Today, the guest here at Infamous Scribbler is artist, author, and game creator Dan Jolley. His latest novel, Gray Widow’s Walk, is the story of an angry young woman, Janey Sinclair, and the powers she must learn to control, before they end up consuming her. Today, Dan discusses being a multimedia creator, good and bad writing advice, and of course, gives us a peak into the world of his new creation.
Q (Infamous Scribbler): I noticed in your bio that you are from Georgia. How has your natal geography influenced your writing?
A (Dan Jolley): I don’t know that it’s been a huge influence on my actual prose or scripts, but I definitely do like to set stories in Georgia when I can. When I first came up with the idea that would eventually become Gray Widow’s Walk, many years ago, stories set in Atlanta were relatively rare. Now, what with The Walking Dead and various other media projects setting up shop there, it’s a lot more commonplace. One thing I did have a little fun with, though, was in my comic book series Bloodhound, when I set the fictional Red Clay Federal Penitentiary in my hometown of Ringgold, Georgia. I had a few hometown folks approach me and say, “Of all the things you could’ve put here, it had to be a prison?”
Q: In your new book, Gray Widow’s Walk, your protagonist is an angry young woman. What were some of the decisions you made and challenges you faced when writing Janey?
A: Yeah, Janey Sinclair’s life has been a series of cruel, unfair tragedies. Her mother died of cancer when Janey was nine, her father was shot right in front of her (Janey herself was shot in the same encounter and almost died) when she was sixteen, and she lost her husband in a horrible way when she was twenty-five. She’s got some seriously pent-up emotions. Most people deal with that kind of trauma in one of three ways: they handle it in a healthy fashion, usually by going to therapy; or they disappear into drugs and alcohol; or they let it consume them completely and self-destruct. Janey has the opportunity to exercise a fourth option, because—in a way she still doesn’t understand—she’s developed the ability to teleport from one patch of darkness to another. So she’s got an outlet that no one else has, and decides to try to prevent other people from going through the kind of trauma that she has.
There are definitely some superhero tropes in the book, though it also has elements of science-fiction and horror, and one of the decisions I made early on was not to make Janey too powerful. Teleportation is already an incredibly potent ability, so I wanted be certain that she had reasonable vulnerabilities, and not ones like “the color yellow,” or “alien space rocks.” That’s why she stole a suit of military body armor before she started prowling the streets. Janey’s a little stronger than most people, but she can be hurt by things like bullets and blades and poison gas just like anyone else.
As far as challenges, definitely the biggest one was writing a convincing female protagonist, since I am terminally male myself. But I’ve had some practice with that, in the form of three original YA novels I wrote back in 2007 and 2008, a trilogy called Alex Unlimited. The protagonist of those books is an 18-year-old girl named Alexandra Benno. When I first pitched that property, the protagonist was a boy, and the publisher said, “We really like this, and want to pursue it, but would you mind changing the main character to a girl?” I wasn’t sure how that would turn out, but I agreed, and to my own surprise, it worked out beautifully. (Apparently my inner child is a teenage girl.)
Plus, for Gray Widow’s Walk, I was diligent in getting as many female beta readers as I could. The last thing I want to do is make some boneheaded mistake thanks to being entrenched in a male perspective.
Q: Your work spans a variety of media, including video games, comics, and of course, novels. Is it a challenge to work in different formats? How do they affect your writing process? Did they bring anything new to the Gray Widow’s Walk series, and if so, what?
A: There’s definitely some mental gear-shifting when I go from one medium to another, but I’ve worked out a few different methods to make that easier. I got my start writing comic books, many moons ago, and over the years, largely through trial and error, I’ve gotten it down to a sloppy sort of science. I actually have a series of blog posts on my website, www.danjolley.com, called “How To Write the Way I Write,” that explains all the nuts and bolts of comic book scriptwriting.
Learning to write comic scripts first was a big help. I sometimes say it’s like learning to drive on a three-speed, stick-shift, two-ton flatbed truck. If you can drive that behemoth, you can drive anything. Comic book scripts, even though there’s no set format for them the way there is for a screenplay, are incredibly rigid in their parameters; your page count is set, your panel count per page has to be tightly controlled, your word count per panel also has to be tightly controlled, you have to take into account the page turn, which means all your big moments and surprises should really be at the beginning of even-numbered pages, etc. Writing in other media doesn’t seem so difficult once you’ve mastered all that.
One of the biggest successes I’ve had with techniques for writing prose might not work for everyone, but for me, using a walking desk is the way to go. I set up a shelving unit over my treadmill, got my wireless keyboard and laptop in the right positions, and now whenever I write prose I plod along at two miles an hour, typing as I walk. It gets the blood flowing through my brain just right.
And probably the biggest benefit of working in deadline-based creative jobs for as long as I have is that I’ve gotten really, really fast. Once I have a solid outline in place, knocking out a chapter a day is pretty standard. You can expect the next two books in the Gray Widow trilogy to come out on schedule.
Q: Without giving away too much, what plans do you have for Janey and the crew?
A: Well, the biggest question Janey has in the first book is where the hell her teleportational ability came from, and in the second book she’ll probably regret not being more careful what she wished for. Also, that same source is what “augmented” Gray Widow’s Walk’s principal antagonist, the twisted, grotesque, bloodthirsty shapeshifter named Simon Grove. Janey will definitely encounter more people who’ve been affected, not quite in that exact way, but in similar fashions. Plus, there’s the question of where Janey and Tim Kapoor are headed, as they try to figure out exactly what their relationship is, and how Janey’s past will influence it.
Basically, life doesn’t get any easier for anyone.
Q: What is the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever been given?
A: The best advice is this: Finish what you’re writing before you start editing. Just plow through that first draft. Don’t go back and try to get the first page, or the first paragraph, or the first line exactly right until you’re done with the whole thing, because if you do, you run the risk of getting hung up in the editing and never completing the story. Now, what this means is that your first draft will probably be really shitty. That’s okay! First drafts are supposed to be shitty. My first drafts are the ripest heaps of camel dung. But once you have a first draft, you can go back and fix it. You can’t fix what isn’t there. (I’ve heard it described as shoveling sand into the sandbox. You’ll have time to sculpt your castle once the box is full.)
I don’t know that I’ve ever been given any really, truly bad writing advice, but I have been given some really, truly bad feedback from an editor. At one point, I was writing a monthly comic book series, and after I turned in a script, the editor called me and said, “I don’t think you’re firing on all pistons, Dan.”
I sort of sputtered, and said, “Okay, but, uh…what did you not like? What do you want me to change?”
He sighed and said, “I just don’t feel like you’re bringing your A game.”
Talk about useless. He refused to give me any specific feedback, so I had to flounder around in the dark, and ended up doing five or six drafts of the script until he finally decided I had delivered what he was looking for. To any editors out there reading this? I know you’re overworked. I know your job is massively hard. But please, don’t do that. Don’t be that guy.
Q: Anything to add?
A: I’ll be a guest all four days of DragonCon this year, set up in Artists’ Alley, and I’ll be part of the Seventh Star Press crowd at Imaginarium in October. Come say hi! (IS Note: We’ll definitely stop by! I need a signed copy…)
Also, please give me a shout on Twitter (@_DanJolley) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/dan.jolley1). Or both! I’m there more often than I probably should be. (IS Note: So say we all…)
There you have it, folks. Stop by, pick up a copy, come to DragonCon, get it signed, and say hi! Until then, happy reading.