How do you measure the success of a book? How many copies sold? How much money it made?
As authors, it’s tempting to reach for these obvious metrics. But can the number of copies sold really quantify the life-changing power of your book? Author and writing coach David Hazard says that too often, we get so hung up on the conventional measures of success, that we forget about what really matters.
In this episode of The BookWorthy Show, Simon sits down with David to discuss the importance of finding time to write, spending your time on the things that ultimately matter, and how, ultimately, having a “bestselling book” may be overrated.
Simon: Welcome to the BookWorthy.com podcast. Every week, we bring inspiring interviews from incredible self-published authors just like you. My name is Simon Villeneuve and I will be your host. Whether you know it or not, your story is worth publishing. That’s why it’s our goal to help aspiring authors, storytellers, and entrepreneurs just like you learn how to write and publish a physical book that people will want to buy, they’ll want to read, and they’ll truly want to share. It’s great to have you with us. Let’s get started.
All right, David, welcome to the show. It’s so good to have you.
David Hazard: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Simon: Awesome. How are you doing today?
David Hazard: I’m doing very well. I’ve just completed leading a writing retreat that I lead every year up in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, and it was just beautiful weather. Writers flew in from all over the country. Books get started, books get finished, so I’m happy. I’m a happy coach.
Simon: That’s really great. I’m looking at your Amazon Author profile here, and you’ve written and self-published a handful of books, but you also coach, and like you were just telling me, your writing retreat. You do both things, right?
David Hazard: I do. I’ve published 30-some books with publishers. I’m about to do some self-publishing, but the books that I have in print are with commercial publishers. I work with authors who, both, aim at publishing with commercial publishing ventures or self-publishing.
Simon: Okay. You’ve been traditionally publishing for your whole life, and you’re just getting into self-publishing.
David Hazard: Well, I’ve been actually working with people in self-publishing for quite some time before there was print on demand. Ten years ago when I was working with people, we had to find a printing company, authors had to purchase a minimum of 3,000 to 5,000 books. It was a very expensive venture. Now, self-publishing is incredibly streamlined because of print on demand delivery systems like CreateSpace, Amazon, Lightning Source. Yeah, it’s a phenomenal enterprise now that we didn’t have 10 or 15 years ago.
Simon: Wow. Would you say that it used to be easier to traditionally publish than it was to self-publish, and now it’s easier to self-publish than traditionally publish?
David Hazard: Well, to break that apart, it was not easier to self-publish, but it was viable to self-publish if you had an organization, or you had a constituency, or a readership of 5,000 or 10,000 people. Then it was more economically feasible, even though it was more time-consuming, there were more steps involved, it involved press runs, and having books shipped to you. But you could make more money if you were an organization, or, as I said, had some kind of constituency because you could get books for three or four bucks apiece and sell them for $15 to $20 apiece. You can do the math.
Now, it really depends on the author because to self-publish really requires a lot of time and energy, not just to write the book and get it designed, but then to support the book with a marketing effort, which, of course, is what publishers traditionally do or at least they used to do the majority of it.
Simon: Wow. Yeah, it’s definitely a bigger endeavor. You maybe have to wear more hats as a self-published author, huh?
David Hazard: Yeah, all of them, more and all. When you set out to write and self-publish a book, I always encourage authors to think about it this way. Writing the book is like the first marathon. You finish it and you think, wow, I’ve completed a manuscript, and I’ve got the design done, and I’ve got page design, and now I’ve got a book in my hand. And then it’s like, well, like having your first baby, like, whoa, what do I do with this now? How do I parent this? And then you start the second marathon.
And so I encourage people, when I coach authors, I take them through some questions that help them decide whether or not they’re really cut out to do self-publishing because it’s like a part-time job. It is work and it requires some different skills that you didn’t have even as an author. They’re all learnable. People can be easily trained. It’s a question of whether or not you want to do it or you want to license your book to somebody else and have them do the marketing for you.
Simon: Okay. Tell me a little bit more about you before we dive too deep here. Give me and our audience some context into your life. What does life look like? What does family look like? Tell us about your business and what work looks like.
David Hazard: Sure, okay. Well, I am a father of three kids, three adult children, I should say, 36, 34, and 28. Two of them are married. One is engaged to be married, my daughter. So they’re all living out of the house. I live on my own now. I could really make a good recluse because I love to write and I love to spend time working on my business. I can go a couple of days and I squint outside at the sun and go, “Oh my god, what’s the bright thing in the sky?” But I’ve written and I enjoy what I do.
So my life is divided between my writing. I spend two weeks writing, two weeks at the beginning of each month, and then two weeks at the end of each month coaching, so that brings me to the coaching.
I got into publishing in 1978, was very fortunate to be hired as an editorial director by two couples who were very successful writing couples, who had founded a publishing company, and they were looking for a, then, young guy to groom in the world of publishing. I said, “Me, me. Pick me, coach.” I was very fortunate and went to work for this company.
Without going into a lot of detail, I’ll tell you how I got to do what I’m doing today, and that’s this. In 1978, you could have picked up the phone, called my company and asked for the editorial director, and if I was not in a meeting, I’d be on the phone with you and maybe we’d talk for a half an hour, an hour about your book. If I liked the idea, I’d help groom you, and shape the manuscript, and bring it in-house and present it to the publishing committee. You would’ve gotten a lot of time in mentoring.
Try calling a publishing company today.
Simon: You’re not gonna get anybody, right?
David Hazard: I’m not gonna get anybody. And now, unfortunately, so I’ve watched from 1978 until now, or actually about seven or eight years ago when I formed my company, Ascent, which is what I call a prep school for authors. I watched, during that time, publishing companies get further, and further, and further away from authors to the point where I stepped back and I said, “This is ridiculous.” In the publishing world, the tradition was to mentor authors. Now, you can’t even get a literary agent half the time without being recommended by one of their authors. What happened? What happened was this. The editorial tradition got compressed by marketing. See, marketing is all about monkey see, monkey do, how little money could we put into a project and how much profit can we get out of it?
So to fast forward, long answer to a short question, what happened was that marketing pushed the editorial tradition aside. I stood there and looked at this about seven years ago when I had people coming to me saying, “Can you coach my wife? Can you coach my husband, my daughter, my nephew?” I realized that I had all the makings to take people from the idea in their head all the way through to a finished manuscript, from there through to pitch and proposal, professionally done research as to how to find a literary agent and a publisher, and to help them create a strategy and a plan to break into publishing, which is when I started what I do now, which I mentioned, is called Ascent Coaching. It’s an international coaching program.
With the two weeks that I’m not writing my own, working on a four novel series right now, two weeks when I’m not doing that, I’m coaching authors all over the world. Right now, I have an author in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Wales, all throughout the United States, one in Brazil, and probably somebody else I lost on the globe somewhere. That’s what I do.
Simon: Wow. Where do you find writers to work with, like, internationally? How do you get in touch with them, start to work with them?
David Hazard: Well, for me, I was fortunate because I did have this history with a very successful publishing company. One of my first books, which was published in 1984, had chugged on for years and years and is now in 29 languages and published in 29 countries around the world. There were a lot of connections through that publishing and through the publishing company that I worked with, and I live outside Washington, D.C., so I do a lot of public speaking in the greater Washington metro area.
I’m talking in a public library, three months ago, this is an example. This woman is sitting in the front row, just with a headband on, and blue jeans, and a T-shirt and a vest. When the talk is over, she comes up and talks to me and says her name and that she’s the head of an international watchdog group that is keeping an eye on the rights of women in Muslim countries. She’s from Afghanistan and she’s about to be nominated to a UN committee, so there you go. That’s the Washington, D.C. area for you.
Simon: I guess it’s a small world or something. I mean, holy cow.
David Hazard: Well, it’s an incredible crossroads for people who are doing all kinds of work, whether it’s work on social issues, work on governmental, political issues, entertainment. It’s a great crossroads. I landed in the right spot, I guess.
Simon: That’s awesome, wow. I really want to hear about your writing track and the process you take these authors through. But first, let’s talk about the authors, themselves. Where are people at in their life, in their book-writing process, in their idea? These people that you work with, where are they when you meet them?
David Hazard: Often when I meet people, they have a dream and a spark of an idea. Sometimes that’s it. And so for somebody who is at that very raw beginning, I always tell them that’s what you need. That’s all you need. You need to have an aspiration and you need to have an idea that connects with an audience. What I look for, even if it’s just the raw spark of an idea, what I look for is what I call the common human denominator.
You and I are obviously different ages probably by several decades, but if we’re both dads, I don’t know if you are, but if we’re both dads, there’s a band of experience and a band of our soul that we share. We both want the best for our kids. Sorry.
The whole notion that we connect as human beings around so many things that go deeper than our skin is very big and powerful with me. When I found that, what I call, the human common denominator, I know that I’ve hit cruising altitude because it doesn’t matter what the exterior looks like. What matters is that we’re all searching for connection. That’s what I look for in somebody’s idea and in their book project.
Then from there, sorry, I’m one of those guys.
Simon: Don’t worry about it. You’re great.
David Hazard: What I look for from there is somebody’s willingness to roll up their sleeves, and really work, and let me take them through tutorials, I have deconstructed narrative writing, essay writing, and to take them to help them build their book from the ground up because if you set out with just an idea and you don’t have any structure and you don’t have any plan, you’re gonna ride your writing bicycle off into the weeds. In about 30 pages, you’re gonna go, where the heck am I going? Why did I even bother? I help people build from that foundation, and I find the person who gets it, who realizes that their important and powerful under structures that undergird, for instance, all narratives. Once they catch hold of that idea, then we can work together to build their, let’s say, narrative from the ground up.
One example I like to use when I’m introducing the concept to people who come to me with a raw idea is this. The same understructure that undergirds The Merchant of Venice also undergirds the first Die Hard movie. If I could teach you how to build a story from those under structures, you’re in. What I’m looking for is not to just coach you to finish a manuscript. I’m coaching you to become a writer. I want to teach you all the important elements that go into making a writer a writer.
Someone said to me years ago, when my kids were little, “You’re not raising children. You’re raising adults.”
Simon: Yeah, totally.
David Hazard: Set your eye on that goal. When I work with authors, I’m not coaching you to finish a manuscript. I’m coaching to make you a writer. That’s the approach that I take.
Simon: Wow. I mean, that’s amazing. I think it’s easy to focus on the tactics of the writing process, or do this and don’t do this, or prepare this way, or make sure you do this for your outline, but maybe what’s even more important than those things is that, are you an author? Are you ready? Are you personally prepared, right? Tell me more about that, and what specific things do you do to help writers become authors?
David Hazard: Sure. One of the things that I do upfront is we do, what I call, help them assess their life and the time space continuum that they occupy to acquire, what I call, writer’s real estate. This gets very much into coaching somebody about their life, about their head space because writers that fail, they fail because of what’s going on here and here, maybe not so much their technique, but the issues that go on inside of them. We go through and we talk through, what are the things inside of you? What are the energies at work that could pull you out of creative head space? We talk about life details. How do you manage those?
Two biggies, universal, we talk about the inner judge and the inner critic. The inner critic will attack your words and your sentences. “This sucks. Rewrite this paragraph. It’s terrible.” To the inner critic, we say, “Shut up and go away.” It’s a draft.
I teach my authors to approach their first work as, I call it, the zero draft, not even the first draft, just the zero draft. When I’m drafting my novels, I may throw in description here, this bracket, come back later, conversation. One of my early writing mentors taught me that the first draft that you complete is perfect just because it exists, just because you got to the finish line.
In my healthier, younger, slimmer days, I used to run marathons. Believe me, the first marathon I ran was not pretty. We talk about interior space. I also help them to really assess their time. When are you gonna do this? What are you willing to pay out of your life to buy that space and time? I don’t know any adult, any adult from whatever, 20 and up, who doesn’t have a packed schedule. We do priority assessment. Can you step aside from this group? If you’re volunteering, can you step aside from that for a year or a year and a half? What’s priority?
And then we look at our junk spending. A lot of us blow cash on stuff. A lot of us blow time on stuff. I say to people, “This is pretty stark, but would you rather be on your deathbed and say that you watched every episode of Game of Thrones or Downton Abbey?” Would you rather say, “I spent my time doing that.” Or, I paid for that space by getting rid of that stuff and bought the time to write my work? Because, I’m really insistent on this upfront process because writing a book, I refer to writing a book as a long meditation in the same direction. Meditation is a simple process. It’s bringing your mind back over, and over, and over again to one thought, one focus. That’s really all meditation is.
But if you’ve got, what the East calls, monkey mind, which is all over the place, you can’t focus. You really need to open up the space time continuum to make head space, to spend the time focused on your work. Really, I think a very great writer, Annie Dillard, she won a Pulitzer Prize for her first book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, back in the ’70s at something like 24-years-old. In her book on writing, she says, “If you’re gonna write, you have to go at your life with a broad ax.” I thought, wow, kind of says it. That’s the first thing, is I help people assess that time.
I am in it to coach people ’cause I want them to experience success. I don’t want to start coaching somebody who gets two or three months into it and they didn’t count the cost, they didn’t pay the junk stuff out of their life, and they feel like a failure. That’s to no one’s benefit.
Simon: Not at all. I love this, David. It’s so great. I mean, even in our course, we go over the idea that people watch, on average, about five hours of TV everyday, which is a lot. That’s like a part-time job. You said it, self-publishing, itself, is like a part-time job. And so, how can you expect to make your dreams a reality when you’re not willing to do what it takes? There’s this process of pruning your life that you have to go through, which is just, it’s hard, but you gotta do it, right?
David Hazard: It is. Thanks for underscoring all this because you’re absolutely 100% right. Here’s the thing that I’ve learned after coaching people now for 38 years, is that most of the time, I’m coaching resistances that they’re not even aware of.
Simon: Oh, wow, yeah.
David Hazard: On the subject that we’re talking about right now, see, the resistance is, well, I worked all day, and I’ve come home, and I feel fatigued. My resistance to doing more work is, well, I worked all day. I have this little bit of fatigue, but you know what? I love to . . . The kind of exercise I can do now with the certain health conditions that I have is really just walking.
Simon: Oh, yeah.
David Hazard: Walking really fast, walking hard, building up a sweat. I can tell you, after coaching people from sometimes five in the morning until 5:30 or 6:00 in the evening, 12 hour shifts, this voice in my head says, “Lay down. Get a tub of ice cream.” I don’t own a TV, but I can find YouTube. It’s the resistance. It’s the same resistance everybody else feels. I always tell myself, when you do this, when you get going, the energy will return, and that is the truth. You can feel fatigued, you can feel mentally fatigued, but I’ll tell you what. If I step into the world of the novels that I’m working on, the energy returns. You know why? Because it’s something I love.
When you’ve got that enthusiasm for what you’re doing, the energy will come back.
Sometimes, it’s stepping back and watching. What are those little voices in our head telling us that create resistance? What can we do? How can we create a work around or a flow through, I call it, how can we create a flow through to get back into that space that we really want to be in? Otherwise, what we do is we just keep, it’s like digging a rut in our soul or like digging a wheel into mud. Well, I’ll get to it tomorrow. That’s called procrastination. You’re gonna be fatigued tomorrow, too. Learn how to step through it today.
I want to coach people to success. Often in the course of coaching people for a year, they just will say, “Wow, this really just changed my whole life because I had to encounter things inside myself I didn’t even know were there.”
Simon: That’s crazy.
David Hazard: We haven’t even gotten to technique yet.
Simon: Yeah, right. That’s just step one. That’s the preface, right? Yeah, well, let’s talk about the S word, the success word here.
David Hazard: Sure, yeah.
Simon: I call marketing “the M word” and success “the S word” because they’re kind of these terms that sometimes we don’t know what to do with, or that mean different things to different people, or are too intense for us to approach. Let’s talk about success. How do you help people find what success means to them?
David Hazard: Yeah, well, I always tell the people that I coach, if you’re gonna step up to the plate with me coaching you, I’m gonna coach you to swing for the fence.
We’re gonna find, number one, the common human denominator because that determines your audience. You and I don’t have a universal audience, but we have a specific audience who is ready and waiting. When they get a clear and strong and direct signal from us through our book, one that raises questions or interests that they have, as soon as you hear or see something you’re interested in, you are, oh wait, I want to hear what this is about or I want to read this. It’s about focusing. For some people, it’s about, in that focus, they discover their voice. For the first time, they really are able to say out loud what they truly believe.
So many of us were trained not to say out loud what we think or what we truly believe. You might be a liberal in a conservative family, a conservative in a liberal family. You might be in a religious group where you are not allowed to think these things out loud, or to speculate, or have speculative spirituality. So, you’re not gonna give a very strong signal. You’re not gonna find your voice if you haven’t, what I call, cross the river into your own adulthood and own that voice, own that space. That’s the first level of success, is this is who I am. This is what I have to say. It’s like your batting stance. Once you’re solid in your square, you can swing for the fence.
The next thing that we do is we bring on the level of coaching technique ’cause, of course, the goal is to create a book that people will say, “Once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down.” What you don’t want is to have people say, “Once I put it down, I couldn’t pick it up.” Right?
Simon: Right, yeah.
David Hazard: I begin with tutorials where I take them through structure and we begin to build out the outline or blueprint. I call it a blueprint because I think in terms of a house that you don’t jump in your car and run out to Home Depot the first time you think, I’m gonna build a house. You spend a couple of months with an architect and lay out a lot of blueprints so you can actually get the plumbing up to the second floor. We spend a lot of time on that. That’s, again, where I get some resistance from authors because they’re like, oh, I hate outlining. I hate blueprinting. It’s one of the biggest secrets of success, is to know where the heck you’re going.
And then beyond that, we get into talking about how do you create a chapter, how do you structure a chapter, how do you structure scenes? There’s a certain art to creating a good scene to make a scene work. I take them through different levels of the training. Then beyond that, from while we’re working on the book, we’re already looking, what I call, out beyond the fence. We’re looking out at, who are the publishers? Who are the audiences? Where are the markets? Where are people going to find the kind of book that you’re writing?
I think recently, you interviewed one of my authors, Dan Sheehan, brilliant writer, hard worker, my gosh, what a hard-working writer this guy is. We realized from the beginning when he first came to me, he had a book of war stories. Actually, he’ll laugh today when we talk about this. I said, “Dan, you don’t have a book here.” I get this look from this trained Marine. I told him, “Later, I realized, Dan, you could’ve killed me with a pizza box, but . . . ”
Simon: Yeah, right.
David Hazard: But we dug in. What we found was that Dan had come back from two tours of duty in Iraq with no scars, a bronze star, and a pretty strong case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
At first, Dan said that he wasn’t willing to talk about that. I said, “Why not?” Here’s the resistance. He said, “Because I had buddies who didn’t come back. I had buddies who came back without limbs. Look at me. I don’t have a scratch. What do I have to say?” Right in that moment of our editorial discussion, this phrase jumped out of my mouth. I said, “Dan, not all wounds are visible.” That’s the back cover headline on his book because, see, the audience of that book is this huge range of people, whether they’re first responders, or they’re veterans, or they’re families who, from the outside, they look okay, but inwardly, they know something is wrong. As soon as they pick up that signal, not all wounds are visible, they zero in.
I take them through this process of finding what’s the strong signal and who is your audience? Then as I was saying 10 minutes ago, we find the organizations. Dan is a shoo-in to speak at Wounded Warriors, Healing Waters, other veterans organizations because that’s where people are going to look for help, the VA. That’s what I think of as the process of helping my authors find success. It’s not just delivering a good manuscript. It’s in really anticipating where your audience pool is gonna start.
If I could add one more example, the first book I wrote in 1984, wrote it in ’83, I went and lived in a Palestinian Christian village in Israel and worked with a guy who, since then, has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize two times. His name is Elias Chacour. The book is called, Blood Brothers. That book was a bit out of head of its wave because at that time, nobody was interested, really, in reading about Palestinians. We only had a couple of decades of hearing about Palestinian terrorists. What do you mean a Palestinian peacemaker? That just didn’t go into people’s head. They couldn’t get that.
We put the book out. The marketing department hated it because book stores were sending it back in cartons. “We don’t want this book.” They don’t like this book. Fortunately, the publisher, who was over me at the publishing company, fought the marketing department every time they said, “We want to drop this book from its list.” Then what happened was the Quaker peace groups found it, Presbyterian peace groups found it. It found the right pond to drop the stone in. From those peace organizations, it slowly began to spread out.
Here’s the last thing I’ll say about success. We’re very naive. That’s us. We’re humans. We’re very impatient. That’s us. We’re humans. We want to publish the book. If it’s not on the Amazon’s best-seller list in six months, it’s a failure. We want to walk away from it. There are lots of different sales trends. This book went out for four years dipping, dipping, dipping, dipping, and then it’s climbed. This book has sold, I don’t know how many hundred thousand copies in the last 100 years. It’s never been on a best seller list. My name is not a household name. I don’t care because the measure of success for that book was that it got out to its audience and it goes on, and on, and on. To this day, I’ll encounter people who will be talking about this book. I’ll say, well, I actually ghost wrote that book. It changed their life. It changed their perspective on the Middle East. That, to me, is success, one measure of success.
Simon: That’s awesome, yeah. I mean, this is really great, David. It’s like your story, when you’re writing your story, it’s easy to think about, like, oh, this has got to go out to the entire world, or I’ve got to share this with everybody, or it has to hit a best seller list. You get in this mode of everyone and everything, right?
David Hazard: Yeah.
Simon: Instead of thinking, maybe I should write to myself, or who is just like me, who has the same experience deep down that I have that I can tell a story to. Maybe I can just get it into their hands, right?
David Hazard: Yeah, absolutely. That notion of you drop a pebble in the pond, it’s not gonna cause a tsunami right away. There are other books that are out there, The Shack, you published The Shack and that trucked along out there for several years, and then bam. It sort of hit a zeitgeist and took off. You can look at a number of books that did that and didn’t necessarily hit that huge visible best-seller status. It’s like, believe me, I would love to have books on The New York Times Best Seller list. I’m not denigrating or knocking that at all, but that can’t be our only measure of success as writers. It can’t be, because otherwise, we’re gonna be horrendously disappointed over and over again.
Out of the 30-some books that I published since 1978, I had a whole series of books that I published that wound up selling about 300,000 copies, started another series in a totally different genre with a different publisher, and the books were going out of print before I even finished the series. It’s like you have to have this long-term vision. You’re right. You have to find that thing inside of you that is your fire. The website name for my business is SpreadYourFire.net.
Number one, if you don’t just live out of that passion as a human, you’re missing a lot. But as a writer, you have to find the things that you are fascinated with. Sometimes, the person who is the overnight best seller has been at it for 10 years. It may take a while to get there.
Simon: It takes a while to get there. Wow, that’s awesome. Thanks for sharing that. So we’ve talked about personal preparation. You kind of briefly mentioned outlining and some of those items. As you’re walking people through the writing track and the process, where do you take them after personal preparation? What do they need to be thinking about?
David Hazard: Let’s focus it in on narrative writing. Let’s say fiction, narrow it down to that.
I really encourage people to really understand their character and to cast their novel. I teach in terms of energies. Your protagonist is the plus energy. They’re the spark plug that drives the novel. They have a motive that they have to achieve. What makes the novel interesting is, what are the negative forces that are gonna be pushing against them? It’s a football game. Your protagonist has to go 10 yards down and then get sacked 12 yards back in order for it to be interesting. We think through, and I don’t really care what the puppet play is on the surface, how you dress up your characters, but you have to know who is there in support of your character. Who’s on his side or her side? What are the plus energies and then the minus energies? And then you can dress them up.
I, personally, go through magazines until I find somebody, an image in an advertisement and I go, oh my gosh, that’s gonna be Steve. He’s gonna be my Afghanistan war veteran. I don’t know why. Because the more you can visualize and begin to build out your writing space, I have a whole wall, and I encourage my authors to have a character wall. Have images, have statements about who they are, what their motive is, and what their problem is. Every single one of us has inner resistances. We call them character flaws. I call them the undeveloped area.
Then, we work on, as I said, we work on the outline. Then beyond that, when we step into the drafting, that’s when I say by this point, your head should be really engulfed with a lot of good turning creative energy that you’re finally bringing to the page.
If you don’t understand your characters, if you don’t understand their problem, if you don’t understand the obstacles and how they’re gonna get around those obstacles, you really don’t understand your story.
I coach from more of an energetic approach because, as I said, it’s like watching a football game. It’s gotta be forward and back. Otherwise, the game ain’t interesting.
Simon: Totally. Yeah, okay, so character development, whether you’re developing a storyline, whether you’re telling your own story, whether you’re writing somebody else’s story, it gets complicated and it gets hard. I don’t know. From my experience, you can tend to get lost in your own work. I mean, you obviously coach writers as they go through the process. Do you encourage them to build a support team around themselves? I guess, how do you encourage authors to not give up?
David Hazard: We’ll get to that second part of what you said in a second, but it’s really understanding your story arch. Every story has a beginning. If you plant the right story question that leads me through the plot, then there’s an implication of what the answer is gonna be. A simple example is, you drop a dead body in the floor in the Louvre Museum, you know by the end of the story, your contract with the reader is, I’ll reveal who the murderer was. You have to have that directionality. If you’re working with a character who has a flaw, you need to know what their problem is and how it’s gonna work out. It really begins with the work of the author, knowing those important basics about their story.
Beyond that, it really does help to have a support team. I encourage my authors to set really good healthy boundaries. That doesn’t mean kind of getting negative with people, pushing people away. You can do it differently. You can say to your friends, “I write. I really need my writing space protected. I write from this time to this time. Man, I would really appreciate it if you’d give me space during that time.”
I trained my young children to do this when I started working at home. I started working at home a month before my daughter was born in a loft over a family room. If my little kids can be trained to maintain boundaries, so can your friends and your family. People like it. Rather than saying, “Hey, you’re bugging me, don’t call me,” say, “I want you on my support team.” There’s boundary protection. Beyond that, look for people who you can go to to help you with aspects of your story.
I mentioned that I’m working on this four novel series. Dan Sheehan, who I mentioned, is my go-to guy when I need to know something about the Marines. I’ve got a plot problem or a character issue, what would my character, Steve, really value that’s gonna get stolen from him during the course of the first novel? Dan said, bam, this. If you lose this, man, as a Marine, you’re really gonna be ticked.
I have a wildlife veterinarian, actually two of them, behind me because one of my characters is a wildlife doctor. They’re my go-to support people when I need to know good information. That’s, really, another good means of support.
I’m gonna say something that’s gonna sound heretical to a lot of people out there in the writing world. I’m really not big on community writing groups, unless there’s a really good moderator. Over the years, I’ve experienced, they’ve had me come in and speak and I’ve observed these groups and operation. You’ve always got somebody who’s gonna say, “I would’ve written it this way.” Okay, that’s fine, but I’m not you. It is not helpful.
You want to find a group that can give you constructive critique. Here’s how you help ensure that. You can actually prompt a group in the right direction by saying, “I’m gonna read you a scene. My intention in this scene is to make you laugh,” or, “My intention in this scene is to build tension or to throw you off, make you really like this character who is a rat because I want you to trust and like this character ’cause later on, they’re gonna stab my guy in the back.” You declare your intention.
Then, see, people have an objective standard from which to reply. If you just hand your manuscript to people or just read it to them and say, “What do you think?” You’re gonna get the nice people who say, “Oh, I liked it.” That doesn’t help. You’re gonna get a person who says, “I would’ve written it this way,” and that doesn’t help, either. You’re looking for good constructive criticism. I mean, there’s several different ways there that you could structure kind of a support team around you. I hope those are helpful.
Simon: Yeah, totally, because a support group, those people aren’t really invested in you. I mean, like you said, they actually don’t really care. They can say, “I would’ve done it this way,” or, “That’s dumb,” or whatever and it doesn’t matter ’cause they may or they may never see you again. But, your close friends and family or colleagues are invested with you and there’s a reputation. There’s accountability where if you are able to bring them in and just continue to build that relationship, they will provide, actually, probably good feedback for you.
David Hazard: Yeah, yeah. As I said, giving them context, just reading a scene and saying, “Tell me what you think,” well, I’m not sure. What happens before and after this?
Like I said, if this guy is gonna turn out to be a rat, how did I do with making him look like a good guy? Wow, it worked. I think he’s great. Good. I told you, that was my intention. Absolutely, what you said, that to find people who are invested, not just emotionally ’cause they like you, but people who are invested because they begin to understand the story, that’s a big investment.
Yeah, and you find there’s a small group of people around you who will really go the distance with you. I’m very fortunate to have some of those folks. I’ll read a piece of writing that’s new and somebody will say, “Well, wait a minute. I thought that this character, the last time you read me a scene, this character was this way.” Like, wow, they remembered. Like you said, they’re invested. That’s gold. That’s real gold.
Simon: That’s awesome, wow. You talk a lot about fiction writing and character development. Do you do non-fiction? Have you written non-fiction? Do you coach non-fiction clients, as well?
David Hazard: I do. I teach several different kinds of essay structure. One of the big genres these days is what’s called creative non-fiction. That doesn’t mean that you make up facts. It’s kind of a blend of fiction and fact. For example, there’s a wonderful book that’s called, Your Inner Fish. It was written by a guy who’s sort of a paleobiologist. He set out to find . . . He wanted to see if he could find the connection between fish and mammals. And so, he takes you through the time he’s in grad school, and he’s going out and he’s chiseling rocks out of, you know, sometimes you see these highways that cut through hills and mountains. There he is with semi trucks blowing by him and he’s trying to chisel out from the rock.
He blends story with science, story with science. It hooks you with a story, and it gives the science a context, and it also gives you something else. We root for underdogs, which is why it’s so important to know what your character is up against, whether it’s in a novel, or in an essay structure, or a question that you’re struggling to answer because we have this innate thing inside of us that wants to see someone succeed, especially if it seems like an impossible task. Wow, how is this person gonna pull this off?
So anyway, back to Your Inner Fish, so when this guy finally finds, he’s led to this open field up in the arctic. They’ve only got six weeks of summer. A lot of that weather is pretty crummy and cold. You’re just kind of almost biting your nails, like, is he gonna do it? ‘Cause last summer, they didn’t His grant money is running out. He’ll open up windows of science. It’s a way of kind of feeding us information in a non-dry way. That’s a very popular form of writing these days.
Obviously, there are other forms of essay, personal essays, and I coach people who do those, as well, but it’s . . . We are used to bringing techniques of good narrative writing, even into our essay writing. You still have to tell a really good anecdote that holds my attention, even if you’re using it as a support for a scientific essay. Otherwise, I’m gonna drop out. Yeah, I coach those techniques to authors, as well.
Simon: Who do you look up to right now, or who have you looked up to in your career as an author that you’ve said, like, man, I want to be that? Or, if I can only get there? Are there any names that come to mind?
David Hazard: Sure. I spent a lot of time when I was in college. I set a goal for myself to read as many of the Nobel Prize winning books as possible. Sometimes you just sort of cringe under those lights and go, wow, that’s a really high standard, but you can’t read enough good writing because you do absorb. But I would narrow it down to, and I certainly don’t claim to be in his league by any stretch, but Steinbeck. I love Steinbeck because he structured his novels on the idea of symphonies. I love that, that he had a master plan and he understood movements. I read Steinbeck for that.
There’s another Nobel Prize winner. I believe he won in 2010, yeah. His name is Orhan Pahmuk. He’s from the Middle East, but he teaches at Columbia University. He’s written some fantastic novels, My Name Is Red, Snow. What is brilliant about Pamuk, and it’s P-A-H-M-U-K, what’s brilliant about him is that he understands. He’s writing literary fiction, which is based on high concept, but he also has this nascent understanding that you have to turn pages.
One of his novels, for instance, opens up in the bottom of a cistern. Here’s a bright one for you. It opens up in the bottom of a cistern in the voice of a man who’s dead who has no clue who pushed him from behind. It’s kind of a murder mystery, but then he jumps in different voices. There’s all kinds of first-person characters speaking into the story, but it grabs and holds your attention.
I think for nature essays, Annie Dillard, who I mentioned, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Teaching a Stone to Talk, she’s an absolutely brilliant writer, a man named Sigurd Olson who many people don’t know, absolutely brilliant nature writer, and I guess I’ll stop with that.
Simon: Yeah, you’re nerding out here. No, that’s good.
David Hazard: Yeah, no, it’s true.
Simon: Very good, David. Was there anything else that you want to talk about?
David Hazard: Yeah, no, that’s fine. Very briefly, I’d like to say to people who are writing, writing is one of the most important investments you can make with your life. We think about it from one level, and it’s about success, and are people going to like what we’ve written? I think of it in a different way. My belief, nobody has to subscribe to this but me, my belief is that there is sort of this river of light, which I think of as human consciousness, that is pouring into this planet. Every time we add to that river of knowledge, that river of human experience, we raise the level of the light for everybody else.
My belief is that every single one of us has been given at least one bucket of light to dump into that river. It doesn’t matter if it’s just entertainment. People live difficult lives, and they need escape and they need humor. They need romance. Sometimes they just need to get into something that turns pages and makes their blood and their adrenaline flow. Sometimes it’s about a mission. Sometimes it’s about taking an experience that you had and reinvesting it back out for other people to read. It’s one of the most wonderful experiences when you connect with someone who says, “I read your book and it changed my life.” Very powerful.
It’s your legacy. It’s part of your legacy. This book will go where you can’t go, speak to people you’ll never meet, and go on chugging on for generations, maybe. Think about . . . Get a big perspective on what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. It really will sustain you from the core out because, as you know if you’re a writer, there’s a lot of time that you’re alone, a lot of time that you face those self-doubts and that, well, there’s that delete key. I can always just hit delete. Understand from the inside and get strong in why you’re doing what you’re doing, and it will carry you a long way.
This book will go where you can’t go, speak to people you’ll never meet, and go on chugging on for generations, maybe.
Simon: Wow. Thanks for that wisdom, David. That’s great. I mean, I love that. Writing a book has an impact. Telling your story, someone else’s story, or a fictitious story, or whatever it is, it doesn’t end with you. I love how you said it. It lives on and it can be a legacy. It’s just for our listeners to keep that in mind as they go through their own writing process is just gonna be priceless. Thank you, thank you.
David Hazard: All right, well, thank you for letting me be on the podcast.
Simon: Yeah, of course. It’s been great to have you. I really appreciate your perspective, and the wisdom, and advice coming from your years of experience. That’s been great. Before you go, I think you mentioned your website a couple of times throughout this podcast, but where can people find you if they want to pick up one of your books, if they want to just explore what you’re doing, if they want to work with you, where do they go?
David Hazard: The group is called Ascent, A-S-C-E-N-T. David Hazard, H-A-Z-A-R-D, just like it sounds. The website is SpreadYourFire.net.
Simon: Awesome, David. Well, thank you so much. It was great to have you.