Thursday, May 15, 2014

BB Interview: Jim Denney, author of the TIMEBENDERS and WRITING IN OVERDRIVE

TGIF! I couldn't sleep as I had one of the best writing conversations today with Jim Denney. And, of course, I invited him to stay a while longer for a quick interview. (which, if you know anything about writers, nothing is ever quick ;)

Author of the Timebenders, a science fantasy series for young readers and Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly, Jim Denney is one of the greats and has been writing - and intensely committed to it - all his life.

Please help me give a warm BB Writers Retreat welcome to Jim Denney!

Jim Denney (left) with one of his writing heroes, Harlan Ellison, at the Saroyan Writer's Conference where Jim gave a workshop on writing for a living, and Harlan was guest of honor.

Lia Mack: Jim, start us off by saying a little about yourself:

Jim Denney: I've been writing for as long as I can remember, and I've been a full-time self-employed writer since 1989. I don't think I'm defined so much by writing per se as by what I care about and write about—meaning and purpose in life, how the universe and life came to be, how the mind works, the nature of truth and reality, how we achieve our full potential, and how we treat one another as fellow members of the human family.

Lia Mack: That's wonderful that you're able to follow your passion, and successfully! Can you tell us a little about your books?

Jim Denney: I wrote a series of time travel adventures for young readers called the Timebenders series, originally for Thomas Nelson Publishers, and recently reissued in a revised and updated ebook edition by Greenbrier Books. The first book in the series is Battle Before Time. Throughout the series I combined scientific paradoxes with moral paradoxes. I tried to confront my characters with insoluble problems of both science and conscience. For example, I put my protagonist—a boy genius named Max—in an impossible position where he must choose between helping an evil ruler kill thousands of innocent people versus allowing his three closest friends to die. You can't read the story without asking yourself, "What would I do in Max's place?"

I honestly believe young readers are more nimble thinkers than most grownups, because they haven't formed a lot of biases and hard-shell opinions. So I don't write down to kids. I write for middle grade readers using the same vocabulary and concepts I use when writing for adult readers. If anything, I tend to simplify more when writing for adults.

One of the writers who impacted me at an early age was Madeleine L'Engle. I discovered A Wrinkle in Time when I was nine years old. After reading that book, I knew I wanted to be a writer.

A Wrinkle in Time is filled with scientific and moral paradoxes. I remember the pleasure of trying to wrap my brain around the Tesseract, the four-dimensional hypercube in L'Engle's story. I remember the moral and spiritual dilemmas L'Engle threw at her characters. I appreciated it that L'Engle didn't write down to me. She trusted me, the young reader, to keep up. She once said, "Write the book that wants to be written. If it's too difficult for grownups, write it for children." I've always followed that advice.

Lia Mack: What was the most challenging aspect of writing the Timebenders series?

Jim Denney: I suppose the biggest challenge I faced in writing these books was the short deadline. It was a curse that turned out to be a blessing. I asked the publishers to push the deadline out a few months, but they wouldn't budge. So I accepted a challenge I thought was impossible, and I met the challenge. I delivered the books to the publisher on deadline (more or less). And in the process I learned I could write faster than I had ever written before. I also learned that by writing faster, I could write more freely and I was more creative than if I'd had more time to think and plan what I was writing. That was a huge eye-opener to me as a writer.

I learned a lot about the creative process during that experience, and I finally understood what Ray Bradbury meant when he said, "In quickness is truth. The more swiftly you write, the more honest you are." I eventually took the lessons I had learned, combined them with research into the lives and creative processes of other writers, and wrote a nonfiction book for writers, Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly. It's a distillation of everything I've discovered about unleashing our creativity.

Lia Mack: Sounds like a book we need on the shelf here at the BB! Now, my ultimate question...Why do you write?

Jim Denney: I write because I can't imagine doing anything else. I was writing as a child, as a teenager, as a college student. My first adult job was writing and editing. What else can I do? What else am I suited for? I'm not qualified for anything else, and I can't imagine doing anything else. My mind is crammed full of stories and ideas I want to express. If I don't write them, my head will explode.

Saul Bellow once said, "A writer is a reader moved to emulation." That's certainly true in my case. My three great writing role models, the writers who most influenced me and motivated me to become a writer, were the ones whose work impacted me in my youth and teenage years—Madeleine L'Engle, Ray Bradbury, and Harlan Ellison.

Lia Mack: Well said. Can you describe a bit how your venture into writing looked like?

Jim Denney: I started out writing nonfiction, working mostly as a writing partner for celebrities and authorities in various fields. I got to work with a lot of fascinating people, and I learned a lot from each of them. I worked with Pat Williams, the founder of the Orlando Magic, on many kinds of books ranging from sports and leadership to a biography of Walt Disney. I worked with Super Bowl champions Reggie White and Bob Griese, and learned a lot about determination, perseverance, and work ethic. I worked with actress Grace Lee Whitney on her Star Trek memoir, with supermodel Kim Alexis, and many others. It's been a fascinating journey. Whether I'm writing fiction or nonfiction, every book I write is a learning and growing experience.

Lia Mack: If you don't mind me asking, what are you working on now?

Jim Denney: I'll just say that my current work-in-progress is science fiction on a grand scale.

Lia Mack: What does your typical writing day look like?

Jim Denney: My typical writing day for the past twenty-five years or so is pretty simple. Get out of bed and start writing. Knock out five hundred words or so first thing, then grab breakfast and coffee. Then it's writing and coffee pretty much all day long, interwoven with my day-to-day "real life"—family time, relaxation, household chores, and so forth. But both consciously and unconsciously, I'm writing all day long. I end the day with a long stretch of uninterrupted writing. Nighttime is prime time for writing, because the phone never rings.

Lia Mack: During your "real life" time, do you read while you write? What are you reading now?

Jim Denney: I have writer friends who say they won't read while they are engaged in a writing project. I suppose that's so that they won't be influenced by what they read. But I'm always writing. If I can't read during a writing project, I'd never get to read—and I can't go a day without reading for pleasure. Currently, I have two books open. I'm reading The Stars My Destination, a classic science fiction novel by Alfred Bester, and the definitive Harlan Ellison collection, The Essential Ellison.

Lia Mack: Seeing you love science fiction... if you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself if you could speak to the aspiring writer you once were?

Jim Denney: In my early days, I lacked focus, motivation, and discipline. I thought writing success would come easily. I'd love to go back in time and give my younger self a kick in the pants and a Vince Lombardi-style motivational speech. I'd say, "Writing isn't something you do when you feel like it. Writing is a discipline, a daily habit, an intense commitment. You have to be a writer with every fiber of your being. You have to be intense, focused, and sold out to your work. You have to crave writing. You have to want it so much that you think about writing when you wake up, think about writing throughout the day, think about writing when you go to bed, and dream about writing through the night."

I'd also tell my younger self to get a copy of Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer. If you want to understand the creative process and how to tap into the power of the unconscious mind to unleash your imagination and creativity, you must read that book. I learned much of what Brande teaches through trial and error, but I could have greatly accelerated my growth as a writer if I had discovered that book at an early age. It was written in 1934, but I only read it for the first time within the past few years. Every serious fiction writer should read Becoming a Writer without delay.
Lia Mack: Another great book for the shelf. And I'm going to post your spoken advice on the wall of every writer's room here at the BB. And also tattoo it on my arm. 

"Writing isn't something you do when you feel like it. Writing is a discipline, a daily habit, an intense commitment."

You said it perfectly.

Well,'s been fun! I hope you can stop by the BB again some day. In the meantime, where can BB readers go online to find you and your work?

Jim Denney: My book on writing quickly and freely is called Writing in Overdrive. It's available in trade paperback and as an ebook at My Timebenders books for young readers are also available at Battle Before Time, Doorway to Doom, Invasion of the Time Troopers, and Lost in Cydonia. My two most recent nonfiction books with Pat Williams are Leadership Excellence and The Leadership Excellence Devotional, both from Barbour Books.

Thank you, Lia, for giving me a soapbox to talk about writing. Wishing you and all your readers at the BB B&B an inspired writing adventure!

Lia Mack: It was my pleasure. Come back any time!