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: Writing On

Writing after all your writing went away (lost/taken/destroyed):

  1. Maybe don’t write, see how that goes. Haha.
  2. Now you know that finishing something and releasing it to others is the only way to guarantee this won’t happen.
  3. Finish something before it finishes you. Not everyone makes it out of the story alive, including the writer.
  4. If you can still remember something, then it’s still good.
  5. Are you sure you want to do this?
  6. Go ahead if you want to do it. Everything goes, everything dies, so will you, so will I. Build the sandcastle.
  7. You’re still here.

I wrote these tips upon the request of an innkeeper who had lost her computer files in a breakup. I’ve experienced total storage loss, and I’ve heard it from others as well; it might be rough to point out that all accounts of this I’ve received have been from women who lost what they had produced because of troubles with a male partner, but that could be either here or there when it comes to one’s own writing apocalypse. Is there life after the apocalypse? Maybe.

Typewriter: Words Between

For the last Full Moon Gathering of 2019 at CoSM: Chapel of Sacred Mirrors in NY on Dec. 14 2019, I set up my Hermes 3000 (TRIS) and did something new for me at this event. People were invited to sit down at my station to write a line of associative poetic wordplay, going back and forth with me, which we then cosigned and they kept. Didn’t really have a name for what we were doing at first, but found the easiest way to explain it on the artifact was “words between.”

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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”

Favorite Pencil

The box has its own story that’s a separate matter from my favorite pencils.  I can tell that first.

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I found this in the free pile outside the thrift store where I live now (Friday Harbor, WA), a thousand miles from where I graduated high school (Oakland, CA).  Arrayed in my high school colors, black and gold (Bishop O’Dowd Dragons), seemingly handmade, no manufacturer’s mark.  Decorated in felt flowers, the kind which I made in my first craft stall in the college where I graduated (Mills College, Oakland), where I sold felt flower pins and felt snake boas.  Sporting gold graduation-y watchface and crest deco.  Fits a deep stock of my favorite pencils, which like my favorite notebook drafting set, can be bought at Fred Meyer.  This is some fairy-godmother-time-traveling-future-self perfection, or quantum-freepile-dream-nabbing.  There was that one dream, where I reached in from third person and took a small black container out of the hand of a friend, who looked older and different.  Then a formless ‘they’ chased me down, tackled me, and took it from my hand, saying that I couldn’t do that.  But… I could, couldn’t I?  Didn’t I?  It wasn’t the size of this box, it fit in his palm. The one time I recall in my life where I woke up but couldn’t move.  I was sleeping with my entire immediate family in one room, visiting my sister at UPenn. It was like an object placeholder in a videogame.  Because-therefore interpreted translation to manifest reality: it will be exactly where you are, look exactly like it was made for you, and there is a secret message for you inside. This box…

Ah yes, the pencils.

I, like most people, have had a lifetime of pencils – more than some, less than others.  My preferences and compromises have reasons, but I knew, when I started using these, that they were my favorite.

Presenting: Mirado Black Warrior 2HB

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I’m not going to go into detailed and critical assessment, but I am going to say why I like them.  I did find two such in-depth articles on this very pencil – I don’t fully agree on all points and I didn’t completely read them, because I know how I feel about it.

I’m not sure if I have new or old stock, but mine lack the USA/Papermate branding. There could be a distinction. These pencils also happen to be black and gold.  They look really nice.

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It wasn’t till I used a 6-sided pencil again later that I noticed myself sub-consciously attempting to round the 6-sided edges with my nails or fingers – they’d poke into my bones and waste my energy with discomfort.  Like it was something I’d always been doing, but I finally found a round pencil that didn’t distract me with its shape and peeling paint.  The matte black paint really doesn’t peel much. The texture provides grip, without the tugging stick that can feel blistery after a furious page.

Pretty smooth sharpening wood-wise, not splintery.  The eraser is good enough.  The lead doesn’t splinter too much, but I have a favorite sharpener to use which works best. The graphite mark and feel are fairly artistic in my opinion, but this type is actually reputed for its writing qualities.  That may be why I’m inclined to them… understatement.  They are my favorite pencil.  A pencil warrior’s pencil.  Black, because of all the pencil; like a black belt.

I haven’t noticed that they smell like incense cedar, if that’s their material.

They’re great.  Mirado Black Warrior.  Fred Meyer.  If it turns out that I have old stock and the qualities I like are diminished, then I can be bribed with the correct pencils.  The articles are from 2006 & 2008, and I didn’t get into these till 2012.  But, stock can be ancient.  I found these lovely article reviews when checking to see if my favorite pencils had a website so I could know that they still exist.

EXTRA NOTE, speaking of something that popped into existence while I was in the high school whose colors are carefully crafted into my quantum freepile pencil box:

Please Consider Supporting McSweeney’s Internet Tendency Patreon Campaign

“While we have published the legendary (Steve Martin!), the famous (Ellie Kemper! Jesse Eisenberg! Michael Ian Black!), we also have been among the first to publish writers who have gone on to write for The Daily Show, Bob’s Burgers, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the New Yorker, the New York Times, The Onion, and dozens of other places far more prominent and important than McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. ”

AND ME.

My two New Food Reviews on McSw’y’s Int. T’cy:
Peanut Brittle Cheesecake, last, Batch 14 2016, written at Sasquan
Chocolate-Covered Sunflower Seeds, 2nd, Batch 1 2003, alternymous

2003… they published me first!
Except for the high schoolers’ regional poetry competition publication.
No one has a copy of that, not me, not my family, I’m not even perfectly sure which year I won that regional teen award (California San Francisco East Bay Area 1997~2000). It’s not searchable, I only partially remember the content of the poem (about flying through emotions of music), and no physical or digital copies of it survived my great writerpocalypse – nothing digital did, and few physical records. Maybe it was the same year I got a CA state medal for Creative Writing and went to California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA… 99?), with the illustrious Amy Hale of Dreamworks/Walt Disney-Pixar (Ratatouille, Up, Toy Story 3, Penguins of Madagascar).  I starred in her short film that got her into CSSSA the year before me (but also the year with me) for Animation.  Back when I was promising!  Now I’m a glorious mess, sort of doing what they expected of me anyway.  Now, I have my quantum universe graduation pencil box.

So, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency is special to me for more reasons than their ultimate greatness. They think I’m funny, who have made me laugh through tears. Without exaggeration.

This was about the pencils: Mirado Black Warrior 2HB.