SPS-279: Authors on a Train: Collaborative Writing – with Zach Bohannon

Zach Bohannon and his collaborative partner J. Thorn have worked together writing books and creating events for authors. Zach talks to James about how the collaborative process works, how the pandemic has affected in-person events, and what the Three Story Method is.

Show Notes

  • How Zach writes collaboratively with J. Thorn
  • Does an author need to be on social media?
  • The three crucial elements of every story
  • What is the Pixar pitch? And how can authors use it?
  • How the Writers on a Train events work
  • Remembering to have multiple streams of income as an author

Resources mentioned in this episode:

PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page

MERCH: Are you a ligneous beetle or a yawning hippopotamus? Get your SPF hoodies and t-shirts in the brand new SPF Store.


Speaker 1: On this edition of the Self-Publishing Show ...

Zach Bohannon: I'm a really big fan of Brian McDonald's theory of, "You should know your theme before you write your book, and then if you're stuck, you can always come back to that."

Speaker 1: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers. No more barriers. No one standing between you and your readers. Do you want to make a living from your writing?

Join indie bestseller Mark Dawson, and first-time author James Blatch, as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is the Self-Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.

James Blatch: Hello, and welcome. It is the Self-Publishing Show with me, James Blatch.

Mark Dawson: And me, Mark Dawson.

James Blatch: The bearded men from England. The old men in the beards, like Ernest Hemingway.

Mark Dawson: I mean, you're old.

James Blatch: I'm old. You've just got a beard.

Mark Dawson: Yeah.

James Blatch: I think if I shave and you keep the beard, we look about the same age.

Mark Dawson: Yeah, possibly. I'm not sure. I do look about 20 years older before I had my post lockdown haircut.

James Blatch: Yes.

Mark Dawson: I look a bit like the unibomber.

James Blatch: There's been some bad haircuts around. Tony Blair had the bad one.

Mark Dawson: Richard Branson.

James Blatch: Richard Branson, yes. Or Peter Stringfellow who looked like a night club owner in the UK. Anyway, enough rambling, let's talk books.

I've got a couple of things to talk about before our interview with Zach Bohannon who's a lovely, lovely guy. Really enjoyed our chat today. We talked a bit about collaboration, and also story structure. In fact, I am reading Zach's book Three Story Method which he wrote with J. Thorn at the moment.

I'm plotting my second book. I made a pantsy start on it; I wrote 40,000 words of it, just because that's what I do, I think, when I've come up with the idea, then I stopped and then I plotted it. And when I say "plotted it," I wrote it out on two sides of Word document, A4.

I've struggled a little bit with Plottr and stuff, not because there's anything wrong with Plottr and lots of people absolutely love it, but just the way my mind works. I think I just prefer to write out a long synopsis of how the book works, and what I've decided to do for this is to go to Andrew Lowe, who I worked with towards the end of The Final Flight and said to him, "Look, can you read the outline? I think the story works really well. I'm really happy with the story, but I'm not convinced I've got the internal motivation of the characters sorted yet. You could help me with that."

And what he's done, he's going to do that for free, he has done it for free, on the basis that he's going to get the first draft when I've drafted it after the summer, and he's going to do an editorial assessment to see have I met what we talked about? And then he'll do the copy edit. I will then get a separate proof editor after that.

So I think that's a good way of working for me. It's a little bit more hands-off from what I did with novel one where I really did need handholding from the beginning, and hopefully this will be a progress for me.

We had the call this week and it was brilliant. Andrew did a really good job. I'd had an idea about my character's motivation about something he'd lost early on in his life, and Andrew came up with a really good idea. I wrote that opening scene, and then we jumped for 20 years and the whole story is 20 years later.

But that opening scene sets up this moment in his childhood. And he just talked about breaking up that scene and putting it at the beginning of the three acts in the book to gradually unfold what happened to him as a child, and link it with something physical that he's doing. I'm not going to give too much away, because I'm really excited about the story.

But it was a really worthwhile conversation. Everything that's going to be in the book now was there in my outline, but what Andrew did was just gave me a slightly outside my standing in the middle of the forest way of looking at the story and thinking, "This is how it will work." And it's almost a film script, the way that he's structured it now for me.

So that was a really worthwhile half an hour, 40 minute chat with Andrew. And now I'm drafting. And I've said the summer just because I'm so busy every day. I don't know how many words, 800 words a day I might get done. I don't know. We will see.

Mark Dawson: Well, that's not too bad.

James Blatch: Yeah, that would be okay if I can do that. And I guess it's going to be a 100,000, 120,000 words. I am planning a little writer's retreat in Florida when we go there for the couple of days before NINC with a couple of friends, with Cecelia and Lucy, and we're going to try and blitz a day there and also talk to each other about books, which I'm very excited about it. I've never done anything like that before.

So that's Redneck, which won't be called Redneck, but that's the working title. And I've been researching 1947 wristwatches yesterday that pilots might wear for a very significant reason. And I've really enjoyed that and came very close to buying one, an antique. There's a series of watches called the Dirty Dozen.

The British military during the war decided that most wristwatches were a bit cheap and falling apart for soldiers. So they issued this spec, and 12 manufacturers, I think, 11 in Switzerland, and one other, came forward, people like Omega, and they all met this criteria. So those 12, the Dirty Dozen, they were called, made these watches, British Army bought them in bulk and issued them to soldiers. And they're now for sale, obviously they've all got the same symbols on the back, on eBay and so on.

But that watch is going to feature, because obviously an American serviceman almost certainly would have just come back from Europe in 1947, where he would have picked up this watch. So that's a fun little bit. You must have these moments when you start going down rabbit holes for the little bits of research for novels, and they can be great fun.

Mark Dawson: Oh, God, yeah. There's a key scene in the new Milton book on the Flannan Islands in the Hebrides.

James Blatch: Never heard of them.

Mark Dawson: No. There's a lighthouse in the middle of the Atlantic, so it's about a hundred miles off the coast of Harris, a bit less than that. It's about 25 miles off the coast of Harris. And this is not really connected to the actual story writing, but it is interesting that it's deserted, there's a lighthouse on it, which is automated now, but in the early 1900s, all three light housekeepers vanished. And no one knows what happened. To this day they don't know. Their meals were left on the table.

And so when the relief lighthouse keepers came to take over, there was no one there.

James Blatch: Aliens.

Mark Dawson: People have speculated on aliens, but the theory is one or two of them were washed out by ... there was three of them, were washed out by a big wave during a storm, and then the other one went to find out what happened to the other two and he was washed out as well. But no one will ever know, because there was no witnesses.

That kind of colour is quite useful because there is actually a scene on this island which is mysterious that Milton has to investigate. So an old fishermen can tell a story as he's sailing out with Milton to the island, so that, "Well, this is the island where three lighthouse keepers vanished." You often find those kinds of things, like, "Oh, that's perfect. That's going in. In some way, I'm going to have to include that."

James Blatch: Well, there's another novel there, isn't there? It's a novel about somebody who goes to investigate to finally solve this riddle and what he discovered at the end is something about himself.

Mark Dawson: Yeah. That's how the Hammer House horror film ... I think that there has actually been a couple of films based on what happened. It's very cinematic.

James Blatch: Yeah. Wicker, perhaps. They were burnt to the Wicker Man. It's an unhabited island, otherwise.

Mark Dawson: Yeah. I mean, a lot of the Hebrides, St. Kilda is another one. There were people living on places like St. Kilda, which is a hundred miles off the coast. But not now. It's mainly birds. A lot of bird watchers, you get puffins and guillemots and fulmars and all those kinds of birds, and whales as well and dolphins.

James Blatch: It must be an amazing place to be.

Mark Dawson: Yeah. What I've seen about it looks amazing. And like I mentioned, I may have mentioned on the podcast, but certainly to my readers, I'd posted on my monthly newsletter that I was writing in the Hebrides and this guy emailed and said, "I'm a big fan. I've read all your books. I actually own Taransay, which is the island where-

James Blatch: He owns Taransay?

Mark Dawson: Yeah, he bought it for two million about 10 years ago. Ben Fogle was also trying to buy it.

James Blatch: Wow.

Mark Dawson: Yeah. He's made his money in pharmaceuticals and he's also got luxury rentals on Harris overlooking Taransay, and so I said to Lucy, "This is partly a tax deductible trip out to the Hebrides for a bit of research." If we didn't have kids, we'd probably be out there already, but you never know.

James Blatch: Sounds lovely. Castaway was a UK reality programme where they stuck a disparate group of individuals on the island and they had to survive for a year.

Mark Dawson: There's a US version. Ours was based on that.

James Blatch: Followed that, okay. But it looked beautiful. There's some geography here, but because of the gulf stream, you get an almost Caribbeanesque sea up there with sand and blue skies.

Mark Dawson: Yeah. It's crystal clear water, white sand, but it's not Caribbean in temperature.

James Blatch: No. It's icy cold. Well, I think probably in the summer, in June for three days.

Mark Dawson: Yeah, yeah. It's quite nice in the summer. But yeah, most of the time it's quite cold, because it's quite north.

James Blatch: That's the fun bit of writing. Lots of parts of writing are fun, some of it is laborious, but this bit where you're researching books and feeling excited about a new story for me is a great thing.

So that's what's happened. In terms of my book, I've coming up to my 900th sale, I think yesterday.

Mark Dawson: That's good.

James Blatch: Yeah. I'm really pleased with that. I've got a hardback version, is now out. No one's bought that, only been out for two days. I've bought it once and see what it looks, it hasn't arrived yet, see what that looks like. And I think I mentioned that last week I put that up, so that's now live. So that's going okay.

My plan is just to keep some visibility for book one. But reviews are coming in, past 50 reviews now, which I'm really pleased. I don't need to do your webinar on how to get your first 10 reviews.

Mark Dawson: No.

James Blatch: Now I've got 50.

Mark Dawson: I've got another one, how to get your first 500.

James Blatch: Yeah. There you go, very much helped by lots of friends in SPF and then a few other people. One of these reviewers who has an Amazon line next to him because his quality of reviews, and he mainly reviews wine stuff, but he also does military thrillers. So, the book he reviewed before mine of the same genre was John Lucero.

And mine, he did describe me as an emerging talent. Not my words, the words of review. "An emerging fiction talent," he said. I've got to use that in adverts at some point, right.

Okay. Let us press on. We have our interview today. Our interview is with Zach Bohannon.

Zach and J. Thorn, some of you will be aware of them. They're quite high profile in the industry. J. Thorn has his own podcast with J.D. Barker, and they also did this, we mentioned it before, this remarkable trip on a train that Jo Penn took part in, and I think Lindsay Buroker as well. I think they got on this train in Chicago and they went down to New Orleans, and they wrote a novel based on the train and the journey collective experience.

And Zach and J., I think, are very into these trips. Obviously, they've had a difficult 12 months as we all have in terms of doing anything outside of the house, so they've been curtailed, but we want to talk to him. I did want to talk to him about those trips, but also about his own writing, his experience of collaboration, and also about stories. And the bit that I'm going through now with my next book, the plotting bit of trying to make sure the story's working before I start, that role, that balancing act between pantsing, or what you would have called it, discovery writing, and plotting, and having an idea. And I found Zach really, really useful to talk to. I think you will too.

So here's Zach, and then Mark and I will be back for a chat.

Welcome to the Self Publishing Show. Delighted to have you on here. We've just been chin-wagging about Nashville, where you live, a town that I had some fun there, a couple of nights in, and we must get back to at some point, but it doesn't really matter where we are these days, because in this electronic world, you can be anywhere.

Zach Bohannon: Exactly. I appreciate you having me on, I appreciate the invite.

James Blatch: It's our pleasure. I want to talk a bit about you and your writing, because I know it goes back a little way; I've looked at your back catalogue. But I also want to talk about the train, which we have mentioned before on the podcast, when J. was on here, but I think it was before the first one or maybe the second one, but it was a fascinating project to me, so I want to hear a bit more about that.

Why don't we start, Zach, with a bit about you? Tell us about your writing career.

Zach Bohannon: I've been publishing since 2014, I guess, and I've been full time since 2017. I've been a creative for a long time. I spent a majority of my twenties playing drums in a heavy metal band and did some touring and stuff like that. And I always had the urge to write, and it was common story.

I always had a story on me. I just never got around to doing it. And then I picked the best time to try to write a novel, which was right after I had a kid. When I started writing my first book, my daughter was five months old or something like that.

I put my first book out and it did really, really well and catapulted me to be able to make this a full-time career. And I primarily write post-apocalyptic sci-fi/ horror, is my niche and my brand, I guess.

James Blatch: Yeah, very distinctive, and very striking covers. In fact, we can see them if people are watching on YouTube. That's a really good idea. I must get my cover put into a nice big poster on the wall somewhere.

Zach Bohannon: I like it.

James Blatch: How many books have you written now, or published?

Zach Bohannon: Oh, gosh. 30-ish, something like that. It's probably more if you include anthologies and stuff that J. and I have put together. There's a few nonfiction books in there as well that are for writers. But it's somewhere right around 30. I need to go back and count, I guess.

James Blatch: Good. Well, you've passed the 20 books to 50K aim and carried on.

Zach Bohannon: Yeah, absolutely. I'm definitely past that part.

James Blatch: So the anthology, the stuff you do with J., is that collaborative writing for single books? Was that stuff that you say anthology, you put together your own writing?

Zach Bohannon: Well, the anthologies we do, and I know we're going to get more into this interview, is for the events that we do. Every one of those has an anthology attached. When I was saying "anthology," that's all I was talking about.

J. and I have co-written three trilogies together. As well as one nonfiction. Well, we've done a few nonfiction books for writers, but one flagship one, Three Story Method. So we've done that as well, but those anthologies are all tied to to these events we do.

James Blatch:Okay. Well, let's just talk a little bit about your writing before we move on to the events. So with J., tell me how that collaborative writing process works.

Zach Bohannon: The great thing about when J. and I work together is I hate editing and he doesn't really like first drafting. So we really fit really well right there. But generally, we'll come to the table and work on the ideas together and pound out the outline and stuff together. Usually one of us will take the lead, but then the other person will come back through and look at it and stuff.

And then I do all the first drafting. And, then he generally comes right behind me every couple of days, and he'll usually do it in batches. So he'll edit three to five chapters at a time.

When we first started, I would write the whole book and then send it to him and then he would edit it. And then we figured another way we could save time was if he stayed with me the whole time in the book and basically the same spot. And then if he sees problems, he can fix them and then be like, "Hey, I changed this. So now as you're going forward, this character needs to do this." Or whatever it is.

It really saved us a lot of time and was just a more efficient way to work together. And basically once I'm done with the first draft, I'm pretty much done. Some people think this is crazy, but I have books that we've finished that I've never read the final product. And I know that gives a lot of writers anxiety, but then it also shows that's my trust for him. I know that he's going to take it and he's going to make it really, really good and that I can just move on to the next thing.

James Blatch: I guess everyone enjoys different parts of the process. I quite enjoyed the editing bit, particularly towards the end of it when you're getting into the final shape of the book, but I can see that's not your bag.

Zach Bohannon: Yeah. He and I aren't really collaborating any more on fiction right now. I say any more, at the time we're not. I'm focusing on my own series right now, and it's funny. I was telling him the other day there's times where I just want to call him and be like, and I could do this, and be like, "Hey, dude, I need ..." I miss that collaborative process sometimes, whether I'm stuck on something or I'm tired of editing, I'm not going to call him for that. But, if I'm stuck somewhere, I can definitely hit him up and try to figure some stuff out.

James Blatch: And on the practical side of it, Zach, what's your writing process?

Zach Bohannon: What do you mean, like day-to-day process?

James Blatch: Yeah. What time do you get up in the morning? How do you write? And all that stuff.

Zach Bohannon: Yeah. I typically get up around six o'clock and I help get my daughter ready for school and stuff. And then, once everyone's out of the house, usually that's around 7:15 or so. That's when I'll sit down and usually read for about half an hour. That helps me really get primed to write. And usually I try to read fiction in the morning. And then I go.

I typically probably work, as far as deep creative work, whether I'm editing or writing or whatever part of the project I'm in, I usually do about three hours a day. I don't aim for word counts or anything. I'm a time blocker. And my whole idea is just whatever I get done in that time is what I get done, and I don't worry about how much ...

I used to be a word count person, but it just gives me, it's not good for me mentally, so my whole idea is just as long as I know I'm making progress and I'm working, then that's really what I worry about.

I have days where I have to pick up my daughter and I have her in the afternoon and then I really don't work, but I have a couple of days a week that are longer where my wife is home. And so those are my long days, and those are the days where in the afternoon, I'll sit down and do the admin type stuff I need to do, I'll do my marketing, all that kind of stuff, which doesn't take me long because I'm not on social media. So my marketing stuff doesn't take me super long, but ...

James Blatch: You're not on social media, that's where you're getting all this time from.

Zach Bohannon: I've been completely off social media for two and a half years.

James Blatch: You're talking a former alcoholic here. "It was two and a half years ago, that was my last post on Facebook. I have been clear of social media."

Zach Bohannon: For a lot of people, I don't think that that's a bad analogy. I think it definitely is something that a lot of people are addicted to. The thing I always challenge is people say, "Oh, well, you have to be on there. You're a writer, you have to be on social media." And I'm like, "Well, you really don't."

And again, my book sales have gone up since I've gone off, I'm happier, I feel more engaged with my audience because I do it all through my mailing list, which by the way, I did not grow with social media. So that had nothing to do with that. So, it just took me a lot of time.

James Blatch: I bet it does. And I think some of the platforms more than others can be a mental drain on you as well, there's no question about that. Although we should say I think it is possible to have social media accounts which you use purely for marketing and don't have a time suck. Facebook in particular, you have a Facebook page.

It's not a place particularly where you're going to get interaction beyond your author world, and you use it in the ads manager. And if that's your extent of it, you can be on Facebook without losing hours in the day. And frankly, as far as I'm concerned, Twitter is a waste of time, apart from the fact I quite enjoy some of the sports and stuff I get from it. For author point of view, in my experience, forget it anyway.

Well, that's a bit about your background, your writing process. I'm always interested in how people write. And I know everyone who listens to the podcast likes these questions as well.

Do you write in Scrivener? Do you write in Word, when you work for yourself, do you plot?

Zach Bohannon: I'm a meticulous plotter. The book that J. and I wrote together, Three Story Method is about our process to get you from your idea to your draft. I'm a meticulous plotter, I hate wasting words. The idea of, and I'm not saying every pantser is like this, I'm not saying that at all. But I know if I pantsed, I would end up probably having to trash a tonne of the manuscript in the editing. And that just gives me so much anxiety to think about. I would rather know going in.

And obviously you deviate and stuff. I think that's another misconception. People think just because you're a meticulous planner that you have to stay with that outline. No, that's not the case. But I'm definitely a meticulous planner and have a pretty thought out process for that.

And then I write in Scrivener. In collaborating, when J. and I would collaborate, that would fluctuate. My stuff would always end up in Google Docs because that's where he would come back in and edit it. And so there were times where I would keep everything in Scrivener and then just copy and paste my chapters into Google Docs as I went, and there were other times where I would just write in Google Docs, which was always fun, because sometimes he would just come in and mess with me and start editing while I was working on a chapter just to mess with me.

But I'm definitely a Scrivener person and I've gotten to the point where I really do everything in Scrivener. I do all my plotting, all my research, everything. I try to keep everything in that Scrivener file. And the series I'm working on now, I have the whole series in there.

The only thing is for some notes, I like to hand write some notes when I'm figuring stuff out. So I'll do the iPad, Apple Pencil thing. And I'll do that in Apple Notes, but pretty much everything else is in Scrivener until I have to get it out to a Word file to get to my editor because she works in Word, which is also fine because at the end of the process, I use Vellum, where I'll need a word document anyway. But yeah, my whole drafting, pre-production process and all that stuff is all on Scrivener.

James Blatch: Yeah. That's really good. I think that's a good tip to use Scrivener for everything. I've currently got a Word document open. I've got Scrivener for my work in progress and a Word document open because I'm thinking about titles and stuff. And just before this interview I saved it and I thought, "Where am I going to put this?" It's actually a really good thing to have everything in ... there's loads of space in Scrivener, loads of little folders and stuff.

Zach Bohannon: Yeah. That's what I do. I'll put all that type of stuff, like potential title ideas. I have a whole folder just for ... I don't remember what I call it, maybe "General notes" or something, and all that kind of stuff I try to keep in Scrivener, just so it's all there. And I'm pretty crazy about being organised about that stuff. So I'm pretty content just having everything ... because I have messed with other plotting software and doing this over here and then I was like, "Well, It'll just be easier just to keep everything in Scrivener." So that's what I do.

James Blatch: Yeah, keep it simple. Let's talk about the Three Story Method. This is a book, as you say, you've worked together with J. thorn on, and J.'s been on this podcast in the past, I'm sure he'll be on again, at some point, and I'm interested in this because I am at that stage now, book two for me. The whole first book was a huge long journey of introduction to this world, but I feel much more equipped to be organised about book two. I have my idea in my mind at the moment.

I guess this book is aimed at somebody at my stage now about going from as you say, going from idea to writing, "It was a dark and stormy night," whatever first words.

Zach Bohannon: Three Story Method came out of, we do these events, which I know we're going to get into those a little bit, but part of those events is as teaching, and J., before he became a full-time creative, he spent 25 years in the classroom, so he is a teacher. And one of the things we would always talk about is we would talk about our collaboration process and stuff. And, I remember we'd be in these rooms with these 15, 20 authors or whatever, and we'd put our outline up and we'd be talking about that stuff. And people were fascinated. That's where most of the questions would come in.

And so we were sitting in a hotel room, it was probably in New Orleans, I think. And I looked at him and I was like, "Dude, at what point do we just tell everyone our process and actually write it down?" And that is what became Three Story Method. And there's nothing really proprietary in it.

I think that that's the thing with storytelling, is storytelling is so old, and it's really a mix of all the different things we've learned from reading other books on writing, and it's all put together with ... We have some of our own terminology and stuff, and we definitely iterated some things.

It's not a super proprietary thing, but it takes you through basically a pyramid of all the different things, whether it's world-building, building your characters, all the things you need to do before you can start writing your book. And everything's based in threes, which is where Three Story Method comes from. And we just decided to finally put that down and that's our flagship nonfiction title, and it's gotten a lot of really good reaction and something that we're super proud of.

James Blatch: Yeah. Okay. So without giving away all the gory detail, and I'm sure people will still be interested in purchasing the book, can you whet our appetite on more precisely what the method is?

Zach Bohannon: I would say that the crux of the method is that every aspect of your story needs to have three elements. You need to have a conflict, a choice, and a consequence. And to me, this is the most important part of the book.

We go into a lot more detail about a lot of different stuff. But those elements are what, keep your story going. So if you have a scene where there's no conflict or your main character's not having to make some sort of choice ... the choice is the big part. I think a lot of people miss that.

And the other thing is, too, a lot of people intuitively do this. It's how we write, you have a conflict in your scene, then you have a character make a choice. But our argument, though, is if you actually sit down and think about it before you write it, then it's just going to be that much better and keep your reader that much more engaged. But those elements should be in every aspect of your story.

So you need to have a conflict choice and consequence on a scene level or a chapter level, on an act level, on a story level, on a series level ... it compounds. Like when J. and I sit down and plan an entire series, we can tell you for a nine-book series with the main conflict, main choice and main consequence are going to be, and what we're leading up to. And again, that choice is the most important part, because that's really what drives your story.

And that's really what the crux of Three Story Method's about and talking about why those are important and how to really think about those and put them in each element of your book. So, again, that's just one part. We go into world building, we go into character, I mean, we go when we go into a bunch of different things.

James Blatch: And that conflict, when we talk about external, internal conflict and that's the external goals and the internal conflict, do you go along with making those apparent to you as a writer? One way of thinking about it, I think, is what they're trying to do and why they're trying to do it are the two sides of that.

Zach Bohannon: Yeah, absolutely. That's definitely something we think about. Another thing, on a scene level, you're not always going to have some crazy big conflict in every chapter. That would kill your pacing, obviously. So, the conflicts can be really subtle. Sometimes the consequence of your previous scene is the conflict of your next scene. So sometimes those intertwine, but yeah, it can definitely be internal, external. There's obviously different types of choices and stuff like that as well. So yeah, that's definitely stuff that we address and talk about in the book.

James Blatch: And when you're trying to devise this, it's one thing to think of a story of something happening, a Hunt for Red October or a submarine goes under water is trying to defect. It's another thing to have the characters having their own things going on within that. And I think that's where I perhaps struggle with it.

I don't have the experience of you guys thinking this through, of trying to work out, well, do I start with my character with a flaw, for instance, with a volatile personality or something that's going to get in his way? And it almost feels a little bit false. You've created something that's going to create conflict and going to create obstacles from doing what needs to happen in the story. But then as I say this out loud, of course it's false. You're making the story up, aren't you?

You can see I'm struggling a little bit to articulate this. But I think I've got a good story here, but I'm not sure at the moment it's going to be a series of events happening to somebody rather than them driving it. That's where I need to get.

Zach Bohannon: Exactly. And another thing we talk about in Three Story Method, and again, this isn't proprietary, but every book that we write, we start with a Pixar pitch and a log line. And those things, if you have your Pixar pitch, that's your story.

James Blatch:Just explain the Pixar pitch. This is obviously a film reference.

Zach Bohannon: The Pixar pitch is what Pixar uses to pitch their stories. But it's really basic. It's, "Once upon a time ..." you fill in the blanks. The example we use in the book is Star Wars. We use Star Wars in the book. It's, "Once upon a time ... And then every day ..." so you tell what the character does on a day-to-day basis. "One day ..." this is the opening conflict of the story. Like, one day, this happens. And then you have, "Because of that, this happens. Because of that, this happens, until finally ..."

So, it's once upon a time, every day, one day, because of that, because of that, until finally. And that's your story. That is your entire story in there. And then you can take that down even further with the log line, which is from save the cat, again, not a proprietary thing, but it's what I tell people.

People get really caught up, when someone tells you they have a story idea, and, "Oh, I got this great idea from a story," whether you're at cocktail party or all these are types of places I try to avoid, and they find out you're a writer and they tell you a story and then 15 minutes later, they're still talking and you still don't know what their story's about. The Pixar pitch in the log line forces you to be like, "This is what my story is about."

You still have to go through the paces and you still have to get through the middle slog and all that and what you and I what you were just referring to about, I don't want it just to be a series of events, but the way we've really laid out our process and how in each act, you're always trying to work from a conflict to this big choice your protagonists have to make to that consequence, that really helps drive your story.

We're also really big on saying you always come back to your theme. I know a lot of writers, because I used to be like this will say, "Oh, I don't think about my theme before my book, because how am I supposed to know my theme until I've written the book?"

The story tells me the theme, but I'm a really big fan of Brian McDonald's theory of you should know your theme before you write your book. And then if you're stuck, you can always come back to that.

For my series I'm working on now, I have a sticky note right in front of me on my computer here that has my theme on it. So any time I'm stuck, I can look at the sticky note and be like, "Okay, that's what my story is about, is about that theme." And so I think that those couple things are really important and can help you from just having a series of events.

James Blatch: That's great. I completely agree with that. Jenny Nash describes that as answering the question, why do you want to tell this story? Why do you need to tell this story? What's it about? And the theme is the DNA that runs through every scene. I think Cecelia Mecca put me onto a book recently, and I've forgotten the author so I'm going to quote them without knowing who wrote this, but they said, "On page one of your book, you should state what it's about."

Somehow, clunkily, but on page one it should be clear, oh, this person's an orphan and is searching for acceptance. And you're clever about it, but then that sets the scene, and like I say, it is in every scene. That's brilliant. Oh, that looks great. And I think that you've got a customer from me, so I'll have to dive into that, you and J.

Great. So let's talk about these events. Now, this first came to my attention with the train, which I think was Chicago to New Orleans at the time.

Whose brainchild was these, what is the purpose of them?

Zach Bohannon: That's 100% J. Thorn. J. hates flying, he travels everywhere he can by Amtrak train, and several times had taken the Amtrak from Chicago to San Francisco, and he'd even gone to Seattle. Chicago to San Francisco one way on a train is 52 hours. And he took it there and back.

On one of the trips, he wrote basically an entire novel. And he was joking one day on Twitter talking about doing that. And Lindsay Buroker chimed in and she was like, "I would love to do that." So he immediately DMs Lindsay and was like, "Let's do it." Because that's how J. is. He'll ask because the worst thing is going to happen someone's going to say no.

And Lindsay was like, "Yeah, I'd really be open to that." And J. was like, "Okay, well, I'm going to go ask Joanna Penn and see if she'd be interested in that." So he goes to Joanna, and Joanna was like, "Yeah, that'd be really cool. And then he's like, "Well, I have one more person I want. I'm going to ask my buddy Zach who I write with." And he came to me and I was like, "Yeah, oh God. Of course."

So the four of us ended up meeting in Chicago and we took a train to New Orleans. On the train, we talked about what we wanted to do, and then we spent a week together in New Orleans writing this story that we came up with and we finished an entire first draft in a week, the four of us, but also got to hang out, spend time together, go see the city together, all this stuff. And so that was the first thing we did. One of my favourite bands was actually playing in new Orleans that week and they're from Sweden. So I was like, "Oh my gosh. I got to-"

James Blatch: It couldn't have been Abba.

Zach Bohannon: Yeah. I was like, "This totally works out." So me and J. went to that concert. We're sitting down eating at a restaurant before and he goes, "Man, he's this has been awesome this week. I think we could turn this into a business." And we started brainstorming ideas, and before you knew it, I guess it would have been the next year. No, it was that year.

Later that year, we did the first Authors on a Train where we actually had people come with us. I think the first one was eight authors. And we had people come from all over the world. We had two people from the UK, we had someone from Australia, it was crazy.

And we did that same thing. We took Chicago-New Orleans, spent a week together, and out of that trip came an anthology that we published. And so we've done the train thing a couple of different times. We did New Orleans, we did that one more time.

Last year, right before the pandemic took off, we did Authors on a Train California. And we went from LA to San Francisco. That was really cool because we rented one big house that everyone stayed in. So there were 17 authors staying in one ... Hey, it could have been a reality TV show, it was crazy.

So we do the train thing, we also do what we call World-building Weekends, where we do these one-off themed events. So for instance, we've done sci-fi Seattle where we built a sci-fi world inside the MoPOP museum in Seattle, right under the Space Needle. That was a two-day thing, sitting around, everyone throwing ideas around and then publishing an anthology. We did Rock Apoc, where we rented the VIP room at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and then built out an apocalyptic world and published an anthology.

And then this year in July, we're doing Witches of Salem, and we're going to Salem, Massachusetts, and doing a paranormal thing. And then we're doing Vampires of New Orleans around Halloween.

James Blatch: Tell me how these work, Zach. If an author turns up on these weekends, I think I would be nervous I'm not good enough to write with these other people or experienced enough to write in these different styles.

What's the expectation of the participant?

Zach Bohannon: It's funny. One thing we've learned is that people come for a lot of different reasons. So we have people who come to do the whole process. The way it works is we spend two days in a room, and the first part is we do some lectures. We teach Three Story Method and we talk about some other stuff, some self pub stuff like marketing and some things like that and we have Q&As, because you get people from all different levels and stuff who come to these events, which is good, because anyone can do it.

We use Three Story Method as a basis for your short stories. So if you're going to submit a short story, we have a sheet you have to go by. Because we want everything to be consistent, and we also challenge people to keep all their stories to five scenes and stuff, because it's a challenge for people. And also when we edit the stories, it makes it a lot easier.

So we do some teaching, but the majority of the weekend is everyone's sitting around a table and we come with an idea. I'll use one we already did. So when we did Rock Apoc, we knew we're going to be doing an apocalyptic world. So we sat there, okay, well, how did the world end? When did it end? We ended up deciding on a solar flare, and then just built out from that.

Some people go through the whole process and they ended up submitting a story, it gets published. Some people don't even write the story, they just come either to learn with us or to just be able to hang around with other authors.

But the coolest part of the weekend, and I think what people like the most is the collaborative of us being around a table all building this world out and learning everyone's process, and being involved in that there's a certain energy that you can't replicate. We didn't even discuss possibly doing this virtually once the pandemic hit. We were like, "No, we're not going to do that because we know the value of being in person."

There's just a magic of being in that room, and it's hard to explain, but it makes these events super, super, super fun to do. Did that answer your question?

James Blatch: Yeah, it does. It sound amazing, and I completely agree. Being in the same room, it's pretty rare, still, for authors to work together. I think even at conferences, you don't really sit down and write together. Some people do organise themselves into groups and go off and do that. I'd love to try that.

There must be a particular energy about being with other authors writing at the same time.

Zach Bohannon: Some people do start their stories there, but we tell people they don't have to actually write until they get home. So, by the end of the weekend, what we try to make sure everyone has is a pitch, so they can get up in front of the room and pitch their story idea, and to make everyone comfortable.

J. and I always go first. Actually, that's one of the really fun things we do, is that that people love so they can see our process is J. and I don't talk about our ideas and what we want to come with until we're ready to pitch it to the room.

So we actually do a live brainstorming session in front of everybody, and they get to see our pitch, how we collaborate. They get to see that happen in person live. It's 100% raw. And neither of us might not even have an idea. And then we have to sit there and figure it out. But they get to see how that develops, how we ask questions to each other, how we build on those ideas, and even during the process, when I'm done my first draft, I send that out to all the attendees so they can see this is what the first draft looks like. Then they'll get to see these are the comments I leave J. So they can see every part of the process of how he and I collaborate.

That's really fun, too. By the end of the weekend, everyone has a pitch that they can pitch to the room, and then that's really fun, too, because then you have people going, "What if you did this?" "Have you thought about this?" And everyone's stories get even better, even ours. We sit there and we tell people, "If you have an idea of stop us. We want to hear it." And we've written stories that we wouldn't know if we didn't have everybody in there in the room with us doing that. It's amazing.

James Blatch: That's slightly different from the first train where you did write. You initially met a couple of times a day, didn't you, and go off into your little cabins and wrote your chapters.

Zach Bohannon: We did, yeah. That was always funny because of the time differences, because Joanna was coming from England, so she was waking up at three in the morning or whatever. And then Lindsay was coming from Seattle, which is two hours behind new Orleans ... Everyone's schedules were funny, but we would have a meeting in the morning at a time that worked for everybody, talk about where we were, and then everyone was just responsible for getting their words done. Normally, everyone would go off to their own coffee shop or whatever. Sometimes J. and I would go sit and work together, but everyone did their own thing and then we'd meet up later to go places and go to dinner and stuff like that.

James Blatch: Yeah. Very cool.

Zach Bohannon: Fun stuff.

James Blatch: So obviously we've had the pandemic, which has put the brakes on this. What are your plans for the next 12 months?

Zach Bohannon: J. and I made the decision a few weeks ago that we're going forth with our events this year. So, I mentioned Witches of Salem we're doing in July. That one's sold out. We're also doing Vampires of New Orleans, which we had to delay from last year. But that's going through.

The other thing we do that I haven't mentioned is we do The Career Author Summit, which is a conference. And we're moving forward with that too. So that's going to be taking place, I think it's September 18th and 19th, it's September for sure. And that's going to be here in Nashville. And there'll be about 125 people in the room. So, we're moving forward with that.

There are tickets available for that one. And we have really good speakers and everything. So if people are interested in that, they can go to, and there's an events tab. They can click on that and then it'll have all the speakers and everything. And we might have some more announcements coming for that really soon.

James Blatch: Cool. Is that just ahead of NINC or does it clash with NINC? I'm trying to think.

Zach Bohannon: I'm honestly not sure. I don't think they're at the same time.

James Blatch: No, I think it might be just before. Okay. And a couple of days in Nashville, can't be bad.

Zach Bohannon: No.

James Blatch: That sounds great. And your genres you've done. I'm trying to think about Lindsay. Lindsay's fantasy sci-fi.

What was the genre of the book you wrote on the trailer and how do you decide the genres you're going to work with?

Zach Bohannon: That's one thing, moving forward, I know you asked for the next 12 months, we do have some plans for some other events. We're planning on announcing our 2022 schedule at The Career Author Summit. Because I know a lot of our stuff is very sci-fi oriented or fantasy, we are going to branch out a little bit. The thing to remember too, though, is with this vampire thing we're doing in July, there's a lot of different types of vampire stories you can write. There's romance, there's horror, and you don't even have to write that stuff to want to be do it.

One other thing I want to mention about those two, and I'll come back to your question about Lindsay, because that's a good question. When we do those anthologies, we give all the proceeds to a local charity. So we pick out a local charity from whatever city we're in, and all the money we make goes to the charity.

So, when we did the book with Lindsay and Joanna, the question you brought was a really good one because we had to think about that because we had to really think about time. Joanna writes thrillers, and that's much closer to what J. and I do than what Lindsay does. I wouldn't say much closer, but it probably is a little closer. So we ended up anchoring it in J.'s American Demon Hunters world. He has a series called American Demon Hunters, which actually, he got a bunch of authors to collaborate on individual books that are standalones. So we just made this a standalone in that world.

And it definitely has elements of fantasy, thriller ... It definitely was off from what Lindsay normally writes, but it has demons in it and stuff. But the entire story takes place on the train. And it was fun because we used different experiences we had on the train. I remember me, Lindsay and Joanna walking around and being like, "Oh man, there's a ..." There was an axe or something in case there was a fire. We were like, "Oh, we got to have that in the story," and stuff like that. And then we had this awesome train attendant, this awesome Jamaican guy, and we ended up giving him this really epic death in the story, and stuff like that.

James Blatch: I hope he appreciated it, how he was killed.

Zach Bohannon: J. and I actually saw him on one of the future train trips. And we were like, "Dude, we killed you." He remembered us, and we ended up sending him a book and stuff, but what you said is definitely a challenge, but with that particular project, we just anchored it in a preexisting thing, because all the rules and stuff were already established. So it saved us a tonne of time on all that type of stuff.

James Blatch: Do you think this would ever widen out to romance and thriller, more contemporary thrillers without fantastical elements?

Zach Bohannon: Yes. We have some plans for that.

James Blatch: Because that's a format that would work regardless of genre. It would probably work with nonfiction.

Zach Bohannon: It does. The tricky part is that we try to go to a city that has some really strong thematic element that's related to that. So we did science fiction in Seattle. We're doing vampires in New Orleans. We're going to Salem. All these different places like that. That's kind of the trick, is to try to find a city that's really synonymous with something. But we have ideas.

James Blatch: Let's go to Langley for thrillers.

Zach Bohannon: We have some ideas for thrillers. We would love to come across the pond, we would really like to do that and we have some ideas for that too, but there's obviously some logistics and stuff we have to figure out with that.

James Blatch: Yeah. Well, that'd be very cool. You have to let us know about that.

Zach Bohannon: For sure.

James Blatch: Great. Well, it sounds really good. I loved when I spoke to J., and I can feel it with you, there's an energy from you guys who want to do things and get things done. And I end up doing lots of things I sometimes feel a little bit passive, but you're not. You're the opposite of that. You're, "Let's do this."

Zach Bohannon: Early on, on that first train trip, and I tell her this all the time, and I sent her emails every year and my full-time anniversary is coming up on April 21st. That'll be, what, four years I've been full time. And Joanna's the reason because Joanna ... I've told the story on another podcast, but the dinner on the last night after a couple of drinks, she said it more colourfully, but she basically looked at me and said I was scared to quit my job. And then I went home and quit my job, because of Joanna.

James Blatch: That's a lot of responsibility on Penn's shoulders there.

Zach Bohannon: She checks in with me and J. quite a bit. One thing she's always reminded us of is don't depend on just having book royalties. There are very few people that can get by on doing that. So, J. and I have found ... and J. is doing a lot more stuff now. I mean, we're not doing as much stuff together as we were. The pandemic changed a lot of stuff for us. But we've really found a niche with these events and stuff and found something we really love doing. And it's a way to make a little bit of money, but also see places, meet really cool people. I love it. It's awesome. And it's another revenue stream, so it's awesome.

James Blatch: Superb. Well, Zach, it's been delightful talking to you. Thank you so much indeed for coming on. I can't wait to be somewhere in a room with you and chat through this and maybe be one of your events one day when I can clear some time for my schedule.

Zach Bohannon: Make it happen, for sure.

James Blatch: Yeah, that would be great.

Zach Bohannon: Awesome.

James Blatch: Superb. Thank you so much, indeed. We'll catch up again at some point in the future and wish you well with your plans to emerge from the forced hibernation of the pandemic and get back out into the room with some authors.

Zach Bohannon: I got my two vaccinations, so I'm good, I'm feeling good about it.

James Blatch: Good for you. Excellent. You're ahead of me. I've just got the one so far. Number two is coming.

Zach Bohannon: Awesome. All right. Well, thank you for having me on. I appreciate it.

James Blatch: There you go, Zach Bohannon. Yes, he's a lovely guy, and I hope we bump into Zach soon.

I'm reading Save the Cat! Writes a Novel and the Three Story Method at the same time. I've had to deliberately buy them paperback, because when I'm up in my bedroom, I just read on my Kindle not writing nonfiction, but aeroplane nonfiction. And so I keep these downstairs so I can read them in the office and downstairs. And this is, I think, a very clear and concise description of story writing, of novel writing. I'm about third of the way through that. So I've only got to one of the three stories so far.

Save the Cat! is based on obviously the screenwriting stuff. I can't remember the guy's name, who originally did it, but it's a novel version of that, which I'm just getting into, but there's a bit of background to go through with that as well. But the idea is that every story basically has these 13 beats, and it became a bit of a Bible in Hollywood, I think. The studio producers looked for these 13 beats in their scripts, became the way of doing it. And it's not a bad way of looking at it.

And then there will also be people listening to this game, "But I'm not going to be a formula writer. I'm going to do my own unique thing." And it deals with that as well at the beginning, of what people really mean by that and what it actually means.

I don't suppose you read many of these "how to write a novel books" any more, Mark. Do you?

Mark Dawson: No. When I started writing 15 years ago, I bought loads, but I haven't read anything for ages.

James Blatch: No. And you don't want to teach it either. Do you? I've noticed this about you. You're not one to teach craft.

Mark Dawson: No, not really. I'm not sure I'd be the best teacher for that kind of thing. I have my way of doing things; it works quite well. There are other ways, obviously lots of different ways to skin the cat once you've saved it.

James Blatch: What's the point of saving it?

Mark Dawson: Yeah. No, other people can do that better than me.

James Blatch: Good. Okay. Well, what you do do well, of course, is the marketing side of things and paid ads, which is really what SPF is all about.

Now, I was going to talk about what to do when Amazon knocks on your door and offers you a spot in Prime or locks on your door and offers you a daily deal and so on, what the pros and cons are. I think I'm going to save that for the next episode and do a little bit more research on it and pick people's brains on it, because it's something that's happening to me now, not with my book, but with the Fuse books, and I'm having to balance things like if you're going to apply for a BookBub, where you do own control over your pricing, it blocks that out for a period of time, on the other hand gives visibility to number one in your series, which is the whole purpose of going for a BookBub anyway. So, I think I'll say yes to the Prime deals, that's for sure for now, but we'll have a better chat, I think, about that next time, Mark.

Mark Dawson: Yep. I had, I think, three emails come in yesterday, various books and various jurisdictions to go into Prime. I always say yes, but we can talk about that later.

James Blatch: Yeah. Good. Okay. Well, next Friday, lots of stuff to do today, and you've got a dog to ... No, you're not walking the dog. Someone else is walking the dog today.

Mark Dawson: No. He's being walked.

James Blatch: Being walked. It's a treat day for the dog.

Mark Dawson: It is, yeah. Better than going out with me.

James Blatch: And what's your mental health thing you're doing today, because dog walking I know is part of the way you keep saying?

Mark Dawson: Yes, I might go for a swim, because our pool is open now, or I might go and play golf. I'm not sure yet.

James Blatch: Okay. Good. Well, you know I look out for you.

Mark Dawson: Thank you very much.

James Blatch: We all do. Okay. That's it. Thank you very much indeed to Zach for being our interviewee today. Great guest he was indeed. All that remains for me to say is it's a goodbye from him ...

Mark Dawson: And a goodbye from me.

James Blatch: Goodbye.

Mark Dawson: Bye.

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