James L. Daniels has been paying his dues. He’s been sending out stories, novel-length manuscripts, and queries off and on for 14 years. He’s worked a day job all the while, and has had successes, frustrations, and genuine head-scratchers. He’s never been published until this year.
Last year, Daniels emailed a manuscript to the novelist and TV writer Lee Goldberg, who gave him encouragement and advice. Recently, Goldberg also gave Daniels a shot at writing an installment in the new action-adventure series, The Dead Man.
“I was immediately struck by James’ obvious talent and vivid prose,” said Goldberg. “I was so impressed with the writing, with his fully-realized and compelling characters, sharp dialog, and strong voice, that I recommended him to my literary agent.”
Below, Daniels and I talk about the events leading up to his becoming a Dead Man writer. Stop back around on April 4th to hear more about Daniels’ novel, Ring of Knives, and how he wrote it.
So Ring of Knives is your first published novel, right?
James L. Daniels: I’m 39 yrs old. I’ve been writing since I was nine, and this is my first published novel. I’ve written three before this, and lots of short stories, and they’ve languished unnoticed. Actually, two of my novels had weird fates…
I’m guessing that’s “weird bad” and not “weird good”.
James L. Daniels: Right. Before the Dead Man series, I wrote a dozen short stories and sent them out, and got a lot of positive feedback, but no takers. The publishers I sent them too would say, “Wow, this is really good, but we’ve booked three years worth of stories at this point. Can you donate $20?” So I would, and eventually got my name in a lot of literary mags–under the donor list.
Then I wrote a historical romance novel with my wife Aasne. It was about a girl in the year 800 AD who is kidnapped by Vikings and taken back to Norway. I sent it out and publishers said, “Gee, this is great, but no one wants to read a romance novel that takes place in Norway. They want to read about characters in an English-speaking country, like Ireland.” I said, “Do you really think the Irish were speaking English in 800 AD?” They said, “You know what we mean.” Eventually, a pretty well-known agent told me she’d produce it as an e-book, and then – as soon as I’d paid $500 for the printing of fifty paperbacks to send to reviewers – announced that she had gone bankrupt in the dot-com bust. So that novel had a publishing run of fifty: enough to give out as door prizes and Christmas gifts, but not much else. I then wrote a sequel to the historical romance just to keep my hand in. To this day it exists solely on an old floppy disk that my hard drive insists is unreadable.
Giving up on romance, I decided to try something totally different, so I started writing a hardboiled, noir mystery called Ghost Bride. It took place in the 1920’s, in Juarez and El Paso – which were pretty lively towns during the Great Depression. I tried to make it really lean and spare, and had a lot of fun with it. But here’s the thing: instead of carefully outlining the plot beforehand, I just wrote, and trusted that the Gods of Pulp would guide my hand and wrap up all the lose ends in a neat little package.
Big mistake. I threw in clue after clue after clue, and then discovered, when it was 90% finished, that I had no idea who did what, or how the whole thing tied together. I couldn’t come up with a way to backwards-engineer a coherent scenario. So I shelved it in disgust.
After a while, however, my brother – who is a TV writer for shows like One Tree Hill and Vampire Diaries – asked to read it. He liked it, and showed it to one of his teachers, the incredibly talented Lee Goldberg. Lee was kind enough to email me some suggestions as to how to fix it. And my mother suggested sending it to a well-respected small-press mystery publisher. I did, and the publisher liked it, but asked me to trim 25% off the book. It took me months, but I did it. It’s funny: up to that point, I had made a pretty good side-income by bridging full-length novels for the audio book industry. I could take a scalpel to a manuscript without a pang of regret. I remember cutting 75% (!) off of Passage to Juno, a beautiful memoir by Jonathan Raban. I regularly abridged novels by well-established authors like John Lescroart, Steven White, Jack Du Brul. But when it came to my own book, it was a whole different story. It was true poetic justice: cutting a single phrase was like pulling out eyelashes. Removing an entire scene was like sawing off my hand. It took forever to accomplish. And when I was finally done nipping, tucking, trimming, flensing, hacking, amputating, I emailed the result to the publisher. After several weeks of radio silence he sent me back a polite response stating that in the abridging, my book had “lost something.” Which was true: it had lost 30,000 words. But the upshot was, he took a pass. So now I have two versions of that novel: the Kate Moss version and the Orson Wells version. One of them will make it onto Kindle, but I’m not sure which.
While all this was going on, Lee – who, keep in mind, had never met me, had never even talked to me on the phone – kept checking in via email find out what progress was being made. The guy’s unfeigned interest in my book’s fate was remarkable.
Eventually, he suggested that I could contribute a book to the Dead Man series. I couldn’t believe my luck. I fell all over myself accepting. When I read the first installment, “Face of Evil” by Lee and Bill Rabkin, I knew a high standard had been set, and I was really going to have to come through to do justice to the series. If you haven’t read it, you should: it’s remarkable how the two of them have collaborated to create a piece of fiction that interweaves humanity, humor and horror seamlessly. And the thing moves like a train.
Let’s back-up a bit. What’s The Dead Man series?
James L. Daniels: It’s the brain-child of Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin. Lee and Bill have written a bunch of TV shows together, like Diagnosis Murder, Missing, Nero Wolfe, SeaQuest, Monk and THE GLADES and, individually, have written a lot of books. Lee writes the Monk tie-ins and Bill writes the Psych books. So here’s the deal: more than a decade ago, the two pitched an idea for a supernatural TV series about a regular guy who dies, and then is mysteriously revived months later–only to discover that he can now see evil on the faces of those he meets, in the form of physical rot and decay. He also encounters a ghoulish trickster who calls himself Mr. Dark, who seems to cause misery and bloodshed wherever he goes. The Dead Man then dedicates his life to protecting those whom Mr. Dark would destroy, as well as trying to unravel the mystery behind Mr. Dark’s secret nature–and his own. The pitch was popular, but never got produced.
So now, Lee & Bill have resurrected The Dead Man as an original series of action-adventure novels, sort of a mash-up between Don Pendleton’s Executioner series and Stephen King’s Gunslinger books. And to do it, they’ve enlisted top-notch fiction writers with experience in westerns, fantasy, espionage, mystery, horror and sci-fic genres…and they’ve reached out to a few less experienced writers, and I humbly count myself among them
What do you think of being on the roster with guys like Bill Crider and James Reasoner?
James L. Daniels: It’s pretty intimidating. Virtually all of the other authors writing books for this series are Pulp Fiction Gods… some of them have written hundreds of novels, many of them have published in a dozen separate genres, some have created best sellers… And then there’s unpublished me. If Lee’s lineup of authors is like a row of statues of Greek deities in a museum, I’m the bobble-head Elvis that someone set down between Zeus and Athena. No joke.
So The Dead Man project is awesome, because…?
James L. Daniels: It’s a dynamite project because the set-up they’ve created is brilliantly flexible, so every book can have a different feel, a different emphasis, a different angle; can explore a different aspect of their dark mythology, and still be true to the spirit of the original. The stories are structured to be fast, fun, and action packed, with a generous helping of chills along the way. It’s a wonderful project, and I’m really, really grateful to be a part of it.
To be continued…
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly. He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.