Become a Writer Today

Writing Humor and Comedy with James Breakwell

June 03, 2021 Bryan Collins Season 2
Become a Writer Today
Writing Humor and Comedy with James Breakwell
Chapters
Become a Writer Today
Writing Humor and Comedy with James Breakwell
Jun 03, 2021 Season 2
Bryan Collins

James Breakwell is a professional comedy writer.

He's the father of four girls who were the inspiration behind his popular Twitter account, which eventually went viral. And on the back of that, he produced a series of parenting books, but they're not you're usual parenting books.

In this episode, James and I chat about what makes his parenting books different from the others out there. We also talk about his latest book, How to Be a Man (Whatever That Means).

In this episode, we discuss:

  • How James built a following on Twitter before writing his first book
  • Using his family and friends as the subject of his tweets and books
  • The next step after building a following on Twitter
  • James's writing process
  • Working on his next projects

Resources:

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/becomeawritertoday)

Show Notes Transcript

James Breakwell is a professional comedy writer.

He's the father of four girls who were the inspiration behind his popular Twitter account, which eventually went viral. And on the back of that, he produced a series of parenting books, but they're not you're usual parenting books.

In this episode, James and I chat about what makes his parenting books different from the others out there. We also talk about his latest book, How to Be a Man (Whatever That Means).

In this episode, we discuss:

  • How James built a following on Twitter before writing his first book
  • Using his family and friends as the subject of his tweets and books
  • The next step after building a following on Twitter
  • James's writing process
  • Working on his next projects

Resources:

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/becomeawritertoday)

James: You know, the standards for the apps change, things go wrong. I know people who have just massive, massive accounts and something went screwy and they ended up getting banned off the platform and it’s like holy cow, all that sweat equity you put in there is just gone and a super valuable, super important asset just goes up in smoke. So, the e-mail list is definitely my insurance policy there and if you’re a writer and you don’t have an e-mail list, you need to start one right away and you need to be consistent with it. Just keep that going every week. It’ll be the best thing you ever do.

Introduction: Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.

Bryan: My guest today is James Breakwell. He’s a professional comedy writer. He’s the father of four girls. He’s written a series of parenting books, which we’ll get to in a moment because they’re not your usual parenting books and his upcoming book is called How to Be a Man (Whatever That Means). Welcome to the show, James.

James: Hey, thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Bryan: So, James, you have a pretty big following on Twitter, you have over 1 million followers, and I suppose you’ve done something that is a bit different to what authors usually do. You built up a following on Twitter first and then you’ve kind of expanded that out into some other platforms. Could you give listeners a flavor for how you did that and how you got started?

James: Yes, that’s exactly what I did. So, originally, I thought I would make it big in newspapers and we all know how newspapers are going so, clearly, I had great visions of the future —

Bryan: Down the drain.

James: Yeah. I didn’t have the best life plan. I was only at the newspaper for a year though and I couldn’t stand it. I had to bail. So, I got out and I started just writing on my own in a blog and I did that for a decade and I couldn’t get anybody to read it and, finally, I joined Twitter to try to promote the blog and I thought I’d just share links and, you know, nobody clicks on them. 

I realized, “Oh, Twitter’s its own thing,” like you can’t just put out links, you got to write jokes for Twitter and so I started writing jokes and Twitter gave me something I never really had before with the blog, it gave me feedback that I could get immediately. And if a joke was good, people would share it and like it, and if it wasn’t good, they wouldn’t share it, it would just fade into obscurity, and that’s how I learned that what people really liked was jokes about my kids and so I went all in on that and I just started, you know, writing just tons and tons of jokes about my kids, about conversations they had, things like that, and treated it like a job. I slowly built it up to about 200,000 followers over a few years and then BuzzFeed swooped in and wrote an article on me and that article went viral and then, in turn, made my Twitter account go viral and then, within a month or two of that, I had an agent and I had a book deal and everything kind of turned around. 

It all exploded from there. But, yeah, starting out, my plan was always to get the audience first and get the book deal later. It seemed like everybody else was practicing query letters and trying to get the book deal first and it turns out that you can’t even do that for non-fiction. For non-fiction, you have to come in with the audience first so it turns out the way I stumbled into was actually the only way I could have made it so it worked out okay.

Bryan: Worked out very well. Yeah, just reading some of your bits here, one of them is, “What do you think of those?” Six-year-old: “They’re pretty but they will die. Metal to the core.” I’m probably not doing it justice compared to how you would do it.

James: You know, I never read them out loud. I think you do a great — I love hearing them in a more sophisticated accent. I just sound like a Midwesterner when I read it. So, you’ve given it some class.

Bryan: Yeah, yeah. Actually, I think I skipped the picture. She was pointing — your daughter was pointing to flowers.

James: Yeah, the flowers. That makes a little more sense with that in there.

Bryan: Yeah, yeah. So, does it take you long to write a bit like that or do you write many in a given day?

James: I try to write three or four in a day and it just depends. It depends how much my kids are around and what they’re doing, you know, so my tweets are a mix. Some are completely true. Sometimes, it comes out and they just say something, there’s a quick back and forth, I’m like, “Oh, I can fit that in a tweet. That’s amazing.” 

More often, they do something that’s a little weird or quirky or irritating and I think how can I kind of compress that? I don’t want you to hear the last 20 or 25 minutes of my life. How can I condense that down into something that makes sense to everybody else? Usually, it’s kind of inspired by real-life and then, every once in a while, there’s nothing going on and I’ll just kind of go, “Okay, what kind of things have my kids done in the past?” and I’ll build it up that way.
 
And the best jokes always come together the quickest, the ones that are just kind of quick snaps back and forth, you know, 30, 40 seconds, all right, we’re good to go. Seems like the longer I have to struggle to make it work, the worst the joke is and I should just let it go.

Bryan: Had you studied comedy writing before you started putting these on Twitter or did this emerge naturally?

James: It just emerged naturally. I mean, most of the writing I’ve done was long-form. Those blog posts I did were all about a thousand words and what I wrote for the paper when they let me have my turn at the column was probably 600 or 800 words, so it was definitely more long-form. And so tweeting was just totally new for me and back when I started, it was still the 140-character limit so you had to really, really be concise and it was just a whole new skill set to learn and I loved it.

Bryan: Yeah, and when you’re writing your essays because your book is almost a collection of stories, do you have old stories that you can go back and draw upon, like, for example, a journal or did you write them from scratch?

James: I wrote them all but one from scratch. There was one that I had told part of in a newsletter, the one about me in the Tin Man costume. That one, I went back for reference but then I ended up writing it from scratch anyway, so, yeah, I’ve been compiling these things over time but it turns out even when I retell a story I’ve told before, it’s easier for me if I just build it from scratch because my perspective now is different than my perspective then and it’s easier to just kind of spit it out again.

Bryan: Yeah, I read your story about gnomes, it’s quite good. What do your friends think when they see themselves in your work?

James: Oh, they love it. They keep telling me I need to give them a cut of the royalties. I’m like, “I don’t think you realize how little money is in books. It’s not going around,” but they’ve enjoyed their few minutes of fame. That’s the one story that when we get back together, we always retell that one. It never gets old.

Bryan: Yeah. What about your family? Do they mind being the subject of your tweets?

James: They are okay with it. So, my kids, they’re not impressed by Twitter at all. It means nothing to them, it means nothing to their friends, they don’t care about Facebook, they don’t care about Instagram. For kids, everything is YouTube. That’s the be-all and end-all. And I have, of all the platforms, I have a million followers on Twitter; on YouTube, I have like 20,000. It’s way, way smaller. 

Not many people watch my videos at all but, to my kids, that’s the only thing I do that’s even remotely impressive so they’re always trying to bring up ideas, “Hey, let’s do a video about this,” “Hey, let’s do a video about that,” and they can’t wait until they’re old enough to have their own YouTube accounts and I am very much dreading that day.

Bryan: Yeah, I’ve got three kids. My daughter spends a lot of time on YouTube. I do have a YouTube channel but I don’t spend much time on it but, yeah, she just talks about that quite a bit.

James: They love it.

Bryan: So, like Twitter is fantastic and, you know, you’ve really made it work for you but it’s quite hard to build a business or make a living as a writer just on Twitter so what are you doing once you have your followers on Twitter? Like what’s the next step?

James: So the next step is to get them to my newsletter. It’s like, “If you like reading 280 characters that I put out, maybe you’ll like reading 2,000 words,” and so I have a free newsletter that comes out every Sunday where basically I just take something that happened this week and it’s — those newsletters, unlike the tweets, which are kind of a mix of truth and fiction, kind of inspired by real life, the newsletters are 100 percent true and I just go and write a funny story that happened that week and, from there, people get engaged. 

It’s a much smaller, you know, audience than on Twitter, it’s not a million people, but those people on that newsletter drive most of my book sales and so, okay, I’ve taken you from 280 characters to 2,000 words and then I try to make the jump from 2,000 words to 60,000 words or 70,000 words so at the end of every e-mail, there’s an entreaty to please buy my book and that’s kind of have been the best business model I found just to kind of work people down that way.

Bryan: Yeah, it’s kind of like content marketing what you do when you’re building a valuable relationship up with your audience.

James: Exactly. And it works out and, really, I do get a connection. I mean, if you reply to that newsletter, I mean, it shows up right in my inbox, for better or for worse, and usually people are super nice and it’s great to connect with them that way. Sometimes, they’re not so nice and those ones go directly to my spam folder, so the good and the bad.

Bryan: Unsubscribe, unsubscribe.

James: Yep.

Bryan: So, when you are writing for your newsletter, like I read one of the recent broadcasts that’s about 2,000 words long, does it take you long to write that during the week or do you have them written in advance so you don’t have to worry about Sunday evening?

James: That takes up my entire Sunday, pretty much. Now, this last Sunday was my greatest accomplishment ever. I got it done in two or three hours, which is just flying for me, but, yeah, writing a 2,000-word article from scratch, sometimes it takes all day and then you realize you’re putting this out there and it’s like, you know, this is a free newsletter. I really hope some people buy some books after this because I’ve given up a lot of time to put this thing out.

Bryan: Yeah. What does your actual writing process look like? Do you outline in advance or do you just write about whatever’s on your mind or what happened that week?

James: So I try to fixate on one story I can get some mileage out of and I do all my first drafts voice-to-text, actually sitting right here talking into this microphone I’m using now into Google Docs and I sit there and, you know, blank pages are intimidating. 

If you sit there and type it out, you can get stuck, but if I just sit here and talk like I’m talking for you, I can get out a first draft of 2,000 words in 20 to 25 minutes and then it’s there. Then, the next draft where I actually go through and make it make sense, that one’s going to take an hour or two. 

And then after that, so I work it through then just typing a couple — two drafts that go through typing, and then after that, I have an app that does the reverse. Rather than taking my voice and turning it into text, it takes my text and reads it back to me and I do it at triple speed and I just fly through that thing over and over and over as I edit it down and get out all the rough parts ’cause, you know, this newsletter, there’s no editor, it’s just me and if you put a typo in there, you’re gonna hear about it from tens of thousands of people, like there’s so much pressure to get those right so I really, really try to proofread it that way.

Bryan: Yeah. Well, that is quite a lot of pressure. I suppose that’s a lot of work for a single broadcast on your newsletter too.

James: Yeah, it is, but it’s the single most rewarding thing I do as far as like the content I put out. You know, 2,000 words a week, that ends up, you know, 52 weeks a year, that ends up over 100,000 words a year for — comedy books are a little on the shorter end, that’s like two free books I’m giving out every single year. So, it really — and it’s made me a better writer just working under that deadline and trying to kind of making something out of nothing every week.

Bryan: When you’re looking back at previous broadcasts that you’ve sent out in your newsletter, do you ask yourself, “Did this one work? This one didn’t work,” and then use that to figure out what to do more or less of?

James: You know, it all comes down to the subject line, oddly enough, like the actual content of the newsletter for as far as whether or not people are going to open it matters way, way less than just what you put up in that heading. And some weeks, you know, there’s something that’s just a gift from the heavens, like I got — it’s going to sound terrible but when I got COVID and I had a really, really mild case, I was very fortunate, but I put “I have COVID” in that subject line and I had a 50 per cent open rate, which is insane for a, you know, for a newsletter. 

Other weeks, there’s not much going on, it’s like, you know, “My kid messed up the table.” Nobody clicks on that one. And usually the kind of the actual critiques I get of what’s good and what’s not, like that’s all kind of a self-assessment and then you look back at the stats and say, “Okay, did this idea or this subject interest people or did it not?” But, ultimately, there’s only so much I can do about it ’cause I’m writing about what happened that week or within the last couple weeks so if nothing interesting happened, I can’t just make it up.

Bryan: Yeah, makes sense. And are you journaling during the week or keeping any notes with Sunday in mind?

James: No, I’m not. I guess the closest thing I have to a journal is just my tweets as I go along. They do kind of create an interesting record of what I’ve put out there. But usually I get to the end of the week and it’s like, if I can’t remember that it happened, it probably wasn’t worth writing about but, generally, with four daughters in the house, something is destroyed or broken or goes wrong enough that it really stands out in my mind and that’s what I base it around.

Bryan: Makes sense. Are you working during the week or are you parenting the kids?

James: Doing both, so I’ve still got a day job so I’ve got that going. We’ve got the kids and, you know, on breaks and weekends, I’m watching them, but they have in-person school right now. Over the summer, over spring break, and all that, they’re home all day with me then and then I’m also trying to bang out Twitter content and write books and doing all that so I stay pretty busy these days.

Bryan: Yeah, you definitely sound quite busy. Any thoughts for anybody who would say that building on Twitter is building on somebody else’s property whereas building a newsletter or something that you own?

James: I mean, that’s absolutely true. You really nailed it there. So, I love Twitter but at the same time, the algorithms change behind the scenes. Like I really noticed this with Facebook more than Twitter, like Facebook decides what it shows to who and there are people who’ve subscribed to me who just never see anything I post on Facebook. It’s like if you want to see my stuff, you got to get out to the e-mail list because that’s the only direct line of communication we’re ever going to have and, you know, the standards for the apps change, things go wrong. 

I know people who have just massive, massive accounts and something went screwy and they ended up getting banned off the platform and it’s like holy cow, all that sweat equity you put in there is just gone and a super valuable, super important asset just goes up in smoke. So, the e-mail list is definitely my insurance policy there and if you’re a writer and you don’t have an e-mail list, you need to start one right away and you need to be consistent with it. Just keep that going every week. It’ll be the best thing you ever do.

Bryan: I would agree with that completely. What’s your e-mail list built on?

James: You know, I don’t even know that. I think it’s Sendy. So, I tried — I did MailChimp for a while, which is great when your list is smaller, but when you get up into like the five figures, as you approach 100,000, I mean, holy cow, does that get expensive. 

So, I ended up — I use — it’s called Sendy and then you have to get your — it’s more barebones than MailChimp and you have to use your own hosting so I had to get in touch with somebody who knew more about computers and it runs on the Amazon Web Services so it’s those two things integrated together and that’s what I use to send it out every week.

Bryan: Yeah, yeah. I started with MailChimp as well but I left for similar reasons. These days, I use ConvertKit. I find that’s quite good for creators. It’s really easy to use too.

James: Oh, cool. What was the name again? 

Bryan: ConvertKit.

James: ConvertKit. Okay, I might have to look into that one.

Bryan: Yeah, I’d recommend checking it out. It’s actually built for authors as well so it’s got some good tools for book launches and so on, which actually brings me to my next question. So, you’re getting ready to write your new book, How to Be a Man (Whatever That Means), did you go back and look at your broadcasts and say, you know, “This is going to work as a chapter, this isn’t,” or did you decide to write it all from scratch?

James: I really thought I was going to pull more from the newsletter and it ended up I didn’t. I took part of one story, the Tin Man story, and that’s in there but everything else was just kind of from scratch because most of these stories, in fact, almost all of them, they predated the newsletter, they predated Twitter, they’re from my earlier days when I just didn’t have any audience and the only person I was talking to was myself and that was really the point of this book. 

You know, I had so many funny stories saved up from over the years that I never had a platform to tell and now I finally have this audience and it’s like, “Okay, this is the time.” These aren’t parenting, you know, stories for the most part. There’s some parenting stories in there. They’re not, you know, this is a little bit different than what I’ve usually done but this is, you know, the best stories I’ve saved up over the years, let’s find a place to put them, and this was the book. This was the time to get that out.

Bryan: Who would you say the book is for?

James: It’s for, I guess, my normal audience so the people who get my weird, quirky brand of humor with kids. I mean, it’s taking that same logic, that same worldview, and applying it to my own life back when I was a child. There’s a lot of stories from when I was a kid doing the same things that drive me crazy now that my own children do it so I would say that they’re definitely to parents, to my existing audience, and then to people who are kind of disillusioned with the modern idea of manhood. 

I mean, there’s a lot of people out there like that. It’s such a hard concept to define and people really only bring it up when they think somebody is doing it wrong and it’s like, “Well, if that’s wrong, what’s right?” So I spent 60,000 words with funny stories and essays trying to figure out what really is right and I’m not sure I got there, but I sure gave it a try.

Bryan: Did you go through much of an editing process for the book?

James: Yes, very much so. I have a great editor at BenBella Books and she really goes through line by line to make sure every joke works exactly like I want it to. I’ve really had to fight for the stuff in there and our conversations going back and forth about some of the absurd premises I have in the book, you know, are just out there.

I remember one of my previous books, How to Save Your Child From Ostrich Attacks, Accidental Time Travel, and Anything Else That Might Happen On An Average Tuesday, like you get the notes in the Microsoft Word document. One of the things that I mentioned was arm-wrestling a T-rex on a sawn-off tree stump and she’s like, “Well, you can’t do that because they don’t have saws,” and I’m going like, “Okay, this is a premise on time travel and arm wrestling a dinosaur and our problem is the lack of saws,” and it’s like what other industry would you ever have this conversation in? There’s just so much funny behind-the-scenes stuff that happens like that.

Bryan: Yeah. And when you’re — have gone through several rounds of edits with your editor, do you start showing it then to some of your ideal readers?

James: I don’t generally send it out to readers too much. I send it out to people in the media, people with podcasts, like you, people with blogs, but as far as the readers, the first taste they get of it is generally when the book comes out. I don’t do a lot of beta readers or anything like that so I guess I really put a lot of faith in the editing staff and then in my own abilities, just because I kind of figured out what works and what doesn’t for my audience by this point so I don’t worry too much about that early feedback. I just try to make the best product I can.

Bryan: So the book is out in June 2021, around the time of this podcast episode. Are you also going to be still writing while you’re working on promoting the book?

James: Yes, I’m always writing new projects. I just actually recently sent through a science fiction manuscript that got picked up by Rebellion Books in the UK and that’s going to come out next year in either spring or summer and I was deep into edits for that while I was running around promoting this book. I was very busy there for a little bit and I think I’m going to try to keep doing that now. I’ve done a lot of non-fiction books, I’ve done a lot of comedy books, and now I want to kind of pivot into some fiction and see if I can’t make a toehold there.

Bryan: Okay, and is that going to have your kind of quirky sense of humor as well?

James: Yes, it very much has my quirky sense of humor in there. It comes through all the way through every page, but there’s also, you know, some serious parts too ’because you can’t be — so it’s an adventure, it’s funny, it’s got all that stuff and hopefully it kind of gives people a different perspective on what I’m capable of as a writer.

Bryan: Had you always wanted to write science fiction or fiction?

James: Yeah, it’s always been bouncing around in my head. So, my first love is always going to be comedy writing but as I did it, you know, I think we all, everybody who writes, they always have these, you know, grand stories that build up in their head over time and you kind of just keep adding to them and editing them and, I mean, this was up there for years and, finally, it came a time, it’s like, “I gotta just put this down, I gotta take a chance,” so this was my thinking-about-it-for-a-decade-finally-time-to-write-it-down story and I was just fortunate enough to find somebody who believed in it as much as I did.

Bryan: Fantastic. Fantastic. So, just go back then to How to Be a Man, like have you read a lot of books in the parenting genre? Because there’s not many for guys, at least. They’re all aimed at new moms and new mothers.

James: Yeah, I definitely have not read as many parenting books as I should have. You get into the sphere, you’re promoting books, your friends, your fellow authors, they send you their books, you send them theirs, and I’ve read a lot of those but like outside of that, like independent research, reading things for how to be a man, reading things for how to be a good dad, you know, my reading is dramatically lackluster. I mostly listen to like historical nonfiction or, you know, things like Malcolm Gladwell’s books, stuff like that. I don’t do a lot of reading like on its own because I don’t have a lot of time. What I do is I listen to audio books and, that way, I go to the gym, I’m at the gym for two hours, it’s like but that’s not a waste because really that’s two hours of reading time because you’re just listening to the book the whole time, and at triple speed, you can get through so many books. A year or two ago, I think I got through 200 books in a year.

Bryan: Triple speed, you’re hardcore.

James: I am.

Bryan: Double on a good day.

James: I do triple for the library app and on Audible, it’s 3.5. I love it. Audible and all those audiobooks have changed my life.

Bryan: Wow. That’s impressive. So, when you’re getting a book ready to write and to publish, do you have anything else in mind in terms of promoting the book apart from podcast interviews that works quite well?

James: You know, that’s the million-dollar question. If we could just figure out what actually sells books and — so, newsletters move books and I will say the thing in newsletters or on social media that works the best is taking a screen cap of a review from Goodreads or Amazon. That’s honestly the most powerful way to do it. People won’t believe me if I say my own book is great and they shouldn’t believe me because I have all the incentive in the world to lie to you. I’m clearly a biased observer but if you take a screenshot of a review from somebody who liked it in just the right way and really highlight some of the book’s strengths, that’s what moves copies.

Bryan: And you’re putting that in your e-mail list or on your website or elsewhere?

James: Both, so I will typically — so there’s no reviews out for this one right now so I can’t fallback on that but after the reviews start rolling in, yeah, I’ll copy and paste it into the newsletter and then I’ll take a screenshot of that and I’ll share it on Instagram and on Facebook and on Twitter. And the other thing you have to be careful of when you do that is, generally, on most of the platforms, you should not post a direct link to where to buy the book, like it makes all the sense in the world, you’re like, “Well, I should post a link so they don’t have to take that extra step.” People won’t take that extra step. 

If I don’t have it there, well, actually, they will and if you put the link, the algorithms on the social media sites bury that post. This comes all back to not controlling the platform. So, if you put just a link in there, then, you know, hardly anybody’s going to see it, hardly anybody’s going to click, but if you put just a, you know, media file, an image of that and then you say, you know, “Go click the link in my bio,” or, “See the link in the top comment,” then people will do it or they’ll go to Amazon or their favorite retailer and type it in. So, yeah, links don’t generally work but screenshots do, for what it’s worth.

Bryan: Because they want to keep you on their platform, I guess, rather than having you leave.

James: That’s a good insight. I never thought of it that way. But, yeah, links are like the kiss of death for any engagement. It’s really weird how it works. 

Bryan: What about Instagram? It seems like the bits that you write for Twitter would work very well over there too.

James: Yes, I finally have started just everything I put on Twitter, I take a screenshot and make it square and put it on Instagram. The nice thing over there is there’s no character limit. So, like last week, I had one of my most successful weeks ever for my newsletter. I just took the first couple paragraphs from it and just put it all in the description for a picture of my kid doing something that was in that newsletter. I said, “For the rest, you know, click the link in the bio to subscribe,” and I got a huge positive feedback from that, I got a bunch of subscribers, so I’m going to try that again in the future to see if I can get more engagement that way.

Bryan: Do you worry much about hashtags?

James: I have never used hashtags effectively and that’s probably to my detriment. People — on Twitter, hashtags do not work. I mean, anybody who’s used — outside of like very specific examples, like if you want to get picked up by a news article searching for something and those don’t really gain you anything long term. On Instagram, I think hashtags might be more effective but I have not used them effectively and that’s probably holding me back, but my old Twitter habits die hard.

Bryan: Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. I’d like to step back to when you were writing your first book when you started sharing a lot of your work online, did you have any self-doubt at any point about, you know, revealing stuff from your personal life, even if it was a little injected with some color?

James: Yeah, that was something actually I ran into. So my first book was called Only Dead on the Inside: A Parent’s Guide to Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse and that wasn’t actually the book that publishers wanted me to write. They wanted me to write the book called, you know, Stuff My Dad Says, although they don’t — you put the word “stuff” in the title, they use the swear word, but, basically, they wanted just a book of funny things my kids have said and like I can’t put out that book because, you know, some of this stuff is true.

Some of it’s absolutely true but some of it’s exaggerated, some of it’s made up, it’s all mixed together and after a while, I don’t remember what’s what and I don’t want that to be my introduction to the world so I took a step back and said, “Okay, I need to — rather than having a book with some truth and some lies, I need a book that’s 100 percent lies,” and that’s how I ended up writing A Parent’s Guide to Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse because, as far as I know, a zombie apocalypse has not happened yet. Although, oddly enough, that book about zombies and parenting is considered nonfiction. It’s in the nonfiction sections everywhere. It goes on nonfiction lists. So that was a little bit of a surprise.

Bryan: Yeah. I know you mentioned you’re going into fiction and into science fiction next. Do you think you’ll come back to nonfiction at some point or is it too early to say?

James: Nonfiction will always be — the humor writing will always be my first love, like that newsletter is never going to stop. I’m going to keep doing that. I’m going to keep telling those funny stories. It’s by far the most validation I feel is getting that newsletter out the door every week. But I definitely want to keep going with fiction as well. They kind of exercise two different parts of your brain and they allow you to be a little more free. You’re not constrained by what’s actually happening and that opens up a whole new universe of possibilities so I hope to do both. I really do.

Bryan: Are there any particular comedy writers that have been influences on your work?

James: Yes. So early on, I wanted to be the next Dave Barry. That’s why I got into newspapers. It was a very bad idea to do that and, it turns out, I thought Dave Barry went into, you know, journalism and worked his way up from the bottom and it turns out that’s not what he did it all, like before I base my career on somebody, I probably should have researched what he actually did, but I do love his writing. I love David Sedaris too. I think he’s one of the funniest writers out there.

Bryan: Yeah, I was going to say David Sedaris reminds me a little bit about what you’re doing because he uses everyday experiences as well in his work.

James: Yes, he does. He is — I think he’s got a lot more heart in his writing than I do. I’m more on the comedy side and I need to get more into that heart and that vulnerability space that he’s in as well and this book is really my first step in that direction. This is the first book I’ve put out that has like super personal stories about me and there’s one entire chapter in there that’s not comedy at all. It’s just kind of about a devastating experience my wife and I had, and I was really nervous about putting that in there but I included it and I think it made the book stronger.

Bryan: Each of the chapters in the book has like a single sentence that almost summarizes what the chapter is about. Did you come up with those at the end or at the start?

James: Both. So, some of them I started like here’s the central premise starting it and then I get to the end, I’m like, “Okay, I didn’t fit that premise at all, I’d have to go back and change it or modify it,” and there were a couple chapters where we didn’t get that first sentence until like the last stage of editing. It’s like this — it should have been the first thing we locked down but it ended up being the last just to try to — because it’s hard. It’s hard to sum up everything in one sentence. I’m used to, you know, it’s easy to write a book of 60,000 words but sometimes it’s hard to summarize 6,000 or 7,000 words in just eight or nine words in that one little concise sentence.

Bryan: It is, it is. Did you ever consider putting out any tips for the reader at any point into the book? Like a lot of non-fiction these days tends to have takeaways or tips or some sort of advice.

James: Yeah. And I had the tips in a lot of my previous books, all three of the ones that were meant for parents, and this one I wanted to get away from that more. This was more general guidance. This was kind of a broader perspective on life and everything in it rather than kind of a step-by-step how-to guide, despite the fact that it says “how to be a man” right in the title. That’s really not what it ended up being so, yeah, I took a step away from that for this book.

Bryan: Yeah. And the book has a really distinctive cover. It’s pretty good. It’s bright yellow and there’s a picture of a guy deadlifting a bar. Did you come up with that yourself or work with your…

James: That was the design team. They sent me a few options and when I saw that one, I laughed right away and I knew that was the winner. If it could make me laugh after, you know, I’ve been dealing with this book for a year and was already sick of it, then I knew that was definitely a winner.

Bryan: Yeah, fantastic. James, where can people find more information about you or where can they read your book?

James: You can find me at explodingunicorn.com. You can sign up for my newsletter right through there and you can also find links to all of my books. You can find me on Twitter, @XplodingUnicorn, and you can find that book at any online retailer you want at the start of June and, again, it’s called How to Be a Man (Whatever that Means): Lessons in Modern Masculinity from a Questionable Source. Thank you so much for having me.


(outro)


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