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George Martin is Kurt Cobain

The first episode of the new season of Game of Thrones premiered last night. My wife and I don’t have HBO, so we’ve only been able to watch each season once it’s on DVD, and we never bothered to pick up last season. Fortunately, our cable provider made HBO free on demand for the week leading up to the premier, so she and I mainlined GoT for the last five days.

It got me thinking about the state of fantasy in popular culture. At this point I’m not talking about superhero fantasies, which have waxed and waned for decades, or urban fantasy mediums like True Blood, or science fantasies along the lines of Star Wars. I’m presenting a very strict definition of fantasy, here. Swords. Sorcery. Wizards and supernatural occurrences and maybe (God, please let it be) dragons.

Basically, I’m not at all sure what to think of the mass popularity of GoT. I’m glad for it, because it draws eyes to the genre and dispels some of the common stereotypes about fantasy. It sells books on shelves, it raises the genre in the eyes of editors, developers, and producers (hopefully leading to more movie deals for authors, more contracts for writers, and a broader potential market of readers), and it adds fantastic elements to the social conversation.

That said, I don’t think simply writing a GoT analog will get you readers. I strongly believe that the broad swathe of GoT fans are exactly that – GoT fans. They’re not going to read very deeply in the genre, if they read at all, and they’re not going to stray very far from their comfort zone of licentious knights, medieval politics, and a host of bad guys you’re just hoping will die in this episode. That isn’t to say there aren’t GoT fans who are fans of the whole genre, and avid readers, and a tribute to the fandom. In fact, some of the best fantasy fans I know are GoT fans first (I’m looking at you, Brotherhood Without Banners!) The fact is, GoT brought fantasy into the mainstream. Martin is Tolkien’s Kurt Cobain.

But what does that mean for the rest of us? I’ll admit, the pitch sentence for The Hallowed War was “Game of Thrones meets Princess Mononoke”, so I’m far from innocent, here. How do we as writers resist the immense gravitational pull that is GoT, and how do editors steer clear of the trap of churning out copies of such a successful series, in the hopes of catching some of its gold? Further, should we be resisting at all? Readers clearly like this thing. Why not give readers what they want?

As writers, we have an obligation to push the boundaries of genre, to experiment, to avoid the pitfall of safe writing. But we also need to make a living. When Martin sat down to write A Song of Ice and Fire, his intention was not to do what was popular, what was selling, or what would make him a lot of money. He wrote what he wanted to write, because he loved it. There was no financial pressure on him (he had essentially retired), no time pressure, nothing but his internal drive to create. He produced the best book he could, and because he was a great writer, the fan base followed.

That’s the spirit we have to follow. Not the sales numbers, not the tastes of this editor or that popular blogger. We need to write the books that interest us the most. The readers will follow.

Or they won’t. But you’ll never know until you try.

The Game Writing Nebula

Yesterday, SFWA announced that they were adding a Game Writing category to the Nebula Awards. The exact specifications for eligible material aren’t available yet, though the announcement says “all forms of game writing”, so it doesn’t seem they’ll be actively limiting nominations, at least initially. I have some thoughts.

First, yay, good for SFWA. They need to expand their fold to include storytellers in the new media, since the old categories of novel, novella, novelette, and short story are antiquated and terribly arbitrary in the current market. I’m not sure where they stand with graphic novels. Some part of my brain says that graphic novels have won Nebulas in the past, but I could be wrong, but if not they should probably expand in that direction as well. But for now, they’re including game writing, so let’s talk about that.

I’m worried that this award is going to become “Writing that happens to appear in games” rather than a proper game writing award. What do I mean by that? Well, a good game writer is creating narrative through the game, through the player’s interactions with the game world, the rules systems, other players, and so on, and so forth. It’s a great deal more than the words that appear on screen (or in the printed supplement, more on video games versus tabletop in a different post) or the dialog spoken by the characters. It’s a matter of narrative, driven through game play.

Let me give you two examples in the same game. I play a lot of World of Warcraft, and the latest expansion has seen both some of the best narrative storytelling and some of the worst. The story progresses through patches, and at the end of the last patch, the players were involved in freeing an ancient elven city, Suramar, from its oppressive rulers. During a great disaster in the past, the rulers of this city were forced to isolate their civilization from the rest of the world (this happens a lot in WoW, letting the developers reveal new gameplay areas by ending the new area’s isolation through various mechanics) and now, as they emerge from their exile, those same rulers have made a deal with demonic forces to ensure their continued survival.

The players get involved with dissident forces in the city, slowly loosening the demonic grip on the city, and eventually leading a revolution. It unfolded over several months of gameplay, starting with the players sneaking around the city, avoiding guards, making contacts among the resistance and manipulating political shifts in the city council, and then evolving into a full-fledged military invasion. It was very well written, with the missions leading through a narrative campaign that really made the players feel involved in the fate of this city.

It was fun. It was involving. And, frankly, it was a good story, well told. It wasn’t the dialog or cut-scenes that made it, though those things played a role in making the characters feel alive and the player’s interactions real. The quality of that patch was in the mission design, the natural flow of the narrative progression; in short, the game was well written.

The next expansion was the opposite. The players are dumped on an island and given random quests, told to collect supplies, and set on an endless cycle of constructing buildings that are then torn down by the demons and must be rebuilt. As stories go, well, Sisyphus had a more complicated plot line.

That’s the difference. That’s good game writing. But it has nothing to do with the writing in the game. The dialog and cut scenes are just as good in the new patch, the characters just as interesting, but the game play is awful. The narrative has stumbled, and that’s what makes good game writing.

Look, I’m glad SFWA is trying to grow the relevance of their awards. They’ve suffered from Cool Kids Club syndrome for a long time, and hopefully this change can help that, but I’m not yet convinced. I get the feeling that if Neil Gaiman wrote the dialog on a mobile fidget spinner, it might get nominated. I hope I’m wrong. Because the stories the next generation will be listening to will come to them in games, not in books, and if we’re going to keep our gigs as storytellers, we need to start thinking outside of the page.

The Five Year Update

Today marks the five year anniversary of my writing full-time. The time has been fast, but it has also been a lifetime, something I worked toward forever and then, once achieved, haven’t really appreciated as I should. And while time is relative and calendars are arbitrary, five years makes for a nice and comfortable chunk. So today, a reflection.

I tell people that writing is really the only thing I’m good at. That’s not entirely true, but it’s the one clear talent I have, the one thing I’ve done for as long as I can remember and have always been a little gifted with. I wrote my first stories at a very young age, and decided it was what I wanted to do while still in elementary school (the only other profession I claimed an interest in was inventor, when I only understood that job in terms of the Wright Brothers and Tesla. I imagined days of whirling electrical orbs and new ways to do impossible things, but then I ran head long into math and realized it wasn’t for me. All the cool stuff, the stuff you could do in your garage, had already been done) and while I had a clear inclination for writing, I didn’t take concrete steps in that direction for a long time.

Once I started writing, though, I burned fast and bright. My first professional sale came in six months, and within five years I was selling every story I wrote. I had the attention of a great agent, so when I sold my first novel (on spec! what!) I was convinced that all of the good things were happening in the order they were meant to happen. And then they didn’t. I’ve told that story often enough. Go through the archives if it’s news to you, but five years after my first book came out I was pretty deep in the doldrums of an unremarkable career. My life was in chaos, personally and professionally. I had become self-destructive.

Part of coming out of that meant quitting my job and jumping out into an abyss of uncertainty. All credit and love for this go to my wife, without whom I would be a broken thing. Without whom I certainly wouldn’t be here, and happy, and on the way back up.

The first few years of writing full time were tough. I wrote a book, then I rewrote it, then I rewrote it again. I accumulated a lot of rejections. I started to doubt. And when I did sell it, that necessitated another rewrite, perhaps truer to my original vision of the book, but certainly different than what I had produced after three years of hard work. Nothing worth doing is easily done.

And now we’re here. The Pagan Night has sold well, certainly better than anything I’ve produced before, but it hasn’t been life changing. The Iron Hound was difficult, and I’m in the first round of revisions on it, and it’s not any easier. I’ve started The Winter Vow, but can’t get any further into it without resolving some issues in book two. It’s all a process, but one that I wish would get easier. Maybe it has, and I’ve just moved the goalposts, aimed for a better book. I don’t know. But it still feels like writing my first words.

What else? In the in between bits I’ve written a book called Wraithbound, which may or may not ever see the light of day, but which I quite enjoy. I’ve written half a dozen short stories, only two or three of which have sold. I’ve started four different YA novels, producing maybe thirty to forty thousand words on each before fizzling out. I’m just not sure I know how to write YA to my satisfaction or the market’s expectations. The first full novel I wrote was YA, and it was good enough to get the attention of my agent, but far from publishable. That might be a road I’ll never fully walk.

I’ve also written a dozen or so projects for various game companies, returning to the discipline that first published me (in college) and making enough to support my miniatures habit. I may do more of that, or less, or keep going at the current rate. Who knows?

So. Five years, which is fifteen years after I started writing with intent, and forty-four years after I was born, and God knows how many more to come. But if I put everything into each year, and each day, and each word… well. What more can we ask for? What more can we want?

The Gemmell

I’m more than a little surprised to learn that The Pagan Night made the long list for the Gemmell awards this year. Voting is open to the public, and without restriction, so I encourage you (and your friends and relatives and strangers you meet at bars) go and vote for me. It’s quick and easy, and will certainly change my life. Or at least please me greatly.

Vote here!

The Pagan Year

Today is the one year anniversary of the release of The Pagan Night, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to do a little retrospective.

First, you may be wondering where the next book is. Simply put, there were some delays that I didn’t expect, so the publication date has been pushed back to August. The first and a half draft is done, but I suspect there will be a fair bit of editing to do before the book is ready for shelves, so hold that date in an open hand. You can pre-order The Iron Hound here.

One of the things about having a book come out in January, as The Pagan Night did, is that it risks getting lost in the mix. By the time the year ends and all of those “Best of Year” lists come out and people are nominating for awards and so forth, the January titles are a distant memory. I’ve spent the last couple months hoping that someone would recall my book as one of their favorites of the year, but that hasn’t worked out, and I don’t really know what to do with that in my head. As with everything I do, TPN didn’t get a whole lot of reviews, but they were almost universally positive, and yet the book apparently isn’t memorable enough to make the lists.

I’m not sure what to do about that. If there were negative reviews that I could point to and say “Ah, here we go, this is where I can improve” then I would have something to work with. I want to write the kind of books that get remembered. I want to get better. But I guess I’m a little adrift on how to do that. It’s not an ideal place to be, especially when you’re two books into a three book contract.

I guess I’ve based my life on two standards of success: financial and literary. Either you sell a lot of books, or you win a lot of awards, and anything between those standards feels like failure. But really it’s incremental. TPN is still on bookstore shelves a year after release, which is six months longer than anything else I’ve written, so I guess that’s better. Mind you, at the current rate of sale it’ll be ten years before I earn out my advance. That doesn’t feel good. But waking up every morning and spending the day writing feels great, and maybe that’s what my success looks like. I just wish it was easier on the people around me.

There. That’s your retrospective, mixed with a little bit of wistful future thinking and topped off with a stab of inspiration. Let’s see what next year looks like, shall we?

The Last Paladin of a Dead God

“Eva Forge is the last paladin of a dead God…”

That’s how I opened the pitch for the book that eventually became The Horns of Ruin, and I think it’s one of my better opening pitch lines. Perhaps the greatest ever conceived. What I find especially pleasing is that the book that I wrote to match that pitch lives up to that line. And while Horns has been off the shelves for quite a while, it’s the only one of my books that I’ve gone back to read for pleasure after it was published, and will always hold a special place in my heart.

Which is why I’m ecstatic to announce that it’s coming back! Eva Forge will once again invoke the rites of the war god Morgan in her search for the people who murdered the other priests in her monastery, she will again crack wise with creatures strange and foul, and you will once again have the opportunity to read the entire book in one sitting. And not only is the book back, it’s going to have a swell new cover.


I can’t tell you how pleased I am with this cover. It’s the work of J Caleb Design, and I think it’s amazing.

The book itself is only going to be available as an ebook at first, but we’ve started the wheels moving to provide a print on demand alternative as well. And you’ll notice that I said “going to be available”. That’s because the book isn’t out yet! We’re releasing on February 7th, but if you pre-order the book you’ll get it for a reduced price! So go here, select your preferred format, and get back into the world of Eva Forge!

Once again, buy the book!

The bird in the rain

My house backs up to a pond. We keep a bird feeder near the edge of the water, and get a variety of birds throughout the year. I think my favorite are the cedar waxwings that pass through on the edges of winter, skirting that harsh season on their way to better places. And of course I love cardinals and goldfinches and the usual suspects that live around here. They show up, day in and day out, because we feed them.

It’s been raining all day. Most of yesterday, too, though there was a breath of dawn light first thing this morning, turning the fog into pewter. It’s that steady kind of rain that soaks through your coat, even if you’re only walking from your car to the door. It’s a miserable day.

The birds are feeding. My mom always told me that you could tell it was going to rain all day if the birds were still feeding. I think there’s more to it than that, but it’s worth remembering. It’s easy to let the rain decide when you eat, but the meal is always there. The things that feed us, our families, our friends, our beliefs and our work, they’re always there. Even in the rain.

This has been a strange and quiet holiday for us. We both have colds, so we spent the weekend resting and drinking non-celebratory fluids. And a friend of ours died on Thanksgiving. We had lost touch with him in that last few years, but apparently he was diagnosed with a brain tumor in early November, underwent surgery, and never woke up. He passed silently away with his family by his side. He was an incredibly kind man, and very talented, and someone I really wish I’d known better. He was 39 years old.

The birds show up, day in and day out, because we feed them. Even in the rain.


The public face of an author is kind of a strange thing. The publishing industry is stranger. Things take time. By the time a book gets to shelves, the author has probably already finished the next one, or is at least deeply stuck in with it. When The Pagan Night was published, it was the culmination of five years of writing, revision, proposals and pitches that took a lot of my creative energy. But during those five years I had also written another book in a different universe, and written proposals for two other projects, neither of which got off the ground. There’s a wide gap between what you see me doing, and what I actually do.

Which brings us to our current state. The Pagan Night is still on shelves, so when I go to conventions or do public posts, that’s what I’m promoting. But the second book, The Iron Hound, is already done and sitting on my editor’s desk. The synopsis for book three is finished as well, awaiting feedback from both editor and agent before I start the actual writing.

Additionally, I have about four proposals in my queue. These are all at various stages of preparedness, and I switch between them at will. For two of them I have three chapters and a synopsis ready to go. One’s a YA adventure story featuring giant mecha, government conspiracies, an alien artifact on a distant outpost, and a good deal of sarcasm. The other is a lovecraftian sword and sorcery novel that’s a little on the edge of comfort for me. It has a lot of the strangeness of the Veridon books about it, and rides that line between horror and adventure that Jacob Burn was very comfortable following.

The third proposal is what I’m working on this morning. It’s actually a revision of that book I wrote in between sessions with The Pagan Night, and incorporates a lot of feedback I got from my agent as well as some impressions I’ve gotten from readers of The Hallowed War series. It’s heartfelt fantasy, but leans more heavily on a single protagonist and his journey. While struggling with multi-character timelines and giving each protagonist the space needed to tell their story, I half-flippantly said that my next book was going to be about a scholar and the dead man bound to his soul. This book is literally that.

Finally, I’m returning to one of my true loves of cyberpunk, while staying true to my fantasy roots. That project is currently called Paragon, and is best described as high fantasy cyberpunk, which is a challenging enough pitch line to keep me occupied for a while. For that one all I have is a notebook full of ideas. I think of it as my vacation project, because it’s the thing I can fall into and kick wild ideas around without being committed to a deadline or character arc or any of that. Just brainstorming in ink.

When will you see any of this? I have no idea. Publishing is slow. Even if I wrote all of these in the next few years, it would be years more before they reached shelves, and by then my idea basket will have grown exponentially. But just so you know, there’s a lot in the pipeline, and more on the way.

Pagan Audio

I’m pleased to announce that The Pagan Night, book one of The Hallowed War series, is now available in audiobook form! Recorded has done a great job with the reader and cover, and I simply couldn’t be happier with this! Go, listen, and enjoy!




In the in between

I’m in this strange place, schedule-wise. I have finished the first draft of The Iron Hound and shipped it off to the appropriate authorities. While I’m waiting to hear back from them, I’ve got a small contract for a gaming company that’s sort of open ended. I keep circling around it, taking passes and then letting it sit before I come back to review what I’ve done.

I could start on book three (tentatively titled The Winter Vow) but I’d rather not do that until things firm up with book two. I’m comfortable with what I’ve done with Iron Hound, but you never know. Characters may need to get yanked out or stuffed back, or consolidated, or punched up. Plot lines might need reworking. And I don’t want to start building a book on unstable footing.

So what do I do now? Well, I’ve been pushing this novella around on my desk for a while, but my problem with it is that I’m not committed to the form. I’ve always struggled to write short stories because they’re just too narrow, and I keep trying to shove novel sized ideas into them. Very good short story writers have an entirely different set of skills than I do, something I learned during my years of struggling to sell short stories. When I take a small idea and write it out, they usually end up at novella size. And that’s more of a problem than a solution.

I should be a natural for the novella length, right? Well, maybe, except what do I do with them? There are a few novella markets, but it’s a very few, and they have a lot of submissions and I don’t really have an “in” with any of them, or the kind of name that opens doors. I would probably end up having to self-publish it, and while I’ve done that a number of times in the past, the results haven’t been groundbreaking. I’ve made more money picking up loose change on the street, and I’m something of a germaphobe. It’s not profitable for me at this stage of my career.

Thing is, I’m going to need something to present my editor after The Hallowed War series wraps, which if everything goes to plan will be sometime early next year. I already have one book completed in an entirely new universe, but I know it has a few problems that might be salvageable, or might require binning completely. Or I could turn this weird thing I’m pushing around right now into a novel proposal, but it’s intentionally very strange, bordering on the grotesque, and my current publishing tack has been toward the commercially accessible.

So who knows? Who knows what’s next. For now I guess I’m just going to muse about it in public, to let you know that I’m working and working and working, and eventually something will find traction and become the next thing. Or not.

Who knows? Not knowing is part of it.