Author Interview: Jonathan Maberry

Today I’m excited to introduce you to NY Times Bestselling author, Jonathan Maberry. While I don’t typically read the types of books Jonathan writes, I thought we could all find value in his thoughts on writing and becoming an author, especially since his books have been given some very prestigious awards! He is also a local guy- he lives and works in Philadelphia and is part of a pretty cool author’s group called The Liars Club (a group that one of my favorite authors Sara Shepard is a part of too!).

Thanks so much for being here on Cover to Cover today Jonathan. Can you give us a little background on what you write?

I’m all over the place as a writer.  I started off writing magazine articles, originally for martial arts magazines, though I eventually wrote about just about everything -sports, dining, music, psychology, business, politics…you name it.  I did about 1200 articles, and then in the ’80s and ’90s, while teaching at Temple University, I wrote several textbooks -on Women’s Self-Defense, Judo, and related topics. From there I started writing mainstream nonfiction books, ranging from a book on Sparring to books on the folklore of vampires and other monsters.

In 2005 everything changed.  I decided to try my hand at writing fiction, and sat down to write my first novel, GHOST ROAD BLUES.  I didn’t know I was going to be any good at it, or even if I’d like it.  However the book got me an agent right away, and she sold it in a three book deal to Pinnacle Books.  It went on to win the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel.  Talk about validation!  Since then I’ve sold a dozen novels, and I’m about three weeks away from finishing number ten (DEAD OF NIGHT).

I write thrillers (PATIENT ZERO, THE DRAGON FACTORY), horror (GHOST ROAD BLUES, DEAD MAN’S SONG, and BAD MOON RISING), movie adaptations (THE WOLFMAN), action horror (DEAD OF NIGHT), and now teen post-apocalyptic adventures (ROT & RUIN and the upcoming DUST & DECAY).

One of the side-effects of writing novels is that you get asked to do a lot of short stories, so I’ve been cranking those out, and in a variety of genres: urban fantasy, comedy horror, military science fiction, dystopian thriller , mystery , media tie-in, and suspense . And on top of all of that, I write comics for Marvel Comics.  Whew!

What’s the single best piece of advice about writing that you’ve ever been given?

Ray Bradbury told me, when I was fourteen:  “Writing is an art; publishing is a business.  Be good at both the art and the business.”

Tell us a little about your writing process. Do you outline or just dive in blind? What do you think works best?

I outline and I storyboard.  Stories are logical, even when they’re fantasies.  Every scene has to serve the plot, and every story thread has to shoot like an arrow toward the big finish.  The outline is the logical structure of the story, its skeleton.  However, stories are also alive, they grow in unexpected ways.  You have to allow for that growth.

I have a trick that works very well for me.  After I outline, I write the first and last chapters.  That gives me a real sense of the whole story, including the voice.  Then I start writing and each chapter is fired toward that last chapter.

Right now I’m a full-time professional writer.  I write eight to ten hours per day, which works out to about four thousand words per day.  When I’m just starting a novel the word count is a little less; when I’m near the end it’s more.  When writing a comic, it’s three to five thousand words in a day.

Do you have any tips for helping a new writer get into (and stick to!) a writing routine?

Write every day.  Never take a day off and never make an excuse to skip a writing day.  Even if your daily writing goal is half a page -get that half page done.

Also, never rewrite ANYTHING until you complete a first draft.  Then fix whatever needs to be fixed in the rewrite. Be relentless.  If you want to be a writer, then BE a writer.

One more thing, when you sent a daily word count goal, don’t set one that’s a struggle to make.  If, say, you can write 1,000 words a day comfortably…then set your goal at 750 words. Or even 500 words.  If you pass that mark every day, that’s great; but if you are pressed for time, you should have a target goal that isn’t going to stress you out.  Stress is counterproductive.

What is the most difficult aspect of writing for you? Plot, characterization, setting? What are some ways that you are working to combat the difficulty?

The most challenging part for me is to keep myself from getting distracted by another story.  That’s a common thing for writers…we have more stories in our heads than we’ll ever have time to write…and new ones pop up all the time.

If I’m not pressed for a tight deadline, I may take a few hours to jot notes down, or rough out an outline of the new idea.  That gets it out of my way for now.  I NEVER assume I’ll remember the ideas later.  I get them down, and then I go back to my main project. If I’m on a tight deadline, I’ll make very quick notes via tape recorder or scribbled in a notepad, and then flesh it out when my schedule opens up.

Where do you get ideas from? Once you have a basic idea, how do you begin to turn it into a story?

Ideas are everywhere.  Writers are professional observers.  It becomes a habit to look at something and play the ‘what if’ game.  For example, today I was driving and I saw an ambulance driving the wrong way up a one way street.  A non writer observes it, notes it and moves on.  A writer wonders why?  Why is it going the wrong way?  Has it been stolen? Is it really a SWAT van in disguise?  Is the other street blocked and this is the fastest way to the scene of an accident? Who is in the back of the ambulance and why is it so important that the drivers risk their own lives to get him to the hospital?  And so on.  Ideas come tumbling out.

For me, I get a lot of concepts.  One that had been knocking around in my head for years was: What would it be like to grow up in a world that has ALREADY experienced an apocalypse?  I extended that to make it a zombie apocalypse, and speculated on what it would feel like to be a teenager in that kind of world.  Where mankind has already fallen and life is always one bite away from extinction.  After letting that idea cook for years, I used it as the basis for a novella, “Family Business”, and then immediately expanded it into my first teen novel, ROT & RUIN.  The more I thought about it, the more there was to imagine.  I just completed the second book in the series, DUST & DECAY, which will be out next year…and we’re talking with the publisher about doing more books.  There’s no end to a really good idea.

You teach a course, “Experimental Writing for Teens.” What does this course entail?

By the time most writers hit their twenties they know -or they think they know””what kind of writing they want to do.  They often become fixated on being a poet, a short story writer, a novelist.  And more than they, they confined themselves to specific sub-genre.  They don’t just want to write a novel, they want to specifically write a paranormal romance, or a literary novel, or a military science fiction, or whatever.  The problem is that they lock themselves into one vision of what their writing could be, and that isn’t necessarily the kind of writing they can do best.  But they never try anything else.

In my teen class, I expose the students to as many different kinds of writing as possible and encourage them to try it.  We’ll do some sessions on epic poetry, then move to narrative nonfiction, then onto crime fiction, then onto something else. The students get to work on short stories, novels, articles, poetry, spoken word, then onto something else.

We also cover the aspects of style.  Descriptive and figurative language, scene building, pace, voice, point of view…just about everything. The students do two or three writing exercises per session and everyone reads their writing aloud.  Everyone participates in a discussion.

The upshot is that the students try everything, so that when they decide to write something for submission, they’ve tried their hand at so many genres, they’ll know which one is really right for them.  Or, more often, they learn that they can write anything. Recently one of my students got picked up by a major New York agent for a novel she wrote in class.

What’s your favorite thing about being a writer?

I get to play inside my own imagination all day long…and get paid for it.  I’m a professional daydreamer.  How is that not the best job in the world?

Thanks so much Jonathan! To learn more about Jonathan and his books, please visit his website.