Today I’m honored to interview John Vorhaus about his latest book, “How To Write Good” as well as some other topics. John Vorhaus is the author of the classic comedy writing textbook, The Comic Toolbox: How To Be Funny Even If You’re Not. Of all his novels, Lucy in the Sky is his favorite. When not writing novels and non-fiction, he travels the world, teaching and training writers – 29 countries on five continents at last count.
What are the biggest differences between your new book “How To Write Good” and older, “how to write” guides like Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, etc?
Mine has many fewer words, some of them invented. Seriously, I’m not sure that the differences are as important as the similarities. A wise teacher once told me, “The ocean is blue and it’s also wet,” by which she meant that you can learn something from everyone, even if it’s on a topic you know very well. I would expect that people reading How to Write Good (HTWG) will find some of the concepts resonant of other writing books they’ve read. However, since writers, like all artists, constantly need to “keep revelation alive,” it’s useful to have a steady stream of blew, wet, salty, deep, turbulent, fish-filled, mysterious oceans.
This is your second ebook (also see The Little Book of the Sitcom), will you ever publish a physical book again?
Yes. The third Radar Hoverlander novel, The Texas Twist, is due out from Prospect Park Books in June, in both ebook and dead tree format. Also, like LBOS, HTWG is available in print format for those who desire it.
While your book felt targeted at how to write a novel, I could see the applicability for all other sorts of writing. Was this intentional?
Yes. It’s hard to write a book on writing that covers all possible writing ground. Having written extensively about TV and film scriptwriting, and being now a working novelist, I thought I would put the emphasis on short-form and long-form prose; however, I take pains to point out that the tools I offer can be used by writers of everything from limericks to philosophy tomes. Indeed, I would hope that creators in whole other genres (artists, musicians, filmmakers) could get something out of my whimsical approach to creativity.
You talk about focusing on the process and ignoring the payoffs as one way to avoid paralysis. In your early career, how long were you focused on process until you started to see some payoff?
I would say I still am. I mean, I got a payoff, of a sort, the first time I went onstage as a singer/songwriter at an open mic night. Well, I got praise and a few bucks in a tip jar. Is that a payoff? I wrote three or four sitcom spec scripts before I started drawing work from that field. I wrote two and a half novels before I sold one. But throughout – from that day to this – I focus solely on “the words on the page.” It’s the only part of the process I can truly control, and if I let my mind wander to the parts I can’t control, well, despair sets in and nothing gets done.
But the point I would make to, especially, young writers is, “You have no idea how much time you have and how much real work you’ll get done.” Life is long. Your body of work will sustain you.
What’s your next book going to be about?
The Texas Twist revisits world-class con artist Radar Hoverlander and his band of merry scamsters as the work some rich veins of available cash in Texas and the Midwest. Everything goes great until an űber-con artist gets them in his sights…
From our previous interview, you mentioned “I can afford to sell small amounts of many products” this reminds me of the 1,000 true fans rule. What are your thoughts on that? Do you think the number of true fans necessary to sustain a career differ significantly based on the specific career (book author vs stand up performer vs musician, etc)?
I have no idea how to comment intelligently on that question. My business model has always been, “Go off in all directions at once. You’re sure to arrive somewhere.” With that in mind, I really don’t think about 1,000 true fans or any other arbitrary number. I just keep writing and keep trying to make people aware of my work. The rest, I trust, will take care of itself. I consider myself a pretty good promoter, but I’m crap at analytics. I couldn’t tell you definitively how many copies of anything I’ve sold. I just don’t care. I want a large enough audience to sustain my efforts, but I have no idea how to grow that audience beyond “keep on keepin’ on.”
What’s the biggest difference in comedy writing between today and when you started? What’s the biggest difference in writing in general (doesn’t have to be comedy)?
Technology. When I was coming up, the tools for making my own comic videos or films were prohibitively expensive, and the tools for distributing them were nonexistent. Now, thanks to cheap video cameras and editing software, plus the internet, anyone who wants to create can create. It’s much easier these days to “throw it out the window and see if it lands.” At the same time, the explosion of creative output has driven the perceived value of content way down. With millions of writers (not just comic writers) willing to give their content away for free, it gets harder and harder to make the argument that content should be paid for, and paid for at a premium.
Another big difference for “writing in general” is how much easier it is to do research now. I’ve written novels about cities I’ve never lived in, or even visited, but feel that I’m conveying an authentic sense of space, just because I have so much access to information about places I’ve never been.
Anything else readers should know?
People who find their way into my body of work are surprised to discover how eclectic it is. I’ve written comic novels and serious ones; how-to books on writing and creativity; and more than two million words on poker. I would just invite your readers to brows my Amazon author page. They’re bound to find something they like. Oh, and blah-blah-blah twitter @TrueFactBarFact.
Also, I mentioned earlier that my business model is “go off in all directions at once.” Actually I have another one that I like better: “Walk down the beach, pick up everything you find, turn it into a party hat.” That’s kind of what I was getting at in HTWG: The most important part of the writing process is to have fun with it so you’ll be motivated to keep after it. This world of ours contains so many blessed party hats that there’s really no reason for anyone to exist in any state other than pure bliss. I hope that HTWG will help writers, especially new writers, discover how easy and fun it is to have an effective, growing, thriving, active practice of writing.