Writer Q&A 2020 No. 5: Dan Jolley

Dan Jolley is a speculative fiction writer who’s worked on novels (including the Gray Widow Trilogy and The Storm), video games (such as Dying Light and our common denominator, the post-apocalyptic MMORPG Fallen Earth – pour one out), comic books, and children’s books. Thanks to him for taking the time to answer a few questions about writing!

How long have you been a writer?

Dan Jolley: Since I was 19 — I got my first professional contract then, for a comic book adaptation of an HP Lovecraft story. Unfortunately, the company went under before they could pay me. So, my first *paying* gig came at the beginning of my senior year of college, which was fortuitous timing, because I wouldn’t have been able to pay tuition without it.

How did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Dan Jolley: I’ve never honestly considered any other career option. I started making up stories as soon as I was able to put two thoughts together as a tiny little kid, and I’ve just never stopped. I mean, I looked at a few other paths, since I knew making money as a writer was difficult, but I never really took any action to pursue anything else. 

Are you a full-time writer? If not, what’s your day job that helps pay the bills? If yes, how do you keep the process fun instead of feeling like it’s…ugh…work?

Dan Jolley: It sort of depends on how you look at it. I do have a “day job” — I’m a Development Executive for a book packager in London called Working Partners. So, when I’m not working on my own novels or comics or screenplays, I’m either helping WP modify one of their existing properties to be more suitable for film and TV, or I’m coming up with brand-new IP for them. (They also hire me to write the occasional work-for-hire novel.) So, yes, I’m writing full-time, but I’m only working on my own original material some of the time.

Do you have a family? How do you balance quality time with them and with your creative process?

Dan Jolley: I have a wife who is amazing and perfect, and we decided well before we got married that we weren’t going to have kids. Between us, we already have eleven nieces and nephews, and now two grand-nephews and a grand-niece, and even my parents were like, “No no, that’s okay, we don’t need any more grandchildren.” Instead we have cats. It works out well.

What’s your favorite genre to read – and why? 

Dan Jolley: It varies. I really like urban fantasy, but I also like a good police thriller. The Dresden Files and the early Lucas Davenport books by John Sanford are up at the top of my list. Honestly, I don’t have nearly as much time to read for pleasure as I’d like.

Share some works that were influential for you – and why?

Dan Jolley: A handful of authors stand out from my formative years. On the science-fiction front, Larry Niven is unparalleled. Someday, I *will* succeed at adapting The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton for the screen. I also read all of Louis L’Amour’s westerns, as much Stephen King as I could find, and I don’t know how many times I read Dune. In comics, James O’Barr’s The Crow made an enormous impact on me. So much so that I went as the title character for Halloween my sophomore year in college. (I was thin enough to pull it off back then.)

What drives you to write? What do you get out of it?

Dan Jolley: I guess I could get all pretentious about it, and talk about compulsions and whatnot, but at the core of it all, it’s fun. I love it. I love everything about it. I frequently hear writers say, “I hate writing. I love having written.” But I’m not like that, because I enjoy the whole process, start to finish, and when I do complete a story, I get this sensation that’s kind of like I’ve just finished eating a really satisfying meal. I’ve managed to make a career out of one of the things I enjoy most in life, and I count myself as extraordinarily lucky to be able to say that. 

Are you powered more by character inspirations or plot ideas? Why is that?

Dan Jolley: That’s evolved over the course of my career. I started out being super plot-driven, and I think that’s because I began my career writing mainstream comic books. Y’know, if you’re writing Batman or Iron Man, you don’t *have* to do a lot of in-depth characterization, because the characters are already established. No one’s looking for some new writer to come in and radically change the personality of a company’s character — in fact, that’s a good way to get fired. But as I’ve gotten older, and started doing more and more original work, I’ve come to realize that characters in any kind of continuing medium (TV, book series, web comic, etc.) are MUCH more important than plots. No one, if asked what they like most about Star Trek, is going to say, “Oh, I loved that story when Commander Riker got stuck in the transporter buffer and it ended up creating two of him!” They’re going to say, “I love Spock,” or “Picard is awesome,” because you go back again and again for the characters. I’m in the beginning stages of a new fantasy novel trilogy, and the whole thing came to me because I had an idea for a character.

What do you do for fun? Interesting hobbies? 

Dan Jolley: I keep trying (and failing) to learn new languages. I can’t really speak anything other than English, but with the advent of the various language-learning apps out there, I’ve taken stabs at Swedish, Polish, Russian, and now I’m back to Spanish, which I took in high school and college. If you’re traveling to a different country, you don’t necessarily have to speak the language fluently, but it *really* helps if you know at least a few words. So, I can say a few words in a few different languages. I don’t know if you’d call that an interesting hobby or not, but I enjoy it. 

What advice do you have for would-be writers?

Dan Jolley: The piece of advice that I always give aspiring writers is this: Do not read what you’ve written until you’re done writing the whole thing. Do not go back and revise that first chapter, or that first page, or that first line. Write it, get it all down on paper (or screen), all seven hundred or however many pages, and THEN go back and edit. That advice is golden, because the creative part of your brain is different from the editing part of your brain, and you should never mix up the two. People who do — people who write a paragraph, and then think, “Oh, I could make that better,” and go back and tweak it — almost always get stuck in what I call an editing loop. If you’re going to back and tweak what you’ve just written, you’ll *keep* tweaking it, and tweaking it, and tweaking it, and you’ll get bogged down and you won’t finish your story. Now, what this means is that you’ll almost certainly write a terrible first draft. THAT’S OKAY. First drafts are supposed to be terrible. My first drafts are embarrassing drivel. But once you’ve got one, you can switch over to editing mode and go back and FIX IT ALL.

A really good analogy I heard once (can’t remember who said it) is that a first draft is just shoveling sand into the sandbox. Once you’ve got all the sand in there, *then* you can start sculpting your castle.

Just write, and write, and keep writing, UNTIL YOU ARE DONE.

Because you can’t edit a blank page.

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Wes Platt

Lead storyteller. Game designer and journalist. Recovering Floridian.

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