In this episode, I catch up with Brian Finney to understand how he transitioned from writing non-fiction to writing fiction and how he manages his day.
Many writers work on the side while working a demanding day job. Brian has gone the other way. He’s now a professor emeritus at California State University, which means he doesn’t lecture at the university, so he has time to write his psychological thrillers during the week.
I was interested in how somebody would approach having a massive chunk of free time to write. I dug into Brian’s writing process to figure out how much time he spends writing and how he gets himself into a state of flow.
In this episode, we discuss:
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Brian: I think I had a clear outline and that gave me more confidence to, you know, create variations on what I had in the outline. If you know where you’re going, then you can afford to make diversions and change your mind and alter things. So, I always want to leave myself enough room to respond to that character in that particular situation in that particular moment in time and it’s no good imposing your own views on it, particularly as I have strong political views and this has got a lot of politics in it.
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: Are you ready to write a psychological thriller?
My guest today is Brian Finney. Brian is a professor of English at California State University and he’s written multiple non-fiction books but, back in 2019, he did something interesting. He transitioned from writing biography and from writing non-fiction and he wrote his first psychological thriller, Money Matters. Last year, during the pandemic, he wrote Dangerous Conjectures, which is out at the time of recording this interview, and I wanted to catch up with Brian to understand how he made the transition from writing non-fiction to writing fiction and one of my takeaways from this interview is how Brian manages his day.
Many writers, you know, work on the side while they’re working a busy or demanding day job. That’s what I did. I used to get up early in the morning to write or write in the evening, but Brian has actually gone the other way. He’s now a professor emeritus at California State University, which essentially means that he doesn’t lecture in the university anymore so he has free time during the week to write his psychological thriller books so I was interested how somebody would approach having a huge chunk of extra free time to write. So, I dug into Brian’s writing process with him and to figure out how much time he spends writing, how he gets himself into a state of flow — preview, he doesn’t, he just sits down and starts writing — and, also, his approach to problems like writer’s block.
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Now, let’s go over to the interview with Brian.
Bryan: So, Brian, you’re a professor of English in a university in California but you’re also a fairly prolific fiction writer. Could you give listeners a flavor for how you got into writing fiction and your background?
Brian: Well, I wrote non-fiction while I was teaching in the university system, and then, to my surprise, as soon as I became a professor emeritus and had free time and free choice, I discovered that I really wanted to practice what I’ve been preaching and I’m not even sure how I got into the first novel but it gripped me very quickly.
I think what was most important was the tone. I acquired a voice early on for it and it was the voice of, incidentally, someone very different from me. She was American, not English, she was 27, not old, and she was female, not male and that distance actually enabled me to discover a voice that went with it and the novel almost wrote itself, I would say.
Bryan: So, will you say your professor emeritus, being somebody who’s not in the university, does that mean that you don’t lecture full time, that you have more free time during the week to write?
Brian: Exactly, exactly. In fact, at the moment, I’m not teaching at all —
Brian: — and I really enjoy the freedom and, of course, we’ve also had the pandemic, which meant I wasn’t gonna be on the campus anyway.
Bryan: Yeah. So, what does your writing process look like or did it look like for Dangerous Conjectures?
Brian: Dangerous Conjectures, I started off with a day-by-day account of this couple who lived in the Bay Area that’s, you know, the San Francisco Bay Area, on the east side in Oakland and it lasted from something like, oh, I can’t remember exactly, but from January 20 something until March the 13th of 2020 so it spanned the duration when the pandemic was just beginning to make itself known until the moment when closedown happened and I wanted to avoid, you know, going beyond that because I didn’t want to get the whole thing too dated.
I mean, I wanted a specific date because I always set my characters against a political background and this was a very specific political background, the primaries, and I alternated between the two major characters, Adam, who’s a computer scientist at Berkeley, and Julia, who works for the ACLU, that’s the American Civic Liberties in San Francisco, and they have a young daughter.
So, you know, each day, it wouldn’t necessarily move from one to the other but, most days, it would move from one to the other character and that’s how the first draft looked, and then I had a very good line editor look at it for me and she said, “It reads like a diary,” and I said, “I didn’t write a diary. I didn’t mean it to be a diary.”
Brian: So, we both agreed how about eliminating the dates and turning the first person into the third person and that worked really well, although it took a lot of people to finally get rid of all the “I”s and “me”s. I kept on missing them.
Bryan: So, well, that’s reassuring for people who aren’t an English professor that even you had to go through that kind of level of revision. Did you actually outline the story in advance or did you sit down to write — you did?
Brian: I did that.
Bryan: What did your outlining process look like?
Brian: It was very much a summary of, you know, date, person speaking, what they did and what they were going to do, you know, what interchange occurred and nothing more. I mean, because I know that once you start writing, the actual situation takes over and it’s better you leave yourself that freedom to respond to the demands of the situation, whatever that happens to be.
Bryan: Okay, and did you spend long working on the outline of your book before writing the first draft?
Brian: Probably a month. The whole book wrote itself fairly fast and the revision process took probably longer than the initial writing.
Bryan: It sounds like you did the revision as well last year, 2020.
Brian: Yeah, correct. Everything was done in 2020.
Bryan: And did you spend many hours on a given day working on Dangerous Conjectures? Like a lot of writers would say three hours is the most that they can spend on a creative project.
Brian: I would say, on average, that I probably spent two to three hours a day but I’m not somebody who religiously sits down at nine o’clock and won’t let myself get up until 12 and have written X number or a thousand words or anything like that. I’m much more intuitive about it than that. I prefer to be intuitive about it.
And if I’m not in a good mood for writing, then I don’t write and I’m not worried that it’s gonna recur the next day or anything or I’ve got writer’s block, which I’ve never had yet.
Bryan: Okay, okay. And the revision process, apart from changing the point of view and removing the dates, what other changes did you make?
Brian: Well, as you can hear, I have an English accent, I speak with a lot of English expressions, and I have an American couple so I had a lot of friends, American friends, and editors go through this in order to rid it finally of any taint of, you know, anglicized expressions. That took a lot of doing, actually.
And I also had — somebody pointed out to me that Liz, the young girl, who’s only like 12 years old, her vocabulary was too adult and I had to alter all of her conversations to bring it down to a 12-year-old’s kind of conversation. Other than that, some individual, you know, objections by people, “Don’t you think, you know, don’t you think the senator would be angry at this point? Would they just accept this?” or, “Don’t you think they’ve reconciled too easily?” and that would cause me to write maybe a very much longer series of scenes in order to make that credible.
Bryan: I understand this book and your last book both draw on conspiracy theories and they also draw on current events, like you mentioned the pandemic. What is it about current events and conspiracy theories that drives you to write stories?
Brian: I like to set many fictions in specific political and historical context. I mean, the previous one, Money Matters, was set during the midterm elections when the governor of California was up for reelection and one of the characters actually is running against the governor of California, the governor who won it, you know?
And because I don’t think that any of us need our lives isolated from what’s going on politically and socially around us, particularly if you look at, you know, the consequences of the conspiracy theory that I used in the book, which is QAnon, and I took QAnon — I actually adopted this as the conspiracy theory I wanted before any of my friends even knew what it meant or what it was about. I
mean, back in — we forget how, although it started in 2017, nobody really knew anything about it until mid-2020, at which time, I’m over halfway through, you know, writing the book, and I have the conspiracy theory as tied in with a Trump-like White House. In other words, what actually happened politically is that Trump sort of pussyfooted around the theory, saying nothing wrong with it but not actually subscribing to it. In the book, it’s very much in league with the White House, the theory is.
Bryan: When you’re researching a book like this, do you keep note of what’s happening in the news and like write stuff down and gather your research in one place or are you just aware of it and it’s kind of background information that you work into your book naturally?
Brian: In the first place, I’m aware of it because I’m — particularly during 2020, we were all listening to far too much and reading —
Bryan: Yeah —
Brian: — far too much and [inaudible] but then when I got to a specific moment in the novel where I needed something specific, like, you know, how many cases were there in China by this point or whatever, then I could just look it up online and I did a lot of looking up online. It required quite a bit of research.
Bryan: In terms of your writing tools, do you gather your research and write it all in Word or do you have some other workflow? Could you describe how it works?
Brian: I write it all on Word —
Bryan: In Word?
Brian: Yeah, yeah. I try and make it all digital.
Bryan: Okay, okay. So when you’ve written your first draft, you’ve sent it to your editor, you’ve gotten feedback from your editor, you mentioned you sent it to some friends, were there any other things that you asked them to look for apart from the voice of the 12-year-old girl character?
Brian: Yes. Well, particularly, I asked my women friends to consider Julia’s reactions and responses and behavior generally because Julia was particularly — or should I say disturbed by the rise of the coronavirus and, for the first time in her life, she actually fears for her life, she’s actually afraid of death, and this is something all of them could easily at least understand and, you know, come back to me about.
Obviously, Adam, being a computer scientist, is closer to me, you know, a literature professor rather than a computer scientist professor, so I didn’t need as much help with him but then I also had another character, a boyfriend from Julia’s past, who comes up and turns into kind of a stalking menace to the entire family and, again, I needed help with him because he certainly was very different from what I am.
So, I welcomed, particularly, I welcomed suggestions from a younger generation, like my nephew who’s in his 40s and so on.
Bryan: This is your second fiction novel. Did you make any changes to your writing process compared to your first novel?
Brian: I’m just thinking back from it. I think I had a clearer outline and that gave me more confidence to, you know, create variations on what I had in the outline. If you know where you’re going, then you can afford to make diversions and change your mind and alter things. So, I always want to leave myself enough room to respond to that character in that particular situation in that particular moment in time and it’s no good imposing your own views on it, particularly as I have strong political views and this has got a lot of politics in it.
Bryan: What about the transition from writing non-fiction? Because you’ve written a lot of non-fiction books over the years and I’m sure, as an English professor, like that’s what you’re pretty much doing as a part of your job as well, so how did you find transitioning from non-fiction to fiction?
Brian: Surprisingly easy in one sense but, you know, having spent my lifetime talking about other people’s fiction and, you know, analyzing it and showing how it works and so on, I was surprised that some of the factors that really matter when you’re writing don’t matter when you’re criticizing, when you’re analyzing, and, in a way, I wish I’d done it the other way around. I wish I’d written —
Bryan: So you’ve written first and then criticize.
Brian: Right, because then I would have been a better critic analyst, but even then, the one thing I did notice is that when you’re writing non-fiction, you leave yourself very little room for variation or fabrication or whatever. I mean, it’s all planned very carefully and held tightly together. This is an argument, primarily, or a series of arguments, you know, any non-fiction book, so I like the freedom that fiction offered by comparison.
Bryan: The books, Dangerous Conjectures, and your previous book, Money Matters, did you read books in these genres before you decided to write fiction?
Brian: No, I didn’t. I mean, in fact, I wasn’t even quite sure what genre it was gonna come out as. In fact, the genre, you know, for Dangerous Conjectures, you could call it a psychological thriller, you could call it a political thriller, you could call it a drama, family drama —
Brian: — so on.
Bryan: It looks like a psychological thriller based on the cover. So, did you decide on that genre with your publisher or is that something that evolved?
Brian: Yeah, I have — I used a publicist. She basically said, “Look, this genre is going to, you know, you put it in that genre, there’s too many there and it’ll just get lost in the morass,” and we finally sort of honed down to psychological thriller as being probably the most, you know, accurate and yet specific genre to label it but it is other things as well.
Bryan: Did you discover any conventions of the psychological thriller genre that you had to include, something to keep the readers happy?
Brian: Not at all, and I don’t believe you should be dictated to by the conventions of a genre. I mean, you know, if you’re very heavily into a particular genre, yes, you can use that knowledge to, or should I say write against it or write partly with it and partly against it, but I wasn’t specifically writing within one genre so I didn’t. I didn’t let it affect me.
Bryan: Do you believe you’ll write more fiction after Dangerous Conjectures once you’ve finished promoting it?
Brian: You know, I didn’t even know I was gonna write Dangerous Conjectures ’til I did, and I haven’t yet started writing anything else but I did have one of those moments where you wake up in the middle of the night and I thought, next time, I am determined to have somebody much closer to me as one of the major characters so I don’t have — so I can actually use my own voice and not have to eliminate all the anglicisms from it and I thought how about a situation where you have an elderly guy living on his own out here and a homeless woman and her child decide to park permanently outside their front gate and, you know, they will change from the confrontation to, eventually, he’s getting to know her so well that he invites her in.
But it will be about the disparity in wealth that governs all our societies today because he will be very affluent and she will be completely with no money at all and it will be that confrontation between those two lifestyles and two personalities. Anyway, that might turn into a book, it might not.
Bryan: Yeah. Well, you’re giving away the premise.
Brian: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I don’t mind the premise. I mean, what holds people is the actual working out evolution of, you know, that changing relationship and that changing understanding of each other and so on.
Bryan: Yeah, yeah. So, just to go back to when you were working full time as a busy English professor in California State University, did you always have it at the back of your mind that, “When I have more free time, I’m going to write fiction,” or did it take a pandemic for you to make the leap?
Brian: No, I wrote the first one before the pandemic. No, I didn’t. You know, I wish there had been a blinding flash moment, you know? Kind of a road trip to Damascus or something where, oh, I thought I got to, you know, do this. It somehow — I somehow glided into — I can’t describe it. I suddenly found myself writing it and there was no clear moment.
Bryan: Yeah. And do you still write non-fiction today?
Brian: I write — I mean, I write a lot of reviews and op-ed like things, yes. I have not — I don’t intend yet or at the moment writing a non-fiction book.
Bryan: Yeah, so I’m wondering, I’m curious, as an English professor, like you’re very knowledgeable about literary genres, all the great writers and authors that are out there, do you sometimes feel like you know an awful lot and it’s very hard to figure out where to start? Because can too much knowledge be a curse, I guess, when you’re engaging on anything creative?
Brian: You know, in a way, you have to almost forget that. I mean, Dangerous Conjectures is a quotation from Hamlet and there is a very, very light motif of Hamlet references throughout the book, maybe half a dozen or something in the entire novel, and — but that’s about as far as it goes in drawing on my literary expertise.
Bryan: Yeah. I was reading an interview with an Irish author today and he was saying that he got lucky with his first book. It became a bestseller and he made a living out of it for a few years but he didn’t know what he was doing so when he tried to write the second book, he found he didn’t have any of the skills he needed to write another book. So, he had to learn them all and he had to go and start by writing short stories and…
Brian: Yeah. That’s tough. You know, I mean, I’ve never found — the writing process, I’ve always found easy. I mean, I can think onto the computer without any problem and that really helps and it’s not — I mean, I guess it’s just the result of a lifetime of being in the literary world.
Bryan: Any reaction from your former students?
Brian: I had one or two absolutely astonished, you know, “Oh my god, I looked this up and I realized this was the person who taught me.”
Brian: But they were complimentary, they were nice.
Bryan: And what about promoting the book, what strategies have helped you sell copies of Money Matters or are helping you with Dangerous Conjectures?
Brian: Well, nowadays, you have — the author has to do an awful lot of work, whether they’re published by even one of the top five New York publishers or they’re self-published, it doesn’t matter, they have to push it and this is why I have had a very good young publicist of indie fiction [inaudible] and she fixes me up with a lot of interviews, like we’re having today. She gets a lot of reviews, a lot of — she gets the book mentioned in podcasts, she gets news releases on, you know, local TV stations but, as you know, you could do as much as you like of that but unless it catches, you know, it’ll be noticed, it’ll have respectable sales, but it won’t actually be — it’ll disappear within a year or two. I mean, it’ll go —
Brian: — away.
Bryan: Have you considered writing a series or a sequel?
Brian: You know, I haven’t. It’s very, very popular and an awful lot of authors do it because they can gradually build an audience and then appeal to that audience and offer the earlier ones for free or something in order to get them — I mean, from a selling point of view, having a sequence is a very good idea but, so far, I mean, neither of the two sets of characters that I’ve had in these two books really offer themselves for a further book as far as I’m concerned.
Bryan: Okay, and it sounds like you’re enjoying having more free time to —
Brian: Love it.
Bryan: — spend a few hours a day writing every day.
Brian: Yes, I do. I do. And also, you know, being able to do it when you want and not having to do it when you don’t want to, then that —
Brian: — that’s really important, I think.
Bryan: Yeah. Well, what advice would you give to somebody who doesn’t have that free time at the moment?
Brian: Oh, well, when I taught, you know, when I taught, I would do most of my writing during the summer vacation. You know, I would do all the research and all the preparatory work whenever I could in the year but I gave myself the summer break, but not everybody has a big summer vacation like the academics do and all I can say is, you know, I suspect if I were in a, you know, full-time job with no vacation of that kind, I would set aside one period during the weekend every weekend, you know, to do it, when at least you’ve got enough — you know, it’s never trying to do it in half-hour snatches or anything, that doesn’t work. You have to have a continuity where the drama of what you’re writing about takes over and dictates to you what people say and do.
Bryan: Where you can immerse yourself into the story for a little longer.
Brian: Yes, exactly.
Bryan: Yeah, makes sense. Makes sense. And then, to go the other way, if somebody is just about to go into a stage in their life where they can write all day, what should they need to know?
Brian: They need to know that you need to give yourself a break as well, that you don’t want to spend eight hours a day writing or what have you, that it’s not gonna be necessarily productive. And it’s quality that counts and not quantity and that, you know, you don’t have to necessarily push yourself so much because you got all the time in the world and, when it’s right, it works better. You know, when you feel like writing, the writing is going to be better than when you don’t feel and make yourself write.
Bryan: Do you have any techniques or strategies you use to get yourself into like a state of creative flow or focus when you’re working on a first draft?
Brian: No. Seriously, I don’t have any. I just sit down and open it up, I’m reading what I last wrote, you know, and that invites the next bit.
Bryan: Yeah. Maybe I’m overthinking it, yeah. Some people say — well, I say I use noise cancelling headphones and —
Brian: I know, I know —
Bryan: — to music.
Brian: I was brought up in a boarding school where, you know, you had to do your homework in the same room that people were playing ping pong and listening to the radio and fighting and so I’m not put off by any type of extraneous activity or noise.
Bryan: So it was conditioning. Brian, where can people find more information about you or where can they buy your books?
Brian: I have a very extensive website which is at bhfinney.com and they can find my books, both of my novels, on Amazon. All they need to do is put the title, the name of the title, Dangerous Conjectures, in this case, and it’ll come up.
Bryan: And that’s bhfinney with two n’s.
Brian: Yes, B-H-F-I-N-N-E-Y, bhfinney.com, yep.
Bryan: Thank you, Brian.
Brian: Thank you, Bryan.
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