The Abandoned Interview

Abandoned-Shelves(580)In mid-2016, at an online magazine, I took part in a group interview with a few other writers, including Jasper Bark, Jonathan Janz, and Mercedes Murdock Yardley. Word was, Kealan Patrick Burke would be joining us in mid-stream. One question every day or two or three, each of us weighing in. We all seemed to find it fun to see where we overlapped and where we diverged, and hoped you did too.

For reasons unexplained, the writer-blogger doing it dropped the thing a little past the halfway point. Although the mag is still there, as of this posting it hasn’t had another update since.

Puzzling. The Q’s were already A’d in advance. All it would’ve taken was a few more minutes of copying and pasting. Which was a shame, at least for anyone looking for potentially actionable creative insights. Those were mostly back-loaded toward the end.

So here’s my slice of the project, in its entirety.

(1) You have a day entirely to yourself. No deadlines are pending and you can do whatever you want. How do you spend your day?

Brian Hodge: It’s a trick question, right? Because we’re supposed to always be working no matter what? Actually, I was in this position a few weeks back. I’d had seven weeks to write a novel, with no breathing room, which is not my optimal pace. After it was finished, I needed a few days of buffer zone to clear my head and rebalance. I watched movies, worked on music, worked out. I wanted to go for a hike up to the Red Rocks near the entrance to Boulder Canyon, then hit a brewpub for a pint, but the weather was too mucky and didn’t cooperate. So … mix-and-match from that.

(2) What was the worst piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? Why was it so wrong for you?

BH: Honestly, I can’t think of any. I never really received much advice, and never sought much, and what I got was encouraging. Mostly, I focused on doing the work and sending it out, so whatever feedback I got was specific to particular stories and novels. It wasn’t generalized.

That said, the worst wound was self-inflicted, from drawing the wrong lessons early on. It’s normal for beginners to emulate their idols, and from one of mine I learned how to overwrite. Saying the same thing three times when once would’ve been enough. And going off on needless tangents, which one early rejection letter called “jolly irrelevancies.” I had to get past that and learn to tighten things up.

(3) If you could give career advice to your younger self, what would you say?

BH: Write even more. Don’t be such an anal-retentive perfectionist, and give yourself permission to suck on drafts that nobody will ever see. Network more. Come up with better coping mechanisms for times of depression and despair. Take time management seriously earlier on, and don’t waste so much of it. Take up weightlifting and meditation and yoga and martial arts sooner, because these things will make you more effective and resilient at everything.

(4) What’s the best part about writing? The worst?

BH: The best is probably the act of creation and the sense of play, putting together something out of thoughts and vapor. Since I was a kid, I’ve been the type of person who always has to be making something, so it’s doubly rewarding when you see other people connect with it, that it resonates with them. The worst is probably the erratic nature of it, the feast-or-famine swings. And on occasion, the solitude.

(5) How much business acumen do you need to be a writer? Can you explain your thoughts?

BH: At a minimum, you need to know how to present and conduct yourself with a baseline level of professionalism. Every day of the week, social media serve up real-time examples of people who can’t handle even that much. Watch and recoil and learn.

Beyond that, can you really have too much? It’s always been a good idea to know how to scrutinize and haggle out a contract, so you’re not making mistakes like giving up rights you shouldn’t.

But it’s now become incumbent upon authors to tackle things they didn’t have much to do with years ago, or couldn’t wield much influence over prior to digital media, like promotion and marketing. Plus self-publishing has become a viable path, but to make a good go of that, you have to approach it with a different mindset and skill set than you would’ve used in writing the work. You have to start thinking of yourself as a cottage industry, a creative entrepreneur. That’s increasingly expected even if you’re being traditionally published.

This doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people. It’s definitely something that I’ve had to study and make sense of. Historically, the artist who’s also savvy at business seems more like the exception than the rule. The good news is that these are things you can learn if you’re motivated, and writers tend to be excellent at research.

(6) What tricks or techniques do you have for working through a difficult plot point?

BH: At just about every stage, I do a lot of thinking on paper. For any work-in-progress, I devote a legal pad to it, and as often as needed sit down with a pen to hold conversations with myself on that yellow paper. Notating, brainstorming, free-associating … the tactile process provides a better outlet for things to come through and take shape than just mulling it over.

I’m a big believer in the power of the subconscious. That’s where it all bubbles up from anyway, and it never shuts down, so you might as well do your best to work with it. On a passive level, sometimes you have to step back and get away from directly focusing on a problem. You have to give your subconscious space to do its thing so you can go have your breakthrough in the shower, or wherever it happens. One minute you’re working up a great pair of shampoo horns, and the next, the solution to this entire challenge you’ve been grappling with lands on your head.

On a more active level, lying in bed before falling asleep, I’ll give my subconscious its marching orders for the night. “This is where I’m at, this is what I need, now go to work on it while I’m sleeping, and I’ll expect results in a few hours.” Then when I get rolling the next morning, it usually starts to flow and I find things are there waiting to emerge. I envision it as slipping an empty envelope in a mail cubby overnight, and by morning, the gnomes have put it back full.

(7) Creative people are often creative in more ways than one. What’s your other talent(s)?

BH: Too right. My longstanding motto is that success in one field of creative endeavor should fund the ongoing abuse of another.

My main one is music and sound design. I play keyboards — piano, synthesizers, samplers, that sort of thing — and didgeridoo. Plus I started studying metal guitar recently for some goofy reason. Sometimes it merges with the writing, like when I did a soundtrack for Whom the Gods Would Destroy. Other times there’s no connection. The other day I finished mastering and sequencing an album called Primordium, of what I eventually came to think of as epic ambient. It’s kind of cinematic sounding, and three of the eight tracks have choral arrangements to one degree or another. I just got the OK to demo it to my favorite label for this type of thing, so fingers crossed.

I enjoy photography, too, and have been going through Betty Edwards’ classic Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

(8) Would you briefly share your writing process? Where have your best ideas come from and how do you approach working on a story from start to finish?

BH: I’ve already given the rundown about thinking on paper and relying on the subconscious, which for me are essential parts of the process. The rest is showing up, sitting down to do it to the exclusion of everything else. That’s easiest when I get on it first thing in the morning. I get up and go for a walk around the park, or a run, to wake myself up. I’m not a natural morning person, so I have to trick myself into being one. I come back and Doli’s made coffee, and I’m usually at my desk by 7:30. I work in focus blocks, with a break in between, because it’s important to clear your head every couple hours or so.

As for ideas…? Sometimes they come on their own. Other times you have to track them down like wild game. Occasionally I’ll do what I call going on idea safari. I’ll head off for the day and wander, with the specific intent of finding ideas, and trusting that I will. When you go out with that deliberate intention, it influences what you notice and focus your attention on, what gets past your perceptual filters and sticks, because it has potential.

But there’s no source for the best. Ideas are just seeds. It’s what you do with them, how you develop and connect them, that matters. It’s the same with music. You may come up with a melodic motif, but by itself, it’s a fragment with no context. Where does it lead to next? What chord progression or ostinato does it play against? What’s the harmonic structure around it? What’s the soundscape like?

That’s the start, while the finish is all about the rewriting. I obsessively pore over word choice and rhythm and flow and transitions. That’s when something really comes alive for me, in trying to sweat off the fat and make the prose as muscular as I can, sculpting it into its optimal form. I learned to love the Delete key.

(9) What writing resources would you recommend to other writers?

BH: The ideal is to be a voracious reader who can soak up valuable lessons all over the place, and to study the works of those writers you most admire, whose stuff hits you like an incendiary bomb to the brain. If you were gonzo passionate about cooking, you’d ideally study a chef directly, to see how they make the magic happen. You wouldn’t be content studying cookbooks alone.

Still, there are definitely some things I think anyone could find valuable. Any book by Donald Maass in recent years would qualify. He’s in the unique position of being able to approach writing from the perspective of a novelist, an editor, and an agent, because he’s been all three. His thoughts on what he calls “microtension” are alone worth the price of admission.

Self-Editing For Fiction Writers (Renni Browne and Dave King) is also exceptional — very hands-on, very granular. Spunk & Bite (Arthur Plotnik), as you might guess, is a play on Strunk & White, and gets you thinking about enlivening your stylistic use of language. (It’s funny, he always seems to catch it whenever I recommend the book, and sends a note of thanks … so if you’re out there, hi, Arthur!) Also, there’s one I read a few months ago that really caught me by surprise with how good it was: Million Dollar Outlines, 2013 Edition (David Farland). It covers so much more than outlining, and has a lot of thoughts on storytelling I’d never encountered before.

(10) If you could design you dream studio, what would it feature?

BH: More room for what I have already, that’s all. I’m at least halfway there, so more square footage would do the trick. I’d like enough sprawl for a dual-screen setup. More room for all my audio hardware to sit out at once, with enough floor space for multiple keyboard stacks. A couple of synthesizers spent most of their time in the closet. I have Green Man iconography everywhere, but end up finding more every year. More plants than the nine I have now. It already has a mountain view and two big, long-haired cats stealing the desk chair when my back is turned, so we’re covered there.