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“Write something universal as illustrated by a deeply personal tale.” This advice is true regardless of the genre we write, and in this interview, Marion Roach Smith explains how we can dig deep into our truth and experience to write memoir, plus how she has created a business around a book, and a podcast around curiosity.
In the introduction, I talk about how the pandemic impacts our energy levels and how online business is changing, and how that might impact us as authors. Business Insider reports that Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Google's Sundar Pichai, Apple's Tim Cook, and Amazon's Jeff Bezos will all testify before Congress in an antitrust hearing in late July. What are the potential impacts for authors?
Plus, join me and Nick Stephenson for a webinar on how to grow your book sales to $1000 a month — or add to your existing sales. We'll be going through how to build your email list and convert that traffic into sales, plus tips for revisiting the basics of your author platform + some more advanced tips for taking sales to the next level. Thurs 16 July at 3 pm US Eastern / 8 pm UK. Click here to register for your free place and also receive the replay if you can't join us live.
Today's show is sponsored by Draft2Digital, where you can get free ebook formatting, free distribution to multiple stores, and a host of other benefits. Get your free Author Marketing Guide at www.draft2digital.com/penn
Marion Roach Smith is an author, memoir coach, and teacher of memoir writing. She has online courses on writing memoir. Her books include The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
Joanna: Marion Roach Smith is an author, memoir coach, and teacher of memoir writing. She has online courses on writing memoir. And her books include The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life. Welcome, Marion.
Marion: Lovely to be back. It's so great to hear your voice.
Joanna: You were on the show years ago (2013) and we thought it was about time that you came back on.
Marion: I've been a full-time writer since 1983 when I left ‘The New York Times.' I had been there for six years and during that time I wrote a magazine piece for ‘The New York Times' magazine. Arguably, certainly some people think the most powerful magazine in the world.
I had no idea how powerful until I wrote a piece for them at 26 that was really the first, first-person account of Alzheimer's disease. Strangely enough, there was a time when none of us had heard of it and it launched my career, got me a book offer. And I left ‘The New York Times' and have since published four books and lots of magazine pieces and done lots of radio work and op-eds.
And then started this thing called The Memoir Project a bunch of years ago that's now online, which is a writing lab where I teach a lot of courses and there's a book that goes with it called The Memoir Project. So I built a business around a book that I published, which is a model that I find interesting and I hope other people will find as well. I published this book in 2011 and then I built this online teaching business about memoir.
Joanna: Which is fantastic. And we're going to come back to the business model in a bit because really great that you mentioned that. But let's talk about memoir first.
Marion: It's a really important distinction. If you're someone who's really famous in this world, who's the most famous person we can think of? We think of you, whoever your favorite rock star is, or whoever your favorite politician is, and we know where they end up, right?
We know what they do in the large sense, we're going to be happy to read their autobiography because we want to know about the little decisions, we want to know about the college that they went to and who they dated. If it's a rock star, we want to know who they had an affair with and where they went and where they go on summer vacation.
That's autobiography, one big book that covers everything about your life.
For the rest of us, there's memoir, which is written from one of your many areas of expertise and you have a dozen or so areas of expertise and is written in which you show us what you know after something you've been through. So you have a dozen areas of expertise, maybe you've had dogs all your life, maybe you did caregiving for a sick relative, maybe you've been in a long marriage, those are three different areas of expertise.
And for a memoir, you can have a writing life if you write from one area of your expertise at a time and don't tend toward autobiography. So I keep it really simple.
Memoir is about one aspect of your life and autobiography is that big book that covers all aspects of your life and is best left to the famous.
Joanna: And best left until you're dead or I guess it's not autobiography now, but a lot of people do that later on, don't they? They will let you say, I don't know, Bill Clinton from nowhere to president and on after that type of thing.
Marion: Right. Although only you could write a book that is written by someone who's dead. So I'm going to leave that to your fabulous genre. And I think you should make note of that, the memoir from the dead would be a fabulous title and I give that to you as a gift today!
Joanna: Thank you so much and anyone else listening. No, you're completely right.
It's interesting because you said there are areas of expertise which it's a great phrase but it's interesting because I think of area of expertise. I have books for authors as do you, obviously, but I would never think of writing a memoir about my time self-publishing.
So I wondered what are some of the ways to shape a memoir? You mentioned dogs, for example, there's theme, and time, and place, but I think area of expertise could be so many things.
Marion: So you're going to be willing to argue something and I don't mean argue, like get into a tussle, I mean propose something to us, something that you know after something you've been through. And you could in fact write a memoir from the calamitous, hilarious, and ultimately successful place of self-publishing.
Because I know from mass-market publishing, having published a book when I was 27 with one of the largest publishing houses in the world, I had a wild time in the true sense of the word out there on the road when they used to send authors out for two weeks and I could certainly have written a hilarious memoir from being on the road promoting a book.
So you could with enough of a sense of humor and real skill combine a how to end a fun memoir that's written from that area of expertise.
But what I really mean is that you're arguing something, this is how you start memoir. You answer the question, what is this about? And you think about the universal, not about your plotline.
That's what you've been saying to people for years when they ask you, ‘What's your book about?' You've been telling them your plotline and notice how their eyes glaze over immediately. Instead, if you say it's about the complicated journey of mercy, ‘Oh, you have my attention.'
And then you say, ‘As illustrated by my forgiving the man who abused me when I was a child to be told in a book.'
Look at the way that draws us in, it's about something universal as illustrated by a deeply personal tale to be told in a certain length. And that universal, that first part of that sentence, I call it the X factor, is what you're willing to argue that mercy is a complicated process.
So all you're doing when you write memoir is drilling into the various things you have some expertise in. It might be mercy, it might be the fact that gardening brings peace to your soul, it might be that dogs do things for people that people cannot do for themselves.
I always ask people to consider each memoir from that area of expertise but that area of expertise is something you would be willing to share with us based on what you know, what you're willing to argue. So it's always, always, always argument-driven and not plot-driven.
Everyone makes the mistake of thinking memoir is a plot-driven genre, it's an argument-driven genre, it's about experience.
Joanna: Actually and that comes back to you, the difference to autobiography, right? Because autobiography is this happened, then this happened, then this happened and it is a plot in order whereas a memoir doesn't have to be in order, does it?
Joanna: It doesn't have to be this week this happened, the following week this happened.
Marion: Exactly, quite the opposite because think of some of the things that happened to you that you did not understand until you were X years old. That doesn't make a lot of sense if you're writing about gardening but it does make a lot of sense if I get back to one of the examples I used a moment ago about an abusive experience.
Children don't have language for what's happening, but in therapy or with age or watching movies or reading good literature or whatever gives us that language to understand what happened to us also gives us the understanding to change the end of that story, to get control of it.
I'm not saying you deny it, I'm saying you get control. And once, as you know, you get control of a story, you can drive it where it needs to go, you can figure out where it ends.
So yes, I think autobiography is absolutely plot-driven and memoir can be told out of order, can be told in flashbacks, can be told in what enlists, if that's your thing. It's a wonderful genre but it's wonderfully misunderstood by people and confused with autobiography all the time.
Joanna: You've mentioned deeply personal things and something you know based on something you've been through, which I really like that phrase. Now we all need therapy at some point in our lives.
Marion: Yes, yes, yes.
Joanna: But I feel that some people consider writing a memoir to be therapy.
Marion: The great smudge, as I call it. One of my favorite words, smudge because it sounds like what it is, doesn't it? It's like smudge. When you smudge that you get into trouble.
Writing memoir is the single greatest portal to self-discovery, that's true. Because think of it. You say things like, ‘I really love my husband, he's so great, he's great, I mean like he's great.'
Now what did anyone learn? Nothing. But if you tell me a story about your husband taking the time, 10 minutes or so to give you some really bad news by giving it to you in tiny morsels so you could metabolize it and the kindness that he showed when he did that, we'll understand why you're with that person for the rest of your life.
In other words, once you write that story, you start to feel something much more deep and abiding about that person about whom you're writing. So that's therapeutic, it absolutely is therapeutic but it's not therapy.
In other words, I always advise people if they're dealing with a tough subject to be in professional hands, psychiatric or psychological hands, or social work hands as well. But we don't want to just blah-blah-blah all over the page and tell me how you got better. Nobody wants to read the sentence, I'm sober, I found God, I'm good. That's not where we're reading for.
We're reading to fill our own sense of wonder or mercy or forgiveness and so if you just do therapy on the page, we're not going to experience the transcendence that memoir is famous for. If the memoir writing is therapeutic for you, how great.
In fact, I think it always is because I think a deeper understanding of everything, even the relationship you have with your garden is a good thing.
Joanna: It's interesting. I keep walking up to the idea of a memoir and then walking away again. And I have talked to people who say I spent 30 years writing this memoir, as in they did exactly that, approached it, and then walked away again and maybe wrote something and then walked away again.
Obviously how you teach it as well and how you said at the beginning you can have different memoirs, but can memoir be the one book that you write at some point that deals with that big thing in your life that you haven't really talked about?
Marion: It can be both. It could be a huge piece of work and then you could write five or six other book-length memoirs to take on smaller topics.
My education in this came by reading the great writer, Caroline Knapp who wrote my favorite book of memoir because its structure is perfect. It's called Drinking: A Love Story. Also, my favorite title of any memoir and the only memoir I put in anyone's hands when they ask for a suggestion of a book to read.
You may not like the story, you may not be interested in women in alcoholism, you may not like her voice, you may not like her, or whatever. But what she taught me when I read that book was she wrote from one area of her expertise at a time.
And then she wrote a book about the relationship she had with her dogs. And I thought, ‘Huh, what? Two memoirs? She's under 50. What? I don't get it.' And then I got it, the penny dropped.
When she died, tragically young, her best friend wrote a memoir about their friendship. And so I think you can wait and write one book about something that has been really profound in your life, your relationship with God, your sense of forgiveness, of the historic violence that hurdled through five or six known generations in your family that you refuse to engage in or you can write one big one and five little ones or five small ones.
It's giving permission to people to have a writing life and not just live in this one big book that begins with their great, great, great, great grandfather and ends with what they had for lunch today that I'm really committed to. I'm really committed to giving people a writing life and not one book that they never finish and no one ever reads.
Joanna: I kind of feel the same about fiction. I think that sometimes people think they should write just the one great American novel or the one great Pulitzer prize-winning novel and that's actually a really hard aim for it. If you say, well, ‘I'm just going to write a story and then I'll write another story and then another one,' you're far more likely to get somewhere if you do that.
So I quite like what you're saying, but I do want to ask about writing about other people because like you've mentioned, there are some, let's say using family abuse. It's a regular topic but it's an awful topic.
But we also know that people have different views on what had happened in the family history and if people are alive or people who love those people who are alive and there are a lot of potential legal issues but also emotional issues if you offend or upset other people in your family who you love.
Marion: First write it. Let's see what you have before you talk yourself out of writing it.
This is a good rule to follow because there are so many reasons not to write. You've been told it has no value, you've been told it won't make you money, you've been told that you're not good, you've been told you're not good enough. We've all got that whole stew in our heads.
So let's just start by not adding to that and saying, ‘Okay, I'm going to write it down and I'm going to use the real names. And here's the key, I'm not going to show it to anyone and I'm not going to talk to my family about what I'm writing. I'm going to find someone who is invested in my success as a writer,' that's going to be a coach or maybe you have a friend who's an editor, maybe you have a friend who's a great reader.
My friends are mostly writers, I'm sure most of your friends at this stage in your career are mostly writers, so there are people with whom I can trade that time. And so you got to find somebody who's invested in your success and who's going to read well because we want to leave the names in this first draft.
We want to see what we really do have. Ninety-nine percent of the time people who set off to write a book of revenge stop doing so within the first 25 pages because there's not much to say if all your intent is to just, ‘I'm going to tell my side, I'm going to set that record straight.' It'll wear you out or you'll realize what a fruitless effort it is, so that will straighten itself out.
And then suddenly you might, like many of the people that I've dealt with and I've now worked with hundreds of writers who have written for me too, you might discover that what got taken from you as a child was not just the physical sense of safety but your voice as you got told don't tell or you got told you like it or you got told, I'll kill you if you tell someone and that your book ends up being about voice.
In other words, you may find out, I'm not saying you make it a different a better story, a more tolerable story, but if you write it, you may find that you're arguing something that is far more universal, instructive, illustrative, therapeutic, positive and for you, I'm not saying it has to be a happy ending, then a book that recounts the abuse.
So we may be getting into very, very much lesser territory in terms of the legal aspects. However, there will be legal aspects, there will be emotional aspects, there will be family aspects. Memoir has consequences but we don't know what they are until you write that first draft.
So first, I always tell people to write it, not share it with anybody and get someone who's invested in your success. Yes, you may offend or upset people, the strangest thing is that you will almost always offend or upset someone because memoir is the hardest genre there is to edit.
In other words, you're going to leave out second-grade teachers, dogs you've had, cousins, you might leave out siblings, you may never mention your parents in this book. So you are going to offend somebody anyway and that's just true because you're not writing a big book with everybody in it.
Let's first start with the ethic of getting it down and seeing what you learn, here's the therapeutic part, what you learn along the way, that in fact, it's really a book about voice. And we don't actually really need his name because it's not about that. I'm not saying you hide the details, but I'm saying they change in value. So let's write the first draft first and see what we've got.
Joanna: I love that advice. And again, I think that's actually the same for any book that you end up writing because we're all like, ‘Oh, I've got this idea,' and it's like, yeah, sure, ideas are nothing. Execution is everything.
And this memoir, I've got an idea for and then when I walk towards it, I'm like there's nothing there yet, it's not there. But it's like you said about people thinking that a book might be about them, they are the hero of their story so they think your story must be about them. But, of course, it's not necessarily because you're the hero of your story. So I love that, it's brilliant.
Marion: It's fascinating to see someone look up from their life.
I've worked now with thousands of writers literally and I've worked with so many during the real crescendo of me too in the very beginning of it here in the United States at least before we had these hearings for the Supreme Court justice, Justice Kavanaugh, which literally I have not gotten an email since the Kavanaugh hearings in two years. Well, I've gotten a few, but in the run-up to that, I was getting them after the first major big high profile arrest in America.
My email box was just flooded with people saying, I have never told my story, I've waited 38 years to tell it, I want to tell it now. And then when the Kavanaugh hearings, which seated, and Supreme Court justice who's been accused of sexual abuse which seated him as a Supreme Court justice, my email box went silent again.
Now that's a very bad sign. But what I found fascinating was watching someone look up from the story during it two months in, five months in, and having them say to me, ‘I think this is a book about finding my voice.' Oh, well now we're talking. Because voices, as you know, as a writer, everything.
Joanna: And when once you start writing, as you say, you might find the thing that it's really about. And at some point, I will set aside time to do the memoir I want to write, but as I said, it might be a while.
Marion: Now you've told me. So I am going to be sending you little emails.
Joanna: A little reminder every now and then. But let's talk about something that when I think about this, specific detail is always important in any genre actually. But with memoir, as you say, it has to be based on our life.
I feel like the line between memory and truth, like what I remember and what is true could be completely wrong. And also, if I remember a conversation, some kind of emotional resonance of a conversation but I can't remember the actual words said or the actual place where that was said:
Marion: Absolutely. Well, you've covered about six really good topics in that question and they're easy to really negotiate because you're talking about detail.
Detail is currency and when I read your story, I enter your country just like I do when I travel and I cash out my currency for yours and you get to put coins in my pocket.
But before I leave your country, I want to have spent every single one and what I'm spending them on is learning your argument that peace can be found in my own backyard. I'm not an Eat, Pray, Love person, I'm a garden-at-home person and find peace.
So I could write a book from my own backyard that shows you that I can have a transcendent experience back there. So I'm going to give you the details of my transcendent experience back there.
Beads on an abacus is the way you want to think of your details if you don't want to think about them as currency. You want to put something to use. This detail plus this detail plus this detail illustrates this argument, it adds up to this argument.
Details are very important. You have to curate carefully from your own life to only show me or give me the coins or whatever metaphor you want to use, show me the details that add up to your argument.
You have to remember that your details are not the same as your sister's details. Christmas, 2004 was the worst Christmas of her life, it was the best one of yours, right? ‘What?' she says. ‘Do you remember that uncle Willie got drunk and fell down on the pachysandra?'
And you say, ‘Oh, I must have missed that. I was so busy making out with my boyfriend on the couch.' Very different Christmases. And so that's so important.
What details are you going to give me to navigate? You're going to give me yours. It is wildly subjective, I only care about your point of view. And if you don't remember those details, you can ask your sister about Christmas 2004, but she's going to tell you her version, you're going to have yours.
I always say to people, do your research.
It means asking your sister, but expecting that the experience was different, don't let that stop you though, it can mean looking in your high school yearbook, it can be looking in your college yearbook, you can do research on your house, you can do research on your neighborhood, you can do research on your neighborhood association, you can go back to your primary school.
There are ways to reassemble the names, and dates, and places because everyone thinks memoir doesn't require research, it requires enormous amounts of research. You want to check your facts, why? Because you want to get it in context.
That's a long answer to details which are very specific, curated, chosen coins that the writer puts in the reader's pocket that reflect the writer's point of view but that have been heavily researched so that we get what it was like to be alive in 1995 or 1956 or 2004, that they're accurate.
And don't worry about having a bad memory, you can research anything these days, but make sure you do good research and get it right.
Joanna: And a little tip; keep journaling. I've got journals since I was about 15 and those early ones are just shocking. They should never see the light of day. But at least I can go back and go, wow, you talked about God when I was 15 and had a conversion experience. I really loved God so my journals are just full of this stuff.
It's really interesting because you almost feel like you're visiting your old self. And so since then, I've really been careful, I don't journal every day, I don't do morning pages or any of that, but I journal regularly enough that once when I decide to go back and pick things up then I will have a letter from myself at that point.
Marion: Great. It's wonderful. And there are so many ways to do research, letters that your parents sent to one another or as I said, yearbooks. There's a whole realm, but to understand why you're doing it is essential to get it right.
Journals are great, diaries are fantastic, photo albums are rich as they can be, sit down with your sister with the photo album. And there will be some agreement, at least you'll agree on the name of the family dog, I promise.
Joanna: You'd be surprised.
Marion: As soon as I said that I thought, ‘Nah, no,' I have a sister. But I was telling a story at a dinner party recently that my sister was at and I told this story and I thought it was hilarious, of course. And at the end of the story, she looked up to a party of 11 people at a dinner and she said that never happened.
Joanna: That happens to me all the time with my brother and or my mom. It is exactly as you say about the different memories of an occasion, make people feel in a different way.
That is another question I wanted to ask about emotional resonance because I feel like one of the resistance is the resistance I feel towards writing memoir is that no one is going to care, like why would anyone care about this? Even taking the example you've said about your garden, finding peace in a garden, how do we make people care about that?
Marion: When I read a book that has somebody going hand over hand up an ice face mountain in Nepal, I don't do so because I'm going to do that, I do that to feed my sense of human wonder endurance, resiliency. And I feel a 100% sure that it does that exact thing, that it's challenging my sense of resiliency or endurance.
How you get them to care is constantly keeping in mind that universal because we are not reading your book for what you did, we're reading your book for what you did with it and that is the huge secret of memoir.
We're not reading your story for what you did, we're reading your story for what you did with it. And if you can keep that in mind at all times, you will be successful.
Joanna: Those are some great examples. And I wonder, because you obviously, as you mentioned, you've seen thousands of these books over the years.
Marion: Common issues in memoir are several, one of which is dialogue. People, as you mentioned before, don't remember what they said, you want to remember that you're reconstructing dialogue. And, of course, you weren't keeping a notebook unless you were a very strange little kid at eight years old, you weren't keeping a notebook.
But I do keep one now everywhere I am. I have one tied to the gearshift of my car, I have one in the bathroom, I have one next to the bed, I'm writing things down all the time but you weren't when you were eight.
So you're reconstructing that dialogue. What that means is you don't ever make yourself more clever, more intelligent or wittier than you were in the moment.
In fact, it's so human not to have a retort, right? Somebody dumps you on the street, somebody literally breaks up with you on the street when you're 15 or 18 or whatever, you probably weren't very clever when they did that, you probably were silent and crushed, right from the accurate intent.
Remember, always go in with that intent to be accurate. You probably didn't say anything, you probably grabbed something out of your purse. You probably went to the nearest pizza parlor and shoved an entire pie in your mouth.
Show us the real, don't make yourself out to be something you never were. We can smell that a mile away and we can smell it in dialogue more than anything else.
Dialogue reconstruction is very, very important. If your parents sat you down when you were 13 to tell you that they're getting divorced, you probably remember who was angry, who was crying, and who was quiet, and just reconstruct that.
You remember the basics of the conversation because you know the personalities of those people involved. And also with dialogue, people hang way too much off the ends of their quotes.
They say things like, ‘No,' she said with a slight smirk on her face that indicated that she'd heard this kind of memory before or she heard this kind of dialogue. No, no, just floating on a page is all you need.
With memoir, in particular, I find that people just attach so much to their quotes that we lose the power of language. And a good, well-placed no, tells volumes of characterization, of what was happening in the moment, so that's one of them.
I think that's probably the most important lesson I can impart with people is keep the dialogue brisk and don't hang anything off of your quotes.
Joanna: That's a good one. And I actually did quite a lot of screenwriting training and wrote a few screenplays, not they went anywhere, but that helped me because the rule there is if you give a script to an actor, do not have things in parentheses like (angrily).
You should be able to convey that in dialogue and through action. And that's exactly the same as you say, in memoir, it's not explaining how people are meant to say things. That's fantastic, I never thought about that with memoir.
I want to just shift gears a little bit because I want to ask about marketing. This podcast is very much for authors who do want to sell some books. Obviously, there is a great reason just to write memoir, it doesn't mean it has to sell any copies and it's very worthy anyway.
Marion: What I've seen is being a bit brave. I saw a book the other day that wasn't memoir but this made me just delighted. It was a field guide to mushrooms, to fungi.
Joanna: I think I've got that.
Marion: And the author took, I think it was a him, his copy and made it, got it really wet and left it in a dark and nasty place and grew mushrooms all over it and then took a photograph of it. I just love this person. It was so meta that I kind of had to put my head down on the table and say, ‘Oh, that's so funny, that's so, so, so funny.'
I think it's a great example of what can you do that's different? I think that in memoir, we think that people just want to hear our story when in fact, again, they want to hear what the story tells us. What about mercy? What about the relationship in-between dogs and humans?
To market your memoir, well, what you want to remember is it lives really there in your subtitle. What is the value proposition for the reader? What am I going to get when I read this? I am not reading it for your story. I am not, please, trust me, I'm not.
I'm reading it for my own sense of wonder or mercy or forgiveness. So what can you market in that one little word? What have you got? Can you do a little video? Can you get me an Instagram series that teaches me about mercy? About the many qualities of mercy and draw me in.
I'm fascinated by the things I'm seeing on social media and how good people are getting at teaching me small lessons on mercy, let's say in an Instagram stream that allows me to realize the value proposition of reading this entire book, so it's that. Go into that, what I call the X factor, and really dig into it, that word that's going to be in your subtitle that gives me that value proposition, and find a way to make me think that you know something that I need to know.
Joanna: It's really the nonfiction topic that's below the memoir. And it is interesting because, of course, the memoir I'm thinking about is a travel memoir and that's why I started my other podcast, which is ‘Books and Travel.' I actually interviewed quite a lot of memoir writers because a lot of people write memoir about travel. So I did that in order to start building up an audience for the memoir that I may write one day, which is quite funny.
But I did want to ask you about podcasting in particular because you have a podcast ‘QWERTY' which I have been on.
Marion: I started podcasting because I wanted to have more conversations with writers. I am still living a solitary lifestyle as I have been for many, many years as a writer. I work with writers all day long, one-on-one or in classes that I teach. But what I wasn't having was conversations with my peers and that was really missing from the people who have just published and have new insights into how do you get it out there? How do you be the person you are on the page?
That's a question I asked Richard Zacks, who is a historian of vice. He's a remarkable writer, a whole lot of bestselling books, but he was a kid who grew up in New York city going to peep shows. And literally, like those things that we weren't supposed to go to, he's very honest about it.
The only thing that interests him is vice and he's written a remarkable series of books that include the history of vice in America. Well, people don't have any encouragement to do that. He grew up in a fairly traditional Jewish household in New York, not conservative, but not crazy liberal.
So I needed to talk to someone about how you give yourself permission to pursue what you really love to be a writer. I needed to have a conversation with you about how do you ignore that terrible advice about, you better specialize, young lady, or you're never going to get anywhere.
Because you sure as heck haven't specialized like that and stayed in one little pod, you've tried all kinds of things. And I want to talk to people who are publishing so that's what got me to start a podcast — my own curiosity.
How does it fold into my brand? It's about how to, it's really about giving other people, presumably young writers, tips on how to write from themselves, how to ignore the bad advice, how to do research. So the topics each week take on something else that's a how-to.
Joanna: I think that's great because I feel like a lot of people think that they are going to podcast for marketing reasons. I've been doing this for a decade now, this show, and the last time you were on, it was like eight years ago. But we get something from the conversation that's not just about marketing, right?
Marion: Yes, and I think that you have to constantly go in with wonder. I'm endlessly curious about how to have a writing life and there's just no end of combination to it.
I have a friend who's 92 who's I think the greatest living American writer, William Kennedy, he's an astonishing writer. He's 92 years old, he's currently writing a novel and a play. He's also caregiving his elderly wife and he's got kids, and a house, and stuff. That's a whole other conversation is aging with your own ideas. He's fascinating on the subject of endurance.
I have a friend named Russell Banks who's one of America's great novelists. He writes 365 days a year. I have seen him leave the dinner table when he's done and go back to work. His discipline is astonishing. He also only writes one page a day but it's 365 pages a year. And he publishes some of the greatest-reviewed novels there are.
So what do you learn from each of these? Something that you didn't know and going in with that kind of intent, you're going to have fun too. And it shows, your show, you're having fun, you're learning, I'm learning. I never want to stop learning.
Joanna: Me too. And I think that's why I'm still doing this show and why you continue with ‘QWERTY.' But you mentioned endurance there and I want to circle back to what you said at the beginning when we asked about your background.
In 1983, when you left ‘The New York Times,' so running your own business and being a full-time creative, since then, and you mentioned building a business around a book. I want to ask you about longevity and endurance and all those people listening who want to make a living with their writing, what does a business around a book look like?
Marion: I previously published three books through three of the biggest publishers in the world, Houghton Mifflin, Bloomsbury, and Grand Central published The Memoir Project most recent one, and Simon & Schuster, published another book. Before I had gotten to Grand Central, I had published with big publishers. I'd had the traditional experience, the advance, the book tour, lots and lots of experiences and I learned a lot.
But what I also learned is, what if you did it the other way? What if you threw something down for the public and you said, ‘Now I'm going to build something out of that.' In other words, the book isn't the only product, it's not the only widget here on the table.
I knew if I challenged myself to write a book on how to write memoir and then backed it up with an online business, I'd have myself an adventure. And so that's the word, adventure, this might as well be an adventure.
I say to writers every day, you better love the work because if you really are just thinking about making millions from your publication, you are going to be disappointed. It's not just that you're not going to make the millions, it's that you're going to be disappointed because you're not going to love the process. And it's the adventure of this, what have you got?
When I write, I feel like everything I've ever seen, tasted, thought, smelled, considered, every movie I've ever seen is being annotated and drawn up from this wonderful place, and that's thrilling.
But every once in a while, you want to heighten that adventure just a little bit more and that's what got me to start this business from the book was a greater sense of adventure. What else can I do?
I've seen the publishing model. I've done it. It's great, okay. I've published with some of the most amazing places in the world. What's new? What's different? What's hard?
I happen to love to work without a net. When I left ‘The New York Times' everybody tried to talk me out of it. And I understood their concern for me. I was 27 years old. My mother was an Alzheimer's patient, my father had just died. There was no guarantee of an income, but to me it seemed like the greatest adventure in the world.
So that's a long answer to adventure, curiosity, and the endurance piece is keeping it new. What are you interested in?
My four books are four different topics, they're all nonfiction. So keeping it new is what really, really interests me and that's because you know better than anyone, when you write a book you're going to have to spend some real time with it, you better love the topic. And again, to get back to my first answer, you better love the work.
Joanna: I just think no one is going to last very long doing this without loving the work. And like you mentioned discipline, and you asked me about discipline as well in our interview with me on your show and I think I also said then I never feel like I have discipline because I love what I do.
It doesn't take discipline for me to get online with you and have this conversation because this is great. I'm really happy to do this anyway and it's just a bonus that is also marketing, and income, and everything else.
Marion: Yes, wildly. And you might as well accept that. And the thing that I think separates a lot of people, strange as it sounds, is the technology, they're afraid of it. So don't be afraid of it, find out how to do it.
It's not that hard to master one or two pieces of social media and put yourself up maybe just a landing page. So if you publish an op-ed, an essay somewhere, and I think, ‘Wow, she's smart. I like her.' I can find you and then I can find that you've got a book that you're working on and maybe I'll become a fan or better yet, a publisher or an agent can find that you've got a book that you're working on and maybe they can contact you.
It's just remembering that you do have to be found, you have to be able to be found these days, it is just part of the process. It was not when I started in 1983. It had nothing to do, unless somebody looked you up in the phone book. It wasn't about being found. Now more than ever, it's about being found and then compounding that name in a very positive way online so that we want more.
Joanna: Which is a great time to ask you where can people find you, and your books, and classes, and everything you do online?
Marion: That's lovely, at marionroach.com. There are lots of classes, there's lots of access to books, and essays, and everything else. It's a big online site that now includes even a shopping cart and lots of recorded classes.
I started my brand as a live brand only, and the demand has been such that people really want to take the classes with them on their phones. Okay. So I just decided to record all the classes and put them up as well.
Joanna: That's brilliant. And of course, the ‘QWERTY' podcast which you can find in your podcast app. So thanks so much, Marion. That was fantastic.
Marion: Thank you, Joanna, and write well.
Jul 06 2020
Writing is a life-long practice, and for many of us, a long-term career. But how can you continue to thrive in a creative business while still changing over time? In this interview, I talk to entrepreneur Natalie Sisson about how she pivoted her brand after a change in lifestyle and how books play just one part in her non-fiction business.
In the intro, the latest Audio Publishers Association report on 8 years of double-digit audiobook growth, plus insights from Bookwire's audiobook conference [Publishing Perspectives] and an AI lead in a $70m sci-fi movie [Fast Company].
Plus, join me and Nick Stephenson for a webinar on how to grow your book sales to $1000 a month — or add to your existing sales. We'll be going through how to build your email list and convert that traffic into sales, plus tips for revisiting the basics of your author platform + some more advanced tips for taking sales to the next level. Thurs 16 July at 3 pm US Eastern / 8 pm UK. Click here to register for your free place and also receive the replay if you can't join us live.
Today's show is sponsored by Your Author Business Plan, my mini-course on how to reboot your author career. One student, Rachel, says, “Just completed Your Author Business Plan. I literally *gasped* as I wrote my business summary. So many aha moments. The course helped me understand where I am now as an author and where I want to be.” Just US$99. Click here to learn more.
Natalie Sisson is a New Zealand entrepreneur, author, speaker, host of the Untapped Podcast, and triathlete. Her books include The Suitcase Entrepreneur and The Freedom Plan: Redesign Your Business to Work Less, Earn More and Be Free.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript below.
You can find Natalie Sisson at NatalieSisson.com and on Twitter @nataliesisson
Joanna: Natalie Sisson is a New Zealand entrepreneur, author, speaker, host of the ‘Untapped' podcast, and triathlete. Her books include The Suitcase Entrepreneur and The Freedom Plan: Redesign Your Business to Work Less, Earn More and Be Free. Welcome, Natalie.
Natalie: I'm so excited to be here with you, Joanna.
Joanna: It's great to connect.
Natalie: It became part of my business when I finally realized I was… I had a book in me which I'm sure a lot of listeners are like, ‘When is that moment going to happen?' But for me, that was around 2012. I'd been a suitcase entrepreneur for a couple of years and I finally felt like I had something worth writing. So I had a community behind me and a book that was worth birthing, and in 2013 that's what came out.
Joanna: And when you say worth writing because you were blogging for a number of years before you wrote a book.
Natalie: I've been turning a lot of my blog posts into digital paid books or into opt-ins, or freebie guides, but I feel like it was probably about three or four years experience of being the suitcase entrepreneur and helping people create freedom in business. ‘An adventure in life,' is my tagline.
I felt like I actually had enough knowledge as a leading learner. I don't love the word expert, but I felt like I was a leading learner who had enough knowledge that would be really worthy of being in a book. I had enough people saying, ‘Are you going to write a book?' Which was a bit of a sign to me that, ‘Oh, finally maybe this childhood dream would come true.'
The final thing I thought that was very obvious to me was there were very few women digital nomads at the time who were writing books. There were just a lot of men talking about it. And I was like, ‘Wait a minute. There are heaps of women out there who could be doing this or would like to be doing this, and they need another perspective.'
Joanna: That's great. You did mention there, a childhood dream. Did you always want to write a book?
Natalie: I think I did. But it was really funny, Joanna, because when you're a kid for sure, I'm sure a lot of people think about it. I always wrote in school. I loved being on the school magazine. I wrote journals from, like, age 11 to 18 nonstop. And I just loved writing.
I think way back then I did actually think, “Oh, it would be really cool to write a book one day.” As I think a lot of people think about and I loved reading books. But then when it came around to that, it was 2012, I was like, ‘Oh, I could actually write this book.' I feel like it's something that I left behind and then regained around that time going, ‘Actually, this is something I've always wanted to do deep down.'
Because I feel like many bloggers particularly, or many people listening if they're doing nonfiction, they might be speakers, they might be teachers in some way, so you've got this massive material. How do you turn that into a book that your audience wants?
Natalie: The really funny thing about this is 95% of The Suitcase Entrepreneur I wrote from scratch, which is hilarious because I had about, I don't know, 600 or 700 blog posts by that time. But I feel like I just wanted it to come fresh out of my brain with the most up-to-date experience and knowledge, and know-how that I had.
It felt really good to just write from scratch because I think book writing can be really cathartic, especially when you're putting your frameworks and your experience into a book. It's actually really a cool process to solidify what you actually know you're talking about.
So I think I only took one little bit from the blog and the rest I literally wrote from scratch. And I'm sure I've talked about it heaps on interviews and I'd written about it a lot, and I'd shared it on videos. But to write it down from the beginning was a really cool process.
Joanna: I'm actually really glad you said that because I think the biggest problem with the bloggers turned authors is that they think all they have to do is pick a few blog posts and put them in book form, and that's enough. But I feel like the book is a completely different journey to the blog model, because I'm not going to come to your blog and read all of your stuff in order. That's just not going to happen, right?
Now, I mean, how I find people is, if I have an interview like this then I'll go buy their book and I expect that book to be the encapsulation of everything they've learned. So I'm so glad you said that.
Natalie: That is true. I'm actually writing a book right now, my third book, and I'm taking little bits from my vlogs or my podcast. And I'm finding it quite interesting because my manuscript is a mess right now because the ideas behind those vlogs and podcasts are really good, but now I almost have to rewrite the idea, if that makes sense.
But it is quite nice to start with something. But I wonder if the clean slate was actually what made The Suitcase Entrepreneur a great book. I'm not going to lie. I think I was really proud of how it came out because it was so from the heart and really thinking through, and making sure that what I was writing was legit, and helpful, and practical, and honest.
Joanna: I love that. And, of course, we all refine our process. We'll come back to that other book a bit later. You do have several books, as we mentioned, but they are only one part of your business model. I know you're a great businesswoman. I think you would laugh if it was suggested that you would make a full-time income from those book sales alone.
Natalie: Yes. I used to think the books are really profitable, but I love the phrase ‘beyond the book.' So, you know, the book as a calling card, it's a kind of way of saying, ‘Hey, you know, I've got some thought leadership here, I've got some interesting perspectives around this topic, I've got a lot of experience in it.' But that's just the beginning.
I don't know how many books you've read, Joanna. Probably heaps. But I always find I get to the end of that book, and you often want more because it's packed with this kernel of curiosity and interest in you. It's made you think outside the box just differently about a topic, and then it's the perfect opportunity for that to also go, ‘Hey, you want to learn more, now come follow me here, or do this little course,' or, ‘Maybe buy this next thing to continue the journey.'
Because as they evolve, you evolve as well. It's just like, it's a really fascinating thing. And so there's just so much you can do beyond the book.
Joanna: So tell us about that.
Natalie: Actually, I'd love to share because how The Suitcase Entrepreneur book came around is a perfect example of the book and digital product and, of course, journey.
I started off with a 12-part blog post series on my blog called Build Your Online Business. I turned that into a paid e-book even though it's free on the site and I told people that. They paid to have it in a consumable format. And then I worked that ‘Build Your Online Business.'
I worked through it with my coaching clients and I took the principles and frameworks from that for years. And then I wrote The Suitcase Entrepreneur based off all those principles that I've done. And then off the back of The Suitcase Entrepreneur, I actually created my most profitable course today called The Freedom Plan.
And then I ran that for several years. It was an amazing course, and then I put a lot of the key principles, not everything, but some of the key principles and the learnings from running that as a course into the book, The Freedom Plan, which was the next one. So I just thought I'd point that out as a really interesting journey of how I feel like content and your philosophies, and your theories, and your frameworks can keep growing as you do in different formats.
Joanna: I make quite a bit of income from affiliate sales. And that was a model that came out of the blogging movement, as it was. Is that something that's still part of your business?
Natalie: You make it sound that the blogging movement is over.
Joanna: Well, we'll come back to that.
Natalie: Great question.
Podcast sponsorships were another, affiliate sales were for sure another, digital products on my site, online courses on my site, speaking, and group coaching specialized programs, and events, and retreats and workshops. It's around that. Eight or nine.
It felt like a lot, but they all came out of one another, and naturally spun off each other and I think that was a really neat thing. And I do think it's a really smart idea to have multiple revenue streams so long as they will align and make sense in your customer journey and that ascension model, so to speak so that the customer can grow with you.
Joanna: I like the word ‘ecosystem' because all these things pull people into your ecosystem and then they can consume bits of you however they like. Weird metaphor!
But let's come back to that question of, ‘Is the blogging movement over?' Because this is something I have actually been thinking a lot about. As a consumer, I don't read blog posts anymore. I've been for the last probably four years, I'm an audio first consumer. I listen to a lot of podcasts at 1.5 speed or I listen to audiobooks. I still read books, but I rarely will read a blog post. And you mentioned vlogging, you've got a podcast.
Natalie: That's a really fascinating question because if I think about it, I don't blog much anymore. I podcast and the blog post comes from that, but it's usually shorter. And I vlog and I'm getting back to get back into doing it consistently. And I do Facebook Live.
So I'm still producing a lot of content, but the actual blog usually just takes so long, and actually writing a book again now is making me appreciate what an art and skill it is. I think the form of blogging has changed, and I definitely hear you on consuming more audio content.
But at the end of the day, I guess it's still content creation. And there are some blogs. I think of somebody like James Clear, who is just a writer through and through. I don't believe he has a podcast or maybe he did start one, but he doesn't do videos so to speak and he writes all the time.
Another person would be Mark Manson, who wrote The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. He's a writer through and through as well.
For the really established people and it's still the way that people love to consume their content. But I'm a big fan of understanding my audience and how they want to consume content. And my audience is entrepreneurs who are growing their business and creating a great lifestyle, and they're fulfilled, proactive, I will say busy even though they don't love that word.
For them, audio or video is just a better way of doing it than sitting back and taking a long read. So that's an interesting thing actually.
It's a bit like a podcast. You said you started yours in 2008, 2009, which is amazing. And I remember when I started mine in 2012, I thought I'd missed the boat.
When I started my blog in 2008, I thought I'd missed the blogging boat, and now yet there are still people starting podcasts, there are still people starting blogs. So I feel like at the end of the day it's up to you to create the platform and make it unique to yourself and do your best of it.
Joanna: I agree. And partly, it's what we like to consume, but also what we like to produce. And for me, I like to produce words that go into books. Books are my primary product.
Let's talk about freedom because freedom is my number one value. I really resonate with you in saying the same thing. And you've got the book, The Freedom Plan and you talk about streamlining business. Because it's so important, I feel like often people listening might now feel, ‘Oh, if I want to be like Natalie, I have to do video, I have to do vlogging, I have to do Facebook Live.'
But actually, you talk about streamlining business and getting rid of the overwhelm with to-do lists.
Natalie: For me, it's about getting massive clarity on what you want to do and cutting out all the extraneous stuff. And that comes from having clarity on your freedom values and what that means to you.
One of the ways, and I think I talk about it in The Freedom Plan and also in the course, is about actually visualizing your perfect day. And it may sound a little bit weird to people, but as I was working with clients over the years, I'd often used to say, ‘Well, if you could have the perfect business and you could wake up every morning, what would that look like?'
And the amount of people who told me, ‘Oh, I don't actually know. I've never thought about what my perfect day would look like from start to finish.'
And I was like, ‘How many hours would you work and where would you be working? And what would you be working on? And then who would you be spending your time with it? And how would you take home that? And what would you do to have fun and relax? And where would you be in the world?'
Even I hadn't done it to that extreme at that point. It was fascinating because the minute you even just take a moment, 30 minutes to write out what your perfect day would look like, even if you don't think it's possible right now, it's incredible how it really aligns you with, ‘Oh, I didn't realize this is so important to me that I have a slow start in the morning or that I take a lot of time now that I stop work at 2,' or, ‘That I am only doing this kind of work that lights me up.'
From there, I think you get real clarity and alignment on, ‘Okay. Well, why am I doing all this other stuff which sets my energy, which makes me frustrated, which makes me the bottleneck of my business or my day? So how do I outsource that? How do I eliminate it? What do I focus on to just be happy, do the things I love, and earn great money?'
I know it sounds very simple, but it honestly is. It's about cutting out all the stuff that doesn't serve you and focusing on the stuff that you do super well that brings you the most value and makes the most impact.
Joanna: As we record this, obviously, the world is going through this weird pandemic time. And as we record this, New Zealand is starting to come out of lockdown. In the U.K. we're still really in it. Do you think this time of pandemic has a lot of people reflecting on the shortness of life, but also on perhaps what they really want?
Natalie: I was going to say I really hope so, Joanna, but humans are creatures of habit. I feel like a lot of people will go back to what they did.
What I'm really hoping is that people take the bits that they loved out of lockdown, if they did love anything. For me, it's actually been one of the most fulfilling, productive, and peaceful times in my life because I didn't have all these other things going on.
I'm really holding on to and almost staying in a bit of a lockdown mode, which sounds odd because I'm an extrovert and I love people. But I've really valued the simplicity that came out of cooking for yourself every day, of being with your partner. We don't have kids so we're quite lucky. We just had our dogs. We had a lot of land and nature.
It made me appreciate how much extra stuff I was doing just to be and socialize, and do things, and go into town.
I really hope that people look at the stuff that worked really well for them during this time where they found peace, where they found gratitude, and love, and maybe quality time with people in their family, and keep that part on. Especially, I would have to say on the remote work side, working from home, working online.
I feel like finally a lot of people around the world have caught up to what digital nomads and online business owners have been doing for years. So I hope that people take something out of it that actually worked for them and keep it as a ritual in their life. Otherwise, it feels like it's a lesson we didn't learn.
Joanna: I agree. I've certainly felt like I've had some time away to reflect on what I really want and I always liked the memento mori. I spend a lot of time going to graveyards anyway, but we've suddenly realized what can happen quite quickly.
You mentioned remote working there and obviously, you're in New Zealand, you've been traveling for many years, but you're home now in New Zealand. And I feel like so much of what happens or that we've been involved with over many years is U.S.-centric.
Maybe, as you say, things have shifted now because people are going to be used to it. But if people want to run a global online business as we do, and they want to be less U.S.-centric, what are some of your tips for that? I mean, are there other communities? I know there used to be a really big Australian, New Zealand blogger community.
Natalie: For sure. I think it's interesting you say that because I started my business in Canada. And a huge part of my business in customer base and community was in the U.S. But as a suitcase entrepreneur, I was traveling around the world and everywhere I went I picked up more community members.
So my audience has always been international. And I've actually stayed away when I was blogging or vlogging, or whatever I was doing, if somebody came to me with something that was just U.S.-focused, I would say no. Because I'm like, ‘No, my audience is from everywhere, they really are.'
I feel like there are communities all over the world. And, yes, some of them are at different stages and development. Asia Pacific is so gung-ho in terms of being ahead on the virtual identity space I guess, and just almost being birthed into remote entrepreneurship, and remote working, and working online. So I feel like they kind of embraced that early on.
There's a ton of digital nomads around the world who hang out in Asia Pacific because it's cheap and you can live like a king or queen.
And there's a European side where people living and hanging out in hubs like Berlin and Lisbon, where it really started to become hubs as well for entrepreneurs. I've always had the international focus and even when I came back to New Zealand, I'd often be speaking to people. They'd be like, ‘Oh, that would be great in Wellington.' I'd be like, ‘Wellington? No, I was thinking the world.'
I've just never limited to one thing. So I guess it's your sphere of influence, right? Like, what you put in within your sphere of influence and how you adapt to that. And I think there are hubs and communities all over the world. You just have to take them up.
Joanna: I get a really common question because I'm like you. I'm very internationally-focused. But the question I get from Americans and there a lot of Americans listening is, how do I market to people who are not in America? What are your thoughts on that?
Natalie: It's actually a fascinating one because I get quite a lot of clients and customers who like me because I'm not American. And I don't want to offend your audience by any means, but there's a different way of marketing to and resonating with people.
Down under where I am, New Zealand, Australia, we're quite laid back and quite humble often. I am probably a little bit different outside of it, but I feel like a lot of the American or Canadian sort of thing just doesn't resonate or sit well here.
So I guess, actually, it depends for those in the U.S., how much do you want to reach out, and understand, and learn about other cultures, and how can you bring what you know into their culture so that it makes it more relevant?
Obviously, travel is huge for that. I feel like travel really levels the playing field and allows you to understand where people are coming from in their own world. But I do think it really requires more reading, more conversations with people overseas, getting to know them, and going outside your sphere of influence right now, and also looking for hubs where the things that are happening that you're interested in.
Where is the sustainability, or the climate change, or space engineering, where is it outside the U.S. happening that you can tap into those hubs and communities and smart people.
I think it's really, for me, about seeking out what you're interested in and then who are the go-to people talking about that and looking outside of the U.S. I think podcasts are really sometimes a good thing for that, especially if you can tune into international ones, communities, forums, groups. And it just takes a bit of effort, but there are so many people around the world doing amazing things. They just don't necessarily yell as loud or have as much attention. So it's about a bit more detective work I think.
Joanna: And I always say to people as well that anything you put online like this podcast is being downloaded in 222 countries which, you know, ‘Hello, everyone.'
Natalie: It's amazing.
Joanna: It is incredible and the fact that anything you put online that is not locked down into a jurisdiction is available to people all over the world and we're very lucky with English that a lot of people want to learn English and do business in English. So that's another point. Isn't it, really?
Natalie: And, actually, you brought up another great point there. For example, Brazil, I also know are super entrepreneurial and they're doing some amazing things over there. And I often think about languages, like my book, The Suitcase Entrepreneur, I got a Japanese deal for that actually.
I never thought that book would necessarily fly in Japan, but it's done quite well because people are looking for freedom over there and freedom in different ways. And it was quite out of the box for them and really interesting.
Neil Patel, for example, is an SEO specialist. He does a ton of different language versions of his website and he's seeing incredible growth from putting it into different languages and getting it out around the world. He does adverts to different languages and countries around the world.
I really think it depends how far you want to take it and whether you can use people in your community in a positive way to say, ‘Hey, would you be willing to translate this for this podcast, or this blog post, or this book?' There's just different ways to be able to reach people for sure.
Joanna: Absolutely. Coming back to the remote working and global focus, and productivity, because freedom is one thing and one of the things that in order to have more freedom is having better systems, better potentially outsourcing.
I love that you say on your website that you're systems geek, which is great.
Natalie: I'm just going to say today, I feel like, as a freedom seeker, I took a long time to figure out that discipline and systems lead to more freedom. It's ironic, but I just wanted to put that out there in case other people are like going, ‘What?'
Some of the systems I think is just about looking for efficiency. ‘Where am I turning up every single day doing something, even if I love it, where I'm repeating the same process over and over?'
Especially in an online business and with all these different moving parts and revenue streams, there's a lot of need for efficiency in what you do, and how you duplicate things, how you replicate things, how you repurpose content, how you manage your time.
I'm a big one for a couple of things actually. Having, I call them, sexy operating procedures, but standard operating procedures where you actually document every single move out that it takes for you to do one particular thing. So maybe an online lodge or producing your podcast, and you document out how that gets done, so that anybody could come along into a business that you hire or outsource to, or if you got sick.
And so we need read that SOP and get it pretty much right on the first go, which is an incredible thing.
And yes, it takes time. But if you're doing it every single day, day in, day out or if you're doing it once a week even, and it's quite intensive, one of the smartest things is to look for, ‘What's taking the most time in your business, where you can start removing yourself, speed it up, and make it efficient, and then start doing that for every area of your business?'
It's been fascinating to do that over the years and just see where we become more efficient. I can spend more of my time doing the things I love which is creating content, teaching, educating, and coaching. And my small but humble team can do all that stuff to make it run really smoothly.
It just gives me back so much more energy and puts me back in my zone of genius, so to speak. And it makes them feel good because they are improving things all the time. So I do say, just start with the thing that's taking up the most time for you right now and look at the way you can kind of find yourself from doing it bit by bit, and then start to take over the rest of your business, and do that. And there's pockets especially for things that are important, but need to be done well.
Joanna: I remember it was around 2015 when I was like, ‘I have to get help, I have to get help. I just can't do it all myself.' But there is this moment, isn't there?
I feel like many of the listeners are very, very busy with the busywork. With book marketing, there's a lot of very busy work. When do you reach that moment? How do people know when they have to get help? And is there a tipping point do you think?
Natalie: Yeah, it is. But, I don't feel like it should be anymore. In hindsight, it's a brilliant thing for me to be able to print from here. But I think the tipping point is when you realize that you are no longer in love with what you're doing or it's become such stress or strain because you're doing it all. That's a great tipping point.
The second tipping point is when you realize that you could actually be earning more if you were in a job versus having maybe your own freelance crew or business when you work out that your hourly rate is so little compared to the amount of hours that you are putting in. And I think that's a great time to go, ‘Gosh, I need to be outsourcing.'
If I could take somebody on that cost $20 an hour to do these administrative tasks or these parts, then I get to charge myself out at $50 an hour, doing the things that I love. So I think that's often a really, really good point as well.
And that, for me, my tipping point was when I realized I was going to go on a bike trip down Africa for two months, and I needed to reverse engineer how to have my business continuing without me. So removing myself is the bottleneck and hiring a VA within two weeks, and showing her how to do everything that she could by all the things that I did really well.
Joanna: Those are some great tips. And I still haven't reached that point of going away for two months. But that is my aim. I have a plan. So that's great.
I also wanted to ask you, because I first became aware of you when we've both got started in sort of 2008, 2009 and there are many of us who started back then. But only a few really who have remained as far as I can see, of the people I remember being around.
What are your tips for building a long-term career that still allows you to change? Because I feel like some people left because they didn't fit in the box they've made for themselves anymore.
Natalie: Such a fantastic question. I almost want to do an audit of all the people who were around when we started because I would be curious to know where they are and what they did.
I view myself a little bit sometimes like Madonna, not that I'm comparing myself to her. But she's the queen of reinvention and she's in her 60s now, is it? And she just continues to remain relevant. And I feel like you have to adapt or die. It kinda sounds terrible.
Unless you want to completely change what you're doing and go into a whole new industry or realm, for me it's about adapting, being resilient, but also following the things that you love and continuing to experiment, and stay curious.
When I came back to New Zealand after being the identity of the suitcase entrepreneur for close to 8 or 9 years, it was a real 180 degree flip for me, Joanna. It took me about two years to find my feet and figure out what I wanted to do next.
But I did come back to the things that I still loved and I just shifted them under my own brand name and expanded my audience, and my repertoire of what I now wanted to teach, and what I wanted to become a leading learner in. And so I feel like that was a massive reinvention and I continue to reinvent.
I'm sure in a few years' time it will be different again. But if you're not reinventing, I feel like you're not growing. So maybe some of those people just decided to do something completely different because they didn't see the longevity, whereas I feel consistency is the key to growth and success.
Joanna: I think it's great that you were able to rebrand basically under your name. Because your name doesn't change and you can change, but your brand doesn't. And I think ‘The Creative Penn' was actually my third blog and the others, I just went by the wayside because I couldn't sustain them, whereas I feel like I could do many, many things under ‘The Creative Penn.'
Natalie: You really can. It's a great name. I always thought it was.
Joanna: So that is a tip for people because as you said, The Suitcase Entrepreneur was a definition. And as soon as you wanted to settle down, that became difficult, but I think you did a great pivot. Before we finish, I did want to ask about the new book you have in the works.
Natalie: Thank you for making me realize that it needs a comma in the title. It's called Suck It Up, Princess, and thanks so much for bringing that to my attention when you wrote that in the email. Oh, my gosh.
It's quite an interesting book because it's going to be completely different. The previous two were both massive business-focused and lifestyle design, but very practical tools-based and case studies, etc. And this one is actually much more…I would say it's almost like part memoir and part personal growth book.
For me, it's actually stepping outside that zone a little bit and it's been more challenging to write to be honest because I'm talking about impostor syndrome and your inner critique, and fear, and all the great juicy topics that we all deal with, but from stories and analogies, and also I guess experiences I've had which makes it a lot more vulnerable.
It's an interesting change of path a little bit. But it just called to me one day and I felt like it's something that I really wanted to write.
And the publishing model is interesting because I feel like I've done the three main ones now, so to speak. I know there are more, but I've done self-publishing with The Suitcase Entrepreneur. I've done hybrid publishing with The Freedom Plan and then I've also done traditional publishing when I was trying to get a publisher for The Freedom Plan.
Simon & Schuster came to me and said, ‘Can we republish The Suitcase Entrepreneur,' which is really fascinating. So for this, I'm actually pretty certain that I'm going back to self-publishing because of freedom, and the absolute freedom that you have over the full copyright of your book.
You can control everything in a way and I do really love that freedom to be able to do what I want with it in terms of the design and the format, and what's included in it, and the pricing, and the ways in which I can go beyond the book. And also just because it's really fun actually.
I feel like now more than ever, we have the tools and we have the ability to be our own publishing houses. And so why not? Like, as you know, with all the book marketers listening into this, book marketing is probably the number one talent that you need outside of being able to write a book. And the big traditional publishers don't really help with that, in my experience, and through a lot of other authors and friends.
So if you can do so much of that on your own and you have the community behind you, then I feel like you've got a really good shot at making your book a success.
Joanna: That is fantastic. When can we expect that book?
Natalie: Well, this is a very good question. At this point, the earliest would be October of this year, but it does depend on how I write the manuscript and how it comes along in timewise. But I really wanted to get this one out more quickly.
Maybe it was partly fueled by the pandemic and I feel like people could really read this right now, but also because with my previous book, I felt like it came out too light or it took too long. Because the other book got ahead of it with the traditional publisher. So I really want to make sure I get this into the hands of the people who've already preordered it through my crowdfunding campaign.
Joanna: Fantastic. So tell us where can people find you and your books, and everything you do online?
Natalie: I'm pretty much anywhere where Natalie Sisson is. I've managed to brand myself all over the interwebs, but nataliesisson.com is a great space to come say hi and @nataliesisson on Instagram.
And of course, I'd love for them to come listen into the ‘Untapped' podcast which is where I talk about how to tap into your potential and get paid to be you. And we do cover off on books from time to time. But if you can search for that in iTunes, in Stitcher, and all the good places, I'd be honored.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Natalie. That was great.
Natalie: Thank you, Joanna.
Jun 29 2020
Do you aspire to write better stories? Do you have the ambition to aim for a career that rivals the biggest names in publishing? Today's interview with JD Barker will inspire you and give you some great tips around writing bestselling stories and building a long-term career.
In the introduction, James Daunt of Waterstones and Barnes & Noble talks about the impact of the pandemic and a possible revival in Nook [The Bookseller], the newly-formed Black Writers Guild calls for sweeping change in UK publishing [The Guardian], Smashwords CEO Mark Coker does a round-up of the impact of the pandemic for indie authors [Smashwords blog], I'm doing a Facebook Live this week, Fri 26 June at 5 pm UK / 12 noon US Eastern on Facebook.com/thecreativepenn.
Today's show is sponsored by my patrons, those wonderful people who support the show with a few dollars a month. Knowing that you enjoy the show and still find it useful keeps me coming back to the mic every week after all these years! If you'd like to support the show and get an extra Q&A audio every month (as well as the backlist), go to www.Patreon.com/thecreativepenn
JD Barker is an award-winning and international bestselling author of thrillers and horror. He is also the co-host of the Writers, Ink Podcast with J. Thorn.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript below.
Joanna: JD Barker is an award-winning and international bestselling author of thrillers and horror. He is also the co-host of the Writers, Ink Podcast with J. Thorn. Welcome JD.
JD: Hey Joanna. How are you doing?
Joanna: I am good. I'm thrilled to have you on the show.
JD: That's actually a pretty long story. So I'll go back all the way to the beginning. When I was in college and this is in Fort Lauderdale in the early…I graduated in '89. I was amassing all this student loan debt and I wanted to work in the music business. That was my initial goal. I got a job working for RCA Records and I was essentially a glorified babysitter.
Whenever they had a famous recording artist show up in Miami or Fort Lauderdale, I'd have to pick them up at the airport and get them to their hotel and get them to the radio station for their interviews and chaperone them around town and hopefully get them back on the airplane without losing anybody.
And to really date myself, this was people like Tiffany and Debbie Gibson, New Kids On The Block, Madonna. Then a bunch of hair bands. I had Guns N' Roses and Bon Jovi and Poison and Skid Row. If I managed to get everybody from Guns N' Roses back on the airplane without anybody getting arrested in Fort Lauderdale, in Miami, it was a win.
I was with these people for days at a time and I had this student loan debt that was piling up. I'm like, well, how can I make money from this? And then I realized, well, I could interview them.
So I started interviewing them while I had them in the car because it was a captive audience. And then I would write up that interview and sell it to ‘Teen Beat' and ‘Teen People' magazine and ‘Tiger Beat' and all these magazines back then. You just rehash the same interview and sell it over and over again.
That ended up landing me a job working for a magazine called '25th Parallel' which only put out about four or five issues, but we had a cool group. It was founded by the editor of ‘Circus' magazine. One of the other guys that they hired straight off the bat basically became Marilyn Manson. I don't want to throw his real name out there, but back then, he wasn't Marilyn Manson. He was thinking about becoming Marilyn Manson. But that's where I really started getting my writing chops together.
And when you work in newspapers and magazines in that world, you quickly realize that everybody's got a novel at some stage of development in a desk drawer somewhere. It's 500,000 words. They've been working on it for 7 to 10 years. It's almost done. And they need some help with it. I became the de-facto guide to go to for that sort of thing. And initially, it was just grammatical stuff, just fixing punctuation and little grammar things. But then I started weighing in on more developmental ideas. And then it became a full-time career.
I was working as a ghostwriter and a book doctor. I would basically take one of those novels and I would tweak it. And I did that for 23 years. And over that timeframe word just got out. So I would get calls from agents, like an agent would, let's say, have a book from a new author that an editor wanted to buy and it was really close but not quite there.
They had to cut, let's say 40,000 words out of the book or something silly. The author was too close to it, so they couldn't do it. So the agent would send it off to me and I would end up doing it.
Or I'd worked really closely with an editor. An editor would buy a book and they didn't have time to run all the edits, so they would get it to me. Sometimes we had authors that were published a couple of New York Times bestsellers that just had too tight of a schedule where they couldn't finish the book they were working on.
I had mentioned in a couple of interviews that I just talked about it off the air, but I've got a form of autism called Asperger's. And one of the cool things about that it actually allows me to mimic other people's voices. I can read a novel that somebody has started and I can essentially finish that novel and keep their voice intact.
I did this for 20 some years and during that time I had six different books that hit The New York Times bestseller list, all with other people's names on them. And that gets really, really old after a while.
The sixth one hit up and we were in Fort Lauderdale. This was I think around 2012. My wife pulled me aside and she knew I wanted to become a full-time writer. And at this point, I had done what my parents wanted me to do. I finished college, I got a real job. I was a chief compliance officer for a brokerage firm, which is as horrible as it sounds, but it pays really good.
We had all the trappings of that, we had the big house, we had cars, we had a boat. She knew I wanted to be a writer. We couldn't just walk away from that because we had to pay for this lifestyle. So she came up with this crazy idea. She said, ‘Let's sell everything that we own. I've got family in Pittsburgh, we'll buy a duplex, live in one side, rent out the other and get our monthly expenses down to as little as we possibly can and then figure out where we are.'
And we did that. We bought the duplex. We moved in. And about two, three weeks later, my wife pulled the bank statement out of the mail and she showed it to me and she did some quick math and she's like, ‘Okay, looks like you've got about 18 months worth of savings to make this writing thing work. Go.' So then I wrote ‘Forsaken,' and it just kind of took off after that.
Joanna: I love that story and I love that so much. You have such a cool background. Everyone's like, wow, you met Jon Bon Jovi. I'm still in love with Jon Bon Jovi after many, many years. I still listen to Bon Jovi songs. Don't tell anyone.
JD: We do too. It's one of the few things. My daughter's two and a half and we've got Amazon Echos all around the house and she'll go up to it and she'll be like, ‘Alexa, play Jovi.'
Joanna: Oh, I love it. Also kudos to your wife. I actually did the same thing and I said, although I suggested it to my husband, I was like, for me to become a full-time writer, we have to sell everything and move too and downsize. So I think that downsizing is a really, really good thing.
Let's come back to the writing under your own name and we're going to circle back to the book doctor thing. But I first heard about you when I read Dracul co-written with Dacre Stoker and I used to write in the London Library where Bram Stoker did his writing. And I used to see the book there and I love horror. So and you include the supernatural in many of your own books as well.
JD: It's what I read. It's what I enjoy reading. And ultimately, I think I'm writing the books that I would like to find in the bookstore that just aren't there yet. I think that's what it really comes down to.
It's become a sore spot between my agent and I, a little bit because my thrillers are the ones that really sell well. Those are the big advances and what people really know me by.
But I enjoy writing horror and I keep bouncing back and forth, which he hates, but I got some advice from some really cool people at the beginning of all this. I reached out to Dean Koontz. And he told me that early on in his career he got tagged with the horror label. And he said he spent 20 some years trying to get that label off of his name because he didn't want it.
So he advised me to, if I was going to do this, try and find some type of common denominator between all my different books.
I'm not necessarily a thriller writer, I'm not a horror writer. I write suspense which tends to bridge that gap. James Patterson, a guy that I'm writing with right now, he had the opposite problem. His first book didn't sell hardly at all. And most people don't even know the name of it. His second book was Along Came A Spider, which was a huge hit. And then he turned out four or five other books, very similar in theory with a serial killer and the same type of storyline.
Then he tried to he had one called When the Wind Blows, about a girl with wings. That did not go over well with his fan base because at that point, four or five novels in, they expected a particular book from him. So he gave me basically the same advice that Koontz did.
But from his standpoint, he said, don't write the same type of book. If you're going to bounce back and forth, do it from the beginning.
And they'll come along with you and eventually if you pull it off, they're buying your book because it's a JD Barker book, not necessarily because what it's even about anymore.
If you think about it, the biggest names out there, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, James Patterson, I will buy any of their books without even reading the back of book blurb because they've delivered time and time again. They become a genre almost by themselves. So, I've got lofty goals. That's what I'm shooting for. Whether or not I actually get it, who knows, but I'm reaching for that brass ring.
Joanna: I'm glad you said that because I also, like you, I have an action-adventure thriller series. I have a crime/horror series. I have dark fantasy. I have some other books that could be horror. And I struggled because some days I'm like, I should just knuckle down and just write thrillers. And then other days I'm like, no, like, life's too short. I want to do what I want to do. So basically you're saying that you've decided JD Barker writes suspense.
JD: It works here in the US. One of the things that I've found, I've taken a lot of classes on marketing and there's something called an information loop. So if you put out a certain message, so to give you an example, if you read my Wikipedia page, it says that I'm the author of supernatural thrillers or suspense thrillers right at the beginning. In a lot of my interviews where people write about me, they quote from that Wikipedia page.
So I tend to put that thought into people's heads and it seems to be working. My agent is getting ready to go out with my latest book, which is a full-on thriller. And she's taken out to people that had just looked at my last supernatural book and they seem to be melding together a little bit. And honestly, I don't think I could pull off having multiple pen names at this point.
Back in the '70s, I think it was easy because I just did a review of a book called Roadwork that Stephen King wrote as Richard Bachman back in the early '70s. It had Bachman's name on it. Back then all he did was slap somebody else's picture on the back. He made up a fake bio and you send it off in the world. There was nobody out there to think twice about it.
But now, you've gotta create social media profiles, you need websites, you have to do interviews as all these different people. I have enough trouble keeping the voices in my head straight without having to throw multiple names out there. But there are people that do it. It's very difficult.
And if you think about just like J.K. Rowling's with the JD Robb thing she put those books out and they did okay. But as soon as people figured out who that really was, that's when they started to sell. So in my mind, like, why bother? I'm sorry, Nora Roberts and JD Robb.
Joanna: Nora Roberts, JD Robb and Galbraith, Robert Galbraith.
It's interesting because I love Robert Galbraith's books. I love Rowling as Galbraith, but I also loved her Casual Vacancy, which she wrote as Rowling, but it was in the voice of Galbraith and she got so much hate for that. She kind of had to change her name because…to escape that branding. But it's so interesting, all of this. But what I want to get back to is the book doctor thing because you have so much experience.
On the Writers, Ink podcast, which I highly recommend that you do with J. Thorn, you're helping J with the process of taking his fiction further. And you talked about the premise and putting together strong ideas before even writing and it was great to hear you talk about this. I'll link to it in the show notes.
Can you talk about this process? I have lots and lots of ideas. We all do, right? Like tons of ideas.
JD: I'm in a different place now because now that my books are selling, I'm actually selling books on spec. This means I've got a contract with a publisher and I've got a PDF document that has basically like a back of book blurb for the books that I'd like to write. And I've got probably a couple hundred or so on my phone, like just different books in different stages, just little notes here or there.
But I've whittled it down to about 10 that I'd like to write next. And from a genre standpoint, they're very similar to what I've done. And we let the publishers decide, and it's not necessarily my editor that makes that decision. He takes that back to the marketing people and they're like a year and a half from now because that's when the book's really going to come out, in the traditional world, which of these books do you think will be the most marketable? So that's kind of how it's decided at that point.
What I'm doing with J. is I personally feel like I think being a pantser is the way to go. And obviously this is a personal preference kind of thing. But Stephen King in On Writing, he points out that if he doesn't know where the story is going, the reader's not going to figure it out either.
I'm totally on board with that because when I read books that were plotted heavily with an outline, I can feel that structure already there. And I think it's just a subconscious thing. The writer knows exactly what's coming next, it comes across in the writing and it's subtle, but it's there.
But I do think you need to have certain elements of this story in place in order to pull off being a pantser. You need to know the gist of your story. So basically that back of book blurb. If you can drill it down to even a tagline, that's even better, but just something that you can put in front of you.
And I read it every day for whatever book I'm working on. I read that tagline or that back of book blurb before I've typed the first word, but something that's going to keep you on track.
The next thing I do is I create my characters. And once I have my characters together and when I say create a character, like I know them inside and out. Like Sam Porter is the lead detective in my 4MK series. I could put him at the entrance to Disney World that I could tell you what ride he is going to go on first. Not necessarily something that's going to end up in a book, but I know him as well as I know my best friend.
That's how I feel you as the author need to know your characters before you should start writing because you're in their head. You're communicating their thoughts. That needs to come across.
Thomas Harris is a great example of this. If you read Silence of the Lambs, he very seldom uses dialogue tags, but you can tell just from the dialogue who's speaking through that entire book. And that's, again, one of the goals that I shoot for there.
So you need your tagline, you need your back of book blurb or your idea of the book. You need to know where your characters are, who they are. And then you can basically drop them at the start of the story and go.
Personally, I'd like to have a beginning, an ending and something that's going to happen in the middle in mind, as I'm writing. And I think that keeps my subconscious on track. I tend to liken it as like a straight road. You've got your beginning down at the bottom and you've got your destination as the ending for your book. And it's okay to kind of go off the road a little bit and go off into the weeds as long as you get back to that road. And as long as your subconscious knows how this story is going to end, I think it's going to eventually get you there.
So that's how I tend to do it. But as a book doctor, I've worked with people that have worked across every different aspect of this. They've been on heavy outliners to the point where they have a 200-page outline before they start writing. Other people that just have a couple of sentences in mind, they have a rough idea what they want their book to go.
I've worked with so many different people that I personally just took the little bits of what I felt was the best from each of their systems and kind of threw it all together.
Joanna: Coming back to that back of book blurb that you create, like all these little ideas, see, my idea list, which is out of control and is lots and lots of one liners that need to be put together into a blurb. And you talk there about the back of the book. So everyone has an idea of what that's going to be. Some kind of, like you say, tagline and then something that's going to draw people in. How do we write that?
JD: I tend to expand on it. I use a program called Simplenote, and you could do this with anything. Simplenote is just a note-taking document that it's on my phone, it's on my Mac, it's on my iPad. And if I make a change on any one of them, it automatically updates all the other ones.
I'm like crazy averse to paper. I hate having piles of paper all over the place. So I do everything on there.
I'll have one Simplenote document for each book I'm working on. And as I come up with those snippets that you're talking about, I'll drop them in to that document wherever they fit in the story. So it is kind of like an outline, but it's not as stringent of an outline as other people.
I'm working with Patterson right now, so he's a strict outliner. And when we first sat down I brought that up. We were at lunch in Palm Beach. We decided we wanted to work together and we came up with some ideas, but I say, listen, I know you outline. I don't like working with an outline. If we're going to do this, I think we're going to have to do it without one.
And somehow, I have no idea how I did it, but I convinced him to write his first book without an outline, through his entire career. And we had a crazy fun time doing it. I would create a scenario and try and paint our character in some kind of impossible situation and I would hand it off to him and he would not only get that character out of that impossible situation, he would volley it right back and put them in an even more difficult one and say, ‘Here, JD. Your turn. You try.'
We went back and forth like that through the whole book and we knew how we wanted it to end, but we didn't know any of the middle stuff. Now, the downside to that is probably 40,000 to 60,000 words ended up on the cutting room floor. When you're a pantser, a lot of stuff gets tossed.
So we started working together on a second project together and that one did have an outline. So I got to see his method. And it does work, but we didn't stick to the outline 100%, and I think that's where the real difference was. If I had an idea that took the book off in a different direction, he was cool with it.
The outline was just a framework. It was more or less just a suggestion. So I just kind of feel it out. At this point, he's got me trying to create an outline for a book because he still thinks that that's the way to go. And I'm trying to do it because I think if I can get to that point, then I could probably successfully write two books at the same time, like one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
One of the things I took away from Dean Koontz, like a lot of pantsers tend to have a lot of drafts. They've gotta go back through that book over and over and over again to get it right.
Koontz only writes one draft from beginning to end. So he sits down in the morning and he rereads what he wrote the day before and he edits it and cleans it up. And then he starts writing as soon as he hits that last sentence. And he just keeps going and he adds like another 2,000 to 3,000 words to it, sometimes 5,000 or 6,000. The guy's a machine.
But when he hits that last word on the final page, he's done with that book. And I think it's because he's editing as he goes. He also told me that years ago he used to outline, he did that for the first 10 or 15 books, but the first book that he wrote without an outline was his very first bestseller. So that told me a little something too.
But again, like everything comes down to personal preference. What is going to get you as an author over that finish line? Because I've seen many people try to write a book and they'll say they're pantser, they're working on their novel and like I said at the beginning of this I'll pick it up and they're at 500,000 words, no ending in sight and we've been with these characters for 7 or 8 years of their life and they don't know where they're going with it.
That's the downside really to pantsing. That's why you have to have that back of the book blurb. You have to have a rough idea of where your book is going to end in order to get there.
Joanna: You made me feel better because I feel like I am a discovery writer, but I do know the beginning and the end and then a couple of big scenes in the middle in my head. I just haven't written it all down as an outline. So you've made me feel a bit better about that.
I didn't prompt you with this before, but you're mentioning some really big names of the biggest names in the industry and I know people are thinking, how does he know these people? I know you're an introvert. I'm an introvert too. We talked about ThrillerFest off the air and I find meeting people, especially famous authors who I've been reading all my life and I kind of hero worship really nerve-racking.
JD: I honestly think it comes down to the Asperger's thing. My wife says that I'm fearless because I will try anything. I will approach anybody. Unless there's a restraining order in place, they're not going to keep me away.
Stephen King, I got lucky there. When I wrote Forsaken my first novel, I had to explain where the wife buys a journal. So just to get the book done, to get that last page on paper, I wrote that she walked into Needful Things and bought it there, the Stephen King store, fully expected to have to change that. And my wife who's way smarter than me, she read it and she's like, ‘Nah, let's just get his permission to use it.'
‘Well, how do you get King's permission to do much of anything?' Turns out he had a house that was maybe 10 minutes from my mom's house down in Florida. So we printed up the manuscript, hopped in the car and figured, well, we'll head over to Steve's house. He's probably outside gardening or something. We'll catch him if he's in a good mood, he'll glance at the manuscript, give me the thumbs up and we'll be on our way.
It didn't quite work out that way. If you're in Florida, he lives on a, what's called a key. It's basically an island right off the main coast.
Joanna: Duma Key.
JD: He lives on his version of Duma Key. If you go over a little one-lane bridge, it's the kind that swivels in the middle. And if you make a left to go to the public portion of this Island where the beaches are and the restaurants and the bars and all that kind of stuff.
And if you make a right, you go to the entire half of the island that he owns. And there's immediately a private drive sign and then a no trespassing sign. And then there was a gate and another gate and we're like maybe a half mile into this drive and I'm looking up in the trees thinking a sniper is going to target us and like, this is a bad idea. We need to try something else.
So we went back to a little restaurant and I called a friend of mine that I had known for years, a guy named…he wrote under Jack Ketchum, he passed away a little while ago, but his name was Dallas Mayr. I called him up and told him what we were doing and he was a real good friend of King's. He said, ‘Yeah, don't stalk Steve, he hates that. Here's his email address. Just send him the book. If he likes it, you'll hear back. If the book is shit, then he probably won't contact you. Just leave the guy alone.'
So I did that and then I ended up hearing back from King and he gave me a thumbs up and I've just hit them up over the years via email for writer advice and kept in touch that way.
And Dallas, the guy who introduced us, that came about through a relationship. I used to get a newsletter about horror writers. And years back, I think this is like maybe '92 or '93 he had put a notice out there. He needed help getting some files from a Mac to a PC. And this was way before even Windows existed. So I knew how to do that. So I helped him do it.
We kept in touch over the years and I think that's why he helped me get in touch with King. With Koontz, I sent them a fan letter. I was trying to get a blurb for Fourth Monkey when it was coming out and I sent him a copy of the book with a letter. And then he emailed me back and just kind of kept in touch.
Patterson was the same kind of thing. I sent him a copy of Fourth Monkey and he actually called me to give me his review which was weird because you don't normally expect to hear James Patterson giving you a review. I thought it was my buddy's kind of playing a joke on me until I actually started talking. And then he knew I was from Florida and invited me out to lunch and that's how that whole thing happened.
I just moved to New England and New Hampshire and Dan Brown lives right down the street. So I sent him a copy of my latest book with a little note saying, hey, we just moved to the area and he invited my wife and I out to dinner at his house.
Joanna: Okay. You're like royalty!
JD: Then this virus thing happened. Well, the gist of it is you have to do that. You have to try.
You mentioned ThrillerFest at the beginning. If you're at ThrillerFest, you're going to be around some very famous names. But only for like a minute. You might be in the elevator with Lee Child. So you've got two minutes to make your pitch, so you can either stand there and stare at the numbers and watch them tick away and watch Lee walk out the elevator when it's all over or you can say something.
And the way I see it as, the worst thing these people will do is say no, but at least I tried. And to try and fail I think is way better than to not try at all. So I'm a firm believer in that. You can't be afraid to reach out to these people because they've all been where we are. Dan Brown wrote The Da Vinci Code sitting between a washer and dryer.
[Note from Joanna — I actually think that was Stephen King with Carrie, but I might be wrong!]
Joanna: I love that. I really appreciate that advice. And I don't know whether it's because I'm English, you just don't bother people ever, don't bother people.
JD: You're way too polite over there.
Joanna: We're super polite. You see somebody famous and you don't even look at them. I was sitting next to John Cleese in our local restaurant and you don't even look, you just carry on. But I love your attitude. It's really interesting.
JD: I think a lot of that came from back in the RCA Record days when I was doing that job I was telling you about it because I was in a car with famous people. And they were like that at the very beginning.
The first time Madonna hopped in my car, that was crazy, to see her stepping out of a private jet and then to get into the car with me. This is somebody that I knew from videos and they're not real people at that point. But I think because I rode around with them or I was just hanging out with these people for so long, they became real people because I saw them going to McDonald's for lunch. Not Madonna, she would not eat McDonald's. But, you know, just doing what normal people do.
And when you see that side of them, it takes it down a notch and it takes a little bit of that shimmer away from them. And not that that's a bad thing, but it makes them human.
Joanna: I wonder the other thing, the stigma of self-publishing. I want to come to that because I as much as I love ThrillerFest, I've been going since like 2012, something like that. And I felt very much in those early years, the stigma of being an independent.
Now, you've started out indie, you've moved into traditional, you're kind of hybrid, you do all kinds of things.
JD: I think a lot of it's merging and I totally get what you're saying. Back in 2012, even 2014 when Forsaken came out, I ended up self-publishing that because I didn't get the right deal. But I sold about a quarter-million copies, which put me on the radar of the traditional guys.
When they see you making those kinds of numbers, they want a piece of it. And, you have to weigh everything. From my standpoint, I had to weigh the dollars. With Fourth Monkey, I got a seven-figure advance, when we added everything up, there was a TV show and a movie attached.
I got a call from my agent, I was out on a run and she said, ‘Hey, we just got a preemptive offer from the UK for $130,000.' So I ran back home real quick. I told my wife we were going out to dinner and by the time we got to the restaurant, we were at $800,000. And by the time we left, we had broken seven figures.
I had plans to self-publish that novel and I could have but knowing that that kind of payday was in my future, I knew that that would secure my position and be where I would be able to write full-time and not have to worry about anything else anymore. That would be my focus. So in that case I pulled the trigger on it.
But for me it comes down to a financial decision and what is that publisher going to bring to the table that I can't do?
My latest book, we'll use that as an example, or actually my last two The Sixth Wicked Child which was the third book in my serial killer series, and my latest book, She Has A Broken Thing Where Her Heart Should Be, I self-published those in all the US territory, the English-speaking territory, so the US, the UK, Canada.
But my agent sold all the foreign rights to those books to regular traditional publishers. Random House and Harper Collins, those guys have it in other places. And I think as long as you can turn in a product where it's on par with what they expect, you can do that kind of thing.
Every book that I write, it goes through the ringer. I have alpha readers, I've got beta readers. It goes through a professional copyedit. It goes through professional formatting all before I send it to my agent. Because when it lands on an editor's desk, I want them to feel like they're reading a finished product.
I don't want them to see something that is a job, is going to be work to them. I want them to see something that is polished as it possibly can be. And if you're going to indie publish or self-publish, I think you need to do that.
It could be, but in my world, my competition is Random House. It's Harper Collins. It's the books coming out of the top five. So I try to make sure everything I do is on par with that. And I think as an indie author or traditional author, you need to do that.
But like I said, I think the worlds are blending together. I think it's becoming less and less clear which side that you're really are on. And if you do it right, the reader will never know the difference. Every book that I put out, I put it out as a hardcover, an audiobook, softcover, mass market paperback couple months later. I follow the same model that I see the big guys do.
And I've got distribution through the same channels that they do. I use IngramSpark for hardcovers. I've got just a distribution through deal through on Baker & Taylor, which is another big one here in the US. They handle most of the libraries. So even from a bookseller standpoint, they don't see a difference. They don't realize that I'm even self-publishing these titles anymore.
And I think that that's important because I get BookBub every day and I always go through it. When I see something that I like, I'll load it up, I look at the Amazon page and if I see that it's only out there as a soft cover and as a Kindle book, I'll usually pass because that immediately tells me it's a self-published book.
In my world, the author didn't take the time to put out a hardcover or put out an audiobook. People like all these different formats and if you want to get the largest possible reader base, you have to satisfy as many people as possible.
Joanna: I'm so glad you said that. I also am doing hardcovers now as well as paperback. I do large print as well, which is a good library format and audiobook and the rest. So it's really good and I feel the same way.
I feel it looks professional on your page to have all of these different formats which many traditionally published authors don't have that anymore. They don't get hardbacks.
I want to come back to the craft again because your books are standing out from the crowd. As you say you're getting these deals. What are indie authors doing wrong when it comes to story, particularly in the genres you write in. However we want to publish, I still think we want to lift our story game to the level of the top-selling writer.
JD: I honestly think a lot of indie authors don't take the time to really get the book done. They finish the book and they put it out there, but they don't go through some of the steps that I mentioned. They don't get a professional cover. They do it on their own. They don't get a copy editor. They either do it on their own or they ask another writer friend to go through it.
These aren't expensive things to do, but they make a big difference. And if I pick up an ebook and I start reading it and I see typos and I see errors, I'll usually put it down because first of all, I don't want that stuff in my head. I don't want grammatical errors in my brain because it'll start coming out in my own writing before I realize it just because I'm reading it.
But if the author didn't take the time to do those things, then they didn't care as much as they probably should have. And I think that's important.
I think also because they write fast the story is not quite 100%. The book that I'm writing right now, it's done. And if you've been listening to the podcast with J. and I that I've written like five or six different endings on this particular book. My agent just sent it back to me last week and she's like, ‘I absolutely love it until chapter 79. You gotta go from there and write the rest again.'
I'm doing that because she's got the ear, she's talking to editors. My film and TV agents, they've got the same book. They're talking to people on that side. And they're all telling her what they'd like to see in this book. And I'm not afraid to make those changes or I guess I'm willing to make those changes.
One of the other things I see a lot, I run into quite a bit, or I see people that see this as an art, which it is. But they don't realize that they're creating a product. When somebody tells them they need to change something, a lot of times they won't do it. They won't cut the novel down. They won't do this. They won't do that because they feel this is the book they want to tell, the story they want to tell and that's it, take it or leave it, which is great.
But let's say building a car and you design the car that you want and that the buyers are telling you, well, we absolutely love this car and I would buy it if, and you're not willing to make some of those changes, you're not going to sell any cars. So you have to decide why you're actually in this business.
And all of those things are valid. I was writing for years without anybody paying me for it, it was my outlet. Just like anybody, probably everybody listening to your podcast, it's cathartic. It's one of those things.
So if people stopped paying me tomorrow, I would still write every day. So that's not an issue. But knowing that I am writing professionally and that people are buying my books, I tweak them and I make sure that I put out the best possible product that I can every single time. And I don't let it leave my desk until I do, even if it is painful, even if you have to write that ending 10 times.
Joanna: I wonder what's your thought on length because I feel like many of the books I read from traditional thrillers, I know Dan Brown is a bad example because he's an outlier. Well, let's take James Patterson. His books are shorter, but I feel like many indie authors are writing shorter books, whereas the traditionally-published books are still 80,000, 90,000 words for say, a thriller.
Do you think there is a word count difference and is that reflected in the depth of the writing? Dracul was very long, I think, I seem to remember it being a pretty long book and had a lot of depth in terms of the characters and the atmosphere and all of that type of thing.
JD: It does and it's not something that I realized until I really started talking to editors. But it comes down to a cost. Dracul for example, it's 160 some thousand words. The original Dracula was 166,000 words after they cut 102 pages out of the book. The final book was 166,000. That is on the high end.
Most traditional publishers really want to see a book that's like 80K to 100K at this point, especially as a debut. If you're going out there for the first time. My last book, She has A Broken Thing Where Her Heart Should Be was 206,000. And because I self-published that, in a lot of these territories, I realized how that length impacted the cost. And unfortunately, it meant that I had to put the hardcover out there for, I think it's at $39 in a lot of the territories just in order to more or less break even.
I think I make like 50 cents or something on a hardcover. So it's not a moneymaker for me, but in order to get it out there, I have to do that. So it's something I'm very conscious of. But that's something that I think has changed over time.
I'm going to show you something real quick. I found it yesterday. So this is something I actually bought at auction. And I don't know if you can…you probably can't see it on the camera, but this is Stephen King's actual draft of Needful Things. It's pages off his typewriter.
Joanna: Wow. That's amazing.
JD: I bought it from David Morrell, the guy who created Rambo. He used to be a beta reader for Stephen King.
Joanna: David's been on the show. [Interview with David Morrell here.]
JD: Okay. I'm going to see if I've got the letter here because he actually touches on it in the letter.
‘Dear David, here's the manuscript I promised you. The size is daunting,' because he knew it straight off the bat. I don't think you could get away with a book this size and this was 200 some thousand words too. And I don't think you could do it in today's publishing world. Attention spans are too short.
Readers like to be able to consume content. But they like it in small bits. I think that we're being conditioned for that. I find it very difficult now to just watch TV, as an example. If I'm sitting in front of the TV, I'm also on my phone while I'm talking to my wife or talking to my daughter.
Joanna: Me too.
JD: And having like a news channel on with its scrolling ticker and different headlines and this. Our brains are being conditioned to consume all this content very quickly in small little bits. And I think it's making it more difficult to sell books.
That being said, Broken Thing, because of the length is doing phenomenal on Kindle Unlimited because people are getting hooked on that first page and there are almost 800 pages in that book. So as soon as I grab them, I know I've got them.
So my page count is, I'm selling almost twice as much in there just because of the length. But if I were to try and take a book to the traditional publishers, we did shop it and they wanted to see some cuts there. They wanted to see it down by about 60,000 or 70,000 words. And I didn't want to do that with the story.
I guess the gist of this is, because I'm rambling here, if you're trying to pursue a traditional deal and it's your first one, try to get that book between 80,000 and 100,000, that's just the sweet spot where they want to see you. Fourth Monkey was 126,000, that was on the long side, but they were willing to deal with it because they liked the story so much. But you know, 80,000 to 100,000 is where you really want to be.
Joanna: Fantastic. And then we're almost out of time, but I did want to ask you about marketing.
JD: I do everything. Facebook ads, Amazon ads. I was talking to J. about this the other day because we had a guest on who specializes in Amazon ads and I honestly don't understand them. I'm trying to hire somebody to actually do that for me. And none of these people seem to be out there because I'm throwing money at it.
I've got ads running like crazy. And I'm afraid to turn it off because I don't know whether or not it's working. So I'm just letting it go and that's obviously not good business practice, but that's the way that it is. But I tend to do all that.
I look at a lot of the new stuff that's coming out, like I've been studying TikTok like crazy, trying to figure out how to market and sell a book on TikTok. And I haven't broken that formula yet, but I'm sure it's out there. Snapchat is another one, like how do you sell books on Snapchat?
So as these new programs come out, I immediately run out there and get my username, whether I'm going to use it or not, just to make sure I can get JD Barker and somebody else doesn't grab it. And then I try to find some way to utilize it.
Back when I was driving these recording artists around, Madonna once told me that when she gets a marketing plan for one of her albums coming out, or back in the day I think ‘Vogue' was coming out when I talked to her. She said she goes through that entire marketing plan and she looks at what they're doing and then she makes a list of everything they're doing and then she makes a new list of stuff that they're not doing. And that's where she would go out and she would hire her own people to actually fill in those blanks.
I've been doing that on the book side because when you're with a traditional publisher, they give you a marketing plan. It's a PowerPoint presentation and it's usually like a 30,000-foot view of what they're going to do. But I tend to see holes in it.
They don't use BookBub, things like that. They tend to not rely on bloggers or Instagram, readers where I do, and like right now that's helping tremendously because I've got a new book even now that I'm working on with Patterson, it comes out in September. We're hitting up bloggers for that because we can't go to stores. We can't do a book tour right now. But that particular world and they're still spreading the news through social media.
So they're kind of coming around. I tend to liken traditional publishers, their marketing departments are like a big cruise ship and an indie author is sorta like a little speed boat. We can zip around that cruise ship and we can run circles around them.
If you have a handle on what you're doing, you can turn a lot faster than they can and try new things. So if you see something as an indie author that looks like it might work, try it. Like I said earlier, you either try and fail or you don't try at all. But at least if you failed, you know that you made an effort at it.
Joanna: It's great to hear that. Because so many people just say oh, I just write great books. I'm like, no, no, you definitely do something. So I'm glad you said you do.
JD: Yes. Writing a good book is just a small piece of the whole puzzle. It's a given at this point the book has to be like a five-star read. If it's not, I don't even know that I would go out in the world. There are a million books published every year and yours is just one of them.
If it's not a five star read, if you're willing to put it out there knowing that it's got problems and you're getting three and a half stars, whatever it ends up, something's wrong you need to tweak that or you're going to be stuck in that world forever.
Joanna: This has been really fantastic. Tell people where they can find you and everything you do online.
JD: Easiest place is jdbarker.com. On Twitter I'm JD Barker. I'm on Facebook and Instagram and the other ones, but my publishers tend to run a lot of the stuff that is on those. Twitter and my website are probably the best places.
Joanna: And the ‘Writers, Ink' podcast with J. Thorn.
JD: I can't forget ‘Writers, Ink' podcast every Monday.
Joanna: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, JD. That was great.
JD: Thank you. This was fun.
Jun 22 2020
Writing a first draft is only the initial step in the journey to creating a novel. The next step is editing, and in this interview, Kris Spisak talks about the different kinds of editing, as well as tips for your self-editing process. Plus, I share my insights from my latest edit on Map of the Impossible.
In the introduction, Apple discontinues iBooks Author [MacRumors] but remember, they have the new Authors.Apple.com, a portal to all things publishing on Apple; #publishingpaidme trended on Twitter and the amounts are listed in this spreadsheet; Written Word Media survey on How Readers Pick What to Read Next; Everything you need to know about pre-orders on the 6-Figure Author Podcast.
Today's show is sponsored by ProWritingAid, writing and editing software that goes way beyond just grammar and typo checking. With its detailed reports on how to improve your writing and integration with Scrivener, ProWritingAid will help you improve your book before you send it to an editor, agent or publisher. Check it out for free or get 25% off the premium edition at www.ProWritingAid.com/joanna
Kris Spisak is a nonfiction author, an editor, podcaster, and international speaker. Today, we're talking about The Novel Editing Workbook, 105 Tricks & Tips for Revising Your Fiction Manuscript.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
You can find Kris Spisak at Kris-Spisak.com and on Twitter @KrisSpisak
If you need more help, you can find my list of editors and proofreaders here, and also my tutorial on how to find and work with a professional editor here.
Joanna: Kris Spisak is a nonfiction author, an editor, podcaster, and international speaker. Today, we're talking about The Novel Editing Workbook, 105 Tricks & Tips for Revising Your Fiction Manuscript. Welcome, Kris.
Kris: Hi, Joanna. Great to be here.
Joanna: Thanks for coming on the show. I have a print copy of your workbook, I bought it in print because I thought it was so good.
Kris: Oh, thank you so much. It was so much fun to pull together. I had been teaching those materials for so many years and I had been working with my editing clients for so many years saying the same things over and over. I realized there were some universal truths about editing that the world didn't seem to know, so it was time to write that book.
Joanna: And a great reason to write a nonfiction book, to be honest, like you already have an audience and this just helps you.
Kris: I'm one of those people who has been writing since I can remember, since I was a little kid, but I had been teaching university writing courses. And just loving the joy of enjoying the power of the written word, connecting with different audiences in different ways, whether you're storytelling, whether you are writing manifestos, or theses, or whatever it happens to be.
While I was teaching, I kept getting approached on the side to write, I don't know, CEO blogs to go straight for them. Getting to write product descriptions on Amazon, getting to write…somebody who I knew who had a novel who needed some help with that.
So I kept getting approached on the side because people knew I was really just obsessed with the power of language. And I could really dive into the nitty-gritty of not only grammar but the approach of how you put your words together for the most powerful effect.
I was doing that for a while on the side while I was teaching and I had this moment of realization saying, ‘Wait a second, I am having so much fun in the classroom but I am having so much more fun getting to work in all of these different spaces just with the power of language.' So, slowly I kind of trickled my way out of the classroom and into my own writing and editing business. And haven't looked back since, it's been 10 years now.
Joanna: Oh, fantastic. We started about the same time then I guess.
Kris: Yes. I'm a long-time listener too, I remember listening to you back in your Australia days.
Joanna: Ah, well, there we go. One of the early crowd, that's fantastic. Let's start with some definitions around what editing is. Because many new writers think it's about typos and grammar.
Kris: I'm so happy you asked this question because so often, when I say that I'm an editor, everyone starts thinking about the grammar police and we start getting into very heated debates about Oxford commas or no Oxford commas. And yes, that is a piece of editing, but that proofreading, that final line is really the absolute last piece of editing.
When you're talking about editing, I like to look at it in terms of three different levels. You have your macro edit where you're really looking at your entire story structure. Does your entire plots make sense? Does your story begin in the correct place? Does it end in the right place? Are your characters fleshed out as much as they need to be? And yes, I said fleshed out, not flushed out, that's an entirely different conversation!
Then you have your big edit, then you have your micro edit where you're really looking at your sentence level, looking at your word choice, looking at your sentence structure, looking at how you're distinguishing your characters' dialogue, and how that's separate from each other.
All of those little pieces, sentence by sentence. And not until you've gone through the entire macro edit process, the entire micro edit process, then you can get down to commas and spelling and typos and that type of thing. But so often when someone hits the end on their first draft of their manuscript, they are so proud of themselves. And they should be, they should throw some confetti in the air and celebrate and high-five their nearest friends and whatever else is going on there, but you don't just jump into Page 1, Sentence 1 grammar edit. That is the final stage.
Joanna: I agree. I'm actually editing right now my book, Map of the Impossible, and I'm doing that first macro edit, that story structure. And of course, I have a process because I've been doing it a while. For people who might just be starting out with that first macro edit, how do they deconstruct that plot?
Kris: Well, what I always like to say is, ‘What is the one big problem of your book?' Now, I'm not saying, ‘What's wrong with your book?' I'm saying, ‘what is your protagonist going after? What are they looking for? What are they questing after?'
If you can figure out what that one big question is, then you can have your little roadmap for deconstructing your entire project.
Now, of course, there are always plots and subplots, and you can have all sorts of questions going on within a book, but having your one major problem that carries your book from Page 1 to the final page allows you to look at every single scene within that book, every single chapter, every single page, and saying, ‘Is this on target or am I getting really excited about this emotional moment that perhaps has nothing to do with my actual plot? Am I getting really excited about this historical-fiction research that I did in the process? And you know what, maybe that sniper that I go on about for 70 pages really has no point in this romance,' or whatever it happens to be.
If you always return to that question of, ‘What is the problem of a story and is this scene related to that problem?' you could often figure out where you start wandering away from your core story.
Joanna: What are some of the tools that might help? For example, I do some reverse outlining because I'm a discovery writer, I just make it up as I go along. And then, when I'm doing this kind of editing, I will write a couple of lines about each chapter so I know what's happening. And then, sometimes I have to move things around because, you know, one scene is at night and the next one's in the middle of the day and it just didn't work together.
Kris: People can do this in so many different ways and there are so many fabulous apps from Scrivener to so many others for organizing and giving yourself a brief little snapshot of every little scene or every little chapter. Sometimes you can even just write it all out on note cards.
I like, for us, especially the discovery writers, doing that reverse outline of your book, doing it where perhaps you'll have everything written out. And then, you go through your entire book not looking at commas, not looking at word choice, but just writing down what is the point of the scene, why is it there, who meets who, where do they go, what are they trying to achieve, and just writing a sentence or two for every single scene. And then, putting it all out.
Again, this can be done in Scrivener, this can be done on index cards that you roll across your office floor, and then just looking, ‘Do all of these things make sense next to each other? Are they all related?'
By doing that reverse-outline process, you can suddenly realize that that scene that you might love so much, it doesn't actually fit the whole…and you have a chance to actually look at it all from that bird's-eye view.
Because really, when you're in the weeds of your book, you can get lost really quickly because you know how much you love your story, you know those characters so well, you know what your plot is doing. But a reader can get lost and you never want to have your reader lost or confused about why something is happening. That reverse outline can kind of keep you on track.
Joanna: And make you realize what you're missing. How on Earth did that person get from there to there?
Kris: And it's so funny because we all do it, especially those of us who are discovery writers, I'm the same way, that, all of a sudden, you get passionate about this moment and your characters start running. And then, you're chasing your characters as you're typing, and that is sometimes the most fun part of the process. But then you have to realize, that chase could've been brilliant or that chase might've taken you a little bit off-track, you need to pull it back a little bit.
Joanna: We've mentioned scenes there, but one of the other things I do, at this stage of the edit, is chop up my scenes into chapters so that my chapter will have more of a want-to-turn-the-page ending. When I write my scenes, often it feels like a complete scene. But if I ended it there, no one would turn the page necessarily.
Kris: Absolutely. But I mean, whether you're writing thrillers or absolutely anything, you, as an author, have a goal to get your reader to turn the page. Why else are we doing this if not to have the readers continue to read our books?
Your goal is to finish every single chapter, every single page really, every single ending of a scene is to figure out a moment to close the moment but have your reader begging for more and having new questions arising, new concerns, new emotions evoked so that they are concerned about what will happen next.
If you tie up anything through the course of your book too neatly with a bow, it's like, ‘Oh. Well, that's that. It's definitely time for bed, it's definitely time to put down that book,' you never want to give your reader an invitation to put down your book.
Joanna: No, open questions, as you mentioned, that is definitely the way for it. But if you close one, you have to open something else.
Joanna: So, let's talk about characters.
Kris: Self-editing can be so tricky. And when I say, ‘Self-editing,' I mean editing yourself. It can be so tricky because, when you're writing, you probably see this character in your head, you are watching them move. They are alive.
But translating what is going on in your brain through your fingertips to your keyboard doesn't always work as vividly as we think that we're actually doing it. So what I like to say is people are incredibly different. Everyone walks down the street in a different way. The way I sit in a chair and the way you sit in a chair is probably remarkably different just because we are two different people.
Focusing on mannerisms, and body language, and especially emotions are something that I really tell people to pay attention to. Because think about the way you get excited, how your face looks, how your body moves, how your fingers might move. Every single part of you reacts to excitement in a different way than someone else does. Every single person reacts to anger or sadness or depression in a different way physically.
If you know a person really well, you can understand that they're happy without them holding up a sign and saying, ‘Hey, you know what, I'm happy right now,' you know them because you understand them and how they move and act and enter a room. You understand it.
That's your goal as a writer is how do you get your reader to understand your characters so well that, the second they walk into that room, just by the way they're holding themselves, the way they are kicking that rock down the street, the way they are scratching their arm, the way they are pushing their hair in front of their eyes, every single person should have little tells, little emotional tells that let you get to know them better so you never have to say a single emotion on the page, that every single one of them is transparent. And it's different for every character. You can't have the same smiley person for every single character.
Joanna: I think it's also searching your manuscript for evidence that you're doing that wrong. So feeling, the word feeling, you know, ‘Morgan was feeling something.'
Kris: Exactly. I recommend that all writers create a little spreadsheet for themselves. Or if the word spreadsheet just scared half of your listeners, I'll say it this way, make a little list of words that are your cheat words. They're absolutely fine in the first draft of a novel but, in your later drafts, look at the word ‘Realize,' search for ‘realize' through your manuscript.
Because you know what? You shouldn't be telling your readers about realization. Your reader should be living through those realizations at the same time as your characters and experiencing it with them. Look for that word feeling, like you just said.
There are so many other examples of that of…that's kind of just lazy writing. It's fine for a first draft, it helps you get that story out, but later, this is where you do the fine-tuning of making your characters alive, making those emotions real, making all of those moments a journey for the reader as much of a journey for the characters.
Joanna: It's great we're having this conversation now because I'm literally in this edit and I've become aware, you become more aware of the things you do regularly. The other thing I've been doing is adding in smell because I'm a very visual writer. So I describe scenes, I describe the sense of place, I think that's one of my strengths. But I completely leave out the way anything smells. And obviously smell is not an every-page thing.
Kris: I'm so happy you asked this question because it's true. To be vivid in our description, and we can talk about the balance of description versus other story elements in a moment, but to be vivid in your description is really what brings your book alive for your readers.
I always like to say, it's like having a movie screen where you see things happening but you don't hear it, but you don't experience it. If you just rely on the visual sense, you're only showing part of the movie, it does not come alive that way. You have five senses as a person. So allow all of those senses to come into a story.
My one other little cheat-sheet moment here that I always like to tell my editing clients and anybody I talk to is, for some reason, we are always inclined to introduce those sensory details as, ‘She saw,' ‘he heard,' ‘it smelled like.' There is no reason that you need to have those couple words using, ‘She saw,' ‘he saw,' or, ‘he smelled,' ‘it looked like,' whatever it is.
Avoid that sensory verb. Because what is that bringing attention to? That's bringing attention to the character who is experiencing whatever you're describing. Just get straight to the description, cut out the, ‘She saw the tall building that was taller than anything she'd ever seen in her life,' forget the, ‘she saw,' just, ‘that building was taller than anything she'd ever seen in her life.'
There are all sorts of little ways that you can tighten your writing and make it come alive for your writers. And sensory details and using all of your senses are powerful but make sure that you're doing so even more powerfully by cutting those sensory introductions.
Joanna: That's such a good tip. And it's one of those, again, new-writer things that you notice later on that you can't see it in your own writing at the beginning. And we'll come back to why editors are so useful.
Kris: Yes, of course. Oh, I could just talk on this all day.
When you're looking at that macro edit, again, this is that big picture edit, we're not worrying about those Oxford commas or no Oxford commas yet. One of the big things to worry about is your balance of story elements. Because I think every writer has a favorite piece of the process.
Maybe you're a master of dialogue, maybe you are a poet when it comes to your description, maybe you love action scenes and these one after another staccato sentences that really just make your pacing just speed by. But any story has to have a balance of all of these things.
If it's a screenplay, you can get away if it's all dialogue all the time, but if you have all dialogue all the time in a novel, again, that's where we go back to that movie metaphor, that's just dialogue on a blank movie screen. We can't see the characters, we can't see the movement, we can't see where we are in this moment, there's no atmosphere.
You have to make sure you balance that description and that action and that dialogue and any other narration that you might have going on. If you just have one element for any duration of time, you are cheating as a writer, you need to make sure you're balancing it. Because really, that weaving of all of those different story elements is what makes a story come alive and be so vivid in a reader's imagination.
Joanna: And you can almost see that on a page, can't you, because dialogue is often a shorter sentence and if you see a page that is dense text, as a novel, then something is possibly wrong.
Kris: Exactly. We live in a moment where we don't all have so many hours per day to spend on a book, we live in a fast-paced world. So, if you have this one beautiful page that is one entire paragraph of prose, it might be gorgeous but readers just simply don't have the attention span for it, you need to mix it up and just make it all come alive for someone.
What I like to tell people is to look at any given 10 pages of your book. And when I say, ‘Look at your 10 pages,' I am actually going to say, ‘don't look at your first 10 pages,' because you know what you edit the heck out of? You edit the heck out of your first 10 pages because that's where you always get so excited about the editing process.
Choose 10 pages in the absolute middle of your manuscript and look at those 10 pages and grab one highlighter for every time there's dialogue, grab one highlighter for a different color for every time there's description, one for action or some sort of actual movement, and one for kind of the calmer narration or background or thinking, or whatever else is going on there, and highlight 10 pages.
And you can do this on the screen, you don't have to waste paper, or you can be someone who prints it out if that's what works for you.
Examine your writing because then you will notice, just in the middle of your story when you're not aware of what you happen to be doing, that you probably favor one over the others. Or maybe you're missing one story element completely that you need to integrate a little bit better. It's a really great exercise for anybody, no matter where they happen to be in the writing career.
Joanna: Absolutely. And you mentioned action there. I think sometimes people think action means like a fight scene, but with dialogue, often it's not, ‘Hello, Morgan said,' it's, ‘Morgan entered the room,' and, ‘hello,' or, ‘hello, Morgan entered the room,' or some kind of movement as well, instead of dialogue tags. What are your thoughts on that?
Kris: Right. I challenge, again, I have so many challenges that I like to give people when it comes to their writing, when it comes to dialogue tags, I like to challenge people to, ‘How many can you cut but still have an entire idea of what is going on in a scene?'
If you took away every single he-said she-said on the page, how could you still convey who is speaking and how they're speaking and the emotions of that moment? And the answer of course, hint, is not to add their names into dialogue because that's another faux pas that happens in early writers is that they have characters talking to each other and, ‘Joanna,' they are talking about something and, ‘Joanna, did you know this?' and, ‘oh my goodness, Joanna, I just thought of this other idea. Oh my goodness.'
It's hilarious and it's one of those things that we don't realize we do it. And every early writer does do it because they realize, ‘Hey, I'm going to make this conversation more realistic.' And people use names but they don't use names as frequently as sometimes appear on the page.
But what I like to do to challenge people to get rid of those dialog tags is to think about, ‘Okay, what's going on in this moment?' Maybe, as they are having this conversation, they are cooking together and, as they're doing that, Joanna picked up the ladle. And then, Chris pulled the Parmesan cheese out of the refrigerator.
You can just have little actions, it doesn't have to be a sword fight or fists being thrown to have action that can complement the dialogue, to give your readers a hint of who is speaking and the mood of the room. And again, this is a great place to think about description because description is not just, ‘The walls were yellow and the floor had a carpet,' this is where you can kind of evoke what would a character notice.
If this person is in a really depressed mood, they're going to start noticing some really depressing things about the room. The fact that that switch is broken, and it has broken for 10 years, and she'll think about that later, whatever it is, that's hideous writing, but you get the idea. Think about what you're describing and how that description actually helps the scene itself.
Joanna: It's funny because I think we also have default movement or actions. A lot of my characters, I'll be reading, “Finn nodded,” and then someone else nodded, and then someone else nodded. And there's a lot of nodding goes on and you have to go back and change out some of these actions for some other things.
Kris: Oh, absolutely. And this goes back to that, again, I am the person who has the spreadsheet of my overused words. And that's why I always tell my clients that they need to go back to, ‘Look up in your manuscript, using the find function on whatever word processor you're using, look for the word ‘Smile.”
And then, when I say, ‘Look for it,' I also tell them to look for S-M-I-L, and that's not because I don't know how to spell the word smile but, if you use just S-M-I-L, it'll catch every use of ‘smile,' ‘smiled,' ‘smiling,' ‘smiles,' any version of that. But I tell people, ‘Look for ‘Smile,” because sometimes we don't realize it but our characters are almost maniacally smiling through our manuscripts.
Joanna: They totally are, all grinning.
Kris: There are so many ways to show happy and contentedness and love and passion besides smiling. And the same thing with smiling, turning, gesturing, nodding, sighing…oh my goodness, people wink more in manuscripts than they do in real life, I swear.
Joanna: I don't even wink in real life, it's not something I would do. I don't think I ever put ‘Winks' in my novels.
Kris: It's amazing how many early writers I work with have characters who wink, and it's often multiple characters who wink. And again, not that many people wink in real life so you have to be thoughtful with your winking.
Joanna: And look, we're having a laugh, everybody listening, we're having a laugh. And if you feel like you do one of these things, we're not laughing at you, I'm laughing because I know I've done all of these things.
Kris: I do it.
Joanna: And it's like, ‘Oh my goodness,' when you go through this, you realize how many things you do. And it does take time to recognize this in yourself, so don't worry, people, if you're not aware.
That's the other thing. When you're new, you might not even be aware of some of these things over time. But another thing I wanted to mention was sentence variation. I've become very very sensitive to audio narration and when it's a repeated rhythm of a sentence. The same number of syllables or similar sounds, then I really notice it because I listen to so much audio now.
So, in this edit, I'm making sure my sentences have variation. I guess that might be slightly advanced because a lot of people don't write for audio.
Kris: It's a very valid point. It's true, whether you're thinking about audiobooks or not, but just think about your go-to phrasing. Some people just have this poetic soul and they just write these sentences that go and go and go. But if your entire manuscript is made up of these sentences that just go and go and go, they might be beautiful but they also might tire out your reader.
The same thing goes if you are a writer who loves simple sweet short staccato sentences, they are great for pacing a fight scene or any sort of action-packed moment, but it gets tiresome to read these short quick sentences all of the time.
So any writer, definitely with audio, you definitely hear it more in audio, but any manuscript, you need to vary it up, lengths of the sentences, how you are starting your sentences. Often we have little preferences that we always start with a sentence with the subject of your character name or starting with the same type of phrasing at the beginning of a sentence, we just have to closely examine our habits because, as you said, every writer is coming to this from a different place.
So many times people think, ‘Oh, it's a talented writer. He was born that way, she was born that way,' but here's the big secret. No one is born an amazing writer. Everybody has to learn. Everybody has to practice. Everybody has to put in that time.
We don't like to tell people that part, we like to think, ‘Oh, our books have come out in their brilliance, we've always written this way,' but there's a lot of work involved in becoming a great writer. So this is all of that little nitty-gritty detail work that we just need to practice and take the time to learn because no one is good at this from the start. But we can be, every single one of us can be if we try.
Joanna: I think that's the thing with some of the best-loved and well-known writers, they do things effortlessly so we think we can do that too, straight off the bat, where we've been reading for many many years so, clearly, we can write things.
This is why I think I love being a writer because I feel like with every book you can learn something new and you can try something new and investigate and you're always trying to make your storytelling better. And it's just not something that happens straight off the bat. As you say, what am I, on number 17 or something? And I'm still going on. My goodness, what am I doing with this?
Kris: It's been really funny for me because, as an editor, as I've been putting my own books out there, my first one was through a traditional publisher. And working as an editor with an editor on my own books, it was very funny because you could tell, the relationship again, and they were a little bit nervous thinking that I was going to be incredibly defensive about my punctuation or my organization of that manuscript, that was my first book which is called Get a Grip on Your Grammar.
I came into that relationship and I was like, ‘No-no-no, I love the editing process. Tear this apart, find every little nit-picky thing because relationships and readers make any project better.' You know your own project so well but any relationship, even just a beta reader or friends in the creative-writing community, can make a project so much stronger just having other eyes on it.
Joanna: Other eyes are good.
Another thing I do on this level is to try and make things more emotionally-resonant. So, often I might have…we mentioned kind of smiling or whatever and trying to evoke emotion more but also adding elements of theme, any symbolism, that level that is deeper and it might only be little touches here and there.
Kris: Depending on what type of writer you are, sometimes people get really intimidated when they are writing their first draft of their project and they want this to be deep and thoughtful and have symbolism throughout. So they just kind of sprinkle it throughout, and that is one way to do it.
Oftentimes, I like to save a lot of the heavier touches like that, or I suppose you can see the lighter touches like that, for the later editing stages. This is where you throw in those false leads to the murder mystery, this is where you've realized that one character would be a great person to cast suspicion on, this is where you would have that little moment that you realize you have this beautiful symbol that your subconscious walked through there without you even paying attention to it, then you can kind of highlight a little bit more through your entire manuscript.
A lot of that work is something that, in my opinion, comes in the editing stage. Because if you try to do it while you're writing, there's only so much you can balance in your head at any given time, even if you are someone who is a heavy outliner.
A lot of that symbolism, or false leads, or just any sort of emotional resonance or atmosphere that you add in, save it for the later moments. And that's where you really get to start thinking about how can you add tension, how can you add darkness, how can you add different levels of emotion. Just save it for a little bit later.
And again, this is where you can add details that, depending on how you describe something, you can evoke a very strong emotion or tone just in the way you describe the outside of that house. Think about how you can describe a house and make it a very optimistic moment. Think about how you can describe the exact same house but in a way that is terrifying.
It's an interesting exercise in itself, but as you finish your book and you go back to these moments and you want to kind of create whatever atmosphere you're looking for, just think about, ‘How can my description do it? And then, how can I have my characters' emotions more on the page but never using the emotion words?' That's always the challenge with those emotions.
Joanna: We've talked about lots, but any more common issues, especially for newer writers, with editing a novel? Especially some people might be fantastic at writing nonfiction, for example, and then, they start writing a novel and they realize that it's much harder than they expected.
Kris: Sometimes I feel like we fall into cliches without ever realizing we're falling into cliches and we think we're having this brilliant moment and we don't realize that, not since The Wizard of Oz, starting with a dream or having the entire thing being a dream in the end, been quite as successful as we think it is. And it's one of those things that you write this glorious moment but it was all a dream.
In the traditional publishing world, that's a red flag that you're probably not going to be getting a literary agent or publisher. I'm never going to say never by any means, but that's just one of those signs that it's a cliche ending that it was all a dream.
The same thing with starting the entire project with a dream. Be careful with that, it is overdone. So you have to be very thoughtful just to make sure that you're not accidentally starting a project, for example, with a cliche beginning.
The same thing with, if you're starting a beginning of a book or even the beginning of any given chapter, with a character waking up. That might be how they're beginning their day but that doesn't necessarily mean that's where your story should begin.
Same thing goes with chapters that, just think about how riveting it is so wake up in the morning to slide your foot into the slippers, to walk down the hall, to pour yourself a glass of orange juice, this is not the most fascinating story ever. Obviously a writer could do it really really well but just always examine where you might be falling into some cliches of…that might be where you, as a writer, entered the story but that does not necessarily mean where your final draft actually should begin.
Joanna: That's a good point actually. I think the jump-cut scene management is something that maybe people don't understand. You don't have to describe everything about a character's life, as you say, you can cut from scene to scene without having to do all of that stuff. My characters frequently have an alcoholic drink or have coffee but they rarely eat. I mean they didn't go to the toilet on the page.
Kris: Exactly, you just don't need to include everything.
Joanna: I know exactly what you mean and some people don't understand that if you watch a TV show, the jump cut is exactly what happens in a book. You can end a scene, you can end a chapter, you can put three little stars in it and jump to something else.
Kris: I always challenge writers to work on their manuscript as much as they can by themselves with that first self-edit. And before you dive into your first edit, I always say, ‘Take a break from your book.' If you just finished your manuscript, take a break from it.
If it's a day, awesome. If it can be a week, even better. If it can be a month, fantastic. Your goal is to get yourself out of writing mode because your imagination is going, you know your character so well, you know your plot and your problems and all of these details so very well. But you need to edit, not as a writer, but you need to edit as a reader. So you need to be a degree separated from your project.
Also, you need time for that project to percolate, you need to be able to take a shower and have that epiphany of that moment in Chapter 3, which you know is kind of weak, and have that answer. You just need a little bit of separation from your manuscript before you dive into your editing.
And then, to really just think about that editing phases, not to start with Sentence 1, Chapter 1, and start reading through your manuscript looking for typos. That's not where you need to begin. Think about big picture, and then the smaller picture, and then the final proofread.
And beyond the self-editing, always have eyes on your manuscript besides your own. And yes, this can be a professional editor and, as a professional editor, of course I will recommend that and I'll talk about more of where that is a really necessary piece. But even if you have friends who are readers reading your book, if you have a writing group. Awesome. Critique partners, even better.
If you have people look at your book who are really thoughtful readers, no offense to anyone's mother, but your mother might have a good tendency of giving you a pat on your back and saying, ‘I'm so proud of you. This is brilliant,' or possibly the opposite.
You have to make sure it's a reader who will give you valuable feedback, not just, ‘This is good,' or, ‘huh, that was interesting,' but someone who can read something and say, ‘you know what? There was that moment in that chapter that it was a little bit weak or that character's falling a little bit flat.' Just anyone who can give you really solid advice on something like that. If you have that person or find that writing community, there are so many amazing writing communities, whether in your local area or genre-specific that you can tap into, which is just so powerful.
And beyond, once you get some readers on your manuscript and take their consideration…and of course this is your book, you are the author. Just because somebody says something does not mean that you have to change something, you are the author and you get to make those final choices, but consider everyone's advice, consider where everybody is hung up.
Because maybe what they're telling you is something that is an issue, maybe what they're saying as the answer is not the answer that makes sense for your book. But maybe if multiple people are having the same issue on the same chapter, maybe that's time for you to re-examine it.
If you go through your own self-edit, if you go through a couple of readers, and you realize you're still hung up, that's a great place to have an editor come into the conversation. Or similarly, if you're starting to do the traditional publishing world and you're sending out queries or pitches and you're starting to get past the query stage, people really like your query letter, that first letter you might send to a literary agent or to a publisher, but once somebody gets manuscript in their hands just it's not moving past that stage, that's a great moment to work with an editor.
It's really important to notice that editors are not all doing the same thing. Just like we've been talking about different levels of editing, there are different styles of editors. You might have a developmental editor who is looking at those big picture pieces.
You might have copyeditors who are looking at, not only the micro editing but they're looking at a little bit more of the grammar and the punctuation, all of that stuff. And of course your final editor that you would have is your line editor, or your proof reader, depending on what you want to call that person, and they would do the final sweep of your project.
Do give yourself some consideration, when you're thinking about an editor, about what you actually need. In the past over 10 years of being a professional editor, I have had many many people calling me and saying, ‘I need a final proofread of my project.' And I really want that to be true but so often we think we're in that stage when we're not quite there yet.
Think about what your book needs, and then, if someone tells you that you need to have a little bit more work on some heavier pieces, don't just be defensive on that and say, ‘This is my baby, you don't understand,' pause and think on it for a moment and think, ‘okay, maybe there is something else to consider here.'
Joanna: Definitely. I have a story editor, so she's my first reader, I don't take anyone else's opinion anymore. Jen, she does my story edit, and then, I do all my own stuff, and then, I have a proofreader before publication.
I learn something new with every book, so I am a total fan of professional editors and I'm a fan of your workbook, The Novel Editing Workbook, because, having all of these things that we can check off, obviously you have to do everything, otherwise you'd always be editing and never actually publishing, but it is really useful to have that. Which is why I got the book in print, because it's good to remind yourselves of these types of things.
Kris: You can find everything I do at kris-spisak.com. But I realize that no one will ever get spelled that correctly so you could also find it all at getagriponyourgrammar.com, which is a redirect to my webpage. And there you can find the blog that really started my entire career.
I had an accidental blog that exploded and turned into an indie-published book, turned into a literary-agent deal, and then, a book traditional book deal. So, the blog that started it all is still going. I have a writing-tips blog there, I have a podcast there, I have a sign-up for my monthly newsletter of writing tips there. And I love connecting with folks, so do check it out.
Joanna: Thanks so much, Kris, that was great.
Kris: Thank you so much, Joanna.
Jun 15 2020
As writers, we use tools every day — from the laptop we write on, to the internet we research with, and the social media sites we use to reach readers. We are used to using digital tools to enhance our author life, but could we really work with artificial intelligence to push our creativity to new levels? I talk to Max Frenzel about AI in today's interview.
In the intro, Bookshop's anti-racist reading list; US bookstores support the protests [Publishers weekly]; and UK initiatives [The Bookseller], Dr. Isioma Okolo's video [Dr. Isi and Rod]; FindawayVoices launches AuthorsDirect; Join the Virtual Thrillerfest if you want to write better thrillers; US Patent Office rules that AI cannot be recognized as an inventor [BBC]; Microsoft lays off human journalists in order to use AI [The Verge]; Natural language model GPT3 released [Venture Beat]; Using AI as a creative tool, Australia won the first AI Eurovision song contest [The Verge]; Race and technology [VentureBeat];
Do you need help with marketing, publicity or advertising? Find a curated list of vetted professionals at the Reedsy marketplace, along with free training on writing, self-publishing and book marketing. Check it out at: www.TheCreativePenn.com/reedsy
Max Frenzel has a Ph.D. in physics and is now an AI researcher on computational creativity in Japan focusing on the creative applications of AI in art, design, and music, as well as how AI will shape the future of work. He's also an author and his latest co-written book is Time Off: A Practical Guide to Building Your Rest Ethic and Finding Success Without the Stress.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
You can find Max Frenzel at TimeOffBook.com and on Instagram @mffrenzel
Joanna Penn: Max Frenzel has a Ph.D. in physics and is now an AI researcher on computational creativity in Japan focusing on the creative applications of AI in art, design, and music, as well as how AI will shape the future of work. He's also an author and his latest co-written book is Time Off: A Practical Guide to Building Your Rest Ethic and Finding Success Without the Stress. Welcome, Max.
Max Frenzel: Thanks for having me. It's a huge pleasure to be on, I'm a huge fan of the show.
Joanna Penn: Thank you. I'm very excited because you know this is a favorite topic of mine.
Max Frenzel: That was actually quite a convoluted way of getting into it. I originally did my Ph.D. in quantum physics, so I did that in London many years ago. And during my Ph.D., well, I really liked research, but I realized I'm also very good at the entrepreneurial side.
Also, I just wanted to do something more applied than just really abstract math, essentially. And after I finished my PhD I thought, ‘Okay, what field can I go into where I can use my math skills and actually make some real progress on, well, real-world problems?' AI seemed like the best choice at the time and I think it still is for many people going that route.
At that time I joined a small start-up in Tokyo focusing on AI for business applications. I was doing many natural language processing on, for example, helping business analysts do a better job find insights and news. But I was getting a bit tired and also the company situation, company culture wasn't exactly aligned with what I really believed in and also what actually then eventually led to this particular book we're talking about.
At the same time, I was always interested in the creative side and I was doing art on the side, I was producing music, I'm still producing music and performing.
Eventually, for various reasons, also the company culture, I decided to quit. A friend of mine who had been doing a start-up related to AI and creativity for many, many years and he's been kind of pushing me for a long time and saying, ‘Hey, Max, don't you want to join, don't you want to join?'
At that point, I thought, ‘Okay, now is finally the time.' And I said ‘yes' to him and that's kind of how I got into the whole AI and creativity field. I've been in that for, well, really actively full-time for about a year now, but I've been slightly in and out of the field for, say, two, three years.
Joanna Penn: That's fascinating. I think it's really important to note there that you're producing and performing music, so you are being creative, you've written a book.
We'll come to the AI and creativity specifically in a minute. But, so, we're recording this in lockdown at the end of April, 2020. And the world changes very fast in AI research, but let's just kind of try and give a snapshot right now. Because ‘AI' is such a broad term, right?
Max Frenzel: Absolutely.
Max Frenzel: That's a very good question. As you said, ‘AI' is such a broad term and it's thrown around a lot. Probably the most capable term or what people usually mean when you talk about AI is machine learning or deep learning.
Essentially what that is, it's really just a fancy way of doing statistical analysis. So while it is extremely powerful, at the core of it is really just statistical analysis. Which is actually interesting if you think about it from a creative point of view because, yes, these algorithms can find insights in massive amounts of data and find interesting averages in a way, but as creatives what we're really looking for are outliers of the data.
I think that's what will still make creativity, human for a very, very long time. What AI can really do is help us in that, but we're still the curators and we're still eventually the people who decide what is art and what is not.
In terms of writing, you hear a lot in the media, but also as a researcher in the field I want to warn everyone a little bit. What you see in the media and what's actually going on are two very, very different sides of it.
There's a lot of hype and often what gets out is very pushed and polished by the marketing departments. So a lot of these things we hear about sound incredibly powerful and very nice, and, like, AI writing entire scripts of screenplays and novels even. But I'm very, very, very skeptical having worked in that field and still working in the field.
Essentially AI currently, in terms of writing, is very good at highly structured language and also a very, very short-term context. When I worked on the business side of things and really working on this AI for business analysts and looking at news data, what we found is that the more structured a language is the easier a time AI has at actually getting information out of that.
For example, legal texts are very, very easy for an AI to understand because it follows very strict patterns and has very clear rules.
When we were looking at Twitter data, on the other hand, it was basically impossible to apply the same methods. And even though you as a human might think, ‘Oh, for me a tweet is much easier to understand than a legal text,' but it's, again, this pattern spotting and this statistical analysis.
There's much fewer patterns in Twitter data, there are a lot more typos, there are a lot more variations, language changes constantly. So that's actually very, very hard for AI to do, even at such a short-range. And as we go to longer and longer ranges of text it becomes almost impossible.
And what I like to think of AI in the creative fields, it's really a tool for exploration. So I like to think of the example of Photoshop.
When Photoshop or similar graphic design tools came around, people worried that graphic designers are going to lose their jobs. But the exact opposite happened really. Those people who embraced those new tools, they could automate a lot of tedious tasks and allow themselves to explore the space of possible designs much, much faster.
And you can think of similar kind of spaces of potential in every field you're doing. So in writing, for example, you think of all the books that could be written, basically all the combinations of letters or words or whatever minimum of element you're looking at, and essentially what we're doing as writers all the time is wandering through the space of all possibilities and we're narrowing it down and trying to find, ‘Okay, what's the direction I want to take? Where do I want to go?'
I think AI can help us navigate that space much faster, but in the end it's still us deciding on the direction we want to go in and in the end deciding on what is art and what is good writing.
Actually one interesting example where I saw someone actively using AI in a more artistic side of writing, just before the whole world shut down at the beginning of March I was actually in Montréal leading this AI Art Lab organized by MUTEK Montréal.
MUTEK is one of the world's leading festivals for digital art and electronic music and they were organizing this 10-day workshop where they invited 15 international artists, and I was the technical facilitator of that workshop. And one of the artists, Lucas LaRochelle, based in Montréal, many years ago started a project he called Queering The Map.
It's essentially an interactive website where you can go and leave stories anonymously on a map, on a global map, and really just any kind of queer story, like people are sharing, ‘Oh, I had my first kiss in that place,' or just random things. Very short ones, also longer ones. He's been running that for a long time and he's become very popular in the queer community and he now has over 60,000, I think, of those submissions.
What he did with the AI was recently he trained a system on all those different submissions and had a system that could generate new ones of these. Now most of them are complete gibberish, but he just generated a lot of them, and then curated them himself and combined them with very interesting artworks, actually street view images but also regenerated by AI.
So it became these very, very surreal queer stories with these dreamy images in the background and he turned it into a live performance where one of these appears on the screen and he reads it out and he has a friend of his performing live music on top of that.
I think that's a very, very interesting example. But again, it was a lot of human curation in the process and also it's very, very short. And the shortcomings of the AI are actually very deliberate, so they're almost part of the performance. The fact that those stories that come out of it are not very realistic or that they're slightly off this kind of uncanny value where you're not sure if it's human or machine, that really lends to the artistic performance.
But I think what we see a lot with these kind of systems, a lot of them work very, very well in 70% of the cases, and that's good for a researcher. The thing that actually gets out to the public is just, ‘Okay, AI made this and now, I don't know, all offers are going to be replaced with this thing.'
But we're far, far away from actually having these more complex systems come to a level where they're commercially stable enough that they can actually replace a creative human. And I actually don't think we're going to come there any time soon.
And what we have now as AI is what we call narrow AI, so it's very, very good in very specific areas. And there we can really make use of AI and help us in those specific areas, but it's going to be up to us to make the more distant connections, find a meaning that connects all those different things and really make the final artwork, essentially, make the final writing, make the final whatever we're working on.
That's how I see the future of creativity and art in general. Now I think there's a lot of much more, well, exactly kind of narrow application where we can really use AI. I've also not been looking into this particular space, the language side of it, too much recently, so I'm just going to make some things up maybe.
I just finished editing my book and one thing I used all the time was a thesaurus. I could imagine easily a much, much smarter AI thesaurus. Because, again, it's the statistical analysis parts, you can train it on particular data sets.
For example, I could train one of my thesauruses on your particular writing. If I have a sentence and I want to change the word, I can ask it, ‘Okay, what is a statistically likely or what are other statistically likely words in that context?'
But I can also ask it, ‘Okay, what are other statistically likely words in that context in the writing of Joanna Penn?' for example. So that could be a very interesting thing where some kind of human element and this interaction with AI comes in to, again, use the AI as a tool.
I think also maybe, I don't know if someone's actually looked it up, but one area of research is keyword or keyphrase extraction from longer documents. I think in a research process this would be incredibly powerful and valuable.
As a writer, so often during your research, you have tons and tons of text to read. If you could have a system highlight in advance the key phrases, that would probably help you a lot and I think that's very, very doable and very well within reach if just someone puts some time and money behind this. Also, I guess, I think Amazon, you probably know better, but Kindle, they actually know which passages are highlighted by readers. Right, that's a thing?
Joanna Penn: Yes.
Max Frenzel: I could totally see a system trained on figuring out in your draft which passages are very likely to be highlighted by future readers. And that could then give you a sense of, ‘Okay, where can I improve?'
But maybe you probably don't want every sentence to be the highlighted one because you also need the connecting material. So, again, it's a bit of human curation in the process, but you can use AI as a tool to help you in that process. Sorry, that was a long answer.
Joanna Penn: No, it's great. I let you run there because I was writing lots of notes, but we're going to have to circle back on a few of those things. Loads of great stuff there.
I want to first come back on that queer story map because I completely agree with you, I don't think we're going to be replaced by some human-like AI that's going to do what we do. But what that guy did there was take lots of people's little stories, and then use AI to do this curation, and then create something new.
And then you also mention the AI thesaurus which could be trained, say, on the writing of Joanna Penn. This is the issue for me because, as you know, deep learning has to be trained on a data set.
Max Frenzel: Yes.
Joanna Penn: I have two different opposite views on this. Which is, one, I desperately, desperately want some of these writing AIs to be trained on a complete data set of all books because at the moment they're all trained on dead white guys writing over 100 years ago and we're not getting any of the modern voices, different voices, different genders, different races, etc. But the other side says, ‘Well, what about copyright?'
And so the question here is that guy who created the queer story map stuff, if that was turned into a book, where is the copyright for AI, for that generated work? Is it with him, is it with the person who created the AI tool? What about the people who wrote the original works?
And the same with your AI thesaurus idea, what happens if a big publisher uses their data set of books that they have licensed to train an AI? Do those authors get anything?
At the moment there's been one case, right? In China, copyright was assigned to an AI for a nonfiction journalism piece [Venture Beat, Jan 2020]
Max Frenzel: That's a very, very good question and I'm not sure if I'm going to have a good answer for it, actually.
Joanna Penn: Well, nobody does, it's just your opinion!
Max Frenzel: I think first of all what should be said is, one thing you pointed out is very, very important, very true, the way those models are trained depends extremely on the data they're trained on. And this huge bias is baked into these models because of that.
Now actually in the AI art community this is one of the big focuses which people are really trying to stress. Because as artists one of the things we always do in the art community is actually break the models on purpose. So we try and push those commercially available models sometimes or models we trained and made ourselves, but then try and put them to their breaking point or beyond.
That's where the interesting art happens. A lot of this is really focused on this bias issue and really just making it so extreme that everyone becomes aware of it and also just making art in the process.
Now the copyright issue, that's much, much more tricky. I don't know. Like a traditional thesaurus, someone put that together, as well, right? And they were inspired by some writing before them. They looked at traditional texts to come up with that. I don't know how it's actually done in practice, but I'm sure there is this kind of process happening somehow.
So I don't know how you could argue that a system that is trained on exactly the same kinds of texts should suddenly have different copyright issues then. I mean ultimately this language is out there in the public domain, I'd say, because it's not…
Joanna Penn: But that's specifically the stuff… Let's take the example of the guy with the queer map where people who are alive wrote stuff and that is their copyright and he fed it into a model and created something new from that. And he might not have made any money, but if he could, he could put a book together.
And again, there is no law on this at the moment. One of my ideas is that there is some kind of blockchain management of books so that there's some kind of micropayment assigned to the books that are read into a model. So if a publisher, say, read in a million books, a million books are assigned some kind of micropayment.
And then if the model, whatever the model uses, a bit like the page read idea with the subscription services, there would be some kind of tracking that way. Because otherwise, I do see that people's work will get fed into these models. And you're right, we all feed things into our brains and we're not…I'm not giving Stephen King any money for some of the stuff my brain. But I'm a human and the amount of stuff I can read in is very small.
So I think it's this bigger picture about this is going to happen, this is happening, this is not out of copyright work, so what do we do with that? What do people in the artistic community want, do you think?
Max Frenzel: I think the boundary there is very, very difficult because everything is inspired by something else. Like if you put together a book, it's built on other books, you're reading a lot of other books, as you said. You might not be able to read as many different books, but at the same time you probably synthesize them in a much more because you don't ingest so many books, each of those actually probably influences your writing much more than, say, an AI that's trained on the works of hundreds of thousands people. Which really than just is an average of all those different things. Same with, say, painters or any graphical artists, they were inspired by other works, sometimes very, very obviously.
Now is their new work, if it's different enough, a copyright infringement? I think it's a very, very difficult topic. I know Seth Godin actually very recently talked about that on his podcast, as well. And now he's very actually anti-copyright in a way because he really believes… I'm just paraphrasing him the way I remember, so don't quote me on that.
But he believes that the copyright should just be there to actually incentivize creatives, it should not be any more restrictive than it needs to be to do that. A lot of people would still do their work if there wasn't any copyright. Those people who submitted their stories to this Queering The Map project, they would have still submitted them if they knew what would happen with them, or at least 95% of the people probably would have. Some of them might have contributed even more because they're happy to contribute to this bigger thing, what's then built on top of it.
Now I don't really know if that answers your question, but it's just some thoughts around this. But as you say, it's a very difficult issue and I think it's going to be very tricky because it's just such a sliding gray zone in between. It's very difficult.
Joanna Penn: I agree. I really think the first thing that needs to happen is that publishers need to add a clause to contracts that say, ‘We may use this in a model at some point and part of my license is that I'm licensing your book to be used in some kind of model.' Because I just think it's inevitable.
Let's move back to the keyword and key phrase extraction tool that you mentioned, which is something I've always thought, to me the book itself is metadata. And if you had a combination of your AI thesaurus plus an AI keyword extraction tool, then the AI could read in my book Desecration, for example, and it could tell from the writing where that book should fit in the ecosystem and it should aid discoverability.
At the moment we have to, when we publish, choose seven keywords and we have to choose some categories and we have to decide where the book fits in the ecosystem. But actually I think there's much more interesting stuff that could be done with this, a combination of the tools that you suggest.
Max Frenzel: That's a very good question, I haven't really thought about that. I'm sure Amazon is using the data they have through Kindle, at least to do research. I don't know if they're using it in practice yet, but Amazon has one of the largest AI research teams in the world and I am very, very sure that they are actively working on those kind of things.
One thing you mention, so one of the things where AI is extremely good at, right now even, is similarity comparisons between different types of data. For example, like the tag suggestions in photos on Facebook, very accurate. And that's really just similarity comparisons of images, ‘Hey, I know this face, I think this face is the same, so I suggest you tag that person.'
In some of my work before I was doing similar things with texts, so we used, for example, a news article and we could then look for similar news articles. And you could do the same with longer texts even, either by breaking them down and looking for similar paragraphs or using some slightly other techniques and doing it really at the book level.
What you said is actually very interesting because then you can look, ‘Okay, what are clusters of similar books?,' or you could say, ‘Hey, here is my draft, show me the five most similar books which are above a certain success ratio.'
So you could see what are the most similar books which have been successful in the market. And then you could learn all sorts of things through that. For example, what Amazon keywords did they use or how did their marketing campaign or whatever. I think that's a very interesting direction, but I've got no idea if anyone is actively looking into that.
Joanna Penn: I know several companies that I've talked to privately are doing this comparison of books that have similar keywords in the reviews because reviews can be pulled off Amazon itself and used textual analysis on. But I've tested some of them and I felt like, ‘Well, I could do that quicker myself in about five minutes.'
So I think it's funny because I think there's a long way to go, as well, but I've literally been saying the book is metadata for probably eight years now. And I feel quite frustrated sometimes because there's so much potential in this, and yet clearly the author and book community is just not financially as viable as…and/or, let's say, as important as things like medical research. So fair enough.
Max Frenzel: Well, I guess it also depends who are the players in the field who are interested in that. I think the only one who could actually do it and has the data and the money to put behind it would probably be Amazon.
Joanna Penn: Exactly.
Max Frenzel: If anyone is doing it, it's probably them.
One thing you mentioned is that the review analysis was based on keywords. One of the key things of more modern AI, so really deep learning and machine learning, is that we can step away from just keyword matching, that's one of the key advantages.
We really start looking at context and actually understanding the meaning of longer phrases in a way. So it's not pure keyword matching, it's actually matching of meaning. Because AI understands if I paraphrase a sentence in using completely different words, but I feed that into a well-trained model, the model will still understand that they are almost the same sentence even if they have zero word overlap.
I think that's one of the big things we're moving towards and which is quite important to distinguish between this more traditional keyword matching approach and more modern AI and deep learning.
Joanna Penn: Now, as we mentioned, we're recording this during the lockdown. My feeling is that this whole situation is going to accelerate the development of AI, particularly also with automation, robotics, because people get sick.
And also, we've seen ‘AI-powered,' in inverted commas, companies can make more money with fewer people. Now the ethics of this are a different matter.
Max Frenzel: I do agree with you that it will definitely have a positive impact on AI in the use of automation. But I actually see that as a very positive thing and I think a lot more people should see it the same way.
I think now a lot of us are forced into this forced time off, essentially. And one thing that probably becomes apparent for quite a lot of people is that a lot of the time we're just performing this busyness, so we're actually trying to compete with the machines at being busy. But no matter how much time you put into it and no matter how hard you work, you're not going to out-busy the machines.
I think people who are realizing that now and shifting their focus on the more human skills is really this connecting distant dots, focusing on creativity, and also focusing on empathy, and using the time freed up by AI tools and other automation tools to reinvest in those ideas, they will really benefit in the future. So I actually think that using these tools more will really allow us to become more human and actually do much, much greater things.
Now, as you said, there's probably a lot of ethical issues there, as well, and in the short-term, there will be a lot of disruptions. But I think it's a very good time for people to just step back and reflect where in their lives they could be easily replaced by machines, essentially where do they focus on creativity and where is it more things that can be written down and, well, explained as rules which is something that's very easy to feed into an AI.
I like to use the comparison of classical music to improvisational jazz. Classical music is very, very difficult, but it follows very clear patterns. I am actively working on AI music and in that space and most of the experiments are done on classical music just because it's very easy to figure out these patterns. It's, again, the same as the legal texts are much easier that the tweets.
Whereas improvisational jazz has such a human element and you have to constantly live with uncertainty and it's a completely different way of approaching things.
I encourage people to think in their own lives or their work where do you do the equivalent of classical music and where do you play the equivalent of improvisational jazz, and maybe focus on the latter. It doesn't mean that classical music is easy to do, it will just mean it might be less valuable as a skill in the future.
Joanna Penn: Ooh, nice. I like that. Classical versus jazz. I'm not standing here thinking, ‘Okay, what is left in my life that is'… And it's so funny though because even… So our discussion, even though you're German, you have a tiny accent, tiny, tiny. I have an English accent.
And still when I use an AI transcription for this interview, it will struggle and it does so much better with American voices. If it's two Americans, it gets it almost perfect. And a Brit and a German, it will have difficulties.
I would love to not even have to check the transcription. I feel like I shouldn't have to do that at this point, but I will have to. But that to me is ‘classical work.' It is not classical music type work in that way in your metaphor because I shouldn't have to even check the transcription at this point, but I will.
Max Frenzel: Then again, just a couple of years ago you would have still had to sit down and actually transcribe that yourself, right?
Joanna Penn: Yes.
Max Frenzel: So we've already moved a good step ahead. And probably in a couple of years, we'll be there where you can pretty much trust systems to do a good job.
Joanna Penn: Yes, exactly. You mentioned forced time off, which brings us nicely to your book, Time Off, which is really suggesting that I could achieve more by doing less, and you talk about this thing called a rest ethic. Now as a workaholic, I need your help.
Max Frenzel: Maybe actually the first part to start is actually the time off. And you said ‘by doing less,' and, yes, that is part of it, but it's not necessarily the only part of it.
When we talk about time off, we don't just mean relaxation or sitting on a beach sipping a cocktail. There's much more to time off. And you might describe yourself as a workaholic, but actually you might already be pretty good at practicing time off and have a very good rest ethic.
One of the examples in the book is Derek Sivers, writer, entrepreneur, musician, all sorts of things. And he said something along the lines that basically he optimizes life for creating and learning. And he actually says the word ‘workaholic' would apply to him, but it's all play, not work. And I think that's really the key idea.
What's important to realize and what's really the core of the book is this idea that busy does not mean productive. And it comes back to the whole AI idea, as well. Busyness is easy to automate, it's not very valuable. Often it's actually counterproductive, especially in the creative fields.
More and more what's left for us, what's useful, and what's valuable is this creative aspect. So really accepting that that busyness is not productivity is really, really a key focus.
And another key concept of the book is…we actually borrowed it from Aristotle. He had this idea of noble leisure. A lot of work can actually even fall under noble leisure. Basically it's defined as meaningful tasks. And contrary actually, a lot of what people think they do in their leisure, I don't know, sitting on their phone just scanning down their Facebook feed, is probably not noble leisure, it doesn't fill their life with meaning.
You say you're a workaholic, but I'd actually say probably a lot of the work you do is noble leisure in this way we define it.
And that's really where your rest ethic comes in. It's basically becoming conscious of how you invest your time. And, yes, we all have a work ethic and we want to get stuff done. But just like you need to complement an in-breath with an out-breath to be sustainable and healthy and balanced, you also need to complement your work ethic with a rest ethic. And especially on the creative side.
The retreating in solitude and doing reflection and those sort of things, they fall under rest ethic. And especially, I think, in times like now people are forced away from the busyness.
A lot of people are struggling for various reasons. A, probably being removed from the busyness just reveals this void in their life and this absence of meaning and meaningful leisure and hobbies that they so far just plastered over with busyness all the time. But now a lot of people are realizing that investing in meaningful tasks and meaningful hobbies is very valuable.
Also, cycling through different types of work can actually be time off. I'm sure you're not working on the same thing, I mean you've got your podcast, you've got your writing, you've got different types of writing. Sometimes you're in editing mode of one project, sometimes you're in the writing mode for some other.
Søren Kierkegaard had this idea of mental crop rotation. So every farmer knows that you should not plant the same crop every single year in the same field. And Kierkegaard essentially took the same idea to his working habits and he rotated the work he was doing so his mental soil could essentially become more fertile again.
What I really like about this analogy is if you do crop rotation right, one type of stuff you plant in your fields actually fertilizes the ground for the next crop you plant. The same really happens if you do this mental crop rotation.
If you step back from one thing to either engage in true leisure, I don't know, go for a walk, cook something, travel, or if you engage in other projects, it really fertilizes your mental ground, your mental soil for all the other things you're working on.
I know you're really into traveling. Something we're talking in the book about, as well, is this idea of the traveler's eye. When you go to a new country, everything is amazing. And even going to the supermarket is an adventure and you see these creative things everywhere and you get new ideas and inspirations from everything.
If you can keep this traveler's eye, and really time off and reflecting and taking a step back helps you preserve that even if you're not traveling, that's such a powerful thing for any creative.
It's also very closely related to watching kids at play. They have this amazing playground mentality where everything is possible. And, sure, you still need to do the serious work and actually sit down and verify all those crazy ideas, but a lot of people don't even have those silly ideas in the first place or are not willing to talk about those silly ideas or admit them.
I think all these things need this aspect of time off to nurture. It's really difficult sometimes to step away from work and just relax or guilt-free work on something else, work on a passion project. But you have to realize, and that's really where the rest ethic part comes in, that doing this does not hinder your main work, it will ultimately feed back into it and make it much, much more valuable.
In the future, I think we need to focus much, much more on quality than on quantity. Because, again, AI is going to do the quantity and automation is going to do the quantity. What's left to us is being creative and being human and focusing on human connections, understanding each other, and really doing quality work for each other.
Joanna Penn: I do walk a lot and I do sleep a lot, so I'm going to say that involves my rest ethic. But it's interesting, this morning on my walk I took my little dictation Sony thing and I did half an hour of dictation of just some things I've been thinking about.
I have to get away from my desk in order to think that big picture. So that kind of combines, like you say, that getting away, and also thinking.
And I agree with you, I think this time of pandemic has made people really face up to, ‘What am I doing?' I've got a great life and a great job, but I still feel like there's lots of things that I shouldn't be doing and things I want to change coming out of this time, which is really interesting. And the book is beautiful, it's really gorgeous.
Max Frenzel: Thank you.
Max Frenzel: The process is actually quite interesting. If you would have told me two years ago that I would be writing a book, I would have probably told you you're crazy. I never had the idea of writing really until it was really when I was doing AI research in that first start-up out of my Ph.D.
During my PhD, I had these amazing and I really am really, really grateful to my supervisors at Imperial College in London who really allowed me complete hands-off approach.
Basically I had three years to do my Ph.D., at the end, there was a thesis deadline, and what I did with the time in between was completely up to me. I could disappear to other countries for weeks on end without actually asking anyone for question…or permission.
I really made a lot of use of that freedom. I did a lot of side projects, engaged in a lot of hobbies, did a lot of traveling, started a company at the time, as well, actually. And all these different things.
And then being in that start-up, suddenly I became busier and busier and also less and less productive. And, again, it was travel, I was away from my actual work when it really hit me one day that, ‘Hey, okay, something is wrong.' I never felt less busy and at the same time, less productive.
Just to help myself understand what was actually going on I started writing and I started posting articles on Medium. And somehow people liked my writing and started writing about all sorts of other topics, including AI. And my now coauthor, he, through some random chance, saw one of my articles on AI and creativity. He then looked through my other writing, one of which, one of those articles, was about the idea of time off and everything that the book is now about. And at the time he was doing a podcast on the idea of time off.
He reached out to me and asked me if I want to be on the podcast, and from there on we slowly became friends, kept chatting. And, again, through various random coincidences, I mentioned one day by chance that maybe one day I do want to write a book. And a couple of months later I had this e-mail in my inbox, ‘Hey, do you want to write this book together?'
That's how the whole thing started. And the interesting thing is actually until today we have never met in person. I live in Tokyo, he lives in Austin, Texas, and the whole thing was remote collaboration.
I think that's, again, a really amazing kind of sign for the future of collaboration and technology can allow us to do these amazing things if we use it on our terms and if we use it right. Yes, it can be a huge distraction and completely ruin your time off. But if you use it in the right way, it can allow you to do this, well, co-authoring a book without ever meeting in person.
Actually, also, you mention the book is beautiful, and that's largely thanks to the amazing illustrator working with us on the book, as well as our amazing designer who actually makes the whole thing come together. But the illustrator's story is also very interesting.
Very early on in the process, we decided we do want to have illustrations because it's basically a bunch of deep dives on different topics, like creativity, sleep, reflection, solitude. And within those deep dives there are profiles, around 50 people, historic and present, who use these different ideas or aspects of time off and really were successful by implementing it in their own way. And because of the profiles, we thought very early on we would really like to have illustrations of those people in the book.
So both my coauthor, John, and I went on Instagram and actually just posted a story, ‘Hey, does anyone know good illustrators who might be willing to work with us on this book?' And some person that I don't know personally, she's just following me on Instagram, reached out to me, ‘Hey, there's this amazing illustrator based in Tokyo called Mariya Suzuki.'
Mariya, our illustrator, also didn't know that person, so it's really just some third person who follows both of us by chance and she connected us. And it turns out actually Mariya and I have a very close group of common friends, but it was this random stranger on the Internet that connected us.
Now Mariya is part of the core team of Time Off and doing those beautiful, beautiful illustrations and really completely shaping the brand image of the book and just making it absolutely gorgeous to look at. And, again, it was all just kind of random chance online, people coming together, that made it all happen.
Joanna Penn: Fantastic, and I love that. And I think just putting yourself out there and, as you say, asking the community, that's exactly what has led to this.
Max Frenzel: The book is going to be out on May 25, 2020 and it's going to be, well, every way you usually get your books. You can also find us online at timeoffbook.com.
And if you're more interested in my personal stuff, like from my articles to my music to my art, it's maxfrenzel.com. And I'm also on Instagram, that's more the personal stuff. Like if you're interested in me baking bread or growing mushrooms or making music, that's @mffrenzel on Instagram.
Joanna Penn: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, Max, that was great.
Max Frenzel: Thanks for having me.
Jun 08 2020
Are you ready to take your author career to the next level? In this wide-ranging interview, Mark Dawson gives tips on how to level up your books, your email list, and your advertising.
In the intro, good news on book sales from New Zealand post-lockdown [The Guardian], why Joe Rogan's podcast deal with Spotify is such a big deal [BBC], and my ad stacking approach for Map of Shadows.
Today's show is sponsored by Draft2Digital, where you can get free ebook formatting, free distribution to multiple stores, and a host of other benefits. Get your free Author Marketing Guide at www.draft2digital.com/penn
Mark Dawson is the award-winning internationally best-selling author of the John Milton Thriller Series, with over a million books sold, as well as many other books. He runs training courses for authors at Self Publishing Formula and he's also the co-host of The Self Publishing Show.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
You can find Mark Dawson at MarkJDawson.com and on Twitter @pbackwriter
Joanna: Mark Dawson is the award-winning, internationally best-selling author of the John Milton Thriller Series, with over a million books sold, as well as many other books. He runs training courses for authors at Self Publishing Formula and he's also the co-host of ‘The Self Publishing Show.' Welcome back, Mark.
Mark: Hello, Jo. Good to be back. Is this the fourth time?
Joanna: Oh, I don't even know, you're just a regular. So that was actually my first question. Let's assume it's been a year.
Mark: We could do an hour talking about what's new basically. The virus has been challenging for me as it has for everybody really. But then at the same time, because I haven't been able to write quite as much because I've got two little kids, and at least for the last two months…and it's been a bit different this week.
For the last couple of months, I've been homeschooling with my wife. So that has meant that I've been getting up about 5:00 most days and writing, or working really for a couple of hours until 7:00 or 7:30. And then that's been because I've had to go into full-time dad mode after that. So it certainly slowed down my production.
But on the other hand, well, fortunately, I had a couple of books that were already written and ready to go. So I was able to launch those, but beyond that backlist sales have been really strong.
I've commented on The Self Publishing Show about why that is chiefly because ad costs are down because most of the big budgets aren't in the field right now. There's not much point in stores advertising when the stores are closed.
And married to that is the fact that readers really want to read. So there's a lot of demand and it's easy to reach them. So my sales are probably up under 30%, 40% up I think. It's been a really strong couple of months, which is great. If there is a silver lining in all this nonsense, that has been it. So quite pleased with that.
But then beyond that, tons and tons of stuff going on, we won't be able to touch on all of it. But we had the Live show. So we just kind of snuck the live show in the week before lockdown, that was interesting. You were kind enough to come and speak there.
I don't know if I told you this. We did a survey after the event and we asked people which session they enjoyed the most. You won by a country mile.
Joanna: I am thrilled.
Mark: You can't come again!
Joanna: That is lovely. I'm really pleased about that.
Mark: That was great. As an introduction to live event planning, I don't think it could have been more bumpy because we didn't know almost until the day whether we'd be able to do it. But we did. And as far as we know, no one was ill, none of the people who came have reported that they were ill. So obviously, that was great.
And we are going to do it again, although we don't know exactly when. It will be sometime next year, probably not with the book fair next year. I'm not convinced the book fair will happen anyway next year. So we'll do it sometime probably in the summer.
Amazon is involved again, they want to be involved, and we'll probably do it for a couple of days rather than a day. So more on that as we figure it out, but we enjoyed it. So we're going to do it another time.
Joanna: Oh, good. I'm glad. And I know it's really expanding the business, live events are so much harder. But also, it's so funny, at the beginning of the whole lockdown thing, I was like, ‘Oh, yes, I think everything could go online. It's fine.' And now I'm like, ‘Seriously, I'm over this, I really want to get back to live events.' So I think there will be a hunger for it when things open up.
But I want to get into loads of topics. As ever, we don't have enough time to pick your brains. But I want to start with the question…and we're going to get into more advanced stuff. So if you're listening, we're going to cover advanced stuff in a minute.
I just want to ask one of the most common questions I still get, which is what should a new author do if they're just starting out? And of course, you and I started like over a decade ago. So it's very hard to answer this.
Mark: There are some basic things that you have to get right these days. When I started, it was possible, and I proved this because it's exactly what I did to have fairly chunky covers on your books and get those up there and then you would still sell because you were able to undercut the competition when it came to price and things like that. There was much less competition in the Kindle Store and on all the other stores as well when we started, that's definitely not the case now.
The main things I would suggest is that anyone who wants to do this in a way that's more than just a hobby or even if you just want to reach more readers, and of course that should be what we're all aiming for is to get our books in front of readers, you need to be able to hook them with a very professional product.
You do need a pro cover. Now, that doesn't mean you have to spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on a cover, but it does need to look professional. Your blurb has to be tight, you can't have typos, you need a few reviews.
The book itself, it needs to be well formatted. Fortunately, it's a lot easier to do most of those things these days than it was when we started with things like Vellum make it easy to format. But you have to do that. I think that's a minimum requirement.
And then once you have your book, your product ready to sell, every time we speak, I move more towards the position that advertising now is not really a luxury. I think it is now a necessity, you have to be able to do at least some advertising.
It could be on Amazon, it could be on Facebook, it could be on BookBub or all the other avenues that are increasingly available. But you have to do something in order to give your book the chance to rise above all the other books that it's competing with.
I think it's something like eight million books on the U.S. Kindle Store now. So most of those books are just floating around. But you need to be able to do something to get your book visible to people who are looking for that kind of book.
And although you have to pay for that, because it's not free to advertise, it doesn't have to be terribly expensive, and the options available are multiplying and becoming easier all the time.
Joanna: I agree with that. And it's funny because actually, what you've just talked about, is a checklist for people who are not just starting out as well. So in fact, if you are someone who is feeling like you're not selling enough books, then what you've talked about there, maybe it's redoing covers, maybe it's redoing blurbs.
And then as you say, advertising is a necessity. I've certainly resented this over the years, but I am fully on board with this now, I see this to be true. And we're going to come back to advertising in a minute.
I want to now jump into what I wanted to talk about, which is my own brand as J.F.Penn. I know a lot of listeners have a backlist. I have about 17 novels and novellas across a number of different series.
I want to ask you about craft first because someone said to me actually the other day, ‘Mark Dawson, he's a good marketer, a great marketer.' And I said, ‘Yes, but do you know how many books Mark has and how good his books are?' So that's why I wanted to ask you about craft because I think sometimes people forget that you write first.
Mark: I don't know. It's certainly north of 30. Maybe more than 40 now.
It's an interesting comment. The thing is, I can teach you to sell anything once. I can teach you how to sell a book to a reader the first time. But from that point, once they've got it on their device and you've been paid for it, it is then down to you as a writer.
You have to be able to give them the experience that you've promised them in your ad or your blurb, or whatever it is, and if you can't write and your book isn't any good, it doesn't matter how good your advertising is, that reader will never buy another book by you again.
I'm not going to big myself up. I am a quite good writer, I think, and I see that from emails from readers. In fact, all the time actually, the people just seeing me for the first time in lockdown saying that they've read all 16 books in the Milton series over 3 or 4 weeks.
That's great praise because there's Lee Child, there's Baldacci, there are all the other authors that are competing with me for those readers. Rather than getting the new Lee Child book, they've gone straight on to the next Milton book and then the next one and then all the 12 after that.
You need to be a decent marketer and I think I'm okay at that. But you also need to be a good writer because otherwise the marketing just goes to waste.
Joanna: Exactly. So on that, I wondered if you could talk about your writing process at this point. Because basically, at the moment, I just write whatever my muse decides I'm going to write next. I'm pretty emotional about my writing.
But what you have done over the last four or five years, particularly, is focused down into a certain niche. And so I wonder, do you outline and plot and write to market and try and please those readers?
Mark: There's two questions there, I think. So the first one is do I write to market? I don't really. I have tried that once, way back after I was traditionally published, my third book was very much written to market and it was the only time I hated writing, I really struggled to finish it, and it was terrible because of it.
The way I look at writing to market, I think I've probably said this before, is I think of a Venn diagram with, on the one hand, a circle what the readers want, on the other hand, another circle what you enjoy, and the intersection between those circles, that's your sweet spot.
That's where you should be, or certainly, as far as I'm concerned, that's where I concentrate because I know that I enjoy writing books like the Milton books, and I know that readers enjoy reading them. So that's my definition of writing to market. And that's what I do.
But then once I'm in that, and I've been in that sweet spot for ages now, when it comes to actually writing another book, usually my process these days is usually to start with a very, very loose outline. And that will begin with I have an idea, I could be out walking the dog, and something will pop into my head or it might be something like the ‘Atticus' books that we'll get onto that, I have been kind of fiddling away with for two or three years.
I will just kind of cogitate on that and think about it for a while and then I will start with maybe two or three paragraphs, setting out what the story might be in very, very broad terms. So I'm doing this right now for a new standalone book that's going to be set around the Chernobyl disaster in '86.
I have an idea for what I might do with regard to that going in a different direction from what we believe to have been the case. And then once I have that, and I'll work on it quite hard, I'll tweak it, I'll get it into a state where I'd be actually happy to send it to a publisher.
Once I have that, I'll then start to break the chapters down with one or two sentences, just explaining what I want to happen in those chapters. It's not prescriptive, and things will change. They always change often quite radically once I start writing, but it just wants to kind of plot out the beginning, the waypoints I want to hit along the story. And then usually I'll have an idea what the ending is.
And then once I have that, by the time I finished it, the one I've just done is about three or four pages long, I'll then open up Scrivener. I will look at the chapters, I'll kind of set out by way of parts and then chapters, I'll put those one sentence or two-sentence beats in.
I'll usually pick something it doesn't necessarily have to be at the start of the book, it could be some dialogue in the middle, and then I'll just start to write and then we see where we go. But that kind of structure fairly, fairly loose, but with some indications as to where I wanted to go, that's been the way I've written for probably the last five years or so.
Mark: Now and again, I do. If I'm doing a first draft, I will sometimes dictate and I have a standing desk where I am in the moment, and I will just open Dragon and start to go and I do find that's a pretty good way to get a lot of content down early on.
I aim for 2000 to 3000 words a day, but with dictation, I can do 2000 to 3000 words in an hour. So, 3 or 4 hours, you suddenly got 10,000 words. Now, they might not be great words. As someone once said that, ‘They're words, they may not be in the right order.'
I juggle that around for a little bit and then…but it's a really good way just to kind of dump the first draft down and then you can work on it on a keyboard after you've got that down.
Joanna: You mentioned the new series, new crime series, ‘Atticus Priest.' So this is a new series, new cover, new genre. It very is clearly a crime and it's a British detective, police procedural.
So why switch genres at this point? Because I've certainly found that people who like the types of thrillers that you write and to a point I write differently to you, obviously, but I struggle to get people over to a crime series. People love their genres.
Mark: I think for me, there's lots of reasons why I wanted to do that. In terms of switching genres, it's a kind of a half-step to one side. There's quite a lot of overlap between the ‘Milton' books and the ‘Atticus' books.
The difference is, well, it's all about problem-solving. Milton is like a detective. But the way that he solves his problems is slightly more uncompromising than the way that Atticus does it. Atticus is more cerebral. He's more Sherlock Holmes, whereas Milton is, I suppose, more Jack Reacher.
There are problems to be solved and that kind of stuff in both of the books. I knew that there would be a fairly decent crossover in my audience, and that has proven to be the case. So ‘Atticus' has launched really successfully.
Why do I want to do it? There's a couple of reasons, I suppose. First of all, the first one is just as a creative person, I wanted to do something to keep me fresh. I've done 16 Milton books now and although I still love doing them, it's quite nice to cleanse my palette and do something a little bit different in terms of tone and structure and pace, which Atticus allows me to do.
I'd had the idea for Atticus for about four years ago and it had been something that had been bugging me for ages and I put it off, put it off, and in the end, I decided that I was going to do it.
The reason I did decide is kind of the other reason why this has been on my mind that I wanted to do is because I've seen the success of friends like Louise Ross, LJ Ross is just a phenomenon when it comes to the success of her ‘Ryan' books.
Also writers like Barry Hutchison writing as JD Kirk has done incredibly well with the first five of his Scottish police procedural books as well. So, especially in the U.K., it's a very, very hungry and lucrative market. It's a very hot genre right now.
It just felt like the right time for me to dip my toe in there and see how that went for me as well.
Joanna: Interesting, and you've only got one out right now, is that correct?
Mark: Correct. Yes.
Joanna: It will be interesting how it goes over time and whether you get a completely different group of people than your other books, than the ‘Milton' books. So, interesting. I love that the covers are so different. I urge people to go and have a look at your profile.
Mark: Yes, hits all the tropes. I am not a creative person in that sense but Stuart Bache has been my designer forever basically now and I said to Stu, “Do something different,” and he doesn't need instruction. He's so good. He just goes away, looks at what is selling, looks at the successful books that are selling in that genre and then create something that hits all those marks.
I've never been of the school that would suggest that you need to stand out with an original cover because it can work but I think those are fairly unusual to get successful covers that go outside of the tropes. I'm very happy for the cover to tell the reader without them having to think too much what exactly what it is they're going to get. And it just makes it easier to move that mouse across to the buy button.
Joanna: Let's get into marketing, because I want to talk to you about the email list. And I think what we've discovered in the pandemic is how important that email list is for everything from launching, but also making money if you sell direct so I've certainly found this to be true.
I've been using a novella for years now, Day of the Vikings, and that's my free email sign-up. You have been using a starter pack or a starter library for years as well.
But when I went back to check on what you're currently doing, and I couldn't find the language on the sign-up page that implied which books it was, so I signed up again, sorry about that, and then I found it was 1000 Yards and Tarantula, which are both Milton novellas. Do you change up?
Mark: I had never thought of it like that. I'm not that Machiavellian, it just turned out that way.
It was originally I did four books to start with. It was two novels and two novellas. Subsequent to that, I've decided to slim that down so it's a couple of novellas. And also, I have different offers for different books so you would have come in off the website which offers that particular bonus for people to sign up and it's worked really well and I don't see any reason to change that, it's always been successful.
For The Cleaner, the first Milton book, I did some experimentation with it, an epilogue.
We had Lucy Score on our podcast a while ago, she used an exclusive epilogue, which is not necessary. You're not shortchanging the reader because it doesn't have anything incredibly important to the plot of the book that they've just finished. But it's a chance to meet those characters again in the future.
And she went from some…I may get this slightly wrong, but she went from somewhere like 5000 subscribers to 50,000 subscribers in 6 months using that as a giveaway.
Now, if you think about that, it's not a novella. It's much shorter than that, you could probably write an epilogue in an afternoon, 1000 words, 2000 words, whatever, and then you treat it professionally, get it edited, maybe even get a little cover to put on it as well, and then try that.
If you think about the reader as they get to the end of your book, if they've got to the end and you can be fairly confident that they have enjoyed the read, and they're feeling quite well disposed towards you as an author and also more importantly, perhaps, to your characters in your story that they've just enjoyed. So you want to offer them something that is really, really tempting.
Now, it could be another story with that character. Or it could be another story that you have written as that author, or it could be something that is connected to the characters and the story, which is what the epilogue is.
So I've done that for a bit. It hasn't been as successful as Lucy. Lucy's doing that better than me, but it certainly added maybe 1000 new subscribers in a month or two, just with that tactic. So it's definitely worth trying something like that.
Joanna: I wrote Day of the Vikings to tie together two of my series, but what I realize now is that the word Vikings can split the crowd. So I'm thinking of changing that.
The trouble is every bloomin' book has it in so I'm going to have to update a lot of stuff, which is a pain, so I was really interested in your starter pack language, which a lot have other authors and are using so you're not going to be offended if people use that?
Mark: No, no, of course not.
Joanna: Everyone does it. Exactly.
Mark: I'll tell you what I would do on that. For the ‘Milton' books, if it's the first in the series, though I don't really want to give them ‘Atticus' at that point. They've just read a ‘Milton' book, there are 16 other books, and I make a lot of money if they go through and read all 16.
So my aim at that point would be to give them something ‘Milton'-related, so I wouldn't want to muddy the waters too much.
Now, say they get to book 16, by that stage, I know they're almost certainly on my mailing list by that point and they don't need any persuasion that they're going to enjoy ‘Milton,' they've just got to the 16th but they probably haven't just read the 16th without reading anything else.
So at that stage, what might be worth trying is actually to cross-sell them the ‘Atticus' series. So I could say, add that…maybe once they're a few books in, that might be the point to say that, ‘Would you like to try ‘Atticus,' which is the same writer, the same style, but a different character that I think you'll enjoy?'
At that point, I think it would be sensible to cross-sell but not before.
Joanna: I didn't know you had different sign-ups per book, which makes sense. Does that mean your autoresponder series or your email sequences, however people like to call it, are they different?
Mark: It depends what the offer is. If I've got, say, three different offers, so the two novellas that you got from the front page, the epilogue for The Cleaner, and maybe something if I had an ‘Atticus' giveaway, then that one as well, then I would have three different sequences because obviously, at the very least, the delivery emails got to be different that's providing them with what they've just signed up to get.
But it doesn't necessarily matter if, say, you're giving away the novella for the first 10 books off your website, the source doesn't matter too much. You can just put them all into that one flow.
But things would change up if you then start to introduce different offers that need different sequences. But I think for me, I've got maybe three or four different ones that run at the same time.
Joanna: That's definitely something I need to do. I was thinking about that.
[Note: You can find my tutorial on how to set up your email list here.]
Because it's funny, isn't it, as you progress through your career, time just flies by and you suddenly realize that like, I've realized I've had the same offer for a number of years and when I first introduced it, yeah, my list went from 4000 to 15,000 or whatever, quite quickly.
And then I don't know whether it gets stagnant or it just doesn't have the same effect anymore. Probably around then you started offering starter packs, and then everyone started offering more books.
I think the epilogue idea is a great idea. And for nonfiction, just so people listening, I still use my free Author Blueprint. And you have free stuff on Self-Publishing Formula as well, don't you?
Mark: We do.
Joanna: I just urge people actually, look, none of us have any issues with people signing up to our lists, and you're welcome to unsubscribe later on. But just to see what other people are doing, that's fine, isn't it?
Mark: Yes, it's not just fine. It's really good advice. And I do that all the time. I subscribed to Lucy Score's email because I want to see what she was doing. And I'll do that all the time. If I see an interesting author who suddenly is doing something that I think is quite cool, then I will sign-up, I'll subscribe.
I'll look at what they do and I'll try and work out a tweak that maybe will improve it a little bit for me, or make it something that is more natural for me to do. So you can always learn. I'm learning all the time from everybody.
Joanna: That's another question I have because I'm also learning all the time like you and I end up with lots of notes everywhere and I've tried Evernote, just doesn't work for me. I've started a, kind of, massive Scrivener file with everything.
Mark: I have an eidetic memory. No, I don't!
I use Trello actually. So we have Trello and now and again, we'll use it for projects at SPF. I'll have a Trello board with, in theory, these should work. You have things to do that day or morning or even like kind of the five things you want to do that day then if you get through those five things, things to do in the afternoon, maybe things to do in the evening, maybe things to do next week.
I'll slide those things around and do it that way because I'll have ideas when I'm walking the dog. That's always been the place I get my best ideas. And I'll just take the phone out and open Trello up and just note down, ‘I want to…' Maybe I will listen to your podcast and you've said something that makes you think, ‘Yep, I need to do that.'
And I'll then note down on Trello and I'll get to it when I get back to the office. It also, of course, really depends. Evernote's never worked for me. Trello works quite well.
Joanna: Exactly. And people listening, you just have to find your own way. There's certainly no single tool that works for everyone.
Let's get into advertising. Because I publish wide, as you know, many authors do. And I've had a lot more positive things happening with BookBub ads recently.
But coming back to Amazon ads for fiction, because again, nonfiction, Amazon ads are great, they're fine because it's easy. But with fiction, I feel like with wide ebooks, we're competing against KU authors. And it's extremely hard because KU readers are so used to basically getting books for free, that you might have a price of $6.99 on a book, but they don't have to pay $6.99.
Whereas if I have a $6.99 price, they would have to pay $6.99. So it's really hard to compete if you're wide on amazon.com particularly.
Mark: It is more difficult. It's not for the reasons I think you suspect. You've got to look at Amazon and think about it always as two different stores.
You've got people who are not in KU and people who are in KU. Or you can even go further you could say people who are in KU or in Prime Reading if your books in Prime Reading, or people who only buy a la carte, they only buy that $6.99 as you say.
Now, the good news is both of those stores are gigantic. So the paid store is huge, KU is bigger than all of the other stores combined. So there are two very, very big and distinct marketplaces on Amazon.
And the benefit if you are in KU is if you're running ads on Amazon, you're effectively getting twice as much bang for your buck. Because I can either sell a book to someone who only buys because they're not in a subscription program, or I can get those reads from people who see it and want to read it by way of their subscription.
For me, therefore, my budget can be a little higher than would be the case if I only had half of that market to go after. But that half of the market, the a la carte side is gigantic. And yet people are still buying thousands and thousands and thousands of books every day through that part of the Amazon ecosystem.
I think it's still necessary to advertise on Amazon, and increasingly so, but you just need to be a little bit more savvy when it comes to the amount that you're prepared to bid, making sure that your ads are super relevant so that you have a better chance of winning the auction. Making sure that if you get a copy that it's on-point, that your covers are good, that the ads are professional, the whole thing looks great.
And then when people click and they go to your detail page where your book is being sold, then there's no reason there for them to decide that actually they don't want to buy the book that they've just clicked on.
There'll be authors in all of our genres…I know in my genre, L.T. Ryan from the U.S., is spending an enormous amount of money because he's everywhere.
Joanna: I've seen those ads.
Mark: There are a few authors who do that and they're spending tens of thousands of dollars every month on those ads. Now I probably could compete with them if I wanted to, and I'm still spending a lot on those ads, but I would rather be slightly more sniper than…that's kind of a blunderbuss approach. He's everywhere and not necessarily being particularly granular in how he's targeting his ads.
I'm sure that's working for him because he's selling a lot of books, and therefore he's spending a lot. But I think you don't need to have that enormous budget, you can be much more granular and targeted, and just try to get those very relevant clicks rather than trying to get everyone to click and then not necessarily buy when they get to the detail page.
Joanna: We'll come to read-through in a minute, but with doing, say, Amazon Canada, Amazon Australia, Apple has been working very well with things like BookBub ads are actually pretty good. And as you said, the ad spend has been down.
I was doing some more Facebook ads for fiction, which I haven't done for a while. And that seemed to go quite well too. I feel like a lot of KU authors are just spending all their ad money on Amazon.
Mark: They probably are and I'm not like that. But I'm probably on Facebook and Amazon around about 50/50 most of the time, and that will fluctuate depending on what I'm trying to do.
But yes, if you're a wide author, in some ways, you have advantages that I don't have. So you can get cheap clicks, looking for Kobo readers in Canada where Kobo is a really big player, bigger than Amazon. And because there's less attention on those readers, you might find your ad cost is cheaper.
For me, I'm doing a lot of Facebook ads to Germany right now because Germany is a market that is pretty hot. I've got six books out there right now and those ads are cheap. They're converting well, and I'm doing well in that market.
And that could be the case, you could be looking at Australia, you could go for Australian readers who buy on Apple, Australian readers who buy on Kobo or Amazon, wherever you want, really. So you have a much wider array of targets to go after. Whereas I can be geographically varied but not really in terms of storefront because I don't have books on the other players right now.
Joanna: I did want to ask about price again because free first in series is still great on Kobo and Apple, particularly because they're really easy to promote. And there are still opportunities for marketing and merchandising with that, but it's difficult on Amazon.
What I found is that read-through, which you talk about a lot in terms of spend is really hard to calculate with a free first in series on Amazon. Lindsay Broker, for example, still uses free first in series as well.
Mark: That's very difficult because you're not comparing apples with apples. You've got lots of people who are downloading something sometimes because they see an offer, they download it, they may never read it, they may never read the book and then there will be no read-through because they don't get to the end of that book and they don't go into the next book.
There probably is a mathematical formula you could use to try and estimate what the read-through is but I'm not nearly clever enough to work that out.
Joanna: Nor me.
Mark: There are probably people that could help with that. But what I would do is probably think about starting your read-through from book two. You will know what the sales of book two are and then you can calculate using the method that everyone is using, calculate the read-through from book two to book three, and it almost kind of forgets book one because it's not a fair comparison.
Although you can start from book two, you could be fairly confident that there's a bit of value that you're not including through book one. So you're probably going to be underplaying what your read-through is, rather than and overstating it, which is the safer way to do it in any event.
Joanna: That's interesting. And then, I'm really thinking about pricing. Again, pricing is something that I just decided on like a decade ago and now I'm really questioning things. So at the moment, I go from a free book one to a $4.99 book two, and the rest of my full length are $4.99, and novellas are $2.99 U.S.
Have people changed these prices? Now, I've heard from some people that $3.99 is a better price, that 99 cents is entirely pointless.
Mark: I think 99 cents is a bit pointless because it's not free. There is this friction in the event that there is something to pay and you're only getting 35% of that. So for 33 cents or whatever it is you get, it's almost not worth it.
So I would say either go free or what I do is in all the markets, my first book will be available at the lowest I can get the 70% so $2.99 or $1.99, in the U.S., the U.K. The next book, book two in the ‘Milton' series is $3.99 and $2.99. And then every other book after that, I think, is $5.99 in the U.S., $4.99 in the U.K.
I've been like that for a good couple of years and it's performing pretty well. I suspect I could probably add a dollar or a pound on to all of those prices and maybe sell a little less, but probably make more because you're getting a bit more money.
It's easy to test that, but I'm quite happy at the moment to be at that level, $4.99, $5.99. People, they're struggling with lots of things right now, and I don't really feel like it's the right time to be pushing prices up. I'm quite happy to stick around that point.
Joanna: That's great. And everyone listening, I really hope that you can tell from our conversation that you don't stop where you are. You're always changing things and trying things out and what Mark's been talking about is exactly right.
I'm really thinking about this stuff after over a decade of doing this, I'm like, ‘Okay, I really need to revisit it.' So this has been super helpful. Another really helpful thing, in a segue, is that we have a webinar coming up. We've done lots of webinars over the years, and they've all been great.
Mark: This is going to be a very, very good one. The Ads for Authors course is one of the courses that we do at SPF. And we've had guest presenters on before doing bits and bobs, so I might not be as good as they are at doing.
And the two main parts of the course, we've got Facebook ads and Amazon ads, and I've done both of those until this next launch. And the person that I've got to do the Amazon ads section is a person called Janet Margot, who I've known for probably about seven years now.
Janet has for the length of that has been in charge of Amazon. She's an Amazonian, she works for Amazon, works in a different part of the business now, but until very recently, she ran the Amazon ads program for authors. So I've met her in Seattle, we've had lots of phone calls, she's given me lots of tips over the years, there is really no one who knows more about this than she does.
We managed to get her to present this new course in the Ads for Authors program. And it's really big, it's 18 modules, it's very detailed. I'll still be doing a bit in things like keyword research and monitoring and things that I'm pretty good at, but Janet will do most of it.
And we've got Janet on the webinar. She will be giving us six secrets and six tips that will enable us to improve our ads. I've seen her slides and I've already learned some stuff that I didn't know. So it's going to be great.
You'll be on the call. I will do a little bit. Janet will do most, and then at the end, we'll have a Q&A where you can ask Janet about Amazon ads, you can ask me about Facebook ads, and we'll all get drunk together. It will be great.
Joanna: I'm really excited about this. We're all learning all the time but things are changing all the time. So I will be literally introducing you guys and then letting it run.
For people listening, you can sign up at TheCreativePenn.com/11june. So 11 June, and links in the show notes as ever.
So that's been great, Mark.
Mark: If you're interested in coming, people who are listening, do sign up quickly. We have 1000 capacity on our GoToWebinar account and we advertise this to the SPF crowd and we had over 3,500 people signing up within the first 24 hours. So it will be full, I'm very confident, and we want to give you tons of value.
So do sign up and then also on the day, make sure you get there about 10 minutes early to make sure that you are actually in the room when we start.
So with that, yeah, if you want to find out about the fiction, my writing, you can get me at markjdawson.com. If you're interested in the SPF side of things, the podcast, the courses, you can find us at selfpublishingformula.com.
Joanna: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, Mark. That was great.
Mark: Pleasure, as always.
Jun 01 2020
How can you create characters with unique and interesting flaws that lead into plots that will enliven your stories? In today's interview, Will Storr explains the science of storytelling.
In the intro, German booksellers and the challenges of re-opening [The Bookseller], Facebook launches Shops meaning more opportunities for direct sales [The Verge], Facebook Live replay on writing and publishing QA, plus the most useful tools for authors.
Today's show is sponsored by IngramSpark, who I use to print and distribute my print-on-demand books to 39,000 retailers including independent bookstores, schools and universities, libraries and more. It's your content – do more with it through IngramSpark.com.
Will Storr is an award-winning writer, the author of five critically acclaimed novels, a prize-winning journalist, an in-demand ghostwriter of bestselling books, and an international speaker on storytelling. Today, we're talking about his fantastic book, The Science of Storytelling.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
Joanna: Will Storr is an award-winning writer, the author of five critically acclaimed novels, a prize-winning journalist, an in-demand ghostwriter of bestselling books, and an international speaker on storytelling. Today, we're talking about his fantastic book, The Science of Storytelling. Welcome, Will.
Will: Thanks for having me.
Joanna: It's great. And I have your book here in hardback on my desk. I also have the audiobook, it's that good.
Will: Amazing, double, fantastic.
Will: I always wanted to be a writer, I don't ever really know where it came from in my family, but even when I was a kid, I was trying to write a novel when I was like eight years old. And then I came in kind of via journalism, so I kinda came in that way.
Will: I suppose I became a journalist because I didn't know what else to do. I think I started writing novels quite young and I didn't really understand how they worked so I kind of gave up. And then I failed my exams at school and then I left school, I didn't go to university and I worked in a local record shop.
I began a local magazine, a music magazine. And then I started interviewing bands and that turned into a job as a magazine journalist and then I moved into newspapers. And then I did write a novel, I took about four or five years writing a novel.
And that's when my interest in the kind of secrets of storytelling in a way comes from because I fell for that rubbish that people say that you ask authors how do you write? And they go oh, the muse just descends and it just flows out of my genius fingertips onto the page. And I just don't believe that, I don't believe it's true.
After I published my novel, I was moving on the stage at a literary festival and somebody asked that question to all the authors and I was the only one that they all said, ‘Oh the characters fill me up and then they just take me on these journeys.' And I find that really hard to believe unless these people they've read so many millions of books that they just sort of writing that they've got learned by osmosis. I didn't really make it work until I'd actually learned some craft.
Joanna: It's funny you say that. I also know writers who swear they just take dictation. So, they sit down and their characters just take over. I'm also not like that, I'm like you.
Will: I think a lot of those people say they are these people that can often, and not always, but they tend to be these people that can somehow read three novels in a week. And they're absolutely voracious readers napping all their lives. And I think that they're still writing using kind of craft as a foundation but they just don't realize they're doing it because it's like driving a car, it becomes automatic, you just learn this stuff and you start behaving in that way without thinking.
Either that or they're writing extremely high-end literary novels that just don't have a plan, don't need a plan, don't require a plan.
Joanna: I think being mindful of the story process is so important. Let's get into the book and I've pulled out some quotes which I've underlined so much, it's brilliant.
First of all, “cause and effect is a fundamental of how we understand the world.” And, I underlined that because even though we know that it's something that's so important.
Will: It's one of those things cause and effect. I think it's a really interesting area.
The whole book is based around the idea that the brain is a storyteller and what writers are doing is mimicking these neuro processes. They're mimicking the way the brain creates our experience of being alive in order to kind of create a fake experience of a fake character being alive, that's essentially the idea. And cause and effect is a real fundamental about how humans experience reality.
When something happens in our environment, we attend to it, we look at it and then we ask the question of what caused that and what's going to happen next. And we do that in a way that no other animals do, even chimpanzee, very close relatives to us on the evolutionary tree.
It's really important, I think, in storytelling to have that understanding that one action from a character should trigger the next action, which triggers the next action, which triggers the next action because we think in causes and effects and what difficult writing does, is it isn't like that and then he said.
There's this, oh, and then you need to know this thing and then this thing and then this thing. And they don't really feel that connected, they're just things happening next to each other.
Then we have to work out what are the causes and effects and that's when people sometimes call that kind of stories, I think it's the hard work they say. And it is hard work, but it's hard work because you're having to do the cognitive effort of tying those things together.
And it's much more compelling storytelling takes that on board, it has characters being the causes of the effects of the narrative. It seems obvious but it's actually in practice quite hard to do.
But I think when you really think when you're writing, it's that person, okay, so this has happened, how can I make everything that happens in this chapter, for example, a product of the decisions that the characters are making and to have as few as possible incidents that happening just because they have to happen?
Everything possible should happen as a result of not only the way the characters are thinking and behaving but why is it the characters are thinking and behaving that are characteristic of who they are?
So I think that's the thing and it's being really rigorous about trying to have everything, all the events and the drama that happens being a cause of the character's character.
There's a huge opportunity for creating drama when you're working out, let's call it chapters, it's just how can I make everything that happens in that time level the drama, of how can we kind of show that being a product of the interesting damaged, flawed characters that we're trying to explore.
Joanna: Let's go into that damaged flaw there because I feel that obviously there are books where there's no damage, no flaws, just cardboard cutouts. But then there are also books where they're kind of obvious, cliche, damage and flaws.
Will: I really think that the answer to this is absolute specificity. When I'm teaching, that's the main thing I'm doing even in the week-long course is going over and over again on who is your character and how can we, before we do anything else, define their flaw with absolute precision. So it's precise.
It's not just all that because what people always say is, tell me about your character, what's their flaw? How would you describe the flaw?
And for some reason, most of them would say they're very controlling. And that's not good enough because you can be controlling in a million different ways, everyone is controlling, everyone is trying to control stuff, how are they controlling?
It's making that extra leap and that's when you get really interesting stuff and people say things like, well, how do they try and control the world? They could be over there trying to tell kind of tall stories or they are trying impress people with a kind of certain strategy.
What you're trying to get to is a flaw that's specified and precise enough that you can then imagine your character behaving in any particular situation.
So in the book, as I was writing the book, it was all during that awful Brexit stuff and there was all this chat about Theresa May. I read this profile of Theresa May when everything had gone wrong under her watch. And somebody who knew her said, Theresa May's problem is ‘she always thinks she's the only adult in every room she goes into.'
I said that is brilliant, that is exactly what we're talking about because if you define someone's flaw with that precision, they always think that they're the adult in every kind of situation they walk into.
You can take that Theresa May character and put her in any kind of genre, kind of story, any kind of literary story and you can imagine how she's going to behave. And that's what we're trying to get to.
We're trying to get to a character that just comes alive in your imagination. And as I say that really comes with that precise thinking is that the vague thinking, either an alcoholic, they're a bit sad, their mum didn't love them, none of that is good enough.
Joanna: It's a tough one because I feel like that can lead us to potentially very internal writing, whereas a lot of listeners, I certainly, I write thrillers so I do need a lot of external action as such.
Will: The action is the stuff that's going to directly cure the flaw. So if you'd know what your action is going to be, then you reverse engineer it and go, okay, so what kind of person, what kind of flaw, what problem would be solved by this action which I'm going to design?
A good example, you're right, that obviously, story setting all exists on this huge spectrum, and characters have a variety of levels of depth depending on the kinds of stories that you're going to tell. But even broad, thrillery, action-filled stories tend to revolve around a character flaw.
In ‘Jaws' for example, two million-selling book and classic film that's based around this guy, Brody and his flaw, his very simple flaw, he's scared of the water. We find out in that book and in that film that he has his absolute childhood dread of the water and to such an extent that when he gets the car ferried over to the beach community that he lives in, he stays in it, he can't even get out of his car.
So let's say he's absolutely terrified of water, he thinks if he goes anywhere near the water, he's going to die.
He's a police chief in charge of the security of a coastal town. And then crash, bang, wallop, a great white shark arrives and starts eating everybody. All of that action around that shark is specifically designed to force Brody to confront his phobia, his flaw, his fear of the water and cure it.
The whole plot is structured around that flaw. So it begins, the shark comes halfway through the midpoint, he finally gets the courage to go into the water. And then the very final scene in the film, it isn't the shark blowing up, it's Brody swimming back through the water.
And the last bit of the dialogue before it fades to black is him saying, ‘I used to be scared of the water, I can't imagine why.' So even ‘Jaws' which is all 98% action, action, action, is actually structured around a character with a character flaw.
Joanna: That is a great example. I love that example. That was fantastic.
You've got some interesting things there in terms of flaws. I'm now standing here thinking of my characters and my character flaws and one of the things I think is that research because we often tend to think about flaws that we might have ourselves and certainly the main character in my ARKANE series, she shares some of my flaws.
Will: Again, it's about that precision and it's just about looking out for stuff, like that Theresa May one, was just something I read in the newspaper and it leaped out to me. That's a really great description of a flaw, of a very specific character flaw that you could turn into any kind of character.
I was watching ‘The South Bank Show' recently was interviewing Arthur Miller and, what's his name, was asking him about the Willy Loman play ‘Death of a Salesman.' He was talking about the character and he said that his idea was that he just believes in that capitalistic success and the idea that when you die, you're going to be weighed on a scale, just like God is to weigh for sin, now you're weighed for success. And I just thought that is exactly what we're talking about.
You could take that idea that I'm absolutely obsessed with success and being weighed on that scale. You could take that and apply it to any kind of character in any kind of story because it has that level of specificity. So it's just being on the lookout for these.
Once you were on the lookout for them, be brazen about taking them because you're not stealing from Arthur Miller by taking that idea and adapting it into your own story, it's just you're not stealing from Theresa May by taking her one and putting it into one of your characters.
I think it's being on the lookout and even in your kind of personal life and your family life you can think what is it about this person that upsets me or winds me up or that they keep getting wrong? If I could really define it in a specific way, how would I define it?
Then you get a nice collection of potential characters that are encoded in these very specific ideas. And the magical thing about this, at least when I'm working through it in my workshops, is that they start off with this one or two-line sentence lines on a bit of paper but when you run these ideas through all the demands of a really gripping, relentless plot they become incredibly complex and incredibly nuanced and incredibly original.
It's this weird paradox where you start off with this quite reductive but specific idea but you end up with really complex and original characters in a way that you don't end up with complex and original characters when you start off with vague stuff about alcohol like they're an alcoholic detective inspector or whatever.
Joanna: Another one!
Will: Because where do you go with that? You can't imagine that. I could imagine an alcoholic detective inspector and lots of scenes and they're glaring and they're grumpy and that's what we get every time we watch a Scandi thriller, it's the same character, so again it's being precise.
And another thing that happens when I'm teaching is that not only a character that is quite vague alcoholic detective inspector but they begin with too many different ideas, they're this and this and they're this and they're this. And again, I think that vague thinking about character is really the enemy because it's easy to think that if I give lots of ideas to my character then that's going to add up to a complex character but actually the opposite is true weirdly.
Joanna: That's great. So coming back to drama, which you mentioned before, the dramatic question.
Will: I think this is if there is such a thing as a secret of great storytelling, I already think it's this. And it goes back to the very roots of storytelling.
In the psychological sciences, the current theory of why humans evolve language is to swap social information. We're these apes that live in these highly co-operative tribes and we've worked out how to divide labor and communicate and work as teams, and that's how we've dominated the world. But in order to do that, you need to control people.
So we evolved language in order to basically swap gossip, to tell gossipy stories about each other. And then if people came off badly in these gossipy stories they'd be punished and if they came off well they'd be celebrated and that's how we kept our tribes running. Gossip lies at the very roots of why we even speak, let alone the roots of storytelling.
If you think about storytelling, any kind of storytelling, whether it's little news piece about Meghan Markle or it's Anna Karenina or whatever, or Jaws even, there's a gossipy element to that stuff.
Even with Jaws, “He's in charge of this beach community and he's scared of water.”
The fundamental purpose of story is to work out who is this character? When the chips are down, when their back's really against the wall, who are they? Are they a good person? Are they a bad person? Are they flawed? And if they're flawed, how are they flawed? And how are they going to fix that flaw?
That's the dramatic question for me is who is this character? Who are they? It's really fundamental to great storytelling?
Because it's fundamental to gossip, which is what all storytelling kind of leans towards. And I think that's why I like to start off with that idea of that flaw because then the dramatic question gets turned into not just are they a good person or are they're a bad person, but what is their flaw and are they going to fix it?
Every single dramatic, really dramatic scene in Jaws is asking that dramatic question of Brody, saying, is he going to be the old Brody who's scared of water? And sometimes he is, he's terrified, he regrets going down to sea, he panics. Or is he going to be big enough to overcome that flaw and destroy that shark?
The most dramatic scenes in Jaws are the ones that are specifically asking that dramatic question, who is he? Is he old Brody or new Brody? Good or bad? Weak or strong?
So it's that really and they come to an understanding that that's the real gold of storytelling, that's what I think that we're really moved and entertained in a really profound way that kind of pure action often doesn't get to.
Joanna: You gave a really good example of Lawrence of Arabia in the book which even if people haven't seen, I think everyone now has that picture in their head of him in his outfit.
Will: Lawrence of Arabia is a really good example of, say, if you've not seen the film or you've not seen it for a while, it's a three-hour film but in my class, I've actually edited it down to a 60-minute version, which just focuses on that dramatic question.
What happens at the beginning of Lawrence of Arabia is you meet this very naive, fey, cocky, arrogant, young soldier who's showing off, putting a match out with his fingertips and refusing to salute to his sergeant major, or whoever it is and being sarcastic.
You get the sense of this flaw which is somebody who really believes that he's this cocky rebel and he thinks he's better than everybody else because he's got this rebelliousness. So that's fine, that's his flawed character.
But then what happens is you take that flawed character, that character that believes that my rebelliousness makes me superior, makes me extraordinary and you put them in a war situation. And that is a situation that's perfectly designed to test that idea.
That's what you see in Lawrence of Arabia in it's most gripping, iconic scenes are asking that dramatic question.
And that dramatic question in this context is, who are you, Lawrence? Are you ordinary or are you extraordinary? And sometimes in the film he believes he's extraordinary when he kind of singlehandedly leads the Arabs into battle against the Kurds and he's hailed as this God, he believes that he's extraordinary and it feeds that flawed idea and he becomes monstrous in his idea that he's extraordinary.
But then other things happen, like he's forced to kill somebody, he loses somebody down in some quicksand. And then he realizes that I'm actually just ordinary, and he tries to quit the army and then the army will go, no, no, you can't quit, you're extraordinary, and he goes, actually, you're right, I'm extraordinary.
And then what you see if you look at it in terms of these fundamentals is that Lawrence of Arabia basically the whole plot is asking that question. It's all revolving around that simple, dramatic question, are you ordinary or are you extraordinary?
Because it's a tragedy, he doesn't overcome his flaw, he just believes he's more and more extraordinary until he becomes a monster. He becomes this homicidal maniac and the film towards the end, we see a very iconic scene where he lifts the bloody dagger and he looks at his reflection in it with kind of horror as if he saying what have I become?
Joanna: I think my feeling with the book and what you're talking about with characters is that a lot of writers can come up with a plot and come up with characters to put in a plot. But what you're talking about is to tie the two together.
So Lawrence of Arabia and Jaws as you say, have both got a lot of action. They've got fight scenes and creatures and death going on but they are, as you say, at heart, they're about character. I think those examples are really good at linking the two together.
Will: And I think that's the number one thing.
And I think that's a really fundamental problem. You even see that problem expressed in the big movies that get made and books that get published, things that pass the bar in that way.
I think that's a real shame because a story should be like life and in life, the stories of our lives, of course, intimately that they're not just connected to who we are as characters, there are a product of who we are as characters. So you can see the goals of our lives are the plots of our lives, and the obstacles that we overcome in order to try and achieve those goals are our stories, they are our narratives.
But our goals and our obstacles are very often a product of who we are. The things that we want in our life, the things that we dream of achieving are a product of who we are.
The obstacles that we encounter in our day to day lives tend to be the same problems over and over again because they're problems that stem from our personalities, from things we get wrong in the social world. So a plot is a product of character, plot comes out of character and plot tells us who the character is.
One of the ways that I like to think about it is that your plot is designed specifically to plot against your character. So you've got this character with this particular flaw, in the most simple sense, Brody, who's scared of water. And the plot is there to connect absolutely with that flaw and test it and test it and test it and keep testing it until they either change, they transform or they, like Lawrence of Arabia don't change actually, so double down on their flaw and just get worse and worse and worse and worse until they explode.
Joanna: I love this idea, but I feel that it works for a standalone or in the film sense a film rather than say a TV show. I'm going to write book 11 in a series scene and series characters, I mean take Lee Child's Jack Reacher, for example, or James Bond, they have flaws but they can't be resolved at the end of the episode or the end of the book because there has to be another book. And those are actually the best selling stuff out there are the series.
Will: You just don't cure them. So I think go really, really, really back to brass tacks. The way I think of it is, what is a story? What are the minimal conditions to have a story?
For me, it's two things. You've got an external event, something that happens in the external world, but it happens to somebody and it changes them in some way, but it doesn't have to change them in a transformational way like you get in an archetypal kind of hero story. It might just change the way they see the world, it might just change the mood they're in.
If you take a Raymond Carver short story or Kafka short story, that's all that happens often, is that something happens to a flawed character and it changes their perspective in a certain way. And it's said in this almost undefined way that's kind of slightly moving.
Episodic TV is no different. If you think about a show like ‘The Archers' which has been going for 60 years, they say it's the longest-running kind of episodic story in the world. What happens in a show like “The Archers' in like a soap opera is you've got these flawed characters and the story events keep happening at them and keep being thrown at them and they keep being tested and they might change in little ways but they never really change completely. And then you just keep throwing story events at them again and again and again and that is an episodic TV show. So that's a soap opera, it's also a sitcom.
If you think about the classic sitcom characters, whether they're Fleabag or David Brent or Basil Fawlty, they don't change and actually the fact of they're not changing is a source of the comedy. But what does happen is that every episode, a new story event is turned up, a new thing is turned up and they test their flaw, exposes their flaw.
And because it's not like a 90-minute Hollywood movie or a standalone novel, they don't go through this big transformational thing but they do change, even if it's only kind of a very shallow change and not necessarily personality change, it does cause them to kind of enact their flaws in that way.
I think you're absolutely right, of course, James Bond never transforms but I don't think transformation is a prerequisite of storytelling. And as you rightly say, it would be death to episodic TV because you'd have nowhere to go.
Will: Transform them and kill it and they bring another one in. So I think one of the things that I wanted to do when I've read lots of other books about storytelling, one of my problems with them is that I felt like a lot of them are very prescriptive and they say, this is a story and this isn't a story. If you haven't got these elements that it's not a story.
I just think that's crazy, there are so many different kinds of storytelling and they're all as valid as each other.
It's all storytelling, it's story events happening to flawed characters and we enjoy seeing them react.
Joanna: That is such a great example because I swore I would never watch ‘Love Island.' And then my sister said, oh, no, you've got to watch this because I want to talk about it, this is last summer. I watched an episode and I was like, oh, my goodness, this is so addictive.
Will: It is but just as I say all storytelling is, and when ‘Big Brother' was on, I was a massive fan of ‘Big Brother.' And I think because it's storytelling.
Back in the days of Charles Dickens, he would put out these new episodes of his kind of gripping stories in the newspapers and people would be obsessed with them. ‘Big Brother' and ‘Love Island' are the modern Charles Dickens' mass-market storytelling.
As I say the producers are really smart and the editors are really smart, they cast their characters, they see that they're flawed. They edit them in such a way to kind of amplify their flaws and define them by their flaws. And then they keep throwing story events at them.
In ‘Big Brother' it's the tasks, in ‘Love Island' it's throwing in a new character to test their love, to test their commitment. So it's storytelling and you can condescend to it as much as you want but it's incredibly successful storytelling.
It's storytelling that grips literally millions of people every year and they turn it around in a day, every day there's a new hour. So I really take my hats off to those people.
And I honestly, for me, there's no kind of enormous binary categorical difference between what ‘Love Island' doing and what novelists are doing, it's all story events happening to flawed characters.
Joanna: Do you think the publishing industry is able to keep up with the way that TV and films and social media are changing the way we expect storytelling? Because it does seem to be much faster now.
Will: I think it is faster, I think people are far less patient. Especially post-internet, they need to be gripped straight away and that's really hard. You've only got to go back and read I mentioned Charles Dickens, that was the ‘Love Island' of its day, but now it feels so slow that you're reading and you go you know what? Come on, stop describing this man's beard, come on, so I think we're all a bit guilty of it. I think people are really story-hungry these days, they want stuff to happen straight away.
And it's into that slightly frustrating thing that happens on television especially in documentaries where you turn on a TV show and they spend the first five minutes telling you everything's going to happen and then they start. And it's like, ah, I don't know either because they're so worried about you. They're so concerned about telling you don't worry, stuff's going to happen, that they kind of give away all the entire sequence of events before the opening credits have come.
I think it is very real that people are becoming far more demanding in terms of story, but it just means storytellers have to kind of up their game really. And I think novelists especially literary novelists, are the ones that are becoming kind of most exposed by that because I think that there's a certain amount of self-indulgence in very literary storytelling, spending six pages describing the interior of somebody's wardrobe or something like this. And I think that you're going to get away with that kind of stuff kind of less and less and less.
Joanna: Although that's a great example because on the other hand, you've got Instagram stories where people are showing what's on their bookshelf or what's in their wardrobe.
Will: It's gossip. We're highly social animals, so we're always interested in what is going on other people's heads. What is going on other people's closets? What are they like?
It's that dramatic question. Who is this person and who are they really? Because even though they're trying to present as but who are they really? That's what we're really interested in when we're looking at stories on Instagram.
The person showing us their wardrobe might think they're presenting in one way but generally, there is going to be a much more complex narrative going on in our heads as we're thinking, ‘Oh, what do they think they're doing?'
And so the judgment is often not what the presenter is expecting because we're curious and we want to see the whole picture rather than the one that's being presented. And again that's also storytelling. That character at the beginning presents in a certain way and by the end of the story, we got to know them a whole lot better.
And your novel which I started reading actually last night, well one of them, The Hunger and the Howling of Killian Lone.
The reason I downloaded it, it's described as part sinister fairy tale, part Gothic horror, which is totally down my street. But that's interesting because that immediately says something about you which people just didn't three minutes ago, is that you've written this type of book. And I also write this type of book so I get you.
But it's interesting because, and again with people writing romance or sex or violence and these are dark things and we read in order to vicariously experience it.
Will: I think that's one of the gifts of fiction, isn't it really, that you can tend to hide behind the characters that you're writing. I do suspect when I wrote that novel, I really didn't think it was about me at all, I didn't even notice that his name is mine just with one letter switched, literally it didn't occur to me that Killian is William until I finished the book.
I think that's what novelists are often doing is exploring their own problems and exploring their own worries and concerns and anxieties, but in a safe way because it's in fiction so we can run these simulations of what might happen if our worst fantasies came true in a safe way.
That's probably why we go to stories in the first place, like evolutionary kind of speaking. But one of the purposes of tribal gossip was to we tell stories and then in hearing, in understanding the stories and seeing how other people reacting to them, your understanding how should I be living in the world? What is good behavior in this place and what is bad behavior? What kind of behavior is hailed as heroic, what kind of behavior is leading to people being punished? And how can I then apply that to my life?
One of my favorite quotes about story was by a radio producer whose name escapes me. And he said that every story is an answer to the question, how should I live my life? I thought that was really, really profound and a really lovely way of putting it.
I think that applies to writers as well. You're trying to work yourself out a bit I think in the process of writing and also in the stuff that you're reading. I noticed that people, especially these days, feel like they want to apologize in a way for if they're caught reading books by people like them as if it's sort of cliquey and narrow-minded.
But I think it's perfectly natural that women most of it if you know that women like to read books by women and working-class people like to read books by working-class people because they're more meaningful to us and where we are in the world.
I like reading mid-century American novels about middle-aged men having problems in their lives because it resonates and you feel partly that you should apologize for reading lots of books about middle-aged men, but why? I don't think that's something to apologize, I just think it's natural.
Joanna: I must say most of my books have main characters who were women in their late 30s, early 40s doing cool things in the world.
Will: There's nothing wrong with that. I think it's very natural and actually it's much more difficult for you to suddenly try writing a Charles Bukowski kind of character because it's like, where would you begin and why would you even want to bother doing that?
Joanna: I'd have to drink a lot. Clearly. And take a lot of drugs!
Joanna: We don't want to go there, but no, it's fascinating.
As I mentioned at the beginning, I've got the book in hardback and also audiobook, which you narrate and it's really good.
I've really enjoyed it, you have a great voice and a great attitude in it. I'm interested because I've narrated some of my own nonfiction and many people listening are interested in that.
Will: I found it really hard. How did you find it?
Joanna: It is. It's really hard work, right?
Will: Yes. I thought this should be a fun few days. I think it was like two days or two days you get or maybe be a bit more, I don't know, I can't remember. But it's really hard and to say, I think that the first thing like very practical thing is that I was embarrassed because on the first morning the producer could hear my stomach rumbling and he kind cut in and went, ‘Have you had breakfast, Will?' And I'm like, no.
And he goes, ‘Do you want to go and get yourself some breakfast in Sainsbury's?' No, no, I forgot. So I had to interrupt the session because my stomach was rumbling. That was really embarrassing and unprofessional. So that was have breakfast is of great relevance here.
But I think the other thing that I found worse was, I don't know how you found it but by the end of it, I hated my book. I was like, I never want to see it again and never want to hear it again, it's terrible. No one's going to like this, I don't know what it is but it's like I really, really fell out of love with my book after that.
It took me a while to get over the audio narration. And I think I'm going to do my next book but I know now that it isn't just really fun. Because honestly, you think, oh, I'm reading my book out, I'm going to be so proud. I'm going to feel really great about myself but I found the opposite, you see all the flaws, you see all the problems.
Joanna: But I'm interested because obviously I've reacted very positively, I love the audiobook.
Will: The audiobook's done really well. I don't know any specific figures but I know that for one day last month it was the number one bestselling book on Audible.
Joanna: Oh, wonderful.
Will: Which is bizarre. My publisher promoted it so it wasn't out of the blue but it's a niche book. So I was baffled by that but very pleased. And yes I do know the audiobook has done really well which is why I know that I'm going to have to do the next one too, I can't get away with giving it to an actor.
But yes, so I'll definitely be doing it again and maybe that'll make me feel a bit better about it because it wasn't you feel very self-conscious like I don't know, I felt at times like I was…you're worried, am I over annunciating, am I being like a really over-excitable ‘Blue Peter' presenter.
Joanna: I quite like that though.
Will: You gotta keep the energy up. So I'm glad I did it in the end because it's been a really popular format.
Joanna: Fantastic. So is the next book a book for writers as well?
Will: No, the next book is about status.
Joanna: That sounds interesting.
Will: There's a little bit in the story book about how important status is to people and in a way, you can see stories as a kind of status game of status really, very often at the beginning of stories when the protagonist is somehow low in status.
There's always that bit a detective inspector, police procedural where the DA gets taken off the case. They're always being pushed out and they learn through the trials and errors of the plots of how to become heroic and win status. So, I write about that in the story book in that context but I'm turning into a full-length book which is going to be called The Status Game and that's going to be hopefully published next year.
Joanna: Writers are obsessed with status and ranking.
Will: The first book I read in my research was Alain de Botton's Status Anxiety, it's the only other book on status. So, I thought, well, I'll read it and see what he came up with. Because I read it when it came out and I'd forgotten it.
He's mad. He seems to think that status is an invention of capitalism. And one of his solutions, one of his suggestions if you're suffering from status of anxiety is be like an artist, be a writer. Because if you think about the writers, they live in these garrets and they weren't really worried about status, they were just happy being poor and writing. And I just thought, have you ever met a writer? That's not true. Being a writer is not a cure for status, absolutely not.
Joanna: If you do want to be in your garret, it's competitive as to how poor you can be!
Will: Exactly. That is the nail on the head. Look at how poor and windy, my garret is much windier than your garret.
Joanna: Absolutely. Okay. So, tell people where they can find you and the books and everything you do online including your courses.
If some of the stuff we've been talking about sounds useful, I've got a five-step guide to beginning using these techniques about specific characters and how to build a plot. And I specifically use that Jaws plot in the video as well. So that five-step plot, which lots of sort of genre books and bestsellers often have.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Will, that was great.
Will: Thanks for your questions. I really enjoyed it. Thank you.
May 25 2020
What if you could do work you love, earn great money — and have a lifestyle you enjoy? In this interview, Elaine Pofeldt talks about businesses that are doing just that and gives tips on how to get there, including ways to make more money as an author.
In the intro, I talk about Apple Books for Authors – now available on PC, Ingram Spark's new free ISBNs and revamped dashboard, and Nielsen report that people are reading more in lockdown [The Bookseller]. Plus, “Where do you get your ideas?” My answer with pics of my travels at JFPenn.com/ideas. I also mention the 7-Figure Small Podcast.
Today's podcast sponsor is Findaway Voices, which gives you access to the world's largest network of audiobook sellers and everything you need to create and sell professional audiobooks. Take back your freedom. Choose your price, choose how you sell, choose how you distribute audio. Check it out at FindawayVoices.com.
Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist, editor, and professional speaker specializing in careers and entrepreneurship. She's also the author of The Million-Dollar, One-Person Business: Make Great Money. Work the Way You Like. Have the Life You Want.
You can find Elaine Pofeldt at ElainePofeldt.com and on Twitter @ElainePofeldt. You can find the revised edition of the book here for pre-order for 2021 or get the original edition here.
Joanna: Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist, editor, and professional speaker specializing in careers and entrepreneurship. She's also the author of The Million-Dollar, One-Person Business: Make Great Money. Work the Way You Like. Have the Life You Want.
Elaine: Thank you so much, Joanna. It's great to be here.
Joanna: It's great to have you on the show. And this is such a killer book title.
Elaine: Wow, that's a great question. I think I was born a writer. I started writing stories, short stories when I was in kindergarten. And I always was one of those kids who was on the school newspaper or the literary magazine and I continued that into college. Then I started my career as a newspaper reporter, morphed into a magazine reporter. And then when I had my third of my fourth children, I went freelance in 2007 and I haven't looked back.
Joanna: That's fantastic. And that book is so good. I read it when it first came out. I think I had it pre-ordered on the Kindle because I was like, yes, million-dollar, one-person business, I want that.
Elaine: I think everybody does. The vast majority of one-person businesses will not get to one million, but I do think that every business can be optimized to make its maximum so that the owner or the person doing all the work can have more time to do the other things that they love.
I know your audience is very engaged in fiction writing and that doesn't always pay a lot of money. So if you have a business and you want to free up more time for the creative side, I hope that there's some good ideas for you in this book.
Joanna: Definitely. And so you've mentioned freeing up more time.
Elaine: I think it's basically wanting to love their life and wanting control over how they spend their time. Time is our most precious commodity, right? We can't get any more of it. And we can't get it back if we misspend it.
I think people often get to the point where maybe they get some experience in their chosen field working for someone else, but they're sitting in the conference room one day and somebody is grandstanding and the meeting is going on for 3 hours when it could have taken 10 minutes and they're thinking, oh, I'd really love to be home with my children right now instead of wasting three hours of my life in this conference room or I'd love to be outside mountain biking. It's a beautiful sunny day and if I work for myself, I really could be doing that instead of listening to this.
And I think it starts to build in people where they start to realize, you know what? I know what I'm doing. I have a valuable service of some sort to offer. Or I could come up with some type of product-based business and free myself from this whole system that really doesn't work for who I am right now. It may have worked at one point.
A lot of times when people are young, their work is their social life, but at a certain point, you're meeting people in different ways so you wouldn't really be isolated if you had a business. And I think it all starts to come together and build up into becoming an entrepreneur.
Joanna: And you mentioned there about the importance of time. And we're recording this at the beginning of May in 2020 at the time of coronavirus.
Joanna: I think a lot of people are probably assessing their life. A lot of people are being laid off, but also people who haven't been laid off will have more time to think about what they really want.
Elaine: It's an interesting question, Joanna. I think it's been a very stressful situation for people and tragic in many ways, but at the same time, it's been a gift because it's almost like we pushed the reset button on the world and had a chance to think about does the pace we're living at make sense?
Are we just running from one thing to the next without any mindfulness about our lives and what really matters to us? I think a lot of people are part of these systems of school and work and other things that keep them apart from their families and their friends because they're also busy and now we've had a chance to not be so busy and enjoy time with our kids and our friends and our spouses and our partners that we haven't had before and think about what do we want going forward?
Do we want more of that going forward? Do we want more time to do work we love and less time doing work we don't love? Do we want more time just for quiet contemplation as opposed to just getting in the car and running to the next activity, whatever that is? Or jumping on the subway or however you get places. I think it's been a real gift.
Joanna: It's interesting. Though I must say I really want to get out there and go traveling again, I feel like, yes, I'm enjoying being at home, but boy, I would like to get out of here.
Elaine: I know. Travel is, I think that's one of the things that people are really missing, but I think they'll appreciate it so much more when we're able to open the world back up again. However that looks. It might be a world where we're all wearing masks for a long time and gloves and other things. But I think we're going to appreciate how precious that is that we can travel and see the world.
Joanna: And in fact, travel is one of the reasons I went fulltime creative entrepreneur back in 2011 because I know as a writer, I get my inspiration from traveling and you just don't get enough time when you have a day job right? You have to ask for leave.
Elaine: Absolutely. It's funny because one of the things I felt when I first started my business in 2007 was that I finally could treat myself like an adult. I felt like when I was an employee, I would always have to run things past my boss, like my child needs speech therapy and I need to take half a day off to bring them to the doctor. Is that okay?
When it was of course okay. I was their mother and I should have been taking them to speech therapy. But it had to be run through another adult who would say yay or nay. And there's something about that that starts to wear on you.
I think one of the great things is you can make all the decisions for yourself when you have your own business. You have the responsibility of bringing in income while you're traveling the world or taking your kid to speech therapy or doing whatever it is you've chosen to do, but you're in charge and not somebody else.
Joanna: And also I guess coming back to the coronavirus lockdown we've seen some businesses are very impacted, highly impacted. Let's take airlines for example. Airlines are grounded basically, but there are many businesses that are pivoting or changing.
Elaine: People that are pivoting successfully are looking at what the market needs now instead of thinking about what they usually sell and trying to stick to that. That's what I'm seeing.
One example is Harry Ein who I wrote about in the book, he runs a business called Perfection Promo. And what he does is sell swag. I don't know what it's called in the U.K., but it's those t-shirts with a company's name on them or the pins you get at the bank with the bank's name on them. And he sells it to B2B customers, mostly to give out at events.
Well, guess what? All the events are canceled so he can't sell them right now. So he's pivoted. He was able to get a supply of masks and he's pivoted into selling the masks right now. And he's positioning himself for when businesses start to open up the need to supply them with masks.
For instance, if a restaurant opens up, we don't know what that's really going to look like with the health codes, but he's assuming masks will be part of that. So he's figuring out how do I tap into that B2B market instead of my usual one.
Another woman that I've written about for ‘Forbes', Alicia Schiro is a million-dollar, one-person event planner. And what she's done is pivoted into virtual events. And when I first spoke with her in the beginning, there was kind of a shock through the meetings and events industry because everything just suddenly came to a standstill and this is how everybody makes their income.
But she thought about it and she realized a lot of companies are having their quarterly meetings now and if just one Zoom call after another, people droning on, it's getting boring. So she had a lot of celebrity contacts.
She started reaching out to the companies that had the meetings and saying, would you like a celebrity at your meeting to liven things up? And the celebrities are at home and because they don't have to travel, they charge less to appear at a meeting than they would if they came and gave a keynote.
She's been arranging those kinds of meetings. When I last was in touch with her, she was doing quite well. She was really busy booking virtual meetings. That's another example of kind of staying within her niche, but pivoting to this more virtual world that we're in.
I'm also seeing some interesting pricing strategies. There were two brothers, the Vaisman Brothers, Albert and Boris, who live in Toronto and they sell socks. The business is called Soxy and they sell very colorful men's socks, with crazy prints and things like that. And they pivoted into women's socks too. And they sell shoes.
They're a novelty gift and people aren't as focused on that type of purchase right now so what they did was change their pricing where if you pay full price for the socks, they will give a pair to a nurse. And I'm sure nurses are wearing through a lot of pairs of socks right now because they're working nonstop and plus it probably brightens up the ward a little bit compared to the usual medical gear.
But if you can't afford it, you can take a 45% discount. I think the other ones were 20% or 10% off. And what they did on their website was explain if you pay the 10% off, this is what your purchase goes toward. And if you pay the 20%, this is what it goes toward, etc.
So you could see how it impacts the business because they've, since I wrote the book, they've now grown to 15 employees. They have a warehouse and they don't want to lay anybody off. So this is their strategy for keeping people employed and it's been working so far.
I think you've got to look at a lot of different aspects of your business to find how you will personally survive during this. And I'm sure there are some that have been unaffected because they do their work remotely, they're working for industries that really aren't affected, etc. But most of them have been in some way.
Joanna: I remember the first week or two of shock of going, oh my goodness, everything's changed. Oh no, I need to make some more money. And then as things settled down a bit, it was sort of, okay, you know, it's not a total disaster, especially for those of us with an online business. But the attitudes you talked about there was this letting things go quickly and moving into a new idea, which is a really resilient attitude.
Elaine: You did point to one thing that I just want to call out Joanna, which is speed. That's one thing I noticed is everybody went into shock. But for most people, it was two weeks of shock. For these folks, it was two days.
It was funny, one of the entrepreneurs I profiled more recently, Sean Kelly, is a young entrepreneur. He dropped out of Rutgers University. He started a business selling rapper jerseys. He couldn't afford the sports jersey licenses so he was creative and he reached out to musicians and he built a million-dollar, one-man business. And he got into the mask business recently, but it was like lightning compared to most people.
I thought, wow, that's something I can learn from them because they don't hesitate. They have a really, really strong bias to action and experimentation. And if it doesn't work out, so be it, they'll move on to the next experiment.
I think that's something we can all learn instead of hanging on to what you were doing. They realize it's a temporary situation, but there's a lot of opportunity in this situation too. So I think that's definitely one of the attitudes is just a bias toward speed.
Another thing that I observed when I was updating the book, it's coming out in paperback in January 2021 so I went back to the sources, they are all optimizers. A lot of times when people read a book about starting a business or growing a business, they want five easy steps, right? Like you do these five things, you're going to be at a million. And they're really simple.
It's just a matter of one day's work. But that's not really the case. Some of these are 11-year overnight successes and some of them are 1-year overnight successes, but they optimize the resources they bring to the table personally.
In some cases, it's their personality. In some cases, it's their experience or connections from their industry. In some cases, they have a lot of startup capital. In some cases they have good relationships with different types of outside financing, but they lean into whatever it is, they don't all have the same things, but they just have that tendency to make the most of whatever they have.
And I think that's something we can all do more of. Instead of thinking about our deficits and what we don't have, use our strengths to get to where we want to go and not let other people define your value. I think a lot of times when people leave a traditional work situation, maybe they were pushed out like a lot of people are being right now because of COVID-19, a lot of people are losing their jobs in countries all over the world and that can hurt your self-esteem and make you feel like, well, maybe I have no value. Maybe I was wrong. I thought I was successful, but they didn't keep me. They kept someone else.
In reality, it doesn't matter when you're an entrepreneur. It's up to you to define your own value. And we all have amazing strengths and gifts. And if you can find them within yourself and bring them to the marketplace, then it's up to the market to decide and you to decide, not a boss somewhere.
So I think that's important too. And I think these folks have done that. They've defined their own worth instead of letting someone else tell them what they're worth in the marketplace. And obviously, your worth isn't just what you're worth in the marketplace. We're all human beings and there's a greater, greater worth that we all have beyond that. So they have that.
A couple of other, just more practical things, big users of automation, we don't waste a lot of time in their business on routine tasks like scheduling. I think you had a scheduling app and a lot of people are using tools like that.
They're very industry-specific apps for every type of business that you can imagine. What might work for e-commerce won't necessarily work for a writing business, etc. It's important to reach out to other people in your field and find out what they're using because you can see easily save one day a week if you put your mind to it by using time-saving apps.
For a writer, imagine having one extra day a week where you could just sit down and do your fiction or do your nonfiction, whatever you write. It's such a gift from the heavens to have that time and apps can give that to you.
The other things that they're doing are using contractors to help them and using outsourcing, which are two different things. A contractor might be a web designer instead of designing the website yourself if you're not a designer. Outsourcing would be using Fulfilled by Amazon.
If you're selling a product on Amazon, for instance, you're not packing up boxes yourself and doing things that you really don't need to do as a business owner. Sometimes people are hesitant to spend any money on these things, but it's hard to make money if you're just caught up in the weeds of the business.
I think that's a mindset shift that has to occur in a lot of people before they can really get into the mid-six figures and beyond, not kind of counting every penny, but thinking about the big picture.
And then a couple of other things I noticed, one, they are self-educators. I always thought that mastermind groups were kind of a scam all these years. And then when I heard how they used them, I realized they're not a scam at all. They're really valuable because they put people in a group of their peers and maybe people who are a little bit above them in terms of knowledge of their business and it challenges them to grow and it's a safe space where they can run ideas past other people who care about the same things. And I found a lot of them were in private masterminds or had a coach. They're believers in coaching.
What happens a lot of times in small businesses is you can get to $200,000 to maybe $500,000 a year in revenue by working really hard depending on the business, maybe you work seven days a week, but it will burn you out. And where they bring in a coach is to help them get past that zone so that they can do things more efficiently and get to the million in revenue.
By the way, the million-dollar is to inspire people. These people have gotten to $1 million in a solo business, but for each person, your million might be different. So maybe you need $200,000 because you live in the country and the cost of living is low. There's no reason to arbitrarily go after $1 million if you don't need it. The idea is to create a life you want and have time and freedom, but a lack of financial scarcity, which is very distracting if you're trying to do creative work.
So I just wanted to say that because sometimes people think, oh, if I can't get to a million, it's not even worth trying. But a million is an inspirational number that can be achieved as we see, but it's not the be-all and end-all.
The final thing I would say is, I noticed a lot of them are into some type of mindfulness practice. They're meditators or doers of yoga or other physical things that give them time for their brain to just clear so that they can be creative. I think that's important for writers. There's so much in our minds that can be unleashed if we work on it and give ourselves space to do that.
And these folks I see as very similar to writers in that they're very creative people and not by the book at all. I think that's a really important thing. I'm trying to learn how to meditate. I'm a pretty serious yoga student and I found that's pretty meditative. But the next level for me, it would be serious meditation, which I haven't had the patience to do yet. But when I see how many of these folks are meditators, I realize that's an important piece of the equation.
Joanna: I love what you said about moving to the next level and it's often, and the meditation probably goes into it, is that it's taking a step back and not ‘doing' so much. This is something I struggle with very much. I'm a doer. I feel like my day is better if I have done more and ticked more stuff off my list. I love doing that.
I like having stuff there and yet I do achieve more if I have a more open calendar. So it's weird. It's like a paradox that if you have less to do but you know where you're going with your bigger goals, you can get to that higher level of achievement instead of filling it with checking social media and doing this other thing and filling your time with busy work instead of important work.
Elaine: I think you're right about that, Joanna. A number of them set aside a certain day during the week to work on things like research and development. And I think the meditation sets the stage for that or having some sort of clearness in their life that's away from all the busy work is really important to that.
They are very strategic in their thinking about the business. A lot of times people in creative businesses are scrambling from one project to the next. It's how do I get the next project and then how do I execute the next project and how do I juggle a new one that just came in on top of that.
If you're always in that mindset, your business will not grow and you'll never have a very peaceful business. It'll always be a mad scramble and I think these folks have deliberately, for the most part, said no to that and decided to think more like entrepreneurs. Very big picture as you said.
They've put systems in place to make that happen like taking Friday off to do R&D. And writers can do research and development too with creative projects. It's different when you're doing fiction, because it's an art than running an ecommerce business for instance, which is a totally commercial enterprise. But there are some similarities where maybe you'll do something experimental on your Friday off from your normal stuff that you do, but you'll never do that experimental stuff if you don't allow yourself the time to do it.
Joanna: For many people listening, probably that experimental stuff is the writing and they've got a day job in there as their main source of money. But they might want to go further. So let's look at that.
Going further into the models, you have a lot of different business types within the book, the different categories of these different businesses. And obviously you've mentioned socks and swag, which are physical products, but you also have the information or content creation model, which is definitely what I do.
Elaine: There are so many different ways, Joanna. One great source of ideas is ClickBank, which is a marketplace for informational products. There are different things that people are releasing.
You could do a course. A lot of authors are very good teachers because the nature of the work they do. A lot of people that write fiction have jobs that are in things like marketing, journalism, other related fields where they're using those writing skills and we're explainers. So those explaining skills translate very well to creating a course on a platform like Teachable or Podia or one of the other ones.
[Note from Joanna: Check out my mini-course on How to Turn What You Know into an Online Course.]
You might have something that you know. It doesn't have to be writing-related by the way. It could be knitting or fixing dishwashers or whatever you know how to do that you could turn into a course. And so you could create a community. I consider that part of informational content creation.
There are paid communities. You can create a mastermind group, as I said. I'm now a believer in them. Or it doesn't have to be a mastermind, that you could do a one-time course. Sometimes, I've seen people now doing a lot of things on Zoom paid programs where you're assembling people you've curated who have expertise in a certain subject matter and people pay a certain amount to subscribe to that event.
There are also other things that you can do. One of the things that was kind of interesting because you're a podcaster, Jamie Jay is one of the entrepreneurs that I've added to the book. I've added more professional services businesses in the update and he runs a podcasting agency that does custom podcasts as well as hosting his own podcast.
What he did was he assembled a bunch of virtual assistants who have specialized skills in podcast-related things like one does graphic design to create all the little images and icons to promote a podcast. And then others know the technical stuff.
He's not doing that work. He's the one who runs the business and what he does is charge a flat fee for access to those services. So it's more of a service business, but they're also creating some informational products like the little icons and the social media posts and things like that.
There are hybrid approaches too. But what has enabled the business to grow was going from one-off projects to more of like a flat retainer fee for the clients and doing it well. He got a lot of positive reviews on the internet, which then brings in a lot of organic business without him having to be out there hustling it up, which can take a lot of time for entrepreneurs.
I think there's a myth that they're so shy and reserved that they can't speak. Whenever I hear writers, I think they're great. They're great communicators and they're sincere. Sometimes I don't like the model of the gung ho, chest-beating motivational speaker.
Joanna: I know what you mean.
Elaine: It's so fake. Writers are so sincere and I think people like that genuineness. I would say don't underrate yourself as a speaker. If you have written books or you're a journalist or some other type of writer, a lot of people are aspiring writers and would love to hear from you. And you can charge for speaking.
It's important to be aware of that because a lot of times people are so honored to speak, they never think to ask for a speaking fee. But many places have a budget for their speakers. Like if a university invites you to speak, they may have a budget. And if you don't ask, they're not going to mention it. But if you do ask, they'll say, ‘Oh yes, well this is what we pay.'
So speak up for yourself because as a writer, you have bills too. Even if you love your work, it doesn't mean you shouldn't be paid for it.
Public Speaking for Authors, Creatives and Other Introverts by Joanna Penn. Second Edition. Audiobook narrated by the author.
Joanna: There's some great tips there. And it is interesting you mentioned that about the speakers. I agree with you, man. I'm an introvert and many of my listeners are introverts. That doesn't mean we're shy.
But I agree that sometimes you can just be you. You can be a quiet type of person and still speak effectively because you're serving an audience. And perhaps because you listen more than the gung ho motivational speaker, you can actually do a better job.
Elaine: I think so too. I do think that today's speaker has to have a two-way conversation with the audience. And I think sometimes shy and introverted people are better listeners as you say, Joanna. And it's a better experience for the audience than somebody putting on a show.
Sometimes we need a show. It's fun walking on coals or something like that. But I think today people are used to more off the cuff speaking. They see it on social media videos, they see it on LinkedIn, other places like that. And they're tired of the canned approach. So the genuine writer approach, I think has a lot of shelf life right now.
Joanna: I agree. And I think podcasting is that too. People are listening to our voices for 40 minutes and they know us more. And this is not polished. We're just talking. So that's good.
But I wonder about that because the reality is there's a lot of books out there, there's a lot of online businesses, a lot of speakers, a lot of everything.
Elaine: I think it has to do with really owning a small niche. All of us have some area that we geek out on where when we start talking, maybe our family starts going in the other room because we think about it so obsessively and they're tired of hearing about it. But that's usually your area where you have something interesting to say.
If you're obsessed with something, that means you're going to bring originality to it because you're constantly turning it over in your head. And I think when you have that level of interest, you're probably not unique. There probably are other people in the world that share it and would love to talk about it with you for the next six hours if they could also. And when you can identify that in yourself and I think every person has that, you're onto something as far as a podcast topic.
For instance, in entrepreneurship, I've always written about entrepreneurship, spoke scalable businesses and one-person businesses. But one of my editors at ‘Forbes', noticed I always seem more passionate writing about the one-person business. And I don't know exactly why.
I think it was partly because it was relevant to me because I'm a mother with four children and I needed some way to run a business from home. And that was how I got interested in it. But I also felt like it was this huge neglected area in entrepreneurship reporting.
So many of the reporters in my field focus on who's the next Facebook or whoever it is, exactly. But the vast majority of small businesses around the world are one-person businesses and they weren't even really being considered businesses. There were a lot of business studies that didn't even count them unless they had employees.
And I thought it was a tremendous oversight. And after years and years of reporting, I felt like I know this field as well as anybody who's covering it because I've spent my whole adult life pretty much covering this at this point. And I think it's neglected and I'm going to write about it and other people recognize I think that it wasn't really being covered and they liked the feeling that their type of business was being counted. And I think that was how things coalesced around the book.
When I wrote articles about this topic for ‘Forbes', they would go viral and it told me that this was a niche that was being untapped and that I could fill. And so I think there are, for every writer, there probably is something like that where you really know the subject well and you have a slightly different point of view than other people. I think that's important too.
You don't want to have the same view as everyone else on whatever your topic is because that means there is going to be so much competition and it will be hard to move the conversation forward. You want to look for an area where you can add something to the conversation based on your knowledge, your experience, your unique situation, whatever that might be. It might be that you're located in a specific geographic area that gives you a new perspective, but the key is finding that difference.
Joanna: You've mentioned there about your own writing process. You've spent years writing about entrepreneurship and you've distilled this into the book and obviously you've just updated it for the paperback. But I know what happens with nonfiction and particularly with interviews, you end up with this massive material.
Elaine: It's funny, Joanna. I use the same methods that I use when I'm a ghostwriter or a writing coach and I remind myself that every book is really not about the author, it's about the reader. And every book is a conversation with the reader.
So when I was making decisions about what to include and what not to include, I would always ask myself, what is the experience for the reader like? And with a book like this where I'm writing…there were more than 30 different types of businesses that I wrote about in the book, there are six main categories, but each business was different, so even if I was writing about…I think I wrote about five ecommerce businesses, each one of those runs differently.
I could have gone really into the weeds about how each one ran and that would have satisfied some readers who want to do exactly what that person did. But I also had to think about, I'm a storyteller, I want the book to be entertaining. I don't want it to be like reading a textbook. And I want the reader to feel the stories, not just have a laundry list of steps to follow, put up a website, incorporate your business.
I had to make certain creative decisions about it that balanced those two things. And I think you know you've done a good job with that when some people are complaining about the decisions that you've made. I had one person post on Amazon that I should have had stuff about accounting in there, like how to balance your books and that sort of thing, but that wasn't what the book was about.
Anybody can get an accounting textbook if you want to learn how to do your QuickBooks. This wasn't going to be that book because I wanted to inspire people and let them know this is possible. These are real people just like you who have gotten to one million. Here are the basics of what they did. Knowing that in real-time it was changing.
When I updated it, so many things had changed with each person because technologies change, people's life situation changes, the amount of time they can devote to the business changes, the market demand changes. So there's not a static set of things that I can recommend that someone can just copy and achieve the same results with any business.
I know there are people selling systems like that, but I really don't believe that they work after interviewing thousands of entrepreneurs over the years. Everything has to be a constantly evolving process. Just like writing fiction, someone teaches you everything that they did to write a great short story that wins the Pushcart Prize, you still can't necessarily do it.
Joanna: Otherwise we'd all be winning them.
Elaine: Exactly. So you've gotta just go through the process and the process is what teaches you. And what works for you one time might not work another time. And people, I don't think they like to think that there's sort of magic to it all, but there is with everything moving in the right direction, the person having the right mindset at the right time, everything aligning.
But a lot of things in life are like that. At the same time, you can set the stage where it's more likely to happen and that's what this is about.
Joanna: I think it's a brilliant book and as you say, it's very easy to read. And actually that circles back to what we said at the top about maybe it's what you leave out and the time you spend to step back and think about what people really need. And that's what you did with the book. I can highly recommend The Million-Dollar, One-Person Business.
Elaine: Joanna, they can find me on LinkedIn under my full name, Facebook under my full name, Twitter, full name, or I have a website, themilliondollaronepersonbusiness.com written out in words, or another website under my full name and they have a contact box on them.
I do write back, so if you have any questions and would like to reach out, I love getting letters from people who have heard me on podcasts or read the book and I'm happy to answer questions. Sometimes people need to troubleshoot a business idea and want to run it past me. I'm happy to do that no charge just because I feel like it makes me a better journalist, to understand what questions people have, and what concerns they have.
I just sold a new book called Tiny Business, Big Money to Norton. I'm looking at businesses at that slightly next stage where they have a very tiny crew, maybe a handful of contractors or even one or two employees and how that all works together. All people over a million dollars in revenue as well, but who have that additional people challenge.
I'm particularly interested at this moment in time in hearing from people who are wrestling with that. How do I find great contractors that I trust, or how do I manage my two people and create a culture when it's just three of us. And that kind of thing really interests me. So please get in touch. I welcome any notes that you send.
Joanna: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, Elaine. That was great.
Elaine: Well, thank you so much, Joanna. You ask great questions. It was a pleasure to talk with you and I'm so honored. You've been a podcaster for so long, you're really one of the leaders in your field, and it's really an honor to be here.
May 18 2020
We all want to write the best book we can — but how can we make sure the story is strong enough to make it worthwhile writing in the first place? In this interview, Larry Brooks gives 4 criteria for a great story and 8 steps for your novel premise.
In the introduction, FindawayVoices releases their Headphone Report 2019, UK publisher Faber moves into direct sales [The Bookseller], and tips on how to sell direct from your website [ALLi] and my own process for selling books directly and getting paid right now; Faber's sales are down “about a third year on year for print” during the lockdown period, but that digital sales are on the rise [The Bookseller]; Small presses fear being ‘wiped out' by autumn [The Bookseller] — If you're traditionally published, have you checked your contract for reversion clauses?
Plus, join me for a Facebook Live on Fri 15 May at 4 pm UK / 11 am US Eastern. Just come on over to www.Facebook.com/thecreativepenn to join the live. Plus, if you'd like to know the latest tips on Using Amazon Ads to Sell More Books, join me and Mark Dawson (and an ex-Amazon insider special guest) on 11 June. Click here to register for your free place.
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
Larry Brooks is the best-selling author of psychological thrillers as well as books for authors, including Story Engineering, and Story Physics. His latest book is Great Stories Don't Write Themselves: Criteria-Driven Strategies for More Effective Fiction.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript below.
You can find Larry Brooks at StoryFix.com and on Twitter @storyfix
Joanna: Larry Brooks is the best-selling author of psychological thrillers as well as books for authors, including Story Engineering, and Story Physics. His latest book is Great Stories Don't Write Themselves: Criteria-Driven Strategies for More Effective Fiction.
Welcome back to the show, Larry.
Larry: Hey, thanks for having me, Joanna, this is great.
Joanna: It's great to have you back. It's actually been a while since you've been on the show.
Larry: I'm probably older than most of the people listening here, at least it feels that way sometimes. I started writing with the intention of publishing in the '70s. And I was an overnight success beginning in 1999. So it took that long to get something published.
I was making a living writing corporate marketing and training stuff the whole time, which is its own torment because you spend all day writing stuff for clients that you really don't want to write, and in the back of your head, your new novel is kicking around, and it's kind of distracting.
When we sold the company and I had the opportunity to chuck all that and write fiction, I did that. I wrote and published six novels over a few years, and gee, nobody wanted to interview me on the radio much for that. That's not completely true, I did a little PR kicking around and stuff.
But my publisher dropped me, which is a pretty common thing. It was Penguin Putnam at the time, after four novels in four years. And then I had to scramble and my agent had to scramble and I ended up with a small publisher. And then things slowed down and I thought, what am I going to do with this slowdown?
A friend of mine's son was big into the digital world and got me started blogging, and the only thing I was qualified to blog about, I think, was writing books. I'm pretty opinionated about that, had a lot to say. The blog started in 2009.
Then in 2011, I collected most of those posts, and I smoothed the edges out and turned it into a narrative nonfiction called Story Engineering, which to my delight and surprise kind of took off. When we say something in nonfiction takes off, it's way different than a novel taking off. It's a much smaller thing, because it takes off in a niche, takes off in its own little neighborhood. Whereas a novel can take off globally when it happens. That didn't happen to me, by the way, but the Story Engineering book did well.
It launched me down a path of continuing to blog and teaching writing at conferences, mostly around the country, but a few international gigs. And I've written four of them now. And the last one, Great Stories Don't Write Themselves was published this last November by ironically…well, it was Writer's Digest Books, that's still the imprint. But Writer's Digest was acquired by Penguin Random House. So that beginning that Penguin Putnam and then here I am, now I'm a Penguin Random House writer.
Joanna: That's actually really funny and a real tale of publishing over years of acquiring. I remember us meeting because my podcast started in 2009, and my blog just a bit before that. We met online when you were doing Story fix.
Your book Story Engineering, I'll point back to the original show when we talked about it, but I learned how to write a scene from that book.
Larry: That's nice to hear. That's awesome.
Joanna: It is a great book. I also wanted to tell you that last weekend I read Whisper of the Seventh Thunder.
Larry: Oh, my.
Joanna: One of your novels because I'm into religious thrillers and I was like, oh, it's Bible-code-y.
Larry: Yes, it is definitely Bible-code-y.
Joanna: So I just wanted to let you know that because it was funny, I was like, ‘Oh, I'm going to just re-check out Larry's books,' and there you go.
Larry: I hope you enjoyed it, that book took 27 years to write. I literally had the idea for that 27 years earlier, and just procrastinated and pondered, and was kind of worried about the implications of messing with that topic.
Having read it, you know what I'm talking about. And really, I actually consulted with priests, and spiritualists, and a minister, and wiser people than me about, ‘Should I mess with this?' And some of them said, ‘No, you shouldn't.' Being a little feisty, I said, ‘Well, okay, yeah, I'm going to go do it, then.' That happened.
Joanna: Unfortunately, it didn't get banned by the Vatican.
Larry: I didn't get any attention from the Vatican at all.
Joanna: Neither did I with any of mine. That's unfortunate. Okay, let's get into the latest book. I think it's really interesting and I'm going to read a couple of the quotes as we go through.
You say, ‘Not all story ideas are good or even viable, and too many writers are committing to too many weak story ideas,' which is like okay, then. So I think this is really good advice.
Larry: It is a fabulously germane, important, urgent question for all of us because none of us sit down and say to ourselves, hey, I've got this idea, and it's really mediocre. So I think I'm going to sit down and I'm going to spend a year of my life writing up this mediocre idea into a novel.
We don't think that way. We all think our ideas are worthy, and they fascinate us. And so that's the thing that moves us toward the blank page and we start to write.
But there's a couple of things that new writers need to learn or inevitably will learn, the longer they take care of this. And that is that while this is fun, and why this is personal, and it's an outlet, and it's a pressure reliever and all the things we want to think our writing is, when you seek to publish, you're hanging out a shingle in effect. And you're announcing that I'm a professional, I'm in this business. And like any business, you are creating a service and a product, for a market, for an audience.
So the fact that you were really intrigued with your idea when you start a project may or may not translate to something that the market is going to agree with that oh, I love this idea. And the data proves this out.
In my book, I cite a statistic that was quoted by ‘The Huffington Post,' but it's a statistic that floats around in actual specificity but you can find this data in all kinds of places. And that is that 96% of the manuscripts submitted to agents for publication are rejected. And only 4% are ultimately accepted by a publisher.
Now, that means that some of those were accepted for representation, but they never got a publisher. But that's a pretty scary proportion, 96% don't do what you hope they'll do, the dream doesn't happen and only 4% succeed. And yet, nobody really challenges that.
I found myself, as a writer who's writing these books and teaching the stuff out there in workshops and conferences, part of what I call the writing conversation, which is the collective noise about what's true, and what should be true, and what isn't true about writing, which includes not only books like I write, and that you write, but the blogs that we write, and the workshops that we give, and the forums we talked on, and the critique groups we belong to, and all of our friends who are also writers, and the writing conferences where there's all this buzz in the hallway, and everybody's sharing their conventional wisdom about writing.
Now, why would we just accept a conventional wisdom that has a 96% failure rate? That got my attention. I wanted to challenge that, there has to be a better way.
So I started analytically talking to people at various stages of their career and their learning curve. And we need to understand that the people who repeatedly end up on a bookstore shelf, they don't experience a 96% failure rate, those writers basically get everything published.
Now it's true that their first draft may not get published, and that they may work with editors at the publishing house to finish the project to the liking of the publisher. But the 96% is really composed of, for lack of better words, newer writers, or emerging writers, or frustrated writers who refuse to evolve their own process and their base of knowledge and they just stick with that original, ‘This is my idea, and I'm sticking to it and I don't care if you like it, I'm going to write it.'
Then they're heartbroken when nobody does like it to the degree you do and the agent and the publisher don't like it either, and they don't publish you.
So this book is an attempt to break down the reasons and the rationale why that 96 % do in fact, fail to find an audience. And we have to factor in the fact that so many new books now are self-published as well, but the criteria are exactly the same.
It really chaps me when I hear people go, ‘Well, I don't have to follow any of these principles because I'm going to self-publish and I can just do it anyway I want to.' When in fact, the criteria that makes a story work, and the high bar at which we must execute those criteria is exactly the same for a self-published author seeking to grow an audience as it is for an author aspiring to land an agent and end up in a traditional publishing situation.
Joanna: I think you're right about that. Obviously, it's very easy to publish now, but it is not easy to find an audience, it's not easy to be ‘successful' as an author. And in fact, even if you are published by a publisher, it doesn't guarantee that you're going to be successful. It doesn't guarantee a particular level of income, and it doesn't guarantee prizes or anything like that. But let's agree that with the listeners, we all want to write a really good story. And it's interesting you said to evolve the process.
I've written at this point now 17 novels…Actually, I'm having a gin and tonic, as I mentioned to you because I just printed out the first draft of my next novel, Map of The Impossible.
Let's get into the book. One of the things you say is concept is the secret sauce of story selection. People might have heard high concept, but let's talk about concept.
Larry: That's a great question. And before I do that, I just want to circle back and finish the idea question because you asked about what constitutes a great idea and I really never answered that.
The theory of this new book is that I've broken the entirety of what a novel is, and what it has to do down into 16 categories or buckets. The most early of which is the story idea.
And then for all 16 of those areas, I've defined criteria that are…you have to use the word criteria a little loosely. But they're principle-driven criteria that say, if you do this, it will serve you, if you don't do this, it may hurt you.
For example, with idea there are four criteria offered in the book. And the first one is that the idea leans into a dramatic intention or a dramatic proposal as opposed to simply observing thing or a documentary type of story.
What I did on my summer vacation may not have a shred of drama in it. And yet people write novels about that kind of thing all the time.
Here's the novel of my summer in Venice, without any drama, it's just a documentary of what they did. So those criteria for your idea really elevate it if you come up with a dramatic level to it.
Another one is a vision for the character and the worldview and how they're going to behave in a situation…going back to number one, the dramatic situation into which you're going to thrust your character. Who is that person and how will they respond? You need a notion of that and it becomes context within your idea.
The third criteria is there's a sense of thematic and emotional resonance to it. For example, your summer vacation in Venice may not mean anything to a huge portion of the potential reading public out there. They don't care about Venice. They don't want to go to Venice. It's important to you, but it's not important to anybody else.
So the idea should touch on things that people can relate to and empathize with. And we put your hero into a situation where we not only can relate to it, we root for them. We don't want to just watch them, we emotionally root for them on whatever that journey is.
The final one is that there's some sense of how the story will unfold, and the slope of that is exactly the same as your learning curve. The more we learn about how a story is built, the more we intuitively sense, at the idea stage, how it can unfold.
With those as the basic criteria for an idea, and getting back to your question about concept, it's true that you can actually meet all four of those criteria and come up with a perfectly vanilla, been there, done that, not all that compelling story premise.
So what do we do then? The first delineation is:
The room divides depending on your answer. Because when we say we are writing a commercial novel, which by definition becomes some sort of genre or combination of genres. It's a mystery, it's a thriller, it's a paranormal, it's a historical or whatever those genres are.
The word genre should be synonymous with conceptual. So in other words, you have a premise, which I'm going to talk about in a minute because that's kind of the heart of this whole book. There's eight criteria for a great premise.
But you can meet all eight criteria and still not have anything conceptual. So here's an example, Joanna. A story about a kid who grows up, and he's very talented, and he decides to fight crime and evil in his small town, and he's successful of it, and he starts going out and saving the world. That's your idea.
Well, every detective everybody who wants to be a policeman, that's everybody's dream who wants to get into that business. There's nothing conceptual about it.
So what can you add to that idea that is conceptual? The definition of the concept is something that isn't the plot but that becomes a framework for the plot, or the story, or the character in such a way that it flavors the story in a certain way.
When I give you this example, you'll see that right away. Take that same kid who grows up and he's talented and he wants to save the world. And the author goes, ‘Well, what can I bring to this that nobody's ever seen before?'
Let's say it's 1936 because you're going to recognize this right away. Let's say that character actually arrived on Earth in a crashing spaceship. A really nice couple in rural Kansas finds him, he's still alive. They raise this child because he appears to be human. But he actually ends up with all these very superhuman traits and abilities.
They raise him well, to appreciate good versus evil, and want to help others. And he realizes that he's very super. His mother takes that to the next extent and makes him a costume. And suddenly this kid is actually Superman. And everything about Superman aligns with that original story idea that I just pitched to you.
A kid grows up and he realizes he has talents, and he wants to go fight evil and maybe save the world, which isn't conceptual until you put a suit on him and let him fly.
And you create this amazing backstory. And you do so within a genre that allows you to be that far out there. And you've got probably the most iconic genre character/hero ever created along with Sherlock Holmes, who is conceptual. Batman is conceptual. Janet Evanovich's characters, Stephanie Plum is conceptual.
If you can bring something conceptual to the character, or to the story world, a world in which time travel is possible, that's conceptual. You're still writing a love story, you're still writing a mystery of some or a thriller, right? But when you add time travel to the mix, it becomes conceptual.
Now, some people would say well, that's easy if you're in science fiction or paranormal or something like that. How do you be conceptual within a romance or a mystery thriller, which is, grant you, harder to be conceptual?
If you've got a love story about going back to Kansas, not picking on Kansas here, but it's good old salt of the earth farmland with really great people. It's not highly conceptual in any regard in that sense.
But about two people that grew up on neighboring farms in Kansas and they fall in love, that's not really conceptual. So how do you make that more conceptual? Instead of two farmers falling in love in Kansas, how about two people that work for the president's staff in the White House fall in love amidst a policy of no fraternization in the White House in full view of the entire nation, but they're falling in love?
That's a conceptual layer that you bring to the story. And when you begin to wrap your head around what concept is and the upside of it, you can see how just about any story can be rendered more conceptual.
And if you go look at stories, other than bestsellers who are down the road that can really publish anything, the concept actually is their name. The next novel by Nora Roberts is a concept. Nora Roberts is a concept, you want to see the next one of Roberts's book if you're a fan. That's a concept. And that's the definition of concept.
The best definition, the succinct definition of a concept is you pitch the concept to someone, but it doesn't tell them anything about the actual plot. And the listener goes, ‘Wow, that sounds really cool I want to hear that. I want to hear about a love story that takes place in the White House.' There's no story yet.
Joanna: I think this is why fiction is a lot harder than people think. I feel that's why it's a lifetime's journey, I think, to be a fiction author because there's always something more to try and something more to learn.
You've given us some great stuff there. We got the four points about the story, we've got the concept. Now, a couple of things I want to pick up on, so you mentioned the premise so we'll come to that. And then I also want to come back to emotional resonance.
Should we do premise first? The word premise is bandied around by so many people. And in fact, if you look it up on the internet, it has so many different definitions, it is ridiculous.
Larry: If you want to go English teacher formal about it, the root word of premise is to presume. So there's a presumption of something that exists in your story. And that's when you're putting forth a premise.
You're absolutely right, Joanna, this word is mashed together with the word concept, sometimes theme, by book reviewers, by other authors, by agents. They don't differentiate it in a way that allows the writer to understand that those three things are different.
Premise, concept, and theme are all three different things. They work together, they combine, but they're not the same thing.
When one of those folks in a casual conversation says, ‘The theme of the book is…' and then they turn around and tell you the plot, that's not actually an astute way to say it. They mean well, they're just simply giving you an elevator pitch. An elevator pitch, by the way, can be a premise, or it can be a concept, or it can be a theme.
The Help. I'm going to write a story about racial tensions in 1962, Jackson, Mississippi. Well, there's no story there yet, it's just a theme. But it's a conceptual theme because there's so much emotional resonance in the…as soon as you say racial tensions in 1962, Deep South USA, the themes just scream out at you.
It's already alive with something conceptual because the theme can be conceptual, character can be conceptual, a plot proposition can be conceptual. It's good if the writer can understand, gee, if I have to do all three of those things, let me understand all three of them separate from the other two, each one separate from the other two, which brings us full circle back to premise.
Premise is, in fact, synonymous with story, synonymous with plot. A lot of times when we pitch something, we leave out a lot of the eight elements of a premise and the pitch can be successful, just like that pitch on Superman. Alien kid crashes, raised by human parents, goes on to have superpowers and save the world from evil. That's a pitch.
A lot of people go, if they haven't heard it…by the way, there's been over 500 published stories and television shows on that one pitch. It's proven. But it isn't a complete premise yet.
Let's do a different show and I'll show you how this plays out. Remember the TV show ‘Castle?'
Larry: A few years ago, ran for seven years.
Joanna: I enjoyed that.
Larry: The protagonist is a novelist, lives in New York City, and he's friends with the mayor, might be the chief of police. I'm not sure which, doesn't matter. But they offer him a gig as a consultant within a precinct of the New York City Police Department to come in and use his analytical crime-solving skill that he's demonstrated as a novelist, like inviting James Patterson to come in and be a consultant to this precinct to help them think outside the box. Meanwhile, he gets to see real-life cases that he can use and leverage and turn into his novels. It's a win-win proposition.
That is a concept. There's no plot there yet, it's just a concept. And yet, over seven seasons, there were 174 episodes of ‘Castle,' which means there were 174 unique, separate, and different premises because it told 174 different stories from that one concept.
It's the strength of the concept that fueled the ongoing success of that series and yet, every one of them is different.
Let me run through the eight criteria for a premise because a premise really is the pitch line further developed and finished into a holistic description of a story.
There's eight criteria.
The first criteria is we meet a protagonist before the sky falls on them, which implies the sky does need to fall on them. They say that it's not a story until something goes wrong, that's especially true in genre fiction. We meet the story before they are fully engaged with whatever problem you're going to put in front of them. It could start out partially underway but they don't fully understand or are exposed to the full scope of what they have to go out and do.
The second criteria is something happens that changes everything for that protagonist. And that usually isn't on page 6, it's usually around page 60 to 80. And it's when, after a bunch of setup, what I call the first quartile, where we meet the protagonist, we begin to seed the forthcoming plot, we begin to explore the story world, and we begin to understand what this protagonist will have at stake in the story.
With all that in place, something happens. In ‘Castle,' it's the phone rings and there's a murder uptown and he has to go with the squad down there. And oh, by the way, the murdered guy is a priest, that's the sky falling. That's this moment where everything changes for the protagonist.
The third criteria is that the hero is compelled to react to a calling from whatever that sky falling inciting moment is. They have to go, they have to run from it to save their life, or they have to go save somebody else quickly, or they have to seek out information before it happens again, or they have to engage with an enemy who is challenging and threatening everything.
But that third thing needs to be there, there has to be something to react to. And they are compelled to engage and react, even if it doesn't seem like a reaction other than just running like hell to save themselves because that's often the case within a premise because the hero is in danger all of a sudden and they have to run.
The fourth criteria is there are stakes in play. This can't be the stakes are that my daughter lost her term paper on the bus on the way to school. Those aren't really big, global stakes that a huge readership it going to react to. There needs to be stakes that are what the hero is playing for.
It's the win or lose proposition of whatever you're asking the hero to do in the story. And right there is where a lot of new writers depart from the wisdom of this because they're writing a story that's a documentary that says, ‘Watch my hero on his summer vacation, it's really cool.'
And nothing really happens to the hero, that hero isn't called out of that pre-event life to engage with something, or run from something, or save somebody because there are no stakes yet. So the stakes are important for the story to work because the stakes are what the reader is going to relate to emotionally.
That's when you get the reader. When they can feel the weight of those stakes, they're going to empathize with this whole situation and they're going to root for your hero to fix this. Or to save themselves, or to save the other person, or to save the city, or to save the world, that's basically in essence what that means.
When the hero reacts, and there are stakes in play.
The fifth criteria is something opposes the hero, opposition, obstacle, in that quest to right the wrong, save people, turn this problem around, solve the problem, whatever it looks like, something stands in the hero's way. It isn't just a clean path.
So it really becomes hero entity A against antagonist entity B. Usually in genre, in the form of a villain or a group of villains, that's where the fight becomes kind of a one-on-one entity versus entity proposition that describes the arc of what the hero is doing to solve this problem.
Because ultimately, that's what a story is. Hero has a problem, hero has to solve the problem has to confront the problem, defeat the problem, and minimize or reverse the threat or the negative consequences had they not won.
When the hero is opposed, we bring us down to criterion number six, where the story needs to escalate, it can't be an even thing. It has to twist and escalate, which is a function of the writer's understanding of how story structure works. It isn't linear, it isn't easy. And there are highs and lows and lulls and reveals and breakthroughs.
The seventh criteria is that the hero's state of play, the hero's character arc if you will, the hero has to learn from what they're being exposed to. They have to encounter inner demons and habits and fears that might be stopping them. They have to conquer those things, they have to learn as they go about the antagonist and about the situation so that they can adapt.
Because what the hero is doing early in the story isn't working. That's that level thing I was talking about. The hero isn't going to win right away, things are going to get worse before they get better. And then the hero has to turn that around. They do that by understanding what wasn't working and why and suddenly start trying different things.
And then the eighth criteria is that the hero has to be the key catalyst in the resolution of the story. The hero isn't an observer to the resolution. The hero doesn't get injured and go to the hospital and someone else finishes the work and solves the problem, that won't work.
It's the hero resolves this whole thing somehow, maybe not completely, maybe not completely happily. But they vanquish whatever the problem is, whatever the villain's agenda was, and the world returns often to a new normal, if not the old normal.
Those are the eight blocks of a premise that works. And when we analyze a story by a new writer, and you start to dig into these eight things, you will often find that…not necessarily a new writer, but any writer who's had a story rejected or it isn't working, you'll find that in this diagnosis resides in one or more of those eight things either missing completely, or too weak, or not emotionally resonant.
Joanna: Wow, you've given us loads, Larry, and we're actually almost out of time. So I'm going to ask one more question because I think that emotional response, that emotional resonance, I feel that many indie writers, many writers have a good idea for plot.
What you outlined there, it's the hero's journey type of thing, and that people can fit those to plot. But what is often missing is the depth in the writing where a reader has an emotional response. It doesn't have to be crying or anything but something that's deeper than just oh, here's another fight scene. That is a very difficult thing for many people to write.
Larry: That's another great question. I want to go back to that horrible fraction, 96% don't get there and 4% do, and we try to explain. It isn't as simple as well, the 96% hit all eight of those things and the 96% can write really solid narrative prose. Yes, yes, and yes, but the real reason that 4% works, is that the nature of the problem that you've asked your hero to engage with is something that the reader can feel.
Let's look at a ridiculous premise like Superman or Batman. There is no Superman, there is no Batman. But when Batman is trying to stop an evil villain and his gang who wants to poison the water supply of an entire city and kill all the children and basically decimate civilization in a region of the United States, that is something that anybody with a pulse is going to want stopped.
So you create a story world that gives you permission to have these fantastical elements. But then the story translates to reality in terms of the reader feels it, they not only feel the urgency of the need, they feel the weight of the stakes, and they can feel what that would be like if something really happened there.
If somebody writes a novel about this coronavirus we're dealing with right now, and it's about a doctor who has a solution, but nobody will believe her, and her fight is to get her solution into the right hands so that it can suddenly be distributed widely. But for political reasons, they're not listening to her.
Can't you feel that already, me just saying that? We root for this doctor, we understand that this doctor is important, and unless she achieves this goal, the story goal you've given her, bad stuff is going to happen to all of us because that's in our lives right now.
So that's an example I just sparked right now because it's something we can all relate to. Even though the story is really about one doctor, one chemist who came across something that doesn't seem like it would work, but it does and she has to take it forward and get it out there.
But there's big pharmaceutical companies that want that chunk of business and they're trying to stop her. See where the story starts to layer in? But it's all based on the reader feeling the need and rooting for her, not just watching her, rooting for her to succeed in this quest that you've given.
That's the magic of emotional resonance. It's really the degree to which the reader cares about the hero and what you've asked them to do. Because the stakes are something they can relate to and emotionally feel and fear if you will.
Joanna: I think we see this in a lot of the Hollywood blockbusters that have lots of effects, but they don't necessarily have the emotional resonance that we want, and that's why they then fall apart. Although I love these big action movies, to be honest.
Larry: Me too.
Joanna: The last Avengers movie where they're all together, and they all come together to fight the bad guys. And they have that scene where all the different types of heroes come together. And I found that emotionally resonant. It's about as far from our life experience as possible. But this is a friendship resonance, we're banding together to save the world as friends.
That's one that often happens in YA books, I think, young adult books. The ‘Harry Potter' books, I think YA crossover, and ‘The Hunger Games,' things where friends and teams…It doesn't have to be romance, it doesn't have to be Batman, as you say. But I think like friendship, it's something that's part of the human condition.
And like you say, right now we're recording this in coronavirus, we can't even see our friends, we can't see your family, so you feel that. So that's what you're saying, right?
Larry: Yes. Heroes who will give up their life for their friends or to achieve a global enemy that has to be stopped at any cost. That's the emotional key to the Avengers. It's also the key to every romance story.
Someone will do what they have to do to make this relationship work without it harming the person they're in love with by taking you both forward in a way that you can be together going forward after the book is over. That's emotional resonance, and it's the most common.
But why is that the biggest genre of all? Because it's the most common human emotion of all. It's the most common dream, the most common fantasy, having love, having an amazing love affair that is unconditional and tested and challenged. And these people do what they have to do to make it work in spite of all the odds.
Joanna: We want to write these amazing stories and you've definitely given us some good tips and the book has lots more in.
The book is called Great Stories Don't Write Themselves.
Larry: All the usual online booksellers, beginning with Amazon, Barnes & Noble, every place that sells novels and books online will have this available. The chain bookstores will have the new one, maybe, if they don't get a huge buyout. It's not like the next Nora Roberts where there's 44 copies of her new book available, there's a handful of copies and often, Lord willing, they go quickly and it takes them a while to restock.
But a bookseller can also order any of these books for anybody that's interested. The new book may be there by now but it may not. Like any author, I do drop into Barnes & Noble to see if my book is still there, and I find out often that about three or four months later, the small allocation is gone and they're doing a reorder. So it isn't always a sure thing but it's easily found.
Joanna: That may never happen again, Larry.
Larry: I appreciate it.
Joanna: And just your website for people?
Larry: It's Storyfix.com. I've got eight parts where I'm actually taking excerpts of the book and using them as a blog post and embellishing them so they work as a blog post. Because you lift something out of a book, it may or may not work on its own.
But this series is going to go forward, it may end up with 40 or 50 posts in the series. But that's what I'm doing now on storyfix.com. There are over 1,000 posts there so there are all kinds of stuff.
Joanna: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, Larry, that was great.
Larry: It's my pleasure. I appreciate you inviting me, Joanna, you take care. Good luck to you.
Joanna: Thank you.
May 11 2020
Writing short fiction can be useful for licensing and self-publishing income, or using them to grow your list and connect with readers. There are many more opportunities for shorts in the digital world and in today's interview, Matty Dalrymple gives plenty of ideas that you can use in your author business.
In the intro, the UK government scraps 20% VAT on ebooks 7 months ahead of schedule [Publishing Perspectives], how reader behavior is changing in the pandemic [BookBub], growth in European ebook sales [LesEchos], Curtis Brown agent Jonny Geller has advised publishers to see lockdown as a time of change and “experiment” [The Bookseller], and some call for new models of selling direct and subscription [The Bookseller].
Plus I have some Audible US and UK review codes for my London Crime Thriller audiobook boxset. Contact me if you're interested. Plus, Books and Travel is back and the call to action is for J.F.Penn — the latest episode will transport you to a French vineyard …
Do you want to successfully co-write a book? Do you want to save time, money, and heartache on your co-writing journey? Co-writing can be an amazing experience when two (or more) minds come together to create something new in the world. Or it can be an expensive, painful process that ends in disaster! In this mini-course, bestselling authors J. Thorn and Joanna Penn share tips on how to successfully co-write a book (both fiction and non-fiction) and avoid the pitfalls along the way. Click here to find out more.
Matty Dalrymple is a thriller and suspense author, as well as a nonfiction author and podcaster at TheIndyAuthor.com. Her latest book for authors is Taking the Short Tack: Creating Income and Connecting with Readers Using Short Fiction, co-written with Mark Leslie Lefebvre.
You can find Marry Dalrymple at TheIndyAuthor.com and on Twitter @TheIndyAuthor
Joanna: Matty Dalrymple is a thriller and suspense author, as well as a nonfiction author and podcaster at theindyauthor.com. Her latest book for authors is Taking the Short Tack: Creating Income and Connecting with Readers Using Short Fiction, co-written with the lovely Mark Leslie Lefebvre.
Matty: Thank you. I'm very excited to be here.
Joanna: We were just having a chat. We've known each other for years. We've hung out at Thriller Fest. So it's great to have you on the show finally.
Matty: I always had a goal of being a writer, not least because my father was a writer. And in fact, my publishing company, William Kingsfield Publishers, is an homage to my father who wrote under the pen name William Kingsfield. And he had several short stories appropriately, enough for today's topic, had suffered short stories published back in the '50s in ‘Collier's' and ‘Cosmopolitan'.
Then he turned his eye to novels. And I think he was a short story guy. He wasn't a novel guy. He never got a novel published and indie publishing wasn't available to him at the time. But it was always something that I wanted to do.
I wrote some short stories in college and turned them over to my dad who acted as my agent, and he would send them out to publications. And there's one I recall that I got published. I actually didn't keep that close track of it. But then I left college and writing fell by the wayside primarily because I just wasn't coming up with stories that I thought were sufficiently compelling.
Then in 2011, my husband and I were vacationing in Yellowstone National Park and we were staying at the Yellowstone Hotel, and if ever there was going to be a haunted location it would be the Yellowstone Hotel. I started telling him about this scene that I had very specifically imagined in my mind of a woman who was able to sense spirits, who goes to a house on a consulting engagement, and encounters such a terrible sense there because the reader knows, but she does not know that a murder has taken place there.
I said, ‘Oh, I really see it as a movie, but I'm not interested in writing a screenplay.' And he said, ‘Well, write it down, maybe it's a book.' And that night I started writing, and that was five books ago, and half a dozen short stories ago.
Joanna: Fantastic. You've already sort of said there about your dad not being a novel guy and writing short stories. So I'm really interested in that. We'll circle back to that. But let's start by defining short fiction.
Matty: We use the science fiction and fantasy writers guideline that anything over 40,000 words is considered a novel, 40,000 words would be a pretty short novel, but that's what they consider a novel. So we considered anything less than 40,000 words to be short fiction.
But with a couple of exceptions, like micro fiction and flash fiction, the ideas that we have in the book are really applicable regardless of where in that range of word count you fall. Now the tips work as well, for a 5,000-word short story, which is more the area that I'm writing my stories in up to 40,000 words, but that's the cutoff we use for defining short fiction.
Joanna: It's interesting because I have written short stories at around 5,000 words and my novellas are probably 25,000. So we're going to talk about both of these really, aren't we?
I did want to ask about serials because serials seem to go in waves. I've been getting a lot of emails recently about serials. And of course, it took off 8 years ago or something with the Kindle Serials.
Matty: We are. I think that the whole idea of serials has become even more popular with the Serial podcast. I don't know how far beyond the U.S. that spread. But that's a very popular podcast from a couple of years ago.
One of the ideas we offer for short fiction is posting a serialized story on your website as a way to attract readers to your website, of course, have a little pop up there asking them to sign up for your email newsletter. And you can monetize that to an extent by using something like Patreon which I know you use, or Buy Me A Coffee which is something that I'm using now.
It's just a plugin you can put on your website and it enables people to buy you a virtual coffee through PayPal or Stripe by clicking on a button. Which is really nice, if somebody reads through a short story and they get to the end, they really enjoyed it, they can just send you three bucks or four bucks. And it's a nice way for not only to earn a little money, but also to connect with your readers and to get that satisfaction to see that somebody's really appreciated enough to take the time to do that.
Joanna: That's fantastic. We'll come back to monetization in a minute. I know some people listening will be going, but you can make more money with a novel. And why would I write short fiction?
Matty: I think that the primary reason is all the benefits that the short part of short fiction offers. If you're looking for a tool to connect with readers, you can certainly connect with readers with a new product much more frequently.
If you're producing an 8,000 word short story, let's say, rather than 80,000-word novel, you should be able to write one of those in a 10th of the time, and probably less because you're not dealing generally with the plot complexities that you might be with a full length novel.
So you can stay front of mind with your readership more easily with short fiction. Another huge benefit over novels is that it enables you to experiment. So you might be established in one genre, and you're thinking about venturing into a different genre, or you might want to experiment with using a different point of view, you're used to writing third person you want to try out first person, and you could experiment with that with a novel-length work.
But you could end up investing a year, or 2 years, or 10 years, and get to the end of that experiment and find out that it really wasn't successful. Whereas if you're doing that experimentation with a shorter work, then you're limiting the damage you can do to the time, that might be enough and yet it's enough of an effort that you are thoroughly exercising whatever that experiment is that you want to do.
Joanna: I've written a lot more novels than I've written short stories. And it's funny because I really struggle with short stories because I can't seem to think of something small enough to fit into that. So for someone like me and people listening, I mean, you said it, coming back to your dad, you said he wasn't a novel guy, he was a short story guy. I feel more like I'm a novel girl, not a short story, girl.
Matty: I think that ideas can be bucketed out into the it will take 80,000 words or it will take 8,000 words. And what I find is that most of the time when I come up with an idea, I think of a theme and then I build a story around it.
Or as has been the case with a number of my books, I have one scene very clearly in mind and then I have to right up to that scene and right away from that scene to create a novel, which is very, very inefficient, and I'm trying to stop doing that.
But sometimes I just have a what if? And it's often triggered by a circumstance I find myself in. So as an example, my husband and I went on a cruise last year, thank God we did that last year, and not this year.
Joanna: I was going to say, no cruise industry left now as we record this.
Matty: No cruising anymore for the time being. But we cruised from Hawaii to Vancouver, and we were at sea for five days. And that was an experience I had never had before to be away from land for that long, which was great. I have to say that the five days at sea was my favorite part of that trip, and I got tons of writing done.
I started thinking about what would happen if someone jumped overboard and thinking about it from an author point of view. And it wasn't enough to hang an entire plot-line on. Although I can imagine down the road, perhaps expanding that into a story that would take place on a cruise ship. That would be fun.
It was really just what if a person jumped overboard and now Ann Kinnear has shown up who can communicate with the spirit of this person, and what might that look like? And so that turned out to be a fun story to tell in about 5,000 words, it wouldn't have needed a lot more meat to tell it as the novel length work.
I think that's the dividing point for me. Is it a theme which lends itself more to novels? Or is it more a slice of life? Or a slice of fictional life in this case?
Joanna: Ann Kinnear is your main character in your thrillers, right, in your suspense books?
Matty: You could do both. And they might serve different purposes. So if you're writing different characters, it might be more in that experimentation mode, where you want to see how it goes. Perhaps you want to share it out with readers, or share it out with your followers, your email list to get their opinion on it.
When I started writing the Ann Kinnear suspense shorts, it was very specifically triggered by my need to get some Ann Kinnear material out there. Because I published my first Ann Kinnear suspense novel The Sense Of Death, in 2013. And I published the follow on, which was The Sense of Reckoning in 2015.
Then I had an idea that definitely required a novel-length work to explore. But it was one that really didn't fit into the Ann Kinnear world. And that's the book that became Rock Paper Scissors, which was my first Lizzy Ballard thriller. And I told my Ann fans, ‘Oh, I have this one book that I need to write, and as soon as I'm done, I'll get back and as soon as I'm done I'll get to Ann Kinnear three.'
So I finished Rock Paper Scissors. And then I had an idea that I wanted to pursue about what happened to Lizzy next. So that became Snakes and Ladders. And I continued to tell my Ann Kinnear followers to just, ‘Be patient a little bit longer.' And then, of course, I had a third idea, I realized it was a trilogy. So I wrote The Iron Ring, which was the third book in the Lizzy Ballard thriller trilogy.
At this point, I really felt like I had to give the Ann Kinnear fans something. And so that's when I started writing the Ann Kinnear suspense shorts, to tide them over until I really did get to Ann Kinnear three, which I'm working on now. And so it was very important for me to have the same characters. If there was a character they really loved it was important for me to give them a little taste of that character as part of my effort to tide them over.
One of the things I'm interested in is as I see those stories are going out to a wider audience, and I think at some point they're going to get to the people who aren't familiar with the novels, I'm going to be interested to see if the response to them is as positive as when it's been the people who already knew the characters.
Because it's a little bit different if you're writing a story, assuming that the person is familiar with the characters, you take a little bit different approach. And so that's some market research I'm waiting to see how that pans out. But yeah, I think it could be different approaches. And it just depends on what your goal is with that piece of short fiction.
Joanna: I think you're right, the engaging existing fans. I'm almost in the same position with my ARKANE series. And I actually just got an email before this saying, ‘Have you finished that series, or will there be any more books?' Because it's been almost two years, same as you.
I'm writing my ‘Mapwalker' series. And this is the thing isn't it, where as creative people, especially when you start a new book, you think it's only one book and then it turns into three which is typical, but it's interesting.
Because the only short stories I've written have been commissioned. So I've actually been paid for those stories upfront, and then got the rights back later and then self-published those.
Matty: Interesting. I see an additional chapter in Taking the Short Tack in a future edition on commissioned works.
Joanna: I had never considered writing short stories. And then got commissioned. In fact, I'll thank Mark Leslie Lefebvre for that, because it was around Dan Brown's book Inferno when he was back at KOBO, and we did a project together then. So it's interesting because that is one way of getting commissioned. What are some of the other ways that people can actually make money from short fiction?
Matty: One of the ways is the one I mentioned, that is putting it out as a standalone ebook. All my Ann Kinnear suspense shorts are available on all the online retail platforms for 99 cents. And you publish them just as you would a novel length work.
The couple of best practices that we call out to make that a financially viable approach are related to how can you make book cover design and editing and proofreading affordable when you're putting a product out there that you're only going to be selling for 99 cents.
What I did for the Ann Kinnear suspense shorts is that I worked with a cover designer to come up with a template and I would go find royalty-free images or I would purchase an image and then send it to him, and he would be able to apply this template that had my author name and the same font that it appears on the novels, the title in the same font that it appears in the novels and ‘An Ann Kinnear Suspense Short.'
Then I would show him what part of the photograph I wanted to have constitute the cover. And then on that basis, it sounds like something I should be able to do myself, right. But with someone with a designer eye, he was always able to do things like arrange the words in the title slightly differently so they looked much nicer than if you just typed it out in a word processor format. He was able to adjust the image that I provided to make it look appropriate for what I was trying to achieve.
Once we had that template in place, it was very easy and inexpensive for me to just send him the new title, the new picture and he would do five minutes worth of work and pretty soon I would have a cover. So that's a way you can approach the money making aspect of standalone ebook from an affordable point of view for cover design.
Similarly, you're going to be paying comparably less for editorial services if they're only reading 8,000 words, than if they're reading 80,000 words. So, the editorial costs can be much less.
I've had good luck in terms of holding down proofreading costs by soliciting what I call people to look for typo…give them a typo bounty. So I'll send a solicitation out to a writers group I belong to, I'll say, ‘I'll send you this story for free, obviously, and I'll pay you a bounty of so much per typo up to some limit.' So that can be an inexpensive way, actually, both for short stories and novels to get that done.
But the one call out that we'd like to make in the book is you can't allow the short nature of short fiction to…you can't use it as an excuse for having a lower standard of excellence for it. It still has to be professionally edited, professionally proofread, you have to have a professional-looking cover or it's going to get lost in the dross of the millions of online books.
But standalone ebook is one. Foreign language market is one that we spend some time on. But we largely point people to Douglas Smith's Playing the Short Game and Douglas Smith's website because he has lots of great information about foreign language markets. And it's something that I think a lot of writers don't pursue because they think they're going to have to take on the translation work.
But oftentimes, if you sell an English language piece of short fiction to a foreign language market, they'll take care of the translations for you.
Patreon support is another way you can monetize. If, for example, you're putting your short story up on your website, or a password protected area of your website that only the Patreon patrons can get to, then that would be another way of monetizing it. So lots of areas in both the traditional and indie spheres that you can use for the income creation aspect of short fiction.
Joanna: I want to shout out Seanan McGuire on Patreon and also N.K. Jemisin who both have Patreon for their fiction. Seanan McGuire particularly I think she's making about $11,000 per story.
Matty: Wow. That's fantastic.
Joanna: Exactly. She's a traditionally published author and I love her horror as Mira Grant. And she's just a fantastic writer. So it's great to see traditionally published authors who have a bigger audience can go indie with this kind of Patreon model, because they're not even actually publishing it, necessarily.
And then, of course, I've seen some of the stories that she writes for her Patreon also end up in anthologies. We'll come back to anthologies in a minute.
But also just to say Douglas Smith has been on the show before, so I refer people back to his interview. One of the things he talks about is actually submitting to magazines and traditional publishing itself for short stories because there is quite a market for that.
Matty: One of the things that was an important lesson from Doug and also I believe from Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is the idea that if you're sending out to the traditional publishing market, you might as well start at the top.
I think a lot of self effacing writers will look into the traditional publishing market and think, ‘Oh, this is the big name, I'm not going to go for that. I'm going to go for some small publication where I'm going to receive a copy of the magazine or some other token recognition.' But if you're going to go to the traditional route, you might as well start with the big names and all they can do is say no, and work your way down if you need to, and if you want to, but you might as well submit to those big names because you never know.
It was interesting. One of the reasons that I really liked working with Mark on this is that we brought very different background and very different experience. Obviously, Mark is a big indie guy. But from the short fiction point of view, he has much, much more experience with traditional publishing than I do.
After I got the information for the traditional publishing chapter from him, I thought, ‘You know, I'm going to try all the things in this that I can possibly try before the publication date.' And so I had a story I had already published as a standalone ebook, and I found a publication that took reprints. So I submitted that story as a reprint.
And then the cruise ship story that I mentioned before I wrote as a news story, and I went to a couple of the big names. And I submitted it, I went to their website where they took submissions, and I filled out all the information and I got to the bottom and I hit submit, and I got an error message that made it clear that it wasn't user error. It was some technical problem.
Did it all again, filled it all out, hit submit, same error message, sent a message to their customer service organization, never heard back. I got in touch with a friend of mine who has published a lot of short stories and he said, ‘Oh, yeah, they're kind of known for being a little ditzy on the administrative side. Why don't you try their sister organization?'
I went to that site's submission page, filled out all the information, hit submit, same error message, tried to get in touch with them, no word and at this point, in true indie fashion, I thought, ‘You know what? I'm just not going to wait anymore. I'm just going to publish it myself.'
I think it really depends on what you're looking for. Obviously, there's a certain cachet and a certain prestige with getting your work into especially a well known traditional short fiction publication. And potentially, a lot of benefit from the point of view of it looks good on the resume, let's say, but I found that my indieness came through.
Eventually I just lost patience for it. And I just published that one myself. But Mark has had, obviously, a very, very different experience. And it's really his advice you want to follow in terms of the traditional publishing side.
Joanna: It's funny, you say you're indieness, I've been the same. When I had Doug on the show, I was all fired up with doing shorts for traditional markets. And then, like you say, you have to identify the markets and there's some good tools, you have them in the book. I think Duotrope is one of them, and they have these lists of places you can submit to.
And then you just get tired with even looking at this stuff. And in the end, like you say, I end up just publishing myself anyway, which is fine. But another benefit of being in a traditional magazine or a traditionally published anthology, for example, would be marketing. There's often much more you could be in something next to a really big name in your genre.
So it can be worth it not for the financial reasons, but potentially, for the marketing and association reasons.
Matty: I think you definitely get that kind of benefit from from being traditionally published, you also get that kind of benefit from being in an anthology. And this is an area that I know you can speak to.
It seems as if getting into an anthology is one of those things that the idea of networking within the writing and publishing communities is very important, because sometimes those opportunities are published out to the public. But sometimes it's the sort of thing that you're sitting next to someone at a conference or you're on a panel with them and they say, ‘Hey, I'm working on this anthology.'
Mark, gives a good example of sitting with someone in a panel waiting for the panel discussion to begin. And it was someone who was putting two together in an anthology, and didn't realize that Mark wrote in both science fiction and horror genres. And when he found that out, he was working on an anthology in one of those genres and Mark ended up being included in that.
So it's a great example of the importance of building those communities, because they'll open opportunities for you that you're not going to get if you're just sitting quietly at home by yourself.
Even in these times, there are plenty of ways to be networking with people being out there and letting people know that you're interested in those kinds of opportunities is very important.
Joanna: I've been in an anthology with Mark, one of the ‘Fiction Rivers' for WNG publishing, which is a Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and they do those regularly. And as you say, networking is really good. We're all readers as well as writers.
And in fact, some of the short story collections I've bought are because I like the writer, like Seanan McGuire, who I mentioned, I bought anthologies because she's in them, because I literally love her stuff.
But if you, the listener, are interested in being in an anthology, you have to pay attention to the people who edit the anthologies, because they are the ones…or the ones writing the forwards to them. And then it's going down a Google rabbit hole, isn't it? It's finding like where those people are, who they know.
It's almost like I wish we had LinkedIn for the author community. To see who knows who. And then back when we're traveling, it could be going to a conference where they are, or Dean and Kris, for example, run an anthology workshop where they will end up buying some of the short stories from attendees.
Joanna: It's an investment, but it's an investment, in your craft, which is going to pay off. Now you've done their workshops, haven't you?
Matty: I have not. No. That's on my bucket list.
Joanna: Well, hopefully they will run them again. When the world comes back.
Matty: The other thing is you can also look at local opportunities. I have one of my stories in an anthology that was published as part of a fundraising effort for a local library and there was a Noir at the Bar event where the speakers came, there was an admission fee and the admission fees all went to the library.
And then all the readers at that event had their books bundled into an anthology, the proceeds which also go to the library. So you don't have to be looking at the huge names, the Dean Wesley Smiths and the Kristine Kathryn Ruschs of the world, you can find those opportunities much more locally too.
Joanna: You can also organize them yourself, using services like StoryBundle is one option, but BundleRabbit, Chuck Heintzelman's service. That's another way.
Matty: Those are the two primary ways. I had done a bundle through BundleRabbit not of short fiction, but an ebook box set. I think it was called ‘Sisters of Suspense.' And it was the first in series from five different authors.
And I used BundleRabbit and was very easy and a really nice way to get an anthology or a bundle out to all the different online retail sites in a very easy way. So that would be the first place I would send people to if they were looking to put together their own anthology of short fiction.
Joanna: I would say that there's a definite hierarchy within short fiction anthologies within genres as well. So we've mentioned that there are paying markets where you're going to be paid for your story. And first print rights, as you mentioned, are really important for those types of markets. They're not going to take reprints, but then it goes down in order.
And the indie BundleRabbit ones, I'm not saying anything about the writing, I'm just saying that there are things that people are looking for, awards, for example, the International Thriller Writers we're both in has an award for the best short story. And that is not going to be pulling from an indie published BundleRabbit anthology, for example.
Matty: Right, you can always look around, and this is another place where community building is important.
If you're putting together an anthology, you could perhaps look to someone who's a little bit bigger in the area you're writing in but is still willing to participate in that and then reward them with a higher percentage of sales of the royalties.
And also I would say it's very important to enlist all the participants of the anthology to commit to promoting it, because it's that cross promotion that is going to potentially make that a profitable effort.
Joanna: Definitely. I guess we've talked mainly about the ebook version of an anthology. I've done an ebook of three of my short stories. A Thousand Fiendish Angels is in ebook, print and audio.
Dean Wesley Smith I think prints his short stories, has a print on demand version, but usually they're quite short so you can't really do that. But M.L. Buchman, who's been on the show, he does print editions of every year he'll do 12 short stories in an edition. So those are ways that you can do print.
Matty: I would like to do that for a collection of Ann Kinnear suspense shorts. So my goal is that once I get 12 of them, I'm going to put them together and have a print version of a year of Kinnear. So there'll be a short story that's set in each month of the year, it'll be subtitled ‘A Year of Kinnear.'
That would be available in all those formats you're talking about. Audio is really interesting. And Mark especially has had great luck with audio. He's in a nice position because he can narrate and produce his own audio. And he has earned back on all his short fiction audios very quickly.
If audio is something you want to pursue, ACX, which is affiliated with Amazon, is probably not a good option because nobody's going to pay a credit for a half hour long short story if they can pay the same credit for James Michener.
Joanna: Yeah, like a 45 hour book.
Matty: Findaway Voices is a great option there, and it gives you much more more flexibility in terms of being able to set your own prices and so on. So that's something that I'm going to be pursuing myself.
You can also use audio on your website. Mark had Free Friday Frights which he's recently resurrected, I believe, where he would actually use video, he would do a live video feed of him reading one of his short stories. And so that's one that's more focused on connecting with readers than creating income, but it's a really nice way to give the people who are following you a little nice extra dose of you and your work.
Joanna: I've narrated all my short stories as well. You should still have them on Audible. You can just do that through Findaway anyway, to put them on Audible. But it is interesting because if you're going to try self-narration then doing shorts is quite a good way to start.
It's not a huge commitment in time.
Matty: One that I like is getting unstuck. And it's one that we actually listed under creating income. And the idea is that if you're working on a larger work, and you've just ground to a halt, you can keep banging your head against it, or you can switch your attention to something else.
The danger of switching your attention to another long work is that now you're splitting your time across two things that you might be banging your head against. But if you switch your attention to something short, a piece of short fiction, it can be a nice break. It can be a good way for you to refresh your mind.
And yet again, you're not taking that huge time commitment to launch into another huge project. And so we put getting unstuck under creating income because you're not going to make income with a piece of work that is stuck. And short fiction is often a good way to get past that.
Joanna: Oh, I like that. I think that's really good. And flash can be a good way to do that. But I think selling flash is even harder than selling short stories because it could be only like 500 words. So, but I think that's great.
I did want to ask you, because you actually co-wrote this book, Taking the Short Tack with Mark. And obviously, Mark is fantastic, been on the show lots, personal friend, karaoke friend of mine, but I've never co-written with Mark. So I'm very interested.
Matty: It was fantastic. It started because I was listening to the Stark Reflections On Writing and Publishing Podcast, which is Mark's podcast. And he had just mentioned short fiction in passing, and I had this group of Ann Kinnear suspense shorts that I was trying to decide what to do with.
I sent him a note and I said, ‘Would you be be willing to devote an episode to talking about what you can do with short fiction?' And because he's such an obliging guy, he did. And he had an episode, I think it's 97. It was called '10 Tips For Marketing and Making Money Off Your Short Fiction.' And because he always overdelivers, there was actually 13.
When that was over, I wrote him another note, and I said, ‘Thank you so much for doing that. I think there would be a book in this. Would you be interested in co-authoring a book on short fiction with me?' And he said, ‘Yes.' And following are…also your colleague, J. Thorn's advice about, ‘Go to someone with an offer, not an ask.'
Originally, the idea was that I would do the vast majority of the work and I was hoping to take advantage of Mark's knowledge in areas that I was not familiar with, like traditional publishing and also obviously, his much wider reach in the industry.
But it actually turned out to be he did much more work than I expected him to do in the beginning. Originally, what I was planning on doing was interviewing him for those parts that I had less familiarity with and then writing up the results and sending it to him and having him correct it.
But he actually wrote most of the sections where he had all the experience, like the traditional publishing market, he did most of the writing on that and then I edited it so that it was a consistent voice through the through the book.
It was great. We not only brought different perspectives, he having more experience…much more experience in the traditional publishing world, and me having relatively more experience, not more experienced than Mark, but more experienced than the traditional publishing world in the…on the indie side, that was great.
The other thing that I thought was really good is that Mark is such a people person, and I'm such a project manager.
Joanna: That's a good combination.
Matty: It did turn out to be a great combination. And after having spent several decades in the corporate world as a project manager before I left last year to make a go of this full time, I'm all about the checklists and the schedules, and Mark is all about how are we going to help people with this material?
It turned out to be a really great combination from that point of view. In some cases, he was more the idea guy and I was more the execution person. So it really worked out well that we were coming from very different places, and I think it melded in a way that's going to be great for readers because they'll have all these different aspects covered.
The other piece of advice that I'd offer, and I know this is something that you're a big proponent of is make sure you have a contract for this kind of effort. I really love the approach of you don't sign to contract because you don't trust each other, you enter into a contract because you do trust each other. And so in the case of me and Mark, that was a two page word document that just outlined the high level approach we were going to take about how we would split royalties, the mechanisms we would use to do that, who would do in general, what type of work.
And since we signed that we've actually changed a couple of things. For example, Mark was originally going to narrate the audiobook. And as time went on, it just became apparent that I had more time to devote to that and I'm going to pick that up. I made a couple of decisions about branding to make it not so indie author branded as I'd originally anticipated. So now we just have a one page little addendum that we're going to sign to formalize those agreements that we've already come to. But yeah, it was a great experience.
Joanna: That's great and definitely complementary skills is fantastic for co-writing. And not just for the writing, but as you say, the experience and also the marketing.
I'm so glad you mentioned the contract there. I just hear so many stories of indie authors who just jump into these things without writing down how it's going to work. Because basically if you keep that book going, and you keep that book published, basically that can go on beyond your deaths.
Matty: Yes, exactly.
Joanna: It's a huge commitment. And people just jump into these things without considering the potential of the book. And certainly, I think it's a great book, very well organized, as you said, You're a project manager, and I can totally tell that in the book. It's so well organized.
Matty: Good. I'm glad I was able to bring that to it.
Joanna: Yes, you definitely did. Where can people find you and your podcast and your books and everything you do online?
Matty: They can go for my nonfiction platform to theindyauthor.com and that's indy. And if they're interested in learning about my fiction work, they can go to mattydalrymple.com and that's Matty with a Y, Matty.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Matty. That was great.
Matty: Thanks, Joanna.
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