In this episode, we spoke to Brett Riley, author of fiction, screenplays, and creative non-fiction. Based in Las Vegas, he also teaches creative writing at the College of Southern Nevada. We had a great chat about his works, writing in the horror genre, his love of comic books, and his sci-fi and fantasy YA series with elements of the otherworldly and monstrous, Freaks. We also learned so much from Brett on the craft of writing, and had a great conversation about writing processes. We know you’ll learn a lot from Brett, so don’t miss out on listening to his great advice and insights!
We discussed the beginnings of Brett’s writing career, why he loves horror, fantasy, and writing YA, some insight into how his writing process plays out, how he writes action scenes in his books, and, of course, got some great writing advice! As always, there’s much, much more, so be sure to listen to this wonderful episode in full.
In this episode:
- We learn about Brett’s writing career, from when he started pursuing writing professionally back in 2007 to now
- Brett shares some of the reasons why he loves writing in horror and fantasy genres, and genre fiction in general
- We ask Brett how he builds the worlds in his books, and how his world-building process relates to his writing process overall, and the importance of focusing on characters – as all stories are ultimately about people
- Brett tells us about the 150 pages worth of notes he has for his Freaks series, and the importance of keeping these notes to help with a series’ continuity
- We ask Brett if he always intended to go indie with his work, and learn more about his experience publishing his works with indie presses
- Brett tells us about his marketing strategy, and how his marketing with an indie press might differ from a traditionally published author or self-published author, as well as offers some great marketing advice
- We ask Brett about his Freaks series, what inspired this series and how he paid homage to his inspirations, and more
- Brett tells us about how he choreographs the action in his books, and what that looks like during his writing and planning processes
- We ask Brett how he writes his YA novels, and how he separates his YA novels from his adult novels, and why he chose to go the horror route for his superhero-inspired YA series Freaks
- And much more!
Brett on X and Instagram
Brett on Facebook
Mentioned in this episode:
Comanche by Brett Riley
Lord of Order by Brett Riley
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Brett Riley is the author of a story collection and five novels, including Rubicons (Imbrifex, August 2023). His short fiction has appeared in journals such as The Baltimore Review, f(r)iction, Solstice, Folio, The Evansville Review, and many others. Mynonfiction has appeared in CrimeReads, Role Reboot, Broad River Review, Rougarou, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Literary Orphans, Under the Gum Tree, Wild Violet, and Foliate Oak Magazine. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @brettwrites.
Transcription by www.speechpad.com
Rachel: Hey, writers. You’re listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast,” where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts. I’m Rachel, promotions specialist at Kobo Writing Life.
Laura: And I’m Laura, Kobo Writing Life’s author engagement manager.
Rachel: On today’s episode of the podcast, we spoke to author Brett Riley. Brett is the author of fiction, screenplays, and creative non-fiction. He lives in Las Vegas. And when he’s not writing his own work, he teaches literature, creative writing, and composition at the College of Southern Nevada.
Laura: We talked to Brett about writing horror in the YA genre, how he brings his love of comics to his writing, and we talked to him about his sci-fi fantasy series, “Freaks.”
Rachel: It was a really interesting conversation, and Brett, as a teacher of creative writing, had a lot to say about the craft of writing. And we think you will learn a lot from this episode. We hope you enjoy it.
We are joined today by author Brett Riley. Brett, thank you so much for joining us today.
Brett: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Rachel: Can you start us off by telling our listeners a little bit about yourself and about the types of books you write?
Brett: Yeah, I’m 52 years old, professor of English at the College of Southern Nevada here in Las Vegas. I’m a father of three and a grandfather of two. I’ve been writing all my life, but really seriously writing since about 2007 or so, once I got out of graduate school. I’ve got six books out so far, a bunch of short stories and essays. And yeah, that’s me.
Laura: A lot of your books fall into the horror and fantasy genres. Have you always been drawn to these genres, or when did you kind of become a fan of them?
Brett: Yeah. I’ve always loved those genres. I’m a comic book nerd from the time I could read. Of course, you know, that’s part of where my “Freaks” series comes from, my love of comic books. And I can remember being about 10 years old, maybe 11, and finding in my parents’ house a paperback copy of Stephen King’s book “Pet Sematary.” And I read that, and it scared me to death. And I was just…I was blown away by the way he could make me care deeply about characters who were so obviously doing the wrong thing, and it was going to not end well for them. You know, a really interesting plot, characters that had depth and that made you want to root for them even though you knew things were not going to go well.
After that, I got every one of his books that would come out pretty much every year like clockwork, sometimes more than one. And from there, I branched out to reading other authors. And so, you know, I’ve always kind of been drawn as a writer to projects that try to do the same thing I saw in that book, which is to have a compelling plot, but also characters with real depth. And you know, that’s harder than it looks, and people like him made it look easy. And so, I’ve spent most of my life even as a professor asking myself, “How did they do that? How the heck did they make that work?” So, yeah, pretty much from the time I could read and I discovered comics and then discovered there was such a thing as fantasy, sci-fi, horror in novel form. I’ve always loved it.
Rachel: I am also a huge comic book, sci-fi nerd. And I also have a degree in English. And when I was in school, I found that those two things didn’t really meet up a lot. You don’t get a chance to read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy doing an English lit degree. I’m curious if you’re able to bring your fandom and your interest in that genre into your courses because if so, I’m incredibly jealous of your students.
Brett: Yeah. I have taught classes before where we’ve looked at graphic novels. And I find that I’m not the only one. For the last 20 years or so at least, I would say, there’s been an increasing interest in things like comic books and genre fiction, not just in English departments, but in big conventions and conferences. In fact, if you go to the Pop Culture Association/American Cultural Association Conference, you’re going to find people giving papers on, you know, world lit but also things like The Three Stooges or … or comics. And I’m seeing more of that not just in what I do, but in the course offerings that my fellow teachers are giving.
Here at CSM, one of my colleagues teaches a course on comic books as literature. She teaches it every semester. So, it’s always available here. And I know other people who incorporate certain graphic novels into their work. Big ones like “Watchmen” and “Dark Knight Returns,” but also things that are more recent. And I think we’re the better for that. I think it’s good when…because these texts matter to people. They have literally saved lives by giving people worlds that were more pleasant for them to exist in, in the world that we’ve actually given them.
And you know, when you see something has deep meaning and we can put aside our more elitist notions of what literature is, I think it serves the students, and I think it also illustrates the value of the text.
Rachel: I could not agree with you more, again, as a fan. And you could have touched on this, but like, a huge part of genre fiction especially in the horror, fantasy, sci-fi realm is world-building and creating that world where readers can escape to. And I’m really curious how you go about doing this in your books. Do you come up with kind of an idea and then build the world that that idea exists in, or do you have an idea of a world and then find a story within that?
Brett: Yeah. Of course, world-building is tremendously important in pretty much any kind of fiction writing. And I haven’t written any high fantasy that takes place in a different era or on a different world. What I try to do is ground the genre elements in a world that we can all recognize, which is not necessarily the same as what a lot of people think of as realism. You know, a lot of people when they say, “Well, this is or isn’t realistic,” they’re thinking, you know, does this have…bear a similitude with my idea of the world I see outside my window? But if you define realism that narrowly, then you know, look at “Star Wars.” You know, we can’t see any of that outside our window except for the people. And you know, I think that’s true that all stories pretty much are about people, even if they’re animal stories.
But I think what I do with that is I try to…I have an idea for a story that will take place in a certain locale. And then part of my job as the writer is try to show that locale, that particular world and whatever the rules are of that world, to people who have never been there, and to show them what it’s like. And for the people who have been there, who even live there, to give them something that they can recognize and says, “Yeah, this takes place in Southeast Arkansas.” This seems to me like Southeast Arkansas.
And so, you know, I think it’s tremendously important. It’s absolutely crucial. But what you got to ask yourself with your individual story is, well, you know, no matter where this takes place, if it’s in a galaxy a long, long time ago and very far away, what are the rules of this world? And if the rules are, well, there’s interstellar space travel, anybody can jump in pretty much any spaceship and fly it anywhere they want to, I still don’t know how they do that. Some people have laser pistols and some have laser swords. Well, okay, that’s the rules.
Now, within that world, are these characters acting as we believe these kinds of characters would act? And if the answer is yes, then I think we got realism there even if it’s not what we would think of as a realistic world. So, I think it’s kind of a reciprocal relationship between story and as we think of plot at least and setting. The two really need to go together, or if they don’t go together, that should be the point, if that makes sense.
Rachel: That makes total sense. And you mentioned, like, even if your story takes place in what we think of as the real world, there are still rules that the fantastical elements have to follow. And when you’re building a world or especially when you’re continuing on in a series, how do you keep those rules straight to make sure that your entire series follows the same logic?
Brett: Well, one thing I do is I keep pretty meticulous notes. I have a document that for the “Freaks” series is probably 150 pages long now, where I just have stuff about each character. And then I have a section for each setting, I copy and paste what I said about that particular character or that particular setting or even that particular object. And I put it in this document. So, if I’m sitting here writing the third book, I don’t have to try to find my copy of “Freaks” and dig through there and try to read it. I can just go to that document and search a keyword. And then I can say, “Okay, that’s what I said. That’s the rule.” So, what happens in this book either has to follow that rule or it has to consciously break it for a reason. And if that happens, I think, you know, that’s one more indication that I’ve done my job.
Laura: I also wanted to talk about your publishing journey a little bit. Did you always know that you wanted to go to the indie route?
Brett: No. You know, I haven’t consciously avoided the New York and LA publication scenes. I’ve submitted some things to literary agents and so forth. But you know, I do believe that small presses or independent presses, if you will, and the literary journal, I think these are really the life blood of American letters. I think what the big five publishers and other imprints do is of course tremendously important. We get a lot of good work out there. But of course, a lot of good work doesn’t get placed there for whatever reason. And sometimes it has nothing to do with the quality of the work itself.
And so, you know, I have always been very grateful that there were these indie publishers who were willing to look at text that the others either wouldn’t look at or had passed on. And it’s also great that if you want to be an indie press author from the jump and just not try to dip your toe in that New York scene, that you’d have all these different options. I think that’s great. And basically, what I did with my “Comanche,” is I sent it out to some places. I got varying levels of responses, you know, some form of rejections, several that said, “Well, you know, we want to see more,” or, “We really like this, but I just don’t think I’m the right person and here’s why,” you know, a more personalized response.
And you know, after a while, I said, this may not be something that the major publishers are going to do right now. So, let me see what I can do with the indie presses. And living here in Las Vegas, I became aware of Imbrifex, who is the publisher for these last five books of mine. And I sent it to them, and sure enough, they loved it. And they’ve been really good to me. They have put a lot of time and money and effort into marketing and publicity. They have extremely professional presentations of the book. They have great cover designers, they have great copy editors.
And you know, I know that independent presses can be anything from, you know, one or two people in their house, putting out one or two books a year, or it can be something like that or something even bigger, like say, Graywolf. But I’ve been very happy with my indie experience. And if I never publish a book with a New York press, but I keep publishing with good indie presses whose passion for good work is the primary reason why they do this, I would be fine with that. I would recommend to anybody not to overlook independent presses ever. Because often the work you see there, one could argue at least, is of higher quality than some of the publications of the big five.
Laura: Yeah. I think that’s a great point because I think a lot of people get caught up in, like, the idea of the big five and the glitz and glam, but there really is something that should be said for all the work that indie presses are doing and the kind of content that they’re putting out. And it’s like you said, it could be the rejection isn’t anything about your work personally. It’s just something that they’re not willing to take a chance on at the moment. So, that’s a really important point.
Brett: One of the things that I always tell my creative writing students is that the most common answer, the one you will get overwhelmingly in the majority of the time is no, for whatever reason. Because competition is fierce, because writing well is hard, because it’s subjective. Part of it is about luck, getting the right piece in front of the right person in the right place at the right time. And so, you can’t take rejection personally. You can’t let it stop you. Of course, we all get discouraged at times. And you know, I always tell my students, when I get discouraged, I usually give myself, you know, half an hour, an hour to sit around and grumble and feel sorry for myself. And then I got to sit down and get back to work, because just showing up, doing the work, continually trying to improve your craft and not letting rejection stop you from trying to get your work out there, I think that’s half the battle.
Laura: It really is half the battle. And it can be really hard in the moment. But I think that’s a great point, just getting back to work and actually starting to write again is the biggest thing.
Rachel: Yeah. I have a friend who does something similar. She’s also an author. And whenever she gets her developmental edits back from her editor, she gives herself half an hour to just wallow and be sad about any changes she has to make to her book, and then she gets started on the edits. But you need to give yourself that time. Otherwise, it just…it’ll just keep eating at you.
Brett: Yup. And you know, I’ve known people that take a day. I’ve known people that take a week. I usually don’t take that long for whatever reason. I can get back to work faster than that. But you know, unless you’re on a tight deadline or you have to have a lot of work done really soon, I think if you need longer than that half an hour, then that’s what you should take. You know, whatever your process is, whatever works for you is what you should do. Of course, on deadline, we don’t always have that luxury. Sometimes, we have to get back to work before we really want to. But beyond that, I think whatever will allow you to get back to your paper and notepad, to your computer, to your tablet, whatever you’re writing on, whatever allows you to get back to that and sit with the work and try to do it to the best of your ability is what you should do.
Laura: One of the things that I also wanted to talk a little bit about is your marketing strategy. So, that does change when you’re with an indie press versus maybe, like, Simon & Schuster, one of the big five. What does that marketing strategy look like for you as a sci-fi fantasy author?
Brett: I think, generally speaking, you guys know about the authorial platform. The thing is we…that so much of the platform is about social media. We have to be on, you know, a dozen different social media accounts. We create this public persona across platforms, try to let people know that our work is out there. In terms of being an indie author, I think that’s even more important no matter what kind of indie press you’re into. Generally, they don’t have the same kind of marketing budgets. And so, the author doing part of that work becomes even more important than it is with places with huge marketing departments.
You know, I’m always out there on social media just trying to maintain a presence, letting people know about my work. If they ask questions, then I try to answer them. If they tell me they love the work, then I try to thank them. I try to reply to as many of those things as I can and try to grow my online presence and a bigger marketing budget than a lot of the indie presses out there. They have their own publicity team that’s done good work for my stuff, you know, my books have been reviewed in places like, you know, “Publishers Weekly” and “Kirkus,” “Booklist,” “The Wall Street Journal.” They’ve managed to catch the attention of big places like that, and that’s good when your craft can do that. But I think if you’re going to go the indie route, you can’t count on that because, again, not everybody has the funds and the other various resources to give that kind of marketing push.
And so, I would suggest that, you know, any prospective writer out there who’s thinking of going the indie route, you know, again, get on social media, establish a presence, put the word out about your own. When you have a publication, let people know and link to it. If you get a good review, you can retweet that or whatever. Isn’t that a xeet now as it changed to X? Which is ridiculous.
Anyway, you have to use all the tools that you can possibly think of to help with marketing. I think…do that anyway as a writer, but it’s especially important that you be active if you’re going to be an indie press author.
Rachel: I think that’s the first time xeet has been said on this podcast. So, you’re the first.
Brett: A dubious honor.
Rachel: So, one thing that we really wanted to talk to you about is your series “Freaks,” which you’ve mentioned a few times. And the third book came out summer of 2023. Can you tell our readers a little bit about this series?
Brett: Yeah. One person who blurbed had said it was kind of a combination of “X-Men” and “Stranger Things,” which wasn’t really on my mind specifically when I did it. What I was trying to do is pay homage to those early Stan Lee, Jack Kirby Marvel comics that really…as a kid that laid the foundation for so many of the incredibly important pop culture characters that we’re still engaging with today, like Spider-Man and the Avengers, Fantastic Four. I knew I wanted to do something that would pay homage to that and allow me to write my own comic book story.
And so, I came up with the concept of this group of kids who kind of, like, early Peter Parker and Spider-Man were being bullied for all the usual reasons. And they’re being bullied in various ways. But they’re also into, much like I was, all the science fiction and fantasy and horror stuff. And so, one of the kids has this trunk from a great uncle that he’s never seen, that has all these weird stuff and all these old robes and all these old books. And they just do a little role playing, little cosplay. So, they dress up in the robe, pretending to be wizards and they make this chant that they find in one of the books, which is a comic book type thing. Ended up opening up a dimensional portal and letting all these creatures through into our world, a world which to them has only always been a realistic version of life at Southeast Arkansas.
And so, now, you got all the trimmings the small sub town, everything that that entails for better or worse, including things like… And you have these kids dealing with all that at the most tumultuous time of their lives when they’re going through puberty and they’re getting closer to adulthood, and trying to figure out what all that’s going to mean. But they also have this extra responsibility, and they do see it as their responsibility because they let these creatures into the world.
The good thing for them…or you know, that’s part of what the series kind of asks, is this a good thing for them, is that the dimensional energies let loose when they open this portal will also give them superpowers. And so, they kind of, in the first book, stumble and fumble into becoming a version of the super team. I think this is where the “X-Men” comparison comes in. But they’re also dealing with horror elements because, you know, these are not nice creatures. They’re bad creatures who do bad things. And so, I think that’s part of where “Stranger Things” comes in, in that particular comparison because that became a big pop cultural text people were really interested in around the time these books started getting published.
And so, it’s the ongoing story of these kids, not only just trying to learn how to be better human beings and figure out who they are and who they’re going to be, but now they have all the extra weight of trying to be superheroes in a world that doesn’t know superheroes, and that is possibly hostile to them. And so, you know, what I was trying to do there is bring up a more realistic approach to what we might see if this happened in small town Arkansas.
And that’s kind of where the series is. Each book is a further step along those roads until we get to the final road, which is not only high school graduation, but they’re finally what we, you know, in the video game community, they might call the final boss. That’s where I’m at now. And so, yeah, it’s been a fun series to work on. I’ve really enjoyed channeling those great artists in the comic book realm who opened up such worlds for me. You know, I hope that this is another world that some readers will enjoy visiting, the world of the Freaks.
Rachel: I will say one thing I really enjoyed was the idea of, like, in society, different tends to be treated badly. And it’s really interesting to see how…without any spoilers, how other people treat folks with superpowers, which we would believe is, like, the coolest thing to have happen to us. I mean, we, being you and I, the nerds on this call. I don’t know if Laura jumps in on this. But it’s so different. So, I thought that was a really interesting take, especially for a YA audience when you’re dealing with bullying a lot.
Brett: Yeah. I forget which author said this, but they said…the quote was something like, “In America, we like to kill the mutant.” And that doesn’t have to mean a literal mutant like the X-Men or some deformed creature out of nightmare. That can just mean something that is different from what we consider mainstream or from…that is farther out in the spectrum from the center of power.
You know, I think, really, at some level, everything is political. And I mean political in that broader sense, not of Democrat or Republican, but of power. Who has it, who doesn’t? What are the results of this power structure? How do we interrogate it? In what ways might we find it seductive? And you know, I wanted to look at a diverse group of kids in a place that traditionally hasn’t always really valued diversity and look at how all of the ways that they’re different from their town and from their classmates, how that has helped shape who they are for better or worse, how they deal with this as they get more mature.
And you know, I think, readers of the series will find that some of them deal with that better than others, that some will say, “Okay. Well, I’m going to embrace these differences. I’m going to be proud of who I am,” and others are less so. Others are not as certain. Some are angry and want to get people back. I hope that these are all human reactions. They might not always be the most admirable reaction, but I think that, too, is human. You know, I didn’t want to write a book full of perfect characters who always did the right thing. I don’t find that interesting or realistic. I wanted them to be more complicated than that. So, I hope they are.
Rachel: Oh. One of my questions is actually about this and the fact that good and evil and that line is very blurred in these books because you have very different reactions to these characters getting superpowers. Did you have fun kind of dancing around this line between heroes and villains and what that means?
Brett: Oh, yeah. I love that kind of thing. One of my favorite books is Tim O’Brien’s book, “The Things They Carried.” Depending on who you ask, it’s either a collection of related short stories or a novel and stories. But it is a book that takes great pains and, I think, pleasure in blurring lines between things we typically think of as binary. You’re either this or that, whether that’s fact versus fiction, whether we’re talking gender roles, all sorts of ways. If you look at that book, you see this writer kind of interrogating those typical lines that we draw between things and say, “Okay. There’s a box over here and a box over there, and you’ve got to fit in one or the other.” He really explores kind of the no man’s land between those.
And one thing that that book does…and I don’t do this. I hope this is not a spoiler, but you know, I don’t do this to my readers, but I love it when Tim O’Brien does it, is that you’ll read something in a story and you’ll assume, “Okay, in the world of this story, this is fact. I know what happened. I understand.” And then the next story will tell you how that last story was a lie. So, you know, even that line between fact, fiction, and what we can assume as a reader is something that he makes blurry. And you know, I don’t think I go that far in “Freaks.” I think you’ll be able to come away from the books knowing what happened for sure. But I did have a lot of fun imagining different ways that basically good people might respond to complex, tough situations and showing, I hope, that not everybody is going to do the right thing all the time, or sometimes they’re going to do what they think is the right thing, and it turns out not to be.
And so, you know, for me, that’s part of where the realism lies, and that’s part of where my interest in the characters lie. Sometimes they can get in their own way.
Laura: One of the things I wanted to ask about, too, was the fight scenes. So, for example, in “Freaks,” there’s a lot of action as kind of, like, the heroes and the bullies face off. How do you go about choreographing these in your head to have them play out on paper?
Brett: I think about what kind of situation we’re in and who’s in it. You know, there are scenes where the Freaks are just training. There are scenes where the Freaks are dealing with their human bullies who don’t have superpowers and now that they do, this is a different kind of situation than it used to be. And of course, we have the fights with the creature who is the main antagonist in this book.
So, you know, first of all, I’ve got to say, well, what is the situation? If they’re in conflict with their human bullies…you know, if you’re super strong, you can no longer just go up and punch somebody in the nose. You might kill him. So, how do you deal with that? If you’ve been bullied your entire life and you’re angry about it, what are the seductions of using that power against the people who have tormented you, even if you know that that’s not necessarily the right thing to do? It feels right even if your logic centers tell you that this is not something you should do.
And if, you know, we’re dealing with the creature that is kind of the boss of the book, then, well, we can go more all out there. And once I know what kind of situation we’re in, then I think, okay, I’ve got to get all these characters involved in the action. What can each one of these characters do, and what are they likely to attempt against this opponent?
And so, if you’ve got the person who can, you know, run at super speed and she doesn’t actually want to hurt anybody, you know, she…well, okay, if she wants to get back at the bullies but not actually hurt them, what might a teenager think of that she can do with her powers that will allow her to feel some sort of satisfaction but not cross the line into hurting anybody? On the other hand, you know, if you’re fighting the big bad, she can really let loose. And she can test the limits of her powers and her own imagination.
So, once I’ve decided what kind of situation it is and what sort of actions they’re likely to take, then I just try to make sure that I don’t just focus on one or two characters, that, you know, we see this character do something and here’s the reaction of that, jump over here and look at what this character is doing. The real trick of all that is to try to make sure that it all comes together as a cohesive whole, that it’s not like a three-ring circus, where 100 different things are going on at once and you don’t know where to look, but to have all of these things kind of come together. So, even though we’re seeing them one at a time, we understand they’re happening to the same people in the same place.
You know, the good thing about that is that unlike, say, if I were doing a battle scene in a war, where there’s probably going to be hundreds or thousands of people in here, I just got a handful and they’ve got one main antagonist in any particular scene. And so, you know, it becomes easier for me to keep up with people. But that’s also something I do in revision. And when I start working with editors, is that we look at that and make sure nobody’s getting left out … without, you know, going over here and seeing what Gabby’s up to. Then I can insert something and help maintain the balance.
Rachel: Do you have any advice for writers who want to tackle writing a fight scene and how to make it feel kind of fluid and realistic rather than just random punches being thrown?
Brett: Well, one thing I would say…and I think this is good advice for any writer about any sort of question you have about writing is that you should read and not just read passively. Don’t just look at the words until the words run out, but read actively, pay attention to how the pros do it. You see somebody who’s written successfully and this is the kind of thing they tend to do. Then take a look at those scenes and see how they do it, you know, how long they’d go without switching characters. What sort of arc of that particular fight they’ve managed to establish and take us through from the start of it up to that fight’s climax.
I think, when you read actively and you read people who… or what they do, that can give you ideas for things to try, be patient of what works and what might not. Beyond that, you know, I think you’ve got to ask yourselves, you know, what is the meaningful action here? You know, that’s one thing that I don’t have a lot of in these fights except maybe for the character of Kenneth Del Ray, who gets the super strength. And so, he’s very physical with his body. The rest of the characters, they don’t throw a lot of punches.
And I think, if you’re…I think this is also something I learned from comic books. If you’re writing a fight scene with characters who have superpowers, just random fisticuffs aren’t necessarily the most interesting way you could get those characters involved. So, what would they try with their particular powers and skills against this kind of opponent and have them do that in kind of a bigger moment than we might see in just, say, a martial arts fight? And I think, reading widely, doing the best you can with your own technique and with your knowledge of what these characters and would do in the situation, is a good place to start.
And after that, I would say, man, make sure you got a good editor. Because they can often see things that you don’t see. They’ll have a different perspective. Then they say, “Hey, this part of the fight kind of drags because you’re…” This actually happened to me in a short story that I wrote. It was about an MMA fighter. This was more a realistic literary story. And when it got accepted for publication, they had a few they wanted me to address. And one of them was that I had this scene where the fighter is in a UFC fight. And I’d kind of gone blow by blow with all the different punches and all the different martial arts techniques. I was trying to give it a sense of realism for people who know what mixed martial arts are like.
But what the editor said was, “This kind of drags. You’re literally giving us a movement by movement description of this fight. And we kind of get the idea. Let’s just hit the highlights here. And so, we worked on that, and you know, together with someone who had fresher eyes than I did. We took a careful look at what needed to be kept and what could be cut without losing the sense of what was going on.
So, yeah. I think, if you pay attention to the pros, if you do the best you can in writing and revision, and then you trust the editorial process, I think that helps a lot in creating a good fight scene.
Laura: Those were all really good points. I’m just thinking about the fight scenes now. This series is a YA series. So, I’m wondering, how do you write like horror or fantasy that has different scenes that might be kind of gory for a YA audience, and kind of draw the boundary to keep it a YA book.
Brett: Yeah. That’s something you have to be cognizant of is, you know, this particular audience and what people expect out of a YA book. You know, what I found in reading YA and in study YA, is that a lot of them are actually pretty violent. But you can have violence or cursing or even sex represented in a YA book, as long as you don’t go too far, well, you know, what is too far? Well, you know, in my book “Lord of Order” you know, one of the things I was doing in this book was, you know, I’ve become a little concerned about how, as a culture, we seem to love violence as entertainment. You know, that goes for me, too. I write violent stuff. I consume violent text. You know, I’m not immune to this, but I did want to think about it as I wrote this book because I knew the nature of this book was going to cause…rather for some violent scenes. So, I decided to just lean into that and say, okay, if we’re going to say violence is entertainment, then let’s get violent.
And so, I had scenes in there where people would be questioning their enemies. They would say, “Okay, if you don’t answer us, you know, we’re going to torture you.” Well, what would torture actually look like? And you know, I wanted the reader to be uncomfortable with the depth of violence and the brutality in scenes like that. I think that probably would be a little much for a YA audience, that level of gore, that level of destruction of the human body, that level of depravity, we might even say. But I knew that the nature of superhero stories is violent in one sense. You know, you can’t have superheroes, really, without having fight scenes sooner or later. So, to what level would these go in? And I wanted this to be something that was based in horror. I wanted this to be darker than your average superhero origin story, especially in those Lee/Kirby days, where things were brighter and happier.
And so, I said, well, what kind of violence can I get away with in the young adult realm as opposed to the free-for-all I might do with adult fiction? So, basically, what I did was I just tried stuff. You know, there’s a scene where in the first book where the monster kills a kid and I tell what the monster does to the kid’s body. I wanted to be honest about that because I think glossing over it…I think readers are smarter than that. And I think, you know, the YA audience, if they think you’re pandering to them or treating them like they’re immature, they’re probably going to get mad. I know I would have when I was that age. So, I wanted to show that, but I didn’t want to go to the same level I’ve gone to in some of my adult fiction because after all, it’s still for a younger audience who is still maturing.
And so, you know, for every book, I try to walk that line. What can I show and be honest about, the violence, that these are people, that people are getting hurt, but not go too far? And again, one way that I walk that line is through a good editor. My editor on the “Freaks” series, Maya Myers, is an experienced YA editor. She has written some work herself. And she has kids who are around the age of the targeted readership for these books. And so, she’s really good about telling me this is on the right track, this probably doesn’t make sense for this audience, this is a little too much.
And I find, actually, that my main issue is with narration, not violence. I think I learned fairly quickly what kind of violence Maya felt this sort of audience would be okay with. But when I’m writing the narration in a given scene, I have to stop myself from sounding too mature, too adult. You know, I have to think about what the voice of this kid would sound like as opposed to any other narrator I might do. You know, it’s really something. When you think about audiences, you know, it helps determine pretty much everything you do and everything you don’t do. And I think, with looking at the violence, I was cognizant that these are younger readers and readers with parents who probably don’t want them to be exposed to something like “American Psycho,” let’s say. At the same time, to be honest about what’s going on here, to show that violence has consequences. This is something that I felt the need to do. And again, my editor really helped.
Rachel: That’s so interesting, trying to find that line between being honest with your readers and not feeling like you’re holding yourself back. I feel like “American Psycho,” like, no chasing people with chainsaws is probably a good rule for YA.
Brett: Probably so.
Rachel: And so, aside from novels, you also…like, you mentioned up top you write essays, short stories, and you’ve also written a screenplay. And I’m curious how your writing process differs, if at all, when going from medium to medium.
Brett: Well, one thing I do with novels that I don’t do with other kinds of work is I typically outline in the novel. I’ll take a pad and paper, and I’ll write it chapter by chapter, kind of description and discussion of what I want to happen. So, that way, I can kind of see the arc of the story and make adjustments. Then I take a bunch of 3 by 5 note cards and write a chapter-by-chapter and scene-by-scene description of what I think is going.
And part of my task as the writer is when the little people in my head surprise me and a chapter ends in a different way than I thought it would, then being open to that and adjusting what happens after to take the subsequent note cards and scratch out and put notes on how I think things should go now. I have been doing this with novels for a while now because I found it helps me keep track of all the disparate elements rather than just kind of completely surprising myself and winging it. As for the others, I typically don’t outline for those. I just kind of see what happens. And then I look at the whole piece since it’s not nearly as long, and try to find the story arc and the character arc, and make adjustments as I revise.
And so, part of it that makes it different is planning. Whereas, yeah, I’ve tinkered with screenplays mostly just for fun. I had one several years ago that won a few contests. It was never optioned, but they made, what, five “Sharknados.” So, life isn’t fair. But yeah, when I did that, I wrote the first draft, and I had thought about the three acts and about where I wanted the axe to break. I thought of that and then I wrote the first draft. And then I went and I looked at the scenes, and I tried to compress each scene to where it was approximately as long as every other scene. So, we wouldn’t have, you know, one scene that was 30 seconds and another that was 15 minutes. I think, you know, when you’re writing for a visual medium, you have to really be cognizant of things like that in a way that goes beyond your usual thoughts of pacing and structure in a novel.
I’ve also found that because, you know, I know how screenplays work, that that has bled over into how I plot other things. I tend to think of stories and novels in three-act structures. And so, I’ll have that, you know, kind of short first act that gets things going, the long second act that leads up to the place where everything is going to change. And then we have the shorter third act where it all plays out. I tend to think of that especially with novels, but I often aim to do that with short stories. I try to consider structure at all times, and I think that’s something that screenwriting really helped me see in a way that even studying other fiction hadn’t.
You know, with essays, I usually…you know, I’ll have an idea of what I want to say. It depends on what kind of essay it is. If it’s, you know, a think piece about a movie, that’s one kind of writing. If it’s a personal essay, that’s another. So, I have to say, well, what kind of writing is this? If it’s personal essay, there may be a story here. And then again, I’ve got to think how I approach story. If it’s a think piece, it’s probably going to be more like, you know, an enumeration paper you might have written in college. You know, I’ve got X number of points to make. So, I’ll have an intro and a multi-paragraph body and a conclusion.
I think each kind of genre has its own expectations, its own methods, its own rules. But there are commonalities in how I write, which is that I usually start it with an idea. Then I’ll try to find the story in that idea. And I do some planning with novels. There’s a lot of planning with, say, an essay. I might just do enough planning to know what points I want to make, and see what happens. So, it’s both a process of discovery and surprise. And yet, I’m trying to impose structure.
Laura: Thanks, Brett. That was a really great point. So, we’ve kept you for a while now, but we just have a couple more questions for you. So, one of the things that I wanted to talk about is, do you have any advice for indie sci-fi fantasy authors who are just kind of starting out?
Brett: Some of this is going to be a repeat, but I’d say, you know, read widely. Pay attention to the pros and how they do things. Make sure that the story you’re telling is not just a retread of something they’ve done, that it’s something different or you’re putting your own spin on something that exists. You know, make sure that you have a story to tell and not just a good idea. And then make sure that, you know, the form you put it in, that you’re adding something that is a little different from what other people have done.
I would also say, when it’s time to look at publication, you know, pay careful attention to what each market wants. I know a lot of young writers who just kind of carpet bomb every publication they can think of. And so, they’ll send their science fiction or fantasy or horror story, let’s say, to a literary journal that only publishes literary fiction. And they’re going to take one look at your outer space vampire romance and say no. Right? And so, you know, I’m always telling my students, when you’re looking for publication markets, look at their submission guidelines. Look at the about section on their website. Look at the kind of work that they’ve published before. And make sure this is a place that actually publishes the kind of stuff that you have produced. Otherwise, you’re just wasting your time and the time of the people on the other end. Part of being a professional is doing that work, is looking at what people want, what people don’t want, and sending the right stuff to the right people.
Laura: I think that’s really great advice. And some of it definitely bears repeating. Reading within your genre is really important, and I think it’s something a lot of people forget to do. What can readers expect from you next?
Brett: Well, I’m currently working on three things that I feel are worth talking about. One is the final “Freaks” book, which I tentatively title “Commencement” because, you know, not only is this going to be senior year where graduation is looming, but also it’s going to be the commencement of the rest of their lives, assuming they live. So, you know, I’m currently in the first draft of that. Because graduate school forced me to work on several things at once. I haven’t been able to break that habit. So, I’m also working on…I’m not sure if it’s going to be a horror novel or if it’s going to be more like a thriller, but it’s going to be a kind of dark book with a comedic edge set in the 1980s. I’m hoping it’s going to go in the horror direction, but I’m going to let the text itself dictate that as I get into revision.
The other thing is I’m…for the first time in a few years because I’ve been working on books so much, I’m tinkering with some short stories for the first time in a while. And I’ve got some ideas for some crime stories. So, I’m going to try my hand at that. I don’t know how it’ll turn out, don’t know if any of them will ever see the light of day, but I’m going to have some fun and see what happens.
Rachel: Those all sound like very fun projects to work on. And I’m personally very excited for ’80s potential horror because I love the ’80s. And before we let you go, I have two equally important questions for you. One, where can our listeners find you online? And two, if you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Brett: People can find me online. I’ve got an author page on Facebook which is called Brett Riley Author. On Twitter or whatever we’re calling it, and Instagram, I’m @brettwrites, B-R-E-T-T-W-R-I-T-E-S. I’m also on the new Threads under that. Not currently on TikTok. So, you can’t find me there, but I do have an online presence on several platforms.
And I think, any superpower, it would probably be flight, which is weird because the only thing I’m scared of is heights. But the idea that, you know, I could go anywhere under my own power, that I could maybe get over that fear of heights and appreciate a bird’s eye view of the world we live in, the freedom of movement, there’s something about it that appeals to me, even though I don’t like going up very high. So, yeah, I think I’d probably pick that.
Rachel: A very respectable answer. I’m a teleportation person myself because same thing, I want to be anywhere, but skipping the actual work of having to get there.
Brett: That’s a good one.
Rachel: Thank you so much. I’ve put a lot of thought into this question.
Rachel: Well, Brett, thank you so much for joining us.
Brett: I might steal that.
Rachel: You’re more than welcome to it. But only, my stipulation to this power is that I need to be able to bring somebody with me because I feel like with flying, you can just, like, throw somebody piggyback and go. But with teleportation, I need to be able to, like, hold somebody and move them with me because I don’t want to travel the world alone. But that’s a whole other podcast for us to have. Brett, thank you so much for joining us. We will include links to your books and to your socials in our show notes so our listeners can find you. And again, thank you so much. This has been wonderful.
Brett: Well, thanks for having me. This has been a blast, and I really appreciate it.
Laura: Thanks, Brett. This has been awesome, and I think there’s lots of great insights here for authors.
Brett: Thank you.
Rachel: Thank you for listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast.” If you’re interested in picking up Brett’s books, we will include links in our show notes. And if you were enjoying this podcast, please be sure to rate, review, subscribe, tell all of your friends. And if you’re looking for more tips on growing your self-publishing business, you can find us at kobowritinglife.com, and be sure you’re following us on socials. We are @KoboWritingLife on Facebook and Twitter, and @kobo.writing.life on Instagram.
Laura: This episode was hosted by Laura Granger and Rachel Wharton with production by Terrence Abrahams. Editing is provided by Kelly Rowbotham. Our theme music is composed by Tear Jerker. And thanks to Brett Riley for being a guest.
If you’re ready to get started on your publishing journey, sign up today at kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.