Writers on Writing: Jonathan Maberry

Jonathan Maberry photo
© Sara Jo West
Used with permission

JONATHAN MABERRY is a New York Times best-selling and multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning horror and thriller author, editor, comic book writer, magazine feature writer, playwright, content creator and writing teacher/lecturer. He was named one of the Today’s Top Ten Horror Writers. His books have been sold to more than two-dozen countries.

ANGELA: Where do your ideas come from?

JONATHAN: Ideas are everywhere. I’ve never known a working writer who was ever short on ideas. It’s really more a matter of having the time to write all of the ideas in your head. However I’m also actively on the prowl for elements that will deepen my stories or allow me to build-in interesting hooks. I read a lot of nonfiction about politics, psychology, world news and current events, and tons of science. I subscribe to several dozen science magazines and also correspond with many of the writers and, more often, the experts in various scientific fields. If I want to build in an element of, say, genetics into a story, I typically seek out the leading experts and ask to pick their brains. I now have quite a network of world-class experts in molecular biology, infectious diseases, military technology, forensic evidence collection, hematology, surgery, and so on. It becomes a habit to see something, wonder about it, play ‘what if?’ games with it, develop it into a possible story, and see if that’s something to build into a short story, novel or comic book.

ANGELA: Why do you write in the horror and/or multiple genres?

JONATHAN: Technically I write thrillers. Horror is one of the variations on thrillers that I write. I write stories about people overcoming extreme threats or hardships. I don’t, as some horror writers will, write about monsters. I write about people confronting and overcoming monsters. That’s an entirely different head space.

The horror I write is generally built on the thriller model –the race against time to prevent something very bad from happening. I also write horror built on the suspense model –which is about dealing with things as they’re happening with no clear idea (for the characters or the reader) as to what is going to happen next or how this is all going to work out).

Writing for me is generally about the story first and the genre a bit later, though I have done some projects that are specifically aimed at the center of a genre target. The short story “Chokepoint” was a straight horror, as was the novella “Jack and Jill”. Both are zombie stories and that genre lends itself well to in-the-moment horror.

My YA novels in the ROT & RUIN series tend to be adventure thrillers with elements of thriller, action, science fiction, romance, and, yes, horror. The four book series is more or less a bildungsroman because it does follow a teenager’s growth from a rather naïve youth to a powerful young man, and it showcases the evolution of his worldview.

As for writing in multiple genres, that’s both a creative and business thing. In creative terms, I both dislike personal limitations and enjoy the opportunity to broaden my artistic horizons. For that reason I’ve embraced the opportunities –offered or self-imposed—to write projects in a variety of genres. I will never allow myself to be pigeonholed. I was advised against that by Ray Bradbury and, more emphatically, by Richard Matheson, when I was teenager. I’d gotten to know them both and they each warned me that fitting into a slot is a quick path to a short and unrewarding career. I took them at their word. So, I’ve taken some creative risks in order to write all kinds of stories. It’s easiest to see in my short fiction. In the last few years I’ve done a novella set in the Land of Oz (“The Cobbler of Oz”), an homage to Edgar Allen Poe’s August DuPin (“The Vanishing Assassin”), a ghost story (“Property Condemned”), an historical horror (“The Death Poem of Sensei Otoro”), a Cthulhu Mythos story (“A Footnote in the Black Budget”), a comedy (“Pegleg and Paddy Save the World”), a thriller (“Saint John”), a John Carter of Mars/Edgar Rice Burroughs story (“The Death Song of Dwar Guntha”), a western (“Red Dust”), an apocalyptic noir (“She’s Got a Ticket to Ride”), a science fiction tale (“Clean Sweeps”), a fantasy (“Spellcaster 2.0”), a story set in the world of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood (“The Million Dollar Hunt”), a werewolf adventure (“Strop Search”), a Sherlock Holmes story (“The Adventure of the Greenbrier Ghost”), a psychological mystery (“Doctor Nine”), a gangster vampire story (“Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard”), a YA thriller (“Fat Girl with a Knife”), and many others.

The other reason, the business reason, is because I want to maximize my opportunities to sell new work. If I wrote only in one genre then that’s all I’d do. Maybe a book a year, plus some side work in short fiction. Instead I write several books each year, each in a different genre, and they are published without me competing against myself.

ANGELA: What are you currently reading?

JONATHAN: My reading varies between nonfiction materials, books for possible cover quotes, and novels I read for leisure. So, for the first, I’m reading about new development in paleontology –particular dinosaur evolution into birds; as well as information on remote viewing, psychotropic drugs used for interrogation, and electromagnetic pulses. That’s for a couple of novels I have in development. For cover blurb purposes I’m reading Janice Gable Bashman’s first middle grade novel, FINAL HOME RUN and will then read Clive Barker’s NEXT TESTAMENT graphic novels in order to write the introduction to one of the volumes. For leisure, I’m listening to the audiobook of Ray Porter’s narration of Robert McCammon’s THE NIGHT BOAT, and reading the print version of FIELD OF PREY by John Sandford.

ANGELA: What is one of your all-time favorite books and why?

JONATHAN: When I was a young teen my school librarian introduced me to several professional writers who were part of a club. I became friendly with several, including Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Arthur C. Clarke, Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, and a few others. Bradbury and Matheson soon became two of my favorite writers, and one Christmas they each gifted me with signed first editions of books of which they were particularly proud. Each year I buy new hardcover editions of those books, read them on Halloween week, and donate them to a different local library. Those books are SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES by Ray Bradbury; the book that introduced me to fantasy. And I AM LEGEND by Richard Matheson, the novel that has most significantly influenced the kinds of apocalyptic fiction I both love and write. My other two favorites are the TRAVIS McGEE novels by John D. MacDonald and the DAVE ROBICHEAUX series by James Lee Burke. The McGee novels are, in my opinion, the very mysteries largely because of the complexity and humanity of the lead character. As for Burke’s novels –the language is lush and gorgeous, the insights fascinating and the characters are completely real to me.

ANGELA: What is your favorite literary technique/device/element to use in your writing?

JONATHAN: My three favorite literary elements are dialogue. rhythm and pace. For dialogue, I have two separate elements that I dig. First, love writing realistic conversations that advance the story while deepening our insight into the characters. Most of my stories begin with two characters talking in my head. If you’re not a writer, this is a definite cry for help. If you are a writer this is where great ideas are born.

The second element is the rhythm of the storytelling. A long time ago the wonderful and brilliant writer Harlan Ellison told me to try to write my stories the way the eye sees them. He was one of the pioneers of shattering the standard paragraph block into smaller bits. Short paragraphs. Sentence fragments. One word paragraphs. The effect is like listening to a piece of improvisational jazz. Instead of a straight workmanlike performance, you set to see the story the way the musician (or writer) does. That way the eye sees a flow of paragraphs of different sizes on the page and it follows the flow. Longer paragraphs slow things down, which is fine if you want that to be the pace. Sometimes what you want is a series of seemingly disjointed elements cascading down the page. This is a style also used by Ed McBain in his 87th Precinct novels. I’ve used it since about my second or third novel.

As for pace, I don’t allow my characters much time before I make life very difficult for them. I do character development while in gear, and I explore how the stress of certain kinds of events strips away affect and reveals true nature. Plus, I write very fast and I want the story to move along at top speed. That’s why there is a thriller element

ANGELA: What is your writing process?

JONATHAN: I tend to let an idea bang around inside my head for a while, then I’ll start jotting down ideas. Story elements, snatches of dialogue. Like that. Once I have enough of it, I rough out a plot. I always want to know where my stories are going, so I spend a lot of time developing the logical and exciting end to the bits and pieces. During the actual writing, however, I allow the story to change in the telling because that is a very organic process. But I keep the plot handy, and often revise it as the story changes.

One thing that I’ve found very useful in terms of hitting deadlines, reducing the number of revisions I’ll need, and telling a stronger overall story, is that I often jump forward and write the ending first. Then I back up and aim everything at that bull’s eye.

ANGELA: How frequently (and for how long/how much) do you write?

JONATHAN: I am a professional writer. Except on days where I have business meetings or time-intensive author events, I typically write eight or nine hours a day. Lately my schedule has been to be at my laptop by eight-thirty or nine in the morning and write until midday. I eat and do an hour of fitness training in my pool, or walk on the beach with my dog. Then I go back to work and write until dinnertime. I set my word count goal at about three thousand words per day, but I often hit closer to four thousand.

I typically work on one novel at a time, and take short breaks during those to write short stories and comic book scripts. Currently I’m writing two monthly comics, ROT & RUIN and V-WARS, both for IDW; and will likely add a third title next year.

I also have to integrate time for business –emails, phone conferences, contract negotiations, creative meetings, etc., with the various publishers and agents with whom I work. And I need time to edit. I’m currently editing volumes three through five of the V-WARS prose anthology series; as well as three simultaneous X-FILES anthologies, and a young adult horror anthology.

Time management is key. I do not waste time. And, yes, sometimes I have to work overtime. That’s always a risk for the self-employed.

At my current pace, I’m writing four novels per year –average word count of 120k each; two monthly comics; a dozen short stories; plus interviews.

ANGELA: Do you already have ideas lined up so that you could immediately start the next story?

JONATHAN: I have my next six novels already sold and waiting to be written. They include KILL SWITCH (book #8 of the Joe Ledger series), WATCH OVER ME (book #1 of the Dylan Quinn teen mystery series), VAULT OF SHADOWS (book #2 of The Nightsiders middle-grade science fiction series); GLIMPSE (a standalone horror-suspense), COLD COLD HEART (#2 in the Dylan Quinn series), and BITS & PIECES (a collection of Rot & Ruin short stories). I only do short stories on invitation, and I have a dozen of them on the calendar. And my comics are pre-sold. So…yeah, the ideas are there, the projects are there, all I need to do is make sure I have the time to do each one at the best of my skill level.

ANGELA: Do you always start the next work immediately after completing one?

JONATHAN: Unless a project wraps at the end of a work day, I generally take a ten minute break and then leap into the next thing on my schedule.

ANGELA: What do you do about writer’s block?

JONATHAN: I don’t believe writers block exists. Writers who say that they encounter it most often are those who are trying too hard to make their first draft read like a polished final draft. They are imposing unrealistic expectations on themselves. First drafts should be done quick and dirty –get the story out of your head and onto the page. That process taps into the part of us that is instinctive –we’re either storytellers or we’re not. Once the essential story is down, no matter how flawed and clunky, we then shift mental gears and approach the revision with an entirely different process. Craft. That’s something we learn. The skills of craft include figurative and descriptive language, point of view, person, pace, timing, dialogue, metaphor, and so on. These are things we learn in order to refine our stories. Writers who understand that these are separate stages of the writing process never get writers block.

Another reason for the myth of writers block is a lack of structure. I know some folks rail against the sacrilege of writing an outline for a novel. They don’t consider that to be how an ‘artist’ does it. Blah blah blah. A story must have some internal logic or it is simply writing without a point. The plot needs to be nothing more detailed than bullet-points for the logical flow of one event to another and on to the best and most interesting conclusion. A plot doesn’t have to be set in stone, either. However having one gives a writer a place to start, a direction to follow, and some guideposts along the way so they don’t wander off on a tangent that has no value to the final project.

I also think that many writers believe in the block because they’re trained to. It’s part of the process of mythologizing the process of writing that the writer is more of an artiste than he or she is a professional. I was trained as a journalist and came to fiction much later in my career. But could you imagine being a reporter and telling your editor that you’re blocked and can’t turn in the story on last night’s house fire? Or that the political debate you’re covering didn’t ‘speak to you’. Please. I have very little patience with the kind of writer who allows anything to get in the way of writing. After all, this is what we love to do. So, damn it…stop complaining and write. If it comes out wrong, so what? That’s why we learn the skills of revision.

Image of some of author's book covers
© Jonathan Maberry
Used with permission

Connecting and keeping up with Jonathan Maberry:

Interview conducted in August 2014.

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