Happy Thursday, everyone! I’m please to introduce you to J.D. Stanley. He’s an award-winning fantasy writer of novel and script as well as a Bardic Druid of the OBOD. It’s an honor to share his thoughts with you today on this, the writing life.
First, let’s talk a little about your background. I see you’ve done some work on radio and studio engineering. That’s so neat! It reminds me of Celine Kiernan, who spent years as an animator for Don Bluth before beginning her own writing career. How would you say your time with language-aloud influences your language-written?
It really was a neat experience. What a blast for a day job! Studio engineering and writing were the reasons I went into radio broadcasting in 1986. For a creative, nerdy introvert, all the behind-the-scenes stuff was super appealing. Audio engineering is a singular, unique avenue of creation – all you have are the sounds to build a world. I still love it. Without solid writing, though, no matter how good the production, it won’t sound realistic. Writing for that still makes me hyper-critical of my dialogue and narration today.
When I studied Radio in college, there was a great deal of focus on learning to write words meant to be spoken – so commercial copy, radio plays and show scripts. And the flip-side, how to speak that writing, too. The point was, to craft something that didn’t sound scripted even when it was. I was lucky enough to get picked up by a program director who heard some of my freelance work and jobbed-out halfway through. Getting thrown into the deep end like that really hammered it home. Knowing listeners would hear my writing live shortly after I put the words down or a sponsor would pay more than tens of thousands of dollars as soon as I produced or voiced a spot was… terrifying. Nothing like having your feet to the fire to hone skills. Those lessons will never leave me and my continued voiceover work as well as coaching written and spoken communication keeps it fresh in my head.
I would say, all that time with language-aloud makes me remember to read my writing outloud to check with my ears for believability. The human ear is extremely sensitive to the naturalness of speech, the nuance of humans speaking, and it strikes you when it’s fake. In my opinion, it’s the best gauge a writer can use to check not only the flow, but human believability of what’s written. I think it can help us make better connections with our readers. If we can reach them as another human, be accepted as a companion on a journey with them, we can connect. And when we can connect, then what we write can mean something to them. But if we sound like their Lit teacher? Dude, that’s just not gonna happen.
I once attempted a bit of screenplay writing some time ago, and…okay, not going to lie. I stunk at it. What challenges do you feel are unique to screenwriting as opposed to novel writing? What advantages? Do you have a preference between the two?
I really don’t have a burning desire to write screenplays daily and do prefer novel writing. I actually prefer fixing other people’s work, being a script doctor, over writing them if I’m being totally honest. I enjoy helping other people’s words work better. A script doctor gets no credit and most people don’t even know that’s a job.
There’s a specific pattern to the storytelling in screenplays aspiring screenwriters need to learn. If you want to be a rebel and not do it that way, that’s cool. But understand, that may be the reason you’re not selling anything. It may be an interesting concept, for instance, so someone takes a peak. And then they’re judged on a single page where there’s supposed to be a predictable beat and it’s missing, so their work gets round-filed. Or they don’t know the first thing about proper format and think their story is so extraordinary everyone will look past that and give them gobs of money anyway. Or they can’t write a logline to save their life, so no one ever goes past the logline to read the script. Or they’re actually bad writers operating under the delusion it doesn’t take good writing skills to write a screenplay.
I’d tell anyone thinking that screenwriting is a cool career choice… First? Understand the chances of selling one are slim to none. Once you get over that, you can move on. Practice the shit out of your writing and, especially, educate yourself from film industry professionals. Study books like Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat, read their blogs and absorb a crap-tonne of successfully produced screenplays – there’s a million available online – so you can see what it takes. And forget all those no-name Internet screenwriting contests held by genre enthusiasts who aren’t writers and don’t know what goes into a decent script. Sure, you’ll get something to put in your credits. But winning a contest not hosted by industry professionals isn’t validation of your talent as a screenwriter. If you thought it was? That’s probably why you aren’t selling any scripts after the contest is over. Pick contests held by actual screenwriters, directors and producers. They know what they’re looking at. And a lot of them include feedback in reply for free even if you don’t place. They’ll be harsh, you’ll hate everything they tell you and will probably make you cry, BUT they’ll tell you exactly what to do to your script to turn it into a saleable product. Use them as your university.
You’ve quite a rich variety of favorite authors shared on your website. Do you think you can pinpoint which author and story first sparked the passion for storytelling inside you, and why you think it was that story more than any other?
No, I can’t say there was any single author or story that sparked it for me. I could read and write before I started kindergarten, so was a bit ahead in that area and when I started writing my stories down consistently from when I was about nine, I hadn’t read any of those authors yet. My first love was sci-fi and that’s where I started writing, so maybe Gene Roddenberry was probably my earliest influence? I grew up on Star Trek in the ’60s, though didn’t know him as a writer at the time.
When I was about twelve, I’d read everything I was allowed by that point and got special permission from the local library to have an adult library card, so I could read more books. Real books. Normally, you had to be eighteen to have one of those puppies. Then I read everything in the adult fiction section. And all the poetry books. And then went through all the reference books. You want to know the depths of my nerdiness? I do, in fact, still relish the secret thrill of reading encyclopaedias and the dictionary for fun. Not even kidding. Back then, I read so fast, I started at one end of the adult section and used to take out thirty books at a time. Just clear them off the shelf all in a row, any genre, any author, and bring them home. I read one a day, sometimes two, and read every book from one end of the library to the other. Hence the massive list of authors.
Sad as it is, I couldn’t even tell you who the rest of those fiction authors were, but I remember the stories. When I was thirteen, I read the John Jakes saga The Kent Family Chronicles and I think I can say around there was when I realised I had an affinity for historical stories. And then after ingesting more books, I fine-tuned that down to historical fantasy for what I most often prefer to write. Reading for pleasure, though? Just about every genre as long as the story is good. I wish there were more gunslinger books. What an under-represented genre.
Out of that ocean of stories, three will resonate with me until I’m dead – Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers and Don Quixote. And overarching all of them is The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart and all Arthurian legend. I’m a total junky. And, of course, Lord of the Rings. Definitely a common theme. I’d like to think that says something about my character, but probably more what I would hope to aspire to and will never achieve. I think I was born in the wrong century. New things, like technology and science, fascinate the hell out of me and I continue to love sci-fi. But old things and old centuries make me feel at home.
If I understand your writing process correctly, I get the impression you’re something of a “pantser”—one who doesn’t plan out a story, but runs with the story as it comes. How on earth do you balance the madcap writing this method requires while also having kids? I got three, and there’s no way in Hades I can focus on my own story when they’re crashing Transformers and Enterprises into the land of Care-A-Lot.
Well, nowadays, my four kids aren’t little, so I’m at a different stage. Though every stage comes with its own unique challenges. I also no longer drive due to my cataract, so have built-in writing time while commuting everywhere which I use to my advantage.
The ability of life to persistently work to steal our focus never ends, though. I just got the kids all self-sufficient and almost out of the house (two down, two to go!), but now have different roadblocks. My dad has declining dementia from a brain injury sustained from a fall, so now? Two of the kids still need me for some things, and alternating between being with my dad at long term care after work until about midnight, and travelling an hour-and-a-half across the city to look after my mom and helping maintain their house. I’m basically writing long-hand wherever I can get it in and it’s weeks before I get to sit down to transcribe it. Or I’m doing everything on my phone and tablet on the go. It’s not the way I prefer to work and it’s slow, but it still lets me get it in there. Because I have to do it or my brain will explode!
When the kids were small, though? Honestly, if I was a different person and they were different kids, it probably wouldn’t have worked. I’m a super analytical control freak with troop movement-level organisation skills, so there’s that. Okay, and a life-long insomniac, so have more awake hours at my disposal than normal people. My most productive writing time is midnight onward, so it actually worked in my favour when they were little. I used to go to bed at 7:30 or 8:00pm when they did and woke up at 12:30 or 1:00am to write. I also got the laundry and cleaning done then to leave me free time to focus on the kids in the day – every time I got up to make a coffee, I did one task. Once a month I planned all the meals and snacks on a chart that I made shopping lists from so I wouldn’t waste time or money. Sundays I cooked five full dinners and parcelled them up in the fridge with labels on them to save time in the week. I wrote a lot long-hand sitting on benches waiting for them to finish swimming lessons or martial arts or whatever else I had them signed up for. Somewhere in there, I cranked out five full first draft novels. I didn’t go on trips. I didn’t go out. My entire life was kids and writing or consignment art. And I was totally okay with that. Someone else? Maybe wouldn’t be.
I have very clear priorities. I’m also very clear on what I’m willing to sacrifice. My mother wasn’t ever a well person, so I learned early how to squeeze in things I really wanted to do between looking after her, raising my two sisters and working part-time to help my dad. I already had the experience when I found myself in the position of being the only parent of my own four kids.
Okay, so the “pantster” thing… I can say, with all honesty, I’ve never “pantsted” anything in my life. Being this consistently, incredibly busy, most times? There’s no opportunity to write plans down. But let’s be honest, a lot of the kid stuff wasn’t rocket science and it left my brain free. So I trained myself to do it in my head. All of it. All the figuring out, all the plotting. By the time I had a block of time to sit down in front of a keyboard or with a pen and paper, I could just write my ass off. All my “outlines” start the same way – with a super-descriptive hinging scene, usually the story conflict or premise, with an important exposition of the main character. It’s my brain shorthand for the whole story, a memory trick. Then I start telling myself the story – the who, what, where, when, why – and it morphs into the opening lines and I just keep going. The story is already done in my head and I’m basically transcribing by that point. I do it that way now, because that’s how it needed to happen then or it wasn’t getting done. And it not getting done is unacceptable to me. Since I still don’t have a lot of time, I’m still outlining in my head. At least when I have stolen moments, I can write like a demon and not have to waste time plotting.
Wisconsin’s landscape has a been a HUGE source of inspiration for my fantasy fiction. Your first novel, Blood Runner, is set in Canada—just like you! Do you find yourself utilizing special places from your life for settings in your stories, or is the landscape itself a muse?
I’d say it’s more the landscape that’s the muse. There’s a few countries I have a huge affinity for, for no particular reason, though more in the historical sense – ancient Ireland, Britain, Rome, Egypt, Sumer, Japan. I’ve studied a lot about them over time, so have a lot of fodder in my head for inspiration. I can’t go to those places, because the ancient versions I want to visit no longer exist. So instead, I use them to write from. Being immersed in one of those places is like taking a visit back in time to me. It’s cool, like owning your own time machine, y’know?
In the grand scheme of things, Canada isn’t that old and doesn’t fit in with the affinity I have for some of those other ancient places. But the forests here are old and I do love that. The trees and rocks have been around a very long while. There’s forest here with trees hundreds of years old and the Canadian Shield is right underneath us and that’s been there since the last ice age. How cool is that? I’ve spent a lot of time in the forests, so love to write about them. Thinking about them is uplifting to me. I’m big on nature overall and love to write longhand outdoors when that’s possible. I find that very inspirational, sitting outside under a tree scratching words out.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Well, I’m a research junkie, so I’m doing research all the time, often not even toward a purpose, but because I love it. I have so much useless information in my head. So, the length of time I study is moot. With that much constant input, my subconscious has a tendency to make connections between seemingly unrelated things while I’m busy with life. When one of those connected circumstances bubbles up, that’s when I sometimes do extra research to fill in the holes. I can’t write about anything until I can speak about it with authority and I need to have it all in my head before I start. It’s what we do as writers, isn’t it? Become forty-eight hour experts on anything from rocket science to earth worms. When I know enough, then I write. To get to that point could be a few weeks, but could also be years. Since I don’t work on only one story at once, it’s always in rotation.
I do a lot of book studying, but depending on what I need, also do practical study. Fight scenes or any hand combat, for instance, I do, in fact, act out to make sure they’re plausible. I’m lucky, because my eldest son does stunt work and is a multi-disciplined martial artist, swordsman, archer and edge weapon aficionado. He helps me physically block out my fight scenes for authenticity. I’ve done an extreme conditions survival course where they drop you in the forest in the middle of winter and you need to build a shelter, fire, find food and the like. I love camping and living off the land and know how to fish and clean animals and find edible forage. I had an organic garden when the kids were growing up, but it wasn’t only that – it was major practical study. I read up on everything about crop rotation, pioneer techniques for vegetable gardening, organic pest control and composting, practiced it everyday, became a Master Composter, and tracked the results and weather patterns complete with sketches in a large binder over all the years I had it and still have that research data for reference. I also study, make and use herbal remedies myself, so that’s ongoing, and have a great interest in living off the grid, so currently practicing those behaviours as I work in that direction. Over time, anything I needed to know about, I taught myself and picked up that skill from jewellery-making to calligraphy to hand quilting to home renovation to ceramics to building a hydro generator in a stream.
When the zombie apocalypse happens and it’s end of times? You can come with. I plan on building a town. Only people I like get to live there. 😉
I also find it interesting that you created a fresh take on vampires. How much research did you do on vampires before choosing the path you took for Blood Runner?
I’ve been a big Anne Rice fan for a long time and loved Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but actual vampire research for that story? Zero. Is that bad? I had actually been stuffing my head full of Ancient history and mythology from Egypt and Babylon for another story. And me being me, kept going backward in time, because for whatever reason, it became important I got to the root mythology and first organisation of city-states and society. That history fascinated the holy crap out of me and still does. When I studied the bits of translated mythology available at the time (there’s more now), I couldn’t stop. For whatever reason, I couldn’t leave it alone.
There’s a myth about a man who cannot eat or drink. And in their mythology, a dead body can be reanimated by the Water of Life – blood. To me, that sounded like some kind of proto-vampire. I stitched elements of a few myths together to create the premise. Gave him a nemesis, a real historical figure in the invading Akkadian king Naram-Sin who was painted in myth as pure evil and cursed by the head of the pantheon. The Great God Enlil’s disdain for humanity was so well-documented as was a whole soap opera of inter-family pantheon conflict, the story told itself. It turned into a tale of mistaken vampire identity.
I still have so much story left that never made it into Blood Runner, a whole universe. I think once I’m done getting it out, it’ll lose its association with vampires and people will see what it really is. Vampires are cool and I love them, but that’s not the story focus, so I really didn’t need the depth of research in that area I might have otherwise. It was only a device.
Your latest book, The Seer, is about a Druid named Bronan, and I see you yourself are a Bardic Druid. I would love to hear how your spiritual nature influences your writing; or, would you consider your storytelling to be its own “faith,” as it were? I can’t help but ask because I myself am a Christian, but I rarely include elements related to faith in my fiction. Severed Selves, you could say.
I don’t think I can separate those things, because it’s both – inspiration as well as the storytelling being its own brand of sacredness, since words come from the soul. I’m lucky, from the fantasy writer side of things, because Druids and magic are popular story topics with readers. I know a lot about modern Druids and history and mythology, so can speak with some authority in that space. Besides, people love that stuff. And why not? I’m just like everyone else – the ancient Druids are just as mysterious and fascinating to me, because there’s really so little known about them. And magic is, well, magical!
I write foremost to amuse myself and being immersed in those magical worlds is escapism. Right up there with dreaming of flying and imagining we’re superheroes when we’re kids, right? I mean, it’s a sad fact that the more life imposes arbitrary boundaries and traps us in expectations and responsibilities, we lose those dreams. It’s limiting. I think we need to escape into times of unfettered brainspace to balance off all the other crap. Druidry is the continuous responsibility to keep balance on a cosmic level and this is exactly the same thing to me. When we can immerse ourselves in a world where those boundaries aren’t grinding us down, even for only the length of time it takes to finish reading a story, we can regain some inner balance and perspective. As a reader, I love that. And as an author? I consider it a public service. lol
Words are my medium as a Bardic Druid, my divination, and how I connect with universal consciousness. I walk the path of knowledge, so seek out universal truths, those things that are real and true for everyone. That’s where we all connect, so goes hand-in-hand with taking a reader on a journey. A lot of my writing to amuse myself is speculative, where I’m figuring these things out and pushing down my own thought barriers. As a Druid, I embrace the responsibility to maintain balance, speak the truth and especially to oppose injustice and be an agent of fairness for everyone around me. I’ve been told that makes me some kind of throwback, dying on a hill of my own moral code, and they may be right. But to me, treating people right and standing up against wrong is simply the right thing to do and not because of a prize at the end. I know all this stuff influences my writing and you can see it leaking out. In the sense of all that, being a writer is more than a job to me. It’s rolled into my spiritual path and there’s no way to tell where one ends and one begins.
I think the biggest influence on my writing is probably hyper-awareness about what I’m capturing in words. To me, words are so much more than only letters arranged on a page. The writing should be real and true, should be honest, and should allow us, as human beings, to meet there on common ground. We can laugh together, get riled-up together, cry together, I can lift people up and that’s all about keeping balance. Speaking about injustice within the confines of a fictional story is giving voice to it, but in a way less uncomfortable to explore. I can write about universal truth. Or that, in fact, we’re all the reluctant hero, working through our own myriad life crap and evolving as we go while learning to step up about bad things even when we don’t want to. It’s easy to relate to, because we’re all on that same journey. In that way, we can connect with people we’ll never know on a very deep, emotional level. That’s so powerful, y’know?
Magic is simply intention charged with our own energy and that’s carried into writing for a writer. From our perspective, there’s an element of sacredness to it, because we do, in fact, tear those words out of our soul to get them on the page. Whether we know it consciously or not, that ability through writing is the greatest magic there is. If you want to get super existential about it… From that perspective?
Lastly, do you have any tips or encouragement for your fellow writers?
Wait, yes. If you’re not already lost down that road, take an ice cream scoop and dig out that part of your brain telling you it’s a good idea and go get a real job. You’ll thank me later.
Seriously, though, remember you’re playing a long game. If you’re doing it to become rich next week and can’t understand why you’re not famous after your first six months? Take your ball and go home. While that would be lovely, that’s not the reality for most writers. You really do have to do it, because you get something out of it, out of the creation. You have to do it, because it makes you sacrifice for it and you don’t care about that. You have to do it, because you can’t think about not doing it or you’ll go insane or die. If that’s not where you live? Adjust your sails and get that ship on course. And newsflash, you have to actually love writing or you won’t stick with it through the length of time it takes. I’ve seen some “writers” who apparently woke up one day and thought they’d become famous and make millions of dollars at writing after having never written a day in their life previous to that. They thought it looked like an easy gig. *Cue massive eyeroll.*
I’ve been a working writer, writing every day, mostly for others and getting paid for it, for over thirty-five years. Did it make me famous? Nope. It kept the lights on and bought groceries and clothes for the kids. And yet? It’s fantastic to me, because I made money doing the thing I love the most. How many people can say that? With the kids now grown, recently I shifted to focus on only my writing and that new reality takes time to build. No matter how much previous experience I have, it doesn’t matter. I’m fully prepared for the length of time that comes with creating a new reality. You’re no different coming in thirty-five-odd years behind me. Creating any new reality takes time and that’s where you have to live in your head every day. My goal now is the same as when I started back in college – do the thing I love every day and aspire to make that my entire supporting income. If you don’t, you’re going to have a lot of heartache and frustration. I think that’s a solid, realistic and attainable goal adjustment for new writers to make.
Ask yourself if you want to be famous or successful – they’re two very different things. Thinking about becoming famous is setting yourself up for disappointment. Think about becoming successful instead. Don’t waste energy on whether anyone else is getting famous or rich before you and put all your focus and energy into honing your craft. Other writers aren’t your competition, dude, they’re your compatriots. Stop worrying about their pay check and worry about your own. Good writing means you can get paid, so never think you’re a good enough writer. That self-doubt can be your continued catalyst – it makes you extra careful about what you’re putting down there on the page and prevents you wasting time churning out garbage no one’s ever going to give you money for. I live in a constant state of terror myself. LOL If you keep your head down that way, you’ll end up becoming a polished, hard-working, consistent producer which is exactly where you want to be even if that magical fame unicorn never makes a stop at your house. Plain and simple, success takes hard work and hard work produces better writing.
It does indeed, JD. Thanks so much for chatting with me!
To find out more about JD, check out his website http://jdstanley.com/.
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK~
It’s time to talk about what makes–and breaks–a hero.
Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!