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.
John Helfers and I first met at or between panels at the Writer’s Symposium at Gen Con. (Incidentally, the Symposium is an amazing convention-within-a-convention, perfect for readers and writers alike.) While we hadn’t worked together before Champions of Aetaltis, for years I could hardly browse Facebook without seeing a mutual friend mention his latest anthology. He’s a busy guy.
Fortunately, not too busy to answer a few questions now that Champions of Aetaltis is available for purchase.
As a writer and editor, how do you adjust your approach from one task to the other? Perhaps you can offer us an Aetaltis example of how it’s different to write and edit in the setting.
The Champions of Aetaltis anthology is kind of an anomaly for me, as it’s the only project I’ve been involved with as both a co-editor and an author. Normally I don’t cross those streams on projects I’m involved in, as I want to leave as much room for the contributing authors as possible. But since this is Marc’s created world, and he specifically asked me to write a story when he first approached me about editing the project, I decided to go ahead and wear both hats.
It has been one of the best projects I’ve ever been involved with. Not only was my co-editor terrific to work with, but I got to work with some of the biggest names in the RPG media-tie in business; you, of course, as well as Ed Greenwood, Elaine Cunningham, David Farland, Mel Odom, Erin Evans, Jean Rabe, Elizabeth A. Vaughan, Steven S. Long, and many others.
Getting back to your question, my basic editorial rules were still in full effect each time I sat down to edit one of these stories: help the author make their tale the very best it can be. That’s pretty much my first and only rule, but for Champions, it went further than that, as I also backed up Marc in making sure that the stories stayed within the boundaries of his created universe. With such a talented, experienced group of authors, my editorial work wasn’t difficult at all; in fact, it was a joy. Everyone was eager to make sure their stories were the best they could be, and all were very comfortable discussing suggested edits and comments on their stories.
I was also the last author to write a story, as both Marc and I wanted to make sure that ours filled in places or parts of Aetaltis that hadn’t been covered by other authors. Of course, being the co-editor on the project made this part easy, as I got to see where everyone else had set their stories before tackling mine. Fortunately, the town of Thornwall (covered in incredible detail in the Aetaltis game supplement Heroes of Thornwall) was still available, and I used it as the setting for “True Monsters,” a story involving an orog (a huge, ogre-like creature that’s also a PC class in the world) and several of the townspeople’s children. It was a blast to write, and I think it holds up very well among everyone else’s wonderful stories.
What’s good about having a gaming background when writing fantasy fiction? And what are some pitfalls to avoid when thinking like a gamer?
I first met Marc through Jean Rabe, the previous organizer of the Writer’s Symposium, at Gen Con several years ago. He was a long-time gamer who was just starting to work on the business side of what would eventually become his company, Mechanical Muse. Of course, now he’s doing an amazing job of organizing and running the Symposium, and his company has been taking off as well.
In my opinion, the best thing about being a gamer and a fiction writer is the flexibility that roleplaying gives you to explore potential scenarios and outcomes in your story. Since you’ve already gotten experience playing characters that are (hopefully) different from yourself, it is much easier to take that experience and utilize it in creating characters and plots for your fiction.
The downside is that sometimes a game world or RPG scenario can bleed too much into whatever fiction you’re writing and actually become a constraint. If you’re having to bend over backwards to ensure that your plot makes sense due to how you think it should turn out (because that’s how you would have played the scenario out), or if you’re adhering too much to particular rules that you’ve created for your setting, and the world or story suffers as a result, that may be the time to step back from your writing and try to look at it more objectively. In the end, you may have to modify those restrictive rules that are hampering your story or find a different way for your protagonist to accomplish whatever they’re trying to do.
Cover by Mitchell Malloy
As an anthologist, what do you feel are the advantages (and otherwise) of sticking to a strict theme? With an anthology that’s linked only by setting, how do you choose the order of stories? Are you looking for rhythm? An interlocking of themes? Something else?
The main advantage of a themed anthology is that it points everyone in the same general direction; authors and readers alike. A good theme sets the mood for everyone—if you pick up an anthology of urban paranormal stories, you know in advance what you’re getting. Setting a collection of short fiction in a clearly defined setting such as Shadowrun or Aetaltis sets up some parameters without restricting the authors too much. With Champions, for instance, both the title and cover practically scream classic sword-and-sorcery fantasy—which is exactly what Marc was going for, of course.
Also, the lengths writers often go to create unique stories with their own creative spin is incredible. Every so often I get a writer who asks, “What have you gotten so far? I want to make sure I don’t inadvertently copy someone else’s idea?” My answer is always the same: “Don’t worry about it, just write the best story you can come up with.” Even when two authors happen to choose a similar theme, 9 times out of 10 their approaches to it are wildly different, so both stories can fit into the volume without concern that they might overshadow each other.
Once the stories were all in, then Marc and I sat down to figure out who was going where. Generally in a themed anthology, an author’s name is fairly important (both for status in the field as well as their potential audience), as well as the length of their story, as you typically don’t want to two longer pieces placed next to each other. Then there’s the rhythm of the stories themselves—some are quieter and more reflective, others are heart-in-your-throat nonstop thrills and action. Some contain sly humor or devastating emotion, others exult in the action and setting, featuring daring heroes pulling off incredible feats against impossible odds. And then some fall somewhere in between all of those. Sorting out who goes where is always one of the enjoyable challenges of assembling an anthology.
On the other side of the coin, when I had the chance to do an “unthemed” anthology called Recycled Pulp over at WMG Publishing with Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith as part of their Fiction River series, I thought it’d be fairly easy…but the reality was quite different.
The concept was relatively simple: I wanted to do a project that harkened back to the glory days of the pulp magazines, when stories were often written to order at an editor’s request, sometime with them supplying a title and the story written to order around it. I used an online pulp story title generator to create 250 titles like “The Spider Beyond the Stars” and “Beneath the Screaming Monolith,” total pulp stuff. The attendees of that year’s workshop selected three numbers at random, and those were the three titles they got. They then had to select one, and write a story using that title in any genre they wanted. The catch was that it couldn’t be a pulp story (hence the “recycled” part).
Well, I got some terrific stories, more than enough to fill the volume. But when it came time to actually put the book together, I realized I had kind of edited myself into a corner. I had to find some way to make all these disparate genres—from softboiled police procedural to urban fantasy to traditional fantasy to dystopian science fiction to even a Twilight Zone-kind of story—and figure out how to put them all together in a way that allowed each one to shine, but didn’t break the flow of the anthology as a whole. It wasn’t easy, but I persevered and came up with a table of contents that worked for me and, I hope, for the readers as well.
And that’s another thing I enjoy about editing anthologies—each one is different, every single time: different voices, different challenges. It’s never the same thing twice.
What are some current or recent non-prose fantasy stories (TV, comics, film, games, whatever) that you particularly admire? Is there a particular creator of fantasy fiction who’s done something new or distinctive to inspire your work or to change the way you view the work of others?
I haven’t had a lot of time to read recently (unfortunately) so I’m going to mention two television shows that might stretch the definition of fantasy, but which I still think both qualify, and then come back to one of my all-time favorite fantasy novel series.
For live-action television, my wife and I just finished watching the first season of Jessica Jones, and we were both blown away by the virtuoso storytelling, casting, and acting. The protagonist definitely has her own problems, including dealing with what is possibly the most dangerous villain I’ve come across in recent media. She does the best she can, but (along with her friends) makes mistakes and inadvertently causes a good deal of collateral damage, which the show actually deals with, instead of ignoring it or writing that incident or person out of the story entirely. I certainly hope the producers and writers can keep up that level of quality in the next season.
On the animated side, we also recently started watching Rick & Morty, which I would classify as falling into more of a science-fantasy cross-over. Again, the stories that Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland come up with, mixing out-of-this-world adventures (and danger and terror) with a B-story that often involved much more banal, everyday family life, and mashing all of that together into something that is quite simply unique in its take on family, relationships, growing up, love, aging, life, and well, just about everything. Beneath its madcap antics is a show that’s all about heart, and that’s the biggest selling point to me.
Finally, I want to give a shout out to a seminal series that affected me as a child, and was quite possibly the biggest influence on me as a writer, and that’s Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series. Instead of the vast scope and bombast of other fantasy series of the time, Alexander’s books felt more intimate, and on a smaller scale, even though they dealt with many of the same themes: honor, self-respect, heroism, friendship, fear, courage. They just seemed to effortlessly written, yet were so deep and moving. Apparently Disney is beginning pre-production on films of them (of course, they did the not-very-successful Black Cauldron animated film back in the 80s)—I hope they go live-action this time (and not muck around with the story too much); done right, those novels would make magnificent movies.
Back to Aetaltis, which I think of (in a good way) as a kitchen-sink setting—that is, one in which you can find a wide variety of subgenres within heroic fantasy—what qualities make the setting its own coherent entity? Another way of asking that is, what makes Aeltaltis distinct from other kitchen-sink settings like Golarion, the Forgotten Realms, Eberron, and the rest?
I completely agree with you regarding the term “kitchen-sink setting,” as it refers to Aetaltis.
I think the best RPG settings, particularly new ones, give players a combination of classic tropes they can really get behind, combined with something new that gives that particular world a different feel from everything else. Keith Baker’s Eberron setting did just that, using a backdrop of war, and adding a careful mix of technology into his world to create something very different from the standard fantasy settings.
In my opinion, one of the best qualities of Aetaltis is Marc’s careful attention to the world’s backstory, giving enough flavor for a reader/player to get a distinct sense of how this world came to be, which makes it feel both real for what he’s setting up in his game universe, yet distinct from other fantasy worlds. Even the hint of science fiction introduced with the gates, and the distinct new races, like the newardin, juxtaposed with the more classic fantasy races give the setting a different, fresh feel while still holding true to the best fantasy tropes.
The other interesting take is the continent’s slow recovery after a massive natural disaster, which has also served the double purpose of reintroducing evil back into the world as well. So the stakes are twofold—making sure that the various civilizations keep surviving and thriving while seeking to limit the damage that has been wrought by the Cataclysm, as well as mustering heroes and forces to battle the encroaching evil that threatened to overwhelm everything that is good in the land. All in all, it’s everything an RPGer would want to see in a game setting—but I may be a bit biased on that score.
Keep up with John’s latest work at his website.