Blake Crouch is a bestselling novelist and screenwriter. He is the author of the novel, Dark Matter, for which he is writing the screenplay for Sony Pictures. His international-bestselling Wayward Pines trilogy was adapted into a television series for FOX, executive produced by M. Night Shyamalan, that was Summer 2015's #1 show. With Chad Hodge, Crouch also created Good Behavior, the TNT television show starring Michelle Dockery based on his Letty Dobesh novellas. He has written more than a dozen novels that have been translated into over thirty languages and his short fiction has appeared in numerous publications including Ellery Queenand Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Crouch lives in Colorado..
This is an audio transcript.
Diana Wink: Hello, Blake. Thank you so much for joining me. I'm really excited to do this. And before I just start asking you all of those questions about the industry and about writing and self publishing, just tell us a little bit about your journey to becoming an author.
Blake Crouch: So I have been a writer basically since I think I was six years old. I always loved to tell stories. I love to tell my younger brother scary bedtime stories, and that became more involved and more involved as things went along. And then ultimately it reached a point where. I was writing them down and really trying to make them as elaborate as I could.
When I was in high school, I started writing my first novel and I didn't sell that novel or the next one, but the third one I wrote called Desert Places I sold. And that was my first published book. And that was 2004. We could talk the whole time, just about my journey to sort of now. It's been very, a circuitous and winding.
Diana Wink: True. and just, let's start a little bit with the publishing in general and the publishing industry, because I know that you have a huge diversification when it comes to publishing. So you have self published work and then for example, Dark Matter was traditionally published.
Did it all just happen or was it a strategic move?
Blake Crouch: It was strategic. I started off publishing my first book in 2004 was traditionally published with St. Martin's press, and then they published my next book, you know, Five. And at that point in time, I wasn't really lighting the world on fire with my book sales.
And this was all pre Kindle and pre KTP. So there was nothing you could really do, like if you're book didn't do well, and you didn't have another contract, basically we're done in the business. And I was kind of heading in that direction. My sales weren't amazing. And then in 2009, no, actually it might've been 2007 , I got the rights back to my first two novels.
And I put those up on the Kindle Direct platform. And. They started doing really, really well. And at the same time I was writing my novel that would become Run. And I finished that and I still thought that that would be a great book for a traditionally published path, but I couldn't sell it.
And I was like, wow, what's going on here? Normally I would have been pretty devastated, but my backlist was really selling well. And I said, I'm going to go ahead and publish Run. And so I published Run and it was the first and only front list title that I self published and it really took off and started doing really, really well.
And that was making enough to quit my day job at that time. And so I started working with Amazon and as, as my sales increased increase, I had another book and I thought, Oh, maybe, you know, at this point in time, Amazon publishing, which is different from self publishing, it's still same platform, but you're, you sort of have some of the marketing power of Amazon dedicated to your book.
And so I started working with Thompson Mercer for my novel Pines. And we published that, and that did really, really well. And I published Pines and Wayward and The Last Town, Thomas Mercer, and those, you know, we sold just a massive amount of books and there was a TV show.
And by the end of that sort of publication time, I kind of felt like I had reached all the people I was going to reach being a strictly ebook writer. Like there's a lot of things that are great about being a self published or having most of your book sales be eBooks. But I was like, you know what worries me is I don't see how I keep growing here because I still want it to be in bookstores. I still think a lot of people discover writers in bookstores and looking in airports and things like that. And while Amazon was great at a lot of things, publicity was not one of them. And I was like, I want to be covered in real newspapers. And I'd like to also be for sale somewhere other than amazon.com. Cause that's a lot of eggs to put in one basket.
And so I moved over to penguin random house with Dark Matter in 2014. And I've been there ever since. I did a dark matter with them and Recursion and I still have my self published stuff up and I still have my Amazon published things up and I also have my front list titles with penguin random house.
And I think it's a really good diversification and it wasn't all like really strategic. In other words, it wasn't like this big master plan. I had some the beginning, it was all just like reacting to sort of what was going on in the marketplace, and just trying to give myself a chance of continuing to have a career.
Diana Wink: But when you look back at your career, do you think it's a good move to start self publishing and then move over to traditionally publish traditional p publishing, like even now for new writers who are starting just now?
Blake Crouch: I mean, there was definitely a moment in time where that was a good thing to do. Like I for sure got the deal I got at penguin random house based on the strength. Well, obviously the pages of Dark Matter that I sold were very, very strong, but I also had amazing ebook sales. And I think that definitely helped me move over. I don't know anymore. I haven't really seen any other writers do that.
And I can tell you, I encouraged a lot of my friends and acquaintances who I saw having huge success, whether self publishing or, or at Thomas and Mercer, which is the Amazon imprint, I encouraged them to take that heat that you've accumulated and try to get a book deal with a traditional publisher. See if you can take all of that and leverage it into a big book deal and have the best of all worlds.
No one did that. You know, everyone thought, well, it'll just continue because I'm doing great now with, you know, self publishing or Thomas and Mercer, that's just going to continue and continue and continue.
And it rarely continues. It's very hard, I found, to replicate success, if you were only available as an ebook. I think a lot of ebook purchases are impulse buys. I think a lot of eBooks are priced at a much lower point of sale then, you know, the traditional counterparts.
And I think what happens is that you can have a lot of people buy your ebook, as I did with something like Run, but I think a very small percentage of those people actually end up reading that ebook and becoming fans to the point where they're going to buy your next thing. So you sort of are reinventing the wheel each time out with, with an ebook only career.
It's a hard time to publish. It's always been a hard time. Always will be.
Diana Wink: Yeah. And self publishing has changed, hasn't it? So in 2010, it was different because it just started. And also many people are self publishing, so you have to not use another strategy, you know?
Blake Crouch: It was much easier to break through. If you like hit the top 300 on the Kindle store on Amazon, back in 2012, 2011, 2010, you could sort of bet on staying there for awhile.
Like it was stickier, you know what I mean? Now, it seems like, man, it's just so hard to hold onto those ranks. It's just a very, very different time.
Diana Wink: Yes. Yeah, it's true. Okay. So let's jump into the writing craft and process because I think your process is quite fascinating. We all start with an idea obviously, but I hear that you journal a lot about your idea first, is that right?
Blake Crouch: I do. All of my books start with a very, they can notion sometimes it's just a feeling. Sometimes it's just like, It's hard to explain. It's like you sort of see something out of focus, but it intrigues you. And the process of journaling for me has helped, is trying to help bring that into focus.
And that can go really quickly or it can go very slowly, but I usually spend at least several months before I even open a word document, just taking notes. And by the way, I journal throughout the process of writing the book, too. Like when I hit a wall or if I come up with a cool idea during the actual manuscript writing process, I'll add that to a journal as well.
I don't know, I love the free form aspect of it. And I love the idea of starting at an analog place before really trying to put a structure to something.
Diana Wink: Okay. So how does this journal look like? Is there just, just random thoughts, every idea you get or how can I imagine that?
Blake Crouch: It's kind of looks like a crazy person's journal. A lot of it is super tangental thoughts sometimes it's, you know, sketches of like ideas about a certain character. In terms of places I'll draw, like, you know, sometimes like the blueprint of a house, if that's an important part of the thing .
For Dark Matter, I did a bunch of sketches of the box and I did a bunch of like scribbles of like trying to actually write out what different dimensions would look like going from the first dimension to the fifth. I'll take notes that I gather from my research and from conversations with subject matter experts.
Very rarely I will write in long form, in longhand in journals. Less of that now, but I still will occasionally you know, write scenes in my journals and then move them over to Word processing.
Diana Wink: Okay. So when do you know when you're ready to start the first draft?
Blake Crouch: Oh, that's a really good question. I don't think you ever really fully know. So after the journal, I don't go straight from journal to like the word document that the manuscript is in. I'll go from the journal to like trying to write an outline, like kind of a sequence of events for the book.
And if I can write a pretty good sequence of events that I feel very positive about through the mid point. And then I have some notions of what might happen after at that point, I'll start writing the book. I do think you can wait too long. You can kind of overthink it. But you can also under think it. It's just hard to find that happy medium between those two places.
I never know what happens at the end. I wish I could be one of those writers who knows exactly what they're, where they're aiming, but for me, I have to know the characters and just choices and decisions and motivations that they have before you can know what the true and right ending to a book is.
I will just dive in once I know the midpoint and then hopefully as I'm writing, I'm also starting to see what happens beyond the mid. And I'm continuing to outline while I'm writing the first draft of the book.
Diana Wink: Okay. Yeah, this is what I wanted to ask. So you only plot until the midpoint. You actually answered why you do that, but then how do you proceed from there? So if you don't know what happens at all, do you write those scenes down first or do you just go with it and then rewrite the endings if you feel like it's just not right?
Blake Crouch: I don't really write out of sequence. I find that really hard to do. Cause you sort of lose the emotional through lines, you lose like what was driving the character from one scene to the next.
I ran into this with my last book Recursion and I really didn't know how to end the book. I often find out I'll end up attaching myself to a less than perfect idea and trying to write it. And then that becomes apparent that that's not the one.
I'll sometimes set up a site too. If I just don't see it, I'll put it away and I'll work on something else and then hope that at some point, when I come back to it, I'm seeing it with fresh eyes and, and I'm able to like some sort of crack the code, if that makes sense.
Diana Wink: So for Recursion, you had at least like three potential endings and none of them was like, it felt right or correct. So how did you decide in the end? Did you write the completely different ending? How do you decide what's best for your story?
Blake Crouch: It's completely a feeling. And I, I just know it when I have written it. And I also know when I haven't written it. I threw out about 45,000 words which is half of a book.
It's a hard decision to make, but there's also something really freeing about like when something's not working, and finally, just being honest about it and saying, okay, I'm going to cut all these words. I never throw anything away, but I'm going to cut them all. I'm going to put them in a file called cut texts and I'm going to do something different. Nobody wants to do that, right? So we end up holding on to, and trying to convince yourself why something works. And if you're doing that, I think, you know, the writing's on the wall and it's time to really rethink.
Diana Wink: So what's your editing process then? How many passes do you do? Like in general, how much do you edit?
Blake Crouch: Let's see how many Dark Matter had. I have folders within folders.
I'm striking out, trying to find that answer for you easily. So for Recursion, it looks like I did five drafts before it went off to copy editing. I'll do the first draft, and there are drafts within these drafts, but these each represent like massive changes structurally. And from a character standpoint, each minute to each version of the book. for the book I'm working on right now, I wrote basically the first 150 pages, and then I shared it with about five trusted friends, including my partner and editor.
I'll get their feedback. It's enough of a book to get a sense of how people are responding to the concept and to the characters and I get their feedback and I'll reincorporate that. And then I'll push on and do another, you know, 150 pages. And I'm at that point right now.
Basically when I have about this 300 page chunk, I'll go through it again and make sure it's as good as it can be. And then I'll share it with my editor at Random House. And then we'll start the conversation. And I kind of put off sharing it with him cause I want to get as much of the plot and the character stuff worked out as I can.
Cause usually when I bring it to him, it's just immediately obvious, like what's not working in the plot. The characters are typically in pretty good shape, but the plot itself - he's so good at that. He's so good at really being hard on ideas, but I also want to preserve his objectivity. So I don't want to spam him with like eight versions of the first half of a book. That's when I know I'm done, I've lost objectivity. I literally don't know what's good and bad anymore. I don't know if I changed something, does this actually improve it now? And it takes a long time for me to get to that point and for him to get to that point, but I definitely want to keep him as fresh eyed as possible for as long as possible.
Diana Wink: Yeah I completely understand that. It's the same way with me when I write and I feel like, okay, I can't do anything anymore because I'm so into the story. I need help. Okay, just a little question about research because I know a lot of research goes into your books, especially into Dark Matter.
What role does research play in your books and how do you do this process? Is it all in the journaling stage or do you incorporate research later on as well?
Blake Crouch: Oh, great question. It's something that happens throughout. The ideas that I'm playing with I land on them early on because I want to like explore quantum mechanics or memory. And so I will start looking into what's going on in these fields and see if there's something that I think could be incorporated into a cool scifi plot.
And once I've gotten kind of a toehold in, I'll go off and write. I'm continuing to do some low level research and read articles, and I'm trying to learn what I can, but I don't want it to become more important than like the story I'm telling.
And then once the book is finished, I share it with a subject matter expert who reads the manuscript and then gives me notes back. And it helps me to make it as plausible as possible.
Diana Wink: Now I saved the best for last, and this is film and TV because I'm so interested in that area, and I know that you have by now a lot of experience in that as well, but first of all, I heard that you're a Christopher Nolan fan.
And I had just to ask you this because he's my absolutely favorite director. The way he tells stories in both the visual way and the storytelling is just revolutionary. But why do you like him?
Blake Crouch: Oh, I love him. Cause you know, no one else is making movies like that, no one else is making big spectacle movies based on original material that also happens to be science fiction based.
I think his plotting is so fascinating and I think the ideas that he latches onto it's just like right in that level of scientific plausibility that I get excited about.
I don't love like super hard scifi stuff. That's, you know, spaceships and colonizing republics of other planets. So that starts to lose me. So I like how grounded his movies are. And he's a great screen writer as well. And he just kind of does all of it, one of the very few storytellers who like when they have something new come out, I'm dying to know what this idea is.
Diana Wink: Me too. I can't wait for TENET. It's so sad that they're postponing the release.
Blake Crouch: I know, or how far back are they pushing it?
Diana Wink: I'm not sure, I think only half a month for now.
Blake Crouch: There's no way he'll let them just roll that out onto a streaming services.
Diana Wink: Nah, no way Chris Nolan would never do that. Okay. So I think most writers, we all dream of getting into film and television one day and I read that Wayward Pines, the TV series, changed your life.
So how did it change your life?
Blake Crouch: Just having something made really well and become a hit, it just introduced so many people to my work who would never have found it otherwise. So it was a big boost just to my name brand recognition. But also I worked a lot on the show and it led me to work on other things in film and TV, and it was just like a window into a sort of an adjacent career. I mean, I love writing novels and I definitely think of myself as a novelist first, but I also really love, writing film and television, and I wouldn't have gotten into it if Wayward Pines hadn't been made.
Because it can be such a demoralizing business and so hard to get anything going. So it just gave me some confidence and optimism that if I really want to get something going as a film or a TV show, you know, there's a chance to do it.
And it's such a different industry from just sitting at your desk, you know, and writing. I wanted to ask because there are so many people involved into that and also a lot of money and budgets - how much creative freedom did you actually have then left?
A fair amount. In television, you know, that is the writer's medium. In TV, they are like the directors of television in terms of the ones that basically get to say what happens. I mean, within reason, you know, the studio has a huge financial stake in it and the network so they have a voice of course at the table. But very different from film where even if the screenwriter writes something, the director comes in, it's their baby at that point.
It's been fascinating just to kind of learn the differences and the intricacies of the two different formats that are in the same business but approached quite differently.
Diana Wink: And you wrote the Dark Matter screenplay for Sony. So how different is writing screenplay from book writing and would you recommend that writers adapt their work themselves?
Blake Crouch: I mean, only if they really, really want to it's like you just have a huge desire to try it out. Yeah. You should give it a go.
It's very different from novel writing. It is writing, but it's so different. It's almost unlike it at all. The structure is much more rigorous. You have to do a lot more with much less. It's also unforgiving, like you, you could be meandering in a novel and you know, you can have scenes that don't necessarily have to exist, but maybe add to the atmosphere or just because you like them, as long as they don't take the reader too far, but you really don't have the opportunity to do that in, and you shouldn't do that in film and TV. It all has to be just so dialed in and so perfect. There's a lot more voices also at the table, giving feedback in film and television.
With novels, it's pretty much a really small group of people I have to listen to. On the film and TV side, especially once things go into production, you have a lot of feedback coming in.
Diana Wink: And did you find it was more like enriching or frustrating?
Blake Crouch: I've experienced both. I've been fortunate enough to work with really smart people in Hollywood and try to only work with smart people.
So typically the ideas and the notes that come in are making it better and are things I wish I had thought had got, I have plenty of friends who have awful horror stories of the opposite happening.
Diana Wink: And do you have any recommendations of how we as writers can pave our way into film and television?
Blake Crouch: It's tough to write a book that a lot of people want. Like what I did with Wayward Pines, because we had a lot of people who wanted to make the show, I wound up at FOX, but I was like, that's fine, you guys can do it, but you have to let me write one of the episodes. And they were like, sure.
So that's a really good way to get your foot in the door because writing one episode of television is not all that big of a risk for a studio to give, even to an unknown novelist. Because if they mess it up, the showrunner will rewrite it anyway and showrunners rewrite professional TV writer's scripts all the time. So it's just not that big of a deal.
Diana Wink: So one last question that I like to ask every guest, what's your favorite story and why?
Blake Crouch: Wow. That's hard. It's a tough one. That's a pretty tough one. M maybe it's because we were talking about them, but in inception it gets such a, such a cool revolutionary story that just works.
And it's visually interesting. And I think I love the characters. I love the world that builds inside of the mind. I'm jealous of the idea. I just think inception is kind of a perfect sci-fi idea.
Diana Wink: So thank you so much for that. I hope you have all the best of luck with your next books and we're really looking forward to the next book you're writing.Blake Crouch: Oh, thank you. And luck with your writing as well.