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To make a living with your writing, you need to write quality books on a regular schedule. You need to learn to write faster, be more confident about your craft and get over writer's block.
In today's show, Bram Stoker award nominee, Michaelbrent Collings shares his tips.
In the intro, I mention that I am in Austin, Texas for the Smarter Artist Summit so this is recorded in advance and I will be reporting back next week.
I also talk about the free IndieAuthorFringe.com, plus a fantastic book: Anything You Want by Derek Sivers and what I've taken from the book this week. You can listen to Derek on Tim Ferriss' show here and here and also on James Altucher's show. All fantastic. I also mention this interview with Marie Force on the SelfPublishingFormula podcast, which got me thinking about the kind of life I want.
The corporate sponsorship for this show pays for hosting and transcription. This podcast episode is sponsored by 99 Designs, where you can get all kinds of designs for your author business including book covers, merchandising, branding and business cards, illustrations and artwork and much more. You can get a Powerpack upgrade which gives your project more chance of getting noticed by going to: 99Designs.com/joanna
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. Michaelbrent was on the show in 2015 and we had such fun and it was so popular, he's back to talk about some different things.
You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
- On being nominated for two Bram Stoker awards and what that means to Michaelbrent. [I love Michaelbrent's books and particularly enjoyed The Deep and This Darkness Light.]
- The quality indie authors should be aiming for and the type of experience we want readers to have.
- On whether there's a continuing bias against indie authors.
- Writing faster, writing better and letting oneself write garbage.
- How to know when to stop learning about writing and start writing.
- And how a certain type of TV watching can help you as an author.
- Trusting your curiosity
- The misconception and misnomer about writer's block. [I mention this interview with David Morrell, author of First Blood and a ton of other books.]
- The dangers of taking writing too seriously.
- The benefits of writing prolifically rather than being an out-of-the-gate phenomenon, and how this strategy benefits writers financially.
- On screenwriting and whether adapting an existing book or writing a screenplay from scratch is the best bet.
- How pitching screenplays works in Hollywood.
You can find Michael at www.MichaelbrentCollings.com and on twitter @mbcollings.
Transcript of interview with Michaelbrent Collings
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I am Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com, and today I'm here with Michaelbrent Collings. Hi, Michaelbrent.
Michaelbrent: Hello, how are you doing?
Joanna: It's great to have you back on the show. Just a little introduction. Michaelbrent is an award winning and internationally bestselling horror novelist, a number one bestseller in the US, and also a screen writer and martial artist. Michaelbrent was on the show last year and we talked about writing horror, about religion and faith, and also about depression, and incredibly we had a lot of fun. It was one of the most popular episodes last year. Michaelbrent is back and we're going to talk about some different things. Let's start with an update.
As a full time creative, what has changed for you in the last year? What creative projects have you been working on?
Michaelbrent: Creative projects?
Michaelbrent: I thought you were asking about my hairline which is always sort of a steadily receding thing. Creative projects, I have written a number of books. I typically write anywhere from four to eight books a year.
Since the last time we spoke, I wrote The House That Death Built, which is my newest release. I wrote The Sword Chronicles which is a YA fantasy. I finished off a zombie series called The Colony Saga. I think I did a couple other different things but honestly they all kind of blend together. I've written like 40 books in the last 5 years, and they all smoosh after a certain point.
Joanna: I know. I'm struggling and I'm only on like number 17 or something. You feel like a bit of a dick when people say, “How many books have you written?” And you're like, “I can't quite remember.”
Michaelbrent: Right. You tell them that…you say, “I'm not sure,” and it's not because of how many I've written. It's just because I'm a writer and I'm not good with numbers.
Joanna: Yes. We're creative entrepreneurs, so we have to be good at both.
Michaelbrent: That's true.
Joanna: We're going to come back to your output and talk a bit about writer's block or lack of.
First of all, I wanted to say a big congratulations for your nomination for the Bram Stoker Awards.
Michaelbrent: Two of them.
Joanna: Yes, two. I'll weed them out. Superior Achievement in a Novel for “The Deep”, which I personally loved. I really want to write a scuba diving book at some point. It's a great inspiration for me.
Also, Superior Achievement in a Young Adult Novel for “The Ridealong”.
These are two indie-published books alongside Stephen King, Jonathan Maberry. Tell us how that feels.
Michaelbrent: It was really a surprise. They have a preliminary ballot where they announce these are the ones that are in contention for the real ballot, or I guess you're British so the real ballot. I didn't expect to get passed out. It was nice to get recognized on the preliminary ballot and then because I troll Google for my own name periodically, I pulled it up. I wasn't even looking for the Bram Stoker; it was just completely off my radar. It pulled up that I had gotten a nomination and I thought, “Oh, probably for The Ridealong,” because there weren't as many young adult novels and because superior achievement in a novel is really hotly contested. I pulled it up and honestly I just about popped my pants. I was just so surprised.
Joanna: That's interesting. Did you not enter the books yourself?
Michaelbrent: I'm a member of the Horror Writers Association, although I have to up my due. I guess technically I'm not right now. You let people know that they're out there, and then the other people do what they want. You're not really supposed to solicit votes and I didn't go around in social media going, “If you'd vote for me…” It was nice to see it show up but I don't have the time or the wherewithal to put a huge marketing blitz into the Bram Stoker Award. I'm too busy selling books on a day to day basis.
Joanna: Absolutely. It seems a really big thing like I read a little bit of horror, your books and some other and Stephen King and Jonathan Maberry actually.
Michaelbrent: He's good.
Joanna: Yeah. He's really good. I love the Joe Ledger Series. It's so weird. What I wanted to ask you was many people criticize indie books on quality, and you're writing award nominated books. You've won other awards, haven't you as well? You are an award winning novelist.
How do you write an award winning book, or what are your tips of writing books that can win awards?
Michaelbrent: That's a great question for indies especially because when I'm talking about how to get independent books recognized and get them spotted amongst this vast sea of self-published stuff, what I tell people is you don't want to be as good as the traditionally published books. They have that space totally occupied.
The space you need to create is to be better, and I really mean that. If you have a choice between a Stephen King book, and a Michaelbrent Collings book, the first thing you're going to see is the cover. You need your covers to be more popping, more eye-catching, more interesting, more innovative than the covers you'll see on a traditionally published novel.
Oddly enough, I think the closest kind of correlation would be a civil rights movement. I love Dr. Martin Luther King, and one of the things that he seemed to emphasize was you don't want to go out and be militant and be nasty about stuff.
You want to just be quietly excellent as a human being. I think that applies in all areas of life. Particularly to indie publishing. As soon as you get out there and start screaming, “I'm just as good as you are. Listen to me,” people automatically just kind of go and they're gone.
You need to put out a quality product and say, “Hey, read the first five pages, and if it sucks, throw it away.” I've got my big boy pants on, and I won't be offended because that's my job as a writer, is to listen to what you want and if I didn't achieve that, it's my fault.
Once you have that mindset, it's much easier to approach people because there is that bias. Literally, if you tell them, “Look. I've had bad reviews. They didn't hurt my poor little feelings, and I'm willing to accept your criticism the same way I would accept any other business decision.” As soon as you do that, people go, “Okay. Well, I'll take a chance.” But then you really do have to knock their socks off and you know this. You can't say, “Well, I'll be good enough for a 99 cent purchase.”
You have to say, “I'm going to give them a $15 experience and then sell it to them for 5 bucks.” That's how you get an audience. You give them value for what they're giving to you.
Joanna: Absolutely, and I agree on that kind of quiet excellence thing. We talked about religion before, but it's pretty similar if you are a person of faith. You don't want to go around preaching it; you want to live it and then people will recognize that and they'll ask you. Eventually, they will ask you about it rather than you having to preach it. I agree with you on that side.
Obviously you have friends in the traditional publishing arena and with organizations like The Horror Writers. Have you seen the attitude towards indies? Has it completely shifted now or do you still see some backlash?
Michaelbrent: No, absolutely not. The Horror Writers, just last year, agreed to accept independent authors as members of their group, and there's still a lot of pushback. I was actually one of the people that drafted the new rules. I guess I technically have provided the recommendations for new rules to the committee.
There were people that said, “No. Unless you have sold to a publisher, you are not a real writer,” which I thought was ludicrous especially based on some of the crap bull I've read from traditional publishers. It's true. They do have gate keepers and I never will mock traditional publishing as a whole. There are some bad apples out there, but they have a place, and if I got the right offer I'd take it. I have nothing against it, but there definitely is a very strong, probably still majority, faction that says no. If you just click publish on Kindle, it's not for realsies. They're not willing to even give it a chance.
I bear them no ill will for that because there is a lot of dreck out there. After you've dated 18 weirdos, you really are kind of careful about the next person you ask out on a date. It's the same thing with books because you're establishing a relationship with these books.
You bring them into your heart and you open up to them, and then they stomp around, and they piss all over you with crappy grammar mistakes and bad spelling and all of this stuff which is…it's actually why one of the first things I say to new writers is, “This is a great rule to learn. Your first book sucks. Don't publish it. Don't think you're an exception of the rule. You just wrote crap, and that's okay because crap is the first thing you have to write to get good.”
I don't bear anyone any ill will. I've worked really hard for my reputation, and if I come to somebody and say, “Would you read my book?” And they say, “No, it's self-pub.” And I'm sitting there going like, “I've got major award nominations and I sell more books than you ever will.”
At some point, you do get frustrated out there and hope that those people sometimes change their mind.
Joanna: I agree. Let's talk about actually making a living writing, which you do, and you mentioned there the four to eight books a year that you're writing.
What does your writing process look like right now? And maybe how has it changed over time? Has it got faster, for example? Obviously, it has.
Michaelbrent: When I was a kid, all I could output was one or two Crayola stories a day. Clearly, I'm a little better than that now. It's really interesting because people ask, “What do you do?”
The secret is I go in, and I sit down and I start typing. I don't stop for 8 or 10 hours.
Some days, that means I type total crap. But you know what? That's what God invented the delete key for. It's okay that I write total crap. Even in writing the total crap, I learn how to be better the next day.
A huge mistake that people make is they sit there and they write something terrible, and then they use that terrible thing as an excuse to not write the next time, because what if I do it again?
That's fine. If you look at an Olympic pole vaulter, how many times does that dude hit the bar when he's trying for a world record attempt? Hits it all the time, and that's fine. That's part of the process. You've got to screw up in order to really excel.
Joanna: You mention there that you go in, presumably, the room, a specific room, and you write for 8 to 10 hours a day.
Do you not plot or plan your books? Are you like what they call a pantser?
Michaelbrent: No. I do outlining, but here's another thing, because we're moving into writing process and how not to have writer's block and all that thing. A lot of people, they misconstrue a critical element of writing.
They think that writing is totally equal to typing. Unless I'm typing, I'm not writing.
But the reality is writing is this whole gamut of interesting processes.
If I go in and I say I'm writing for eight hours a day, that means some days I'm outlining and I get three pages done.
Some days like today, I'm brainstorming which means I'm sitting down and watching anime. I'm just sitting there with like a piece of paper or a pad of paper, and just writing as fast as I can these ideas that come out. That's writing.
I write every single day for all this time.
Some days when I sit down and I actually start typing, yes I can hit up to 15,000 to 16,000 words a day if I'm really pushing myself.
But if I don't type that much, I'm not beating myself up because I'm either critically watching a TV show to find out how I can put to use things that they do well, or how I can do better things that they suck at, or I'm reading a book. I'm thinking, one of the things I very often do. My wife says, “What are you going to do today?” And I say, “I'm going for a nature walk.” There's this really beautiful nature hike near our house, and I just walk for a couple hours. Again I have my pad, so I'm not just fooling around. It is for a real professional purpose.
And I think that's another difference.
There's a slim line between that and then just putting your feet up on the porch watching the sun go down and thinking writerly thoughts, which is a huge danger, because then you're not actually working.
But as long as you're working on your piece, it's writing and it counts.
Joanna: I was reflecting on the problems with my first novel. One of the things that people often do with that first novel is they read a lot of books about writing, they go to a lot of workshops on writing and they listen to a lot of audios about writing, but potentially don't move past that point. For example, you mentioned there watching TV shows as learning about story and critically watching TV shows. I gave up TV at that point like five years ago, but now…whatever it was, five years ago. Now, I do watch more TV again because there are some great shows on Netflix and Amazon Prime and all that type of thing.
How do people know when to stop putting that stuff in to their brain and when to start walking, and when to start finding ideas and when to actually get the work done?
Michaelbrent: Research is a great thing, but it becomes a four-letter word. It becomes this tremendous crutch that we use to avoid writing. The reality is there's always more to be learned and that's wonderful, but there's always more to be learned and that sucks, because we use it as this excuse. “Well, I don't know enough about guns. I don't know enough about submarines. I don't know enough about scuba diving.” What if the world's expert at scuba diving reads my book and realizes I'm a fraud? We bind ourselves into this mentality, but the reality is we're creating fake worlds. We're lying for a living, we're con men and women.
All a good con artist needs is enough facts to lie convincingly. As soon as you find yourself in that position, start typing.
Start creating something. Similarly, if you are watching a TV show, again I'm sitting here with a pad in hand, and I go, “Oh, a giant monster that spews molten lava and has parent issues. That's great.” I'll write, “Monster with oedipal complex.” I'm actually trying to transmute what I'm seeing into something I can do and not stealing it necessarily but saying, “This is a great springboard.”
As soon as you then sit there, this is how most people watch TV because it's a variant compassing medium, and so it's very easy to go cold and just let it wash through us. As soon as you do that…you should not be sitting there thinking, “Okay, I'm going to watch TV.”
You should be sitting there thinking, “I'm going to get excited today. I'm going to watch a great show, and it's going to help me go to completely new places.” As soon as you're out of that mindset, now you're just entertaining yourself and that's not your job, if you want this for a job. You can't just sit back and be entertained. This is going to ruin television watching for you and for your spouse because my as my wife knows, we'll watch a mystery and I'll go, “He did it.” Third frame in, and she just sits there and turns to me and goes, “You a-hole.” Now, she's doing it. She's going, “He did it.” And she still turns and goes, “You a-hole,” because it's all my fault.
Every time I'm watching a show now, I really am looking for cool tidbits.
It's a really fun way to live, and it trains you to look for interesting moments everywhere because if you can look for cool stuff in a television show which is designed to sort of deaden you, when you're driving down the street, all of a sudden you're going to start saying, “That is a creepy warehouse. I wonder what's in that warehouse?” And then because you're a writer, writers get to do this. You walk up to the warehouse and knock on the door and they open it and you say, “I'm not a terrorist, I'm a writer. Can I see inside your warehouse?” And they go, “Sure.”
The secret really is being engaged. As long as you're engaged, it's great. And then as long as you feel like you have enough information to get started, get started because chances are the world expert is never going to read your book and all you have to do is fake out the masses who are smart, and you need to do a good job. But you don't need to be the world expert. You just need to be more expert than they are.
Joanna: I think that that curiosity, trusting that curiosity is something that I didn't have at the beginning. Of the 13 years or whatever it was in a corporate job, you lose your creativity. It's interesting. I think you lose your trust in that curiosity that says, “I'm interested in this. Notice this.” It's almost like you have to train your brain to start noticing it.
Michaelbrent: Here's what I think is the real problem. It's not like a corporate life but the older we are, the more asking questions costs us. To my three-year-old I say, “Don't do that.” “Why?” “Because this.” “Why?” “Because this.” “Why?” “Go to bed.” And at some point, she can out why me because she's infinitely curious.
Then we get older, and we get more people saying, “Leave me alone. You're asking too many questions.” And then we're in our 20s, 30s 40s and we say, “What about this?” And they go, “Don't you know that?” And now we've been taught that asking questions marks us as fools. What we need to say is, “That's not true.” Nobody learns more, faster than these kids because they ask why.
Literally, you have to be able to say, “I'm a child again.” It's not just saying, “I'm a child again,” isn't just like, “Oh, how wonderful the world is.” It's wondering stuff. And I do. Literally, I'll pull off the side of the road. My family hates traveling with me because I'll pull off to the side of the road, and I'll just run up to a building and I'll say, “I see you have a farm. What's that like?” And the person looks at me like I'm an idiot until they realize I'm really interested.
People gravitate to that interest because everyone wants to talk about themselves.
Interestingly, the more fascination you can have with things and people, the more people are going to be fascinated by you because they sense a person who has a deep appreciation for who they are. And that comes across in your books.
Joanna: Although, I would say that as a kind of chronic introvert, my research process basically doesn't involve talking to people. It involves reading a lot of nonfiction, biography, a lot of technical stuff. I'm reading some stuff on war photography at the moment because I want to write a character who's a war photographer, and traveling places and researching that way. I think if people listening are like, “I couldn't go up to a farmer and ask about that.” It doesn't have to be that way but you need some way to get the input, don't you?
Let's talk a bit more about writer's block because I always feel when people email me and say, “I've got writer's block,” I'm like, “You just haven't put enough stuff in your head because for it to come out again, you have to put it in.”
What's your interpretation of what people call writer's block?
Michaelbrent: Okay. First of all, there's a misconception and there's a misnomer. The misconception is this: Picture you've been pulled over by a police officer, and you do that whole thing where your butt clenches and you rise up six inches in your seat because you're terrified of what's going to happen and he says, “Do you know how fast you were going?” And you do. You were going 117 miles an hour in a 7-mile zone. And then he starts writing, and then he just closes his book and says, “You know? I'm just not feeling it today. I must have cop block.” And he walks away. This never happens.
If you're going to be a professional writer, you don't have the luxury of saying, “I have writer's block,” any more than there can be accountant's block, or lawyer's block, or doctor block. “Let's stop the surgery. I'm having gallbladder doctor block.” You have to do this. Now, that's the misconception.
Get over writer's block because you're not allowed. The misconception of writer's block is it's not that you can't write; it's that everyone has this little…one of my teachers called it a crap bird.
He actually called it something else but I'm editing for content. He calls it this crap bird and you put your hands down to write, and before you can write, you have a concept, you have an idea or a series of words. Right as you're putting your fingers down, the crap bird goes, “Those suck.” And you immediately pull your fingers back off the keyboard.
Writer's block, it's not that we don't have words; it's that there's something inside of us that's saying. “Don't write these words. They're terrible.” Sometimes that's the case, but you know what? Terrible words are better than no words at all. I would much rather have a world where people speak inelegantly and imperfectly than a world where no one speaks at all.
When we talk about writer's block, part of the way of getting through it is writing gobbledygook. I do that some days. But the thing is as you write gobbledygook, you're going to find more and more, all of a sudden, you start writing wonderfully. If you're not, it's not a writing issue. It is a plot issue. And that's where a lot of people get hung up, too.
Again, if you're having a plotting problem, just working through it sometimes is the best way. Another thing is, again, typing is not the end-all, be-all of writing. If you're having a plot issue, that's fine. That's part of writing. Think about it, wonder about it, worry about it.
I was a lawyer and there was a lot of times where I sat in front of my computer going, “How am I going to explain this to a jury?” It wasn't lawyer's block; it was part of the process of getting together a good case. If you're sitting here going, “How am I going to get my hero out of this situation?” that's not writer's block; that's pondering and that's fine.
Now, if you find you truly can't get your hero out of that situation, again, write crap. Type out, “And then God reached down and saved him.” And you know what? All of a sudden you realize, “Well, God can't save him but a helicopter would.” Well, there's no helicopter in this story. “Page three. He looked up and saw a helicopter.” You can layer in the answer.
Getting through writer's block, really, it's getting out of your own way. Again, I like to liken this to everything about writing as pole vaulting; it's a very good analogy. These Olympic pole vaulters, when they're running, they don't go, “Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. Plant the pole.”
They just do it, and that's because they've practiced, they've practiced, and they've fallen, and they've made missteps. When the final moment comes, they just get out of their own way, and suddenly they're on the other side of the rod thing. They're on the other side, and they've passed the test. That's very similar for a lot of people who have writer's block.
Just start reading any old bloody thing that you feel like. “He was inside with the zombies. Oh, crap. What do I do? And suddenly a cuckoo bird walked in. This isn't making any sense. Shut up, crap bird. And the cuckoo bird said there's a way out.” Okay. We're not going to have a cuckoo bird but now we have somebody who shows up and we can layer him in earlier, and the problem's solved. It's all solved by just typing any old stupid thing. It's the best remedy for writer's block.
Joanna: It's a good point and I had David Morrell in the podcast a while back, who wrote “First Blood”, “Rambo”, and 40 other books.
Michaelbrent: A couple of small things.
Joanna: Yeah, a couple of small things. He said he just writes a letter to himself, as he's sitting there. So he'll be like, like you said, “This is a stupid idea, but what could happen? What are the 15 things that could happen next, David?” And actually just uses that letter to decide.
A couple of things there. The layering in, what some people might call foreshadowing, I think that's something that early writers don't realize either. As you said, you come up with the idea and then you have to go back and just add a few things in like tiny little things earlier on. Like give them a knapsack or something so they can take something out of the knapsack later on. I do this a lot. I often have flashlights, as you call them, or torches. I'm always getting that wrong.
The other thing I wanted to ask you about because you enjoy a good laugh but you write horror. Is taking everything a bit too seriously especially with the award winning stuff…do you think some people struggle with writing because it's all just a bit too serious?
Michaelbrent: Probably. Because again, people are saying, “I've got to achieve this huge result in this perfect moment.” Human existence isn't a series of perfect moments; it's a series of really banal moments that are punctuated by amazing moments. I think that we definitely put too much pressure on ourselves. Certainly me, I do have this. I suffer this when I'm writing. I'm like, “I've got to make this better. My last book didn't do as good as I wanted it to so I've got to put it over the top.” That really gets in the way of the story because you want to be writing something that's fun for you, first of all.
I think one thing that I have noticed, you become an award winner. And I hope this hasn't happened to me but a lot of authors become award winners, and they become panelists at big comic cons. And they start teaching and all of a sudden they stop writing. It's because they've become so wise they can no longer learn anything. Again, this goes back to the curiosity because if you're the world expert on writing, and you're a teacher and you're amazing, you can't run up to the guy on the side of the road and go like, “What's it like to sell fruit?” Because that does not fit with the gravitas of your current station.
No matter what, you're just a writer. People talk about killing your babies and letting go and all this stuff. I don't ascribe to that theory. I'm making Big Macs. I am making hamburgers, and hopefully they bring a bit of joy to whoever is consuming them, and then hopefully they come back and buy another one. But I'm just doing something that's a product that I want to be proud of but it is not world peace. It's a freaking book, and hopefully with that book, you can change somebody's life for the better but that doesn't mean you have to change them momentously. You just have to be an improving factor on their lives and that's sufficient. You'll know if you're doing that.
And if you have the capacity to look at a child and smile and play with him or her, or if you have the capacity to visit your parents, if you have the capacity to smile at coworkers, you can do that. Don't stress about it. You will accomplish it and you don't have to be this crazed freak of goal-oriented weirdness while you're writing. That's part of your business model, but while you're writing, it's very different. You should be able to enjoy yourself, and sit back and laugh and say, “I can't believe I do this.”
Joanna: I think that gets easier the more books you have because at the beginning you do care. Newer writers often do compare having a book to having a baby. You have kids. Your wife had them.
Michaelbrent: Not the same.
Joanna: Well, exactly. I'm happily child free, but when people say that…
I think that metaphor works for maybe the first three or four books. But when you get to 40 books, it is not that you're looking at these as your children, is it?
Joanna: You're actually looking at them more as employees who work for you.
Michaelbrent: Yeah. That's great, and they're hopefully really good employees that are fun to be around because if they're not, your fire them. Don't get to the end of the book before you fire them; you fire them as soon as they're unpleasant. But yeah, that's really great.
You want to create a good work environment and part of that is a fun book. It's like these professional ball players that always kill me. They get up afterwards and they go, “Yeah, this is the most grueling game we've ever encountered and we trained for it.” And I'm going, “You're playing a freaking game, dude, for a living. For a living.”
Joanna: And you're being paid a lot of money.
Michaelbrent: Right. It's the same with an author. Even if you're not getting paid a lot, you're doing something you love, of your own freewill, and you get to derive pleasure from it. And that's such a rarity in today's world. Just bask in it a little bit.
Joanna: I do want to come back on the sports metaphor as well, actually. With someone says like Stephen King, people think generally of “The Shining”. If people say, “What did he write?” that might come up, but mainly because it was a film. I think of “The Stand”. He has written a lot of books, I can't say how many, and that's the one I would say. I've read a few of your books but the one that sticks in my head is “The Deep”, the one that's up for the award. Yeah, and it's an awesome book.
Do you think that…and this is just a recognition of the number of shots you take at the goal. Whatever the goal is, the hit book like “The Shining”, for example. How many shots do you have to take? Because there was the JK Rowling example, but of course she tried a lot and got rejected a lot.
Do you think it's more a case of writing a lot of books and something might stick out? You never know what that's going to be.
Michaelbrent: Yeah, definitely. People want to be that first out of the gate, they want to be the debut writer who changes history like JK Rowling, Suzanne Collins, people like that. But the reality is can anybody tell me really what they've done as a follow up?
Cuckoo's Calling was the middle of the road and people thought it was okay until they found out it was JK Rowling and then they were like, “Holy crap, this is the best thing ever.” Generally speaking, when you just jump right out of the gate, you don't know how to repeat it. You don't want a one hit career because those people end up living in shacks and planning how to bomb places. They end up really miserable and unhappy.
What you want to do is practice, practice, practice, practice. Write book, book, book. So that when you do start making money, it's on a gradual climb, and you know how to repeat the process. You don't want to make a bunch of money, start living like a king, and then next year have nothing. There's too many artists that suffer that fate, achieve the same result time and again.
Again, like the pole vaulter. The person who wins the gold medal isn't necessarily the best in the world. It is the person who can do it right the most regularly. And that's a very different thing. You don't want to be JK Rowling necessarily. You want to be a person who takes 5-10 years, and then after that 10 years, has a career that will last them for their life, and will be able to find happiness in doing for a living the thing that you love.
I'm a big proponent of practice, practice, practice, practice, and you'll have big hits, and you'll have small hits, but you'll be able to make money on all of them. That's a much more stable and pleasant space to occupy.
Joanna: Yeah. That gradual climb, that's my experience. I haven't had the breakout, I say, yet. You never know. But it doesn't really matter because the steady income climb with each book is what actually gives you that steady base. I will come back on JK Rowling and say I love her new stuff. I didn't like Harry Potter. Her Robert Galbraith books are excellent, and the Casual Vacancy was brilliant. I think maybe you have to be British because it takes that quintessential British village and just rips it to shreds. It's brilliant. Anyway, that's on JK Rowling.
I wanted to just change tack. We're coming to getting out of time, but I did want to ask you about screenwriting because you also sell screenplays. I think I've been talking about this for probably 18 months now, but I recently went to an adaptation workshop. I've bought Final Draft.
Michaelbrent: It's real.
Joanna: It is real, and I also tried. I started with one of my books. I started trying to adapt it, and it was fun. I really enjoyed using Final Draft technically. I think it's awesome, so I'm really keen to do this.
Is it better to try and adapt an existing book in the hope really, I guess, that it would get made or get bought and in some way help the sales of that book, or write something from scratch that is more suited to a screenplay that you probably have no chance of necessarily making any money on but it might be better?
Michaelbrent: Well, to start with, you have almost no chance of making money whether you do the adaptation or you do the regular one.
Joanna: But at least you've got the book. With an adaptation, you're making money on the book.
Michaelbrent: Yeah. Just to give people a horrible, horrible intro to screenwriting, I'm a member of the Writers Guild of America which is kind of the most prestigious writing group in the world. To get into it, you have to have sold some scripts, you have to have made some movies. First of all, statistically, for real, it's harder to get into that group than to be a Major League Baseball player. When I first went there, we had like an introductory meeting and they said, “Look to your right.” And we did, and they said, “That person isn't going to be here in five years. Look to your left.” And we did and they said, “That person will be gone in 10.” One out of three people who are the best of the best continue to make money in this business. It's really hard.
That being said, personally, I do a bit of both. Most of my books I either adapt to a screenplay or some of my books start out as a screenplay, and then I adapt them to a book. They sort of grow up together. And then in between, I also write standalone screenplays because screenplays, they have a very different sort of feel to them. Not just technical writing but they do different things. They have different purposes. The three basic kinds of storytelling are prose, screenplay, and stage play. They all have different strengths.
The strength of a stage play is man on man. It's two people interacting. The strength of a book, of prose, is man to himself. And I'm sorry I'm being sexist; I'm just using it for shorthand. A person to him or herself and internally talking about what's happening. The strength of a screenplay is a person to the outside world. And that's why you don't have “Twister, The Stage Play” because they have different strengths. Sometimes you don't want to adapt your book because you're going to find out it's a big talking head show, and that is the kiss of death for a screenplay.
Similarly, again, you have “Twister”, and it makes kind of a poor novel adaptation because it's not about a guy who's thinking about the realities of what's happening. Even in an adventure book, it usually comes down to, “How does this affect me internally? The struggle I have, the morality of it, the personal questions. Oh and then I'm going to shoot a terrorist.” Whereas, in a screenplay, it's just boom, boom, boom, and the terrorist is down and I save my daughter and everybody's good. You're going to work in different fields with different subject matter.
If you come up with a great idea for a book that you can turn into a screenplay, do it. Monetize it. All the avenues of possible moneymaking you can get, it's a good thing. If you have a great idea that you realize can only be a screenplay, and you love this idea, write the freaking screenplay because it's going to be wonderful. It's going to be something that's great.
For me personally, I found it very helpful to have variable income streams. I do write screenplays, I do write books. I show up in short story anthologies. Again, I'm making a Big Mac, I'm making a Junior Big Mac. I'm making the Quarter Pounder thing.
Joanna: The happy meal.
Michaelbrent: They're different products. They're different products out of the same kind of milieu, the same kind of production house. I love screenwriting, but it is also very different than book writing and just because you know how to put a book together, and you have the three-act structure don't say, “I can do a screenplay now,” because it is communicating with a completely different language set.
I liken book writing to surgery. If you screw up too badly, your patient dies or in other words, your reader goes away and you don't get their money anymore. Screenwriting is laser surgery. There is much less margin for error, and that makes sense because a book, you hand someone 400 or 500 pages and say, “Give me five bucks.” In a screenplay, you hand someone 100 loosely written pages and say, “Give me enough to buy a house.”
Joanna: And that's why it's a bigger gamble and the odds are so tiny, but if it pays off, it can super, super pay off. I have more of a genre question then. Because what I'm struggling with now is I want to now adapt all of my books. This is what I'm struggling with. I have, for example, one named “Budapest” which can be a standalone political thriller about the rise of the far-right in Eastern Europe; very now, very immigrant racism in Eastern Europe. It can be completely standalone, no supernatural. Mainstream action adventure thriller, right? Big budget there; we'll blow stuff up. Then on the side of the end, I've got “Risen Gods” which is a horror book…well, dark fantasy thriller that I wrote with Jay Thorn, who you've worked with before.
Michaelbrent: Awesome guy.
Joanna: Yeah, awesome guy. This has demons and a lot of supernatural stuff, and it's set in New Zealand. I'm like, “Okay. These are two very different things. I pretty much understand how I would write a political thriller in a screenplay because I just take the “Bourne Ultimatum” and have a look at how that's done.
Michaelbrent: Which is a wonderful screenplay, by the way. Read that script.
Joanna: Yeah. I've got that and I understand that. I've got something else that could be like “Gone Girl” and I've got that script and that's great.
“Risen Gods”, with this kind of supernatural side and given you write horror with demons and stuff, too, do you just literally write demon rises from the ground, or do you have to do a lot more work around that supernatural side?
Michaelbrent: In movies it's actually tough because as soon as you show the demon, the movie is over. Really, because everyone goes, “Oh, it's a guy in a suit,” or even worse, “Oh, it's a CGI effect.” If you're doing like a horror comedy, that's fine because people don't mind a bit of cheese. Yeah, when I'm writing supernatural thriller or a supernatural horror, you definitely have to write that very carefully. And you can't describe the demon head to toe because that's a special effects guy's job.
Because screenwriting is laser surgery, what you're going to say is, “A demon rises from the ground dripping with ichor and looking like he just killed Satan himself.” There, you've got kind of a really peppy, piffy one liner, and it should set up an image in the other person's head, and they're going to run with it. As soon as you get to supernatural, it's really kind of hankie. It's difficult to work with because you're going to have this very clear image. No matter what, that's something that is hard to get used to. You write a book and it's you and an editor and a cover designer.
Write a movie, and it's all thousand of those people whose names crawl past at the end, and every single one of them has a complete and utter power to screw up your movie. You have to be really careful how you describe things and how you build them in because otherwise they're just going to get tossed out or replaced with something else. And that's a reality of the collaborative effect of movies. Writing demons, writing monsters is very tough because, again, unless you keep them in the shadows, it's going to be a terrible movie. Every single genre has its pitfalls. I will say if you're going to start writing screenplays, horror is a great place to start because people are always looking for it. It's got a built-in audience. It's cheap, which they love. Like your political thriller, the first thing I would do with it is make sure it's set in downtown Idaho, because like going to…
Joanna: It's in Budapest.
Michaelbrent: Right. People are going to look at a first script by a first time screenwriter and they're going to say, “Do we really want to spend $100 million on this unknown quantity?” But if you write a horror story that's set in the woods, the producer looks at you and goes, “It's going to cost 65 cents to make. We can risk that.” Be cognizant of your budget, for sure.
Joanna: That's interesting. Last question then because not that I'm ambitious at all, none of us are obviously. My ideal director and studios and everything for “Risen Gods” would be Peter Jackson and Weta in New Zealand because he does that kind of stuff.
Micheal: They do okay.
Joanna: Yeah, they do okay. Plus he has done horror stuff. He does supernatural. He does grizzly creatures, and he does New Zealand. This is kind of what I was thinking.
If you have someone in mind, I'm not saying it has to be Peter Jackson, but do you ever recommend trying to pitch directly or do you recommend going through an agent who might have relationships?
Michaelbrent: The answer to that is good luck pitching directly. They're never going to talk to you. The way Hollywood works, is on relationships. The way I sold my first script was I spent 10 years noodling around with people until I finally met the right one at the right time who was willing to make my movie. But the reality is even him I stayed on top of his radar for four or five years so that he would keep my screenplay on his desk. And when his boss finally walked in and said, “I want to make a ghost story,” he was like, “Oh, Michaelbrent just emailed the other day. I just thought of him. Here, take this one.”
You're probably not going to get to pitch to your wish, dream director or cinematographer or anybody. What you're going to do is you're going to meet somebody whose hairdresser also knows the hairdresser, and you're going to give them your screenplay and hope it winds up over there.
I was…just a really funny story. I was in a room where you do a lot of thinking, and maybe some reading.
Joanna: The toilet.
Micheal: Yes. Okay, fine. I was trying not to be a crass American. I was on the toilet, and my wife knocks on the door and I was like, “Yeah?” And she goes, “Someone's on the phone.” And I said, “Can it wait? I'm occupied at the moment.” And she said, “It's Jean-Claude Van Damme.” And I said, “Slide the phone under the door.”
Me and JC had this really interesting conversation where I'm just not in a position to normally talk to this guy, but you do what you have to. The reason he had my screenplay was because I knew the tutor of his children. And I handed this tutor one of my scripts, and the tutor handed it to his wife, and his wife handed it to Jean-Claude and he called up and said, “I love this movie.”
I didn't know him, and I wasn't going to meet him, but you make all of these connections leading to more connections. Getting a screenplay made is like coral growing. It's an accretive process. It's one little bit at a time. The Great Barrier Reef is this enormous structure, but it is made out of the bones of micro mono cellular creatures.
You're going to meet somebody who doesn't know anybody, but he knows somebody who might know somebody, and so you meet that person and you meet another person. And after 10 years, yes, you finally meet somebody who knows your director or a manager who knows the director. If you can get an agent early on, or a manager, they do slightly different things. You probably want to because they're going to be able to whore for you better than you can.
Definitely start making these introductions to people who know people who know people because down the line, it's going to bear fruit. That's the way Hollywood works. Even when they love your script, you always have what I call the “a-hole meeting”, which is where they bring you in and sit down and talk to you about nothing at all because they're trying to decide if you're a tool or if they like you. Hollywood is really very relationship-oriented and the more relationships you can accrue, the better off you'll be.
Joanna: Fantastic advice. Okay. I could carry on talking to you for ages, but we'll have to stop there. Where can people find you and your books and everything online?
Micheal: Easiest way is just to type in my name. My first name is Michaelbrent, and if you type it in Google, I'm the only Michaelbrent in the whole world. You'll get my website, and you'll get my Amazon page, and my Barnes & Noble page and all that stuff. Obviously, you can go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble and type that in. My website is MichaelbrentCollings.com. If you type that into google and butcher it completely, nobody else has that name and Google will get you there.
Joanna: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, Michaelbrent. That was so much fun.
Michaelbrent: Thank you. I always enjoy hanging out with you.
Joanna: Okay. We're done.
Brendan Miggins says
So happy to see another episode of The Creative Penn waiting in my playlist. You’re a reason why I look forward to Monday mornings.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks so much Brendan, I’m thrilled to be part of your week!
I really liked your different intro this week. I am an introvert and have also started to look at the things that I find draining with the intention of doing less of those things and doing more of the things that I enjoy doing.
Joanna Penn says
Great 🙂 honesty with yourself is the best way forward
Bradley Charbonneau says
This was another one of those episodes where I didn’t want it to end! Loved Michael’s vision and philosophies. Some excellent quotable take-aways in there, too.
I was a pole vaulter in high school, so I loved his pole vaulting analogies! To take it even further, the pole vaulter, after loads of practice, actually doesn’t think of anything, he just does it and doesn’t think about it (at all).
Also loved the “cop block” (who doesn’t feel like giving you a ticket). 🙂
Looking forward to your next episode about the Smarter Artist Summit. I really wanted to go, but couldn’t get away.
Joanna Penn says
I’ll be sure to have him back next year 🙂
Good episode. Michael’s a born comedian obviously. But also some little gems of advice in there like just write as if it’s your 9 to 5 job, and retro-fitting blockages in stories. Probably the wrong way to put it but makes sense to me.
I am a bit hung up on this concept of writing so many books a year. If I did that I dont think the writing would be very good quality but maybe that is just my olde worlde thinking and if you treat it like a day job you can’t help but write that much. I mean there’s plenty of self publishing folks out there doing this and people are buying the books so I guess that answers the question really doesn’t it. I still get the feeling if I did it itd be 8 really bloody atrocious books though!
Also liked his point about writing not just being typing but being anything that precipitates a story. That makes perfect sense.
Also loving your unabashed acknowledging that you’re an introvert and you don’t really want to work with people at all. Jeez but I know that feeling. Your honesty about things like that makes this a really rewarding podcast for people new to the game I think. Cos sometimes it feels like you’ve got to be all things to all people but I think some of us wanted to write to get away from a lot of those things.
Joanna Penn says
The many books a year thing is just time and practice. If you do this fulltime, you can definitely do it. As for the introvert thing, it’s so critical to learn what works for your personality and what doesn’t and then find a team to help you do the rest.
P.D. Workman says
I agree with it all!
Rebecca Ayode says
I am a writer as well. I’m glad to read, it’s interesting n educative. Thanks to MichaelBrent on d creative Penn Platform!
Pete Bauer says
I loved this podcast. I used to work in the entertainment industry and I agree with Michael whole heartedly. Everyone of my friends who stayed in the industry took 10 years of living in LA and making contacts to get where they are, whether that is TV execs, directors, actors on sitcoms, etc.
Where novel writing is a solitary experience, screenplays are unfinished creative potential that take 100s of people to see to fruition, the most important person being an advocate that has those connections you don’t who believes in your script as much as you do. That could be an agent, a producer, etc.
Hollywood is very much a hurry up and wait industry where thousands of screenplays are optioned a year, but only a hundred or so films are made. There are many writers in Hollywood who work as writers and never see their work turn into film. It’s a tough, tough thing.
My transition to novel writing was when I looked at my bookshelf of 30 of my screenplays and I realized no one was ever going to know these stories. I’ve had some optioned, but not produced. I’ve won some minor awards. I even wrote a script for a friend who actually turned it into a low budget film. But, the odds are so stacked against you, I turned my creative juices toward novels.
This isn’t meant to discourage, but to inform. Filmmaking is a tough nut to crack. It takes other people’s money, other people’s interest, other people’s commitment and other people’s excitement.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks for your thoughts, Pete. I definitely feel that scriptwriting alongside novel writing is a good thing – I’m focusing on novels first, then adaptation but mainly to become a better storyteller and a lottery ticket for potential TV/film at some point 🙂
Pete Bauer says
Yup. Screenwriting helps a lot with economy and plot, because you have so little time to relay the information. I still use the screenplay paradigm to flesh out novel ideas.
I wish I would have done what you are doing, going from novel writing to screenwriting. Going from less depth to more (writing screenplays to novels) is harder on the brain than the other way around. At least for me.
BTW – I’d love to see One Day in Budapest on the screen. Love that story.
Diane Young says
Joanna, this was such a dynamite interview! I’d read anything else before I’d read a horror book, but MichaelBrent is a funny, brilliant wellspring of truths and ideas about writing, no matter what the genre. I’m getting away from webinars and all those other shiny distractions, so I can spend more time writing. I know how to write and have sold articles for years, but I love learning how other successful writers do it. There’s always a take-away, but with MichaelBrent, I filled THREE pages in a spiral notebook with great notes and quotes to refer back to later when I need a kick in the pants or a reality check. His lawyer mind really shines through. Thanks for asking him all the right questions.
Just caught up with this podcast and it was really funny, very enjoyable and clearly there are NO excuses for writers block as it doesn’t exist! Cop block, lawyer block … apart from some of the more grown up language he uses frequently but there you go.
Cynthia Varady says
I loved this cast! Listened to it while jogging. I was inspired enough to stop whining and finish the chapter I had been struggling with. One down, 18 to go!
I’ve been doing what Michaelbrent talks about with TV for a while, and it’s funny that it happened naturally and gradually to me while he’s taken control of it and embraced it as part of his process. I’m really taking a lot from this interview, so I want to thank you both.