Interview with a Barefoot Writer: Brian Klems


Brian Klems

“Make sure you become the best writer you can, and remember that idea of being the best writer you can never stops.”
— Brian Klems, Author and Online Editor of WritersDigest.com

If you’re able ever able to connect with writer Brian Klems, you’re sure to enjoy a laugh.

A humor writer and cheerful fellow in general, Brian has been part of the Writer’s Digest team for the past 12 years. He now works as online edi­tor of WritersDigest.com, where he manages the blog, The Writer’s Dig, which covers a range of topics on writing and publishing.

Brian is author of the humorous gift book, Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Rais­ing Daughters. He also writes his own personal blog, “The Life of Dad,” which sheds a humorous light on the varied adventures that surface while raising kids.

Along with being a baseball enthusiast, softball infielder, and graduate of Ohio University, Brian is passionate about helping other people write bet­ter, get published, and get paid, whether they’re writing poetry, fiction, or non-fiction. Enjoy his colorful interview, and especially take note of his opinion on how important “natural talent” is when you have dreams to write for a living.

When did you first realize you wanted to write for a living?

Writing all started for me back when I was a kid. I loved reading. It’s one of my favorite things to do. So even in my early days, when I was only about 10 years old, I actually started my own magazine for family and friends.

I’d been writing short stories. Mostly geared around video game characters and other things like that, with little word-finds and everything.

My grandmother, who was a sweetheart, would take it to work and she would print up copies and mail it to family members.

Then something happened in high school that really grew my passion and drive for writing. My junior year in high school, I had this English teacher, Mr. Buchanan. And every quarter we had to do these writing packets with short stories and essays and things.

After the very first packet, he had a “See me af­ter class” written on the front. Now he was a very good but intimidating teacher, and I was really nervous because I never got a “See me after class” for anything.

When I saw him after class, he said, “I think this is really good. I think you should be writing for the student paper.” It was kind of that light bulb moment for me, because at that point, I hadn’t fully decided what I was going to do with my life. His compliment was kind of the catalyst to push me forward, and I did join the school paper, and I started writing there.

Later I applied to the E. W. Scripps School of Jour­nalism at Ohio University, and got accepted.

So you knew you wanted to be a writer at a pretty young age.

Yeah, I was very lucky. My wife is the opposite. She is incredibly smart, good at more things than I’ve ever been in my life, but she never found some­thing she was really passionate about, something that drove her career-wise.

I was just really lucky that I was 16 years old. I was kind of given this gift of being pointed in the right direction.

What if you couldn’t be a writer … what else would you be? You can’t answer Superhero.

Ah, but Superhero would be my first answer!

To be honest, from a non-silly standpoint, the thing that interested me the most before I real­ized that writing was what I wanted to do was … oh God, it’s going to sound so terrible. I think it was called quantitative analysis.

I mean, it sounds crazy because it’s a math thing. You would think a writer would never want to do a math thing.

Good point.

It’s basically a fancy term for problem-solver. It’s the guy who sits down and figures out stuff like the most efficient garbage truck route so you can pick up all the garbage in the least amount of time for the least amount of money.

I always thought that problem-solving sounded really, really interesting. I actually think that kind of fuels me as a writer as well because being a writer is all about problem-solving. You know, solving an issue in your story or solving the issue in your joke.

You write a lot of humor, correct?

Yeah … so I’m constantly trying to solve that question of which particular word makes the joke funniest. As someone who tries to write funny and works hard at writing funny, you realize that every little word matters.

Quantitative analysis is definitely the most original answer I’ve ever heard.

Well in all fairness, you ruled out superhero.

When you’re not writing, and you’re not solv­ing word problems, you’re probably playing with your three young girls, right? Ever hear of a little movie called Frozen?

Frozen took over our lives last year. We had three birthday parties and every one of them was Fro­zen-themed. But the truth is, I love it. I’m all for it. I’ve learned as a parent that one of the best things I can do is kind of embrace these things. So a lot of my friends will complain and instead I’m just singing Let it Go by myself in the car.

You wrote a book about life as the father of three daughters. What was the easiest part of following through on writing a book and what was the hardest?

To start off, there were no easy parts in writing the book or publishing the book. I wouldn’t say anything was particularly easy. It’s like most oth­er things. Some things are more enjoyable than others.

But if I had to pick the easiest or most enjoyable part of it, because those two things kind of go hand-in-hand for me, was the actual writing process. I’m not someone who sits down and writes in half-hour increments or even hour increments. I’m like a power writer.

I don’t know if that’s be­cause I do humor writing, because when I sit down and I write I can’t move forward. I’m not someone who writes an essay and then goes back and does a lot of major edits and changes.

I’m someone who goes sentence-by-sentence until I get it right; my brain will not allow me to move forward. It’s crazy because I get it right and I don’t have as many revisions. At the same time, it’s so maddening because it takes me so long to get there.

Did you do a lot of power writing to complete your book?

With the book, I went through power writing ses­sions of eight to 10 hours where I just sat down and was writing, was working on it, was refining, you know, those kinds of things, but I still found that to be the easiest part, believe it or not.

And the hardest part?

The hardest part of the whole thing is after the book comes out and the marketing aspect of what you need to do to help promote your book. You know, publishers only do so much. I think they do their best with the resources they have, but really if you want to find success, it’s all about you and reaching out to magazines and newspapers and TV … local TV crews and stuff like that, putting to­gether a book launch party, those kinds of things.

None of those are things I’m incredibly good at. Promoting myself is not exactly something I’ve ever been extremely comfortable with, so I found that to be the most difficult part of the whole book-writing/publishing process.

You make a good point. It’s tough to be a suc­cessful writer without understanding market­ing because the two go hand-in-hand in such an important way.

It’s true. Some people think the only way to make a living writing is to write this Great American Novel and then send it off to an agent who takes it and sends it to a publisher and they publish it. You get your seven-figure deal and that’s it. Then you can sit by the pool and sip the fancy drinks with the little umbrellas.

Really, those things are very rare, especially now­adays, where you have the Internet with all these chances to get yourself out there.

So promoting yourself is really a big part of it. I’m an extrovert kind of guy, so I’m not very reserved, but at the same time, it’s really hard to go to ev­erybody and say, “Hey listen, this is why I’m amaz­ing” or “This is why this book is exactly what you need.” It’s kind of tough. It’s like you’re constantly on a job interview everywhere you go.

Say you’re hosting a literary dinner with three writers. Who would you invite?

Oh, this is really tough. The first person I would in­vite is Dave Barry. He’s a legendary humor writer who I love.

I first read one of his books years ago, and it just made me laugh. It was really clever, and I’ve read so many more books by him.

It was that moment when I realized this is what I wanted to do with my writing. This is how I want to move forward. Like I love writing, but really, I just … I love being entertained and laughing and I was hoping I could do that for other people. So he’s number one.

Number two is Kurt Vonnegut, who of all writers, has stuck with me ever since high school. The sat­ire and all; I find his writing very amusing.

The third one I’d really like is Jenny Lawson. She’s a blogger. She’s hilarious. Her book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, is just really funny, filled with these stories about her and parenting some­one and just growing as a person. I find her hilari­ous. In fact, I went to her book signing. I don’t go to too many authors’ book signings, but I made a point to see her.

You’d all be laughing at the table a lot.

I have no idea if they would get along at all. I’m not sure, but I would find that incredibly entertaining.

You know, if none of them could come and I had a sneaky fourth person who got an invite, that last person would be Bill James. He’s the godfather of baseball statistics. I’m a major baseball fan. He’s kind of reinvented the way people do it, but he is surprisingly an extremely prolific writer.

Most people just think of him as the guy who edits the statistics that make baseball about as exciting as accounting, but if you read any of his books, they’re amazing. The language he uses just fasci­nates me. So I would love to pick his brain as well.

What causes successful writers to fail?

The number one reason writers fail is they don’t work hard enough. Writing is incredibly hard. Get­ting yourself published is incredibly hard. I don’t want to discount the fact that luck is involved. But working incredibly hard at your craft trying to become a better writer all the time is incredibly important.

Working hard at finding an agent who represents your work and your writing, or finding a maga­zine that will publish an article that you are writ­ing, those are incredibly hard, you know. If you’re writing an article on dogs, you don’t want to sub­mit it to Cats Daily, and that sounds pretty basic, but the same thing goes with writing books.

There are so many people that strike out with the novels because they have a great book, but they’re sending it to the wrong person. They wrote a romance and they’re sending it to some­one who only publishes science fiction or an agent who only represents science fiction, and that’s the biggest mistake people make.

So do all your homework. Work hard at your craft, become a better writer, always make sure you work hard in finding the right agents and publish­ers for your work, and then hope, pray, whatever you need to do to help you find the right person at the right time who wants to pay you for your writing.

Right. You can study up on all the tools, but then you need to put yourself out there and follow through.

Yes. The truth is, being a writer is a lot like being an athlete. I always quote baseball because base­ball is my favorite sport, so I apologize in advance for that. But when a book comes out, it’s like go­ing to a baseball game.

You see these shiny, polished baseball players who hit mammoth home runs that are amaz­ing. What you don’t see is the eight hours a day that they’re working out or they’re taking batting practice and they’re studying video clips of the opposing pitcher.

So they’re doing all this hard work and homework and background work. I think that’s what people don’t see, like where J. K. Rowling, Stephen King, and all these other mega-authors actually work every day most days and continually try to get better. That’s kind of the rub of the whole thing that I think a lot of writers miss.

There’s the romantic side to writing, and then there’s the behind-the-scenes.

Yes. It’s like do the hard part, but then later on when you’re talking to friends you can romanticize.

You tend to put yourself out there and readily share your life stories … but what’s one thing about you nobody knows?

That is tough because most people know my love of Nacho Cheese Doritos …

One of the things that people probably don’t know about me is that I’ve really worked hard to become a part of my community over the past few years.

I live in a small community within Cincinnati that’s close to the city. It has some struggles, but I really get involved. I volunteer for tons of things. We’re doing this trash cleanup day coming up here.

It’s not that exciting, but between writing and working and helping out at the kids’ school and all that kind of stuff, I’m really trying to help my own community because I want to get to know as many people as possible. I like making friends. I like doing something that feels like it’s helping our community.

Does that help at all with your writing — put­ting yourself out there and meeting new people?

Yes. It’s funny because it does get embarrassing sometimes where again, you’re out there meet­ing people but you don’t know how to promote your book. But it’s awesome when you meet peo­ple and other people promote it for you.

Like the principal of the girls’ school, who tells people, “Oh, and here’s Brian, you know, Ella and Anna and Mia’s dad. Hey, he has a book that’s out.” It’s flattering and at the same time it’s su­per embarrassing, and you hope the girls aren’t scarred for life because of it.

You have so much going on. How do you stay organized?

You know, I don’t. It’s funny. My wife is incredibly organized, and I am a little more dysfunctional. Like my desk is a mess. You know, really my orga­nization just comes down to doing the work. Like when I’m at Writer’s Digest, I’m working on Writer’s Digest stuff all day as much as I can.

As soon as I get out, I pick up my girls and we just have a great time. We do homework. We read. We eat dinner. We play outside if it’s nice and not rain­ing like it is all the time in the spring. Then once they go to bed, some nights I sit with my wife and we bond over House of Cards or whatever show we’re watching at the time.

The other nights, I go to work on my writing, and I just pray that somehow I’ve gotten enough sleep to get me through the week. I do rely on nap time on weekends. I hope my kids stay young forever because those two-hour naps have become a vi­tal part of my weekend.

What’s your writing process?

I don’t outline per se, but I do always come up with an idea.

I can’t just sit down without ideas about what I’m going to do. I typically come up with an idea, and by that I mean I know the story because a lot of the stories are based on our life but are more cre­ative than nonfiction.

I always come up with the beginning of the es­say or whatever I’m writing and then the end. The same is true for the novel I’m working on, which is very slow and incredibly hard for me, but if I know the starting point and ending point, my middle, I can get there somehow.

It may take some strategic maneuvering, real creativity, you know, some taking of some liber­ties with things or eating a whole bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos while I’m just stuck on something, but I know if I have the beginning and the end, I can get there. That’s kind of my route, my writing routine.

So do you always have a bag of Doritos handy when you work?

Yeah. If I’m ever trying to diet, it’s the worst time in the world for writing.

What else do you need when you sit down to write?

Typically I do my best work in a room that has a TV that’s on with no volume. I don’t know why I need that in the background. Maybe it’s the ex­trovert in me, just having people around.

I don’t need too much else other than the com­puter. The Internet is such a great thing and a ter­rible thing at the same time. It’s a great thing for research on the spot. I love researching things. But then I also get caught in the rabbit hole if I’m on there, where I go to download a PDF and notice an article and wonder what it’s about then end up in a Twitter conversation, that kind of thing.

I’d say a lot of us relate to that!

So I don’t need a whole lot other than those few things, and I have that all set up in the corner of the kids’ playroom, because this is about the only space I’m allowed to have dedicated to myself in the house.

If you were a food, what would you be?

That would be a Nacho Cheese Dorito. The rea­son for that is to get invited to all the parties. I’m popular. Everybody’s hanging out around me.

Very few people ever walk away and say, “Oh, I really didn’t enjoy that.” And, you’d probably get cheese on your fingers so, you know, you’ll re­member me when you go home.

[Laughing] Didn’t realize there were so many good reasons to be a Dorito!

Then again, that’s why I started running as I got older, just so I don’t turn into a giant Dorito-shaped person, which is going to happen.

Final advice to somebody who is new to writ­ing and really wants to launch a paid career?

Work hard and have constant persistence. I firmly believe, and a lot of people don’t agree with me and that’s fine, but I firmly believe that talent or this internal talent that writers are supposedly born with is overrated.

I honestly believe that most people become in­credibly good at what they’re good at because they’ve worked amazingly hard at it. They don’t stop and they don’t give up, even if that means that early on, it may not pay the bills, especially while you’re really learning your craft and you’re trying hard and you may need a side job to sup­plement your income.

That is 100% okay. Never think of that as bad. If you’re lucky, you can find something in writing that pays the bills. If not, take a job that allows you flexibility to give you time to write when you want to. Work incredibly hard. Make sure you be­come the best writer you can, and remember that idea of being the best writer you can be never stops.

This interview was previously published in the May, 2015 issue of Barefoot Writer. To read more interviews from fellow Barefoot Writers be sure to checkout The Barefoot Writer's Club.

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Published: November 11, 2017

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