This episode of the Crime Cafe podcast features my interview with crime writer and entrepreneur Clay Stafford.
Check out what’s on offer for crime writers of all stripes at Killer Nashville.
Not to mention Clay’s other pursuits, including film production, directing, acting, etc.
Before I bring on my guest, I’ll just remind you that the Crime Cafe has two eBooks for sale: the nine book box set and the short story anthology. You can find the buy inks for both on my website, debbimack.com under the Crime Cafe link. You can also get a free copy of either book if you become a Patreon supporter. You’ll get that and much more if you support the podcast on Patreon, along with our eternal gratitude for doing so.
Debbi (00:54): But first, let me put in a good word for Blubrry podcasting.
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I’ve included an affiliate link on this blog.
Download a copy of the PDF transcript of this episode here.
Debbi: Our first guest for this season has achieved so much,I could spend hours picking his brain for advice, but we’ll have to settle for about 20 to 25 minutes, more or less. We can hit the highlights anyway, and one of those is the big conference that he organizes—Killer Nashville. Killer Nashville has been going on for … this is the 16th iteration of Killer Nashville, as I understand it. It’s just amazing that he has organized this conference starting with a very much smaller group. We can get into that later. He is also a screenwriter, poet, playwright, film and TV producer, director, showrunner, actor, educator, reviewer and public speaker. I think I’ve covered all of it. Gee, what a slacker, right?
Clay: And Dad. And Dad. I’m a dad. A husband and a dad.
Debbi: That’s awesome. See, all of those things. That’s great. So it is my great pleasure to introduce as my guest today, the amazing Clay Stafford.
Clay: Oh, thank you.
Debbi: Hi, Clay.
Clay: Hi, Debbie. How are you? I think we’re in our 18th year, if I’m not mistaken.
Clay: I don’t know, let’s do the math. 2006 was the first year, and then we were forced to take one year off because of Covid. So I think we’re going into our 18th, but I’m not quite sure. It’s either 17th or18th, maybe. I don’t know. But it seems only yesterday in 2006 when I asked a couple of friends to come down, and it turned out to be about 70 friends came down for the first Killer Nashville and it seems like yesterday, but I’ve watched two children grow while the conference goes year to year so I know time is moving, but it doesn’t seem like that to me, but I guess that’s the way it is. You know, you don’t start feeling older until you watch your kids start growing, and as they get bigger and bigger, you keep thinking, well, something must be happening with me because if they’re aging so am I.
Debbi: That’s right. Yeah. Unfortunately.
Clay: But thank you for having me back on the show. We got to talk last year, and I was delighted to come back and talk with you again.
Debbi: Well, same here, because you do so many things and you’ve done so many things, it’s just amazing to me. I was looking over our previous interview and I was struck by a couple of things. First, I’d forgotten that you started a production company at the age of 16 and made commercials at that time, correct?
Clay: I did. I did. And the first commercial was for a bank, so yeah, I’ve been doing this for a long time. I started as a kid actor when I was 10, so that’s even adding onto it. So I’ve been in this business a long time working in film, television, and publishing and music.
Debbi: And music. Yeah. Excellent. Also, I was struck by how the Killer Nashville grew out of a smaller local conference, correct?
Clay: Well, I started a conference before Killer Nashville, and it was one that is still to some degree going on here in Tennessee where I live. But it’s a very, very local conference, and I really wanted to expand into something that was international, which is what we are. I just saw today we had somebody sign up from Kenya, so we’ve got a lot of people who come in from other countries. And that was really my focus for switching and starting Killer Nashville was to be able to increase the bandwidth to reach writers. I love writers from all over the world. I don’t have a specific genre really that I personally read. I’m very eclectic; read across everything. I also am a big fan of literary works and movies from other countries, and so the idea of doing something international was really appealing to me because I wanted to … I just love the connection that you make with these writers and filmmakers throughout the world. We have a common love of what we’re trying to do with story, and it’s just great to be able to reach out and get to know people from other cultures.
Well, I started a conference before Killer Nashville, and it was one that is still to some degree going on here in Tennessee where I live. But it’s a very, very local conference, and I really wanted to expand into something that was international, which is what we are.
Debbi: It is. It’s fantastic. So what is new and exciting that’s on tap at Nashville this year?
Clay: At Killer Nashville?
Debbi: Yes, Killer Nashville.
Clay: We’ve expanded our course offerings. We were doing around 66 courses. We are doing 155 this year, and the conference is able to hold that, so we’ve got a lot more opportunities for people to be on panels. We’ve got a lot more opportunities for people who are coming to learn, to find different types of things that we’re working on. I’ve really focused … I know a lot of people are interested in marketing, whether they’re traditionally published or self-published or some sort of independent hybrid whatever, and so we’ve really, really battened down the hatches on the marketing as well. So we’re covering a lot of genres. Our Trinity was pretty much any work that encompasses mystery, thriller or suspense, and we’ve altered that because I kind of had an epiphany that action and romance—and not necessarily romantic love—but romance with life, romance with language, fit in as well so now we’ve got the five. Mystery, thriller, suspense, action and romance are pretty much the focus of what we’re doing here at Killer Nashville.
It’s still the same conference it was, but we’re offering more things like how to interject romance into your book, how to interject action, more action into your book, how do you keep the pages turning? And so we focused a lot more on that because I think that’s really what people wanted. I spent a lot of time this last year sending out emails to previous attendees and people I knew who were coming this year saying what do you want to see? And so they started telling me what they wanted to see, and I thought, we don’t have enough bandwidth in our 66 things to cover that. So I started doing the numbers of how many attend, and I was just like, okay, we’ve got enough that we can expand out and still have a good showing in each one of the rooms.
It’s still the same conference it was, but we’re offering more things like how to interject romance into your book, how to interject action, more action into your book, how do you keep the pages turning?
So we’re up to I think it’s 156, and then we’ve got a lot more panel presentations —not panel presentations—presentations by individuals, experts in their field of AI and forensics and legal and medicine, so all of those are going to be for people who are really coming for some serious knowledge about … what goes really goes on in the mind of a serial killer? We’ve got expert presenters who are coming to do that. We’ve got panels and presentations at the same time going, so it’s really, really expanded. It’s the same as it was, but as I sent out in a newsletter, Killer Nashville newsletter, I really think that this year is going to be the best one I’ve ever produced.
Debbi: Well, it sounds really amazing. It sounds like you’ve really branched out into some other things.
Clay: Well, I think I’ve really just kind of, as I said, had kind of an epiphany and with the guidance of the people who’ve previously attended, because they’re the backbone of what we do, or the people come and share themselves with everybody else. I just kind of had an epiphany on the little dark areas and the shadow areas that we weren’t shining light on, and so decided that this year that we’ve got to figure out a way to do that. And I did. I’ve got it worked out. We’ve got the schedule online now, and you’ll see a wide array of choices. So no matter where you are in your journey, whether you’ve just got an idea or you’re already a published writer who’s doing well but wants to do better, we’ve got something going on every single hour of every single day for you. We’re running 10 and 12 tracks per day, I mean per hour, so there’s going to be plenty of content for whatever stage that you’re at. And what’s so cool is having … As you know, we have really experienced people who are coming and then people who are starting out and having them network and converse is a great thing. So, that’s kind of the news of where we are this year.
I just kind of had an epiphany on the little dark areas and the shadow areas that we weren’t shining light on, and so decided that this year that we’ve got to figure out a way to do that. And I did.
Debbi: Yeah. So it’s interesting that you’re going into marketing a little bit more, because definitely that’s on the minds of a lot of writers these days.
Clay: Yes, especially when you’ve got the independent people and then also with standard publishing houses, the traditional houses, you don’t have the marketing support that you used to have. Everybody’s got a tight budget now, and so it’s not like somebody’s just trying to ignore their authors. They just have to manage the resources as wisely as they can, and so it behooves authors to sort of have to take that upon yourself as well. There are things that you can do that cost money, but there’s lots of things that you can do that don’t necessarily cost money. And so we try to make sure we cover those in our sessions because a lot of people are the do-it-yourself kind of person and have to be even because of necessity. And so we try to try to give them freebie ways that they can increase their market reach without having to spend a lot of money to do it.
Debbi: Yeah, yeah. Very important to know those. Are you already planning a panel for next time on ChatGPT and how It won’t take over our jobs ?
Clay: We’ve got three sessions on AI at this particular conference. One is, as a writer, is your job at threat, and then the other thing about AI in terms of its current use within the military. And then the third panel is, are we already, to some degree, at war on the electronic front because of the ability of AI and things that are going on? So all three of those forensic panels actually, I think will be very, very informative.
Debbi: Sounds like it
Clay: And I’ve got an expert in AI coming in to discuss those issues and so we’re actually getting a real perspective of where we are in that, rather than like an opinion presentation or opinion panel. We’re actually getting some hard data coming in on that.
Debbi: Wow, that’s great. How do you manage your time and avoid burnout?
I started out as a young person doing what I loved, and I have always done what I loved, even when I’ve been in situations where I was about to get thrown out of my apartment or having to spend the night in my car, which has happened in the early days.
Clay: First of all, I started out as a young person doing what I loved, and I have always done what I loved, even when I’ve been in situations where I was about to get thrown out of my apartment or having to spend the night in my car, which has happened in the early days. I think that the number one thing is to just make a choice to do something you love, because when you love it, it’s not work. I remember after the Northridge earthquake when I was living in Beverly Hills in Los Angeles, I was doing really well with the film, but I woke up one morning and I was doing some acting work then, and I was like it feels like a job. And at that point, my personality, I loaded my dog into my car and Chip Diggins at Hollywood Pictures, said, why don’t you check out some locations back in Tennessee? And so I left.
I’d gone through Hurricane Andrew in Miami a few years before, and I thought, I don’t want to deal with another one of these natural disasters going on. So I came back to Tennessee and really fell in love again with writing as opposed to acting, and I think I’ve just followed my muse as I’ve gone along. So that’s how I think I prevent burnout. I love what I do and I have a great supportive family that lets me go. I work seven days a week most of the time. I work about 10 to 12 hours a day, and I don’t really feel like I’m a workaholic. I feel like I’m a little kid in a playground. So I get to electronically or in person, hang out with some really cool people, and I get to create stories and I get to create projects and work with other people on projects, developing other projects and consulting. And so it’s just a lot of variety and it’s a lot of fun so it’s not burnout for me.
Debbi: Well, that’s fantastic and that’s as it should be. I mean, everybody should really hopefully embrace the thing that they love so much that working in that field is really just kind of living, part of your life.
Clay: Well. A lot of people I think, and we get that at Killer Nashville, we’ve got even some panels on it, they’re averse to risk, and you really have to be willing. I remember there was a well-known actor that I was around, and I said, I’m feeling very frustrated. He said, hang in there, kid. He said eventually when you get old enough, everybody’s either going to die or they’re going to get tired and leave, and you’re still going to be standing. And so I took his advice and stuck with it, and I recommend that to everybody, but I think you just have to take little calculated risks in order to get to that point.
I remember there was a well-known actor that I was around, and I said, I’m feeling very frustrated. He said, hang in there, kid. He said eventually when you get old enough, everybody’s either going to die or they’re going to get tired and leave, and you’re still going to be standing.
Not all of us … I don’t know how people are like full-time writers because I do a lot of other things. I produce, I direct, I consult, I’m an educator as well, and I don’t know. About three hours for me of creativity, of writing, real sitting there writing just about drains all. So what are you going to do the rest of the day? I don’t know. I think sometimes people think I’m going to be a professional writer. That’s a full-time thing. There are people who do work eight hours a day or more or less writing, but I just can’t do that. I get very, very tired. I just put my heart and soul into it, and it drains me out. So I don’t know if heading in the direction of saying I’m going to quit my job and be a full-time writer. I think you can really be a professional full-time “writer” and still keep your other job if it’s something that you love to do as well. But if you hate your job—this is just in general, it doesn’t matter—if you hate your job, put some thought into that because you spend a lot of time at that job.
Debbi: That’s right.
Clay: You hate it so much. Start thinking about Plan B, or better yet, you know, Plan A but you may be in Plan B or C. So, I think that’s a good path to …
Debbi: Make writing part of your A-story of life.
Clay: Yes, exactly. I mean, there’s some people that can just sit and write and write and write and write, but I get tired and I need to go do something else. I guess that kind of goes back to how do you prevent burnout? I work a lot and I play a lot, but I don’t focus on one thing for a long, long time. I kind of go from this project to this project throughout the day, and it adds a lot of variety to what I do.
Debbi: Yeah, yeah. I hear that, because going between novels and screenplays is what I do and it’s very much the same sort of thing. It’s like, okay, I have to focus on this one for a while. Okay, now I have to switch over to this one, and it requires similar skill sets but different, if you know what I mean.
Clay: Yes, I do.
Debbi: You know about screenwriting. I was going to say, since you’re a producer and showrunner, I had to check you out on IMDbPro, and I see that you made four films, four short films in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Debbi: What was that like?
Clay: Well, I’ve made quite a few films. I was a producer for PBS. I’ve done a lot of independent films, but back when I was involved in doing that, the Internet Movie Database was only interested if they could get it on DVD. So since the year 2000 forward, stuff like that you’ll start seeing things. There was a project I did, which was interesting. It was a documentary and we went through. We were previewing it in film festivals and because we were doing that, we were using a program that happened to be owned by Internet Movie Database, and so that got listed. But yeah, there’s a ton of credits and movies and stuff that I’ve done that are not listed on that just because the internet is new and I’m old, so they don’t list all of the things that you do, and you have to go through a manual process of uploading. I’ve uploaded a couple of things that I’ve been involved in and it’s just kind of too much trouble.
Debbi: Yeah. Yeah.
Clay: Better place is to go to www.claystafford.com and see the links and the list there of credits.
Debbi: There’s lots of stuff on your website. Very interesting. I took a look.
Clay: I’ve probably produced and directed and written each respectively probably 150, 200 projects that have shown on PBS and what used to be the three traditional networks – CBS, NBC, ABC – so if you really want to get a full scope of that, go to my website and look at the credits.
Debbi: Interesting. Did you do mostly documentary style or …?
Clay: I did documentaries. I did movies for television. There used to be the after-school specials, and we would take on an issue, say dyslexia, and I did a movie about a kid with dyslexia and so it ran a range. I’ve done game shows. When I was with PBS, I was in charge of live television, so all political debates I would do and I was also a switcher as well. You know, in TV you have the director and the switcher, and I was a director/switcher where you sit at the control console and pick which camera angle you were going to use. Did a lot of how-to for PBS—bonsai, sewing shows, painting shows, memory shows, so just a big eclectic mix of different kinds of things.
I did documentaries. I did movies for television. There used to be the after-school specials, and we would take on an issue, say dyslexia, and I did a movie about a kid with dyslexia and so it ran a range. I’ve done game shows.
Clay: But again, if you really want to know about that, go to go to my website and look in credits and you’ll see that
Debbi: I’ll have to do that. What’s your advice for anyone who’d like to write for film or television?
Clay: Write a really good spec script and then find an agent. It’s pretty much impossible to get anything done without a good agent, and it’s really hard to find an agent. So when you start submitting out, send it to 20 agents at a time, and then when you get rejected by all of them, which you probably will, no matter how good your script is. I’ve got a friend of mine who got a script for a boxer that was coming back in. It was his biggest oh, I missed that one. That was for Rocky. It was Sylvester Stallone. Rocky went on to do very, very well. So just because you get rejected doesn’t mean that you don’t have something that’s good, because Rocky was good. I remember going to the theater and coming out and everybody was jumping around like they were the Italian Stallion, and so I would suggest that you write a really good spec script.
And if we are going to define a spec script, that’s just a script written on speculation and one that you don’t know if anything’s ever going to happen to it. You just write it and then get an agent and then when the first 20 reject you, send it to another 20, and when they reject, you send to another. Eventually if it’s good, somebody will pick it up, and then you’re pretty much in the hands of your agent in terms of submitting it to studios, if you’re just wanting to go the script route straight without having to go through a book and then adaptation to screen.
Debbi: Yes. Do you think you’re more likely to get an agent if you have a book as opposed to a screenplay?
Debbi: If you have the IP, can you sell them the idea of, say, a feature or a TV show based on your IP?
Clay: What do you mean by IP? I’m sorry.
Debbi: The intellectual property, I meant the book.
Clay: Yeah, if you’ve written a book. I remember when Kevin Costner did Dances with Wolves, he had the writer write the screenplay and then he said, it’s going to be a lot easier for me to get this produced if you’ll rewrite it as a book first and get the book published, and then let me take it in. Hollywood has always looked to stage and books for new material and sometimes at the expense of original screenplays. So with books, you’ve already got something in hand. They’ve got the full story. They can see it.
Hollywood has always looked to stage and books for new material and sometimes at the expense of original screenplays. So with books, you’ve already got something in hand. They’ve got the full story. They can see it.
Especially if it’s got a book with legs, if it’s moving, if it’s selling, then you’ve got a better opportunity. There are readers that you, as the author can submit your book to directly to various production companies to see. You can’t submit your screenplay to the production companies, but you can submit your book to the production companies because it’s a published book. It’s out there. The reason they won’t accept your screenplay is because of the mass volume of people writing, but also because there’s a liability issue. They could read it and then later on you could say that they stole your idea or something. And so, just for legal reasons, they’d rather go through an agent than they would directly.
You can’t submit your screenplay to the production companies, but you can submit your book to the production companies because it’s a published book. It’s out there.
But if you’ve got a book that’s published that anybody can buy at a bookstore or online, then they don’t have to worry about somebody saying, oh, you took my private idea and you stole it. So you can submit those to readers, and then the readers will recommend them to the producers of the various production companies. Then that person would reach out to you or reach out to your literary agent usually, and then it would go from there.
Debbi: That’s useful to know actually. You are definitely what I would consider an entrepreneurial author or entrepreneurial writer, producer, so forth.
Clay: Yeah. Yeah.
Debbi: What advice would you give to somebody who would like to do what you’re doing?
Clay: I don’t know. I really think a lot of it comes organically from how you’re wired when you come into the world. And back when I was acting, I remember several different accountants told me that you’re not the typical actor, and I’ve had a couple of attorneys, intellectual attorneys tell me that you’re not the typical writer/producer, because I tend to… I’m a Capricorn, if there’s any value in that, which means that I do tend to stereotypically have a business-slanted mind. I think you either have that mentality or you don’t. I think you can develop an interest in it, I think you can be taught if you really have an interest, but it might not turn you on the way that it turns me on.
I love deals. I took a lot of law classes when I was at the University of Miami doing my graduate work, and I was at the top of my classes that I took in law. I really had no desire to be an entertainment attorney, but I just loved the theory and the precedents and the application that was behind law, and so I think you either have a love for it or you don’t have a love for it, but you can certainly gain knowledge. But in terms of wanting to do it I think that’s a completely different matter.
For me, I get as much fun putting a deal together. I have as much fun producing a project as I do writing. And so, if you have that feeling and you love that feeling, because for me it all comes down to storytelling. We’re putting together a story, we’re packaging a story, we’re writing a story. It all comes down to the same thing. But if you don’t have that, then it may not be your thing that you want to produce. But if you’ve got an interest in business, then yeah, you can expand and start doing things.
For me, I get as much fun putting a deal together. I have as much fun producing a project as I do writing. And so, if you have that feeling and you love that feeling, because for me it all comes down to storytelling.
As a matter of fact, I was fortunate to be the guy that drove the golf cart for MCA mogul Lou Wasserman, and he talked to me a lot as a young guy in my early ’20s and gave me advice on things. He told me the business side is where you can have your security, as opposed to being just on the arts side, because if you’re on the arts side, you’re waiting for someone to hire you or you’re waiting for someone to buy something from you or accept you. But if you’re the rainmaker, then you’ve always got something going on because you’re the one that’s creating everything, and you’re the one that’s hiring and you’re the one that’s producing, and so it was a valuable, valuable advice that he gave me as we drove around in our little golf cart on the Universal Studio lot.
Debbi: Wow, that’s so cool. Let’s see. What are you reading these days? We don’t have very much time left, just so you know. It’s like seven minutes
Clay: Before we hang up?
Clay: What am I reading? I’ve got a business book that I’m reading. I’ve got several non-fiction books, and I’ve got two or three fiction books, and then I try to read all the books I can for our guest of honor interviews at Killer Nashville so I am reading their books. I tend to be episodic in my reading. I’ll read a chapter from this and a chapter from that. I’ve got poetry and essay books sitting on my desk in my bedroom, so I may just decide to spend the evening reading poetry. It just really depends on again what I feel in the mood for, at the time that I’m reading. But I have multiple projects going on.
I tend to be episodic in my reading. I’ll read a chapter from this and a chapter from that. I’ve got poetry and essay books sitting on my desk in my bedroom, so I may just decide to spend the evening reading poetry.
A lot of people say, how do you read so many books? Cause I’m reading like 12, 15 books at the same time, and how do you keep up with all the stories? Well, it’s the same way that you used to before binge watching and streaming came in. You used to watch an episode of something on Tuesday night at 7:30 and you didn’t see it again until Tuesday night at 7:30.
Clay: So it’s pretty much the same thing. I’ve got about 12, 15 books that I read at a time, and I always do that.
Debbi: Oh, that’s fantastic. I read a lot of books at the same time too. Well I was just going to say, is there anything you’d like to add before we finish up?
Clay: No, I’m just delighted to be here and thankfully you asked and hopefully we can get together next year.
Debbi: Oh, absolutely. I really want to come to Killer Nashville one of these days.
Clay: I would love for you to come.
Debbi: I do really want to be there because it just sounds so great. I just want to say thank you so much for being here Clay, and for talking with us. And for you out there listening, I just want to remind you that we are on YouTube as well as the podcast. If you’re on YouTube, please hit the “like” button watching us. And if you’re listening to the podcast, please leave a review and consider supporting us on Patreon, where you can get ad-free episodes and other perks if you join at the lowest level and you can get more at the higher levels.
In any case, I’m glad to say that we have started the ninth season. I’m really pleased to be able to say that and I’m still here. I’m going to continue to interview authors and other people involved in crime writing. Our next guest will be Addison McKnight. It’s a two-person team called Addison McKnight. And until then, take care and I’ll talk to you later. Happy reading.
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