So after I've spent the last three of these columns lambasting folks for attempting to turn their beloved campaign settings into marketable works of fiction, what's my advice for those poor unfortunates who've volunteered to be part of the Forlorn Hope, to charge the editorial defenses set up by the publishers to fend off such attempts?
I offer up three basic suggestions:
1. Make some attempt at originality; if not in content, then in presentation.
2. If you just can't be original, do derivative fiction really, really well.
3. If you just can't do derivative fiction well, buckle the hell down and get better.
Let's tackle these one at a time.
First, let's get something out in the open right off. Coming up with anything really, truly, original is probably literally like winning the lottery. Now and then someone is able to come up with something no one has really ever seen before, but it is probably beyond a one-in-a-million kind of deal. This is compounded by the fact that the more you read and delve into your favored genre, the harder it's going to be to come upon an idea of your own you haven't seen somewhere else before. I can't count the number of times I've thought of something cool, and then a year or two later, find it cropping up online or in a novel I pick up.
So at the end of the day, the best you can reasonably hope for is to find an unusual or semi-original twist to a more traditional idea. How about creating a very Middle-Earth-ish world, but then writing very dark and terrifying horror stories set there? What about making a pseudo-Hyboria, and then using it as the setting for a series of humorous tales about a bumbling barbarian who, through sheer terror and survival instinct, makes it through his tales alive? There's nothing wrong with polishing off an old gem and giving it a new fitting, especially for a neophyte writer.
On the other hand, what if you find that you're just utter rubbish at coming up with new ideas, and whenever you try it, it just turns to poop? If you just find it easier to play in someone else's world than to create your own, you can always consider pastiche fiction or media tie-in novels (aka, "shared-world fiction"). There are plenty of writers who started out working for TSR, or writing Star Wars or Star Trek fiction, or even writing for Games Workshop's Black Library, who have made good careers out of working with someone else's material. These sorts of venues are the perfect places for a writer to learn the tools they need and build the confidence necessary to step out and begin writing their own original works. I'm also willing to bet it's a somewhat easier venue to break into as an amateur writer.
Don't believe me? Douglas Wojtowicz, one of the current top "stable writers" in Gold Eagle Books' 40+ year long Mack Bolan Executioner series, started out as a fan fiction writer whose works were well received in the Executioner fan community, and his success there paved the road for one of his manuscripts being accepted. Likewise, a lot of the folks who are currently publishing novels and writing game supplements for Games Workshop started off their GW careers in the pages of Inferno!, GW's fan-fiction short story magazine. Also consider someone like Robert Jordan (aka, James Oliver Rigney, Jr.)- not that many of his Wheel of Time fans knew (until they published a three-book omnibus a few years before his death) that he made a mark for himself under that pen name writing Conan pastiches long before he was writing about a certain shepherd from the Two Rivers. There's also the number of fantasy, horror, and weird fiction writers that have penned Lovecraft pastiches (or shall we call them "homages"?) early in their careers. British horror author Ramsey Campbell freely admits that his earlier short stories were mostly Lovecraft pastiches, and not very good ones to boot, but not only was he a published author before he hit 20, he's still writing decades later. Without a few "unoriginal works" under his belt, he might never have carried on to write his own material.
And as to the last of my suggestions, if you find yourself struggling to even write Conan fan fiction...get better. Write and write and write some more. Darkwing's comment on my previous column was spot on - very few authors pick up a pen and watch greatness pour forth. Becoming a good writer takes time and effort and working through a lot of frustrations. You've got to break down a lot of bad habits before you build some good ones, and the only way to do it is to write your damn heart out.
If you can learn to write well, and more importantly, keep a reader interested, you will be forgiven many literary sins. Gardner F. Fox's Kothar series might be pure derivative schlock, but Fox knew his audience, knew what they wanted to read, and gave them what they wanted and nothing more - something that served him well throughout his decades-long career writing thousands of comics and dozens of novels in varying genres. Lin Carter likewise was no literary giant, but he LOVED fantasy, especially sword & sorcery stories, and I find that the excitement and enthusiasm radiating from every page of his works outweighs (in my mind, at least) the shortcomings of these works.
A few other suggestions I think aspiring authors should take to heart...
- Keep your knives sharp. As my old classics professor would admonish before every paper was due, "...no sentence has a right to exist - it's a privilege based purely on merit". Don't become so enamored of your own ideas that you're not willing to excise something from your work that just doesn't fit. I believe this is often referred to as "be prepared to murder your children". On the other hand, don't let agonizing over whether or not every sentence you write is "perfect" bog you down and turn you into a hand-wringing literary impotent that can't get past "The night was...". First drafts are there to pour your ideas out onto the page, warts and all. Only when you know how it all ends will you know how it really should begin.
- Like the Inquisitors of old, seek out the heresy of gaming-based fixtures in your literary setting and snuff them out with extreme prejudice. Nothing reeks of D&D fan fiction like a world that has "arcane magic" and "divine magic", or characters that all neatly fall into barbarian/ranger/thief/paladin-style class archetypes. Nothing will make you look like an amateur GM-turned-author faster than a character pulling out a "curative draught" to restore themselves after a battle, no matter how cleverly you disguise said potion of healing. Like I said above about the difficulty in generating original ideas, so much is ingrained in our creative subconscious that this will be very, very hard to do - but if you can expunge the taint of game-ism from your works, you will be taken much more seriously.
- Trust no one. Don't ask your girlfriend or boyfriend to read your fantasy novel and give you good advice. You might get some pointers, but they aren't paying to read your work (well, except for the S.O. Tax), and they aren't going to want to turn you into a moping lump of crap for the next month, so they aren't going to tell you what you need to hear, even if they don't realize it. The same goes for the folks in your gaming group, your parents, your kids, even your co-workers. You need to find people who really do not care if they crush your soul, and let them have at it. This isn't just to build a thick skin, however; this is because you cannot bank on just one set of opinions to learn what works and what doesn't work. Some people might like D&D-isms in their fantasy novels because it just tingles their "wouldn't it be fun to game like this" vibe. Others hate it and stop reading the moment they detect it. You need to get the opinions of those who hate your writing and those who love it, and those who hate and love completely different parts, and why. Just like statistics and surveys, the only way to get anything close to an accurate data set is to pull from a deep pool.
- Just like swimming, hunting, rock-climbing, and screwing, have a partner that keeps you focused with your head in the game, ready to offer a word of encouragement when you're feeling like you want to give up. I still think you shouldn't necessarily trust everything your writing partner tells you about your work (see above), but writing is a lonely business and if you have another writer to turn to, someone who knows what it's like and can understand what you're going through, that loneliness can be mitigated, at least to a degree. If you don't already know a writer who can become your writing partner, a little cautious internet exploration might be in order. You might never meet face to face, but an internet pen pal / writing buddy might just mean the difference between soldiering on and giving up. And if that seems a little too 21st century to you, there's always adult ed creative writing classes and workshops - swing by your local bookstore or coffee shop and take a look on their bulletin board, or check your local Craigslist page. The usual "meeting complete strangers and talking about elves and wizards" cautionary warnings apply, of course, but meeting a writing partner for a pint of ale or a cup of coffee once a week might just carry you through the rough patches.
And, I'm spent. Three parts knocking your hopes and dreams down with a sledgehammer, one part offering a trowel and some wet cement, I hope this four-part series has, at the very least, led to some good soul-searching on the part of aspiring fantasy and sci-fi GMs/Future Writers.
A long road ahead, but hey, a writer writes - always.