Some of the loveliest authors I know write horror and Michaelbrent Collings is one of them! Today we discuss the boundaries of the horror genre, writing to heal, screenwriting and multiple streams of income. Super fun 🙂
In the introduction, I talk about the change to the podcast – it will now go out every Monday so you can expect a regular show! After 6 years of sporadic audio, hopefully this will be a welcome change 🙂 I also talk about the empowerment of the author and the pros and cons of indie, I give an update on my own books and audiobooks and also give a shout out to those who tweeted with what they’re doing when they listen to the show.
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Michaelbrent Collings is an award-winning and internationally bestselling horror novelist, a #1 bestseller in the U.S. and also a screenwriter and martial artist.
- How Michaelbrent’s upbringing brought horror into his life at an early age, how he started writing stories
- On the definition of horror and how the edges of the genre pan out. Why people presume things about horror books which are usually wrong. The best horror is more about exploring the outer reaches of what humans can go through – and rise above. There’s also an aspect of supernatural that can be taken more seriously than other genres. It’s not about chainsaws, nudity and torture porn! The line between Supernatural Thriller and Horror. I mention James Herbert’s Sepulchre, a book I keep going back to.
- On self-censorship, fear of judgment and writing our dark truth. Michaelbrent has 3 rules for writing as relates to readers: Confuse me and lose me. Bore me and die. Leave the world a better place. You can do this with horror. Michaelbrent is a man of faith and brings this into his writing, not in a preachy way but in stories where good vs evil battle each other. We talk about The Stand as an example of this in a fantastic way when good might win one battle but the war goes on.
- How writing helps with dark moments in our lives. Michaelbrent has written about his depression and talks about how writing helps him to find something to get up for some days. The books have dark moments but there are aspects of hope. I also mention the interview I did with J Thorn about a similar topic.
- On screenwriting and darker films. I talk about my treatment for Desecration which had feedback around rewriting to make it ‘less disturbing.’ Michaelbrent talks about the appetite for horror films because of the cheaper production costs and the potential to make the money back. There is always a market for horror, although the taste shifts.
- On multiple streams of income. Success will always move away from you, because your goalposts change over time. But if you want to make a living, define it as $X (whatever you like) so you have a concrete goal. Financial success is a result of Products and People. Write lots of stuff and meet lots of people at events. Foster relationships over time and continue to grow your body of work. It takes time. The most successful writers (generally) have a huge body of work written over a long body of time. One book will never be enough. Check out: 10 steps to success on Michaelbrent’s website.
- On marketing – you, the author, are the foremost authority on your book so you have to do the marketing. We talk about being introverts and how to survive at conventions. How to think about the other person first. Tailor your conversation to what THEY want, not all about you. Don’t sell to them. Supply what they need. As them what they are looking for. On books: “It’s not my baby, it’s my product.“
Here’s my review of Michaelbrent’s This Darkness Light on Goodreads:
This starts off like a fast paced thriller. John wakes up in a hospital with no memory and people are trying to kill him. A nurse, Serafina, helps him and they go on the run from government agents who will stop at nothing to destroy those in the way. Cue high body count and fight scenes … awesome 🙂
But then the dead start to morph into monsters and a thick fog begins to roll over the country, governments go silent as millions die from a horrific disease spread by the carriers … will John and Serafina be able to stop the end from coming? Will Isaiah, the haunted priest who hunts them, reconcile to his own demons?
A super fast-paced book that spirals from thriller into post-apocalyptic horror. Great fun!
Transcript of the interview with Michaelbrent Collings
Joanna: Hi everyone, I’m Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com and today I’m here with Michaelbrent Collings. Hi, Michaelbrent.
Michaelbrent: How are you guys doing?
Joanna: Good. This is going to be a fun show.
Michaelbrent: Oh, I hope so.
Joanna: Oh no, it is absolutely. With just a little introduction to anyone who might not know who you are, Michaelbrent is an award-winning and internationally best selling horror novelist. A number one best seller in the U.S. and also a screenwriter and martial artist. I’m a real fan of your books, as I’ve just been telling you. So it’s awesome to have you on the show.
But, first, tell us a bit more about you and your writing background.
Michaelbrent: Gee, that’s an open question. I guess, about me and my writing background is that, like a lot of horror writers probably, I grew up miserable and had to exorcise my demons by killing false people because if you do the real thing, you get put in jail, for some reason. No, not really.
My dad was a creative writing professor and he was the world expert on Stephen King. So if you have a Stephen King book in your school library or your college library, it’s probably in large measure because of my dad. He was one of the first people who went out and said, “This creepy guy isn’t just a weirdo writing pulp fiction. He’s writing literature.” So he wrote all these books about him and published the first full-length scholarly critiques of him. So I went to bed every night with my dad’s office in the next room. I had either screaming or typing or both. It was just something I grew up with.
My dad would let me watch all these movies. And if it was a really intense part or sex scene, he’d be like, “Oh, stand behind the TV.” But I just grew up with it.
When I was kid, I was small and I was very intelligent and I was abrasive. Those were a recipe for getting punched a lot. Because of the small thing, I couldn’t do anything about it. So I did. I’d write my little stories and I’d be like, “And then the bully died.” I grew up with it in the next room and then it migrated over into therapy. And then eventually I started realizing how powerful a medium horror can be and I started really emphasizing that in my work.
I write other stuff. I write science fiction and I write thrillers and I write all sorts of different things, but I keep coming back to horror. It’s both a home base and something I understand, and also just something I find immensely gratifying and something that can be good for the world.
Joanna: I know. That’s fascinating and, obviously, you’ve got a sense of humor as well.
Michaelbrent: You’ve got to when you look like this, honey.
Joanna: The first question I want to ask is about the horror genre, because I have recently read This Darkness Light. It starts off menacing and I thought, “Oh, why is this in horror? This is a like a mainstream thriller,” but it pretty much spirals into something which has like a supernatural aspect. I think you can get away with a lot of murder in other genres, but I guess my question is:
What defines horror for you and what are the characteristics of the genre? Because certainly your book is not torture porn or anything like that. So explore the edges of the genre for us.
Michaelbrent: Well, the best description and definition of horror on a really precise scale is whatever is on the horror shelf at Barnes and Noble because genre exists as a function of marketing.
In the old days, there was just a novel. It was the new thing that came out and nobody asked, “Oh, did you read the horror book, Frankenstein?” They said, “Have you read this novel, Frankenstein?” Now we have it bifurcated up either in actual shelves or Amazon puts them in its virtual shelves or what have you. And a lot of books that don’t deserve to be in one place or the other end up there just because it’s a marketing decision.
But I do think when a lot of people think about horror. . .it’s funny you mentioned torture porn because people go, “Oh, I don’t like horror,” and you say, “What don’t you like about it?” And when you really dig down, what they don’t like is the poster for Saw because they haven’t seen any real horror movies or read any real horror books but they have this kind of image of, “Oh, it’s that thing with the monster in the background who’s chasing a girl whose bosom is about to pop out.” And then there’s blood. That’s kind of all they have and if you look at it really carefully, the most gory books I know of aren’t horror, they’re war novels. And the most sexualized books aren’t horror; obviously they’re romance and Fifty Shades of Grey and things like that.
So everything that people don’t like about horror is found somewhere else, more so. So horror is very much just an image we’ve created. I think for me when I’m talking about my horror, I’m talking about a story that takes people and it cuts everything away that’s extreme. It takes away everything but their sense of self and it does through tragedy.
In a thriller, you’re running away from something and there’s this sense that you have to stay away, stay ahead of possible tragedy. And I think in horror, you start out with tragedy having already occurred and the threat then becomes loss of self, damnation. The best horror isn’t just nubile teens in the forest banging away until somebody cuts their head off. I don’t understand that because I’ve never been a nubile teen in that position. But I am a family man and a lot of my stories revolve around families because I think what would be the worst thing to happen would be to lose them.
Horror, I think what it does is it really incisively takes away everything extraneous about people and then says “Okay, this is your core. You don’t have your job. You don’t have your money. You don’t have even your relationships,” because horror always isolates people. It takes away everything but you and then says, “Now you’re going to live or die based on your own merit and perhaps a touch of grace.”
And that’s the area that I also find very fascinating because you get to talk about grace and about God. If there’s a girl possessed by a demon, a guy in a priest’s outfit walks in and casts her out by the power of God. Those are things you can’t do in any other genre nearly to the same extent. You can’t talk about this huge questions even like Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code. He’s ruminating around what really happened to Jesus, but it’s all played out in a very low key sort of way. The adventure is ridiculous. I liked it, it’s fun, but it’s ridiculous adventure and then the supernatural aspects are very dug down at the end. Whereas, in horror, you can go like “No man, we’re going to ask a question whether this prophetess is a god or the devil and shall either save us or damn us”. It’s really cool stuff that you can do.
Joanna: We’ve been on a bit of a campaign, a few of us, to get the thriller-supernatural added and they now have added it. And when I was reading your book. . .because I write. I always have supernatural elements so I think, will I write supernatural thriller? But when I read your books, I’ve been reading the James Herbert, some of the James Herbert. I just read Sepulchre again. It’s a book I’d keep going back to because I really like it. Again, that supernatural element, I don’t think there’s much of a line between supernatural-thriller and a horror in a way. You know what I mean?
Michaelbrent: No. Yeah, I agree. Again, a lot of these books, they get put on this shelf because that’s where they’ll sell. It’s like Stephen King writes an awful lot of literary fiction. If you think about the body which was the basis for Stand by Me or even Shawshank Redemption, they’re not horror stories, they’re very literary. This is what happens in this particular place to normal people sort of stories. But if you stick Stephen King’s book over on a literary fiction shelf, it’s just going to sit there until somebody grabs it and puts it where it belongs.
Joanna: Yeah, because he’s become that brand and I agree with you. A lot of his books are not what one would call horror anymore. That’s just where he got stuck, but that’s really interesting. And then, it’s fascinating about your dad because you’ve mentioned he was a professor, and this issue people have between literary fiction and genre fiction. Have you ever had. . .Because my mom was also an English teacher and I went to. . .
Michaelbrent: Oh no.
Joanna: I know. And I went to Oxford and I was brought up in a literary household and my family ask why don’t I write like Hilary Mantel. So I come up against this all the time.
Have you had to get over any kind of write-something-more-literary type of thing?
Michaelbrent: No. I’m self-published, and I have been very blessed in a lot of ways to be self-published because it means I don’t have to listen to somebody telling me what to do. I listen to my fans and they got irritated when I wander from horror for too many books. So, I’ll write a horror novel and then a sci-fi, and then a horror and then a YA or whatever. But other than that general like “write scary stuff Michaelbrent,” I don’t have people telling me that stuff and if somebody said “Why don’t you write more literary fiction?”
I think that I have sentences in my books that are tremendously lyrical. So I think there’s definitely times where people want that sense of “Oh, I want something deep and I want something very, very lyrical sounding,” and I think put those things there. My father taught poetry for 40 years. It’s in my blood to some extent. But I also, and this is just me, I’m not ripping on anybody else, I don’t get entertained and I don’t personally enjoy books where people sit around a tea cozy and talk about their adulterous affairs and wax effervescent on the dew on the spider web. It’s just okay, well, you banged the wrong people, and you’re having tea, and there’s a wet spider web. I said the whole book in three sentences.
Just for me personally, I like something that has some movement to it. So my books do have a lot of plot to them. They’re very plot driven. But the best stories are always where plot and character intersect on a great level, and you find out about people and you find out what they’re doing. And then books are given to us so that we can make sense of some universe, and if you’re doing that, there’s tremendous artistic value there.
Spenser, the guy who wrote the Spenser books [Robert B. Parker], he can’t write a sentence of more than six words, I think. He’s just like Hemingway, he’s very short. But everything in them is so dense and compacted. Some of the sentences are just beautiful. So I think it’s erroneous to say, “Oh, you have to be more literary. Oh, you have to be more plot driven.” I think you just should look a book and say “This is something I like and here’s why I’ll recommend it,” or “That’s not for me and maybe other like it. I try not to be catty about that.”
Joanna: Yeah. No, I get you. People like what they like. But yeah, I certainly couldn’t put your book down which, to me, that’s important. But I’m also really fascinated with self-censorship. It’s something with my book, Desecration, I’ve talked about for on my show but to write Desecration, I had to overcome some self-censorship issues around what a nice girl should write, and the fear of judgment of how people judge on writing.
Have you come up against this self-censorship or fear of judgment? How do you overcome that?
Michaelbrent: No. I’m a religious person. I’m a believing guy and part of that is that ultimately my status with God is between me and God. And I belong to a religion that I believe teaches true precepts, but even within that kind of rubric, it ultimately comes down to, if God walks into the room, could I stand there and be okay looking at him? So one of the rules, I have three rules that I have for writing which I think you can’t break and the first is confuse me and lose me. If you just don’t have a sense of what’s going on, the audience is going to leave.
The second is bore me and die, because you want interesting stuff and it can be an interesting book about the dew on the spider web. Some people have that capacity.
But the third is leave the world a better place. And I think sometimes you can do that telling scary, awful stories because those are morality tales about what should and should not be. And that’s totally legitimate, and that’s different from self-censorship. Self-censorship is this extraneous concern about what would others think of me. Whereas, if you go in there with an, “Okay this is my dynamic. I’m going to try and create pieces that once somebody’s done with them, their world will have been edified.” And once I say that, well, I’m not self-censoring. What I’m doing is guiding my words properly to that effect which I’m try to achieve. That’s a lot more freeing to think of it that way rather than what will my mom think of it.
Joanna: Oh yeah.
Michaelbrent: Because my mommy reads my stuff. She’s a mom. There is certainly things where I go, “Mom, you’re not going to like this one, just skip it.” There’s one book of mine that my wife hasn’t read because I said “You’re not going to like the subject matter,” and I told her what it was and she said “Never mind.” But I felt good about both of those books. I felt good about writing them because I thought they served a purpose beyond just let’s fling words at the internet and see what sticks.
Joanna: I don’t have your faith. I have a spirituality, but good versus evil to me, I think, is why I read horror. Because I feel, especially when good wins at the end, which does in your book. Yay, you could feel good, even though there was a lot of casualties along the way. That’s what with Stephen King. I feel, The Stand being my favorite book although at the end it kind of puts glimmer of good might not have won.
But that kind of good versus evil, I feel, underlies the horror genre, doesn’t it, really?
Michaelbrent: Yeah, it absolutely does, and The Stand’s great. And it’s great that you noticed that you get the feeling that good might not have won, because. . .and I don’t think he’s sitting there behind this keyboard going, “Now I shall cut out the throat of their hope.” But he’s writing something that people can hold on to which is, you look around your world and you know good people who’ve been injured unfairly. You know bad people who are getting ahead unfairly. So I think Stephen King, very often, and I do this in some of my books too, you get the feeling the fight is still going on.
Just because they’ve won this battle doesn’t mean we get to sit and rest on our laurels. I think that’s really powerful, too, because we live our lives not just in this moment but in the future and an expectation of what’s going to come tomorrow. So if we are led to believe everything is great today and it’s going to be great from here on out and they live happily ever after, that’s a fantastic and fun message to noodle over with your kids, because they need that. But when you grow up, if someone says, “And they you’ll live happily ever after,” your reaction is, “I’m going to wake up tomorrow and I’m going to be constipated or I’m going to lose my job or some major or minor mishap is going to befall me, because that’s life”.
And so I think when we layer into this melancholy ending where even when good has won, there’s still the sense there’s evil left. I think that serves a great purpose to say, “Look, the fights are worth fighting even if you can’t see the end of the war, these battles are necessary and they’re worthy and they’re good. So do partake of the opportunity to be a warrior in good versus evil.” Whether you’re religious or not, most people have a moral center that says there’s good and there’s bad. Horror very often says, “And the bad guys won.” But the bad guys won because the good guys stopped being good or because tomorrow there’s going to be another battle. And I think that’s marvelous.
Joanna: Yeah, no, I love it anyway. But let’s move on. Well, you know, staying on the dark side. But I talked to a fellow horror writer, J. Thorn, about how writing some of this stuff, heals us and you talked a bit about bullying, and you’ve got on your blog about depression.
I wondered how does writing help you through those kind of dark moments? Do you have any tips for people to write through that time?
Michaelbrent: Well, on a very nuts and bolts sort of a level, it gives me something to do. One of the major things about depression is you crawl in your bed and you just don’t want to leave. But I always have a story that I’m excited about, and that’s something that I can control.
A lot of us really hunger for control in our lives and that’s why we acquire money, and that’s why we accrue friends and things like that. It’s less about their intrinsic value than it is about the idea that now I control this kingdom. And writing is a wonderful thing for that because you can control it. Even if you go and your computer breaks, and then you find out you’re out of paper, and all your pens have sprung leaks. You walk outside and you get a stick and you start writing in the dirt.
You can always write. And that’s a good thing to have. It’s always good to have a project that will lead you to the future because if you’re done 100% today and depression hits you, well, why not kill yourself because there’s nothing to do tomorrow anyways? So just on a very nuts and bolts sort of base level, it’s something to do. It’s a good hobby to have.
But beyond that, this actually ties into what we were talking about earlier. I do have a lot of days where I don’t see, just because of chemical imbalances, I don’t see a purpose and I certainly don’t have hope. That’s not because I don’t want to be hopeful, it’s just that’s because my brain’s broken in that way. And what some of what my writing does for me is it reminds me there are all these characters that I wrote and I wrote them so that they would go through horrific events and then come through it.
And in the middle of their horrors, if they know it’s going to be all right in the end, then the horror has no validity. Who cares? If you’re standing there being run after by the super human guy with the axe or the machete but you know he’s got a bad heart and he’s going to die six steps before he gets to you, well then it’s not a horror movie, it’s just a weird commercial for machetes. But because I’ve had those horrific elements in my books and those characters who have to keep going not for hope, but for the hope of future hope. That allows me to think about in on an intellectual level.
Look, I don’t have hope today. I might not have it tomorrow. But I understand, non-emotively, that if I keep pushing, things should get better. That’s a message of lot of my horror which is basically just keep pushing and things will eventually get better.
Joanna: That’s great. Somebody else says that you’re a screenwriter which I also find I’m fascinated with right now. Amusingly, I’ve recently written a treatment about my book Desecration.
Joanna: Yeah, I thought it was awesome. But then I got the feedback that it was too disturbing for TV, and that it would need to be redone, and I’m like, “Well, the book’s already written. I’m not going to redo this at this point.”
So I wondered, from somebody writing what you do, what do you think the market is like for dark material?
Because it seems that to me that there is a lot around that the world is pretty dark. Also, comment on adapting books or should you do that or should you write something new?
Michaelbrent: Well, as far as the market, the market for horror is always there. It’s a fantastic market because it’s cheap and there’s a built-in fan base. You will not see Avengers Sleep Away Camp Seven because they’re not going to spend 200 million dollars on a horror movie. But you can get a bunch of. . .All too often it is the scantily clad teens and you throw them in a sleeping bag together.
Joanna: Dark room.
Michaelbrent: Yeah, but it costs 85 cents to make the movie, so it’s a no-brainer for a lot of Hollywood executives, they go, “Okay we’ve got Avengers 4 coming up and that’s using up $280 million of our $284. What should we do with the last four? Let’s make a horror movie.”
I have friends who are producers that they put together slates of a $100 million and they say “We’re going to make 10 or 15 movies with this $100 million.” And the investors love that because it’s a safe bet. Even if you make a two million dollar movie that sucks, it doesn’t have to have that much traction to make that money back.
So, there’s always a market for horror that. . .Within the market there’s a lot of shift. Twenty years ago it was all about Scream. Ten years ago, Saw was the big horse on the stage. Now it’s very much about the ghosts and the Paranormal Activity sort of handheld stuff. The guy who made the first one, the first Paranormal Activity movie, he really changed the way Hollywood functions on a lot of levels because he went in and he made this for $17,000 and it made a $100 million in the theaters. So people are looking for those inexpensive films to make.
Seriously, if you show up and you’re pitching the Avengers versus zombies, you’re not going to get very far because they don’t want big event horror movies. They want things that can be shot inexpensively with limited locations, and if you make it really full of cool scenery chewing stuff, they like that because they can send it to actors and the actors enjoy it.
One of my books is called Strangers and I wrote a screenplay based off of it. It’s about a family that wakes up one morning and they have been sealed into their home. All the windows have sheets, that’s sheet metal over them. The doors are all barred and they can’t get out. There’s a guy in there who wants to have some alone time with them. I give it to the studios, I give it producers and they all love it because it’s contained and it’s cheap and it’s got six people in it. And they each get to have really cool dialogue about how scared they are, and it’s something they go nuts over. So I’ve optioned that thing three or four times now. It’s going to sell eventually, it’s one of those that’s just waiting for the right homes.
So horror’s a great thing to write. You do have to be aware of the market. I have three or four of my books and my screenplays are ghost stories. And because of the Paranormal Activity stuff, ghost stories are actually hard to sell right now, because it’s so dominated by this one production company and they’re putting everything out. If you want to do something, it’s got to be really, really different. So you have to be aware of the vicissitudes of the current market. But it’s a great market to write for because there’s always people there who want horror.
Joanna: Did you start out screenwriting or start out with novels? How did you cross over?
Michaelbrent: I did both at the same time. I’ve been writing since I was very young and I didn’t start writing screenplays. At age four, I started writing my little crayola books. But when I was at high school, a friend brought a copy of the screenplay for Terminator 2 and I read it and I was like, “This is amazing.” It’s a totally different way of telling stories. I thought, “I can do this too.” So I’ve grown up together with my first screenplay I wrote when I was in high school, still. And my first book, I wrote around the same time. And since then, whenever I do a book, I almost always have a screenplay version of it as well. It’s just a good way to monetize my work because I can sell two versions of it.
Joanna: That’s brilliant and let’s come on to that. The “monetize my work.”
You do make a living as a writer, and you have some great stuff on your blog about the numbers and living, writing for living.
Can you maybe talk about your opinions on that? Because so many writers “Oh, I want to make a living writing,” but then they just write one book. So how do you knit it all together?
Michaelbrent: Yeah. Well, I think the two things you need to be successful, and by successful I mean to be making money because success. . .I prefer people not to think about that. Success is the end of rainbow, it’s always going to move away from you. No matter how close you get, you’re never going to reach success because when you become a best seller, you’ll be want to be a number one best seller and then you’ll be a number one and then you want to make a movie out of it and then you want to write. . . And it’s always one step past you.
So what you do is you create concrete goals. I want to make this much money per year as a writer. I want to, for me, provide for my family as a writer, that’s my goal. I’m a huge whore so all I’m interested in is the money. But a lot of writers don’t do that. I have a concrete goal.
And then, after that, the way to achieve those goals is almost always a function of two things, product and people. And by that, I mean you write lots and lots and lots and lots of stuff and you meet lots and lots and lots and lots of people. Eventually, one of those people wants your product as a screenplay, or one of those people wants this book as a traditionally published book, or whatever it is.
You really accrete these two things. You have a growing body of work and you have a growing body of people who you know who are in that industry and who are moneymakers who have our gatekeepers. And I use the word accrete purposely because that’s a descriptor for coral growth, it’s very, very slow. These two things, there’s no silver bullet, it’s a product of time. You get one person here at a convention. You write a book over six months. You meet another person at a writing symposium.
A lot of the people you meet, they’re not going to be useful to you. But then they are one day. One day, the guy you met at the symposium is no longer the person bringing coffee to the producer. He’s the producer. And you’ve kept up with him long enough, and you have a relationship so that he’s saying, “Hey send me every single thing you’ve got.” And that’s a relationship I have with a lot of producers. I’ve finish a script and I send it out in a bulk mail, “Here you go. It’s up for grabs, knock yourselves out.” But that took ten years to get those contacts. And really, there’s nothing special about it. You scour the internet and you cold call people.
Mostly, you meet people at symposia and Comic Cons and things like that because it’s face-to-face that’s going to have the most effect. Then you write and write and write.
Forbes did a really interesting survey of the most successful writers monetarily in history. There were no common grounds between them. Except, with the exception of a few outliers, they all had a huge body of work written over a long period of time.
I wrote a book called Run and it did really well. It was a number one best seller in Amazon. It made me think I knew what I was doing which was a huge disservice to me because the next book didn’t make any money and the next book didn’t make any money. And then ten books later, I was making some money and 15 books later, I was making decent money. Now I’m 30 books in and I’m a writer. I get to just sit around with my pants off all day and type if I feel like it.
Joanna: I’d say, you type quite a lot actually.
Michaelbrent: I do, I do type a lot but that’s the thing, is people. . .Here’s another thing I’d like to say is if you go to the doctor and he’s about to poke a finger in some hole that you don’t like fingers being poked in and you say, “So where’d you go to school?”. He goes, “I didn’t really go to school per se but I went to a doctor once and he was terrible, so I figure I can do better than him.” And then you’re going to be gone and there’s going to be a little smoke outline of you in the doctor’s office. And you’re out of there because you don’t want to be poked by that guy.
But that’s the way a lot of writers pursue their writing career. They say, “Well, I read a book once and it sucked, so I thought I’d bark up my own little set of word craft and some magical publisher’s going to come along and scoop it up and gold will rain upon me.”
And in reality, if you want to be successful, you treat it like medical school. You write after work for eight hours a day. I was a lawyer for about ten years before I became a full time writer. I would get up at six. I’d go to work until six or seven, I’d come home, I’d play with my kids, I’d play with my wife. At ten or eleven, she’d go to bed and I would write until 2:00 a.m. I did that every day for ten years. Most people are like, “I’m going to be a writer.” “Well how are you going to do that?” “I’ll write a book during summer and then never think of it again.”
Joanna: Then make a million.
Michaelbrent: Yeah. It happens occasionally but even to the people that it happens to, they run into problems because they’ve got all this money and then eventually the money dries up, which it has to. And this person doesn’t know how to replicate that success, because what they did was they succeeded by accident. You want to not only succeed, you want to know how you did it so that you can replicate that success. Again, this first book I wrote, it did really well and had no fricking clue why no one was buying the other ones.
Joanna: Yeah, and that’s so common. We see that especially. . .I feel sorry for debut novelists who get the first book that they cared about and the second book nobody cares.
Joanna: I’m an introvert and I really struggle at events but Twitter’s my secret weapon, as in I stalk people and generally make friends first, and then when I talk to them it’s much easier because they actually know I exist.
But I wondered if you had any tips for the meeting people stuff, naturally in a good way?
Michaelbrent: Well, okay there’s a couple things. Number one is if you’re a writer and if you’ve written a book, recognize the fact that you are the world’s foremost fricking expert on that book. So a lot of writers that I meet, they come up to me and they’re very pensive and they’re very worried and it looks like they’re worried I’m going to punch them just for existing.
The reality is you are a world expert in this thing, and you are competent to talk about it. If you have that in your mindset, it’s a lot easier to move forward because what we’re afraid of. . .I’m an introvert too, obviously. I’ve got this depression and stuff. When I go to conventions, I come home and I sit in a dark room for a full day and I shake, because it scares me.
But you go up with this sense of, “I know what I’m talking about,” and that’s very helpful.
The other thing to remember is try and picture the other person like someone you’re meeting at a dinner party and you pull out your wallet and you show them all the pictures of your children. And this is a small slice of hell for that other person because they don’t give a crap about your kids. They don’t know about it. I don’t care that Johnny lost his tooth. I could care less. Now, if he lost his face, I’d be interested because that’s an interesting story.
The mistake a lot of novelist do, that they make when they go to these convention, they approach to me and say, “I wanted talk to you about my novel.” “Good, start.” “Chapter one, page one, we open in a very dark place, not as dark as your room but a little lighter than outside, but it’s kind of creepy.” And sixty minutes later, this person that you’re talking to just wants to kill themselves, because you’re showing your baby pictures without any context.
If you walk over to my table, I’ve got twenty books and I can tell you the basic idea of all of them in under two minutes total. Then that allows the other person to be invested. He can ask you. Before we were talking on air, you asked, “What should I read next?” and I didn’t say, “Read this because it’s so awesome”. I said, “Well, do you want to read about monsters, serial killers, ghost, or demons?” Then you get to answer, and now you’re leading the conversation and I’m not selling you anything. I’m just supplying your need. That’s a much better situation to be in.
So rather than go, “Here’s my baby pictures,” just vomit stuff on them. Say, “What are you looking for?” and they tell you, and then you say, “Here’s what I got that fits that.” If you don’t have something that fits that, you go, “Well, coincidentally, I’m writing something right now that fits that.” And you have to do that.
I’ve been in pitch sessions where they went for a movies so I was trying to sell a movie and the producer goes, “That’s not what we’re looking for” and I say “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to waste your time. What are you looking for?” and they go, “We’re looking for a movie about lesbian dogs from space” and I’m like, “I’m just writing one of those.” Even if they don’t end up buying the idea, you’ve made that contact who thinks you are awesome, because you have this joint affection for lesbian dogs from space and that becomes a friend. In ten years, he’ll want something that you’re actually writing.
Joanna: So I guess the trick there is to always focus on the other person and not yourself and I agree with you, so many people. . .I get pitched all the time by people wanting to come on the podcast, or for me to endorse stuff, whatever. They just don’t even consider who I am. I get pitched for credit cards and stuff like that and I’m like, “What’s that got to do anything?”
Michaelbrent: You have to ask yourself. . .This is a service industry and I mean that in two senses. One, it’s like a restaurant, you’re giving them what they want to eat.
Two, I really believe writers are serving humanity. We are writing, hopefully, good things that edify on some level, that uplift on some level, that help people. And so, if someone comes to you and says, “I need help,” and you say, “I can help you,” you’re best friends now. It’s just the nature of civilization. If somebody comes up to you and says, “I need help,” and you go “Let me tell you something I want to tell you first and then we’ll talk about your needs.” That’s not a friendship and that’s not something that’s going to work well for you. Also, if there’s an old lady on the side of the road with her tire flat and you jack up the car and fix the tire, never see that old lady again but you go home and you’re like, “Honey, I was the bomb today” and you feel good about yourself. And it’s exactly the same when you’re pitching your materials.
If you take the time to find out what they want first and then address that desire rather than going in and saying, “Well, I’ve got my favorite book and I’m going to pitch it and they’re going to love it or else.” Well, there is no other else. You’ve got to be able to ask what they want and do that.
Joanna: It does get much easier the more books you have because you care. You don’t care as much about each individual project when you have so many. It’s like that children metaphor, I just laugh about that now. You’ve got some real children but also books. Once you get over six, ten books, you don’t call books your children.
Joanna: That’s ridiculous.
Michaelbrent: That’s very true. That’s silly. The faster you get over that, the better.
One of my screenplays came out, or the movie was finished and I watched and it was not a good experience because they had changed some things and it just wasn’t my screenplay anymore. I walk out and people go, “Wasn’t that devastating for you?” I said “You know, it kind of sucked because my name was on this movie that I didn’t think was very good, but my first thought wasn’t they killed my babies.” When I walked out and the producers were all lined up because it was a screening and they said, “What did you think?” My first thought wasn’t, “You murdered my baby,” my first thought was, “Their check cleared and it was big. How can I be happy about this?”
Joanna: “I loved it. Let’s do it again, number two.”
Michaelbrent: Without lying, how can I approach this? Because it’s not my baby, it’s my product. And that’s another thing that’s helpful if you go in there thinking, “I’m a business.”
Instead of putting greeting cards on the table or hamburgers in wrapping, I put books out. They mean exactly as much as those hamburgers and those greeting cards. They bring people pleasure. They help them get through the day. Hopefully, they make them a little healthier on some level, but it’s just a hamburger, man, and I can’t get that freaked out about it. Because when people get freaked out about it, “This is the most important work in English literature!” It’s going to go down hill from there.
Joanna: Where can people find you and your books online?
Michaelbrent: Well, my name’s Michaelbrent and that’s my first name. So if you type in Michaelbrent, all one word, you’re going to get my Amazon page and my website. My website’s michaelbrentcollings.com but I’m really easy to find, just type Michaelbrent. Although, there is an underwear model whose name is Michael Brent. So if you type it in and you get this devastating dude with no clothes, that’s not me. But michaelbrentcollings.com or just type Michaelbrent onto your Amazon browser or Barnes and Noble or wherever.
Joanna: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time. That was brilliant.
Michaelbrent: Thank you.