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Interview with Jim Butcher, author of The Dresden Files

July 26, 2011

This month’s guest author is Jim Butcher, author of the bestselling Dresden Files series.  He was kind enough to take some time to answer questions for our readers about his successes, setbacks, and writing processes.

Your latest novel Ghost Story comes out today, and people are a little desperate to find out what’s next for Harry Dresden.  Setting aside all modesty for a moment, what do you feel is the reason for the widespread appeal of the series?

Speaking as a writer, you’ve got to have several different hooks to be able to draw people in.  Dresden, instead of the wizard character written as this mystic shamanic figure, is more a computer support technician of a wizard, kind of the Geek Squad version.  He’s very much written as sort of an Everynerd character, and I think that’s one part of the appeal. Also, I like to write action scenes, and action is always a strong component of writing if you’re going to be in the broad appeal business.  Being able to write good action is invaluable.

There’s a lot of humor, which I think is one of the easiest things to do, to me anyway.  How many times have you been in conversation at dinner with your friends, and think to yourself two hours later, “Oh if only I’d said that there, it would have been really witty and clever and everybody would have thought I was great”?   As a writer writing a novel, you’ve got a window 8 or 10 months long for that.  So it’s easy to come across as witty in a book as long as you spend enough time in your head having conversations with imaginary people.  Plus you get to cheat, because you get to write both ends of the conversation.

But the strongest thing [the Dresden books] have going for them is they’ve got a likable protagonist.

Do you have a particular method for creating characters?  Or do they just spring into your head fully formed and take over from there?

It varies based on the character.  Dresden himself was created really, really artificially.  When I was putting the character together, I was doing so based on a worksheet in a class I was taking at University of Oklahoma called “Writing the Genre Fiction Novel.”  I had been disagreeing with my teacher for a long time about how good books were put together.  I’d taken her courses for several years, and finally one semester I just said, “I’m just gonna be your good little writer-zombie, and you’re going to see what terrible things happen.”  That was the semester I wrote the first book of the Dresden Files.

Dresden himself was put together from Sherlock Holmes and Gandalf and others; I listed the sort of things that could be expected from Merlin, Gandalf, various wizard figures in various books.  I did the same thing with the hard-boiled private-eye recurring characters and tried to draw the traits that I saw most frequently in those characters.

One of the most interesting things I realized along the way: the private eye and the wizard almost always serve the exact same purpose in the story.  They’re not so much there to lay into the action scenes left and right; what really makes them vital to the story’s progress is what they can learn, and the kind of places they wind up going, whether they’re going into a metaphorical underworld like the undertown of Chicago’s mob scene, or whether they’re going into the literal underworld like Moria.  The wizard/private eye characters go into these dark places to find out what they need to know.  Gandalf wasn’t devastating to the Dark Lord because he showed up and beat up his minions.  What made him dangerous was that he was riding around to talk to people and researching in all the libraries and finding out that the trinket that his buddy had was the One Ring.

Have you had some other characters that just pop into your head fully formed and do their own thing?

An example of that is a character named Waldo Butters, a medical examiner who was supposed to just show up for comic relief.   He was just supposed to be there for one book, but he was such a good character, I thought, “I can’t throw him away, I’m going to have to bring him back later.”  A couple books later, Dresden went up against a pack of necromancers, and I was thinking to myself, “What better, more useless sidekick could you possibly have against a bunch of people who go around reanimating corpses than a medical examiner?”  So Butters wound up riding shotgun for Dresden on that little adventure, and he’s another character that has been a fan favorite.

You’ve put a lot of thought into the paranormal aspects of the world of the Dresden Files.  How does the process of world-building fit into the process of actually writing down prose?

The world-building thing is an ongoing mental process, which is why I never get anywhere on time.  I spend all this time in my head wandering around places that don’t actually exist and eavesdropping on conversations between people who aren’t there, and write it down, and that’s my job.  But it’s one of those things that I’m always taking notes on and jotting down and realizing, “Aha!” and filling in some empty portion of the world I hadn’t realized how it worked, and then I figure out, “Oh, this is how it works,” and I write that down.  The prose is the shorter and easier part.

Then, fortunately, there are beta readers, who are more obsessive about the books than I am in some ways.  They have the advantage of only having read the books that are actually written, where I have not only gone through the books that are written but all the ones that could have been written but I decided not to write.  So things can get a little bit confusing for me, but fortunately I’ve found some beta readers who can keep me on track and say, “No, no, that character’s dead!”

You wrote four unpublished novels before the first Dresden book, and they’ve remained unpublished.  Where do you think those early works went astray?

“Where didn’t they go astray?” is the better question.  After I got done writing the first couple of Dresden books, I tried to rewrite one of my earlier fantasy novels, and it just was a disaster from the planning stages on.  I finally wound up scrapping it for parts and borrowed characters that wound up eventually in Codex Alera.

I think very first thing that I would not get through my head was the entire convention of fiction being about conflict, about having conflict involved in every scene.  Also, I had very little idea of how to write a clearly comprehensible and psychologically well-structured scene of a character dealing with his thoughts and emotions, trying to line up what he’s doing with what he wants and with what’s actually happening to him.

One of the very basic building blocks of writing a good story, an action scene, or a paragraph is, you have to show cause and reaction, reaction and response.  That’s a kind of a process that doesn’t just exist on a sentence to sentence level and a paragraph to paragraph level, but happens within the greater structure of the story.  One of the things that permeates writing completely.

When a character does something in one book and it has an effect that comes out later, that’s one of the things that creates a greater sense of verisimilitude in your fantasy world.  Plus, it’s great to not see characters acting in a vacuum.  When they make a choice, it has an effect that comes back to haunt hem later on, and that’s one of those things that lends a greater sense of purpose to your storytelling.  The reader goes, “Oh my gosh, this is an actual world,” and now they have to wonder about every choice a character makes and how that will also come into play.

What drove that home for you?  Was it lot of bitter experience, or was there an epiphany at some point?

There wasn’t really any sudden moment for me; it was me pounding my head against the wall until eventually cracks appeared and at some point a ray of light shone through.  After writing book after book and being told repeatedly, “Your action’s good, but here’s where you’re falling flat: after the action your character has to react to it, or the action scene doesn’t matter.”

You can write the best action scene in the whole world, but if afterward you can’t show your character reeling from it, then it doesn’t have a lot of meaning.

In addition to the writing, personal contact was very important to your break-in as a writer.  What do you think it was about your approach that was effective, and is that something that can be learned?

I know an agent who has more than once told a story about how she had called somebody to talk to him about offering him representation for a book he had written and had changed her mind by the end of a thirty minute conversation because she just didn’t like the guy.  She actually started talking to him, and getting into it, he sounded kind of like a jerk and like somebody she didn’t want to spend a whole lot of her time and effort on.

So yeah, definitely there’s a huge amount of interpersonal reaction that goes on in the business, and you’re certainly well advised to go out and meet folks and be on your best behavior.  Be sort of positive and upbeat; you want to avoid the “Oh, I’ve been trying for years and years to be a writer and you’re my last hope” sort of vibe.  That’s not what they’re looking for and want to be involved with on a professional level.  You’ve got to come across as somebody who comes drama-free, which is important.

It can be overwhelming to go to conventions and “learn the business” and so on, and many writers find it intimidating.  How much should a writer know before he starts sending out work?

You can add to your repertoire of industry knowledge as you go.   The important thing is not to stop.  It’s a process that can take a long time, but if you make up your mind that it’s going to happen, and you don’t quit, and you just keep struggling to improve, eventually it’s like running away from the bear.  You don’t have to be faster than the bear, just faster than the guy next to you.

[Publishers] have to publish new people every year or they’ll run out of writers.  So really you’re not competing against the established folks when you’re trying to break in; you’re competing against the other newbies.  As long as you are working to improve, eventually you’re going to have more experience and savvy than all the other newbies around you.  There are a certain number of slots for new people in every publishing schedule, and you really don’t have to beat Stephen King, you just have to beat the guys from Rhode Island or Oregon who are really good this year.  It might take a long time; it took me nine years.

I think people lose hope a little too soon.

Yeah.  You’ve got to do whatever you have to do to motivate yourself.  You should see, I had this little writing cubby at this house, it was formerly a wet bar but I managed to shove this desk and computer back into it, and the walls of it were wallpapered with World War II-esque propaganda of not quitting.

Anything else you feel new writers just starting out ought to hear?

One of the really handy things that stuck with me that my teacher told me was that writing is a game about manipulating people’s emotions, which is a really cold-blooded thing to say.  But what it means is when people sit down to read a book, they want to like your character, they want to hate the villain, they want to support your hero.  Learning how to get that done is what separates the successful writer from the not as successful writer.

One of the ways you do that is by paying attention to the things that cause emotions in you.  So if you are listening to a piece of music or you are watching TV, and something causes a strong emotion in you, stop for a minute and pay attention to that and try to figure out why it did that.  It’s really handy as a writer because not only will it help you understand the whole process of being a person, it also will help you in your writing and give you good inspiration for your novel.

—–

Clarion is very grateful to Jim Butcher for taking the time to share his advice for new writers.  Please check out his latest, Ghost Story, or catch the series from the beginning with Storm Front.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Kari T permalink
    July 26, 2011 8:12 am

    This article saved the best for last; Jim’s advice in the final paragraph is priceless. We know this, of course, but to read it stated so clearly is very helpful.

    When I first started drafting my outline I sat down and recalled all of my favorite fictional characters. I gave them each their own page and penciled in every character trait that made them stand out to me. When I finished, I had a completely different take on what I like in a character, and revised mine accordingly (I like characters whose flaws are a barrier to finding and keeping love).

    I like how Jim mentions ‘anything that causes an emotional reaction’. How does the taste of a quality French Margaux translate to fiction? The site of a mother otter licking her pup while floating atop a bed of kelp? Or the sound of absolute silence of southwest Utah’s desert? These things have all jerked on my heart strings. If I could only bring them alive on the page…

    • Jim Butcher permalink
      July 26, 2011 1:01 pm

      Well, from my perspective, it isn’t the wine or the otter or the desert that is important. The things that move you are the sense of family, security and good times that the wine brings back to you, the memories/need for warmth, family and love that the otters bring to you, the sense of stillness and serenity that the desert brings. Those are all common to the human experience, but everyone is going to have different symbols that are gateways to those emotions.

      The secret is to get beneath the symbols to the feelings. Those are the important part. That’s why a good writer can write about something silly, on the surface, and still have it resound emotionally. Especially in writing, if you get the emotions beneath the surface right, the mask you pull over them almost doesn’t matter.

  2. Mishell Baker permalink*
    July 26, 2011 2:17 pm

    I think my favorite bit is here:

    “There wasn’t really any sudden moment for me; it was me pounding my head against the wall until eventually cracks appeared and at some point a ray of light shone through. After writing book after book and being told repeatedly, ‘Your action’s good, but here’s where you’re falling flat: after the action your character has to react to it, or the action scene doesn’t matter.'”

    The criticisms I get are of a different flavor, but I have the same experience of hearing my critics say the same things over and over with disturbing frequency. I know the feeling of beating my head against the wall repeatedly in an effort to address the problems that everyone sees in my writing. It is infinitely reassuring to hear a successful author say that he, also, made the same mistakes again and again and kept pounding away until finally little cracks appeared in the wall.

    I also absolutely love the idea of the endless learning curve So many authors coast once they hit a certain level of success, and you can see the quality drop off as they start to feel they’ve “arrived” and their writing stagnates. And yet with Ghost Story (which I have not yet read; I’m a latecomer and have to catch up to the end of the series first!) you hear people saying, “Wow, and here I thought the last book was the best one!!” Obviously the perennial-student attitude pays off.

    I hereby vow that my writing will never stop improving, whether I ever “hit it big” or not.

    • Stephen J. permalink
      July 27, 2011 1:51 pm

      “I have the same experience of hearing my critics say the same things over and over with disturbing frequency.”

      Stephen King said something in the article that later provided the seed for ON WRITING, giving ten tips to aspiring writers: this point, number 8 or 9, has always stuck with me:

      “Show your manuscript to a number of people — ten, let us say. If seven or eight of them are criticizing the same thing, or even just five or six, it doesn’t matter how much you like that character/McGuffin/plot twist; change it. But if all of them are criticizing something different, you can safely ignore what all of them say.”

      Nothing else ever brought home to me the difference between subjective reaction and objective criticism as that simple thought.

  3. July 27, 2011 2:12 am

    I’m a fan… I have all the Dresden Files books on my shelves or my KIndle. For me at least, the likeable hero made the series. I’m delighted to read this interview. Thanks, Jim Butcher, and thanks, Mishell. This gives me hope for my own writing.

    – Keyan

  4. July 27, 2011 10:31 am

    A fantastic interview, Mishell and some really insightful stuff from Mr. Butcher (now bookmarked in my “Stuff I Should Know” folder). I was struck by the same paragraph that you were.

    I grew up liking Glen Cook’s first person stuff, and I’ve come to particularly enjoy Mr. Butcher’s Dresden Files (and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series)–not enough humor in sci-fii/fantasy IMO. I’m waiting impatiently for my copy of Ghost Story to show up.

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