Hi, Everyone. Welcome to the Wiser Financial Advisor with Josh Nelson, where we get real, we get honest, and we get clear about the financial world and your money. This is Josh Nelson, Certified Financial Planner and founder and CEO of Keystone Financial Services. Let the financial fun begin!
Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Northern Colorado’s own Mike Baron, who is a prolific author having written more than 1000 comic books throughout his career as well as numerous novels. Mike is the creator of Nexus and Badger, two of the longest-lasting independent superhero comics. He has also won two Eisner awards, an Inkpot Award and written on The Punisher, Flash, Batman and Star Wars among many other titles. Baron has also published 15 novels and is working on several more right now. Mike has also written for the Boston Phoenix, the Boston Globe, Cream, Fusion, We, and Ellery Queen’s Mystery magazine. Mike lives in Northern Colorado with his wife and three dogs. He is an entertaining guest, and I think you’re going to enjoy our conversation. Have a great week and God bless.
Josh: Welcome to the Wiser Financial Advisor, Mike Baron. Thank you for joining me today. I’m good friends with your wife. I’ve known her for a number of years in Northern Colorado, so I’m so glad to get the introduction from her. She’s a great lady and she’s been talking to me for a while about you, and although I didn’t have direct exposure to the name Mike Baron, as I grew up, my brother and I were big fans of Star Wars and Marvel and Dark Horse Comics, Batman, all these things back in the 80s and 90s, and you were in that world, right? So it’s actually a real honor to have you here, because you’ve lived and created parts of that world.
I’m always curious to find out how people get to the point of doing what they’re doing—whether a business owner or writer or the president. Everybody has followed some kind of a path. So I’m curious how you got started writing and how that evolved.
Mike: I always wanted to be a writer. It started in Mitchell, South Dakota where I grew up. I bought a paperback novel; it was by John D. MacDonald, The Deep Blue Goodbye for 35 cents brand new. I stepped out of the cigar store where I bought it and stood on the sidewalk looking at this book, and I just had this revelation: This guy is not doing this as a hobby. He’s doing this for a living. That’s what I want to do.
I started writing in in high school for the high school paper. I always had confidence that I could spin words together in an entertaining manner, but it took me a long time to learn how to write novels, which is what I originally set out to do.
My first job out of college was smoking marijuana for the government. I moved to Boston because they had so many weekly newspapers that they were willing to hire young writers and I answered an ad in the back of the Boston Phoenix for volunteers to live on a hospital ward for a month, smoke government dope and take a battery of tests, which I did. When I got out, I wrote that up and submitted it to the Boston Phoenix and they accepted it. Soon after that they hired me as an editor. I lived in Boston for seven years. I wrote for the Phoenix, The Globe, Fusion, Cream, and We magazine.
In 1977 I moved back to Madison, Wisconsin. I was working at an insurance company when I got a phone call one day from a friend who was the newspaper editor. He said, “There’s a guy down here trying to sell us his art and I think you should take a look at it.” The guy’s name was Steve Rude. I arranged to meet him on the steps of the student union. He opened up his portfolio and I was blown away. I’d been trying to draw for years and we’ll get into that later, but I said, “What do you wanna do?” He said, “I wanna do comics but I can’t write, what do you wanna do?” I said, “Well, I wanna do comics, but I can’t draw.”
Well, we were lucky to be in the right place at the right time because Capital City Distribution, the world’s second largest comic book distributor at the time, a huge multimillion dollar company, wanted to start their own comic book line. So I went home and brainstormed Nexus, which is our signature character. He’s a reluctant executioner of mass murderers 500 years in the future. I’d been familiar with superhero comics because of reading them all my life. I wanted him to be dramatic. So every time he showed up, somebody died, but I wanted him to be sympathetic, so I made him a reluctant executioner of mass murderers.
I wrote those first 12 pages by drawing them out by hand. I’m not a great artist, but I’m good enough that my ideas are clear. People can see them at a glance, and that’s how I wrote comics for 20 years. Editors and artists loved it that they could see what I wanted on the page. It taught me so many things. For instance, how much weight a page can carry. By that I mean how many pictures, how many words. It taught me about creating the rhythm of the story and the way that scenes will open up if they’re big and contract if they’re small and intimate. But most importantly, it taught me to think about what happens next. That’s the essential question in all fiction. The reader has to care before turning the page.
I would write by drawing a panel. And then I thought, well, what happens next? And because I taught myself to write comics with that method, I learned to be concise. In my material, there are no wasted pictures. There are no wasted words. I think that helped me a great deal in my career because soon after Nexus and Badger appeared, Marvel and DC started calling and Marvel asked me to write The Punisher, which I did for five years. And DC asked me to write Flash, Dead Man; I’ve written some Batman and many other characters.
I always wanted to write novels. It just took me a long time to learn how. But about 15 years ago everything came together and I realized I had it, so I started writing novels and I was lucky enough to join up with the fastest growing publisher in the United States, which is Wolfpack Publishing located in Las Vegas. They specialize mostly in men’s adventure novels, and I had a number of novelist friends who said, “Yeah, you gotta get this guy,” so they accepted me. My first series for them was biker, hard-boiled crime, a reformed motorcycle guy who goes to prison, finds God and gets out, wants to turn his life around. The stories are very gritty and sometimes grim, but the reception has been great. I recently published the 9th biker novel and I’m working on the 10th now.
During that time, every time I went online, I saw another Florida-man story. I would say I don’t choose my stories, my stories choose me. And after a while I said, “Well, I gotta write a novel about this guy.” So I wrote that novel. I didn’t think Wolfpack would go for it because they like Westerns and gritty detective novels and stuff. But I sent it in and they said yeah. They published Florida Man, and it’s by far my most successful novel. There are two sequels out and I’m planning the 4th. Last year we crowdfunded the Florida Man graphic novel, and that was a big success. Incidentally, it’s been broken down into three regular comics which are hitting comic bookstores in July. So if you’re interested in the Florida Man comic, call your comic shop now because they’re cutting off orders at the end of next week. One thing I guarantee you is that you will break out laughing when you read this comic.
Josh: That’s great. So, would you say that you’re completely self-taught—in other words, no formal training, you were just passionate about your ideas?
Mike: I did have a little training in college. I took a course with Jerry McNeely, who was the head writer for Marcus Welby, MD. Jerry was a very good teacher. He said, “Make ‘em cry a little bit, make ‘em laugh a little bit, scare the hell out of ‘em, and that’s entertainment.”
Josh: That’s true, absolutely. And do you write every day now?
Mike: Yes, I do write every day. In the morning I do the serious lifting if I’m working on a novel. Right now I’m co-authoring a novel with Diggs Brown. I’m editing it. It’s huge. Diggs did the basic first manuscript, and it’s like 140,000 words, which is bigger than anything I’ve ever written, although my novel Banshees is over 100,000 words. I’m also working on a coming of age novel that was commissioned from me by a man who heads a group called Seawolves which takes boys from broken families and teaches them how to be men by sailing. He teaches them how to sail and along the way gives them the moral instruction they need to become confident, worthwhile people.
Josh: Where do you get your ideas?
Mike: I subscribe to an idea service. It’s very expensive, but it’s worth it. No, I’m just joking. Ideas come from anywhere and that’s why I always carry a notepad and pen with me wherever I go. I tell that to every writer: carry a notepad and pen because you never know when inspiration will strike. Inspiration can come from anywhere. Often you want to write a certain type of story. I wanted to write a horror story, a really gripping and original horror story, but I didn’t want to go over anybody else’s ground. I wanted something fresh and new, so I waited until the idea came to me. The first one, Banshees is about a satanic rock band that comes back from the dead. It was inspired by heavy metal bands like AC/DC and Motorhead and bands like that.
I just start thinking about it and it comes together. I start making notes on the notepad, anything from ideas and plot development to names. Names are very important. When I think about it long enough, I see the kernel of the novel take shape. It reaches a critical mass, and when that happens I write an outline. The outline is not hugely detailed, but it’s more than a paragraph. Sometimes they run to 10 pages. When that’s done, I’ll start writing the novel. Invariably, it veers away from the outline.
If you do a good job creating a character, at some point that character turns around and tells you what he’s going to do next. You can’t just impose things on him. They have to grow naturally out of his character. I also believe that every writer has to surprise himself before he surprises others. So I urge writer students to be open to surprise, to be receptive when an idea comes in from left field. If you’re experienced enough, you can test a little bit, decide whether it works or not, but I welcome and love those surprises that strike me when I’m writing.
Often an idea that you get in the first part of the novel, you don’t know why it’s there, but when you get toward the end, you realize that it’s the key to everything, because the perfect ending should come as both a complete surprise and, in retrospect, inevitable.
Josh: Interesting. Have you ever written anything that you had perfectly mapped out, and that’s how it played out? Or is it always a surprise?
Mike: It always changes. Not drastically. There are certain rules for drama. A drama is like a good pop song with a tonic, a bridge and a hook. It has dynamics. And by dynamics I mean the hero was up, the hero was down. Because if he were in the same place the whole time (unless you’re Virginia Woolf), it’s really not going to be a novel.
In the type of novels that I write, my primary goal is to entertain. That’s rule number one: never forget to entertain. Rule two is show, don’t tell, which is crucial whether you’re writing a novel or a comic or a movie. The third is to be original. People worry about that, but they shouldn’t. We’re all unique human beings and when we start writing, we inevitably bring our worldview into the novel. You just have to be careful to adhere to rule #1, which is to keep it entertaining.
I’ve read all of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels. And my biker character, Josh Pratt, is in way an homage to those, as are many other characters in in modern fiction today, because John D. MacDonald had a huge influence.
Josh: I’ve thought about writing a book and writing articles, things like that, more financial topics, but, I think a lot of us are scared, right? We’re just not sure where to start. What advice would you give to somebody who has an idea or maybe even just a passion they’d like to write about; what would you suggest for them as a starting point?
Mike: Get a notepad, get up and start making notes. And keep in mind—this is true for most professional writers as well– we all have a million words of garbage clogging up our system. We have to get that out before we get to the good stuff. Nothing improves your writing like experience and practice. So I encourage people to write every day. I’ve been writing every day all my life and because of that, I feel that I have a real clear view of what constitutes good writing.
I like direct, simple writing, but there are so many ways to hook a reader’s interest. What works for me is to write chapters that are between 1000 and 1500 words. For the type of book I write, that works for me. Now, there are people who write huge chapters. I keep in mind rhythm and dynamics. It’s not just what’s happening in the story, but what’s happening when you look at a page. If you look at a page that’s a solid block of text with no indentations, it’s like looking at a Soviet housing project in the 60s. You don’t want to live there. That’s why it’s important to write dialogue, because every time a different person speaks, you indent and it makes the page more attractive.
Another rule is that whoever wants something the most owns that point of view. Point of view is very important. I always write in the third person, as in: He went to the store. He bought a carton of milk. Second person would be: You went to the store. You bought a carton of milk. Second person is for losers. Don’t do it. And first person is: I went to the store. I bought a carton of milk. That can work very well and I’ve used it from time to time. But the thing to keep in mind about first person is you’re filtering every impression and everything the reader learns through the sensibility of that one character.
You can always switch points of view when you move to another chapter. Then there’s something called the omniscient point of view where you jump from viewpoint to viewpoint in the same chapter and this works best on huge galaxy-spanning science fiction. My friend Kevin J. Anderson writes the Dune novels. Kevin writes by dictating into a recording device while he’s hiking through the mountains. I don’t know anybody else who does that, but it does affect his point of view. It naturally tends toward an omniscient point of view, whereas me pecking away at the keyboard tends toward a more intimate personal point of view, which is what I prefer because I’m writing thriller and horror novels and comedies. I guess I’m all over the place.
Josh: Yeah, so would you say that you were an avid reader before you started writing?
Mike: Oh yeah, yeah, I think all writers have to read.
Josh: Yeah, but you still read a lot it sounds like.
Mike: Oh yeah. I’m reading four books right now.
Josh: Going back to getting started writing, probably the reason why I or anybody else doesn’t start is because we’re afraid of all the crap, right? The reality is that a lot of what we would start writing would just be crap, wouldn’t be worth a whole lot. But you’ve got to get that out first before you’re going to get to the good stuff?
Mike: Well, if you’re writing an essay, an essay has its own rules based on objective reality to a certain extent. When you’re writing a news story, it is who, what, where, when and why. But when you’re writing a work of fiction, you have to give the reader somebody to root for. Create a sympathetic character.
Josh: What books have greatly influenced your life?
Mike: Well, certainly John D. MacDonald, the whole Travis McGee series starting with The Deep Blue Goodbye. Philip Jose Farmer is a science fiction writer that lived in Terre Haute, Indiana. His World of Tears series opened my mind to the possibilities of the imagination. Many of the great science fiction writers have affected me. Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Clifford Simak. Among modern writers, I have read some Michael Chabon. He wrote The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which was about the birth of comics, and he’s somebody to look at because his narrative voice is unique. If you want to learn new words, read Michael Chabon. Another guy I recommend is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum—James Hill. He writes modern gritty crime dramas. He wrote LA Confidential, which was a great movie.
Josh: What are some bad pieces of advice that you would tell writers to avoid?
Mike: There’s only one essential book on writing. The Elements Of Style by Strunk and White. As for bad writing, I would say be sure not to write down cliches that just happen to pass into your head. It’s so easy to write, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” I can’t tell you how often I have seen that.
You gotta keep your dialogue fresh and that’s why you gotta keep your ears open and carry that notepad with you wherever you go. You never know when you’re going to hear a freshly turned phrase that you’ve never heard before. It might be regional colloquial, but if it’s fresh to you, it’s going to be fresh to your readers, so keep your ears open and your pad open and beware of those cliches. Stop right there, push yourself away from the keypad and rethink it.
Another piece of advice I’d say is if you run into a roadblock and you don’t know what’s going to happen, stop writing. Retreat to your room or go outside with your pen and pad and just write down what could happen, no matter how crazy or insane. Sooner or later, the path forward will be revealed to you.
Josh: So, writer’s block. What do you do when you feel overwhelmed or maybe you’ve lost your focus temporarily? What do you do to get yourself back on track, and what questions do you ask yourself?
Mike: I don’t get writer’s block and most of the professional writers I know don’t get it either. One of the reasons is that we’ve trained ourselves to see story. That means we know what constitutes story.
Too many young writers get off on a tangent. They’re in love with their own writing, and they’ll write up a paragraph or a page or a chapter that gives them great delight but does not advance the story. You have to learn to cut that out. As soon as you get an understanding of what constitutes a story and the mastery of it, you won’t take a wrong step. I very rarely take wrong steps, and by that I mean occasionally I’ll write 500 or 1000 words and look at it and say, “No. I’m off on the wrong track.” I’ll remove it, but that doesn’t happen very often these days.
Josh: You’ve written over 1000 comics, right? And more recently, you’ve gotten interested in graphic novels. Let’s talk about your recent stuff.
Mike: Thin Blue Line was inspired by what I saw in the summer of 2020. If you don’t have the rule of law, you don’t have civilization. And that’s what inspired Thin Blue Line. But as I stressed before, my number one rule is entertain. There’s nothing didactic or preachy about the book. It’s going to grab you by the throat because you’re going to care about the characters; you’re going to care about what happens, and because like Jerry McNeely said, I make ‘em laugh a little bit and cry a little bit. I scare the hell out of ’em. It’s all in there. It’s one of the best graphic novels I’ve written.
I should mention that my artist is a full time police officer, Joe Arnold. I take pains in all my comic books to depict fight scenes accurately the way they would actually unfold, not in a comic book way. I always hated it when Hulk waved his fist and there are four sets of feet flying off panel. That’s not what the reader wants.
Josh: This is the time of year when a lot of college students or even high school students have graduated and they’re entering the real world. What advice would you give a smart, driven college student that’s about to get out there and enter the real world—and what advice should they ignore?
Mike: Well, I’d say first of all, “Are you sure you want to go to college and get that degree in interpretive dance?” Because as we all know, successful tradesmen, electricians and plumbers are guaranteed a good living whereas there are hundreds of thousands of college graduates who are driving Uber and wondering why their degree isn’t helping them get work.
Josh: And of course the other side of things besides the traditional college route and the trade route, is that there’s the artist route, the creator route, the business owner route. You’re all of those, right? What advice would you give to people who really are enticed by going that direction, as far as where should they start or what should they be doing and who should they surround themselves with?
Mike: I’ve encountered so many people who desperately wanted to work in comics and still do. And they produce their own comics, but they’re not going anywhere. You only get one chance to make a first impression. And there’s no better way to get a job in comics than by producing your own comic and having it be a knockout. We were lucky enough to do that.
But most people aren’t that lucky, and I say you have to be realistic about this. I know a lot of great comic book creators who are successful today as writers, but they didn’t start out as writers. Don’t quit your day job. It doesn’t take all day to fret over your art and agonize. Just work on it when you can, and there’s always time to work on it. But be aware that the competition to break into any of these creative fields, be it painting or writing or comics, is ferocious. For every one that succeeds, there are 1000 people out there banging their heads against the wall.
Josh: Well, it’s been really interesting to talk about this, and I appreciate you taking the time today. Where’s the best place to find you?
Mike: I’m on Twitter at bloody red baron. My website is www.bloodyredbaron.com Facebook is the comics and novels of Mike Baron. I write as Mike Baron and if you go to Amazon and type Mike Baron then 20 pages will come up and you’ll see what I’ve been doing.
Josh: A lot of stuff pops up because you’ve been around for decades and it’s amazing, with the odds, to produce anything that ever gets published and to be able to do so decade after decade. So congratulations on that and thank you for letting us be part of your world. I think you’re a great example of somebody who really has taken their passion and turned it into a successful business.
Mike: Thank you, Josh.
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This episode has been prepared for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide and should not be relied upon for, tax, legal or accounting advice. You should consult your own tax, legal and accounting advisors. Investment advisory services offered through Keystone Financial Services, an SEC Registered investment advisor.