Five For Writing – Matt Forbeck

It’s GenCon week, which makes it the perfect time to talk to the legendary Matt Forbeck. A game designer, best-selling author and all-around nice guy, Matt has untold credits to his name. Here, without delay, is his Five For Writing:

 

1-What’s it like to have written literally all the things?

I find that I haven’t quite written all the things, but the things that I haven’t written get harder to reach. I like to write in all sorts of genres and categories, mostly because it keeps me from getting bored and stale with any particular one, and that (hopefully) keeps my writing fresh and fun — at least to me!

It’s also part of a diversification strategy. If the work or audience for one particular kind of writing dries up, I have others I can tackle instead. It keeps me from having to worry too much more than normal about how I’m going to help feed my kids and <ahem> help put them through college.

2-You’ve written for TTRPG, video games, novels and more. What’s your favorite form, and why?

I like writing in all kinds of formats, and I’d hate to have to actually choose among them. They each have their own strengths. With video games, I get to work with (sometimes massive) teams and watch other folks bring my words to life, but I don’t have much control if any over the final product. With a novel, I get total control over everything, but I don’t get to rely on anyone else’s talents but my own.

Comics and tabletop games make a good balance between those two extremes. I get to work with a small team, and a lot of my vision shows up on the page. Tabletop games can get really complex, though, and require more skills than just writing, which lets me work other parts of my brain. Comics have some of the most stringent parameters. Writing for those is like writing 22-page haikus.

If I had to choose one, I’d probably go with novels, mostly because I like my independence. Video games pay a lot better though!

3-What are the different writing muscles you need to use for your different types of writing?

With video games, you often have to focus on the dialog over everything else. It’s one of the things you have the most control over. You can also wind up writing reams of background information that no one outside of the team ever sees, but they need that so they all know what the end result is supposed to feel like.

That dovetails nicely into tabletop games. With TTRPGs, you don’t have to worry about the dialog much at all, but you focus on that worldbuilding instead. You need to give the game master all the information about how things work so they can make decisions on the fly that ring true to the world they’re playing in.

Novels and comics require you to deal with worldbuilding, but character motivation and plot are often more important. Dialog helps sell all that and make it sing, but it needs to rest on those other aspects as a foundation.

The key to the whole thing — no matter what you’re writing — is developing a keen sense of storytelling. If you can keep a table of friends engaged with a story over a few drinks, that’s the core talent. You can learn the other skills to move into other flavors of the craft.

4-You’ve brought one of your sons into the family business. What’s it like working with him?

I love working with my son Marty, and my son Patrick is studying video game design in college, so he might wind up joining us at some point too. In addition, Nicholas helped Marty and me out with a TTRPG adventure that should be announced sometime this fall.

Marty is a sharper student of stories than I was at his age. He knows the tropes and references to other media inside and out. Part of that’s him growing up in the internet age, and the rest is his own natural love of stories.

It’s great to work with someone you know so well. You can skip over a lot of the explanations you’d have to offer someone else, and we’ve developed our own kind of shorthand that comes with being part of a tight-knit family.

My wife and I have apparently raised him to be unafraid to question us, and that’s really helpful too. He can skewer one of my lousier suggestions with a simple arch of an eyebrow and a single “Really?”


5-You’re one of the movers and shakers behind the Diana Jones Awards. What trends are you seeing in the tabletop industry that excite you?

The tabletop games industry is more vibrant and pervasive today than ever. The days of having to explain to adults what D&D is are largely over, and I see lots more people from a far more diverse section of the population not only enjoying games but creating them too.

That’s one of the things we’re trying to encourage with the Diana Jones Award. We recently formed into an official nonprofit and are applying for 501c3 status. The main impetus for that is so we can expand our Emerging Designer Program, which aims to bring new game designers to Gen Con to introduce them into and to the larger world of tabletop games.

 

Five For Writing – Gary Frank

Gary Frank is a man of many talents. Hailing from the horror hotbed of New Jersey, he is not only a talented author but also a skilled songwriter and musician. Recently he burst back onto the literary scene with a gripping tale of terror, The Thing In The Woods.  Want to know more? Keep reading….

 

1-Of all the classic literary conflicts, surely Man Vs. Bigfoot is one of the most primal. What inspired you to write about it?

We have the main character, Rich, who, like most of us, works 9-5 and has the usual adult responsibilities. He gets juxtaposed against Bigfoot who has none of these, a being that Rich sees as free to just live and survive in the wild. It’s appealing to him. The question I examine is who is the real monster in this story. Bigfoot’s just trying to survive, and here come these humans, messing things up.

2-How has your writing evolved over the years from Forever Will You Suffer to The Thing In the Woods?

Forever Will You Suffer I refer to my B-Movie horror novel. It’s a roller coaster ride of craziness in a good way. With The Thing in the Woods, the relationships between the four characters and their story arc, takes precedence over the monster. My writing is less about the thing and more about the people having to overcome the thing.

3-What about living in New Jersey inspires you to write horror?

There’s a lot of weird that goes on in the Garden State, from the former Essex County Hospital, which was reported to be haunted, to the Pine Barrens and the Jersey Devil, to the ghosts in Cape May. It seems a prime place to set more weird stories, especially an urban legend like Bigfoot. There is a national organization that does Bigfoot research missions, and one of their locations is northern New Jersey.

4-You are also a musician and songwriter. What’s the process for writing music like as opposed to writing fiction?

Writing songs and the accompanying music is more immediate. Lyrics kind of flow from one line to the next and there’s a poetic element there that seeks to rhyme. With stories, there isn’t that urgency. It’s more of a marathon than a sprint, which leaves me more space to unfold a story. Songs tend to be more like moments in time, like a photograph.

5-What would you do if you actually ran into a Bigfoot?

Fleeing in fear is high on the list, right after soiling myself. I’d like to think I’d be amazed and remember to take clear photographs. But I doubt I’d be so brave!

ECGC Talk Video Goes Live on YouTube

Earlier this year I was cajoled into giving a talk at East Coast Game Conference. I hadn’t given a talk at a game conference with a powerpoint in years – mostly I’ve been concentrating on narrative roundtables at GDC, as well as helping put together the content for the Game Narrative Summit and ECGC. But this time I went ahead and did it, talking about the differences between writing fiction and writing video games. Enjoy!

Five For Writing – Evan Skolnick

Evan Skolnick is the go-to writer when it comes to learning about writing for games. An established and talented writer himself, he also teaches a legendary tutorial at GDC and is a professor at the University of Silicon Valley. Plus, he’s written an exemplary book on game writing, Video Game Storytelling.A former comics writer for Marvel, Evan has seen it all, done it all, and written it all. Now, without further ado, Five for Writing with Evan Skolnick:

1-How did writing for comics inform your game writing?

As most folks reading this probably well know, writing for games is a whole other animal vs. writing for more traditional media such as comics, movies, TV, novels, and so forth. Although I entered the game industry in 2001 as a producer, I almost immediately began contributing narrative content to many of the games in our studio.
And I had so much to learn about writing for this new (to me) medium! There really was no such thing as a dedicated “game writer” back then, and the term “narrative designer” was years off as well. There were no books or guides on the subject in those days. So, like many folks during that time, I was kind of on my own, figuring it
out as I went.

During this process, while I had a lot of new things to get my head around, there were some elements from my comics-writing background that did prove helpful. The first was that I noticed a significant crossover between super hero comics and video games in terms of the power fantasy aspect, and that both media forms often
included elements of science fiction or fantasy. The visual storytelling aspect of comics, including that age-old Hollywood maxim of “show don’t tell”, is quite applicable to many games. And squeezing a lot of story
into a small space — the art of being concise and economical with your storytelling — is definitely shared across the two media forms.

Finally, comics are a collaborative medium, and so that helped prepare me for the same aspect in games.

2-You teach game writing at the University of Silicon Valley and give an acclaimed storytelling tutorial at GDC. What’s the secret to teaching people game writing?

There are two separate audiences for these two examples, so I have two different
answers.
For GDC, it’s a one-day tutorial, and the audience members span all game development disciplines. So in that brief time I have with them, I focus on simply recognizing that game narrative is always a cross-discipline team effort, and try to give the developers in that room some basic storytelling knowledge to help them become better narrative collaborators, regardless of their role on the team.

At USV, though, the audience for our game writing and narrative design curriculum consists of aspiring game designers and writers, and it’s multiple semesters as opposed to just a single day. So it’s about giving these students capability and experience in as many real-world game writing and narrative design challenges as
they’re likely to face in the industry. I draw heavily upon my own 20+ years in game development to come up with these lessons, exercises, situations and challenges — for example, working in pre-established IPs, writing cutscenes, barks, and lore items, world-building, character development, choice design, voice recording support, collaborating with other team members, planning and scoping a game’s narrative elements, and so forth.

I’m not sure there’s a single “key” to teaching game writing, but the principle I probably emphasize the most is that game storytelling is an enhancement to gameplay, and should be working to elevate it, not elbow it out of the way or stomp all over it.

3-What does it feel like to have a game you’ve written (Cuphead) translated into a TV show?

Well, I didn’t create the world, characters or story structure for Cuphead, so I’m probably not as emotionally attached to this IP as one might expect from just looking at the credits. I came on late in the project, as we game writers often do, and so my job was to help the team — who already had a very clear vision of the game
they wanted to make — tell the story they wanted to tell.

It was a lot of fun, Studio MDHR was wonderful to work with, and I feel fortunate to be associated with what ended up being such a successful, high-profile game. But am I surprised that Netflix didn’t consult the game writer to participate in the animated show’s planning or write scripts? Absolutely not.

4-What advice do you have for aspiring game writers?

I get asked the “how do I become a game writer” question so often, a while back I wrote a blog piece providing my own answer. I think it still holds up!

5-What says good game writing to you, and how do we get more of it?

So many things are involved when it comes to good game writing, starting with itbeing good writing, period.

But that said, you can’t just hire any writer for this. If you take an award-winning writer from another medium and just drop them into a game project, they’re likely to struggle because there are so many unique aspects to game narrative development. It’s a bit like when F. Scott Fitzgerald tried to take his novel-writing skills to Hollywood toward the end of his career — just because he was a great novelist, it didn’t necessarily follow that he could adapt those skills to writing for the screen. It’s like that, but multiply the differences by a factor of five.

Unlike in more traditional media, where (in theory at least) “story is king”, game writing is generally a support role. This is a foreign concept to writers who are used to kicking off the creative process or simply handing off a script. Good game writing is expertly woven into the gameplay experience and enhances the player’s enjoyment. It adds powerful emotional stakes to what could otherwise feel like empty and repetitive gameplay experiences. When done right, it’s an intensively collaborative process across nearly the entire team.

So how do we get more of it?

Fortunately, it’s already happening. We’re getting more and more strong game writing, thanks to the increasingly accepted reality that having professional game writers and narrative designers involved and empowered throughout the process is the path to a better result.

Transgressive Science Fiction Kickstarter

Some of you may recall that I had an essay in Ghost Show Press’ book on horror cinema. Well, the fine folks there are at it again, this time dealing with science fiction, and they’ve roped me into providing an essay on that most mind bending of 70s mindbenders, ZARDOZ. The Kickstarter for the project is live, so chip in and get ready to have your minds blown by a murderer’s row of contributors.

Five For Writing – Robert Ford

Robert Ford is cooler than you. That’s OK, he’s cooler than just about anybody, In addition to having written genre masterworks like The Compound and The Last Firefly of Summer, he’s collaborated with John Bodden on a series of novels and he’s widely known as a superb live reader. It was my great good fortune to get to hang out with him during the recent Scares That Care AuthorCon, and to get him to agree to sit down for five questions. So here they are, Five for Writing with Robert Ford.

1-You’ve described your new book as “brutal”. Why go there?

When I started writing Burner, I was on the verge of completing two projects and hadn’t decided what I was going to work on next. I sat down, flipped through my idea notebook, and came across several things I knew were novel-sized concepts. I wrote some notes down on each, but with Burner, the notes grew and grew until I’d written down about fifteen pages of material. It (no pun intended) ignited something and the next day, I became a man obsessed. I generally am not a very fast writer, but I wrote the first draft of Burner in a month. At times, it felt like I couldn’t possibly type fast enough to get the words down. The “brutal” part of the novel…it came with the territory of the novel’s content, and even so, I cut about twelve-thousand words from the draft because it felt “too extreme”, even though it was based on real case studies I read when I was doing research.

2-You’re renowned as one of the best readers in the business. What’s your secret?

I have been lucky enough to witness some of the best readers when I was first starting out, and not long after, witnessed some readings that were quite the opposite. I suppose I paid attention to the good and bad and began applying that to my own readings. And practice. Practice, practice, practice. Listen to your voice and how it projects, the cadence and rhythm of words. Plus, it helps to love doing live readings, and I always have.

3-You’ve notably collaborated with John Boden on Cattywampus. What’s your process for collaboration, and is it easier or tougher than writing solo?

Yeah, John and I worked together on Rattlesnake Kisses, Cattywampus, and are finishing up Black Salve. For us, we start with a general core of an idea, and then dive right in. We don’t outline and though we occasionally touch base on the storyline to maintain overall direction, we pretty much throw a chapter or two at each other, and then take turns. It’s an absolute blast and sometimes we’ll throw each other challenges, but it’s all in good fun. I can’t say it’s tougher or easier than working solo, but we’re both having a great time doing it.

4-You mention on your web page that your stories can make readers cry.

Do you prefer that or horrifying them? I used to run my own advertising agency for years, and when I was developing campaigns, one of the things I always focused on is making sure I hit an emotional nerve or it falls flat. I feel that way with my written work as well. So pulling their heart strings, and scaring the hell out of them right after makes a good pairing for me. I also think humor and horror are great mates as well.

5-What’s your favorite book that you’ve written, and why?

I’m very proud of Burner, because it is such a very different novel for me and seems to be resonating with readers in such a great way. I have a supernatural novel out on submission called Dead Pennies that I think is going to shake readers up and make them sleep with the lights on. But my favorite is the one I’m working on now, titled Domino. It’s early, but this “feels” big, and I’m forcing myself to slow down so I can do the story justice. Everyone will be hearing a lot more about that soon.

Cosmic Horror Monthly #23

Like your horror cosmic? Want to check out my story “In the City of the Idol”, which is me doing my best Clark Ashton Smith impression? Then check out the May issue of Cosmic Horror Monthly, available now at their website. And look, they even put my name on the cover!

Five For Writing – Jeremy Megargee

A rising star in the world of extreme horror. Jeremy Megargee is one of the nicest, sweetest guys you’d ever want to meet. A literary craftsman who deftly wields chills as well as gross-outs, Jeremy shares a table of contents with me in Counting Bodies Like Sheep. Yet despite that, he’s still willing to speak to me. Here’s Five For Writing with Jeremy Megargee.

1-How does someone who’s a professional caregiver get into writing horror?

I’ve worn a few day job hats in my life, caregiver most recent, and prior to that I was a security shift supervisor/bouncer at a large casino. I don’t mind so much what I do for a living as long as it’s a tolerable environment/wage, but I’ve been passionate about writing horror since I was a little boy. The darker side of life has always been in my blood.

2-Mothman: Threat or menace? Or just a statue with nice abs and a great ass?

He’s both a threat and and a menace, but his booty cheeks are just as powerful as his wings. If you hear a flapping and clapping in the WV hills, Mothman is somewhere about. Bridgett Nelson, Jeff Strand, Lynne Hansen, and Damien Casey can back me up on this one.

3-What impact does living in West Virginia have on your writing?

A huge impact. I think Appalachia is unlike any other place in the country. Pockets of isolation, valleys locked into green mountain barriers, and rural blue collar folk that are almost a throwback to an earlier era when coal was still king. Massive forests & people living hardscrabble lives. I love to write about those things.

4-What’s the appeal of writing werewolves?

They’re my favorite supernatural creature. I think what appeals to me most is the nature of duality. The animalism behind the veil. We all have those primal instincts, and in werewolves, we can explore them fully. That’s what I took great pleasure in doing with my novel Old Hollow.

5-Do you prefer using traditional monsters or making up your own?

I can play with the old tropes, the pioneer monsters that paved the way and have established lore, but I think creating something unique that we haven’t seen before can be special. I play with some outlandish monster concepts in my short fiction.

Counting Bodies Like Sheep Now Available

The extreme horror anthology Counting Bodies Like Sheep from Evil Cookie is now available in hardcopy and eBook formats! Featuring a veritable who’s-who of extreme horror, it also contains my short story “The Taste of It Fresh”, which is by far the grossest thing I’ve ever written. I’m pleased and proud to be a part of this one, and you can order it here.

 

Five For Writing – Stephen Mark Rainey

Greensboro’s Stephen Mark Rainey is a celebrated author and editor in the horror genre. The guiding light behind the legendary Deathrealm magazine, he has a new short fiction collection coming out entitled Fugue Devil: Resurgence. He’s also a regular contributor to the Ameri-Scares series for young readers, and has written in the Dark Shadows universe. He’s also exceedingly generous with his time, and it is my pleasure to share with you  his Five For Writing!


1-Your upcoming short fiction collection is titled Fugue Devil: Resurgence. What’s the link to the original “Fugue Devil,” which is now 30 years old?

“Fugue Devil,” the novelette, which I wrote in 1991 (and kicked off my original short fiction collection, Fugue Devil & Other Weird Horrors, from Macabre Ink, in 1992), was based on the most intense night terror I had as a youngster. It involved the appearance of a critter I found so horrific it actually traumatized me for a spell. The first time it appeared in the dream, I woke in a cold sweat — a weird sensation I’d never experienced before and never have since. Once I fell back to sleep, the dream continued right where it left off. I woke two more times, with the same result. The events in the story are nothing like those in the dream (which I still remember as clearly as any waking memory), but those crucial manifestations of the Fugue Devil itself are all there. The tale is what I might call faux folklore, and over the years, I ended up
connecting it with other stories I wrote. Fugue Devil: Resurgence features the original novelette as well as its sequel, “The Devil’s Eye,” which takes up the story many years after the events of the first. The book also includes my story, “Threnody,” which is similarly based in faux folklore, and features more than a touch of what I guess you could call Lovecraftian horror. I’d written “Threnody” several years before “Fugue Devil” and rather unwittingly provided an origin story for the latter. So although each story is a standalone, taken together, they reveal a more detailed, fleshed-out chronicle of both the horror itself and the fictional locale. Some of the other stories in the collection, while not overtly related, are set in the same location — a rural community in southwestern Virginia.

2-You write for the Ameri-Scares series for young readers. What’s the appeal of writing horror for youngsters?

There’s definitely a sense of getting in touch with your inner kid. At first, that sounded pretty easy because my inner kid is one dominating young bastard. It did feel a little awkward simplifying the prose to mid-grade level, but once I became acclimated to it, getting into the stories has been great. I was able to set several of the books in places that I know well or have visited regularly — such as Georgia, Ohio, and Michigan. When I was writing my first book in the series — West Virginia: Lair of the Mothman — I went to Point Pleasant, WV, home of the legendary Mothman, for several days and, from the moment I arrived, found myself steeped in the lore. It was one of the most fun projects I’ve ever worked on, and — like all the Ameri-Scares books — I think it works as well for adults as it does for young readers. Prior to the pandemic, the Ameri-Scares series was being developed for television. Sadly, though, like so many properties, it didn’t stand up to COVID-19. That was a bit of a blow for both Elizabeth Massie and me because it had gone so far into production at the time. Regardless, the book series has continued to move forward, and I just finished my latest — Georgia: The Haunting of Tate’s Mill. It’s set in Gainesville, GA, around Lake Sidney Lanier, which is reputedly haunted. My mom grew up in Gainesville, and I spent a lot of time there with my grandparents over the years, so it’s a location I know well. I went back recently to research settings for the book, and I think that really paid off.

3-You edited Deathrealm magazine for a decade. What was that experience like, and would you ever go back to editing again?

Deathrealm offered more ups, downs, and all-arounds than I could begin to describe in a reasonable amount of space. As a teenager, I had started a fanzine (Japanese Giants), which I ended up passing to a couple of other editor/publishers. It continued for several years and, having been so involved with that, I decided to try my hand at an honest-to-god fiction magazine. That was in late 1986/early 1987. I had the resources to produce professionally typeset copy, which in those days was unheard of. From the start, things went swimmingly for the magazine and, over the years, it grew by leaps and bounds. It featured everyone from first-time writers to the most well-known authors in the field. In the early days, I published the magazine entirely on my own, but when I was laid off from my job in 1992, I lost my typesetting resources. Happily, another publisher picked it up, and Deathrealm received a whole new lease on life. That went on for a couple of years, and then that publisher decided to move on. Still another publisher stepped in — 1994, I believe that was — and in those next few years, Deathrealm hit its high mark. Every issue appeared on the newsstand shelves, the contributor list was impressive as hell, and the magazine looked freaking beautiful. However, getting it out there on a regular schedule took a hell of a toll. I couldn’t fit in much of my own writing, and there were troubles on the home front. The nail in the coffin was when our distributor to Barnes & Noble and other major chains went belly-up. That was a financial hit we couldn’t just absorb and keep going. So, in 1997, the publisher and I agreed it was time to retire Deathrealm. We did it right — we made the situation known up front, published every story we had acquired, and paid all our debts. I loved seeing Deathrealm on the shelves, and I loved the editing aspect. The business part, though, had become so overwhelming that my time actually editing was minuscule compared to the time I spent playing salesman, marketing expert, advertiser, accountant, and collection agent. I would never put myself through that again. I’ve edited a handful of anthologies, and I’ve pitched an all-new Deathrealm anthology a couple of times. There was even a deal with a well-known publisher to make it happen a few years back, but things ended up going south at the last minute. It’s a project I’d definitely consider reviving. But I don’t think I could deal with managing a regular publication, even digital, and continue to maintain a positive life balance.

4-How was the experience of writing something for Dark Shadows?

In my youth, I was a knocked-out, diehard Dark Shadows fan, and my love of the show continued well into adulthood. Having the opportunity to write a licensed novel for the franchise was something of a dream come true. I loved the creative part, and collaborating with Elizabeth Massie was a joy. Our respective styles and methods of working complemented each other wonderfully. And then writing audio drama scripts for Big Finish’s Dark Shadows audio series took the enjoyment to a whole new level. Now, that said, anytime you’re doing media tie-in work, there are challenges — such as, in our case, working with producers and a publisher who never much communicated with each other and whose requirements of us writers sometimes conflicted. Even with an agent, getting paid in timely fashion — or at all — was not the world’s easiest task either. I can’t deny the novel experience dampened my enthusiasm for Dark Shadows for a time, but that was short-term. I really did enjoy the creative aspect of working in the Dark Shadows universe, and I suppose I’d do it again if invited. I recently did the production work for a new nonfiction Dark Shadows book, and I must say that loved the experience. I also have an essay about my Dark Shadows experiences coming up in a new nonfiction volume, due very soon.

5-You are a self-described avid geocacher. What’s the appeal?

I discovered geocaching — a kind of treasure hunt using GPS technology — in 2007, found my first geocache in early 2008, and I’ve been a geocaching addict ever since. Since I was a youngster, I’ve loved getting out in the woods, hiking, and especially finding unusual things. Geocaching opens the door to all that and then some. Through geocaching, I’ve discovered the most fantastic locations I’ve ever experienced — many close to home but that I’d otherwise never even know about. Going after caches gives me a solid goal when I’m hiking or traveling, which I definitely appreciate. And it’s been a healthy activity. I credit caching for prompting me to quit smoking. When I first started caching, it became clear that I could either smoke or get out there and undertake rigorous physical challenges. I opted for the physical challenges. That was well over a decade ago, and I’ve never regretted that decision. Now, I do love what some consider more “extreme” geocaching, which often involves climbing way up in trees or other high places, or going down in storm drains, underground labyrinths, and such, sometimes for miles. Caching underground sure cured me of my arachnophobia — I’ve ended up in enclosed spaces filled to the brim with big honking spiders (and/or black widows), a prospect that once would have paralyzed me with terror. Now, not so much. And I have had a couple of close brushes with copperheads, one of which chased me for a while. That makes for a hell of an adrenaline rush, I can tell you. My geocaching experiences have been fantastic inspirations for writing fiction, that much is certain.

 

Many thanks for the great answers! This interview was truly a pleasure to do, and I look forward to renewing acquaintances with the Fugue Devil. Until next week, when I’ll be bringing you Five For Writing with rising splatterpunk author Jeremy Megargee!