Have you heard the one about the hellspawn, the half-elf, the wolfhound, the bounty hunter, the necromancer, the thief, the Pathfinder, and the shaman? Sample it on audible.com.
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.
Jane Lindskold and I first met at Gen Con about 20 years ago. The previous year, she had published her wonderful debut novel, Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls, coincidentally the same year as I’d made my first short fiction sale. We also discovered we’re both tabletop roleplayers, and my one regret of that convention is that we never got a chance to play together.
Jane and I exchanged letters and D&D books for a little while but eventually lost touch except for a brief greeting at a convention five or six years later. Since then, we’ve reverted, as so many have, to following each other on Twitter.
This past spring, a remark by someone at Tor prompted me to ask whether they’d send Jane a copy of my latest Radovan & the Count novel. Soon after, we resumed our correspondence and she asked me a few questions for her delightful blog. Our exchange was so much fun that I had to ask to turn the tables and continue the conversation here.
1. As a pragmatist, I’m of the opinion that writers aren’t born but made (or self-made). They come to the craft from many different vectors, including formal education, writers’ groups, the guidance of a mentor, and a thousand other angles. What was your trajectory?
“Trajectory” is a neat way to look at the process of becoming a writer. Let’s see…
For me, the launch pad to becoming a writer was telling stories—often based on my dreams—to my younger sister, with whom I shared a room until I was twelve. I also had a vivid daydream life, in which I would construct elaborate stories. And I’d play “pretend” with my youngest sister.
I’m not really sure when I started letting the stories out of my head and onto paper. By college, definitely, but my sister says she’d find fragments back when we were younger. I certainly never finished these, nor did I take them very seriously. At this point, I had no ambition at all to be a writer.
Freshman year in college I discovered RPGs. This was the year the AD&D hardcover guides came out, I believe. Gaming very much fueled my desire to actually write down stories. Often I’d construct an elaborate backstory for my character. These rarely were used, but I found myself stimulated by the process. Later, I’d write down portions of games—more or less unconnected fragments—but the attempt to put down on paper words that would convey to a reader something of the vivid sense of the characters and events from the game was there.
I even tried an epic poem in rhymed couplets.
At the same time, I was majoring in English, so I was reading a lot of wonderful material—or sometimes not so wonderful. Thinking about what stirred me and what didn’t helped shape me as writer as well, as did making friends who read SF/F and talking about books with them.
Basically, those four years when I was earning my undergrad degree in English, I was also, all unknowing, doing a second “self-directed” degree in fiction writing.
I did take one class, an elective, in short story writing. Honestly, the class didn’t teach me much that I hadn’t already figured out for myself, but it did force me to finish what I was working on. That—as I’m sure you know—is a huge step.
I went directly from undergrad to grad school, but even though I was intensely focused on my studies, I didn’t give up either gaming or fiction writing. When I finished my dissertation, I decided to slot fiction writing into the space where the dissertation had lived.
Above you mentioned “mentors.” If I had one, it was Roger Zelazny, who I met as I was finishing up my degree work. Roger read some of my early stuff and decided that I was already writing at a professional level. So, although we talked about writing a lot, he went out of his way to avoid making me, as he put it “into a cut-rate Roger Zelazny.” He never edited my stories or made more than the most indirect suggestions. Instead, he taught me about markets and various business aspects. Of course, I couldn’t have been as close to him as I was without learning a lot—I have a file drawer filled with his letters to me—but he never was in the least directive.
After grad school, I started teaching college English and writing fiction (and non-fiction) on the side. Eventually, I sold a short story or two… And even later, a novel (Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls). Twenty-four or so novels and seventy some short stories down the pike, I’m still at it.
2. I think you’ve both collaborated on fiction and finished someone else’s work, one of the things we have in common. How do those experiences compare with each other and with writing alone?
I’ve done collaborations with a couple of writers—two novels with David Weber (Fire Season and Treecat Wars) and a short story (“Servant of Death”) with Fred Saberhagen.
And Roger asked me to finish the two novels he was working on if he didn’t “make it” (as he didn’t). These were Donnerjack and Lord Demon.
I’ve also written stories set in other people’s “universes,” which—if you’re respectful of the source material—is a sort of indirect collaboration.
Each of the experiences was very different. “Servant of Death” was set in Fred’s “Berserker” universe, so he contributed the foundation. We talked over the story and I wrote the first draft. Fred then made some suggestions that he felt would draw the story closer to the “feel” of the universe.
Working with David Weber was very different. Since the novels were prequels to the Honor Harrington stories—set hundreds of years earlier—there was a lot of new material to come up with. Weber and I are good buddies, and he gave me a lot of room to play, as long as we didn’t violate anything he’d already established. One area he hadn’t done a lot with was treecat culture, since most of the treecats in the Honor Harrington novels are not exactly stay-at-homes. I came up with a long list of questions. If he didn’t have an answer, he gave me leave to come up with my own solutions.
Finishing Roger’s novels was completely different, since he wasn’t there to talk with. However, we had talked a lot about what he intended for both. He didn’t outline, so I had to go with what we’d talked about and what he’d already written. Earlier, I said he didn’t try to teach me how to write, but I feel that rising to the challenge of finishing novels by one of the greatest SF/F prose stylists of all time taught me an amazing amount.
3. More and more writers are open about being gamers, but you’ve never been shy about talking gaming. Is there still a danger of being “tainted” by association? And are there hidden or surprising benefits to gaming as a writer?
The other day, I realized that by my next birthday, I will have been gaming for two-thirds of my life… And it hasn’t been a casual hobby either. Except for a few breaks when moving between locations (and thus between groups) I’ve gamed the whole time. Right now I have a group that meets almost weekly, and I really look forward to Sunday evenings for that reason.
My first non-academic publications were gaming-related: two gaming scenarios for Call of Cthulu, published in Challenge Magazine. The second of these was badly messed-up in production, so I fear that any who tried to play it would have failed their Sanity roll at the outset.
I think that the danger of being negatively stigmatized for being a gamer is greatly reduced these days. I mean, when people realize that Hugo and Nebula award-winners like George R.R. Martin and Walter Jon Williams are gamers, it becomes really tough to justify equating gaming and poor writing.
Projects like the long-running Wild Card anthologies, and James S.A. Corey’s “Expanse” novels have their roots in games played by or designed by the authors. Neither of these are “game-related” but gaming had a positive influence on their development.
I think the benefits are myriad, especially for those of us who run games as well as just playing. When people ask me in what way a game is like a story, I explain that the Referee provides the setting—because even in those games set in an established gaming “world,” still the Ref is the one through whom the players “see” the setting. The Ref also provides most of the characters in the form of NPCs. The players provide the main characters. The Referee provides the start for the plot but—in a good game—the story’s plot is a result of collaboration between the Ref and the players.
4. What are some lessons writers can take from roleplaying games in handling magic and the supernatural? And/or what are some lessons one must never take from gaming?
Magic and the supernatural are a bit separate in my mind, so I’ll deal with them that way.
Despite reviewers who seem to frown at such, traditional magic is more often than not tied to a system of some sort. I wrote a long piece about this called “System = Unmagical” for Tor.com, that I revised for my own blog in March 2013 and included in my book Wanderings on Writing, so I’ll spare you why the “numinous” magics so beloved of critics are actually less “realistic” than magic systems that use spell components, gestures, and the like.
That said, a writer can’t simply tag a spell by its game name and leave it at that. One thing I’ve found amusing when reading Pathfinder novels is how often I can tell precisely what spell is being described—and I haven’t played any version of D&D for over twenty years! A creative description of a spell effect is great, but just saying “Chromatic Orb” or “Spider Climb” is pretty clumsy.
The supernatural is another thing entirely. Gaming universes often mix up elements that came originally from numerous sources—fictional, legendary, mythological, historical, even movies and TV—with no attempt to justify why, say, a creature from continental India would be in the same area as European-style werewolves. In the gaming context, that’s fine, because that’s the fabric of the universe.
However, when writing fiction not set in that sort of universe, a writer must be careful to understand where various supernatural elements originated. A Norse elf and an Irish elf have element in common, but they are different creatures—despite the contact between the cultures. The same is true of a host of other creatures.
The same story that might delight a gaming audience can seem a ludicrous mishmash in another context—and consequently subject to rejection from non-gaming publishing houses.
Coincidence is another thing to watch out for. Gamers are accustomed to how the dice shape the story, but the chance success of a one-in-a-million hit or an out-sized spell effect even if “It really happened that way, honest!” can make for a weak story, especially if the plot relies on repeated “good die rolls.”
5. You and I, and a great many other writers, have an obvious affinity for wolves. What is it about those animals that remains so romantic in our imaginations?
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I apparently imprinted on wolves at a very young age. One of my favorite imaginary characters had a wolf companion. When I’d speak about my enthusiasm for wolves, I was always told “Oh, you wouldn’t like real wolves,” but, in fact, I do.
Over the years, I’ve learned a considerable amount about wolves. What I’ve learned has not diminished my enthusiasm for them, but rather caused it to grow. I’ve even had a wolf in sit in my lap, been licked on the face by several, and the like…
This doesn’t mean I don’t acknowledge that wolves can be dangerous. I try to get out the word that wolves are not meant to be house pets. I do what I can to support the mission of Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary here in New Mexico, which provides homes for wolves and wolf-hybrids who have been unfortunate enough to be victims to humans on a power trip.
Wolves are not monsters—not werewolves or Pathfinder’s “winter wolves” or anything of the sort. However, they’re not Firekeeper’s “Royal Wolves” either. They’re creatures who deserve to be respected for what they are.
Watch for Jane’s latest at her website.
There’s an especially good installment of Creative Colleagues coming this way next Wednesday.
Otherwise, I’ve only a monthly Roundtable on tap, although there are a few sets of questions out to authors who’ve probably gotten too busy or distracted to reply. Until then, any requests for blog topics?
When asked where to start reading the Radovan & the Count saga, I no longer go through the whole routine of figuring out whether the person asking prefers gothic horror, wuxia, high fantasy, demon wars, and so on just to direct them to a particular novel or story. Instead, I say, “Start with Queen of Thorns.”
Better yet, give it a listen. Paul Boehmer’s narration is outstanding. I may never again read these books aloud but simply point people to the download link.
In the usual Creative Colleagues interviews, I drop five questions on a person involved in stories: writers, illustrators, musicians, nerf herders—you know the type. Yet sometimes I have just one or two questions, and I want a bunch of opinions.
That includes your opinions, so I hope you’ll comment.
Here’s a little incentive: After two weeks, I’ll randomly pick the names of up to six commentators (fewer, if fewer than six people participate). The chosen few will receive a code for their choice of one of the following Pathfinder Tales novels via audible.com: Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, Queen of Thorns, King of Chaos, Lord of Runes, or Elaine Cunningham’s Winter Witch (to which I contributed the back half).
Because ghost stories were one of my first “fandoms,” I often include a little Gothic supernatural in my work, notably in Prince of Wolves. And so for the spooky month of October, I posed a couple of horror fiction questions to some of my eerier colleagues.
Of the many sub-genres of horror fiction, which do you find the most appealing?
David Annandale: The sub-genre I find most appealing at the moment is the ghost story. Roald Dahl said something to the effect that this is one of the most difficult forms of fiction to do well, and I think he’s not far wrong. The ghost story has a fair bit in common with the mystery but has the added challenge of providing a solution that is not just satisfying but—rather than leading to comfort and resolution—makes things even more frightening. I realize this is an oversimplification of both forms, but it does summarize the qualities of my favorite ghost stories. These are tales that linger in the mind, becoming more disturbing the more one thinks about them.
For my money, one of the most perfect of all ghost stories is Edith Wharton’s “Afterward.” The premise is simple—a house haunted by a ghost you do not realize you have seen until long afterward—but there is nothing simplistic in the way Wharton plays out all the awful implications of that idea. The first time I read the story, I thought it was atmospheric, but I was a little disappointed in the payoff. A long time after, I began to understand exactly what had gone on, and it became really creepy. In other words, it was a story that embodied its own premise.
In a way, the same is true of Peter Straub’s terrifying Ghost Story. Here is a tale where the being we encounter is the origin of all ghost tales, and the novel itself is like a compendium of them all while still remaining a unified whole. It is as big and booming a story as Wharton’s is quiet and subtle, but no less layered a masterpiece. So the ghost story can range in tone from the whisper to the scream. As hard as it is to do right, it’s devastating when everything comes together.
Stephen D. Sullivan: I find two sub-genres in the horror/monster area most appealing. One is the classic Gothic Horror setting, which can range from the past right into the present, because it’s more about the atmosphere than the period. My Frost Harrow stories, for instance, are set in the present but can arc into the past.
I’m also way more about the monsters—ghosts, werewolves, undead, etc. or even Cthulhu—than I am about slasher-type fiction. When I wrote my novelization of White Zombie, I didn’t try to jazz it up with too much sex or gore and such; I kept it within the time frame when the movie was made and just hinted a little more strongly at some of the weird subtexts they had in the film. When finally I start working on my Cushing Horrors stories, they’ll probably be more similar to WZ and Universal’s movies—classic monster movie stuff.
My Frost works, conversely, are very modern in their outlook and can have more sex and violence. My two Manos novelizations run the gamut. Manos: The Hands of Fate has the kinky subtext of the film but plays for the comedy and doesn’t delve any deeper. In Manos: Talons of Fate (coming soon), I get to dig into the dark side and bring it out for readers to “see.” In the end, either way I go on the gothic/classic genre, a lot of it is about the monsters for me. Give me Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Jr., or even The Master, any day!
The other sub-genre I’m interested in is Giant Monsters. I’ve had a great time playing with that in Daikaiju Attack and shorter stories, like “Kaiju vs. Cthulhu” and “Kaiju vs. Kongu.” I have the advantage of being able to play my whole mythos out in advance, something the filmmakers never really did.
But, again, monsters. Give me monsters!
Wendy Wagner: I am drawn back again and again to the ghost story, which gets under my skin the way other forms of horror rarely do. Ghost stories have a wonderful sense of place that is utterly compelling. Moreover, they are often framed around a current of unhappiness that is so strong it has left scars on the surface of reality. What a terrible, powerful idea: that human misery can imprint itself on the world and keep inflicting itself on people who have no connection to the original trauma. A ghost forces the characters in the story to look into darkness. It’s horrible. It’s sad. I’m a determined materialist, but I would not want to live in a haunted house, no matter how fascinated I am by the notion.
Eddy Webb: I think ghost stories endure the longest. In some ways, vampire stories are a version of ghost stories, because they both relate to the human fascination with death (and indeed, some older ghost stories present the dead as if they were tangible). The idea that people can somehow exist beyond death and still affect this world is both appealing and terrifying, and that’s why so many versions of the undead exist in horror fiction. Death is, as Shakespeare put it, “the undiscovered country,” although horror allows us a chance to glimpse its horizons for a short time.
Movies and radio excel at the “Lewton bus,” or what these days we call the jump scare. What special form of fear can writing produce that theatrical performance generally can’t?
Stephen D. Sullivan: One of the strongest types of fear that writing can invoke is that of building fear or existential dread—the type of thing that plays on your mind rather than something that’s physically revolting or startling.
H.P. Lovecraft was the master of this technique, and that’s one of the reasons his works are so admired to this day. How many times reading an HPL story did you want to say to the protagonist: Stop! Don’t go any further! You won’t like what you find! And yet, both the lead character in the story and we, as readers, stumble blindly forward, only to be cast into a black pit of fear and despair at the story’s end.
Whew! Thank God that didn’t happen to me! we come away thinking. And then we read another one.
As authors, we can build that suspense throughout a story to an extent that other productions can’t. Writing is communicating mind-to-mind, after all. Something bad is going to happen—but what, when, and to whom? And when it finally does happen, we can get a really strong emotional reaction.
Wendy Wagner: Some other great examples of mounting dread in short fiction is in Caitlín R. Kiernan’s story “Rats Live on No Evil Star,” where an odd man’s Fortean ramblings slowly begin to resolve into something we readers can see and understand, and “Sight Unseen,” by Joel Lane, a story about a man tidying up his dead father’s estate and trying to cope with his uncomfortable memories of childhood. That story builds to a really uncomfortable crescendo that left me with goose bumps.
Eddy Webb: Writing allows for a sudden but natural shift from physical horror to psychological horror in a way that is trickier for visual media to do. It’s certainly possible, and some classic horror films have done so to great effect, but writing is much more flexible in that regard. Here’s an example from my upcoming short story, “Blood on the Walls,” that illustrates that point (although I did cut part of the quote, as it contains a spoiler). Notice how, in a short space, the narrative goes from action to an examination of a character’s mental state and back to action.
“I need to calibrate the electric pentacle to counteract her vibrations!” I said. I realized I was shouting as the dripping sound had become louder, so loud that it drowned out all other noises in the room. “Stay still, Mr. Davidson! Don’t touch the pentacle!”
But my words were in vain. Here is a father, stricken in grief and broken by war. His mind survived only because he believed he could provide a better life for his surviving daughter … He crawled along the floor, his hands so damaged that he didn’t even feel the energy flowing through the wires as he tore them up.
This Month’s Roundtable
David Annandale write fiction in a variety of genres: SF/Fantasy, horror, thrillers. He writes non-fiction about film and video games and teaches courses on film, games, literature and creative writing. www.davidannandale.com.
Stephen D. Sullivan has been a monster kid all his life and a professional one since 1980, when he joined the creative team for Dungeons & Dragons. Steve is a frequent guest on Monster Kid Radio. His recent books include Daikaiju Attack, White Zombie, and Manos: The Hands of Fate. www.stephendsullivan.com.
Wendy N. Wagner is a Hugo award-winning editor whose latest work is the Queers Destroy Horror! special issue of Nightmare Magazine. She is also the author of close to three dozen short stories and the novel Skinwalkers, a Pathfinder Tales adventure. Her website is winniewoohoo.com.
Eddy Webb is a writer, designer, producer, and consultant for video games and RPGs. His career spans over a decade, and even includes some awards. His story “Blood on the Walls” will appear in Ghosts in the Cogs by Broken Eye Books. There’s more of his ramblings at eddyfate.com.
If you’re an opinionated writer, artist, or other story creator and would like to participate in a future Creative Colleagues Roundtable, drop me a line.
Did I happen to mention the first wave of Pathfinder Tales is now available at audible.com? That includes all five of the Radovan & the Count novels, as well as Elaine Cunningham’s Winter Witch, to which I contributed the kissy bits.
You can see all of my Pathfinder, Forgotten Realms, and Iron Kingdoms books on Audible right here. And here’s Winter Witch.
And if you come back to this page tomorrow, you may have a chance to win one of the Pathfinder Tales audio books.