Interview: David Wong / Jason Pargin

[I conducted an email interview with David Wong, aka. Jason Pargin – series author of John Dies At The End, Zoey Ashe, and other novels. This is a writer whose stories I encountered first in the movie John Dies At The End (from the movie rental where I worked), and then encountered the living room legend of how this serialized blog excerpt story became a phenomenon. These questions, excerpted, focused on his experience going from online serialization to print, and how his career evolved.]

“So a publisher picked you up eventually, and then they edited. What was that like, did you and your readers mind the changes much?”

Editing has always been painless for me, but I have no idea if that experience is typical.

Like I’ve actually never had an editor demand changes, it’s always more of a collaborative thing where they explain issues and you kind of work together to figure out the best way to fix them. But I also had some leverage during that process, too. By the time I was working with an editor for the 2009 St. Martin’s release of JDatE, the online version had already gone viral several years before (some 75,000 readers saw it for free online starting around 2000) and I’d self-published and sold a substantial number of print-on-demand copies (something like 6,000). So the one time they did suggest a big change (cutting a certain chapter) I argued that existing fans would see this as an incomplete edition, and would rebel. And those existing fans were the ones we were depending on to build hype for the hardcover release and leave reviews etc. But it wasn’t some huge argument, they suggested it, I explained why I didn’t want to do the change, that was the end of it.

Every other suggestion from the editor was less substantial but always made the book better (pointing out plot or continuity errors, incorrect phrasing, confusing action descriptions, quoting copyrighted song lyrics – stuff you can’t really argue with).

“How many groans were there when they took the serialized story offline? Did you feel like that changed your way of relating to your audience?”

Well, there’s some additional context there. Completely aside from the book, I was a mildly famous blogger starting in the late 90s (not that I made any money from it, but I had a lot of readers and was pretty well known-among other online creators). So I gave my work away for free for years and what you find is that the most passionate fans do feel some sense of entitlement, even when they’re getting all of the content for free (for example, there were constant complaints about the banner ads, even though they barely covered my costs and in no way paid me for my time/work).

I don’t even mean that in a negative way. It’s just the way it is, fans will always demand more, so any change (say, if I switched the publication schedule to be less frequent, or took a few weeks off, or ran something they disagreed with) there would be loud complaints and messages implying that I owed them now, that I needed to make up for my mistake, even though again they’d paid nothing and about a third of them were using ad blockers. They just assumed that because I was so widely read, I was surely getting rich off it thanks to them, and that I thus owed them.

So the angry messages that came from me pulling the free version of the novel offline were there, but those kind of messages are always there – if not about that, then people complaining that the site was slow, or that they were getting error messages on the forum, etc. Often I’d have to pull old articles because something would be broken with the formatting (due to an update to web browsers or Flash version or whatever) and as soon as it came down, a bunch of angry people would claim it was their favorite article and why didn’t I pour hours into fixing it instead.

It doesn’t take many years of that before you kind of grow numb to the complaints. Not that you don’t care or stop listening to feedback, but that you realize that’s just kind of the background noise of your life and you don’t let it cause you stress if you know the change was one you had to make. Complaints are just the noise an audience makes sometimes.

“What has novel publishing been like since, are you still with the same publisher?”

Same publisher, same editor. What happened was the hardcover of JDatE sold pretty well (I earned back my advance in seven days) and then they signed me to do a sequel, which came out right when the movie did in 2012, so the hype/press around the movie put the second book on the NYT bestseller list. After that, the publisher signed me to a multi-book deal for a legitimately huge amount of money. I’m on a schedule where I publish a novel every two years and it takes me every bit of that time to write one, that’s just the speed at which ideas occur to me. Still, I had a full-time job separate from novel writing until early 2020 at Cracked, and had intended to always do that. Things just didn’t work out that way so I’m writing novels full time but that’s not by choice. I assume I’ll get another day job at some point.

“Is serializing something you only did that once, would you again? Why did you serialize in the first place? You were working in insurance, right.”

Here’s where I’m worried my advice might not be relevant in 2022 or, more importantly, to someone trying to start a paid writing career. In the late 90s to early 2000s, I was working two office jobs (doing data entry for an insurance company and filing/billing for a law office, jobs I was just getting through a temp agency) and was blogging on the side with some hopes that I could get popular enough to turn it into a side job via banner ad revenue (that never happened). The first “John Dies at the End” post wasn’t called that, it was just another blog post, one I did for Halloween in I think 2000, a standalone haunted house story in which “David” and his friend investigate a haunting and get chased around by meat.

Back then, the blog was just any kind of humor essay I felt like writing, sometimes reviews or fake news stories, other times comedic narratives starring David and John. So this Halloween post wasn’t out of character, occasionally I’d just have a funny story starring these two guys, and the format of the site was that each story would start off with some kind of normal setup and then wind up somewhere extremely stupid.

That next Halloween, leading up to the holiday people started asking when the “sequel” to the previous year’s scary post would be up, and that was the first time I realized I was going to have to write another one. So those stories became an annual Halloween tradition until I wound up with something novel-length. Then in 2005 or so I put them all together with their own navigation and section of the site, and heavily edited the whole thing, going back and retconning changes and adding foreshadowing to events I wrote later, so that it all appeared to be on purpose. It was written over the course of five years and those posts were basically my fiction writing school; I’d barely done it before that. I think I’d written a total of two short stories in my entire life prior to 1999. But I’d written plenty of silly fiction as part of the blog.

But I can’t make this clear enough: I never aspired to be a full time novelist, and actually never thought I’d like doing that as a job. I have never shopped for an agent or publisher, I literally don’t know what that process looks like. I’ve never researched the industry to find out what’s hot or what genres are selling, I’ve never kept up with trends or looked into the best ways to get a foot in the door, it all just happened to me mostly on accident (more on that later).

“I was super happy for you to hear that you were subsequently hired to write for Cracked, and it looks like your career continues smoothly.”

Yeah I got the Cracked job in 2007 but that was due to a whole bunch of good luck and circumstance (there were more famous writers up for the job, but I was friends with the guy who had it before me and his reference went a long way). It was absolutely a dream job that any friend of mine would kill to have (working from home writing blog posts full time, with benefits). But when I got hired, I assumed it wouldn’t last more than 1-2 years, dotcom startups had a bad reputation for flaming out and I was taking a huge risk by taking the Cracked job and quitting my much more secure insurance job. My rationale was that if nothing else, it would build my resume and allow me to get other writing jobs in the future.

Instead, it was a huge success for the first several years. Then around 2014 the industry started to change and in 2017 the site was sold to a new company, who fired pretty much the entire staff (aside from me) less than a year later. But we were always understaffed, I think I averaged 100 hours a week for five straight years, putting in at least some hours on every single weekend, holiday and sick day.

I held on until 2020 but it was a steady process of budget cuts and layoffs and constantly feeling like every day would be my last. I left in early 2020 because they basically eliminated my position and I just didn’t feel like pivoting to a new one, because at that point the years of stress had taken a massive toll on my health (I still need medication to digest food normally). I only recently stopped having stress dreams that I’d overslept and missed some important meeting or deadline.

“Do you now find it easy to write a book in secret and release it the traditional way, now that you have industry support?”

The industry support is great, but that extends to them working with bookstores to make sure the book gets stocked, and doing some of the promotion. The rest of the promotion is up to me, and it’s literally a full time job (this is true of any author). In order to maintain a network of connected readers I can announce books to, I maintain three Facebook pages, a Twitter, an Instagram, a Mailchimp newsletter, a Substack blog/newsletter, a Goodreads page, a website and a YouTube account:

https://www.facebook.com/JohnDiesattheEnd.TheNovel/
https://www.facebook.com/jasondavidwongpargin/
https://www.facebook.com/FuturisticViolence/
https://twitter.com/JohnDiesattheEn
https://www.instagram.com/jasonkpargin/
https://johndiesattheend.us13.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=ca6c5263dcedde59eb143eb39&id=488d52a6c1
jasonpargin.substack.com
https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/16596547.Jason_Pargin
johndiesattheend.com
https://www.youtube.com/johndiesattheend

I maintain all of those myself, for the most part. I also do publicity year-round, in 2021 I guested on about 32 hours of podcasts; that’s all unpaid, it’s purely for book publicity:

https://jasonpargin.substack.com/p/all-of-my-2021-podcast-appearances

I also write guest columns on other sites, again the main benefit is to get the book order links out there:

The video trailers I release for my books are arranged entirely on my end, for the last Zoey book I hired a production company here in town, writing the script myself, approving every aspect of the production down to the props, and paying for every bit of it out-of-pocket:

For each book, I’ll spend about $20,000-$25,000 of my own money on promotion, plus several thousand hours of my own labor in updating socials or doing guest posts. So the industry support is amazing, I know every author would kill for it, but I can’t emphasize enough that my life is 80% publicity/promotion and 20% book writing.

“Is serializing something you only did that once, would you again?”

Well the issue is that I don’t actually write my novels in order, I do an outline and frequently skip ahead to write some part I feel more like working on that day. The process of circling back to change the beginning (to add foreshadowing or to set up payoffs) continues right up to the end of the editing process. So the only way I’d release something in serial form today is if I wrote and edited the entire thing, and then released it a chunk at a time. And at the moment I don’t know that there’d be any advantage to that. But if I was starting my career new, I might consider it (but even then would probably release it primarily as an audiobook or podcast, with the text version as like a bonus for those who prefer it).

Session: Creative Commons Licenses @ Momentom Nicaragua

At this diverse series of short talks held within an arts residency, I took 5 minutes to explain the different kinds of Creative Commons open licenses, the internationally tailored legal codes to protect intellectual property and any intentions for sharing it.

You can see on the board that I reversed my name and topic columns, like a true freethinker.

I’m currently using specific Creative Commons licenses for my poetry, short theater scripts, and Bones of Starlight, the science fiction fantasy space opera trilogy. I was granted a scholarship to go to Creative Commons Global Summit Lisbon in 2019 to hold a 15-minute talk on my adventures in science fiction fantasy novel publishing using CC, and I was a fulltime volunteer at the Global Summits in Toronto 2017 & 2018. I’ve shared Creative Commons at other venues, including WorldCon (site of the Hugo Awards) in panel with fellow science fiction author and blogger Cory Doctorow. I’ve been using Creative Commons to publish and share my work since 2014.

Session: Creative Writing @ Momentom Ometepe

This is the only record of a dynamic and interesting tag-team talk on creative writing for personal goals and publishing – Wednesday afternoon, that’s us. I co-taught with travel memoir novelist & Momentom founder John Early, presenting from my science fiction fantasy experience, so we had great parallels and contrasts. I guided a moment of focus, we each discussed our backgrounds and read some work aloud, John hosted an exercise, and we held an open talk on publishing.

I’m often holding writing sessions within a writers’ setting, so I’m proud to hold space for my art within a group hosting many different kinds of arts. I sometimes seek those areas where I’m on the fringe, let it be noted, because there’s a lot of possibility for exchange of ideas there.

Review: Dune Messiah

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Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

I guess I was finally ready for this. Ready for my notions to be disabused and then magically rebuilt. For the disillusionment to turn back around on itself into another fulfillment, breaking expectations in order to deliver. Life’s complicated. There’s the human perspective, which can’t be abated for meta-awareness because that’s what it’s built on. Frank Herbert, people. Dealing with the hard stuff. It’s still so beautiful while it’s so dark, beautiful in its otherness. Science fiction.

Review: The Witchwood Crown

The Witchwood Crown, by Tad Williams
from the series, The Last King of Osten Ard

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This story is woven closely – almost seamlessy – with the previous Osten Ard series (Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn), turning a generational saga into an intergenerational epic. This world bears analogous resemblances to our religious and political entities, with richly flavored populations of magical beings and items. Williams’ style of interwoven storytelling is evenly paced and suspenseful, full of sentiment and personality.

Review: Always Coming Home

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Shedding a beautiful light on life’s possibilities, this book reforms post-cataclysmic human society on earth – in ways that feel as though they could be and have been before. Changed coastlines, changed people, but still people on the coast. The format of one main tale surrounded by cultural articles gives the etic and emic ethnographic perspective of a time that feels quite real, and familiar. Portions of this book speak through time and imagination of experience that transcends both. Nature is nature, people are people, and home is home.

The poems can be read by themselves and appreciated by other audiences. I enjoyed the created world so thoroughly that… okay, confession time… I read aloud every word listed in the glossary. In my life of reading books with invented glossaries, only J. R. R. Tolkien’s had me as engrossed. Words crafted with sound and culture by someone who understands language! I read the entire glossary in a Game of Thrones book, but not aloud in entirety.

 

Curriculum: Richard Chwedyk’s Sci-Fi Writing Syllabus 2018

This list is neither qualitative nor comprehensive. The new stories come from the latest Neil Clarke Year’s Best anthology. The rest help (I hope) to illustrate various techniques and approaches to writing sf, and are also geared up to various exercises we’ll be doing in relation to them. Next term’s selection will probably look significantly different.

Week 1 – September 5, 2018
In-class readings (opening of Snow Crash, “They’re Made Out of Meat,” “Day Million”)
Readings for next week: Tom Godwin, “The Cold Equations”
James Patrick Kelly, “Think Like a Dinosaur”

Week 2 – September 12, 2018
In-class reading: “How to Become a Mars Overlord” by Catherynne M. Valente
Readings for next week: Cordwainer Smith, “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”
Paolo Bacigalupi, “Pump Six”

Week 3 – September 19, 2018
In-class reading: “Reason” by Isaac Asimov
Readings for next week: Clifford D. Simak, “Desertion”.
Stanley G. Weinbaum, “A Martian Odyssey”

Week 4 – September 26, 2018
In-class reading: “Air Raid” by John Varley
Readings for next week: William Tenn , “The Liberation of Earth”
Vandana Singh, “Shikasta”

Week 5 – October 3, 2018
In-class reading: “Out of All Them Bright Stars” and “Exegesis” by Nancy Kress
Readings for next week: Philip K. Dick, “Frozen Journey” (aka “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon”)
Nancy Kress, “Every Hour of Light and Dark”

Week 6 – October 10, 2018
In-class reading: “Balanced Ecology” by James H. Schmitz
Readings for next week: Robert Sheckley, “Specialist”
Rachael K. Jones and Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali, “Regarding the Robot Raccoons Attached to the Hull of My Ship”

Week 7 – October 17, 2018
In-class reading: “Plotters and Shooters” by Kage Baker
Readings for next week: Pat Cadigan, “Pretty Boy Crossover”
Matthew Kressel, “The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)”

Week 8 – October 24, 2018
In-class reading: “Kyrie” by Poul Anderson
Readings for next week: Theodore Sturgeon,“Thunder and Roses”
Indrapramit Das, “The Worldless”

Week 9 – October 31, 2018
Readings for next week: R. A. Lafferty,“Nine Hundred Grandmothers”
Sarah Pinsker, “Wind Will Rove”

Week 10 – November 7, 2018
In-class reading: “The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Dawn” by Vonda N. McIntyre
Readings for next week: Samuel R. Delany,“Aye, and Gomorrah”
Karin Lowachee, “Meridian”

Week 11 – November 14, 2018
In-class reading:. “Kirinyaga” by Mike Resnick
Readings for next week: James Tiptree, Jr., “The Women Men Don’t See”
Greg Egan, “Uncanny Valley”

Week 12 – November 21, 2018
Readings for next week: Greg Bear, “Blood Music”
Kathleen Ann Goonan, “The Tale of the Alcubierre Horse”

Week 13 – November 28, 2018
In-class reading: “Infinities” by Vandana Singh
Readings for next week: “Bloodchild” – Octavia E. Butler
Tobias S. Buckell, “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance”

Week 14 – December 5, 2018
Readings for next week: Ted Chiang, “Exhalation” by Ted Chiang
Suzanne Palmer, “The Secret Life of Bots”

Review: The Forever War

The Forever War
by Joe Haldeman

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It’s hard to read, and that’s because the experience is horribly real. I lightened it up by reading other things in between, but I kept returning to witness this account. I could see soldier stories through science fiction metaphors (such as time dilation, the world having changed much more than the time spent on campaign). There’s a soul-gripping terror and malaise in these pages – not just in the violence, but as seen through societal humanity. Deeply affecting, eloquent messages delivered with the twang of sci-fi experimentation.

(review hosted on Amazon & Goodreads)