Interview: Dan Jolley on Comics, Novels, Prototype 2 and Transformers: War for Cybertron

Dan Jolley has been professionally writing in multiple mediums since 1990. Jolley has written for Dark Horse Comics, IDW, DC Comics, Devil’s Due, Harris Comics, Marvel Comics and more....

Dan Jolley has been professionally writing in multiple mediums since 1990. Jolley has written for Dark Horse Comics, IDW, DC Comics, Devil’s Due, Harris Comics, Marvel Comics and more. Outside of mainstream comics, he has written for the Manga series Warriors, Seekers, and World of Warcraft. Jolley has also written licensed novels for the Transformers, Ironman, Buffy/Angel, and Star Trek franchises. On top this, he has written his own novel series titled Alex Unlimited. Jolley is also on the cutting edge of entertainment by being a writer for several video games. In addition to currently working on Prototype 2, Jolley has written Transformers: War for Cybertron, Fallen Earth, and the NDS version of James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game.

You can learn more about Jolley by visiting his homepage here.

Nicholas Yanes: When did you realize that you wanted to be a professional writer? Do you feel that your education helped you achieve this goal?

Dan Jolley: I’ve known, without a doubt, that I wanted to be a writer since I was thirteen. I had been writing stories pretty much since I learned to read, but everything got solidified the summer of my thirteenth year. Since then I’ve never seriously considered any other profession.

As far as how much my education has helped, that’s sort of a two-pronged answer; every experience a writer has makes him or her a better writer–as Stephen King puts it, “it’s all grist for the mill.” If you can take classes that help you develop your skills, that’s great, and I definitely have. The creative writing class I took from Coleman Barks at the University of Georgia, for example, was immensely helpful. On the other hand, I’ve had people ask me about how much getting a college degree helps in being a writer, and if we’re talking specifically about those letters you get to put after your name, I would have to say…not at all. I’ve been writing professionally for two decades now, and no one, NO ONE, has ever asked me about my credentials. No one cares. Can you write, or can you not write? That’s all that matters. You could have spent your whole life in a cave for all an editor cares. So, should you go to college? Yes, absolutely, and learn as much as you can. But don’t think for a second that an editor is going to give you work just because you got an MFA.

Yanes: You have been writing since 1990. What was your first big break? And given that lots of people want to write professionally, what do you feel you did right that so many people get wrong?

Jolley: A huge part of writing professionally is making contacts, and I was fortunate enough to meet some comic book artists through a mutual friend. They found out I wanted to be a writer, and read some of my short stories, and eventually introduced me to Dan Thorsland, an editor at Dark Horse Comics. So that’s what got my foot in the door with the comic book industry. A lot of people over the years have heard me talk about that, and sort of snorted, and said things like, “You were so lucky!” And yeah, I was, but it’s not like what happened to me could never happen to anyone else. Anyone can go to a comic book convention, and walk up to whatever comic book artist they want to, pretty much, and start talking to them. If I had realized that sooner, I would have been going to conventions and talking to artists starting at age thirteen.

Anyway, I got my start writing comics, and things branched out from there, into novels and kids’ books and video games.

Yanes: Alex Unlimited is your three-volume original novel series. (Readers can learn more about this series by clicking here.) What was your inspiration for this series? Given that it is clearly a great concept, I was wondering if you have any plans to adapt the series as a television show, movie, or video game?

Jolley: Alex Unlimited came from a number of different places. I’ve always been a huge fan of escapism–that’s really all I’ve ever wanted to accomplish with my writing, just to provide other people with the escapism that was so important to me in my childhood. On top of that, I’m very familiar with what it feels like to be overshadowed, since I grew up idolizing my older brother (I’m basically a shorter, less intelligent version of him). So when I started working for Tokyopop, I pitched them a number of manga concepts, and one of them involved an unremarkable boy named Alex who could contact different versions of himself in different parallel universes–versions who were basically better at being him than he was. Tokyopop liked the idea a lot, but requested that I make the main character a girl. I hadn’t really done a lot of work featuring female protagonists, but I was certainly game to try, and when Tokyopop couldn’t settle on an artist, I suggested that maybe I could do the stories as prose. They went for it, and suddenly I was not only a Young Adult author, but also discovered that I was good at writing females. Who knew?

As far as other media adaptations, I’m not at liberty to discuss them, but yeah, there are plans afoot.

Yanes: You’ve written for comic books, novels, and video games. How do you approach writing for these different formats? For instance, given the interactive nature of video games, is writing for that medium complete different than writing a novel?

Jolley: There is indeed a huge range of differences in writing for the different media. Writing a novel is, by nature, pretty solitary; to begin with it’s just you and the story, and later on you and the editor, and it can be as long or as short as it needs to be. For good or ill, whether the story flies or not falls squarely on your head, because you’re the only one taking part in it. And that’s incredibly rewarding since, if it turns out well, you get to take all the credit.

In the middle of the spectrum, I’d say, is where writing a comic book comes in, because then it’s you plus the penciller, the inker, the colorist, the letterer, the editor, and if you’re writing for a big company, whatever editorial direction the publisher(s) want to give you. Not to mention the rigid space constraints; if the story is 48 pages long, it’s EXACTLY 48 pages long, and so you manage the story to fit that space precisely. So you write the script for the comic, turn it over to the rest of the team, and if everything goes well, it comes out the way you intended it to.

At the far end of the spectrum is writing for video games, which is FAR more complex than working on novels or comic books. A novel is two people; a comic book is around half a dozen; a video game represents the work of hundreds of people. Artists, writers, programmers, animators, level designers are all involved–and because of that, the amount of money it takes to produce a game is much, much greater. So basically, a big part of writing for video games is working within the budget. If you’ve got the budget for twenty cut-scenes, and each cut-scene needs to be thirty seconds long, you’ve got to time the script for each one down to the second. If you want to have a part of the game involving a cruise ship, but there isn’t room in the budget to pay the programmers and artists and animators to create a cruise ship, well, you re-write things so there’s no cruise ship. Plus, most of the time, the developers figure out what they have the capability to do, game-play-wise, and then call in a writer, so you hit the ground running and work with the skeleton of the story that the devs have already come up with. It’s much more collaborative than any other medium I’ve worked in.

Yanes: Not only do you get to work on video games, but you’ve had the chance to specifically work on Transformers: War for Cybertron, and you are now working on the upcoming Prototype 2. Transformers is one of the largest franchises in the world and the first Prototype video game was a huge hit. What’s it like working on these amazing video games?

Jolley: Well…as someone who grew up playing video games and reading comic books and watching cartoons…I’ve got to say, it’s pretty freaking great. I’m privileged to be able to make a living doing what I love–making up stories–and believe me, I’m aware of how fortunate I am. It’s not something I ever take for granted.

Yanes: Given that there are a number of people involved in creating a video game, what’s it like having to negotiate a creative vision with (potentially) dozens of people?

Jolley: Prototype 2 is the game that I’ve had probably the most input on so far. I got to go up to Radical in Vancouver for a number of story meetings, where I spent a bunch of days sitting around a big conference table with Radical‘s creative leads and a couple of representatives from Activision, hashing out where we wanted the story to go and what was possible and not possible. It was challenging, and at times frustrating, and altogether awesome. I can’t claim responsibility for 100% of the game’s writing, because it is such a collaboration, but about 90% of it is mine, and I’m immensely proud of it. I think players are going to be blown away.

Not all game writing is like that, though. I’m working on one now, that I can’t talk about yet, in which the Japanese developers wrote an initial script and then handed it over to me to convert into natural-sounding English. So, as you can imagine, there isn’t a huge amount of creative leeway there, but I am able to put my own polish on the dialogue.

Yanes: Now when people think about being a professional writer, it is assumed that one would live in New York or L.A. Given that you live in Georgia, what are some of the advantages of not being in New York or California? Additionally, have you encountered any difficulties getting work because you don’t live in the traditional centers of US entertainment?

Jolley: I’d say the biggest advantage of being here would be cost of living. Writing pays what it pays; there’s no sliding scale depending on where you live, and if you live in a place where things aren’t so expensive, it makes it a lot easier to do this full-time. For example, my manager lives in Los Angeles, and I mentioned to him how much my house cost. He said, “Jeez…for that amount out here, you could get…well…nothing. Not even a condo.” And thanks to modern communications being what they are, it’s not as though I can’t write here and get scripts and stories out to the rest of the world.

On the other hand, having visited L.A. and gone to meetings with producers, I’d say it might well be easier to get work if I lived in New York or Los Angeles. That might be something I explore in the future.

Yanes: After working as a professional writer for two decades, what are some things you learned you wish someone would have warned you about a long time ago?

Jolley: I’d say the best bit of advice I could give to anybody who wants to do this for a living would be to get a copy of The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. As a fellow writer put it, that book is “the keys to the kingdom.”

The second best bit would be, “Don’t bother with submissions editors.” In my experience, it’s the job of submissions editors to say “No.” If you want to get your work looked at, send it directly to a real editor.

Third, if you find yourself in an untenable situation with an editor, don’t just mutely accept it. Speak up. Be polite–it’s critical to be polite–but speak your mind. I once had an editor read a script and, by way of feedback, say, “I don’t think you’re firing on all cylinders, Dan.” And that was it; no specifics on what he didn’t like, no requests on what he’d like to see instead, nothing. What a completely useless thing to say! And I should have called him on it, and said words to the effect of, “Look, I understand you’re not happy with the script, but I’m not going to be able to fix it unless you give me some direction here.” Instead, I just blindly forged ahead, trying to “fire on all cylinders,” whatever the hell that was supposed to mean, and after another two or three drafts he finally liked what I turned in. That was ridiculous. It was a waste of my time and his, and could have been avoided if I’d spoken up. I know better now.

Yanes: Outside of Prototype 2, what are some projects that you are working on that your fans need to look out for?

I’ve got a ton of irons in the fire, but–as happens frequently when you’re a freelancer–I can talk about very few of them at this point. What I can say, though, is that I’m back on board for TRANSFORMERS: FALL OF CYBERTRON, the sequel to WAR FOR CYBERTRON. You can find the eye-poppingly beautiful cinematic trailer for it on YouTube now.

Again, you can learn more about Jolley by visiting his homepage here.

Remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes

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