Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.
Jane Lindskold and I first met at Gen Con about 20 years ago. The previous year, she had published her wonderful debut novel, Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls, coincidentally the same year as I’d made my first short fiction sale. We also discovered we’re both tabletop roleplayers, and my one regret of that convention is that we never got a chance to play together.
Jane and I exchanged letters and D&D books for a little while but eventually lost touch except for a brief greeting at a convention five or six years later. Since then, we’ve reverted, as so many have, to following each other on Twitter.
This past spring, a remark by someone at Tor prompted me to ask whether they’d send Jane a copy of my latest Radovan & the Count novel. Soon after, we resumed our correspondence and she asked me a few questions for her delightful blog. Our exchange was so much fun that I had to ask to turn the tables and continue the conversation here.
1. As a pragmatist, I’m of the opinion that writers aren’t born but made (or self-made). They come to the craft from many different vectors, including formal education, writers’ groups, the guidance of a mentor, and a thousand other angles. What was your trajectory?
“Trajectory” is a neat way to look at the process of becoming a writer. Let’s see…
For me, the launch pad to becoming a writer was telling stories—often based on my dreams—to my younger sister, with whom I shared a room until I was twelve. I also had a vivid daydream life, in which I would construct elaborate stories. And I’d play “pretend” with my youngest sister.
I’m not really sure when I started letting the stories out of my head and onto paper. By college, definitely, but my sister says she’d find fragments back when we were younger. I certainly never finished these, nor did I take them very seriously. At this point, I had no ambition at all to be a writer.
Freshman year in college I discovered RPGs. This was the year the AD&D hardcover guides came out, I believe. Gaming very much fueled my desire to actually write down stories. Often I’d construct an elaborate backstory for my character. These rarely were used, but I found myself stimulated by the process. Later, I’d write down portions of games—more or less unconnected fragments—but the attempt to put down on paper words that would convey to a reader something of the vivid sense of the characters and events from the game was there.
I even tried an epic poem in rhymed couplets.
At the same time, I was majoring in English, so I was reading a lot of wonderful material—or sometimes not so wonderful. Thinking about what stirred me and what didn’t helped shape me as writer as well, as did making friends who read SF/F and talking about books with them.
Basically, those four years when I was earning my undergrad degree in English, I was also, all unknowing, doing a second “self-directed” degree in fiction writing.
I did take one class, an elective, in short story writing. Honestly, the class didn’t teach me much that I hadn’t already figured out for myself, but it did force me to finish what I was working on. That—as I’m sure you know—is a huge step.
I went directly from undergrad to grad school, but even though I was intensely focused on my studies, I didn’t give up either gaming or fiction writing. When I finished my dissertation, I decided to slot fiction writing into the space where the dissertation had lived.
Above you mentioned “mentors.” If I had one, it was Roger Zelazny, who I met as I was finishing up my degree work. Roger read some of my early stuff and decided that I was already writing at a professional level. So, although we talked about writing a lot, he went out of his way to avoid making me, as he put it “into a cut-rate Roger Zelazny.” He never edited my stories or made more than the most indirect suggestions. Instead, he taught me about markets and various business aspects. Of course, I couldn’t have been as close to him as I was without learning a lot—I have a file drawer filled with his letters to me—but he never was in the least directive.
After grad school, I started teaching college English and writing fiction (and non-fiction) on the side. Eventually, I sold a short story or two… And even later, a novel (Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls). Twenty-four or so novels and seventy some short stories down the pike, I’m still at it.
2. I think you’ve both collaborated on fiction and finished someone else’s work, one of the things we have in common. How do those experiences compare with each other and with writing alone?
I’ve done collaborations with a couple of writers—two novels with David Weber (Fire Season and Treecat Wars) and a short story (“Servant of Death”) with Fred Saberhagen.
And Roger asked me to finish the two novels he was working on if he didn’t “make it” (as he didn’t). These were Donnerjack and Lord Demon.
I’ve also written stories set in other people’s “universes,” which—if you’re respectful of the source material—is a sort of indirect collaboration.
Each of the experiences was very different. “Servant of Death” was set in Fred’s “Berserker” universe, so he contributed the foundation. We talked over the story and I wrote the first draft. Fred then made some suggestions that he felt would draw the story closer to the “feel” of the universe.
Working with David Weber was very different. Since the novels were prequels to the Honor Harrington stories—set hundreds of years earlier—there was a lot of new material to come up with. Weber and I are good buddies, and he gave me a lot of room to play, as long as we didn’t violate anything he’d already established. One area he hadn’t done a lot with was treecat culture, since most of the treecats in the Honor Harrington novels are not exactly stay-at-homes. I came up with a long list of questions. If he didn’t have an answer, he gave me leave to come up with my own solutions.
Finishing Roger’s novels was completely different, since he wasn’t there to talk with. However, we had talked a lot about what he intended for both. He didn’t outline, so I had to go with what we’d talked about and what he’d already written. Earlier, I said he didn’t try to teach me how to write, but I feel that rising to the challenge of finishing novels by one of the greatest SF/F prose stylists of all time taught me an amazing amount.
3. More and more writers are open about being gamers, but you’ve never been shy about talking gaming. Is there still a danger of being “tainted” by association? And are there hidden or surprising benefits to gaming as a writer?
The other day, I realized that by my next birthday, I will have been gaming for two-thirds of my life… And it hasn’t been a casual hobby either. Except for a few breaks when moving between locations (and thus between groups) I’ve gamed the whole time. Right now I have a group that meets almost weekly, and I really look forward to Sunday evenings for that reason.
My first non-academic publications were gaming-related: two gaming scenarios for Call of Cthulu, published in Challenge Magazine. The second of these was badly messed-up in production, so I fear that any who tried to play it would have failed their Sanity roll at the outset.
I think that the danger of being negatively stigmatized for being a gamer is greatly reduced these days. I mean, when people realize that Hugo and Nebula award-winners like George R.R. Martin and Walter Jon Williams are gamers, it becomes really tough to justify equating gaming and poor writing.
Projects like the long-running Wild Card anthologies, and James S.A. Corey’s “Expanse” novels have their roots in games played by or designed by the authors. Neither of these are “game-related” but gaming had a positive influence on their development.
I think the benefits are myriad, especially for those of us who run games as well as just playing. When people ask me in what way a game is like a story, I explain that the Referee provides the setting—because even in those games set in an established gaming “world,” still the Ref is the one through whom the players “see” the setting. The Ref also provides most of the characters in the form of NPCs. The players provide the main characters. The Referee provides the start for the plot but—in a good game—the story’s plot is a result of collaboration between the Ref and the players.
4. What are some lessons writers can take from roleplaying games in handling magic and the supernatural? And/or what are some lessons one must never take from gaming?
Magic and the supernatural are a bit separate in my mind, so I’ll deal with them that way.
Despite reviewers who seem to frown at such, traditional magic is more often than not tied to a system of some sort. I wrote a long piece about this called “System = Unmagical” for Tor.com, that I revised for my own blog in March 2013 and included in my book Wanderings on Writing, so I’ll spare you why the “numinous” magics so beloved of critics are actually less “realistic” than magic systems that use spell components, gestures, and the like.
That said, a writer can’t simply tag a spell by its game name and leave it at that. One thing I’ve found amusing when reading Pathfinder novels is how often I can tell precisely what spell is being described—and I haven’t played any version of D&D for over twenty years! A creative description of a spell effect is great, but just saying “Chromatic Orb” or “Spider Climb” is pretty clumsy.
The supernatural is another thing entirely. Gaming universes often mix up elements that came originally from numerous sources—fictional, legendary, mythological, historical, even movies and TV—with no attempt to justify why, say, a creature from continental India would be in the same area as European-style werewolves. In the gaming context, that’s fine, because that’s the fabric of the universe.
However, when writing fiction not set in that sort of universe, a writer must be careful to understand where various supernatural elements originated. A Norse elf and an Irish elf have element in common, but they are different creatures—despite the contact between the cultures. The same is true of a host of other creatures.
The same story that might delight a gaming audience can seem a ludicrous mishmash in another context—and consequently subject to rejection from non-gaming publishing houses.
Coincidence is another thing to watch out for. Gamers are accustomed to how the dice shape the story, but the chance success of a one-in-a-million hit or an out-sized spell effect even if “It really happened that way, honest!” can make for a weak story, especially if the plot relies on repeated “good die rolls.”
5. You and I, and a great many other writers, have an obvious affinity for wolves. What is it about those animals that remains so romantic in our imaginations?
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I apparently imprinted on wolves at a very young age. One of my favorite imaginary characters had a wolf companion. When I’d speak about my enthusiasm for wolves, I was always told “Oh, you wouldn’t like real wolves,” but, in fact, I do.
Over the years, I’ve learned a considerable amount about wolves. What I’ve learned has not diminished my enthusiasm for them, but rather caused it to grow. I’ve even had a wolf in sit in my lap, been licked on the face by several, and the like…
This doesn’t mean I don’t acknowledge that wolves can be dangerous. I try to get out the word that wolves are not meant to be house pets. I do what I can to support the mission of Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary here in New Mexico, which provides homes for wolves and wolf-hybrids who have been unfortunate enough to be victims to humans on a power trip.
Wolves are not monsters—not werewolves or Pathfinder’s “winter wolves” or anything of the sort. However, they’re not Firekeeper’s “Royal Wolves” either. They’re creatures who deserve to be respected for what they are.
Watch for Jane’s latest at her website.