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The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience

Updated 10 days ago

Rank #75 in Arts category

Arts
Business
Education
Literature
Careers
Management & Marketing
Read more

Kelton Reid studies the habits, habitats, and brains of a wide spectrum of renowned writers to learn their secrets of productivity and creativity. Tune in each week to learn how great writers keep the ink flowing, the cursor moving, and avoid block. Explore our archives at writerfiles.fm to find interviews with notable guests that include bestselling authors John Scalzi (Old Mans War), Greg Iles (Natchez Burning), Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City), Kevin Kelly (founder of WIRED magazine), Emma Donoghue (Oscar Nominee for Room), Maria Konnikova (The Confidence Game), Andy Weir (The Martian), Dan Buettner (The Blue Zones), Austin Kleon (Steal Like an Artist), Daniel Pink (When), and serial guest hosts: neuroscientist Michael Grybko, journalist Adam Skolnick, and short story writer Robert Bruce.

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Kelton Reid studies the habits, habitats, and brains of a wide spectrum of renowned writers to learn their secrets of productivity and creativity. Tune in each week to learn how great writers keep the ink flowing, the cursor moving, and avoid block. Explore our archives at writerfiles.fm to find interviews with notable guests that include bestselling authors John Scalzi (Old Mans War), Greg Iles (Natchez Burning), Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City), Kevin Kelly (founder of WIRED magazine), Emma Donoghue (Oscar Nominee for Room), Maria Konnikova (The Confidence Game), Andy Weir (The Martian), Dan Buettner (The Blue Zones), Austin Kleon (Steal Like an Artist), Daniel Pink (When), and serial guest hosts: neuroscientist Michael Grybko, journalist Adam Skolnick, and short story writer Robert Bruce.

iTunes Ratings

60 Ratings
Average Ratings
49
3
4
2
2

Really insightful

By cjearly - Jul 14 2015
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Great show, great guests and a great host! Definitely worth tuning into every week.

Awesome

By Iphonedoyou - Apr 24 2015
Read more
This is the writing podcast I've been looking for. Fun and practical. Win-win.

iTunes Ratings

60 Ratings
Average Ratings
49
3
4
2
2

Really insightful

By cjearly - Jul 14 2015
Read more
Great show, great guests and a great host! Definitely worth tuning into every week.

Awesome

By Iphonedoyou - Apr 24 2015
Read more
This is the writing podcast I've been looking for. Fun and practical. Win-win.
Cover image of The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience

The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience

Updated 10 days ago

Rank #75 in Arts category

Read more

Kelton Reid studies the habits, habitats, and brains of a wide spectrum of renowned writers to learn their secrets of productivity and creativity. Tune in each week to learn how great writers keep the ink flowing, the cursor moving, and avoid block. Explore our archives at writerfiles.fm to find interviews with notable guests that include bestselling authors John Scalzi (Old Mans War), Greg Iles (Natchez Burning), Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City), Kevin Kelly (founder of WIRED magazine), Emma Donoghue (Oscar Nominee for Room), Maria Konnikova (The Confidence Game), Andy Weir (The Martian), Dan Buettner (The Blue Zones), Austin Kleon (Steal Like an Artist), Daniel Pink (When), and serial guest hosts: neuroscientist Michael Grybko, journalist Adam Skolnick, and short story writer Robert Bruce.

Rank #1: ‘The Writer’s Brain’ on Productivity vs. Creativity: Part One

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Welcome back to another special edition of The Writer Files called “The Writer’s Brain,” a guest series with neuroscientist Michael Grybko, and in this episode we’ll dig into the inextricable link between productivity and creativity, and the Catch-22 so many writers face as a result. 

This all began when Michael and I started a conversation about why we need to rethink our definition of productivity.

As busyness, the cult of productivity, and multitasking seem to take over our lives, it’s easy to forget that the origins of the word productivity comes from the Latin, productivitas.

Translation: creative power.

Creativity — a topic Michael and I have discussed at length — is the beating heart of change, progress, and innovation, but our work-life scales are bending dangerously toward more busywork, distraction, inefficiency, and overall dissatisfaction.

Truly scaling creativity requires productivity, so a balance must be struck between the two. Writing is a great example of this push and pull in the human brain.

Luckily, research scientist Michael Grybko returned to the podcast to help me find some answers from the perspective of neuroscience.

If you’ve missed previous episodes of The Writer’s Brain you can find them all in the show notes, in the archives at writerfiles.fm, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you tune in.

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.

In Part One of this file Michael Grybko and I discuss:

  • How neuroscience views the complex interplay between productivity and creativity
  • Why writers often struggle to finish longer projects
  • The great irony of the “10 year overnight success”
  • How memory plays such a big part in productivity
  • Why so many writing instructors prescribe “life experience” for great writing
  • How always on, open concept workspaces can actually hinder both productivity and creativity
  • And the close study of musicians, artists, and the pitfalls of mapping creativity in the brain

The Show Notes:

Jan 09 2019
37 mins
Play

Rank #2: 21 Productivity Hacks from 21 Prolific Writers: Part One

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In this special edition of the show we traditionally call “writer porn” I’ve invited back award-winning international journalist, author, and serial pundit, Adam Skolnick, to discuss a piece I wrote for Copyblogger.com last year titled, “21 Productivity Hacks from 21 Prolific Writers.”

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Over the last four years, I ve been given the fantastic opportunity to interview a wide range of more than 70 prolific, renowned, and bestselling authors for The Writer Files series.

As you may know, each interview digs into the habits, habitats, and brains of these writers, and I ask them all roughly the same set of questions on how they get words consistently onto the page.

So, I sifted through the extensive series archives (including the written interviews) and cherry-picked 21 highlights on productivity from these writers for you. You’ll definitely notice some themes from their advice on keeping the ink flowing and the cursor moving.

You can go to 21 Productivity Hacks from 21 Prolific Writers to follow along. Audio snippets have been excerpted here from the available podcast episodes.

Guest host Adam Skolnick’s narrative nonfiction book, One Breath: Freediving, Death, and the Quest to Shatter Human Limits — based on his award-winning New York Times sports reporting — is now available in paperback.

In addition to his recent journalism, Adam has visited 45 countries and contributed to over 30 Lonely Planet guidebooks. He has written for ESPN.com, Men s Health, Outside, BBC, Playboy Magazine, and The NY Times, and has appeared on NPR.

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.

In Part One of this file some highlights include:

Jul 10 2018
46 mins
Play

Rank #3: Busting the Myth of the Starving Artist with Jeff Goins: Part One

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The multiple bestselling author of five books, including his latest — Real Artists Don t Starve — Jeff Goins, returned for a special edition of the show to talk with me about “The New Renaissance,” his favorite books on creativity, and busting the commonly held beliefs of artists.

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In addition to being an entrepreneur and speaker, Jeff is a writing and creativity consultant, and his popular blog, Goins, Writer, offers free tips about the writing life.

His podcast, The Portfolio Life, delves into many of the same topics via interviews with entrepreneurs and writers aimed squarely at helping listeners pursue work that matters.

On Jeff’s last visit to the show in 2015, we talked about his bestselling book, The Art of Work, and how to think like a professional writer.

His latest, Real Artists Don’t Starve, “… dismantles the myth that being creative is a hindrance to success …,” and bestselling author Daniel Pink said of the book, “Every entrepreneur, writer, and artist should read this book and take notes.”

Writers, I think you’re going to like this one.

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.

In Part One of this file Jeff Goins and I discuss:

  • How the starving artist mindset is a choice not a condition
  • Why now is the best time in history to do creative work
  • How John Grisham overcame the odds and 40 rejections to become a bestselling author
  • Why you don’t need to “go big or go home”
  • The psychology of rule-breakers and creativity

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Jul 18 2017
27 mins
Play

Rank #4: How the Bestselling Sci-Fi Author of ‘The Martian’ Andy Weir Writes

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The #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Martian, Andy Weir, dropped by the show in 2015 to chat with me about his writing process in the days just prior to the release of the Oscar Nominated movie adaptation of his hit book, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon.

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This is a replay of the entire interview I did with Andy in honor of the publication of his latest book — Artemis: A Novel — described as “… a near-future thriller — a heist story set on the moon.”

Blake Crouch, the New York Times bestselling author of Dark Matter, said of the book “Weir has done the impossible he s topped The Martian …,” and Ernest Cline, New York Times bestselling author of Ready Player One, called it “Everything you could hope for in a follow-up … another smart, fun, fast-paced adventure that you won t be able to put down.”

The author’s inspiring journey to #1 on the NY Times Best Sellers list with his first novel began as a humble series of blog posts that grew enough interest to demand self-publishing to Amazon. When The Martian’s popularity sky-rocketed, traditional publisher Random House called, and the rest is history.

From software engineer to sci-fi phenom, Andy is a down-to-earth writer and self-described “space nerd,” who still answers all of his fan mail.

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.

In this file Andy Weir and I discuss:

  • How a science geek became a bestselling author
  • One great trick for improving your dialogue
  • Why your enthusiasm doesn’t determine the quality of your writing
  • The creative power of a walk and a hot shower
  • Mr. Weir’s unique relationship with NASA
  • 3 tips and tricks to becoming an “actual” writer

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Nov 14 2017
42 mins
Play

Rank #5: How to Crack the ‘Bestseller Code’ with Jodie Archer: Part One

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Writer, literary scholar, publishing consultant, and co-author of the internationally acclaimed book The Bestseller Code, Jodie Archer, returns one year later to chat with me about the book’s runaway success, turning the algorithm into an innovative consulting service for writers, her own writer’s journey, and one very unexpected turn for the host of this show.

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Before getting her PhD from Stanford, Ms. Archer studied English at Cambridge, worked in journalism and TV, and was an acquisitions editor for Penguin UK publishing.

At Stanford Jodie taught writing and researched both contemporary fiction and bestsellers. Upon completion of her doctoral work she was recruited by Apple where she was the lead in research on books.

The Bestseller Code is based on Jodie’s doctoral research with professor Matthew Jockers (co-founder of the cutting edge Stanford Literary Lab), an algorithm they honed for four years and refined by text mining over 20,000 contemporary novels using around 300,000 data points.

The Guardian predicted that the book would “… revolutionize the publishing industry,” because the technology could predict bestsellers 80% of the time, based on theme, plot, character, and many other signatures.

The authors were, of course, hounded by writers from all over the world for help with their manuscripts. And finally — following their breakthrough research — Jodie and Matt have founded a unique book consulting service for authors, publishers, and agents, based on the algorithm in The Bestseller Code.

Beginning December 1st, 2017, ArcherJockers.com will offer three tiers of service to authors: single manuscript analysis, series analysis, and VIP service. [This interview was recorded in anticipation of that date in mid-October.]

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.

In Part One of this file Jodie Archer and I discuss:

  • How writers from around the world convinced the authors to do consulting services
  • The innovation behind the anticipated Archer Jockers’ service for novelists
  • How to find your bestselling moment with integrity
  • The power of “good” press, great agents, and selling the international rights to your book
  • Jodie’s own multi-genre writing projects
  • How yours truly took a leap of faith and became a beta tester for the service (cliffhanger pending)

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Nov 23 2017
39 mins
Play

Rank #6: How New York Times Bestselling Author of ‘The Bookseller’ Cynthia Swanson Writes

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The award-winning literary suspense novelist and New York Times bestselling author of The Bookseller, Cynthia Swanson, took a break before her upcoming book tour to chat with me about her new thriller, The Glass Forest, the writer-slash-designer s process and unique relationship with creativity, and how she finds her ideas.

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The bestselling author started out as a freelance marketing and technical writer before her debut novel, The Bookseller, became an Indie Next pick and winner of the 2016 WILLA Award for Historical Fiction. The book has been translated into over a dozen languages and was optioned for a film adaptation with Julia Roberts attached to star and produce.

Cynthia’s latest psychological thriller The Glass Forest, has been described as “… a gripping literary suspense novel set in the 1960s about a deeply troubled family and three women who will reveal its dark truths.”

The Library Journal said of the book, “… Swanson demonstrates her signature trait: a consistent, superbly executed sense of knife-edge disquiet…” and Publisher’s Weekly called it an “… intoxicating slow burn [that] builds to a conclusion rife with shocking reveals.”

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.

In this file Cynthia Swanson and I discuss:

  • How she targeted the time periods for her historical novels
  • Why you shouldn’t research while you write
  • How a professional novelist migrated to Scrivener
  • Why you need to intentionally goof around to beat procrastination
  • Great quotes for defeating self-doubt
  • Why you need to find your own writer’s community

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Feb 06 2018
36 mins
Play

Rank #7: How Bestselling Author Ryan Holiday Writes

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Reformed “media manipulator,” proponent of stoic philosophy, expert marketer, and bestselling writer, Ryan Holiday, has accomplished more in ten years than most will in a lifetime. He spoke with Robert Bruce about how he does it …

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Note: This episode contains a few phrases that some may find explicit.

Ryan Holiday has written six bestselling books on topics as diverse as growth hacker marketing, practical stoicism, and the dark arts of the digital media landscape … and his next book — Perennial Seller — will be published in July.

He ran marketing for American Apparel, one of the most notoriously successful brands in modern times, and now runs a thriving marketing shop of his own.

The list of his accomplishments is a lot longer than that, but I think you get the idea.

Oh, and did I mention he’s just 29 years old?

Enjoy.

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.

In Part One of this file Ryan Holiday and Robert Bruce discuss:

  • How Ryan approaches the problem of procrastination
  • Where he writes his books and essays
  • How writers can compete against the recorded history of … everything
  • Media Manipulation in the age of Trump
  • His next book Perennial Seller, and why the long game is the only game

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Jun 13 2017
41 mins
Play

Rank #8: How Hugo Award Winning Sci-Fi Author John Scalzi Writes: Part One

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The Hugo winner and multiple New York Times bestselling science fiction author, John Scalzi, took a break from his whirlwind new book tour to chat with me about The Collapsing Empire, the timely importance of great storytelling, and what makes a writer truly great.

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His wildly popular debut novel, Old Man’s War, began as a serialized blog before attracting attention from an agent. Its 2006 publication earned him a Hugo nomination and multiple awards.

Since then he’s written dozens of novels including New York Times bestsellers The Last Colony, Fuzzy Nation, Redshirts (2013’s Hugo winner for Best Novel), and Lock In. His work has been translated into over 20 languages and multiple projects have been optioned for film and TV.

It’s no surprise that the prolific author has been a professional writer since the early ’90s. In addition to his award-winning blog, “Whatever,” John has written: freelance journalism, novellas, short stories, a wide-range of non-fiction, video games, been a Creative Consultant for a hit TV series, and remains a Critic at Large for the LA Times.

In 2015 the author signed a multi-million dollar deal with Tor Books for 13 titles over 10 years, and the first of those is The Collapsing Empire, a bestselling interstellar space opera that’s been described as “Game of Thrones meets Dune.”

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.

In Part One of this file John Scalzi and I discuss:

  • How publishing is like giving birth
  • The secret behind most overnight successes
  • How a prolific sci-fi writer researches ideas
  • On beating laziness, and the author’s daily ritual
  • The writer’s greatest challenge

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Download MP3 Subscribe by RSS Subscribe in iTunes The Show Notes The Transcript How Hugo Award Winning Sci-Fi Author John Scalzi Writes: Part One

Voiceover: Rainmaker FM.

Kelton Reid: Welcome back to The Writer Files. I am your host, Kelton Reid, here to take you on another tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of renowned writers. This week, the Hugo winner and multiple New York Times bestselling science fiction author, John Scalzi took a break from his whirlwind new book tour to chat with me about The Collapsing Empire, the timely importance of great storytelling, and what makes a writer truly great.

His wildly popular debut novel, Old Man’s War, began as a serialized blog before attracting attention for an agent and editor. Its 2006 publication earned him a Hugo nomination and multiple awards. Now, since then, he’s written dozens of novel, including New York Times best sellers The Last Colony, Fuzzy Nation, Redshirts. Also, Hugo winner, Lock In.

His work has been translated into over 20 languages and multiple projects have been optioned for film and television, so it’s no surprise that the prolific author has been a professional writer since the early 90s. In addition to his award-winning blog, Whatever, John has written freelance journalism, novellas, short stories, a wide range of nonfiction, video games, been a creative consultant for a hit TV series, and remains a critic at large for the LA Times.

In 2015, the author signed a multimillion dollar deal with Tor Books for 13 titles over 10 years and the first of those is The Collapsing Empire, a best-selling interstellar space opera hit that’s been described as Game of Thrones meets Dune. In part one of this file, John and I discuss how publishing is like giving birth, the secret behind most overnight successes, how a prolific sci-fi writer researches ideas, on beating laziness and the authors daily ritual, and the writer s greatest challenge.

The Writer Files is brought to you by the all the new StudioPress Sites, a turnkey solution that combines the ease of an all-in-one website builder with the flexible power of WordPress. It’s perfect for authors, bloggers, podcasters, and affiliate marketers, as well as those selling physical products, digital downloads, and membership programs. If you’re ready to take your WordPress site to the next level, see for yourself why over 200,000 website owners trust StudioPress. Go to Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress now. That’s Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress. And if you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews as soon as they’re published.

How Publishing is Like Giving Birth

Kelton Reid: All right. We are rolling once again with an esteemed guest today, Mr. John Scalzi, the acclaimed, prolific, New York Times bestselling author, Hugo Award-winning science fiction writer and writer of dozens of novellas, short fiction, nonfiction, journalism. What don’t you do, John?

John Scalzi: I don’t do windows.

Kelton Reid: Oh, you don’t do windows, okay. Well, I’m very excited to have you on today. I understand that your new project, your new fantastic book, The Collapsing Empire, is doing quite well, so it must be an exciting time for you.

John Scalzi: It’s wonderful, actually. It was one of those things where you put your baby out into the world and you want everyone to tell you you have a pretty baby, so we’ve learned that so far most people seem to like it. It’s shown up on a lot of bestseller lists. It’s sold more in its first week than any of my previous books and we just announced a television deal for it, so things are going great.

Kelton Reid: That’s so cool. Yeah, I mean, it seems like things are working out for you in the writing department. You’ve also got this vastly popular blog. Are you still doing a column or editor-at-large for some reviews?

John Scalzi: Yes. I’m still a critic-at-large for the Los Angeles Times as well.

Kelton Reid: Wow. To say that you’re busy, would be an understatement but I understand you’ve got a weekend off to kind of take a deep breath and take it all in.

John Scalzi: Yes. The nice thing that my publisher Tor has learned is that I don’t mind going on the road for weeks at a time but they do have to send me home after about 10 days, otherwise I run out of clothes.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, to say that there’s some writing out there by you that listeners can find, obviously another understatement, because there’s so much out there to find. And probably would seem that the best way to connect with you would be the website and that’s Whatever.Scalzi.com, am I right?

John Scalzi: That is correct.

Kelton Reid: Okay, cool. And it looks like the tour, the expanding tour is yet expanding. You’ve got a lot more dates on there. I’m going to try to catch you in Boulder coming up later next month but I will point at that and the website, your Twitter, of course. You are a prolific, as we discussed earlier, a Tweeter. I hope I’m saying that correctly, so Twitter’s a good place to get news from you. So, maybe for listeners who kind of aren’t familiar with your fantastic journey from … I guess you’ve been a freelance journalist since the early 90s, it would seem.

John Scalzi: Yeah. I started off my very first job out of college was as a film critic for a newspaper in California called The Fresno Bee and I did that for about five years and then I left there to go work for AOL where I was their in-house writer and editor. I did that for a couple of years. I’ve been freelance since 1998. I published my first nonfiction book in 2000 and the first novel in 2005.

Kelton Reid: That is an amazing story to me, also, kind of your origins as a sci-fi bestselling novelist. The Old Man’s War, which won you quite a few awards and was acclaimed, Hugo nominated, was your first true novel, correct?

John Scalzi: It was definitely the first one published. I had written a previous book called Agent to the Stars, which it did eventually get published but I wrote that one as a practice novel, meaning that I had never written one before, wanted to see if I could do it, so I wrote it. But Old Man’s War was the one that I intended to try to sell, and I would have if I hadn’t just been so lazy.

What I ended up doing was I put it up on the website because I was like, “I could send it out, but then it would take so much time. I have people who will read it here on the website and that’ll be fine.” And I put it up, and we serialized it. I serialized it in 2002, a chapter a day during the month of December and then when it was done, I got an email from Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who was an editor at Tor Books at the time. He’s now associate publisher, and he said, “I know you’re committed to this whole electronic publishing thing, but I really like your book. Do you mind if I publish it too?”

Kelton Reid: Amazing.

John Scalzi: I was like, “Oh, fine, if you must.”

The Secret Behind Most Overnight Successes

Kelton Reid: Right. Well, since then you’ve had some successes, quite a few bestsellers under your belt, Hugo Award-winning. I mean, the list is just impressive. I’m looking at Red Shirts and Lock In, which is a more science based thriller and all the way now through the Old Man’s War series and now into this new universe, which is fantastic. I mean, you’re starting out with a bang and I understand, since then obviously, you’ve signed this massive deal with Tor Books in 2015 and man, you’re kind of hitting your stride, I guess?

John Scalzi: What’s really nice about that contract, it was a 10 year contract in which I would write 13 books, 10 of them for the adult market and three that are going to be YA. One of the really nice things about that, aside from the immense vote of confidence that Tor was giving me was quite frankly, it means for the next 10 years, until I am in my mid-50s, that I don’t have to worry about whether or not the book I’m writing is going to sell.

I have to worry about still making them good and readable and interesting, because Tor’s not going to publish just me writing 90,000 words of, All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. But so long as I hit my marks and do what I’m supposed to do, in terms of quality, I don’t have to worry about whether that effort is going to make it out into the eye of the public or that even if it does get out into the eye of the public, that it won’t be marketed and advertised and the people won’t find out about it.

It’s an extraordinarily fortunate position to be in and a lot of it was based on, as you alluded to, the previous track record. And this is the thing about hitting one’s stride, is absolutely we’re at a point where things are really taking off, but it’s based on a decade s worth of work in the science fiction and fantasy field. It’s that same thing of scratch under overnight success and you will see years and years and years and years of work you didn’t even know was happening.

How Literary Success is Not Always Easy to Transfer to the Screen

Kelton Reid: Yeah. Yeah. Well, congratulations on the success of the book and I understand it’s the top selling sci-fi hardcover in the US at the moment. Lots of other good things going on, including that TV deal that you mentioned, so that’s exciting. Do you get to actually help … I know that you were actually a consultant in another sci-fi series for the Stargate universe, right?

John Scalzi: Yes. I was creative consultant for Stargate Universe, so what that meant was they would send me the scripts and then I would tell them every single thing that they were doing wrong, which was actually really good, because the whole idea of it is you never want to throw out an audience member from what they’re doing, whether you’re writing a book or doing a TV series or a movie, you don’t want to give them the opportunity to go, “Wait. That’s not how that would work. That makes no sense whatsoever.” So my job was to help them get everybody watching through 60 minutes and over to the refrigerator before they would say, “Wait a minute. That shouldn’t have worked that way.” But, if we got you all the way through the episode, then you’re going to come back for the next one.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. Okay. Cool. Well, The Collapsing Empire, which we keep mentioning, obviously has been called … It’s a interstellar space opera about an empire teetering on the brink of collapse. I know I’m not doing it justice at all, but I guess Booklist said, for fans of Game of Thrones and Dune. I mean, it’s been compared to all these different fantastic other things, but it’s really hard to sum up, but it’s really great. I mean, it’s a really fun reading.

John Scalzi: Thank you. The way that I tell it to people is basically, imagine there is a way to get from one star system to another, faster than light, and it operates basically like a river or an ocean current and you can t control it, but you can ride it. So you build this empire basically around ports of call all along this great river in space, but what happens when, just like happens with river in the real world, that river changes its riverbed. And all of the sudden all the ports that you’ve created, all the civilization that relies on this thing, they are left away from that river. That’s basically what’s going on.

It’s a question of, we have taken for granted, as we so often do, is certain natural features of the world in which we exist and we assume that they are always going to be that way. But in fact, nature and the universe isn’t actually interested in our wants, needs, or desires. It’s going to do what it’s going to do and when that happens, as it happens in this book, how do the people who are living in those cities, in those ports of calls and those star systems, how are they going to respond to that? The answer is, in the book, some people plan, some people panic, and some people deny. Again, strangely, like what happens in the real world.

Kelton Reid: Well, pretty timely stuff, but yeah. It’s a cool book, so listeners should seek it out if they haven’t already found it. Yeah. That’ll be interesting also to see on the small screen. Hopefully it makes it to the big screen someday too. That’d be pretty cool.

John Scalzi: The way that I tell people about that is, believe it will happen when you actually see it on the screen. Until then, it’s a nice idea.

Kelton Reid: That’s right. That’s right, because you’ve had lots of … your stuff has been optioned for TV and film and you’ve worked on video games, all that stuff. I mean, you’ve worked in all these different mediums so you kind of know that, yeah, having something optioned, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will make it to the screen, but fingers crossed, right?

John Scalzi: Yes, exactly.

How a Prolific Sci-Fi Writer Researches Ideas

Kelton Reid: Well, I would love to dig in your productivity, because you are a prolific, prolific writer. I imagine that you’re probably already sketching the next in the series for-

John Scalzi: Yes. Absolutely.

Kelton Reid: You still have this Hugo Award-winning blog. You’re constantly reaching out and letting people know what you’re up to, which is really cool. So how do you … I mean, I just want to know how you do it. How much time per day are you putting stuff in, like researching or reading kind of the input part of the creative process?

John Scalzi: The funny thing is that, that part of it, the intake part, is just indistinguishable to anybody who is observing from the outside from farting around, right?

Kelton Reid: Yeah.

John Scalzi: I will be on the Internet just reading articles or reading Wikipedia or Encyclopaedia Britannica entries or just reading and tooling around and it looks like there’s nothing going on, but each of those things feeds into the ideas that can cultivate in your head. I’ve always been a reader. I’ve always been constantly with a book or a magazine or a newspaper. I used to joke that if someone wanted to assassinate me, they would put a bomb under a book on a coffee table because that’s where I would grab things. I go, “Look, there’s a book.” Off I go.

It doesn’t look like work. It doesn’t look like my brain is working. It looks like what I’m doing is just sitting around reading, but in fact, all of that kind of goes into the pot. And it’s not just reading, watching TV. Obviously, Redshirts, which is a commentary about the poor starship extras that go down to the planet with Kirk and Spock and Scotty, and somebody has to die, and it’s not going to be Kirk and Spock and Scotty, because they have season long contracts. That was something that had been running around in my head for years and years.

You’re always researching when you’re a writer. You’re always looking at things. You’re always observing things and any one part of it can be the thing that hooks you. So, in terms of that, I think a writer is never not on the job. You’re always processing information and ideas are always going to present themselves. So that aspect of it is, that’s just life, that’s a writer’s life.

On Beating Laziness, and the Author s Daily Ritual

Kelton Reid: For sure. You’re incubating stuff all the time for future projects and reference. So on a novel like The Collapsing Empire, then maybe just walk us through like a writing day. Crack your knuckles, brew a pot of coffee. How do you get to the desk and get going?

John Scalzi: The good news is that the desk is like 10 steps away from where I sleep, so getting there is not the problem. I’ve had a home office in my house in Bradford, Ohio where literally every single novel that I’ve written, with the exception of Agents to the Stars, has been at least started and substantially worked upon. And for me, one of the things that I learned early is that I had to have a process.

Now, as a background, I am a super lazy, slothful human being who doesn’t want to have to do anything more than he has to do, so having a process makes me feel resentful and angry. Like, How dare the world require me to structure my life in any sort of way? That wasn’t part of the deal. But, it turns out that if you are a lazy, slothful person like I am, you can spend hours and hours and hours being on Twitter or watching TV or doing something else and not actually getting any work done.

So, the system that I use basically is pretty simple, which is between the hours of 8:00 am in the morning until noon, which are prime creative time because I’ve just woken up, I haven’t seen what’s going on in the world, and my daughter is off at school and my wife is off at work. Between those hours, I turn off the Internet. I turn off the phone and I write. I write for those four hours or until I reach about 2,000 words, which is kind of my daily quota, which is based on the fact that I used to be a journalist, so I’m used to writing quickly, and it’s a speedy and relatively clean copy.

Kelton Reid: Yeah.

John Scalzi: If I get to the 2,000 words before the end of the four hours, then I usually kind of find a reasonable stopping point and then quit for the day. And if I get to noon and I don’t have 2,000 words, that s basically telling me, “Well, your brain’s thinking about other stuff.” But, the point being that four hours a day of writing or 2,000 words a day of writing, is enough that I feel like I’m making good, substantial, useful progress, but at the same time, doesn’t make me feel like my brain is going to explode.

When I started writing, years ago, I would write 8,000 words at a time and then I’d be like, “All right, now I’m going to take a week off and then I’ll write another 8,000 words,” and I found as I got older, I couldn’t do that anymore, just like you find in your 30s and 40s that you can t do the athletic things that you did in your 20s. No matter how much you want to try, your knees will give out one way or another.

By the same sort of way, I wasn’t recovering as quickly from writing 8,000 words at a spot. I would, instead of taking three or four days to get back to it, I would take a week or two weeks and that became untenable, because as we know, 13 book contract and every book has to be in in 10 years. I’m on a rodent wheel and I do have to get them out, so I had to get a process where I got enough where I got done, but my brain still felt fresh enough that it could keep doing in the background all the plot thinking and character issues and everything else so that when it came to it the next day, I could get back on the wheel and keep going.

So that’s my process, four hours a day, 2,000 words a day. And I should say that that is the ideal process. I for some reason or another, I actually do, was like, “Oh, well. I’ll just check to see what happened on Twitter.” Poof, I’m done for the day. Because, especially in the last year or so, I’m sure you know this, it’s become kind of an interesting place.

Kelton Reid: A little distracting, we could say.

John Scalzi: A little distracting. The world has caught up with Twitter in oh so many ways, or Facebook or my blog or checking my email. And it really does become a real issue, the whole idea of you have to work not to distract yourself, and especially these days where it feels like you need to be up on everything because the world could end today. It almost feels like just blocking off four hours where you’re not going to talk to the world, almost feels selfish and there’s no logic or rationality to it and it’s not just me.

A lot of writers I know have just been, “I dread going on to the Internet, but I can t help it. I feel like I need… that there’s something I should be doing,” and Twitter always has been … makes a really good substitute for doing something. It’s like, “I’m going to write that 140 character tweet that’s really going to bring them down now.” So you have to be careful. You really have to say to yourself, “No. It’s okay to make the time to do the thing that I’m actually supposed to be doing with my life, which is creating.”

How Music Can be an Inspiration as Well as a Distraction

Kelton Reid: Yeah, for sure. Well, it seems to be working for you, this process. I think so much of your work is cinematic in scope. I kind of imagine you with headphones on listening to some sort of soundtrack music. Do you like to listen to music while you write or do you prefer quiet?

John Scalzi: I usually prefer quiet because as a recurring theme in my life, I’m super easily distractible. When I was younger, I would be able to listen to music, which would be kind of white noise in the background, but these days, it’s harder for me to do. I will listen to music when I’m doing a lot of process stuff. For example, when I’m researching or answering emails or talking to people about stuff in an electronic way, I will put on music that I’m familiar with or music that doesn’t really distract me.

For example, when I do the daily answer the whole wadge of email thing or put up a big idea piece on the blog, which are pieces that other authors write about their new books, I will put on standards from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, like Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, that sort of stuff because it’s like the great American soundtrack. You know all the songs, but at the same time, it’s very pleasant and helps what can be sort of a mechanical thing just go along in a very efficient way.

I will listen to a lot of music as sort of intake doing creative stuff, like imagining, because I find that that can be helpful. I, one time, wrote a entire outline for a YA series that I was going to do for a publisher to the album Fast Times at Barrington High by The Academy Is… because it was … It was about 2008. It was what the kids were listening to those days, aside from the fact that I really liked the album itself, and also it kind of helped put me in the mind space of, “I’m 17 years old and the world’s going to end, how do I deal with it?”

That can be really useful when you are trying to get yourself into a specific mindset, but when it comes down to actually sitting there and writing, I usually leave it aside, because otherwise my brain will spend all its time actually paying attention to the lyrics or some other aspect of the music and not focusing on the writing itself.

The Writer s Greatest Challenge

Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. All right. Well, here’s the million dollar question: Do you believe in writer s block or do you have any feeling about it at all?

John Scalzi: My answer to that is I don’t believe in writer s block as in the inability to write anything. I do believe in the ability of writers to psych themselves out, and I can use myself as an example. The hardest thing for me to do is start a book. Once I start it, once I am chugging along, I can write super quickly. I can get through everything. I solve all my problems that I want to solve.

But getting to the point where I start, where I actually sit down, I’m like, “All right. Now I actually am going to do this thing,” is something that again and again I’ve had a problem with, so I will check my email for the thousandth time. I will go on Twitter. I’ll do social media. I will run those errands that I was supposed to have done three months ago. Whatever it is, aside from actually starting the book, so in some ways, like I can write a book fairly quickly. Redshirts, which won the Hugo, from start to finish was five weeks, as an example, but I can spend an equal amount of time or more not starting a book.

Like, I have this is the time that I’ve allocated, April, March, May, June. And I actually start writing somewhere in May because the rest of it, you know, you can make all the excuses you want. I’m letting it develop in my brain, or, There are other things that I need to do, or “Oh look, I have this piece that I need to write for the LA Times,” or whatever it is that can distract you from it.

And I don’t think of that as writers block, because it’s not a question of me and the confidence of Will the words come? I know the words are going to come. But, for me, it is more of my usual but particular set of writing anxieties. And the way, again, to eventually get over that, for me, was again, just decide, “It’s time for you to say goodbye to the world. Go ahead and get along.”

Now, with that said, I think it’s really important to say that every writer experience is an individual writing experience and I think, to some extent, the question, “Do you believe in writer s block?” can be, “I don’t believe in it for myself, but I believe it’s possible for others.” Because, I’m not in the head of other writers. Writers are, bless our hearts, we are so neurotic in so many different ways and the way that that neurosis can manifest can absolutely be the inability to write or the inability to write what we decide is actually worth reading or sharing with people.

I think it’s easy for writers to be arrogant about other writers processes. Do you know what I mean? It’s like, “Well, I don’t have a problem with writer s block and I don’t see why any other writer should have a problem with writer s block,” and the response to that is, “Yeah, but you’re not that other writer.” There are lots of ways for writers to not write. My not writing tics are, fortunately, fairly benign. It’s just the, “Ugh. I got to start this thing. Ugh,” whereas other people are, “My electricity’s about to go out,” or, “I have to care for a parent with dementia,” or, “I have a special needs child,” or, “The world is blowing up and I’m gay or lesbian and trans and I thought I was safe and I’m no longer feel safe.”

There are so many ways the world can intrude. There are so many ways for humans, not just writers, but humans to get off the track that allows them to do their work in the way they’re supposed to do it or the way that they feel that they should do it. In some ways, it’s a miracle we do anything at all, instead of just running around like our hair is on fire.

So in that respect, it’s easy for me to say, “I don’t have writer s block,” but I am also you said it, New York Times Hugo Award-winning author with a contract that means that I don’t have to worry about being published for … or that I won’t be published for 10 years. It’s easy for me not to have writers block, and I would be foolish if I didn’t acknowledge that and that I am in a special position where the worst thing that I have to think about is how long it takes me to start.

Kelton Reid: Some great, great thoughts there and I mean, all I can come back to is that it seems like now more than ever at any time in history, we do need these great stories, don’t we? We need great storytellers like yourself to help us through.

Thanks so much for joining me for this half of a tour through the writer s process. If you enjoy The Writer Files podcast, please subscribe to the show and leave us a rating or a review on iTunes to help other writers find us. For more episodes or to just leave a comment or a question, you can drop by WriterFiles.FM. And you can always chat with me on Twitter @KeltonReid. Cheers. Talk to you next week.

Apr 11 2017
32 mins
Play

Rank #9: ‘The Writer’s Brain’ on Productivity vs. Creativity: Part Two

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In Part Two of another special edition of The Writer Files called “The Writer’s Brain,” with guest host neuroscientist Michael Grybko, we’ll dig back into the inextricable link between productivity and creativity, and the Catch-22 so many writers face as a result.

This all began when Michael and I started a conversation about why we need to rethink our definition of productivity.

As busyness, the cult of productivity, and multitasking seem to take over our lives, it’s easy to forget that the origins of the word productivity comes from the Latin, productivitas.

Translation: creative power.

Creativity — a topic Michael and I have discussed at length — is the beating heart of change, progress, and innovation, but our work-life scales are bending dangerously toward more busywork, distraction, inefficiency, and overall dissatisfaction.

Truly scaling creativity requires productivity, so a balance must be struck between the two. Writing is a great example of this push and pull in the human brain.

Luckily, research scientist Michael Grybko returned to the podcast to help me find some answers from the perspective of neuroscience.

If you missed the first half of this show you can find it right here. And If you’ve missed previous episodes of The Writer’s Brain you can find them all in the show notes, in the archives at writerfiles.fm, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you tune in.

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.

In Part Two of this file Michael Grybko and I discuss:

  • Why professional writers, musicians, and athletes all share similar brain activity
  • How adrenaline, mind-wandering, dreams, and the default mode network affect productivity and creativity
  • Einstein’s theory of “combinatory play” for greater productivity
  • Why your brain’s ability to filter out irrelevant information is so important to creativity
  • And tips for anyone “drowning in data and starved for wisdom”

The Show Notes

Jan 16 2019
31 mins
Play

Rank #10: How Bestselling Fantasy & Sci-Fi Author Catherynne M. Valente Writes: Part One

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The prolific, multiple award-winning, New York Times bestselling author, Catherynne M. Valente, took a break at her spooky writer’s island to chat with me about her superhero origin story, earning street cred with readers, and her truly unique process.

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Since her first novel — The Labyrinth, published in 2004 — the hybrid author has gone on to pen over 24 volumes of both fiction and poetry across multiple genres (including fantasy, sci-fi, young adult, and horror).

In addition to being published and anthologized in dozens of print and online journals, Catherynne has won or been nominated for every major award in her field, including the Hugo Award (for both a novel and a podcast), and been a finalist for both the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards.

She is perhaps best known for her crowdfunded phenomenon The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making — a book launched by a dedicated online fan community that went on to become a NY Times bestseller.

The series — which recently concluded with book five, The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home — has been lauded by fellow author Neil Gaiman, and Time magazine called it, “One of the most extraordinary works of fantasy, for adults or children, published so far this century.”

The prolific author continues to find innovative ways to connect with her audience, and she recently launched a Patreon project called “The Mad Fiction Laboratory,” where she offers professional and personalized advice on the business and craft of writing, as well as a sneak peek at her multiple works-in-progress.

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.

In Part One of this file Catherynne Valente and I discuss:

  • How to write a novel in three to ten days
  • The story behind her four-month “circus” book tour and the birth of a viral bestseller
  • Her love of performance
  • Previews of her three wildly different upcoming projects
  • The umbrella cover museum that doubles as her office

Listen to The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience below ...

Download MP3 Subscribe by RSS Subscribe in iTunes The Show Notes The Transcript How Bestselling Fantasy & Sci-Fi Author Catherynne M. Valente Writes: Part One

Voiceover: Rainmaker FM.

Kelton Reid: Welcome back to The Writer Files. I am your host, Kelton Reid, to take you on yet another tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of renowned writers. This week the prolific, multiple award-winning, New York Times bestselling author, Catherynne M. Valente took a break at her spooky writer’s island to chat with me about her superhero origin story, earning street cred with readers, and her truly unique process.

Since her fortuitous first novel, The Labyrinth, published in 2004, the hybrid author has gone on to pen over twenty four volumes of both fiction and poetry across multiple genres, including fantasy, sci-fi, young adult, and horror. In addition to being published and anthologized in dozens of print and online journals, Catherynne has won or been nominated for every major award in her field, including the Hugo Award, for both a novel and a podcast and been a finalist for both the Nebula and the World Fantasy awards.

She is perhaps best known for her crowdfunded phenomenon, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, a book launched by a dedicated online fan community, that went on to become a New York Times Bestseller. The series, which recently concluded with a fifth book, has been lauded by fellow author Neil Gaiman, and Time Magazine called it, “One of the most extraordinary works of fantasy, for adults or children, published so far this century.”

The prolific author continues to find innovative ways to connect with her audience and she recently launched a Patreon project called The Mad Fiction Laboratory where she offers professional and personalized advice on the business and craft of writing, as well as a sneak peek into her multiple works in progress. In part one of this file, Cat and I discuss how to write a novel in three to ten days, the story behind her four month circus, book tour, and the birth of a viral bestseller, her love of performance, previews of her three wildly different upcoming projects, and The Umbrella Cover Museum that doubles as her office.

The Writer Files is brought to you by the all the new StudioPress Sites, a turnkey solution that combines the ease of an all-in-one website builder with the flexible power of WordPress. It’s perfect for authors, bloggers, podcasters, and affiliate marketers, as well as those selling physical products, digital downloads, and membership programs. If you’re ready to take your WordPress site to the next level, see for yourself why over 200,000 website owners trust StudioPress. Go to Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress now. That’s Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress. And if you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews as soon as they’re published.

And we are rolling once again on this show with a special guest, and Catherynne M. Valente is here today, multiple award-winning, prolific, New York Times Bestselling author of over a dozen works of fiction and poetry. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule, I know you’ve got a lot in the hopper, to chat with listeners about your fantastic work and your process as a writer. It s real exciting to talk to you today.

Catherynne Valente: No problem, thanks for having me.

How to Write a Novel in Three to Ten Days

Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. I m extremely inspired by your story as a writer. I know you ve done a lot of stuff and I kinda wanna chat about, I guess maybe, for listeners who aren t familiar with you and your fantastic journey to where you are today. Can you kind of give us a little bit of your, just your origins as a writer and how you got your start? I know you’ve done a ton, a ton of stuff.

Catherynne Valente: My very minor superhero origin story?

Kelton Reid: Yeah.

Catherynne Valente: My first novel came out when I was twenty five, so twelve years ago, and it was called The Labyrinth. It came out with Prime Books, which is a small press, independent press. I had really only just graduated from college a couple of years before and I had heard about NaNoWriMo, which was just, or nano-WRY-mo, I always say nano-REE-mo, and I know it’s wrong. It had just started. I was only in its second year and I had just graduated and I was working as a professional fortune teller in Rhode Island.

Kelton Reid: Wow.

Catherynne Valente: In a genuine, tall, gothic tower, called the Old Armory, in Newport, Rhode Island. I hadn’t really been writing a lot while I was in college, because I was in such an academically rigorous program that I just, I had sort of fallen away from it. Most of what I had done, up until writing that first novel, was poetry. And by most I mean all, except for one short story I was required to write for class. I had done poetry my whole life.

But I wanted to see if I could write a novel. I didn’t know if I could, but I thought, “What do I have to lose? I’ll give it a shot.” It was October instead of November, and I didn’t want to wait. And I was 22 so I was full of piss and vinegar, and didn’t know I couldn’t do things yet. So I said, “Thirty days is for wimps. I’m gonna do it in ten.”

Kelton Reid: Wow.

Catherynne Valente: And I did. Which seems fully insane to me now. Between tarot readings I would pull out my laptop, my little, tiny laptop, and work on this book. And of course I hadn’t even thought about publishing it. I just wanted to see if it was something I could do. I submitted it to a few independent publishers, I knew it was too weird for a big New York publisher, and didn’t really get any … I got a lot of rejections saying, “This is the most beautiful thing we’ve ever read, and we’re definitely not publishing it.” So, at 22, I didn’t really know what to do with that. So I gave up for a while and just put it away.

And then I was living in Japan, my then husband, ex-husband, was a naval officer, and I started a LiveJournal. One of the people that I got to know on LiveJournal was Nick Mamatas, and he had just published his first book, so I left a comment on his LiveJournal asking who I should be submitting to, not asking him to look at my work or anything, just, Who’s out there that likes to publish weird stuff? He gave me a list and I said, “Yeah, they’ve all rejected me. Except for Prime Books and they’re not open to submission.”

He said, “No, they are. They just don’t want to read slush. So send me your book, and if I like it, I’ll send it on.” And I did, and he did. And I actually got an email from Jeff VanderMeer saying, “They’re going to publish your book. I want to write the introduction. So when they email you to tell you they’re going to publish your book, tell them you want me to write the introduction.” So that was sort of how that first book happened. It was all very much out of the blue.

My second book, which I also published with Prime Books, was for the Blue Lake 3-Day Novel competition, in which you’re supposed to write a novel in three days, which is really a misnomer, because it’s supposed to be 30,000 words, which is not a novel by anybody’s definition. The prize for that contest is a publishing contract. I did not win that prize, but Prime published that second book. And then I gave them a manuscript, and, in an act of great magnanimousness, my editor said, “This is much more commercial than anything else you’re writing and I’m going to send it to my friend at Bantam.” Bantam Spectra.

And that was the manuscript that became The Orphan’s Tales. Bantam Spectra took a year and a half to get back to me. They said, “We really like it, but we want to see the second book in the series. Which should be fine, because your editor says it’s almost done.” I had not begun this book. I don’t know where my editor got that idea. So my last four months in Japan, as I was preparing a transpacific move, was me trying so hard to finish this book. Just about setting foot back in America, I got an offer from Bantam, and that was my first big New York book. That’s sort of how it all got started back in the early 2000s.

Kelton Reid: Geez, and that’s not even that long ago, but …

Catherynne Valente: No, I mean, it is and it isn’t. It feels like a lot longer ago than it is, and it doesn’t in a very strange way. Time is weird once you get older.

The Story Behind Her Four-Month Circus Book Tour and the Birth of a Viral Bestseller

Kelton Reid: Sure, it have a hyperbolic effect at times, when you think of it like that. But, you’ve won or been nominated for every major award in your field, which means you’ve written across these different genres, primarily Fairyland novels, which you’re very well known for. You’ve got all these other fantastic speculative pieces, and you’ve published in multiple award-winning publications.

You’ve just done so much, so the prolific nature of it is that it seems like you’re working all the time, or writing all the time. Or that may be just my impression, looking at your resume and all the stuff you’ve done. But anyway, the crowdfunded phenomenon, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, is fascinating to me, because it started on LiveJournal, you mentioned LiveJournal, and you crowdfunded it and it became this New York Times Bestselling book, that then Neil Gaiman blurbed. Can you talk a little about that?

Catherynne Valente: Yeah, so I had been going on with Bantam Spectra for another book after The Orphan’s Tales, and unfortunately six weeks before that book was supposed to come out, it’s called Black Wednesday in publishing, the 2008 crash had happened and half of publishing in New York was laid off. So my editor called me and said she had been laid off.

It actually turned out that Bantam Spectra ceased to exist that day. It was reorganized back into Random House. And so there was nobody there to pick up the phones. We knew, because you kinda get three strikes in New York. You have three books that fail, you’re gonna have a real hard time breaking in again. And The Orphan’s Tales hadn’t failed. It won a lot of awards and was very critically acclaimed, but it hadn’t had stellar sales.

So we had a very strong feeling that if Palimpsest, which was the next book, failed, that was it. So I and my partner and a dear, dear friend of mine named S.J Tucker, who’s a singer-songwriter, decided to make it as much of a success as we could, with knowing that there was one person sitting in a secretarial desk at my publisher s. And there was just nobody to do the work. We got a blurb from Warren Ellis and there was just nobody in the office to tell them to put that on the cover of the book. That’s what happened to publishing during this time, and nobody could sell a book. Unless you were already this massive bestseller, there was no way you could sell a book at the end of 2008, beginning of 2009.

So we toured from Maine to Los Angeles for four months, selling this book out of the back of S.J’s tour van. We had all these reading concerts. S.J did an album based on Palimpsest, and she would sing and I would read. We picked up performers everywhere. It was the circus. And everywhere we went, people kept asking me about this one part of Palimpsest, because the main character in that book, her favorite novel from when she was a little girl was The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. It was not real. It was just meant to be a little character piece in Palimpsest. Which is a very adult book, by the way, with a capital A and three Xs. And the first paragraph from Fairyland is in Palimpsest and nothing else.

But, as part of trying to do everything we could for this book, we made an alternate reality game, and one of the easter eggs was an Amazon order page for Fairyland, or of a cover that I had mocked up out of an Arthur Rackham drawing and everything. And so people were like, “They’re all out of stock on Amazon. Where do I get a copy of this?” I m like, “Well, you’ll notice the url still says CatherynneMValente.com. This is just something we post-modern kids do from time to time.” But people just kept asking where they could get it.

And when I got home my partner had been laid off from two jobs, or got laid off from two jobs within six weeks of each other. And we had just moved to Maine not even six months before, and didn’t really have the money to move again to a better job. And so I was like, “Alright, well I’m gonna do a serialized novel then, on my website. And I’ll just put up a little donation button, and hopefully we can pay our rent and get some groceries this month.”

And I went through my notes while I was looking for something that I didn’t think I would lose anything if I published it myself. Because back then, Kickstarter hadn’t started up yet, or if it had, it would have just started. Kindle was only just beginning to be a thing. There’s very much a feeling that if you self publish something, you were giving up the possibility of a big publisher. So I thought, “Well, nobody would ever publish a children’s book that was so connected to an adult book with a capital A and three Xs. So I’m not losing anything if I do Fairyland. And everybody wants to read Fairyland. I’ve been hearing about it for months now.” So I did.

Her Love of Performance

Catherynne Valente: Every Monday I posted a chapter of Fairyland and I recorded myself reading it, which actually turned out to be … I did it because I love to read out loud and I’m good at it, I was an actress most of my life, but it turns out that I have a lot of vision impaired readers who, for the first time, could take part in this viral thing, because they could listen to it. And I had a little donation button that said, “Give whatever you think the book is worth. If you don’t think it’s worth anything, don’t worry about it. If you don’t have any money, don’t worry about it, just enjoy it.”

And it went viral within twenty four hours. Boing Boing was doing pieces on it, and io9 and Neil Gaiman linked to it. And it just became this huge thing that saved us, in a very very real and tangible way. I remember being at a convention right after it really hit, and somebody in the audience asked, “Well, you realize you can’t go back and change anything, because you’ve already posted it online.” And I said, “Oh, s***.” It had never occurred to me that that was gonna be a problem. I kept a couple weeks ahead of the posting schedule, but again, much like writing The Labyrinth in ten days instead of thirty, I just ran ahead with something without knowing that I couldn’t do it and it worked out incredibly well.

It won this Web Fiction of the Decade Award, up against Girl Genius and Dr. Horrible and XKCD and all of these things which are far more well known than me, even in the organization that runs that, even in their roundup, they’re like, “We don’t understand what happened. We don’t know what this is, but apparently you do.” And it won the Andre Norton Award long before it, a year before, it ever came out in print, which is administered with the Nebula Awards for YA. Before it finished posting online, my agent found an amazing publisher for it, Feiwel and Friends, And it debuted at number eight on the New York Times list.

It’s genuine magic. I still don’t really have … People ask me all the time how to do what I did, and the answer is, “I don’t even know if I could do what I did.” It was just a perfect storm of people feeling helpless and wanting to help, of me having a lot of cred from having published traditionally for so long, and a lot of adult readers who had never been able to share my work with their kids, and hopefully the quality of the work, and just who picked it up and ran with it. A lot of things had to come together to make it happen, and it was incredible.

Kelton Reid: Wow, wow. It’s surely an inspiring story, to say the least. You’ve got this fan community that is dedicated, a large online following, in addition to everything you have out in the world. So, is the best place to find all of your works at your website, then?

Catherynne Valente: Yeah, CatherynneMValente.com. Catherynne is spelled funny.

Kelton Reid: It’s a great spelling.

Catherynne Valente: Thank you. And I’m very active on Twitter at @CatValente.

Kelton Reid: I’ll link to that. I’ll link to both. And of course, you’ve got a more recent development that’s not technically publishing, but it is a Patreon project that you just started up. It sounds like The Mad Fiction Laboratory, which you’re offering advice on the craft and business of writing there, which is really cool to see. So I’ll link to that as well. Did you want to say anything about that?

Catherynne Valente: Yeah, so we’ve just started this. This is, like, the third day that it’s existed. And basically, it’s every month, I will be, for subscribers, patrons, I will be putting out an essay, as you say, about the craft and business of writing. But a funny one that makes it entertaining. Important to note, because a lot of those things are just so dry.

I remember when I was first starting out just reading endless, endless articles about how to write a hit book and how to get an agent and how to write a good sentence. And most of them, like the best you could hope for, is if it was written in a very serious inspirational tone. And I would often feel exhausted after reading it, like, “Oh, I really want to be a writer, but oh man. I just feel so much pressure from ” Even the inspirational stuff just made me feel like failing at being what that person wanted me to be.

So I wanted to write these essays that are very funny and lighthearted that still give that information and a little more motivational oomph. But also, patrons will be able to get excerpts of whatever I’m working on that month. So for example, I just released on the feed today, the first chapter of a book I’m working on that’s so secret, it hasn’t even been announced yet, and I can’t even tell you the title. The patrons know the title now and they can see the first chapter.

Kelton Reid: Oh, that’s cool.

Catherynne Valente: We haven’t even told anyone it exists yet. So a lot of really exclusive material will be available through the Patreon, as well as teaching people what I have learned after 13 years in the industry. So it’s a little bit of me, it’s a little bit of everyone else, and hopefully we can make mad science together.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. I’m kind of imagining it being like the opposite of the James Patterson Teaches Writing MasterClass where he looks so serious and like, you know, these closeups of his forehead and …

Catherynne Valente: Yeah, no, I’ll have bangs so you don’t see any of my forehead. But, I mean, writing is a serious business and it can be incredibly stressful, so I think that making it a fun as possible is the way to get things done. Because if you feel great pressure of creating literature for the ages, and then running a small business, which is what writing is. It’s really hard to come home from work at the end of the day and start up that mountain.

Previews of Her Three Wildly Different Upcoming Projects

Kelton Reid: For sure, for sure. Well, that’s great. We’ll definitely link to that and point listeners at that one. So you hinted at some secret stuff coming up, but I understand that you have three books coming out this year.

Catherynne Valente: I do. They could not be more different, either. So in June, June 7th, The Refrigerator Monologues is coming out. Which is, I like to describe it as, “The vagina monologues for super heroes’ girlfriends.” So it basically takes these tropes of the girl in a refrigerator, which was coined by Gail Simone to describe all of these women in superhero comics who are murdered or maimed and raped and driven crazy and lose their powers, in order to further the plot line of the male hero, rather than that being important because it happened to them.

So because I don’t have the right to Gwen Stacy or Harley Quinn or, you know, any of the characters that had this happen to them in comics, I had to just go ahead and create a completely cohesive, superhero cinematic universe of my own. No problem. And so, if you are a big comic book fan, you will have a thousand Easter eggs in this book and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about, and if you’re not, they all stand alone. There’s a beautiful comic for each section done by Annie Wu, who’s an amazing comic artist, and I’m so, so excited for it. It’s so different than anything else I’ve ever done. I think I’ve dropped more F-bombs than I ever have in a book before. So I really hope people like that.

I also have Mass Effect: Annihilation coming out. I have done a Mass Effect tie in book for the new game, Andromeda, that’s coming out in March. The book’s not coming out in March. The book’s coming out later in the year. And The Glass Town Game is coming out September 5th, which is my next middle grade book. And that one I describe as the Brontë children go to Narnia, Charlotte Brontë and Emily Brontë, Ann Brontë, and their brother Branwell.

When they were little kids, before they became these famous writers, when they were little kids they were just like any other geeky kids that you know now, and they made this fantasy world that they kind of LARPed, RPGed. They created this world that’s build out of a child’s understanding of British politics and the Napoleonic Wars and Yorkshire fairytales and all of this crazy stuff. And they wrote in world magazines that were published by their characters. It’s incredible. We still have a great deal of it. And there’s just so much there. The idea of The Glass Town Game, Glass Town is the name of this world, is that they actually went there, that it’s a real place that they actually visited as children. That’ll be coming out in September.

Kelton Reid: I love that. So you haven’t been very busy.

Catherynne Valente: No, not at all, no. Mostly just sitting back and eating chips.

The Umbrella Cover Museum that Doubles as Her Office

Kelton Reid: All right, well I’m sure that listeners are eager to hear about your day to day productivity. So how much time, per day, are you getting ready to get into the mode or researching stuff before you start to write?

Catherynne Valente: It really depends on whether I’m on deadline or not. I’m on a pretty tight deadline right now, so I will say it does take me quite a while to sort of get into the space. I live on a spooky island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. So I have my house, but my house is filled with animals and a partner and a million distractions. So there’s this place, I’m pointing, you can’t see ’cause it’s a podcast, that I’m pointing towards it, out my window, but down by the waterfront on the island is this little tiny building which, during the summer, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, is an Umbrella Cover Museum, or The Umbrella Cover Museum. It’s a museum for the little sacks that your umbrellas come in that you lose immediately and they all end up here in Maine.

But she doesn’t live here. She just lives here in the summer, so for the rest of the year it’s my office. So I go down there, and usually I go down to my office and I spend at least an hour making myself coffee, poking around in my notes, posting to Twitter, and then I sort of ease into work. So it usually takes me an hour or so to get into the right space. On a deadline I’ll be down there every day. But when I don’t have a severe deadline, it’s pretty important for me, in my creative process, to have fallow periods where I’m not pumping out word counts everyday. So, I need to be reading other people’s books, I need to be watching new shows and movies and things like that. I never know how that kind of stuff is gonna feed in.

That super secret project I was talking about, I ended up binge watching a bunch of British comedy panel shows, and it actually ended up helping me get into the right voice for this project in a huge way without ever meaning to. I just really like British panel comedy shows. And all that stuff is really important, so I don’t take the dictum of, “You must write every day,” completely seriously. For a creative mind, especially if you’re somebody who works on a lot of projects at once, like I do, I think that the time that you’re not working can be as valuable, as far as getting the juices flowing, as the time that you are working.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, for sure. That creative process obviously involves those important steps of putting information out Putting information in, excuse me, the preparation and incubation phase, and then you kinda have the elimination and you sit down and you spit it out.

Catherynne Valente: You are what you eat.

Kelton Reid: Thank you so much for joining us for this half of a tour of the writer’s process. If you enjoy The Writer Files, please subscribe to the show and leave us a rating or a review on Apple Podcasts to help other writers find us. And for more episodes or just to leave a comment or a question you can always drop by WriterFiles.FM and chat with me on Twitter at @KeltonReid. Cheers. Talk to you next week.

May 16 2017
26 mins
Play

Rank #11: How to Make a Living as a Pro Content Writer: Part One

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In this special edition of the show we’re shining the light on freelance writers out there who are making it happen as professional online content creators. These are scribes who have found success — and a very good living — doing what they love … writing and helping others achieve success.

In full disclosure, the two writers I’m highlighting in this show, Mark Crosling and Aaron Wrixon, are online content creators and strategists who both run profitable freelance writing businesses.

The other thing they have in common, though they came to professional writing from very different paths, is that both writers graduated from Copyblogger’s Certified Content Marketer Training Course (a program that makes this show possible).

The program is usually closed, but it reopens periodically for a short time to invite new classes of students into the course. If you re interested in learning more you can simply head over to the Certified Content Marketer training program and get your name on the list.

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.

My first guest is serial entrepreneur, copywriter, content marketer, and founder of StrategicContent.co, Mark Crosling, who offers content creation, social, and search strategy services. His business credo is “All roads lead to your inbox.”

Mark has founded numerous start-ups — four of which became stock exchange listed companies — he has an MBA from the University of New South Wales, and is a Certified Content Marketer through the Copyblogger Certification Program.

In this segment Mark Crosling and I discuss:
  • A look at the inner workings of the digital commerce ecosystem
  • How to find a holistic approach to online marketing
  • Why copywriters are the stonemasons of the digital age
  • The upcoming voice search revolution for online writers
  • How to get completely aligned with your audience

My second guest is the content maestro and journeyman Aaron Wrixon, of Wrixon.com, who specializes in content marketing services for web agencies and their clients. His business slogan is, “Repeatable process. Repeatable results.”

He has over 20 years experience in technical and online content writing, with over five million words and hundreds of projects in dozens of industries under his belt. He is also a Copyblogger Certified Content Marketer.

In this segment Aaron Wrixon and I discuss:
  • How to make a living as a writer without hitting the bestseller lists
  • The timing and determination required to find a fulfilling freelance career
  • Why there’s no bad time to become an online content creator
  • The writer’s unique content creation framework for success
  • Why so many online writers struggle with the “Sistine Chapel” effect
The Show Notes:
Sep 25 2018
38 mins
Play

Rank #12: How WNYC Podcast Host and Author of ‘Bored and Brilliant’ Manoush Zomorodi Writes

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Award-winning podcast host, managing editor of WNYC Studios’ “Note to Self,” and author of Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self, Manoush Zomorodi, took a break from her hectic schedule to rap with me about her claim to fame as a podcaster, the neuroscience of boredom, and how to recharge your creative batteries.

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Manoush is a former globetrotting journalist and producer for both BBC and Reuters. She has won four New York Press Club awards for her work with New York Public Radio and was named 2017 s Best Tech Podcast by the Academy of Podcasters.

Her podcast is described as a tech show that “…searches for answers to life s digital quandaries through experiments and conversations with listeners and experts.”

Her first book, Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self, is grounded in both neuroscience and cognitive psychology and based on a groundbreaking experiment she conducted with thousands of her podcast listeners to “…help them unplug from their devices, get bored, [and] jump-start their creativity…”

In addition to her popular TED talk “How boredom can lead to your most brilliant ideas,” she has appeared on NBC Nightly News, MSNBC, WNBC, and The Dr. Oz Show and contributes to NPR, Quartz, Inc., and Radiolab.

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.

In this file Manoush Zomorodi and I discuss:

  • The miracle of technology and its inherent ills
  • Why our favorite algorithms are programmed to distract us
  • How the author enlisted thousands of podcast listeners for her one-of-a-kind experiment
  • Why you need to change your digital habits to be more creative
  • Why first drafts suck and the power of deadlines
  • A refreshing definition of creativity
  • Why you should beware of technology that claims to solve your problems with more technology

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Oct 31 2017
44 mins
Play

Rank #13: What’s Your Writing Productivity Type? (with Bec Evans of Prolifiko): Part One

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Welcome to another special edition of the show we traditionally call “writer porn,” and this week the writer, educator, and co-founder of Prolifiko, Bec Evans, stopped by to chat with me about writer personality types, productivity secrets, and understanding your writing psychology.

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Bec is the co-founder of Prolifiko, a new digital coach aimed at helping writers beat writer’s blocks and find writing routines that work best for them. It’s been called the “Fitbit for writers,” by The Times (of London).

Prolifiko, set to launch in April, 2018, is a system based on neuroscience and psychology designed to help writers reflect on and improve their productivity with a “small-steps” methodology.

Ms. Evans has worked with thousands of writers throughout her career and used to run the Ted Hughes Arvon Centre for Writing, an international writing school in the UK (home of the late poet-laureate Ted Hughes).

She writes about productivity, writing habits and routines, and is currently working on a book about innovation.

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.

In Part One of this file Bec Evans and I talk about:

Jul 24 2018
19 mins
Play

Rank #14: How Essayist & Author of Debut Novel ‘The Floating World’ C. Morgan Babst Writes

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Acclaimed essayist, short fiction writer, and author of the debut novel The Floating World, C. Morgan Babst, took a few minutes to rap with me about the wrath of hurricanes, writing a love letter to the city of New Orleans, and her secrets to staying organized and productive.

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Morgan is a New Orleans native who started her journey at NOCCA (New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts), before studying writing at both Yale, and NYU. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in The Oxford American, Guernica, the Harvard Review, the New Orleans Review, among others.

An essay she wrote on New Orleans funeral culture (“Death Is a Way to Be,” Guernica, June 15, 2015) was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016.

Her ambitious and haunting first novel, The Floating World, was chosen as an Amazon Editor s Pick for Best Books of October 2017, and was called a “… beautiful, relentless portrait of the devastation [Hurricane Katrina] inflicted on a city, and a family…”.

In a Kirkus starred review, the book was called a “Deeply felt and beautifully written; a major addition to the literature of Katrina.”

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.

In this file C. Morgan Babst and I discuss:

  • Her background in the arts and the long road to publishing her first novel
  • Why a novel 12 years in the making is so relevant today
  • How credit card bills can boost your productivity
  • Why you need to turn off “creativity” while you’re writing
  • How to keep track of your best ideas
  • Why you need to get into a “Lynchian” state of mind as you write

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Oct 24 2017
34 mins
Play

Rank #15: How to Get Unstuck and Back to Writing with Bestselling Author Jennifer Louden: Part One

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Bestselling author and creativity coach, Jennifer Louden, dropped by this week to talk with me about her twisty career path, the wicked feedback loop of procrastination, how to find your voice, and solutions for getting unstuck and back to writing.

"Claim your voice. Share your voice. Get your scary sh*t done." - Jennifer Louden

Jennifer has been a professional writer since the early '90s and is considered a personal growth pioneer. Her first book, The Woman’s Comfort Book, was the bestseller that launched her career and she's since published six additional books with over a million copies in print in nine languages.

The author is also an international speaker and educator on the subject of self-care and has written a column for Martha Stewart magazine, been quoted by author Brene Brown in not one but two of her books, been profiled in dozens of major magazines, and appeared on hundreds of TV and radio programs including Oprah.

In addition to writing books Jennifer is also an entrepreneur who teaches writing and self-care retreats that regularly sell out.

She has created a large online community that touts, "Whether you’re a novelist, essayist ... artist or thought leader, [her] mission is to help you write more, share your ideas more boldly, and make your creative work a priority."

This episode of The Writer Files is brought to you by the team at Author Accelerator. Author Accelerator book coaches give writers feedback, accountability, and support while you write, so you can get that your idea out of your head and onto the page.

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.

In Part One of this file Jennifer Louden and I discussed:
  • How a struggling dyslexic screenwriter became a bestselling author
  • The reasons writers might fall out of love and then back in love with their writing
  • How to get unstuck by pulling back the curtain on your brain's weaknesses
  • Why Jennifer brings compassion and cognitive awareness to jump-starting creativity
  • How finding the "why" for your writing can reignite your spark
  • Why technical writing hacks won't solve the deeper issues of why you're not writing
Show Notes:
Jun 25 2019
30 mins
Play

Rank #16: How Data Journalist & Author of ‘Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve’ Ben Blatt Writes: Part One

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The former Slate staffer, ultimate data/word nerd, and acclaimed author of Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, Ben Blatt, dropped in this week to talk about crunching the numbers of classic and modern literature, debunking famous writerly wisdom, and how prolific writers establish their literary fingerprints.

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Ben is a journalist, statistician, and author who takes a “fun” approach to data journalism on pop culture topics as varied as Seinfeld, The Beatles, and baseball (his last book I Don’t Care if We Never Get Back, was about a mathematically optimal baseball road trip).

The author studied applied mathematics at Harvard and has been published in The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Deadspin, and others.

His most recent book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing, “… brings big data to the literary canon, exploring the wealth of fun findings that remain hidden in the works of the world s greatest writers.”

NPR called the book, A hell of a lot of fun …”, The Wall Street Journal, “Enlightening,” and The Boston Globe called it, “Brilliant.”

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.

In Part One of this file Ben Blatt and I discuss:

  • How a math nerd became a pop culture data hound
  • The challenges of turning thousands of books into big data to examine famous writing advice
  • On Elmore Leonard’s reversal in exclamation point usage
  • Why Nabokov used so many colors in his writing
  • How a data journalist concocted experiments to debunk conventional wisdom about bestselling authors

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Sep 12 2017
21 mins
Play

Rank #17: How Content Marketing Pioneer & Serial Entrepreneur Brian Clark Writes: Part One

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The self-confessed serial entrepreneur, founder of Copyblogger, and CEO of Rainmaker Digital, Brian Clark, stopped by this week to rap with me about his hero’s journey to success, the evolution of blogging and content marketing, and his culpability for the existence of this podcast.

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The inaugural guest of The Writer Files is a content marketing trail blazer who launched his one-man blog, Copyblogger.com, in 2006. With a modest investment, no audience, and no connections, he slowly and steadily built it into a vital 8-figure business, and one of “… the most popular [and influential] content marketing and writing blog[s]…” for online writers.

He is considered a top marketing influencer on writing, a “Top 10 Online Marketing Expert,” and one of the “100 Most Influential Online Marketers.” Brian has been featured in over 20 books including Linchpin by Seth Godin, and Free Agent Nation by Daniel Pink.

He is now the CEO of Rainmaker Digital, the digital commerce flagship behind Copyblogger, StudioPress, and Rainmaker Digital Services to name only a few. Brian is also the curator of the personal development newsletter Further, and Unemployable, a podcast and resource for freelancers, consultants, coaches, and like-minded entrepreneurs.

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.

In Part One of this file Brian Clark and I discuss:

  • How a reformed lawyer became an influential blogger
  • The importance of compelling storytelling to successful online content
  • The moment Brian realized he was an entrepreneur who could write and not a traditional writer
  • How a near death experience led to an enlightening career change
  • The birth of content marketing
  • How Brian helped grow an online empire without any outside investments or advertising

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Sep 27 2017
28 mins
Play

Rank #18: How the Author of ‘The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’ Oliver Burkeman Writes: Part Two

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In the second half of this file, The Guardian writer, psychology journalist, and author of the critically acclaimed book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman, dropped by the program to talk to me about the writer’s journey, turning a weekly column into a book, and rethinking positive thinking.

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Oliver writes about social psychology, self-help culture, productivity, and the science of happiness for his columns in both The Guardian (based in Brooklyn, New York), and Psychologies magazine. He has also interviewed a laundry list of celebrities ranging from Al Gore to Jerry Seinfeld.

In his critically acclaimed book, The Antidote (2012), the author went undercover into the heart of the “happiness industrial complex” to explore why our relentless pursuit of happiness and success often leaves us feeling the opposite.

The author looked to academics, psychologists, Buddhists, business consultants, philosophers, and many others in a unique search for an “… alternative path to happiness and success that involves embracing failure, pessimism, insecurity, and uncertainty – the very things we spend our lives trying to avoid.”

The Los Angeles Times said of the book, “Burkeman’s tour of the ‘negative path’ to happiness makes for a deeply insightful and entertaining book.”

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.

If you missed the first half you can find it right here.

In Part Two of this file Oliver Burkeman and I discuss:

  • Modest goal setting and how to be productive when you’re depressed
  • The fallacies of overcoming ‘resistance’
  • How to interview Jerry Seinfeld
  • Why you need to just do a little writing every day

Listen to The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience below ...

Download MP3 Subscribe by RSS Subscribe in iTunes The Show Notes The Transcript How the Author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can t Stand Positive Thinking Oliver Burkeman Writes: Part Two

Voiceover: Rainmaker FM.

Kelton Reid: Welcome back to The Writer Files. I am your host Kelton Reid, here to take you on yet another tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of renowned writers. In the second half of this file, The Guardian writer, psychology journalist, and author of the critically acclaimed book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman, dropped by the program to talk to me about the writer’s journey, turning a weekly column into a book, and rethinking positive thinking.

Oliver writes about social psychology, self-help culture, productivity, and the science of happiness for his columns in both The Guardian and Psychologies Magazine. He’s also interviewed celebrities ranging from Al Gore to Jerry Seinfeld. In his critically acclaimed book, The Antidote, the author went undercover to the heart of the happiness-industrial complex to explore why our relentless pursuit of happiness and success often leaves us feeling the opposite. The author looked to academics, psychologists, Buddhists, business consultants, philosophers, and many others in a search for an alternate path to happiness and success that involves embracing failure, pessimism, insecurity, and uncertainty: the very things we spend our lives trying to avoid.

The LA Times said of the book “Burkeman’s tour of the negative path to happiness makes for a deeply insightful and entertaining book.” In part two of this file, Oliver and I discuss modest goal setting and how to be productive when you’re depressed, the fallacies of overcoming resistance, how to interview Jerry Seinfeld, and why you need to do just a little writing every day.

The Writer Files is brought to you by the all the new StudioPress Sites, a turnkey solution that combines the ease of an all-in-one website builder with the flexible power of WordPress. It’s perfect for authors, bloggers, podcasters and affiliate marketers, as well as those selling physical products, digital downloads, and membership programs. If you’re ready to take your WordPress site to the next level, see for yourself why over 200,000 website owners trust StudioPress. Go to Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress now. That’s Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress. And if you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews as soon as they’re published.

Modest Goal Setting and How to Be Productive When You re Depressed

Oliver Burkeman: And it’s partly also due to the economic structure of writing, right? I mean if you’re writing, you re likely writing either to be not doing it as your day job or to be doing it in the kind of fluid way where maybe not doing too much today doesn’t necessarily mean no groceries for the week, but it might do in the long run. So it’s a much more sort of murky area than other activities. But I suspect that right at the bottom it is nothing more than the same reluctance and procrastination that strikes anybody. I mean, I can talk if you want about the only sort of remedies I’ve ever found that work.

Kelton Reid: Oh, yeah.

Oliver Burkeman: If that’s helpful.

Kelton Reid: By all means.

Oliver Burkeman: I think the most helpful thing is this idea that I found in a book that I was sent, I think, about how to be productive when you’re depressed. And I actually don’t have very much experience with serious depression, thank goodness, but I sort of read it anyway because I was like, “Maybe there is something I can use here.”

And this kind of really amazing insight, which I then included in my book, is just that you don’t have to feel like doing something in order to do it. And a lot of our sort of motivational culture, self-help, all the rest of it, it all reinforces this idea of, “We’re going to give you the way to psych yourself up, and get your mind in the right place to take action.” And that’s kind of, you know, well-intentioned, but it actually puts an extra hurdle in the path, right? Because now you not only need to do the thing, you need to feel like doing the thing.

And whereas doing the thing is a fairly simple matter of, like, using your arms, and opening your laptop, and pressing keys, feeling like doing a thing involves the very mysterious world of human emotions and the subconscious and it is not at all clear how to get yourself into that mood. So the more that you can actually let go of that need and say to yourself, “Look, I don’t feel like doing this. That’s fine. Those feelings are fine. I’m not going to try to get rid of them. They’re there. Oh, and at the same time, I’m going to open my laptop, open the file, and type some words. You can sort of it’s sort of feel the fear and do it anyway, but not just fear. Just being bored with the work or feeling like you’d rather be doing something else.

You just don’t have to get rid of those feelings. You can just sort of say, “Oh, hello, annoying inner emotions, there you are again,” and also take the physical actions that help get the writing done. And then one other part of it that has been really, really useful to me, again, I know other people have done it for decades, if not centuries, is setting sort of process goals for each day’s work that do not refer to quality. That are things like, “I’m going to work for three hours,” or, “I’m going to get 1,000 words written. Not, I m going to really nail this chapter,” or, “I’m going to write something amazing that is really funny and brilliant.”

The moment that you put quality demands in there, if you’re me anyway, you kind of seize up and the resulting quality is lower. You use this really sort of mechanistic goal of like, any words on the page that meet that word count will count as victory today. Then you actually relax and the chances are, in aggregate, over enough days and weeks and months, the quality will actually be higher.

Kelton Reid: That’s right.

Oliver Burkeman: As a consequence.

Kelton Reid: Oh yeah, that’s fantastic. I like that so much. I actually would encourage you to turn that into a piece in your column or thereabouts.

Oliver Burkeman: Okay.

The Fallacies of Overcoming Resistance

Kelton Reid: Yeah, it’s so good (laughs). Just for all writers out there, that could be very useful. But we have you recorded now, so it exists if you want to refer to your outline there. No, really, really good stuff. And a lot of what you talk about just, kind of, butt-in-chair, and not putting that pressure on yourself is so important.

Oliver Burkeman: And I think, you know Sorry.

Kelton Reid: Yeah?

Oliver Burkeman: Can I butt in? I just want to say I think there’s a very subtle difference. Some people talk about butt-in-chair and they mean, “Yeah, just sit down. And it doesn’t matter if you don’t feel like it. That’s fine. You know, give yourself those feelings and just work.” And other people have this kind of like, “Okay, butt-in-chair, and I’m going to make myself do this.” And they sort of set up this internal battle with themselves and I have huge respect for the books on creative work that Steven Pressfield has written and I don’t particularly want to pick a fight with him.

But, I do think sometimes talking about this stuff as a war and trying to overcome “resistance” and battle the demons just kind of turns it all into an exhausting fight that maybe you don’t want to have to do every morning at 9 am. And I think that being a little gentle with yourself is often a useful tool.

Kelton Reid: I love that. And, you know, writing is re-writing so there is always those multiple passes that makes something better, anyway. So you’ve got to start somewhere, right? Chiseling away the raw elements to get to the good stuff. Very nice. Well, we can touch a little bit on a couple workflow things. It sounds like you’re using Evernote and Microsoft Word primarily?

Oliver Burkeman: Yeah, and like TextEdit. I sort of have, like, the most basic text editor for my first pass at things. I want no ability to format or choose fonts or anything like that. But, yeah, then it goes to Word. And Evernote, I’m sort of constantly frustrated by Evernote. But you know, in the manner of a beloved relative who you sort of ultimately do really love, but spend a lot of time getting aggravated by. And then I just do a lot on paper. I’m environmentally problematic, indeed. I print things out and want to see them in that format. I usually plan chapters and columns by scribbling diagrams on pieces of paper. So a lot of it is off the computer.

Kelton Reid: Sure.

Oliver Burkeman: Yeah, yeah.

Kelton Reid: Well, a part of what you do is the interview piece. I know that in The Antidote you traveled and obviously kind of immersed yourself in some of those practices. But were you then taking notes by hand? Did you have the MacBook with you the whole time? How were you synthesizing and then organizing everything to get it back onto the page?

Oliver Burkeman: Well, back when I was writing the book, I was sort of was in flux with how I was recording interviews. Now I can’t just take lots of British journalists start off learning shorthand, which is amazing, and you can just literally record a whole interview in a notebook, word for word, but I’m not one of those. So I was recording them on a variety of devices that kept breaking. Now, I have a very good iPhone app called DropVox. V-O-X, that automatically sends the recorded files to Dropbox, which is a real discovery, that little app, for me.

Kelton Reid: Neat.

Oliver Burkeman: Then a website called I don’t know, I’m just trying to think I think it’s called Transcribe. Right? Yeah, Transcribe. At Wreally.com, spelled W-R-E-A-L-L-Y dot com. Anyway, this is a web-based interface for doing your own transcription. You know, you sort of load up the file and it s got easy controls to stop and start it. I know there are also sites now that do the transcriptions for you at a competitive price. So far I’ve avoided that, because I kind of find that transcribing my own interviews is a really crucial part of digesting what’s been said. So I tend to do it myself. But it is not a pleasant part.

The process partly because it’s just a lot of labor, and partly because I have to listen to my own terrible, disastrous questions that go on forever and don’t end properly and just sort of tail off. I’ve never really thought I am a very good interviewer. I think I’m okay at writing up the results of interviews. But, I don t know, maybe that helps in a way, because it means it’s more like a conversation. Maybe I put people at their ease by being no good (laughs). I don’t know. But I don’t sort of I’ve never really been able to plan interviews out very much. They seem to have gone the best when I just sort of go into the conversation.

How to Interview Jerry Seinfeld

Kelton Reid: Yeah, that’s cool. And you’ve interviewed quite a few celebrities in your career. I’m thinking back to one in particular. You interviewed Jerry Seinfeld. Yeah, that’s a really cool process, because it’s not like these chunks of interview that are just transcribed. You’re telling a story in between the reportage and the interview.

Oliver Burkeman: He is such, like I mean, he is sort of the ideal perfect professional to go interview, because people who have not had experience of being interviewed are not always very good. But, people who have sort of gone onto autopilot, which often happens at kind of movie junkets and things, they’re terrible too, because they tell you the same three anecdotes and then you find that when you’re writing it up that they told every publication like, last week, the same thing. And Jerry Seinfeld was neither of these things.

He s like, obviously, he s a total professional. But he really … it really felt like he was thinking about the questions I was asking him and giving me the responses that were relevant to him that day now. And also just being funny. Which I kind of don’t automatically expect in a comedian, because I assume they spend months working on their material or something. But he was just sort of naturally funny.

But you probably know from being involved in productivity-type things about his productivity method, which I spoke to him about, I didn’t include it in the piece, actually, because it didn’t seem relevant at the time to most readers. But this thing about having a wall chart or something and trying to place an X in the box for every day …

Kelton Reid: Every day…

Oliver Burkeman: he did some writing. And then you’d have this kind of motivation to not break the chain. And he was funny about this because he had told some interviewer about it years ago and it had turned into this thing online called The Seinfeld Productivity Technique. And he was completely baffled that this throwaway remark had taken on a life of its own, because it seemed so obvious to him. But he made a very good point that writing, and writing comedy in his case, but anything like this is fundamentally like an athletic process. It’s one you have to train and do a little bit each day. It’s much more helpful to think of it as athletics than to think of it as art, in my opinion.

Staying Social Versus Becoming a Hermit

Kelton Reid: Oh, for sure, for sure. That’s so funny. Well, how does Oliver Burkeman unwind at the end of a long writing day?

Oliver Burkeman: I’m trying to remember back to when it wasn’t all changing diapers and rocking babies to sleep. I mean that actually is great even when it’s tiring and a bit stressful because it is so completely distracting that there’s no part of your brain that is fretting over other things. So, I almost feel like anything that fully occupies your attention is worthwhile, in that respect.

What do I do? I get a lot of restoration out of just socializing with good friends. And I’ve discovered over the years that something that some writers do when they’re in crunch mode, which is to become hermits and politely tell their friends that they won’t be seeing them for the next three or four months. I’ve learned that it doesn’t work for me and that I will be better the next day if I go out for a beer with a friend. If I stay and have four beers, then it’s a different story.

But, staying socially connected is actually really important to me. And I love hiking in the country. I belong to a community chorus here in Brooklyn, which is kind of like a slightly weird hobby to have, but that is amazingly good fun. It’s kind of weird how great singing in a group makes you feel. I recommend that to anybody, even if, like me, I’m not much of a singer, but you can’t tell in a big group.

Kelton Reid: Well, I think it’d be good to hear that one, as well. Is it all writers?

Oliver Burkeman: It isn’t, although you know, parts of Brooklyn there are a few in that mix.

Kelton Reid: Well, I know we’re kind of bumping up against a half-hour mark. Do you have time to talk about creativity?

Oliver Burkeman: Yeah, a few more minutes, absolutely.

Kelton Reid: Okay, cool. We can just skip through a few here. Do you have a definition handy of creativity? I know that a lot of what you do and a lot of people you speak with are kind of in the creative fields.

Oliver Burkeman: Wow, that is really interesting. I’m not sure I do have a definition of creativity. I definitely think that any definition I would want to use would really have to apply to almost any field. I don’t think it’s true that you can only be creative as a writer or a painter or a musician. I definitely feel like something about creativity is just the combining of two existing ideas to find a new idea, basically. And that is as likely to happen in an accountant’s practice as it is in a writer’s study or painter’s studio. So I think it’s something to do with combination, is really very central, I’m sort of just parroting Steven Johnson, who s written really great stuff on this, his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, is well worth anybody’s time.

And then I guess the other thing is that sort of combination and innovation in the context of constraint. It is … I ve always, myself, thrived on only having 600 words to write my weekly column, and deadlines, time constraints where you just have to get on with it. So I think that sort of combining things for new effects within constraints, there would be some sort of makeshift definition in there.

Why You Need to Just Do a Little Writing Every Day

Kelton Reid: Okay. Love it. Yeah, so before we sign off here and remind listeners about your great book, do you have any advice to your fellow scribes, just on how to keep going, how to keep the ink flowing and the cursor moving?

Oliver Burkeman: You know I think the thing I said about telling yourself that you have to feel like doing it everyday is important. I think that keeping your goals really low on a daily basis is really important. I think the most important thing that I keep having to relearn, even though it’s such an old saying or whatever, is just that a very small amount of writing that you actually do almost every single day is worth so much more than a huge, impressive day that you only actually manage to get around to once every few weeks.

And there’s a quote by Adam Smith, that I have on my desk, I’m not at my desk right now, but it says something like, “The man who works so moderately as to be able to work all year round, not only preserves his health the longest, but at the time will produce the greatest quantity of work.” So it’s that whole idea of, just do a little bit, but really do a little bit every single day, or six days a week, or whatever it might be. I think that’s probably the most powerful piece of writing advice.

Kelton Reid: Love it. Well, the book is, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking,” explores the upsides of negativity, uncertainty, failure, imperfection. So many good things in there. I’m a big fan of the stoicism angle and kind of you talk about the negative path to happiness, the Nirvana of failure, wabi-sabi as it were. All amazing stuff. So thank you for the book. Where can fellow scribes connect with you out there, or online?

Oliver Burkeman: Well, my website is OliverBurkeman.com. It’s, like so many writers websites in the states, it s imminently launched, always. I’m most active on Twitter, @OliverBurkeman, B-U-R-K-E-M-A-N. And yeah, the book is where you d expect to find the book, and there’s an audiobook where you expect to find that.

Kelton Reid: Did you do the audio yourself?

Oliver Burkeman: Yes, I did. Yes. That was fun. The audiobook is me reading my book.

Kelton Reid: Well, I will try to find that one, as well, so I can listen to it in the car. Fantastic stuff. Thank you again for coming onto the show and wrapping with us about the writing life.

Oliver Burkeman: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.

Kelton Reid: Cheers. Thanks so much for joining me for this half of a tour through the writer’s process. If you enjoy The Writer Files podcast, please subscribe to the show, and leave us a rating or a review on iTunes to help other writers find us. For more episodes, or to just leave a comment or a question, you can drop by WriterFiles.FM. And you can always chat with me on Twitter @KeltonReid. Cheers. Talk to you next week.

Mar 14 2017
20 mins
Play

Rank #19: How Hugo Award Winning Sci-Fi Author John Scalzi Writes: Part Two

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The Hugo winner and multiple New York Times bestselling science fiction author, John Scalzi, took a break from his whirlwind new book tour to chat with me about The Collapsing Empire, the timely importance of great storytelling, and what makes a writer truly great.

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His wildly popular debut novel, Old Man’s War, began as a serialized blog before attracting attention from an agent. Its 2006 publication earned him a Hugo nomination and multiple awards.

Since then he’s written dozens of novels including New York Times bestsellers The Last Colony, Fuzzy Nation, Redshirts (2013’s Hugo winner for Best Novel), and Lock In. His work has been translated into over 20 languages and multiple projects have been optioned for film and TV.

It’s no surprise that the prolific author has been a professional writer since the early ’90s. In addition to his award-winning blog, “Whatever,” John has written: freelance journalism, novellas, short stories, a wide-range of non-fiction, video games, been a Creative Consultant for a hit TV series, and remains a Critic at Large for the LA Times.

In 2015 the author signed a multi-million dollar deal with Tor Books for 13 titles over 10 years, and the first of those is The Collapsing Empire, a bestselling interstellar space opera that’s been described as “Game of Thrones meets Dune.”

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.

If you missed the first half you can find it right here.

In Part Two of this file John Scalzi and I discuss:

  • Why this isn’t the worst time in human history … by a long shot
  • The writer’s unique workflow and technological polyglotism
  • Creativity as a survival instinct
  • How luck and persistence can play a part in your success as a writer
  • Why you really only need to focus on the things you can control

Listen to The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience below ...

Download MP3 Subscribe by RSS Subscribe in iTunes The Show Notes The Transcript How Hugo Award Winning Sci-Fi Author John Scalzi Writes: Part Two

Voiceover: Rainmaker FM.

Kelton Reid: Welcome back to The Writer Files. I am still your host, Kelton Reid, here to take you on another tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of renowned writers. In part two of this file, the Hugo winner and multiple New York Times best selling science fiction author, John Scalzi, took a break from his whirlwind new book tour to chat with me about The Collapsing Empire, the timely importance of storytelling, and what makes a writer truly great.

His wildly popular debut novel Old Man’s War began as a serialized blog before attracting attention from an agent and editor. Its 2006 publication earned him a Hugo nomination and multiple awards. Since then he’s written dozens of novels including New York Times best sellers The Last Colony, Fuzzy Nation, Red Shirts, and Lock In. His work has been translated into over 20 languages and multiple projects have been optioned for film and TV. It’s no surprise that the prolific author has been a professional writer since the early nineties. In addition to his award winning blog Whatever, John has written freelance journalism, novellas, short stories, a wide range of nonfiction, video games, been a creative consultant for a hit TV series, and remains a critic at large for the LA Times.

In 2015, the author signed a multimillion dollar deal with Tor Books for 13 titles over 10 years, and the first of those is The Collapsing Empire, a best selling, interstellar space opera, that has been described as Game of Thrones meets Dune. And in part two of this file, John and I discuss why this isn’t the worst time in human history by a long shot, the writer’s unique workflow and technological polyglotism, creativity as a survival instinct, how luck and persistence can play a part in your success as a writer, and why you really only need to focus on the things you can control.

The Writer Files is brought to you by the all the new StudioPress Sites, a turnkey solution that combines the ease of an all-in-one website builder with the flexible power of WordPress. It’s perfect for authors, bloggers, podcasters, and affiliate marketers, as well as those selling physical products, digital downloads, and membership programs. If you’re ready to take your WordPress site to the next level, see for yourself why over 200,000 website owners trust StudioPress. Go to Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress now. That’s Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress. And if you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews as soon as they’re published.

Why This Isn t the Worst Time in Human History By a Long Shot

Kelton Reid: You know, I mean all I can come back to is that it seems like now more than ever, and any time in history, we do need these great stories, don’t we? We need great storytellers like yourself to help us through the rough patches, so …

John Scalzi: I think that humans story tell, no matter what we do. And to get into the sort of, Now let’s talk about the mystical aspects of writing. But that’s how we communicate with each other. We tell each other stories about what we want, we tell each other stories about what’s going on, we tell each other stories about who we want to be, and then try to meet up with those things. We are a storytelling species. That’s what we do. I know that this isn’t the worst that it’s ever been, do you know what I mean?

Kelton Reid: Oh yeah.

John Scalzi: I was talking to somebody and, you know, the whole idea that 2016 was terrible and 2017 has been worse. And I have the position that 2017 is a terrible year, but it’s not as bad as 2016 because we knew 2017 was going to be bad. You know? We knew in November that it was like, Okay here we go. 2016 could have had the potential to be a wonderful year, and yet, the very first thing it did was take David Bowie. And that’s when we knew that 2016 wasn’t messing around, it was going to take a chunk out of us.

But even then, 2016 is not a patch on 1939, it’s not a patch on 1492 if you’re looking at a … if you’re someone who has any sense of history and what 1492 did to the people who lived in the Americas. There has always been awful times. There have always also, within those horrible years, there have been wonderful things as well. We have always needed stories, we have always needed people to tell us that it’s going to be better, and also to remind us that things are good. It feels terrible right now. I mean, I imagine there are some people who are like “Yes, 2017 has been going exactly to plan.” I don’t know who they are, because even the people who thought that they were going to be happy with what they were getting have basically been surprised with what they got.

But, as far as it goes, even within those difficulties, there have been good things too. And I think we owe it to ourselves as storytellers to help mitigate pain and to accentuate joy to the extent that we can do that, that’s great. It’s not all up to us. But we’ve always had to do that, every year has had its challenges, every year has been a great year and a terrible year as well. And true that this year seems below average in terms of joy and happiness, but I think that we can still find things that we are happy about and share them with each other. And that’s part of the gig, you’re right.

The Writer s Unique Workflow and Technological Polyglotism

Kelton Reid: Yeah. Some good perspective there, for sure. Good things to remember, especially for writers. Just to touch on workflow really quick before I plug your brain about creativity itself. I know you’ve been a Mac guy forever. Are you still a Mac user?

John Scalzi: No actually, I haven’t been a Mac guy … I was a Mac guy for a very brief period between 2005 and 2007, professionally. When I started writing was right around the same time the first Macintoshes came out, so from about 1984 to about 1991 I was a Mac dude, then I went over to PC, had a brief moment of Mac-ness and then I ve gone back to PC. And now I’m using Chromebooks a lot, too. So I’m all over the place. I’m not a faithful person, computer wise. I am computer-poly. That’s the way I want to say it.

Kelton Reid: Sure, sure. Well that’s cool. So just for other writers who might be curious about the Chromebook workflow, then are you … I mean, how are you capturing, or getting stuff onto the page in a Chromebook? Are you using a dedicated cloud service?

John Scalzi: Well what happens is, the nice things about Chromebooks is that they are super integrated into the Google ecosystem and Google has a suite of productivity apps that are basically cloud based, so Google Docs and the other stuff that they use. I mostly use Google Docs. And so when I’m writing on a Chromebook I will use Google Docs, particularly for shorter works, like short stories, articles, and stuff like that.

But, when I need something a little more full featured, I can also access … these days I can access Microsoft Word online through Office 365. So when I’m at my desktop I’ll be writing on Word, I will save it to Office 365, as well as keeping a local copy. Because as you know as a writer, it’s so easy to lose things. Multiple copies is … keeps you from going crazy. And then I can pull it up on the Chromebook, provided I have an internet connection. Which you have these days almost everywhere, including on planes, so it’s less of a problem.

The one thing I like about Google Docs, which every other online word processor hasn’t figured it out yet, much to my confusion, is that Google Docs actually has a ruler so that I can indent, you know? And it seems like a small thing, but honestly, indenting now means that I don’t have to indent later, you know. And so Office 365, the Word Online doesn’t have it. You actually have to do all those formatting things that you want to do, you have to actually do them in a document on a desktop or a laptop that is Windows capable and then save that document to the cloud, rather than starting a new document and having the formatting that you want. But I just think that’s stupid.

But yeah … Five or six years ago when the Chromebooks were coming out, I tried writing a novel on them, and I couldn’t because they weren’t there yet. But now, it’s actually really easy to do. Enough so that when I’m on tour I’m taking the Acer C302 with me, both as my main computer and also it flips over to be a tablet so I can do my readings on that as well. And it’s become a really versatile thing for a writer on the road.

Now, I wouldn’t try to do heavy duty video editing on it, or audio editing, or photo editing. But for regular old editing, for regular old writing, it’s everything I need at this point. And it’s cheaper. I had to come down to the decision between the Acer C302A and a Dell XPS13, and both of them are beautiful computers and I would have been happy with either, but one was half the cost. And also was cheap enough that if I lost it in an airport, which I have done with previous laptops, then I would be upset, but I wouldn’t be, “I just lost a $1,500 computer” upset I would be, “Ugh, all right. Time to get another Chromebook.”

Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. All good points there. Well that’s cool and interesting. You don’t hear that everyday. So how does John Scalzi unwind at the end of a long writing day?

John Scalzi: With more writing usually, because I’m an idiot, apparently. So I get done with my writing for the day, and then I will often flip over to my website and I’ll write a web entry, or a blog entry, or I will go on Twitter and I will yell at my friends and they’ll yell back at me. I do things other than writing but it is the thing that I actually enjoy, so I tend to do a little bit more writing before I m done with the day.

Eventually, my wife comes home and my child comes home and we spend time with each other as family. My wife and I will watch something on TV, or watch a movie and we’ll talk. But my life is basically fairly simple and staid. We don’t go off and have wacky adventures at the end of each day. I actually am a creature who enjoys his comforts. So family and pets and home are things that appeal to me. So basically what I’m admitting is that I’m a hobbit.

Kelton Reid: Right, right. Good stuff, good stuff. All right, well, if you have the time, I’d love to pick your brain a little bit about creativity.

John Scalzi: Yeah, let’s do it.

Creativity as a Survival Instinct

Kelton Reid: Okay. So do you have a definition of, kind of your own definition of creativity for writers?

John Scalzi: For me particularly, I think creativity is the ability to both imagine a world in your head and be able to express that, what’s in your head, to others. And I guess one of the fundamental questions is where does that creativity come from? Why are some people creative and some people aren’t? And I don’t know that I have a really good answer to that. I mean, I think about my wife.

My wife is one of the most awesome people in the world. She is super smart, she is super organized, she keeps Team Scalzi together. She is the CEO, I am the figurehead chairman, right? But she does all the work. My life would be miserable and unhappy without her, not only emotionally, but from a business point of view. And she is perfect, and I love her, and she doesn’t have a creative bone in her body and she is the first to admit it.

And what does that mean? Does it mean that she is less of a person? Obviously not, she’s not. But, it does mean that there’s some part of her brain that doesn’t work the way my brain works. And it goes both ways. There’s things that she can do that I can’t do and I’m sort of amazed that she can get them done. She is an amazing straight line thinker. You present her with the problem, she doesn’t do the nerd over thinking thing of going 16,000 different places. She just goes “This is what needs to get done.” And then later on, after I’ve gone 16,000 different places, I’m like, “You were absolutely right and you have that offer a month ago, whereas I had to go through all this other stuff.”

And I think maybe that’s the thing, is the people who are creative in one way or another, you might say they’re the people who overthink, who do all the scenarios. What does that mean? You say hello to someone and they say hello back, and you’re like “Why did they say hello in exactly that way? Was there something going … I think I noticed some strain in their voice. What was going on?” And then you imagine the scenario where they say hello to you, but it’s filled with a tinge of regret and wistfulness and all this sort of stuff.

Whereas most people would just be like, “He said hello. What more do you want out of it?” But it’s like “I need to know more.” So, I think maybe there is a correlation between creativity and just overthinking. Which would correspond, I think, in a way to why the stereotype of writers is that they’re neurotic in one way or another, because neurosis often exhibits itself as a sort of making up multiple scenarios, most of them terrible, and then trying to figure out what to do with that.

It’s rooted in biology in some way or another, I’m absolutely sure. Maybe you needed creative people back on the savannah to go … someone say, “Well we just need to go to that tree right over there,” you know? And they’d be like “But wait, between here and the tree, how many different predators do you think there are? Because I ve imagined 17 of them, and they would all eat us.” Right? So that creativity was not about writing, but it was about, somebody has to think about all the ways that this could go horribly wrong.

So maybe that’s where creativity comes from. It’s a survival tactic for the tribe. Not everybody has to be creative, and indeed, if you only had a group of creative people in your tribe, maybe you would never get anything done because they would be paralyzed by indecision. You need someone to go, “Screw it, we’re going to go do this thing.” But by the same token, you need the people who go, “Let’s play out that scenario.” So I think that that’s probably part of it. That creativity eventually comes from the need not to have ourselves or other people eaten by leopards. I don’t know, is that the usual answer? You tell me.

Kelton Reid: It is. No, in a nutshell, yes. Thank you. Exactly the usual answer.

Three Sources of John Scalzi s Creativity

Kelton Reid: I love it, I love it. So do you have some creative force that’s driving you right now? Or just sort of in general something that makes you feel most creative?

John Scalzi: I used to say that the driving creative force in my life was my mortgage. Which people laughed and I was like “No, seriously. I don’t want to have to work doing anything else. And I have to pay my mortgage, so that is a primary focus.” And then I would give the example of how creativity can come from anywhere. It’s like, why is Crime and Punishment a 600 page masterpiece of guilt and redemption? Is it because that was the form Dostoyevsky had always had in his mind for it? Or was it that Dostoyevsky had gambling debts and Crime and Punishment was a serial that was published in a magazine and that it behooved him to have it go on as long as humanly possible, because he had gambling debts. And the answer is a little of column A and a little of column B.

So there’s a lot of material aspects to my creativity. It was, a lot of times, I didn’t want to have to do anything else for a job, I did want to have a house, I did want to eat, I did want my daughter to have shoes. And I think there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that aspect. Another aspect that people don’t want to acknowledge all the time, because it sounds ignoble, but I started writing stories when I was 14 years old because I wrote them and it got me attention, right? All of my friends were like, “Wow, you do this really well.” So I would write stories and they would star my friends and they would do ridiculous things, you know, and it was awesome. And so I’ve always had that attention seeking aspect of my creativity.

I ve never kept a personal journal. Writing in the “Dear diary, today I did blah blah blah blah.” Because I would only be writing for myself. One of the reasons that I wrote a blog was because I wanted to tell people what I was thinking, you know? And in some ways that’s good. It can edge into mansplaining, which is a thing that I’ve certainly been accused of more than once in my lifetime. I’m a recovering mansplainer, I hope to get better as I go along. But that want and desire for attention is absolutely a part of what fuels my creativity, because this is a way that I can say to people, “Hey, I have value. Not only do I have value, but you’re going to love me for these things that come out of my brain.”

So those are two things, and then the third thing is the less noble, but simply, I overthink. I think of the world, I imagine scenarios, they seem interesting to me, and my brain is going to create anyway. I have absolutely no control over that, it’s always been that way. It’s not onerous for me. The thing, the question that I get, that all writers get, that I never understand is, “Where do you get your ideas?” And it’s like, they just show up. The question is not, Where do you get ideas? I’ve got 20 or 30 ideas a day. The question is, How do you know the good ideas from the bad ideas?

And my answer for that is that something comes in my brain it’s like, “Here’s an idea!” It’s like, “Wow, that’s a great idea!” And I don’t write it down. And if the next day I actually remember it, then I’m like, “Huh, maybe this is a good idea.” And then I don’t write it down again, and then I keep giving ideas a whole bunch of opportunities to leave my brain. And most of them do, but a few stick, and those are the ones that I write.

But the creative thing is natural. And it’s just a thing that I think that anybody who has a creative urge in some ways has a hard time explaining it. And not only with writing, but any sort of thing. Like I look at friends of mine who are wonderful artists and I see what comes out of their hands and I’m amazed, because there is no possible way that I could ever do that. I mean, I could build up a certain amount of competency with drawing so that you could recognize that what I drew was meant to be a horse, right? But the people who … you look at the picture that they draw of a horse and not only is it obviously a horse, but it is obviously more than that, that it evokes an emotional response that would be different than just a simple picture of a horse.

And how did they do that? And they can tell you how they do the craft of it, and they can tell you which pencils they use, and they can tell you about all the time that they spent practicing it, because nothing is achieved without practice, but fundamentally, you know, a lot of it just comes down to you can do that because your brain is wired that way. And it’s not to discount all the effort, it’s not to discount all the individual aspects of their creativity, but there is something going on that is just native to them.

Just like with me with writing, or a musician with their ability to play a particular instrument, or to create melody. Some of that is ineffable. Some of that is indefinable. It’s not magical, it’s not necessarily purely spiritual, but it is something that you can’t bottle. Work and practice and effort will take you 80-90% of the way to where you need to be, and indeed, sometimes it will be enough for you to make a career.

But that extra 10%, that extra 5%, that extra 1% that is the spark is something that I think is just part of your brain. And you can’t explain it anymore than you can explain why you have brown eyes, or why you re left handed or right handed, or why you’re straight or gay. It’s just part of who you are and it’s part of what informs who you are as a person.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah.

John Scalzi: I’m sorry, I monologue. I don’t know if you knew that when you-

Kelton Reid: I love it, I love it. It’s great, it’s great. There’s so many good pieces of wisdom in there for writers and I’m sure I could keep you on here all day long, but I won’t do that to you.

John Scalzi: Okay.

How Luck and Persistence Can Play a Part in Your Success as a Writer

Kelton Reid: But you know, you’ve been compared to some great writers throughout your career. What do you think … what makes a writer great, as opposed to average?

John Scalzi: Some of it is luck. Some of it is being in the right place at the right time. One of the things that I always tell people is if Old Man’s War had been published in 2004 or 2006 instead of 2005, that people might not have responded to it the way that they did, and that my career would be different. Some of it is natural talent that people are able to arrange sentences in ways that evoke an emotional response, or that they are able to say things that need to be said at a particular time and place. Some of it is sheer cussedness, the absolute refusal to go away or accept defeat or to look at failure as anything but a temporary thing.

Having talked about the ineffable spark of creativity, one of the things that’s always dangerous about that is to minimize the simple fact that showing up is almost all of the game. There are people I know who are great writers, undisputably great writers, who are super talented, who I look at what they do and how they write and am in awe of it. And yet, they will never be known as one of the greats. And why is that? Part of that is because sometimes they don’t put in the effort, sometimes they don’t care, sometimes they are the victims of their particular circumstances.

That makes it difficult for people to find the writing that could possibly change their lives. So much of what we do is persistence, of not only persistence and continuing to write and continuing to improve, but also the persistence of being there for people to see you, giving yourself as many bats as possible so you can get onto base or hit a homerun. But, ultimately, a lot of what makes a writer great is not up to the writer. A lot of it is up to forces that are entirely beyond their control.

Like I said, sometimes you have to be lucky. You have to be in the right place at the right time with the right idea. I don’t call myself great, by the way. But like I said, with the example of Old Man’s War. It was in the right place at the right time. I won … Red Shirts, I won the Hugo Award. Would I have won that Hugo Award the year before or the year after? Who knows? There were completely different other books that were out at that time. But I got it, and it’s had a benefit to me. There are so many circumstances that help people achieve notability or fame or greatness that are entirely not up to them at all. Sometimes being great just means being one of the first people there to play that particular game.

You look at some of the great video games or some of the great video game designers and they were doing things on Atari or in 8 bits that somebody today, a teenager would just bat out and not even think about. But they were there first, they were the people who created the games for the Atari 2600 that people literally played for hours and hours and hours and became part of their gestalt. And so, sometimes just being in the right place at the right time, it makes all the difference.

Why You Really Only Need to Focus on the Things You Can Control

John Scalzi: The one thing that I tell people about is, Don’t worry about greatness. Don’t worry about anything else but the things you can control. And the things you can control are your own writing. Are you happy with what you wrote? Are you happy with the way that it spoke to you before it spoke to anyone else? And it’s also important to remember that just because you don’t get fame or fortune or notoriety or whatever now, doesn’t mean that what you’re doing has no value either for yourself or simply for the fact that other people might find it.

One of the greatest American poets is Emily Dickinson. I think she had maybe one poem published during her lifetime, and that was under a pseudonym. And yet, she is indisputably one of the great writers in the American canon. You can’t ignore the force of her work, or the beauty of her words. And she went through her entire life not knowing that we would think she was great. She never knew. She got all the way through it and kept all that stuff in a drawer.

So you never do know. My expectation is that when I die, 20 years after I’m gone, people will still be reading me. 50 years? Maybe a couple people will remember me like they remember E. E. Doc Smith or Olaf Stapledon. 100 years from now, somebody is going to be reading me because they need a thesis, and they’re desperate, and they’re like, “Oh, nobody’s done anything with this guy, let me do this.”

And I’m perfectly okay with that, because right now I’m reaping some of the benefits of doing what I’m doing. People are enjoying what I’m writing. Sometimes people come to me and they say, “My dad and I read this book together and it was a thing that we bonded over, and we couldn’t bond over anything else before, so thank you.” You get some benefits now. And I’ll be dead, I won’t know whether my work will survive. But right now I’m getting that benefit.

Other people who we can’t even name right now, 100, 200 years from now people will be like, “They cast a shadow over this particular age.” And we don’t even know who they are. I wish I was alive 200 years from now to find out who that person was and then go, “Hey, I wrote some stuff back then too.” And they’d be like, “That’s nice.” But so don’t worry about greatness. Worry about writing stuff that matters to you and that you think will matter to others if you want to enjoy others in that sphere. What greatness is will take care of itself. But what you can influence is what you put onto the page. So take care of the stuff you can take care of. And don’t worry about the rest of it.

Kelton Reid: I love that. I think that’s some great advice for your fellow scribes. And probably a good place to wrap up so I don’t keep you over an hour. I did want to ask you one fun one. If you had to choose one author from any era for an all expense paid dinner to your favorite spot, your favorite restaurant, who would you take and where would you take them?

John Scalzi: Wow. I … it’s a super stereotypical thing. No, I changed my mind. I want to take Mary Shelley to dinner, because I want to tell her that she was foundational to an entire genre and I want to see how she handles that, you know? Because, I think it would be interesting. Because, how often do you get to say to someone not even Shakespeare. Shakespeare was writing plays, but people had been writing plays before that. But you can point to things that were sort of science fictional before Frankenstein. But in terms of influence, in terms of something that you look at and you’re like, “There’s no doubt this is science fiction.” Not only science fiction, but also horror and psychological thriller. That this is the place where all those things branch off of. That she is our Lucy, she is our Eve for those of us who toil in genre in many ways. And she was 19 years old.

So I would love to have lunch with her, or dinner with her, and then take her to a bookstore. So I think we would go to a bookstore café. And it’s sort of like, You wouldn’t take Mary Shelley to a nice diner? If Mary Shelley is who I think she is, she would want a muffin while she looked through the racks and saw what became of the thing that she gave birth to in her brain. So as far as that goes, I think she is the person that I would want to have a meal with. And I would take her to a bookstore café and then be there for the rest of the afternoon, while she was looking through the shelves.

Kelton Reid: I love it. Good images there. John, thanks so much for stopping by the show to enlighten us with some of your great writerly wisdom. The new book by John Scalzi, The Collapsing Empire, an interstellar epic. It’s hard to wrap up in a few words, but it is out now. You are on tour. Listeners can connect with you out there. Thank you so much for popping in and rapping with us.

Thanks so much for joining me for this half of a tour through the writer’s process. If you enjoy The Writer Files podcast, please subscribe to the show and leave us a rating or a review on iTunes to help other writers find us. For more episodes, or to just leave a comment or a question, you can drop by WriterFiles.FM and you can always chat with me on Twitter @KeltonReid. Cheers. Talk to you next week.

Apr 18 2017
34 mins
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Rank #20: How Bestselling Author Greg Iles Writes: Part Two

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In Part Two of this file, the hyper-prolific, #1 New York Times bestselling author, Greg Iles, returned to chat with me about the conclusion to his epic trilogy, his unique writing process, and making the move to television.

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At 16 novels and counting — all but one of which have hit bestsellers lists — Greg has been called the “…William Faulkner for the Breaking Bad generation,” and his books have been adapted for film, translated into over 20 languages, and published in more than 35 countries.

His epic Natchez Burning trilogy clocks in at close to 750,000 words and started out as a single novel that he expanded after a near death experience — a car crash that left him in a coma — which ultimately changed his mind about how he wanted to write it.

His final installment in the series, Mississippi Blood, concludes the story of Southern lawyer Penn Cage, (the protagonist of six of his books including The Quiet Game, Turning Angel, and New York Times #1 bestseller The Devil’s Punchbowl).

Iles’s epic tale of “… love and honor, hatred and revenge … explores how the sins of the past continue to haunt the present,” and Stephen King described the series as “… extraordinarily entertaining and fiendishly suspenseful.”

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.

If you missed the first half you can find it right here.

In Part Two of this file Greg Iles and I discuss:

  • The author’s take on writer’s block
  • A tour of Greg’s “space shuttle” desk setup
  • The mad science of how the author intertwined multiple narratives and historical flashbacks over three epic novels
  • Why truly creative people never get bored
  • Some great writing advice from a truly prolific author

Listen to The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience below ...

Download MP3 Subscribe by RSS Subscribe in iTunes The Show Notes The Transcript How Bestselling Author Greg Iles Writes: Part Two

Voiceover: Rainmaker FM.

Kelton Reid: Welcome back once again to The Writer Files. I am your host, Kelton Reid, here to take you on another tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of renowned writers. In part two of this file, the hyper-prolific number one New York Times Best-Selling author, Greg Iles, returned to chat with me about the conclusion to his epic trilogy, his unique writing process, and making the move to TV. At 16 novels and counting, all but one of which have hit bestsellers lists, Greg has been called the William Faulkner for the Breaking Bad generation, and his books have been adapted for film, translated into over 20 languages, and published in more than 35 countries.

His epic Natchez Burning Trilogy clocks in at close to 750,000 words, and it started out as a single novel that he expanded after a near death experience, a car crash, that left him in a coma, which ultimately changed his mind about how he wanted to write it. His final installment in the series, Mississippi Blood, concludes the story of Southern lawyer Penn Cage, also the protagonist of six of his books, including New York Times number one best seller The Devil’s Punchbowl. Iles epic tale of love, honor, hatred, and revenge explores how the sins of the past continue to haunt the present. Stephen King described the series as “extraordinarily entertaining and fiendishly suspenseful.”

In part two of this file, Greg and I discuss the author’s take on writer’s block, a tour of Greg’s space shuttle desk setup, the mad science of how the author intertwined multiple narratives and historical flashbacks over three epic novels, why truly creative people never get bored, and some great writing advice from a truly prolific author.

The Writer Files is brought to you by the all the new StudioPress Sites, a turnkey solution that combines the ease of an all-in-one website builder with the flexible power of WordPress. It’s perfect for authors, bloggers, podcasters, and affiliate marketers, as well as those selling physical products, digital downloads, and membership programs. If you’re ready to take your WordPress site to the next level, see for yourself why over 200,000 website owners trust StudioPress. Go to Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress now. That’s Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress. And if you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews as soon as they’re published.

The Author s Take on Writer s Block

Kelton Reid: So, do you have anything to say to writer’s block or the … Is it a thing? Do you believe in it? Have you ever experienced it?

Greg Iles: I wrote a line last night in the first chapter of my next book, I went back and revisited. And this writer in residence is having trouble with his book, but anyway, the wife of the dean, kinda catty, in a catty way, he says he’s … She asks when the book’s coming out and he prevaricates. She says, “Not having a bout of writer’s block are you?” And he says, “That’s not a real element.” And she goes, “Oh, you mean like blue balls? Or Fibromyalgia?”

So, anyway, writer’s block … my real story’s this. When I was in college, I studied with Willie Morris, who now is a great thing. A lot of writers were in that program right around that period, Donald Tarup, John Grisham, just several people who went on to be writers. And he brought William Styre, James Dickie, a lot of these writers down. But, one of the writers he brought was John Knowles who wrote A Separate Peace.

And Willie had talked a lot, with all respect to Willie and he’s passed away now … He talked a lot about writer’s block in that class, to the point where it got kind of scary. So I remember a student asked John Knowles during the Q & A about writer’s block and he just got this bewildered look and said, “What is that? That’s just a fictional thing. That doesn’t exist.” He said, “I’ll never live long enough to get down everything I want to get down on the page.” And that’s exactly how I feel. If I open my Dropbox thing of book ideas on my cell phone, there’s already more stuff there than I’ll ever live to do, so …

Writer’s block, in the sense of “I’m paralyzed and I can’t go on,” I guess you could get yourself into that state, but mostly it’s going to be a self manufactured syndrome where you’ve set in mind your goal is to be the next Jonathan Franzen, or the next whatever, and so you re judging every single word you put down on paper. There’s just no point in doing that.

A Tour of Greg s Space Shuttle Desk Setup

Kelton Reid: Good point there. Well, it sounds like you’ve got a pretty exotic setup there in the office. Are you a PC guy or do you use a Mac?

Greg Iles: I’ve got a setup … man, my setup looks like you could fly the space shuttle from it. Three monitors, one s a TV monitor, one’s a Mac monitor, one’s an IMac 5K and the other is a Windows to the right. And the reason is because Bill Gates, or Paul Allen, or whoever are so … I don’t even want to use the word I want to use, but they don’t allow Word for Mac to have the full feature set. So, there are certain things, like the floating command window, wherever your cursor is, that exists in the Microsoft version, but not the Mac version.

When you re drafting a novel, that’s fine. But, when you get into the copy edit stage, especially on something like mine with 800 pages with 3,000 queries from copy editors and researchers, you’ve got to go through that markup document with balloons. The Mac doesn’t handle that worth a crap. So, once I get to that point at different times I switch to the Windows machine. I know that was a long answer, but as a matter of practicality, I like Macs much better. But in terms of business, I always have to keep Windows machines ready to go for that reason, and there’s some other software programs that are like that too.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, that’s pretty fascinating. I’ve never heard that before. But, of course, with three quarters of a million words to sift through, I’m sure that that comes in handy. So, do you have … with a trilogy like the Natchez Burning Trilogy, how on Earth are you staying organized? With all of that information and these historical pieces and so many characters, do you have any organizational hacks that you can share with other writers that keep you … help you keep it all together?

The Mad Science of How the Author Intertwined Multiple Narratives and Historical Flashbacks Over Three Epic Novels

Greg Iles: Imagine the most Baroque looking steampunk perpetual motion machine from some artist’s imagination. That’s the state your mind has to get into to pull this off. I’ll be 100 percent honest with you. It was being in that state that caused me to have my wreck and lose my leg and nearly die, because you can’t … I don’t know how other people do it. I guess you could tack 500 notecards to the wall.

But, for me, to manage something like this for multiple narrative voices and historical flashbacks and all that kind of stuff, you have to bring it all to life in your head in perfect relationship with each other and that is such an immersive experience that if everything else has to be blocked out. You can’t worry about bills and your kids and .. you have to have somebody in your life or multiple people who protect you from all that, and you have this slowly turning perfectly integrated machine spinning in your head while you are putting it out.

That’s not to say you’ll get it perfectly, and I was in that state when I had my accident and nearly died, and once you get to the copy edit phase, what you really need is a brilliant copy editor with obsessive compulsive disorder. All copy editors have that to a degree, but some are truly gifted and you gotta have one of those.

Kelton Reid: Wow, wow. Yeah you are kind of a mad scientist, it would seem, of the words sphere. So how does Greg Iles unplug at the end of a day and turn it off? How do you get to a place where you can rest?

Greg Iles: I haven’t had a vacation in eight years. You never turn it off. You can’t escape it. That’s the reality. I’m not whining or griping. I wouldn’t want any other job, but you just .. If you get in the kind of state I just told you about, that doesn’t ever go off. Now that I’m at the end, people say, What do you do to chill? Well, a vacation for me is just a different kind of work. I ll work on TV series, or I ll work on my next thing, or whatever. But, I really don’t know how to stop and chill, you know?

I mean, let’s just say this. Along the way, certain human experiences that we all know about are so intense that they can take you away from reality. And I’m not talking about drugs, or sex, but something has to rise to the level of intensity that it can blank out everything else. I think that’s the reason. Coming from the music business, I think that’s the reason so many artists wind up with addiction problems because they are seeking escape and they are involved in a career that doesn’t have any structure to it, specifically. It’s not related to days or hours or time or anything like that. The commitments, or the demands, generally overwhelm you so, you just seek escape wherever you can.

Why Truly Creative People Never Get Bored

Kelton Reid: Well put. Well, your steampunk analogy brings to mind a very creative mind, but do you have a definition of creativity in your own estimation?

Greg Iles: You know, I hear people talking about that term a lot. They have developed this noun, creatives, the developed people who are … it can be anything from graphic artists to whatever, you know, but creativity … every kid, I think, to a degree, has a certain amount of creativity, except maybe some engineers. I’m not saying some engineers aren’t creative. I’m talking about that personality type where everything is A + B + C + D = E or whatever, you know what I mean? They see everything in black and white. But creativity is just imagination, is what it is.

In a way, it’s what Bobby Kennedy said, “I look at things that aren’t and say why not?” You look at a blank space and you see something there. That’s why I think the … for true storytellers, the form doesn’t even matter … I mean, I’m a songwriter … the first movie I sold, I wrote in 5 days and I’d never written a script in my life. And I’m not bragging about that, I’m just saying writing and telling stories is just what I do. In the same way that somebody who sings … I’m not a great singer, I’m an average singer. I m never gonna be a great singer.

I know guys who didn’t even finish high school who can walk in a room and in one cut can make you cry with their voice. People have different talents. Creativity … that’s a big general question. But what I’m saying is that it’s a talent that if you have it, it applies to almost everything. You’re lucky when you have it. It’s not a curse, it’s a blessing, because if you re really a creative person you will never in your life be bored, ever.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, I like that a lot. Well, I’ve got a couple fun ones for you. If you could choose any author from any era for an all expense paid dinner to your favorite spot in the world, who would you take and where would you take them?

Greg Iles: I’m trying to think of the hottest writer I can think of … nah, I m just kidding … I would take .. I might take Carl Jung, actually, maybe. I might take one of the Greek tragedians maybe.

Kelton Reid: You can bring them all.

Greg Iles: You can bring them all?

Kelton Reid: Yeah, sure.

Greg Iles: I thought you said I had to choose one.

Kelton Reid: Well, I’m breaking the rules for you.

Greg Iles: Or I might … you know the smart thing to do might not be take like Euripides. The smart thing might be to take like Jimmy Buffett, you know?

Kelton Reid: And where would you take Mr. Buffett?

Greg Iles: I’d get on his sea plane and let him take me to some low surf and go bonefishing or something like that.

Kelton Reid: Perfect, perfect. Do you have any writer’s fetishes? Do you collect any first editions or weird pencils or old typewriters that you keep around for inspiration?

Greg Iles: I’ve got some first editions. I’ve got a first edition of The Honorable Schoolboy by John le Carre, which is a book that I ve reread a lot. I’ve got a couple of first editions of Thomas Harris who wrote Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs.

Kelton Reid: Oh nice.

Greg Iles: He is a hippy guy like me; a lot of people don’t know that, but he is. As far as fetishes, though … You know, I do a weird thing that I’ve been trying to … if somebody wants to make a billion dollars, here’s what they need to do. I have this thing where before I go to bed when I m almost just totally passed out, I write longhand in the bed. And I can’t even read my own writing, it’s such a waste, you know? But for note taking, somehow coming through your hand, when I write prose I want to write on the computer, but when stuff flows out of my head, I want to write it longhand.

I know Donna Tartt writes longhand. A lot of people do. Peter Strob writes longhand. But almost all of the tablet apps that do that are just non organic, you know? The ergonomics of them are just stilted. If somebody could really, really hack that, to where you could write anywhere on the tablet and it translates into searchable text that’s just worth a billion dollars, man. And nobody has really done it yet.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, that’s cool. And I’m sure somebody is patenting that as we speak, hopefully. All right, well, before we leave listeners with your advice on how to keep going, do you want to say a couple more words about Mississippi Blood the final book in the trilogy, the Natchez Burning trilogy, featuring Penn Cage, the protagonist?

Greg Iles: Yeah, I’ll just tell yeah. It’s not what you think it is. Don’t hear that it’s this massive epic about the civil rights murders etc., and think it’s going to be dry or pedantic or anything like that. This trilogy is one of those things you start reading and you go, Holy s***, this is real. I like this. I’m not going to waste your time. The other things is, I’d like people to go back to the Natchez Burning, the first one, because really it’s the most intense of all three. But you can start on the third, Mississippi Blood if you want to.

I took enough care that someone can come to it cold and understand it, but I’d suggest you go back. And the reason I tell you that is, you know, when President Obama was elected, a lot of people were talking about America being a post racial society, and that just seems like a tragic joke now. Race is and will remain one of the central problems in American life for a long time, and I think there’s a lot of insight about that in this trilogy.

Some Great Writing Advice From a Truly Prolific Author

Kelton Reid: Yeah, for sure. And it is timely. A very interesting time in history. But, congratulations on the publishing of that final piece of this epic, epic trilogy, that interweaves crime, lies, and secrets, past and present, in a mesmerizing thriller. Listeners should seek that out and they can see you on the road. We’ll link to those tour dates as well. My final question is to your fellow scribes, can you offer some advice on how to keep the ink flowing, how to keep the cursor moving?

Greg Iles: I’ll tell you something Grisham said that’s the best advice I ve heard. I’m not very good at taking that advice, but it’s pretty good advice. And that is, when it’s really flowing well for him, he stops. It’s like, Don’t write to the end of what you are into right now, because then you re at a stopping place, and the next day you get up and you re stopped. You procrastinate, you whatever. If you stop while it’s flowing, when you wake up, you know, you want to go on.

Now, I’m so damn compulsive that doesn’t work for me. I’ve got to like, fully exhaust myself, okay? But just … the thing about this business, this art, this trade, is every book is different. Even every one of my books is different for me, and certainly every writer is different. So just, man, live in whatever it is you are doing. Once you’ve started, forget about whether it’s going to sell or about what anybody’s going to think or whatever. Just get it out, man. Don’t even say, It’s gotta be perfect. Finish it. Then you can go back. Perfect is the enemy of good. That’s my final advice.

Kelton Reid: Love that. Perfect is the enemy of good. Keep going, listeners. Greg, thank you so much for stopping by the show and sharing your writerly wisdom with us. Best of luck in all of your endeavors. We look forward to anything new that comes out from you. Good luck with the tour.

Greg Iles: Thanks Kelton. I enjoyed it, man.

Kelton Reid: All right, cheers Greg.

Greg Iles: Bye, bye.

Kelton Reid: Thanks so much for joining me for this half of a tour through the writer’s process. If you enjoy the Writer Files podcast, please subscribe to the show and leave us a rating or a review on iTunes to help other writers find us. For more episodes, or to just leave a comment or a question, you can drop by WriterFiles.FM. And you can always chat with me on Twitter @KeltonReid. Cheers. Talk to you next week.

Apr 04 2017
19 mins
Play

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