"In these pages many mysteries are hinted at.
What if you come to understand one of them?"

"Words let water from an unseen, infinite ocean
Come into this place as energy for the dying and even the dead."

"Bored onlookers, but with such Light in our eyes!
As we read this book, the jewel-lights intensify."

- Rumi

Friday, February 11, 2011

"You're sitting in a tavern and a stranger walks in..."

Magazines and websites that publish fantasy fiction have wide and varied guidelines.  I believe this is because fantasy fiction itself is a wide and varied genre.  A writer is free to explore pretty much anything he or she wants. Different publishing venues have different visions of where they want to go and what their target audience wants to read.  A magazine dedicated to traditional swords and sorcery in the tradition of Fritz Leiber and Robert E Howard is unlikely to read, much less publish contemporary urban fantasy like Jim Butcher and Kim Harrison.  (These are all fine authors for many reasons.  The fledgling writer and pro could do worse than read these four with an eye for craft.  I haven't read much of Kim Harrison, but she constructs her sentences and paragraphs well, a trait absent in most published urban Fantasy hitting the bookshelves these days.)  With this in mind, it is of  utmost importance that any writer wishing to sell his or her fantasy fiction understand what any potential market is looking for.  I have read dozens of guidelines for such markets.  Nearly every single one has a line that read something like, "Please you ignorant hacks, DO NOT send us anything that remotely resembles you recounting the adventures of your Dungeons and Dragons (or other popular RPG) gaming group.  WE WILL NOT publish such drivel."  Well, okay, maybe they phrase it a little more politely, but that's really the spirit of the thing.

HOWEVER!  An exception to every rule exists.

Exception #1:  Ladies and Gentleman, I present Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont, co-creators of the world of "The Malazan Book of the Fallen."  Erikson is expecting the publication of his tenth novel set in this world and Esslemont has two published novels, and I believe is hard at work on another.  Erikson's series is one of the most critically acclaimed fantasy series thus far in the 21st century.  Here's the kicker:  They are writing about a world they created originally for role-playing game adventures.  I have my suspicions of other writers who have done the same, but I cannot confirm that.  I suspect from the stigma that comes with such fiction, though Erikson and Esslemont openly admit it, as if they are proud of such roots.  Erickson plainly admits to this in his  introduction  to Esslemont's first published Malazan book, A Night of Knives.

Exception #2:  The World Fantasy Convention in Austin Texas.  The Friday Night parties are in full swing.  I'm wandering around with Robin and a pair of friends we made that weekend; those two friends also  hopeful and hungry writers on the prowl for business contacts.  I believe it was Jay Lake's birthday party, where Jeniffer Jackson (an agent with the Donald Maass Literary agency) pointed out several magazine editors to me.  Two of these individuals were the co-editors of Black Gate magazine.  I went up to speak to them, asking about what they like to see.  One of them said, "I'll tell you what I don't want to see.  I don't want any stories that open in a tavern."  (Most clichéd gaming stories open in a tavern where the party of adventures receives a quest from a mysterious stranger.)  I immediately fired back with, "An elf, an android, and a lawyer walk into a tavern."  The editor fired back with, "I'll buy that story right now."  Sadly, I'm only a single page into that story after about four years.  I'm having trouble living up to that first line.  So I don't know if he would have actually published said story, but it's a great anecdote.

So, what is it about these two examples that gets publishers and editors to look beyond "Don't send us gaming stories?"

In the case of my example, I think it was about shock value and originality.  Which is why I'm having trouble doing anything with that particular piece.  I've got a lot to live up to in whatever story follows that first line.  I've got some thoughts bustling around in the back of my head, but nothing concrete.  One of these days, I'll have to sit myself down and just write that bloody story.

In the example of Mr Erikson and Mr Esslemont, it boils down to Three things:  1) They are brilliant!  Having spoken with both of them at several Conventions, they are among the smartest people I know.  2) They write well.  (Again, the fledgling writer and pro could do worse than read these two.)  3) They have a basic understanding of the human condition and the underlying knowledge of what motivates people on an individual and community scale.  Many writers, much less writers who would turn the adventures of their local gaming group into fiction do not grasp that these requirements of good fiction exist, much less have anything resembling a competency of putting said requirements into practice.  Hell, I'm not sure I have anything resembling competency of putting these requirements into practice.

I could probably write a dissertation on this from the writing perspective, but I'm actually not interested in doing so.  I'm more interested in examining this from the gaming perspective, because I've often wondered why people don't want to see "gaming" stories, when they can be soooooo cool.

Let's get this out in the open right now:  I AM A GAMER.  I will probably always be a gamer.  I think Role Playing games are one of the greatest things to come out of the late 20th century.  I think RPGs have saved thousands of teenage geeks kids over the last few decades.

After quite a bit of reflection, I think I know why most gaming doesn't translate into fiction.  Most gamers don't actually have any interest in realism in their gaming experience.  "But wait!" some of you may be asking. "Isn't the point of gaming to escape from realism?"  Yes!  However, if one is interested in transforming their gaming experience into engaging fiction, they must be grounded enough in reality for the fiction to engage the reader.  "But wait! Reality in fantasy?  Isn't the point of fantasy to escape reality?"  Yes and no.  In order for a reader to buy into a writer's fantastic fiction, said fiction must have some aspect that is so realistic that the reader is willing to accept the unrealistic elements without question.

In my next few posts, I'll examine use gaming as a vehicle to examine the pitfalls of fantastic fiction.  Stay tuned true believers!

As a special treat, here's what I've got so far of my stalled story to Black Gate Magazine:

An elf, an android, and a lawyer walked into a tavern.
Just as the lawyer stepped across the threshold an arm, thick as a tree limb and rippling with muscles, blocked his path.  A face the color of stagnant swamp water containing a pug nose and a mouth full of teeth leaned in close – so close that the lawyer could smell the dusk-troll’s last four meals, each one rotten meat.  It sniffed at him with enough force to pull several of his perfectly groomed hairs out of place.
Both the elf and android moved to interpose themselves between the troll and the lawyer, but the lawyer raised a solitary finger and both backed down.
“You a lawyer?”   The dusk-troll sniffed the air a few inches away from the lawyer’s face.  “You smell like a lawyer.”
The lawyer produced a business card.  The troll shifted its attention from the lawyer’s face to the proffered piece of paper board.  Its eyes squinted.
“Can’t read,” it growled.
 “Ah.”  The lawyer’s utterence held that distinct tone that learned men reserved for those they believe their intellectual inferiors.  “The card reads, Irwin Reginald Smith of the law offices of DWC&H, and, I prefer the term, ‘Legal solicitor’.”
 “Can’t ya read?” 
The troll gestured, pointing his thumb over his shoulder to a sign that read, NO SOLICITING.
“Oh.  Well.  In that case, I’m a lawyer.”
“Oh.  Well.  In that case, we don’t serve your kind here.”
The troll moved slightly to the left, revealing a second sign.  WE RESERVE THE RIGHT YO REFUSE SERVICE TO ANYONE.

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