see: The “Lock In” books, which are crime/thriller books set in the near future), so I don’t feel especially constrained by writing science fiction.

That said, I might write something other than science fiction at some point, because, you know, sometimes I think of stories that aren’t science fictional, and why not. But at the moment I have no specific plans.

On book recommendations:

I’ve recently enjoyed Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series, which started with The Calculating Stars and has a third installment coming out in July (I think), and also NK Jemisin’s The City We Became. I’m also very much looking forward to Martha Wells’ upcoming Murderbot novel (Network Effect); the series has four novellas which are already out.

On new and upcoming authors he’d like to read more of:

I’ve been enjoying the heck out of Tamsyn Muir (Gideon the Ninth) and Lindsay Ellis (Axiom’s End) and Chris Kluwe (Otaku) and K.M Szpara (Docile).

On the future of the Old Man’s War series:

There will be at least one more book in the series. No ETA at this point.

On the future of the Lock In universe:

There will be at least one more novel in the Lock In universe. When? Beats me. I have other stuff to get to first. But it will happen.

On the future of The Interdependency universe:

No plans to revisit the universe, but I never say never. At some point in the future a new story idea might strike me for the universe and I might dig into it. But again, I have several other projects on the runway first.

On the future:

If you’re asking what I have coming up: The sequel to The Dispatcher, and then after that, we’ll see!

On whether Patrick Rothfuss or Scott Lynch could stuff more marshmallows in their mouths:

They have, shall we say, cavernous maws, so I would hesitate to predict which could be crammed the most efficiently with those sweet, pillowy treats. But like so many of us, clearly, I think we should find out, purely in the interests of science. SCIENCE DEMANDS IT.

For more, check out the full AMA over at r/Books!

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