Thank you for joining me on this first full episode of Beyond the Pages! In this episode, I talk about my childhood aspirations of becoming a cartoonist, which eventually led me to learn animation and visual effects, then screenwriting, then filmmaking, and finally, writing novels.
Listen to the full episode here, or subscribe to the show with your favorite podcast app.
Welcome to Beyond the Pages. Thank you for joining me today. I’m Jason Denzel, and we’re here to talk about my books.
My debut novel, Mystic, was published in 2015, but in some ways the story originated in 2003 when I first outlined the idea. You could also say that its origins go further back. That its true genesis is somewhere in the misty fog of my adolescence. The nature of my creative process is such that my stories gestate for a long time. Years, even decades. I have stories in mind right now that are brewing that I’m likely not to start writing for years to come.
The Mystic books were like this. And to get to the complete picture, I’d like to share how I became interested in writing and how that series came to be. Most authors have a unique path to publishing, including mine.
It’s always fascinated me that I never really wanted to be a novelist. I resisted that idea for a long time. So let’s go back in a time machine for a bit.
I knew at an early age, what I wanted to be when I grew up. Like many kids in the 1980s, I wanted to be an astronaut, but my mom told me that most astronauts were former fighter pilots and that most of them were short so that they could better fit into the cockpits.
I was, back then, and still am, exceptionally tall. So alas, I sighed my lanky head and sought out a new career path that I could aspire to. And I found one right away. I decided that I wanted to be a cartoonist like Jim Davis, the creator of my favorite syndicated comic and cartoon show, Garfield. This was as far as I can remember, probably the earliest point in my life at around age eight or nine, where I realized that I wanted to have a creative career.
Most of the people in my family were engineers. My mom graduated at the top of her high school class and excelled at math. I remember her going to night school when I was around eight or nine, and she would bring home schematics and blueprints and other complicated-looking things.
My dad worked on big machines that had fancy scientific names, like cryopumps. And most of my aunts and uncles were in similar career fields or were involved in the early days of computer engineering. So even then at that young age, I knew that being a cartoonist wasn’t exactly in line with what most of my family did.
And there was another problem. I couldn’t draw. At all. In fact, I was terrible at it.
I attempted to draw my own cartoon figures, including a cat named Jr. Who was probably in hindsight, identical to Garfield.
And I created a menacing superhero that I named Shadow Man. Something like that. It’s the sort of ideas that eight and nine-year-old kids come up with all the time.
But my drawings were really poor and even my loving mother struggled to find something nice to say about them. So I went back to the drawing board or I suppose more accurately, I went away from the drawing board, to find a new creative career. I didn’t find one immediately. But I did discover fantasy novels. The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. The Chronicles of Narnia. CS Lewis. The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, which famously features a female protagonist.
And I also discovered Dungeons and Dragons. Within no time, I had a subscription to Dragon magazine where I was reading articles about wizards and magic and adventures and fantastical worlds. Garfield the cat wasn’t my favorite character anymore. By the time I was 12 and 13 years old. Now I was in love with Raistlin and Tanis and Kitiara and Tas the kender from the Dragonlance books.
I began filling notebooks with ideas, for characters and stories and worlds. Like the ones that I’d found inside these fantasy books that I’d become hooked on. I still have these notebooks and some of the names and plots in there morphed into ideas that were included in my Mystic books and other novels.
I typed up some of these stories. No one that I showed them to thought that they were very good, which was okay. I liked them and it wasn’t like I wanted to be a novelist when I grew up, anyway. It was more just the way for me to organize and write down the story ideas that I had.
As the eighties wrapped up and my childhood shifted into the teen years, I discovered big movies and all of their computer-generated visual effects. Terminator two, despite having an R rating, blew my mind. And other James Cameron movies, like The Abyss, did the same thing. And of course, Star Wars loomed large in my psyche at that age.
Thus at the age of 13 and 14 years old, I set aside my desire to be a cartoonist and turned to what I then knew I wanted to do for my career. I wanted to be a visual effects artist, although that title didn’t really exist back then. I could be an artist with a computer. I was very good at computers.
In fact, that was the ‘computer guy’ in my family in like 1992. And as a bonus, my parents, my dad in particular, liked this idea, because it had the feel of being engineering-like. Computers were hardware and hardware meant engineers were involved.
High school in the mid-nineties only solidified that dream. My school had a wonderful computer lab. By the time I graduated in 1996, I’d taken every single computer class the school offered, which was a considerable amount. That included multiple computer art classes and an animation class, and I’d gotten straight A’s in all of them. I vaguely recall receiving a certificate of recognition for that accomplishment.
In college at the California State University of Chico, I majored in computer graphics. The program wasn’t accredited back then, but it was in the early stages of being developed. I suppose that makes me one of the pioneers of that program.
And in my later years there, I remember helping the professor designing the program to finalize the official curriculum so that it could become accredited, which it eventually did, I think.
My goal for after college was to work at a place like Industrial Light and Magic ILM, who did the visual effects for Star Wars and other blockbuster movies, or to work at a place like Pixar, who was just starting out back then with their historic strings of unparalleled movie classics.
But in order to get employment there, I needed a solid portfolio of my work. So during my junior year of college, I offered to help some filmmaker friends by doing visual effects on their student films. But alas, those filmmakers struggled and the scripts were terrible and the projects fizzled. That led me to think, I could do better.
And so I began learning how to write screenplays. I started out writing scripts for some elaborate fantasy projects. I remember my creative writing teacher quirked an eyebrow as she handed me back my fantasy short story that I’d written for her class. It had a giant C scrawled on the front page showing my grade.
She told me that I’d make a better poet than a prose writer. But what did I care? That was fine. Because again, it wasn’t like I wanted to be a novelist or anything.
So working in visual effects led me to screenwriting. Screenwriting led me to filmmaking and directing.
After college for about six or seven years, I wrote, directed, and produced a number of short films. They were modest little projects, but they were a big deal to me at the time. And they taught me, like really taught me, through trial and error, the art of telling a story. I attended countless workshops back then. I read every book I could get my hands on. I talked daily to my friends about various ideas.
Some of those short films that I produced won some awards and while nothing was very prestigious, it at least confirmed that I was on the right path.
Then life changed. I got married and we had two babies in the house. Money was tight. And so it was more difficult to afford producing all of these movies that I was making. The types of projects I wanted to make were fantastical and required props and costumes and exotic locations.
As I along with my rebel crew of friends and fellow filmmakers, all got older and busier, it was hard to justify asking them to spend weeks at a time on a project when I couldn’t pay them.
In 2007, my friend and my writing hero, Robert Jordan, the author of the Wheel of Time book series, passed away.
We had become friends over the previous five years or so because I ran Dragonmount.com, a popular website that provided news and community surrounding the books. We’d email back and forth and chat and try to get together for dinner whenever he was on one of his book tours. I got to know him a little bit and I got to know about his life as a novelist. I received an amazing inside view of what it was like to work with a book publisher. I became close with some of the people working at Tor Books, who published his novels, because they would collaborate with me on various projects related to promoting the upcoming Wheel of Time book.
His death really shook me and it shocked the entire fantasy writing community.
After his funeral, I was invited by his family to attend a private burial ceremony. It was an incredible honor, and one that I cherish to this day. And so on that day in 2007 in the fall, I found myself standing beside Robert Jordan’s grave. And next to me was Tom Doherty, the president of Tor Books. Tom and his wife were chatting with me and I was asked if I was a writer.
In the years that followed, I recognized that moment as a turning point for me. Here I was standing at Robert Jordan’s grave and his publisher and close friend asked me if I was a writer. I fumbled for an answer. And I said something about how I wrote screenplays for short films.
But in that moment, I knew that it wasn’t the right answer for me any longer. Maybe, after countless notebook pages, fantastical store notes, tons of screenplay pages, maybe it meant that I should consider being a novelist. I returned home from that trip and decided that I was going to try my hand at writing a book.
But now I had to figure out how to write well. I was familiar with how to tell a story, but so far I’d been doing it in screenplay format. The advantages of writing a novel or short story were clear. I didn’t have to worry about budget or costume limitations or scouting the right locations. I wouldn’t have to spend thousands of dollars of my own money to try and produced a modest, short film.
And I had some connections in the publishing industry. It all pointed to the simple answer that I could just sit down and write something. Write whatever I wanted. It took me two or three years to become a decent prose writer.
Suddenly I found myself wishing that I paid better attention in my sixth-grade grammar classes.
During those early years of writing, I managed to write just a single short story. The project file on my computer indicates that story had 16 drafts. But in truth, I know it probably was more than double that. I wrote awfully at first. I revised, I cut. I added. I revised again. I’d wake up at 5:00 AM and write for a few hours before I had to get up and take the kids to school and settle into my day job. But eventually, I finished. And to this day, I’m really proud of that story. It’s called The Stone Golem of Qual’Jom and you can find it in that Unfettered III anthology from Grim Oak Press. I’ll include a link in the show notes, but you should also be able to find a link on my webpage to learn more about that story.
Around that time, I also began writing a novel. It was a big sweeping epic fantasy, the kind of stuff that I enjoy. And I spent another three to five years working on that. But eventually, I recognized that I’d bitten off a bit more than I could chew.
I’ve written probably about 150,000 words, maybe 500 pages worth or so in paperback, and it was nowhere near to being done.
So in 2012, I was at a convention in Toronto where I had lunch with Tom Doherty. He asked again, if I was writing and this time I said yes, and I told him that I had a big fantasy novel in progress. Tom seemed intrigued, or at least he was being polite. And he asked me what the book was about. I answered him with the world’s worst pitch.
And once again, I fumbled the ball, but Tom being one of the kindest, most gracious people I’ve ever met, seem to understand. He said to me, ‘ Tell you what Jason, when you have a book ready to go, just email to me.’ And so once again, I went home after that convention and I decided that this was it. This was my shot.
The publisher of one of the world’s most prestigious fantasy imprints had just told me that I could send him my book directly to his email. This was a rare opportunity that few people ever get. I’d earned it, I feel like after nearly 15 years of working with this company and earning a positive reputation with his staff and his top author. That connection had opened up the door and now I just needed to walk through with competence and confidence.
Back home, I took one more look at that giant fantasy novel that I’d been working on and decided the time for it wasn’t now. So I set it aside.
I needed a fresh idea. Something simpler, something compelling. Something where I could roll up everything that I had learned from nearly two decades of dreaming about fantasy worlds and a solid 15 years of learning the art of storytelling.
Back in 2003, I conceived of a trilogy of short fantasy films. The central premise of this little set of films was that a young person would compete to become an apprentice wizard in the first. Would face a fearsome rival as a mid-career journeyman in the second, and finally would have a climactic showdown with a master in the third. Apprentice, Journeyman, Master. The seeds and the Genesis of the mystic trilogy.
But those short films were too complex and expensive to film back then. And so I had tabled the idea. But now, nearly a decade later, I saw their potential as a book series. It took me about a year and a half to write the book, which I titled ‘Mystic’.
By then I’d joined a local writing group near my home, just outside of Sacramento. That group was invaluable to me in helping to craft that first Mystic novel. So in January of 2014, I sent the manuscript to Tom. The next day, he replied and said that he was getting on a plane to Paris for a business trip and that he would read it right away.
A month later, I received an offer to purchase the book. I had become, at the age of 36, at last, a novelist.
Life can be so strange. I had never truly considered the idea of writing a fantasy novel until I was in my thirties. My desire to work in the creative field led me from childhood aspirations of being a cartoonist to learning visual effects for movies to screenwriting to directing and finally, to novel writing.
I might someday return to screenplays. I miss the format and I miss working on live-action films. I miss working with the crew and with actors. Oh, and that a big fantasy novel that I set aside and would write mystic? I’m working on it again now. And so perhaps someday we’ll have a whole podcast season dedicated about the crafting of that book.
So that’s it for this episode. In the next one, we’ll dive into ‘The Nameless Saint’, the short prologue to The Mystic Trilogy. If you want to read that for free, get a headstart, you can download it from my website, JasonDenzel.com. And after that, we’ll jump right into chapter one of Mystic.
As always, you can find me on social media @jasondenzel on Twitter and Instagram, and at Facebook.com/JasonDenzelAuthor. And of course, you can visit my webpage, JasonDenzel.com.
Thank you for joining me on this journey beyond the pages.