Monday, August 1, 2011

Q&A with Freelance Wizards of the Coast Designer and Author Scott Fitzgerald Gray Part 2

Picking up where we left off, Mr. Gray and I discuss more gaming, world building, writing, and his new book "A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales."

Click here for Part 1 of the Q&A.

RC: So, being a freelance designer/editor, I'm sure you are involved in various projects here and there.  Can you tell us a little about some things you're working on right now?

SFG: I'm doing more editing than design work for Wizards right now, including having worked on the upcoming "Neverwinter Campaign Setting", "Heroes of the Feywild", and Logan Bonner's adventure for the D&D Open Championship at GenCon next month: "The Fires of Mount Hotenow". I was also one of the designers of "Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium", which i think most people know was pulled from the schedule last year but has since reappeared (and is due out in September). As far as "right now" goes, you'll find that anybody doing work for Wizards has to stay mum on the topic, as we're not allowed to even discuss the broad strokes or titles of projects until those projects have appeared in the product catalogue.

RC: And in addition to editing/writing RPG material, you're also an author.  Your latest book, "A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales," is currently available.  Tell us a little about it, and how one could go about picking up a copy?

SFG: "A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales" is an epic-fantasy/sword-and-sorcery anthology that collects six short stories, a novella, and the eponymous short novel "A Prayer for Dead Kings". It's being published first as an ebook, and is live now on Amazon and Smashwords (and coming to Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and the other usual places in the next couple of weeks). The trade paperback edition should be available in late fall.

The book is one whose various pieces I've been working on for a while now (the novel "A Prayer for Dead Kings" actually started life as a film project more than ten years ago), and all the stories have strong connections to the legends and history of my own campaign world. However, it's not important to be of a gamer's frame of mind to enjoy the book, because you won't find any fingerprints of rules from one particular edition or another within it. Rather, the stories in "A Prayer for Dead Kings" try to capture the sense of heroic struggle that's always seemed to be the point of fantasy gaming for me -- the idea that in facing the challenges of a dark world, everyday characters are driven to take up the mantle of heroism. 

I personally think that the best fantasy fiction is that which comes with a huge helping of what Faulkner famously called the human heart in conflict with itself. "A Prayer for Dead Kings" is an attempt to try to nail down a balanced mix of epic-fantasy world building, sword-and-sorcery action, and real character story. In addition to the Amazon preview (which contains all of the first story in the book, "The Name of the Night"), Amazon is also carrying a free preview of the story "A Space Between", so people are welcome to check both out and tell me whether i've succeeded or not.


The book at my site:

A Space Between:

RC: I understand you've been rather adamant about assuring readers this is not gaming fiction, and I must say I agree.  I equate it more closely to sword and sorcery, which was truly the fictional genre of fantasy which inspired D&D, and thus future fantasy RPGs.  In terms of your fiction, which authors in the genre would you say have been your biggest influences?  What authors/books are you reading presently?

SFG:Thanks for that, and I think I'm mostly interested in just making sure that the label "gaming fiction" doesn't make people assume that the book is one thing as opposed to another. I think there's been some excellent fantasy fiction written under that rubric, but it's easy for fantasy fans to assume that gaming fiction is more about the world than the characters. For me, the fantasy fiction I love as a reader pushes to the limits in both directions, and so that's the same balance I try to find when I write.

As far as influences go, Tolkien is at the top of the list, as he is for many people lucky enough to make a living through fantasy. Although I've been known to talk about how "Lord of the Rings" isn't necessarily a great novel (in terms of the specific definitions of the kind of character story a novel tells), it's an extraordinary book nonetheless, and one that I reread every few years (most recently, last summer). I'm a huge fan of Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, and I suspect it's pretty much impossible to attempt to write in the sword-and-sorcery genre without being influenced by both. In terms of fantasy authors who truly nail down the kind of character story i love, George R.R. Martin, Guy Gavriel Kay (particularly "Tigana" and the Sarantine Mosaic), and Mary Stewart (for her Merlin trilogy) have all been huge influences.

My fantasy reading list right now includes Martin's "The Mystery Knight" (in the "Warriors" anthology; it's part of the "Dunk and Egg" series of novellas that all Song of Ice and Fire fans should try to track down if they don't know them), a re-read of Howard's Kull stories, Jack Vance's Lyonesse series, and Michael Stackpole's "At the Queen's Command."

RC: In the stories in your book, your characters seem to face a lot of personal adversities and inner conflicts.  It's quite different than archetypical heroic fantasy, although I think we're seeing a lot more of these darker undertones starting to show up in the modern fantasy genre, which hearkens back to writers such as REH and Moorcock.  Why do you think we're starting to see a shift away from epic high fantasy in the vein of Robert Jordan and Terry Brooks back to a more gritty and darker version of the genre?

SFG: I think that as with all things, fantasy runs in cycles, so that on some level, it's simply the case that if everyone is writing X, readers will get tired of X eventually, which increases the appetite for Y and Z. Michael Moorcock has famously acknowledged Elric's inspiration as being at least in part  a negative reaction to Tolkien's vision of fantasy (or at least to the success of that vision). Beyond that, though, i think that much epic and high fantasy (especially in the Tolkien mode) concentrates on world-building to the exclusion of characters. And that's not to say that a series like Wheel of Time or Shannara doesn't have compelling characters, or that Jordan and Brooks can't write strong characters, because i think both series and authors do just fine in that department. But at the end of the day, the wondrous scope of the incredible worlds that all fantasists love to create can overwhelm a narrative if an author isn't careful.

I'm definitely not a literary scholar, but just from my own perspective, i make the obvious observation that fantasy is shifting toward dark and gritty because we live in fairly dark and gritty times. Each generation's fantasy reflects the aspirations and disillusionment that are dominant in the world at the time, i think. For instance, Tolkien writing about the rise of benevolent rulers to overthrow darkness was the perfect narrative for readers in the 60s and 70s looking for moral leadership from an increasingly corrupt political status quo. However, many readers of the current generation have grown so disillusioned with the political process that they no longer hold out any hope for a metaphorical return of the king. Thus, we embrace narratives like Martin's that reflect the chaos we feel threatening our world, and which focus on how the individual chooses to stand against that chaos, and on the way that every action, however small, has the potential to shift the precarious balance of life and death.

RC: You mentioned that a lot of the details of the setting of your book grew from your own campaign world.  How much world building did you do before actually writing the book?  And as far as the writing process goes for something like a novel, do you like to work with an outline, or do you have a general idea of what story you want to tell, and just start working on the first draft?

SFG: Short answer: A lot. However, it would be tough to quantify the specific number of hours that goes into the world building, simply because as an ongoing, organic project (as campaigns tend to be), it spins out over way too much time. (Every DM knows of what i speak...) A better way to look at it might be: If I dig into all the notes and outlining that underlies "A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales" (including specific backstory and details for the individual stories, plus the details of the larger world, the fall of Empire, et al, that the book reveals) it amounts to about 85,000 words. (The book itself is 135,000 words by comparison.)

I think I've kind of answered the second part of the question already: I outline like a maniac. I outline religiously. I love outlining, which I know puts me in a minority among long-form fiction writers. I know that everybody has their own way of working, and some writers like the vague-starting-point-and-here-I-go approach, and that's cool. For me, though, that approach never worked. When I teach writing, I do so from a perspective that we call "writing" is actually two very distinct and sometimes contradictory arts -- the art of words, and the art of story. Notes, world-building, and outlining is the art of story. It's the shaping of raw story on a level below the words that will eventually carry the story. For me, it's a distinct phase and process that's just as enjoyable (and in some ways, even more rewarding) than the writing of the words that come after.

RC: Yes, I remember reading a few articles some months ago by Jim Butcher in which he talked about writing being just as much a craft as it is an art.  I imagine it is very helpful to have notes from a campaign setting in which to reference, because much of the world building work has been done already.  I think that's why Steven Erikson has had the success he's had with his Malazan books, because the setting he used for his series was already well fleshed out beforehand as he used it as a RPG campaign setting.  How long would you say it took you to write the novel portion of your book from outline to first draft?

SFG: I think you're absolutely right, because it's not always just a matter of depth and details. A writer might spend endless hours putting together a fantasy world that still somehow never feels "real", because it's only ever existed in that writer's imagination. It's never been fully field tested. A well-wrought campaign world has lived in a number of different imaginations, all of which ultimately shape its authenticity in a kind of call-and-response process. A good campaign world feels real; it feels "lived in", because it truly is.

"A Prayer for Dead Kings" (the short novel that anchors the anthology) was about  a month-and-a-half from outline, with that month-and-a-half spread out over three months or so, in between other work and time spent editing the other sections of the book.

RC: And talking about world building, without giving much away from the book, tell us about the features of the world of "A Prayer for Dead Kings?"

SFG: Man, never ask a DM to talk about his campaign world... :-)

In the big-picture sense, "A Prayer for Dead Kings" (and all of my other epic-fantasy fiction) takes place in a world called Isheridar -- a supercontinental land mass that was conquered and held by the powerful high-magic Empire of the Lothelecan (literally, "The Commonwealth") for more than fifteen hundred years. The Lothelecan was nominally a benevolent empire (though plenty of its subject peoples had other opinions), and the height of its rule was a true golden age of peace, shared knowledge, and prosperity. Then some eighty-odd years before the present time frame (though the stories in the book aren't all in the present time frame), an arcane cataclysm destroyed the Imperial capital of Ulannor Mor, leaving a plain of ash and black glass in its wake three hundred leagues across. In the aftermath, the Empire shattered to become the Endlands -- a world standing on the brink of the end of days as the Lothelecan's former client states fall into strife and chaos. In some places, people try to cling to the benevolent Empire's model of peace and enfranchised rule. In others, folk vow to destroy all remaining remnants of the Empire's hated autocracy. In many areas, longstanding racial and political conflicts held in check by the Imperial peace have exploded once more into all-out war. In others, the unfettered spread of the most powerful magic (once held in check by the Empire and the Lotherasien, its Imperial Guard) threatens not only the political order but the balance of life and death itself.

The stories in "A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales" take place in one specific area of the overall world -- a subcontinental region of five great nations known as the Elder Kingdoms. The last lands to fall to Imperial dominion, the Elder Kingdoms maintained a fierce cultural independence that erupted to war in the aftermath of the fall of Empire. Structurally, the world of the Elder Kingdoms and Isheridar isn't all that different from a lot of other epic-fantasy worlds. Philosophically, however, Isheridar is a world in which the conflict will always be rooted in the struggles of individuals as they react to fate and circumstance -- not in the machinations of gods and ultra-powerful entities manipulating the flow of events from behind the scenes. The conflicts that fuel the stories in "A Prayer for Dead Kings" are driven by the complete and utter breakdown of civilization, against which characters must fight to determine what new order will ultimately take the place of the old.

From the promo preamble to the book:

"A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales" follows a disparate group of heroes and villains caught up with the dark history -- and darker destiny -- of nine weapons of ancient magic, lost to time and mind.
In the aftermath of the fall of Empire, magic is the ultimate force for tyranny and freedom in the lands of the Elder Kingdoms. Magic defines the line between right and wrong, life and death that compels countless characters to take up a mantle of heroism they never expected to wear.
However, in the world of the Endlands, even the tales of heroes seldom end as expected...

And oh, yeah -- we've got maps:

RC: That map is quite amazing, as is the background of the setting.  Have you considered possibly using one of the open gaming licenses to publish your campaign setting for RPGs?  It sounds like not only an amazing backdrop for fiction, but a great place to play some D&D.

SFG: Thanks much. Publishing parts of the overall world (including the Elder Kingdoms) as a campaign setting has always been in the back of mind, as I suspect it is for anyone who creates a home-brew setting. However, though I'm very happy with the dramatic and fictional possibilities that the setting presents, I'm not sure that the Elder Kingdoms is all that profoundly different in a gaming context to the many other settings that are already out there. I suspect that for the time being at least, I'll probably try to focus on developing the setting in fiction. However, on a related note, my overall goal is to use the setting as a shared world at some point -- initially with a few writers I'm close to (some of whom are working on Endlands projects that will hopefully see the light of day soon), but eventually opening it up to a wider range of authors who might want to play there. It's not a well-known fact, but J.R.R. Tolkien's original conception of Middle-Earth was as a world where he would provide the cultural framework and others would eventually write the tales and songs built on that framework. And while I'm certainly no Tolkien, I love the idea of trying to do something with a fictional fantasy world that's akin to what the OGL did for D&D -- creating a common foundation on which others can build.

RC: Yes, that shared worlds concept is definitely an intruging one, for fiction and for gaming.  I'd like to touch on the self-publishing process.  Obviously markets like Kindle and Nook are changing the way readers can obtain content, and also putting a lot of the power back into the hands of the author and away from the big publishers and agents.  What are your thoughts on the self-publishing market in this regard?

SFG: I'm in full agreement with a lot of authors much more important and successful than i am -- there's never been a better time to be an author than right now. For my part, "A Prayer for Dead Kings" was a perfect example of a book that makes sense as an independently published work, because it's the sort of book that doesn't make sense in the traditional market. Anyone who knows anything will repeat the conventional wisdom that anthologies don't sell as well as novels, and that anthologies by a single author (as opposed to collections where you can maxmimize the name value of the contributors) sell even worse. People will tell you that somewhat dark, character-driven fantasy is a non-starter in the marketplace, and it does no good to point out the gazillion copies of A Song of Ice and Fire that put the lie to that. In short, this is a book that likely never would have been able to be published, marketed, or sold traditionally, and the fact that I can make it available to people is pretty cool to me.

The business of writing is in the midst of the most profound shakeup since Gutenberg, and it's great to be in a position to take advantage of that. Having said so, however, it's important to point out the "business" in that last sentence. Writing is difficult. Writing is wondrous. Writing is a holy thing for those of use crazy enough to pursue it, but publishing involves a whole hell of a lot more than just writing. If you're a writer looking to take advantage of the potential of the new marketplace and the leveling of the playing field, you stop being just a writer and start being a publisher. And this means understanding the publishing process -- the importance of having your work independently edited, of working with proofreaders, of having beta readers, of revision and more revision. It's now amazingly easy to publish a book that isn't ready to be published, but you do so at your peril. It's only slightly easier than it used to be to publish a book that is ready to be published, because the work involved in getting ready for publication hasn't changed. It's just that writers are now in a position where we can -- and, i think, must -- take responsibility for that work ourselves.

RC: I imagine that self-publishing also entails a greater amount of work for the author in terms of getting his/her novel/story collection out there to the masses.  In the past, and still today for those fortunate enough to get a book deal, that was handled by the publishers and agents.  How has your experience been promoting your work?  What tools and methods are you using to get your work out there for people?  Obviously there are things such as our interview here, but what else are you doing to promote it?

SFG: That all depends on who you compare to, and most authors (genre fiction authors in particular) will tell you that many publishers are doing a lot less promotional work than they used to. I've heard it said that the only authors who can depend entirely on their publisher or publicist to handle all their marketing are the ones already so famous that their publishers and publicists don't need to bother. Especially in fantasy, many authors recognize that even if they do have the benefit of an agent and/or a traditional publisher backing them up, a lot of the promotional legwork falls to them. One of the great things about electronic publishing and the web is that it gives every author the chance to put the ultimate marketing tool into the field -- the work itself. Amazon and Smashwords both offer prospective readers a free sample of any book, creating an immediate connection between authors and readers. For "A Prayer for Dead Kings", I've also posted an additional preview story ("A Space Between") to Amazon as a free ebook that's been downloaded a little over three thousand times in the last month and a half. 

For me, that's the ultimate marketing -- getting the work in front of people who might be interested in checking it out. I'm not really into the massive carpet-bombing philosophy of self-promotion, as I don't see a lot of point in trying to sway people who probably won't have an initial interest in the type of stories i'm telling. I'm looking more to find people in the same kind of crossover place wherein my fantasy fandom resides (background in gaming, loves the classic sword-and-sorcery tales, but also likes books with a strong foundation of character story, et al). I likewise don't believe in the promotion-as-con-job approach to marketing, wherein people sometimes try to oversell or ingratiate themselves in an effort to establish themselves. I try to make sure that my online presence (such as it is) has something of interest to people who might come looking for me, but an author's online presence should be built around honest dialogue, not trying to suck up to people. I enjoy talking about what i do and why I love it -- and at the end of the day, I hope and trust that some of the people who like the same things I do will be interested in checking out my work.

Doing interviews like this one are a big part of that, because even when gamers disagree with each other (as we so often do), I think many of us maintain a common shared experience of wonder. I've said this elsewhere (possibly even in this interview already...), but it bears repeating because it's important to me. My primary goal when i write fantasy fiction is to try to capture the sense of wonder that lies at the heart of the gaming experience for me. Not the mechanics or the lexicon or the subtle details (though all those things can be fun to work with), but the feeling of being caught up in world-shaking events bigger than you are, and of having to decide how to move forward when it seems like all hope is lost. That to me is what great fantasy is all about.

RC: Okay, one last question. In all of the years spent gaming as both a player and a GM, what is the most favorite moment you've experienced in a table top RPG?

SFG: Well, I'll need to seriously fudge my answer because I honestly don't think I can narrow it down. In no particular order: The first D&D I ever played, without dice or rules (talked about above). The first D&D I DMed for my daughters, twenty-three years later. Playing "Twilight's Peak" (Traveller), and feeling like I'd suddenly become a character in one of the best books I'd ever read. Coming up to the gates of the Keep on the Borderlands and engaging in real roleplaying for the very first time. The last time we stepped through the gates of the Tomb of Horrors, having suffered disastrous losses on our first incursions, and knowing we were going to beat Acererak this time or die trying. (Spoiler alert: PCs 1; demilich 0.)

The weird thing about gaming (and quite possibly the most annoying thing for non-gamers) is how many seemingly mundane campaign moments are still rich with meaning and memory so long after the fact. I'd be hard-pressed to accurately remember any specific day of my life in eleventh grade. But if I close my eyes, I can be back on a hillside overlooking the Caves of Chaos as the sun rises. I can be back in a bookshop in Regina starport, opening a battered volume marked with a mysterious octagon. I can be back at the entrance of that very first plain-paper, no rules dungeon that started it all for me.

RC: Spoken as a true gamer. Thanks for taking the time to let me pick your brain a bit, and I wish you continued success with your gaming projects as well as with the new book.

About Scott Fitzgerald Gray

Scott Fitzgerald Gray is a specially constructed biogenetic simulacrum built around an array of experimental consciousness-sharing techniques — a product of the finest minds of Canadian science until the grant money ran out. Accidentally set loose during an unauthorized midnight rave at the lab, the S.F. Gray entity is currently at large amongst an unsuspecting populace, where his work as an author, screenwriter, editor, RPG designer, and story editor for feature film keeps him off the streets.

More info on Scott and his work (some of it even occasionally truthful) can be found by reading between the lines at

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