Brothers by the book
Dan Wells spared few words after reading the first draft of his brother Robison's first stab at young adult fiction, Variant.
"I can see what you're trying to do with plot and dialogue," Dan, author of the popular John Cleaver series of books (2009's I Am Not a Serial Killer, 2010's Mr Monster and 2011's I Don't Want to Kill You) told his little brother.
As with so many exchanges in their gentle, but still bristling, sibling rivalry, however, he followed his frank assessment with a grace note. "If you do figure out how to write better, you'll be a millionaire."
Not too long afterward, Robison Wells, 33, sold his book to an imprint of Harper Collins for a deal 10 times the size of his older brother's latest deal. Variant was published in October.
Even so, says Dan Wells, 34, "brother Rob" has yet to secure foreign publishing rights that can beat his current contract.
So it goes with the writing careers of the Wells brothers. Theirs is a competition built on a solid foundation of jovial insults, constructive criticism and the occasional body blow as the two climb the ladder of the local and national young adult fiction market.
The secret of the siblings' success? "We are not at all ashamed to say to each other, 'I hate your idea,' " said the elder Wells.
The Wells brothers grew up in Salt Lake City's Sugar House neighborhood to find themselves constantly in one another's shadow, unknowingly most of the time. Both auditioned for the same West High School choir, without telling each other. Both chased the same girls, without telling each other.
At least when it came to hobbies, they diverged slightly. The older brother read Victor Hugo, Frank Herbert's Dune and Russian novels to the point of distraction, while the younger brother busied himself in theater and set design.
"It got to the point that we really didn't like each other, until I moved out to go to college, at which point we became best friends," Dan Wells said.
In time, the similarities that pulled them apart drew them together. With a bachelor's degree in English from Brigham Young University, the elder Wells went to work as a corporate writer for NuSkin, working all the while on drafts for the trio of John Cleaver novels that earned him a nomination for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer for science fiction and fantasy writers. More importantly, his trio of novels earned him enough momentum to quit his day job and write full time.
Dan Wells found himself on firm ground of the young adult circuit of horror and fantasy genres, after his books racked up healthy sales and Kirkus Reviews hailing his first big book about a diffident teenage psychopath John Cleaver as "an unabashedly gory gem."
Running on a different track, Robison Wells finished BYU's MBA program in 2007 after a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Utah, only to find the economy had flattened by the time he hit the job market. Saddled with school debt, he and his family moved in with his parents.
"You could say I'm a full-time writer by virtue of being unemployed," Robison Wells jokes.
Writing had always been at the periphery for both, however. In 2003 they shared the same small writing group with fellow BYU student Brandon Sanderson, an aspiring fantasy writer just years away from fame and fortune after writing his Mistborn trilogy of books.
With his older brother breaking big in young adult horror fiction and with German publications on the way, Robison wrote several titles for the Mormon fiction market.
As satisfying as that was, he still aspired to break into the young adult genre. Sitting in a doctor's waiting room, in minutes he jotted down the draft for Variant. Within 11 days he'd finished a first draft, about a teenager who enrolls in a mysterious boarding school deep in the New Mexico woods after years of living in foster homes.
Dan did the brotherly thing, taking Robison with him to the 2009 World Fantasy Convention in San Jose to introduce him to national publishing representatives and literary agents.
Robison Wells' self-deprecation is leavened by the raves his book has earned from fellow practitioners. James Dashner, author of the best-selling Maze Runner series, lauded Variant for a plot twist that ranks alongside Orson Scott Card's hallowed Ender's Game, a complement that landed on the book jacket.
"Taken together, they're really fun to kid around with," Dashner says of the Wells brothers. "I'm really excited they both have such great things going on. After I read I Am Not a Serial Killer I texted [Dan] to tell him how great it was. He never responded. That shows you how ungrateful he is compared to his brother."
Dan Wells admits there have been times when he's been humbled by his younger brother's advice, and he even revamped his John Cleaver character in response to Robison's scathing critique.
Both as brothers and writers, they've come a long way from slugging it out during the days of their Provo writing group. That was when Dan peppered his younger brother's drafts with "Holy lame!" and other snide remarks.
"One time I stopped reading a draft of his two thirds of the way through," Dan Wells said. "Then I scrawled on one page, 'I will not start reading again until you have stopped being stupid!' "
By Dan Wells
Publisher • Balzer + Bray
Pages • 472
Price • $17.99
By Robison Wells
Publisher • Harper Teen
Pages • 384
Price • $17.99
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