BIG IDEAS, DEAD PETS
A “reloaded” double-barreled interview, once again featuring Amazon bestselling authors TJ Brearton (The Titan Trilogy, Dark Web) and Taylor Adams (Eyeshot, Our Last Night) as they share their unique perspectives on the creative process. Two writers, one dialogue.
Taylor Adams (TA): First question: Which part of the writing/rewriting process do you find to be the most enjoyable? Why?
TJ Brearton (TJB): I saw a meme encapsulating the creative process, about the stages you go through with a project, and it went something like: “(At first) This is amazing stuff! … (Later) Hmm, this might be tricky, gonna need some work … (Even Later) This is horrible, utter crap, I hate it … (Later still) Okay this might be salvageable … (Finally) This is amazing stuff!”
I guess I like the whole process…almost. I like the rough draft, and I like the polishing once the story is all there. And there are moments, nice breakthroughs when working on the story in-between that feel good. But that middle part, that valley of darkness, though – who likes that? That period you feel like you are gonna go insane, because nothing’s working, and all the doubts are crowding you. I would never really make a comparison to pregnancy…but okay I’m going to make a comparison to pregnancy. I think the whole thing is like a pregnancy, and there’s that moment where you’re between a rock and a hard place. You don’t want to go on but you can’t stop. That’s not the most enjoyable part.
TA: I know that meme! I remember seeing it and thinking, “Huh, that’s really accurate.” The story is intoxicating and full of promise when you start to write it, and it’s satisfying to finally have a workable, finished MS to send the publisher, but the months in between? Dark, dark times, full of self-doubt and f***ing plot holes.
TJB: Hahaha – dark times and f***ing plot holes. Well said. There’s always that terror of showing up to school naked.
I wish it was always intoxicating. I think maybe there’s a tendency after doing this a while to look ahead, try and preempt those plot holes, and that can lead to second-guessing. And as you’ve said before, that crappy rough draft is totally necessary. Maybe it kind of has to be free to be a bit crappy.
Do you keep a notebook beside your bed / in the car / in your back pocket to snag ideas as you’re working through a story, or some other form of note-taking, or do you keep it in your head? Reasons for one or the other?
TA: Yes, I definitely have to jot down my thoughts as I go, on scratch paper, notepads, or even Word docs. I have dozens of Gmail “saved drafts” of ideas that have occurred to me while at work. I like to write these down because (A) I’ll forget them if I don’t, and (B) it can be refreshing to review old notes for inspiration. Sometimes the pieces click together in unexpected ways.
Next question: What attracts you to crime/mystery/horror fiction? Any other genres you’d like to someday try writing on a lark?
TJB: I think even when I was writing some of my earliest stuff which ranged from horror to experimental and sci-fi, there was a detective / crime element. I had this one storyline that was maybe going to be a serial, and there was this guy in the future who was a cowboy slash detective and his sidekick was a cyborg. I was fifteen or so, I guess. That’s maybe when all that good shit was getting into my brain, books like The Gunslinger and movies like Robocop.
So I guess what attracts me, still, is what got in there when I was younger. I think there’s some good utility to the detective / crime story, too. You’re investigating as a writer, the detective is investigating a crime, so there’s a nice parallel there.
I’d like to try literary fiction. Have a story that just goes where it does, that’s about people, life. But I’ve also got some more sci-fi ideas. Though I don’t really think of them as sci-fi, but just “likely future.”
You’ve been writing something in the horror genre, is that correct? You mentioned something in our last discussion I thought was very cool, how you have to establish normalcy first and then let the wrecking ball whistle through. Could you elaborate on that?
TA: Definitely! Although Our Last Night turned out to be less horror-ish than I’d originally envisioned. It’s still got the expected paranormal elements, and a few nastier scenes push for “scary,” but overall, it’s more of a supernatural thriller/romance.
But returning to your question – I think horror takes a lot of narrative time to grow. There needs to be a sense of normalcy – of what everyday life is in this universe – for the Very Bad Things to contrast with. The audience has to spend some time on the Nostromo before Ridley Scott’s Alien starts stomping around and eating faces. At least that’s how I’d define “horror” – a slow burn; a gradually escalating sense of dread, punctuated by occasional bursts of terror. You have to delay the payoff, which runs a bit contrary to my instincts as an action/thriller writer.
And that’s the thing – as I wrote and rewrote Our Last Night, I realized that it wasn’t really fitting my (admittedly arbitrary) definition of “horror.” Despite all the ghosts and gore, it’s really just a fractured little love story about two people learning to cope with death. If readers find it to be scary – well, that’s a nice bonus. So one of the big lessons I learned here is how much you really discover the story as you write it. Hell, I didn’t even have the right genre.
Next question: Do you start out with an idea of how each story will end? Do you let it surprise you? Do you experiment with alternate endings?
TJB: That’s great. I love all that. First, Alien – totally agree with you. What’s interesting there is that the movie was rejected at first, Scott really had to struggle to get it made. People looked at the script and said, “Uhm, nothing happens for 45 minutes.” But it’s so good. You have to be willing to grant your audience that intelligence. Now, I say that, but you know as well as I do that when you get the feedback on your books, and you read things like “Had me hooked from the beginning!” – that means something, too.
And I just wanted to speak to your new novel, you know, I’ve even heard Stephen King say he “flounders” at the beginning of a story. Not that you’re floundering, I don’t mean that. I just think it’s great to acknowledge that at first, you’re telling yourself the story. And it’s not always what you think it’s going to be, and we need to allow for that, as well as the possibility of floundering at the beginning – which I’m doing, right now, getting a new one off the ground. So maybe I’m just projecting on you. Yes, probably.
So I guess that rolls into your question? Do I start with an idea of how each story will end? Yes and no. When I wrote Habit I knew the climax. I opened the book with it, then jumped back in time, and took the reader from two weeks before up to that moment. But I didn’t know how the detective was going to make it all work, and I didn’t know the real story behind it all, machinating it all. That was discovered.
If by “experiment” with alternate endings you mean: write an ending, realize it totally sucks, and chuck it, then yes. I do that a lot. I keep massaging through the story, and that bears out different outcomes, and then I know. Well, I don’t know until the very language rings true – or as close to truth as possible.
Now I’m going to hop tracks: I’m curious about how other writers deal with their book being out there, and anticipation of sales, and ranking, and ratings – how often do you check Amazon stats? How much time do you say you spend thinking about selling the book, and how has that, if at all, affected the way you approach new writing – meaning, if you got a taste of success with Eyeshot, what are your expectations for your next novel?
TA: I tell myself not to check Amazon and Goodreads – but then I do. It’s cool to see the numbers rise and fall, and the hundreds of reviews cover the spectrum from “best book ever” to “worst book ever.” But I’ve also caught myself becoming addicted to it, which can be distracting. The feedback is valuable, but it’s not my job to second-guess myself – it’s my job to write.
And it’s strange how success changes your personal metrics. A year or two ago, my sole aim was to get published. I gave zero thought to what I would do afterward. Now I’m published with a successful small press, still enjoying strong sales, and it’s kind of a “now what?” moment. I literally did not have a plan for this. But I’ll just keep writing, and hopefully I can continue to please readers (and my bank account). Working on Our Last Night was a little nerve-wracking for that reason. It’s a very different story from Eyeshot – riskier, weirder, more ambiguous – so I hope I don’t disappoint readers expecting another clear-cut action/thriller.
Next question: Over your books, do you find yourself repeating themes and ideas? Have you noticed returning favorite phrases or stylistic choices? I ask because apparently, it’s physically impossible for me to write a book that doesn’t somehow reference dinosaurs.
TJB: Hahaha. Oh definitely. There are definitely recurring themes and ideas. I mean, addiction is probably a big one. But there are more…I guess I don’t want to talk about them as they probably bring enough attention to themselves as it is (assuming there are unique readers who have read more than one of my books).
I totally hear you about telling yourself not to check stats and then checking them anyway. It’s a mental battle. So much of this is like golf – not that I play – but that you really are playing against yourself. Familiar ground for an addict, for sure. But challenging for anybody. Seeing those five star reviews definitely rings some neural bells, and begs for a repeat experience.
I think, maybe, sometimes, you have to just step away. That’s a battle, too, if you’re determined to making writing a primary livelihood. I’ve done it – and this is the scariest part – I know there’s no guarantee it will last. And it’s a lot of pressure to put on something so sensitive, so stubborn, as the muse is, as writing is.
I had a question set aside for you, and it may be apropos, or maybe we each already answered it. I’ll leave it to you: Do you think your personality is suited to the life of a writer? Why or why not?
TA: I’m not sure I really have a choice, as I’ve been writing ever since I could hold a crayon. But I think my personality is fairly well-suited to the bizarre life of a writer. I like to spend time alone, I don’t really like to travel any further than I can drive, and I’m an obsessive perfectionist. I’m fascinated by good storytelling (in any format, from web articles to video games) and love to pick it apart and see what makes it work.
I’ve also got a short attention span, which I used to fear would hold me back as an author. Now that I’m published, I think it’s both a strength and a weakness. Both Eyeshot and Our Last Night are relatively short works, with brisk prose, small casts, and stories contained within a few hours. Part of it is my own narrative style (I believe simplicity is power), but throughout the process I’m quick to discard details or entire backstories if I believe there’s the slightest chance that someone, somewhere will yawn. So far, this impulse has served me well, but I’m sure all of that thrown-out bathwater has contained at least a few babies.
The life of a writer – itself – is kind of strange to me, though, and maybe that’s because of my personality. As I’m a fairly private person, it’s still a little surreal to see my name and photo floating around in the public domain. But the upside? Being contacted by enthusiastic fans is rewarding, and reminds me how lucky I am. Comfort zones can smother us, so I’m glad to be a little outside of mine.
Moving forward – this is such a good question, in fact, that I’d like to throw it back to you. How does your personality compliment or conflict with your life as a writer?
TJB: Man, babies flying out windows in sprays of bathwater, darlings being killed left and right, backstories hacked to smithereens – writing is a cruel and brutal business, I don’t know if people realize.
Yeah, it’s a big question.
I always wrote, but I did quite a few other things, too. Not to get into the boring backstory stuff, so we’ll just say I’ve been a factotum. And then when the writing thing started to pan out, I thought, “all that other shit I was doing, it was just because I was a writer, and I was having experiences,” and yadda yadda.
I often get lost in a complex idea, throwing everything at the stories, with timeframes often spanning weeks or more, sometimes years, multiple POVs, and I can never seem to not aim for the biggest plot possible. When I was younger I was working on screenplays and my buddy said to me: “Dude, your stories don’t always have to be about everything.” I think I even wrote “God” as a character in a script once. It makes me laugh now, but part of my brain is still like, “Well, duh, yeah, of course.” Like, what’s the point otherwise? But I TOTALLY see the wisdom in the stories that are stripped down – you said simplicity is power, which I think is smart. And I’ve learned that you just have to whisper, you don’t have to shout. But I still play with pretty big ideas, and I think I always will. I just carve and carve and carve.
Like you, I do like my solitude – or, I should say, I don’t mind it when I get it – and I’m not a big traveler, I don’t do much frivolity. I do think it’s pretty univocal that writers have to be content being alone, that you have to sequester yourself somewhat.
I think the difference in personality shows up not just in the content, but are revealed in how the work is approached. They say, “Writing is rewriting,” or, maybe even “Rewriting is writing.” I know there are writers who can easily tally their discrete drafts. I’m sort of in this camp. But there are others who really are revising as they go along. I read about one writer – and I can’t recall her name right now – who says she really has no idea how many “drafts” she writes, because she’s really just revising the whole time, and it’s one big fluid thing.
And just to add one last thing about recurring themes or motifs, about personality: The works of Richard Price are permeated with social issues. And the story I heard about Price is that, at one point, he was challenged – either by someone else or maybe by himself – to stray from the sort of stuff he was doing, crimes that evoked larger social justice issues – and just write something stripped down, real “genre,” and see if he could pull it off. He even adopted a pseudonym – Harry Brant. He told his editor or his agent it was only going to take him four to six months to bang it out, and then he wrote this thing… and it took four years – par for him – and ended up being another book where he found he just wrote like he always wrote, the only way he could, imbued with this greater socioeconomic sensibility. So, I guess we’re sort of pathological this way. I think personality informs the work, but there is no personality that’s better than another. You might be predisposed to brevity, and find your writing takes similar shape. Or you may be loquacious, and/or you may be attracted to larger social issues (another Richard, Richard Wright, said “all literature is protest”), and that is how you work. I think the universal thing, is that it is, after all “story.” And I believe people find, the older we get, the less we can say is true, and the more we realize there are just stories. Still, that hunt for truth is human. I think all writers, to some extent or another, have it, and it shows in their work.
TA: Yes! That’s a really interesting point, and ties nicely with our discussion. I think we’re all at the mercy of our own unique voices, and trying to change ourselves, like your example with Richard Price, can be futile (or worse, result in crap).
Genre aside, I think we follow our favorite artists because something about their voice – Stephen King’s mastery of the bizarre, for example – makes their writing fascinating, whatever the plot or characters may be. Often I pick a book based on who wrote it, not what the blurb says. And after all, as authors, we should write the kind of material that we’d personally enjoy reading, or the whole creation process feels… well, kind of dishonest. Readers recognize passion when they see it, and like I said earlier, it’s not our job to second-guess ourselves. I know that if I tried to write a sweet, cheerful romantic-comedy, it would still have at least one dead pet. Why fight it? It’s what makes us who we are.
Unique voices make us who we are, I mean. Not dead pets.