Daniel Humphreys is a writer I met on Gab, and he is a pretty interesting guy. Like many writers he went though ups and downs and experienced some frustrating things in his life. But he has a great book about zombies called “A Place Outside the Wild”. You can pick it up here, and follow him on Gab at gab.ai/danielhumphreys
- Tell me a little about your background. Where did you grow up, what was your childhood like? Were you a reader from a very young age or was that acquired later? What were some of the values you grew up with?
I kind of split my time growing up. I was born in Columbus, Indiana, but my parents divorced fairly early on – I want to say before I was 2. My dad ended up moving to Phoenix, Arizona, and I moved out to live with him after 5th grade. I stayed there until I graduated from high school and then moved back to Indiana, at least for a little while.
I always enjoyed reading and would bring home just stacks and stacks of books from the library as a kid. Maybe in a way it was kind of an escape because home life wasn’t the greatest in either situation. My mom’s second husband was not a great stepdad. That was the primary reason I ended up moving out to live with my dad and my stepmom. Things went pretty well there until they divorced and my dad got into a pretty rough downward spiral that culminated in him going to jail. I think above all else that kind of instilled in me a coping mechanism of reacting to lousy situations with humor. That’s probably due to my grandfather more than anything else, he always had a smile and a joke to try and make everyone else around him laugh.
- When did you realize that books were written by people and not just made out of paper and ink? Was there ever a time when you had that “Ah hah!” moment and realized you wanted to be a writer too, or was becoming a writer a gradual process for you?
Interesting question. I want to say it was kind of a gradual process, and it really hit home for me, oddly enough, when the movie “The Land Before Time” came out. Like most kids, I was a dinosaur nut, and our school had this cross-promotion with the local movie theater that a few kids in each grade would win tickets for the best story, artwork, whatever. I wrote this, I want to say at least four or five double-sided page story about kids who got sucked through a time vortex and ended up in the Cretaceous period and have to fight their way home. It was kind of a mash-up of Tour of Duty, Dino Riders, and Joel Rosenberg’s ‘The Sleeping Dragon.’ I won, and my kid brother and I got to see the movie for free. That was a very “whoa” moment for a 9-year old.
- What was the first thing you wrote, that you were proud enough of to show to people?
I was never really shy about showing off. It isn’t like I would write things and keep them in a notebook or anything like that. The actual search for constructive criticism, that sort of thing, that sort of began once I started working, I suppose. Some of my first ‘beta’ readers were coworkers, and one of the coolest moments I had recently was giving one of them a copy of my first ‘real’ book.
- Did you ever try other types of writing like journalism in high school or college? Speaking of which, where did you go to college and what did you study?
I was accepted to the University of Arizona as a creating writing major but I ended up not enrolling and moving back to Indiana instead. I got my start with Xerox a couple of months after that and have worked there ever since. I attended one of Purdue’s extension campuses for a while, majoring in electrical engineering until I had to stop when I got a promotion and transfer to Colorado. After that, I just kind of slacked off for a while (cough, years) until my wife encouraged me to go back and finish up. I officially graduated from Indiana Wesleyan in 2013, magna cum laude, with a Business Information Systems degree.
- Did you anticipate becoming a professional writer for a long time? Did you have a backup plan or a day job in mind that you could do while pursuing the writing career?
That was always my goal, yes. I figured I’d work until I made enough from writing, then retire and work full time. I thought I was on the right track around, oh, 2002ish, I think it was. I’d finished up what was officially novel #3, edited it and shopped it around to agents and had found one who was interested and offered me a contract. Things were going great until a few things started ringing alarm bells for me. She mentioned editing, and the cost involved, which freaked me out a bit because I was a single guy who managed money poorly, if at all. No problem, agent says, I can do it on spec. (That should have sent me running for the hills right there.) I started doing some digging, and found the web page of one of the authors she touted as having been a success. I had never heard of him, but these were the early days of the Internet without total social media saturation. I e-mailed the guy to ask him about his experiences with her as an agent and within 30 minutes I had an e-mail from the agent informing me she was canceling my contract. Obviously, the other writer was nonexistent, just another domain she had.
Where it gets better (though it felt worse at the time) was when I started doing more digging and determined that I wasn’t the first one to have this sort of hinky experience. There was a web forum, though I don’t remember the name, that had a thread about her. It was run by a few authors, chiefly among them Ann Crispin, who wrote for Star Trek and did a few of the novelizations for the TV series V. So, in that regard at least she was a ‘known’ quantity, someone I could look up to. Me being the dumb kid that I am, I post a snippet from my book and say, hey, this scam artist was praising my book up and down, can I get some unbiased professional opinion?
And . . . they just destroyed it. Rightfully so, in retrospect, but that was a huge blow to my confidence, and I pretty much quit writing seriously for a long time. I would start things here and there but I would just lose faith and drop them. I’ve got probably a more than a half-dozen nascent projects in a folder on my computer.
The whole saga with the scam agent was so nutty that I don’t think anyone would believe it if it were a movie or a book. This lady’s name was Melanie Mills, and there’s a ton of stuff out about her on the Internet now, just amazing stories. We’re talking fake writer’s conferences, trying to pass yourself off as royalty in foreign countries, faking your own death. If I remember right she may have even tried to kill her own mother with her car? Needless to say, if I need a go-to name for a woman antagonist, I’ve got an easy choice. Instant red shirt.
But to circle around, the defeat didn’t stick obviously, and I have to give all credit to my wife on that. Summer of 2014, I had just started telecommuting, which freed up just a ton of time that I wasn’t sitting in the car. Conveniently enough, I saw that Larry Correia was doing an online class on writing. I made an offhand mention of it, and she encouraged me to go for it. That kind of primed my creative pump, so to speak, and I started working on Wild. It grew to just monstrous proportions, nearly 60,000 words more than I ever figured, and writing and editing was right at 15 months. But, boom, there it is. A dream deferred. Hat tip to my lovely wife and Larry Correia.
- In your mind, what is the difference between a professional and an amateur writer? What makes you a professional?
Easy enough. Amateurs do it for free, professionals get paid. On a per-hour basis it’s a terrible paying job at the moment, but the nice thing about Amazon is it’s always there, and someone is always buying.
- In a recent review the reviewer said you were promoting your book in his GoodReads group. What have you found to be the most effective forms of marketing for a new author?
It’s been an interesting, though somewhat disappointing experience in all honesty. GoodReads has been positive. I’ve done a few Twitter campaigns but haven’t seen much return on investment. Honestly, my best results came from a combination of a Kindle Countdown deal and an e-mail blast from Reading Deals. I’ve heard from other writers that Facebook ads have done well for them. That’s something I may look into when Wild is next able to go on a Kindle Countdown Deal. BookBub is the holy grail, obviously, but from all I’ve seen recently it’s been mostly co-opted by the Big 5 so it’s getting more and more difficult to get a slot as an indie.
- How do you deal with writer’s block? Do you believe there is such a thing? Are there any exercises you can give my readers to help them overcome that brick wall that stands between the author and the words?
I think it does exist, but only to the extent that you let it. One thing that gets me every time is getting distracted by surfing the Internet. To try and avoid this and get myself into writing ‘mode’ I usually try to have a certain time and place set aside to write. A pretty good chunk of Wild was written at Starbucks while I thoroughly abused their free refill policy. J Another thing I like to do is create a Spotify playlist for the current project I’m working on, songs that get my creative juices flowing. The songs I name dropped in Wild (Paradise City, Ride of the Valkyries) were both on the list. I listened to a lot of Five Finger Death Punch, Disturbed, and Madison Rising while writing the action scenes.
- Can you tell us about your process? What path do you take to get from idea(s) to finished product? How many revisions do you do? Do you write a longhand journal version first then go to the word processor for the second and third drafts?
I spent almost 20 years as a field rep, so I spent a lot of time in the car. There’s only so much radio you can listen to before hearing the same songs over and over, so a lot of times I would just space out and think. The initial idea for Wild, for example, came from driving past a depot where the phone company stored spare poles three or four days in a row. I got this visual image of the fence, and it just sort of progressed from there. One thing I have found handy is, if I think of a scene, or a bit of dialogue, or anything of that nature, I will pull my phone out and jot it down in a memo to myself. I’ve written pretty significant chunks of both, then e-mailed it. That’s helpful in the sense that you never know when inspiration is going to come, and you don’t want to lose the thread.
- Talk a little bit about A Place Outside the Wild. How would you describe it to someone who maybe likes the description on the book but is not sure about trying out a new author?
I wanted to write this book because almost every zombie story out there ends just when things are getting interesting. We’ve seen a thousand iterations of what happens during the outbreak hundreds of times. To me that’s the least interesting part. What happens next? How do the people who have the guts and smarts to survive rebuild? What sort of society would they create, and what would the lasting effects be on them? This is a book for all the people who face-palmed when Shane and Rick got into a screaming-loud outdoor fistfight on The Walking Dead.
- What are your favorite parts of APOTW? Which characters do you like best and why?
Possible spoilers. My favorite scenes that I wrote were probably Pete’s internal debate as he looked out over the fence at night. The multi-POV encounter between Larry, the ‘serial killer’, and ‘the drug dealer’. But I think I like the last chapter probably most of all. I wrote a very rough draft of it early on, and Charlie is probably, surprisingly, my favorite character. Miles is, of course, the protagonist, but I feel like his arc is complete. Charlie, Vir, the kids . . . they’ve got more to do.
- How do you create a good three dimensional character? Is it an illusion and the author is just an illusionist?
To some extent it’s an illusion, but I think you have to imbue aspects of people you know or recognize into the characters you write. They can’t all be shadows of yourself, you have to have a broader basis of people to draw on, or you end up writing the same character over and over. I think the most important thing is to be true to your characters. What would X do if presented with Y. I don’t think that I would have the courage to do what Miles agreed to do, and I know for a fact that I was too big of a wuss as a kid to do what Alex does. But that’s true to their personality, and their background, and that makes them seem more real.
- What are your favorite themes to write about? Many writing books say you need a grand theme for your book or story. Do you agree? If so what makes for a great, captivating theme?
I think it all comes down to good versus evil. The zombies of Wild aren’t on inherently evil, but I think you could argue that those who created them fit the bill. The project I’m working on now is pretty much the same but the lines are much more well-defined. One of the aspects of Wild that was interesting to explore was the morality of the situation. The argument about what to do with the psychologically-broken people doesn’t come down on either side of the fence. You can make morally-reasoned arguments for either path. You could even argue that sheltering them and providing for them, despite their inability to help support the group, made things more dangerous, stretched limited resources even further but for most of the survivors, it wasn’t even a choice. Norma was loud and obnoxious about it, but she wasn’t entirely wrong, either.
- It’s the election season here in the US Fall 2016 and the election, as I write, is 48 hours away. What do you think of the election so far and who are you supporting (if anyone) and why? What topics are most important to you politically this cycle?
Man. I am so ready for it to be over. I slowly backed into supporting Trump, though my top 4 at the outset were Rand/Cruz/Walker/Carson. I was hoping that Trump might be a blocking fullback to give Cruz a legit chance, but I overestimated Cruz’s charisma as well as the sanity of the “Jeb or Bust” guys running the GOP. I don’t know a single person who thought Jeb was a good choice, and the only people I know who like Kasich are Democrats. Go figure. At this point it’s a binary decision even with the third parties.
Politically, I think all things start with economics. Every other issue, when you boil it down, can be regarded in that fashion. Clinton has no solutions in that regard other than more debt and more spending. At some point, that’s not going to end well (and probably won’t be nearly as fun as the zombie apocalypse) so there’s really only once choice for me.
- I find that authors are often highly influenced by their religious beliefs. What were your religious roots like, and how important is faith, or unbelief, to you today?
Growing up, the only real religious influence on my life were my grandparents. When my mom married my stepdad, we went to that church for a little while but eventually stopped going all together. Pretty much the same story when I lived with my dad, save for the fact that at that time he was into crystals and alternate belief systems. Call it the ‘Sedona Effect’, I guess. So, like most Americans I think you could say I was a cultural Christian but not a truly saved one. When I made my final physical move of my career, I attended the community church near my apartment for a while with my mom. She decided to make a change to a different church, and I felt like a stranger in a strange land so I decided that I would start going to the church of the girl I was dating at the time. It really, for the first time, felt like a place I could call home, and I accepted Christ and was baptized not too long after. And that girl I was dating is now my wife. 😉
I think my faith informs my writing in that it kind of eliminates the nihilism that seems to permeate so many works these days. Using ‘Wild’ as an example, most stories in the zombie genre turn into shock-fests that feature incompetent or corrupt military men, or how quickly folks turn on each other (cough, Negan). I’m not denying that can be an aspect of our nature, but you see all sorts of instances of people coming together in the face of disaster to try and help each other out. Maybe a hurricane doesn’t compare to a zombie apocalypse, but we saw it on a micro scale not too long ago in the Carolinas in Baton Rouge. The ‘Redneck Navy’, or the guys that drove around in their XUVs, that’s how we react for the most part. I think that kind of hope, that underlying faith in the potential goodness of people, is how my beliefs influence me. Perhaps it’s naïve, but there it is.
- What inspires you?
All sorts of things. Maybe I have an overactive imagination, but I go back to those piles of telephone poles I kept passing. It doesn’t take much before ideas kind of snowball. Putting together the snow man is the hard part.