Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Perfectly Normal, Not-at-all Fanboyish Conversation with Dan Wells

Hi everyone! I had about three heart attacks before getting this weeks interview set up. I had emailed two people about doing interviews and, as of this morning, still haven't heard back from them. However, some of you will remember that several weeks ago I announced that I would be hosting an interview with Dan Wells in the near future. Well, the near future is here! I got an email from Dan yesterday, neatly solving my little interview problem!

Dan Wells is one of my favorite authors, partly because I listen to his podcast, WritingExcuses, which he and his friends Brandon Sanderson and Howard Tayler started before Dan's first book was published (throughout the early days of the podcast, Dan's take on writing and publishing was really interesting because he hadn't actually been published yet). Dan's first books were the John Cleaver series (I Am Not a Serial Killer, Mr. Monster, and I Don't Want to Kill You), about a sociopathic teenager who wants to make sure he doesn't become a serial killer. I know that sounds terrible, but that honestly is the basis for the series, and they are fantastic! Dan is currently working on several other, non-serial killer related projects which I am very excited for.

So, my friends, I'm excited to introduce you to Dan Wells!

When did you first start writing?

I told my parents in second grade that I was going to be an author, and I've been writing most of my life. I didn't start working toward professional publication until college.

You know, I think Dan has most of us beat. A lot of us have been writing since we were kids, but probably not since we were that young.

When did you start writing I Am Not a Serial Killer?

I started planning IANASK in early 2006; I started actually writing it the second week of January in 2007, and finished it about six weeks later.

You spent a whole year just planning? Wow! No wonder those books are so good. I'd love to hear about your planning process.

Where did they ideas for the John Cleaver series come from?

Like all normal, well-adjusted people, I read about serial killers for fun. I find them fascinating, especially their psychology. One day, riding home from my writing group, I was talking about serial killer predictors, and my friend Brandon said, "That would be a great first line for a book: There are three traits in common to 98% of serial killers, and I have all them." That's not the first line of the book, though it's still a very cool line and it got my thinking about what kind of character would say it, and what kind of life he would lead. I made him a teenager because I wanted to show his psychology while it was developing, rather than fixed, and I threw in some supernatural monsters because I thought they were cool, and there you go.

This is why it's so important to have someone you can talk to about your writing! Every writer needs a sounding board, and I don't mean crit partners and beta readers. You need someone you can bounce your ideas off of before you ever start writing. I recently lost my sounding board and I basically haven't made much progress since.

How long did it take for you to find an agent who was willing to represent you? An editor?

I found my editor first, about two or three months after the book was finished. I found my agent just a few weeks later. That sounds fast, but keep in mind that I'd been writing and submitting books for about 8 years prior to that with nothing. It's like they say: it takes years of hard work to become an overnight success.

Haha! I like that! It reminds me of something I heard on Writing Excuses: that most writers complete four or even five books before their first novel is accepted for publication (and that's often their sixth book, not their first).

What advice do you have for aspiring authors about finding an agent a/o publisher? (other than patience and persistence)

Find books you love, that your book is similar to, figure out who the agent and editor was, and query them. Not only are they more likely to carry your type of book, but you're more likely to be happy with an editor whose work you already love and respect.

That sounds really simple, but I bet a lot of us never thought of it. ...I didn't.

How have writing conferences and conventions influenced your career as a writer? (Do you recommend any in particular?)

The one my friends and I chose to visit when we first started networking was World Fantasy, and I still think that's the best networking convention in genre fiction—the ratio of pros to aspiring authors is better there than anywhere else, and it's pretty easy to meet people and get into great conversations. That's where I met my editor. Of course, every person who takes this advice changes that ratio for the worse, so you have to be careful. WorldCon is also good, and the Nebula awards, and possibly World Horror if you write dark fiction. DragonCon is hands down the most fun convention I've ever been to, but it's hard to make it a business opportunity unless you really know what you're doing.

Dan and the others mention these conventions repeatedly on Writing Excuses. They sound amazing, but Dan and the others always point out that you have to do a lot prep if you want them to be productive.

What are some of the biggest things you’ve learned about writing since you started your career?

I've learned to try new things. There's absolutely no need to pigeonhole yourself into one genre or even one style—try everything, write everything, and find what works for you.

I feel like a lot of writers pigeonhole themselves because they get started in one genre or sub-genre and then think that's all they're good at. Admittedly, it would take some adjustment to switch to something else, but it's really not different that starting that next book anyway!
How many books have you written that haven’t been published?

So far, six, though I hope to get that sixth one polished up and sent off to an editor sometime this year.

Very nice!
How do the books you read influence your own writing? (stylistically as well as thematically)

It's hard to say. Sometimes I'll choose a book specifically because it has a certain tone or diction that I want to emulate in my current project, but most of the time I just read whatever—which usually means I'm not reading my own genre. I read very few thrillers and horror novels, which makes my horror novels a little different because I'm making it up as a go. My next book, coming in February, is a YA, and I don't read a ton of YA, so I kind of made that up, too. That doesn't make my books better or worse than the rest of the genre, just different. Most of what I read, honestly, is historical fiction, with the occasional dip into fantasy or SF. If that's lent a specific flavor to my writing I don't know exactly what it is, but I wouldn't be surprised.

That's really interesting because usually people tell us to read what we write (or vice versa). On the other hand, it's smart not to let yourself get locked into a single genre, whether reading or writing. The wider your range of literature, the more ideas you can generate.

How do you keep yourself organized?

Mostly just by setting goals. I used to set work hours for myself, like I had when I worked in an office, and that helps to a point, but the more valuable organization came when I just looked at my deadline, calculated backwards, and told myself how much I had to write each day to hit it. That makes my life more structured but my day-to-day work far less regimented, which works really well for me.

It's good that you know how to pace yourself like that. I think it's a skill that every writer should have.
How do you deal with writer’s block?

If I can't write, it's because there's something stopping me, so the simple solution is to figure out what that something is and fix it. Is my outline broken? Am I not ready for the next scene? Am I just tired or hungry? Solve that problem, get it out of the way, and move on.

Plain and simple.

How do you keep your whole story interesting? Or, how do you avoid slow stretches?

The slow stretches are the fun ones for me; I could write act two forever, it's starting and ending a book that are hard. The way to keep it interesting is to go back during revision—revision is the key to good writing, hands down—and tighten it/tweak it/pump it up.

When I finished my first book, I had to force myself to go back and revise. I thought I was done with the story and I just wanted to send it off. But I'm glad I did, because going back over it, I realized there were still some major problems with it.

How does your own life and experience inform your writing? Is it intentional?

That's another hard question. Sometimes it's not intentional at all—the John Cleaver books, for example, include a lot of my moral outlook that's obvious in hindsight, but which I certainly didn't include on purpose. My SF books, on the other hand, tend to have a very incendiary, fight-the-power political slant, and that's definitely on purpose. So I guess the best answer is that it's different from book to book.

I bet it's kind of fun for authors to look back at their work and notice what sort of stuff they slipped in without realizing it.

Who’s your favorite author?

My favorite book of all time is Dune, by Frank Herbert, but I didn't love his others as much so I don't think I'd say he's my favorite author. I'm a huge fan of Neil Gaiman and Bernard Cornwell and A. A. Milne, but again, I don't think I'd say any of them is my favorite author. I'm going to say Victor Hugo, because I have yet to read a single word of his that isn't brilliant. Even the big non-fiction essay portions of Les Miserable that everyone told you to skip are amazing—don't listen to those people, they're stupid. Read the entire book, and then read his other stuff. You'll be glad you did.

You should meet my wife. You could start an "I Love Victor Hugo" club!

Favorite book?

Dune, as I said. Start to finish, that is simply an astounding piece of work. Close runners up are American Gods by Gaiman and Perfume by Patrick Suskind.

Absolutely LOVED Dune! Not such a fan of American Gods, though I am a huge fan of most of Neil Gaiman's work. I haven't read any of Patrick Suskind.

What’s your favorite genre to read?

Probably historical fiction, though I still read a lot of fantasy and SF.

My wife is a big historical fiction reader and, I must admit, it's becoming more and more tempting all the time. I'm particularly interested in ancient Egypt.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I'm one of the biggest gaming geeks you will ever meet. I have a massive collection of board games, a ton of collectible card games, thousands of dollars worth of tabletop miniatures (both pre-painted and ones I'm painting myself), and I'm in three different ongoing roleplaying campaigns, one of which I GM (Legend of the Five Rings, for those curious). I play games pretty constantly.

Fun! I never got into gaming myself, but not for lack of interest. I've never had any friends who could show me the ropes (I'm too shy to just jump in on my own).

What are three interesting facts about yourself?

1. I used to live in Mexico, and still speak mostly fluent Spanish.

2. I skipped middle school, did a ton of AP credit in high school, and started college as a Junior.

Holy smokes! How old were you when you finished college? Seventeen? Got to admit, I'm kind of jealous.

3. I have five kids, two cats, and up until last week I had an English Bulldog. My house is pretty chaotic.

I want to thank Dan for taking the time to do this interview. On blogs like mine, it's always nice to get some perspective from someone who's already gone through all this and figured out how to make it work. Incidentally, if you haven't read his books, I highly recommend them (I never thought I'd read a horror novel...EVER, but I really like Dan's work). Also, if your interested in learning more about Dan, visit his web site at

See you next week!


  1. No way! You got an interview with Dan the Man? Awesome! Thanks for hosting him, Reece. Loved the answers and response. :)

  2. I've heard of these books, but now I am even more interested, and (dare I say) I heard he taught his brother Robinson to write and since Variant was so good, these have to be awesome :)

  3. Great interview - really interesting stuff! Thanks to you both.

  4. Dan's books are amazing. Thanks for the insightful interview.

  5. So wicked cool that Dan let us into his mind!

    I did what he suggested and loooked up his agency and fired off a query a few weeks ago. Now that I see Dan recommends this approach, I don't feel like a stalker anymore. Lol.

    Thanks for the not-at-all fanboyish interview Reece. hee hee.