Victor: According to your bio you average about three new titles a year. But you also manage to pull another three or so off the slush pile over that time, dating back however many years, give those a final going over, and publish them as well. That’s roughly a book every two months. How do you do it?”
Dean: Well, it’s left to be seen how long I can do it. I don’t think you get to call yourself prolific for the first twenty years. If I can look back after all that time and say, “I averaged six books a year for twenty years, or even four books a year,” then I’d get to call myself prolific with some street cred to back me up. Until then it’s just “a phase” like Picasso’s blue period.
Admittedly, age is very focusing. I don’t think I could have done this in my 20s or 30s, or even my 40s. Life tends to get in the way a lot more when you’re younger. There’s nothing like facing your own mortality to get you to identify your mission in life and get on with fulfilling it toute suite. In that sense, I’m like the actor Morgan Freeman, who no one can ever remember being young in a movie but somehow manages to be in every movie since he started showing up. Some of us are definitely making up for lost time.
Victor: But there has to be something equivalent to “fuel treatment” for the mind you throw in to keep the engine humming.
Dean: I’ve been practicing various forms of meditation for years. I prefer the moving forms of meditation like tai chi, rhythmic trance dancing, and yoga, because, let’s face it, as a writer our lives are fairly sedentary. But I also practice many varieties of seated meditation. While I don’t claim to be anything but an apprentice in these fields, the mind control techniques go a long way to keeping the mind free of mental blocks. Stir in the habit of meta-thinking or thinking-about-thinking, and resting in Witness state so I can observe “stinking thinking” as it crops up, and eliminate it on the fly, and you could say my every moment is a form of waking meditation.
Keep in mind also that I’ve been writing for many many years, and as with everything, the more you do it, the better and faster you get. Because I predate the internet and the self-publishing renaissance, for the longest time there was little for my books to do but pile up in my closet. That gives me a tremendous head start over folks who are only now picking up a pen for the first time.
Victor: I’m guessing there are some other tricks of the trade. That can’t be all there is to it.
Dean: Believe it or not, that’s about ninety percent of it. But I also know my strong and weak points after all these years, the kinds of stories I tackle well, the kinds of characters, and the kinds of things I have to leave alone unless I really do want to bog myself down. There’s nothing like writing historical fiction, i.e., to bog yourself down. Most of the time spent with those books is in the research. Nine months of research followed by three months of writing is not uncommon. Neither is nine years of research followed by one year of writing. Fortunately, as with sci-fi and fantasy writers in general, I was blessed with a powerhouse imagination that allows me to bypass those kinds of pitfalls. Of course a lot of research goes into writing those kinds of books as well, but it’s of the type that you pick up through osmosis. Because you’re always reading and watching shows in the field; you don’t think of it as research. If anything, I’m often behind in my ability to react to all the newsworthy items I’ve taken in; so I’m always working with a surplus of ideas rather than having to shop around for a new one whenever I’m done. That also helps to keep the conveyor belt moving along.
That said, you can’t always just stick to your shtick. Or you fail to grow as a writer. You have to find ways to challenge yourself with each new book. But there are ways of doing that without setting yourself back. For instance, I handle dialogue and banter very well; I’m also great with action set pieces and character dynamics. Well, as it turns out that fits rather well into any genre I might care to write. So to challenge myself in the second half of 2014 through 2015 I set my mind to writing high-tech thrillers as opposed to the usual action-adventure stuff I do. So it’s new for me, it’s challenging, but in a way that doesn’t slow me down.
Victor: What about your epics? Those are some mighty big books.
Dean: Those definitely do slow me down. The huge page count for one thing and getting all that black ink edited. And they are written to push me well out of my comfort zone. As such they’re probably some of my best and worst writing all collected up in one place as you can imagine any growth-tip project being.
Victor: There’s clearly a “Dean heavy” and a “Dean light.” In the epics I notice you uncork the inner philosopher and give him a chance to breathe. There’s a fair amount of Eastern spiritual ideas being tossed around in these books as well.
Dean: The epics are definitely heady sci-fi. So deep thinkers or people who like to be challenged are likely to feel a lot more at home here. My shorter stuff, or “Dean light” as you say is written more in the spirit of the Indiana Jones or Transformers franchises, namely just a lot of fast paced, rollicking good fun, with no shortage of humorous asides. But even the deeper epics are full of high-octane action and humor; they’re space operas right up there with Star Wars. The Hundred Year Clones are arguably this generation’s Jedi Knights; they don’t just show off their super-powered minds; they teach you how you too can be like them. They really expose all the stuff George Lucas didn’t tell you about what goes into making a Zen master of this caliber.
As to Renaissance 2.0, those five books are really one massive book broken into five digestible bits. There’s just one story arc there, so if you start it and don’t go clear through to the end you’re likely to be lost, thinking, WTF? As with the Game of Thrones franchise, each book is actually just a separate act of the story. It takes a lot of trust that all the various story threads will ultimately weave together and the setups paid off, more so than I perhaps have a right to ask of people who’ve never read me before. For that reason I would recommend reading one of my shorter works to develop the trust that you’re in good hands.
Victor: Speaking of Renaissance 2.0, as it’s one of my favorite books of yours, but I would also concede the most challenging, what is with that monstrously sized cast? Were you trying to outdo the rolodex of characters that accompanies a George R. R. Martin book?
Dean: I covered this topic heavily in my last interview so I won’t regurgitate all of that here. Suffice to say I felt it important to break the rules a bit with conventional storytelling to accurately portray what I feel is the beginning of a new Renaissance age, triggered by a collapsed global economy. Since the Renaissance represents a decentering of power into a everyone-in-charge, more egalitarian age, I felt it remiss of me to treat everyone but the lead characters as bit players. As a result, they all sort of get their fifteen minutes of fame. But the traditional three act structure is still there, and you know who the leads are because they’re the ones who keep reappearing. But to get back to what got us talking about Renaissance 2.0, if I weren’t as prolific as I am, I could never have tackled a project this huge. Even then, it took a couple years of my life to write. So there’s something to be said for being able to take our minds into hyperdrive, sort of like putting the hammer down on a trans-warp spaceship.
Victor: What other tips would you give writers on the nature of being prolific?
Dean: “Courage, Confidence, Enthusiasm.” Do you remember that credo from The Company Men? It’s really true. There’s nothing more energy draining than doubting yourself. It’s one thing to be detached enough from what you’re doing to keep an eye out for opportunities for continuous improvement, it’s another thing to question everything you do in a self-destructive manner. Show me someone struggling to meet deadline and I’ll show you someone drowning in self-doubts. We’re always going to have our detractors and haters; sadly that seems to be a part of life today. But even when the critics strike a nerve, you have to be able to take that well, turn it into constructive feedback and be reborn on the other side of your trials by fire like the Phoenix. Learning to digest all our negative emotions through writing is a far better way of dealing with them anyway than allowing them to keep us from writing.
This last point is all the more important to remember when you realize that not every book we’re going to write is going to connect with the public. Hell, most if not all of them may only find a niche following. Luckily for us we’re into an era of niche marketing precisely because people are always on the lookout for things they can’t find in the mainstream. There’s nothing more marketable than an original voice, which is as true in this era of niche marketing as it was in the prior era of mass marketing. You can probably tell from the last few examples of “spin doctoring” that re-framing failure as an indispensable ingredient of success, or even as success when viewed from a different angle, as with the “I have a small but loyal following” idea, is another secret to de-gumming the mind, and keeping the productivity up.
Victor: That example you gave of even taking the hard knock criticism on the chin reminds me of what I’ve read about niche marketing. That if you’re hitting the zone, by definition people are either going to love you or hate you. You can expect a lot of 4 and 5 star reviews, but maybe just as many 1 and 2 star reviews. It’s the ones in the middle, the dratted “I could take it or leave it” 3 star review you’re hoping to avoid. Because that translates to “didn’t move me much one way or the other” which is a sign of mediocrity and a death knell in a hypercompetitive marketplace. That or a sign you just haven’t found your target audience.
Dean: The reflections on the nature of niche marketing strike me as making intuitive sense. Though I can’t imagine that it’s easy for any writer to palate a one or two star review. It’s left to be seen whether those comments apply to me as I don’t see myself as “niche.” A lot of the writers who do the kind of thing I do, albeit with their own distinct voice, are hugely popular. So am I niche, or am I just undiscovered? I guess only time will tell.
But to continue with your point about negative reviews and how best to interpret them, I’ve also heard that free book giveaways can bring out the haters, which makes me leery of doing them. And that some writers are petty enough to give a one star review or click “don’t like” to a good review just because your book might compete with theirs. It’s a tough marketplace and it’s sad that some people resort to tactics like that out of desperation. I appreciate the digression as it leads me to my next point about maintaining prolificness. Namely, stay informed of what’s going on in the marketplace so you can separate your paranoia and self-doubts about your abilities which are undeserved from what are just battle scars that everyone incurs with being on the battlefield. Sometimes tuning in the world better is a great way to get out of our own heads and help ourselves separate facts from fictions, especially the bad kinds of narratives we spin about ourselves that can curtail and cripple our ability to write.
Victor: You should consider doing a book on the nature of being prolific. I feel like we’re just scratching the surface here. The Zen practices and the Tony Robins-like positive affirmations and all the things you do to keep yourself in the zone would make for some pretty compelling reading.
Dean: I’ve been thinking about it. Perhaps we’ll keep speaking to this issue periodically until it does turn into a book I can distill from the interviews. I’ve also been thinking of taking some of my ideas from my various sci-fi thrillers and writing a nonfiction book called The Human Upgrade Economy. So, who knows, maybe that’s the next frontier for me, and a new way to challenge myself. And we’ll see if it’s equally subject to the laws governing prolificness.
Victor Bruneski is the author of The McConnell House, One Big Problem, and Tales of the Great Steamboro, all currently premiering on wattpad in rough draft form. Even in their nascent condition they betray an awesome talent and a writer with a wicked sense of humor. For those who enjoy mysteries, thrillers, horror, dark fantasy and steampunk, all with a deep dunking in dark humor, I’d encourage you to look him up. http://www.wattpad.com/user/VictorBruneski