Creative Colleagues: Andrew Foley

Andrew Foley

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.

Andrew Foley scared me when we first met.

One look at his scowling visage across the “land yacht” we took from Edmonton to San Diego, and I knew he was full of grumps. Thus I gave him a wide berth on the way south. But then there was a Comic-Con miracle! The show cheered him up so much that he was not only approachable but actually fun and interesting on the way back, and so we got to know him and his lovely bride.

Since then, Andrew and Tiina have become occasional guests at our movie nights and geek parties. Andrew always shows up looking grim and forbidding as Mr. Hyde, but the moment he starts talking to people, the good doctor returns.

When I had to make a choice between continuing to work on Baldur’s Gate or writing a novel or two every year, it was Andrew I introduced to the boss as a prospective replacement. Since he took over, he’s managed to shame my productivity by not only keeping up with the day job but also continuing to write screenplays on the side.

Along with SG Wong, Axel Howerton, and Margaret Curelas, Andrew joins me for the Writing 101 panels at the Calgary Comics and Entertainment Expo this weekend. Visit us if you’re there.

1. As a writer of prose fiction, screenplays, comics, and video games, what’s one thing that each of those media does better than the other? And can you think of a time you took a lesson from one medium and applied it to another?

Prose lets you explore characters in a way other media can’t, from the inside out. You can delve into their interior lives with a specificity you won’t get in primarily visual media, without the word count limitations you’d encounter in comics or most video games, at least the mainstream ones.

Comics are unique in the way they allow creators to juxtapose and integrate images and text. Lots of video games have image and text, but for the most part the text’s purpose as a visual element is primarily utilitarian, and the images are dynamic and directly affected by each player’s actions, so combining just the right phrase with just the right image is hard to manage without removing the interactive quality that makes games games. Even in those instances that allow game designers to match word and picture precisely, text is usually going to be constrained within the limits of the user interface, rather than an integrated part of a specific image’s design.

Movies and TV shows have a huge advantage in terms of focusing viewers’ attention where the creators want it—you can’t get a jump scare out of prose or comics.

Games allow the player to participate in and guide the narrative to a degree the other media mentioned don’t. It could be argued that every individual audience member has a unique experience interacting with a given work, but traditional narrative media generally tell stories to passive audiences rather than cooperatively creating a story with an active one.

As for lessons taken from one medium to another, off the top of my head I can’t think of a time I took something and applied it, at least not in a way that got the best result possible. There’s a basic skill set that’s applicable across the board, but I’ve found the requirements of each medium are so specific that applying techniques that work in one to another is a risky business.

For instance, when I write screenplays or comic scripts, characters’ dialogue is constantly getting cut off by other characters. That works fine in those media. When I started in video games, I wrote dialogue much the same way. But having someone read half a sentence, then read and choose from three options for what their character says that interrupts that sentence before it’s finished requires some mental gymnastics and more good will than I’m comfortable asking a player for. A writer can’t build up a rhythm of dialogue in video games the way they can in media where one line is automatically followed by another. Even when a non-player character interrupts another NPC, outside of cut-scenes, Baldur’s Gate players generally have to actively choose to receive the next line. No actor is going to come in and cut it off mid-sentence; it’s not even in the next word balloon, which visually ties the first line and the response/interruption together. It’s on a whole other screen, completely in the player’s control, completely out of mine.

Realizing that kind of back and forth wasn’t going to work in the context of the game I was writing was extremely jarring. So was realizing that including specific angles for every shot wasn’t going to fly in a commercial screenplay the way it could in a comic script, because it’s the director’s job to figure out how to shoot a scene, not the screenwriter’s. And that I couldn’t have a 300-word inner monologue delving into a character’s thought processes in a comic like I could in a novel, because the physical space on a comics page couldn’t accommodate that. And that a sight gag that would work on screen wasn’t going to be funny if the only thing I had to convey it with was text. The degree to which things don’t carry over from medium to medium is a lesson I’m constantly learning.

2. Also, as a writer of both original and tie-in work, how does the “blank page” of the former compare with the “giant story bible” of the latter? Are there ways in which tie-in work challenges you more or differently than your original work? And of course vice versa.

The challenge of giant story bible work is producing something you’re happy with that’s recognizably part of the franchise you’re working on. People come to the Baldur’s Gate games looking for all sorts of things, but “something written by Andrew Foley” isn’t one of them. The job is to create work that fits as seamlessly into the established material as possible, and that’s usually going to mean modifying your authorial voice to some extent.

On the upside, you have access to a lot of resources you wouldn’t if you were starting from scratch. If you’re generating stories, you’ve got a wealth of material to pull ideas from. You don’t need to work out who runs the thieves guild or who’s on the Council of Four, that stuff is already there. I find it much, much easier to write dialogue for characters whose voices I can actually hear. Every time I’m going to write material for Viconia or Edwin or whoever, the first thing I do is listen to the characters’ sound sets. That’s a huge asset.

At least it is when it’s not a huge pain in the ass. You don’t end up in hour-long arguments over whether a character would ever use the word “depravity” when you created the character. I’ve had that exact argument in regards to Minsc in Baldur’s Gate (I lost because I was arguing with my boss, but in my head I can literally hear Minsc’s voice actor Jim Cummings delivering that specific line.) And the same material that provides so many ideas can also strangle stories if you’re careless and do something like, say, build a plot around a dual-classed cleric-magic user dwarf, for instance. I’m still kicking myself over that one.

The other thing you usually have in a tie-in situation is other people. I’m not a great self-starter. I’ll always produce faster if someone else gives me a deadline. And if I’m drawing a complete blank, having someone there to get the ball rolling is invaluable. When I’m generating material on my own, there’s usually several hours to several days of me mashing my head into my monitor before I finally hook into something that gets me moving. The difference between having a blank page and having a page with “Giants” written on it can be immense, especially when I never in a million years would’ve come up with giants on my own.

One other thing that might be worth mentioning: for me, the blank page and story bible divide hasn’t fallen along the same line as original and tie-in work. I’ve probably done as much or more work on unestablished franchises, where I’m contributing elements to what will eventually become the story bible down the line, than I have on properties that already have an established canon and fan-base. Original and unestablished franchise work have more in common with each other than established tie-in stuff—the big difference between them is I own more of one and get paid way more up-front for the other.

3. Like many of our friends and colleagues, you’re no stranger to horror, humor, or mixing the two. For instance, I know you’re not keen to write the romance story lines for video-game characters. When have you had to write a kind of story—romance, historical, Western, or whatever—that you just didn’t want to, and how did that crush or strengthen you in the end?

Before the torch-wielding mobs show up at my door, it’s not that I don’t want to write romance story lines for video games. My concern is their comparative relevance to the story—I’ve got similar issues with Hollywood’s tendency to jam romance elements into films whether the films’ story requires or justifies them or not (I’m picking on films specifically because they’ve got a tighter time frame to work with than television, so pieces that don’t contribute to the narrative whole tend to be more obvious and problematic than they might be over the course of a 10+ hour television season.)

In traditional narrative media, you have a greater control over the story, so there are opportunities to make a romance integral to the story, tie it in thematically, and generally justify its inclusion. For adventure-oriented video-games (which are the only kind I’ve written so far), romances are optional elements. Players can choose romance story lines with a variety of different characters, or ignore them altogether. Making romances meaningful to the narrative under those conditions is very difficult.

Finally, most romance story lines end with someone saying “I love you” and meaning it. That’s a huge thing in my world. The story has to earn it; if I don’t think it does, it bothers me. I don’t want to present something to an audience that would bother me if I was a member of that audience.

Having said all that, it’s clear a substantial percentage of players like having romance options—they like it a lot. And, despite what a few people online seem to believe, I honestly would prefer people enjoy the games I work on. I can’t see multiple optional romance storylines not being a part of any game I’m likely to work on in the foreseeable future. They’re an element of game design (and frequently movie screenwriting) I’ll admit I struggle with, but if it improves player enjoyment, it’s worth the effort.

I should also point out that when it comes to my video game work, I’ve been fortunate to work with people who are very passionate about the romances, specifically Amber Scott and Liam Esler. Liam contributed greatly to the Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition romances and Amber’s done the majority of the heavy lifting on the romance front (and a multitude of others) in what I’m still only allowed to refer to as “Adventure Y.” They’ve both made me a better writer in general and a better video game writer in specific.

4. What genres challenge you? What does trying them teach you?

Genre-wise, the most difficult things for me to write involve heavy research, especially of subjects I’m not interested in (which is most subjects—I’m a woefully underdeveloped person when it comes to almost anything that extends beyond writing or art.) Anything with a major historical element and hard science fiction are the ones that scare me the most. Whenever I find myself in those areas I feel like I’ve got a target on my back, I’m just waiting for someone to pop up and tell me how I got it all wrong. And once I do start researching, it’s way too easy to get lost in minutiae. From a strict cost/benefit perspective, working with worlds I either understand or invent is the smart play, at least until I run out of story ideas for those worlds or someone shows up offering a paycheck.

I’ve always maintained that it’s better to be writing anything than painting condos, which is the only other job I’ve ever been remotely qualified to do. Left to my own devices, there are subjects and genres I naturally gravitate toward, but there’s very little I’d say I actively don’t want to write. Even stuff that isn’t “me” I can enjoy as a challenge, if nothing else. The bigger considerations are what work will get the mortgage paid faster and how much time I can reasonably commit to something. I’m in a position where I’m not just able to say no to a project, but just plain can’t say yes to a lot of them. I’m incredibly fortunate, but I still feel bad having to turn stuff down. I want to write it all, but there’s only so many hours in the day.

So writing something I don’t want to, if that’s even possible, isn’t the worst thing in the world. It’s writing something that ends up not working that hurts. I sincerely believe everyone involved in the Cowboys & Aliens comic wanted to make something good. Everyone did the best they could inside the specific set of circumstances under which it was created. The result was… less than satisfactory, I suspect for everyone involved, certainly for me. That was disappointing. C&A went on to sell more copies than my other comics, Parting Ways, Done to Death, and The Holiday Men put together. That was crushing. I spent a couple years living in terror that it’d be the thing for which I was best known for the rest of my life. That may still turn out to be the case, but at least I get the satisfaction of knowing more people have played Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition, even if they don’t know who I am or what I did on it. I’ll feel even better when they can finally play Adventure Y.

5. Working in predominantly dialogue-based media, you have a lot of practice in creating different voices for your characters. What are a few simple techniques for doing that?

I’ll usually approach dialogue in one of two ways. The first and easiest way to go is to just cast the characters. They’ll start off in my head with the voices of friends or specific actors and as the story tightens up, they usually develop into their own thing. When things are going well, writing dialogue is more like transcription than creation–I can literally hear the characters talking to each other.

Things don’t always go well, though. I try to get characters talking and all I “hear” is silence. When that happens, I have to do things the hard way. I’ll figure out the purpose of a scene (if I haven’t already–I’m big on outlining so that’s fairly rare) and write the lines without any attempt to convey character at all. There’s no subtext, everyone just says exactly what they mean, which almost never happens in reality unless the speaker’s really comfortable or really angry.

When that’s done, I go through and start figuring out how the specific characters would try to communicate each line. With each line, you start having to answer questions about the character saying them. How important is it to them that this idea be understood? Will they be direct or subtle in conveying it? Will they let it go if they don’t think they’re being understood or will they hammer away at it until the other person gets it? What a character isn’t willing to say gives the writer as much insight into their personality as what they do. Each line becomes a building block, and eventually they add up to a character.

One thing I don’t do so much these days is create extensive back stories for characters. That was something I picked up from pen and paper roleplaying games, and it does help develop distinctive voices. But it’s labor intensive and for me there’s a real danger of missing the forest for the trees. I eventually figured out that I was coming up with a lot of cool stuff nobody would ever get to see because it wasn’t relevant to the story I was telling. These days, unless circumstances demand the creation of a detailed bio (they often do in video games, and it’s pretty standard in TV too), I’m fairly comfortable starting off with not much more than an idea of who a character is right now. The specifics of how they got this way I prefer to discover through dialogue as much as possible. It keeps things fresh for me and keeps the focus on the story the audience is actually going to get to experience.

Observe Andrew from a safe distance at his Tumblr.

Creative Colleagues: Margaret Curelas

Margaret Curelas

Margaret Curelas

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 met Margaret Curelas while paying a social call on Bryan Hades in Calgary. Margaret was one of Bryan’s two new staffers at Edge Publishing. Not too long after, Margaret launched Tyche books, and I started running into her at book launches and conventions. She and her allies were the first I saw selling ebooks on cards, so you could make the sale right there at the convention. And she is often at the center of Steampunk Balls or book launches nearly indistinguishable from bake sales.

Along with SG Wong, Axel Howerton, and Andrew Foley, Margaret is joining me for a series of Writing 101 Panels at the Calgary Expo next weekend. Join us, and learn more of the secrets to Margaret’s publishing success.

1. What’s the biggest creative lesson you’ve learned since “graduating” from editing to publishing? What creative challenges have surprised you? 

My biggest creative lesson and my creative challenge are the same thing: my creativity has to be channeled in very different directions than I’m used to. Sure, I approve expenses and decisions that lead to producing a good-looking book, but a lot of creative energy also has to go toward the business end of publishing. I need to find creative ways to market and promote, creative ways to raise awareness of authors and books, creative ways to engage readers.

2. Can you give us an example of creative marketing and promotion?

Daily blogging about the book. Similar to a blog tour, but the posts were all on the Tyche blog. When Masked Mosaic came out, Claude [Lalumier] and Camille [Alexa] suggested twice a day posts about each story, so for the better part of a month there was a constant stream of information about the anthology, its editors, and its contributors. Finding artwork to go with all those posts was a challenge! We did something similar last summer with Heritage by David L. Craddock—twenty-one posts leading up to the release of the book which explored the characters and magic system and featured interviews with the cover artist and author.

Last spring we threw a steampunk tea party to promote Hustlers, Harlots, and Heroes. In addition to featuring recipes from the book, there was a science corner where physicists ran demos, which was a fun way to nod at the scientific history presented in the book. It was a fun celebration of all things Victorian.

Cover by Lili Ibrahim.

Cover by Lili Ibrahim.

3. How much of the Tyche line reflects your vision, and how much of it do you “discover” through the vision of your authors?

My vision and the line have evolved a lot over the past few years. Early books were an odd combination of exactly what we envisioned (e.g. What Kings Ate & Wizards Drank, which was contracted before we announced our existence) and “luck of the draw,” books like City of Demons, which came through the slush pile. Some of the books have been selected because I wanted to work with particular authors. Over time, a definite trend of books featuring female leads has developed; the more I publish, the more I receive, and since I believe female-led books are important, that is a trend I’m nurturing. Two-thirds of my line this year will have female protagonists. But overall I publish books that I enjoy reading—the importance of which can’t be underestimated, since I read each book half a dozen times, easily, before it’s even published.

4. Every time I go to a convention, you’re there! And you have parties and events. How do you make the investment of time and energy pay off?

I enjoy attending conventions, so most of the pay-off is that I get to go to panels, get stuff signed, visit with sff fans, writers, and artists, and generally have fun at the convention.

5. You’re the first person I saw selling ebooks on cards that the buyer could redeem at home on the computer. Why haven’t we seen more of that from other publishers? Is there a downside?

I think the biggest reason we don’t see more ebook cards at conventions is that the people shopping at conventions prefer print editions. My print books far outsell the ebook cards at conventions—and when some download companies require a minimum purchase amount, resulting in stock that just gathers dust, or charge high download fees, the ebook cards just aren’t cost effective. Plus, you’re always going to get the person who sees that you have ebooks for sale, hauls out their phone, and buys it on Amazon. Great that a sale was made, but obviously the author—and I—make more money off a direct sale.

Keep an eye on upcoming books from Tyche.



Creative Colleagues: Axel Howerton

Axel Howerton

Axel Howerton

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.

Axel is one of two hard-boiled fiction writers who educated me on the difference between film noir and noir fiction—although I fear I may have befuddled his convictions during our panel. Fortunately, SG Wong and others were there to set us straight.

While we haven’t (yet) spent much time together, I could tell from our first meeting at When Words Collide that we had plenty in common, including similar tastes in film (despite his unpardonable disrespect for a William Friedkin masterpiece), as well as a love for mixing humor with tough guys.

Axel does the latter with his novel Hot Sinatra. Check it out, and if you’re attending the Calgary Comics Expo next week, join us for some of our Writing 101 panels. There’s no homework, I promise

1. What is it about crime writers that draws them to previous eras like the 20s, the 40s, or even the 60s? Is it a matter of style? Of the absence of advanced technology like cell phones and the Internet? Is it something else?

For me, it’s certainly the style as, in Hot Sinatra at least, I used a modern setting and made the protagonist something of a throwback. I set out with the express intent of creating a modernization of hardboiled detective tropes without relying on the worn clichés that most movies fall back on. I keep seeing these films where—if there’s a detective—he has to be an exact clone of the Bogey/Marlowe/Spade archetype, from dress to dialogue. I specifically created a character with a reason to be connected and nostalgic of that era while still being a modern man, or at least my definition of it. Putting my own work aside and speaking as an avid fan of old movies, pulp novels, and jazz records on vinyl—I think the attraction is to a world we recognize, that we’ve seen a million times over in movies and TV, that is also so entirely alien to most of us. Something we know existed, we could see and feel and breathe deep of in our grandparents musty basements and dusty bookshelves, but we will never be able to actually experience ourselves.

2. You’re a horror fan as well as a crime writer. How much do those genres have something to offer each other?

I like to think the lines between all genres are constantly in flux. I mean, I’m talking to a guy who wrote kung-fu fantasy, right? Horror should be the most malleable of all literary categories. Any thriller—and most mysteries—are one step away from horror. Most sci-fi and fantasy incorporates horror tropes and elements. Fear is an intrinsic part of being human, second only to curiosity and self-preservation, in my opinion. Any good story should be made up of some amount of all of those elements. Crime fiction has a varied strata of subgenres from cozy mystery and sleuth stories to hardboiled, espionage thrillers and procedurals. Horror is a little harder to break up. Horror readers tend to lump things together by topic, rather than style, which makes it much harder to innovate or rework those tropes. Vampires have to have fangs and avoid sunlight. Zombies have to be born of science-gone-wrong. I’ve taken some flak in the past over playing with those conventions. Crime readers seem to be much more forgiving, I guess. That’s why I write crime under my own name and horror under “Grady Cole,” both of whom have stories in a new mashup anthology of weird western stories. I’m working right now on a collection of short stories as Grady Cole, and some new stuff in the crime vein, and a lot of it has crossover elements—supernatural occurrences, murder, religion, breakfast cereals..

Hot Sinatra

Cover by Evolved Publishing.

3. Since you’re a film buff, I have to ask you to recommend five film noir and five horror films for the uninitiated.

Oh, lordy. Now you’ve opened the Pandora’s Box—which is a great silent classic, by the way. Okay, Dave, down the rabbit hole. Noir first:

Blade Runner: Depending upon which version you have seen. I first saw the original theatrical version on video back in 1983. I was nine years old and it changed my life. It is still one of my favorite films of all time, flaws be damned. Admittedly, the theatrical cut negated its own “noirishness” with that ridiculous tacked-on happy-ending, but it was my first taste of the noxious, smoke-drenched, rain-soaked streets of nobody-gets-out-alive. The visuals are unmatched, the depth of the world-building is almost incomprehensible, and I say that this is the best “modern” approximation of the films of the 40s and 50s. 

Touch of Evil: Beyond the jokes about Charlton Heston playing a Mexican and the overwhelming number of hipster movie snobs who blather on about the infamous tracking shot intro—without a real handle on the rest of the film, this is one of the subgenre’s greatest heights. Stylistically, it’s flawless. The lighting is stark and mysterious, the shots are immaculately planned with psychological precision. Every weird angle and forced perspective tells its own story. The characters are filthy, hopeless, and broken. Orson Welles is the most charismatic crooked cop in the history of film. And that Henry Mancini theme, man, yowza!

The Lady from Shanghai: Most people list Gilda as the go-to for Rita Hayworth flicks or “noir” classics, but I love this one so damned much. Again, the technical side is textbook noir, especially the climactic scene inside the funhouse hall of mirrors. Orson Welles is the quintessential noir protagonist—an intelligent but aimless everyman waylaid by a sultry woman in an unhappy marriage. He lets his lust get the better of him and, despite his best intentions, gets dragged further and further down into the dark backward until he’s broken, bewildered, and totally devoid of hope.

The Long Goodbye: While I love Bogart as Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (not to mention Bobby Mitchum, James Garner, Robert Montgomery and the other twelve guys that have played the ultimate gumshoe), my favorite Marlowe flick is Robert Altman’s version of The Long Goodbye with Elliot Gould playing the most washed-up, smart-ass, reluctant Marlowe imaginable. Mossimo Cole, the detective in my novel Hot Sinatra, is closer to Gould’s Marlowe than any other film detective I can think of. The Long Goodbye is also the most “noir” of the film versions and the next best thing to:

Chinatown: Holy hell is this a great film. One of the greatest scripts ever written, Chinatown is basically a love letter to noir. Disgruntled detective, messed-up femme fatale in a bad marriage, despotic wealthy father/industrialist, criminal underground, political intrigue, and the city of lost angels looming above everything else, like a gleaming picture of the magical Land of Oz, that leads you straight to the heart of darkness.

There are so many more. I could do this forever. Okay, okay. I’ll stick to five. Now for the horror stuff:

The Shining: I know, everybody has seen The Shining. Still. I saw this at the drive-in with my parents when I was six years old, and I’ve had nightmares ever since. A lot of films from that era (The Omen, The Exorcist, Saturn 3) are totally laughable when I watch them now. Not The Shining. It still scares the shit out of me. Every time. A lot of my own work focuses on people losing their grip on reality, or the juxtaposition of perceived realities, and this movie is probably why.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The original. I’m not entirely sure why, but this has long been an obsessive favorite of mine. I think just the pure, balls-out madness and terror of it appeals to me. There are few films that offer such a raw, visceral experience of absolute fright.

John Carpenter’s The Thing: This is another film that is just always with me. I have probably watched it at least once a year throughout my life since the age of thirteen. It’s another one that seriously flavors my writing. That mix of science fiction, horror, isolation, the idea of being replaced, of not being able to trust anyone around you… More than anything, probably the idea that we are all potentially monsters inside.

Dellamorte Dellamore (Cemetary Man): What kind of film nerd would I be, if I didn’t drop something obscure? I love the atmosphere of Italian horror films, from Bava to Argento and Fulci to Lenzi. Michelle Soavi’s weirdo surrealist zombie flick combines the best of that atmosphere, with comedy, gore, and surprising sweetness. Rupert Everett is gold. And it offers a strange twist on the living dead trope that really works without having to follow every convention (which I may have mentioned is a sore spot for me)

In the Mouth of Madness: John Carpenter kind of started to fall apart, structurally, in the mid-80s and never really recovered. Early classics like Halloween, Escape from New York, and the previously mentioned The Thing, were confident, well-constructed works of narrative. Later stuff like Prince of Darkness and Village of the Damned (and certainly Ghosts of Mars), while still entertaining, disintegrate into chaos more often than not. They Live is one of my favorite guilty pleasures, and In the Mouth of Madness, while chaotic and weird to the max, somehow captures my imagination in a special way. Probably being a writer, specifically a horror writer, and having weird plots constantly unspooling in the back of my brain, this is just warm, cheesy comfort food.

4. Like many writers of detective fiction, you’ve chosen first-person. Were there times when you found that decision handicapped you? When were times it made telling the story easier or more exciting?

I tend to go back and forth between third and first-person, depending on the project. I find it easier to get into a protagonist’s head writing in first-person, obviously, but then you have to get creative about discovery. How in the hell is your guy going to know everything that’s going on with every other character? You can’t have every conversation be, “So, since I last saw you in Chapter Four, this is everything pertinent that has happened to me.” It gets tricky. On the flipside, third-person often lacks the emotion and psychology necessary to forming a really compelling and memorable character. Therein lies the secret. Finding the balance between the two is what makes a successful piece of fiction. 

5. If you were to write a horror/crime fiction mash-up, which two writers would you most hope to channel? Which two filmmakers?

The writer/filmmaker combo I get most often from people reading Hot Sinatra is Elmore Leonard/Quentin Tarantino, which—hey, I’ll take it!

Strangely enough, I usually do kind of consciously pair up a literary and filmic reference for every project I work on. I also try to change that up as much as possible, just to keep things fresh and interesting for me, let alone the eventual reader. That will most likely hobble me a little in my career, but that’s just my specific pathology. The western stuff I just worked on, believe it or not, was Clive Barker/Steve Niles meets Deadwood and Bradbury meets Peckinpah. I don’t know how well I pulled either of those off, but why the hell not?

As far as a concept for a horror/crime mash-up? Sweet sassy molassy, I’d love to do something like what Clive Barker did with Lord of Illusions (whose detective, Harry D’amor, is much different than in the short-story it was based on) or John Constantine from Hellblazer—some kind of occult detective with a really deep, archaeologically-based mythology—Hellboy, but instead of fighting monster, he’d be a reluctant, lazy, smart-assed detective. Yeah. That’s the ticket.

Elliot Gould’s Marlowe from The Long Goodbye in a world full of Elder Gods, mythological beasts and sex-crazy succubi-fatales. That’s a goddamn ten-book series right there.


Keep tabs on Axel’s next literary transformation at his website.




Creative Colleagues: SG Wong

Sandra Wong

Sandra Wong

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 was aware of SG Wong as a local writer long before I met her on a panel at When Words Collide (a splendid Calgary literary convention with a focus on genre fiction). When I learned she wrote about a hard-boiled detective haunted by a ghost, I immediately grabbed a copy of Die on Your Feet, her first Lola Starke novel.

Since then we’ve joined forces with several other local authors to present Writing 101 panels at the Calgary Entertainment Expo. Come visit us if you’re at the show.

1. What is it about noir that appeals to you? And just what is the difference between noir and hard-boiled?

I love trying to figure out the myriad ways human beings/characters will react when they think they’re backed into a corner or when they think they’re riding high. I like examining the hidden aspects of humanity, those things that show themselves when the character wants most desperately to hide them.

It’s easily argued that I don’t write noir; I write hard-boiled detective. I think many of the same themes exist in these sub-genres: cruelty, humanity, the nature of truth, the limits of one’s morals, for example. I suppose the difference between noir and hard-boiled just depends on which side one’s protagonist lands. Otto Penzler describes noir best here.

My short version is that hard-boiled fiction has at its center hope. The protagonist fights the good fight because she believes that something good will out. Noir, though, is all about hopelessness: fighting just makes everything hurt more, and you leave behind an ugly corpse.

2. How do you avoid the trap of letting your protagonist become a femme fatale or similar stereotype of the genre while still taking advantage of the delicious tropes it has to offer?

This is a trick question, isn’t it? Tropes are familiar patterns that can provide great structure, but characters are people. If I write the “strong female character” in noir, she’s always going to be a candidate for femme fatale. To me, though, she’s an imaginary person with real motives and emotions. From those, her actions and words spring. It’s the recognition in the reader of the truth in those emotions and motivations that determines whether I’ve succeeded in avoiding the trap. And that, of course, leads to the discussion of taste: what most people think of as what makes a book a good one or a bad one.

3. What are the advantages and pitfalls of an imaginary setting like Crescent City?

I created Lola’s Crescent City with 1930s-era Los Angeles in mind. (Hello, Raymond Chandler!) I imagined what the Pacific Coast might be like if it had been colonized by the Chinese instead of Europeans, so this alternate history has repercussions for the entire made-up world, not just the west coast of North America. (I can’t wait to toss Lola out into that wider world in later books.)

I think the advantage of using a fictional city is that I get to make up whatever settings fit best for the action. And, yup, it’s also a major drawback sometimes. Not in a bad way, though. It’s just that sometimes I get caught up in researching real history (to inspire and ground my alternate history) when I really ought to be creating the rest of a story.

Die on Your Feet

Cover design by Heather Little.

4. Do you find smoking provides hard-boiled short-hand for sexy, dangerous, or other character traits? What other visible habits do you like to use to reveal character?

Ha. I’d never considered using smoking in Lola’s world as short-hand. I’m old enough to remember emptying out ashtrays for my parents’ friends after a night of mah-jongg in our basement. It was a normal part of social interaction in my family’s circles, and I just used it as part of the world I created because it was, well, normal to me. I mean, just about all the Chinese people I knew growing up smoked, even my dad occasionally.

Alcohol consumption is another short-hand. But the great thing about that is hard drinking can mean weak or it can mean tough. Some characters drink to avoid the pain of something, to drown their sorrows because they just want it all to go away. But others drink so they can handle the pain, which they carry with them tightly, in order to pursue some higher agenda.

5. You first published Die on Your Feet in ebook format, but now it’s also available in print. How did that transition occur? Did publishing in electronic format first hinder a print publication or did it help make the print version possible? 

Die on Your Feet was picked up by a digital imprint and they published it in 2013 as ebook-only. Although it was a finalist for an Arthur Ellis Award, I didn’t have much financial success with that edition, so my publisher rejected the second book in the series. That engendered a frank conversation with them about the rights to Die on Your Feet. I did get the print rights back, so I decided to go indie with the entire series. (This after many months trying to interest a traditional publisher in Book Two and in the series as a whole.)

As for being a hindrance or a help, I think that’s tricky to say. With a different publisher, I’d have been published in both formats from the get-go. If I’d not accepted the offer for the ebook-only version back then, I’d have published the book on my own in ebook and print.

But I think I’ll go with “help.” I learned a lot about publishing and being an author, and that experience gave me just enough confidence (misguided or otherwise!) to make a go of it as an independent author. I know there are dollars attached to all of this, but it’s also something in the way of a grand experiment, being a working, publishing author. I tried ebook-only, and it wasn’t quite the right fit for me. Now I’m independent, and we’ll see what I learn.

Connect with Sandra via Facebookgoodreads@S_G_Wong, and

Creative Colleagues: Robert J. Schwalb

Robert J. Schwalb

Robert J. Schwalb and familiar.

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.

Robert J. Schwalb is one of those Facebook friends I feel I know better than I actually do. We have never met, but we’ve worked with many of the same people, and by the way some of them clown around with him online, I get the feeling we’d get on like gangbusters. Also, once you see his head pasted on assorted bronies and unicorns, after a while you start to feel like he’s always nearby, waiting for his moment.

With games like A Song of Ice and Fire, Warhammer Fantasy, Numenera, Star Wars Saga edition, and several iterations of Dungeons & Dragons on his resume, Rob has become one of the grizzled veterans of game design in just over the past decade. Now it’s time for him to strike out on his own with a Kickstarter launching his Shadow of the Demon Lord horror-fantasy game, which after less than one day has already funded.

What creators of horror entertainment (movies, novels, comics, games, or anything else) most inspire the evil side of your imagination?

Gosh, there are so many influences, I really don’t know where to begin. Of all the mediums, films have had the most appeal to me. A film makes you a prisoner of the experience. You become trapped in the story until its conclusion, where a book is something you can put down, set aside until you’re ready to continue. Of course, 90 minutes of gripping weirdness is such a small time investment, I’m less inclined to stop it and do something else.

The best kinds of horror films are ones that present a familiar world and then, through the agency of the protagonists, demonstrate that world to be false, an illusion that conceals something far stranger, alien, and uncaring—cosmic horror. Some of my favorite films include In the Mouth of Madness, The Devil’s Backbone, Cemetery Man, The House of the Devil, Jug Face, Pontypool, and The Mist.

When it comes to books, I favor dark or weird fantasy such as Clark Ashton Smith, Machen, Howard, Lovecraft, Leiber, Moorcock, Gene Wolfe, Glen Cook, and Poul Anderson—specifically his excellent work, The Broken Blade. Right now, I have a major crush on Joe Abercrombie. I adore everything he’s written.

I also draw a lot of inspiration from music too. I listen to black metal and death metal while I work. Behemoth, Cannibal Corpse, Dark Fortress, Bolt Thrower, Rotting Christ provide the perfect soundtrack for the worlds and stories I create.

Combining horror and fantasy isn’t exactly a new idea. In fact, some might argue that the definition of horror—as opposed to the thriller or slasher genres—demands some element of the supernatural. Where do you draw the line on that definition?

I agree completely. Horror works well when it undermines what we believe to be true about the world and instills doubts by way of something outside the bounds of our experiences, whether the something is ghost, secret society, alien threat, or something else. For me, I’m interested in telling stories—or, rather, providing the tools for others to tell stories—that challenge what we think about the fantasy genre. The tabletop RPG hobby has a great many such games and settings. My favorite, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, I think did it best. D&D has flirted with the genre with Ravenloft and Dark Sun. FFG did Midnight. Dragon Age by Chris Pramas does a great job, as does Numenera by Monte Cook. You’ll find elements of all these games and others in my new tabletop RPG, Shadow of the Demon Lord.

My game focuses on the apocalypse, the end of all things, the unraveling of the shared universe brought about by a cosmic threat whose approach has spawned all the horrible things that run around and make life in the world’s final moments difficult, if not impossible, to live.

Most settings put the big, sexy cataclysmic event in the past or the far future. It’s something that has already happened and the PCs find themselves stomping around the aftermath. Or, the big event is the capstone for a grand campaign, a big menacing threat that will shape how the story evolves. With the former, all the really interesting stuff has already happened. In the latter, the end is so distant, few gaming groups can stay together long enough to ever reach the end. Rather than put off what I feel are the best parts of a fantasy RPG to conclusion that most likely will never be realized at the table, I made the apocalyptic, cataclysmic event the backdrop for the game.

The game posits that the apocalypse is happening or will happen. There’s no way around it, no matter how many golden rings get dropped into the volcano. The Demon Lord approaches and the world will die. What will you do in the world’s final days, months, or years? Will you struggle to survive? Will you search for a way to escape? Or will you surrender to the inevitability?

The game allows groups to decide what apocalyptic event threatens their world. Is it a zombie apocalypse, a global pandemic, corruption of magic, nature out of control, some elder god emerging from the ocean to Godzilla stomp all over civilization? You can choose any of these options and use them to shape the stories you tell. This might be a campaign-defining event, something that might evolve into another threat, or may be something that lurks in the background.

The Sanity rules in Call of Cthulhu are the most famous mechanic for representing horror in a roleplaying game, but there are many others. Have some of them inspired your design on Shadow of the Demon Lord? Have you added anything new in terms of game systems?

Yes, very much so. Shadow of the Demon Lord uses insanity and corruption to simulate what happens when characters encounter the awful and do awful things.

Characters may gain insanity when they see or experience something that strains the way they understand the world or something that harms them in a way that’s difficult to accept. Coming back from the dead, suffering a grievous wound, seeing a loved one brutally killed can all inflict insanity. Seeing a 30-foot tall corpulent demon riddled with drooling maws from which spill slime covered fleshy monstrosities as it waddles across the countryside might also shatter a character’s mind.

Gaining insanity normally causes a character to become frightened for a few rounds. (Frightened is an affliction that makes it harder to do things in the game.) Insanity, once gained, sticks around. Players may spend insanity to buy roleplaying traits—a drinking problem, facial tic, nightmares, and so on. If the player doesn’t buy RP traits, the character is at risk of going mad when he or she reaches maximum insanity. Going mad takes control of the character out of the player’s hands for a bit and can have some nasty and surprising consequences.

Corruption functions as a control mechanism for curbing excess in the game. Shadow of the Demon Lord is an amoral game. There is no such thing as good or evil. Players can play their characters in whatever way makes sense for their individual stories. Some actions and activities have lasting consequences. Murder in cold blood, torturing the innocent, learning Black Magic or Demonology spells can leave stains on the character’s soul. Corruption measures the degree to which a character’s soul is stained. A few points has little affect on a character, but accumulating several may cause some interesting developments to occur in the game. For example, a character with a handful of Corruption points might cause children in his or her presence to cry, animals to attack, food to spoil, and shadows to writhe. A character that gains Corruption from certain sources might suffer other effects. One of my favorites is from the Black Magic tradition. If you learn too many Black Magic spells your character might become so corrupted that once each week a child within 8 miles of the character simply dies.

Cover by Svetoslav Petrov.

Cover by Svetoslav Petrov.

The game designer is important, but I think we’d agree that the Game Master is at least as important, especially in a horror setting. What does a great horror GM do to elevate the material and genuinely terrify the players?

The cheap answer is to drop the “more art than science” cliché, but everyone knows this one. Instead, here are some of the tricks I use.

I reveal the elements of horror through the player characters’ actions. I let their inquiries, decisions, and explorations uncover the terrifying rather than beat them about the head and shoulders with gross-out descriptions.

I also seed horrific elements in unexpected places. The farmer the PCs help secretly keeps five dead halflings strung up in his barn. The priest has an extra mouth in his armpit that whispers vile things to him when he sleeps.

There’s also a balancing act you have to play as a GM between scaring the players and scaring the characters. Good roleplayers can play through scary and uncomfortable scenes as they would any other scene. Others, especially those more focused on the game’s mechanics, need to be nudged. I think it’s good for the story when you use opponents that are beyond the characters’ capabilities, environments that pose lethal threats, and introduce dangers that can alter how characters behaves in the game. Of course, I use these elements sparingly to make sure they pack a punch. In small doses, they work well. In large doses, they can be game killers.

Last, humor is critical. We play games, even horror games, for fun. Some of my most hilarious memories come from playing Call of Cthulhu. Laughter defuses the tension long enough to let you build it back up again.

Most fantasy games feature powerful heroes who overcome the enemy by force of arms and magic. Yet instilling horror in players is easiest when they feel their characters are vulnerable. How do you juggle those seemingly contradictory states?

This issue was the hardest one for me to overcome with Shadow of the Demon Lord. Everything I said above helps, but beyond those tips, I find horror works well when the players find their characters faced with no good options, when any decision they might make has nasty, sad, or disturbing consequence.

Back when I was working on 4th Edition sourcebooks for Wizards of the Coast, one of the last traps I built was an update to an older magic item—the mirror of life trapping. The original item, usable only by magic-users, would draw a creature into its surface. The item’s owner could call forth the image of the trapped individual or cause it to recede into the mirror’s surface. I love this item.

Characters in 4th Edition are hard to hurt, harder to kill, and almost impossible to scare. The game system insulates characters against death and even grants them the ability to overcome it on their own at the highest levels of game play. Love it or hate it, that’s the nature of the game. My mission for the 4E Book of Vile Darkness, the book in which my take on the mirror appears, was to create elements that could cause lasting harm to characters, to genuinely threaten them in ways the game hadn’t allowed before. Enter the mirror of life trapping.

The mirror attacks any sighted creature that starts its turn next to it and can see its reflection on its surface. If the attack hits, the mirror removes the creature from play. If there is already a creature inside the mirror when the trap is triggered, the new creature replaces the old one. If you break the mirror, you kill the creature inside it. Here’s how it might play out:

Fritz the Warrior and his companions explore an old mansion in a city. Fritz happens to see the mirror and looks at his reflection. The mirror attacks, hits, and draws Fritz inside the surface. Fritz can’t leave the mirror until someone else takes a look and becomes trapped in his place. What does the party do? Who do they doom to spend eternity inside the mirror? Whose life is worth more than Fritz’s? Of course, the PCs might find some “evil humanoid” to take his place, but what if they are under pressure? Do they sacrifice an innocent to the mirror to free their friend?

While not the most horrific thing in the world, the trap creates a difficult moral choice for the characters, an interesting and uncomfortable roleplaying predicament the characters must find some way to overcome while being true to the personas they adopt in the game. Fun stuff.

Check out the Shadow of the Demon Lord Kickstarter campaign and maybe help knock down some of those crazy stretch goals. You can also find Rob at his website. 

Creative Colleagues: Crystal Frasier

Crystal Frasier

Crystal Frasier Photo by Lauren Tozer-Kilts

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.

Crystal Frasier is one of those insufferably talented people who don’t limit themselves to one artistic pursuit. Her maps grace the interiors of Pathfinder Tales novels, her graphic design work has adorned many Pathfinder game products, she’s written several acclaimed adventures, and her illustrations are adorable enough to give you a toothache.

I would say that we’re friends, but she has never baked anything for me.

Her most recent publication is the high-level conclusion to the Iron Gods Adventure Path, The Divinity Drive. Anyone with fond memories of the classic D&D module Expedition to the Barrier Peaks should check it out.

1. While I tend to think of you first as an illustrator, you’re also a mapper, a game designer, a graphic designer, and—just tell us, what are your many other talents?

I don’t know if I’d call them “talents.” I’ve just lived an interesting life and try to pick up whatever useful knowledge I can every time I drop into a new situation. Learning how to draw, how to map, and how to design were all just skills I picked up because I either didn’t know or couldn’t afford other people with those skills—the same reason I can fix my own car, cook my own dinner, and possess a detailed knowledge of human anatomy.

I think the only really natural talent I have is a gift for baking and candy-making. My mother taught me to bake when I was still little, so it’s sort of a background life skill I always possessed. From there, candy-making is just wet baking; it uses the same chemistry and similar ingredients, just in different ways. My delicate sense of smell gives me a huge advantage and goes a long way to making baking intuitive; It’s easy to avoid a lot of cooking pitfalls when you can tell if a batter is too alkaline or acidic before popping it into the over.

2. As an outspoken feminist and proponent of transgender issues, you’ve considered the sexism and intolerance among gamers more deeply than most. Do you see things getting better? Worse? Is the vocal minority giving gamers a bad name, or is there something about our community that reinforces these attitudes? Are there things all gamers can do to speed the decline of harmful stereotypes and hateful behavior both in themselves and among their peers?

That’s a complicated question. I don’t think there’s anything inherent about gaming or gamers that makes us prone to intolerance or hate, but I think our brand of crusading anger comes from the hobby we love. The core problem I’ve seen is that most of gaming—and to a lesser extent media in general—pushes the idea of good versus bad, heroes versus villains, scrappy underdogs battling against looming powers. And until recently, “gamer” was synonymous with “outcast,” “nerd,” or “loser.” We were picked on or ignored or beaten up by the looming powers. We were the scrappy underdogs. We were the heroes. But now women and minorities are coming along and saying things like “games have a sexism problem” or “some games push racist attitudes.” These people are calling us the enemy. And we’re the heroes, so they must be the villains.

That’s obviously an oversimplification, but a lot of the defenses I’ve seen of online harassment—from Facebook arguments on up to Penny Arcade themselves—come around to the defense of “I can’t be racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic. I’m a nerd! I got picked on! These people are just making up accusations or being overly sensitive to hurt me because I’m a gamer.” Some people just hold onto this attitude and sulk, or just keep making the same sexist or racist jokes as a point of defiance, but a small minority build entire quests around attacking these perceived enemies. That’s when you see those horrific campaigns of doxing and harassment.

We are making a lot of progress, though, in terms of inclusion. I think most gamers realize and accept that we all have a little evil inside us that we need to be aware of. I see harassment online, but also genuine curiosity from people who want to learn. I remember a time when just being the girl in the gaming group meant sexual overtures from half the table every week, but now I sit down with new groups or organized play tables and see other women, a variety of races, and out queer people. That’s a lot of progress, and I think that rapid progress is why we’re seeing very vocal pushback recently, as a particular segment of gamers starts to feel uncomfortable or displaced.

If individual gamers want to help speed our community’s maturation, then celebrate diversity and try to avoid cheap jokes at the expense of others. Let your favorite publishers know that you like seeing variety in their products. Follow a few diversity-focus blogs like Sarah Darkmagic or Medieval People of Color—at least start you thinking about “facts” you always just assumed to be true. You shouldn’t read or follow uncritically, but it always helps to reference a perspective different from your own.

Cover by Wayne Reynolds

Cover by Wayne Reynolds

3. You’ve designed the concluding volume of the Iron Gods Adventure Path, which is about the scariest design challenge I can imagine. What challenges do you face with high-level scenarios? Or are you the opposite of me and prefer high-level design? If so, how come?

The Divinity Drive was the highest-level adventure I’ve ever written, and it was terrifying. Most of my home campaigns tend to wrap up around level 12 or 14, so writing an adventure for 15th and 16th level characters was a new challenge. In my home games, we take a lighter hand with the rules in high-level encounters, playing out a lot of combats narratively more than mechanically. Players work hard to get to that level of prestige after all, and want to feel like badasses who don’t wiff mooks on a natural 1. Obviously that approach doesn’t work with published adventures, which need to follow the rules as written.

My biggest challenge was just trying to anticipate what characters can or would do. PCs leap from 7th level spells to 8th-level spells in the gap, and gain access to game-changers like limited wish and antimagic field; planning for finds like that is hard, and challenging characters with that kind of power (without killing them outright) is daunting. So instead I tried to focus on making funny, interesting, or weird encounters, more so than truly deadly fights. Divinity Drive focuses on exploring a crashed alien spaceship, after all, so there were plenty of opportunities for “weird.” I basically threw a giant box of tools at the GM and just said “You deal with them!” Any GM who nurses their group along through 15 levels knows them far better than I ever could, so all I did was provide useful maps and stat blocks.

4. What are some ways in which your various creative outlets interact with each other? That is, are there ways in which your visual art influences or is influenced by your game design? Do you conceive of game scenarios in terms of location and the appearance of characters and monsters first before moving on to plot? Or does plot guide the visual aspects of design?

I’m a very visual person. I have trouble with a concept unless I see a graph or a portrait or a map, and that extends into my writing. I can’t write an adventure until I’ve built the maps for it, then naturally it makes sense that the bandit queen would put a trap here and keep her pet cockatrice there. I have a lot of trouble getting into a character’s head unless I sketch them first, or find at least find a portrait to reference; The Harrowing came so easily to me because Kyle Hunter’s beautiful artwork wrote most of the story for me, and most of my NPCs from Empty Graves were inspired by visuals in Miyazaki movies (especially Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which I made my wife watch for the first time while writing it).

I see a lot of my encounters as “wouldn’t it be cool if…” first, and then try to reverse-engineer game mechanics from that, with a lot of help from my visual references.

5. You’ve been both a freelancer and a full-timer in the game industry. Freelancing would seem to be by far the more challenging, but does it come with its own rewards and liberations?

Freelancing has been wonderful! It’s a lot more work, but I only have to work on projects I’m genuinely excited about, and only work with people I like. Unfortunately, I like way too many amazing people, so I don’t get to work with everyone I’d like to.