Brett Herman is a writer and comedian living in Southern California. With a lifelong obsession with video games, comic books, tabletop gaming, role-playing and pretty much every other hobby that keeps his head up in the clouds with dragons and star fighters, Brett has been making up stories and testing the patience of anyone who listen for decades. When he’s not writing or immersed in some new game or book, Brett can be found performing comedy throughout Orange County and Los Angeles, or wandering around with his wife and his dog Penny and enjoying the outdoors.
1.Why storytelling? What made you yearn to tell a good story, and how long was this story within you before it came out?
Because storytelling is one of the few forms of entertainment that you can work on by yourself, at any time. It’s great to get a band or a sketch group together and rehearse something, but that’s hard to schedule consistently. After that, even after you’ve gotten everything ready to perform, you still need a venue and an audience. Storytelling, and novel writing specifically, removes a lot of those constraints, and as long as you’re near a computer or a notepad you can grind through any flashes of inspiration and get them committed to text as soon as they hit you.
I knew I had a weird fantasy genre mash-up idea that I’d wanted to tell for about a year or two before I started writing. It seemed like a fun and slightly different take on all of the fantasy mainstay-types that are common in literature, and would also let me write a gritty mystery, which I was also wanting to do. I went through several outlined drafts over those few months and had terrible names attached to it like “Fantasy Mage Detective: The Case of Breadlust”. From first idea to finished draft, Chaos Trims My Beard, took four years.
2.What is it about your genre that speaks to you?
Chaos Trims My Beard is subtitled “A Fantasy Noir”, which is a bit of a weird mash-up. The book is more fantasy than hard-boiled investigative fiction, and ever since I discovered Warcraft 2 when my family got its first PC back in the ’90s, I’ve been drawn to Tolkien-style fantasy with orcs and dwarves and all that. But instead of the swords and magic that are central to some of my favorite epic series, I’ve found myself most interested in the nitty-gritty of the personalities of these well-established races. The stereotype of a dwarf who swings a hammer and downs a tankard of ale is well codified, but I find it fun to ask the questions of who that dwarf is, as a person. Not all dwarves are smiths and warriors, so what’s life like for a regular dwarf working a crappy job? Who are his friends? How does he view himself, and how would he handle being in way over his head?
In exploring those ideas, I hit upon some individual character traits for some of the classic fantasy races and had a bit of a moment where I realized that maybe a dwarven nefarious plot would come to fruition much differently than an elven one. Elves are stereotypically immortal, so they might play the long game. Dwarves are deliberate, humans are impulsive, ratmen are ratmen. Now that I had a bunch of fantasy characters with damaged personalities and the notions of a criminal conspiracy on my hands, I built it all up into something resembling my other favorite genre. And so I ended up with a quip-laced mystery in a dual-sided city driven on by a cynical, hard-drinking protagonist.
3.Without giving any spoilers, what is your favorite thing about this book?
My favorite things about Chaos Trims My Beard is the relationship I managed to find for my two protagonists. Edwayn is a dwarf that grinds through his bartending job every night and grumbles to himself a lot. He’s sharp-witted in his own way and is held up by that inner, spiteful resolve to not fall over and die on the spot that anyone who has worked in the service industry has experienced a one point or another. So when he gets swept up in a magical murder conspiracy, he needs a foil. Venrick the Unabashed is a ratman with a fetching hat who happens to be a police detective of some (infamous) renown. A bartender isn’t going to investigate his way out of something this big, so Venrick’s presence and profession serve a practical narrative purpose. But he also operates on a different level than Edwayn, and he’s quick with his words. They get exasperated with each other and crack jokes and maybe don’t have each other’s best interests at heart at the first, but every time I get to write a scene where they’re quipping back and forth—even if the building is burning down around them—they dialog feels electric. For as strange as the characters sound on paper, I’ve just fallen in love with their dynamic.
4.What character from your book fills you with hope?
The book is written in first person, so we spend all of our time in Edwayn’s head. He has some stand-up moments and grows into someone who will do the right thing, but I feel like I’m too close to him to truly let him be a hopeful inspiration. Instead, there’s a minor character named Dawnlight. He’s an elf, a young one—just a few centuries old—and he’s wrapped in the whole conspiracy. When we meet him, he is less than helpful and kind of frantically wondering how he can untwist some of what went wrong without moving out of his little cowardly corner. He’s not in very many scenes, but we get to watch him buck the heavy expectations that being an elf has laid upon him, and we see his viewpoint evolve into something a bit less pointy-eared-centric. There’s bravery in facing off against someone who has a gun, someone who is immediately physically threatening, but it fills me with hope more so when someone stands up against a societal sickness, even a small sickness, at the cost of their own relationships and esteem.
5.What character from your work frightens you, makes you feel dirty to write?
Elara is the third character on the cover, aside from Edwayn and Venrick. And she’s dead, mostly. At her base, she’s a femme fatale, and those characters are always dirty, juggling their own objectives and agendas and manipulating people to achieve them. Elara has a lot of that, but she’s also trapped between the young woman that she was and the specific, spoilery magical affliction that has left her in the state that she is. That gives her a bit of a cavalier attitude towards morality and mortality. She’s sweet and damaged, but she’s dangerous, and she knows how to bring both of those aspects of herself to bear.
6.Your main character walks into a bar. What happens?
Well, Edwayn drinks a fair bit and since this is a noir mystery, he literally walks into a bar a few times throughout the story. If it’s his bar that he’s walking into, he’ll crack a joke with the doorman, find a hopefully quiet stool and kick back a tankard of beer or four. Maybe he’ll order some fried wings. If he walks into an unfamiliar bar, he’ll probably sit at a dirty table, get ignored by the waitstaff for a good half-hour, and ultimately grumble about how the tap selection is too limited.
7.When you are writing, tell me about the emotions that are running through you and what it takes to work alongside them.
My most constant emotion when writing is to be worried, and to be worried specifically so about humor. I come from a comedy writing and performing background, and I’ve put as many hours and years into that skill as I have to novel-crafting. I grapple with jokes that seem funny in my head, and I get frustrated with my inability sometimes to get them to work on the page. I find myself constantly evaluating my confidence not in my capability to put a sentence, paragraph, chapter, or novel together, but rather my ability to do it without falling back on easy, unearned jokes. I know I can write a funny scene or bit of dialog when the time is right, but I do real mental work to remind myself that I am capable of emotional texture and narrative substance beyond the yucks, and that leads to a level of determination and a very liberal use of the editor’s knife when it comes to cutting out the jokes that are bogging down the story, even if it makes me sad to see them go.
8.How do you police your production? Do you have a word quota, or a page goal, maybe you work for a set amount of time? Do you place demands on yourself when you’re working? How do you meet those demands?
I read Chris Fox’s book 5000 Words Per Hour, and I adopted the writing sprints method that he outlines in that book. So, I set my workout timer for—as he suggests—25 minutes on and then 5 minutes off, and I set it for six repetitions. I can usually check Reddit and emails and whatnot in five minutes, and I file away anything substantive I have to do to wait for when the three hours are over. I’ll generally turn off my wifi for the 25 minutes and throw my phone somewhere on the other side of the room. I do one three-hour session every day, and if I’ve got the time, I’ll do a second. I don’t stress about word count, but with that much time spent on dedicated writing, I find that I’m happy with my production on most days.
9.How did you find the time to write this book with your busy life? What ideas do you have on how others can make time in their lives?
I look at writing like brushing my teeth. I have to do it, and I feel bad if I don’t. I’ve attached myself to writing as a career, and I do it 3-6 hours a day. Some days a few of my sprints get turned over to a freelance article or editing job or whatever, but I’m still following my schedule. And with how busy life can be, and how much energy work, relationships, kids, and all those domestic things we have to do can take, I understand that not everyone has such a big chunk of the day that they can dedicated to writing. But I firmly believe that there is a half hour somewhere in the day where you can write. It’s hard and it’s extra work, but even doing one sprint a day and getting a few hundred words down did wonders for my moral and confidence when I was starting, and all it required in sacrifice was one less episode of Rick and Morty or Bob’s Burgers after dinner.
10.If you could change any one thing about the writing industry, what would it be?
I wish discoverability was easier. Obviously I wish more people had the opportunity to see my covers and read my blurbs, but I also want it for myself as I reader. With the volume of books available, especially with self-publishing being in full swing, I know there are works out there that I’d absolutely love to death, but that perfect book for me might have been someone’s one-and-done drop in the bucket when it came out back in 2012. If that work never got a lot of sales and only had a handful of reviews and the author never published again, it’s up to luck and hard searching for me to ever find it. Goodreads works a bit to make things more discoverable, and their average rankings tend to align more with my own thoughts on a given book, but there’s still SO MUCH out there, and oftentimes books are listed in horribly mismatched categories and there’s just so much to sift through.
11.You’re going to go back and visit yourself when you first started writing, at whatever age it was, and you can give yourself one piece of advice. What would it be?
Write every day for an hour, and finish your works. You have the hour, because I know how much time we wasted when we were in high school and college. And even if the story feels broken, finish it anyway. Think of it like a video game, where you get way more writing exp for finishing a project than starting one. That’ll probably resonate with you, you silly little nerd. Also, you will always be a silly little nerd. Settle with that.
12.Describe your workplace.
My writing space is pretty small, and it does double duty as my wife’s Playstation area. So I’ve always got that sexy black rombus box staring at me, tempting me to take a break and grind some space freight in Elite: Dangerous or continue my year as a Japanese high school student in Persona 5. I have a cheap chair from Ikea and a box on the floor next to me where I put my water cup because I am absolutely capable of ruining my computer with an errant twitch of the wrist. I usually have one notebook out and open to whatever I’d written down as my writing objective for the day, and I use that to cover the Playstation. It helps a little.
13.You have a chance to hang out with any literary character for one day. Who would it be and what would you do?
Mercutio, from Romeo and Juliet. Anyone who makes a bad pun about becoming a “grave man” with his dying breath is someone I’d want to hang out with. I have no idea how I would accomplish this, but I’d enter him into some kind of rap battle. I’ve never been to a rap battle, and I have no idea of the paperwork I’d have to fill out to get my boy on the mic, but I think his rhymes would be hilarious. More likely I’d get him to perform in one of my improv comedy shows and he’d steal every scene and try to stab anyone who heckles.