What, you were expecting something about Planescape: Torment? Today’s fare is the next installment in the Questions With series (the first being with Scott Fitzgerald Gray). Darrin has been working in games and fiction for some time now, and was a staff writer at 38 Studios before their sudden closure. Most people would have given up at this point. Darrin decided to give fiction a full-time shot.
And now… now I have him.
1. You’ve been releasing episodic fantasy of relatively short stories for each episode to create a much larger series. Can you summarize the series, and then explain why you chose that particular format? What advantages does it have for the story you’re telling, and has its production had an impact on the rest of your writing style?
Heroes of Gracia (so far) follows the adventures of a young warrior, Antilos, who has banded together with his friends Tanryn, the priestess of the goddess Aheryll, and Nalgaar, the half-elven thief. Antilos had intended to become a blacksmith, and he’d been apprenticed to a master, but two things have conspired to stop him from achieving this goal. The first is that his master died, and the second is that he was never particularly good at it in the first place. When he finds his master murdered, he is joined by his friends to uncover a major threat that has widespread implications. As the series goes on, we learn more about the characters, as well as the forces that are lining up against them.
The reason I chose the episodic format was because I’ve always felt that some of the most compelling storytelling that I’ve enjoyed is the type that unfolds over a longer period of time, and across shorter stories, rather than more lengthy works. Yes, I’m talking about television. I’ve read stacks upon stacks of books, and I’ve seen a ridiculous number of movies, but I think that some of the best storytelling happens to be shows where the story is spread out over a hundred episodes or so.
The series that I hold up as my favorite of all time, the one that really taught me about episodic storytelling, was Babylon 5. What was amazing about this show was that Straczynski knew the story he wanted to tell over the course of five years from the moment he started, and the way he went about it was wonderful. He’d introduce things in one episode, and it would all seem self contained, and maybe only marginally important, and then he’d bring it back sometime later, and suddenly it would be incredibly important. Over time, you haven’t just invested a couple hours into it, but upwards of hundreds of hours, and when you finally get the payoff of finding out what it’s all about, and seeing how it ends, it’s a beautiful thing. Although I feel that Babylon 5 pulled this off best, it’s also been done to various degrees of success within the genre of with the X-Files, LOST, Battlestar Galactica, and a few others.
That raises one major concern, however. Many of the shows that try to have a story arc end up with some major mechanical problems over time. With the X-Files, as much as I love that show and its mythology, they didn’t really save any secrets for the end. The final episode was, at least for me, a major disappointment. Although I still enjoy watching the reruns and both of the movies, I don’t feel that the mythology is overly effective because it failed to deliver a satisfying story arc. Likewise, LOST is a brilliantly written show, but it asked more questions over the course of it than it could possibly answer, and of course, in the end, it turned out that the most popular answer the fans came up with as early as episode two ended up being correct. So I do feel that in order to pull something like this off, simply posing questions is only half the battle – you also have to have your answers planned out well in advance.
The other issue with this type of series is cancellation. Well, this is an indie series, so the only way it’s going to get canceled is if I decide to cancel it, and if I do, I can guarantee a wrap-up.
At any rate, after watching Babylon 5, I started using that method of storytelling in my personal roleplaying games. Later, it occurred to me that there was absolutely no reason that this couldn’t be adapted to fiction. And the truth of the matter is that I’m not the first person to have this idea. Back around the turn of the twentieth century, there was a type of book called the dime novel. These were essentially episodic serialized fiction.
Now, having said all that, as I recently discussed on my blog, the problem with episodic fiction is that it isn’t particularly economic. Without going into all of that again, I’ll just say that Amazon is the leading online retailer of books, and you are literally punished for offering short pieces of work at a fair, low price. My solution to this, of course is to consolidate what I’ve done so far into a compilation volume, and then move to longer pieces. Yes, that means that I’ll be moving to a novel format. That said, the episodes that have already been written will serve as the entry point into the story, and act as the foundation for everything that will come after.
I know – the next obvious question to arise after that is whether later volumes will be true novels, or more collections of episodes. The answer to that is that I haven’t really decided yet. What’s important is that the story is allowed to unfold in the way that I had originally envisioned, and that can be accomplished either way.
As for the impact on my writing style, I honestly don’t think there was a great deal since I’d already thought much of this out well ahead of time. What it has done, however, is make me realize that I can write, edit, and create a cover, and release a 10,000 word piece inside of a week. This given the fact that my first novel took two years for me to write, this was a major shift in thinking for me. The second novel, which will be going through editing soon, took me three weeks. I’ve had readers look at the new book already and I’ve received extremely positive feedback on it, and this is from people I don’t even know. The bottom line is the approaching this from the point of view of production rather than inspiration, perspiration, and bleeding all over the page has made me a much more prolific writer. This is a lesson I intend to carry forward.
2. But there’s a difference between looking at something from a production
standpoint and then actually delivering on that production. Michael Moorcock famously claimed that he wrote his books in 3-10 days, but many writers don’t seem to be able to stick to that kind of schedule (I am not exempting myself from this category). What clicked in your head and in your life to make this degree of focus possible for you? How do you keep yourself from being distracted?
I realized that writing is work, and work is all about the carrot and the stick.
In between the completion of Echoes of Olympus and the start of Heroes of Gracia, I was laid off, along with the rest of my company, from a job as a narrative designer on an MMO. Most people aren’t familiar with the term ‘Narrative Designer,’ but it’s the term used in many organizations for a staff writer. At any rate, once production had really gotten underway on the game, I checked my wordcount, and I was pretty surprised to find that I was writing or revising on average three thousand words per day. For most writers, that’s some heavy lifting, and yet people who work in the industry do it all day long, every day. In fact, Colin, I bet your output at your current job is pretty similar, correct?
When 38 Studios went down, I realized that looking for a job was my primary job, but that left a lot of down time. In fact, it’s mostly down time. So I decided that I’m going to make the most of this time by writing and knocking out a bunch of the projects that I’ve put on hold over the last couple of years. I’ve always wanted to write a post-apocalyptic novel. I’ve done that now. In fact, it was written over the course of three weeks. I’ve always wanted to write a fantasy novel that’s somewhat like all those D&D novels I grew up on. That’s what Heroes of Gracia is. I still want to write a novel for my space opera RPG setting, Reign of Discordia, so that will probably be my next project, and then I also need to finish the sequel to Echoes of Olympus.
So really what clicked was looking at this as work, and then developing the discipline to follow through with it. Once I was in the habit of writing two to three thousand words a day, I just did it. In fact, I started having to remind myself to take days off after I went for an entire month without taking any. I do usually try to split up the work so that it doesn’t feel like I’m sitting down and writing thousands of words at a stretch. I’ll write the first 1500 words in the first part of the day, take a break, and then do the last half in the hours before bed. Some days I’ll be working on something that just isn’t outlined well, or perhaps I’m not overly comfortable with the subject matter, and I’ll spend some extra time on getting it right. Other times, if I feel that I’ve gotten behind, I might double my usual output.
As far as distractions go, I budget time for them. I have a wife and kids, and then there’s always the internet, so I know that I won’t be able to spend the entire time at my computer churning out words. If I could do that, I’d have my three thousand words pounded out in a couple hours. I have to allow for dead time during my work time. Some people feel that isolation from distractions is the only way to work, and I am isolated quite a bit when I’m being productive, but I can’t rely on that, so I need to allow for distractions.
Some writers have this feeling that they have to be in a certain headspace in order to write, and it takes some time to achieve that. I’ll freely admit that having that headspace is nice, because the words tend to flow more easily, but the truth is that there’s nothing stopping you from writing before you’ve arrived. It’s entirely possible to be an analytic writer, where you look at where you’re at in the story, what’s needed next, and then put words on the page to achieve those needs. I also find that after starting in that manner acts as sort of a mental jump start, and the desired focus tends to come shortly thereafter.
So all that is the stick. It’s Boss-me telling worker-me to get to work.
Then there’s the carrot. I feel that in order for the carrot to be effective, you have to actually be allowed to reach it once in a while. So I will often go into a day of writing with a reward in mind. For instance, if I hit my writing goal for the day before bed time, I’ll allow myself the time to read something for fun, or watch an episode of Star Trek, or have a bowl of ice cream, etc. If I hit a bigger goal, say writing 20,000 words in a week, I might allow myself to buy something I’ve been wanting. On the good days, the productivity I’ve achieved is reward enough, but it’s good to have something small set aside as an incentive for hitting goals.
Finally, I’m aware of everything in this list. Anyone who wants to be a professional writer but hasn’t made it there yet should be aware of these things.
3. Let’s elaborate on the notion that you need to sit down and write, whether or not the mood strikes you. It seems to me that relying on “the muse” is one of the primary downfalls of people who have an artistic bent, and it becomes an excuse and eventually a stumbling block that impedes further creativity. Do you think that any sort of expressive, creative activity is there to be called on, and it just requires the exercise of that particular muscle we call discipline (or focus; I could go with focus) (well, in addition to practice)? Or do you think there needs to be an ingrown talent before anyone can actually get started?
I think that talent and motivation are two completely different things, and even talent is tough to quantify. Is it considered talent when someone works very hard at something and becomes good at it, or is that discipline? I think that in this past Summer Olympics, we saw that there is such a thing as raw talent, when Michael Phelps won another twenty gazillion gold medals in swimming, despite admitting that he wasn’t training that hard, while one of his teammates, a competent swimmer, by all rights, struggled to medal at all. Writing is much the same, in that some writers can sit down, pound out a novel in a short period of time, and people will love it because it has their voice. I remember when I was young and the cool thing was to talk about how Stephen King was a no-talent hack. I never really agreed with that because, having read enough of his books, I know that his style is distinct, his characters are vibrant, and people enjoy reading him (as a side-note, I’m happy that this attitude about him seems to have gone away in recent years).
So we’ve established that talent is a thing, but does talent equal muse? I don’t think so. When I was in college, one of my rhet/comp professors took on this topic, and after a lengthy discussion about students with natural talent versus those who worked hard, he said that he always preferred coaching the students who worked hard over those with natural talent, unless the talented ones showed a good work ethic. Basically his argument came down to fact that in his experience, naturally gifted writers tend to slack and then pat their own backs for being brilliant while the ones who worked hard at it could turn out a thought provoking piece, and they usually didn’t need to have their research double-checked, or habitually ask for extra time. He also said that all writers tend not to produce as much as they probably should, and since he’d been working on the same book for over a decade, he happily included himself in that generalization. He said that the reason writers tend to procrastinate is because there are so many possibilities that it’s often hard to decide upon a single path that seems best and then go with it, and I tend to agree with him. I think this comes back to the self-doubt that plagues pretty much all writers. I’ve never talked to a single one who doesn’t sit down on some days and think that despite their efforts, there’s something about their work that just falls short in some way. I would argue that muse is a term for silencing that self-critical voice long enough to actually get some work done. Discipline is the acknowledgement that such a voice exists, and learning how to put it in a corner long enough to get your manuscript pounded out.
With Heroes of Gracia, there were many times where I needed to push on, get the story told, and hope that I’m doing justice to the characters, the setting, and the story, all the while pointing a figurative .45 Magnum at the critic and forcing him to shut his stupid mouth. Once the outline is complete you’ve worked through your plot holes, and you’re creating, that is not the time to listen to him. The time to listen to the critic is when you’re editing. That’s when you need him to be as merciless as possible.
4. It’s difficult to make the transition from the widespread image of the artist as a tormented soul with a fickle muse to realizing that the key to success in any creative industry is first to focus on output. But your example (and that of Matt Forbeck) help remind me that every time I sit down to the computer, I should expect to spend a significant portion of that time writing. This is, after all, the writing business, and dammit, if I’m going to call myself a writer, I should write.
So what was your breakthrough? When did you discover that the most important tool for a writer is discipline? Was there a sudden epiphany, or a slowly dawning realization what it means to *be* a writer?
First, let me thank you for mentioning me in the same sentence as Matt Forbeck, but really, he’s in a league of his own. If I were somehow able to keep up with him, I’d be a couple books farther along for the year right now than I am right now.
That said, my breakthrough was really a couple of different things. First, as I may have mentioned before, I was employed as a staff writer for 38 Studios, so I was accustomed to working on writing every day for eight hours at a stretch. Honestly, that’s a brutal way to try and be creative, but it teaches you to produce. What I try to do right now is break up the writing. For me, I can usually sit down and pound out at least a thousand words in a stretch, even if I’m struggling through a scene. If I do a thousand in the morning, I can take several hours off, then hit another thousand around mid-day. Finally, I try to write the last thousand before I go to bed. I write directly into the novel-formatted Word file I use for the PDFs I generate, so I can see the progress I make in novel pages as I go, and hitting milestones really makes me feel more accomplished that just hitting wordcount, and it also helps with pacing. I know that three thousand words is about ten pages, which is usually about a chapter, so if I can keep up that pace, I’m writing a chapter a day, which means that I can realistically write a full-length novel in a month. One exhausting month, but it was that sort of marathon writing that has worked for me. Also, another benefit of writing directly into the document is that when I reach various milestones (page 100 in particular) on a manuscript, that motivates me more than just seeing that I’ve hit 33,000 words.
So, the nuts and bolts of wordcount aside, the fact is that once 38 Studios went out of business, I realized that I could take the same discipline, apply it to my own fiction writing, and finally get around to many of those projects I’ve been wanting to do but never believed I had the time for. The Heroes of Gracia series, which currently consists of three long stories (or short novellas) two full-length novellas, and one compilation of said works, was something I’d wanted to try for quite a while. It was inspired by various sources, such as the episodic television format; the storytelling of Babylon 5 where it had a beginning, a middle and an end before the first episode was shot; and the short but connected format of Robert E. Howard’s Conan (of course, the format changed as the readers weighted in). Also, in all honestly, I was a bit inspired by Forgotten Realms fiction, which I’ve been enjoying since I was a teenager and picked up R.A. Salvatore’s The Crystal Shard.
But I think that realizing what it means to be a writer is a broader issue than just output. Anyone can spit out words. The trick is making them good words – words that will keep readers wanting more. That’s not so easy. Based on the feedback I’ve gotten so far, I’m reasonably convinced that the readers who have checked out the work they’ve read have enjoyed it, but I didn’t get to that point quickly or in a vacuum. I learned the basics of writing in my high school creative writing class. In college, I took a couple more classes, wrote a lot, and founded a writer’s group. Shortly thereafter, I went into RPG writing, so my fiction kind of suffered for a while, though during that time I did sell multi-part fiction story to WotC based on Agents of Psi, and I also won a contest for a short Babylon 5 story, which coincided with the launch of Mongoose’s B5 RPG. Years later, I decided that as much as I love RPGs, fiction always has been my first love in writing, so I decided to devote my efforts to that exclusively. While I’ve been happy with my successes so far, (Echoes of Olympus was picked up by Dark Quest Books, I’ve completed work on Heroes of Gracia Volume I, and the still-untitled post-apocalyptic novel I’ve written, the fact is that I read David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants religiously. In many cases, the techniques he talks about merely affirm the things I already do, but in other case, he suggests ways of handling certain situations that really make me think about how I handle them myself. I don’t care how long you’ve been writing, it’s worth reading his advice because it offers a lot of practical suggestions to make writing stronger.
So, to answer your question, I don’t think there was ever a sudden epiphany, but there have been periods where I’ve made advances fairly quickly.
5. You and I have been both fiction and RPG authors. I know I have definite opinions on the ease of each, and others have their opinions. Rather than focusing on the relative difficulties of either, however (though you’re certainly welcome to do it), how about you tackle this: What *merit* do you think there is in writing for one rather than the other, both socially and personally? For example, for a long time I received some derision for “just” being an RPG designers, and I know many RPG designers are frustrated authors. Why is it that one type of writing would be privileged over another?
(also, since this is the last of the five questions: Thanks, man. You’ve been great.)
That’s a tough question.
The main advantage in the merits of only writing for fiction or RPGs is that you get to specialize in one or the other and build an audience in your chosen area. I think that RPG players and fantasy readers don’t have a great deal of overlap, even if they often have the same experiences. RPG players play the game now, and are buying products to support their games while I suspect that a good percentage of fantasy readers are people who have played RPGs in the past but don’t do so anymore. What that means is that you have a fairly large percentage of one audience that’s completely unfamiliar with your work in the other area. Of course this presents challenges to authors who want to cross the boundaries. Staying an RPG writer is easy once you’ve established a reputation as an RPG writer, but establishing a following in fiction after working in RPGs is as difficult as starting over with no experience in publication at all.
I feel that the privilege that you’re talking about goes against the RPG author, and I think that the reason is for it is just the nature of the product itself. You walk into a book store and you see shelves worth of fiction, magazines, self-improvement, and how-to manuals. You look for RPGs, and if you see them at all, they’re usually relegated to a ghetto of one or two shelves. I feel like because of MMOs and video games in general, RPGs haven’t aged particularly well, and because of that, those who write for them aren’t held as equal to the other authors who have their names on the other types of books. Part of this is that the audience you reach isn’t as large, and part of it is that what you’re doing is different than telling a story.
And that brings up another issue, which is the different types of RPG products. Some products are very rules heavy, and the designer is working heavily with probability and math. In other cases the designer is describing a campaign setting, or writing an adventure module, in which case they’re telling stories and world building. Some designers take on more rules-heavy products because that’s what they’re good at, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if those designers aren’t the best novelists. World builders and story tellers might just be decent at novels. Of course those are generalizations – there’s no reason that a rules monkey wouldn’t be good at fiction, but I find it less likely. However, I think this distinction is lost on people outside of the industry, whether they be fiction editors or readers, and RPG authors basically have to start over when making the transition to fiction.
The major exception to this is when they make what I consider a soft-start in fiction by producing tie-in fiction. With tie-in fiction, the writer has the chance to write fiction while continuing to work for the same people they’ve been working for all along. Once the writer has a few novels under their belt, it’s easier to approach a publisher or an agent and move on to other things.
Unless you have any follow-up questions, thanks for having me. It’s been a pleasure.