Tag Archives: Jonathan Maberry

Combating the Darkness: Inside the Writing Process of Multi-Bram Stroker Award Winner Jonathan Maberry

Jonathan Maberry

Jonathan Maberry

There are few horror writers out there today as prolific as New York Times’ bestselling author  Jonathan Maberry, who won the Bram Stoker Award for his first horror novel, Ghost Road Blues, in 2007, and has gone on to receive horror fiction’s most prized honor three additional times. As I write this post, he is nearing completion of his 25th novel.

A multi-dimensional writing talent, Maberry is known not only for his adult novels such as Dead of Night and Patient Zero, but also for his comic books and his YA books. ROT & RUIN, a SciFi novel set in post-zombie-apocalypse and told through the eyes of 15-year-old Benny Imura, made it on Booklist’s Top 10 Horror fiction for Youth in 2011 and is now in development for film.

Maberry is a busy guy  but not too busy to make time to share his writing journey DragonConLogowith other aspiring authors. At this year’s Dragon*Con convention in Atlanta, I had the privilege to hear him speak on two author panels and included some of his more memorable soundbites on my DragonCon wrap-up blog post.

Dead of Night Book OneA week before Halloween, while in the throes of reading book one of Maberry’s Dead of Night series, I asked him to be featured on The Writing Well. He not only agreed, but he also responded to my questions within a few hours  the day before a major trip.  That says it all.

Here’s our Q&A about his journey as a writer — sit back with your favorite Halloween brew and enjoy!

 

THE WRITING WELL: What drew you as a writer to the dark themes that are prevalent in your novels, especially the zombie-apocalypse?

 

JONATHAN MABERRY: I know monsters firsthand. I was raised in an intensely abusive household and in a very violent and very poor neighborhood in Philadelphia. My father was a

Beloved and wacky Harry Potter character, Luna Lovegood.

Wacky Harry Potter character, Luna Lovegood.

genuine monster. A couple of things cast a little light into that darkness. My grandmother (imagine Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter movies as an old lady) was very knowledgeable about folklore, myths and legends, mostly from Europe. She gave me many books to read, told me wonderfully creepy stories, and encouraged me to imagine the endings to the folk tales she’d tell. And my middle school librarian encouraged me to read science fiction, fantasy and horror. She knew I wanted to write and my stories tended toward the dark. She was also the secretary for a couple of clubs of professional writers, and so was able to introduce me to some of the members. They included Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison and others. Those writers, especially Bradbury and Matheson, took me under their wings, offered advice and critiques of my stories, and they encouraged me to read even deeper.

However one thing to note is that I don’t write about monsters. I write about people who confront monsters. I don’t write about darkness. I write about people who combat darkness. The difference is significant.

THE WRITING WELL: Why do you think that genre is so compelling to people (as evident by the phenomenal success of “The Walking Dead”?
walking-dead

JONATHAN MABERRY: We are all afraid of something, even the bravest of us. I’m now a big man and I’ve been studying martial arts for over fifty years. I’m an 8th degree black belt in jujutsu, a member of the international martial arts hall of fame, and a former professional bodyguard. I’m not afraid of, say, a maniac with a knife, but that doesn’t mean I’m free from fear. I fear diseases, mishandled technologies, religious extremism, and so on. Things that are too big (or, in the case of pathogens, too small) for me to fight. Those are things that I can’t defend my family against. We all understand fear.

Horror fiction allows us to explore extreme cases of fear. Zombies are a perfect example of that. We see the zombie outbreak in books, TV, comics and movies and we wonder how we would survive. Could we, in fact, survive? Could we keep our families safe? Could we fight back and win? This same what-if thinking flows over into stories about vampires, werewolves, pernicious spirits, and so on. We walk through the shadows of fictional horror carrying a torch of our own optimism and imagination.

Shows like “The Walking Dead” are not about zombies. They are about people trying to rebuild their lives after catastrophic damage. The title of the show, by the way, does not refer to the zombies. Robert Kirkman has been quite eloquent in explaining that Rick, Daryl and the others are the ‘walking dead’. The lives they once lived have ended and they are searching for a new place to be alive again. Fiction allows us to share that journey and apply much of it to our own lives.

 

THE WRITING WELL: How would you describe your writing process?

JONATHAN MABERRY: I am a methodical writer. I’m deeply passionate about the craft of writing and I love the business aspects as well. It’s both my job and my calling. Since it is my job, I put in the hours. I write every day. I hit my deadlines. I expand my business by developing new stories, I manage my own social media (I do ten minutes of social media every hour of my writing day), and I devote time to cultivating and supporting other writers.

 

On a typical workday I spend two to four hours each morning, usually working at a coffee shop. Then I hit the gym or go for a long walk with the dog. In the afternoon I return home and do another four hours in my office there. I try to write 3-4 thousand words per day. A bit less if I’m traveling, at a convention, or giving a talk. More if I’m closing in on a deadline. This year I’ll have written four and a half novels, twenty-two short stories, a dozen issues of comic books, and appeared at thirty-one events.

 

THE WRITING WELL: Do you write first from a character or a plot premise? 

 

JONATHAN MABERRY: I do both. My stories usually start with characters. They usually wander out of the back of my mind and into a story that’s forming based on something I’ve seen, read, or cooked up. Once I know the character, I think about what the character wants and what he needs. At that point I sit down and hammer out a loose plot. I always allow my stories to change in the telling, of course, because it’s unreasonable to assume that you had all your best ideas the day you outlined your book.

 

Once in a while a plot premise will come first, but as soon as I have that I shift gears to examine the human element of the story. Stories are about people, not events. That’s critical to good storytelling.

 

THE WRITING WELL: At a Dragon*Con panel you said you always run your stories by your wife for feedback. What was the most memorable feedback she ever provided?

Authors AJ Huntley and Jonathan Maberry at the 2015 Dragon*Con held in Atlanta.

Authors AJ Huntley and Jonathan Maberry at the 2015 Dragon*Con held in Atlanta.

JONATHAN MABERRY: One of the most important aspects of my creative interactions with my wife, Sara Jo, is that she is all about characters. She will call me on it if a character is ever acting contrary to their presumed nature. She calls it ‘acting out of integrity’. She is invariably correct. She isn’t a writer, but her understanding of people is superb, insightful, and wise.

 

We met walking in a park. Well, I was walking and she was jogging. The person with whom I was walking was a mutual friend, so Sara Jo stopped to talk. She and I had a little moment of shared electricity. But I thought she was married, and she thought I was dating the woman I was strolling with. Neither was the case. When Sara Jo found out I was single, she called me. I have never much believed in the ‘love at first sight’ thing, but you can call me a convert now.

 

THE WRITING WELL: Finally, what aspect of your own craft have you worked on the hardest to master or fine tune  (the thing that perhaps didn’t come as easily)? How can up-and-coming writers  do to get their writing to the next level?

 

JONATHAN MABERRY: Fiction was the real challenge for me. Even though I wrote stories as a kid, I planned to become a newspaper reporter. I went to Temple University to study journalism, and while I was there I began selling magazine feature articles. For twenty-five years I wrote articles, columns, and reviews for magazines of all kinds. While teaching at Temple University I began writing textbooks –not on writing, but on martial arts history, women’s self-defense, and related topics). And I also wrote greeting cards, song lyrics, poetry, plays, how-to manuals, training scripts, and a slew of other materials. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that I decided to try fiction. It was an experiment and I had no formal training in creative writing. None.

To teach myself the craft, I read everything I could, and then I began deconstructing my favorite novels in the genre in which I wanted to write. I read those books as a reader, and then I re-read them multiple times as a writer, breaking them down to the three acts, then to outlines, studying the elements of figurative and descriptive language, voice, pace, tension, action, dialogue. All of it. When I felt that I was ready I outlined a novel and began writing. It took me over three years to finish that book, and another six months to revise it.

bramstokerThat’s the point at which I had to go out and find an agent. I got a good one, too. Sara Crowe, currently of the Harvey Klinger Agency. Sara sold my first novel, Ghost Road Blues, and its two sequels to Kensington’s Pinnacle imprint. The book surprised the hell out of me by winning the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel. That award seriously validated my decision to try fiction. As I write this I’m three days away from finishing my 25th novel. And I write short stories and comics. Fiction is virtually everything I do in this phase of my writing career, and I have very little interest in looking back at my nonfiction days. Two of those novels are in development for film and another is in development for TV; and I’m adapting Ghost Road Blues into a pilot for a potential series.

However, I’m still learning the craft. It’s fun but not easy, and I believe it is incumbent on every writer to try and better their best. Always.

Dragon*Con 2015 — Memorable Moments

StormTroopers

300 BC

I attended my fourth Dragon*Con this past weekend after a two-year hiatus and it didn’t disappoint. The event – dubbed “the wildest geek convention on the planet” by TripAdvisor – drew 65,000 fantasy and scifi fans to downtown Atlanta.

Sherrilyn Kenyon and I.

In honor of the annual Labor Day weekend spectacle, The Writing Well is sharing a few pearls of wisdom from some of the literary set of speakers who I heard present on author and writing panels (see last section of post).

Touching Tributes to Nimoy, Lee

Before going there, I want to pay homage to some of the entertainment panels I attended this year. As a fan of classic Trek, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, I was thrilled to attend the tribute to Leonard Nimoy and iconic British actor Christopher LeeChristopher

Lee, who passed away in February and in June of this year, respectively. A few interesting notes about Lee I learned: he spoke seven languages, made a heavy metal album and was the only Lord of the Rings cast member who actually met J.R.R. Tolkien (and read the books every year).

Nimoy
As for Nimoy, I could devote an entire blog to my favorite scifi actor. He was much more than the token alien cast opposite Captain Kirk on Trek; he was an accomplished director, photographer and poet with seven books under his name. He touched all of those outcasts in the world who were nerdy before nerdy was cool.

He also had a record album produced named appropriately, Highly Illogical. He was well liked and respected by his cast members – he was accepting of certain cast members who were not well liked.

He hated being typecast as Spock in the early years but grew to appreciate the character and what Spock symbolized well beyond the series– a half-human and half-Vulcan who struggled to balance his warring halves and to belong. His final tweet to followers before his death on Feb. 27 reflected his wisdom and humanity: “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory.” He signed the tweet off with “LLAP,” a nod to his famous Spock moniker, “live long and prosper.”

Snodgrass and Star Trek TNG
Vendor_StarTrekArtworkI also attended Melinda Snodgrass’s highly entertaining session on her early work as a screenwriter for “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” A good friend to author George R.R. Martin, Melinda got her break when she penned “A Measure of a Man” on spec.

Many fans consider it one of the greatest episodes featuring the android character, Data, as well as one of the best of Star Trek – the inspiration for the episode was the famous Dred Scott case. Data goes on trial and Captain Picard must prove he is legally a sentient being with rights and freedoms under Federation law when transfer orders demand Data’s reassignment for study and disassembly.

“Trek had never shot an episode like this that was very dialogue-heavy – it was a court room drama. When they finished shooting, it was 13 minutes too long so they cut 13 minutes out of it,” recalled Snodgrass. She was snuck a copy of the director’s cut with the full footage. She kept it until CBS Television decided to do a Blu-ray version of the series and requested her copy back.

One of the scenes in the extended version was between Picard and his first officer, Wil Riker, played by Jonathan Frakes where the two men were fencing. While Patrick Stewart was an accomplished fencer, Frakes wasn’t given time to learn technique for the scene and had to settle for doing the voiceover as an acting double fought Picard.

“I like the scene because I always thought Riker was overlooked and not given proper stature. He often ended up seeming weak,” Snodgrass said, pointing out how the character turned down the chance to command his own ship, preferring to remain on the Enterprise. “I wanted to see some rivalry. Jonathan nailed it – he said, ‘I’m going to beat you. I’m going to win.’ I like what they did in that moment. There was some power there.”

Six - BSGThe long queue line was worth it to attend the celebrity panel of “Battlestar Galactica,” the 2004 to 2009 remake of the 70s hit by Ronald D. Moore. Who doesn’t love Cylons – including BattlestarGalacticathe six impersonators of “Six” in the audience and Commander Adama (played by the incomparable Edward James Olmos)?

 

A few of my favorite costumes:

StarWars_Beauty Outlander The ShiningDragonCon_Constume2 DragonCon_Costume Avatar Mother and ChildSuperman_WonderWomanWeepingAngel_Dr Who

Writing Wisdom from Dragon*Con’s Wordsmiths:

NYT Bestselling Author Panel (L to R) Laurell K. Hamilton, Peter Hamilton, Michael Stackpole and Jim Butcher.

NYT Bestselling Author Panel (L to R) Laurell K. Hamilton, Peter Hamilton, Michael Stackpole and Jim Butcher.

#1 “I think my English literature degree set me back two years – telling a story is not the kind of thing you learn in an English class.” — Jim Butcher, author of The Dresden Files

LaurellKHamilton

Laurell K. Hamilton

#2If I over-outline it takes away the impetus for me to write.” – Laurell K. Hamilton, author of The Anita Blake Series

#3 The characters I have the most fun with are the ones whose views I never share.” – Peter F. Hamilton, Dragon*Con Literary Guest of Honor

 

Carol Barrowman

Carol Barrowman

#4 “When you’re done with your novel, put the whole book on a page, then a paragraph and then a tagline; you should be able to talk about your book in 30 seconds.” – Carole Barrowman, co-author of children’s book series, Hollow Earth, with brother, John Barrowman

#5 “I love drawing on real people. Writers are eavesdroppers and peeping toms (without looking through blinds). A lot of my characters are often amalgamations of real people. I knew a Quaker and I made him a pornographer who does snuff films. He loved it!” — Jonathan Maberry

#6 “[When using beta readers] one of the things I found helpful is to have them assign ABCD to passages – A is for awesome, B is for bored, C is for confused and D is for don’t care.” – A.J. Huntley

Lane and Ruckus Skye, husband-wife filmmakers

Lane and Ruckus Skye, husband-wife filmmakers

#“7How do you write realistic dialogue? How do you make it ‘real?’ Think of what the world would say – eavesdropping on people talking. One trick: they don’t talk in compete sentences – words drop.” – Lane Skye, independent filmmaker

Lou Anders

Lou Anders

#8 “Story begins with a character who wants something – you boil it down to what they want most and what’s the worst thing that can happen to them? And it does.” – Lou Anders

AJ Huntley and Jonathan Maberry

AJ Huntley and Jonathan Maberry

#9 “Books are organic. I allow for organic growth – which often calls for changes in storytelling.”
– Jonathan Maberry

#10 “Characters come to life when I know their voice – I know how they will respond to certain situations.” – Naomi Novik

#11 “Story has to come first.” – Delilah Dawson

#12 “Never give up.” – Sherrilyn Kenyon

 

 

DragonCon 2010: NYT Bestselling Writers Tell All

DragonCon held Labor Day weekend in Atlanta was more than a visual smorgasbord for SciFi enthusiasts as their favorite characters took over four downtown hotels. For writers, it offered some exciting opportunities to hear from the best genre writers in science fiction and fantasy.
On Sunday I checked out a session, “NYT Bestsellers Tell it All,” on how to help boost your book to the NYT Bestsellers List. The panelists are all bestselling authors, who talked candidly about their writing journeys. None of them struck gold immediately, and all of them shared stories of battling their own inner critics that got in the way of their success.  “Perfection is an unattainable goal” was a message that was loud and clear to this writer.

Star Wars Jedi Academy Triology Author Kevin Anderson: Prolific and Connected 
 

Kevin Anderson, who gained fame writing for X-Files and as a co-author of the Dune prequels, penned the Star Wars Jedi Academy trilogy that was the three top-selling science fiction novels of 1994 and the bestselling SF anthologies of all time.  He noted that all the featured panelists are prolific writers who  interact with the fans at book signings and other events.

“We still work a lot, are fans and write like crazy.” He criticized his profession’s tendency to turn on bestselling authors such as Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight series, and Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code. “I want to stand up for these authors because they are pleasing a lot of readers,” he says (way to go, Kevin!).

Anderson himself has more than 11 million books in print worldwide but considers Lonesome Dove, the 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning western novel written by Larry McMurtry, his all-time favorite read. The best writer’s advice he ever received was from Dean Koontz who told him that the first million words you write “is all practice and if you get paid while you’re practicing then great. But, don’t expect that you really know how to be a writer until you’ve written a million words, which is about 10 novels or so. I’ve written about 10 novels and I’m still learning.”

Anita Blake Series Author Laurell K. Hamilton’s Advice: Don’t Give Up

Laurell K. Hamilton, the NYT bestselling author of Meredith Gentry novels and the acclaimed Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter Series novels, says her Anita Blake novels were rejected 200 times by editors in the late 1980s, when she was told repeatedly that the vampire genre was dead. Publishing houses liked her book but didn’t know how to market it, she said until finally Penguin/Putnam Books picked it up.

“I am living proof, folks, don’t be discouraged. If you believe in what you are doing, keep doing it,” says Hamilton, who learned she cracked the top 50 book list on USA Today not from her agent her publisher, but from another editor who had earlier rejected her work.

Hamilton recalls attending a writer’s workshop at a smaller science fiction convention where she brought in a short story and short fantasy novel. “The (workshop) didn’t make me a better writer but at the end of the weekend I was a better editor of my stuff,” she recalled. “Sometimes it is not that you aren’t good at writing; sometimes it’s that you are not good at seeing what’s good in your writing and that comes with practice. That short story I edited after that workshop was the first thing that sold for me. Her advice is simple: “don’t be overly critical of your work; take out as much as you can and send it out, knowing what markets you are sending it out to, and keep sending it out.”

Panelist Jim Butcher, author of The Dresden Files, a fantasy/mystery series-turned SciFi TV program about a private investigator and wizard in Chicago, said it took nine years before his first novel was published. He offers some great organization advice for the beginning novelist on his blog site (see: Putting it All Together.”)

Sherrilyn Kenyon Overcomes Vampire Rejection to Find Dark-Hunter Following 

Paranormal writing pioneer Sherrilyn Kenyon, a NYT bestselling author of The Dark-Hunters series (among others), has claimed the coveted #1 spot 12 times in the last two years. She recalls how no editors or publishers wanted to publish a vampire book – she took their feedback and altered her characters into “daimons.” She also created guardians of humanity in the form of Dark-Hunters and hasn’t looked back since.

Kenyon, who has eight brothers, says she lives in fear of her family coming to book signings. Her favorite authors are British science, horror and fantasy writer Tanith Lee and David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers series of military SF stories and novels.

Jonathan Maberry Shares Two Books that Changed His Life

Jonathan Maberry, a NYT bestselling and multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning author of both non-fiction and fiction, recalls at age 14 reading two books that changed his life – the 1954 novel by Richard Matheson, I am Legend, which was later made into a film starting Will Smith, and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes, about the harrowing experience of two 13-year-old boys when a nightmarish traveling carnival comes to their town.

“Those books did more for me than any writing class,” says Maberry, whose first published book was a college textbook on martial arts who later moved into writing about the occult and paranormal. Maberry’s account of his first NYT bestseller was particularly entertaining – it happened after being tapped to write the novelization of The Wolfman to coincide with the movie’s re-release in 2010.
“I got a call out of nowhere from someone at Universal who told me they were remaking The Wolfman and would I be interested in adapting it into a novel,” recalled Maberry, who was very professional on the call but inside was “doing the stupid dance.”  Maberry wrote the book having never seen the movie. He said that the script didn’t have a lot of detail and the studio told him to “write a novel.’ He did, and the book got better press than the movie.

Memorable Advice:  Pay it Forward

Maberry says he received great advice from writer David Morrell, author of 28 novels, a few years ago when he said, “Writing is about art but publishing is about business. If you are going to get anywhere…become a businessman who writes. That was great advice and it genuinely helped my career.” In the same conversation, he told him to always pay it forward by helping every other writer you can find even if they are just taking up a pencil for the first time “because the industry needs more good books.”