This week writer Sam Jones shares his experience self-publishing The Fever Dream. With a background in screenwriting and acting, he channels the cinematic style of a 1980s action-thriller into the story of a modern-day hitman with a chip on his shoulder. In this interview, Sam talks about the grind of Hollywood, the pursuit of multiple creative avenues, the value of persistence, and paving your own path.
INSIDE THE FEVER DREAM:
Martin Black kills people for a living. He’s fairly good at his job, but he’s nowhere near the best of the best. His competence keeps him from becoming a liability to his bosses at the elite assassination organization, the Trust, but a screw-up on the Koogan contract has annoyed them. He’s not allowed to pick his own assignments anymore and isn’t thrilled about the latest his handler, Miss Trask, has given him. His life’s going to get a whole lot worse when that simple hit turns a lot more complicated. The victim’s wife has been kidnapped, and Black has to find her to finish his job. In this neon-soaked noir, beautiful women are imperiled, strip clubs bombed, assassins activated, sinister plots revealed, Ubers hired, and very bad knock-knock jokes told.
Did you start out specifically pursuing acting or were you drawn more to pursuit of writing?
They went hand in hand up until recently, where it’s separated, and I’ve focused almost solely on writing. As much as I love acting, there’s a lot about it that I dislike, and at the end of the day I just seem to gravitate towards grabbing a pen and paper and jotting down ideas.
Starting out in my career, I don’t think I had a good handle on what I wanted to do. For so long, I pursued the arts with no clear definition or end goal to that pursuit. I felt myself stuck between writing and acting. I never really took the time to sit down and figure out “which one do I love more, which one should I focus on more” – especially today where everyone is a multi-hyphen actor/writer/director/etc…
It’s not that I don’t think people are capable of mastering more than one craft – I just know that, for myself, I have to put a hundred percent of my efforts into one pursuit. I think that was partly the problem early on – I was trying to divide up my energy.
It was like that up until this last year. It happened through a lot of trial and error. Living in the trenches of Hollywood. Just the day to day whatever. I got pushed to a point of frustration, where I felt like I hit a wall in my personal and professional life. I felt a need to sit down and get lost in something creative.
The fact that it was, once again, writing that was my sanctuary, for the first time in a long time, I understood that I needed to write. That I wanted to write. That rich or poor, sick or healthy, this is what I love to do.
How did you transition from screenwriting into novel writing?
I was always writing novels and short stories on the side. I had never seriously considered self-publishing something. I always thought the end-all be-all was screenwriting for me. It was a very one dimensional perspective I guess.
I really understand the blueprint of screenwriting. Once I got to a point where I was quick with my turnaround, and I felt I had – in a sense -mastered the short hand, I thought it could apply to writing a novel. At the same time, there were instances where I tipped and over-explained certain things I had written in shorts and features. People made the point that some of those stories would work better as a novel.
There was never a clear transition. It was a combination of frustration and other stuff that got regurgitated into novel form.
A lot of people in Los Angeles, and writing in general, experience some kind of frustration, especially since screenplays are not published in the same sense as a novel, so credited work is hard to bring to fruition.
With a novel, the written text is the end product. How does having a physical product that you can show and distribute contribute to your career as a whole?
There was that frustration this past year because I was working with people on projects and potential features. Everything felt like it hadn’t gone past the idea phase. Or, it hadn’t gone past one draft of something.
I also helped someone heavily edit and essentially rewrite a screenplay feature that a certain name-producer had gotten his hands on and wanted to produce. Of the final script that had gotten into the producer’s hands, essentially two-thirds of it were completely rewritten by me without any credit or acknowledgement and, at the same time, no payment that was promised.
That definitely hit me hard. I felt I had taken this step forward, then everything got hijacked from me. It was a typical LA story of a con-artist and people that live out here that want a percentage of your project as opposed to pursuing something artistic.
At that point, once something else had gone by without my name attached to it or without anything that would help me, I got stuck in this place of, well, I’m going to write something creative for myself, and I want to try to do it in a way that I haven’t done before. Because clearly the conventional route of writing stuff and submitting it isn’t working for me. And not only is it not working, stuff is getting stolen too.
I just wanted to do something that I would have complete control over that wouldn’t have these extra steps of casting and so on. The only thing I could think of that I would have complete control over was a novel. No one could interfere with it. It’s completely my say, my narrative, for better or worse.
Then also, a lot of the research I did and the reason I decided to self-publish it rather than submit it to different publishers and wait to hear back was for a lot of the same reasons I was getting frustrated with the film industry. A lot of nothing happening. While it was going to be a lot of out of pocket expenses, at the same time, I’d have something out there that people would see directly with my name on the front cover.
I wrote this with a very cinematic viewpoint and a slight hope that it could be adapted into a film or series of some kind.
It feels very cinematic. There’s a lot of action, there’s a lot going on. Also, the main character, Martin Black, is someone people can relate and attach themselves to.
I didn’t like him at first. It took me a while to actually like my own guy. I think it’s because there are a lot of similarities between me and him, which was unintentional. Subconsciously, I let all of this frustration and stuff about me come out through the character. He’s a lot more hyperbolic and exaggerated than I am.
Well, he does kill people.
But his social anxiety – he and I are a lot alike in that way.
Where did the seed of Martin Black come from?
I was sitting in my apartment one night. Nothing going on. It was days after what we mentioned about not getting paid. I put on JOHN WICK. I was a little surprised when I first saw that movie because I thought it was going to be terrible. I love Keanu, but Vegas odds are that most movies you see him in are going to be… Anyway, I must have watched JOHN WICK six or seven times. From an objective writer’s viewpoint, I realized how simple the character was and how simple his motivation was and how easy you could tap into him. A lot of it had a throwback kind of feel to it. I love those kind of complex, sad, ‘bullet moving towards their heart’ kind of character.
I slowly started to build a character in my mind. If I were to write an 80s-nostalgic action hero, what would he look like, sort of thing. Every day I slowly started to build on the character archetypes like John McClane, Martin Riggs, and Dirty Harry. Taking certain bits from what I loved, putting my own spin on it, and injecting a percentage of my own personality. At the end of it, I came up with a hybrid character who’s as uncomfortable as he is confident. He’s a walking contradiction.
Trying to bring that kind of character into 2016 wouldn’t really work. We don’t need a guy like that. So, if he’s a kind of an unnecessary character, he’d be sort of maladjusted and awkward because he’s not really wanted or welcomed. As a result, he has all these social tics. He smokes because he has social anxiety. He’s beating himself up over small things (like the fact that he can’t quit smoking). He gets so internalized at moments that he forgets he has a gun on someone. He’s a mixed bag.
There’s a lot that’s unanswered about him. This was a very basic character set up for him. I wanted to give enough facts and enough vague things going on that we’re not making 100 percent of the connections.
In the second upcoming novel, we’re getting in deep. There was something that was hinted in the first one that is a huge bit about who he is. I just recently figured out in my blueprint for the second novel what that was. It was the idea I wanted to lean towards that makes him who he is. The second book thoroughly answers who this character is and why he is the way that he is, whereas, this first one is this punch in the face introduction of the characters.
I like that it just gets into the action, rather than waiting. It feels like a movie in that sense.
He’s essentially anti James Bond. If James Bond wasn’t suave, if James Bond didn’t get laid, if James Bond was just awkward all the time. It’s more fun to watch the awkward guy than the really confident guy.
How long did it take you to complete the first draft?
Seven months from start to finish. It was every day, almost sunrise to sunset of writing, writing, writing. That was the fun part, just to play.
The whole process has been about ten months. There was a point where I stopped to ask myself if it was too quick or if I was rushing something. But five or six years ago, these ideas started brewing. There’s even a couple of older short stories I’ve gone over recently that have glimpses of Martin Black. I can’t guarantee the turnaround rate will be as quick for the next book, but considering the process to write a novel, this first one was pretty quick.
At the same time, too, I didn’t want to repeat the stalls, setbacks, and unnecessary delays that had occurred with the projects that preceded me publishing The Fever Dream. Too often stuff wasn’t coming to fruition because the people I was working with either demanded perfection or more time to go over the project. At the time, I thought these methods would somehow improve the quality of the product. To a point, it does. After that, it becomes quite plainly and simply stalling. Too much time is invested. We’re not curing cancer, for Pete’s sake. We’re telling stories. It’s a fear thing, no doubt about it.
The product is never going to be perfect, and there are going to be flaws. Period. And as well there should be. The improvements you make with your work is on the next go-around, with the next piece of material you produce. If you continue to re-question and readjust one piece of material for too long, it’s not going to be the same thing you started out with, and no one will ever see it. All you’ve done is waste more time.
What do you plan to do next?
One piece of advice that has been consistent with everyone I’ve talked to is that you have to turn around and write something else quickly in a six to nine-month timeframe. If people like your stuff, they’re going to want the next thing. Once you have their attention, you have to keep their attention.
Again, I’m learning something new every day. It’s eye opening. A little terrifying, too.
I want to use this as a means to bridge the gap into screenwriting. At the end of the day, I wrote a book, but this is just another method to solidify myself as a writer, not just a novelist.
What other advice have you been given that’s had an impact on this journey?
The big thing that I learned from people was not to think about it in a two-dimensional way: I’m going to write a book, edit it, publish it and it’ll take off… That’s really only half of it and maybe not even half of it. By the time I was done writing it, I started on the marketing stuff. The writing seemed like the easy part by the end of it.
I was told don’t put a lot of expectations on yourself. They didn’t mean don’t assume you’re not going to do well or assume it’s going to fail. No one knows who I am, so I have to expect that when I first launch this, I’m really going to have to flag attention down and explore as many options and avenues to make that happen.
Branding yourself is important, as much as I don’t like to admit it. I’m a private person. It’s important to brand you as yourself. I like my writing to be the final thing, but there’s a certain amount that you have to indulge. People have to like you.
What would your advice be for people who want to write and self-publish?
It’s just momentum. It’s about keeping your head down and continuing to write and continuing to work. Just do it, do it, do it. And do as much as you can as often as you can. Whether that’s writing, marketing, or making connections.
It’s hard to sit here and offer advice. I can’t say I’ve had any wild success. A certain amount of it is luck, we all know that. You can’t give into disappointment or negativity because the times I have, I lost weeks, days, months of writing. I lost a lot of time I could have been working on other stuff because I was wallowing in self-pity about having projects stolen from me or not getting paid for something. It’s the same kind of time-wasting that happens when your overly anal-retentive about a product.
If you keep that momentum, keep doing it. Even if you’re just feeling like shit, you’ve got nothing good coming out of you creatively, as long as you keep churning out pages, even if you’re going to chuck them in the trash, you’re still writing, you’re still continuing to perfect your craft. It’s that whole proverbial ten thousand hours thing. You just have to continue moving.