Creative Colleagues: Jane Lindskold

Jane Lindskold and friend

Jane Lindskold and friend

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.

Cover by Cliff Nielsen

Cover by Cliff Nielsen

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.

 

 

Pure Speculation Festival

The most exciting aspect of this year’s Pure Speculation Festival is that it’s safely nestled in October, when we seldom experience a monster blizzard. The weather forecast suggests a cool and cloudy weekend, perfect for staying indoors, taking in some panels, and hanging out with your fellow geeks.

If you’re in the area, I hope our paths cross this weekend. I’ll probably show up for the pre-Festival mixer on Friday evening and maybe to the party on Saturday evening. Otherwise, it’s panels, a game, and a Blue Pencil Massacre.

SATURDAY, 23 OCTOBER
1:15 Stealing History (discussing both historical and fantasy fiction)
5:30 Ungodly Horror (discussing religion vs. Atheism in horror fiction)

SUNDAY, 24 OCTOBER
10:30 Call of Cthulhu for Beginners (create a character and play a classic scenario)
2:45 Funny Ha-Ha (discussing humor in fiction)
4:15 Blue Pencil Cafe Massacre (bring me a few pages of your current work, and I’ll crush your hopes and dreams… or possibly offer advice and encouragement)

Creative Colleagues: Daniel Hodges

Daniel Hodges

Daniel Hodges

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.

Sometimes I lament the distance between home and the game conventions I attended so regularly in the 90s. When I worked at TSR and Wizards of the Coast, I visited half a dozen cons annually. I got spoiled into thinking conventions always involved hundreds if not thousands of people and included panels and a vast exhibit hall. Yet big conventions don’t spontaneously appear; they grow out of little ones.

So I signed up to play a couple of games at one of our little local events, IntrigueCon. The name of the man responding to my email looked familiar, so I poked about and discovered he produces a podcast called Penny Red (currently on hiatus, but with an enormous selection of past episodes). He has also designed two roleplaying games, Victoria and Faith, with two more under development, Nimbus and Das Sonenrad, which explore the costs of selflessness over self-preservation during wartime.

Originally from New Zealand, Daniel teaches high school here in Edmonton. We won’t actually meet until the convention, but I couldn’t resist asking him a few questions in hopes that his replies will entice some of you to join us at IntrigueCon.

1. Give us a quick origin story for Intriguecon, including its early challenges and triumphs.

I can’t claim to be the only one behind the wheel of IntrigueCon. Clint, Rob, and another Daniel (he would claim to be the original Daniel), are really co-founders. We’ve gamed together for about seven years, and one evening it just occurred to me that we could probably run a con for ourselves. I’d been to lots of cons and thought, with a population of about a million folks, there was no reason we couldn’t have one here.

We got it off the ground only a couple of months after having the idea, with only the notion that we could bring some folks together who liked roleplaying and that we didn’t want to lose a lot of money. We achieved half of those goals.

Fortunately we did a better job in the second year and now moving into the third year we’ve actually gone from two to three days. We’re already looking to next year and eyeing up larger venues and a more diverse schedule.

The challenges for something like this are, mostly, only what you make them. I think the key is to start tiny, and build. It’s sometimes hard to not to lose sight of the fact that GenCon is a long term goal not a template.

One serious hurdle is reaching folks. With the internet being where the majority of books are bought and groups being fairly insular there’s not really a nexus you can use. Word of mouth is your best friend, that and social media.

2. What’s a good mix of roleplaying games for a convention, in your opinion?

I think the key is to have recognizable titles from a broad cross-section. You’d be making a statement if you didn’t include Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder among your games. Part of running a con is offering attendees the opportunity to try something new but not forcing them to. It’s their leisure time.

That said, Sean Nittner’s Big Bad Con in Oakland is my favorite con, and you’d have to look hard to find those games on the schedule.

3. As a game designer, what do you learn from convention play that you don’t from your home sessions?

Whether your game does what you hope it will. An established group will have all kinds of shorthand and assumptions it’s sometimes hard to factor out. Playing with strangers makes you fill in all the gaps, and sometimes that’s what it takes to realize just how big those gaps are.

Intriguing gamers

Intriguing gamers

4. Tell us about your best or most unusual convention game session as a player or GM. Or a disastrous one!

I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of great experiences. My best game was a session of Witch the Road to Lindisfarne, and years later I’m still chasing that dragon.

Because game enjoyment is so subjective I don’t really have a worst experience because of a game. Worst people though are a little easier to identify.

I once played with a man who’d bought his daughter and wife with him to the table. They were “players,” but not really. He told them their ideas were wrong and really early on began playing their characters for them. It was heartbreaking to see the daughter so excited to play and then not being permitted to. The rest of us were pretty uncomfortable.

I couldn’t sit by and watch it but confronting him might have caused him to make them all to get up and walk away from the table.  So, I had my character call the police and “accidentally” cause his character and mine to be arrested. The GM was the real MVP though because, first of all, they played along and arrested us, but then proceeded to stifle everything he said after that with “You’re not there. You can’t say anything.” I hope it made a difference for his wife and daughter.

5. What is the most challenging aspect of a character for someone to play, especially in a 4-hour convention slot? And what tips would you offer to overcome that challenge?

In a convention game I feel like it’s the GM’s job to make the players feel like they’re being those things that their character is good at. A little reframing, a few hints, and little positive reinforcement goes a long way. It’s also important to gain trust and a good way to do this is to positively spin failure. For example a player that’s not naturally charismatic but playing someone who is could have their failures occur because of things beyond their control. For example, “The reporter reaches for their notepad and is just about to write down the number of the dead guy’s wife for you when they get a call. The reporter turns away to answer it and, before you know it, has hopped in the car and driven off down the road. You’re going to have to get the number another way.”

For players I’d just say give it a go, give the GM the chance to help you out. For other players I’d say, if you can see what the other characters are good at try to feed each other some spotlight in the scenes. Be a cheering squad not just a group of folks waiting for their turn to talk.

If you’re a power gamer that’s okay. Some people are that way because in their personal life they may lack any real power. Catering to this is being a good GM. What’s not okay, if you’re a power gamer, is not allowing other people some spotlight. That’s not being a selfish power gamer that’s being a selfish person.

 

If you’re within range of Edmonton, come join us at IntrigueCon. It’s a paltry $20 for the entire weekend, and I’m going to need someone to comfort me during “The Plantation” on Saturday evening.

 

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 Phroilan Gardner

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: J.F. Lewis

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’d seen the name J.F. Lewis on book covers but new nothing about the man until the good people at Pyr Books sent me a copy of his upcoming novel, Oathkeeper, second in a series begun by Grudgebearer. Instantly I was envious of his Todd Lockwood covers. As I began reading, I realized Jeremy and I had a little more in common than good fortune in cover artists. His epic worldbuilding gave me the impression that he too was a tabletop gamer, a suspicion confirmed by a quick search on his author biographies. Soon after we began chatting, we discovered we had even more influences in common. To wit:

1. Who are some of your main inspirations as a writer?

Corwin from Roger Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles is basically my gold standard when it comes to how first-person narratives ought to feel. If you’re going to put the reader in the head of a protagonist for fifty thousand words or more, that protagonist needs to have a certain amount of snark, wit, and natural-sounding internal commentary. Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett were very transformative for me, satire-wise. I think all writers tend to pick up story architecture and stylistic quirks from our favorite books as well as the world around us.

Whether it is readily apparent or not, each of my novels explores a series of philosophical questions that interested me at the time I was writing. My core goal is giving the reader a fun ride, though, so I’ve never cared much whether readers picked up on why I was writing something. I think it’s kind of obvious that The Grudgebearer Trilogy deals with questions about slavery, gender and race equality, and parenthood… but it can absolutely be read as an epic vengeance tale with cool fights and snarky heroes.

2. One of the reasons I admire Zelazny is that his writing bridges the divide between clear prose and poetry. When and how often do you feel a writer should indulge in a bit of lyricism for the most powerful effect?

One thing I love about Zelazny is the way he tells just enough for you to know what something looks like without getting lost in graphic word poems focused more on impressing than evoking. When I first write a novel, it doesn’t usually contain a lot of vivid detail. Maybe it’s a Hemingway influence or that I don’t have a movie in my mind when I write or read, but detail doesn’t come naturally to me.  Since many readers need more description than I do, I tend to add details with every pass, checking to see if a reader has a good sense of setting. When I start delving into visuals, it is usually because something complex is happening or the imagery is important to convey emotion, character, or plot.

3. Where do you think gaming can help one as a writer of narrative fiction, and where do you think the two arts diverge? That is, what’s a bad lesson one might take from gaming to writing fiction, and how do you resist the urge to indulge your inner gamer while writing a great story?

Basic Dungeons & Dragons in the red box was my first encounter with gaming. That was back with then whole “D&D is evil” thing was happening, and it was laughable how little most people understood about role-playing games. From there I quickly ran through the other boxes, moved on to second edition, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the RPG, Paranoia, Call of Cthulhu, Middle-earth Role Playing, Rifts, DC Heroes, Marvel Superheroes (the FASERIP version from TSR), Westend Games D6 system, and into more modern systems like Cinematic Unisystem, Pathfinder, Numenara, and Fate Core. I even worked in a comic and gaming store for seven or eight years (the Lion & Unicorn). Amber Diceless Roleplay likely had the biggest impact on me, because the entire emphasis is on the storytelling.

One pitfall into which I’ve seen many aspiring writers fall is the idea of building a game setting and running a campaign set in it with the plan of then turning that into a novel. It can work but often doesn’t and winds up frustrating everyone involved.

Character is the avenue through which I approach story and the plot and world-building all follows from there. In Void City, the characters who defined the setting were Eric and Winter; everything else sprang up around them. In Grudgebearer, it was all about Kholster and Uled until Wylant and Rae’en came along. That’s a common thread for me. Sometimes I have to rewrite massively once I “encounter” the strong female protagonists that always seem to show up in my books. Learning to see through the eyes of a character who might have very different opinions and beliefs than mine clearly had its roots in gaming and was a huge help in writing.

Game balance also informs world-building from a laws of the universe standpoint. My years of Gamemaster practice help me make sure that threats are of the proper scale so that the protagonist, regardless of power level, faces a genuine threat. Since I have always leaned more toward roleplaying than “roll” playing, I don’t usually have to fight against my inner gamer; we’re on the same team.

Cover by Todd Lockwood

Cover by Todd Lockwood

4. Beyond acting as the adjudicator of player choices, how does the role of narrator of a story differ from that of a Gamemaster or Dungeon Master?

The narratives which are told within a roleplaying game are much more of a collaborative effort than the stories which unfold in a novel or short story. To capture the same group effort in a novel would entail handing over decision making responsibilities for the book’s cast to other people. While I do tend to let my characters (and my players when I’m running a game) drive and or change the plot, my characters are still all mine. Even though they don’t always do what I want them to do, it’s still me making the decisions and I can plan and adapt pretty easily.

When running for a group of players… Well, let me put it this way: If Raiders of the Lost Ark were a novel, we’d know that Indiana Jones is always going to go after the Ark of the Covenant and wind up in the pit full of snakes, but if it were a roleplaying game, there would always be the chance that Belloq would end up down in the tomb or that Sallah would leave his wife and kids to elope with Marian and her pet spy monkey who would turn out to have been a double agent all along.

5. The various species in Grudgebearer fit classic archetypes like elves, lizard men, and plant-people, but they are all a little different. Why do you embrace archetypes while other authors shy away from them? And how do you make them your own?

One of the drawbacks to creating something new is that, as people, we tend to look for familiar ways to relate to things. The Aern in my novels, for example, are metal-boned carnivores who exist as a semi-hive mind dominated by a leader who insists they have free will. If they break an oath, they are unmade. They shed and grow new teeth like sharks and have eight canine teeth (four on the upper jaw and four on the bottom). A whole subsection of their culture is developed to handle the need to keep track of the weapons and armor they forge from their metal bones and those of the dead. They have bronze skin, red hair, and eyes that work more like security cameras than biological eyes. They’re a lot like golems… But they have wolf-like ears, so “elves,” right?

On the surface, the Eldrennai are more typical elves and the Vael are plant people. The Cavair are bat people. The Issic Gnoss are insect people, etc.  I know that.  But if I’m doing my job right, down the line a reader may encounter someone else’s version of a dwarf or a dragon and think, “That’s not how that should work. In Grudgebearer…”  Archetypes are comfortable because of their familiarity, and then as readers learn the unique traits that set these species aside from archetypal forms, they get the chance to really get to know the Sri’Zaur, for example, and see them as something more than the “evil” reptile army they appear to be at first.

It’s up to me to make sure those differences are there and that they are interesting and genuine. As to how I do that, it all springs from character and, since I’m a Pantser, that often means a lot of rewriting as my characters reveal more about their cultural attitudes, history, biology, etc. with those facts informing their actions and driving the story while filling in the details of the setting so that we can see not only what they did, but why, and how, in many cases, they couldn’t have done anything differently while remaining true to themselves. That’s one of the main reasons there is only one actually evil character in the trilogy. Everyone else is just doing what they think is best for them on a personal level or for their people or country.

 

Look for more of J.F. Lewis’s previous and upcoming projects at his website.