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Interview with John Matthew Fox

He helps authors write better fiction. He is the founder of Bookfox, where he provides editing and creates writing courses, and his latest book is The Linchpin Writer: Crafting Your Novel’s Key Moments.

Q.1 Tell us something about yourself not many people know?
I raised chickens as a child and as an adult. I love chickens. I love eating eggs. They’re such simple creatures. Also, I play a lot of chess. Mostly speed chess - 5-minute games.

Q.2 Are we going to read more from you in the near future? Any new project you’re working on?
I’m working on a novel that takes place entirely on a cruise ship. It’s got a lot of magical realism and deals with issues of faith.

Q.3 What inspired you to write The Linchpin Writer: Crafting Your Novel’s Key Moments?
I’ve edited about 300 novels and realized similarities in the feedback I gave. There were these crucial sections in many parts of people’s books, and if they didn’t get those parts right, the novel wouldn’t work. 

So I decided to write a book about these pivotal moments in any novel and help authors craft those sections. And then, I just incorporated stories from my writing life into the book as well, so it wouldn’t feel too dry.

Q.4 How many books have you written? Which one is your favorite?
 The Linchpin Writer is my second book. My first book was I Will Shout Your Name, published by Press53. It was a collection of short stories about missionaries and people who weren’t sure about their own identities.

Q.5 What three things can a reader expect from your book?
A. 1.
Inspiration. I help authors feel inspired to write their books. It can be a tough slog and very discouraging, but I want to provide hope.

2. Knowledge: I provide many examples of how to write, and there are also writing challenges at the end of every chapter. It’s an efficient book.

3. Stories. I talk a lot about the writing life and how to shape your life into one where writing is possible.

Q.6 How long did it take you to write this book?
It took me about 2 months. I wrote it back in 2020, during the pandemic. Writing is the easy part - publishing and marketing are the problematic parts. 

But writing it was probably easy because I’ve been writing about writing for the last twenty years and have a massive stockpile of examples and lessons.

Q.7 Where do you hope to take your writing in the future?
The next step would be refining the novel and publishing it. But I’m open to varieties of technological innovations in the future. Perhaps books, as a format, will become less popular because younger people are overwhelmingly choosing serialization in an algorithm-based social media, like Wattpad.

There’s also the pressing issue of A.I. In about a decade, computers will be able to write an entire novel, just like we currently have programs that can draw art. Novelists should be feeling the heat - the machines are coming for us.

Q.8 What was one of the most surprising things you learned while writing this book?
I learned one thing when the reviews started pouring in - I didn’t realize people would think of the book as partly a memoir. And then multiple reviews said that, and I was like: oh, I thought I was just sprinkling in some writing life stories, but I suppose I did sprinkle in quite a few. Still, I think they’re beneficial for writers to read and learn from.

Q.9 How do your friends and family feel about your book or writing venture in general?
They are supportive, in general. I think they would prefer I was a bit tamer and less controversial. Writing a book is always dangerous - you’re constantly offending someone. I’ve made my peace with that and decided to write what I want to write.

Q.10 What was the most challenging part of writing?
I have a chapter about “surprise.” How to surprise the reader. And that’s a difficult, nebulous topic. But I feel like it’s essential to concentrate on that because it gives so much pleasure to the reader. 
I ended up drawing lessons from the Wizard of Oz to, The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, to Lord of the Rings to, Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker, to Homer’s Odyssey.

It's a significant value for me to draw from a HUGE range of books. Old books, new books, literary books, commercial books, books of all genres, etc. Variety is essential to help writers learn.

Q.11 Is it vital to get exposure and target the right readers for your writing? Tell us about your marketing campaign?
I’m in the middle of it right now! I have a vast email list of Bookfox subscribers, and I gave them all a free mini-course on the point of view if they preordered my book. So I sold more than a thousand copies that way. (and if anyone reading this interview buys the book, I’ll extend that offer to you - send me a screenshot of your purchase, and I’ll give you access to the mini-course).

I started a Tiktok channel three months ago and have posted videos daily. I’m up to 7,000 followers, which is a nice number for the new channel. I post the same videos on Youtube Shorts and Instagram, but I haven’t gotten much traction there - Tiktok seems to be where all the action is.

Q.12 What's your writing schedule while working?
 I write in the mornings before everyone is awake. I have a tiny office in the backyard. I only write for an hour or two a day and then spend the rest of the day helping writers at Bookfox.

Q.13 What kind of impact would you like to make with your book?
I would like to get emails from writers saying, “This book really helped me write my novel.” I’ve already gotten emails like that from many of my readers, and that is the best success I could ever hope for. I’m kind of like a midwife, helping people to birth their books. I might not be in the limelight, but I love helping others.

Q.14 Who designed your book cover? How did you select them?
Ian and Alan of The Book Designers. I made a list on Bookfox of 30 fantastic book designers and remembered them as standouts. They’ve done incredible work for many of the biggest publishers in the world and charged $1500 for a cover, which seemed like an excellent investment. 

They ended up doing 9 possible covers, and we chose the current one after a long debate. It was quite a long process, but I’m pleased with the result.

Q.15 Your next book is fantasy; what made you switch genres? Are you facing any issues?
A. Well, I would call it Magical Realism rather than Fantasy. It's basically our world with a giant magical event. It's also kind of a "what if" novel, like a Jose Saramago novel -- what if everyone in the world went blind ("Blindness"). What if everyone stopped dying? ("Death With Interruptions").

So I don't think I've really switched genres because there are a few stories in my short story collection, I Will Shout Your Name, that focus on the fantastical. One atheist has religious Tourettes and keeps shouting religious messages against his will; another story focuses on someone experiencing these visions with synaesthesia. 

The biggest issue is making sure readers understand what genre they're reading so they aren't shocked by the magical events. And also to make sure it's believable.

Q.16 What were some of the challenges you faced when you started writing?
Self-doubt is probably the biggest one. You wonder whether you’re talented enough. You wonder whether anyone will enjoy reading what you’re written. It takes a lot to get over that; in some ways, no writer ever completely silences those inner critics.

Q.17 What is the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?
To write every day. And to read everything that your trusted writing friends recommend.

Q.18 Do you plan out your book before you start writing, or do you just write and see where it takes you?
A. I never outline or anything like that. But I just write the beginning over and over until it feels right. To me, I could spend years planning, and yet none of that is the actual writing. It doesn't count unless you have scenes down on the page.

So my process is much more like writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting until I find a kernel of something that can't be thrown away. Then I base the entire rest of the book on that non-discardable fragment. It's like the cornerstone of my book.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez does this a little bit in his writing - he writes the first sentence time and time again until he gets it exactly right and then builds an entire novel off that tiny cornerstone. 

Q.19 What is your favorite book and why?
I have always been drawn to Blood Meridian. That’s probably a moral fault of mine. But I can’t help but love the archaic language, the history of a nation, the struggle between good and evil, and the bleak, hardscrabble existence.

Q.20 Share the experience of your journey so far?
I had a literary journal phase when I sent out hundreds of stories to thousands of journals and got a ton of rejections. I'm glad that phase is over. Now I'm just concentrating on books alone rather than short stories. 

I like being part of the literary community. Offered courses, sent encouraging emails, and also, I started video clips talking about writing on Tiktok and Instagram this year, and that's been very successful. 

And I have a few novels that will never see the light of day. I think that's normal. I just finished another, and that will be my first published one. 

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