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Many writers struggle with depression, and so it's important to talk about how to manage creativity alongside mental health issues. I hope you find today's interview with Michaelbrent Collings useful whether you struggle yourself, or someone you love is affected.
In the intro, I give a personal update on my own writing, and mention the new integration between Scrivener and Vellum. I use both in my process, writing in Scrivener and formatting in Vellum. Here's my list of formatting options, and here's my tutorial on using Vellum.
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
Michaelbrent Collings is an award-winning, and internationally bestselling horror novelist and screenwriter. His novel, The Deep, was a finalist in the Bram Stoker Awards. Michaelbrent also suffers from depression, and that's what we're talking about today.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app, or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
- On how depression affects Michaelbrent
- Also, what not to do if you know someone with depression
- What helps Michaelbrent cope with his depressive episodes
- Using the darkness in writing
- Tips for writing while dealing with depression
- On screenwriting and tips for breaking into it
- Rebranding books with new covers
You can find Michaelbrent at www.WrittenInsomnia.com and on Twitter @mbcollings
Transcript of Interview with Michaelbrent Collings
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com. And today, I'm back with Michaelbrent Collings. Hi, Michaelbrent?
Michaelbrent: How are you, Joanna?
Joanna: I'm good, and it's so exciting to have you back on the show. It is the third time that you've been on the show, I know.
Michaelbrent: I'm like a record breaker?
Joanna: Almost. But Steven Pressfield is coming on the show for the third time soon. So you're like up there with Steve.
Michaelbrent: Can I have a jacket?
Joanna: Yes, a special jacket…I should get some of those. Just in case anyone has missed all the shows and I absolutely say people should go back and look at them.
Michaelbrent is an award-winning, and internationally bestselling horror novelist and screenwriter. His novel, “The Deep”, one of my favorites was a finalist in the Bram Stoker Awards, and I really do you love his books. I'm no actually lying. I really mean it.
Michaelbrent also suffers from depression. And that's what we're talking about today with some laughs in between, I'm sure. But seriously, today we're talking about mental health and the writing life, which is a really important topic.
Just a disclaimer upfront before we get into it, we are not doctors. This is not medical advice. Just a discussion on experience and everyone's experience will be different. So, please seek appropriate help for your situation.
Michaelbrent, we're gonna get into it. A lot of writers suffer from depression and anxiety, which are kind of words, but they mean different things to different people.
Can you start out by talking a bit about your situation, what it means to you, how it impacts your life.
Michaelbrent: First of all, I'm going to echo what you said and especially to talk to somebody, because it never hurts to talk to somebody. I mean, unless you've got a very rare person who's like, “I'm going to shovel pills down their throat now,” which is part of the pharmacological answer.
It's better to talk to somebody than take a chance on being all alone, which is one of the worst parts of being anxious, or having depression.
So, as far as how it impacts me, there's, actually, goods and bads to it. In certain respects, the bads are, I'm already in a lonely profession. We've already chosen this job where we live in a cave. And even when I go out every day, and I work in a different place with people, because I know if I live in a cave my wife will come in one day and there will just be like a greasy smudge where I used to be, because I will have imploded from sadness.
But even if I'm out with people, I have my headphones on, and I'm in my little world, and all the voices that you hear as a writer are your own echoed back at you through these really odd echo chambers that make them sound like somebody else, which actually gives them a sort of more credence.
It's very easy to fall into this as a writer, because, one of the one of the critical components of depression is always the sense of being cut off, being alone, being hopeless, and we do that to ourselves on purpose. It's part of the job like I say, but it is a very challenging thing.
For me personally, the way it impacts me, is, first of all, there are days where my wife will come in, and I'm usually up and gone before anybody else is, because I have sleeping issues, too.
It's not usual for me to just leave it to in the morning and be back at 6 the next night. And my wife will text me and be like, “Are you safe? Are you okay?” And then there's days where she comes in and it's 11:00 and I'm just this kind of worm in the middle of the bed, and she knows something is dreadfully wrong.
And the thing that day is it's not going to be a 60 page of writing day. It's going to be, “Let's see if I can put pants on.” And your goal system moves.
And that's actually one of the hardest things, is to deal with the realities of a changing situation, because you feel like, “Oh, I wrote be it a 1,000 or 20,000 words yesterday, I should be able to do that every day. And today, I'm going to go to the bathroom like a human. That's the good thing to do today”.
It's really hard just knowing that your brain, it's pulled a really dick move, because it was my best friend for 30 years almost, and then it's like, “I was pretending. Now I'm going to betray you slowly over time.”
That's really the hardest part, is just trying to cope, because also a lot of writers like especially if you get to a point where you're doing well, or not necessarily making money, but you're doing stuff you like, most writers have established a real routine.
And then to have your brain go, “But, we're not doing it today.” “Why?” “Because it's Wednesday, you A hole.” And having no rhyme or reason, that's tremendously, it's crippling and it just feels like it eviscerates your competence level. And so, that's really hard.
On the other hand, I get to have cool talks with people, and I get to go on panels and people go, “You know, I have this mental health issue. I have this mental health issue.” And I can go, “I have major depressive disorder with suicidal tendencies and psychotic breaks.”
And there's this hush, like, “We're gonna listen to him.” But you can really affect people. And that's really great, because those little moments of connection are the thing that's going to save you.
Joanna: We thank you for sharing on the show, because, a lot of people, including me personally, have not had depression. I've been depressed which is not the same as depression, as you know.
But I have people who I love, who do have episodes of it. Before we circle back to you, I actually do want to ask about your wife, because a lot of people listening, if they don't suffer from depression will know people who do, or will be in writers groups where there are people who might be going through that.
You said your wife texted you, if you're not there, she'll be like, “Are you safe?”
From what I understand, you're so in yourself, it's very hard for someone to help you. But what can we practically do without sounding like idiots, “Oh, back up” or, “Take some pills.”
What else can people do to help those who have depression?
Michaelbrent: Next time you feel like saying that, find someone who's got cancer and tell them, “If you smiled more, that lymphoma would not be as bad for you.” Or, “I know there's a bone jetting out of your shin, but if you would man or woman up, the marathon would be doable.”
That's just the worst thing to say to somebody, “Just be happy. Just exercise.” I'm a person who goes to church, I'm a person with a very deep faith, and that's one of the few areas where I don't think faith and science are at all necessarily opposed.
There's ways to work with the both, but people of faith will say like, “If you prayed more you might feel better.” And that's not good either. My response is always like, Jesus, as I recall, had a pretty bad night in Gethsemane. And if he had bad nights, I should be permitted the weakness of having a couple of bad nights.
Joanna: That's a really good example.
Michaelbrent: You can't say, “Oh, you would be better if you did this differently.” You might be helped, and maybe you would be better, but to say it in that instance, the reality that you have to remember as a caregiver or as a friend is it's not that they're finding a good decision and then saying, “I'm gonna make the different decision.”
It is that in the little room of their minds, that decision does not exist. And, I mean, to the point where even my wife will say, “Okay, get out of bed.” And if I'm really bad, I will stare at her. I hear the words, depression doesn't make you stupid, but what happens, is I hear the words and they literally don't make sense to me.
It would make as much sense to me if she said, “Okay, let's just stand in front of the street at night dressed like the black ghost. That will help you”. You're going to look at her and go, “I don't think it will.” You're not being unreasonable, it's just the way your brain works.
So the biggest thing any caregiver can do, I think, is to give you a sense that they're there right now, and when this is through they're still going to be there. Every time I get to my worst, one of the things that I go to, is I'll look at my wife who I adore.
Whe is the one thing that's like a worldly thing that I absolutely worship. And I will look at her, this person that I've hung my soul on in so many ways and say, “You should divorce me.” That's not even a, “Woe as me” and pat me on the back, it is, “I've gone through this in my head, and I'm hurting you to the point where you should leave, because I love you.”
And when I'm feeling good, that's nonsense because I make her smile and I make her happy. But in my head, she needs to leave. And so, getting a sense even once that she's like, “Maybe there's something to that.” That's going to be the most devastating effect.
I know that's one thing I know, she's here now. And sometimes she goes like, “I can't be with you in this room, because I have things to do. I have to move forward. But I'm here whenever you call, whenever you need me, even if I'm doing something that that is critical that I must do, I will talk to you, I'll be there for you.”
If any caregiver has that patience to do it for someone who's really, really having problems, best thing you can do.
Joanna: I talk about death on this show, so we can go there. And the thing is, I have never felt major depression as you have, I have had suicidal thoughts. I think that that doesn't need to be equated with depression, it can be something separate.
Joanna: But I certainly have been through that. I wrote about it in my book, “Delirium “. As we record this a week or so ago, Anthony Bourdain committed suicide. Robin Williams, interestingly, because you're very funny as well, being funny and having humor doesn't mean that you don't suffer from deep depression.
Michaelbrent: I'm the happiest sad person you'll ever meet.
Joanna: Exactly. As everyone assume Robin Williams was. And this is the thing. So just on the suicide thing, which is a big issue and a big topic, I know.
What stops people from doing that in the end of the day? Like is it your wife? Is it God? Can you see a way through to a future where you're not in that darkness?
Michaelbrent: I think there's two things that have helped.
One thing is, yes, that connection. And, again, like part of the reason I'm like this, I'm naturally a very, very introverted person. So when I was young, I was small, I was smart, and I was socially awkward, which meant I saw the insides of lockers and trash cans and I got beat up.
And also, PS, no woman would look at me. And so, I went to my mom who's this just wonderfully bubbly, smiling, kind person, I said, “How do I make friends?” And she wrote down a list of 10 things, and I memorized it.
I do karate and I can do a roundhouse kick without thinking about it. And I know to smile. I know to look at you in the eyes, which is not what I like doing. I know to say your name, and thank you and all those things.
So it's important that, first of all, when you're not being depressed, you not be depressed. That you get out there and be with people.
And that leads to the second thing. Participate with them. Don't just stand there. Like, be with them. Because the second thing is, in those moments of deep darkness the things that keep it from happening, that will always keep it from happening are nothing more than this would be terribly inconvenient for my loved ones at least for a few weeks.
I don't like to inconvenience people. I've never left the toilet seat up my whole marriage. My wife's like, “You know this is astounding, right?” But I just don't want to inconvenience her. So I'm like, “if I won't leave up the toilet seat”, but then I'm like, “You've got to find a funeral home.”
Really, it sounds silly, but just think about like even in the short run, this is going to suck. And do I want to do that to my friends?
Faith goes along with that too, and I'm not saying everyone has to get religion. Obviously, if, and I don't talk about mine specifically, because that's more of a one on one thing, you know. I'd rather meet people awkward face to face than do it on en mass in a podcast. But there is that.
It's like I believe that's not a right choice, and that there's a capital good, G good, and suicide's not on the good side. So I just want to stay away from it. And that helps. That really does. And so, having those connections.
And then the last thing is, going along with what we said earlier, it's not feasible to look at a person and say, “If you would just feel better.” That presents an immediate fix that is impossible.
But what you can say as someone suffering depression, “I have found,” and what a caregiver can say is, “You're feeling horrible. There's nothing you can do about it.” And you cannot look forward to hope. You cannot sit there and think, “I'm going to be hopeful.”
But what is possible, and it's a little mental hoop to jump through that really works for me is I go, “I can't be hopeful, but I can hope that I'll be hopeful.” And I can just repeat to myself, if I get through three days, four days, five days, whatever it is I can put a clock and say, “I believe at the end of this, I'll smile again.” And it doesn't feel real, but I can keep repeating it, keep repeating it, keep repeating it. And that's been a tremendous help.
Joanna: That's really good. I laughed about that. I don't want to inconvenience people with the body. And I think I want to normalize this, because I've heard this from so many people now, and, because I talk about death and suicide and things with lots of my friends, because I'm that kind of person.
Michaelbrent: Who doesn't?
Joanna: It's interesting because that same thing I have heard over and over again, and people are like, “Oh, I'm just so embarrassed about feeling like that.” And I'm like, “But seriously, I've heard that before.”
And it's incredible that people are stopping themselves from doing this thing, in order not to inconvenience others. Yet, those loved ones clearly want them not to do that.
So I just wanted to normalize that, because when you said that I was like, “Yeah. I've heard that before.” And just for people listening, that is, I think it must be a normal human thing to think that.
Michaelbrent: It goes along with not being a sociopath. You want to be kind to people.
And honestly, here's the other thing is, don't over think it. If you find something that's working, screw why it works. Just let it work.
When I microwave a burrito, I don't sit there and go, “Why does this burrito work in this way?” I just eat the freaking burrito and suffer the consequences. And that's like it is with all medicine.
We do not require most of us an explanation of how the lipids are bonded and kept away from this or that thing. We just go, “Will the pill work? Taking the pill.”
And maybe we do that too much, but the point is, if you find something that's like, “Okay, it might not be, don't say your bar necessarily for I'm going to be well.” I'll get through every day as it comes, and whatever you found that works for that, do that, because I am telling you, unless you are a very old man, very old with a little tiny white mustache named Hitler living in Paraguay, somebody out there values you.
And you do have a story to tell. You have an astounding universe that you inhabit. And I believe this truthfully. I have never met somebody so smart, so dumb, so rich, so poor that there isn't something about them that I could sit there and listen to for hours.
If you take yourself out of the picture and I occupy that space, I will feel the lack. Someone is going to meet you, someone is going to miss you. They may not even know it. They'll just feel this moment where nothing's happening. And something could have happened. And that something could be you.
So don't ever think, “I'm not making a positive difference.” Because to me, you absolutely do. You have met a friend, of a friend, of a friend, of a friend, who gave me a smile, and got me through that day, so don't you dare.
Joanna: You talk about the universes that people have, and obviously you write horror. A lot of the stuff you write is dark and awesome. And also, deadening pain, means deadening life.
How much of your darkness and suffering do you put into your writing and does it help?
Michaelbrent: I just finished reading for my wife, because I read her all my books, but I write a lot, and we have busy lives. I wrote a book almost a year ago called “The Dark Lights” and I finally finished reading her that book.
Our reading time is the Costco trip, like we'll put something on for the kids in the back and I'll read her scary books and hope they're not listening. I flip the last page on my Kindle, and she looks at me and goes, “I did not like that ending.” And that was written during the worst period of my life.
Now, as bad as I feel, and as dark as some of my stories are, they do exist all of them in a moral framework. I would never put out a book that's just like, “I'm going to vomit my black all over you, my bile, for no other reason than because it will be good for me.” Because that's therapy.
And the one thing all therapists and psychiatrists have common in the world is you pay them, and so, for me to do that on the page and then say, “That'll be $5.” That's ridiculous.
And it's also, people say, I follow my art wherever it goes. And I'm going to be rude. I'm not a big curser, but when I hear, “I'm gonna follow my heart wherever it goes and it doesn't matter what the consequences are”, I want to go, “You're not an artist. You're just an asshole.” Because we have a responsibility to build communities. That's the big power of being a writer.
If you're just vomiting out evil because it makes you feel better, you're just a sociopath. Even when I'm feeling bad and dark and evil, what I do is, I sit there and go, “Everybody feels this way.”
Like you said, you've not had clinical depression, but, and I use it as quotes as a real thing not like the person, but you've been depressed. And so, when you read my book, it normalizes you. And you go, “Oh, well, this guy, this author, this character, feels this way.”
Even though I might not go out snap and murder people, there is this part of me that goes, “Oh, this is part of the human experience.” And if I'm human, I belong. And that, again, is one of those keys to sticking around. So I'm fine putting those dark parts in my stories.
And even if the dark part is in a bad, bad person who does snap, that makes you into a hero, because you go, “I have these feelings, and I have controlled them for the sake of my humanity.” And that's a wonderful thing.
So I don't think you need to avoid who you are, to see my view of being again, as a person of faith, I don't think we go to sit on clouds and play harps same exact music, same exact robe, same exact everything, I think you go to heaven and you continue working, and the difference is you're your best self.
The job of an artist is to bring out the best self of other people, and you do that by showing them everything and saying everything fits in this best thing, you just have to find the way to properly deal with it or channel with it.
If you sanitize your universe, you're the boy in the bubble. You will die at the first cold. I'm dealing with this with my son who wants to do good and it's not like we taught him that. He came out at the age of zero, like crawling very carefully. We never had to worry about him sticking something in the light socket, because he knew, “That's not the right choice.”
And now, we're going, “You have to get out there. You don't have to do bad things, but you need to know how they work, or else one of them is going to kill you.” I really believe that. And that's one of the wonderful things about horror. It shows you that there's darkness that can be overcome. That's the thing that horror does when it's doing well.
Joanna: I was going to say that I consider your writing to be what I think of as proper horror, which is exactly that. It really is good versus evil, life versus death, and lots of people will die, but good will triumph.
That's why I like your books, and that's why someone like Stephen King gets it. But the horror I don't like is when it is just all darkness with no glimmer of light, and I think that's really important.
I love what you said about therapy there. We definitely do not use our writing as therapy. I think it can be cathartic. I like kicking some ass in my books from the bad guys and things, and they're always going to get their comeuppance in the end, because that's how my universe works. But as you say, you can't use it as therapy.
Michaelbrent: Either way, I will say on the air, again, I loved Map of Shadows. I got to read it early, oh, it was so good. I like that series.
Joanna: Aw, thank you. That means so much to me.
Michaelbrent: Check that out, guys.
Joanna: That means a lot to me. I really appreciate that. But before I blush too much, you would like me to be funny.
I wanted to move on to in The Healthy Writer, which my friend Dan Holloway wrote a chapter, and he is bipolar and he talked about writing advice being useless for most people with mental illness. Oh, look, it's on your phone for the audience.
Michaelbrent: I have so many quotes, I was ready to bust out. It was so good.
Joanna: I'm glad you liked it. You've already mentioned some days you can't write. The advice to write every day doesn't work for someone with depression.
But you've also, again, on your Patreon, you've talked about, you had a 27,000 word day, which to me, felt like mania. That really felt like a manic episode, but I don't know whether it was for you.
What are some of your tips for writing as someone who has these cycles?
Michaelbrent: My oldest daughter has become a woman. You know what I'm talking about. And I have no problem with that. That's part of the human life.
But my son's like, ‘Why is she like this sometimes?” And I told him I said, “You know what? Women are like that sometimes. But they at least have the courtesy to schedule it. And men just do it periodically for no fucking reason. So don't get all over her. She's just more polite about her mood swings.”
We all have these ups and downs, and the problem with depression and depressive episodes is they're not necessarily regular. They're never regular. And, again, that's hard to deal with, because, you're like, “I'm looking forward to Monday. I've got all these great ideas. It's going to be a great week.” And Monday hits you in the face like a sack of nail-covered bricks. And it's terrible. And so, you have to roll with it.
One thing that is helpful to remember, is writing. And we talked about this on the writer's block podcast episode. Writing is not typing, and writing is not doing this with a pen. Writing is this whole process.
Some of that process is thinking, and some of that process is seeing other people's work. And so, on bad days, my wife gets me out of bed and she knows I'll feel bad if I haven't worked, because I haven't done my part. And that's a very normal thing too for people with this issue.
She'll say, “Go to the movies.” She'll drive me to the dumbest movie she can locate. She's like, “This looks like it blows stuff up good.” And I can sit there in the audience, often by myself and it's an 11:00 a.m. matinee for the crappiest movie that's out, and I'm just watching something stupid. But part of my brain can't help but go, “Well, that's stupid. Well, that's stupid.” And so, I'm analyzing things.
And that's part of your job as a writer. I get to the end and I go, “Did I have a 27,000 word day? No. Did I do a little thinking about my stories? Yeah.”
You can't help, but as a writer that's part of the problem, is you can't turn it off. Let it work for you. Have a friend who is like going to come in and physically drag you bodily to the movies, or watch Daredevil on Netflix that you've seen 42 times already, but you're like, “I remember this part. That was awesome. I should put more kicks in my book.”
It's a totally legitimate writing process, and that's a wonderful thing. You don't have to equate I didn't write today with I didn't do my job, because you probably did, you're just not giving yourself the leeway to realize it.
If I'm feeling good, it was not a manic episode. I just needed to get crap done, because I'd had a lot of tough weeks physically and mentally because I suffer from severe chronic pain as well. And so, I got to a point where I set a deadline, I had missed it, life's like that, but I said, “I don't want to get too far out.”
So I drove my car into the mountains, I got out with my computer and I typed on the side of a dusty road until I couldn't type anymore. And then I dictated until my voice went.
I was there from seven in the morning until three the next morning. Did I pee off the side of the road? Yes I did. But that was fine. And it was a good day, and it wasn't a manic episode, it was just like, “Okay. I'm functioning. Let's take advantage of it.”
And that's a good feeling too, because you don't get to do 3,000 words a day, 3,000 words a day – I did 5,000 words a day for five years. I put out eight books a year. And now I can't do that, but I can still have days where I go, “Oh, I'm just going to have brag a little bit here guys. I did 27,000 words, because my life's perfect.”
Just spare all you sad people. But that's, kind of, cool. You get to group your triumphs. Nobody is happy at the Olympics about the pole vaulter who always came in third his whole career. They're like, “Hurray, the underdog won the gold medal.” So you get to be the underdog gold-medaling it periodical. And that's freaking awesome.
Joanna: I think that's so important. I am someone who can do the routine and the schedule, and I know that I can get up and do stuff unless I've had a few drinks, I'll probably be fine every morning.
Michaelbrent: Nobody notices.
Joanna: Not exactly. But, again, it's so important to normalize some of these experiences, which, again, Dan did in The Healthy Writer, and you were talking about.
Look, it's not a big deal. If you go a day, a month, a year, whatever it is, and the period that is down, and then, as you say, when you're on the upswing, you can take advantage of it.
When you put that on your part, and, of course, you were talking about the pain and dark stuff. And I'm like, 27,000 words. I wish I could do that. But, of course, that's completely ridiculous, because I've done 27,000 words over say, 10, 15 days on a schedule that you can't necessarily do.
For people listening, there's no right way is there to write a book? I mean, look at all your books. You still finish books.
Michaelbrent: I'll tell you, the only wrong way to write a book, is not writing it. And so, you can't say, “I'm going to only do it this way, or I'm not going to do it.” Because then you have abrogated your last little bit of authority.
You've given it up, and the thing that's hard about so much of life is how much we realize as we grow older that we don't have control over it. That's such a tough thing.
The whole, “I'm the captain of my ship” I don't know, he must have been so, so wasted when he wrote that, because it's not accurate. And that's really hard.
But you can say, I don't have control of these factors, but when the decision is mine, I will do whatever it is. And that is a control. That actually is a through line that runs through your life. Given the choice, I will whatever. And you've made the decision to make that decision.
And, again, any time you toss it back when you do assert yourself a little easier, I can't be hopeful, but I can hope I'll be hopeful. I can't decide to feel better, but I can decide when I do feel better this is what I'll do. And that's really important.
No matter who you are, to be able to look at a crap day, where everything went wrong, which is called like, Thursday, to be able to go, “All right. Well, tomorrow it will be Friday, and I will make the choice because I'll be in my control again.”
I told you, I love you, right? When I read “Map of Shadows” I was like, “Could you give it to me early?” You said, “What's your feedback?” And I said, “I didn't like this person's name.” That was as much feedback, negative as I had.
But I can't look at Joanna and say, “She wrote this really great book, and she's not depressed.” No, it's because your system works. And so, we just have to find systems that work for us.
And that's experimentation, and that does suck, especially, because when you have mental health issues, your brain is a moving target. I go to a psychiatrist and it's not like he goes, “We found the right pill.” And that's it. And he goes, “I'll never see you again.”
This one time he said, “Well, the problem is it's summer, and so you got too much serotonin because sunlight does that. So we have to adjust your meds.” I'm like, “Wait, I have to do this every freaking six months.” And that's stressful.
So you have to recognize, again, “Look, I can't control the do hinckey crap in my brain, and I certainly can't control if my loved one is acting terrible.” I can influence it, but I can't control it. I can't control if my job goes under because the company goes bust.
A couple years ago when you probably felt this too to some extent, a lot of self pubs went out of business, because Kindle changed its business model, and it was devastating for a lot of people when they moved to this Kindle unlimited stuff.
There's people that are working with it great now, but I couldn't sit there and say, “Well, that was my fault. You just have to go, “Okay. Well, how can we adjust to the best of our ability?”
And the best of our ability, that's a great benchmark. That's got mental health problems, and his psychiatrist said, “You have to allow yourself the leeway of being mediocre.” And my dad was like, “Oh, I don't have to be everything the best in the world. I can be passable.” And passable means, you're doing it good enough. So we can do that sometimes.
Joanna: You and I could talk forever. I'm sure you will be back on the show again. But I do want to ask you some things that are not related to depression, because you mentioned to me that you're a screen writer, and on the horror thing.
What are your thoughts right now? Because I think Netflix is doing a heck of a lot more “Supernatural” and darker films, darker TV and I'm interested in screenwriting.
Do you think that there is a kind of a nascent in the “Supernatural”/horror/darker stuff coming through?
Are things becoming better, easier, changing in that area?
Michaelbrent: Easier, yes. For writers in certain ways harder than others. But no, it's absolutely not a renaissance.
Here's what it is. Horror has always been incredibly popular and incredibly profitable.
“The Avengers” made $2 billion on a $500 million movie with $300 million in marketing. So, it's, kind of, multiplier of like 1.4.
Halloween had a multiplier of a million percent. That is the better return. Horror has always been there, it's always been easier to break into horror. If you write “The Avengers” as your first script, and you and I talked about this, as good as all your pieces are, you said, “You're going to have an easier time selling it to somebody who's got a track record than doing your Map of Shadows, because, it's a huge story.
Joanna: It's too big, too expensive.
Michaelbrent: But if you write a horror film, you can go to someone and say, “Hey, this is gonna cost $5, which is your five million bucks.” Which in Hollywood is the equivalent of buying a Volkswagen from 1982, which just not a big deal.
And all they have to do is put it in theaters, and it's going to make money. Every one of my films, I think, well, both of them, which is actually, a lot to have, it actually made, they've made money. There were small budgets, it wasn't “The Avengers”, and I still get little royalty checks, which is fantastic.
Horror is easier to break into than others genres. It's still really hard as far as screenwriting. I'm in the Writers Guild of America, where you have to have sold some scripts or had some credits, and then you pay them three grand, and then a percentage for the rest of your life.
It is harder to get into that group statistically than to get into major league baseball. So this is a tough world. But horror is the easiest part to break in.
But it's not a renaissance, because it's always been there. What we have now is groups like Netflix, who put out a stream of horror at the beginning, and it wasn't they were making it or anything, it was just they had Supernatural. They had all the old horror movies.
And they have a huge data accumulation, and they look at it not from the perspective of Universal putting out three horror movies that did really well and critics hated them, so something must be wrong with horror. Netflix goes, “Well, according to actual data, people love this stuff. And it's and it's the most cost-effective.” You know, they put out Bright, the movie…
Joanna: I love that. Gotta say I love it.
Michaelbrent: You know what? I didn't get why everyone beat it up.
Michaelbrent: It was a $100 million dollar movie, and I'm guaranteeing at the end of the day they're sitting there going, “We'll make “Bright Two” because it is in the pipeline, because it made a return, and it made a splash more importantly. I bet it lost money a little bit actually. But there was so much talk. It brought more people in.
And then they look at Hemlock Grove, and they look at all of the human centipede movies that cost a buck and a half to make, and they picked them up for four, for a 400% return for the guy who made it, and they made five on it. So it's a very obvious decision, once you're looking at it from an accumulation of lots of data.
And also, because any artistic venture, it doesn't matter if you're a writer or a producer or anything, it is impossible to listen to this, people listening, it is impossible to make a living selling your books. The only way you can do it is by having other people sell your books. Because you only going to reach a certain number of people, and what you need to have is a little cult of folks that go out and talk to everybody about your stuff.
Horror, is full of those culty people. Netflix knows if they put on “Supernatural”, which isn't horror, horror, but it's got horrific stuff in it, that crowd is going to go to every convention and talk to every person about either how scary it is. Or how dreamy the two main guys are. And they don't care which, frankly, because more people are going to watch.
I have freaking tried to watch “Supernatural” eight times. I hate it.
Joanna: I don't like it either.
Michaelbrent: But I keep trying to watch it. I keep trying because so many of my friends insist. They're just sitting there drinking supernatural Kool-Aid being like, “It's great.” And I go, “It must be great.” So they've got me.
Netflix knows this. They've got all this information and all these algorithms, and they're a data-based company. They're not an entertainment company. They're putting out data, they're taking in data, and they're making business decisions off of it.
We're finally seeing a big company going, “There's something to this horror.” But it's not a renaissance. There's always been great horror. There's always been wonderful stuff out there and there always will be because we have that in us, and we need to be reminded that it's okay, and that you can beat it.
Joanna: I agree on “Supernatural”. I didn't tell with that. I think because it's not dark enough, I tell you what? I re-watched a “Constantine”‘ with Keanu Reeves the other day.
Michaelbrent: So good.
Joanna: Aw, that was a great movie and I was like, “That's the good stuff right there.”
Michaelbrent: That's a remote drop for me. Every time it's on TV, it's like, you know, TNT 2 in the morning, I go, “Oh, Sharknado 14 is on it. I do like that?” “Constantine”, yeah, because… There's something…
Joanna: It's got demons in. We love demons. Right?
My last question, I wanted to ask you about your new covers, because including the deep, the fantastic work, you do great, you cover all that. Oh, yeah, show it to the camera for the video people.
It's like a ship with a skull in a sea of blood. It's awesome. I love it. I think it's brilliant.
Michaelbrent: Upside down and right side.
Joanna: It's so good. You've been writing for a long time. And some of these books are older. I think I said to you, I think you need another cover, and clearly other people do as well.
Tell us a bit about revisiting old books with new eyes and trying to re-brand them with a more modern cover.
Michaelbrent: First of all, yeah. It wasn't many people. It was you and this one other woman I respect who were very nice, you were both nice about it. But it was very clear the nice thing you were saying was these suck now.
Because 10 years ago, I guess seven or eight when I started, there wasn't competition. My first cover was made in Word, and I just went, and I printed it as a PDF on the computer, and that was good enough.
And now it's a lot more sophisticated and self-published much less the redheaded stepchild. I can see your books, the background in Stone of Fire is there, and Desecration. Those have super cool covers and they're very sleek now. They have to be sleek and keep up with the traditional publishing.
And I've said this before. If you're an indie you can't be good. You have to be better than traditional publishing. Because why would someone read my book and Stephen King's there.
The reason is, I have to be given a $15 book just like him for five bucks. And so, you do have to keep ahead of this stuff.
I would recommend, first of all, for most people, have someone else make your cover. Because the reason I do it is because I need lots of outlets, because I do have a fractured personality. And so, like I do so many random things that I just do and I love karate. I do contact juggling. I'm sitting there in the car doing like the labyrinth thing from David Bowie and people are going, “Well, he's messed up.”
So, when you guys said these covers are terrible, I've been using Kemp, which is a decent photo manipulation tool, and went, “I'm going to learn Photoshop.” So for two months I sat in my room watching YouTube videos of Photoshop.
And I really had to listen to people who, “Why does my cover suck?” Well, it's got this problem. I'll fix that problem. “Why does it still suck?”
You are great, because you were like, “That's not quite there. It's not quite there.” And that was really helpful.
You need to have honest people around who will be like, “He's not depressed today. He won't blow his brains out if I tell him he needs improvement.” And that's important, you know.
So, I would recommend most people don't do that. They don't have the personality, and it's a better outlay to pay 200 bucks. I'll do a cover for you for 300 bucks. I've started doing them for other people, because I like it. I'm serious, man. Email me, I'll be like, “Three hundred bucks I'll do your cover. It'll be decent, you know.”
Joanna: Let's just say this is June 2018. Do not come back in five year's time when you're like…
Michaelbrent: Yes. If you see the Michaelbrent Collings movie outdid “The Avengers” I'm stupid.
Michaelbrent: But the point is I will do that because I like it. And I've got some competency, and I have a background that affords me a little bit of expertise as a base, because I do work in movies, and I've always done that stuff.
Book covers are more single image movie covers, really. They have a single image as their key and movie covers can be a little bit more complex. But most people just pay someone. You'll save yourself two months of practice at the least. You could have put out a whole book maybe, or at least gotten a good start on another book. So just have someone do covers.
Look at covers that are selling, look at covers by your friends who say, “I'm a cover artist.” And if it's like their first gig out of school, I don't want to be rude, but I'll let you do my cover if it's free, because you can build your portfolio, and I'm not guaranteeing it'll stay on for more than six days. And that's okay, too. You can update your covers as many times as you want.
This book is called “Peter and Wendy” and, oh, look there's Joanna in the reflection.
It's been through four covers. And that's cool. I get to do that, so all I have to do is do new cover and click upload. Now, if you're doing it for $200 or $300 bucks, perhaps that that gets expensive.
So, again, find somebody competent first, but if that's a mistake, you can re-update your covers have gone through various iterations.
Joanna: I think part of it is, like you mentioned Desecration. And it's part of understanding what the book is as well.
And like I said about The Deep because I know that book so well, because I've actually read it twice, which is more than double, I read most novels. And that new cover is just so right. And yet, it's odd how you had to even put that other cover on. And I think about Desecration as well. How did I even put that cover on that book?
Do you think we develop an understanding of our own products, or our own art over time?
Michaelbrent: Yes. And also, you just understand the market better.
When I did “The Deep”, I knew the first cover I did I was never happy with it, but I had a self-imposed deadline and I did it, and it was a not good cover, but it sold enough books. I was okay with it. That was the Bram Stoker Award finalist, so obviously it wasn't a bad enough cover to turn people off of who already knew me which is good.
But at the same time I hated it. I knew it wasn't good. And so, part of it is you're in the industry for 10 years and you get a sense for well, that is a obviously first out of the gate indie cover, and I don't want that.
And here's something for you people who are considering cover work. It is not necessarily about your story at all. There is no scene in The Deep with a yacht, which is on the cover of my book.
There certainly isn't a scene where the underside of the yacht is a skull. The only thing that a cover is supposed to do is give a sense of the feel for the book. What kind of genre you're getting into, have a question on it that must be resolved and can only be resolved by reading the book. What is this about? Is it about a bloody scene?
I'll check the first page, and I should get you on the first page or I'm not doing my job.
And the last thing, and the most important now, it has to be a fish hook on your eyeball at a half an inch thumbnail, which is why they've gotten less artsy. Don't ever think like that's a wonderfully artistic cover, because it doesn't matter.
People go to museums for art. They go to Amazon for books, and it's got to have this thing that like pops out at you really small, even if it's just a flash of cut all of your books in the background, you can see there's dark around the outlines, and then there is a colorful spot in the center. And that's actually a design technique.
A lot of designers put a circular bright spot. It looks like an eye, it catches our eye, because we're biologically wired for that.
And then your other books up top The Healthy Writer and How to Market a Book and all those. They have this big contrast of white to dark and it's a thing that you, kind of, have to look at.
And that's the first thing you have to sit there and go, “Look at all of these covers.” There's a place you can go called 99 Designs, and it's not always great, but you can have a bunch of people try and make a cover for you.
If you scan through the list of one hundred covers and the one you like doesn't pop out, that's not the one you should get. Buy on your own and hang it on your wall, but it's going to suck as a cover.
Joanna: As ever, we could talk forever, but we need to close off for now. So you just tell people when they can find you and all your books online.
Michaelbrent: You can find me on my website which is writteninsomnia.com, books that will keep you up all night. I have a patron page called mypatreon.com/mywaronsuicide.
And because I'm depressive you're not going to get something every week or every day, but I try to do two or three a month. Last month I missed, the month before I think I put up five. So you're going to get a steady trickle of stuff.
And hopefully it's helpful for caregivers to understand and for people who suffer it to go like, “Hey, he wrote another post. That guy didn't kill himself. That's fantastic.” And I will have my wife cancel it if I ever die. She'll know I'm still there, and the easiest way to find me is just Google the name Michaelbrent, because that's my first name, and there's no other weirdo in the world whose parents hated him enough to name him Michaelbrent.
Joanna: And just a heads up, at some point we are all going to die. So fair enough.
Michaelbrent: If you die, you can let your credit card run on the Patreon page for a couple months before they catch it.
Joanna: A good point. But look as ever, Michaelbrent, it's being so good to talk to you. I always enjoy our talks. And although we had quite a serious one today, I hope people found it really useful. And I'm looking forward to you coming back on the show at some point.
Michaelbrent: With my jacket.
Joanna: Yeah with your jacket. We will do this again. So thanks again, and see yah.
Michaelbrent: See yah.
Hannah Ross says
As someone who struggles with depression and anxiety, I find this post tremendously encouraging. It’s always good to know one is not alone. My therapist actually refers to depression and anxiety as the “professional disease” of artists and writers. I wonder if that’s so… does one need to be slightly off balance to create art?
Joanna Penn says
I think it’s true that artists and creatives often suffer from depression and anxiety – but the prevalence is there in the larger community as well – it’s just that we have the skills to talk about it and express what’s going on.
It’s not something I have though – and I know a lot of others who don’t suffer from it – we all have our own ways of being “off-balance” 🙂
Michaelbrent Collings says
So glad it was helpful! Keep on keepin’ on!
Jonathan Gunson says
What an uplifting podcast Joanna!
I was completely engaged by Michael’s heartwarming and motivating advice. And he’s so funny! I laughed all the way through, and you obviously found so too judging by your frequent collapsing into hoots of laughter.
Anxiety or depression seems to hit so many these days, particularly in this ‘lonely’ profession, so I hope one day to reach out to him and share as you do.
P.S. You have a disciplined ‘system’ for writing – is it Pomodoro technique and schedule based? I find myself rather disorganized at the moment.
Joanna Penn says
Glad you enjoyed it, Jonathan! Michaelbrent is always a joy to talk to.
In terms of discipline, I schedule time blocks and write in that. Not Pomodoro as I find a longer stretch in a cafe works for me. Usually 7-9am for my main block and then do another one later. Hope to catch up again soon!
Jonathan Gunson says
I’ll be in the UK in July / August. Researching smugglers around Rye on the South Coast for my new chapter book stories. Might email beforehand and see if caffeine is possible – on me of course 🙂
Michaelbrent Collings says
Thanks, Jonathan. We good-looking, hilarious guys have to stick together!
Seriously, thanks for the kind words. Helping is good; making someone laugh while doing so is a bonus. Appreciate you letting me know I ticked both boxes here. Achievement Unlocked!
Melanie Notaras says
I really, really enjoyed this podcast – thank you both Joanna & Michael.
Michaelbrent Collings says
You are MOST welcome!
Michael Licavoli says
Seriously great interview as someone who struggles with similar issues! I do have to say that I find his comments about not paying artists out of school to be totally hypocritical to his stance. Artists deserve to be paid regardless of their profession. If you don’t find their work synchs with your vision, don’t use them. But please don’t encourage the writing community to not pay artists. There’s a huge issue with this in Hollywood and tech industries. You shouldn’t be shocked to know the number of graduates who commit suicide over this every year.
Michaelbrent Collings says
Hey, Michael! Glad the interview was helpful. I do want to clarify that I ABSOLUTELY want artists getting paid. Thats why I referenced the fact that authors can party for a good cover in most cases that will be better than what the authors can do . (Pretty sure I said something to that effect; going off memory here.)
That said, most artists of EVERY stripe – visual, written, etc get their first experience doing free work. That’s how they build a portfolio and can show a body of work that is competent – it’s their calling card at that point, but until you have already demonstrated competence, good luck convincing someone to hire you. when I started working in film I put in twenty hours a week for free. When I started writing seriously I helped out at writing labs and offered to help anyone who might turn into an audience. Even now, both Joanna and I constantly have free books. No money for that, but it is a cost we pay ourselves (cost of writing the book is a huge one if you consider paid projects we could do in that time) in return for later benefits.
Pasting dues is part of the game. I have a young friend who wants to edit. She has no track record and no real-world experience. I tossed a chapter of a book of mine I haven’t gotten around to editing. All I going to pay her for that? No way. But if she does a bad job I’m going to tell her where I think she needs improvement . If she does a good job I will absolutely endorse her work and mention her when people ask about a good, cheap editor .
and she WILL be cheap, ’cause that’s what the next ring on the ladder is.
BTW, yes, I told her all this upfront. I honestly don’t experience her to provide much that I’ll later use – not that I think she’ll do a bad job, but I am hyperparticular and chances of ANYONE nailing what I want are slim. I’m mostly in it to help her out. But if she DOES nail that first chapter, she’ll probably do any work on that for free or for low low pay. If I want to pay too dollar, there are people whom I know who have the experience and who will absolutely deliver EVERY time . So if she wants to do the work (and it is always the other person’s choice) it’ll mostly be to cut her teeth, not to make money.
eventually every artist has to make money if they want to do it full time. But I don’t know ANY successful artists who commanded much pay in the beginning. Most of them paid OUT for the privilege of doing what they loved, and that went on good a long time. It certainly did for me.
It HAS TO BE A WIN-WIN FOR EVERYONE. Value has to be added in both sides of the equation. There are predatory folks out there, and they suck. But a free first – or second or third or tenth – job isn’t always a sign of predation it’s a sign of someone who chooses to ear n some thing other than money. Experience, contacts, a nd other “intangibles” can be valuable, and often make a ” free” job a great step toward a bright future.
Michaelbrent Collings says
Also, please excuse typos and nonsensical word choices. Sigh. What I get for dictating while I drive.
This was so helpful – thank you Michaelbrent and Joanna!
Michaelbrent Collings says
You are very very VERY welcome!
M. Louis Lambert says
Loved your interview with Michael Brent Collins! It was comforting to know that I am not the only depressive Christian writer out there. I found the interview, enlightening and encouraging. Thank you thank you!