I had a great time on Reddit yesterday, and I wanted to share some of the conversation for those who might have missed it. Here are some of my favorite exchanges!
elquesogrande: Thanks for joining us, Erik!
How do you find writing in a set world like in Wizards of The Coast or Neverwinter versus worlds where you create everything yourself? Challenges for either? Preferences?
What are your favorite comic series / graphic novels out there and why?
What does it take to be a good comic book writer versus writing novels or games? The differences among the three in order to be successful?
erikscottdebie: That’s a lot of questions! Let me field those one at a time.
1) Writing in a Shared World like the Realms vs. Creator-Owned: There are pros and cons to both. In a Shared World, typically a lot of the ground work is already there, meaning both that you have to do a lot of research (it’s like writing a historical fiction book) but also that you don’t have to spend a lot of time world-building (as much of that’s already done for you).
The fanbase is also a double-edged sword: they’re built-in, they care about the world, and they know enough to fill in any gaps that you leave in your writing, but at the same time, if you get it wrong, they skewer you. As well they should.
The primary reasons to write in a Shared World are twofold: 1) because you happen to love that setting, 2) because the money tends to be better.
When you’re working in an entirely self-generated, creator-owned setting, you’re on your own. There is no safety net. There’s no built in fanbase. Your book lives or dies on the strength of your world-building, skill, and talent alone.
I thoroughly enjoy both types of writing, and I put as much effort into my shared world stuff as I do my creator-owned stuff.
2) My favorite comic/graphic novel series: I really, really like Bendis’s POWERS, because of the tone and the unique way it looks at heroes-as-celebrities (something similar shows up in JUSTICE/VENGEANCE). For just plain superhero awesome, I can’t get enough of DeConnick’s CAPTAIN MARVEL, obviously (if you aren’t reading that, you really should). And I frequently find myself returning to the very intellectual look at heroes you find in Moore’s WATCHMEN. Basically, I really like comics that treat their heroes as people–good, bad, gray, flawed, with all the same concerns and characterization you find in yourself and others.
3) Justice/Vengeance is the first comic I’ve ever written, so I’m not particularly qualified to answer that question definitively.
What I will say is that the primary trait that any writer needs–whether it’s novels, comics, game design, etc.–is perseverance.
Before talent, before connections, before money (though that helps), you need to have an unstoppable drive (one that borders on obsession) that makes you just keep getting up no matter how many times you get knocked down. And make no mistake, you will get knocked down. You need to believe, deep in your heart and in your gut, in the value of your work and the value of you as a person, and you need to respect yourself and your craft enough to keep refining, keep pushing, and keep striving through all the rejections, all the stonewalls, and all the people telling you that you aren’t good enough.
My advice to would-be writers getting into this game:
On Characters (particularly Fox-at-Twilight)
Snakeoilsage:Of all the characters you’ve written, which was the most fun?
erikscottdebie: Sophie’s Choice! Gah!
I just went with the first one that occurred to me, which is Lady Ilira “Fox-at-Twilight” Nathalan, from several of my Forgotten Realms books. There’s something deviously fun about writing a firmly chaotic sort of character–she’s unpredictable, mysterious, and can get away with just about anything (though it rarely goes exactly her way). Plus she’s sexy, determined, and has a cool set of magical powers that work well visually. I could write about her all day every day.
A close runner up is Mask, from Shadow of the Winter King, who is in a similar mold: devious, witty, and ruthless, and with a certain charisma that makes him/her/it glow on the page.
Snakeoilsage: So would you say you have a special place in your heart for tricksters?
a_woodz: Can you please forward this to the appropriate parties at WotC?
(Not my call, Liam Neeson!)
Campbell5: Erik, how do you respond to criticism that certain characters of yours are too overtly sexual, particularly in the case of Fox-at-Twilight.
Also, you seem to have an attraction to writing about elves across settings. Confirmation/ Denial?
erikscottdebie: 1) When you’re talking to a sex-positive writer like me, there’s no such thing as “too sexual.” People have sexual impulses, and they have sex, and some of them do it more often than others and with partners other people might not consider. And I understand that not all fantasy readers like sex in their fantasy books. It’s a matter of personal preference.
Twilight is a very sexual person, as a bunch of my characters (both male and female and otherwise) are. In part, the choice to make her very sexual in her original incarnations in “The Greater Treasure” and Depths of Madness is a setup for her later appearances in the Shadowbane series, where physical expression of sexual feelings are not generally possible for her (or at least extremely limited). I set up that dynamic in her character, and I’m exploiting it to what I hope is good effect.
I also want to make a distinction between the term “sexual” (a perfectly fine and healthy characteristic of a character) and “sexualized” (a process by which a character is instilled with a sexual nature). And even that is ok–one can certainly sexualize a character in fantasy, just as in fantasies, one can sexualize a person in the real world. (See what I did there?)
“Overly sexualized” to me describes a character who is reduced primarily or only to his or her sexual characteristics/actions (such as many female characters in fantasy novels/movies and many of the minor female GoT characters). I try not to reduce characters to any dimension, whether it be sex, violence, physical appearance, good, or evil. And I don’t think any of my significant characters can reasonably be described as sexualized in this way. I’ll have the occasional prostitute or bedmate in one of my books whose only role in the narrative is a sexual one, but I give equal play to male and female and otherwise prostitutes in my fiction.
Also, if one is put off by sex in fantasy novels, REALLY don’t read my novel Scourge of the Realm. But if you DO like it, then definitely do.
2) I like elves. I relate to them more than the other fantasy tropes, being also tall and inclined to be slender.
Short people in my books (dwarves, halflings, etc.) rarely end up in good places. Infected by a demon and cut in half, eyes exploded, poisoned and left to die with a sucking gut wound, etc.
I will note, however, that I have not as yet published anything outside an existing Shared World with elves, dwarves, halflings, etc. The Realms, Immoren, Golarion, etc., sure, I’ll write about elves. But in my own Creator-owned stuff? No elves.
The closest I’ve come is a character in Scourge who is a “fey” creature, but she’s definitely not an elf.
On Writing for Games
mgallowglas: High Erik! Welcome and thanks for doing the AMA.
How did you get started in writing for game companies, both as a designer and as a novelist. What advice would you give to someone interested in breaking into game writing today?
erikscottdebie: Hey, how’s it going?
1) I started writing Realms novels through the Maiden of Pain open call back in 2003 or so. I didn’t win, but my submission was good enough that it warranted a second, closed-call (of like 20 people), which turned into my novel Ghostwalker. Thereafter, I wrote several novels for them, made friends at WotC, and eventually started designing with the D&D Encounters program and my first sourcebook, Plane Above.
As for getting into designing, look for open calls. Submit to game companies. Paizo is constantly looking for people, particularly through the RPG Superstar contest it puts on regularly. Go to Conventions. Interact with designers online. Show them your stuff. There’s no real trick to it–just meet people, keep practicing, and eventually someone will say yes.
As for writing for a game company, eh, I wouldn’t advise seeking it out. I mean, I’ve loved doing it, and obviously it’s a great fit, but it’s really, really difficult, and doesn’t do a lot to kickstart your writing career. You get money out of it, but not a lot of acclaim, and you may get stuck producing something you really want to use some day but can’t because it’s not your property. Why give them all your best ideas? My Realms work helped me make some connections and I have a number of devoted fans, but generally I’ve had to reinvent myself as a writer thereafter anyway.
My advice is: publish your own, Creator-owned stuff, and let the game companies come to you. Be cool on your own, and then you’ll be a shoe-in for when they need someone.
DancesWithPugs: Which is more likely: That a novel with an original setting helps launch a game system with the same setting, or vice versa? Is it worth developing both at the same time?
erikscottdebie: It’s very rare, in my experience, that a novel with an original setting launches a successful game system based on that setting. I mean, Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire has inspired dozens of game adaptations, but none of them have really caught on. I’d love to produce game material for my World of Ruin series, but I don’t really anticipate it taking off and founding a new game system.
Game settings derive great support from a dedicated fiction line, which initially appeals mostly (though not entirely) to people who play that game. As tie-in fiction is getting a better reputation and becoming more plentiful, more and more non-gamers are buying into it.
And yes, I think producing both at the same time is probably the best way to go. If the setting is a fledgling, you won’t turn away potential readers who would say “oh, these are D&D books,” and your gamers won’t be intimidated by your 200+ backlist of tie-in novels.
Not that they should be, obviously, but I think one of the mistakes game companies often make with their fiction is to drive the world through the fiction. Which makes gamers feel like they either have to read the novels (they shouldn’t have to) or fall behind.
I’m not saying significant stuff shouldn’t happen in the novels, it’s just that the novels shouldn’t be the driving force of change that’s then felt in the game world without any explanation other than “read the novels.” I prefer the concept of the players being in charge of changing things in the world, and that the novels should be more personal stories set on a smaller scale.
On the Mechanics of Game Design
DancesWithPugs: As a game designer, which do you find to be more important: accessibility or comprehensiveness? Is this answer completely different for the casual market and hobby game market (someone already familiar with RPGs, CCGs, and complex board games)?
erikscottdebie: Between those options, accessibility. I trust the human imagination to fill in gaps that I as a designer can’t necessarily foresee. I’d rather spend my word count inspiring you than setting out rules for every eventuality.
I’m a freelancer, not a full-time game designer, so I don’t generally consider marketing to casual gamers or hobby gamers. It seems like casual gamers tend to favor games that don’t require them to fill in so many gaps, but games where the rules are relatively simple and straight-forward. So with them you need to be comprehensive, but not intimidating in your design–enough that they know what they’re doing without being overwhelmed. If anyone’s played Marvel: Avengers Alliance, that’s an excellent example of a game that’s pretty good for casual gamers.
Hobby gamers generally know what they like and are flexible enough to ignore rules that don’t work for them. Most of my design is for hobbyists, and so I lean toward accessibility, trusting them to take what they need and make up the rest.
On Word Counts and Multiple Media
gabrielle_h: You’ve written novels, short stories, and now comics. How do you tailor your ideas so that they fit into the right word-count length for what you’re doing? Aside from the length, what would you say is the biggest difference between writing a short story and writing a novel?
erikscottdebie: Experience. I get to a point where I know what I can do in a certain amount of words and how to do it.
The big difference between a short story and a novel is scope. A short story is very efficient–it’s all building to a single effect. A novel, on the other hand, has room to flex and meander and might be building to multiple effects. A short story is much more limited, but can be quite powerful all the same.
On Becoming a Writer
BigDom2: Was there anything specific you did to become a writer? Was it something you were compelled to do?
erikscottdebie: Well, the required blood ritual went awry because I couldn’t find a unicorn to sacrifice to Gwilzagak, so instead I just kinda said “f*** it,” sat down, and did it.
Seriously, though, I was in my Honors Chem class back in High School, going nuts with all the vast amounts of homework, and somehow it occurred to me that instead of the copious other distractions I could indulge in–sports, girls, etc–I should write a novel. So I did. And I kept writing one consistently once a year after that.
I never really did it all that seriously–never intending my work for publication–but I had a pretty serious near-death experience my first year in college, and it instilled in me the understanding that life was short, and I had a responsibility to myself to tell these stories that were bubbling up inside me. And so here we are.
On Magic Swords
stk_kreations: Okay, random question time (this stems from me having just seen the Conan Atlantean sword pop up while looking at books). There are a lot of legendary, epic, memorable weapons throughout the fantasy world (books and games). So the question is: do you have a favorite fantasy weapon from fiction or gaming? and yes, it can be one of your own.
erikscottdebie: Magic swords! Magic swords! Yay!
It’s hard to go wrong with the Holy Avenger, which provides a bit of the mold for Vindicator, the sword my rogue-turned-paladin Kalen Dren wields in the Shadowbane series. And of course Elric’s Stormbringer, which is kind of the opposite in many ways.
From my own work, I particularly like Draca, Ovelia the Bloodbreaker’s relic sword in Shadow of the Winter King, a red steel flamberge that exudes crimson shadows that, in the hands of a trained user, reflect imminent danger, making her basically impossible to be surprised. The sword also absorbs magic, thus powering itself and making it a serious threat to sorcerers and those who rely on their power armor or thaumaturgical weapons.
stk_kreations: Awesome! I love when authors get creative with the weapons and turn them into characters in their own right.
Very good answer. I haven’t gotten to Shadow of the Winter King yet, but now I’m even more excited for it!
erikscottdebie: My other main character, Regel also is known for a magic sword, though it only appears in flashbacks in the first book. Frostburn is a falcat (a sword similar to a falcata in our world) whose blue steel blade is always covered in a layer of frost. It draws heat from those it touches–both victim and wielder–to feed its insatiable hunger for warmth and life. It is a blade made for reaping men, or so say the legendary Deathless who forged it.
Those are the only two properly magical swords as yet known in the world, any others having been lost in the calamity that destroyed the World of Wonders and ushered in the World of Ruin. People can imbue all manner of weapons with short term thaumaturgical magic, but it isn’t the real thing, and it tends to be much messier. (As a stand in for technology, magic in my setting causes pollution–smog, foul odors, etc.)
stk_kreations: Very cool Erik! Sounds very new and different than what I’ve been reading lately.
On Writing Speed and Quirky Fans
arzvi: What’s the timeframe for writing one book? from start to finish? do you work on multiple and choose one that inspires you – to finish and edit or take up one story and stop when it gets published?
Also, what is the funniest, quirkiest thing that happened when you spoke about self-publishing and generally during your first book?
1) It really varies. As I said above, I wrote the first 90k draft of Downshadow in 12 days, though I spent about a month of editing and rewriting to produce the second draft. Usually I do a book in about 2-3 months if I can focus on it most of the time.
If I’m working on multiple things (which is almost always the case), it takes longer, but I try to carve out time that is exclusively dedicated to one project or another.
2) I wouldn’t know, I’ve never self-published anything.
The funniest, quirkiest thing that happened at one of my first readings (back in 2006 or 2007) was when I talked about fencing, and this crazy lady in the audience misunderstood and assumed I was talking about building fences (which she mimed with some sort of hand-saw gesture). Apparently, later during the signing she got up and walked around looking at the bookshelves behind me, and my wife and a good friend were ready to tackle her if she made a wrong move. It was awesome.
On D&D Movies
rodtod: After the debacle of the Dungeons & Dragons film, is it time for a reboot?
erikscottdebie: Which one do you mean, the first one? The second one? The third one? (Wait, third one? Huh?)
Regardless, clearly they should make the Ghostwalker movie. High Plains Drifter in the Forgotten Realms. It’s a soft-Realms story–they don’t even have to introduce all the iconic things about the Realms, since it’s mostly in an obscure little town in the wilderness in the North, but it’s very, very Realmsy.
rodtod: Ghostwalker would make an excellent fantasy flick for the devout stealth and dagger viewer. Perhaps with Christophe Gans directing?
erikscottdebie: Gans? I don’t know. I mean, I enjoy *Brotherhood of the Wolf * as much as the next guy (hey look, boobs!), but the last thing WotC needs is a campy movie. But maybe. Get the people from the Game of Thrones show and let’s talk.
On the Realms
a_woodz: Loved your Neverwinter sourcebook. Any chance you’ll be fleshing out the Realms again in some 5E campaign settings or modules?
erikscottdebie: Thank you for the kind words. I’m so glad you enjoyed. I had a great time working on that book, and it was one of those projects that just came all together really well.
As for 5e, well, that’s the question, isn’t it? It’s hard to say what WotC plans to do as regards the Realms in D&D-Next. I rather suspect they’re in “wait-and-see” mode with the launch of 5e. If it proves a financial success, there will be stuff. They know I’m available and interested (and I love that world). Ball’s in their court.
Tysilio: Two years ago WTC released some Forgotten Realms novels in eBook format only. What was the story on that and are there any plans to release them in mass market paperback? I’d get an eReader and download them, but I don’t want to only find out soon after that they are being released in paperback. Now that the last Sundering novel is out, will we be seeing more Realms novels in the near future from you or any of the other authors, current and/or new?
erikscottdebie: I don’t know.
What I can tell you is that I’ve heard no word of any plans to bring the “e-book only” releases (of which my last two Shadowbane novels belong) to the physical world. It seems like they would, after leaving so much money on the table that they could have easily earned by printing physical books. I’m not privy to their plans.
At this point, AFAIK, there are only three novelists writing for WotC: Bob Salvatore (obviously), Ed Greenwood (it’s in his contract that he writes a book a year for them), and Erin Evans (whose Brimstone Angels series is quite awesome). Nothing from Paul Kemp, nothing from Richard Lee Byers, nothing from me, nothing from anyone else. Perhaps they have plans for other novels, but they haven’t told me.
GalufTheDwarf: Hey, there, Erik, old friend. I was curious what you consider to be your greatest contribution to the Forgotten Realms campaign setting thus far. I know you’ve been working with WoTC for almost 10 years now, so I’d love to hear your opinion on such.
erikscottdebie: Hail, Galuf! Great to see you.
I’ve made numerous minute contributions that have gone mostly unnoticed. For instance, I am the reason goliaths exist in the Realms (because I thought the race from Races of Stone was cool, so I included one in Depths of Madness), the reason half-elves can be bladesingers in 4e (initially design had them restricted only to elves until I pointed out that WotC had published a novel called Bladesinger in which the main character was a half-elf), I totally did the “last paladin of Helm” thing before it was cool (I published three novels about the last paladin of Helm before Denning wrote his novel The Sentinel about the last paladin of Helm) as well as a few others.
Above those, though, I think my involvement in the Realms just fleshed out the world and added another perspective (mine) as well as some cool characters. I like to think my enthusiasm for the setting (at a time when WotC has been steadily pruning it down) was useful, even if I’ve finally had to focus on other projects. And if WotC ever called, I would definitely write more for the Realms. It’s so closely tied up with what fantasy is to me, and I dearly wish to see it rise once more to a position of prominence in the industry.
Check out the full AMA on Reddit/r/Fantasy!