Creative Colleagues: James Sutter

James Sutter

James Sutter

Each week, I’ll pester one of my creative colleagues with five questions about his or her work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

My first encounter with James Sutter was an email, shortly after he’d come to Paizo and I’d moved to the Great White North. Harlan Ellison was looking for me, but that’s a story for another time.

The second encounter was shortly after Erik Mona told me the secret that Paizo was launching Pathfinder Tales. James wanted to try me out on a story before deciding whether to tap me for a novel. As I recall, my first pitch didn’t send him, and he asked for several more so he’d have a selection. One of the follow-ups was a re-tooling of an sketch I’d made for another, disappearing, editor. James liked that one, we changed one character’s name, and thus began a steady stream of Radovan & the count stories and novels.

Not to be outdone, James entered the fray to much acclaim with his own Pathfinder Tales novel, Death’s Heretic. The sequel, The Redemption Engine, continues the adventures of Salim Gadafar, unwilling servant of Pharasma, the Lady of Graves. Read a sample chapter, and check back to the web fiction link soon for a new Salim story.

1. As the editor for Pathfinder Tales, you’ve seen a wide variety of outlines, some incredibly long, others quite short. What is the perfect outline for you to read as an editor? And what is the perfect outline for you to write as an author?

Outlines are everything. As an editor, especially an editor of tie-in fiction, I require detailed chapter-by-chapter outlines from all of my authors.

Some authors really hate outlining, because they feel like it kills the fun of exploration. I can sympathize with those folks, but I can’t hire them. If an outline comes to me with too much Underpants Gnome-style handwavium in the middle, I send it back.

That may seem like an overly hard line to take, but it’s actually done out of love. Because as much as it can be annoying to sit down and come up with every plot point for a novel in advance, it’s nothing compared to the devastation both of us will feel if I have to go back to an author and say that, because of a problem that could have been caught in the outline phase, she’s going to have to rewrite half the book. My goal is to always frontload any editorial concerns in order to save both the author and myself as much time and heartache as possible.

For that reason, my ideal outline as Paizo’s Managing Editor is about 5,000–8,000 words, and tells me every twist and turn of the plot. I don’t need every detail of who says what, but I need to be able to follow the connections between events, as well as understand any rules that are pertinent to the plot (to make sure that a spell is being interpreted correctly, that the right monsters are being used, etc.).

As an author, I was never been a big outliner before I started editing novels, and now I outline everything, using basically the same format identified above. For me, it’s extremely freeing to know where a story’s going. I don’t have to worry about how it’s all going to come together or try to hold it all in my head, and instead can relax and focus on having fun with each individual scene.

2. What’s a challenge you overcame while writing that later translated into advice to an author?

Honestly, I think the biggest challenge I’ve overcome is the act of writing novels itself. I’ve always wanted to be a novelist but spent most of my life terrified of embarking on a project of that size. It just seemed impossibly huge. But when I started editing novels professionally—starting with yours, Dave—and saw the process a novel goes through from birth to final product, it took away a lot of the mystery, and I realized that a novel is really just a collection of scenes that tell a story. If you can write a scene, you can write a novel. And looking back at the work I’d done on the original Eando Kline Pathfinder’s Journal, tying each episode together over the course of 36 volumes, I realized that in many ways I’d already been through the process of outlining something like a novel. That gave me the confidence to move forward and write Death’s Heretic.

So that’s a big piece of advice I give to authors, both neophytes and budding pros: don’t psych yourself out. Novels are just long stories. (In some ways, they’re even easier than short stories, because you can do all the planning up front and then just write for months.) A corollary to that revelation is the fact that authors are just people. It’s easy to look at your favorite authors and think, “I could never do what they do.” But realize that you’re likely seeing those authors at the top of their games, after they’ve been polished and prodded and otherwise made the best they can be. You can’t hold yourself to that standard. Just write the best book you can. (And if you can’t write the best book you can, just write the book—you can judge it once you’re done.)

3. In the endless skirmishes between anti-adverb, pro-passive-voice, and various other pet peeve guerrillas, what are a few of your style and grammar bugbears? Can you think of something you always immediately change in a manuscript? What’s something you once might have changed but now let stand?

I adore contractions. They’re a fundamental part of how we speak, and to me, writing in the vernacular is the best way to get yourself out of the picture and let the reader interact directly with the story. This is triply important in dialogue. My eyeballs itch every time I see someone write something like, “I cannot do it, Captain! I do not have the power!” That’s probably my strongest linguistic prejudice. (This is, of course, problematic in those exceptionally rare cases where contractions might not actually be warranted, such as from a robot or a particularly obsessive half-elven count.)

I also really can’t stand stilted language, again particularly in dialogue. Too many people think that in order to write fantasy, you have to write purple prose or faux-medieval dialogue, and that just doesn’t cut it with me. I want the language to be smooth and clear, including dialogue. Even in a story set in a fantasy world with many medieval trappings, like Pathfinder, I’m way happier with a character shouting, “Hey, asshole! Hands off my horse!” than “What ho, varlet! Dost thou thinkest to deprive me of my noble steed?”

Last but not least, I’m not a big fan of third person omniscient point of view. When I’m in a scene, I want to be in a character’s head, or at least hovering over that particular character’s shoulder. If I know what one character is thinking, I shouldn’t be able to know what another character is thinking until there’s some sort of scene break. You can have multiple point of view characters, but there need to be set break points when you shift focus, so that you’re not just drifting between characters’ thoughts. (I also hate it when you’re spending all your time following the hero, and then suddenly the book cuts away for a single scene to show you what the villain’s been up to and give you information the hero has no way of knowing. That always feels lazy to me.)

Whew! That probably makes me sound more cantankerous than I actually am, but such is the nature of the job. In terms of things I might have changed but now let stand, I can’t really think of anything off the top of my head, save for those contraction instances I mentioned above. That may sound arrogant, but actually it’s because if I’m ever unsure about whether to make a change, I consult with my immensely talented and knowledgeable coworkers and get their read on the situation, which hopefully keeps me from making too many unnecessary changes.

Cover by Craig J. Spearing

Cover by Craig J. Spearing

4. You’ve mentioned a variety of literary influences in past interviews, but can you think of some artistic influences from other media that influence your fiction? For instance, are there musicians, visual artists, comedians, or interpretive dance companies that inspire your writing?

Fantasy art is a huge inspiration for me, though I’m only now coming to realize how I can deliberately capitalize on that. I’m particularly fond of fantasy landscapes and monster design that portrays fundamentally alien things in a realistic style. I’ve written before about how fantasy landscapes inspire me, and some of my favorite artists are those like Wayne Barlowe, Michael Whelan, and Stephan Martiniere that can bring a new world to life. And just the other day I sat down with a copy of the new Spectrum art journal and began flipping through it, and realized, “Oh my god—I could write a book about every one of these pictures!” So I think that’ll be my new secret weapon. From here on out, whenever I need inspiration, I’m just going to google “concept art landscape”—or pull up Reddit’s amazing Earth Porn subforum for real-world landscapes—and let my brain run free.

I also get heavily inspired by music, but that usually drives me to make music. Every time I go to a good show of any style, I inevitably come home thinking ,“That looks like fun! I should do that!” Which is why my personal music projects tend to bounce around stylistically, from hardcore metal to folk to hip-hop to musical theater. (I’m actually finishing up mixing on the debut EP from my new band, Brides of the Lizard God, as we speak!)

5. You write about a lot about faith and the afterlife, especially in Death’s Heretic and The Redemption Engine. Have you ever had any real-world encounters with the supernatural or inexplicable?

Actually, yes.

First, some background: I’m about as white as untoasted sourdough, but growing up, I had an uncle named Cha-das-ska-dum Which-ta-lum, one of the spiritual leaders for the Lummi Tribe. The man was seriously larger than life: He’d hung out with Jimmy Carter and the Dalai Llama. He’d been hit by lightning twice. He’d once been flown out to Japan because a bunch of secluded monks saw him in a vision. And there were even stranger stories—the ones my parents rolled their eyes at. In the 1970s, when he’d been a police officer on the rez, he’d been the one to investigate several suspected sasquatch attacks, tracking the creatures and taking (ultimately inconclusive) blood and hair samples for the research labs. And even once he’d retired as a cop and gotten more into the spiritual side of things, he continued to sometimes act as a sort of psychic detective, tracking auras when there was no other way to locate a corpse.

Was some of it bullshit? Maybe. The man loved a good joke as much as anyone, and was a hell of a tale-spinner. But when so many of his stories were empirically provable—not even my parents could argue with the pictures of him and the Dalai Llama, or the results of the lightning strikes—you had to wonder why a man like that would even need to make up stories. Certainly twelve-year-old me from the boring Seattle suburbs was happy enough to have a little magic in my life.

Yet there’s a big difference between firsthand experience and a story, no matter how good the tale. One time when I was maybe thirteen, he invited me to come along to a powwow in a friend’s smokehouse. What he didn’t tell me until we were on the road was that the gathering was actually exclusively for high-ranking medicine men from all over the Pacific Northwest. When we showed up, it was a bunch of very old native guys—and me. Such was everyone’s respect for Cha-das-ska-dum that nobody said a word about it.

Most of it was what I’d come to expect: a lot of drumming, a lot of chanting and singing, some dancing. Yet toward the end, they brought out an extremely old man who’d been brought down from way up in British Columbia, who my uncle whispered was a Big Deal even among the medicine men. He was decked out in full regalia and carrying a staff.

The drums began, and he started to dance. They got louder, he got faster. Then just when it reached a crescendo, he silenced them with a wave of his stick and pointed it at the ceiling.

BOOM! The sound was like the world exploding. I lept up from my seat, ready to run for the door, but Cha-das-ska-dum collared me and sat me back down. Above us, the smokehouse roof shook and roared like a tornado was trying to rip it off. Then the old man began to dance again, the drums resumed, and he repeated the gesture with the staff.

The rest of the ritual was a blur, but I remember pushing through the doors and discovering the source of the roaring: a thick carpet of hail.

Hail which extended for maybe fifty feet around the smokehouse, then stopped in a clean line.

Above, the skies were just as clear and sunny as they’d been when we’d entered the smokehouse. When we eventually got back to my parents—staying only a few miles away—they hadn’t heard about any hailstorms. The weather reports didn’t note anything.

Was there a rational explanation for what I witnessed? Quite possibly. But I think that was the day I first decided that there is indeed weirdness in the world, and that while we should always remain skeptical and strive to find rational, scientific answers, there will also always still be more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

Keep an eye on James’ website.

One thought on “Creative Colleagues: James Sutter

  1. I kind of agree with Mr. Sutter, though I am too a very rational person and don’t believe in the supernatural, there are still things we simply don’t know or understand. One day we hopefully will, but I thought I would share a weird experience that if I didn’t see it, I would not have believed it.

    I was at a Martial Arts seminar in 2000 or 2001 where a Wing Chun master was teaching a section. After the class, he and another student were talking about chi and martial arts, and this Wing Chun master absolutely and clearly was able to move this other highly skilled martial artist without even touching him. It was amazing to see.

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