J. M. (Joseph) Lee is a novelist, writing mentor, illustrator, and graphic designer with a background in linguistics and film. As a writer, he finds the most rewarding stories in the fusion genre, from nostalgic historical fantasies to gritty sci-fi westerns.
Lee’s Song of the Dark Crystal, the second original companion novel to Jim Henson’s hugely popular The Dark Crystal follows Naia and Kylan as they seek help from the Gelfling clans to prevent the Skeksis from implementing the next stage of their sinister plan. In this one-on-one interview, Lee reveals what attracted him to historical fantasy fiction and some insights into the writing craft.
What was the first story you ever wrote and why?
J.M. Lee: The first documented fiction I ever wrote was in grade school about a blue kangaroo that was going to the grocery store. It was a comedy, and I thought, what’s funnier than a kangaroo going to the grocery store? At the time, it was the most ridiculous scenario I could imagine.
What attracted you to nostalgic historical fantasies?
J.M. Lee: It would have to be the Dark Crystal, a film I really loved and connected with. I wrote fan fiction during my high school years. I was drawn to the idea of participating in and expanding on existing worlds. It speaks to my interest in historical fantasy, which is fan fiction for history. It’s expanding what we know about history and events that may or may not have happened.
What part of the Dark Crystal affected you most?
J.M. Lee: It was the mood. I saw it as a kid and it scared me. I learned to really love it for that reason. It changed my perspective in that there were scary things that I could watch and enjoy as a child, that there was a darker aspect to an otherwise perfect and beautiful world. That dark world was really influential.
What character did you struggle with the most when you wrote Song?
J.M. Lee: Without spoiling it too much, there’s a character in Song who undergoes a big change toward the latter half of the story. A situation forces a drastic transformation, and leading up to the change in that character was a challenge.
Do you know the ending of your story before you begin? Or do you let the story drive the ending?
J.M. Lee: I’m definitely an outliner. Basically, beginning to end, at the chapter-by-chapter level. Having a guideline is really important for me to get through the entire manuscript. That doesn’t mean that I don’t leave room for a little spontaneity or that the characters don’t surprise me at some point. I generally know the direction and where I want each chapter to go.
Do you know where the conflict points are ahead of time when you outline?
J.M. Lee: I try to. I find it helps with pacing. When there’s a twist, surprise or conflict, I like the events leading up to that to be appropriate to where it’s heading and not overshoot the emotional expectation of what’s happening. So I find that setting up the conflict, resolution or climax before leading up to it really helps in foreshadowing it.
How do you pace a story to keep the reader interested?
J.M. Lee: It’s important when you’re writing a book to make sure that at the end of each chapter, you either introduce a new question or bring an existing question to light. It may not be a cliffhanger, but something that the reader wants to know. There’s also a point in the story where you need exposition or to explain something. So you need to find a context that has some conflict, drama or contrast that can make a slower section feel like it has more motion to it. Instead of having people just talking in a living room, interrupt them with something that makes talking more difficult.
Do you insert character flaws in every character?
J.M. Lee: I think every character should have flaws to the degree that they affect the story. The deeper the character, the more you’d expect that character to impact the plot of the story. I wouldn’t give a side character a pronounced flaw unless that’s their main contribution to the story. I set up character flaws that improve or support the theme of the story.
When do you start foreshadowing?
J.M. Lee: That’s a tricky one. It kind of falls into the exposition question. At lot of times, when you get to the end of the story, you find that it’s not as necessary as it seems. I think exposition and foreshadowing are often used to help the writer reach what they’re headed toward. Then, during editing, a lot of it can usually come out. It’s important because you don’t want to always surprise the reader in a left field sort of way. When I’m writing, I like to think that every passage, every sentence serves at least two purposes: exposition and things like how a character says something to promote a plot or atmospheric element.
How do you know when to insert humor into your stories?
J.M. Lee: That’s even tougher. For me, it’s more intuitive. I tend to use humor to add levity to scenes to offset a depressing event. There’s a character in Song who provides a little comedic relief near the end of a really tense moment. He says something really funny. He rations out how dire the circumstances are at that moment. It shows that it’s a zany world where anything can happen. Humor can help lubricate the plot and keep things going.
How has your background in linguistics and film helped you as a writer?
J.M. Lee: Linguistics is a huge help in writing fantasy. Especially since one of the main draws to fantasy is the suspension of our world here on Earth. It helps build cultures that we can’t experience on Earth. As a linguist, I feel that language is a window into how people and social communities interact with each other, how they see the world. I enjoy seeing how a culture’s language reflects their interaction with their world. For example, in the Dark Crystal books, I created a word madra, which means mother, but it’s used to describe the matriarch of a Gelfling clan.
There’s a lot of linguistics work in Game of Thrones. Are you a Game of Thrones fan?
J.M. Lee: I was hugely into the books, but my interest trailed off with the TV show. I read some interesting articles about the people who worked on the Dothraki language. When you go into linguistics, you’re told you have two career opportunities: teach or work in translation. Had I known that I could have been a language creator for Game of Thrones or Star Trek, I would have jumped on it.