When Words Collide Pre-Convention Signing August 13

Cover by Alberto Dal Lago

Cover by Alberto Dal Lago

When I ran into my old comrade Erik Mona at World Fantasy in Calgary in 2008, I dragged him away from the convention to see a local game store. This sort of side trip can be irritating for those who visited for business, but I knew Erik would forgive me. You see, this wasn’t just any gaming store. This was The Sentry Box.

In my time at TSR, Wizards of the Coast, and Paizo, I visited a bajillion game shops. They ranged from the noisome cat-piss store to Hemingway’s ideal of the “clean, well-lighted place.” The Sentry Box starts with the latter paradigm and dials it up to 11.

The place is vast, with its own book store and large areas devoted to miniatures, board games, RPGs, card games, and even game-adjacent stuff like videos, manga, and the inevitable nerd-focused tchotchkes that infiltrate such establishments. But that’s only the downstairs. Upstairs there’s a large space for gaming. And beyond that is the military games annex.

An annex.

I’m going to stop right there. The web page doesn’t do the location justice, and neither can I. You must visit the next time you visit Calgary to understand the full scope of gaming awesome.

Anyway, since I first met Gordon Johansen, the proprietor of The Sentry Box, he’s been a terrific supporter of Pathfinder Tales, making sure there are always copies available at his table at Western Canada’s great literary festival, When Words Collide. This year Gordon’s going at step further and hosting a signing for Lord of Runes and the rest of my Pathfinder Tales novels at his store on the eve of the convention.

Vanessa Cardui

Vanessa Cardui

Better yet, Calgarian filker extraordinaire Vanessa Cardui will join us to sing a few songs and sign copies of her excellent CDs.

Come hang out with us after 6:00 p.m at The Sentry Box (map). Even if I’ll see you at the convention, I hope you—and all your local friends who dig sword & sorcery and hilarious filk songs—will join us at this pre-con event.

Creative Colleagues: Matthew Caine

Ghosts of the ConqueredEvery now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

The first thing you need to know is that Matthew Caine is a lie.

Steven Savile and I met virtually through our contributions to the Pathfinder Tales web fiction, and we also share a mutual history with more warlike shared-world fiction. While we’ve yet to share a pint, we exchange messages of congratulations, commiseration, or general gossip now and then.

Recently, Steven told me about his new venture, a high fantasy series with both a collaborator and a new pen name. Collaborations and pen names are special interests of mine, so I had to know more.

Steven’s partner in the new high-fantasy series is his pal Joseph Nassise. Together, they’re Matthew Caine, and the first volume of their epic is The Ghosts of the Conquered.

1. What inspired the two of you to collaborate?

Steven: Friendship was the main motivator. You know the deal, the whole loneliness of the long-distance runner. We have known each other a long time without ever actually meeting. Right the way back to when Joe was debuting with Riverwatch and people were saying nice things about Laughing Boy’s Shadows (which was on its way to something approaching mythical status in the US because I’d actually broken all the rules and self-pubbed a short run of 250 paperbacks out of frustration). Long story short, it had sold to Gargadillo for a limited edition, they’d gone bust, it had sold to Tanjan for a UK paperback, they’d gone bust, it had sold to Indigo, some yahoo outfit in the US, and they’d gone bust, and it had sold to Dark Tales in the US (who did Secret Life of Colors), and you know what I’m going to say, right? Yep, it was the publisher killer. So I bit the bullet, did the short run, and then sold something like 60 of them to Matt Schartz’s Shocklines Book Store, and they sold out in days, but it wasn’t worth mailing over another batch of 50 or so as the income from the book was basically swallowed in postage, so you just couldn’t get it in the US.

So, right, where was I? Yeah we’d known each other forever, then bizarrely both wound up being Alex Archer. I did five novels with Annja Creed for Harlequin’s Gold Eagle imprint. Joe did—Joe chime in here—eight? So there was something inherently obvious about our styles meshing as if we were basically the same person.

It’s always fun when I meet someone who says Alex Archer is their favorite author. I mean, Al did 53 books in about eight years. He’s one prolific SOB.

Then, a bit randomly, Joe mailed to say, Hey, I’m friends with a bunch of these super-cool paranormal romance writers. They’re doing a big Christmas bundle. Want to write a PNR story, maybe launch a pseudonym. So we thrashed out what I think is actually a pretty damn excellent storyline. Then Joe started writing, and I completely dropped the ball. Real life hit. My dad was diagnosed with cancer, and I lost the plot. Joe carried the day. My input was basically reading it and going, “Cool, you rock.” This was the first in what we intended to be a five-part serial. I was just getting my head back in the game when dad got his terminal diagnosis, and I dropped the ball on Joe again. Seriously, I was the absolute worst partner to the guy imaginable, whilst he was the best friend a guy could ask for when I was going through hell. That’s when you learn a lot about someone.

So that was the start—but that’s a whole different person. We’re not that person any more. I confess I did actually write some of it though—hah!—he wouldn’t let me get away without at least doing a bit of the sexy stuff. Madly, our first ever collaboration wound up charting on the NYT and USA Today charts.

But Matthew Caine, that’s a whole different story. That began with an email from me to Joe saying ‘Have you ever fancied writing an epic fantasy?’ Which you’d think was quite the innocuous question, but I had an ulterior motive—well 150k of one.

See, before I started working for Warhammer, way back before my first Pathfinder stories, I had been working for about two years on a massive fantasy novel which completely got away from me. I mean, it was in danger of being a Song of Ice and Fire before there was a Song of Ice and—well, there was the original A Game of Thrones, I think, but that was it. I mean, this thing was epic in scope, a cast of hundreds, huge back story going back thousands of years, everything as a gamer you’d build into a campaign, and I’d completely stuffed up the writing of it because I wasn’t disciplined or skilled enough at that point in my career. I’d got lost.

So when Joe said, “Hell yeah I’ve always fancied,” I admitted to having this massive thing and started pitching him individual storylines in email.

I think in part it was a way to make it up to him for screwing up so badly with the first collab, so I’d be carrying the lion’s share this time. But the cost of entry was him editing and doing a final pass on my epic to wrangle it into publishable quality, and then thrashing out all those future storylines, nixing ideas I’d had, putting in his own. So while The Ghosts of the Conquered holds absolutely true to my conceived story, The Swords of Scorn—which we’re in the final throes of—is much more Joe helping steer what has become our joint ship.

He and his wife are coming over to Sweden to stay with us over the summer so we can thrash out the storylines for Books Three and Four. We already have loose ideas, but we’ve got absolute faith we’re onto something here, and we’re having a blast. It’s weird seeing all of these old concepts like the Del Carpio, honor-bound swords men and their mythical blades—the idea is there are only ever 50 of these warriors, and if one should fall, the sword picks its new wielder—and if the sword is claimed dishonorably, the remaining 49 are drawn to find the thief and recover the blade for their order. It’s an old idea I came up with for my old roleplaying group in1992.

This makes it sound like it’s all me—it’s not, Joe’s done a brilliant job. I had a blast reading his draft last month.

Joe: Yeah, what he said.
Seriously, Steve hit it right on the head. For years now we’ve been emailing back and forth, cheering each other on and helping each other stay sane in this crazy business called publishing, and so collaborating just seemed a natural thing to do given our mutual respect and our similar tastes in books and genres.

Collaboration is a difficult thing to do, and I don’t think that I could do it with just anyone. I need to know and respect the person on the other side of the page, so to speak, need to know that they will respect and care about the story as much as I do, because when it comes right down to it, that’s all going to show up on the page. I thought Steve’s Laughing Boy’s Shadow was a brilliant piece of work, and when you start with an introduction like that, it can only get better. He’s produced some fabulous work over the last several years, and I knew that a piece from the two of us could only turn out well.

As Steve noted, his life turned upside down when we were doing our first collaboration. I picked up the ball and kept the project going for one simple reason—I knew he would have done the same had our positions been reversed.  Life being what it is, I’m sure he’ll have to return the favor at some point. I think the trust we had in each other’s professionalism and ability to produce good, solid work was the most important thing we brought to the table.

When he asked me about doing a fantasy project, I was all in even before I’d seen what he’d done on the project beforehand. And after, there was no doubt.

A reasonable facimile of Steven Savile.

A reasonable facimile of Steven Savile.

2. What’s your process as the series continues?

Steven: I’ve covered a lot of Book One up above—but for Book Two we’ve divided characters a little. We’re in the final passages of the novel at the moment, and I’ve taken Kane to write his part in the epic battle we’ve taken two books and 200k to lead up to, and Joe’s taken Jenn. These are our two honor-bound warriors, Del Carpio. They’re the force of good in a universe of mad gods and beggar kings. For Book Three, I imagine we’ll carry on with divided storylines, weave the stories together, plotting them out beat for beat, then when I’ve wrapped my line turn it over to Joe to edit, and when he’s wrapped his, he’ll swing it my way for the same abuse. One good thing is neither of us is precious. We’ve worked in media properties a lot, and between us have sold about a million books or so, lots of different franchises as well as our own worlds. We’re used to playing nice with other people’s toys, but we’re also very much dark/horror writers at heart. It’s where we both got our starts, so as you can imagine the world we’re playing in here is pretty grim.

Joe: A good collaboration, in my view, is a seamless merging of the individual writer’s styles.  In order to pull that off, we are constantly trading the work back and forth. If Steve writes a section, I’ll then go over it with a fine-toothed comb, adding and smoothing things out in the process. I will then continue from that portion moving forward and send it over to him to the do the same. By the end of the project, we’ve both gone over it several times, so it is no longer possible to see where his work begins and my work ends or vice versa.  Instead, we have a new, blended style that results in a voice all its own.

3. For each of you, what’s some creative strength that the other one brings to the table? Or what’s a lesson the other one often teaches you?

Steven: Joe’s a powerful, muscular writer. He’s disciplined and he’s fast. I’m not. I’m a slow methodical writer who will write 1,000-1,500 words a day, and those words may take ten hours to get down. I obsess about the little details and sentence-level stuff. So I try consciously to be a little more like Joe and a little less insane.

Joe: Ha! I’m disciplined and fast because I tend to procrastinate and then have to write a lot in a short period of time! Steven gets his words done every day, like clockwork, and inspires me to be more regular in my production.  If I know he’s waiting on a section that helps push me to get it done on a timely basis. He’s a bit more of an atmospheric writer than I am, so I know he can take my action scenes and add another layer to them. At the same time, I can take his lovingly crafted paragraphs and cut them back a bit to make them drive the reader forward into the tale. In short, we complement each other well.

4. How do you deal with creative disagreements? Can you describe a time when one of you said, “This character would never do that!” and how the other partner responded?

Steven: You know what, as of now, we’ve not had one. No BS. We’ve had adversity, like my dad’s death and my wife’s subsequent diagnosis a few weeks later, which believe me tests the strength of a friendship as you feel like you’re taking advantage of your partner’s good will, but it’s also where you realize it’s forged in fire and can take pretty much the worst life can throw at it. However, on the whole, ‘Ah, man, they’d never do that,’ we bounce ideas, escalating each other with ‘Oh, man, wouldn’t that be cool?’ which stirs up, ‘Yeah, but this would be so much more intense.’ and several of those go back and forth until we hit on a through line that’s ours, we both love, and which serves the story. I think it helps I respect the hell out of Joe, and I figure he puts up with me.

Joe: Steven’s right—the issue hasn’t come up.  And when it does, I suspect we’ll deal with it the same way we deal with everything else, by talking it over until we are both satisfied. That’s one of the cool things about collaborating with someone. The end result is often bigger and better than you might have come up with on your own.

Joe Nassise

Joe Nassise

5. What’s the difference in how you look back on your solo work compared with your collaborations? Does the former feel more genuinely “you”? Does the latter feel more like a marriage? Do you take different sorts of pride in the solo and collaborative work?

Steven: Yeah, I confess when I write a list of books I’ve written I always write my solo novels first, when friends ask ‘what of yours should I read?’ again it’s the solo novels (generally Silver to be honest) that I recommend. Because it’s me. All me. 100%. That doesn’t mean I’m not immensely proud of the collabs. I am. But you nailed it, it’s more like ‘I’d never have written that by myself, it would have been so different’ and I’ve done a lot of them, from HNIC with Prodigy from Mobb Deep, through a bunch of stuff in my own thriller universe, Ogmios. I’m a mean collaborator there, in that my guys write a first draft, and then I rewrite every word into my voice. I think I’d hate that if I were them, but I’m ridiculously possessive of the IP. It’s got to be right. This Matthew Caine is different again. I think it’s probably harder for Joe to feel ownership on it as it stands with just book one out, as so much of that was in place, but as the series progresses with Book Two and beyond, more and more of it becomes the perfect marriage.

Joe: To be honest, I don’t differentiate too much between them because there is a fairly wide gap genre-wise between what I write solo and what I write in collaboration or as work-for-hire.  All of my solo material has either been urban fantasy or alternate history. All of my collaborative works have been epic fantasy, paranormal fantasy, or action-adventure.  I direct the person I’m talking to the genre that they are most interested in.  My website breaks my books down by series so it follows the same kind of approach.  And honestly, I’m proud of everything that I’ve published—solo or collaborative.  If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t let it out in public in the first place.


For more on Steven Savile, check out his website. For Joe Nassise, ditto. And just in case you haven’t snapped up a copy already, you can find Ghosts of the Conquered right here.


Creative Colleagues: Elaine Cunningham

Elaine Cunningham

Elaine Cunningham

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

I don’t recall the details of my first contact with Elaine Cunningham, but it was probably an email exchange while I was editing Dragon. We met at Gen Con later, but it was such a brief meeting during a busy con that neither of us remembers it clearly. Most of our friendship has existed in the aether of the Internet as we conspire, commiserate, and exchange the occasional outline or manuscript.

When James Sutter first talked to me about Pathfinder Tales, he made it clear I couldn’t have the first book so long as Elaine was available. I accepted that because, well, Elaine Freakin’ Cunningham makes a bigger impression than Dave Who? Gross. If it had to be anyone but me, I was glad it was Elaine. We’d been chatting for months about what kinds of stories we’d like to tell in Golarion once the deal was in place. She gave me great feedback on my outline, and I tried to return the favor.

When the schedule had to change because of Elaine’s Year from Hell, she was supportive of Prince of Wolves coming out first and later of my helping her finish Winter Witch. We often talked about doing a collaboration on purpose afterward, but one of the many things we have in common is that we both like to lead. Thus, we shall never dance.

In case my sardonic wit (another thing we have in common) muddies my point, let me make it clear: Elaine is one of my favorite humans not only because her writing inspires me to try harder but because she manages to maintain a dark humor without becoming one of those tedious naysayers. Also, whenever she shares stories of her family, her love for them makes me feel like I’ve known them all my life, even though I’ve never met them (except possibly one of the boys during that brief, distracted meeting at Gen Con). You can see why she’s good with characters in fiction.

Anyway, after years of begging off, Elaine finally answered five hard-hitting (not really) questions about writing. And lo! They appear henceforth:

1. I think I can guess the answer, but what do you love most: plot, description, dialogue, or narration? And which do you hate the most? How do you balance the delight of working on your favorite with the agony of fighting with your nemesis?

Dialogue is the most fun for me. When the writing process is going well, it’s basically eavesdropping: I sit at the corner table, listening to these people talk and writing down what they say. But those moments are fairly rare. Most often, I revise and revise and revise until the flow of conversation feels right. It’s a bit like tuning a harp. It takes time, but the process of getting each string precisely in tune so that they all work together is very satisfying.

I know you’re thinking that plot is my least favorite part of writing, but plot isn’t really a nemesis; it’s more like a frenemy. Plot is the hardest part of writing for me, and where I’m most likely to make mistakes, but in many ways it’s also the most creative and rewarding aspect. Recently I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this issue. Going forward, I’ll be spending more time on the outline stage and getting feedback from Trusted Readers before I begin the actual writing process. Some people start a novel with a highly detailed plan; others make things up as they go along. They enjoy the exploration and discovery and surprise. While I fall into the second category in terms of inclination, it’s not the best tactic for me.

But to address your question more directly, narration is what I like the least. Specifically, I hate doing transitions, especially getting people from one place to another. I deal with this aspect mostly by minimizing it, using scene breaks and short chapters to instead of writing narrative that, if I were a reader, I’d just skim or skip over entirely. Leonard Elmore advised writers to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip, and for me, that’s narration.

2. Since you’re a trained musician, I’m always expecting to see more references to song and instruments in your work. But do you find that music influences your writing in other ways? Do you think in terms of meter, orchestration, crescendos, and so on? Do you have solos and duets, then full orchestral accompaniment?

Actually, I try to keep music OUT of the writing process. People often ask if I listen to music when I write. I don’t, and frankly, I don’t think it’s a good idea. On the one hand, the emotion and energy of the music can carry you along while you’re writing (provided you can split your attention, which I can’t do), but on the other hand, what you write needs to convey that energy and emotion to a reader who does not have the benefit of your writing soundtrack.

I don’t think in musical terms while writing because language has its own rhythms and timbres and musical nuances. Layering on melody tends to reduce prose to lyrics, which, no matter how good they might be, can seldom stand alone.

That said, I do have one particular bit of “sound track” for my Songs & Swords novels. There’s mention of a song called “The Greymist Maiden” in Elfsong. It’s a ballad written by Danilo Thann. I never did write lyrics for this, but there is a melody, which also functions as the “love theme” for him and Arilyn Moonblade. It plays in the back of my mind when I’m writing or thinking about them. Does that translate to the page? Probably not, but I’m fond of the tune and I enjoy “hearing” it every now and then.

Cover by Victor Leza

Cover by Victor Leza

3. You’re also a big fan of Polish myth and legend. While I know you’ve got something along those lines percolating, has it slipped out into your previous work? And in what ways to real-world myths and legends influence your fantasy creations?

People who’ve read the Pathfinder novel Winter Witch might remember that Declan Avari’s mother, Pernilla, created elaborate landscapes with layers of paper in shades of white and off-white. This was inspired by wycinaki, a Polish paper cutting folk art style.

Slavic folklore was also central to Windwalker, a Forgotten Realms novel set mostly in the land of Rashemen. Then there’s “Vasillssa’s Doll,” a short story in the anthology When the Hero Comes Home 2. Vasilissa the Fair is actually a Russian folktale trope, but there’s a lot of overlap and similarity in the various flavors of Slavic folklore.

Real-world myths and legends are central to my love of fantasy. Some people entered the genre through Tolkien, or the Dragonlance novels, or video games. Mythology and folklore was my point of entry, and they remain my primary inspiration.

4. You’re a tremendously supportive critique of colleagues’ work, yet you’re immensely hard on your own writing. What the hell is wrong with you, anyway? Seriously, when are you able to flip the switch to appreciate your own writing? Is it simply dependent on mood? Or is there a creative way to find that perspective? 

There’s a line between self-editing, which is necessary, and negative self-talk, which can be crippling. Admittedly, I don’t always do a good job of staying on the right side of that line. I like your notion of “creative perspective.” That’s vitally important. I’m finding that can stay on track if I focus on this outline, this scene, this passage, this particular word choice, rather than on what I think and feel about myself as a writer. That’s the sort of thing my inner critics like to talk about. When they start to chime in, I don’t engage them. I used to try to disprove them by, for example, putting a stack of published books next to my computer as a visual reminder that I have, in fact, written something that was considered publishable and could probably do so again. But inner critics are like internet trolls; debate only encourages them. It’s a better idea to just let their words flow past you and then get back to work.

Everyone has doubts, fears, and so on. Depression and anxiety disorders are fairly common among writers. I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to deal with these things—and most other issues, for that matter—is to focus on developing good habits.

That’s a major focus for me right now. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been studying habit acquisition, writing about it, and working with a couple of programmers to develop a system of online tools. It has been a transformative process. Getting healthy was a first and necessary priority, but that accomplished, I’ve begun shifting focus back to writing.

And that leads to one more tactic I’ve started to incorporate. Most habits are private affairs, but I’ve come to realize that I have been TOO private about my writing process. Talking to other writers, comparing manuscripts, checking in on progress—these things can be very helpful during those times when the dark wood is darker than usual. Within the next month or so, we’ll be beta-testing GIDIG, our habit-acquisition website (no apps yet, but those are coming…), and I hope to recruit some of my colleagues to beta-test a writer’s group.

5. We both love humor and bestow it on our characters, but we also know humor is subjective. How do you know when a comic line or scene works? How do you know when to cut it? Perhaps most importantly, how do you know how to suggest another writer revise a comic bit?

Wow. Okay, this is a tough one, but I’ll toss out a a few random thoughts.

Humor “works” in different ways. Some things are funny because they’re surprising—they set up an expectation and then subvert it. Humor can be found in absurdity, which includes irony and satire. I enjoy these forms of humor immensely, and I’m especially fond of word play, so this is where I tend to focus. Physical humor is not my favorite brand of humor, but some writers can pull it off. I’m not a fan of shock humor or put-down humor, so those forms of humor don’t work for me.

Now, about the revision process. I find that if I’m uncomfortable with a line, it’s usually a good idea to cut it, even if I’m not entirely sure why. The same goes if I find that I have to work too hard to make a bit of dialogue fit. “Kill your darlings” is good advice in general, but it’s probably more applicable for humorous lines than for any other aspects of writing. Also, I find that it’s a good idea to let humorous passages sit for a while and then come back to them. Something that strikes you as amusing at a particular point in time might not hold up. Read the humorous section out loud to get a sense of pacing. If you can, have someone read the passage (silently) and watch their face while they’re reading.

I haven’t run into this issue during the editing/critiquing process very often, but the few examples that come to mind are usually problems of pacing or voice. Sometimes I’ll point out that a phrase doesn’t quite ring true for a character. And every now and then I just don’t “get” a bit of humor and ask for a clarification. That’s it. No suggestions, no “this doesn’t work.” I think it’s helpful for a writer to know that their intent isn’t getting through, and I leave it to them to decide whether to a) revise or b) decide that I’m a humorless Philistine who doesn’t know comedy from kumquats.

Mosey over to Elaine’s webpage.


Creative Colleagues: Tom Smith

Tom Smith

Tom Smith

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

Apart from our mutual love of SFF and things fannish, Tom Smith and I both have roots in Michigan (I escaped as an infant, but he’s still serving his sentence). However, I don’t we’ve ever met in the flesh, even though I suspect we’ve been at a few of the same conventions.

The first I heard of him was when an old girlfriend fired up a cassette named Who Let Him in Here? While she meant to turn me on to Tom’s Elvis/Tolkien parody “The Return of the King,” I became a devoted fan early in the very first track, “I Want To Be Peter Lorre.” Tom’s Elvis is good, but his Peter Lorre is tremendous. I wore out that cassette years ago and have since replaced it from his Bandcamp page.

Like all the best filkers, Tom is a talented musician, an incorrigible punster, and a comic with precision timing. As for the word “filk” and exactly what it means, I’ll leave that for the master to explain.

1. For the uninitiated, would you explain what filk is? How did you first get involved? What are the unique challenges to crafting a great filk song? 

Filk is a genre of music—the music of science fiction and fantasy fandom. It encompasses basically anything we want to play, although it tends to be SF or fantasy in nature. But it also includes songs with computers, cats, puns, political statements, recycled old jokes, ecological themes, toys, comic books, whatever.

It’s also an offshoot of an existing song. It can be a verb, something you do to a song, as in Weird Al’s parody “Yoda” filks “Lola” by The Kinks, or a noun, referring to the song itself, as in  Peter Schelling’s “Major Tom” is a filk of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”

And, it’s the community of those who write, perform, and enjoy such music. We have conventions. They’re like big ol’ family reunions, only with lots more guitars.

I first got involved back in 1985. I knew some filkers, and I knew some cute fannish ladies whom I wanted to impress, and I’d always wanted to play a musical instrument, so I picked up a cheap guitar and a couple of Mel Bay books and pretty much taught myself. I first performed at a con in March 1985. I was good enough to get a concert by fall 1988, and I hope someday soon to be halfway decent.

There are no “unique” challenges to writing a “great” filk song. No one sets out for greatness. I want it to be solid lyrically—to not cheat (too much) on rhyme or scansion, to make sense as a short story, to have a catchy tune. Basically, anything you’ve ever heard about songwriting combined with anything you’ve ever heard about writing short SF.

2. Hilarious impersonations are one of your hallmarks. Do you find yourself as influenced by actors as by writers? Where do you find there’s good and bad friction between composition and performance?

Thanks kindly. Growing up, I was a huge fan of Rich Little, Frank Gorshin, and especially Mel Blanc. And of course I am influenced by actors. I used to be a D&D and RuneQuest GM, where you have to basically perform the world. I launch into soliloquies for fun. One of my faves is the Reviews riff in “The Goodbye Girl.”

Hee—every single line is a potential source of friction between composition and performance. Part of the game of songwriting (and it is a game, a puzzle, even as it’s a challenge) is coming up with a combination of words and music that not only makes sense, but is sing-able and understandable. Check out Steve Goodie’s “Dumbledore,” or my own “Dead Again” or “Five Years.”

3. Many filk songs require the audience to know the source material. What kind of thought do you have to put into considering how much of the audience will “get” your references, and how much explanation do you then put into the song itself?

Some songs are very specific. For those, I mention that, if you don’t know the source material, it’ll make no sense. However, I tend to put explanations into the songs themselves (e.g., “Hellraiser,” “PQR”). And I try not to riff on anything too obscure.

4. Parody artists like Weird Al and satirists like Tom Lehrer seem a lot like filkers to me. Do you hold them up as idols, inspirations, rivals, or something else?

Absolutely, inspiration. To an extent, rivals—or, not so much rivals as gold standards to achieve and ideally surpass. Weird Al and Jonathan Coulton have specifically said they are NOT doing filk—I believe it’s from a combination of the somewhat negative connotation of the word (as some filkers are, frankly, not very skilled musically) and being unwilling or unable to be part of the community. Nobody holds it against them, and any day either of them showed up at a filk circle, they would be met by a sustained standing ovation.

5. Political events inspire some of your lyrics, so I imagine your reading the news and turning with a passion to the guitar. Where else do you turn for inspiration?

Sometimes I’m inspired by politics. These days it’s tricky—your audience can become physically hostile if you ain’t careful. I love working in SF/F because that’s where my head and heart are at.

My love of music is as old as I am. My mom was a nightclub singer, my dad a dancer, my grandmother had Broadway and comedy albums. My love of folk and classic rock—50s, 60s, 70s, MY music when I was growing up—led to my love of filk. I also love classical, soundtracks, show tunes, blues, some ambient, barbershop quartet, some modern pop, big band, and some ballads. I’m as much a fan of Barry Manilow as I am of Meat Loaf, I (the atheist) belt out the tunes from Godspell and Pippin, and I can listen to Billy Joel, Christine Lavin, Uncle Bonsai, or The Beatles all day long.


Keep track of Tom’s latest convention appearance (and most recent releases) at his website. Don’t forget to check out his Band Camp page, where you can buy his albums.




New Essay on Black Gate

Art by Eric Belisle

Art by Eric Belisle

Black Gate is one of my favorite sites, focused on fantasy but with a diversity within the genre that keeps it fresh and often introduces me to things I hadn’t discovered. Also, the folks at BG share many of my non-fantasy interests. For example, Bob Byrne posts a regular Sherlock Holmes feature.

Last week Bob invited me to contribute an essay based on the “Holmes & Watson” pitch that launched the Radovan & the Count novels. That led me to consider both the limitations of the “elevator pitch” and the perils of “pinching” ideas from famous books and movies. You can read it right here.

Creative Colleagues: Cat Rambo

Cat Rambo

Cat Rambo

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

While I was aware of Cat Rambo as a local writer when I lived in Seattle, we didn’t get to know each other beyond a hello or a nod at the local SFF events. Perhaps we first met at a Clarion party or at the Nebula Awards. I knew her well enough to recognize her and say hi, but not enough to tell you whether she has pets and what kind. (Two! A black cat named Raven and a small tortoiseshell named Taco.)

But I do remember our later meeting in an elevator at the World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio. I was surprised that she was aware of my then-most-recent Pathfinder Tales novel. Some feel there’s a great divide between the “artists” of the mainstream SFF writing community and us “hired guns” of tie-in fiction, but Cat is just one example of how that’s no longer true—or at least that it’s changing. (It doesn’t hurt that Cat’s a veteran gamer.)

That Cat was recently elected as president of the Science Fiction Writers Association is another good sign of a broader embrace of writers in all the little nooks and crannies of our fractious genre(s). That she’s contributing to Marc Tassin’s Champions of Aetaltis anthology is another. Speaking of which, the Kickstarter campaign is entering its last hours, so please take a look at the diverse and talented list of authors contributing to the project. Chances are good you’ll spy a favorite or two among us

1. As you take over as president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Association, what’ll you do to make the organization more appealing to a broader group of writers?

One of the things that the organization has been looking at in recent years is how the ways writers make money is changing. Where once publishing with a major publisher was the only path, nowadays we see people earning their livings through small press, independent publishing, subscriptions, crowd-funding and other means. While SFWA must remain an organization of professional writers, it needs to be all the permutations of professionality.

SFWA has so much to offer professional writers beyond its community, and we’re looking at how to support all our members—with information, resources, and other forms of help. Right now we’re looking at discoverability and ways to help our members with that through things like the recently implemented new release newsletter and the NetGalley membership, which I hope to see set up within the next few months.

2. After years of writing award-winning short fiction, how different did you find the process of writing your first novel, Beasts of Tabat

I’d been working on novels off and on all along, but I’m only recently beginning to figure out the difference, which is a) novels are more complex and b) you can’t hold an entire novel in your head the way you can a story, which makes writing it much more difficult, a bit like trying to build a house while living in it at the same time.

Cover design by Janet McDonald

Cover design by Janet McDonald

3. When you sat down to write Beasts of Tabat, what were the two or three most important things you did at the start?

I think the most important thing is that I’d developed a strong sense of the setting. I knew a lot about the physical geography as well as the history, from having written so many stories already that were set in Tabat.

Another is that I had some sense of what the book was about. I don’t know how important that will be for other writers, because everyone’s process is so different, but it certainly helped to have an idea of where I wanted to have arrived by the end of the book.

4. What appeals to you about the World of Aetaltis? And what sort of hero did you create for that setting?

I have always loved roleplaying games, so a chance to write in a shared world like that sounded like so much fun! I have a pair of heroes, actually, with a buddy story going on, so expect banter. Lots of banter.

5. I just learned that John “Lost in the Funhouse” Barth was a mentor to you and that he looks forward to reading your book. Please describe your terror and hopes at that prospect.

I am so pleased that he said he would read it. I hope that he’ll see how deep and rich and wonderful genre fiction can be. That if he hasn’t read Delany or Emshwiller or Tiptree Jr., he’ll start. Because I know he’ll love some of that as much as I do. That he’ll understand that F&SF can explore the human story in a way no other literature can.

It does take a certain amount of guts to send Barth my book and say, “You will enjoy this.” But I know the book is good, good enough to withstand Jack’s perusal, and it pleases me enormously to be able to show him that his instruction was not wasted on me.

Watch for what’s next for Cat at her website.