WEEK TWO: An Interview with Aaron Johnston
I always look forward to the Utah-based convention LTUE (Life, the Universe, Everything) as it's one of the best places (locally) for me to network and connect with other authors, agents, editors, and publishers. You would be surprised at how many movers and shakers attend this event.
I have gained great friendships and forged bonds that have strengthened my drive and determination in my writing career. At this LTUE, I made the decision to meet with various professionals within the industry, pull them aside, and ask them five specific questions in five minutes. Most of these interviews sparked lengthy conversation beyond what I could have hoped for.
These men and women have shared with me their insights and experiences, their stories and their bits of advice. For aspiring authors, fans, and fellow literary community members, I'll share with you each of these thirteen interviews in the space of thirteen weeks.
Rafael: So Aaron, you have written for magazines and have authored books. You have lots of experience, lots of history! I wanted to start off by asking you, if you could pinpoint one reason why you started writing, what would that be?
Aaron: Well this might sound trite, or uninteresting (laughs) but I’ve always enjoyed telling stories. Initially I wanted to major in screenwriting. I wanted to get my degree in film, because I always enjoyed movies and writing scripts, but that didn’t materialize until someone actually offered me money to do it. So that was the impetus, but what keeps me doing it is the fact that someone foolishly continues to pay me to do it!
Rafael: (Laughs) So what was the first project you created that you got paid for?
Aaron: The first project? I did a rewrite of a script—this is actually how I got to know Orson Scott Card really well—for a feature film that was based off one of his short stories. That was my first “writing gig”. It was about twenty years ago.
Rafael: So is that when you first met Orson as well?
Aaron: I had actually known him prior to that. I had moved into the same town he was in, the same church congregation he was in, and before he was a novelist, he was a playwright—for those of you who don’t know—but its very hard to make a career as a playwright. He loves theater, so do I. I did theater in college, so did my wife, its how we met. When he found that out, he said to me, oh let’s do a play. So we did, we did several plays with, and that’s how I first met him, when he was as a theater director and I was an actor in his plays. We started together doing something creative that had nothing to do with writing.
Rafael: Well to go off of that and with our discussion on writing, who do you think is a better judge of writing talent? Agents, editors, other authors, or readers and audience members?
Aaron: So I don’t have an agent. I haven’t had an agent in about ten years. My agent passed away. He was Orson Scott Card’s agent as well and he (Orson) hasn’t had an agent since then either. I haven’t had a tremendous amount of experience with agents and I haven’t needed one. Although I have a tremendous respect for them, I don’t necessarily believe they have a higher opinion more so than others. Honestly the person whose opinion I respect the most is my wife who is a reader. I respect the opinions of readers more than I respect even the opinions of other writers, simply because those are the people who are going to be investing their time and money into whatever product I’m offering them. If they’re not intrigued, it doesn’t matter if anyone else likes me or not. It does matters what an editor thinks because he or she isn’t going to purchase the manuscript otherwise, but I first seek to please my wife with the things I write.
Rafael: So do you have a daily writing schedule, or a set time in the day for creation, and if so, what is it?
Aaron: No, I don’t—I have the upmost respect for writers that do—but I’m just not that disciplined! You know there are some writers that get up at a certain time in the morning, they arrange their desk in a certain way, they drink their coffee, and they start writing…that’s not me, never has been. The thing that motivates me the most is deadlines. I don’t procrastinate, I just learned late that novels have to percolate. You just can’t sit down and start writing—at least I can’t! Nor can I just sit down and start creating an outline. Lee Child said that ninety-percent of writing is thinking, its not writing. That’s kind of how I operate as well. When deadlines approach, that’s when I really buckle down and put words on paper. It’s not like I wait until the last moment to start writing, I have been writing, but I’m mostly discovery writing in a way where I’m trying new things, experimenting, and discovering hey, this is or isn’t working. But I have to go through that process before I get to something that I’m not ashamed to turn in.
Rafael: So is there a lot of daydreaming involved in your process?
Aaron: Well I guess you could call it that, but it’s kind of like mapping, considering, analyzing, and world building before you feel confident. Inevitably what happens to me every time is that I get antsy, I get impatient and I decide, gosh, the novel is due in six months and so I sit down, try to write a chapter, and it almost never works. The chapter I create doesn’t feel right, it feels forced, and I almost inevitably throw it away.
Rafael: So what would you consider to be the best marketing strategy in 2019 for trad pub authors, self-pub authors, magazine writers, and other creators? Advertisements seem to work to a certain degree, but now-a-days, with how our psychological mindsets have changed, online advertisements no longer have the same power. The advertisements tend to fade away into the background. People go online usually with at least a somewhat strong idea of what they’re looking for and everything else is subconsciously ignored. We’ve trained ourselves to block out the onslaught of advertisements thrown at us all day.
Aaron: I’ve never really marketed myself as a writer, which is ironic because my first career was advertising. That’s what I did, I was a copywriter and did that for thirteen years. I know a great deal about advertising, I’m just not that good with it when it comes to me (laughs) because I don’t necessarily like talking about myself.
Rafael: Oh-oh, but we’re having an interview!
Aaron: (Laughs) That’s alright! But first of all, if you’re trying to promote yourself, you need to have a presence online. Every writer, whether you are published or not, should have a website, should have something other readers can explore, whether that’s about you as a human being, or things that you’ve written or want to write, but you certainly need that presence online. I think also having a social media personality should be important as well. I follow a lot of writers on Twitter and that allows me to maintain a connection to them. I’m probably more likely to read their content than to read writer content from those who I don’t know or am unfamiliar with. But social media can also be a means of creative expression as well. There are some writers that use Twitter as a story-telling platform or as a joke-telling platform and you can quickly gain followers and respect if you can have an audience on Twitter without being cruel. That’s the trap of social media, it can extract the worst of people. I don’t think there’s any advantage in purchasing advertising. I don’t think that’s going to help anyone.
Rafael: I can agree with that. In my case, I’ve done a lot of market research, target audience research, and leaned what ads work, what visuals work, and what keywords work. But even then I see little results with paid advertising. Although a lot depends on quantity and quality of content, I still do think results are less now than ever before. But face-to-face conversations, networking like this, being at conventions, and perhaps even blogging, has been more beneficial to me and many other new authors as well.
Aaron: Yes! The problem with online ads (like Facebook) they often change their algorithm and how information is disseminated. It’s often beyond your control or is being advertised to people who aren’t remotely interested in that subject. I’m always leery of those kind of strategies because I don’t think they tend to lend themselves to “winning” readers.
Rafael: Yeah, I know that for example with a Facebook author page, your posts are constantly held in a state of “blackmail”, where they will show your content to a certain number of random individual followers, but if you want to engage everyone or at least more of your followers, you have to pay to “boost” your post. But anyways, for my last question, what has been the most difficult challenge you have overcome in your career so far?
Aaron: Finishing a novel (laughs). You know this as well as other authors, writing a novel is really hard.
Rafael: Especially your first one?
Aaron: For me, I used to believe that writing a novel would get easier every time I wrote one, but it doesn’t—at least it hasn’t for me anyways. Each novel is different, each novel is a different beast. Every novel I’ve tackled feels like the most difficult novel I’ve written. It hasn’t gotten easier for me and it took a few seasoned writers to tell me that it was not atypical. So I was like, okay, I’m not actually sliding. Each novel is going to be a different struggle with its own different, unique challenges and frustrations. And you have to work through them. I don’t know of any writer who can just sit down and whip out a novel.
Rafael: I think as you gain experience as a writer, certain things will get clearer, not necessarily easier. In one book you may have breezed through creating your characters, but after learning how complex and emotional your characters can become, it will be “harder” in your next novel to write them.
Aaron: Maybe for some. I’ve never been that self-analytical, I’ve never dissected the novels I write that way. It’s all about the story. That’s the challenge for me. It’s not certain techniques, it’s not character development, it’s telling the story in the right way. When does the story begin? When does the story end? What happens in the middle? I’ve written 60,000 words before and discovered that it wasn’t working. And you can’t take 60,000 words that are not working and focus on character development and expect to have something that works. It’s not going to work. You have to throw it away and start over. At least that’s my approach, because I think a lot of writers fall into the trap of creating and then noodling. Creating something and then tweaking this, tweaking that, revising that, and polishing, polishing, polishing. It’s only going to get five-percent better because you are the mercy of the story. The story drives everything you do, every decision you make, every investment you make. So for me that’s why each novel is challenging, because its difficult to create a story.
Rafael: Talking about creating, what project are you working on currently?
Aaron: I have a few things: I’m currently writing the third book in a trilogy that’s due in the Summer. I’m pretty early in that process as I just recently finished the previous book. Separately, I also finished developing a television show and written the pilot episode. BYUtv is trying to sell it to investment partners. I also recently took a full-time job working for the Ensign magazine.
Rafael: Wow, sounds like you have your hands full! Anyways Aaron, thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with me and discuss yourself and the writing industry! I, along with many others, appreciate your expertise and insight!
We went on to talk for a few minutes more and joked about everything from still needing health insurance as an author to our remaining schedule for the convention!
Aaron Johnston was an associate producer on the movie Ender's Game (check it out here!), including having a cameo appearance as an International Fleet officer (how awesome is that). He co-authored with Orson Scott Card the First Formic War trilogy, a prequel series to Ender's Game. He helped create and produce a great TV series called Extinct (check it out!). He's even worked on an Ender's Game Marvel Comic series! I found Aaron extremely articulate, kind, and willing to help those around him. He's the kind of man who exemplifies the writing community and is a torch-bearer paving the way forward for the next generation of writers.
Here is Aaron Johnston's Website: http://www.aaronwjohnston.com/
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If I'm not writing, I must be dead.