Five For Writing – Gary Astleford

Gary Astleford has an entry on Wookieepedia, which automatically makes him cooler than I am. He’s also an experienced video game scribe, with experience on titles like Warhammer: Age of Reckoning and Wildstar, as well as the wildly successful Rainbow Six: Siege. Currently a Senior Narrative Designer at my home base of Red Storm Entertainment, he is currently working his mighty wordcraft on The Division: Heartland. Without further ado, I give you Five For Writing with the thoughtful and talented Gary Astleford.

1-What about game writing appeals to you?

As a long-time tabletop game master, I’ve always loved world building and telling interactive stories.

2-What do you think are the main differences between TTRPG and video game writing?

Tabletop RPGs have a dynamic edge that computer and video games lack. There’s always a chance for TTRPG players to do the unexpected, so a certain amount of flexibility is required to ensure that things run smoothly. Though printed adventures are often written with a central storyline in mind, it’s not uncommon to provide game masters with alternatives and suggestions for when things go off the rails.

Conversely, the stories told in video games are limited by available tools and game systems. They tend to be linear, scripted, and on rails to a large degree. While improvements have been made developing procedural content, as well as branching dialogue and storylines, we’ve still got some distance to go before we can emulate the dynamism of an imaginative human storyteller.

3-What were the challenges in writing for Rainbow Six: Siege, a game that doesn’t necessarily have a traditional narrative structure?

In Siege, the narrative elements are by necessity presented outside of the core game. Siege’s stories incorporate the game’s extensive and evolving cast of characters amidst a narrative backdrop delivered in an episodic fashion. Certain in-game features, such as special events, use a more traditional approach to delivering in-game narrative. However, more dramatic stories and interactions between characters are conveyed via other types of media—CGI and anime videos, comics, online articles, etc.
These various narrative assets are quite focused and specific. One challenge in creating them is to stay on-message, as there is rarely room to write in the proverbial margins. Another concern involves the scope and cost of the assets (which can be tremendous) and ensuring they are as polished as they can be right out of the gate. In this process, Narrative is only one of a number of key stakeholders involved in the creative process. Consensus and agreement across disciplines during production is vital.

4-What says good game writing to you?

I value internal consistency in game writing, as well as due consideration of the player’s agency and their role in and effect on the story. Players should absolutely feel as if their actions in the game make a difference. Providing tangible results for those actions is an important part of my own creative philosophy. While I don’t feel it’s necessary for all player actions or accomplishments to be broadcast or rewarded, there’s definitely a sweet spot I aspire to.
Beyond that, content should be internally consistent—any surprises or plot twists must make sense within the framework provided by the game’s narrative.

5-What are the next steps that need to be taken in improving game writing?

As creators I believe it’s our responsibility to usher in new perspectives rather than cling to those we’re
familiar with and accustomed to. While strides have been made in increasing diversity in games, we still
have a long way to go. Representation, both within our industry as well as within the content we create,
matters a great deal. There are voices we haven’t heard yet and they have their own stories to tell. The
inclusion of these voices can only improve the narrative tapestry of the games we make.

 

Many thanks to Gary for taking the time to sit down and answer the questions! Next week, tune in for five questions with science fiction novelist and all-around excellent guy Jay Posey!

Five For Writing – Justin Achilli

Justin Achilli and I go way back. Like, to the mid 90s at White Wolf way back. It was a pleasure to work with him then, and it’s been a pleasure to work with him in his time at Red Storm. He’s one of the sharpest game designers I know, as well as an excellent writer and editor, and a thoughtful, eloquent advocate for games. Here he is now, the man who more than anyone embodies Vampire: The Masquerade – Justin Achilli.

 

1-You’ve been involved with Vampire: The Masquerade for over two decades. How has it changed in that time, and how has your approach to it changed?

For the longest time, Vampire (and all of the World of Darkness games) were made by a company that was a physical book publisher first and foremost. It needed to print and sell books to survive, so a lot of what went into the games served that end: Print stuff with a perceived value and sell that. We were writing and developing sequential periodicals as much as we were writing and developing games. Things like “metaplot” and “canon” emerged less from an intentional continuity and brand-building, and more from survival instinct.

Now, though, the company that owns the World of Darkness (Paradox Interactive), isn’t a physical book publisher at all. So my work on Vampire and other titles is refocused on building a sandbox in which people can tell their own stories rather than printing some-thousand words of plot advancements.

2-You’ve worked in both tabletop and video games. What did you carry over from one to the other?

Overall the thing that I find most important is to respect the player’s time. Audiences have a huge amount of options in terms of entertainment, so I think it’s important to realize what your game offers, whether it’s a TTRPG or a video game or whatever, and deliver on that promise.

I had been working on MMOs a while back and it used to bother me how a lot of MMO marketing was “you can be anything you can imagine in this enormous living world!” but their gameplay was built around three or four very distinct classes or roles and combat quests. That always seemed really disingenuous to me. Better to have a very limited scope and help the player tell the best story they can within that scope than to try to tick every box and deliver adequately on only a few of them. Pendragon is an amazing TTRPG, and characters are comparatively very limited in what they are: Arthurian-era, mostly knights. And look at, say, Stardew Valley — it doesn’t have one tenth of the feature list of, say, Star Citizen, but it’s made millions of people very happy by letting them tell a very distinct kind of story, and it doesn’t pretend to do anything else.

I think that’s the most important part. Let the player tell the story and live the fantasy you’ve promised to them. Games development is project management, so your resources should be scaled and devoted to fulfilling your promise.

Not a sexy answer, I suppose, but a good one, I think.

3-What do you feel is unique about game narrative, and have we been reaching its full potential?

The big difference between games and “one-way” media is the interactivity. In a game, the narrative is helping the player tell the story, so if the story relegates the player to making insignificant choices, it’s telling them that they don’t matter, that what the story “is really about” can happen without them. That does a disservice to the player, who’s playing to see the outcomes of their actions, to make choices and learn what those choices effected.

I don’t think we’re at the point of realizing the full potential there, and I think we’re still a distance away. Look at how long writing as a craft has existed, or creating visual art, or making music. Compared to those media, video games are in their infancy, and they’re a unique blend of all of those things and then some. Some of what’s limiting us is technical or technological — we can’t yet have an AI “game master” that’s as versatile as a human one, and we can’t ship an infinitude of digital assets to visualize or realize what a human game master can describe. But some of our limitation, too, is commercial, in that it’s really expensive to make games and the people funding them want to recoup their costs, so the expenses of risk-taking are much more controlled than in, say, an individual’s effort to tell the story that they’re burning to tell.

4-How do you think game design should be used to tell stories?

I think of game design as the “toolbox” the player has. A game effectively proposes a problem or a series of problems, and the design defines the parameters by which the player can attempt to solve those problems. So there are really two stories to every game (and sometimes they overlap very closely): the story of the player playing the game, and the story events that contextualize the game itself. The player’s story, and the world story that includes the character the player is portraying.

I think this is the part where I’m supposed to bring up the “does Tetris have a story?” exercise 😉

But seriously, I like the definition of a game as a series of interesting choices. “What happens when I do this?” is the source of myriad stories. They don’t all have to be epics or infinite. Some stories happen in a moment’s time.

5-Do you prefer open-ended or linear game narratives, and why?

As a personal preference, I enjoy open-ended narratives, because they make me feel more like I’m in charge of my own destiny. Especially when I’m able to create my own character, I feel like setting my own goals and realizing them is part of that open-endedness.

Which isn’t to diminish linear game narratives, of course, and I’ve worked on many of these. In complement to the above, when I’m playing a specific, named character, I tend to appreciate linear narrative smore, because I buy into the story that this is that character’s story and I’m helping realize it, as the player.

In the end, it has a lot to do with the promise that’s being made to me, especially in game worlds that are part of franchises. In a Star Trek game, I want to boldly go! But I also accept that I’m probably going to end up in conflict with the Klingons at some point. “Linear” doesn’t have to mean the player is resistant to being directed toward an outcome. If it’s part of what you buy into when you undertake the narrative, it’s reasonable to have some expectations.

 

Huge thanks to Justin for taking the time to sit down and answer these. You can find his wit and wisdom on Twitter, and in the continuing output of World of Darkness books.

Tune in next week for another interview!

 

Five For Writing – Lauren Stone

This week’s Five For Writing is a day late, for which I apologize, but I promise you it’s worth the wait. Today’s guest is Lauren Stone, narrative lead on the Division franchise and doer of All The Things story-related for Ubisoft. Her credits are diverse enough to include both Rainbow Six: Siege and Eagle Flight. I had the privilege of working with Lauren on The Division 2 and she is smart, fast, funny, and sharp. But enough of me talking about her; here she is in her own words.

1-What says good game writing to you?

Good game writing to me is narrative that supports, enhances and elevates the experience. Anything that helps support and build the world, the mechanics and the player experience is good game writing to me. Whether that is a piece of UI Text that gleans clarity or a cinematic
that makes you cry.

2-How do you keep a story like The Division’s going years after release?

By focusing on character. Though we may be almost 6 years past the original release of Division 1 we haven’t even spent a full year in the world in terms of the story’s timeline. We have really only made it to late-August in the currently released content and October in the new novel that is coming out in February 2022. The majority of our story is told in the past and through flashbacks in the form of audio collectibles and active missions. It’s been 6 years for us but only 10 months for our characters.
As we explore new regions, we meet new people and all of those people have rich histories and backstories that made them who they are and how they react to the situation at this point. We get the privilege of learning more about established characters by meeting people we’ve never met before and getting their perspective on the state of the world and what our characters have represented to them based on how they have been treated by agents of the Division or individual interactions with our established characters. We will be learning more about many of our established characters in future content releases over the next year and I’m excited to see how the community responds to the new information they get about these people they think they already know. The funny thing about people is we are always much more complicated than expected and unless you directly ask someone why  they do a thing and they answer honestly, you can never truly understand someone’s motivations or reasons for behaving the way they do. As long as people are complex and your  characters are built like real people, you will never run out of potential stories you can tell about them.

3-You help coordinate novels based on Ubisoft IP. What makes a good transmedia novel in your
opinion?

One that respects the source material but explores different types of stories that work better for the medium. We get to be more internal in a novel. We get to focus on motivation and character in a way that you can’t really explore in the game without it feeling cheesy or like the writer is trying too hard to be clever. My favorite things about transmedia is that it allows you to engage in the world in ways that are suited to the medium. What works for film does not always work for a novel or an audiodrama, what is perfect in a comic doesn’t always translate to the game. If your world is rich you can make a piece of art in any medium. My weird dream that will never happen because I am a musical theater kid would be to make a Division Musical with Lin Manuel Miranda, my original dream before getting involved with transmedia was to have him get into a booth and just freestyle rap about the state of the world and be an NPC in a safehouse near Broadway. That Lin was just a person who survived and tried to keep making art. This is my weird fantasy that will never happen, but, eh, weirder fantasies have become reality and sometimes throwing things out into the universe can result in the world echoing back, “yes please, I want to have that.”

4-How do you instill narrative in a game like Rainbow Six: Siege, that doesn’t have the sort of
structure that generally allows for narrative development.

The same way I approach all narrative design. I look at the constraints as opportunities. All we have is barks, which means all we have is character. We have ambient audio to build the map, we tell a fixed story in the map. We use the art to build the world. We use the textures and marketing to ground the characters. Multiplayer live games in general are not built to tell a single player narrative experience. That is not the goal. A lot of the stories in games that are traditionally elevated as being amazing are really screenplays with combat beats. The richest and most complex stories are in games that are much more complicated than that. But I think people still expect the game to fit in a screenplay format, especially for award shows. We need to retrain people on what qualifies as story. It’s not just the cinematics. Especially when you can hold A to skip. It’s the content you engage with regardless of how expensive or long you engage with it. The small moments are the things that people remember. The weird lines and characters or a stunning piece of art. A moment that is real and evocative and makes you feel something and helps you better understand the world is a great piece of story, even a piece of graffiti that lets you know the True Sons are here, get ready, can be a wonderful and necessary story that helps the player engage more fully with the world.

5-What are you looking forward to seeing in game writing as we go forward?

I’m looking forward to people respecting barks. Respecting the Menus and HUD. Respecting each other’s work. I’m looking forward to the future where we realize everything matters and everything is worth focus, attention, energy and consideration. Every person in your world from the studio to the characters is deserving of having their humanity and contributions seen, celebrated and respected. I’m looking forward to people realizing that game narrative is a viable option to tell story, to build a career, to create stability and art. I’m looking forward to more people learning how to use the constraints as opportunities.

Thanks so much to Lauren for her time and thoughtful answers, and check out her work on the ongoing saga of The Division.

Next week things are going to get a little crazy – I’m interviewing…an editor.

Happy New Year and Thank Yous

Wishing everyone out there a very happy new year! I’d like to take this moment to say thank you to some folks who have been instrumental in my writing this past year. So big thanks to:

  • Robin Laws, who green lit the first Reb Palache story many years ago for The New Hero
  • Josh Schlossberg, for publishing “On Seas of Blood and Salt” in The Jewish Book of Horror
  • Alex Hofelich and the rest of the wonderful folks at PseudoPod for publishing me – I am honored to be among their roster of authors
  • David Niall Wilson and the fine folks at Crossroad Press, for picking up Ghost of a Marriage and getting set to bring it to the world in February. (Hint – now would be a great time to pre-order!)
  • Jeff Strand, Mikko Rautalahti, Jesse Scoble, Rachel Zane and Laura Hickman for reading the manuscript and providing invaluable help on it, some of which I was smart enough to take.
  • Bridgett Nelson for reading and editing some of my short fiction and still speaking to me afterwards
  • John McIlveen, for reasons that will have to remain mysterious for now
  • James A. Moore, Mur Lafferty, Maurice Broaddus, Rhianna Pratchett, Anna Megill, Annie Reid and so many more for being shining examples of the craft
  • Toiya K. Finley, Richard Rouse III and Alexander Bevier for collaborating in putting on an online gathering of game writers that was good for the soul
  • Susan O’Connor and Tom Abernathy, my co-conspirators in curating the Game Narrative Summit at GDC
  • Walter Rotenberry and company at East Coast Game Conference for allowing me to once again curate their narrative content
  • Pauline Martyn, James Charles Leary, Tom Knights, and Justin Achilli for secret things
  • All the writers who agreed to let me interrogate them in Five For Writing
  • And all of you for reading this

So a giant thank you to everyone for all that you did in 2021. Here’s to 2022 and happier days!

Five For Writing – Alex Bledsoe

Alex Bledsoe’s Tufa novels are some of the finest modern fantasy out there. If you haven’t read them, they’re a treat and you owe it to yourself to pick them up. He also was part of the collective that wrote for Transgressive Horror: Reflections on Scare Films that Broke the Rules, which is where our paths crossed. He was kind enough to sit down for five questions about the Tufa novels, vampires in Memphis, and why all horror movies are transgressive. Without further ado, I give you Five For Writing with Alex Bledsoe.

 

1-What’s the appeal of transgressive horror films for you?

All good horror films should be transgressive in some sense; it’s in their nature. The point of horror is to expose the viewer to images and ideas they would never encounter elsewhere, and to show the embodiment of those images and ideas as realistically as possible. The German cinemagoers lucky enough to see Nosferatu on its first release would have considered the vampire as a transgressive figure, a visual representation of something that broke so many social rules. 

Really, a non-transgressive horror film can’t be very horrifying, like the endless PG-13 teen “horror” films released since the turn of the century. I’ve always thought all horror films should be rated R, because even if it’s *not* overtly violent, that threat should hang over everything. A PG-13 rating is a comfort blanket, and even if some of them can be quite good, they’re never truly horrifying.

2-What impact does your home base in the Smokies have on your writing?

Technically I’m from the other end of the state, close to Memphis, but my dad’s family is from the Smokies, and I’ve visited there many times. I’ve used the South as the setting for both of my past horror novels, as well as my upcoming one; although I’ve lived other places (I’ve been in Wisconsin for the past 18 years), the south is the one I most deeply understand. I think that’s why I keep returning to it as a setting; I don’t feel qualified to write about anywhere else, unless it’s a total fantasy setting.

3-You’ve got a series of vampire novels set in Memphis. What inspired you to turn vampires loose there?

It’s a city I know, or rather used to know, pretty well; my novels are set in the mid-70s. Plus it’s not over-used in horror fiction like, say, New Orleans. Memphis has a unique history, and since the novels deal with racism as well as vampires, it seemed like an ideal place to set it. I chose the year 1975 because it was before the publication of Interview with the Vampire, and thus was still the era when vampires were scary.  

4-Your Eddie LaCrosse series is fantasy noir. Why mix those two genres?

I wanted a way into a fantasy story that allowed a greater identification with the characters than I was seeing in the fantasy I read: too many unpronounceable names, too much emphasis on world building, not enough emphasis on character. I thought that the works of writers like Chandler, Parker, and Vachss did a great job of also taking you into worlds (a.k.a., crime) you might never visit, but they did it with an immediacy I wanted to claim. Plus that tone made it more fun to write. 

5-The Tufa novels feel deeply personal. Where did they come from, and will we see more of them?

They grew out of stories I heard from my dad, about a strange group of people who lived in the Appalachian Mountains. The part that intrigued me was the idea that these people were already here when the first European settlers arrived. That was the starting point, but of course I made up my own group so I could give them a magical backstory.

I felt six books was enough to say what I wanted, and anything past that I’d be restating things. But who knows? If I get a new idea, and there’s a publisher interested in it, it could happen.

Many thanks to Alex for his time and for gently correcting my mistake about his home base – that’s what I get for reading an author bio too quickly. You can find him online at his website, and on Twitter.
Next week I ring in the new year with an interview with game writer Jesse Scoble! Until then, have a happy New Year!

Five For Writing – Maurice Broaddus

If you don’t know who Maurice Broaddus is, you haven’t been paying attention. An award-winning writer and Afrofuturist, he is as prolific as he is acclaimed. Equally adept at horror, fantasy and science fiction, he is the author of the upcoming Sweep of Stars. And now, it is my pleasure to give you Five For Writing with Maurice Broaddus:

1-How exactly does one pimp an airship?

I got one word for you: spinners.

It’s all about massive spinners.

2-What role do you see yourself playing in the Afrofuturism movement going forward?

I’m just happy to be a part of the conversation. Right now, I’m all about the intersection of the art being the vision casting and the community putting those visions into practice. And then that practice creating new art and vision.

3-You started in horror as “The Sinister Minister” and have gradually transitioned to science fiction. What led to the change, and are you ever going back to horror?

Therapy.

I realized that I was using horror to process my anger. Anger at all the evil in the world, the history of brutality against my people, all of the oppressive systems. Science fiction became me giving myself permission and room to dream about possibilities. So I was writing from a different mental and spiritual place (future hope).

That said, I have two horror stories coming out this soon, one in Weird Tales Magazine and the other in Classic Monsters Unleashed. Turns out, there’s still room for me to be angry about stuff.

4-Religion is a strong theme in your life. How do you see it affecting your fiction?

Basically, I believe we’re in a Story, written by an Author, who is wooing us to connect with Him.  It’s a tale of people, who were created (in God’s image), meant for great things (to join in with that Author in a mission to redeem the world), who sometimes encounter things which interfere with their journey:  sometimes themselves, sometimes others, and sometimes An Other.

Faith is never easy and I tend to have more questions than answers.  I think that’s the most critical part of anyone’s spiritual journey, walking that line of tension between holding on during times of doubt and questioning.  I think one of the best ways to explore that tension is in story. (The Bible does it too:  the Book of Job was probably the first book written and it’s all about faith, doubt, and frustrated questions.  And the first postapocalyptic story I encountered.)

I like to think that I write from a place of faith in practice. I was volunteering at a homeless teen ministry called Outreach Inc. That became the inspiration for my first novel trilogy, The Knights of Breton Court, a retelling of the King Arthur mythos through the eyes of homeless teens in Indianapolis. I guess you could say that in some ways, I’m working out my own spiritual journey in front of my readers. And sharing my nightmares.

5-You do a lot of community outreach. How is your writing bound up in that?

For a long time I struggled with the notion that “I’m only a writer, what can I do?” and, if I’m completely honest, used it as an excuse to do nothing. Art lifts community. Story creates identity. If we don’t control our own narratives, others certainly will. Our communities are more self-sufficient, more capable, than the dominant narrative wants to portray. Through art, through writing, we can catalog the positive things happening in our neighborhoods, we can make the invisible visible, and be the change we want to see. Through art, we resist.

These days, I am the Kheprw Institute’s resident Afrofuturist. Basically, think of it as strategic foresight planning through an Afrofuturist lens; visioning rooted in black history and culture to create a vivid picture of what the world could look like. Afrofuturism is the marriage of my faith, my social practice, and my writing. To me it looks like dreaming alongside community, highlighting my neighbors and their work (through a magical lens, for example, Ache of Home. The dreaming impacts the work, the work impacts the writing, the writing impacts the dreaming, and so it goes. I can’t wait to see what folks think of my next novel, Sweep of Stars, because these days, I’m dreaming of the stars.

Huge thanks to Maurice for taking the time to answer the questions! You can find him online at his website.

Wishing a very happy holiday season to all and sundry, whatever you celebrate. I’ll be back next week with another interview, and things will keep rolling into the new year!

Five For Writing – Bill Bodden

Bill Bodden says on his website that he likes really nice cheese, so of course I’m going to like him. He’s also an accomplished tabletop RPG writer with a foot in the fiction world, and we’ve shared a table of contents twice, most recently in Transgressive Horror: Reflections On Scare Films That Broke the Rules. So without further ado, here’s Bill Bodden:

 

1-What’s interesting to you about transgressive horror?

So much of current horror media involves buckets of red corn syrup or ‘torture porn’ – a la the Saw series – that something different is a welcome change for me. I like the transgressive horror idea because so much of horror is about expectations, and when you challenge those expectations you add a greater element of the unexpected, which for me makes horror both more powerful and more thoughtful.

2-We shared a table of contents in the anthology HAUNTED. What inspired your story there?

The Original Ghostbusters film was my inspiration for my story “A Quiet House in the Country”. I wanted to write about people doing serious investigations of hauntings using tools and technology that actually exists – not done for laughs. Lo and behold, Reality TV took that idea and ran with it, and the various ghost hunter shows on several networks have been very popular for years now.

3-You’ve written for a wide variety of tabletop games. What’s your favorite and why?

My favorite to play is Charette and Hume’s Bushido. It uses a system very similar to D&D, but I love the setting of mythic/feudal Japan. A VERY close second would be Call of Cthulhu. As far as writing for a game, I’ve enjoyed writing for D&D in the Scarred Lands setting. I appreciate the world-building that’s been done there. I’ve also enjoyed writing for Onyx Path in the World of Darkness Universe. Next up, I’m hoping to have some community content available for Call of Cthulhu in 2022.

4-What does someone going into tabletop game writing need to know?

Two big things. First, the pay is low, and the vast majority of contracts are work-for-hire, which means once you get paid, you don’t own the rights to anything you’ve written on that project. Also, no royalties – you’re paid a lump sum upon completion, and you’re done. One expects low pay on first starting out, but the problem is it doesn’t improve much.

Second, you’re writing in someone else’s world: their world, their rules. You have to take constructive criticism well in any situation, but in game writing, you need to not love your baby so much that you’re unwilling to make changes that are required of you.

5-You’ve done both game writing and fiction. Which do you prefer, and why?

It’s a tough call. I enjoy gaming, and when it’s my turn to GM for our group, I like to write adventures that engage the players with more than just hack and slash, although there’s still plenty of that. Sometimes, those adventures are good enough that I want to clean them up and publish them.

In writing fiction, you have a bit more freedom, but at times it can be harder for me to focus – like a kid in a candy shop, I sometimes don’t know where to start (or when to bring it to a close!)

If I had to choose, I think I prefer writing fiction simply because I have greater latitude to explore themes and ideas that intrigue me.

 

Big thanks to Bill for taking the time to answer the questions! You can find him online at his website, on Instagram and Twitter, and at DriveThruRPG. Photo credit for Bill’s portrait is to Amy Atalla Hill, Shine Photografx.

Next week Christmas arrives early at Five For Writing with an interview with the renowned science fiction, fantasy and horror author Maurice Broaddus. Tune in and check it out!

Five For Writing: Mur Lafferty

Mur Lafferty needs no introduction, but I’m going to introduce her anyway. The award-winning host of the I Should Be Writing podcast, she is also the proud owner of an Astounding Award and a noted editor as well. From the humor of the Shambling Guides to the deep space thrills of Six Wakes, she has been a versatile and skilled storyteller. And now she’s consented to answer five questions. Without further ado, here’s Five For Writing with Mur Lafferty:

1-You’ve won a giant pile of awards for your writing and podcasting. Where do you keep them all?

You’re setting me up for a massive hubris fall, aren’t you?
Back in 1998 when my husband and I bought our house we discovered a corner at the top of the stairs that jutted out, creating a small, pleasant shelf. I told Jim that it was the “hugo shelf.” Did I ever think I’d actually put one there? Heck no. But there it sits now, with some other awards around it and hung on the wall above it.

2-Six Wakes is probably your most critically acclaimed work. What was the inspiration for it?

I love stories where people are deep in the void of space. I had been wanting to write a generational spaceship story, but unlike others I had read, I didn’t want the people aboard to gradually lose their memory of why they were there, or even knowing they were on a ship. So I tried to figure out how I could use the same crew generation after generation without bringing in space elves or space vampires.
Then, while playing the spaceship sim game FTL, I noticed the cloning tech that you can put in your ship would not clone a crew member to make more of them, but only cloned them when they died, so cloning was a way to boost immortality. I hadn’t seen cloning treated like that before, and it got me thinking. Eventually I put the “cloning to live forever” idea with the “same crew drives the starship” idea.

3-You did the novelization for the Han Solo origin movie. What was it like to take on that challenge?

It was exciting and a huge honor. People think that the novelizations are just churned out retellings with deleted scenes, but more often than not, those expanded scenes were added by the novelist. For Solo, the scene where Han and Qi’ra hide among in the vat of eels was a deleted scene, but the scenes of Chewbacca taking over Lando’s bathroom (and his rare hair products), and the real reason L3 consented to upload to the Falcon, that’s canon that I wrote.
I discovered partway in that the novelist has a unique opportunity by presenting a different point of view. I was trying to figure out how to write a scene that had already been written in the script, and then written in the middle grade book (which was nearly finished by the time I started the adult novelization). Every character does the same things in all three tellings, so how could I make mine different but still the same? I realized presenting a different POV would show the expected scene, while making it feel new and presenting new information.

4-You’ve also done a Minecraft novel. How did you come up with a story for a game that doesn’t really have a story?

I get asked this a lot! Minecraft was super easy to write for specifically because the game doesn’t have a plot. You can put whatever story you want in Minecraft with one overall rule: the story must follow the rules of the game. I was constantly checking what items or food could be built with what materials, what monsters were where, etc. My biggest hurdle was that I wanted the mysterious journal writer to be terrible at mixing potions, so I had to look into potion mistakes more than potions that helped.

5-You’re an award winning podcaster. How does the podcasting intersect with  your writing?

I wouldn’t have the career I have today without podcasting. Being one of the first in the space allowed me to build an audience and to interview authors and network (I had no idea I was doing the networking thing, fwiw). I started publishing my own fiction via podcast and I started knowing more and more people at conventions as I set up interviews. Those two things finally helped boost my career toward getting published.
I’m not saying I wouldn’t have eventually been published otherwise, but I met my first editor while I was in line for a drink at a private party. I had gone to the private party as the +1 of the writer I had interviewed earlier that day, and he was at the con alone, so he offered me his ticket. Networking is like being tall and playing basketball. Can you build a career without networking? Sure! Does it give you a boost if you can network? Definitely. This is why I encourage all baby writers to get to cons, or at least virtual cons, as soon as they can (taking into account pandemic, money, bandwidth, etc.)
Huge thanks to Mur for sitting down for these! You can find her and her multitudinous projects online at the Murverse.

Five For Writing – John Goodrich

John Goodrich is a a man who knows what he likes, and what he likes is giant monsters. An authority on kaiju, he’s also an accomplished fiction author, with titles like Hag and  to his credit. He lives in Vermont, which is possibly the last state that Godzilla would destroy if given the chance, and he was kind enough to sit down for five (plus one bonus) questions. Here’s Five For Writing with John Goodrich:

1-Why the obsession with kaiju?
Godzilla made a real impression on me when I was young. Kids live in a world where many people are larger, and stronger than them, with often unguessable motives. So kaiju were very much fantasy fulfillment, someone who was bigger than the adults around me?
 
1A-What about giant monsters speaks to you?
Their general don’t-give-a-shit attitude in regards to architecture and infrastructure. Also that often, in a film, the very common plot resolution of ‘shoot it’ or ‘bomb it’ doesn’t work, so another plot solution has to be found.
 
2-Why would a toddler take up a life of crime as a hitman?
When someone, even if they are very young, has a very specific set of skills, how else are they going to earn money? My protagonist was barred from the usual legal gun-using professions. He barred from police work because of the height and age requirements. The same for the military. What choice did he have but to turn to a life of crime?
3-You play a lot of roleplaying games. Has that influenced your writing at all?
Absolutely. Sitting at an RPG session listening to how other people perceive their characters is a great mine for characters who don’t think like I do. Further, my first articles were published in role-playing magazines, and several of my stories have been published by Chaosium, who produce the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game. I’ve learned a lot of history to give my games more credibility, and that often finds its way into my fiction.
 
4-You live in Vermont. What impact does that have on your writing?
Leaving New England for eleven years and then coming back has led me to a greater appreciation for this part of the country. New England has a history of hidden sin and judgment, of old stories like Old Slipperyskin, the bear that walks and talks like a man. Also, the summer of 1770 when northeastern Vermont was overrun by a wave of worms that ate all the wheat and corn.
 
5-You’ve written for a couple of anthologies centered on the Lovecraftian Mythos. What’s the appeal for you?
The unknown. Vampires, werewolves and ghosts have some pretty strict rules about how they operate and can be destroyed. You can defy those rules, and plenty of writers have, but they have to be acknowledged in some fashion. Lovecraft’s creations are a total curve ball, the scary unknown something we don’t understand. There’s a thrill reading something that is that unknown, and a real pleasure in writing something so strange.
 
That’s all from John. Thanks to him for taking the time to answer! Next week, my interviewee is someone who needs no introduction, but I’ll introduce her anyway – the mighty Mur Lafferty! See you then!

Five For Writing – David Niall Wilson

This week’s Five For Writing is with writer, editor and publisher David Niall Wilson. The founder of Crossroad Press, David is also an acclaimed novelist, he’s a multiple Bram Stoker Award winner and former president of the HWA. His newest novel is Jurassic Ark, and he was kind enough to take time from his various projects to sit down and answer some questions. There’s even some bonus content at the end.

So, don’t let me keep you from the good stuff. Here’s Five For Writing with David Niall Wilson:

1-We first met when you were writing White Wolf tie-in novels. was it fun to play in
someone else’s sandbox, or was it restricting?

I really enjoyed writing for White Wolf, as well as Star Trek and Stargate. I learned a great deal, though I admit, my personality grated with it a little. A lot of the ideas I liked the best never got picked up, and several times I was told a thing was not right with the rules of the game, when I’d scoured those rules in the information given to me and found things that were obscure, but there. It was much later that I actually read the rest of the books (when we published them at Crossroad Press) that I got more of a feel for how the different clans had acted in other novels, and I understood the sort of “disconnect.” White Wolf wanted me to write within the formula, and I wanted to find all of the things that were loopholes in it.I think, in the end, that we came to a pretty good middle ground. I never knew the figures, but I know The Grails Covenant was always popular (and still is). One of my favorite books is still the Wraith novel I wrote that you edited. I know it was very different from what was expected. I also know because of it I now publish Johnette Napolitano’s journals, so I’ll take that as a win. Also, we’ve stayed in touch, the two of us, and that is very much a win.

Writing your own work and writing for hire are different animals. I’ve also done ghost writing, which is even more stressful. All of it helped me develop my own style and voice. And, as a later question in this interview might reveal, I owe a lot of my work to White Wolf, at least tangentially.

2-You’ve published multiple short fiction collections, as well as numerous novels. Which form do you prefer, and why?

When I stared writing, I had a hard time reaching 2500 words. Short fiction was all I thought about, and I lacked the commitment and confidence to tackle a novel. As time went on, and as I started getting published, the stories grew longer. Part of it was the incentive of being paid by the word, and part of it was just that my writing was growing and expanding. Things missing from earlier stories matured in the later works.

One of my favorite stories about my career is that I’d sold a vampire novel to a small press publisher, which helped to sell a Star Trek on a pitch, then sold a trilogy to White Wolf, but I’d only written the one vampire novel, which got canceled and sold to a different publisher later on, at that point. The pressure was on.

I love a very good short story. I despise bad ones. I have started writing more short fiction again recently, but for years, every story I started turned into a novel. It might be a curse. Several of my novels (including that first vampire novel) began as novelettes or short stories. It all sort of blends together, when I try to nail it all down, and now even the bulk of my novels connect, cross-over, and seem to be one huge story.

I don’t prefer either format, but I am most comfortable writing novels. That was not always true, so I am working my way backward. I have a story upcoming in an anthology from Cemetery Dance, “Hickory Nuts and Bones” that might t be the best I’ve ever written. Cliché as it will sound, it’s a process. They are all as long as they need to be, and if I write them too short, they bother me until I fix it.

3-You basically described your anthology project from 2020, Voices in The Darkness, as a middle finger raised to a bad year. What was the experience of putting that together like?

I was in a sort of writer’s block at the time. The whole experience of the former administration, diving into the depths of the pandemic and 2020 should have given me time and inspiration for writing. I had all the extra hours I needed. I wrote… very little. I finished a novella I liked that came out in an anthology, and I poked at two novels, but itfelt empty. So, having published a magazine back in the day, I put my editor's hat back
on.

I knew if I opened the floodgates, it would drown me, so instead I picked my authors. People I knew I could count on. I explained to them that I wanted to create something in 2020 that was worth remembering. And they got to it.

The book is very good. Maybe not exactly what I thought it would be, but in some ways a lot more. There is no theme. The final story, by Brian A. Hopkins, who I have been luring back into writing where he belongs, is absolutely fantastic. I met new authors. I read their books. It helped me, even as I worked on it.

The stories are so different it’s hard to explain how they work as a whole, but they do. I’m very proud of that, and through the editing, and the work, I got back down to my own writing, finished the story I mentioned above that sold to Cemetery Dance, and moved on into 2021 completing Jurassic Ark.

4-These days you wear two hats: writer and publisher. Which do you prefer, and why?

Writer, by a country mile, but that’s maybe an unfair question. As a publisher I’ve had the opportunity to make people happy. I’ve helped revive careers. We’e brought countless books back from obscurity to new generations of readers. I love that we do that. The only thing I don’t love about it is that it eats so much of the short remaining time I have to write my own books and stories.

It’s a very difficult balancing act. At times, it seems impossible. I’m getting a handle on it again, though. Simplifying, streamlining, and carving out time for what matters. I feel as if both of the two hats are vitally important to me now, and they keep me hopping, for sure. Someday, if the stars align, I’ll be able to pull back from the day job to only write and publish. That would be simpler, but I just don’t make enough at either of the things I love to comfortably do that so far. It’s frustrating, I admit. Publisher’s Weekly almost always loves me. Most of my reviews are very positive. The readership has never really come back. I had a period where I did not write much because my life wasmessed up, and so, the readers moved on. The fight to get them back is real (lol).

5-Jurassic Ark: How many dinosaurs is too many?

This book was a revelation to me. Back during the former guy’s regime, my wife and I wrote a book together. Remember Bowling Green: The Adventures of Frederick Douglass- Time Traveler. It was a parody of several gaffes by Trump and his administration involving a non-extant tragedy in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Trump saying that Frederick Douglass was “doing great things.” It was fun, and funny, but not deep.

Later that year I saw some articles about the guy in KY who created a Noah’s Ark theme park. There were cardboard cutouts of dinosaurs. I thought I’d write another parody where it was 6000 years ago, like the Creationists say. Men and dinosaurs sharing the world. Then I started to write.

Noah’s story is full of a very long list of moral questions. His family, the way he treated them, the way the story ends. It’s a very human story. What ended up happening, as I wrote, was that they came to life. They started to matter. I studied. I bought books on Jewish folklore.

Jurassic Ark is, in my opinion, one of my best books. It’s age appropriate down to teens, I’d guess, but complex enough for adults. It addresses issues and questions I had no idea would be a part of it. It even has a subtle nod to the Irish Rovers, for thosewho get the reference. I hope people will love it. But it DOES have dinosaurs. It has giants, and magic. It’s an adventure, with some romance… we’ll see what the world thinks.

FINAL NOTE: I thought I would see something to bring me to the explanation I mentioned above about how White Wolf influenced my career. My series, “The DeChance Chronicles,” was partially inspired by the desire to write something similar to the World of Darkness novels, but without boundaries. At least two of the stories were rejected by White Wolf along the way and modified to my own world, but a lot of the work I did for White Wolf gave me the skills and mindset to make it all work. Writing truly is a journey, and thanks for the opportunity to sit back, think, and write about it.

 

Big thanks to David for taking time to answer these questions. Check out his books at his website and don’t forget to visit Crossroad Press, home of my upcoming novel Ghost of a Marriage.

Next week brings an old friend to Five For Writing. Novelist, RPG writer and video game writer extraordinaire Lucien Soulban will be strapped in for what promises to be a very special edition of the series. See you then!