“Joan Didion taught me that family was always part of the story, along with place, and that the writer’s job was to face the terror, beauty, banality, and truth inherent in being a citizen of both.” In this video, Hilton Als speaks about Joan Didion’s influence on his writing at a celebration of her life and work held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.
I admit it. I drool over Pinterest pictures of dreamy libraries and studies. Sometimes I google “writer’s offices” for inspiration about the best places to write, in search of that perfect writing space that will magnetize me to my desk and make me want to stay curled up with my work-in-progress for endless hours of storytelling.
Of course, it doesn’t really work that way. Even though I’m a neatnik sort of person who enjoys interior decorating, my office experiences never quite look like the Pinterest version. There’s dust, there’s crumbs. Even worse, there are distractions. There’s, you know, the Internet. And no matter where I write or how I design my writing space, there’s always the reality that writing isn’t actually all that glamorous.
But that’s good news, actually. The very fact that writing does not require a high-maintenance setting means we can, in fact, do it anywhere. As nice as a study lined with bookcases of leather-bound first editions might be, or a little desk on a porch overlooking a beach—these aren’t necessarily the best places to write for most of us. After all, the best place to write is any place we actually do write.
So how can you optimize your writing space to help you get in the zone and stay in the zone? Colleen F. Janik brought this up recently:
I would love to hear a discussion of what the perfect writing area looks like, one that draws you there every single day. I have an office with a desk near the window, which I thought was perfect. But it’s not. I’ve made a very crafty, pretty memo board to put all my notes. That didn’t do it. I collected some great black and white World War I photos and had them framed and matted and put on my wall. That was good for a while.
I guess what it comes down to is that my characters become strangers to me and I am barred from entering the land where they dwell. How can I maintain that close relationship with these humans I so lovingly created?
Because I’ve experimented quite a bit with different writing spaces over the years, this topic immediately tickled my fancy. Today, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned in optimizing my own space.
TLDR: Honestly, my single biggest takeaway is going to be that what’s best on one day may not be best on the next day. Although it’s nice to have a dedicated writing space set up just how you like it, using your imagination to create flexible options might be the best solution.
5 Ingredients to Create Your Optimal Writing Space
Some writers can write anywhere. Some are particular. Some prefer silence. Others prefer background noise. There is no one perfect formula that suits all of us. But there are some common factors we can each consider in tweaking our available spaces to support us in our writing goals. Here are my top five.
(Please note that some of the links to recommended products are Amazon affiliate links.)
1. Optimal Lighting
Lighting is a powerhouse contributor to ambiance and mood. Consider whether you feel more inspired on bright, sunny days or gray, rainy days. Although you can’t do anything about the weather, you can recreate lighting patterns within your space by choosing bulb wattage and tone (warm or cool) to help you get into the right mood.
You need to be able to see what you’re doing and to protect your eye health. (At the same time, you might consider blue-light glasses or a blue-light filter for your computer to help with the glare.) The right desk lamp can make a huge difference in controlling writing spaces that otherwise offer limited options for change. Even just adding candles (preferably soy or beeswax to avoid air pollutants) can raise the vibe of your room and signal to your brain that it is now entering “writing space.”
If you can, you’ll also want to consider your proximity to a window. For a while, I had a desk that faced a gallery of windows. On the one hand, I loved it. But aside from the distracting squirrel that liked to dive-bomb off the roof, I also dealt with major glare for a few months in the early winter when the sun hit the windows just the wrong way. Depending on the orientation of the room, putting a window at your back can also be problematic, since the sun may then glare directly off your computer screen.
Lighting is crucial for creating the best places to write, but facing your desk to a window offers pros and cons to consider.
Desired degree of privacy is subjective. Some writers do their best work in crowded spaces, such as trains or restaurants. But if you get distracted easily or lose your train of thought when interrupted, you’ll probably do best in a closed-door environment where you can filter out visitors—or at least slow them down.
3. Visual and Auditory Control
Being able to control noise—both visual and auditory—can be important. Some writers prefer silence; some prefer music; some like the TV on in the background; some like people talking around them. Whatever the case, you want to be able to “turn it on” when you’re ready to write. Music has always been key for me. My brain is so used to hearing certain types of music when writing that I have a hard time dropping in without it.
Visual noise can also be important. Some writers thrive in cluttered spaces; others prefer clean minimalism. Either way, you’re looking for efficacy, not aesthetics. Although a Pinterest-worthy office can be gratifying, if it interferes with grounding in and writing, then it’s not worth it.
4. Comfort and Ergonomics
By the same token, value comfort over style. Make sure your desk, your chair, and your computer are the right size for your body and ergonomically placed. If your writing space looks great, but you hurt when you spend time there, you’ll end up writing in the living room or the kitchen instead—or, worse, not writing at all.
5. Availability of Tools and Resources
Finally, you’ll want a space that keeps all your most-used tools and resources at your fingertips. This might mean bookshelves or files. But it can also mean having all your files available on your computer or in the cloud, so you can access them easily without having to break your train of thought.
Set your writing space, so you have what you need within easy reach.
5 Ideas for Awesome Alternative Writing Spaces
The above ideas cover the standard writing space, the sort that usually comes to mind when we think of a writer’s office. But what if the “standard writing space” just isn’t working for you? What if, like Colleen (and me, on many an occasion), you show up at your optimized desk—and you just can’t settle in?
As much as I love a functional office, the following five alternative ideas are actually some of my favorite places to write. For me, they’re not feasible or even preferable all the time, but whenever they’re right, they’re right. I’ve done some of my best writing by leaving behind my designated writing space.
1. Writing Outside
This is my all-time fave. When the weather isn’t too cold or too muggy, I like to take my writing into the wild. I’ll set up a little bistro tale outside, maybe on my front porch or maybe in a little nook in some trees, put my coffee in an insulated mug, and head out. I’ve written outside as late as November (with the help of gloves and a down vest), until my fingers got too cold to hold the pen.
One of the best places to write is… outside! I take my iPad with Scrivener notes, insulated coffee mug, outline notebook, and ergonomic pen—and I’m ready to go!
Being outside is both grounding and refreshing. I love being surrounded by trees and critters while I write, even if I’m not paying much attention. More than that, isolating myself from my normal life inside the house, including my office desk where I do “business stuff” and Internet connectivity in general, almost always sends me straight into story headspace.
One thing I will note is that taking my writing outside has always worked best when outlining, since I do that in a notebook. When it’s time to work on the first draft, I’ve tried typing on various tools (see #4 below), but none of them are ergonomic enough to stave off back and neck pain.
2. Writing in the “Dark”
When the autumn nights get cold and long and I can’t sensibly take my writing outside any longer, my next best choice is to make my indoor writing space as dark as possible. I will often put on just a single light spotlighting my desk (or fairy lights) to create a small cozy space. The sense that it’s just me and my writing existing in this little island of warmth helps me zoom in and focus.
3. Writing at a Dedicated Desk
This is one I haven’t yet been able to try, but it’s on my bucket list. Sooner or later, I need my computer in to be able write, whether it’s because I need an ergonomic setup for my keyboard or because I need access to all my notes. But because the computer also happens to be connected to the Internet, not to mention connected to all my other notes (about business or personal stuff), it’s also the single greatest distraction to my writing.
This is why, at some point, I plan to create a second writing space with a smaller desk that is ergonomically favorable for writing by hand and a second computer that contains only writing programs and notes. The idea is not only to remove myself from all the other distractions at my work desk, but also to train my brain to recognize this dedicated space as writing space (rather than a space for also checking email or blog comments, or browsing YouTube or Pinterest, or shopping for socks or toothpaste…).
4. Writing With Tools Other Than Your Regular Computer
Even when you don’t have the choice to create a writing space that is separate from the rest of your digital life, you can still distance yourself from all the distractions of your computer by utilizing other tools. This is one of the main reasons I enjoy writing my outlines longhand in a notebook. Even if my computer is within reach, the act of writing rather than typing puts a degree of separation between my mind and all the other things I could be doing on the computer.
I’ve also played around with digital typewriters, including the old AlphaSmart and the FreeWrite. The big drawback to both is that they aren’t particularly ergonomic. Even if you position the keyboard at an ideal height for your wrists, you still have to bend your neck to look down at the little screen. These tools can also be annoying when you’re trying to reread or edit what you wrote. I don’t use them frequently, but I’m glad to have them for those occasions when I either need a break from my computer and/or want to take my typing on the go.
5. Writing in Public
Finally, you may want to try taking your writing on the road with you. Writing in cafes and other public spaces is part of a long literary tradition. This isn’t my favorite approach, but I’ve tried it with success on several occasions when writing at home just wasn’t working for me and I needed a change of scenery. Earphones and the same tools I use when writing outside are all I need.
5 Tools to Help in Less Than Optimal Writing Settings
Not all of us get to write in those swoony offices/libraries on Pinterest. Even if we do have the chance to create a writing space that is exactly how we want it, we can sometimes find that, in fact, it isn’t as ideal as we imagined. So in the interest of #reallife, let’s round out the discussion with four simple tools that can help us block out distractions and zone in on our writing even in situations that are not the best places to write.
1. Sound-Proof Headphones
Can’t beat this one. Whether or not you’re into listening to music while writing, sound-proof headphones can be a WIP-saver. They’re also great for when you take your writing out in public because you want the company but not the noise.
2. Do-Not-Disturb Apps
If you find your greatest distraction when working on the computer is… the computer, any one of a host of do-not-disturb apps can help you create a writing-safe space on your computer. When writing, I always turn my phone to airplane mode and will often disable my Internet connectivity altogether (it’s off right now). I have previously used the app Freedom to schedule Internet blockages at certain times and from certain websites. Lately, I’ve been looking into Forest, which helps you track your progress, as well as giving you the incentive of real-life planted trees.
If your space is particularly limited and you’re unable to access privacy, you can always do it the old-fashioned way and find a corner. For me, putting myself in a small space is helpful in itself. Facing into the corner will also help block out visual disturbances (as well as cluing in others to the fact that you really don’t want to talk to them right now). Add in sound-proof headphones, and you may not even know you’re not alone.
Don’t have a corner handy? Grab your hoodie and blinker yourself from distractions. This isn’t foolproof, but it does give off those “leave me alone” vibes that come in handy for all writers sooner or later.
5. Flamethrower and Machete
Okay, just kidding (mostly). But my metaphorical flamethrower and machete (plus liberal threats) have always worked wonders for me.
Creating the best place to write will be an entirely subjective experience for each one of us. We each have to get real with ourselves about which elements help us write and which ones don’t. From there, we must work with what’s available to us in our personal spaces and immediate vicinity. The perfect writing space may vary day to day depending on your mood. What’s important is coming up with a suite of one to three feasible options you can easily slide into without much thought or preparation whenever it’s time to start writing.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What are your best places to write? Tell me in the comments!
Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in Apple Podcast or Amazon Music).
If you’re not making the money you expected from your books, how can you pivot genres in order to write what you enjoy AND make a living? How can you change your mindset to one of creative abundance and productivity? Dan Padavona talks about these topics and more.
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Dan Padavona is the best-selling and award-nominated author of thrillers and mysteries, including the Wolf Lake Thrillers and Logan and Scarlett Serial Killer thrillers.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
How — and why — to pivot genres
Combining what you want to write and what sells
Creating a new audience when pivoting genres
Are Facebook ads and AMS ads still worth it?
Financial factors that influence the decision to become a full-time writer
Revitalizing a series with Facebook ads
The importance of a positive mindset and how to stay motivated for the long term
Joanna: Dan Padavona is the best-selling and award-nominated author of thrillers and mysteries, including the Wolf Lake Thrillers and Logan and Scarlett Serial Killer thrillers. So welcome to the show, Dan.
Dan: Thank you so much, Joanna. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Joanna: Oh, I’m excited to talk to you.
But before we get into it –
Tell us a little bit more about you and how you got into writing and self-publishing.
Dan: Writing came to me very late in life. I did some writing as a child. I wrote a few short stories during high school, which ended up getting published in the school newspaper. It interested me back then, but I didn’t really follow through on it.
Now, I do have a communications degree, which is somewhat angling towards that direction. But I ended up going into atmospheric sciences and meteorology eventually. And I think I became a writer because I love reading.
It was probably late 2013, early 2014, I read a fictional book, which absolutely blew me away, and I just knew right then and there, I needed to create something like this. Not that I could ever create something quite that brilliant, but I got into writing and I read everything that I could on the subject of writing. I began as a horror author in 2014, switched to thrillers in 2018, and that’s pretty much where things took off for me.
Joanna: So we’ll circle back on that.
But you said you came to writing late in life.
I didn’t think you were that old, actually. Can you give us a sense of what time of your life you started?
Dan: I still get proofed if I buy wine, but I am actually 54 now. I started writing in 2014, so that would have made me 46 at the time.
Joanna: Okay. And then, like you said, things took off in 2018, so you were 50. And I think that’s really great because so many people are like, “oh, I have missed the chance to become a writer.” And my mum wrote her first book at 72, so there’s no need to think that. For people listening, it’s never too late.
So you were in meteorology. That’s like a weatherman?
Dan: That’s right. I did that since 1994. I retired in September of 2021, so there was 27 years of that. I loved the job and I loved the people, but the shift work was killing me. It had really for 27 years, and that’s what made my decision for me to make a move. Otherwise, I think I would still be doing it.
I was just so blessed by writing and the way my career took off, that I was making many times my income that I was working at my day job. So it was kind of like, well, I could do this for four hours a day and make a lot, or I could do that for eight or nine hours a day and make a little. So you know, easy choice.
Joanna: Oh, it is. And we’re gonna dig into all of that. But you said you started out writing horror, and I think that’s where I must have first seen you. Did you co-write something with J Thorn?
Dan: I did. Yeah.
Joanna: Like everyone has, clearly. I have.
Dan: That’s right. He’s like the Kevin Bacon of writing.
Joanna: He is.
Dan: There may be eight degrees of separation when it comes to J Thorn. And he’s been a good friend ever since too. He pretty much is to everybody in the industry.
Joanna: Oh, absolutely.
You started out writing horror, so why did you decide to pivot into mysteries and thrillers?
Like I love reading horror and I write a little bit of horror, and mysteries and thrillers is a much more mainstream niche. But kind of talk us through why you decided to make that change.
Dan: There’s two different reasons, I think. The first was financially, I just wasn’t making money at writing horror.
And I felt that the genre itself had very voracious fans who read it, but there aren’t that many of them. And they’re shrinking too, which I just find mind boggling because I grew up loving horror. And when I was a kid, you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a Friday the 13th or Halloween movie, and that’s what dominated Hollywood. These days, horror just seems to be kind of taking a backburner, and I’m not sure why that is.
But it wasn’t purely for financial reasons, though. I hit a point too in my life where I think I’d become a more positive person. And I was writing some really dark horror, and putting myself in those places day after day was one of the reasons why I procrastinated about writing. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it every day, and I needed to change.
Now, that doesn’t change what I read. I still read plenty of horror. I’m a huge Jack Ketchum fan. I love Stephen King. Dean Koontz, obviously. He was probably more thriller than horror anyway. I still love those types of books, but writing them, to me, eventually became a little bit suffocating.
Joanna: Craft-wise, you said there that the horror readership is shrinking. I wonder if it’s because what people used to call horror is now moved into all kinds of other genres. So for example, it used to be anything with a vampire in it was horror. And now you could say it’s urban fantasy, or dark fantasy. So I almost feel like horror, just the word, used to cover so much.
Now there are so many granular subgenres that are not in horror, but yet, they really are what horror used to be.
Dan: Yeah, I think that that is an excellent point, and it has become a lot more fragmented. Vampires, you brought up vampires, that’s probably the ultimate example. The first book I ever wrote was a book called Storberry, which was horribly titled and probably was the reason nobody ever found it. But it was essentially a love letter to Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot.
I wanted to return to the old school vampire horror that I found just absolutely wonderful growing up with, and it was haunting, and get it away from Twilight and all those other directions that vampire movies and TV shows were heading in. There’s nothing wrong with Twilight or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But I just felt that there was no Salem’s Lot anymore. There were no frightening vampires. And that’s why I wanted to head in that direction.
Joanna: I think that’s interesting. I mean, many people listening will be like, “oh, I don’t write horror,” but they’re actually writing some kind of it. But like post-apocalyptic, we both know Zach Bohannon as well, that’s kind of horror, but post-apoc is its own thing. There’s so many subgenres.
Then it’s interesting, so you said you’re a positive person and writing all that dark stuff was difficult, but you’ve got serial killer thrillers, and they’re some of your bestsellers. And it’s so funny, because I love reading horror, but I struggle reading serial killers, I find them more disturbing than reading horror.
So how did you identify serial killers as a genre? And how on earth is it not as dark as your other stuff?
Dan: That’s probably going to be a multifaceted answer to that one. So to start with, serial killers I think are more frightening for most people, because — well, alright, I’m not gonna say the vampires don’t exist. Some people do believe that they exist, I don’t. But serial killers most definitely exist. And one could be living next door to you. That’s a very frightening prospect.
As far as how did I happen upon them, I love Thomas Harris, I love all the Hannibal books and movies. With me, it’s not just the horror, which is part of that, but it’s also the hunt. It’s also the mystery that surrounds it.
So when I was trying to decide, well, what am I going to write, in 2017-2018 —
I was actually really close to just stopping writing at all because writing is so difficult. It takes up all your time and all your mental energy.
And if you’re not seeing any results from that, as far as great reviews, money, whatever, then it’s hard to summon the strength to do it every day.
So I wanted to try something else –
And I kind of looked at writing and success as like separate Venn diagrams.
So in one circle you would have a list of things that you love to either read or write. And for me, that was fantasy, horror, some psychological thriller-type stuff. And then you had the stuff which actually sells in the other circle.
The overlap to me, and I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before, but was obviously dark thrillers and sometimes serial killer thrillers. And that, to me, just seemed like, oh, this is perfect. These books are very popular.
So then I went about reading what was out there, what was being published by indies and selling very well, just to see if I can I write in this genre and would I enjoy it. And the first two series which I read, I mean, I just like devoured them. I was enjoying them so much. And I was like, yeah, I can do this. And not only can I do this, I would love to do this. So yeah, I jumped on that immediately.
And to probably wrap it all up with a bow, I also incorporate into my stories the positivity that I talked about too. So like the Wolf Lake Thrillers, on the surface they are very dark mysteries, often with serial killers in the background.
Right now I’m writing one about a serial kidnapper who kills, and it’s very dark from that standpoint. But below the surface, every Wolf Lake Thriller is actually about overcoming adversity, the powers of love and friendship and understanding each other. And these themes like pervade that entire series, and it just makes writing these characters such a joy.
If you love Dean Koontz, Dean Koontz has such a great knack for ending every single book making you feel so good and so positive about the future and optimistic. And that’s something which I really wanted to do too. And even in my Logan and Scarlett Thrillers, which are also very dark serial killer thrillers, they often end on a very positive note. Not every time, but certainly with the Wolf Lake Thrillers they do.
Joanna: You mentioned Dean Koontz there. I love his Jane Hawk series, if you’ve read that.
Joanna: I love that. And it’s so funny, I do find his work a bit hit or miss with me, as in sometimes I love the books, and sometimes I couldn’t care less, really. And it’s so interesting, but he’s so prolific, it doesn’t really matter.
But I want to stay on the craft elements, because Blake Crouch did this too. Did you take some inspiration from Blake Crouch? In that he was known in the horror genre, and then I believe he was like, I’m going to write thrillers and I’m going to make this a success.
Joanna: And I wonder if the element is the supernatural. And this is something I think about a lot because all my fiction is supernatural in some way. Here in the UK, the crime genre is huge, and I wrote some crime books but I just couldn’t help putting some supernatural in, and then it suddenly falls off the edge of what is acceptable to the mass market in that genre.
So given that you wrote horror and vampires and stuff, have you got any supernatural in what you write now? And is that something you deliberately left out?
Dan: There isn’t, just because most of them are like police procedurals and whatnot. There are some people who are definitely making it work, like LT Ryan incorporates a lot of supernatural into his books.
And they’re pretty much either psychological or serial killer thrillers that kind of fall somewhere in there. He’s made it work.
For me, I’ve tried to stick to the ‘yeah, that could happen’ elements of the stories, and for whatever reason, it’s resonated very well with my readers, and I don’t want to mess that up. There are times where I feel very limited because supernatural is not a part of what I write, and I would love to be able to incorporate it. In fact, I hinted at it in the book that I’m writing right now, where it ends up just being a tease. There isn’t actually any ghost in the story, but for a while there you are really wondering if there are.
So yeah, it’s something I would love to incorporate, if I could find a way to do it properly. And it may just be something where I would do a separate series and see what the reaction is.
Joanna: You mentioned your readers there. So how’s it going? You’re using the same name, right?
You went from publishing horror to suddenly publishing the serial killers and thrillers and things. So how did that go? Like, have you had feedback saying, “hey, Dan, why aren’t you writing this other type of book anymore?”
Have your audience crossed over? Or do you think you’ve found an entirely new audience?
Dan: I found an entirely new audience. I’ll tell you a little bit about how that went down.
First of all, if I had it to do over again and I could go back, I would create a pen name for my thriller titles, just to better separate things. I do think that there is some confusion within the Amazon algorithm as to what exactly does he write here. But I think now that I sell so many more thrillers than I do horror, that it probably isn’t much of a problem anymore.
Back in 2018, again, when I made the shift, I started writing these books called the Scarlett Bell Thrillers. I released the first book for 99 cents, and I had this great plan which was lined out. I was going to hold the first three books until they were all ready, and then I was going to rapid-release them once every two to three weeks, I think it was.
It just seemed like a foolproof plan. It was working really great for the people on like the 20Books forums, and when I tried this, it completely fell flat. I sent it out to my list, and I got no sales. And I remember thinking to myself, “well, I just sent these thrillers out to like 300 or 400 people who love horror, so why would they buy the book?”
So obviously I confused them and I wasn’t doing myself any favors. So I started to try to find another way into locating readers. I had never had success with Facebook ads in the past, but I decided I’ll give it a shot.
I quickly discovered that by getting read-through through the three books in my series, I was getting enough money and enough orders off my clicks that I was actually turning a small profit on these Facebook ads.
So then I started to think, well, there’s more books coming in this series. I’m only up to three, and there’s going to be ten, so this really has potential.
So I just kept writing and I kept those ads running, I knew that the ads eventually would probably start to fail, and they did. Facebook ads after usually two to four months, they start to get a little bit wonky, and you got to create something new.
In that amount of time, I was able to attract enough people to my Facebook page and attract enough people to sign up to my mailing list.
And I started an absolutely new mailing list too. I switched to Mailerlite and just made a clean break with the new signups. And I quickly had a list which was larger than my horror list, and it had only taken me a couple months to do it.
And these people were not just like on a list, they were buying the books. So that was a big change, too.
I think it became like a snowball at that point. Every new series I released brought more and more new readers into my world.
It greatly grew my Facebook following, my Instagram and Twitter, but especially the email list, and that’s where the rubber really hits the road, I think, in writing.
Joanna: I think it’s so interesting. So you’ve done some great blog posts, I’m gonna link to them in the show notes.
I guess that’s when you decided to leave your job. So how did you make that decision?
Because obviously, there are up years and there are down years when things are difficult. So how did you make that decision? Because I know some authors want to do that, some authors don’t. So yeah, how did you make that?
Dan: Well, that was a really tough choice. But fortunately, the earnings grew so quickly that it became an easy choice at the very end.
I had often joked with my wife, if my writing ever earned us enough money that it replaced my income at work, I would leave — haha. And neither of us ever thought that that would happen. And then things really took off. And by late 2020, early 2021, I had replaced my income.
But at that point, I felt as you did, as you just elucidated, that there are ups and downs and you can fail. So I felt at that point that just replacing my income, while that was a wonderful blessing, was not a safety net for me. I needed to make twice my income, and then we would really think about it. And so I talked to my wife about it, and then, again, we said, “if I ever made 2x my income — haha.”
Then that happened several months later. And that’s where we both decided, yeah, I think it’s time. Because I was really burning the candle at both ends. I’m working nine hours a day, there’s another 45 minutes, probably, in my day of commuting. And then I’ve got to get in an hour and a half of writing in my free time, and then there’s editing. It was just getting crazy.
I was keeping up with it, but I felt there was no reason to have to keep up with that anymore. And by the time that I put in my notice of leaving, my income had then grown to three times what I was making at work.
So it became such an easy decision. And actually at the end, I was like, “boy, I wish I had taken a date which was earlier than this.”
Joanna: It’s good to be cautious.
Let’s talk about marketing. So you’ve mentioned Facebook ads, and that you got into that. Tell us about what kind of marketing you’re doing now, because Facebook ads have changed a lot in the last couple of years.
I mean, even since you left in 2021, this is only a year later, but we’ve had the Apple privacy changes. Some people are saying ads don’t work anymore. Amazon ads have got more expensive.
So how are you running marketing at the moment?
Dan: Ads have definitely gotten more expensive. I believe that it’s less to do with Apple, and it’s more to do with authors simply realizing that there’s money to be made here, and everybody’s kind of piling in.
It’s just a supply and demand thing, it’s driving up clicks. So it’s a lot more difficult to make a return on investment these days than it was two years ago when I was making a killing on these investments.
So Facebook ads, to me, I can’t make, for instance, mailing list signups through Facebook Ads work financially for me anymore. I find that doing multi-author promos is far more cost efficient, and at least it keeps me in the black. So I’ve gotten away from those altogether. Every once in a while, I’ll turn them on for a little bit just to see if I can build my list again at a profit, but I really can’t. So that that’s already gone away for me.
Writing in a long series and having all that extra read-through is such an advantage.
It allows me to have a lot more wiggle room on cost per click. So the idea being that if you have one book that you’re selling for $4.99, even if you’re making a 70% commission on that, the odds that you’re going to turn a profit on that with an AMS ad or Facebook ad are pretty much slim and none.
However, if you have nine more books backing that up in the series and your read-through is pretty good, you’re actually making a lot more than 70% of $4.99, you’re making 70% of all those sales.
Plus, if you’re part of Kindle Unlimited, you’re making that on page-reads as well, and selling some paperbacks.
So, to me, it became a lot more easy to break away from the pack. And there are some words which I can — phrases, anyway — that I can bid on in AMS for ridiculous amounts, like $2 to $4 per click. And I’m not actually paying that much per click, I usually end up paying about like $0.75 to a $1.25 per click, but I’m dominating the top position, and I’m always getting those clicks whenever I want them.
And I can afford to do so because I know that every time I get a click or a buy, I’m going to make so much more money than I would if it was just one book.
I’m selling an entire series. So that’s really important too.
I do agree it’s getting more and more difficult to make money that way. And I think you always need to think outside the box. As you coined the term ‘author entrepreneurs’, we need to think not like every other author in the genre and we need to take a larger view of things and just think like marketers.
So I read a lot of books on marketing, period. And there’s always a trick that is out there which other authors aren’t doing. So as long as you keep standing on the shoulders of giants, you’re only going to get as tall as they allow you to get.
But if you are innovating and you’re borrowing techniques which work in other industries, for instance, attracting people to your website. Most people have websites which are just there to show their ‘about author’ page and have some buy links.
If you can actually attract people who are looking for your types of books to your website, then you completely bypass the need for ads. You don’t have to pay for anything, it’s just work. You need to do some due diligence and writing articles and whatnot. But if you’re a writer, that should be pretty easy to switch to.
Joanna: Obviously, I’ve built this business — for the nonfiction side — on content marketing. And I pretty much have never advertised The Creative Penn, and certainly not the podcast. So I’ve built a business on that, but it takes a lot longer for sure.
And it was funny as you were talking there, I read a lot of business books and marketing books, too, and I was just thinking like, “where’s the blue water right now?”
And as we record this, Elon Musk recently bought Twitter, and a whole load of people are leaving Twitter and going on to this thing called Mastodon. Now, I haven’t looked at this, but I was just thinking, I bet you there’s some marketing possibilities on Mastodon, whatever the hell, or it might just go the way of the dinosaurs, which is what I thought as soon as I heard the name.
But it’s interesting, isn’t it? I mean, I also have seen people pouring back into LinkedIn. Which I mean, it’s not really a fiction platform. But it’s not always the same thing, isn’t it, as you said.
When is it worth spending money on an old series? Or when should we just write another series?
And I guess a sub-question is: would you ever use these tactics back on your horror books? Or have you just left them behind?
Dan: So it wouldn’t work on the horror books anymore, for basically the same reasons that it didn’t didn’t work on my horror books three to five years ago, and that is that I was writing stand alones. I just cannot come up with a way to sell those stand alones at a profit.
I couldn’t find a way to do it back then because cost per click had gone up by so much. Now that the cost per clicks are dwarfing what they were just a few years ago, there’s just absolutely no chance.
Now I do run some AMS ads, like evergreen ads, that target the usual, the Dean Koontz’s, the Jack Ketchum’s, the Stephen King’s. And yeah sure, I’ll get maybe a sale here, a sale there, but it’s not enough to move the needle. And I just kind of do it because I know that they’ll make money over time, even if it’s just a few bucks a month. There’s no reason not to do them, but they’re not worth spending time or mental energy on.
If I had written series back then, I probably could have pulled it off. The only thing which comes close is my Dark Vanishing series, which is post-apocalyptic.
And I have had some success running Facebook ads for those and making that work. I’m a little bit less successful, for whatever reason, with AMS ads. I think because with AMS ads, it’s so much more granular, and I haven’t zeroed in on exactly who I should be targeting. But I’ve tried for about three or four years to zero in on who that should be, and I still haven’t found it yet.
Joanna: And then, let’s just take AMS ads. Do you target traditionally published authors? Like I don’t know, someone like Karin Slaughter, for example, I believe has some serial killer books.
Do you target traditionally published authors or only indies?
Dan: Oh, sure. I’ve targeted not only through AMS, but Facebook ads, I’ve targeted Karen Slaughter in the past. And I’ve also targeted Lisa Gardner, who I seem to do better with for whatever reason. That seems to be a better match, at least in my readers’ opinions. Dean Koontz was a great target for me through Facebook ads for about four months until the ads started to dry up.
Ads are really weird in that it is based on the audience size that that writer has. And for whatever reason, according to Facebook anyway, Dean Koontz only has like 200,000 people reading him, which is about what they say for Lisa Gardner too. Whereas some other writers who are much smaller than him may have millions.
And so I don’t really get it. I don’t understand what the algorithm is considering a Dean Koontz reader. But either way, it’s not nearly tapping all the readers which he has. So that’s why I think Facebook ads for Dean Koontz worked well for me for a few months, and then I just dried up the supply, I couldn’t use it anymore.
AMS ads to Dean Koontz are very up and down for me. They don’t work so well in the US, but for whatever reason, they work great in the UK and they weren’t great in Australia. So I don’t quite understand that. But I just follow the numbers. If it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, I turn it off.
Joanna: And the other question –
You mentioned that you work four hours a day now.
You said that, right? I mean, is that just your writing, or is that the writing and the marketing?
Dan: It’s the writing and the whole business itself. So actually, I probably do a lot more than four hours, in terms of getting myself prepared for writing. But I say it’s about four hours in terms of like there’s an hour and a half of writing, there’s another 45 minutes or so of editing and reading over my manuscript.
By the way, that’s a Dean Koontz trick as well. I read that trick in an interview that he wrote, where he likes to rework his prose on the same day that he writes, so that when he’s done at the end of the day, that chapter is done, it’s ready for his editor.
Now, I don’t send it to my editor, but there’s a power in finishing the day knowing that up until that point in my book, my book is done. I don’t need to deal with it again. So you know, people slog through second, third, fourth drafts after the fact. I never do. It’s just done. So that’s another 45 minutes.
Well, I’ll just get in my daily routine. Now this starts to get a little bit above the fold here, but I think it’s really important. You know, everybody asks me about advertising and if that’s the secret to my success. Is it rapid release, because I’m releasing a book every few months, and I’m about to release them even more frequently. And the answers are kind of and kind of, but there’s a lot more that I do.
So much of this is mindset, Joanna. It really is.
I mean, anybody can change their mindset with a snap of the finger if they really want to. It’s a lot of just forming better habits and finding what works with you.
I came from a broken home. My father left our family when I was four years old, and that probably is one of my earliest memories is my father sitting me down at the kitchen table and saying, “I’m moving in with grandma and grandpa.” And after that, my father became a rather famous person in performing arts, and I almost never saw him again after that.
It was a very frustrating life growing up. My mother had her own demons. We lived with a man who became physically abusive to us. And those were things which I ended up dealing with growing up my entire life. And I bottled them up and I hid them from people and I didn’t tell anybody about what my issues were, and it just exploded on me.
Finally, when I got into college, I basically had — I wouldn’t call it quite a mental breakdown — but all of a sudden I had all this social anxiety. I couldn’t go out without feeling sick to my stomach. I was just hiding from people in general. And I needed therapy. And once I started getting therapy, I started to get better.
But once I moved out of my mother’s house, and I started to do things on my own, and I’m not saying my mother was toxic, I was just saying that I needed to start doing things for myself in building that confidence.
And that’s probably the first time in my life where I felt this super energy kind of pulsing through me. I wouldn’t tap it for years and years later, but it was the first sign that I could break out of this on my own. It was just a matter of changing my mindset.
So I meet writers all the time, who tell me, “I can’t. I just can’t keep up with the writing because I have a job.” And then I have to explain to them that I did this from 2014 to 2021, writing an hour or more per day while holding up a full time job.
“Well, yeah, but I have kids.” Well, so did I. “Well, yeah, but I wanted to go to the gym.” Well, yes, so did I, and I did all these things too. You can fit it into your life if you really want to, if it really means that much to you.
So now my life is a lot more high energy because of the way that I treat my body, by feeding it proper nutrition, by exercising every day, or almost every day, and some of that exercise is pretty strenuous.
So I’m always feeding my mind, I’m making it ready to write.
And also, because writing is so difficult, every author knows how facing that blank page every day can be so challenging. So you have to have this positive mindset, you have to have high energy.
There are all sorts of tips which the self-help industry, the self-development gurus, will espouse. Things like manifesting, all that different stuff.
And you know what, it all works, but it all works for different reasons, depending on what you believe. Some people believe that manifesting works because they believe in a higher power, they believe in God, and they think that they’re talking to God and God is helping them.
Other people are spiritual in the sense that they think the universe is giving it to them. Other people look at it as this is the subconscious mind that you’re feeding positive thoughts to.
So here’s something which a lot of people don’t realize –
Your subconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between a truth statement and a lie.
Whatever you tell your subconscious mind, if you tell it enough times, it will believe it. So if you tell yourself over and over again that you are a great writer and that you’re going to make X amount of money from it, you can become that, or at least your subconscious mind will certainly believe it.
Now, where does it go from there? So okay, so you’ve planted the thoughts in your subconscious mind. Let’s say that you want to buy a bungalow house, how does it end up actually manifesting to the point where you can buy a bungalow house? Well, once you have decided you want to buy a bungalow house, every time you go out and drive around, you’re going to recognize bungalows which are off to the side of the road until you finally see one which is for sale. Or you’re going to be checking online or somebody’s going to be talking about, “hey, I just saw this great bungalow go up for sale.” And immediately you’re going to be like, “oh, yeah, yeah.”
So what you’re actually doing is you’re priming your subconscious to look for these opportunities. And so that’s what I’m doing every day is I’m trying to prime my mind to look for opportunities to write well, to find new ways to promote myself, to make a larger profit or a larger revenue stream.
And how do I set my energy to high every day?
What I do is probably going to be different than what you would do or anybody who’s listening will do. But you need to find the things that put you in a positive mindset.
For me, I wake up in the morning, and before I do anything, I open up a book, which is something which is really positive. And so it’s not a Jack Ketchum book, I’ll read that a little bit later in the day. It’s probably something like a self development book, maybe some Tony Robbins, or some Brendon Burchard, or somebody like that. And I’ll just read it for about five to seven minutes.
So, all right, now I’ve got a better mindset. So I’ll take care of tasks before I do anything, before I write, before I get on with my day. Then I will sit down and I will spend at least five to 10 minutes on goal planning. So what are my long-term goals? What am I trying to do to get to a point where I want to be in 12 months from now?
So right now I’m working on some goals which are financials, some goals which are writing-based, and some goals which are just for me, personally, and who I want to be as a person.
But then I also learned about these monthly goals, and this was a Brendon Burchard trick, where you can’t always be looking long-term. How about giving yourself some near-term victories, so that you have something to charge yourself up with every single day. So that is where we came up with the concept of monthly goals.
So now I have this monthly revenue goal which I’m trying to hit in KDP. And I’m hoping that I will get there, but more than hoping, I’m coming up with a plan.
And whether I do or don’t, I’m really focused on it. But here’s where it works, and where thinking about it kind of manifests the reality. So here I am trying to come up with this monthly revenue goal and I’m trying to figure out, well, I don’t have a release again until the beginning of December. So it’s not going to come from a release. Don’t I already have enough ads running out there? What am I going to do?
So just for the heck of it, I’m going through my ads this morning, and I look far less commonly at my Australian ads and my Canadian ads than I do my American ones because it makes so much money in America.
And I’m looking at my Australian AMS dashboard, and I’m seeing that, my goodness, I’m making money hand over fist over there. Every target which I put up just seems to work. My ACOS is so low, and my CPC is just so low compared to the amount of books which I’m selling over there.
So now all of a sudden, it just hits me that if I just spend a day and come up with more keywords and more targets in that country, I’m going to suddenly sell a lot more books there. And this may be the path, or at least is going to get me a lot closer to the goal which I’m trying to set for me this month.
So always keep these things in mind. Whatever it is that you want to do, write it down, even if you write it down digitally like in a Google Doc. Write it down, look at it frequently, brainstorm ways to come up with the answer, and you’ll find a lot of times it just it just happens. It just comes to you.
Joanna: Wow, great talk there. Great pep talk for everyone. I love that. And I know you’ve got stuff on your blog about mindset as well.
But it’s interesting because you had a good mindset back when you wrote horror. But what you then did was take action on ‘this isn’t working’, which is what I admire very much about you and people who make this pivot.
I think it’s a strong move because it’s difficult to let go of some of those old series. I mean, I feel this very much, but I have multiple streams of income in other ways. But I am often thinking about this, like, maybe I should write something else. But you do have to do the research, and as you say, the mindset.
So just returning to the four hours a day, I don’t think people are believing you because you’re basically saying that you do 90 minutes writing, 45 minutes editing, like you mentioned some mindset stuff you do in the preparing.
So realistically, you’re saying you really only spend an hour a day on marketing?
Dan: I mean, there’s marketing and there’s also like just coming up with very simple things, like making sure that I have a social media post every single day, something that will at least either make my Facebook and Instagram readers laugh, or I’m trying to promote a book or something.
And I have like a ratio in the back of my mind that I always keep too, that I try to entertain my followers a lot more than I sell to them. But every month though, at least once, hitting them saying, “hey, sign up for my mailing list,” or “hey, I’ve got this new book coming up.” So yeah, that’s part of the planning.
But yeah, I’ll do a lot more with marketing — marketing and goal setting kind of, for me anyway, goes hand in hand. So like, I’ll be working on goal setting, and then I’ll be like, oh, yeah, that idea about Australia, I’m gonna go work on that. And so now, instead of like spending 15 minutes on marketing and just kind of tweaking the CPCs on my bids, now I’m like coming up with all these new ideas, and I’m into it all day.
But yeah, it ends up being about four hours. Once I’ve done marketing, and social media, writing and editing. And also there is another 15 or 20 minutes which is added into that as well, which is planning.
I’m always planning story beats for my next book, so that as soon as I finish this book, the story beats are set to go for the next book, and I don’t have to lose a day. I don’t have to lose a week coming up with a new story. Boom, I can just go again.
So a lot of that is efficiency too. I’m planning my day to make sure that I’m always writing every day. I’m always coming up with a new book. And my goal is to release a new book every four to five weeks in the year 2023. And right now, at least on my writing anyway, I’m on pace to do that.
But I need to do it for another seven, eight months to bring it to fruition. Again, it’s part of my work day, in always thinking of new ways to get ahead and stay ahead, and planning for the inevitable setbacks. There’s always going to be a setback, so I try to stay ahead of the game.
Joanna: Fantastic. Oh, you’ve shared so much. And I mean, obviously people listening, some of them might be interested in your fiction, but I think a lot more of them are interested in more of your tips.
And you do have some blog posts, but you also share quite a lot in the 20BooksTo50K group. Is that right?
Dan: Yeah, I do. Not as much as I used to, just because I’ve found social media to be just such a time suck, and it can be kind of soul-draining at times.
To be honest with you, the worst place on Earth, I think, is Twitter. There’s just so many hateful things that get said on Twitter. But for me, it’s the best place on earth, because it’s the one that you can aggregate. If you just follow the people, or you just create lists out of the people that you want to read.
So for instance, you know, I have a list of writers and entrepreneurs who I absolutely adore, and I treasure their opinions. You know, you’re one of them. I have you on a list and other people on that list, and that’s what I see when I bring up a third party app like TweetDeck, I just see that feed.
And then I have a feed of people who are our motivational types like Eric Thomas, and Tony Robbins, and Brendon Burchard and people like that. So I always have this positivity heading at me. And if anybody were too — nobody on that list would — but if anybody on that list were to say something hateful, then I would just take them off the list.
So all that bullying or racism or sexism that you hear about going on on Twitter, I never see it. And it’s wonderful. But on Facebook, I do see it. I see it a lot. And I just find it to be very soul-draining. And it makes me want to like fight back and say, “no, no, don’t say this.” But you know, that’s a waste of my time because you can’t change anybody’s opinion on social media anyway. But I just don’t want to see it.
So with Facebook, I’m almost never in my public profile anymore. I’m almost always in my author profile, and just like talking to my readers and making sure that they know what’s coming up and just keeping them entertained. Otherwise, I’m hardly ever on Facebook at all. Same thing with Instagram, I’ll show up and I’ll make a post, and then I’ll talk to the readers who I have on Instagram and respond to them.
But otherwise, I’m not like scrolling through Instagram and seeing what other people are doing because I always run into something which is hateful, eventually, if I keep scrolling or just something which is just going to waste my time. And if you want to be serious about any business endeavor, and certainly in writing, you have to say no to things. And it doesn’t have to be social media for you, but it is for me.
So where can people find you and your books online?
Dan: So I recommend that people go to my website at DanPadavona.com. You’ll not only find my books, but you will also find some advice for reader articles, which I’m almost always adding to.
And I’m throwing around the idea, you know, I’d really love to do a podcast to help other writers and just something quick that I can put out like once every week or two and just kind of help people with little tips like I shared here today. And so be looking for that too. I’ll make an announcement when I have a launch date in sight.
Today’s show is sponsored by Draft2Digital, where you can get free ebook formatting, free distribution to multiple stores, and a host of other benefits. Get your free Author Marketing Guide at draft2digital.com/penn
John Truby is the founder and director of Truby’s Writers Studio, and teaches story principles and techniques through books, courses and audio programs, as well as speaking and story consulting. He’s also the author of The Anatomy of Story. And today we’re talking about his new book,The Anatomy of Genres.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
How John became an expert on story
Defining genre — and examples from science fiction
Genre vs. Amazon Subcategories
How to transcend genre
How to successfully write cross-genre stories
Tips for editing and rewriting
The importance of advanced theme and complex plot
The future of storytelling as an immersive experience
Joanna: John Truby is the founder and director of Truby’s Writers Studio, and teaches story principles and techniques through books, courses and audio programs, as well as speaking and story consulting. He’s also the author of The Anatomy of Story. And today we’re talking about his new book, The Anatomy of Genres. So welcome to the show, John.
John: Well, thank you so much, Joanna. I can’t tell you what a thrill it is for me to be here on this podcast with you. This is one of the top podcasts in the world, and I couldn’t be happier to be here with you.
Joanna: Thanks so much.
Before we get into the meat of the book, tell us a bit more about you and how you came to be so enmeshed in the world of story.
John: It’s interesting. When I first started writing stories, there were no books I could find about how to do that, if you can imagine that. It was that long ago. So I had to be self-taught. And what I did was I read as many great novels and saw as many great films as I could over about a three-year period. And I broke them all down to see what works and what doesn’t work.
I found that about 90% of what works came from the deep story structure under the surface. So I came up with a theory of story that was based on the organic development of the hero as they move through the plot. I then translated that into specific practical techniques. I began writing my own work and helping other writers fix their work. This led to a lot of story consulting jobs, and I started getting a reputation for being really good at story.
Now, as you probably know, Hollywood is a small town. So that reputation got around very fast. And based on the techniques I was using, I decided to teach a course called The Anatomy of Story, which is also the name of my first book. By now, over 50,000 writers have taken my story courses. And those students have sold over $15 billion worth of books, films and television. The book, The Anatomy of Story, has sold over 200,000 copies worldwide in nine different languages.
Now, if I may, just to give you some background on how this new book came about, a lot of times when I talk to writers about what I do, they say, oh, I know all about story. And they say, I use three-act structure or hero’s journey or Save the Cat. And they think, that’s all I need.
Well, here’s the problem. These books are great for beginners, but they have very few practical story techniques and certainly nothing that can tell you how to write a great story at the professional level. Because remember, we’re talking about being in the top 1% of writers.
So when I wrote The Anatomy of Story, my goal was to include all the professional story techniques a writer would need in order to write a best-selling novel. But the one subject it does not cover, which is now crucial to writing a best seller, is how to write to different genres that make up 99% of popular story today.
That’s why for the last five years, I’ve been writing The Anatomy of Genres. And now that book, I’m happy to say, is finally here. And I really believe it’s going to change how writers tell their stories going forward.
Joanna: Indeed. I think I saw you speak–I don’t think I’ve told you this–I saw you speak at London Screenwriters Festival, a number of years ago now, and I came to one of your workshops. With this book, The Anatomy of Genres, I feel like we’re in the vanguard, because you’re going to be talking about this for a long time. And I’m like, yes, we’re getting it first! And as I mentioned, before we started recording, I got the copy you gave me to review, but I’ve bought it in hardback because it’s such a great textbook.
I know a lot of people listening will probably already have The Anatomy of Story, but I think this book is quite different. And I almost think it’s more practical because it’s in genres, and most of the people listening write in genres. And in fact, we know that we want to write best-selling books in genres.
Before we get into it further, let’s start with a definition.
How do you define genre? Is it just a subcategory on Amazon?
John: Well, it’s a good question. The answer to that is no. In the beginning of the book, I say that there are three rules for success and story today in every medium. And if you don’t know these rules and don’t play by them, you have no chance to succeed.
Rule number one is the storytelling business buys and sells genres. That’s their business. Now, genres are types of stories, but they’re a lot more than that. I call them the all stars of the story world. And they’ve achieved huge popular success over hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years, in the particular case of myth.
Writers who want to succeed professionally have to write the stories that the business — in other words, the publishers and the readers — want to buy.
That means the storytelling game is won by mastering the story structure of genres.
That means first of all, mastering the 15 to 20 story beats that are unique to each form. These beats must be in your story, I can’t emphasize that enough. Those 15 to 20 story beats must be in your story if you’re to tell that genre story properly. But the bottom line is genres are plot systems. They are extremely popular and writing them is how you win.
Joanna: Just on the subcategories on Amazon. So for independent authors, like myself, when we publish, we have to put a book in several subcategories, between two and 10 subcategories.
So do genres and Amazon subcategories overlap in some way? Because all our books do go into these things.
John: Absolutely. Absolutely. Some of the categories on Amazon are the major genres I talked about, but many of them are subgenres of the major genres. And I go into that in the book for each of the genres. I tell what is the main genre and then what are the most popular subgenres of that form.
Strictly speaking in Amazon, because they’re basing it on the marketing of these books, they want to break down the subgenres into his fine a distinction as possible.
The real trick in terms of writing the story is to know what your main genre is and what the main subgenre might be. Then when it comes to marketing it, that’s knowing what that book is going to work best on Amazon.
Joanna: Okay, great. So you cover loads of genres in the book. That’s why it’s a great handbook, but we can’t go into them all in this. So I thought we’d take science fiction as an example because it’s not a genre I write or really read much of. So I thought this would be super interesting.
As an example, what are some of the key elements of the science fiction genre that can help authors listening to write a better book?
John: I’m really glad you’re asking me about science fiction because it’s one of the most complex and ambitious of all genres. The chapter on science fiction is full of techniques for writing a really good one. So let me just give your listeners some overview of how science fiction really works.
Science fiction shows social and universal evolution. So it’s usually an epic, and that’s why science fiction is sometimes referred to as social philosophy in fiction form. The key question the genre asks– and every genre asks a key question which defines basically the theme– in science fiction it’s, how do you create a better world.
But to write great science fiction, we first have to get past the big misconception that a lot of science fiction writers have, which is science fiction is not about predicting the future. It’s about looking at the present world through different eyes, and then focusing on the choices we have to make now to avoid the world that will come if we don’t change.
So a lot of the techniques for writing great science fiction focus on how you set up the story world, especially the society and the technology of the story.
Now, the single biggest reason that many science fiction stories fail right off the bat, is that the writer creates this bizarre, unrecognizable, futuristic world. And what that does is it alienates the reader by making them an intellectual observer, not an emotional participant. In other words, they’re draining all the emotion out of the story, and that is a huge mistake.
So the first technique is to create a recognizable future world.
So the reader can see that it’s different from my world, but it’s still my world that we’re commenting on. Another technique: give the hero a severe weakness, and especially a moral flaw. In science fiction, often the hero’s weaknesses turn on what it means to be human. And we see this in films like Blade Runner, 2001 and Ex Machina.
Another technique: the world that you create isn’t just the future in time, it should be a new evolutionary stage. In other words, the society is a new vision of how the individual connects to the society. So for example, in The Matrix, society has moved to a new stage where machines rule and create this fake human world to keep people enslaved.
Now to transcend science fiction, which I talk about in every genre, this is the key to setting yourself apart from the crowd, to set yourself apart from everybody else who is writing in that form, you can’t just do a big adventure story. No, you have to focus on how to make a new world. And you can see right there how ambitious the science fiction form is because that’s massive.
You have to give a new vision of how the world works and how it can grow. This means at some point in the story, the hero must have a cosmic revelation.
One last point on science fiction: transcending this form almost always involves combining it with myth or horror.
And in the book, in the section of each chapter where I talk about how to transcend, often you transcend by connecting with another form, by creating some kind of hybrid. And in science fiction, some examples of science fiction plus myth are The Foundation Trilogy,Star Wars, 2001, Interstellar, The Stars My Destination and Arrival.
Combining science fiction with horror, the greatest examples are Frankenstein, Ex Machina, and Westworld.
Joanna: And Alien. Surely, Alien.
John: Alien is primarily a horror story. It’s a horror story in space. But yes, it is a combination of horror and science fiction. And I mentioned Alien quite a bit in the horror chapter.
Joanna: It’s so interesting. And you talked there about transcending the genre, which I think is really interesting.
But I did want to circle back to what you mentioned earlier about story beats. So some people might not know what story beats are. You’ve mentioned they’re the sort of bigger things that you have to tackle within a science fiction book or in a particular genre.
How do the story beats fit into these bigger aspects?
Like you mentioned a moral flaw for the hero, but how does that work with the story beats that are expected within a genre? Just give us a couple of examples within science fiction.
John: Absolutely. It’s a great question because it is so important to distinguish story beats, plot beats, from tropes. This is a mistake I see writers making all the time. They think writing in their particular genre is all about, “I grab a few tropes from this form and I put them together and I have a good story.” Absolutely not.
People use the term story beat all the time. What a story beat is, is it’s a plot event with major structural importance. And the reason that genres work the way they do, and the reason why you have to know your genre and transcend your genre to be successful, is that a genre is first and foremost a plot system.
It is a sequence of plot beats, story beats, that connect together and allow you to build a story from beginning through middle to the end.
So if you’re not working with all of the plot beats of that genre, as I mentioned, each genre has 15 to 20 plot beats that are already predetermined, and so if you don’t hit them, then you’re going to have readers of that genre, be very unhappy with you.
For example, I sometimes give the example in a love story, in a romance, if you fail to have the first dance, your romance readers are going to be really unhappy with you. So you have to hit these beats. And this gets into the third rule from when I was mentioning about the three major rules that you have to follow.
The third rule is you have to transcend those beats. In other words, you can’t just hit the plot beats. That’s necessary, but not sufficient in any way. You have to transcend them. And transcending means two things.
One, you twist the beats, you do them in a different way, or you do them in a different order than they’re normally seen.
And the other way that you transcend, is you express the deeper life philosophy that each genre has because genres are not only plot systems.
That’s what most writers understand, they understand that these are different kinds of plots. What they don’t understand is that genres are also theme systems.
Theme is what brings the reader back again, and again. It’s the theme that the reader loves.
Because readers who love romance novels, for example, they know what those beats are. They may not put a name to them, but they know what those beats are.
So you’re not going to surprise them with the plot. What you’re going to do is reaffirm the values that that theme, that life philosophy, and that genre expresses. Because that’s the life philosophy that they want to live their life by, and that they try to live their life by.
Joanna: And I know that some people, myself included, we can sometimes feel like we do not want to be hemmed in, and it feels like that. It’s like, well, you’re saying these are sort of predetermined story things we have to hit, story beats or whatever, and we have to hit those in order to be successful.
And yet we come up with these stories, and maybe they don’t quite fit. To be fair, I have not written like a blockbuster novel or a movie, so that could be the reason why!
How do we keep these things in place as a structure, but also use our originality so that we don’t feel like we’re hemmed in?
John: It’s exactly what I was just saying in terms of transcending. Because if you just hit those beats, you’re doing what everybody else is doing, and that is generic writing. I mean, to use the word genre, generic writing is the worst thing you can do. So you absolutely don’t want to be hemmed in by it.
At the same time, you have to hit those beats, otherwise, it’s not that genre. And so what do you do?
You have to find a way to be creative with the beats that you have.
And that’s why I said, it is absolutely essential that you take a genre story that is more or less familiar to your readers, but you do it in such a way that they’ve never seen before.
You do it either by flipping what happens in the beat or you do it by changing the order. And changing the order of beats is a huge thing. It’s really, really powerful because in the back of the readers mind, they not only know the beats, they know how those beats are going to build, they know how they’re going to sequence.
So if you play with that sequence, you totally short-circuit their expectations. And they love it. That’s what they want you to do because what you’re basically doing is you’re letting them have their cake and eat it too. You let them have the beats that they love so much, but you also do it in such a way they’ve never seen before. So I liken it to the analogy, “you still got the structure, but you’ve added new skin on top.”
Joanna: Exactly. And it’s so interesting, isn’t it? Because when you break it down, you think, “oh, yeah, like 20 beats. Yeah, I can write that.” And then it’s the bit on top of that that becomes difficult.
I wanted to ask you, so from the book, you say, “mixing genres is tougher than it looks.” And as I read that I was like, yeah, I have to ask you about that, because I write cross-genre, I read cross-genre, and I write that way, and that’s what I want. But it does seem much easier to sell clear-genre stories.
“Mixing genres is tougher than it looks.” How can we successfully write cross-genre?
John: Well, it is tricky. And if you don’t know how to write it, you’re going to get story chaos. And a lot of writers when they try to mix genres, this is rule number two, that the most successful stories in every medium are a mix of two to four genres.
So when writers tried to do that, they don’t know what they’re doing, and so they end up with story chaos. They have too many heroes, too many opponents, too many desire lines, too many story spines, and so on and so forth.
So the solution is to choose a primary genre because that gives you your main hero, your main opponent, it gives you a single desire line, it gives you the primary plot beats, and it gives you the main thing.
Then what you do is you add the beats from the other genres, but only when they work with the main genres. So if they contradict a beat from the main genre — and one reason that genres are different from each other is their story beats sometimes are in direct opposition to each other. So when that occurs, you don’t include the beat from the genre that you’re adding because you always want to keep the plot beats of the main genre first.
Another benefit of choosing a primary genre is marketing because it lets the readers identify your main category of fiction.
And as you point out, that’s easier to sell. So notice what you’re doing. You’re mixing multiple genres when you write the story, but you’re selling just one.
Joanna: That’s such a challenge. So interesting that you mentioned story chaos. I love that. I think that’s a great phrase. And I often talk about my process as ‘wrangling the chaos’ in terms of the initial story.
You mentioned a few things there, like simplifying with a protagonist and an opponent and stuff.
If we find ourselves in story chaos, like we’ve “lost the plot” as the adage goes, how can we get ourselves out of it?
So I’m thinking of people listening, maybe they’ve got like 100,000 words, or 70,000 words or something, and they’re looking at it going, this is story chaos. How would you, as a story consultant, how would you fix that? What do you advise people to do?
John: Well, first of all, Joanna, I see this all the time. And it comes from typically, that when they first start writing, they didn’t do the kind of prep work upfront that was necessary to give them a single spine. And that’s really what you’re looking for.
I mean, there are all of the techniques that I could mention in terms of fixing that story, but it all comes down to the spine. The spine is the desire line of the hero. What does the hero want? You want that to be very specific.
When I talk about rewriting, in The Anatomy of Story class and book, I talked about the fact that there’s a dirty little secret that most writers don’t want to talk about, which is that typically, the second draft is worse than the first. And it’s very depressing for people. And they think, I might as well give up right now.
One of the reasons for that is they don’t know how to rewrite. And it’s a specific set of skills, just as character is a set of skills, plot is a set of skills, and you have to learn how to do it. And the first rule of rewriting is don’t do what most writers do, which is they go to the first scene and they start reading through it and rewriting that scene. No, no! It’s the last thing you do.
The first thing you do is you fix the structure of the story.
And you do that by looking at the two endpoints of the story: the beginning and the end. 90% of the problems that are in your story are found in the first few pages, in the setup to the story.
And what do I mean by the setup to the story? Those are the pages where you set up the first major structure step of the story, which is the hero’s weakness. That’s what you’re really solving for, their internal flaw, followed immediately by the desire line. What do they want in this story? You want it to be as specific as possible.
Then you go to the endpoint of your story to the self-revelation. What is it that the character learns about themselves at the end of the story that fixes the weakness that they started off with?
Once you get those three things correct, and you focus and make sure that those are right, those two endpoints on the spine, then everything else will fall into place. You will see exactly what is not working and why.
Joanna: Yes, and it’s not grammar and typos, which is what for some reason people obsess over.
Joanna: So it’s so interesting. I’ve written like pages of notes, and I read the book, and I’ve got it coming in print as well. This is great.
I did want to come back to theme. You did mention theme before.
But again, in the book, you say,
“The crucial strategy in writing today is advanced theme expressed through complex plot. Genres are the vehicle for doing that. This isn’t one way to succeed, it’s the only way.”
Which is pretty strong. So you mention kind of theme, but this talks about advanced theme.
What is advanced theme and how can we use that? Just give us a couple of examples.
John: Sure. Let me just give people the background on this because theme is probably the most misunderstood element of great story. So advanced theme is what each genre is really about.
Now, most writers are afraid of theme. They think it’s the old classic Goldwyn line, which is, “if you want to send a message, send it Western Union.” So they don’t want to preach to the audience which is good. So what do they do? They avoid theme altogether. That is a big mistake because it prevents them from telling a great story.
So what is theme? Theme is the author’s view of how to live successfully in the world. And when it’s done through the genre beats of the story, not preaching in the dialogue, it has tremendous power.
And that’s why in each chapter of the book, the first half explains those specialized genre beats of the form, in other words, the plot sequence. And the second half explains the deeper theme or the philosophy of life that the genre expresses.
Now, each life philosophy contains a massive amount of wisdom that that genre can impart to the reader. But first, you the writer, you have to know what that life philosophy is. And fact is, no one has ever done a book like this in story. And that’s why I think this book is going to totally change how writers work in every medium.
Because the second half of each chapter, and as you know, this is very dense and very detailed stuff, but the entire second half of each chapter is about how do you express the theme of that genre under the surface through the structure instead of preaching to the audience.
Joanna: It’s interesting that you say not preaching to the audience. And of course, that implies like a long monologue about something. But in some of the story structure books, there’s a thing where the theme is stated at a particular point, like the hero will say something where they are stating the theme.
Should theme be spelled out somewhere, or is it all done through action and subtext and plot?
John: I personally believe that 80% to 90% of the theme should be expressed through the structure. Because as soon as you put the theme into dialogue in someone’s mouth, the audience, the reader, these are people who have seen thousands of stories, as soon as you do that, they back out. They say, “I don’t want to hear that.” Right? They want to be lured in.
So that’s why it’s so important to do most of it through the story structure, through those plot beats. However, that being said, one of the marks of great writing is to have some theme expressed in dialogue. But it’s only when you have it on a foundation of expressing the theme through the structure.
Because what are we saying? It’s the old thing of you are what you do. Actions speak louder than words. If you want the audience to really get a sense of what this story is really about, and it’s about how to live, you want to lure them in through an exciting plot. And then once you got them there, then you can add some thematic lines to the dialogue.
Joanna: It’s so funny, because I mean, I’ve been writing fiction now for over a decade (as J.F. Penn.) And I feel like at the beginning when you write your first novel, you think you can learn everything. And then you get to a point when you realize you can never learn everything. There’s always more to learn, and it’s interesting.
So The Anatomy of Story, many people use as a blueprint. And now The Anatomy of Genres, I’m sure many people will do that, too. But you’ve taught tens of thousands of students, and not all of them are successful.
What sets apart the successful storytellers from the failed ones, of the people who’ve used your methods? Because to me, it’s like, I can take your books, but if I follow them exactly, I’m still not going to be in the top 1%.
What sets the most successful storytellers apart? How can we be that top 1% of storytellers?
John: Yes, again, great question. In my opinion, the reason most writers don’t get to that bestseller status is because they don’t know the story techniques that best-selling authors use. And they often think they know, as I mentioned, they read these books that I mentioned right at the beginning, but those are not professional techniques. That’s the big distinction.
In my experience, the biggest difference, and this belief has been heightened incredibly in the last 10 years because of trends in storytelling in every medium in the last 10 to 15 years. The biggest difference between the top 1% of professional writers and everybody else is the ability to create complex plot. And what separates the top 0.1% of professional writers from everyone else is the ability to also express advanced theme.
Again, that’s why I wrote the book because it tells writers exactly how to express advanced themes through complex plot. Both of these elements, theme and plot, are misunderstood. And in the case of plot, highly underestimated. Most writers, when they think about telling their story, they know the importance of character and character change, and the importance of tight dialogue and so on.
When it comes to plot, they think, “well, I’ll just figure that out as I go.” And that is the worst thing you can do. Because plot has more techniques to being able to write a complex or a great plot than all other stories skills combined. And most writers simply don’t know what those techniques are.
Joanna: Can you just address literary fiction as well? Because I can hear people listening who are like, “yeah, but I write literary fiction. I don’t write science fiction or horror, or whatever.”
What about literary fiction? How does this relate to that? Because it’s not known as plot heavy, really.
John: Exactly. And that is the biggest challenge you have when you write literary fiction.
Now, what some writers of literary fiction do is they have a very anti-plot idea. And this, by the way, is about 150 years old. We went through a major emphasis on plot with writers like Dickens and Dumas. And then from then on, there was a slow but steady decline in terms of the importance that writers put on plot.
We had this idea of anti-plot, that we would purposely try to have as little plot as possible. Now, there are some advantages to that, but there are very severe disadvantages to it as well. And I believe that one of the best techniques for a writer of literary fiction is put some plot in there, get some plot in there.
Now, it’s difficult to do in literary fiction. Why? Because of the story structure. The story structure in literary fiction, and why literary fiction is not included in this book, is because technically speaking, it’s not a genre. It is a level, it is a quality of story. But if you were to look at stories that we normally think of as literary fiction, they are typically personal dramas.
Typically we have a main character, and typically the opposition is within the family, or it’s with characters who act like a family. And drama is a very large category of stories, but the problem with writing them is that drama does not have these landmarks, these guideposts. It does not have a predetermined hero or predetermined opponent and so on and so forth.
Now, writers of literary fiction say, “that’s why I write it because I don’t want to have those kinds of prefab things.” And that’s great, but the problem is coming up with a plot that will engage the reader enough to get across those larger elements of theme and character that you want to express.
Joanna: I think you’re right there. I mean, I read a lot of horror, and horror is often a standalone story. And a lot of the books I read are literary horror, like they really are incredible quality writing in a story that technically fits in horror. And of course, there’s plenty of examples of that. So I agree with you there. I think that’s brilliant.
John: Joanna, you bring up a great point right there, which is the main technique — you know, I go through in each chapter how exactly how you transcend that particular genre — but the main technique overall for transcending any genre is to combine the plot beats of the genre with drama techniques.
And so what you just described, like high-level horror, that’s probably somebody who took the horror form and added drama elements, literary fiction elements, and kicked it up to a higher level. That combination is probably the best combination for telling a story that is both a popular and critical success.
Joanna: Hmm, which is a rare thing indeed. So, we’re almost out of time.
You end the book with a glimpse into the future of storytelling and talk about an immersive experience where the story comes to life, potentially in virtual reality or in other ways.
And you say the audience will interact with the story at every degree. And in a way that’s exciting, and in a way that’s kind of scary. How can we create in a way that might enable this kind of adaptation?
John: Well, we’re definitely moving toward a complete interconnection between life and story, in my opinion. And I believe that’s a good thing because the more story informs our lives, the more we can make a life we want to live. And I believe story is the key to doing that.
So we’re moving toward what I call in the book, “a complete storyfication.” I made up a word there, storyfication of the world.
Now, to your question, the way writers allow the reader to interact with the story at every degree is to create a story structure and a story world where all the genres exist simultaneously, or as many genres as work for that particular story idea. And that allows the story to move in a number of different directions, which the audience reader cannot predict. It allows them to identify with characters depending on which genre that main character represents.
And by the way, we’re seeing this not just in theme parks, and VR and so on, which you know, that’s all about going as immersive as possible. But you’re even seeing this in film, novels and television, and especially television, which is one of the things I talked about in the book, is we have lived through two major revolutions in story in our lives.
The first is the revolution of television becoming an art form, to the degree that it is now far surpassed film as the place where the best stories are told. The other major revolution that we’re seeing that I talk about in the myth story, is the emergence of the female myth, which has been gone from our culture for 3000 years. It’s coming back strong and it’s coming back fast.
The point is, that when you set up stories that have various genres as part of the main storyline, and in TV especially you’re going to see this because of the serial story structure that they use, which of course is based on Dickens, then you’re going to be able to do these multi-line stories, with multiple main characters, each representing a different genre and telling a different type of story, which the reader will then be able to hook into in various ways.
Joanna: As you were talking now, I was thinking of Game of Thrones, the TV show. I tried the books, I read a couple of them, and I think the TV show was fantastic. And like you said, it actually has all the genres. I mean, on one level, it’s fantasy, but the romance is very strong, obviously it’s thriller, it’s horror. It’s got everything. I don’t know about science fiction. But, you’re right, these big things that hit.
I mean, Harry Potter is another great example where we can see ourselves in the different characters and there’s elements of all these different stories. I mean, George R.R. Martin, in particular, has had a very long career, and a lot of it was a failure. And then he created this world that has become so evocative, and obviously has made him very, very rich.
Is this something we can learn over a career? Or is it something that just sometimes happens by luck and timing?
For JK Rowling, it was her first series. Do you think it is luck? How much does luck play in this compared to preparation?
John: There is zero luck involved in that. Now, obviously, you can’t control whether something you write will be popular. And of course, she’s famous for having the Harry Potter stories turned down by everybody initially. As was Star Wars, for example. These stories are legendary.
But in terms of when you look at what they’re doing and you break down what they’ve done structurally and in terms of genres, that is totally figured out from the beginning. And it’s just they’re really brilliant at mixing genres. I talked in the first chapter of the book how Star Wars started this whole thing in every medium, this mixed-genre world that we live in. There are four major genres in Star Wars, and what the studios and publishers realized when Star Wars came out was that we’re living in a multi-genre story world now. And if you want to hit a worldwide audience, that’s what you do.
Harry Potter has four major genres in it. And there is no question in my mind that JK Rowling put those together with foresight, knowing exactly how she wanted to do that in the story world that she created.
Game of Thrones is exactly the same way. You can’t get that kind of multi-thread storylines, with multiple heroes and over 150 major characters, unless you’ve got that thing really figured out ahead of time, both in terms of not just the plot and the characters, but in terms of how you’re going to weave those genres.
So I absolutely believe that people can learn it, and that’s why I wrote this book.
Joanna: And it is an excellent book, as I’ve said. I’m getting it in hard copy when it comes out. I definitely will be using it.
So tell people where they can find you and your books and courses online.
John: Great. For the book, just go to anatomyofgenres.com. That’s one word, anatomyofgenres.com. And for courses in stories and software, just go to truby.com. And whatever your genre is, whatever your story preference might be, we’ve got courses and software to help you do that.
Joanna: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, John. That was great.
John: Joanna, thank you. It’s been a real pleasure to be here with you.
“We are the quiet street hours before doors open. / We are the first words, and the parting ones.” John Keene reads “Pulse” and other poems from his National Book Award–winning collection Punks: New & Selected Poems (The Song Cave, 2021), for this 92NY reading with Sharon Olds, author most recently of Balladz (Knopf, 2022). Keene and Olds are introduced by poets Dante Micheaux and Omotara James.
As 2022 winds to a close, give your writing one last chance to shine this year by submitting to contests with deadlines of December 15 and December 30. Awards include a seven-month residency at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts; a weeklong residency at Millay Arts in Austerlitz, New York; publication of poetry and nonfiction books; and $3,000 for a published debut novel. All contests offer a cash prize of $500 or more. We wish you success, writers!
Center for Book Arts Poetry Chapbook Contest A prize of $500 and letterpress publication by the Center for Book Arts is given annually for a poetry chapbook. The winner will also receive 10 copies of their chapbook and an additional $500 to give a reading with the contest judge at the Center for Book Arts in New York City in fall 2023, and a free weeklong residency at Millay Arts in Austerlitz, New York, during the Wintertide Rustic Retreat. Deadline: December 15. Entry fee: $30.
Codhill Press Pauline Uchmanowicz Poetry Award A prize of $1,000, publication by Codhill Press, and 25 author copies is given annually for a poetry collection. James Sherwood will judge. All entries are considered for publication. Deadline: December 30. Entry fee: $30.
Essay Press/University of Washington Bothell Book Contest A prize of $1,000 and publication by Essay Press will be given annually for lyric essays, prose poems, and works of experimental biography and autobiography that “challenge the formal possibilities of prose.” The winner will also be invited to read at the University of Washington Bothell in downtown Seattle; all travel expenses will be covered. Collaborative, digital, and hybridized work, including text and art, are eligible. Deadline: December 15. Entry fee: $20 (or $25 to receive a copy of a previous or forthcoming Essay Press book).
Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown Writing Fellowships Fellowships for a seven-month residency at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, are given annually to four poets and four fiction writers who have not published a full-length book in any genre. Each fellowship includes a private apartment, a monthly stipend of $1,000, and an exit stipend of $1,000. Deadline: December 15. Entry fee: $50.
Longleaf Press Book Contest A prize of $1,000, publication by Longleaf Press, and 25 author copies will be given annually for a poetry collection. The winner will also be invited to give a virtual reading in early 2024. Roger Weingarten, Longleaf’s editor in chief, will judge. Deadline: December 15. Entry fee: $27.
Story Story Foundation Prize A prize of $1,500 and publication in Story is given annually for a short story. Deadline: December 15. Entry fee: $25 (which includes a subscription to Story).
Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell First Novelist Award A prize of at least $3,000 is given annually for a debut novel published during the current year. The winner and two additional guest panelists (usually the winner’s agent and editor) also receive lodging and travel expenses to attend the First Novelist Award event night at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in fall 2023. A committee of VCU faculty and MFA candidates will judge. Deadline: December 30: Entry fee: none.
Visit the contest websites for complete guidelines, and check out the Grants & Awards database and Submission Calendar for more contests in poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and translation.
In this Books Are Magic event, Ada Calhoun reads from her memoir Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me (Grove Press, 2022) and discusses her writing process, New York City, and parenting with Emma Straub.
In “Finding Comfort and Escape in Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” published on Literary Hub, A. Cerisse Cohen writes about the impact the iconic cookbook had on her relationship with cooking during the pandemic when she moved from New York City to Missoula, Montana. Cohen not only discovers that “bad food is often the result of impatience,” but also finds a transformational lesson behind the patient, careful labor behind Hazan’s dishes indicating to her the many ways through which people take care of one another. Write an essay about your relationship to cooking and the impact it has had on other aspects of your life. Are there lessons you’ve learned from preparing an ambitious dish?
“This whole thing has been a great big fat lesson in just be yourself.” In this Center for Fiction event, Dawn Winter talks about writing her debut novel, Sedating Elaine (Knopf, 2022), with her editor Jenny Jackson, vice president and executive editor at Knopf.
As November ends and December begins, decorations make their appearance on storefronts, front lawns, stoops, and avenues while classic tunes play over loudspeakers marking the start of the holiday season. While some get into the holiday spirit early, others start lamenting the packed department stores, crowded city streets, and nonstop cheer. Inspired by the “most wonderful time of the year,” write a story in which a character is tormented by the start of the holiday season. Do all the twinkling lights and festivities bring about bitter memories?
In this interview for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, George Saunders speaks about his latest story collection, Liberation Day (Random House, 2022), and the need to be in a “holy state of not knowing anything” when starting a new writing project. Liberation Day is featured in Page One in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.
“For a time I believed / myself in love with Orpheus, which only meant I loved // what I could make if I were free from what happened to my body.” In this reading from the 2022 Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam, Safia Elhillo reads “Orpheus” from her poetry collection Girls That Never Die (One World, 2022). For more from Elhillo, read her installment of our Ten Questions series.