Creative Colleagues: Chadwick Ginther

Chadwick Ginther, photo by Rachel Himelblau

Chadwick Ginther, photo by Rachel Himelblau

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.

If memory serves, I first met Chadwick Ginther at the When Words Collide festival in Calgary, where we chatted in the atrium bar. It’s possible we bumped into each other at World Fantasy or Pure Speculation before that, and we’ve run into each other at cons and readings ever since.

You meet a lot of folks who are “working on a novel” at conventions, but Chadwick’s Thunder Road soon materialized, grew with the sequel Tombstone Blues, and concludes this month with Too Far Gone.

  1. Since we first met, you’ve published your first book and two sequels, completing a trilogy. How has your writing life changed in that time? Do you outline differently (or at all)? Is your daily routine evolving?

Well I’m still working a day job so that part, hasn’t changed. I did, however, change day jobs which forced a complete change in my daily writing routine. Replacing a five minute walk to work with a forty-five minute bus ride definitely left me scavenging for more writing time. I wrote books one and two of the Thunder Road trilogy back to back, and then waited to draft book three until I’d sold the series, so in the intervening couple of years, being published had also brought with it more of a need for a social media presence, so I found the business side of writing also eating into my writing time.

Too Far Gone was written (at least in first draft) longhand in notebooks during my bus rides to and from work, and on my coffee and lunch breaks. There was no conscious decision to avoid the keyboard, but that was how the book was coming out, and so I just rolled with it. Transcribing also gave me a free editing pass!

My daily routine is still evolving even though the new day job is over two years old at this point. Lately I’d found that coffee and lunch break writing was getting less and less words on the page, so I’ve been dragging myself away from bed an hour or so early for dedicated writing time before I start work.

The closest I usually come to outlining is to make a soundtrack for the story consisting of twenty or so songs that capture how I want the book to feel. With Too Far Gone, I did an outline for my second draft, as the first draft was written in very short spurts of between 250-1000 words at time, and in no particular order. I wrote out every scene on index cards and then tried to assemble them into a story after the fact, but it’s not my usual method.

2. Other than your living there, that compelled you to combine Norse mythology with the prairies (and oil fields)? What made them a perfect match?

I grew up reading Norse mythology. D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myth was a hugely formative book for me. As was TSR’s Legends & Lore resource for Dungeons and Dragons. Those books solidified a love of all mythology, but the Norse stories in particular. Even when I wasn’t writing stories directly influenced by Norse myth, elements of it would creep in around the edges. So when I decided I wanted to write a very Norse story, I went looking for how it could work in Manitoba—I couldn’t afford a trip to any of the Nordic countries, and I wanted it to take place in our world, not an invented one.

Manitoba has a huge Icelandic community, and an awareness of that was definitely in the back of my brain when I sat down and started to write Thunder Road–the town Gimli’s name comes right out of mythology, but the more research I did, the more such connections I found. There is a rural municipality of Bifrost in Manitoba, for example. Added in with the local flavor were sasquatch sightings that could be my giants, lake serpent sightings that could be my dragon (or Jormungandur, the Midgard Serpent) and Winnipeg’s notoriously “haunted” downtown.

The Alberta connections were a little murkier, but no less important. I knew I wanted my protagonist to be an outsider. It would make it more fun to comment on local attractions through new eyes. My earliest imaginings all had a blue-collar protagonist, because I love combining the magical and the mundane, and I thought there’d be interesting conflict in a very practical, down-to-earth person getting thrown into huge world shaking events. At the time, I had a friend who was working in Northern Alberta and whenever we got together he’d share some stories of his time up north, so Alberta became my go to place to give Ted Callan a home.

In my relatively limited travels at the time, I had been to Edmonton, and had really enjoyed my time there. I liked the feel of the city. It also had the added bonus that I had some friends living there who could help me with any details that I’d need. Alberta had some strong Icelandic connections of its own, which I discovered as I started to do my research for book three, so that was a happy coincidence.

Cover by Jamis Paulson

Cover by Jamis Paulson

3. Many authors have reinterpreted the Nordic gods in recent decades (notably Neil Gaiman in The Sandman and the various writers of the Marvel comics and movies). For those who haven’t seen your books yet, what’s your special take on the characters? What makes your Nordic gods your Nordic gods?

There are so many variations on the Nordic stories depending on your source material. I chose to hew as closely as possible to the Icelandic sagas, especially given the Norse connection to my setting. I used to collect Thor comics, and I loved Walt Simonson’s take on the character and the Nine Worlds, but when I started drafting the first two books, there was no inkling that we would ever see a Thor movie. I think Iron Man had been released, but I never would’ve dreamed that the Marvel Cinematic Universe would’ve become as sprawling and as awesome as it is now. Thor has faced Ragnarök probably three or more times in the comics (and has another time coming up in the movies, if the title of his third film has anything to say about it) and while I enjoyed those stories, I loved what came after. I knew the story of Ragnarök, so whatever the writers chose to do after, I had no inkling of where the tales might lead, and I always found the different takes fascinating.

That’s why I chose to set my books in a post-Ragnarök world that looks a lot like our world, so most of the gods, Thor, Odin, Freyr, etc. are dead. There are remnants of magic and monsters lurking about (especially in Canada, where we’ve got the room to hide them) held back only by the remnants of the ancient fence Odin built around Midgard (Earth). But no fence is perfect, and once you’re exposed to magic, you become a part of the Nine Worlds. Usually you don’t live too long after that and so the secret world of magic and monsters stays mostly secret. In setting the books post-Ragnarök, all of the stories the fan of Norse myth already knows have happened. I’m not changing or taking away anything that they loved, but hopefully given them something different but of a similar flavor.

My big cheat was keeping Loki alive, but Loki’s a big cheat himself, and I figured if there was anyone who could wriggle off the hook of his doom, it would be him.

4. Music and song titles are obviously a big inspiration on your story. How much of that is likely to carry over into other novels by you? And are these the songs you’re listening to while writing?

Music is a huge inspiration to me, even if I’ve got a terrible singing voice, and never got much past four chord blues progressions while trying to learn to play guitar. I always listen to music while I write. The chapter titles are necessarily what is on the story soundtrack I listen to while I write the book, but many of them are. I think there will always be nods to music I like in my fiction, but it might not be as overt as it was in the Thunder Road Trilogy.

5. On that note, what is the Awesome Mix Tape for the trilogy?

  1. “When the Levee Breaks”—Led Zeppelin
  2. “Apocalyptic Modified Blues”—Corb Lund
  3. “Little Miss Fortune”—The Now Time Delegation
  4. “Six-Sixty-Six”—Frank Black and the Catholics
  5. “There She Goes, My Beautiful World”—Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
  6. “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)”—AC/DC
  7. “Hell’s Bells—AC/DC
  8. “Shake the World”—Motorhead
  9. “Roughest Neck Around”—Corb Lund
  10. “Hex”—Neko Case
  11. “Comin’ Home”—Murder By Death
  12. “Great Expectations”—The Gaslight Anthem
  13. “Immigrant Song”—Led Zeppelin
  14. “Earth Died Screaming”—Tom Waits
  15. “The Red Headed Stranger”—Willie Nelson

Keep tabs on Chadwick Ginther at his website.

Creative Colleagues: The Next Generation

While I’ll continue to post the occasional Creative Colleagues blog focusing on one subject, I’ll soon add a variation that asks fewer questions to more writers, including those I’ve not yet met.

Thus, even if we don’t know each other well but you’re a writer with whom I’m connected on social media, and you’d be interested in participating in an occasional roundtable interview, please send me a message with your email.

And if you’re not a writer but you enjoy these blogs, please comment with your requests for questions, general topics, or writers you’d like to see included in these roundtables.

Look for the first Creative Colleagues Roundtable on October 28.


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.


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.