Bestselling author Jim Butcher continues to thrill fans with his latest fantasy/paranormal mystery novel, Changes, the twelfth book in his The Dresden Files series featuring magician-PI Harry Dresden. Not content to publish a mere twelve novels in ten years, Butcher also wrote Spider-Man: The Darkest Hours, as well as The Codex Alera, a fast-paced fantasy series of six books based loosely on the Roman Empire. In addition, Butcher penned a set of graphic novels featuring Harry Dresden, beginning with the prequel Welcome to the Jungle, which was nominated for a Hugo Award in the Best Graphic Novel category. And there’s more. A compilation of short stories entitled Side Jobs: Stories from the Dresden Files is currently available for pre-order with a release date of October 26, 2010, and Butcher’s thirteenth Harry Dresden novel, Ghost Story, will hit bookstores on March 29, 2011.
Daily Dragon: Welcome to Dragon*Con. Although your publishing success started with novels, you’ve written more than enough short stories to fill the upcoming collection, Side Jobs: Stories from the Dresden Files. How does your approach to writing a short story differ from that of writing a novel?
Jim Butcher: The main difference when you’re approaching a short story is that you almost literally have to have a smaller story, because you don’t have nearly as much room to work with. In terms of what you have to do when it comes to storytelling craft, it’s exactly the same as it is for a novel, but you’ve got to make it fit in much, much less room. I’ve always said that writing short stories is like trying to have a knife fight in a phone booth. You’ve got to get all the same stuff done, but you’ve got to do it in a little, tiny space. That’s always the main challenge for me. As for coming up with ideas for stories, that’s not so hard. I’ve always got lots and lots of ideas of things that go on in the story world, and I can’t put them all in the novels. So anything I really like that just wasn’t big enough to live by itself gets to go live in a short story.
DD: Do you prefer one form over the other?
JB: I much prefer novels. Novels are much easier than short stories.
DD: According to your website, you plan to end The Dresden Files series with about 20 books followed by an apocalyptic trilogy. Although you’re planning an exciting finale, why end such a successful series?
JB: Because stories end. If you don’t have an ending, you don’t have much of a story. I really get tired of it when producers and writers have something good going, and then they draw it out and draw it out and draw it out, where you’re going, “Oh my gosh, this should have been done two seasons ago … cough … X Files. I really think that if you plan for the end of the story, you can deliver so much more emotionally to your audience, whereas if you keep doing a serial over and over, all you do is … here’s the same plate of food every night. Yeah, you like it, but it’s not going to be your absolute favorite. Unless it’s Burger King (laugh).
DD: What are your thoughts on writing more Harry Dresden stories after you complete the series, say, prequels or books that fit somewhere inside the original time-line?
JB: I don’t know. I think that’s going to depend on a lot of different things. Maybe if I find myself with huge gambling debts. Not that I gamble. You wouldn’t know it, looking at how well my stock picks do. I’m so terrible at that. I don’t think I would want to do more Dresden. Once the series is done, I think it’s going to be done. I can only pummel the guy for so long. But it’s entirely possible that I’ll look at other stories in the same world. I’ve got an idea for covering The Dresden Files version of the French and Indian War, which should be a lot of fun. And there’s always the future … people’s children, and so on, if I really want to get back to that.
DD: You seem to revel in causing your characters pain. If you met Harry or Tavi on the street, what would they say to you?
JB: I don’t know if I revel in it (laugh). Neither one of them would have a thing to say. They’d just punch me in the nose. It’s not that I revel in it. Professionally, it’s my job. A quote to illustrate it would be that I saw on an interview with Joss Whedon. They’d apparently been shooting this heart-wrenching scene with Sarah Michelle Gellar, and they’d done it two or three times already, and he says, “Okay let’s do it again.” Sarah turns around to him and says, “Do you know how hard this is on me emotionally, to keep making me do this over and over?” Joss puts a hand on her shoulder and says, “Sarah, this series thrives on your pain.” In terms of story-telling craft, he’s exactly right. Your characters have to suffer or it’s not very interesting.
DD: While writing your best-selling Harry Dresden series you also wrote six books in your fantasy series, The Codex Alera. What was it like to shift back and forth between such different worlds and characters?
JB: Tremendous relief. By the time I was done with the Dresden Files book, I would be so sick of Harry Dresden. There are strict limits that you impose on yourself when you write a first-person story because you can’t do anything in the story that your character hasn’t seen, hasn’t experienced. So Harry essentially has to be in the middle of everything that’s going on in order for the reader to know what’s going on.
When you shift over to the third person multiple viewpoints, like in The Codex Alera, you have so many more options in how you can present the story and what kind of tension you can create for the reader. When you put your character in a dangerous position that they don’t know about, but your reader knows how dangerous it is, there’s all kinds of fun to be had there.
Another way to say it would be that you’ve got much more rope to strangle yourself when you’re writing third person. That’s something I’ve been looking to avoid. I think third person has a lot more potential for story-telling in general, but I’m still learning how to handle it. I’ll keep working on it.
DD: In your Alera series, you developed a wide cast of characters, multiple points of view, and multiple subplots, and yet you’ve said that you’d like to write an epic fantasy one day. How does the Alera series differ from your vision of a truly epic fantasy?
JB: Alera has the disadvantage of being the first big fantasy I wrote. Well, it’s not the first one. It’s the fourth or fifth one, but the first ones were so awful that nothing can be done with them. Alera, to me, was never really about necessarily the clash of good and evil.
Alera was about people, different kinds of people running into each other, and forces of nature that [they] try to survive, like hurricanes and earthquakes and 500-foot-deep sinkholes that open up in the middle of town. Alera was more concerned with these big forces of nature, and people who are just trying to survive. There was no dark lord, no good wizard. It was just about ambition and the need for power and what happens when powerful people clash.
But the epic, epic, fantasy epic that I’m going to write—that’s what I call it, my epic, epic fantasy epic—that one should be even bigger. I’m going to write big-old-thick-doorstop books for that one. Who doesn’t like big-doorstop books? It’s a book, and if necessary, it’s a weapon.
DD: In 2008, you posted some blog entries on the craft of writing. What is the single most important tip you would give an aspiring writer?
JB: Don’t quit. Honestly, that’s the most important thing you can do. I’ve often compared it to being in the water with a shark. You don’t have to swim faster than the shark to get away, you just have to swim faster than the guy next to you. Breaking into the writing business is exactly the same. You don’t have to swim faster than all the people who are out there publishing their Dresden Files series or their New York Times Bestselling Kinsey Millhone series. As a beginning writer, the only ones you have to compete with are the other beginning writers because the publishers have to buy new writers every year. If they don’t, they’ll run out of writers. So it’s only the newbies that you’re up against.
If you keep practicing, eventually you’ll have more practice and more skill than all the other newbies who are around. The process of getting your foot in the door in the writing business is not really as much about talent as it is about hard work. That’s what a lot of people don’t seem to understand. You just have to tough it out. For me, it took 10 years. Other people, it was a lot faster. My wife never got a rejection letter.
DD: But rejection letters make you strong, right?
JB: Are you kidding? I kept them all in a big red file folder I called the Rose File, so that, when I was a big writer one day, I could photocopy my first gazillion-dollar check and send a photocopy of that and a dead flower to everybody who had sent me [a rejection]. When I actually got published, I went back and looked at everyone who was in there, and it was the editor who eventually bought The Dresden Files, that editor’s boss, my original agent, and the agent I’m working with now. And it’s like, okay, well maybe I won’t be sending photocopies and dead flowers anywhere. When they reject you, it’s not a personal thing. They’re looking for something they can use in the business.
DD: You seem to average about two novels per year. How much of that time do you spend actually writing as opposed to planning and outlining?
JB: Generally I’ll plan and outline a novel, and it takes me maybe a week to two weeks. My process is kind of odd in that when I sit down to write a section of the book, I have to stop beforehand and figure out what it’s all going to look like at the end before I get started typing words. It’s like those Japanese painters who’ll stop and just stare at the white piece of paper, and then they’ll go swish, swish, swish—horse. Like that. That’s the only thing I can think of that’s similar to what I do. I’ll be staring at the word processor and then go nuts on it for about two hours, and then the chapter or the scene will be done. When I’m smart, I spend more time outlining at the beginning.
DD: One or two weeks doesn’t sound like that much.
JB: I don’t know if it is or not. My wife [Shannon K. Butcher] outlines way faster than that. I think her record is 13 days for a book. She wrote an entire novel, start to finish, in 13 days. She is a super self-disciplined girl. That’s always been her trademark. That’s why she didn’t like me in school.
DD: She didn’t like you in school?
JB: We met in seventh grade, and she didn’t like me at all. We were in a science class together, and I was the kid who was reading a book. I’d be reading some science fiction or fantasy novel, and the teacher would call on me. I’d look up, and she’d ask me a question. I’d answer it and go back to reading. She tried to catch me out for the first couple of weeks, every time she thought I wouldn’t know something, but I’d just give her the answers, turn in my test at 100%, and finally she just went, “Okay, he’s reading a book. I don’t know what else I can do. Obviously he knows what’s going on.” And Shannon was the one who would go home and spend hours working hard. So she resented me for that, and I guess I wasn’t her favorite person at first.
DD: So how did that change?
JB: We were in a math class several years later, I think we were juniors. The funny thing was, it was the same teacher. She had shifted over to teaching high school math. Shannon had the seat behind mine, and she thought I was good-looking. That was after the shoulder fairy came to visit.
DD: The shoulder fairy?
JB: Yes, after the shoulder fairy had come to visit Jim. Dinggg. [puffs out chest]
DD: And did you still read in class?
JB: Well, yes. I didn’t really ever stop doing that. We started going out, and about three months later, I realized it… She didn’t make it obvious enough for me. We’d keep showing up to places… I thought we were going to meet all the folks from debate here, and she’s like “yeah, they flaked out again, huh.” And I’m too dumb to know. I was an oblivious kid to a lot of things. It took me about three months to figure out we were dating.
DD: I heard that you got married in college, is that right?
JB: Yes, we did. We lived in a tiny little rental house. It was three rooms, a living room, a kitchen, and a bedroom. I remember the second year we were there, after my son was born. It was a real bad, bitter cold year, and the place didn’t have sufficient insulation. The only thing we could do was drag the mattress out into the same room as the open-flame gas heater and take the kid with us and everybody sleep out there to stay warm.
We had a coal stove when we lived in Pennsylvania a few years after that. I threw my back out hauling coal. I had trouble keeping the darn thing going. I couldn’t get a fire started, but boy, I could fill the house up with smoke. I was good at that. I wound up giving myself pneumonia over that. It’s like, I’ve thrown my back out and now I’ve got black lung, and I’ve only been in Pennsylvania for three months.
DD: Were you going to school there?
JB: No. Shannon had a job there. That was after she’d gotten her degree. She had a degree for which people would pay you to do things, which I did not, having an English degree. When I got my degree, I went back to go to grad school. I was doing the professional writing track grad program in journalism. That’s where I learned everything I needed to know about writing stories, at OU School of Professional Writing. They kicked me out. I do not know how much politics was involved in grad stuff… A dean asked me to show up at an alumni banquet and speak my mind about the writing program, and I thought he meant it. So I said, “Here’s some great things and here’s some not-so-great things.”
I was in a class he was teaching the next semester, and on my final paper, he marked off exactly enough on my final paper—on comma placement, he had to use comma placement to grade my paper down enough—so that I would get a C+ in his course. When you get a C in grad school, they don’t like you, so they kicked me out. I tried to reapply and go through the appeals process, and my application got lost six or seven times.
DD: So, do you feel like sending him one of those dead flowers?
JB: No, I think the best revenge is living well… I don’t think it impacted my career very much either way. I would have liked to have more time to learn stuff from Debbie [Chester], once I had actually understood that she knows things that I don’t. Like going out with Shannon, it took me a while to figure that out. I’m not the brightest guy in some ways. On the other hand, I kind of like now being able to look back and say, “Yeah, they kicked me out of the professional writing program, apparently they didn’t think I had what it took to be a professional writer.” That’s kind of the most vengeance I could take.
DD: Your wife, Shannon K. Butcher, writes romantic suspense and paranormal romance, with two series to her credit so far. What is it like to critique each other’s work?
JB: Oh, critique each other’s work? Are you kidding? No, no, no. Occasionally she’ll say, “I have a problem with my plot, and I need to talk to you about it.” And I’ll say, “Okay, let’s talk about it.” Then she’ll tell me what her problem is, and I’ll tell her how to fix it, and she’ll say, “No, I don’t like that way.” And she’ll find her own way to fix it. That’s her process. So I occasionally suggest some outrageous fixes, at which point she’ll look at me at say, “Will you participate in the process?” [laughs] We don’t critique each other. We don’t write things together. We decided we’d rather stay married.
DD: Can you tell us about any recent or upcoming projects?
JB: Right now I’m working on Ghost Story, which is book 13 of The Dresden Files, and which is a little bit late.
DD: You’re still working on it? Because that’s scheduled to be out next March, isn’t it?
JB: [**Spoiler warning**] Yes. It’s hard. He’s dead. It makes it a real challenge to get anything accomplished. Plus this was my son’s last summer home. He’s off at college now, so I was spending a lot of time doing stuff with him and getting him set to go. Now it’s like the place is too quiet to write in. For the past eighteen years I’ve been, “It is too loud to think in here. How can I possibly write when it’s this loud?” And now it’s, “How can I possibly write when it’s this quiet?”
But [I’m working on] Ghost Story right now. The next project I’ll be doing will probably be a fantasy trilogy that I want to write with my friend, Cam Banks. Cam has had a few things published. He’s done some work with the Dragon Lance property. He’s a good friend, just a really fun guy, and we bounce off each other real well when we’re coming up with ideas. That’ll be the next thing—kind of a post-apocalyptic fantasy.
DD: You started an SF novel called US Marshals that you had to put aside in order to write The Codex Alera series. Are you ever going to get back to that?
JB: Oh, yeah. I’ll get him out of orbit eventually. I don’t really think that I’m becoming a much better writer as I get older, but I like to think that I’m becoming a less incompetent writer. It’s just taking me a while to catch up with what I think I could be doing. You always try to write a little bit more than you think you can, something a little more complicated, a little more intense than you really think you can handle—which really helps you grow.
DD: What do you think is the most rewarding thing about being an author?
JB: I don’t have to wear a tie. Ever. I hate ties. I can show up for professional events, and I’m wearing a t-shirt and jeans, and people are like, “Okay. That’s what a science fiction and fantasy author looks like.” My mom will get me a new set of pajamas, and I’ll be like, “Work clothes!”