As part of the process of writing The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, I interviewed a few key players in the SF/fantasy community. Their wisdom and generosity is liberally sprinkled throughout the book, but I couldn’t use every word—and wanted to do some follow-ups. What follows is an expanded interview with former movie studio executive, former agent, and current editor Brendan Deneen.
I first encountered Brendan Deneen when he inquired about the film rights to a novel I’d published for the now defunct Wizards of the Coast Discoveries imprint. At the time he was working with the Weinstein Company. Not long after that, he moved on, eventually joining FinePrint Literary Management, and eventually settling as an editor for Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of venerable New York publisher St. Martin’s/Macmillan. Brendan’s unique take on the business of fiction spanning from film and television to all three of the agent, editor, and author sides of the publishing business was a welcome addition to the book, and he’s got more to say here . . .
Philip Athans: Define “science fiction” in 25 words or less.
Brendan Deneen: A work of fiction that takes existing technology and extrapolates the concept, whether in the past, present or future.
Athans: Define “fantasy” in 25 words or less.
Deneen: A work of fiction that takes a commonly-known myth and/or creates new myths and overlaps an adventure story over these concepts.
Athans: What is the most common mistake that inexperienced authors make in their professional lives?
Deneen: Arrogance. Self-confidence is a great trait but certain “new” authors act as if they’re already best-selling authors with the attitude to match. A dose of humility and a lot of good humor goes a long, long way in this industry.
Athans: Where do you see this arrogance manifest? Online and in social networking circles? Conventions? Communication with editors, marketing staff, agents, and other professional relationships? All of the above?
Deneen: I think the arrogance goes back to the author him/herself. It’s usually someone who’s arrogant about all aspects of their life. It’s the fastest way to get ignored in publishing and Hollywood. And yes, all of the above. It’s shocking to witness sometimes.
Athans: In your opinion, what is the principal difference in approach between novels written for a mainstream or “adult” audience and the expanding “teen” market?
Deneen: It’s a really fine line these days. YA novels are often as sophisticated as mainstream/”adult” novels. I guess the difference is that a good YA novel needs to appeal to adults while a good adult novel doesn’t necessarily need to appeal to the YA crowd.
Athans: What is the one book on the art and craft of writing that you would most recommend?
Deneen: Every single book ever written. Or, to be precise, every author’s job should be to read as much as possible. If you have free time and you’re not reading, you’re doing something wrong.
Athans: When you’re reading a manuscript from a new author, is it a positive or negative if the novel is cast as first in a trilogy or ongoing series?
Deneen: It’s a negative these days. Editors want a complete one-and-done story, and they want to be the ones to decide if it should be a series.
Athans: Has your answer to this question changed at all now that you’ve gone from agent to editor?
Deneen: Yes! I’m finding that we want series and multi-book deals more often than I suspected, especially for young adult material. It’s pretty exciting!
Athans: Do you read reviews of novels you’ve represented? Have you found any review to be particularly helpful or destructive? Do you encourage the authors you work with to read reviews?
Deneen: I read all reviews, if possible. The positive reviews are very helpful when I turn around and try to sell the book for film or TV. And yes, authors should absolutely read the reviews. It’s a good exercise in humility and also makes them understand different points of view on their material.
Athans: Is it more important to have an agent in the Hollywood sphere than in publishing? Do authors need two agents—one in Hollywood and one in New York?
Deneen: Well, I’m biased about this because I was one of the only agents who represented for both publishing and film. Generally, you need two agents to do the two things, but there are a small number of us that do both. However, it’s most important (these days) to have a good publishing agent. If you write a great novel and get it published, the film community will find you.
Athans: Does having a published novel under your belt help a writer sell a script in the closed world of film and television? How much cross-over is there between media?
Deneen: It helps a little bit, but not much. Hollywood doesn’t really care about novelists, in terms of screenwriting. If you happen to also be a talented screenwriter, that’s a different story, but the worlds are pretty separate. If you have a good agent and a lot of interest in your book, you might be able to negotiate the first draft (or so) of the adaptation.
Athans: What is the biggest difference between having your novel published and selling a screenplay?
Deneen: If you sell your novel, there is a very, very good chance it will actually be published. If your screenplay is optioned, there’s still a pretty small chance it will actually get made.
Athans: Give me some general words of warning for the aspiring fantasy author.
Deneen: Read every fantasy novel ever published. And then do something different, even if it uses some familiar tropes.
Athans: In just the short time I’ve known you, you’ve gone from movie exec to agent to editor, writing your own stuff along the way. Assuming all of those occupations have their own unique challenges, from a career standpoint, which was the hardest, and which the most rewarding?
Deneen: I think being an agent was the hardest. It’s a career where you’re living from deal to deal, and that’s a lot of pressure. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved it and I closed a lot of deals. As for the most rewarding, I know this is going to sound lame, but each incarnation has been hugely rewarding. Seeing a movie or book with your name in it is amazing. Maybe seeing my name on a Flash Gordon comic book has been the most rewarding, but I honestly have loved every incarnation of my career.
Athans: What are you working on now, and what’s just come out or is coming out in the near future that you’re particularly proud of?
Deneen: I inherited a bunch of really cool titles here at Thomas Dunne Books, and I’ve acquired about a half dozen books that I’m really stoked about. One of my books has a very cool history. When I was an exec at Dimension Films, I personally optioned (along with my assistant, Vince Mitchell) a horror short story called “Vacation” by Matt Costello. We adapted it and got close to setting it up but it never quite happened. Then, when I became an editor, I approached Matt about him writing a novel based on our screenplay, which was in turn based on his short story. And we’re publishing it next Halloween! How cool is that?!
That’s pretty cool! Thanks, Brendan.