So What is Farshores, Anyway?

As I mentioned in my last post, the Farshores world encompasses much more than the just the events of a novel series. But let us focus on that for a moment first, and Shoreseeker in particular. Here is a description:

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Over six hundred years ago, a race of monsters called the sheggam swept across the world like a plague, killing everyone in their path. Mankind was driven to the brink of annihilation, and only found refuge behind a magical wall designed to repel the sheggam. Now, all that’s left of humanity is huddled behind Andrin’s Wall on a small peninsula called the Sutherlands.

Despite having faced extinction, humanity was able to rebuild. Grand cities were constructed, and the magical art of Patterning, nearly lost in the war with the sheggam, began to flourish again. The horrors of the sheggam scourge were far removed from the lives of ordinary citizens, and as the centuries passed, the dark memories of that time faded into myth.

At the time of the completion of Andrin’s Wall, a ripple in the world’s Pattern had caused a second barrier to be formed, called the Rift, which divided the Sutherlands in two: Naruvieth, a small city on the peninsula’s southern tip; and the many cities of the Accord in the north. All contact between the two lands had been severed almost from the beginning. Yet three years ago, a highway called the Runeway, created with magic once thought impossible, bridged the two lands, allowing contact between them for the first time in hundreds of years.

Not everyone is pleased with this, however. Tharadis, the Warden of Naruvieth, will do anything to stop the Runeway’s completion, even risk a war with all of the Accord. For, as humanity learned so long ago, there are worse things in the world than war. And all of them are poised on the other side of Andrin’s Wall.

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So, what do you think? I know that if I had read this on the back of a book cover or in its product description, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick it up. I think that is every writer’s goal, to create fiction that he or she would enjoy reading. Shoreseeker is exactly the kind of book I would like to see more of, so I’m doing what I can to rectify this lack.

It’s hard to talk about the series without giving away too much about Shoreseeker, but one can only be too careful. It is an epic fantasy series, so you probably already know that the Sutherlands are too small to contain it. And what fantasy author would waste a big, scary world devastated by monsters? I, for one, wouldn’t.

While Shoreseeker starts in a more-or-less familiar epic fantasy world, the kind you could expect in a Robert Jordan or Terry Goodkind novel, it becomes horrific by the end. While fantasy has its dark worlds, such as anything that falls into the grimdark category, I haven’t come across any that are really that scary. One of my goals in this series is to create an epic fantasy that can give you nightmares.

But not because I think there is inherent value in giving people nightmares. I’d rather not have them myself. But one of the main reasons I’m writing this series is to give a home to the main character, Tharadis.

In a previous post, I mentioned that one of the reasons I write is to explore what makes us humans tick. A lot of dark fiction works do this, but they often examine how people break down in times of adversity. It’s fiction like this that gave rise to the idea of the anti-hero. This kind of fiction is almost always tragic, in the sense that even when the main characters get what they want, no one is really satisfied.

This kind of fiction is almost universally described as realistic, which is to say it accurately describes the human condition. “That’s the way the world works,” it implies. “Everything sucks, so you’d better get used to it.”

Perhaps it does end up that way for a lot of people. But it doesn’t have to.

Art can be powerful. It can be a light in the darkness. The world can be a cruel place; no one needs confirmation of that. But there is something that people often forget—goodness is real. And it can win. Sometimes we need art to remind of this. Personally, the books that I cherish the most are those that remind me of this simple yet profound truth.

So how does the world of Farshores, as relentlessly brutal as it often is, lead us to this idea?

Because some lights shine brightest in the darkest of nights.

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To Farshores, and Beyond: Part II

As much as traditional publishing gave way to indie publishing with the advent of new platforms such as Kindle and Nook, so too did the video game industry change. Steam, Valve’s world-conquering distribution platform, changed the way developers reached gamers. One no longer needed a big publisher like Electronic Arts or Square-Enix to distribute games. You could do it directly, as long as you had a product that gamers would want.

But creating a game is still a monumental undertaking. When I was working at Nintendo, a few of my friends who also worked there decided to get together to create a game. I was brought in as the writer, having already published some of my Fourth World stuff. We started planning. But even this group of very motivated gamers did not get far beyond the planning stage. Creating a game is not as simple as just sitting in front of a keyboard and typing away. There are a lot of moving parts that require specialized knowledge. Failure to understand all of these parts could result in a game that is completely unplayable.

This is true of writing, too. One must patch all those plot holes or readers will complain. But it’s a much bigger deal for games. Imagine making a mistake while typing away in your novel, and the entire thing suddenly becomes completely unreadable. Such a catastrophe would never happen from a typo in a novel, but frequently does in a typo of computer code. And even if catastrophe does strike and a novel is lost, it’s usually because of some computer problem. Game developers deal with this routinely.

The biggest obstacle for us, however, was managing a team. When writing a novel, you are responsible only to yourself (for the most part). Only your schedule matters. Only your creative direction matters. As long as you create something of quality, you’ve done your job.

With video games, everyone on the team has their own ideas, their own schedules. There are bottlenecks. Technical incompatibilities. Creative differences. Any one of these could cause the project to collapse.

Despite having committed to the novelist path, I still kept my ear to the ground when it came to game development. Games still did something for me that novels didn’t, and perhaps, subconsciously, I knew that I still had the urge to create games.

I eventually came upon tools that allowed a single, focused game developer to create games much like those I loved since that fateful day in 1997: Japanese-style RPGs.

I thought, “What the heck. I’ll give it a shot.” I thought it would be a nice way to scratch that itch, even if nothing ever really came of it.

It was turning out pretty well, so I thought I would incorporate some of the ideas of the Farshores Saga into it, and make it part of the history of the Farshores world. I thought it would help me make the world real for me and help bring out some of that flavor into the novels. It would also give me an opportunity to create backstory for the characters.

At one point, I was playing through what I had created. I knew that it was more than just a repository of backstory and worldbuilding to aid in the creation of my novels.

I knew I could make a game that other people would want to play.

Thus was Super Secret Project B born (the “B” stands for “Brandon” because I’m, uh, super-creative).

I’ll have more details about this project in an upcoming post.

To Farshores, and Beyond: Part I

I remember when I decided to be a writer. Not the exact day, but I remember the event that triggered it. I’m sure many writers remember a similar event in their lives: the first time they read the Lord of the Rings, the first time they watched Star Wars, or some other exposure to a work they wanted to emulate. That work likely got them thinking about how that story could continue. They felt as if they had begun a conversation, and now it was their turn to speak.

When I was about 9 or 10 years old, I had dabbled in fan fiction. BattleTech fan fiction, to be exact. I was a GM for the BattleTech RPG, called MechWarrior. I loved creating stories for the neighbor kids, who themselves loved participating in them. Years later, one of those same neighbors recalled fondly a particular adventure I had taken him on in our little mech-filled universe. That was a big moment for me. I also loved reading BattleTech novels—particularly the ones written by Michael Stackpole—and eventually thought I should try my hand at writing one.

I did. It wasn’t good, and I only wrote a few pages before I ran out of steam. I decided to go back to what I was good at, which was running our game.

This wasn’t the moment that triggered the “I am a writer” compulsion in me, not really. It was just a false start. The real moment wouldn’t come until years later, but it too was brought about not by a novel or a movie, but by another game.

The year was 1997. I was just about to turn 14 when that fateful moment occurred. When Final Fantasy VII was released.

One of the neighbor kids (different from the BattleTech neighbor kids) brought over a copy of the game to play on my sister’s PlayStation. It was all this kid would talk about, and he begged me to borrow it so he could talk about it with someone who understood it. I did borrow it, somewhat skeptical (I was a dyed-in-the-wool sci-fi guy, and wasn’t interested in fairy tales and fantasies), and gave the disc a spin later that evening.

I went to bed, red-eyed and bleary, at around 7 AM the next day. And at that moment I severely resented my body and its stupid need for sleep. As soon as my eyes were open—perhaps after about 4 or 5 hours of sleep—I was back in Midgar with my spiky yellow hair and enormous Buster Sword.

ff7_us

When I finally finished the game, I sat back and realized something.

I could do this. I could write a video game script. Perhaps one even worthy of Final Fantasy.

That was the moment.

From that moment on, I was consumed with the idea of creating my own RPG, from developing the world and characters, to writing every line of dialogue. For that game, which I had titled Paradigm (for some reason), I had come up with some unique twists on the typical JRPG formula that the world wouldn’t see until years later, with the release of Final Fantasy XII (I honestly think someone in Japan read the script from Paradigm before creating that game. It had way too much in common with the one I was making).

I became an avid JRPG fan and played everything I could get my hands on. Another pivotal moment was, of course, the next iteration of Final Fantasy. This game, with its more realistic characters and (slightly) more realistic setting was more in line with what I wanted to create, me being the sci-fi guy. It was then that I decided on my hero, who incidentally had an awful lot in common with FF8’s hero, Squall.

I worked on this game for years before I finally was able to type the words “The End.” In that time, I had researched what it took to be a writer in the video game industry. It turns out to be a lot harder than I had naively thought as a 14-year-old kid. A lot of writers started out in testing, then worked their way up through design and finally into writing. Others already had writing credits to their name, having written stories and novels or worked in some other media before finally writing for video games. One does not simply declare oneself a video game writer, I learned to my dismay.

It was a sobering lesson. That was where I wanted to go. Into writing video games. I seriously considered going in through the testing route, and even tried my hand at it for a brief time, before I learned that was not where my skills lay, and I would have to work harder than everyone else just to get to the point where I could write games.

Then I turned to the other common route: writing in other media. The obvious media was novels. I had read a lot growing up, and when I started seriously considered writing novels, I had recently discovered a genre I had previously scorned: fantasy.

You see, I had never actually read a fantasy novel until I was 23. If there weren’t any spaceships or robots, I wasn’t interested. But once I finally caved into pressure and picked up my first fantasy novel, a little book called Wizard’s First Rule, I became utterly and totally obsessed. This was the second time in my life that I was convinced I would be a writer. This time, a writer of novels.

It wasn’t long before I decided that writing for video games would be just another dream job that I grew out of, like being an astronaut, a mad scientist, or a ninja. Writing novels would scratch the same itch as writing video games, and didn’t need to be a mere means to an end. It could be an end in itself.

I proceeded with this line of thinking for years, and much to my benefit. Here I am, on the eve of completing my first novel, and I am satisfied.

Mostly.

To Indie or Not to Indie

As I mentioned in a previous post, a story I had written, called Scrapyard Paradise, had been accepted in an anthology called A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, published by WordFire Press (you can buy it here and elsewhere). Getting that acceptance email was easily one of the highlights of my burgeoning career as a writer. Another was getting this:

A Game of Horns

One in the hand is worth two in the ereader.

Now, I’m a big fan of ebooks. I’ve got a Kindle and a Kindle Fire, and I often read books on my phone. And having moved around the world, I had to part ways with my large collection of paper books. I think electronic books are the future of reading, and paper books will eventually go the way of the candle. Good for decorating your house, but not as useful as its more technologically-advanced counterpart.

But damn, does it feel good to hold my book in my hands.

I’ve published my own ebooks before, and every time I did, I felt satisfied and proud of the hard work I had done. But none of that came even close to getting this professionally-produced and published book in the mail, seeing its gorgeous cover, feeling the heft of it in my hands. I could never make anything as wonderful as this.

The moment I realized that, I knew what I would do with the Farshores Saga, something I hadn’t yet attempted (with the exception of Scrapyard Paradise): I would seek out a traditional publisher.

Although I’m not entirely satisfied with the Fourth World series (what kind of author would I be if I were satisfied with something I had written?), much of the feedback I received about it was positive. I thought the stories were pretty decent, if a bit unconventional and overly ambitious. Even so, they never really generated buzz or took off by any stretch of the imagination. Part of the reason could be that I never spent the money to give them the professional treatment they needed. I tried too hard to do everything myself instead outsourcing to people who knew how best to publish a book. Another part, and perhaps the more significant part, is that if I didn’t go out there and generate buzz about the books myself, no one would. And I didn’t.

A lot of traditionally published authors say they work just as hard to promote their books as any indie-published author. And that may be true, especially for the more successful ones. But it’s undeniable that simply having a publisher in your corner, someone who was willing to take a chance on you, is itself a promotion of your work. Some of my friends who had never read my Fourth World stories picked up a copy of the anthology simply because they knew it was traditionally published. I think there’s a lesson in there, and it’s that traditional publishing is the way to go for me.

Of course, one does not simply will a publishing contract into existence. You need to have a product that the publisher wants, and you have to show them why it’s in their interest to publish it. My writing group is a phenomenal group of people who, when they combine their powers, are like the Voltron of polishing a manuscript. With their excellent feedback, I’ve been able to take my novel to a much higher level. I’m confident that when it’s finished, it will be ready for the big leagues.

Plus, with Scrapyard Paradise, I’ve shown that going this route is not as far-fetched as I once thought. I know it’s achievable because, in the case of my short story, I’ve already achieved it. Now it’s just a matter of doing the best work I can to make it happen with my novel too. And honestly, while I liked Scrapyard Paradise as a story, Shoreseeker is at least fifty bajillion times better.

But the question of going indie or not is actually a false dilemma. An idea that I had toyed with when I was just starting out with the Fourth World was a hybrid approach to publishing: traditionally publishing some things, independently publishing others. A lot of authors have tried this approach with success, and I think especially given my own inclinations as a writer, this is the best way for me. So I will traditionally publish my novels.

As for independently published stuff? Well, that’s where Super Secret Project B comes in.

Epic Fantasy: A Definition

The question of what epic fantasy is often arises, yet despite that, few people attempt to define it, and fewer yet believe that the definition they come up with is adequate. For the most part, however, we all know an epic fantasy when we see it. Why is it so difficult to define what makes an epic fantasy an epic fantasy? Is there even any value in trying to come up with a definition?

I’ll answer the second question first. Though some may argue that defining epic fantasy is merely a semantic concern, I think that there is value in coming up with a definition, not because of anything to do with epic fantasy, but because of the human need to understand the world we live in. Art and literature are important to many, if not most, people, and being able to understand art can help us to understand life in general. Art can often give life meaning and understanding, and such things are among the most important requirements of a fulfilling existence.

So why is defining epic fantasy so difficult? I would argue that people have attempted not to define epic fantasy as such, but rather what they like about it. One person (usually a writer, since they are the ones who get asked to define epic fantasy the most) will say it has to do with the world, and another will say it has to do with the characters. As it almost always turns out, the first person likes (either to read or to write) epic fantasy with a focus on world building, whereas the second likes those with a focus on characters (of course, this is not a hard and fast rule, and may not even be the case generally, but it is something I have seen through observation). While these things and others may have much to do with epic fantasy, I do not believe that they are its defining characteristics.

Definition is largely comprised of two conceptual processes: integration and differentiation. In order to define anything, we must first determine to what class of things it belongs, and secondly determine how it is distinguished from all other things in that class.

The class in this case is, of course, fantasy, which is a genre that is in turn defined by its use of elements that are derived purely from imagination. If it includes dragons, magic, or places that have never existed and never will, then it is fantasy.

That’s the easy part. The definition for fantasy isn’t controversial in the slightest, at least not in the circles I run in. So we’ll leave that part alone and tackle that part that everybody disagrees about, and that is what distinguishes epic fantasy from other kinds of fantasy.

The key word here is epic. What distinguishes something epic from something that is not? A lot of answers have been given, but the size of the book or the length of the tale is among the more common. So is the size of the cast; the “cast of thousands” is something that is often considered to be a hallmark of epic fantasy. I think these things are common in epic fantasies, but are not really defining characteristics.

However, there is something about these attempts to define the epic that are important in discovering what makes a story epic. Both of them talk in terms of scope, but is it really scope in terms of geography or number of characters that defines epic fantasy? Or is it something else?

There are a number of stories that take place in only a handful, or even just one, location that qualify as epic fantasy, just as there are epics that follow only a couple of main characters, where the rest of the cast is mere window dressing or simply doesn’t exist at all. Yet there is something about these stories that still feels vast. I would argue that that smoky, vague something is a story’s scope of consequence.

In epic fantasy, lives are changed, kingdoms fall, and the rules of the universe are turned on their heads. The consequences of the actions taken by the main characters affect the lives of everyone that matters, and sometimes have consequences that reach far beyond that. If Frodo had traveled across the world without interacting with anyone along the way, only to travel to Mordor to borrow a cup of sugar, The Lord of the Rings would have been seen not as an epic fantasy, but rather as an epic failure. Frodo’s story matters because of how he and his friends change everything.

Another hallmark of epic fantasy is the clash between good and evil, and indeed, it is very prevalent, though an number of examples of epic fantasy can be found where this is not the case (A Song of Ice and Fire chief among them). But I think there is a very good reason why many of these stories feature this kind of conflict, and that is because when it all shakes out, the world is changed. Either good triumphs over evil, or evil triumphs over good. Everyone in that world has a stake in the outcome, and everyone’s lives will be changed whether they were featured in the story or not.

Contrast this to stories where a character or set of characters travel across the world but only fight monsters or gather loot in caves and dungeons. It doesn’t matter how many places they go or how many people they meet; their actions, in the big scheme of things, are meaningless. Now matter where their adventures take them, the world is still more or less the same. This kind of story fits in the category swords and sorcery, as distinct from epic fantasy, and it is distinct primarily because of its lack of scope of consequence.

Ever since the term epic fantasy was first coined, there has been a rough, ostensive definition of it, or else no one would have bothered to come up with it. Hopefully, what I have said here will either help clarify this concept, or at least promote more discussion on it. While I think scope of consequence captures the essential differentiator of epic fantasy, I am very interested in hearing what you have to say on the topic, since two of my favorite things are philosophy and fantasy. If you have anything to add, or if you want to dispute my definition and say it’s complete foolishness, please comment below. Thanks!

Of Theme and Magic

I’ve had a major breakthrough.

When I set out to write The Clans, my goals were humble. I wanted to introduce you to the world of the novel I was working on, The Born Sword. I also wanted to build that world, to develop it in ways that I could use in the novel, and I do that best by writing about it. And finally, I wanted to perhaps share a ripping good yarn or two.

These six stories were to be bound together through the world in which they took place. That’s it. That’s all I wanted. If that’s all that had happened, I would have been utterly satisfied. But that’s not all that happened.

These stories were also bound by theme.

If you’ve read “Wholeness,” then you’ve probably surmised that its theme is integrity (or at least you should have; I basically tell you as much in the last three paragraphs). While I was writing the end of the as-yet-unnamed fourth story of the collection, I realized that I inadvertently borrowed not only the theme of “Wholeness,” but the very imagery used to depict it: the integrated man, a whole person.

At first, I was a bit annoyed with myself. After all, I pride myself on my originality, and if something’s been done before, I furiously try to avoid using it in my stories (unless it fits so well that it would be a crime to forego using it). Theme and imagery were no exceptions. I had every intention of rewriting that scene when the story was done.

But after a while, I began to wonder if I should leave that scene alone. It did fit the story. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that all of my stories written so far touched on this theme of integrity, what it means to have it and what it means to betray it. So I decided to keep it, but I hadn’t yet realized why this was significant.

What is a theme, anyway? The best definition I’ve found is that a theme is the unifying idea of a story. One could say that the sum of a story’s parts, its identity, is the theme. If all of a story’s parts bound together demonstrate that theme, could one say that the story is truly unified, integrated… whole?

Now let’s talk about the magic system.

Magic, in the Fourth World (the world of The Clans and The Born Sword), primarily consists of the binding of essences. For example, a sorcerer can take the element of fire from his surroundings (limited by how much of it there is) and bind that fire into a focal point, which he can then manipulate. Or, he can steal the fire from the torch in your hand, turn it into a fireball, and then launch it back at you. This works for whatever “essence” that particular sorcerer can bind: light, metal, pain… anything. All he has to do is take the bits that are there and unify them into a whole.

Let me repeat that last phrase: unify them into a whole.

Did you notice how many times I used the word “bind” when talking about theme?

Yes, that’s right. I have integrated and bound the magic system and the theme, and that theme is integrity.

I am performing literary magic, and I’m not afraid to admit it. Just wait and see what I’m willing to do with it.

Writing is a tough gig, and sometimes a writer needs to be reminded of why he writes. Different people do it for different reasons. Some do it because they’re good at it, some because they can actually make money at it. Some do it because they don’t know how to do anything else. Some, though, do it for those moments of unfettered, unadulterated bliss when everything comes together.

Today, that last was me.

New Story on the Website!

Today marks a new era for me. I have self-published my first piece of writing, right here on this website.

It will not make me rich overnight. In fact, it won’t earn me a dime. The story is free. I also plan on releasing it as a free ebook in the near future. I give this in thanks to you, dear reader, for coming to my website. Hopefully, you will enjoy it. Enough, perhaps, to buy the whole collection when it comes out. *sinister laugh*

That’s right. This story, “Wholeness,” is projected to be the first of six (or seven, depending on how you count them) stories with the collection The Clans: Tales from the Fourth World. Now, you might be thinking six (or seven) short stories is not a whole lot. And in most cases you’d be right. The kind of short stories most short story writers like to write (and publishers like to publish) are pretty short–generally under 4000 word-long stories are preferred by the magazines I’ve encountered. There are good reasons for doing so, as I’m sure you can figure out on your own. Fortunately for you, dear reader-who-likes-a-good-value, I have disregarded all of those reasons.

As you can see on the page where I’ve posted “Wholeness,” it is fairly large–about 6300 words. And of the three stories already completed, it is the smallest. My most recent story, in fact, is almost 14,000 words. That’s not even a short story anymore. That’s what those in the biz like to call a novelette.

If we do the math, taking 10,000 as our average word count, that means the collection will end up being about 70,000 words, which translates to roughly the length of a mystery novel, or a short fantasy novel.

Not a bad deal for 99 cents, eh?

Of course, you might be concerned that since I was aiming to write short stories that these longer “novelettes” will simply be your typical bloated fantasy fare. I’d like to think that they are not. You might actually say they are complete fantasy stories without the bloat. There is no “cast of thousands” here; I keep the number of characters down to a very manageable level. And since each story is dedicated to a particular clan (which is similar to country, land, kingdom, etc.), there won’t be any need for you to scribble down maps and flowcharts and diagrams just to figure out who went where and did what. One thing I’ve tried to do with my writing is keep things manageable. If you need an encyclopedia to enjoy my stories, then I haven’t done my job. This flies in the face of what most fantasy authors do these days, but I’m writing exactly the kind of stories I want to read. Even the authors that I like still manage to piss me off when they have far too much going on for me to keep track of, and I don’t want to do that.

That said, I hope you enjoy “Wholeness”! If you do, keep an eye out for The Clans when it is released late this summer!