Gary McBride has been a BWA member since August 22, 2018, the day after he met then-BWA President Rick Killian, who offered—on the spot—to host Gary’s study group, Writers Who Read. This monthly investigation of recently-published novels aims to uncover how to read like a writer through a combination of literary criticism, narrative analysis, social psychology, close reading, and AI sentiment analysis. Gary recently presented this methodology, called Literary Forensics, at this year’s Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers conference in Denver. Writers Who Read still meets monthly in the Boulder area, and is still sponsored by BWA under President Laura Border.
Although Gary is a fourth-generation Denverite, he has traveled widely for business and for pleasure, visiting all 50 states and as a professional musician performing in 35. He has lived abroad for over a decade, has visited 76 countries, and as an IT professional has worked in 53. Gary is also a data nerd who loves to count things.
Gary is currently the host of three music programs on Boulder’s public radio station, KGNU, and he is writing a reference book on Literary Forensics (more information at: https://garyalanmcbride.com).
When did you first decide writing would be your career or hobby – did you find writing, or did writing find you?
I started writing fiction in 2015 while still working as a globe-trotting IT professional. I had no idea how difficult it would be—I mean, we all think we can write, right? I had this grand plan to write a thriller a year, and I became obsessed with producing my 1,500 words per day. By 2016 I had quit my day job to write fulltime, and over the next few years I wrote five novels. They are still sitting in a drawer, where they belong, and where they shall forever remain. Good lord, what was I thinking?
During that time I also read—a lot. I devoured novel after novel hoping to find the answers to craft that I couldn’t uncover elsewhere, and I did. What I also discovered was the joy of reading like a writer, and that discovery has dramatically changed what I read and how I write.
Leading Writers Who Read for the past five seasons (and 45 novels) has further deepened my appreciation for really good writing, and it has made painfully clear the gulf between my abilities and those of the authors I admire and respect. And so I’ve become a non-fiction writer once again, years after cranking out IT white papers on esoteric topics such as enterprise development and service-oriented architecture.
Do you have preparational practices to help you get in the proper headspace to write?
Some people listen to music or light candles or perform some ritual before they write, but not me. I’m more interested in creating a situation that gives me the best chance of success, and success for me means my 1,500 words per day.
There have been two periods in my life when I had 100% total control over my daily schedule: when I was living in Thailand as a freelance musician, and the years I worked at writing novels. It was during those times that I discovered three truths about producing creative work:
1) Know your ups and downs
Let’s talk circadian rhythms. Decades ago, my peak mental hours were 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and so that was when I practiced piano. These days I’m waking up very early, so I’m alert and able to write between 6 a.m. and when I go to work at 9 (yeah, I’m a working stiff once again). I guard those hours religiously.
2) The right posture
I find that sitting at my desk is fine for doing my day job kicking off data runs, producing my radio programs, or editing text. But when I need to think creatively, or write, or study, I’m much better at it sitting on my couch, which is where I am right now. Somehow—don’t ask me how—the ideas flow when I’ve sunken into a comfy cushion, or maybe it’s that with my feet propped up on an ottoman more blood is flowing to my brain. Who can say? But trying to be creative while sitting in a desk chair is really difficult for me.
3) Eat well
I’m a caffeine junky, but I don’t rely on java juice alone. Mixing proteins, carbs, and sugars in the right proportions and, more importantly, at the right times of day will greatly impact how much or how little wattage is available in my primitive brain when I sit down to write. ‘Nuff said.
What in your opinion are the elements of good writing?
I love layer cakes. And by that I mean that a novel (or a piece of music) works for me when it resonates and engages me simultaneously on multiple levels: emotional, intellectual, visceral, etc. When I sense those layers working in rhythm and harmony, I’m inclined to label writing as “good.” That’s when I dig in to uncover why.
Think of a piano string. When struck, it vibrates not only along its entire length, but also at nodes found halfway, and at the thirds, fourths, fifths (and so to infinity, and beyond!). It’s the relative strengths of those overtones that give the instrument its timbre and differentiate a note on a piano from a guitar, or a flute, or Beyoncé.
All of art is rhythm. Novels vibrate along much longer strings, is all.
What are some of your favorite resources for writers?
I believe that any novel, when read like a writer, can become a writing textbook. The key is learning what to look out for, interpreting what you find, and then applying that technique to your own writing.
What are you currently reading?
Oh, gosh—so many books! I vet every single Writers Who Read novel before I put it on the schedule, which means I’m consuming many books right now to prep for January-June 2023. Either just read or on my list to read are:
The Candy House by Jennifer Egan, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka, The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy, Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin, Sugar Street by Jonathan Dee, The Displacements by Bruce Holsinger, The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan, Tracy Flick Can’t Win by Tom Perrotta, It Starts With Us by Colleen Hoover, Hidden Buddha by Jim Ringel, Less is Lost by Andrew Sean Greer, The Boys by Katie Hafner, Winter Work by Dan Fesperman, Sparring Partners by John Grisham, The Sweet Goodbye by Ron Corbett, Vladimir by Julia May Jonas, and others.
That’s quite a lot: working full-time, reading, writing, producing radio programs. Do you ever sleep?
Ha! I do have a lot on my plate, that’s true, but it comes down to discipline and prioritization. Discipline, unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of, because deep down inside I am a lifelong procrastinator. But it’s difficult to put things off when I have so many deadlines, and I’m fully aware that it’s only because of that that I block out my time very carefully. I realize this is a crappy life hack, but hey, I’m also tricked by the Fitbit, so I don’t mind.
That’s where prioritization comes in. This past summer Job One was getting my book proposal written, and I made sure to save time by doing that during my most productive early morning hours. Then I was able to edit drafts at my desk during the day or even at night, when I’m less alert. I map out my radio programs and my Writers Who Read segments months in advance, so that when it’s crunch time it’s just a matter of editing when I have a spare hour or five.
Some things have dropped out of my life, especially watching sports. I can’t spend any free time on such ephemeral activities, so I try to spend my down time either reading, listening to music, or, most importantly, spending time with family and friends. Besides, it takes just 5-10 minutes to watch a WTA-, ATP-, MLB-, or NFL-produced highlight video, so I’ve always got something to talk about at parties.
Thanks for giving me the space to rant on about my life! I hope somebody out there finds it useful.