Interview with Christopher Zoukis, prison rights advocate and author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
How would your advice for new writers differ from advice you would offer writers who have been in the game for a while?
When it comes to those new to professional writing, I would say that you need to read what you want to write and also read a lot about how to refine your craft and market yourself. It’s hard to get going in this industry. But with a lot of time and effort, it is certainly possible to make a name for yourself. The key is in understanding the type of writing that you want to write and how to market your brand within that arena.
As for those who have been in the industry for a while, the game is changing. It used to be that if a book wasn’t published by one of the Big Six that it didn’t stand much of a chance. Now, even if a book is published by a large publishing house, it still might not stand much of a chance. New technologies and avenues of connecting with readers are the wave of the future. Harness these tools, think outside the box, and figure out how to get your expertise (or flavor of fiction) to the end user in a manner that they want. The current era is that of the hybrid author — an author both traditionally published and self-published. There is a strong argument for pursuing the hybrid path in today’s market.
When you take a break from writing, is it a full and total break or is your mind constantly parsing the world for fodder? What does that parsing look like? How does it make you feel as an artist? As a human being?
As a writer I feel that I’m an odd sort. I’m all on or all off. So, when I’m all on, I write like my life depends on it. I outline, create a self-imposed quota system, and muscle to the finish line. I’ve found that when working this way it is important to take time off. This is why I try to vary my tasks, and to cycle whenever I can. I go from books to articles to book reviews to interviews and so forth. I also try to build in projects that aren’t writing-related. I work out, play Ultimate Frisbee, and try to schedule a little time each evening to hang out with a friend to decompress.
One word of wisdom that I would offer aspiring book writers (and those who have already published their works) is to really think about what type of book the world really needs. I always have five books in the back of my head. They are all worthy, at least in my not-so-humble opinion. But when it comes to devoting a year of my life to something, I need to select a project that is going to succeed. So, when deciding what to do next, a writer should really think about the reader and the industry. What is missing? What do readers crave? And is there a book that readers don’t even know that they want, but won’t be able to live without once they have it? This is the book that you need to write next.
From your perspective as an author, what do you feel is the biggest challenge to the publishing industry today? Is there a way to solve that challenge?
Making money as a writer is a challenge. Most of us will never be New York Times bestselling authors. That’s the truth of it. So, we need to find a way to make our writing work for us and pay the bills. As a nonfiction author, one way to do this is to use your book as a business calling card, which draws attention to your primary product — which may not be your book. Writers who want to live a comfortable life need to plan on not making a whole ton of money on their books, but to structure their books and businesses in such a way that a revenue channel can be capitalized upon.
What books are you currently reading?
I tend to read a lot of school books these days due to being a graduate student at Adams State University. So, typically I’m reading a lot of business textbooks. I just finished a book on organizational behavior last week and am about to start a book on managerial finance shortly.
I also engage in a healthy amount of non-school reading. Right now I’m reading the Magisterium series of novels by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. These are phenomenal books. They remind me a lot of Harry Potter. I’m also reading Journalistic Writing by Robert M. Knight to help hone my craft a bit and Bigger Leaner Stronger by Michael Matthews to upgrade my fitness knowledge.
Finding the discipline to keep writing can be tough. Which “get writing” techniques are most effective for you?
I try very hard to cycle my projects, because I find that I get burned out very easily. So, the best “get writing” technique that I have is to vary my projects. A close second is to outline and implement a self-imposed quota system. If I’ve outlined a 20 chapter book, then I might push myself to complete a chapter every week or two. Then, after the rough draft is down on paper, I might set a quota of polishing one chapter every week. This quota-based system helps me push myself to project completion. In this respect, I’m very business-like with my writing projects. I like to think of myself as a project manager who needs to ensure that the writing project is done on time, at an appropriate level of quality, and that it fulfills my readers’ needs.
Can you give us a sneak peek into your current project?
Sure. If you swing by PrisonerResource.com you can check out my Federal Prison Handbook. In this book I’ve tried to answer all of the questions that a new or seasoned federal prisoner, as well as their loved ones, may have. You can also use the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon.com. This provides readers with a sample of the book prior to purchase.