Zombie lord and New York Times best-selling author Jonathan Maberry will once again grace Dragon*Con with his presence this year. A multiple Bram Stoker award-winner, Maberry writes horror, thrillers, young adult, non-fiction, and comic books. His YA post-apocalyptic zombie novel Rot & Ruin won a Cybilis Award this year for Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction. His novelization The Wolfman has been nominated for a Scribe Award (Best Adaptation novel, International Association of Media Tie-in Writers, or IAMTW). Maberry has practiced martial arts for over 40 years and is also a writing teacher and lecturer.
Daily Dragon (DD): Jonathan, that Big Scary Blog at your website is a seemingly endless compendium of news and views about the publishing business, including interviews with celebrity authors like Charlaine Harris, Laurell K. Hamilton, and Kevin J. Anderson, among many others. How do you keep up with the world of books and publishing and also maintain your own writing and publishing schedule? Do you think an aspiring author should start a blog or website on writing generally and current projects specifically? If so, when and what should the aspirant include in the initial web presence?
Jonathan Maberry (JM): Blogs are crucial tools for building a writer’s brand and for connecting with people in all aspects of the publishing industry. I don’t, as a rule, recommend blogs built on original content. Those tend to attract a very small audience and they get lost in the shuffle with countless blogs of the same kind.
The formats I most often recommend are review blogs and interview blogs. These tend to draw bigger audiences, with the second kind being the real golden ticket. Both of them draw on audiences of established authors rather than the ‘friends and family’ audience of most blogs. Review a notable book and the fans of that book and its author will often come to the blog to read the new review. Interview the author, and the draw is even bigger.
I recommend importing your blog into your website, because at the end of the day you want people to visit your web page. That’s the key gear in the social media engine.
There are ways of making these really work, though, just as there are traps to avoid.
Review blogs should never be snarky or negative. Established reviewers can get away with that (though I still object to it on principle); but for an up-and-coming author it’s career suicide. For example, when Twilight became a huge sensation, a lot of folks used their blogs to attack the books, the quality of the writing, the nature of the characters (sparkly vampires), and even the character of the author. Whereas some of these may be the valid and original opinion of the bloggers, the message it sends is destructive. It accomplishes nothing of value. It doesn’t help the industry, it comes off as petty and trite, and it alienates anyone in the industry who is profiting from the popularity of those books and movies. That list, by the way, includes virtually every publishing house, a large number of literary agents, booksellers, movie producers, and so on. It’s also a slap in the face of the millions of fans of the books. Is that really the kind of light you want to shine on yourself at the point where you are planning to pitch to the industry?
I find that it’s better to wait until you find a book that you enjoyed, and then write about that. Publishing is in enough trouble without using blogs to make petty attacks.
The kind of blog I most often recommend is the ‘interview’ blog. That’s the kind I have [at www.jonathanmaberry.com]. I interview all sorts of people in the entertainment industry of all kinds, usually a half-dozen quick questions via email. There is very little work on my part. I spent an afternoon writing a long list of possible questions, so I don’t have to create new questions every time; with each person I interview their answers will be different, and that’s what counts. Naturally, I make some tweaks and adjustments for each person. When I have the completed interview, I post the URL on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, GoodReads, and elsewhere, and I include it in my own newsletter.
Since I started doing that instead of writing original content for each blog, I have much more time to write my novels, and the number of visitors to my blog has increased by astounding numbers.
I also do ‘virtual panel discussion’ blogs where I interview several people on the same subject and then include all of the answers as if this was a true roundtable talk. I’ve done that with the contributors of anthologies, finalists in contests, librarians, genre writers, and others.
DD: Your fans can follow you on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, GoodReads, Library Thing, Shefari and Plaxo. What kind of presence should a newbie writer maintain on these or other networks?
JM: The best presence to maintain is one of regularity and fun. Be everywhere, but be seen to be having fun. I don’t just pimp my own works with social media even though I write for seven publishers. Sure, I have to buzz that stuff out–publishers expect it and I want to drive sales–but I also post a lot of stuff that’s not about me. On Facebook I’m known for posting weird and funny cartoons and images, or by starting discussions about what other people are writing, or throwing out a pop-culture topic. Those things start conversations that are fun and easy. People aren’t afraid to come to your page because they know you’re not always trying to sell them something.
I also make sure that I support other writers. In my genre and in general. I also staunchly support libraries, booksellers (brick and mortar and online), and other aspects of the industry.
DD: Are there any do’s and don’ts writers should keep in mind in establishing and maintaining a Web and network presence?
JM: Negativity does not sell. It’s counter-productive, especially in economically troubled times. Positivity, on the other hand, does sell. People want to play with the happy kid, not the brooding loudmouth.
I also like to interact with readers of all kinds. I love talking books and movies. My works do not have to be a factor in the discussion. What we’re sharing is our love of books, and that uplifts the entire industry. I strongly encourage all writers—new or established—to consider that approach. It’s more effective and it’s far more fun.
DD: Horror, thrillers, supernatural, comic books, mystery, science fiction, and related non-fiction: you write in a multitude of areas and your writing frequently includes elements from several genres. You’ve stated that, “I’m whatever kind of writer serves the story I want to tell.” Do you feel that emerging authors may follow this practice with impunity or should they write to a specific genre to market their stories successfully?
JM: I don’t believe that a writer should write something just because a trend is hot. That’s a quick path to failure, because unless you’re already in the industry and on a fast track, it’s unlikely you could write a book quickly enough to capture the trend. Also, any professional writer worth his salt does not write just for the trend either. However–and this is important to understand about working pros—a good writer can take a trend and mine it to find the story they really want to tell.
When I approach a ‘hot trend,’ I don’t slap some words around a genre trope and call it art. That’s not art. What I do—and what a lot of working pros do—is take the concept and then let our imaginations run around inside of it until we find the story we really want to tell. A good example—some years ago an editor at Citadel Press asked me to write a non-fiction book on zombies. This was just as Max Brooks’ excellent million-copy bestseller, The Zombie Survival Guide, was just catching fire. I could have slapped something together and handed it in, because I’ve written a lot of non-fiction books and thousands of articles and columns. I could have done that, but it would have been a disservice to the readers and to me. What I did was take the concept of the living dead and roll it around in my mind, coming at it from a bunch of different angles until I found the book I’d really love to write. In that case I chose to tap my love of police procedural fiction, my total geekiness about science, and my pop culture sensibilities and I came up with an idea called Zombie CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead. I interviewed hundreds of experts in fields like forensic analysis, physics, molecular biology, criminal science, and others and asked them how the real world would react to a situation like Night of the Living Dead. The result? A book I had an insane amount of fun writing that also satisfied the needs of the editor, and which would be fun for the readers. The book has been selling strong since its release in 2008 and has won a bunch of awards. It’s not ‘mailed in’.
So, a new writer could take a trendy idea and write a novel, but it would have to be a novel they absolutely fell in love with and believed in. That way, even if the trend was cooling off, the book might still sell big. After all, when Max Brooks wrote The Zombie Survival Guide nothing was deader than books on zombies. And look what happened.
DD: At our last chat, you talked about your long history as a commercial non-fiction writer before turning to fiction. Do you think your non-fiction writing experience hurt or helped you when you turned your pen to stories and novels?
JM: Having spent 25 years writing magazine features, columns, interview pieces, college textbooks, and mass-market nonfiction books was a great training ground for writing fiction. Just as having been trained in journalism (at Temple U.) rather than as in creative writing. The real-world material keeps me solidly grounded, which informs my genre fiction by giving even themes like the zombie apocalypse or a vampire invasion an everyday ‘this could happen’ feel. There’s an old carnival barker’s saying: “Tell 10 truths to tell one lie.” That’s another way of looking at the use of real world practicality as a way of encouraging readers to suspend disbelief.
Also, after all those books and articles I’ve become a total research junkie. And a pretty good interviewer. That helps when doing background research on the science upon which I build my fantastical elements. I interview scientists of every stripe, the military, the police, and people in all manner of professions. The information culled from those interviews not only allows me to write believable plots, but these experts love to share cool, weird, or arcane information with authors.
DD: Based on your knowledge of so many facets of the publishing industry, do you believe that writing in diverse areas is beneficial or harmful to new writers and how?
JM: Writers too often ambush themselves by carving a niche and setting up camp there for the rest of their careers. They may decide that they’re ‘poets’ or ‘western action authors’ or some other very specific kind of writer. The market shifts and changes all the time, and there are genres and subgenres that are dry wells in terms of income for writers. You can’t force the market to provide a living for you just because you only want to write comedy about penguins.
A writer who wants to make a living in this economy should be open to trying new things. I love doing that. When Marvel Comics approached me to write for them, I could have said: “No, I don’t write comics.” Or, worse, “I don’t know how to write comics.” The offer would be withdrawn and would likely never come again. I said, “Sure.” Then I went out and learned how to write comics. Same thing with Universal Pictures called and asked if I wanted to novelize The Wolfman. I’d never done that. I said yes, and then I learned how to do it. That book, by the way, became a New York Times bestseller and recently won the Scribe Award for Best Adaptation of a Movie. Missing that opportunity would have slammed a lot of doors; taking it, on the other hand, kicked a lot of doors open.
DD: In your article “Go on. Bring a ZOMBIE to life” (The Writer, October, 2010), you said, “Zombies are hot. Well, technically they’re room temperature, but in terms of what they can do for your writing career, they’re red-hot.” Do you still feel this way or is zombie lit being eclipsed by other sub-genres? What does the future hold for tales of the living dead?
JM: What we’ve seen recently is the ‘zombie’ moving from the position of ‘just another monster’ and into the role of an enduring trope every bit as valid, varied, and interesting as ghosts, vampires, and werewolves. We’ve validated the zombie now, and, to one degree or another, zoms are on everybody’s radar. Like those other monsters, zombie fiction henceforth will wax and wane with reader interest, but like vampires the zombie will come back to life each time a really good book hits the market.
DD: Even the National Center for Disease Control (CDC) (located here in Atlanta) is climbing aboard the zombie wagon. In its May 16, 2011, blog entry, the CDC suggested emergency kits and planning for the much anticipated zombie apocalypse. However, weapons were noticeably omitted from kit contents. What preparation for defense would you recommend in the event of zombie incursion?
JM: The best weapon in a zombie attack is a sword–it takes very little time to learn the basic cuts (no need for blocks or parries or even strategy), and swords don’t run out of bullets. There are swords useful for virtually every body type, too. But the most important items needed for zombie defense include rope (string trip lines at thigh height—zombies are brainless, they fall for this every time); long-handled tools like pitchforks and rakes (to fend them off long enough for people with swords or blunt instruments to disable or kill them); lots of duct tape and carpet. No zombie is going to bite through carpet, so cut up a rug and tape pieces all over your body. Best and easiest zombie armor you can find.
If the actual apocalypse happens, don’t hole up inside a house (all those windows? Seriously?) or a mall. Go to a regional food distribution warehouse and make that your safe house. Tons upon tons of food and water, first aid supplies, and other crucial needs–all in vast quantity; and those places are built like blockhouses with very few doors and no windows.
DD: Based on your experience in three different styles of martial arts, what style would be most effective against a zombie attack?
JM: Kenjutsu, the Japanese art of swordplay is going to be very useful; same with similar sword arts from China, Korea, and other countries. But really, most forms of karate, kung-fu and Thai kickboxing will be useful. You’ll only need basic blocks to keep from being grabbed, and two or three easy-to-learn kicks to break their legs and knock them down. A white belt with three weeks of training will probably do pretty well as long as they remember to break the support bones rather than waste time punching. And…all those guys who do sword fighting in Renaissance Faires? They’re going to live through this. They have weapons and armor.
DD: Almost necessarily an ongoing debate in writing any kind of speculative fiction with so much left to the author’s imagination, do you think an aspiring writer can successfully describe situations never actually experienced, for example, describing hand-to-hand combat without any real-life training? What can that author do to bridge the gap?
JM: Fighting is science. There’s nothing truly mystical about them. It’s physics, physiology, anatomy, and psychology. Anyone who studies martial arts with a serious mind to understand the underlying principles, rather than merely perform techniques, should be able to adapt. Granted, if you’re fighting something that’s pure demonic magical energy, you’re screwed, but in most fiction there is some set of rules that applies even to the monsters. Rules are grounded in science. In Tolkien and Harry Potter, trolls are massive [and] strong, but they’re also ponderous and slow. If they live, then they are to some degree mortal. A blow to an ankle tendon is going to drop a troll just as surely as it would take down a person.
The key to this is to detach from the fantastical elements and look at the rules governing this world. If you’re creating the world, then start by creating rules. Once they’re established, everything else is merely a process of adapting what we know to a new problem. After all, in martial arts we cannot possibly train to defend against each separate body type, strength, and skill level, etc. So, we learn to focus on commonalities (everyone needs to breathe, everyone bleeds, everyone is subject to gravity, everyone has bones, etc.). Every technique is therefore an adaptation to a variable. The same is absolutely true when writing about combat with zombies, werewolves, vampires, and even dragons.
DD: Do you think your own martial arts background influenced your choice of genres? If so, how did that experience contribute to your authorial success?
JM: Actually, my martial arts background did not influence my choice of genre. It did, however, influence the way in which I construct my stories. I don’t write about monsters—I write about people opposing monsters. I grew up in a violent neighborhood in Philadelphia, and there was a great deal of violent abuse in my home life as a child. I know quite a lot about monsters, and since martial arts helped me escape that world, I tend to write about characters who rise above their limitations to become the heroes of their own stories.
DD: What new books, comic books, articles, projects, and appearances can we expect from you in the near future?
JM: This is my second year with three new novels debuting. The King of Plagues, third in my Joe Ledger series, came out in April and I’m still touring in support of that; and Dust & Decay just hit stores. In October, I have a standalone zombie thriller coming out, Dead of Night (Oct 25), and the following day I’ll be featured in a documentary on zombies that will debut on The History Channel.
I’m also editing a vampire anthology for IDW called V-Wars; and have stories coming out in a variety of anthologies. And I wrote an essay for Triumph of the Walking Dead, a nonfic book about Robert Kirkman’s comic and TV series.
As for comics, at the moment I just finished a four-issue miniseries called Marvel Universe vs Wolverine and I’m planning the sequel, which will feature The Avengers.
While all this I happening, I have to finish Flesh & Bone, the third in the Rot & Ruin series; write short stories for several anthologies including one being edited by Charlaine Harris; and finish the research for Extinction Machine, the fifth Joe Ledger thriller, which is due on my editor’s desk April 1.
Interested in matching Jonathan’s super-human pace? Start at his website and don’t forget to take along your CDC Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse emergency kit.