Author Interview: Brendan Thompson
The following post is from an interview with Brendan Thompson, who recently worked with me in the Writing Gym.
If Brendan’s journey with writing and the Writing Gym inspires you, book a call. I’d love to chat with you about where you are, where you’d like to be, and how to get there.
Annalisa: All right. So you know, just so that everyone has context for what it is that we’re talking about, tell us a little bit about what your most recent project was, what it is that you’re writing?
Brendan: So, Dragonfurd the Long Highway is a gunpowder, fantasy Epic. I would describe it as Game of Thrones on the Oregon Trail. It’s designed to be the first of a long series of adventures that focuses on character depth and world-building politics, subterfuge, and all that kind of stuff.
Annalisa: That’s awesome. And how long have you been writing? Are you one of those people like me who, you know, wasn’t an author from the day you were born or did you come to it later in life?
Brendan: Since childhood, definitely. I am the oldest of four boys and so when I was growing up, I had a lot of time. I had to entertain smaller children and I was just always storytelling, always spinning yarns. I’m always coming up with, you know, all kinds of little ways to keep the other kids amused and it’s just developed into a passion for storytelling primarily. But then about middle school, I fell in love with reading and I would just, you know, just go out to the flea market and come back with just armfuls full of books that I would have all read within a week or two and repeat that process. So it’s been a lifelong passion of mine.
Annalisa: What were some of your favorites from back in the day that you remember reading?
Brendan: Well, I read a lot of, what today we would call young adult series. So like that would be stuff like Isaac Asimov. I had a young adult series called the lucky star where each installment was set on different planet of the solar system. I read a lot of Boy’s Life that had a lot of serialized fiction in it.
There was a cartoon show I loved called, Robotech, which was, as a cartoon show, It was a massive Epic. But they novelized it and they novelized several spinoffs. And so it was like 45 books in the series. And then, the big tow of fantasy literature was the Lord of the rings. And that was a series that I had actually re-read by the time that I was in high school. And then, that was mid nineties, 95, 96. I was a freshman, and that was kind of the doldrums for fantasy. And then, you know, post 2000 has been a real Renaissance in that particular genre.
Annalisa: Absolutely. And so when I met you, you had a draft of Dragonford finished, but I had some questions and you were uncertain about some of the things that had to do with publishing. So paint us a picture of where you were at that time with that finished draft and moving forward?
Brendan: Well I had a previous novel that I’d finished in the horror genre called Bright Fires of Dark Sacraments. And I had already spent several years with that where I would send out three or four queries, wait for the rejections to come back, then go back to the drawing board.
But really did not have a plan. It was just sort of my own intuition or, you know, I consumed a lot.
I was an English teacher at that time. But not in an industry specific guided format of, once you have your manuscript, what do you do? Or polishing and editing, what does that actually mean?
There is a reason why professional authors pair up with professional editors.
If you’re just trying to simulate both sides of that relationship in your own head, it’s just harder to figure out. It’s harder to streamline. So when I got to the point where I wanted to start seriously querying Dragonford, I wanted a chance of a higher success rate. I just didn’t want a repeat of the same thing.
Coming into that, what a lot of people who come into the program say is, I thought I had a finished publishable manuscript. I didn’t realize that I was going to be involved in six months of rewriting which is what we ended up doing.
But the skill set that that we employed, the set of eyes that it put on me as a writer gave me a much better ability to move on with writing scripts for my movies and with going back over the previous work that I had done and looking at it through that editor’s lens of, well this is how you bring up a manuscript to publishable.
Annalisa: That’s pretty amazing because you are an English teacher. Clearly you’ve got some skills around the English language and storytelling and kind of the basic building blocks, but it sounds like you were able to even accelerate that even more.
Brendan: Well, I’ll get a little more into the weeds with this. So I was an English as a second language teacher living in South Korea. And one of the things that I found, it’s a parallel to what we’re talking about here, my students had a notion that English is just one thing that you go in and you get good at English. And that would create, you know, really bizarre expectations. Like you can read an encyclopedia but you can’t have a conversation. Whereas, you know, if I would give it to them the other way that like, if we can have a simple conversation over coffee, does that mean you can read the encyclopedia? They’d say, obviously not. And I’d say that’s the point exactly.
I had lots of students, cause at one point I was teaching Korean active duty military. So these were adults and a lot of them, English might be their fourth language. We’re talking about very well read, very educated people. They had no problem with philosophy. They had no problem with politics and science, but they couldn’t hold a conversation. I had to get the idea across to them. That conversation is a completely different skill and you can get, you know, very minute in this giving a speech and having a conversation are not the same skill either. Expressing your feelings versus being persuasive are not the same skill and so on and so on.
So I find that that attitude also exists a lot amongst writers but they think of it as if you, if you have high vocabulary, you’re imaginative, you’re creative and you can read, then you can be a writer. And certainly not to knock what anybody does, but you can self publish anything. There’s no editorial process and then it’s out there. It’s in the world. And if it finds an audience, then good on you.
But there is a lot of self published stuff that is just the level of a journal. It’s just not professional content. And if that is your goal, if that is what you want, good. I’ve turned down the opportunity to self publish several times because I want to be a professional. And that means, as in most professions, having collaborators, it means getting feedback. It means learning multiple skill sets that maybe don’t come naturally to you so that you can get affirmed enough basis, affirmed enough foundation that you convince them on your own and you know and rewrite the rules of the industry because you’ll know what you’re doing.
Annalisa: Yeah, that’s a really solid comparison and I really appreciate your observation, sitting on the author side of the table because as someone who’s in the industry, as an industry professional, certainly speaking to publishers and agents on a regular basis. That’s a huge part of their frustration: good concept, poor execution.
So tell us a little bit about that revision process. You were talking about eight months, but thinking that you had a solid manuscript. What were some of the kinds of things that you had to look at differently or see in a new way in order to take that completed manuscript and turn it into something that met industry standards?
Brendan: So it actually wasn’t that hard for me. To start off with, I am not an outliner. I am a discovery writer or as we say around here, a pantser. So I’m already aware that the story already existed in my head in a thousand different forms and I went through a discovery process of choosing what possible story sets, what possible character interactions would go down on paper. So the concept of modifying, tweaking, changing, moving around was already compatible with the creation process that I have.
I really, really was not stuck outside of sort of what are the larger themes? What is it that this story is supposed to be about? Who’s a good guy? Who’s a bad guy?
In this project, there’s a lot of gray and ambiguity and it’s sort of built around depth so that, just from where I was sitting, that made it very prime for revision. That we don’t have to change anything that’s happening so much as what order it happens, who delivers this piece of information to who at what time. All of that can be shuffled and rearranged. And that was really what I found that once we were at like the three month mark and I was like, you know, we had rewritten the first 30 pages eight times but we hadn’t actually changed anything.
Annalisa:Hmm. Right. So like we changed the significant things without changing the significant things?
Brendan: Well, pace order, intention. Those are all things that are quite nuanced and they’re quite complicated, they’re quite complex. And it’s a lot to expect of yourself as a writer. Just to think that you can simulate all of those in your head.
But the frustration that you’re talking about that I know a lot of agents and editors feel is that the way it’s been expressed to me is that a lot of writers. Hopeful first time authors come in thinking that the industry is the enemy and not understanding that agents and editors are writers as well.
Maybe they have published work, maybe they don’t, but they dabble. But they definitely consider themselves writers or they wouldn’t be in the publishing industry and they have a perspective that is valuable that rather than trying to push your work through in its original sacred form and then hear about its flaws from critics, you can collaborate with your creative team and improve the product. Maybe even move it closer to your original vision in a way that might be more accessible to the audience that you’re targeting.
Annalisa: Yeah, that’s a really good point. And you know, I’m curious about something. It’s going to sound a little bit like I’m fishing for compliments, but I truly want to help the listeners to understand your perspective. You and I worked together over the course of several months. What was it about the way that we worked together and that process that helped you to get from that starting point where you had the finished manuscript, you just had some questions to the ending point where you were more confident that you had a product that the industry was ready for or looking for?
Brendan: Well, so in terms of working with you specifically, one of the important things is that you do fish a lot. You’re very good at conducting interviews. So as we’re going along, you’ve been in the writer’s shoes, you’ve been on the other side of this, receiving uncomfortable feedback or taking a lot of risks.
There’s a lot of material in my book that is quite risky for a writer in this day I would hand it to someone and go, I don’t know how you’re going to react to this. You know, it’s engaging.
And one of the things that I remember saying to you through this process was I’m very comfortable with the sorts of changes that we’re talking about. The version of the story that was for me, I’ve already read. Every change that we make to it expands who it’s going to appeal to, who its audience is going to be. Because I want a mainstream audience, I don’t want just me to read and enjoy and get it.
So that’s my appeal to frustrated first time authors who think that there’s some sort of an inherent conflict between your vision and the truth of your art versus the marketability like a publisher or an industry executive would be looking for.
But I get it, you want to do art for art’s sake, but you want to publish a book that will become your livelihood, where there will be interest in future projects. That means getting a product to an audience. And that means revising, modifying, going back, looking at it from a fresh perspective, taking time away, listening to what other people have to say because that’s all going to be relevant to finding your audience.
Annalisa: Those are really good points, you know, in distinguishing the difference between our art and being viable in the marketplace. You know, I think about so many books but Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance probably has the record for the most submissions with failures, right? It’s something like 49 or something like that. It might be 149. Anyway. It’s a lot. You know, I’m just really getting to a point where you’re ready to submit and you know that you’ve got something viable in the marketplace. So tell us about that. Tell us where you are now? What is your project look like today?
Brendan: Well, I mean, first a segue that part of the importance of having a writing group or a writing coach or any sort of an developmental editor, any sort of an industry professional or a group that can give you meaningful feedback is you do not get meaningful feedback from your rejected queries. Nobody has time for it.
And a parallel that I have to that is that, when I left my job at the Korean Navy, it was my responsibility to hire my replacement. So, you know, I posted the job online and I answered queries and I interview people and I just do not have time to tell everybody what’s wrong with their resume or if this is just an entirely inappropriate. You can’t go from eight years of preschool to teaching active duty Marines, or you misspelled the word resume. I physically do not have the even five minutes per email that it takes to give people individualized feedback because out of the, you know, say I luck out I have like 10 qualified applicants. That’s still gonna take me like three hours just to correspond with all of them knowing that half of them are not going to show up for an interview.
That should help give you a little bit of an insight into the life of an agent that you’re just not going to get it. If you get more than a sentence, then something about your project or about your biography or something really caught their eye. And that’s where we are right now that we’ve had, we’ve had 2 requests for not full manuscript but a hundred plus page manuscript. So, that’s real exciting. And then, I hesitate even to call it rejection. Well you had that interest and then, the book, the book wasn’t bought, there was no other part of the deal. A book deal didn’t occur. So the point that we’re at now is moving on to second round submissions.
Annalisa: Yeah. Well, and we are talking about before we started the interview, one of the things that you and I set up as we do for all the members of the Writing Gym, is really that multi-phase submission process. So that you do have, you know, a plan B, a plan C, a plan D, plan E. I mean, how does it feel to know that, one, you’ve got some pretty good feedback on the market viability of your product in that there were requests for the manuscript, but two, that there’s a plan in place that you sort of know what the path is that’s set up before you?
Brendan: I think a thing to keep in mind that it’s hard. It’s hard for a lot of authors who do not have any background in business or any interest or sense in it but right project, wrong time that interest from the market. You might be facing a lot of competition in your genre that will all disappear next year. It just might be that there is a lot of interest in the market, but there’s an over response of pitches as a result of that.You just may have to wait around for a dry spell.
And if you’re tenacious and you stick with it when other people don’t, then there will be a memory of your pitch later on down the road when it suits market conditions better. That’s why you want to have a fallback, why you want to have multiple, not multiple plans, but multiple stages to your plan so that you can hit your highest probability targets first, then move down to lower probability targets and then be prepared to do further market research if a year has gone by.
Annalisa: Yeah. Well and I mean what we’re talking about is strategy, right? You know. And I think a lot of programs out there will give you some tactics, or some short term. And here we’ve got a long term plan.
Which kind of leads me into my next question, which is that longterm plan, one of the things that the writing gym stands on and stands for is helping you to live the author lifestyle. And for most authors, that means living off of revenue from books and publishing time and time again. Well, in order to do that, as you pointed out earlier, there’s a whole new skill set that you need in order to do that.
So as you think about the big picture, cause we’ve taken our listeners through the journey of where you’ve been, how did the Writing Gym make an impact on you, teach you the skills that you needed to create that future for yourself so that you’re not dependent on being in the gym every day, all day. You can go out and do those things on your own.
Brendan: Yeah, there’s a lot there. The first thing is just to say that it’s very frustrating because as a writer you want to be in your creative headspace for as long as you can.
And you, you know, rankle at having that creative headspace or the value of your imagination brought down to earth with questions about marketability. I had already gone through it because I had tried, I had queried and attempted to sell a novel previously.
I came into the Writing Gym with a little more, a little more grounded expectations and that, but it was still frustrating. It’s frustrating to have to put your pitch together to have to break it down into a log line. You have to find a way to sell it, pick one character to describe this novel.
This is an Epic. It has 30 characters. There’s no one character. I mean, you know, there is a back of the book and you have to fill only that space in like 24 point type. You have a page and a half to write your synopsis. Or you may have a page for the whole query with a paragraph and synopsis, just whatever the agents, however the agent’s brain works, whatever the agent finds digestible and if they’re sold on that, if they’re hooked on that, then they’ll ask for more than they’ll read more, they’ll want to read more. And it’s, I’ll just reiterate, it’s a different skill.
It’s a different skill set. And so for me, the challenge is that I, I am into long form content, I write not just novels but epics. So it’s a challenge to recontextualize all of that into a three page query, into a one page synopsis, into a short and sweet description.
But you need to understand why you do it. And if you’re in a program that breaks the need for it down to you, then you can exercise that skill the same way you do for, how did you learn how to tell a story? How did you learn how to write this well? Well, it took time and I just did it all the time for years, years and years and years.
But of course, like the parallel to a language when you’re a kid, you just pick it up, you learn a language without thinking about it, but it takes you your whole childhood. As an adult, you learn a language. You need to be more deliberate because you don’t want to spend seven or eight years just picking it up. You want it to be conversational in a month. You want to be able to perform actual tasks certainly within a year.
And so you have to approach any element of the writer’s lifestyle, which might be dealing with fans. It might be running your social media. It might be writing press releases. It might be having meetings, whatever your weakest skill is, you’re going to have to force yourself to put in the time, the same way you had to force yourself to put in the time to finish your book in the first place.
Annalisa: Really, really good advice. And you know, I know that in your life you’ve crossed paths with writers that writing is, a part of your life and producing art is a part of your life. If someone were to ask you “what’s this Writing Gym thing and why should I join? What’s the benefit?” What would you tell them?
Brendan: The biggest thing I would tell anyone is you have to invest in what you want. Actually one way a friend of mine recently put it is you have to transcend once. You have to make things your need, you need to be published. If you need to be published, then you need to do whatever it takes to make that happen.
So, most people, the average person wants to write, they want to write a book, cause you know, everybody’s got a book in them, but the average person does not want to put in the time to do the reps, to feel the burn, and to come back the next day to get beat up by the publishing process, to get rejected again and again and again. With the understanding that even when you have your triumphant debut and your book goes out into the world, there will still be critics who don’t like it. And if you needed that, then you have to invest in whatever it takes to get you there.
Annalisa: Wow, that was powerful. That was amazing. Thank you so much, Brendan, for your time and for sharing your experience with us today on the writing gym podcast.
Brendan: Well, you’re so welcome.