Monday, October 10, 2016

Interview: Greg Barth

In case you didn't know, Greg Barth is a juggernaut in independent publishing. He sells more Selena books in one month than most of us will sell in our entire lives. When I saw him mention outlining on Facebook, I thought it might be interesting to hear more about his writing process. I sent him some questions, and here are the fascinating answers he provided:

1. You’ve stated you use the Save the Cat! beat sheet to outline your books. How close do you stick to Snyder’s beat sheet? Do you ever switch anything up in the beat sheet? About how long does it take you to get the outline to a point where you’re ready to write a book? How thorough would you say your outlines are when you’re ready to write a book?

I don't stick very close to it. I think it's a good guide as to whether or not I have enough story to begin writing, but I never nail down all 15 beats. To me, building a story and writing the story are two separate actions. Before I begin writing, I like to have what I think of as "three big scenes". Those scenes are usually violent and emotionally charged, and those are the scenes I write toward and look forward to getting to. Those scenes would be the break from act one to act two, the midpoint, and then a break into act three. I want each of those scenes to change the direction of the story. I come up with those scenes by thinking about them while driving each day. Once I have those, it's a matter of figuring out how to get things started in an interesting way. 

I don't do any writing until I have a good bit of the story figured out. I am not the kind of person who can sit and make something up by writing. If I don't have enough story to excite me to write, then it's not time to write yet. I spend a lot more time playing with the story in my head than it takes me to write the book. This usually takes a few weeks or months. The outlining only takes a couple of days. When I do sit down to actually write the book, it usually only takes me two weeks or so to have a draft complete. 

I never outline the last 25% of the book. Sometimes I have an idea of where I want it to end, but more often than not, that's just the closing scene, not the climax of the story. My outline for act three usually just says, "she murders everyone" or something along those lines. 

Also, while it's not one of the beats, Blake Snyder talks about the crucial "Save the Cat" scene. That's the scene where the protagonist does a kindness, and it helps endear them to the reader. I never include that scene. My character is just not that kind of person. 

2. How much prewriting do you do with respect to characters? Do you write thorough biographies for each one? Do you have a list of questions you answer for each character? How much thought goes into minor characters before you write a book?

I don't do any prewritimg of characters. I find that I grow bored with secondary characters, so it's rare that I have on in more than a single book. Some of them get killed off, others just fall by the wayside between books. When I think up a secondary character, I want there to be a contrast with my main character. They don't have to be polar opposites necessarily, but it helps if there is enough diffference to drive tension. 

3. Outlining seems to be a choice some writers make while others (including, apparently, Stephen King) don’t believe in outlining. For writers just cutting their teeth and getting started, can you make an argument for why outlining is necessary? Have you ever tried to write a novel without first outlining? How did that go?

I think you have to find what works for you. I just can't sit down and make up a story by writing it. I have to build the story in my head first until I get something I am excited enough to write about. I think of myself as a story builder first and foremost. Writing the story is just a medium to get it told. I enjoy the writing itself, but it's always about the story, not so much the writing. I'll never be one to put in a lot of detailed description or cool metaphors or any other poetic devices. I just want to tell the story in a straightforward manner. 

I can't think of a time that I wrote something without at least a mental outline. Road Carnage gave me quite a bit of trouble even with outlines. I completely scrapped everything and started from scratch five times. Each of those five versions are very different. I started off writing a meandering road novel, something along the lines of On the Road. That just didn't work. I tried writing it with a different protagonist from a third person POV. Scrapped that too. It wasn't until I had a strong outer motivation and high stakes that drove a fast paced story that I had any success with writing it. Once I had that, the story basically wrote itself over about two weeks. I think of Road Carnage as one of the hardest novels I've written and also among the easiest. Once I had the right story, it all clicked into place. 

4. What do you say to those who argue following a template just produces the same story over and over again?

I think that is a possibility if you are too rigid with your outline. Story structure is important to me, but structure is not the story itself. There's an endless variety of ways to make the framework suit almost any story. But at the same time, you have to go with your gut and do what feels right for the particular story. Once I am actually doing the writing, I don't think so much about the outline anyway. 

5. The Selena books have been amazingly successful. Without giving away anything top secret, can you tell us steps you took to make sure word about your book got out there?

I wish there was a top secret, but there isn't. I start with trying to write the most exciting story that I can. And then I make every effort to be accessible. I am fortunate enough that a few readers have reached out to me. I don't think being a writer is that big of a deal, I don't think of my readers as "fans", and I try to never talk down to them. Part of an entertainer is just being nice. I try to engage on social media with readers, and I enjoy getting to know them. 

I've been very fortunate in getting a number of kind reviews for the series, but there's no real secret. I just try to be out there and engage where I can, whether it is on Facebook, or at Noir at the Bar, or wherever. 

I post about the books fairly frequently in social media, especially if a new volume is out, or there's a review to share.

I'd like to thank Greg for taking the time to answer my questions and I encourage anyone who hasn't read his work to fix that situation ASAP.