Stephen Graham Jones knows what scares us because, as he will tell you, he’s scared of those things too. When it comes to writing, he has dabbled in nearly every format available, with dozens of novels, hundreds of short stories, and even comics.
His latest, the comic land divers, launches us into an apocalyptic future where civilization is collapsing. All of humanity has lost hope, except for a group of native survivors, who find a time travel portal. They soon discover that America was the turning point of this future gone wrong. A man decides the answer is a one-way ticket to try and do the only thing that makes sense: kill Columbus.
We were thrilled to sit down and chat with Jones about the difference between writing comics and novels, the benefits of mixing genres, and the lessons he’s learned throughout his incredible career.
Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us today. Can you introduce yourself to our readers?
Hello, I am Stephen Graham Jones. I write horror novels, comics and read a lot of stories. I live in Boulder, CO and love trucks, boots, and slasher movies.
I’m so glad you mentioned the comics. land divers is coming out soon, and while this isn’t your first comic book experience, it’s your first comic book series. I wonder if you could explain to us how this process is different from writing novels or short fiction films.
The way we divide genres, it’s important to understand that borders are permeable.
Yeah, I’ve also done writing for TV and feature films, and those and comics are a very different process.
With a novel, or even a short fiction, I am free to write for months. It’s kind of the way I dream of working. But the way television and film work is that there’s always a contribution in every little step. So I write a page and someone wants to read it and edit it, then I can write the next page. And the comics are a mix.
There are so many stages in comics. I will write the script and the editors will comment and leave notes that I will change. And then it goes to the artist, where they create thumbnails of what the layouts could be. I’m going to go back and forth with them for a while before they do pencil drawings. Then we will adjust them. By the time it transitions to inks, it becomes much more difficult to tune. The next step is coloring and lettering. There is a surprising amount of malleability in these two steps, especially the lettering.
So to give you an idea of the process, Land divers number one comes out, but I’ve already written the first six. At any point in the last three or four months, I’ve been knee deep in number two, got my hands in number five, and we’re still making edits on number one. It’s interesting to try to maintain all of these things at once.
Wow! I didn’t know the process was so complicated. Thinking a little bit about your expertise, what advice would you give a new writer about the do’s and don’ts of editing?
The first tip would be read outside of your gender. I primarily write horror, but I read across the spectrum of non-fiction, popular fiction, and science fiction.
I think if you write horror and only read horror, you risk the process becoming a bit insular. Your references are only for things that other people have written or done in that genre. Whereas if I read a book on botany, I might find another type of plant that I can use in horror, or a different growth cycle, or something like that. I love bringing weird DNA back into horror, and I think that’s what keeps any genre or species alive. If you keep using the same DNA, you get tired and fade away. But if you keep smuggling new stuff in, it keeps connecting in new and interesting ways.
No gender is just that gender. A Western isn’t all about gunfights and horses, as there will be a romance angle, action scenes, maybe even a little horror. The way we divide genres, it’s important to understand that borders are permeable.
It’s also a good angle for query letters. When doing a mashup or listing your comp tracks, I think it’s always good to choose between two different genres. The idea is to show what other books would be on the shelf next to yours, but if you choose a horror book and a sci-fi book, the agent can decide where it should land.
This is fantastic advice. What about what not to do?
Don’t try to be smarter than you are. I’ve done it on the page, and I see it so often in newbie writers. Their first book they want to show—and I mean them, but I’m really talking about me—they want to show how smart they are. It’s easy to go back and edit your book to make you look smarter. You want to make a name for yourself, but direct and simple is always the way to go.
It’s not about whether people think you’re smart, it’s about whether the story evokes an emotion in them. This must be your real goal, and you must do everything you can to achieve it.
Also remember that if you are published at thirty, you have had years to write this book. But your next novel will have a deadline, so it’s a lot more pressure.
There can be a lot of pressure in editing. Especially when it comes to writing about trends or feeling compelled to write prolifically. Have you ever experienced this dark side of writing?
Oh yeah. When I wrote my second published novel, All the beautiful sinners, I didn’t have much leverage in publishing to negotiate a contract. So I had to sign a contract where the publisher had chapter approval which meant every chapter I wrote I had to mail it out and they would mark it before I could write the chapter next. It was a terrible way to write a novel and I don’t recommend it at all.
It sounds terrible, but you’ve had an incredible career since then. Has your outlook on writing changed?
I believe that a text is not complete until it has a reader. At the same time, I think you can derive satisfaction only from creating art, doing good art and good work. That may be totally enough.
I’m not the first person to say this, of course. The first person who told me about it was Vincent Carrella. He wrote Snake Box, which is an amazing novel that everyone should read. The first time I heard him say I thought no, that was wrong. I have to put myself on the shelf, but as my career progresses, I realize that he was actually right.
Horrifyingly, you can sometimes get raked if you don’t go far enough or go too far. But you have to remember that readers have different thresholds and people come to stories for different reasons. You might not satisfy everyone, but you might really satisfy one or two people. And that may be enough.
Not everything has to be timeless literature. There’s disposable light, and even if people turn their noses up at it, it’s just as hard to write. It takes a level of skill no less than that required to create timeless art. It’s just a different skill set. I really respect these writers because it’s not easy and I wish I could do more myself, actually.
It has been amazing. Before you go, can you tell our readers what’s next for you?
The babysitter lives came out last month, so it feels like it’s still happening. Issue one of land divers comes out in early October, and each month there will be more issues released. Don’t fear the reaperFollowing my heart is a chainsaw, released in February. And then I have another novel that I can’t talk about yet.
Obtain Earthdivers #1 at Amazon
Obtain The babysitter lives at Amazon