Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Feature: Interview with Ari Marmell

Every Tuesday, I'll have a feature article posted.

After this interview was conducted, Wizards of the Coast announced that they were canceling several novel lines to focus on their core brands. Unfortunately, both the Discoveries and Ravenloft lines--and thus, both Shades of Grey and A Crown of Ashes--were among those canceled. Ari is currently seeking another publisher for Shades of Grey.

Ari Marmell is the author of several RPG books as well as media tie-in novels including Vampire Gehenna: Final Night and the upcoming Agents of Artifice: A Planeswalker Novel.

Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, let's talk about your upcoming books to be published in 2009. Plug away!

Well, we're talking about three separate novels here: Agents of Artifice in February*, Shades of Grey in July*, and A Crown of Ashes in October*.

*These dates are approximate. Scheduling can change and my memory sucks, so don't hold me to 'em. ;-)

How did
A Crown of Ashes come about? Was it something you pitched to Wizards of the Coast or something they hired you to write? Why the title change?

I'd been talking to Cortney Marabetta, one of the editors, for a little while before I was hired to do the novel. I knew the sort of mood and feel they were going for, but the specifics of the novel and the story were my creation. I pitched the idea, she agreed that it fit what she was looking for, and we went from there.

As for other details, about the book, its title, or anything else... Well, I hate to answer one of the first questions with an "I can't say," but the truth is, I can't say. It's part of some ongoing background stuff. I don't know all the details, and I'm not allowed to share the ones I can.

How about
Shades of Grey. Was it a book you submitted when Wizards opened up their Discoveries line or was it discovered by your editors through some arcane method?

After I wrote A Crown of Ashes, I wound up talking to Cortney a bit about some of the original novels I'd written, but never published. She expressed an interest in Shades when I described it to her, so I sent it to her as a submission for the Discoveries line. She and several other editors liked it and recommended it to Phil Athans, who approved the deal.

When it comes out, Shades will be my first completely original (that is, not shared-world or game tie-in) fiction publication. I'm really quite stoked about this one. :-)

Both books have been delayed. Has there any been worry that they'll never get published? How long ago did you write the said books? Has there been any recent revisions to the manuscript itself? If you had to choose, which of the two books would you prioritize in having them see print?

No, I'm not worried that they'll be canceled entirely. The reason for the delay was because we wanted to focus on the release of Agents of Artifice, early next year. It's the first in a line called "The Planeswalkers," a series of Magic: The Gathering fiction. Without going into details--more background stuff, I'm afraid--I understand why Wizards wanted to push the others back until after this one. It's a little disappointing just because I'm psyched to see them all in print, but it's a sound decision.

How long ago? Well, the very first draft of Shades of Grey was written over half a decade ago. But it's gone through a lot of major rewrites since then, more than any other book I've ever written. The book as it stands now is the same book at its core, but so much of it has changed that it really very much more closely matches my current writing style than my older one.

A Crown of Ashes was written early last year, and has seen only minor revision since then.

Priority? I'd have to say Shades of Grey. I'm very happy with Crown, and I want to see it on shelves, but Shades is much more mine, much more personal to me, and obviously something I've been working on a lot longer.

Gehenna: The Final Night if I'm not mistaken was your first novel. How did you go about getting published? Has your writing process (if any) changed since then?

Yep. Well, my first published novel. I'd written a few before it, but not managed to get any of them published.

(Probably a good thing, too. Nobody's first try at a novel is great literature. You need to churn through a few as a learning experience.) ;-)

In the case of Gehenna, I didn't need to set out trying to "get it published," per se. I'd done a lot of work on the Vampire: the Masquerade RPG, including numerous pieces of short fiction throughout those books. Phil Boulle (White Wolf's fiction editor at the time) needed an author on Gehenna, as part of their ending of the old World of Darkness, and offered me the gig.

I don't know if my process has changed much since then. I work from home. Rather than devote X amount of time per day to writing, I set myself a minimum word count per day. Sometimes that word count only takes me a couple of hours; sometimes it takes me the entire day. And of course, there are plenty of days when I go over, but I've got my set minimum. That's more or less the same process I used then.

My style has changed, as writing styles do. And I think--and hope ;-)--I'm a better writer today than I was years ago.

Who are some of your favorite authors or what are your favorite books? Whose works do you think have influenced your writing (be it games or fiction)?

It's funny, there are a number of writers who I like, and who I think have influenced me, but most of them in only very narrow, specific ways. I know that Simon Green has influenced me when it comes to crafting stories (and sometimes combining horror with fantasy), but not in terms of character interaction or depth. I like David Eddings' character interactions, but I don't prefer his style of plotting. I've only just begun reading Scott Lynch and Jim Butcher, but I really like both, and I'd be happy to let their writing shape my own a bit. And I think Joe Straczynski (writer/creator of the TV series of Babylon 5) has been a huge influence, in terms of my love for crafting intricate plotlines.

I like certain elements of some of the older writers, as well. I'm a big Lovecraft fan, and although I'm a relative latecomer to his work, I enjoy reading Robert Howard. (I actually find his horror stories and his Solomon Kane stories much more interesting than his Conan stories, personally.) I've also just recently discovered Clark Ashton Smith. These guys tend to influence me more in terms of basic ideas than actual writing style, of course, since the actual use of language and characterization in fiction has changed so much since their day.

But if I had to pick one author whose work influenced me more than anyone else, I think I'd have to say Steven Brust, particularly his "Vlad Taltos" series.

Has your experience in gaming (whether as a GM, a player, or as a game designer) affected your fiction writing?

Oh, sure. I don't think there's any way to avoid it.

In my case, I have a tendency to think about plot first and character second, when I'm first coming up with an idea for a novel--and I think that's because I grew up creating stories and adventures for RPGs that had to work for characters that weren't mine. Don't get me wrong, I try to make sure that my characters are as well-crafted as they can be. But it's usually plot that occurs to me first, with characters to follow, in terms of development of basic novel ideas.

It also shapes my taste in reading, I think. Obviously, like anyone else, I want my books to have good plot and good characters. But I find that--not all the time, but as a general rule--I'm more forgiving of a strong plot with weak characters than I am weak plot with strong characters.

Are you sticking to fantasy/horror/science fiction or do you envision yourself branching out to other fields in the future?

Truth be told, I don't have a lot of interest in other genres. I like mixing aspects of other genres into my work--adding mystery plots into fantasy novels, adding historical elements into horror--but overall? No, I think fantasy, horror, and sci-fi are my home to stay.

Which do you favor more, writing a shared-world/media tie-in novel or your own original story? What are the challenges of each?

I really enjoy both, depending on my ideas and my mood, but I'd have to say I prefer the freedom of purely original creation. It allows me a wider range of options, in terms of character, plot, and setting.

Of course, with an original novel, you don't have the advantage of a preexisting framework in which to operate. While that makes for a great deal of creative freedom, as I said, it also means there's more work to make sure that the foundation of the novel is steady, and that the setting is rich enough to feel believable. It can be harder to find an audience, as well. When you write a Magic novel, an Eberron story, or a Vampire: the Masquerade novel, you already know (more or less) who your prospective audience is, and thus who you're writing to.

Shared worlds, on the other hand, can require a lot of advance prep work and research. You want to write something that feels like it belongs in the setting, gets all the setting details right, and doesn't make drastic changes to the setting that are going to handcuff future writers (unless, of course, you have editorial permission to do so). While those sorts of restraints can sometimes inspire bursts of creativity, they can also be very difficult guidelines in which to work.

Mostly, it limits the sorts of stories you can tell. If I have an idea for a story that requires me to blow up an entire continent, it's not going to work as an Eberron novel, no matter how good it is.

Let's talk about getting published. Do you think your experience as a game designer was helpful/detrimental in getting your work published? (Or does it have no effect at all?)

In my case, my work as a game designer was directly responsible for me getting my first bit of fiction published, since my work on Vampire is why White Wolf asked me to write Gehenna.

Now, if I'd gone straight from RPG-writing to trying to publish novels through non-RPG companies, I don't think it would've made much of a difference one way or the other. The fact that I had some published credits might have opened a door that otherwise would have remained closed, but there are so many levels to go through at your average publishing company (readers, editors, etc.) that I don't think it would've helped overall.

Right now, do you find it easier getting published writing a shared-world book or pitching your own original novel? (And do you currently have an agent?)

At the moment, it's a little easier doing shared-world stuff, because it means working with people who already know me and like my work. I'm working at finding more opportunities to do original stuff, but it hasn't quite reached the point where it evens out.

And in fact I just signed on with an agent a few months ago.

What markets have you or are planning to submit to, whether it's short stories or novels?

Beyond continuing to work with WotC, I don't have any specific markets on my "submissions" list. Obviously, I'd love to work with one of the big publishers--Del Ray, Baen, Daw, Ace, and the like--but ultimately, it's entirely an issue of who my agent and I manage to interest.

As a writer, what's it like working for various game companies with publication ties? For example, is it easier for you to pitch a book to Wizards of the Coast or do you need to go through the same channels as everyone else? Or have you considered pitching a pulp novel/story to Planet Stories which is under Paizo Publishing?

It's certainly easier when you've got prior professional connections. While I can't just snap my fingers and get a novel from WotC--I wish ;-)--it's easier for me to get a novel gig from them than it is from other places, because I can pitch ideas directly.

With everyone else, though, I do indeed have to go through all the normal channels.

(And yes, I'd love to do something through Paizo's Planet Stories, but I don't believe they're open to random submissions at the moment.)

Currently, what in your opinion is the biggest hurdle in getting published?

Standing out from the crowd. There are about a zillion would-be novelists out there, and only a fairly small collection of publishers. Further, many publishers today--not all, but many--are far more interested in "Will this sell?" than "Is this any good?" (Alas, those two are often at odds.) So any submission has to really grab their attention from the word Go. It's extremely difficult to get noticed, or to get past even the first round of rejections in the reading process.

It's sad but true that the vast majority of people who try to get into writing professionally simply won't get anywhere, and no matter how good you are, luck plays as much of a part (if not more of a part) as skill. And even a writer who publishes in one place isn't guaranteed to publish anywhere else. Using myself as an example, the fact that I've got novels coming out through WotC gives me a slightly better chance of publishing at another company, but it's far from a sure thing.

What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Don't quit your day job.

Seriously, I know that sounds harsh, and I'm not saying you shouldn't try. I'd encourage anyone who has a dream job to pursue it. Just be prepared for the fact that it may take a long time if it happens at all. It requires patience, it requires a lot of hard work with no guarantee of a payoff. It took me years of trying before I got anywhere, and I'm still plugging away trying to get to where I'm (hopefully) ultimately going.

Equally important? Write. If you're a writer, you have to write, almost every day if not every day. Doesn't matter if you're busy. Doesn't matter if you're tired. Doesn't matter if you're not getting paid yet. Writers write. Period. Either set aside a specific block of time every day, or set yourself a specific word count. (I prefer the latter, but many people prefer the former). Stick with it. It doesn't matter if it's only an hour, or only a few hundred words, but write.

And no, you can't wait until the perfect idea come to you before you start. You work on something else until that perfect idea arrives. Ideas don't make a writer; words do.

What advice do you have for aspiring game designers?

Much of the advice for writers, above, applies here as well. Also, make sure you know and play in the system you want to write for. If you haven't played 4E, don't write for it; if you haven't played Shadowrun, don't write for it. Reading the rules is a major part of understanding the system, but it's not the only part.

When you submit something to a company, follow their submission guidelines. Whether it's Dragon or Dungeon online, Paizo, Green Ronin, or whoever else... Follow the rules. Query as they ask; format your submission as they ask. You are not an exception to the rules, and your work and ideas are not good enough that the company is going to ignore the fact that you failed to abide by their system. (Nor is mine; nobody's is.) It may sound nitpicky, but it's vital. You have to show that you can follow directions.

And if you plan to make even a partial career out of freelancing? Schedule. Deadline is king in the RPG market, and writers who consistently miss deadlines stop working. I'm not saying you have to be perfect--nobody is. Real life happens, emergencies come up. I've missed a deadline or two myself. But you have to minimize it, and you have to communicate with your editor/developer when something's gone wrong. People understand the occasional problem, but if a writer proves to be a consistent problem, the company can always find someone else.

(And don't expect to get rich. Most of us freelancers can only do this because we, or our spouses, have another income.)

I know I'm sound harsh, and I don't want to give the wrong idea. I love what I do. I just want to make it clear that it's not easy.

Anything else you'd like to plug?

Hmm. I think we've covered everything. I'd love people to take a look at my upcoming novels--particularly Shades of Grey.


Anonymous said...

I was under the impression that the Wizards Discovery line would be folding at the end of 2008.

Charles said...

That's the quick version of it.

As far as I can tell, books after the first four (Dansky, McDermott, Rogers, the Tems) got shelved but the earlier ones will still have a mass market paperback release.

banzai cat said...

That's a damn shame. I really liked their original fiction line.