by Jonathan Maberry

I wasn’t always a novelist. Sure, it’s what I do now and it’s my day job. I write, on average, four novels a year in different genre, and I write comics and short stories. But I spent the first twenty-eight years of my writing career focusing entirely on nonfiction. Feature articles on a range of subjects from karate to gift-wrapping to sky-diving. I wrote college textbooks and mass-market how-to books. I wrote product instructions, medical industry call-floor scripts, and training manuals for SWAT and special forces.
Then I decided…what the heck, let’s try fiction.
Mind you, I’d never taken a creative writing class. Not one. I studied journalism in college. So, having the desire to write fiction didn’t instantly transform me into a novelist. And even though I’d always read a lot of fiction that’s not the same as knowing how it’s done. I travel on airplanes a lot but I can’t fly one.
So I had to figure out how to do it. Sounds easy, but it’s not. Of course it’s not.
My approach to learning the craft of writing fiction was similar to the way I did research for my nonfiction books and articles. I made a particular study of the form and its components. I read books on writing, like Natalie Goldberg’s wonderful Writing Down the Bones and the absolutely brilliant Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass (who has since become a close friend). I learned what the elements were that made up a book. That was part one.

Part two, for me, was to select some excellent books in the genre I planned to try. I wanted to write an American gothic horror novel set in small-town America. So I grabbed copies of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, Robert McCammon’s Mystery Walk, and a few others. I’d read each of these books before but I re-read them several more times. First as a reader, and then repeatedly as a writer. I deconstructed them to look for those elements of craft. I studied the balance of narrative and dialogue; the ways in which POV shifts in an ensemble cast; how figurative and descriptive language was used in different kinds of scenes; pace and action; the benefits of limited and omniscient points of view, and the subtle variations of each. And so on. I leaned close to study the carpentry.
I didn’t do this because I wanted to imitate the style of Stephen King or any of the others. If anything my process was to make sure that I learned elements of craft from them but made absolutely sure that I wasn’t doing any kind of imitation. It’s all about emulation of technical skill without imitation of individual style.
It took me three and a half years to write my first novel, GHOST ROAD BLUES. That included studying the craftsmanship, writing that ugly and overlong first draft, and eighteen layers of revision. The result was a horror novel that appealed to me. It was exactly the kind of book I would go out and buy. And this was the point.
The downside was that in the writing and editing it became very clear to me that I was writing something that could never be contained in one volume. I futzed with it and after finishing the first volume, I decided that there had to be two more volumes to tell the story I wanted to tell. A trilogy. This was 2004. Horror trilogies were a non-existent thing.
Did I expect it to sell? No, not really. But I’d put everything I had into it. Heart and mind, passion and imagination, love and care. If it never sold, then at least I’d stretched myself as a writer and learned new skills.
Finding an agent was tricky –because that’s always tricky. I figured it out, though, and how I did is a story for another time. I wound up landing a young agent, Sara Crowe, who was working for Trident Media. Big agency. Sara, I should note, is no fan of horror fiction. She liked the writing (not the subject matter) and she liked the fact that I approached this with solid business savvy. She took a flyer on my potential more so than the book.
Sara shopped the book. Random House almost bought it, but ultimately passed because they didn’t think a horror trilogy would sell.
Two weeks later Pinnacle Books (an imprint of Kensington) bough it because they thought a horror trilogy would sell. Go figure.
Ghost Road Blues sold well as a mass-market paperback and went on to win the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel. And my fiction career transformed from ‘let me try this to see if I can do it’ to ‘this is what I do’.
In 2016 Pinnacle will release special 10th Anniversary Editions of Ghost Road Blues and its sequels. And at this writing I am beginning work on my 25th novel. Two of my books are in development for TV, another is being made into a film. And I’ve hit the NY Times bestseller list several times. All because I wanted to try something I’d never done before.
Funny what happens when you try something new.


08/20/2015 3:06pm

What a novel idea. Learning how to write before writing. That was an exciting, inspiring and daunting post. I am so looking forward to your appearance eat the conference, Jonathan.


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