Please welcome author JIM DENNEY to RANDOM today. Jim has written several awesome articles for us. The article titled HOW TO WRITE FAST has been our most popular post. Ever. This article WRITER’S BLOCK and HOW TO AVOID IT has also been popular. Check them out.
This week Jim launched the next two books in his children’s series (INVASION OF THE TIME TROOPERS and LOST IN CYDONIA) and agreed to interview with us here today. I’m always inspired by Jim’s creativity, work ethic, and productivity. I believe writers of all ages can learn from him. I know I have. Please welcome him today!
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
In 1989, when I was thirty-six and I made the leap into full-time self-employed writing. That was the point in my life when, if someone asked me what I did for a living, I would answer, “I am a writer.” It was a great feeling to be able to say that.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing for a living?
The biggest advantage is the commute. It’s a fifteen-second stroll from my bedroom to my office. Of course, people who enjoy commuting can also be writers. I have a friend who writes crime thrillers, and does all his writing on his laptop at Starbucks. But I prefer to make my own coffee (brewed to a consistency somewhere between crude oil and hot tar). And I prefer solitude when I write.
Disadvantages? Well, the obvious one is cash flow. It’s tough, especially in the early years of a fulltime writing career, to keep money in the pipeline. Your bills come due like clockwork, but advances and royalty checks are spaced months apart. Writing for a living requires a high tolerance for insecurity and uncertainty. On the other hand, if you happen to write a bestseller, there’s no limit to what you can earn.
When you write fiction, are you an outliner or a “seat-of-the-pants” writer?
A bit of both. I began as an outliner, but in recent years I’ve been studying the career of Ray Bradbury, who was the quintessential “seat-of-the-pants” writer. He always said, “Take risks! Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.” And it took me a long time to realize what he meant by that. He would literally start with a blank sheet of paper in his typewriter and no idea of where he was going, and two hours later he’d have a story.
So lately I’ve been pushing myself to trust my subconscious more. “Trust your muse,” Bradbury said. One of the ways I do that is with a writing tool I’ve discovered called Write or Die. It’s a fiendishly clever application that forces you to keep writing by punishing you if you pause too long. It robs you of the luxury of daydreaming, researching, checking your thesaurus, and so forth. You have to keep writing, and that keeps you in a creative flow. So lately, I’ve been using Write or Die as my input system for my fiction. I like to use it with Dragon NaturallySpeaking, so I can compose without typing. It’s a great way to stay “in the flow” while you’re writing.
After a hundred books in print, do you see yourself as someone who has mastered the craft or are you still a student of the craft?
A student, absolutely! The more I learn about writing, the more I realize how little I really know and how much there is to learn. Hemingway once said, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” That’s so true. And that’s the great thing about writing. You never have to stop learning. You can always keep growing and improving as a writer.
Let’s talk about your Timebenders series. It’s science fiction for young readers. How did you get involved in writing science fiction?
I write the kind of fiction I like to read. I’ve been a science fiction fan since before I could read. I recall being four or five years old and watching a TV space opera called Space Patrol. It had spacemen patrolling the solar system, delivering lines like, “Smoking rockets, Captain! Asteroid dead ahead!” It was primitive stuff, but it opened the whole universe to me at an early age.
When I started visiting the school library, I discovered The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. If you read my Timebenders books, you’ll probably hear the echoes from Bradbury’s Mars and L’Engle’s Camazotz.
What sparked the idea for Timebenders?
My son was the catalyst. When he was in kindergarten, he asked me if he and I could write a book together. I said, “Sure, son, what kind of book should we write?” He said, “I want to write a story with a time machine and dinosaurs.”
So we started writing the first Timebenders book together. We wrote a little each day for a week or two, then he lost interest and I got busy on other projects. A few years went by, and I happened to look at those pages again. There were some good ideas there, so I wrote a couple of chapters and an outline, and I sent the proposal to a publisher I had worked with. The publisher liked the concept and asked me to write a four-book series. So I wrote the four books—Battle Battle Before Time, Doorway to Doom, Invasion of the Time Troopers, and Lost in Cydonia. They were all published in 2002.
My goal was to write stories that would be like riding a roller coaster through time and space. I wanted to write characters the reader would learn to love and care about. I wanted to give a new generation of young readers the same experience I had when I first read A Wrinkle in Time. And judging from the reader mail I received, it worked out pretty well. In fact, I’ve gotten emails from parents saying, “I bought the Timebenders books to read to my kids, but they hooked me as well.”
What was the most difficult challenge you had to overcome in writing the series?
On a practical level, the toughest challenge was the deadline. The publisher wanted me to write all four books in about six months, plus I already had other books under contract at that time. Also, there were financial penalties if I went past deadline. So I really had to be disciplined. Even after getting a deadline extension on the final book, I ended up pulling a number of all-nighters. I remember one stretch where I went three or four days straight with nothing but cat naps. You reach a point of exhaustion where you can’t be objective about the work anymore. You don’t know if it’s good or not. That was hard.
On an emotional level, the toughest challenge came while I was working on Book 2: Doorway to Doom. I was only a chapter or two into the book when America was attacked on 9/11. That was a huge blow to our national psyche, and it was a sucker punch to my creativity. I remember talking to some of my writer friends, and they simply stopped writing for weeks after 9/11. I had to keep writing, and I learned to use the dark emotions of that time to enrich my writing.
Even though I had the story planned out, I kept getting new ideas, including a brand-new ending, as I was writing. And most of the ideas I got during that time had to do with darkness. My mood was really dark, and it was all coming out in the writing. One scene involved my protagonist, a boy named Max, being tossed into a dungeon. In the first draft, I just opened up my subconscious and spilled it out on the page. The result was so dark it frightened even me.
Later, after I had written a complete draft, I went back and revised the dungeon scene. I muted the horror and emphasized Max’s faith and courage. The result, I think, is a scene that feels real, because the tension in the scene comes from a real place within me. But the scene is redeemed by Max’s own heroic spirit. The reader descends into the darkness with Max, but the reader also emerges from the darkness with a renewed strength and courage to face the darkness of the real world.
Samad Behrangi, the twentieth century Persian children’s writer, said, “Children’s literature must build a bridge between the colorful dream world full of fantasy and illusion, and a tougher real world full of twists and turns.” And that’s what I set out to do with Timebenders. On the surface, it’s all fantasy and illusion and romping through time and space. But underneath it all, there’s a deeper reality. And much of that deeper reality is mediated more by my subconscious intuition than my conscious intellect.
Doorway to Doom was difficult to write because of the emotions of that time. But I think the emotions I felt as I was writing lend a depth to the story that it wouldn’t have had otherwise. That’s why, in some ways, that’s my favorite book of the series.
Writing is the best therapy for tough times. If there’s a depressing tragedy in the news, or if your life is not going well, then you need to write. You don’t necessarily have to write about the thing that depresses you. In fact, it’s best that you don’t. But those emotions will energize and enrich your writing. Sometimes your soul just needs to scream, and writing gives your soul the voice it needs. Ray Bradbury said, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” It’s true. The world is insane, but writing helps you keep your sanity.
Are any characters in your books based on real people?
Almost all the Timebenders characters have some basis in fact. Max McCrane, the flawed young hero, has aspects of myself at that age, as well as aspects of my son, who inspired the books. Max’s fellow time travelers, Grady, Allie, and Toby, are based on some of my son’s classmates at that time. I got to know them during a three-day school science camp in the mountains. Even Toby, my young villain, is based on a boy I met at science camp who was always getting into trouble.
What are you writing now?
At the moment, I’m working on a new Timebenders book—the first new book in the series in more than ten years. It’s great fun reconnecting with these characters, and I’m having a blast with it.
In 2012, I got the rights back from the original publisher, and I revised and updated the Timebenders books for a new publisher, Greenbrier Books. Immersing myself in those stories inspired me to write this new book. In this one, Max and his friends go back to the era of World War II.
Who are the authors that inspired you as a writer?
I knew I wanted to be a writer by the time I was nine or ten, after I first encountered The Martian Chronicles and A Wrinkle in Time and the stories of Poe, Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Henry Kuttner, Heinlein, Clarke, Simak, Van Vogt—all the great fantasy and science fiction writers. I loved the robot stories of Isaac Asimov and Eando Binder. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner is a longtime favorite. In my teen years, The Space Trilogy of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy had a big impact.
In my adult years, I did a lot more reading outside of the SF and fantasy field—Steinbeck, Saroyan, the Shakespeare plays, Robert Nathan, Hemingway, Ambrose Bierce, Kurt Vonnegut, Walker Percy, and more. I also stuffed my head with science. I read a lot of Carl Sagan, Richard Feynmann, Paul Davies, and George Greenstein.
I agree with Ray Bradbury, who says it’s important to read outside your genre—he calls it “feeding the muse.” Ray was the single most formative influence on me as a reader and writer. I was grateful that our family got to meet him and talk to him in 2007. He told me a wonderful story about how he met Walt Disney while Christmas shopping at Macy’s, and how he and Walt became close friends.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Write every day. Write whenever you can, wherever you are. Don’t wait for everything to be perfect. If you only have ten minutes a day to write, and you have to do your writing on the back of an envelope under a bare bulb in your closet, then do it. E. B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, said, “A writer who waits for the ideal conditions in which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”
Don’t wait to be struck by inspiration. Make writing your daily discipline, your unbreakable habit. Once you sit down and begin writing, the inspiration will come.
Give yourself permission to write badly. Don’t be a first-draft perfectionist. Turn off the inner critic as you write, and simply have fun. Write quickly, always leaning forward, always in a rush. Let the words tumble out of your subconscious and onto the screen or page. Later, when you do your next couple of drafts, you can critique and edit and perfect it. But in the first draft, forget perfection—focus on passion. Just write.
Timebenders Book 1: Battle Before Time is available for the Kindle at Amazon.com [HERE] and for the Nook at BarnesAndNoble.com [HERE]. Jim’s Timebenders website can be found HERE, and his website for writers is HERE. (Or click on his link at our home page.)