I recently interviewed author Michael O’Brien Browne on the life of writing and business. Here is a short bio, followed by our conversation:
O’Brien Browne just published his first novel, “My Back Pages.” This year, he spoke about and autographed copies of his work at the two most prestigious book events in North America: the BookExpo/Book Con in New York City and the American Library Association conference in San Francisco.
O’Brien blogs for the Huffington Post and is a Contributing Editor at the premier MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. His award-winning pieces have appeared in the “Christian Science Monitor,” “Air & Space Smithsonian” and elsewhere. An international seminar leader, personal and career coach, as well as writer, Browne has lived and worked throughout Europe and the Middle East.
Here is a link to his latest piece for HP:
and his website www.michaelobrowne.com and “My Back Pages:”
LINDA: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
O’BRIEN: I am a born writer, coming from a long line of creative people, many of them writers, musicians, chefs, warriors, spiritualists. My mother is an excellent writer herself. It comes naturally to me.
LINDA: When did you put pencil to paper to create your first prose?
O’BRIEN: As soon as I learned to write, in grammar school. I thought every kid wrote, that it was the normal thing to do. My head was always filled with stories and adventures, which I played out in quite elaborate games with figurines –knights in armor, Native Americans and US Cavalry, Vikings, ancient Greeks and Romans, animals of all sorts – and the stories I created around these physical games many times became the things I wrote about, even down to character’s names.
LINDA: Some writers have a special time of the day that they write. What are your timing and process? How do you prepare to write?
O’BRIEN: My most productive time usually starts at around 2 p.m., going on to 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., depending on how much I have produced and how satisfied I am with the results. Before beginning writing, I like to take care of mundane details first – emails, cleaning up my desk, organizing files, etc. This clears my head and creates clean physical space. I like to write in complete silence and with lots of light; I firmly close the door, not wishing to be bothered by, or to speak to anyone. My smartphone is turned off. Then I sit down and write.
I write out the story or novel in one go, producing a skeleton, because I always have the start and the ending in my head. Then I return to the skeleton and add the flesh –
adjective, descriptive details, meatier characterization. During this process, I take dozens and dozens of tiny breaks: writing a passage or two, then springing up to pace back and forth or drink a glass of water, which I always have at hand, before sitting down again to continue. These little breaks keep me from sitting for extended periods of time: they are very refreshing and are rich in creative sparks.
At the end of the writing session, I normally celebrate the day’s good work with a whisky or glass of wine. Celebration is healthy and important and inspirational.
LINDA: Did you take writing courses? Did anyone mentor your talent?
O’BRIEN: No, never. I’m not sure I believe in them. So much of modern writing – fiction or otherwise – seems, somehow, canned and overly processed, formulaic. The best writing comes from living and experiencing life fully, and from reading, talking about and thinking about good literature. Mentors? My mother was one, and there were two professors at university who encouraged me to write and publish, although I wouldn’t refer to that as any type of real mentoring.
LINDA: Please provide your insights on modern publishing.
O’BRIEN: In the USA alone, more than 300,000 new titles are published yearly. Editors and agents are over-worked and underpaid, their offices understaffed. Agents and publishing houses receive hundreds of queries daily. Gatekeepers (assistants, student interns, etc.) are employed to filter through the mountains of submissions. The main task is to shrink the pile from hundreds to a handful that get passed on to the editor who is primarily looking for projects that will sell. There is a 99% rejection rate. Agents pitching to publishers also face a rejection rate in the high 90s.
There are a lot of very good writers out there, and a lot of dedicated editors, publishers and agents who love books and the business of writing. For the two to find each other in this jumble and jungle of tumult is challenging to say the least.
Luckily, for writers, there are many excellent reference books on finding an agent or publisher, and writing professional query letters and project synopses. These guides can help them navigate this extremely challenging business.
LINDA: What are your thoughts about Indie publishers?
O’BRIEN: There is a hunger for authentic story-telling and many small and medium sized independent publishers have arisen, publishing often great works that the major houses and agents won’t even consider. I strongly urge first-time writers to go with Indie houses, for there they will find people who love publishing quality works, who take them seriously.
The Indie revolution is also happening alongside another delightful trend: the return of the old-fashioned bookstore, often with lush wooden shelving, plush sofas to sink into while browsing through a volume, and other elements of authenticity to help book-lovers escape the noise of mega-stores and social media.
LINDA: What must authors do to sell their books nowadays?
O’BRIEN: The easy part is writing the book. Once the book is published, modern writers have to be their own PR and marketing people – if they don’t do this, nobody will do it for them. They should attend every book convention were they can, to talk about and sign copies of their book, which they should give away.
They should create a quality list of ‘influencers’ — radio and TV personalities, professors of literature, reviewers who will read and hopefully review and talk about their book and get it noticed. The marketing letter to these ‘influencers’ must be written in a captivating and professional style. Some writers I know create dedicated websites to promote and sell their works. To sell your book, brand it effectively. Writers must think of themselves as businesspeople.
LINDA: What do you think about self-publishing?
O’BRIEN: Personally, I don’t recommend it, mainly because you will have no distribution. How will people know about the work? I know of authors who have 1,000 copies of their work stuffed in a garage. After friends and family buy a copy, who will buy the remaining? Virtually no-one.
There are a rare few who have self-published, getting a best seller on the charts.
These are the vast exception. For businesspeople, however, particularly coaches or public speakers, a self-published book containing their methods and advice can be a very good marketing tool to promote their services.
LINDA: What advice can you share with aspiring writers?
O’BRIEN: Believe in yourself, write freely and release your creativity. Resist the huge temptation to write purely for market. Let rejection roll off you like water, even when your own family members are discouraging.
I suggest you first build up a publication list by writing for magazines, newspapers or quality blogs. This will not only hone your writing skills but also will help you appear as a seasoned writer to any agents or publisher you later approach. Also, the print media pays for features, which is a very satisfying feeling indeed.
Join a quality writer’s group where people read their own works and provide constructive criticism to each other. This is invaluable in helping you to become a tighter and better writer. Never take rejection or criticism personally.
LINDA: I remember reading that Jack Canfield (“Chicken Soup for the Soul”) had in the neighborhood of 150 rejections before connecting with his publisher, and that Tim Ferriss (whom he mentored) had roughly 30 rejections before publishing “The 4-Hour Workweek.” What was your experience? How did you keep positive during the challenge of pitching?
O’BRIEN: Right, Linda. Rejection is the name of the game. I had two literary agents and at least 30 rejections with “My Back Pages.” This is the norm. Never let it hurt you; let it make you a bit angry, stronger and more determined than ever to get your work published. If you give up, your book will lie forever in obscurity, unread. This is not why writers write. I remember whenever a rejection slip came in, I would growl, sigh and then immediately send out two to three more submissions, which was a very defiant and pro-active thing to do to keep up my good spirits and belief in myself and my project. And because of that 99% rejection rate and the slowness of responses, I always did multiple submissions.
So as writers enter the arduous process of getting published, they have to steel themselves for the inevitable rejections, and push onwards with persistence and optimism.
LINDA: Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us. Your ideas can be inspirational to aspiring writers.
O’BRIEN: Thank you for allowing me to share my insights, and I do hope others will profit from this.
To my subscribers, hope you enjoyed this as much as I! Speak to you on August 17…