Dave: Hello, this is David Wright and today on Eight Questions we are here with Johnny B. Truant, that is Sean Platt’s other writer and the other host of Self-Publishing Podcast, along with myself and Sean.
(If you prefer audio, you can listen to this episode on the 8 Questions Podcast)
Johnny is an interesting person for me to interview because he’s pretty much the opposite of me when it comes to productivity, his diet. He’s like what I want to be, he’s what I strive to be.
And it’s kind of like the reason why I wanted to do Eight Questions to begin with. I wanted to talk to other people who are actually succeeding at the things that they want to do. They have some regimented lifestyle. Their habits are really good and helped to really create good art.
And I think it’s sort of one of those things where I want to get tips but I also want to inspire myself, and that’s what this series to me is all about.
Bettering my own craft, but also inspiring myself to be better than I am, and I think a lot of us want that.
So, without me rambling anymore, hello Johnny.
Johnny: Hello Dave. It’s so unusual to talk to you.
Dave: Well, we’ll just to right in with the questions here. What is your creative routine like?
Johnny: Well, I wake up between 5:00 and 6:00 in the morning.
Dave: Not in the afternoon.
Johnny: Not in the afternoon, that would be a.m. not p.m. I tend to steal from sleep if I need extra time. So for instance right now I’m waking up at 5:00 because my Mom is here. So rather than sacrificing time, I just sacrifice sleep.
And I get up, I write for usually around four hours and that’s my prime creative time. I go right from bed to writing. It takes about 15 minutes from the time I wake up to the time I’m hitting keys.
Then afternoons are for more of less pure creative stuff say, stuff like marketing and meetings and that sort of thing.
Dave: And you, as far as I know, at least try not to work on the weekends. How is that working out for you?
Johnny: Yes, that’s absolutely right. I don’t work after 6:00 p.m. Eastern and I don’t work on weekends and that’s pretty hard and fast, but it’s not always hard and fast.
So basically by 6:00 I’m pretty beat and unless there’s something that absolutely is pressing, or that Sean has hoodwinked us into like an Ask Us Anything.
Dave: That never happens.
Johnny: Which is at night, yes, that guy. I won’t work at night just because unless it’s like maybe answering emails, maybe, sitting on the couch with my laptop. On the weekends I’ve been tinkering, just doing things like changing prices on things that need to be changed that we haven’t got admin handling yet, or doing compiles.
But even that I’d like to stop. I’d like to just kind of be my own person on the weekends, but I’m always wanting to get in there and so that wars with it too, wanting to keep tweaking things.
Dave: And the four hour block of writing, is that one of those things where you at one time wrote more and you scaled back because you realize productivity fell off after four hours, or how did you come to four hours?
Johnny: Yes, that’s actually been an evolution. So originally when I first started with the podcast I think I had a three hour block of time in the morning, and then I found that I worked good – like my Pomodoro was an hour and a half. For some reason that was a good time span for me.
I would actually start working on other projects in the afternoon so I’d have a three hour sort of my prime writing block, and then in the afternoons I’d have an hour and a half I’d work on Project B and then an hour and a half on Project C and I was writing them in parallel.
I found I didn’t like that and it worked better as one project, one world all the time.
So I think I started establishing a word count and then saying how long will it take me to do that word count. And so right now the four hours is sort of like an average where I can hit the deadline based on what I know I need to produce, so it’s really more of a word count goal than a time goal.
It tends to take me four hours because after that I start to get really fatigued.
So yesterday was a good example. I got up at 5:00 and I was just trying to really jam through something and I didn’t want to screw around and be too late because like I said my Mom was here.
And by the time I got to the end I could barely spell properly, not because I can’t spell properly but because my fingers were just too sluggish and every other word I was misspelling things.
That’s kind of my limit and I suppose I can take a second session and I have if I need it, but I try not to because I’m purest during those.
Dave: And what is your ideal word count for that four hour block?
Johnny: During a good period of time I’d like to say it’s 6,000 words is a good average per day. That’s sort of what we base the estimates on, but I mean you know how Sean is, and I’m just as bad in terms of oh, I want to do this other thing.
And so we keep getting into these situations where we don’t have enough time to finish what we want to finish.
And another thing that probably annoys you about Sean but that I just do the same thing is the arbitrary deadline. So I know I want to finish before we’re taking a trip at the end of September and so I want to get it done before then and so I’m writing closer to 8,000, and that’s really hard. I don’t like trying to get that many words in, in a session but that’s what we’re doing right now.
Dave: Now I know you’re also involved in the editing phase as well. Like Sean will edit what you’re writing and then he’ll bounce it back to you. Does that editing come in the four hour block or do you have a separate block built for that?
Johnny: I think the ideal scenario – we have one of two ways of working, Sean and I. So in case you’re listening to this and you haven’t heard the Self Publishing Podcast, Sean and I are collaborative writers, much like Sean and Dave are collaborative writers, and everything I write right now is written collaboratively.
There are two basic ways that we can do that where one I don’t even see the draft again. The first Invasion book was written that way. I don’t remember what other ones, but there are plenty of books that I just do it once and then I don’t see it again because I just write the rough.
If I do the editing, then what I used to do was the schedule didn’t really allow for dedicated time so that ended up being afternoon time.
So I’d have my prime writing time in the afternoon and then just get to the – it was more of a polish than a comprehensive edit because Sean had already been through it twice. So I would do that in the afternoons, kind of as I had time.
But what we’re trying as an experiment this time, and I’m really liking, is we just finished a book called Dead City. I finished the rough and then Sean went through it twice.
He did his two passes and then I knew I was going to have to go through it again because there’s a lot of biology in the book and that’s my specialty and we decided how the disease would work. It’s a zombie book, and how the drugs would work.
And so I was going to go back through and check for continuity, and that we’ve used everything properly, and it all made sense. And so what I normally would do is Sean would get two runs through, he’d get an edit and a polish. I don’t know which is first for him. And then I would do a final final, and I would clean up the language as I went and also do the continuity.
And it was hard to do. That’s a really slow languishing process because I’m watching every line.
But what I noticed is that whenever Sean was the last eyes on prose, it didn’t bother me. It’s not like I read it and said that it didn’t read well.
So what we’re trying this time is I’m actually reading between his two passes and trying to ignore language stuff, trusting that he’ll catch that, and just trying to fix the continuity.
And so I’m basically just reading, and that actually goes super fast. So I’m just flagging areas that I know need attention. I’ll go back through and it’s just like reading a book for the most part. So we’ll see how that works out.
Dave: Okay. What are some of your favorite creative tools, apps, hardware anything basically that makes your job easier, or that you just cannot do your job without?
Johnny: Scrivener’s probably really the only one. I think that when I used to do more visual stuff, not that I was ever like a visual guy or a designer or anything, but I used to do some web work and I’d do things like Photoshop. But for now it’s really just Scrivener.
And then there’s all the collaborative tools we use. So, Dropbox is absolutely a must.
I feel like I should have a better answer to this, but honestly if I have Scrivener and my laptop and a way to synchronize and get it to somebody else, I don’t know that there’s much else that I use.
If people have seen the Self Publishing Podcast or any of out other podcasts that we do video, I wear big headphones and I’m wearing them right now, and those have actually become a productivity tool because they’re my way of shutting the door.
I play loud music when I write and so I very quickly have trained myself to forget anything going on in the other room. And I know that without that, I would be really, really unproductive.
So when I’ve had to write in a pinch away from home, I just have an app called White Noise on my phone and I’ll put earbuds in and listen to that.
But music or some sort of auditory shut out is another really important thing.
Dave: If you are wondering what those headphones are, they are the Sony MDR7506. We’ve got the same ones.
Johnny: Yes, and I would highly recommend those because they’re very comfortable to wear.
Johnny: And I’ve put on a bunch of headphones before that they just feel like this hard thing against your ear and they don’t completely shut it out. Like these go around the ear, and I think that’s a must for anybody who wants to write.
Even if you’re just writing with white noise, I think it’s called simplynoise.com is a web site I’ll use for editing and polishing. I don’t do that well to music, and I’ll just put on white noise, but through the same headphones.
Dave: I do like an ocean CD that I got. It’s really awesome. When I’m either writing something super complicated or were editing and the music’s just too much. Yes, we’re very much the same there.
Johnny: And that white noise app that I mentioned does have a rain effect that I listen to a lot. That one’s good too.
Dave: What are some of the biggest creative obstacles that you’ve had and how did you overcome them?
Johnny: Probably the biggest was between writing my first book which was called The Bialy Pimps, and writing the second, which was called Fat Vampire.
There was a time span of somewhere in the neighborhood of ten to twelve years, I don’t remember exactly what was between those two, and I know that we have this in common, I started a lot of projects.
And the beginning was really exciting and then what happened with my characters is they’d end up just standing around looking at each other. Wow, that started off with a bang, and now they’re not doing anything.
It was so frustrating to begin, and I was like I successfully finished one book, so why can’t I write another?
I just kept trying and trying and banging my head against the wall and I think that there were two things that got me past that.
One was starting to work with you and Sean, just from an aspirational standpoint. Like I saw that this high volume production could be done, or that any production could be done and giving myself permission to be a writer.
But the other thing was, and this sounds like the stupidest thing in the world, it’s like a non-revelation, is that something needed to happen in a book, which that’s like I said stupid, but what used to happen is I’d have good situational books.
Actually one that fell flat was Dead City. I originally started writing it on my own. It wasn’t called that, and I had this great premise of this zombie society. But nothing actually happened.
And when I was describing it to Sean so that we could revitalize it now, something like five years later, he said well, that’s a great set up. So now we’ve got to figure out the plot.
And that plot piece didn’t click for me until maybe the second of third Fat Vampire book where I was like oh, I actually need to have people do something. Fat Vampire could be about a fat vampire, and then what does he do? He just goes around and bites people?
So I think that’s what got me going and now I don’t run into that problem anymore because I know.
David: What are some of the things that you watch or listen to regularly that helps your creativity? Like Sean and I, I know we watch a lot of the HBO shows and stuff like that. What are the things that you like that you feel help you?
Johnny: I’d love to watch a lot of those shows, so again I feel like there’s all these in-references that I feel like I want to make because I’m talking to you, but obviously people don’t necessarily know those.
But I watch TV in the evenings with my wife, and so she doesn’t like a lot of those shows and so the only way that I can watch them is if I go and shut myself up in another room and watch them by myself, which I don’t want to do. I just want to hang out and watch with her.
So I don’t get to watch a lot of those shows and so there are a few that we’ve picked that are good fodder, like I’ve seen the newer Battlestar Galactica before and so we’re watching that again.
But as far as that it’s just movies I can get her to see. I seldom get to go see one by my own TV shows, and so the rest has been books.
And that is my previous history. I read all growing up but I continue to read. Stephen King is perennial favorite, although at this point I’m rereading because I don’t like his newer stuff as much. So I’ve been rereading old Stephen King.
Just anything that comes highly recommended by other people. I know that we both really liked Every Day by David Levitan.
Dave: Did you read The Girl With All The Gifts?
Johnny: It’s on my Kindle, I have not read it yet. And I heard that came highly recommended too.
Dave: Yes, especially since you’re writing a zombie story now.
Johnny: Well, it’s now done but there are two more for that. But I did read The Martian, speaking of another, that was last year’s phenomenon.
A lot of it is just experiential too. I think that I don’t necessarily feed my head as much as you guys do in terms of getting new ideas, but I’m always out doing things and I like to travel around with my family and stuff, and those little things will end up seeping into my life.
Dave: Yes, that’s probably the healthy way to go about things.
Johnny: Not just sit in one place.
Dave: All my inspiration comes within these four walls.
What’s one of the biggest misconceptions about you?
Johnny: This one is actually probably kind of unique to me is I had a 1.0 Johnny. That was the one that Dave met and who regarded me skeptically.
Johnny: Where I was teaching stuff online and I also had sort of an extreme personality. I just was trying to be funny half the time. Like I just thought it was – I don’t know, I just though it was amusing to be like that.
But I think people expect me to be very punch you in the face, kick you in the ass for your own good sort of a thing. That knew Johnny 1.0.
I don’t think that who I portray now is the same, but I will get comments from people who read some of my earliest stuff, like blog posts and essays and stuff, and I know I went to a book signing, not mine, it was somebody else’s and I spoke. I just did a little introduction.
It was for Chris Guillebeau, and somebody said oh, I expected Johnny to be nine feet tall and breathing fire. And I’m like well, I’m just a guy with a family and I go around, I drive a car, I put on pants.
So I think that a lot of people do expect that from me, for me to be very crazy and swearing a lot.
Dave: I expected the Tom Cruise character from Magnolia, the motivational speaker guy.
Johnny: Is that the one where he says respect the cock?
Dave: Yes, that’s awesome.
Johnny: I don’t say that anymore, not usually.
Dave: If you go back in time before you started this part of your career, what one piece of advice would you give yourself?
Johnny: Probably to trust the process. That’s something that I don’t think I’ve had to remind myself of that a lot but it’s definitely something that I do with every book.
And I think that I need to know the skills too obviously, so it’s not just about trusting. I could have trusted all day long when I was doing those books that didn’t go anywhere and I don’t think it would have changed anything.
But nowadays it’s really common to get sort of mired in the middle of a book.
It definitely happened during Dead City and it’s happening a little bit during a book I’m writing now. And at this point it’s just a matter of knowing that if I keep going, they always turn out to my satisfaction, which could mean that I just love everything I do and I have unrealistic standards because everything is awesome.
Or it could mean that that’s– [Dave overtalks Johnny]
Dave: Your life is a Lego Movie.
Johnny: Right, exactly. Like that could be what it is. Yes, everything I do is great, when it actually doesn’t.
So there’s that and of course the bit about something actually needs to happen in the story, you can’t just have a cool situation.
If this is Speed on a bus, or no, wait, Speed is Die Hard on a bus. You need a Die Hard but you also needed something to happen. Okay, that was a terrible metaphor. You get the idea. You need action.
Dave: Going back to that a little bit, where you had these people in a room and nothing was happening, do you approach the characters differently now? You’re not relying on Sean to put words and thoughts in these people’s heads. You’re coming up with stuff yourself.
How exactly do you feel that that happened?
Johnny: You’re right, I’m not relying on Sean to put thoughts and actions into characters’ heads. As a matter of fact at this point if I want to not get mired on a book, I need to remind myself to not second guess everything that he does and to just kind of keep moving and to honestly trust his beats more.
But I default in the other direction. I default toward taking the vague idea that we’re going to do and saying okay, I know the two story lines I’m supposed to be following, so let me keep checking in with this person on this side and what are his motivations.
So I think it comes down to just understanding that having the action and then the reaction of that progression of a story, like there’s a scene and then people react to it, and understanding that every character needs to have logical obstacles that they can surmount not by luck but because they’ve worked their way around it, I think that’s something that is a constant question for when I’m in a scene, and how to thematically tie things together too.
So we had a recent book where there was a bunch of really interesting story lines but they were totally separate, and we were in a meeting and I said to Sean well, this is kind of interesting that we have Story Line A and Story Line B but they don’t actually intersect so are we writing something where there’s parallel stories or do these actually bear on one another?
So a lot of what I do as I’m writing now is to start looking for ways to comb things together so that if something in Story Line A is as it is, it needs to affect Story Line B, otherwise why am I even talking about either of them.
So I think a lot of trying to braid characters together and look at their motivations and how they can overcome them.
I mean it feels very Story 101 to me, but I think that a lot of that character work and saying how do I make something relevant that was mentioned earlier in a book, how do I make it relevant, that keeps stories moving forward for me now.
Dave: Okay. Let’s say if right now whatever money you need for the rest of your life you have, what would you do differently? Would you still be writing books? Would you take up another art? Would you write different sorts of books? What would you do artistically?
Johnny: Well, I’d certainly move. The big theme right now is getting me to Austin, Texas which is where Sean is and that is going to be Sterling and Stone HQ, which means that eventually we’re going to have to get you there.
Dave: Men and black bags.
Johnny: Yes, they’re just going to have to drag you over. So that’s for sure, and I think that is a creative thing because it is a more creative vibrant city than where I am now. There’s not a lot of people like me where I am right now.
But other than that I honestly, and I know this is kind of a cliché or maybe even a hokey answer, but I don’t really know that I’d change much.
I think that I would get admin off of my desk more than it is, but that’s already in the works.
So we have people working for us that handle stuff like the stuff I mentioned I was doing on the weekends, like compiling books, and doing formatting, and changing prices. That’s the sort of thing that help would be able to do.
And the only thing that limits it is that we just have to watch how we use the people we have because money isn’t unlimited.
But honestly I don’t think I would change – I’m looking at my shelf right now and I don’t think I’d write different things.
It’s still my favorite book and we’re writing another one coming up in a few weeks, few months I guess. I’ve never really written anything for money. We have our more commercial and our less commercial books but then I wouldn’t flip flop it and say well, I’ve all the money in the world but I only write Axis.
No, I’d still want to write the bigger grossing titles. I’d still want to write the Invasion series.
So, I don’t know that a lot would change. I think that I would have a nicer office. I think I would travel more. I think I would have more vacations. I think I would have cars that aren’t falling apart, which both of mine currently are.
But I don’t think that much would change in what I do.
I think it would be a next level. I think I’d be looking at things like well, how can we write screenplays. But that just feels like natural evolution to me.
Dave: I would have a castle and a moat. That’s the only thing I would change.
Johnny: Right. And what’s more creative than that?
Dave: Last question, we are at number eight proper, although I asked sub-questions. This is Eight Questions so I ask eight main questions, so this is the last one.
Johnny: Okay. I’ll let it fly.
Dave: What do you want your legacy to be?
Johnny: I just want to be a storyteller.
Right now that means writing books. But I think that long-term it’s about the stories that we tell, and there’s sort of a sub-set to that too. I think that good stories are instructive.
You actually mentioned – see, this is fun because we’re broadcasting for other people but this is just like a conversation with you and me too.
You had mentioned about the Netflix show Sense8 by the Wachowski brothers, about how there were a lot of – I want to use that one specifically where you said that Larry who became Lana Wachowski is transgender and there’s gay characters and a transgender character.
And it was like this under the radar way of exposing people to things that they might have not considered or been opposed to in a way that hopefully isn’t heavy handed because it’s sort of mainstreams like just an alternate point of view.
Johnny: And I think that when you do things like that it’s kind of a way to talk about issues without being pompous because this isn’t the intention, it’s just by the way.
Dead City, the zombie book makes some social commentary.
And I think that any good story will do that, and so I like the idea of getting people thinking while also entertaining people.
And so the more stories we can tell, whether they’re in books, whether they’re in movies, whether they’re around a campfire, if the stories that I tell evoke people’s thoughts, different and hopefully in an improved way about the things they take for granted, I think that’s a good legacy to have.
Dave: All right. Well thank you. I appreciate getting to know you over the course of these past few years with Self Publishing Podcast and that other show we won’t name.
You’ve inspired me a lot and you really keep me on my game. If you weren’t around, then you know Sean would pretty much be stuck writing very slowly.
Johnny: Well, I’m the moderated Sean. Thank you for that. I think that Sean is the pure Id version of something and I think I probably bring it to like, okay, you don’t need to be quite that crazy. You can be in the middle.
Dave: All right, thank you all for reading. Take care, see you next time.