Exploring the Writing of Speculative Novels and Storytelling with Eliot Peper | Glasp Talk #13

Exploring the Writing of Speculative Novels and Storytelling with Eliot Peper | Glasp Talk #13

This is the thirteenth session of Glasp Talk!

Glasp Talk delves deep into intimate interviews with luminaries from various fields, unraveling their genuine emotions, experiences, and the stories behind them.

Today's guest is Eliot Peper, a bestselling author renowned for his speculative thrillers that explore the intersection of technology and culture. Eliot transitioned from a research assistant and entrepreneur to a celebrated writer, driven by his love for reading and storytelling. He shares insights into his writing process, sources of inspiration, and advice for aspiring writers and founders on the importance of completing projects.

In this interview, we delve into Eliot's journey, exploring how he balances futuristic technology with social evolution in his novels to create compelling and believable narratives. Eliot discusses the challenges and rewards of the writing process, offering a deep dive into his methods for developing ideas and crafting stories that resonate with readers. We also touch on his unique approach to storytelling for startups and entrepreneurs, highlighting the parallels between writing novels and building innovative companies. Join us for an engaging conversation that provides a comprehensive look at how Eliot integrates his diverse interests into his work, inspiring creativity and perseverance in writing and entrepreneurship.

Read the summary:

Exploring the Writing of Speculative Novels and Storytelling with Eliot Peper | Glasp Talk #13 | Video Summary and Q&A | Glasp
- Ediot Pepper’s career started as a research assistant in International Environmental Policy before becoming a business development associate and entrepreneur. - His love for reading and the desire to tell stories inspired him to become a writer and bring his ideas to life. - Ediot emphasizes the i


Glasp: Welcome back to Glasp Talk. Today we have an amazing speaker, Eliot Peper, a bestselling author renowned for his speculative series that explore the intersection of technology and culture. Some of his notable works include Foundry, Veil, Bandwidth, and Cumulus. His novels have received praise from various publications such as The New York Times Book Review, Popular Science, San Francisco Magazine, Businessweek, and so on. He has also received acclaim from notable figures like Cory Doctorow and many others. You can find his writing in publications like Harvard Business Review, Scout, TechCrunch, Vice, and Verge, and beyond writing, he has advised several companies, entrepreneurs, venture capital investors, and so on. Today, we’d like to ask him about his career, writing process, how to come up with novel ideas, how to imagine the future, and manage ideas and storytelling. Thank you for joining today, Eliot.

Eliot: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

Glasp: So first of all, we are curious about your career. From your profile, it seems like your career started as a research assistant, researching international environmental treaties, then you became a business development associate, started your company, became an entrepreneur, and then you became a writer. What made you a writer?

Eliot: Yeah, that's funny. I haven't updated my LinkedIn in quite a while. I think there are two answers to that question. The first is that I've always been a very enthusiastic reader, and I continue to think of myself as a reader first and a writer second. I've always just loved to read since I was a little kid. I would always hide in the bookstore shelves or the library stacks so that my parents couldn't find me to take me home because I just wanted to explore and pull books off the shelf. I loved being read to when I was very little, fairy tales and all the rest. So, all of my writing comes from a place of having an idea for a book I would want to read and then trying to solve my own problem by writing it. That's really where all my books come from; I'm just like, "Oh man, wouldn't this be a wonderful novel? Wouldn't this be a really powerful story that I would want to read?" Then I'm writing it almost for myself as the reader. To the extent that other people enjoy them, it's really just that maybe they share my taste or something like that. That's really the core emotional place I come from as a writer.

Glasp: That's interesting. But you know, when you published your first book, you were an entrepreneur, right?

Eliot: Yes, that's correct.

Glasp: Why did you, I know you love reading and maybe you wanted to write something you want to read, but what made you decide to write something and publish it?

Eliot: So, for the very first novel, it's actually related to my work at the venture capital firm. At the time, this was in 2012, I think I started writing the manuscript in fall 2012. The human experience of working in a startup is really unique. You have this idea you're super excited about, you take on all this career risk, financial risk, putting all your eggs in this basket, putting everything on the line for something you care about. It's exciting, it's a big drive, but it is also a pressure cooker for human relationships. Many co-founders' relationships explode, many early hires don't work out, there's often a lot of friction. So, to me, working in different startups, it felt exciting and compelling, but I couldn't find that experience depicted in fiction in a way that felt real to me. This was before shows like HBO's Silicon Valley. There were obviously a ton of business books, but business books don't scratch that itch; they're more like memoirs. I wanted the rich immersive quality of fiction where you're in someone else's mind, experiencing something unique alongside them. I tried to find novels that did justice to the feeling of building something new with a tightly-knit group of friends and really couldn't. So, for that first book, that's where that came from. I wanted to give a window into this world of human experience that, if you haven't done it, you wouldn't know about. That's where the first book came from. I just started doing it. I had no career aspirations with it, I just started typing in a Microsoft Word document and kept going because it was fun. I shared it with a few people and they were encouraging, so that gave me confidence to keep going. When I got a publishing offer on the manuscript, that's when I had to decide if I wanted to invest my time in bringing this book out and doing more writing or just treat it as a fun little project and move on to work on a new startup. At that point in my life, I decided that 40 years from then, I would regret not taking a chance on the book more than not doing more work helping to build technology companies. So, that's why I wound up pursuing it.

Glasp: I like that story. But writing a book usually takes so much time. How long does it take you to write and publish a novel?

Eliot: For me, it's varied a lot between books. Every book is different; you think you would get better at it, right? You'd think it would be more predictable over time, like, "Oh, now I know what I'm doing." I'm currently writing my 12th novel, and I would have expected that I'd be like, "Oh, okay, now I have it down to a science; it'll take this long," etc. Every book is different. Every novel is a totally new beast that you have to figure out how to tame. I also think that, frankly, that's part of what keeps it interesting. If it turned into something formulaic, I think the results would be formulaic. For me, I try to embrace that even though it can be frustrating. I've had books where I wrote the entire rough draft in a four-month period and then went into edits and rewrites, which takes longer. In general, if you look back over my career as a writer, I've basically, on average, come out with a book about once a year. That's not uncommon among novelists. Some people only come out with a book once every ten years or just one book in their whole life. Some people are putting out even more, like if they write straight mysteries or something and they're coming out with many. For me, it's been about a book a year on average. That time is both thinking about the idea, letting it develop, working on the rough draft, working on revisions and notes, going through all that process, and then going from the writing and editing process into production and design, packaging, and promotion—the whole publishing process, which is obviously complementary and the other half of bringing a book to readers.

Glasp: That's a long process. When will your next, your 12th book, come out? When will it be published?

Eliot: I don't know. I'm currently about 20% of the way through the rough draft, so I don't know. I hope it would come out next year, in 2025, but we'll see.

Glasp: Looking forward to it. When you are writing a novel or book, where do you write that first? Are you using Word documents still, or where do you write it and keep your ideas?

Eliot: I've used a bunch of different writing software over the years. I've used Word, Scrivener, which is popular among authors because it's designed for really long documents that you can break up, and most recently, Ulysses for the rough draft. But to be honest, I am—oh, and then I use Word for edits, not because I like Word but because the industry standard is Word. When you're working with many different editors on a really long document, you need to be able to track changes and easily work with people who have different systems. Word ends up being the most convenient. So I usually write the rough draft in Ulysses and then export it to a Word document for collaborative editing. I also use Google Docs a lot, but usually not for books. It just isn't that great for really long documents. It's wonderful for short documents, but once you're talking about a book-length document, the features just don't work as well. That's what I use. But I will say that the shoes didn't make Jordan a great basketball player, right? I think the same about writing tools. I don't care—I could write a book in Apple Notes. If it's a word processor on a computer so I don't have to write by hand, I can make it work. The only thing I'm going for is having a full-screen option, so I don't have other things distracting me and I can just be in the text. That's the only feature I care about. Nothing else matters to me. That being said, I know many other writers who, for example, might use a piece of software like Scrivener, where they have elaborate systems for notes and tracking highlights. Maybe they're doing all the research to support the novel. They'll have an entire, almost like their own software stack on the back end, just a very intricate knowledge management system for how they work on a book. The way I write fiction is that I actually abstract all that away. My philosophy is that the best books are only about the things that the author is obsessed with. Fiction, nonfiction, I don't even care. If you are really obsessed with something, if something really piques your curiosity, that's what you're going to be able to write about in a way that is so compelling that it brings other people in. My philosophy of writing is that I only focus on that. If I'm not already obsessed with it, if my brain has forgotten it, it means it wasn't something that I needed to write about anyway. I basically just read things I'm fascinated by, and whatever sticks with me gets woven into the novel. Whatever doesn't stick with me, that's fine. It means I wasn't sufficiently interested that it should graduate to being included in a work of fiction.

Glasp: I see. I assume you've written many stories you haven't published yet. Have you ever discarded some stories that didn't excite you, or do you keep them thinking they might come back later with a better idea?

Eliot: I'm not sitting on a bunch of manuscripts that aren't published. I have tons of ideas, many of which I don't ever pursue. I have some ideas that I've sketched out a bit and then don't pursue because I'm considering which path to take. Sometimes I play around with some early material in those areas and then choose a path and go with it. But really, once I've committed to a novel, I write the novel and I publish the novel. I'm not saying this prescriptively, like other people should do that; writers take many different approaches. For me, I've always felt that—let me start this explanation in a different place. Once you've published novels and built an audience for them, if people enjoy them, you start getting emails from aspiring writers asking for advice. They say, "I've always had this idea for a book," or "I've been working on this manuscript." It's wonderful; it's such a beautiful thing. I've sent people emails asking for advice, so I always try to be responsive and generous in what I can offer them. But you quickly realize something: many aspiring writers are 20% of the way through three projects. If you checked in with them 10 years from now, they'd still be 20% of the way through three other projects. I believe that by doing that, you learn nothing. If you want to get good at writing novels, you need to finish a novel. You need to actually finish a novel. It would be like saying, "I want to learn to be a cook," but you only have water boiling on the stove and a cup of dry rice on the counter and you stop there. Are you ever going to become a chef that way? No. You actually have to cook the meal, try it, share it with friends, see how they react to the meal, make it again with some changes, and have others try it. Eventually, everyone's asking when you're going to open a restaurant because you're such a good cook. That's how you get good at something. I think writing is exactly the same. When I commit to a project and feel there's something there, I finish it because I know if I don't, I won't learn. I will never learn from that process. Believe me, on every project, there are many times when I wish I didn't have that philosophy because I think, "This is going nowhere; this is a dead end. I should switch to something else instead." That would be the biggest mistake ever because in any project worth pursuing, that's hard and important where you're going to learn something, they all feel like dead ends at some point. Getting through the feeling of it being a dead end is what makes the project special. You have to figure out how to approach it from a new direction. If you always quit when that feeling happens and switch to something else, you're in stasis. You're not actually growing or improving your craft. Once I'm like, "Okay, there's something here," then I'm going to finish this whatever that means. Maybe it means it's much shorter or longer than I had been anticipating, or I have to switch the point of view character or styles. Maybe there are dramatic changes needed, but I'm going to finish it.

Glasp: So, like "quitters never win" or something like that?

Eliot: Yeah, but I would take that idiom and make it more specific. "Quitters never win" makes me think that some people are quitters and others are winners, and you're either one or the other. That's not how I feel. It's not about you or your identity, whether you're a winner or a quitter. It's about honoring the project. If you want to learn from that process and allow others to benefit from it, you need to finish that project. It doesn't mean you have to do another one. Finish it because then you'll learn and others will benefit.

Glasp: Interesting. That's the same for founders. There are many aspiring founders trying to start a company, and when I ask them when they'll start, they often say they're preparing for it and never actually do.

Eliot: Exactly. I think being a founder, writer, artist, or musician is all the same. You're trying to make something new in service of other people, whether it's music, a product, an experience, a restaurant, or a poem. If you're trying to bring new things into the world in service of others, that's the connection. It makes perfect sense to me.

Glasp: Same here. I was just curious, how do you pick ideas to write about since you come up with many? How do you decide which ones to pursue?

Eliot: Different novels start from different places. For example, I wrote a novel called Veil inspired by a podcast interview with Charles C. Mann about solar geoengineering. He described research into flying planes high in the stratosphere to dump dust that would create a veil reflecting sunlight and cooling the planet. It was a fascinating concept with no easy answers, which is a sign of a potential novel. I started writing it because the situation was so compelling. Other books start from a personal situation or character interaction that feels rich and worth exploring. It varies for each book.

Glasp: What do you keep in mind when incorporating future technology and social evolution into a novel?

Eliot: I don't really think about balancing between fantastical and realistic. Some of the most popular books are entirely fantastical, like The Lord of the Rings, and many real-world events seem implausible. What matters is creating a pocket universe that is self-consistent and compelling. The story needs to feel real to the characters, and if they believe it, the audience will too. My goal is to make the story as interesting and compelling as possible, not necessarily plausible.

Glasp: Do you use AI tools like ChatGPT to brainstorm or for inspiration?

Eliot: I've played with AI tools but haven't found them helpful in my workflow yet. They might be useful for brainstorming, as they can generate many ideas that could spark something interesting. But for producing writing that I find compelling, they haven't been useful. I think AI tools can be helpful for research and brainstorming, similar to how conversations with friends and reading inspire me.

Glasp: Do you do book clubs with other writers or readers?

Eliot: No, I'm not in any book clubs. I love the idea of them, but I'm a very bad book club member because I quit books ruthlessly if they don't engage me. I love discussing books with readers, especially when they reach out with questions after reading my work, but I don't participate in book clubs regularly.

Glasp: Do you have any favorite books that you return to for inspiration?

Eliot: No, I don't have specific books I return to regularly. I read widely and am always looking for what excites me at the moment. I believe books have a timeless quality, and the right book can speak to you at different times in your life. I focus on what I most want to read next rather than returning to specific books.

Glasp: You advise startups and entrepreneurs on storytelling. What's the most important advice you give them?

Eliot: Founders spend most of their time storytelling, whether it's recruiting, raising money, selling to customers, or explaining their vision. Your job is to tell your own story compellingly. Often, your own story is the hardest to tell because you have no perspective on yourself. When I work with founders, I help them articulate their story in a way that connects with the right people. I spend time interviewing key team members, researching, writing, and revising their story to create a document that articulates their core vision. It's about making the story resonate with their audience and compounding its value over time.

Glasp: That makes perfect sense. Any final advice for aspiring writers or founders?

Eliot: Sleep well, exercise regularly, spend less than you earn. Most advice is already out there, but what's important is trying and seeing what works for you. Don't rely too much on advice; follow what feels right to you. The most basic advice, like taking care of yourself, is the most valuable. Tactical advice is often overemphasized.

Glasp: Since Glasp is a platform where people share what they're reading and learning, what kind of legacy or impact do you want to leave behind?

Eliot: I don't spend much time thinking about legacy, but I aim to write novels that offer readers a compelling experience and a new perspective on life. I publish for others, hoping that the right people will find my work when they need it, whether it's tomorrow or long after I'm gone. The impact is in connecting with readers and enriching their lives, regardless of when that happens.

Glasp: Thank you so much for joining today and sharing all your insights and experiences.

Eliot: You bet. It's been a pleasure. Thanks for all your good questions.

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