A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Jeff Dennis and his lovely wife, Cheryl, when they were here for Jeff’s author event. They were down-to-earth, loving souls, and the kind of people that you like immediately. In our brief conversation, I learned that while Jeff is an author, he’s also much more than that; a passionate musician, an avid reader, and most importantly, an extreme lover of living life.
Jeff was kind enough to let me pick his brain about who he is, his writing process, and his life.
McKay’s: I’d love to hear about your fiction writing process.
JD: Story ideas and characters percolate in my mind sometimes for years before I get around to capturing my vision in words. For example, ideas for my latest thriller, TO TOUCH INFINITY, began bubbling up in my imagination somewhere around 1995. Then when the 9/11 attacks happened and the Department of Homeland Security was created in 2003, I knew I had my starting point. So you could say my new novel has been 12 years in the making.
As for process, I always start with character. I think fully drawn, believable human characters are what really dictate the plot, and are what readers ultimately respond to. Before committing words to paper, I create fictional biographies for each of my main characters, including photos clipped from magazines so I know their physical appearances. When I finally begin writing a novel, I work every day. I find it necessary to write every day to stay on top of the narrative thread as I weave the plot. Taking time off tends to unravel that all-important thread. I work mornings, because that’s when my creative powers are highest. (When I was still working in the corporate sector, I would often get up at 4 am and write for an hour or two before shuffling off to earn the daily bread.) I start each writing session by editing the work I did the day before. If I have done the proper setup of my character profiles, plotting tends to be easier because I know my characters as if they are real people. I know their strengths and weaknesses, their ambitions and motivations, their personality traits and flaws. I know what they would do in certain situations. Not that plotting is easy. It’s just easier for me if I have done my homework on my cast of characters first.
Writing novels requires a huge amount of self-discipline and dedication, but I love the process. I love creating characters and plotting their way through story scenarios. Writing fiction is challenging and personally rewarding to me. I’ve been lucky enough to make a little money at it, but it is something I would do even if I didn’t make a penny. Something deep inside my psyche drives me to write fiction. My goal each time out is to entertain myself. I figure if I do that, a few other people might find the story entertaining as well.
McKay’s: I know that you’ve done a lot of technical writing in addition to your fiction writing. What are some of the differences in writing each style? Any unexpected challenges in shifting from one to another?
JD: Yes, I spent 30+ years as a technical writing consultant for IT firms in the Atlanta area. The paychecks were wonderful, but to be honest, technical writing has always bored me. And I’m really not a corporate kind of guy. I retired in April 2015, and immediately felt like I had been released from prison!
That said, technical writing has taught me the value of word economy. Technical writing is all about getting the point across in the least number of words. It’s about creating concise, at-a-glance documentation to inform end users how to use computer software applications and/or hardware systems. It’s about presenting information in the most succinct format possible. Lots of bulleted lists and procedural steps. You can’t get verbose. You really have to pare it down to what is most critical to the user. I have carried much of that writing mindset over to my literary work. I have never had a problem shifting from one type of writing to the other though several technical writers I know who have attempted writing fiction have struggled with the transition. In short, I find technical writing to be too confining for my writing tastes. I much prefer the creative, wide-open freedom of writing novels and short stories. While I do have a lot of technical expertise, my imagination is my strength. Don’t tell anybody, but there were a few times over the years that I dipped into my imagination and made up things when I couldn’t fully grasp a technical concept. The funny thing is, my subject matter experts thought my made-up stuff was right on. I didn’t do it often, but I found it fun to try it once in a while to see if it would pass inspection by technical reviewers. Science fiction is what I call that type of technical writing!
McKay’s: If you could only pick one piece of writing advice for novice writers, what would it be?
JD: Read, read, read, read (read widely and deeply, even outside your preferred genres), write, write, write, write … and never ever give up. Believe in yourself and your story ideas, and develop your writing skills. Remember, it doesn’t happen overnight. The path to producing polished, commercial fiction requires commitment to your craft and a long apprenticeship.
I wrote four long, bloated (i.e., terrible) novels before I ever made a sale (a short story sale to Eldritch Tales magazine). Those four novels and many of my early short story attempts are my “trunk” writing. They’ll never see the light of day. They constitute my very long apprenticeship. Those works were part of the process. I never would have been able to produce the four books of fiction I have published without that early, painful part of the process. At times I wanted to throw in the towel. So many rejections, some of them unnecessarily harsh. But I never gave up. I kept writing. Despite all the negative feedback, I continued to believe in my ability to tell a good story.
McKay’s: Who are some of your favorite authors to read?
JD: Wow! That’s a tough question because I read so much and have very diverse tastes in popular fiction. I like any story that is well told and engaging. Authors who pull me in from the first page and keep me captivated throughout are high on my list. Authors whose stories and characters stay with me long after I finish their books also rank high with me. Perhaps the best way for me to answer is to list my favorite authors by genre.
Mystery/Thriller – Peter Abrahams, Giles Blunt, Gerry Boyle, Sandra Brown, Edna Buchanan, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Nelson DeMille, William Diehl, John Dunning, Joseph Finder, Lisa Gardner, James W. Hall, John Hart, Carl Hiaasen, Greg Iles, John Katzenbach, Ed McBain, Geoffrey Norman, P.J. Parrish, Ridley Pearson, Bill Pronzini, Lawrence Sanders, James Siegel, William Tapply, Randy Wayne White, Stuart Woods (his first 6 novels … nothing past that).
Horror/Dark Fantasy – Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Robert McCammon, F. Paul Wilson.
Mainstream – Mitch Albom, Chris Bohjalian, Pat Conroy, Bernard Cornwell, William Goldman, Sara Gruen, Jon Hassler, Homer Hickam, Elin Hilderbrand, Evan Hunter, John Jakes, Wally Lamb, James Michener, Irwin Shaw, Nicholas Sparks, Jonathan Tropper, Meg Wolitzer, Jess Walter, Herman Wouk.
As you can see, I’m a voracious reader. Every time I read a book by one of these accomplished authors, I learn a lot about storytelling techniques.
McKay’s: Has anyone or anything in particular been a good role model for you in your pursuits?
JD: I had a wonderful creative writing instructor in college (Bryant University in Rhode Island) who saw the raw writing talent in me and encouraged me to work at it. Professor Mary Lyons took me under her wing and taught me writing mechanics and how to write realistic dialogue and how to pace a story. She motivated me, letting me know that if I really dedicated myself, I could become a capable fiction writer. Her critiques were brutal at times, but she toughened me up and improved my writing immensely. I believe every aspiring writer would benefit from the tutelage provided by someone like professor Lyons.
McKay’s: Now that you’ve reached your goal of publishing a novel (and then exceeded it by publishing more!) do you have other milestones that you’re hoping to obtain?
JD: I don’t consider it a definable milestone, but I have long wanted to write a straight-ahead comedy. Much of my work heretofore has been very dark and macabre, and, at times, ultraviolent. Those who have read any of my stories know that I intersperse black humor along the way. I love dark humor, but I would like to lighten things up and write a comedic novel that keeps the reader smiling/laughing. It’s a huge challenge that I’m not convinced I can pull off. Just ask any stand-up comedian how difficult it is. Humor is very subjective. Something someone finds hilarious offends other people. Or maybe something you intend to be funny falls flat. Not sure I can do it, but that’s never stopped me from trying. Someday maybe . . . hopefully?
McKay’s: Anything currently in the works?
JD: Absolutely. I am currently writing the sequel/conclusion to my second novel, KING OF THE HOBOS. The working title is HOBO JINGO, and if the writing gods cooperate and the creek don’t rise, should be published late next fall or early 2017.
McKay’s: Your website states that your friends and family call you “Doc.” Care to share the story behind this nickname?
JD: It’s funny, the origin of nicknames. For some inexplicable reason, I’ve always been a magnet for nicknames. I’ve been tagged with many over my lifetime, but the longest running has been Doc. It started out as derogatory, but in time, with everyone in my social circles calling me that, I started liking it. Over the years, my nickname has morphed from a negative jab into a term of endearment.
You see, I have always been a bit clumsy, a complete uncoordinated klutz. More so after partaking in alcoholic beverages. In the late-70s I was playing in an Atlanta band called Sawtooth. I shared a rehearsal house with the rhythm guitarist, Ray Jennings. One night, after playing a party and slurping down a bit too much firewater, I accidentally broke a few things. So Ray branded me with the nickname “Doctor Destructo.” Over the years the name got whittled down to Doctor D and then finally just plain old Doc. This is the first time I have made that story public. As I said, I am now fond of the nickname. Probably more information than you wanted, Becky. I’ll bet you’re sorry you asked that question, eh?
McKay’s: I hear you also play guitar! Talk a little about your band.
JD: Ah, yes. My other passion … music. I play rhythm guitar and sing in a trio, The Third Rail. We do acoustic versions of classic rock covers and play mostly private parties around the Atlanta area. Some of the bands we cover are the Beatles, Rolling Stones, U2, Eagles, Van Morrison, Allman Brothers, Moody Blues, and Dire Straits, to name just a few. The Third Rail has been together for a little over a year. The lead guitarist and I go way back, having played in several bands together going back to the mid-1980s.
So how and when did I get started playing guitar? In elementary school my parents pushed me into playing the trumpet. I hated every minute of it. My lips hurt constantly and I didn’t have the wind to coax pleasing sounds from the instrument. I was an uninterested and very unskilled third trumpet in our elementary school orchestra. My first foray into music was a disaster. And then, an epiphany happened. I saw the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show when I was eleven years old. I saw all those young girls screaming their heads off for the four longhaired Brits playing those wonderfully loud electric guitars. I said to myself, “that’s for me.” And like a zillion other young boys, I convinced my parents to buy me a cheap electric guitar (electric guitar sales in the US went off the charts in 1964). It was a used Teisco Del Rey. It looked great but really was a piece of crap. The neck was slightly warped and it wouldn’t stay in tune. But it was mine and I thought I looked cool with it strapped on. It was good enough for me to learn a few chords and join my first rock band. It also got me away from that damned trumpet!
And so began my lifelong passion for the guitar. Rock music has always been a huge inspiration for me, and it has greatly influenced my fiction writing. Readers will find many references to rock/pop artists and songs in all three of my novels and many of my short stories.
McKay’s: Where can readers learn more about you and any updates, events or future books?
JD: Readers can learn everything there is to know about my work and me on my website at www.jeffdennisauthor.com. I love to hear from my readers, and I always reply quickly. I value each and every one of my fans.
Thank you, Becky, for giving me this forum. I appreciate it. And I really enjoyed both of my McKay Books signing appearances in Chattanooga and Nashville. Everyone made me feel right at home. And oh what a great bookstore! For a bona fide book junkie like me, it felt like being in heaven.
Jeff Dennis is an Atlanta writer and author of four books of fiction. He is also the rhythm guitarist/vocalist with the power acoustic trio The Third Rail. You can read more about him at http://www.jeffdennisauthor.com