Key points: Beware pigeonholes! You can get a lot farther by writing what people think they want than just pushing what you want. Write what you want, but do it in such a way that people think it's something else! Be open to trying new things. Pick difficult things. Pick things outside your comfort zone. Stretch as a writer! Fulfill your creative jollies in a lot of media. Find the best story you can tell and tell it with your greatest skills. Rise to that challenge! Find the fun of each new type of story. Do a writing prompt every day, share it with people, and write!
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Season Six, Episode 23, Pigeonholes.
[Mary] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Howard] And we're joined by Jonathan Maberry.
[Jonathan] Hello. This is Jonathan.
[Dan] Jonathan, when we invited you to be on the podcast... And we're delighted to have you here, by the way...
[Jonathan] Happy to be here.
[Dan] You were very enthusiastic about a specific topic that you wanted to talk about. Can you explain a bit to us what that is?
[Jonathan] Yeah. A lot of the writers I see... I teach writing as well as work as a writer. A lot of writers I meet have one specific idea of what kind of writer they want to be. They're fierce about it. They want to do that one thing. But it may not be something that has an open door within publishing. If they keep pushing, pushing, pushing, they can spend a whole lot of their writing career collecting rejections when they don't have to. Instead, they could apply their writing ability to write anything. When I was a teenager, I had the opportunity to meet Ray Bradbury. One of the things he said to me is, "A writer writes." If you're a writer, you should be able to apply that understanding... The storytelling... The natural storytelling ability with whatever craft you've learned, to write.
[Mary] There's a similar thing... I'm a professional puppeteer. So one of the things that we say is that for the first 5 to 10 years, when you're establishing a new company, you have to do titles that people recognize, because they don't recognize you. So what you learn to do is to write the shows and perform the shows that you are interested in doing, and do them in such a way that people think they are something else. So, like... It's like... Pinocchio! And you have to make sure that it has all the elements of Pinocchio that they want to see. The Fox and the cat, the whale, and all of that. But instead of telling exactly the same Pinocchio story that everybody has told, you tell the story of Pinocchio as a young man, remembering his childhood, and there is pathos, and there's music... Oh, the darkness, oh, the pain. People come out and they're still satisfied because they've seen the elements that they expected to see, but you have done the show that you wanted to do anyway. Which I think you can do in fiction.
[Howard] Wow. I want to see that Pinocchio.
[Dan] Pinocchio as a...
[Mary] We actually do that Pinocchio. I was not actually just pulling that out of my... nethers.
[Howard] Hello, iTunes.
[Dan] This is a great point to talk about. It mirrors my personal experience. I wrote... I Am Not a Serial Killer, the first novel I published, was the sixth novel I had written. The first five were all fantasy. I was writing epic and high fantasy because I thought that that's what I wanted to write. I probably still will at some point. But eventually, when I finally wrote a horror novel, that's the one that sold. So being open to trying new things is quite literally what got me published.
[Howard] So, Jonathan, let me ask you this question. What... Where are the pigeonholes that you almost fell into?
[Jonathan] Well, I had been writing magazine feature articles for years. I shifted from that to writing nonfiction books, mostly textbooks. I wanted to continue writing textbooks. I love writing those. For... I was writing mine for martial arts classes for judo, for jujitsu, women's self-defense. They were fun, they were selling to other colleges, but that isn't a career. I wanted to then go and do mass-market martial arts books. That market began dying as soon as the Internet came on. Especially when YouTube came around. People weren't looking to books, they were going to videos online to learn things. I kept pushing at that for a little bit, and then I realized that I'm spending a lot of writing time and I'm not making a lot of money at it. I wanted to be a full-time writer. I didn't want to be a part-time writer anymore. I've been a part-time writer for 25 years. So I shifted. But all along in my career, I kind of looked for things to do that I haven't done, that weren't in my comfort zone, so that I could stretch as a writer. I mean, I've written and had produced plays. I've written instructions on products. Like for example, I saw a copy writing job for Burpee seeds. Which is plant seeds.
[Howard] Yeah. Seed company.
[Jonathan] Which I knew nothing about, I'm from the city. But I applied to it. It was basically... They said, "We need someone to write text on how to put a hole in the ground and put the seed in and fill it with dirt and water." I said, "That's what you want?" I essentially wrote that, and they thought it was wonderful. I got paid $5000 for writing that. So I wrote sarcastic greeting cards. Largely because I had no idea whether I could, so I tried it. I did some of the very first cards in the Shoebox series. I don't know if you've seen the ones with the cranky little old lady? She's wearing a bathrobe and fuzzy slippers?
[Dan] That's you?
[Jonathan] I did the first six of those.
[Dan] Oh, wow. That's a legacy.
[Jonathan] Yeah. I... That's the sort of thing where... It's not what I intended to write, or thought was my comfort zone. I'm a martial arts instructor of... I'm in the International Martial Arts Hall of Fame. I should be writing dignified stuff. Instead, I'm writing cranky greeting cards. So, everything that comes along, if it's something I haven't done, I deliberately try to do it, to make sure that I never have a moment where I say, "I can't do that."
[Howard] In last week's podcast with Mur, we talked about how important it is to practice things and to get training in things that you don't know how to do. Part of what came up was do things that are difficult for you. It sounds like that principle, "Pick something that's difficult. Pick something that's outside of your comfort zone" and that will free you from the potential pigeonhole.
[Jonathan] It really will. I have friends who... For example, they want to write literary short stories. That's wonderful, and I appreciate the craftsmanship they put into it. But who the hell makes a living writing literary short stories? Who makes a living writing poetry? Maybe three people in this country? Maya Angelou, Billy Collins, and we can fish around for half an hour and maybe find a third person.
[Howard] Who is the new poet laureate?
[Jonathan] Whose actually... Whose income is teaching poetry.
[Howard] I know.
[Jonathan] Right. So nobody makes a living doing that. Yet if that's what you want to make a living at as a writer, and people say, "I want to become a professional poet," that's a pigeonhole. And it's not one that has...
[Howard] It's a very, very small one.
[Jonathan] It is. It is. And they don't feed you in there.
[Howard] Not very much pigeon feed in it.
[Mary] What's also interesting, though, is that one of the ways the publishing industry is set up is, with novels, is that once you write one novel, they want more of the same thing. So the way I've dealt with that... My first novel just came out last year...
[Mary] Thank you. Was that, knowing that that was going to happen, because I'd seen it happen to all of my other friends, I wrote a whole bunch of novels across different genres. I write all over the board with my short fiction. So that I am still exercising the other parts of my brain.
[Howard] Well, and your name is attached to things that are... Your name is already attached to things in the public eye that are very, very different. For Want of a Nail is quite a bit different from Shades of Milk and Honey.
[Mary] Yes. And yet, they also have a lot of similarities, too.
[Jonathan] Right. But the similarities aren't necessarily something that I would push too heavily in my social media buzz. Because that can nudge you back towards the pigeonhole. With a lot of my stuff... Especially, you mentioned short fiction. Once you have a novel out, you get invited to do short fiction for anthologies. It's become kind of a thing. I've been invited to all sorts of anthologies, including mysteries, and I don't write mysteries. I started out writing supernatural thrillers, now I'm doing horror, adult thrillers, and young adult dystopian. But there was an opportunity to write a mystery, and I wrote a Sherlock Holmes story. Somebody else wanted me to do something that was for a military science fiction anthology, a genre I didn't even read, and I did that. When I buzz it, I buzz not only the story, but I buzz that genre. So that kind of shines a little bit of a light on me from that crowd, in case there's another opportunity from that organization. So each new genre I touch, I make sure I buzz and promote that genre through social media.
[Howard] I would... With regard to Mary's... Her science fiction... Her Hugo winning science fiction short story and her Regency fantasy... What, I don't even know what genre to call that?
[Dan] Regency fantasy.
[Mary] I... Yeah, Regency fantasy.
[Howard] Regency fantasy, Shades of Milk and Honey. The similarities that I found between the two were I could still kind of hear Mary's voice in it, but as a science fiction fan... If I pigeonhole myself as a science fiction fan, I like the short story much, much better because hey, you know, rocket ships and robots.
[Mary] Well, that gets back to the earlier point, that if there are... What we're talking about here is diversifying your income stream. You can do a lot of different things, a lot of different types of things, but still fulfill the creative jollies, the things that you really like about fiction, you can still get those creative jollies in a lot of different mediums.
[Jonathan] Yeah, and that becomes an important point, too. Because some folks seem to think that if you go outside of your area, what they used to call your genius, if you go outside of it, that you're selling out, that you're becoming just commercial. That's actually not true. It's a very shortsighted interpretation. What it means is that if you're writing something that's not your normal genre, you as the writer are expected to... You're challenged to look inside and find the best story you can tell and tell it with your greatest skills online. So you actually have to rise to that challenge, not descend to simply taking a job. That's what a lot of successful writers are doing. They're rising to each new challenge, they're finding the fun of each new type of story, and telling the best story they can.
[Howard] In the spirit of selling out...
[Dan] Well, no, in the spirit of what he's talking about, as Jonathan continues to try new genres, you have dipped into yet another one with Dead of Night which I've just read and which is fantastic. That is going to be our book of the week this week. Give us a quick pitch for Dead of Night.
[Jonathan] Dead of Night is my way of telling The Night of the Living Dead story with actual science and with a logical progression of how things would work. I'm very much a realist, even though I love fantastical genres. Much as I love Night of the Living Dead, there are tons of plot holes in it and tons of flaws in its structure that wouldn't be there if the movie was made for the first time today. So I went in there and told the story, a very human story, about people caught up in this terrible crisis, but also gave a plausible scientific, military, and political reason for that pathogen to have gotten developed and out.
[Howard] Okay. The book is Dead of Night?
[Jonathan] Dead of Night from St. Martin's Griffin.
[Howard] So head on out to audiblepodcast.com/excuse and download a... Start a 14 day free trial membership and...
[Dan] Get a free book.
[Howard] Pick up a free copy... Yeah, get a free book from Jonathan Maberry. When I suggested selling out, I was saying that we here at Writing Excuses are...
[Dan] Well, yes.
[Howard] Shameless shills because we like to be able to buy new microphones.
[Dan] Which we have recently done.
[Dan] Okay. Now, I think it's good to point out at this point, although we've already implied it very heavily, but this is not just something that aspiring writers do. Even well into Maberry's career, he's still doing it. Lee Modesitt is a fantastic example of this. I was talking to the Tor editors yesterday and they said that they will publish pretty much anything Lee gives them, regardless of genre, because they know that his name is going to sell it. Which goes back to what Mary was saying at the beginning. You put in your time giving people what they think they want, and then eventually they'll buy anything you write because they love you.
[Howard] I'm looking at my own... The revenue streams I'm getting from Schlock Mercenary, and have realized that there's great money to be made continuing to do the comic, but my drawing hand probably cannot keep up with the idea generator upstairs. So in order to de-pigeonhole myself as a comics guy, I'm spending a week going to a writer's retreat with Mary, and I'm not bringing my art supplies. I'm not allowed to draw if I have ideas. I'm not allowed to sketch things, I have to write words. Let me tell you, as we're having this conversation right now, I'm terrified. Because I've never done this before, and I just don't know what's going to happen in my brain. But I also know that if I don't take this step, if I don't do something this extreme, I'm not going to be able to get out of that pigeonhole. This is a critical career move.
[Mary] Getting out of the pigeonhole, once you've defined yourself in a certain way, is terrifying. I'm going through that with the puppetry. I've... I keep saying puppetry is my day job, but in truth, over the last two years, writing has become a larger and larger part. But it's so hard to not define myself as I'm a professional puppeteer.
[Jonathan] Yeah. That was something I saw coming into this. When I was pitching my first novels, I saw that guys like Stephen King had never called himself a horror writer. He called himself a suspense writer, which is one of those nebulous labels that can cover anything. Same with Dean Koontz, Robert McCammon, Peter Straub... The writers whose books would be in the same genre as my first book. I also noticed that each of them continued to write whatever they wanted, whatever they felt was their next best project. So when I had my initial discussions with my agent, I told her, "I'm going to be writing all over the place. I don't know what I'm going to do next, but that is the book I want to pitch next." She agreed that we're going to try a nontraditional view of a... An open career. Whatever I want to write, I'm going to write. As long as it's something she feels she can sell, then we'll work. But at the same time, I also look at what is selling. I write fast stuff, I write three novels a year. So I know I could write a book to catch a trend if I want to, but I would only do it if I thought I had a really good story to tell. With the agent relationship though, she steered me in a direction that I thought I wasn't going to be able to do. I had written a novella for an adult anthology and she said, "That is an opening for a YA novel." I didn't really think so, and she sent me a bunch of YA novels to read. I agreed, I let her pitch it, and that became Rot and Ruin. It's now a four book series with Simon & Schuster that's winning awards all over the place.
[Dan] Which is also highly recommended. Rot and Ruin. It's fantastic.
[Jonathan] Thank you.
[Howard] So. We've got just a couple of minutes left. We've got eight... 10,000 listeners to the podcast, all of whim... All of whim? All of whom have just been convinced that they've pigeonholed themselves, and oh, no, what are we going to do? Final advice. If you want to couch this is a writing prompt for them...
[Jonathan] That's exactly how I work. I do a writing prompt every day. Even though I'm on deadline, I do a different thing every day. I make lists of things that I'm going to do. Like I might say, "All right, tomorrow I've got to write the first page of an insect Western." So that's what I'm going to write tomorrow. Or it might be a love story for 13-year-old kids. Well, that's what I've got to write tomorrow, the first page of it. Every day, I try something different, something outside of my comfort zone. I do it every single day. So that every day I'm stretching the limits of what I think I can write. It's a 15 minute exercise that somebody can do every day. Within a couple of weeks, you're pretty sure that you're able to write anything. Share those writings with other people. Put it on a blog, put it on Facebook, send it to your friends. It's only the first page of something. It doesn't have to be a flash fiction. Just write the first thing.
[Howard] Wow. Okay. So do you actually want to throw a writing prompt at us? Insect Western... I don't want to steal that. But...
[Mary] That's kind of awesome.
[Dan] I do.
[Jonathan] Write the opening scene of a Steampunk version of Alice in Wonderland.
[Howard] Very good. Jonathan, thank you very much for joining us. Ladies and gentlemen, this has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now. Go. Write.