Nov 21, 2016
The co-creator and co-writer of the #1 international hit podcast Welcome to Night Vale and New York Times bestselling co-author of the novel of same name, Jeffrey Cranor, dropped by the show to talk about the importance of collaboration, deadlines, and bad writing.
In addition to producing and touring with the theater ensemble The New York Neo-Futurists, the playwright and author tours with live shows for the Night Vale Presents production banner, co-created with Joseph Fink.
Night Vale Presents now produces four podcasts that regularly sit at the top of the charts — including Within the Wires, also created by the author — and recently published two volumes of episode transcripts that include extras for fans of their original show.
Welcome to Night Vale has been described as “NPR meets The Twilight Zone,” a sci-fi broadcast about a small desert community where strange mythologies abound, and all conspiracy theory is potentially real.
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In Part One of this file Jeffrey Cranor and I discuss:
Listen to The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience below ...
Voiceover: Rainmaker FM.
Kelton Reid: Welcome back to The Writer Files. I’m your host, Kelton Reid, here to take you on yet another tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of renowned writers. The co-creator and co-writer of the number one international hit podcast, Welcome to Night Vale, a New York Times best selling co-author of the novel of the same name, Jeffrey Cranor dropped by this week to talk to me about the importance of collaboration, deadlines, and bad writing. In addition to producing and touring with the theater ensemble, The New York Neo-Futurists, the playwright and author tours with live shows for the Night Vale Presents production banner co-created with Joseph Fink.
Night Vale Presents now produces four podcasts that often sit atop the charts, including Within the Wires, also created by the author. They recently published two volumes of episode transcripts that include extras for fans of their original show. Welcome to Night Vale has been described as NPR meets The Twilight Zone. A sci-fi broadcast about a small desert community where strange mythologies abound, and all conspiracy theory is potentially real.
In part one of this file, Jeffrey and I discuss why writing collaboratively can help you become less precious about your work, how a hit podcast producer and novelist divides his time, an author s comforts and coffee and sports talk radio, why the law of averages says you won’t always find the words, and the importance of building a platform and setting a deadline for publish. If you’re a fan of the Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews as soon as they’re published.
This episode of The Writer Files is brought to you by Audible. I ll have more on their special offer later in the show but if you love audiobooks or you’ve always wanted to give them a try, you can check out over 180,000 titles right now at Audibletrial.com/Rainmaker.
We are rolling, today, with a very special guest, Jeffrey Cranor, co-author and co-creator of the international phenomenon that is Welcome to Night Vale. Thanks for coming on the show, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey Cranor: Thanks for having me, Kelton.
Kelton Reid: I’m just fascinated by kind of what you guys are doing and all the writing projects you must have in the hopper just is inspiring to see. It looks like you ve just recently released some new books. They look like transcripts, so those are collections of kind of the transcripts of the shows. There are two collections now, is that right?
Jeffrey Cranor: Yeah. We put out the first two volumes which would be the first two years of Welcome to Night Vale episodes. That gets us through June of 2014.
Kelton Reid: Wow.
Jeffrey Cranor: We’ll hopefully have the next two years published pretty soon, and then we’ll, hopefully our goal is just to have an annual volume of Night Vale episodes each year. We added a bunch of, just so it wasn’t just transcripts, we added a bunch of kind of director s-notes-style background info on some of the episodes, and things like that.
Kelton Reid: Right. There’s some bonus stuff in there for the die hards and they can kind of see, like glimpse into your brilliance as a writer. You’ve done so many things as a writer. I understand you have a theater background, you’ve been a playwright and a theater producer. Now you are a best selling author, a New York Times bestselling author of this novel, Welcome to Night Vale, of the same name. So you’re a busy guy, and you have all these other projects in the hopper with the Night Vale Presents, it seems like you have four shows now under that banner.
Jeffrey Cranor: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kelton Reid: Just a lot going on. Maybe to start out, for listeners who aren’t familiar with the Night Vale international phenomenon that is the podcast and the best selling books. Give us a little bit about your origin just as a writer, and how you got here.
Jeffrey Cranor: Sure. Origin as a writer is really just, I don’t know, I think kind of just like origin of any other sort of career, you just sort of like it a lot. I can t remember when I started writing, I remember as early as elementary school, just writing satires of some of the books that were read to us in classes by teachers. You would write these little goofs on that and it would be a thing that you would, that I would just pass it to a friend and they would laugh and giggle and stuff. It would be a one page deal. It wasn’t like I was writing books as a ten year old. So yeah. For me, I read a lot of just whatever seemed fun to read. I remember reading Hardy Boys. I remember reading a lot of Choose Your Own Adventure books. I read Alice in Wonderland over and over as a kid.
I visited my grandparents a lot as a kiddo, and they had a lot of humor books, people like Erma Bombeck and Dave Barry and Lewis Grizzard, and I read a lot of them. I really liked comedy. I just always thought, I just realized at a young age I wanted to be a comedy writer. And I wasn’t really sure what course that would take, because I’m not really a get up in front of people and make people laugh type of person, but writing seemed a lot of fun. So yeah, I got really into Dave Barry all throughout high school, and I tried to be a humor columnist for my high school newspaper, and got into journalism, and that is what my degree was in when I went to university. I think that was sort of my goal, but I got really invested in theater in college, I just enjoyed it so much.
I enjoyed watching stage plays. I enjoyed reading them, so I started my hand at playwriting and trying that, that’s been kind of a long process for me, because the world of making theater is really expensive. There’s a lot of gatekeepers along the way. It’s a very tough field to break into. It just takes a long time to get your work accepted there’s a lot of different stops along the way. It’s not like submitting a manuscript to a publisher and saying, “Hey. I’d like to print my book.” You just get a lot of no, no, no, no. Then, eventually someone will say, “Sure. We’ll print this book.” In playwriting it’s just a lot of people going, “Sure. We’ll get some actors together and do a staged reading,” and that’s fun but also a little disheartening, just because it takes so long to produce stuff.
Jeffrey Cranor: Anyways, I got involved, like in my early 30’s, so almost ten years ago I got involved in a theater company called The New York Neo-Futurists here in Manhattan. It’s a collective of writers and performers, and we do this weekly show called Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, and it is basically 30 plays on a timer of 60 minutes. We do a show where we have 30 short plays.
Kelton Reid: Wow.
Jeffrey Cranor: We do them in a random order every night based on every play, the audience just calls out the next play that they want to see, and we do that play. We have a timer on the wall that is 60 minutes long, if it runs out before we’re done, well too bad, we just stop in mid-show and say, “Goodnight, everyone,” and send you home. It becomes this kind of theater-as-sport sort of thing as competing against a timer, and we write new plays every week for it, too.
Kelton Reid: Amazing.
Jeffrey Cranor: It was just really a wonderful thing for me as a writer to do that because it forces you to not be precious about your work, it forces you to make new things constantly, to always think about reinventing yourself. That was really good for me. That really helped take a lot of the load off because as a playwright, it’s all about this one work, and you spend months and months, and maybe years just trying to make a thing, and the Neo-Futurists sort of taught me that, that’s not really necessary. Just find a stage and get something up, just make something happen. Be in the now. Be in this moment. Podcasting was really that way, too. Then, I met my co-writer Joseph, who created the concept of Welcome to Night Vale through the Neo-Futurists and we just loved podcasts a lot, so we started making the Welcome to Night Vale show.
Kelton Reid: Amazing. Yeah. It s exploded from there into this number one international podcast and best selling book, and more to come. Do you have another novel in the works? The first one is really cool.
Jeffrey Cranor: Thank you.
Kelton Reid: It’s a standalone story, right?
Jeffrey Cranor: Yeah.
Kelton Reid: It’s kind of an offshoot of the podcast.
Jeffrey Cranor: Yeah. Our goal in writing that novel was to make a novel that anyone could read. We’re not trying to supplement the expanded universe of Welcome to Night Vale. Although, expanded universe is such a weird loaded term. That, and canon, and things like that are always sort of stuff we avoid saying. But yeah, we didn’t want to write a novel that only fans of the podcast would like, because that just seemed sort of dull. I think the podcast develops it’s own fans, and I think we wanted to write something that, if you liked the podcast you would like the novel.
I don’t know. It’s been really interesting. We’ve met a few people that never heard about the podcast, saw the book, liked the cover, or something like that, or had vaguely heard about it and read it, and just thought it was wonderful. That was sort of our goal, was to make something that you didn’t really need any other context for.
Kelton Reid: Yeah.
Jeffrey Cranor: We are working on another one. We are working on a second novel. I don’t have a release date for it yet, but we’re almost finished writing it.
Kelton Reid: Cool.
Jeffrey Cranor: That’s going to be exciting. It will be set in the same universe, I guess, is the right word to say, for Night Vale. But yeah, we’re just going to try to follow different stories, and kind of create a separate kind of standalone piece that kind of connects to the podcast, connects to the other novel, things like that, but ultimately is it’s own thing.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. Amazing stuff. Congrats on all the successes that you all have had. Joseph Fink is the co-author and co-creator of Welcome to Night Vale, and now you’ve been on a book tour, you re doing live shows. You have, now, these four other podcasts, and you re producing Within the Wires, is that correct?
Jeffrey Cranor: Yeah. That’s right. Yeah. We’re down to our last two episodes of that show.
Kelton Reid: It is quite a ride.
Jeffrey Cranor: Thanks.
Kelton Reid: I was really enjoying it, today, this morning over breakfast.
Jeffrey Cranor: Awesome. I hope you got your breathing exercises in
Kelton Reid: I wasn’t sure if I was feeling relaxed afterwards, but it was a lot of fun. It’s amazing, amazing stuff. The newest addition is the Mostly Void, Partially Stars. I’m totally mispronouncing that. Then, The Great Glowing Coils of the Universe and those are those collections that can be found at welcometonightvale.com. And where else can we find your writing? I understand you have a couple of other websites where you put stuff.
Jeffrey Cranor: Yeah. Mostly I would say if anything, like my writing is mostly through Welcome to Night Vale, and also through the Within the Wires podcast, and then we have these books out. I occasionally post to my website, but I say occasionally. I may have not updated in the last four or five years. I bet if you went to my personal website right now it would say, “Working on a new podcast idea with Joseph Fink.” We’ll see how that goes. Then, I have my Tumblr blog, Happier Man on Tumblr, so I post to that occasionally. Then, also my writing through the Neo-Futurists I don’t get to perform as often as I used to.
Kelton Reid: Yeah.
Jeffrey Cranor: We’re going to be, I’m pretty excited, because the first three weekends in London, the first three weekends in November I’m going to be in London, and we’re going to be doing Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind performances at the Rosemary Branch Theater in London for the first three weeks in November. I’m really excited about that, because I one, get to do Too Much Light, again, and two, will get to perform in a totally different country.
Kelton Reid: Yes.
Jeffrey Cranor: Which will be great, so anyway I’ll be in London at the Rosemary Branch the first three weekends of November, performing my own original writing and the original writing of everyone else in the company.
Kelton Reid: Love it. Wish I could be there. I’d love to dig into your process a little bit as a writer. I’m fascinated by kind of the depth and breadth of the stuff you do. I know that I have this memory of someone asking, or Neil Gaiman writes about kind of like people asking him, “Where do you get your ideas?” I’m sure a lot of people ask you that, but I’m not going to ask you that, here.
Jeffrey Cranor: Great. Because I don’t know.
Kelton Reid: Right. He said, “I make them up out of my head. What else is there.”
Jeffrey Cranor: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kelton Reid: I understand that the hard part is the execution, and kind of getting your butt in the chair, and actually getting those ideas down. How much time per day would you say that you are reading or doing research for stuff?
Jeffrey Cranor: I guess it’s pretty loose depending on how much, I guess, it’s depending on how strictly you define research. Right?
Kelton Reid: Yeah.
Jeffrey Cranor: There’s some days where I don’t write a single thing, and I don’t read a single thing, but it may be a day where I’m listening to podcasts all day, or I’ve got an audiobook on in my head, which is sort of like reading. I listen to a lot of podcasts. I spend a lot of time without a book, or even a computer in my hand, and it might just be because I’m going for a run or mowing the lawn or something, and I’m just plowing through some podcasts.
Kelton Reid: Yeah.
Jeffrey Cranor: Which is, in a lot of ways, given my job in writing podcasts, is the equivalent to a writer reading a book. Right?
Kelton Reid: Yeah.
Jeffrey Cranor: It’s just getting in the flow of that. Listening to a lot of podcasts, and reading a lot of books. I spend a good chunk of each day trying to do a little bit of that. Some days, like the past couple of weeks, I’ve tried to be in front of a computer every day, writing several thousand words a day, so we can finish the novel.
Kelton Reid: Yeah.
Jeffrey Cranor: So I can finish the last few episodes of Within the Wires, and all that kind of stuff. It kind of varies, but yeah, I try to get down a few words every day, just because it just feels good to just kind of spit out a few things, and a lot of those are just in a file I call rough material on my computer. It’s just a text file full of miscellaneous junk. Sometimes I’ll try and write a little traffic report for a Welcome to Night Vale episode, or something.
Kelton Reid: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jeffrey Cranor: Maybe it’s just a diary thing. I don’t know. Talking about the leaves changing here in New York. It’s really beautiful out, right now. Just to kind of get a little bit of that out.
Kelton Reid: We will be right back after a very short break. Thanks so much for listening to The Writer Files.
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Kelton Reid: Are you brewing a pot of coffee before you sit down to write?
Jeffrey Cranor: I brew a lot of coffee. I try to stop drinking coffee once it s past 12pm, just for general health, but yeah, I mean I just love coffee. Yeah. I’ll brew coffee every morning. My morning is kind of my time that if I’m going to just not do anything, I will sit and have a coffee. Sometimes I’ll go out and sit on the porch, if the weather is nice, and just drink coffee, and maybe put on a podcast, just listen to that for a little bit. Maybe do a crossword, just kind of unwind from the stress of sleep, and then kind of once I’ve kind of gotten through my morning coffee, I’ll run downstairs and start actually typing on things.
Kelton Reid: Nice, nice. Once you get going and kind of get into the writing mode, then do you still have the headphones on? Do you listen to music, or do you prefer silence?
Jeffrey Cranor: For a long time I used to just have headphones on all the time. I’ve gotten to the point now, especially in writing, in writing the novel, I’ve kind of gotten out of the habit of listening to anything while I write. Now, I kind of try and work in silence if I can, but for many years I would write while listening to sports talk radio. I would tune in to, and I don’t know why that is, I think it’s because I’ve listened to, I’m a sports fan, so I would listen to sports talk for a long time. I don’t know that sports talk radio is good or good for you, however it’s kind of relaxing to me.
I don’t know. It just sounds like people in the background chatting. It is kind about the same thing, over and over again. Every now and then there’s a moment when I can stop and hear a really interesting story, like this person really did some research and has this interesting story to tell, so I’ll stop and listen to that. A lot of it is just, I don’t know, callers calling in complaining about the Cowboys defense or something. It’s like, okay, this is just comforting. This is just a thing happening. It feels good to just kind of type with some energy happening in the background. Music is hard for me, because I will start getting into the music, and then will forget to write.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. That’s an interesting one. I haven’t heard it before. I imagine it’s kind of like those guys you meet in a bar who are just total strangers, but all of a sudden they want to share their opinion with you.
Jeffrey Cranor: Right.
Kelton Reid: It’s okay, it’s like, Yeah, totally. Yeah. All right, man. Go on about the defense.
Jeffrey Cranor: You hear the same thing over and over again. I mean there’s only so much you can hear about, worry about any usage of the Red Sox middle relief rotation. It’s like I’ve heard all these arguments before. This is great. It’s very comforting because it’s something from childhood.
Kelton Reid: Cool. Here’s the million dollar question for all writers. Do you believe in writer s block?
Jeffrey Cranor: No. I don’t. I mean, let me hedge that a little bit by saying, I believe if you feel that you have writer s block, then I guess you do. I’m not saying that you can overcome any moment where you can t think of a good idea. There are some days, I don’t know, just writing is harder than other days. Some days running is harder than other days. Some days I don’t want to have to mow the lawn. You just do, and some days you just do a better job at mowing the lawn than others. I think the thing with writers block is that, I don’t know, let’s go back to the sports analogy, it’s like a batting slump. Right?
The law of averages in baseball is just that you are not going to constantly hit 300. You are not going to hit three out of every seven, or three out of every ten at bat. You are going to have stretches where you’re only get three hits out of 20, or 25 at bats, some days you’ll have ten straight at bats with a hit, or getting on base. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it s not going to come back around.
You always, like in baseball, as in writing you just sort of trust your process, trust your body, trust you mind, that you’ve been doing this for years. It’s going to come back around and I don’t think there is any shame in taking a step away from your computer for a little bit and saying, It’s just not there. I think you have to give yourself a fighting chance, and not give up after 30 minutes. Some days it’s not there for you, and go out, clear your mind, do something else, come back later. Read a book. Listen to a podcast. Do something to kind of help start it up. I don’t. Writers block sounds so, has always sounded so, like, permanent and that this is a condition that you can t get over.
Neurologically, maybe there is something to that. Chuck Knoblauch of the New York Yankees once just stopped being able to throw the ball to first base. He literally could not throw the ball to first base. I think the same thing happened to the Red Sox catcher, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who just stopped being able to throw the ball correctly. I’m sure there’s some neurological thing that says, oh suddenly you cannot remember how to do a really basic function.
Kelton Reid: Right.
Jeffrey Cranor: I don t know, I think there are a lot of ways around it. I think if you are writing all the time, that’s great. I think where writer s block seems really profound is when you are on a deadline. You re like, I have until 8am tomorrow morning to finish this ten page paper due for my econ class. I have writer s block. Well, of course you have writer s block now, because there s a lot of pressure on you to finish it immediately.
Kelton Reid: Can we see a note from your doctor? I’d love to take in your workflow because, I mean, it seems with the different types of writing you are doing that you have some processes in place. Are you a Mac or a PC guy?
Jeffrey Cranor: I’ve been on a Mac for the last, probably the last seven years, now.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. And are you working in Microsoft Word or Scrivener primarily, or do you kind of bounce around?
Jeffrey Cranor: I have a program called TextWrangler, which is a software developing platform, it’s basically a text only platform. It’s made for programmers. I usually just set it to text only, and not HTML, or Java, or C++, or whatever it’s wanting to do it’s programming. I used to make websites as a freelance job. I used to code websites, back when web coding was really simple, like back in the late 90s and early aughts when it was HTML CSS sort of stuff. I’ve always had a program like this on my computer and I started writing in it because there is no formatting.
Kelton Reid: Right.
Jeffrey Cranor: There is just, you just have your letters, and spaces, and paragraphs, and that’s it, It kind of keeps me from messing with all the bells and whistles of Microsoft Word.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. Whereas my friend Sonia says, “The dancing bologna.”
Jeffrey Cranor: Right.
Kelton Reid: Cool. Do you have some organizational hacks that kind of keep you in line with your multiple projects, multiple deadlines that you can share with us?
Jeffrey Cranor: I think the number one, and this seems sort of obvious, but I think the number one thing to keep me organized is deadlines. And that seems really obvious, because it’s built right into your question, which is deadlines. But, I think on the outside of any project, when I want to do something and I cannot tell you how many times in my life I’ve said, I want to do a thing, and then I just never do it. And you tell people, I’m thinking about this kind of project, I’m going to write, a thing where it’s like this, and people are like, “Cool, cool.” But, then you don’t every really actually do it.
And I found in theater once I sort of, you know, talking about the Neo-Futurists earlier this idea of just getting your work out there, finding a platform upon which to put your work, and not wait around for like submitting it to places or going through this longer process of just saying, “You know what? I’m going to self produce this,” or “I’m just going to find a place that I can do this, and I’m going to take it on myself.” Once you do that, you have a deadline. You’ve rented a theater. You’ve set a place to do a thing, and now you have to do it. Once you have a deadline that solves 90% percent of your problems, because after that you know just have to make it.
I feel like, for me anyway, having the responsibility to actually make something, because then it’s no longer about whether or not I have a good idea, now it’s whether or not I’m going to fulfill the promise I made to the theater that I rented, and the people I invited to see the show. Now it has nothing to do with the quality of my idea. I just have to trust that I’m good at writing enough to execute it.
Kelton Reid: Right.
Jeffrey Cranor: That helps a lot, and I’ve done a lot of bad writing and a lot of bad theater. I’ve done a lot of bad of those things, but that’s fine. You just do it and you move on. I think the other thing that I’ve found really helpful, in podcasting and theater you just sort of naturally have to do this, which is working with collaborators, and having collaborative efforts as a writer is really, really great because it just … One, it broadens your own horizons as a writer. It makes you think about the way other people write, and other people have good ideas. There is someone else in the process to be like, “I don’t know that that’s a good idea,” or “I’d kind of like to avoid this particular trope.”
Kelton Reid: For sure.
Jeffrey Cranor: That’s really good to hear in a collaborative process. Plus, they help you stick to you deadlines. It s one thing to let yourself down, it’s totally another thing to let other people down, and I don’t like doing the latter.
Kelton Reid: Yeah.
Jeffrey Cranor: So that’s it. Other organizational hacks, when I sit down to write I’ve taken to turning off my phone, and my WiFi on my computer. I don’t write by hand anymore, because it s just too slow. Sometimes I jot notes in a notebook, but mostly everything is done on the computer, now. I will shut down my WiFi and I will close everything but my text editor.
Then, I’ll just write. If I have a question that I need to look up, I will just highlight it with a series of pound signs, so I can go back and search for those later. So yeah, I do that just to keep me from going down the rabbit hole of, You know what I’m going to check, I just got a text message, let’s see what this is, or, Oh, somebody needs this from me on email. I’m going to go ahead and do that. I’m just trying to go back to the 80s and 90s when you just couldn’t reach everyone all the time, whenever you wanted.
Kelton Reid: Right. Yeah. That’s fantastic. Because, you know, I hear writers say that they’ve got these apps that will shut off the internet, or whatever, but the easiest way to do it is actually shut off the internet.
Jeffrey Cranor: Yeah. Just go completely off the grid.
Kelton Reid: That’s the way it should and there’s no going back.
Thanks so much for joining me for this half of a tour through the writer’s process. If you enjoy The Writer Files podcast please subscribe to the show and leave us a rating or a review on iTunes to help other writers find us. For more episodes, or to just leave a comment or a question, you can drop by WriterFiles.FM. You can always chat with me on Twitter @KeltonReid. Cheers, talk to you next week.