JASON DENZEL is the founder of Dragonmount.com, the leading online community for Robert Jordan’s USA Today, CNN, ABC, Wired, and the Los Angeles Times. Denzel lives in Northern California with his two young boys, studies Choy Li Fut Kung-Fu, and owns a lot of swords.
His podcast interview can be found at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/creative-writing-career/id1053284614
Justin Sloan: I have to say the cover to your upcoming book, Mystic, looks amazing. How did this book come about, and what made this book be the one that you wanted to debut with?
Jason Denzel: Thanks, Justin. Mystic evolved over the years. The core idea about a low-born commoner applying to become an apprentice to a reclusive master occurred to me back in 2003. Back then I was developing ideas for short films that I hoped to produce. I outlined the story in such a way that it could become a web series. Years later, when I was looking to begin a new book project, I began thinking of how I could expand that story and make it even more enticing for the novel format.
JS: Without giving the story away, what does the cover represent within the novel? Did you have to go back and forth with the artist at all, or did the publisher and artist get it right the first time?
JD: Oh, they nailed the cover on the first try. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to give my publisher input on the cover. They said they would consider my ideas, but couldn’t guarantee that they’d go with any of the specific ideas I offered. I’d previously made a mock-up cover, because I enjoy working in Photoshop, and I sent that to them as well. Apparently they liked the concept well enough that they gave it to the cover artist, Larry Rostant, and he ran with it. The overall idea I’d always hoped the cover would convey was that this was a story about a young woman seeking adventure in a mystical forest. It’s a very simple but primal idea that we all feel at times in our lives: the call to adventure, the urge to connect with nature and find something deeper within ourselves. Others feel it more than others, but on some level, as humans, it’s a part of who we are.
JS: The description of the book sounds amazing. Where did you come up with the magic system? What were your motivations for the story in general and for the magic system specifically?
JD: The magic system was intentionally designed to be a “soft” type of magic, meaning that its origins and methods are more mysterious than they are scientific. For this first book, I tried to portray the Myst as being similar to the Force from Star Wars. Nobody denies that it’s there, because its phenomena are visible and not terribly uncommon. It just works if you’ve been trained to use it. The main characters in the book are only beginning to understand the Myst and how to use it, so, like the reader, they shouldn’t have deeper knowledge of it yet. The sequel I’m working on now, Mystic Dragon, goes into more details about where the Myst comes from, and how people manipulate it.
JS: I am sure I’m not alone in being jealous that you are with a big publisher like TOR. How do you imagine this is different from going with a small press or self-publishing? Aside from the cover looking awesome of course. What involvement have they had, and does it seem like they’re doing some real marketing?
JD: I know there are pros and cons to both traditional and self-publication. But for myself, I knew that partnering with a traditional publisher was the best choice. Tor and I had already established a long relationship through our work on The Wheel of Time series. I’ve worked with a lot of great people there over the years, and I knew they’d love to have the opportunity to work with somebody they trusted and had a positive relationship with. Every single person I’ve worked with, from my editor to the art department, to publicity, has expressed enthusiasm for this project. I’m proud to be with Tor, and I’m delighted to see that they’re doing everything they can to give this book a fair shot in the market. The marketing strategy is just being developed now, but it’s clear that Tor is going to put their full weight behind the book. I couldn’t be more pleased.
JS: Speaking as someone who does a lot of their own marketing, I would love to have that opportunity. What got you into writing in the first place? Where does the passion come from and what keeps you writing?
JD: Like so many others in the field, I feel a connection to the collective unconscious and sometimes that manifests an irresistible urge to tell stories. I’m fascinated by the human experience. I love to meet new people and hear about their lives, their struggles, and what motivates them. I think there’s something special within us, something intangible that makes us human; that gives rise to our urge to wonder at the stars, or explore mountain peaks. It’s that spark inside us that fascinates me, and that most of my work somehow touches on. Simply put, I guess you could say I want to write about what it means to be human, and why that’s a really special thing.
JS: Did you study the craft at all?
JD: Definitely, and I haven’t stopped. I did some formal education through college in creative writing, and I wrote plenty of short stories as a kid and teenager. But my real education, about how to tell a story, began when I was working as an independent filmmaker. Myself and some close friends spent a few solid years developing various short films and writing feature screenplays. I went to writing conferences, listened to podcasts, read author interviews, and, most importantly, I sat in a chair and wrote stories. I learned how to take constructive criticism, and I learned how to apply the suggestions received. In parallel to all that, I developed business relationships in the field, learned how to pitch ideas, and practiced my delivery. And, of course, I worked on improving my prose, for which I give a lot of credit to my writing group.
JS: What were some of the major hurdles you faced when writing this book (and the one that preceded it)?
JD: My biggest hurdle right now is finding the time to consistently write. I have a full-time day job, I have young children, and the past year has given rise to some personal transitions in my life. I generally find that I can work through my story problems, assuming I am able to sit and do the work. It always just comes down to that for me. But in terms of the story, my big challenge for Mystic was learning to find a voice for characters who are very different than me. The book’s protagonist is a sixteen year old girl with self-esteem challenges. I’ve never been a sixteen year old girl, and I’ve not had the same challenges she’s facing. It was important to me that she, and every other character, not only sounded authentic, but were properly motivated. Getting those elements to a place I felt good about took a while.
JS: What advice do you have for the aspiring writer just setting out to write their first fantasy book?
JD: Don’t load your plate with more than you can eat. It’s no secret that I love The Wheel of Time. Many fantasy writers dream of telling stories that big and grand. But books like that can quickly get bigger than a writer is prepared to handle. For your first novel, I suggest limiting the scope of your story, or your number of POV character to a reasonable bite size. Find success on a smaller scale before you’re ready to expand. Look for the humanity of a smaller story, rather than perhaps shooting for a 300,000 word epic where the universe is at stake.
JS: You mentioned your writing group. How did you find your writing group and how can others go about doing the same? What do you think makes a writing group work well, and what should be avoided?
JD: There’s a lot of exceptional talent in my writing group, and all of us are progressing in our own ways. We met initially through the NANOWRIMO regional forums, and very organically morphed into a group of friends that meets regularly. There’s some turnover, of course, but overall, we’ve been pretty consistent. What seems to work best is that we post our writing online using Google Drive, and invite people to comment on it. Then we meet once a week to discuss bigger-picture ideas, or follow up on our comments. It’s pretty casual and free-flowing. I think what scares people away is the intense requirements that everyone has to read a certain amount of material by a deadline. That can work well in some cases, but we’ve chosen to be a little more loose where material gets read when people have time. In some cases, where there are deadlines looming (like in my case), the other members have been willing to step up and provide feedback in a timely manner.
JS: I understand you founded the Wheel of Time fansite Dragonmount.com. Can you tell us more about the motivation behind this? Was it in any way part of your goal of being a writer, or purely out of a love for Robert Jordan’s books?
JD: I founded Dragonmount back in 1998, and it was motivated entirely based on my love of The Wheel of Time. I never saw it as anything other than a fan site with a goal of celebrating the series. But it certainly opened a lot of doors for me.
JS: As for those doors opening, do you think this is in any way replicable today? If someone loves someone’s books, say yours, and your books kick off, could starting a fan site for your books potentially lead to similar experiences that you have had?
JD: It’s impossible to say how things like that could go. What’s more important than creating a fan site, per se, is that you can get involved in the field or genre you care about. Attend and volunteer at conventions. Go to conferences. Start a blog. Build a social media presence and have useful things to say. Meet people, and not just the immediate people you’re looking to impress. A positive reputation in any field will get you further than trying to schmooze your way into a specific individual’s good graces. The important thing is to have a voice, find an audience, and say interesting things. In my case, over the years DM provided me with many business connections, of which Tor Books was a big one. The first real clue I had that connected it to my writing was when I was at Robert Jordan’s funeral. His family had invited me to the private burial ceremony where his ashes were laid to rest. Afterwards, as we’re standing beside his grave, Tom Doherty—the president of Tor Books—and I are chatting about who will continue the WoT series. Tom’s wife asks me, “Jason, do you do any writing?” I replied that yes, I did, but that it was mostly screenplays. But I also remember thinking how disappointing that answer was. Afterwards, I promised myself that if I ever had an opportunity to answer a question like that from somebody like Tom, I would have a better answer. That was in 2007. Five years later, in 2012, I found myself talking to him again at the World Fantasy convention in Toronto. I’d honed my craft significantly. I reminded him of what his wife had asked me at Robert Jordan’s funeral. Tom grinned and said he remembered. I told him I had a book that I was writing. Without hesitation he said, “Send it to me when you’re ready.” Seeing the smile and gleam in his eye, it was almost as if he’d been able to see a bit of the journey I took to get there. It would be easy to see this occurrence as a lucky stroke. But I choose to see it as an inevitable opportunity that arose after I’d spent nearly fifteen years building relationships and working on my craft. When you apply yourself that much to anything, the path to your goals reveal itself.
JS: That’s a great story, and way for us to view those ‘moments of luck.’ Many of us are obsessed with Robert Jordan. Can you share any stories of interacting with him? What’s it like to interact with one of your heroes (which I imagine he is)?
JD: The first time I emailed Robert Jordan, I sent him a photo of myself cutting my wedding cake with a heron-marked sword. His reply to me was that I was lucky my wife didn’t carve me up instead. And just like that, we were off, and I’m proud to say he counted me amongst his friends. Over time, our emails grew more friendly. He shifted from signing his emails as “Robert Jordan,” to “RJ”, and then finally to “Jim.” Robert Jordan was a pseudonym. His real name was James (“Jim”) Rigney. After he died, I lost a hard drive which contained all my emails from him. His assistant forwarded me the emails that he’d kept. It warmed my heart to see that he’d only kept emails that were more personal in nature: notes about my son being born, or photos of the house I’d just bought. Goofy Halloween costumes. It underscored for me just how human he was, and not just his mighty icon in the fantasy genre.
JS: I love it, and it’s great to think of our heroes that way, because it helps us to realize that the dreams can become a reality. You are also a filmmaker, correct? What have you worked on and how does this process of creation differ from that of writing a novel?
JD: I spent about ten years actively developing and producing short films. I funded all of them myself, except for my most recent (and still-in-development) movie which I raised Kickstarter funds for. Some of my movies had a little success with awards here and there. It was a great learning experience, as I mentioned earlier. One of the best lessons I learned as a filmmaker is how to find good people for your team. Producing a film requires the efforts of many people: producers, actors, technical crew, production designers, concept artists, makeup artists, editors, VFX experts, and so on. The trick is to work with people smarter than you. To find people whose expertise you trust, and can rely on. While on set, as director, I would tell the Director of Photography what shot I wanted. He’d often look at it, consider it, and then give me an alternative suggestion. Most of the time, I took his suggestion if he offered one. Not because I didn’t trust myself, but because he was usually right, and the projects were better for it. The same lesson applies to writing a novel. I’m learning to trust my editor. Melissa—one of the senior editors at Tor, who worked on Mystic with me—and I clashed on a few points, but after thinking it over, I realized she was right the vast majority of the time. It might only be my name on the cover, but without a doubt, there’s a whole crew behind this book.
JS: Since you have film and novel writing experience, what are your thoughts about getting fantasy films made? Do you have to write the successful book first and hope it gets adapted, or can a spec screenplay stand a chance? What about optioning the screenplay rights to books out there we love?
JD: For novelists, at the end of the day, I think it comes down to just focusing on making your story the best it can be, keeping it tight, and hoping it lands in the right lap. Some stories obviously lend themselves better to certain formats. And big studios are certainly more likely to invest in something that sells well in bookstores. But it always comes down to story and character. It’s about connecting with an individual reader or viewer. There are so many books that deserve a shot on screen. And there are equally as many original screenplays floating around Hollywood that are superb fantasy stories. (I’ve read some of them!). Fantasy films are expensive, risky, and require significant time. But I think if you’re a writer hoping to get a vision of fantasy onto the screen, the best approach is just to write stories, in different formats (books and screenplays) to better understand both mediums, and to see what works.
JS: Thank you, Jason. Before we sign off, can you leave us with one last piece of advice for those aspiring authors out there (or the secret recipe for getting in with TOR!)?
JD: Thanks for having me. Last advice? “BICHOK”… “Butt In Chair Hands On Keyboard.” Write. Allow yourself to fail. Finish a book, toss it aside if it doesn’t work, and move on. Repeat. As for Tor, go meet the editors. Go meet other authors they’re publishing. Meet literary agents that work with them. Be polite, friendly, and professional. (You might be surprised how often this isn’t the case!). And have something worth sharing for them. The editors at Tor (and every other publisher) want you to have great stories. They want to publish you. They want fresh voices and compelling books. They want you. But you need to give them something strong to work with, not just in terms of your story, but in terms of yourself as a professional they can work with.