Happy New Year! Sorry for the long holiday hiatus, but we’re back at Bite-sized Fiction. This week we’re talking to novelist Robert Ford, the prolific author of Samson and Denial, Free Ride Angie, Bloodlegum and Lolliknives, The Compound, No Lipstick in Avalon, Burner, Rattlesnake Kisses (with John Boden), and his collection of short stories, The God Beneath My Garden, which I nominate as the best book title of all time.
Recently, Robert was able to (mostly) walk away from a long and lucrative career in advertising to pursue fiction writing as a full-time gig. He’s not retired, far from it. In 2022 he’ll release four books, and he took a few minutes out of his incredibly busy schedule to visit with us via Zoom.
BITE-SIZED FICTION: Here you are in Central Pennsylvania, your ad agency left behind in Philadelphia, and a full plate of fiction work in front of you. What lessons from advertising did you bring with you?
ROBERT: I always thought a successful ad campaign must hit some kind of emotional nerve. It’s either got to make you laugh, well up with tears, make you nostalgic, but it’s gotta hit some sort of an emotional nerve. And I think that we fall flat unless we focus on those things when we’re writing. The reader knows it, and we know it too.
BSF: And advertising thickens the skin?
ROBERT: You definitely develop a thick skin working with clients.
BSF: I have an advertising background, and I admire you for sticking to it. How did you do it because it’s hard to do both?
ROBERT: You’re always doing creative for someone else, and that’s the rough part. Because I’d wake up in the morning and my mind went to “what client do I have to service today, what do I have to create?” It’s all deadline-oriented. One of my employees moved away, and I took over her projects, and it got to the point where I was so busy, I couldn’t think that I had to replace an employee. I just took over her work. I worked 80-90 hours a week, and I spent the whole day on a computer. Only to come home and start work on a story? No. It reached the point where I began to resent it. So, I used that resentment as fuel. During this time, I wrote a screenplay for HBO’s Project Greenlight, and I thought, no way, I’m going to get cut in the first round. But out of 4800 entries, I made it to the top 500, and I was stoked. That made me realize that I can do this. I had to give up sleep for a while, but it had a hand in making this happen.
BSF: How did you get started writing?
ROBERT: I’ve always written stories. Even as a young kid. I think I wrote my first short story in first or second grade, and as school went on, it felt comfortable to me. By the time I went to high school, I was taking science fiction classes, journalism, I was on the school yearbook, I was part of the school newspaper. And poetry. Oh, man. In tenth grade, I remember writing all of this typical teen angst poetry. And I had this wonderful English teacher who called me over one day and asked, what’s going on here. And I told her that I write short stories and poetry, and she just took me under her wing. She was instrumental in shaping me and guiding me, and encouraging me to do better.
BSF: So, how did you wind up in advertising?
ROBERT: At the time, I was going to a vo-tech school, majoring in commercial art, and I knew a lot more people in the ad world who were making a living than I did in writers of fiction.
BSF: When did you figure out you could work as a fiction writer for a living?
ROBERT: The first time I realized that there were people who get paid for this kind of stuff, I was 9 or 10, and we had an uncle living with us. When he moved out, he left behind a copy of Carrie, and I read it, and it floored me – absolutely blew me away. And a lightbulb went off, and I thought people do this. It’s someone’s job.
BSF: What’s your approach to writing?
ROBERT: I’ve always approached my stuff like a sculpture. You throw the clay together, and you just start molding it. It may not look like a draft or whatever, but you keep refining and polishing. You get it down, and you put the details in, and you know what it looks like a draft.
BSF: I’ve always admired the mechanics of your writing – the balance between good characters and good plotting. How important is that to you?
ROBERT: I’ve always tried to pay attention to the mechanics of other writers. How did they do this? How is this character developed?
Most of my readers will say my characters are developed, and they feel real in their actions. As writers, we’re always studying people. If you’re at a bus station or a bar or in the emergency room or whatever, paying attention to how people speak to each other is really important.
BSF: How do you keep the dialogue real?
ROBERT: This goes back to the advertising world, writing radio and TV scripts. When you’re writing dialog, read the dialog out loud. You may sound like a crazy person, but if you read it out loud, you start to get a feel for whether it rings true or not.
BSF: Do you do a lot of plotting?
ROBERT: I don’t plot very heavily because I do want to reach a point in the story where I’m surprised because then the reader is going to be surprised. I like it a little loose. I don’t plot all the way to the end. I might have an end goal in mind, but during the process, something else will happen.
I think a lot of it has to do with the homework I do ahead of time. I don’t really start a project until I know how a character is thinking and how they’re going to act in a certain situation. If you’ve been writing long enough, you know that when the characters come to life, and they surprise you, man, that’s magic.
BSF: Do you have an example?
ROBERT: In my first novella that I wrote, Samson and Denial, a guy owns a pawn shop, and a junkie comes in to pawn the head of a 3,000-year-old mummy. And I thought that was the end of it. I didn’t expect him to show up again. I thought we were done with him. When he showed up again, it really surprised me. I was not expecting that. I sat there thinking, why the hell didn’t I think of this?
BSF: Are there authors you admire that do this well?
ROBERT: John Boden is good at this. He’s a fantastic writer, and he sent me a novella to look over, and the ending hit me so hard I was literally incapable of speaking for twenty minutes. It was such a beautiful thing. I didn’t see the mechanics happening as it was happening, but when I looked back, I saw this was right in front of me the whole time.
BSF: Haven’t you and John Boden have written a couple of books together?
ROBERT: Yeah, we wrote a novella a few years back called Rattlesnake Kisses, and we had so much fun with that that we did a follow-up set in the same world. It’s not a direct sequel but set in the same world. It’s called Cattywampas, and now we’re finalizing book three in that world, which will be titled Black Salve, and it comes out later this year.
BSF: How do you share writing duties?
ROBERT: When we write together, it’s chaos. We don’t outline anything in the series. We each write a chapter or maybe a few, and it goes back and forth like that. There’s an old rule that if you want to build suspense at the end of the chapter, there’s a knock at the door. And that bastard did that to me twice. It’s such a fun thing because we just sort of free form it as we go.
BSF: A lot of writers, like myself, who are just starting to publish longer-length content, are probably debating between traditional and self-publishing. You’re what’s called a hybrid author – you’ve done both. Strengths, weaknesses, advice?
ROBERT: Traditional publishing, I think, can be beneficial, but I think there are a lot of questions to be asked first. What are they going to offer you to take a cut of your money? Are they going to market you? Do they have good distribution? What are they providing you? When you self-publish, you handle all the marketing. You have to distribute ARC (advance reader copies) to reviewers, handle cover design, make sure the editing is good. You have to do that. And you can handle those things, and the cost isn’t necessarily that high, but if you’re going to do self-publishing, you have to have a decent fan base, and you have to have a way to get the distribution out there other than Amazon. However, it’s hard to do anything without Amazon. And then the challenge is that it’s so easy to do it on Amazon it’s also easy to get lost in a sea of titles. So, you have to ask, what can the publisher do for you?
BSF: What do you say, to creative directors, account executives, graphic artists, and copywriters out there who want to follow in your footsteps?
ROBERT: I think you pay attention to how other writers handle certain things. The main thing is to look at the mechanics behind their stories, the structure. I’ve always been a big student of weird oddball structure in movies, like Memento, the story is told backward. True Detective was the direct inspiration for the structure of Burner. Pay attention to the mechanics of how other writers have handled things – even outside of your favorite writer.
Keep pushing until you get that first draft. Don’t painfully agonize over making every paragraph perfect. Get the first draft done. You can always come back and polish later, but if you agonize over everything now, you’re never going to reach the end draft. It’s so difficult to push past but move on.
And when you’re done, congratulate yourself. Have a cup of coffee, have your favorite beverage, scream at the sky – you did it. You created the first draft; it’s awesome now, don’t touch it for two weeks. If you start editing it right away, 100 %, you are too close to the material, and you can’t edit with a good eye. Take a look at the words “that” and “just.” They’re demon words. 90% of the time, you can kick those out of the sentence, and the meaning hasn’t changed. Take a look at how concise you can make that story.
Keep at it. Put in the time, and you’ll get there.
BSF: Thank you, Bob.
ROBERT: Thank you, my man, it’s been a blast.
Here’s a bonus clip of our interview.