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Nov 14, 2016

How the Author of ‘The Bestseller Code’ Jodie Archer Writes: Part Two

Literary scholar, publishing consultant, and co-author of the critically acclaimed book The Bestseller Code, Jodie Archer dropped by to chat with me about her journey, the coming revolution in publishing, and the insecurities that all writers face.

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Before earning her PhD from Stanford, Ms. Archer studied English at Cambridge, worked in both journalism and TV, and became an acquisitions editor for Penguin UK publishing.

While at Stanford Jodie taught nonfiction and memoir writing, and researched both contemporary fiction and bestsellers. Upon completion of her doctoral work she was recruited by Apple where she was the lead in research on books.

Her book, The Bestseller Code, is based on her doctoral research with professor Matt Jockers, an algorithm that they tested over four years and refined by text mining over 20,000 contemporary novels.

The Guardian proclaimed that their book “… may revolutionize the publishing industry,” in part because their algorithm was able to predict bestselling books 80% of the time, based on a theme, plot, character and many other big data points.

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.

If you missed the first half you can find it right here.

In Part Two of this file Jodie Archer and I discuss:

  • How to use Google Docs to co-write a book
  • Why every writer is organized in their own disorganized way
  • How to get into your creativity zone
  • The worst question you can ask a book lover
  • Why authenticity is critical for your productivity

Listen to The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience below ...

The Show Notes

The Transcript

How the Author of The Bestseller Code Jodie Archer Writes: Part Two

Voiceover: Rainmaker FM

Kelton Reid: Welcome back to the Writer Files. I am still your host, Kelton Reid. I’m going to take you on yet another tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of renowned writers. In part two of this file, literary scholar, publishing consultant, and co-author of the critically acclaimed book The Bestseller Code, Jodie Archer returned to chat with me about her journey, the coming revolution in publishing, and the insecurities that all writers face.

Before earning her PhD from Stanford, Ms. Archer studied English at Cambridge, worked in both journalism and TV, and become an acquisitions editor for Penguin UK Publishing. While at Stanford, Jodie taught nonfiction and memoir writing and researched both contemporary fiction and bestsellers. Upon completion of her doctoral work, she was recruited by Apple, where she was the lead in research on books.

Her book, The Bestseller Code, is based on her doctoral research with Professor Matthew Jockers, an algorithm that they tested over four years and refined by text mining over 20,000 contemporary novels. The Guardian proclaimed that their book may revolutionize the publishing industry, in part because their algorithm was able to predict bestselling books 80% of the time based on theme, plot, character, and many other big data points.

In part two of this file, Jodie and I discuss how to use Google Docs to co-write a book, why every writer is organized in their own disorganized way, how to get into your creativity zone, the worst question you can ask a book lover, and why authenticity is critical for your productivity. If you’re a fan of the Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews as soon as they’re published. If you missed the first half of this show, you can find it in the archives on iTunes, on WriterFiles.FM, and in the show notes .

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.

How to Use Google Docs to Co-Write a Book

Well let’s chat a little bit about your workflow. Are you a Mac or a PC user?

Jodie Archer: I am a Mac user. Before I did work at Apple for 15 months, so I have many Apple products, but even way before then I’ve used a Mac for a long time. I have a little one of those very, very thin new MacBooks that fits in my purse so it goes everywhere with me and then I’ve got a big iMac on my desk in my study.

Kelton Reid: Very nice, very nice. Do you find that iMac is a better format for you for when you’re doing a longer piece?

Jodie Archer: Yes, I like the bigger screen or to have two screens in front of me, actually. I might have my notes on one and then a clean document. I like a clean screen, not lots of things open.

Kelton Reid: Yeah. Are you doing Microsoft Word? Or, I’m guessing Scrivener, but I wouldn’t presume.

Jodie Archer: Actually The Bestseller Code was written nearly all in Google Docs because it was collaborative. Or I would write a big chunk in Word and post it to Google Docs and Matt would write on it, “What are all these Britishisms? You live in America now, and you’ve got a green card, you have to …” He would put a line through them with lots of exclamation points, which we say in the book you shouldn’t do.

We would have fun with Google Docs and that made co-writing much easier, but if I’m writing alone, I do have Scrivener and I use it for longer projects, but I tend to, with Scrivener, get so involved with, “Oh, a character page! Oh a settings page! And, oh a notes page!” I get so excited about the software that I don’t actually write anything, so Word still works for me, actually.

Why Every Writer is Organized in Their Own Disorganized Way

Kelton Reid: That’s cool, that’s cool. Given your propensity for working on all these different capacities with writing, publishing, journalism, and television I think you’ve even worked in, do you have some organizational hacks just for writers that you could share? Maybe a couple tricks that you have just fallen in love with?

Jodie Archer: You know this is the one question that I it would be like if I could invite all your listeners to tell me. I still haven’t mastered the organizational hacks. I have a big glass whiteboard in my office so I can see visually the different projects I’m working on. I have lots of files on my computer, different notes on different projects. I tend to be a writer that, unless I’ve committed to one project and I’m really into it, I’m always kind of researching, thinking about, forming four or five, and then I’ll pick something. I would say I’m not organized. There’s notes on the wall, in notebooks, on different computers, so I’m not the best writer to help people with that. I would like help.

Kelton Reid: I’m sure that’s a relief to hear for some writers who don’t have your credentials. I think there’s no right way, obviously. I think every writer’s different and every writer is organized in their own disorganized way.

Jodie Archer: Yeah. I have note cards, colored note cards, a whiteboard, and I do all this pretense organization, and in the end when I’m writing and I just write into Word and kind of submit. I need to go in some kind of workshop about just that issue.

Kelton Reid: Well this may dovetail back into your love of deadlines. Do you have any other procrastination beaters?

Jodie Archer: Yeah, I just say when circumstance creates it, like when your publisher insists on a deadline, I think that really helps. Since I was a journalist and you have to write very quickly, I’ve been fairly deadline driven. Right now when I’m thinking of new projects, I think I just have to discipline myself and make myself be in my study for a certain amount of hours every day and write. I really don’t let myself out of the office. You just kind of look at the screen and when that impulse goes, “Oh, I’ll just, you know, go for a walk and I’ll do this,” I’m like, “No, just sit there,” and the flow starts to come.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. Well how does Jodie Archer unplug at the end of a writing day?

Jodie Archer: I would say I like to cook, so I’ll go and cook or spend the evening with my husband. He’s very good at bringing me out of my head and back to the real world. We have a lovely view of the Colorado mountains. I’m on this ridiculous detox right now with my friend, so usually I drink a glass of red wine after a long writing day, but at the moment it’s sort of a sparkling water. It doesn’t have quite the same effect.

Kelton Reid: The effervescence isn’t really working.

Jodie Archer: Yeah, I try. She’s like, “Isn’t is a bit like champagne?” I’m like, “No, it’s not like champagne at all. It’s sparkling water.”

Kelton Reid: Dammit.

Jodie Archer: I try to look at the view, but I think my friends and people I care about are a good way for me to wind down.

Kelton Reid: Yes, yes, the Rocky Mountains are a fantastic way to unwind.

Jodie Archer: Yes.

How to Get Into Your Creativity Zone

Kelton Reid: I’d love to pick your brain a little bit about creativity. I know it’s intrinsic to kind of everything that we talk about, the written word, and harnessing the power of the creative mind, but how would you personally define creativity? Do you have something for us?

Jodie Archer: I think that as I experience it, when I’m actually being creative rather than thinking about being creative or as I think I experience it through the written word of other people and I think, “Wow, that’s just amazing writing.” I think that it’s something like presence and flow, if I can use that kind of language. I feel very present, my mind doesn’t go anywhere else, and I just feel very, it just feels kind of forward. There’s not really anything else.

I’ve heard other people, sports people call it, they go into the zone, you know, or in the game, when you have to hit a ball or something, that you have to be really fully present, almost like a meditative presence. I think when you achieve that and just let it flow or let it out, open the doors on it, then I think that’s when you can be creative in any area, not just in writing. I’ve worked in offices where creativity and organizational structures might look very different than writing a book, but you can still see people creating and they always seem to have that quality when they really succeed.

Kelton Reid: Do you have a creative muse right now? Or do you believe in the creative muse?

Jodie Archer: Actually, I think I do. I think I do in some sense if you’re meaning some great something. I’m definitely a meditator and I get a little bit of inspiration after that. Maybe I’m just clearing my mind, but I do believe in the muses in some poetic sense. I think right now I’m in a receptive phase, working on the beginning of a few projects. When I’m in that moment of receptivity I can find that I’m inspired by everything.

I’ll talk to my husband and I’ll think, “Oh yeah, that could go into that character,” or I’ll read someone else’s work and they’ll trigger a memory in me or I’ll watch the TV or I’ll go for hikes. In that phase, pretty much everything is inspiring me, and then comes the phase of trying to organize it into something. It’s no one particular figure or person or idea that inspires me or seems like a muse currently.

Kelton Reid: For sure. Kind of the preparation phase where you’re just gathering raw materials and working them over is the next part.

Jodie Archer: I think so. You feel kind of an antenna go up and just allow yourself to be a little less structured maybe and more just intuitive and observational and things tend to come up from the subconscious.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, that’s really cool to hear, especially coming from the author of The Bestseller Code.

Jodie Archer: It’s actually really great to work with both ideas around creativity, you know, what can have something as, you know, as black and white, as bits and bites have to say about creativity versus something as nebulous and poetic as the idea of the muses. It’s nice to hold them one in each hand.

Kelton Reid: Fantastic. I like that. I’m sensing a novel right there.

Jodie Archer: Amazing. I don’t know if I ll write that one, but I’d love to read it, if someone is listening …

Kelton Reid: Listeners, it’s all yours. We will be right back after a very short break. Thanks so much for listening to the Writer Files.

This episode of The Writer Files is brought to you by Audible, offering over 180,000 audiobook titles to choose from. Audible seamlessly delivers the world’s both fiction and nonfiction to your iPhone, Android, Kindle or computer. For Rainmaker FM listeners, Audible is offering a free audiobook download with a 30 day trial to give you the opportunity to check them out. Grab your free audiobook right now by visiting Audibletrial.com/Rainmaker. I just hopped over there to grab Stephen King’s epic novel 11/22/63, about an English teacher who goes back in time to prevent the assassination of JFK. You can download your pick or any other audiobook free by heading over to Audibletrial.com/Rainmaker. To download your free audiobook today, go to Audibletrial.com/Rainmaker.

Kelton Reid: The Bestseller Code isn’t necessarily about makes a writer great. It’s about what makes a novel hit the New York Times Bestseller List. What, in your estimation, makes a writer great? If you could look away from The Bestseller Code.

Jodie Archer: I think that’s such a subjective question. For me the answer, it really depends on what I’m looking for. I think with any book, you see some reviews of some books and I might have found it great and someone gives it a nasty review. You think, “You know what, that person just wasn’t in the right place for that book.” It wasn’t a good alignment at that time. I’ve read some books two or three times over the course of my life. Sometimes I’ve loved them and other times I’ve thought, “Oh, what did I see in that book?” I think it’s partly situational that you have a hit.

Beyond that I’ve always thought that, in fiction at least, a good writer is someone who can touch my heart and also touch my mind that doesn’t have a soap box that it’s standing on or I don’t feel like they’re trying to defend something and use a fictional setting for it. I think a great writer probably does all of that, but achieves the ability to show me their love of language or their way of creating a style, whether that’s very colloquial and chatty or very erudite and poetic, but just has a relationship with language that I can enjoy as well.

The Worst Question You Can Ask a Book Lover

Kelton Reid: Very well put. Maybe I shouldn’t ask you this, but do you have a couple faves on your nightstand right now? A couple favorite authors?

Jodie Archer: Oh, no. I hate this question.

Kelton Reid: You don’t have to answer it.

Jodie Archer: We have this … It’s one of the last chapters in The Bestseller Code where we say there’s nothing worse, never, than being asked what your favorite book is if you’re a book person. Then we talk about how lame it is not to answer and that’s not acceptable either.

I think favorite writers, since I’ve studied literature for so long I could go back in time to the classics, but in living writers where I’ve focused, when I was in college I really loved Ian McEwan and Ishiguro and Margaret Atwood and some of the current literary writers. On the bestseller list right now I just read Jojo Moyes‘s book, Me Before You, which has been on the list forever, it seems, and has just come out as a movie. I really loved that book. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m obviously English and I miss England and she just captured some aspect of the English so perfectly for me. It just took me home. I’m enjoying her and tons of writers that are currently on the list. I just started her sequel.

What else is on my nightstand right now? I actually just visited Glastonbury for the first time when I was on a book tour in England and I picked up The Mists of Avalon, which is this thousand page tome, a classic. I’m sitting reading that about the knights of the round table. It s another kind of I love those myths. That’s what I’m reading right now. Enjoying them both.

Kelton Reid: That s cool. Mists of Avalon was one of my dad’s favorites, so it was always floating around our house. I would dovetail into paper or eBook because Mists of Avalon is gigantic.

Jodie Archer: It’s huge, yeah.

Kelton Reid: You had a paper copy, right?

Jodie Archer: Yes. I bought it in Glastonbury, because that’s where it’s all set with Avalon. Of course I am this compulsive book buyer. I own thousands of books. We’re in Glastonbury and people are talking to me about Avalon and so I went to the bookshop and I said, “Ah, I finally have to read The Mists of Avalon.” He brought out I thought I’ll just carry it around England while I’m talking about my book and it’s like a thousand pages, so it’s a heavy thing, that s for sure. I do still tend to prefer to read in paper. I do own, I think I own four Kindles that I’ve been given or bought and two iPads and I read on all of them. My preference is probably still paper.

Kelton Reid: That’s cool, that’s cool. Well I’m going to fast-forward a little bit because I know that time’s precious here. If you could choose one author from any era for an all expense paid dinner to your favorite spot, favorite restaurant, who would you take and where would you take them?

Jodie Archer: Oh, I think I would have to take Shakespeare. I was going to say Oscar Wilde, but then I was like, “No, Shakespeare.” I think I would probably take him in the now to somewhere just near The Globe on the south bank in London, like Oxo Tower or something, just right next door to The Globe so he could reflect on the change since his day. I would love to talk to him about character and his brilliance in all genres and his understanding of the human condition and, Did Francis Bacon write any of them? You know, all those things that Shakespeare scholars still fight about.

Kelton Reid: Awesome, awesome. I guess we could wrap with a couple other fun ones. Do you have any writer’s fetishes besides your book collection?

Jodie Archer: Yeah, my book collection is pretty big. I do have this thing that everyone teases me for that it’s all arranged in color order, which is apparently very weird for a writer. They arrange their libraries by author or by topic and mine’s all in color. All the white books, all the red books. I get mercilessly mocked for that. I think it looks pretty and I’m sticking with it. Other than that, not really. Every time Apple brings out a lighter, smaller, thinner thing for me to write on, I inevitably buy it. It’s really just the book buying that’s the problem for my bank account.

Why Authenticity is Critical for Your Productivity

Kelton Reid: Okay, well to wrap it up here a little bit, I will mention the book again, of course, but do you have any advice for fellow writers on how to keep going, on how to keep the ink flowing, the cursor moving?

Jodie Archer: I think that if you choose a project that’s authentic to you, it will just come, it will keep going, if you don’t write too many hours in the day, listen to when you’re tired. My experience is, and I’ve done some teaching of writing too and I’ve tried other projects, and I’ve run out of steam fast if I’m trying something that isn’t really authentic to who I am. I’m like, “Oh, I’ll try and write this sci-fi,” not that I’ve tried that because I don’t think I’d be very good at sci-fi at all, that wouldn’t be authentic to me, or write in a voice that really doesn’t come from within you and it seems put on. Those projects seem to stop the cursor moving, but if you really feel in your heart that you’re saying something that has some authenticity to you and just sit there and keep showing up to the computer, I think it will come. And I have faith. Yeah.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, that’s really cool. The author of The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel. So many good things about this book. It’s entertaining, it’s educational, it’s truly a compelling read, I’ll be honest with you. I’m having a hard time not wanting to read and reread and unpack all the little pieces in there. I’m going to definitely recommend that listeners, seek it out. It’s on Kindle, it’s on Amazon. Where else can we find The Bestseller Code? It’s probably everywhere.

Jodie Archer: iBooks, independent bookstores, Google books. It’s all over, thankfully.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. It really talks about what makes readers tick, what makes them keep turning the pages and it talks some about narrative addiction, which I think, we could all learn something from. Fiction or nonfiction writers, I think, I could learn something from this book. Also it’s just a lot of fun. Thank you so much. Where else can listeners connect with you if they want to out there in the world or online?

Jodie Archer: Well I’m on Goodreads, Twitter, and Matt and I have a website, ArcherJockers.com, that has a signup for our newsletter and can stay in touch with us there.

Kelton Reid: Awesome, awesome. Well, I really appreciate you coming on the show. Best of luck with all of your future projects. I guess my final question to you is: I read something that you’d posted on your site that said that writers were coming to you in droves, asking you if you could analyze their book to see if it would be a bestseller. How is that going? Are you developing an app? How could you possibly keep up with all of those queries?

Jodie Archer: “We can’t at the moment,” is the honest and unfortunate answer. It was really, really nice for us to see that early released copies of the book for review and then when it was published in England a week before here we got … by the time it was published here we’d had loads and loads of English writers wanting to have access to their data. They were telling us that they really felt even though they already had drafts, they’d like to check it out against the graphs that the computer can show, which are very useful. We are being pushed to develop something by readers and writers. As of yet, we are still in discussion about what will be the fate of the bestseller-ometer. It’s not concrete yet.

Kelton Reid: Jodie Archer, you’re kind of living in your own interesting novel, aren’t you?

Jodie Archer: Maybe.

Kelton Reid: Again, thank you so much for coming on.

Jodie Archer: Thank you for having me.

Kelton Reid: We look forward to whatever comes next from you, and best of luck.

Jodie Archer: Thank you, I appreciate it.

Kelton Reid: Cheers.

Thank you 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.