Mormon Artist

Dan Wells

Dan Wells is the author of the Partials sequence, the John Cleaver series, and several other novels and shorter works published all around the world. He is a co-host on the podcast Writing Excuses, for which he has won a Hugo award and two Parsecs. He plays a lot of games, reads a lot of books, and eats a lot of food, which is pretty much the ideal life he imagined for himself as a child. Website
Photo courtesy Micah Demoux

How did you get into writing in the first place?

I told my parents in second grade that I was going to be a writer, because they’d raised me to be a reader and I couldn’t think of anything more awesome than making up stories. I still can’t. I wrote all through school, trying everything from short stories to novels to poetry to comicbooks; I built puppets and wrote elaborate mythologies for them; I wrote songs and scripts and experimented with every weird narrative device I could think of. It wasn’t until college, though, that I took a writing class from Dave Wolverton and realized for the first time that writing could be an actual career in which one could actually make money. I started buckling down and treating it like a professional job, and eight years later sold my first book. So it took a long time, but it was totally worth it.

In the bio on your site, you mention your strong love of poetry. Has that had any influence on your novels?

My first four novels all have poetry quotes as epigrams, and the first three specifically namecheck famous poems in the text, so there’s that. The more important influence, though, is my love of language and words for their own sake: to not just tell a story, but to craft the words in such a way that the telling is beautiful even outside of the story. I’m no William Gibson by any means, but it’s something I think about and try to keep improving.

Image courtesy Dan Wells

For some, horror seems to be a genre far from the spirit of the thirteenth Article of Faith. How do you reconcile horror with the gospel?

The thing about horror, or any story in any genre, is that you can’t focus on just one part of it. If you only read half of the New Testament it’s a story about killing Jesus, and I can’t think of anything more horrific than that; the “good” part, the redemptive part, the uplifting, inspirational part, comes at the end, after you’ve been through the horror and watched terrible things and come out the other side wiser and stronger and better. Horror allows us to know the bitter so that we can appreciate the sweet, which is a huge part of Mormon theology and Christian theology in general. I would go so far as to say that horror is the most intrinsically moral genre of storytelling we have, because it is primarily concerned with good and evil, and sin and punishment, and the possibility of overcoming darkness and finding redemption.

Tell us a little about your John Cleaver series—how you got started with it, what it was like writing it, what you learned in writing the second and third books, and whether you plan to do anything more with John.

That’s a massive question covering 3+ years of my career. To be painfully brief: the John Cleaver series started with John himself, who shares my fascination with serial killer psychology and allowed me to tell stories about the kinds of things that frighten me, like duality and identity and the hazy line between “protecting good guys” and “hurting bad guys.” The later books in the series really helped me grow as a writer, by forcing me to dig deeper into the character and find new ways to challenge him and myself.

And yes, I do intend to write more, scheduled to start as soon as I finish the two projects currently on my plate. Probably early next year, though you won’t see it on shelves anywhere for a year or two after that.

What was the hardest part of writing the John Cleaver books?

The trick of the Cleaver books was always keeping John sympathetic—writing him such that the audience could relate to him, even though he couldn’t relate to them in any meaningful way. This, more than anything else, is the writing revelation that helped me finally break out—I’d written five books previous to that, and had never considered that my characters wouldn’t be relatable, because doesn’t that just happen automatically? Writing about a sociopath forced me to see it from a different angle, which changed the way I write.

In The Hollow City, your main character has paranoid schizophrenia. Can you talk about the research you did for the book to make it feel authentic?

This book required more research than anything I’ve ever written, before or since, because schizophrenia is such a common trope, and mental illness in general tends to be either demonized or canonized whenever it gets used in fiction. I wanted to portray schizophrenia as authentically as possible—a cool, sensational version, certainly, because I was writing a thriller, but not a sensationalized, if that makes any sense.

I read every book on the subject I could get my hands on, learning far more than was strictly necessary to write the book, and did interviews with people who’d worked in mental health, and talked to people with mental health problems of their own. The most useful books, after all of that, turned out to be the self-help books: medical descriptions of the disease were interesting, but guides about “how to live with your spouse/parent/child with schizophrenia” were gold mines of storytelling information. They helped me to really understand the day-to-day realities of psychosis in a way that clinical textbooks couldn’t capture.

Image courtesy Dan Wells

Congrats on the Writing Excuses Hugo. Has Writing Excuses changed your work at all over the years? If so, how?

Thanks! We couldn’t possibly be more excited about the Hugo, though it came as a huge surprise to all of us. Working on Writing Excuses has changed my career immensely, simply because of the amazing cross-promotion we’ve had between the audiences of the four main authors, not to mention the countless amazing guest authors and editors. More than that, though, WX has helped me to constantly re-evaluate my own writing habits and techniques and shortcuts, analyzing what I do and why and introducing me to new and exciting alternatives. The old aphorism is as true as ever: you learn more by teaching a subject than you ever do by listening to somebody else.

How have role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons helped you become a better disciple of Christ?

My my, you’re asking some saucy and controversial questions today, aren’t you?

Many religious people think roleplaying games are evil, but as with most things we’re afraid of, this is based primarily on lack of knowledge and understanding. I really believe that if most parents understood what roleplaying was about, they’d actively push their kids into it—religious parents especially. First of all, roleplaying is one of the best teaching tools on the planet, so much so that it’s a major part of not just LDS missionary training but actual proselyting. Roleplaying games, specifically, use this teaching tool to help kids develop social skills, explore their personality, and act out problems in a safe, exciting, fun environment. On its most basic level, a roleplaying game is a social activity that encourages creativity, problem solving, social interaction, reading, and math, in a cooperative setting where everybody works together as a group.

As a kid these games helped me to practice different modes of behavior and figure out who I wanted to be in real life; as an adult they’ve helped to make and maintain some of my longest-lasting and most treasured friendships. Who wouldn’t want that in their lives? The skills I’ve learned through roleplaying, everything from interaction to storytelling, have helped me to get jobs, make friends, and even serve as a church leader.

Can you give a quick overview of your seven-point system?

It’s hardly my system, but I’ve gained a lot of notoriety for it based on my presentation on YouTube. It’s a story structure system commonly used in screenwriting, to help focus your plot with seven distinct beats:

  • Hook: the starting state
  • Plot Turn 1: the conflict is introduced
  • Pinch 1: add pressure, force the characters to react
  • Midpoint: the characters stop reacting and start acting
  • Pinch 2: add more pressure, make it look like all is lost
  • Plot Turn 2: the characters figure out how to solve their problem
  • Resolution: triumph, growth, etc; the ending state

The important thing to point out with this or any storytelling formula is that no one system is right for every story or even every author. You can find these seven points in almost any story you care to name, but that doesn’t mean the authors included them on purpose, or that you have to include them consciously when you sit down to write. This works for me, so I use it in all my outlines, but every author’s different, and the story you tell will always be more important than the structure you use to tell it.

Who are your favorite writers right now?

The authors currently blowing my hair back are Bernard Cornwell, who writes historical fiction, S. J. Kincaid, who writes YA cyberpunk, and Scott Lynch, who writes fantasy. This changes often, as I try to keep reading new things.

Image courtesy Dan Wells

How does the gospel influence your writing?

I never set out to specifically write something gospel-related, but it’s such a huge part of my life that the gospel seeps into everything I do regardless. The John Cleaver books were about a teenage sociopath fighting a demon, but they ended up being a perfect allegory of “the natural man is an enemy to God,” and our struggle to fight against our baser natures—not because I wrote it that way on purpose, but because my beliefs crept in there subconsciously. This happens to all of us, in every book we write.

What do you think are the current strengths and weaknesses of the Mormon science fiction and fantasy community?

The Mormon science fiction and fantasy community is incredibly strong right now, bigger and better and more exciting than it’s ever been before. The top selling YA authors on Amazon are Suzanne Collins, James Dashner, and Ally Condie, and two out of three ain’t bad; the biggest SF title of the week I’m writing this is Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson. The most anticipated movie of the season (after The Hobbit) is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Mormon SF and fantasy authors are everywhere, at all levels of the industry, and growing all the time.

As for weaknesses, I won’t claim that the community has none because nothing is perfect, but I will say that I can’t think of any meaningful ones. We’ve got a strong YA bent right now, for whatever reason, but I don’t know if I’d count that as a weakness.

What are you currently working on?

I just released a novella for Privateer Press, a game company, in which I got to write about one of their game’s main characters. It was new experience for me, writing about somebody else’s world and stories, but it was a lot of fun. It’s available in ebook, and I tried to make it as approachable as possible even for people unfamiliar with the setting; it’s called The Butcher of Khardov.

My next big book release will be in March 2014, for Ruins, the third and final Partials book. This has been a fun series to write, tapping into my love of old-school dystopias and post-apocalyptic fiction and, by the end, even epic fantasies. People have really loved the series so far, and I really think the last book of the sequence will be painful and awesome and satisfying.

What projects do you have coming up in the nearish future? (That you can talk about, that is.)

I have two main projects that I’m working on, one in the final stages of revision and one in the early stages of proposal.

Extreme Makeover: Apocalypse Edition is a book I’ve been working on for several years, between other projects, which we’re finally getting ready to polish off and sell. It’s a satirical, modern-day SF about a health and beauty company that accidentally creates a hand lotion that can overwrite your DNA.

Mirador is the tentative series title of a cyberpunk thriller I’m currently pitching to HarperCollins, who published my Partials series. It’s a near-future YA about a teenage hacker in L.A. who goes up against crazy new technology and the crime that goes with it.

After I get these two wrapped up, I’ll be starting a new John Cleaver novel, possibly a new series. We’ll see how it goes. ❧

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