“Top Ten Tuesdays” — An Interview with James Chartrand of Men With Pens

Welcome to  Top Ten Tuesdays, a series featuring winners of the 2010 “Top Ten Blogs for Writers” voting hosted at Writetodone.com.

Storyfix is proud to have James Chartrand of Men With Pens with us today.  James is one of the best known and most successful bloggers in the freelance and fiction writing niches, and was there for me as a mentor who provided my first guest post opportunity 20 months ago when Storyfix was launched.


SF – Your site, in my view, has the widest breadth of writing focus out there, with a broad base of freelancers (both business and journalistic), bloggers and fiction writers.  What do you think these niches have in common, and what can fiction writers learn from the wealth of non-fiction craft advice you offer?

James – I’m always amazed at how many different types of people read my blog, from businesspeople to creative writers to gym owners to restaurateurs – it’s actually pretty cool to hear from readers just because of that!

I think one element readers from every niche and interest appreciate about my blog posts is their level of practical, useful information, even if it comes in the form of a thought-provoking post.

Anyone can use tips on how to write more effective emails – to agents, clients, publishers, whomever. Anyone can benefit from time management tips – businesspeople, fiction writers, web designers. Anyone can think about how they strive to be better professionals and better people.

No matter what I write, I try to keep in mind that my audience wants to learn ways to get ahead online and in life, no matter what they choose to undertake. And writing with this mission in mind lets me pen posts that reach a wide range of people.

But I digress – you’d asked about fiction writers in particular, and I think these people can benefit most from my blog. Their work is absolutely creative and very often, a personal affair… but once their work is done (and very often, even when it’s not!), they need to deal with other people who very often don’t give a whit about their creative talent, and they need to communicate in an effective way that gets results.

Agents, publishers, reviewers, editors, proofreaders, network contacts, fans and readers, other authors… all these people are part of the network that fiction writers need to connect with, and my blog helps bridge the gap between fiction writers doing what they love and reaching others in an effective, professional and results-oriented manner.

So yes… fiction writing often seems a niche career that may not require business info, but it’s definitely crucial of these writers want to get ahead in life. And with each post, I hope to help get them there.

SF – Any writing niche challenges us to adopt a ton of discipline.  A lot of fiction writers, especially new ones, seem to think fiction is a free-form exercise in creative finger painting, and that discipline comes slowly over time.  What’s your advice to writers who are new to this game, fiction or non-fiction, relative to chaos-avoidance and the steepening of the learning curve?

James – Let me say this straight: free-flow writing is for experts.

And just in case that didn’t quite get across, I’ll say it again in different words: leave free-flow writing to experts.

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen writers of any type make is to assume they can sit down to the computer and just… well, write. The result, while certainly creative, often resembles something I like to call “pumpkin splatter.”  That means that the person lets a pumpkin full of ideas, thoughts and creativity fall from their 20 story building and smash against the screen in a splatter.

Not very pretty. And quite often, the result is a huge mess of cleanup so that people know where to walk.

Training oneself to have discipline in writing creates clear results – with a good prep routine, a writer can write on demand. With an outline, a writer can curb the curse of knowledge and write within a clear set of boundaries. With a set limit per day, a writer can dodge dreaded burnout (commonly known in the blogger niche as being tapped out from overwriting). With a clear goal, path and plotted course, a writer can map attainable and realistic progress every day.

Without any of those? Well, it’s just a dropped pumpkin… and a mess no one appreciates.

SF – We’ve both been at this writing thing for a long time, long before we discovered blogging.  What are your writing roots, and how did that prepare you for your current status as one of the consistently stellar bloggers and writing gurus in the game?

James – I could go back into childhood stuff about how I always wrote stories my teachers and parents praised, but that’s a bit cliché. Truth is that I never took writing very seriously until I got into creative fiction role-playing – a group writing experience where several people contribute to a never-ending story.

I learned a lot from this creative writing venue, and I also discovered that this became my advantage in professional writing of the web copy kind… telling a good story and knowing how to bring it alive gives me a definite edge in everything I do, from blogging to copywriting.

As for preparing to be a leading blogger, a recognized name and a writing “guru” (I have to admit hating that label… too pretentious for my tastes!), the truth is… well, the truth is that I don’t think you can ever prepare yourself for suddenly being in the spotlight that way.

I’ve often said in recent years that I understand how difficult it must be for sudden Hollywood stars, because you can’t really ever prepare for that feeling, the demands and the pressures that come with stardom and status.

So I guess for all those out there who want to know the secret tip to best preparing for it… I’d have to say to remember where you came from – and enjoy the fame while it lasts.

SF – What kind of stuff — and who — do you read, either for work or entertainment?

James — Totally light, brainless, entertaining and amusing reading. Stuff made of a great story that doesn’t require me to think hard to get it. The kind of book that lets me fall into the world, love the characters and live the moment… without making me tired as I try to follow grandiose plots.

I read to escape. Let me do that, and you’ve struck gold.

If you’d like to know some of my favourite authors or books, here are a few:  Anything by Anne Bishop, Patrick Rothfuss and Diana Gabaldon. The Lies of Locke Lamora was a winner, and I’m currently reading the sequel. Steven King books are a good read, too.

SF – You’re one of the busiest bloggers I know, and yet, in past correspondence, you’ve hinted at your own fiction aspirations.  What are you working on in that regard, and what is your vision for yourself as a writer of fiction?

James – Ahh, I have a few plans up my sleeve…

I’ve written fiction for several years and have a few stories in mind that I’d like to develop. I play around over at the Creative Copy Challenge in public and have a mini-series going on there, but I’ve been wanting to expand my fiction in some way for quite a while. There’s a book in me… and probably more than one.

So stay tuned on this one – you may one day find yourself drawn into a story without realizing it and find yourself looking forward to the next installment… and the next… and the next…

(I also have a LOT of people asking me when I’m going to start seriously writing fiction, so to those of you who regularly needle at me to get started, I already have, so shush!)

SF – Anything else you’d like to share with Storyfix readers today?

James — Aye, I do.

Remember that the world is small, and that you’ll meet some very great people in the most unlikely places. Larry and I met each other long ago when we were both small online and getting our feet under us… and it’s a little surreal (though fantastic) to find ourselves where we are today.

In that vein of thought, treat people well, with understanding, kindness, respect and friendship. You never know when someone you’ve dealt with in the past in a completely different situation might become one of your respected peers later on in life – and trust me, it often happens when you least expect it!

 James Chartrand writes and publishes Men With Pens, one of the largest and most successful writing resources on the web.  

James also runs a killer web design and web copy service, as well as offering ebook consulting/design and coaching for writers.


Self-serving side note: here’s the latest online review of my new book, “Story Engineering:Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling.”  It includes a freebie you may want to hop on before it goes away.


Filed under Guest Bloggers

6 Responses to “Top Ten Tuesdays” — An Interview with James Chartrand of Men With Pens

  1. Thanks, Larry, for introducing yet another great resource. My cache or writing weaponry is growing…

  2. Thanks for the interview, Larry! Next up, a collaboration fiction story with Larry and James? Here’s hoping that happens!

  3. E.J. Up next, James writes another assassin installment over at Creative Copy Challenge and Larry tries a challenge too. 😉

  4. Wonderful interview. I found Men With Pens from Ittybiz.com, and I’m glad to see him here through the “fiction writing” lens instead of just the blogging/business one! 😀

  5. How great to see James and Larry, two of my favorite people, in the same place.

    Both of you give more than great content–you share your advice and encouragement and make each of us feel important. That’s a talent!

    Now, I’m rushing to the bookstore to find the novel: “Anything” by Bishop, Rothfuss and Gabaldon. Wow, with 3 authors like that–it has to be a classic. *smile*

  6. Here’s what I’d like to know, having (due to time constraints) FINALLY gotten around to reading my back-emails of StoryFix: how does James organize his time? How on earth does he manage to do all that, and still interact with his family, run errands, sleep?

    I dream of accomplishing a tenth of what he has, but would have to be a workaholic, ignoring all but my craft, to find the time. So, even though this comment is late, can we get a glimpse at his wizardry in this area? Thanks so much, and Larry, I am plotting out my next book, “Golden Years, My @$$”, based on your great book, “Story Structure – Demystified.” One smart way to make the best use of my time is not wasting a lot of it rewriting drafts, so thanks so much for that!