Edmonton Expo 2015 Writing 101 Panels

This weekend, the unusual suspects descend upon the Edmonton Expo with red pens and blue pencils for our famous Writing 101 Panels. I’ll be on hand only for the panels and the period between panels on Saturday, when I’ll photobomb as many cosplayers as I can surprise with my remaining ninja skills.

Speaking of those panels, witness:

Plots That Work
Friday 6:15 pm, Room 108
Eileen Bell, Barb Galler-Smith, Dave Gross, Nicole Luiken Humphrey, Amber E. Scott
Even with fascinating characters and awe-inspiring world-building, you still need a story to tell. From their own experiences with short stories to novels, local authors share their trade secrets and answer your questions about how to craft a plot that works for you.

Killing with Dialogue
Saturday 11:00 am, Room 108
Nicole Luiken Humphrey, Dave Gross, Andrew Foley, Eileen Bell, Amber E. Scott
“Here’s looking at you, kid.” “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” If you remember a line from a movie, it worked. If you remember a line from a book, it killed. Alberta authors discuss how to craft memorable dialogue, with or without extra cheese.

Building Alternate Worlds
Saturday 4:00 pm, Room 108
SG Wong, Nicole Luiken Humphrey, Dave Gross, Barb Galler-Smith, Amber E. Scott
Fantasy, SF, and horror all depend on worlds that are at least slightly different from our own. Published authors share their experiences building alternate worlds and answer your questions about how to create your own.

Finding Your (Narrative) Voice
Sunday 1:30pm, Room 109
Dave Gross, Andrew Foley, SG Wong, Eileen Bell, Amber E. Scott
First person, second person, past tense, present—so many choices! Veteran authors discuss the choices they’ve made in writing stories, novels, comics, and video games before answering your questions on how to choose exactly the right voice for the kind of story you want to tell.

2015 Writing 101 Crew Bios

Eileen Bell is a writer and editor living in Edmonton. Her debut paranormal mystery, Seeing the Light, was released into the wild last year, and the second in the series will be out in November 2015. Her short stories and anthologies have won Aurora awards, and she edits for On Spec magazine.

Andrew Foley has written, and even occasionally been paid to write, comic books, movies, and videogames, including the upcoming Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition expansion Siege of Dragonspear.

Barb Galler-Smith is an award-winning author and fiction editor living in Edmonton. She edits for On Spec and the new mystery and crime magazine Sleuth. She writes quirky short science fiction, and is co-author of a Celtic-based historical fantasy epic trilogy, Druids, Captives, and Warriors. She’s also taught writing fantasy and science fiction and mentors emerging writers of all ages. She loves fiction that gets the facts right.

Dave Gross edited magazines from Dragon to Star Wars Insider to Amazing Stories. He’s the author of over 10 novels, including the Radovan & the Count series, and many shorter works. His most recent releases are Lord of Runes and a story inGods, Memes, and Monsters. Monitor his shenanigans at www.bydavegross.com.

Nicole Luiken wrote her first book at age 13 and never stopped. She is the author of ten published books for young adults, including Violet Eyes and its sequels. Her latest release is YA fantasy Through Fire & Sea from Entangled Teen. Nicole also sidelines as an editor specializing in Story Structure. Nicole lives with her family in Edmonton, AB. It is physically impossible for her to go more than three days in a row without writing. www.nicoleluiken.com.

Amber E. Scott is a writer and game designer currently working for Beamdog. Her first novel comes out from Tor next year. Witness her at @BigMommaScott.

SG Wong is the indie author of noir-tinged, alternate history, ghost-filled, hard-boiled novels and short stories featuring Lola Starke and fictional Crescent City. She’s published two books in the series, the first of which was a finalist for an Arthur Ellis Award. Keep up with her at sgwong.com, @S_G_Wong, and on Facebook.

Creative Colleagues: David Annandale

David Annandale

David Annandale

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

David Annandale is an Internet friend-of-a-friend. When I saw he shared my afflictions of academia and tie-in fiction, I immediately warmed to him. When I saw he shared my devotion to Universal horror monsters (and those fabulous Aurora models), I considered him a blood brother.

Apart from a few Facebook chats to confirm he was, in fact, geek like me, here’s our getting-to-know-you conversation, to which you’re invited to participate in comments. Buying either of us a drink is strictly optional, but we both hope you’ll look for your opportunity at a convention

You’re an academic who writes tie-in fiction. Aren’t you ever afraid the professors will stone you in the quad? How has your academic background fed your game-related writing, or how have you used your love of pop culture in teaching?

I’m very fortunate in that my colleagues in the Department of English, Film, and Theatre at the University of Manitoba have always been very supportive of my work on both the writing and the academic sides, and I have never been made to feel that my work was in any way dubious. I’m proud to be a tie-in writer, and I do find my two jobs provide fuel for each other. My academic specialization is specifically horror but more generally popular culture, and so I teach courses on video games, exploitation films, Eurohorror, disaster movies, comic book adaptations, and so on. In other words, I get to teach what I’ve always enjoyed reading, watching and playing. And I’m writing in the very field of my study, so I consider myself very lucky indeed. My academic research influences my creative work too. The ideas of Slavoj Zizek and Terry Eagleton had an impact on my interpretation of Chaos in The Death of Antagonis, for example. I often have Julia Kristeva’s conception of the abject in the back of my mind when I’m writing about things like bodily mutations (hello Chaos Space Marines!). And as I spent half a decade labouring over a thesis whose goal was to show how horror works via the theories of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, that understanding shapes my written horror, which in turn plays a big part in my fiction for the Black Library, with The Damnation of Pythos probably being the most full-on horror novel I’ve written in that universe so far.

Whenever I chat with a fellow film nerd, it’s hard to resist asking for recommended viewing lists. From you I request five films that are perfect for inspiring game sessions (any genre).

Great question! I’m going to go with these five:

  • For a war game like Warhammer 40,000: Patton(1970). I went with this rather than the perhaps-more-obvious Starship Troopers because Patton is one of those rare war films that gives us the massive battles in a way that is very clear to follow, without losing the human element. George C. Scott’s incarnation of Patton at times comes across as a gamer himself, playing with real-life armies. And how can one not get geared up for epic conflict when one hears the memorable and appalling line, “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavour shrink to insignificance”?
  • For a fantasy RPG: Jason and the Argonauts(1963). It was a toss-up between this and one of Ray Harryhausen’s other fantasy films such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, but this is probably his greatest achievement, and all the elements are there to inspire a campaign: meddling gods, a heroic band of nomadic adventurers, and one encounter after another with terrific monsters.
  • For a horror RPG such as Call of Cthulhu: In the Mouth of Madness(1994). John Carpenter’s film is, I think, the best H.P. Lovecraft film not actually based on an HPL story, and the narrative of investigation and escalating horror is a perfect mood-setter.
  • For something SF/post-apocalyptic: Logan’s Run(1976). The film has been on my mind lately, as we’ve just done an episode about it on the Skiffy and Fanty Show, but this has been a film that has haunted my imagination since I first saw it when I was 10 or 11. Sure, it has its weaknesses, but it also creates a big world with adventure around every corner. It would be a wonderful sandbox in which to play.
  • For a completely alien SF setting: Fantastic Planet(1973). This French animated film boasts an absolutely surreal landscape, wild monsters and an uprising of the underdogs. I think as an imagination primer, it would be hard to beat.
Cover by Phroilan Gardner

Cover by XXX

As a teacher, what works or periods of capital-L literature would you recommend to those who read for escape?

Ooh, another great question. I have a real fondness for the works of the Long Eighteenth Century (1660-1830). Lots of rollicking stuff here, whether it be the corrosive satire dressed up as delightful fantasy that is Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels; or Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, which not only pretty much defines “rollicking” but features a plot that has the Swiss-watch precision of a farce despite its epic length. The Gothic novels are not to be missed, especially for readers of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as her book, coming late in the Gothic period, plays with the conventions of the earlier novels in interesting ways. So Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho is a book one can disappear into for a long, long time, and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk is still a roaring, lurid, blood-and-thunder horror novel that is enormously sleazy fun.

You maintain a website and co-host a podcast. How much of those activities are an expression of your own fandom, and how much a necessary arm of promotion?

My initial ventures into podcasting were largely promotional—I was a guest talking about my latest work. But very quickly my stints on The Skiffy and Fanty Show became much more an expression of my fandom. I loved the chance to talk about movies and with other writers. I had always enjoyed listening to the Torture Cinema segments and leapt at the chance to be part of that fun. And now Shaun Duke (who brought us all in to Skiffy and Fanty) and I have started the Totally Pretentious podcast together, where we get to scratch our movie discussion itch even further. Podcasting is huge fun, and I’ve made some great friends this way, so no, I don’t find it draining. If anything, it’s a reward at the end of the day for making my word count. I would say, overall, that it has an energizing effect. In a related vein, so does interaction with readers, which is a reassuring reminder that one isn’t typing into the void during those long hours in front of the screen.

You mention a few general influences from academia finding their way into your writing. Can you come up with a couple of specific examples for those readers who have yet to experience the joys of Deleuze?

Ever since I first read it, I’ve thought of Deleuze & Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus as one of my desert island books. It is endlessly dense and fascinating. One of my favorite chapters is even written in the form of a horror story, modeled on (and by the end quoting extensively from) H.P. Lovecraft’s “Through the Gates of the Silver Key.” Alain Badiou’s two-volume Being and Event (Being and Event and Logics of Worlds) has had a similar impact on me more recently, one I am still sorting through and that is certainly influencing my fiction and my academic writing.

Zizek’s In Defense of Lost Causes or Living in the End Times are huge fun to read. They’re infuriating too: I’ll be nodding my head vigorously one moment, yelling at the page in the next, sometimes within the same paragraph. For instance, I do not for a second buy his argument that 300 represents “the real Hollywood Left” (as opposed to V for Vendetta), but what wonderful argument fodder!

Carol Clover’s Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film was a crucial work for me when I was working on my doctorate, and its influence in horror film studies would be difficult to overstate. It’s an absolutely essential text.

And Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous-Feminine is really important too, forcing the reader to ask all sorts of hard questions.

Do you find your creative process differs significantly between tie-in fiction and your original work? For instance, do you outline one and pants the other? Are you a more vigorous self-editor in franchise or original fiction?

For me, the single biggest difference between my tie-in fiction and my original work is deadlines, and everything that flows from that. Beginning a tie-in project means committing to a firm date, which imposes a necessary discipline, and means the work gets done, and done quickly. The luxury of time with original work allows for more self-editing, but paradoxically finding the time to write the draft in the first place is much more difficult. But having said that, my approaches to the actual writing of the two is fundamentally the same. My trunk novels and my first published one (Crown Fire) were pantsed. All the others since have been outlined. I keep tweaking the outlining process, but I swear by it. I never find it confining—quite the opposite, in fact.

What are some of the key differences in writing prose fiction as compared to plays? How do your experiences in one of those mediums influence your work in the other?

Fiction has an unlimited budget. Plays do not (most especially Fringe plays, where I was footing the bill). And though one could certainly write a play about burning galaxies, one has to work out exactly how this will be conveyed. Dialogue, of course, is the most important aspect of the script. Yes, stage directions play a role, but what I visualize in that regard could well change once the play is mounted. I’m not a director—and having seen what is involved in directing a play, I am so very glad I never tried to do that myself, but left it to the people who knew what they were doing. So as a playwright, the only part I have control over is the dialogue. One of the challenges there is avoiding “as you know, Bob” exposition. Crafting dialogue for the stage is great practice, too, in sharpening it for prose. I find it easier to hear the voices of the characters in my head, and their exchanges.

Locate David’s current coordinates at his website.


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.