What Can Scalzi’s First Novel Teach New Authors?

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Whether you love him or hate him, John Scalzi is incredibly influential and is probably the highest-paid science fiction writer today. in 2015, Scalzi signed a ten-year, 13 book, $3.4 million deal with Tor publishing.

Me? I’m an unpublished writer. At this point in my career, I like to refer to myself as a semi-pro writer. I’ve sold a few small stories, but nothing big enough to a SFWA qualifying market, so I’m not in the pro leagues, and even beyond that, am certainly far from making a living from my writing.

Part of my learning process is to deconstruct successful novels to see what I can learn from them. It makes sense to look at John Scalzi’s first book, Old Man’s War.

The plot is pretty simple: Man joins army, goes through basic training, fights a few battles and gets promoted. There are some twists on this premise: the man is 75 years old when he enlists; his essence is transferred into a younger, modified clone of himself; and along the way he meets a clone of his dead wife. They kind of fall in love.

Now, as a writer trying to learn the craft, I’ve found that there are ‘universal rules’ to story writing, but I had a hard time applying them to this story. Everyone agrees that a story needs an ‘inciting incident,” an event that propels the story and character forward, and that incident must happen early in the story. While revising my current work in progress (or WiP), I’ve been trimming chapters form the front of the story because that incident occurred in chapter 7 - far too late.

But what’s the inciting incident in Old Man’s War? Joining the army? That’s hardly compelling. The protagonist’s wife’s death? That happened two year before the book opens. According to “Narrative First” an inciting incident is the event or decision that begins a story's problem.

But Old Man’s War doesn’t actually have a problem. Not here anyway. Later, there’s the kill-or-be-killed of combat, but that’s much later.

That same website says that “Stories are about solving problems,” but again, Old Man’s War isn’t. There is a need for soldiers to fight a war, but it’s a war that doesn’t impact Earth, where the recruits are from. It only impacts the colonies, which are secretive, exclusionary, and treat Earth with some contempt. It’s NOT the protagonist’s war!

Again, Narrative First claims that stories are about “The two central objective characters, Protagonist and Antagonist, battle it out until approximately one-quarter of a way into a story” But Old Man’s War has no Antagonist. It has a series of aliens that offer some not insurmountable threat to humanity, but never gravely. And each case, we are introduced to them as they engage in combat - there is no real overarching threat.

Story Mastery, in their article 10 simple keys to effective storytelling, claims that the second of the 10 points of story telling is:

2. IT’S ALL ABOUT THE GOAL
The events and turning points in your story must all grow out of your hero’s desire. Without an outer motivation for your protagonist – a clear, visible objective your hero is desperate to achieve – your story can’t move forward.” But in this story, the hero doesn’t really have a goal. Not at first. He’s just old, bored and ready for a change.

That same site claims this as it’s 7th point: “Whatever outer motivation drives your hero, she shouldn’t begin pursuing that goal immediately. She must get acclimated to her new situation, must figure out what’s going on or where she fits in, until what has been a fairly broad or undefined desire comes into focus.” This actually defines the first two thirds of old Man’s War. The first part (called Part I) is before bootcamp. Part II is bootcamp. Part III is combat, but not a lot of it. There is a grand battle of sorts, and there are some high stakes (steal a piece of equipment from an enemy). But it seems too easy to have any real tension.

So what can I, an aspiring novelist in the same genre, learn from this first book by the current Stephen King of said genre?

That’s hard to say. I liked the story, but I felt that the book was a bit flat in the telling. It broke a lot of the rules of storytelling without offering a spectacular payoff for that transgression. Scalzi can write character amazingly well, something that I strive for, and so reading him definitely has that as a positive (I knew that already. I loved Red Shirts) but in this case, I didn’t think he told a great story. Yet, it got published, became famous and launched his career. It left me wondering what the publisher saw in the story that I didn’t.

I wondered if I was alone in my feelings. I found a bunch of reviews on GoodReads that echoed my thoughts. I thought this one said it particularly well. So what did I miss? WHat didn't I learn from this story that I should have? Because now I'm questioning removing thre chapters from my WiP to get to an inciting incident quicker at the expense of my characters.