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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Editorial: Sharing a World, Part I

"Adventurer, I am Elminster, and I say to ye that these forgotten realms are yours to discover, reforge, and defend, yours to make anew in winning your own crown. Go forth and take up arms against the perils that beset us!"
-- Elminster of Shadowdale
Mirtul, Year of Wild Magic

In 1967, Ed Greenwood's boyhood fantasies were too bold and imaginative to be confined to backyards, playgrounds, and even sprawling woods. The future game designer's imagination overflowed with visions of fantastic creatures, ones that demanded a unique setting to complement their individuality. Thus was born the Forgotten Realms, a world Greenwood populated with creatures, events, landmarks and tales.

Greenwood couldn't keep such exciting adventures to himself. In 1987, the Realms became an official campaign in the Dungeons & Dragons setting, one fervently embraced by role-players eager to bring their own characters to life. With each game session, the continent of Faerûn, located on planet Abeir-Toril, expanded exponentially with new races, locales, and quests.

Given the campaign setting's popularity, it was only a matter of time before memorable game sessions birthed writers hoping to pen novels set in the Realms. Like the curator of a massive theme park filled with wondrous attractions, Greenwood embraced the passion many writers and designers had for his world by opening the Realms to them. The price of admission: limitless imagination. Two such writers are Bruce Cordell and Paul S. Kemp.

Like most writers, Bruce Cordell, author of Forgotten Realms novels such as Plague of Spells and numerous Advanced/D&D sourcebooks and scenarios, wrote voraciously through high school and college. And like most writers, his reward was a stack of rejection slips that grew until opportunity finally knocked. "I got a gig to do a Pick-A-Path novel for a property Hasbro was developing, but it died before publication," says Cordell. "However, that got my foot in the door enough that the [Wizards of the Coast] book department asked me to be one of the T. H. Lains on a series of short adventure novels, which I think was my first story publication credit, in 2002.

"After the T. H. Lain novel, I used my enviable position as an employee in a nearby department to show up every so many months in the book department with an 'I'm available and willing to write an FR novel' look. They offered [to let] me write one of the Priests books, which became Lady of Poison."

For Paul Kemp, author of the Erevis Cale and Twilight War trilogies, writing provided a much-needed escape from the life of a law student. "I started writing in law school, mostly because I hated law school and wanted to do something else," says Kemp. "Strangely, I enjoy the practice of law--I just disliked law school; go figure. I began with short stories, then a trunk novel that will remain so forevermore, then finally got published professionally."

Like a sentient object yearning for freedom after centuries of confinement, Kemp's trunk novel ironically opened the door through which he entered the Realms. "I submitted a writing sample--a chapter from the aforementioned trunk novel--to Wizards way back when they had an open submissions policy. The editors liked the chapter and asked me to submit a proposal for an upcoming project, the 'Sembia Series'. Things have snowballed since then."

The knowledge accrued by Bruce Cordell during his full-time work as a game designer at TSR/Wizards, in addition to his time spent as a gamer, contributed to his familiarity with the setting. But Paul Kemp was no stranger to the thriving trade hub of Calimport, the once great city of Cormanthor, or the Baldurians of Baldur's Gate despite his lack of insider credentials. "I've been a gamer since sixth grade, so I was quite familiar with the Realms, having played in the setting as both player and Dungeon Master," says Kemp. "These days I mostly DM for the same group of buddies I've gamed with for twenty years. This makes us grognards. And old. And possibly pathetic."

After accepting the invitation to add their voices to the Forgotten Realms collective, Kemp and Cordell hunkered down to chart the course of the adventures each had in mind. "I wrote an intro for each character, about a paragraph," explains Cordell. "I also wrote a chapter by chapter outline, where I specifically described what would happen in each chapter [consisting of] a large paragraph or two. Writing the outline required I take a week off work and concentrate on the outline to the exclusion of all else. For me, this is where the heavy lifting occurs."

Even a world as diverse as the Forgotten Realms will seem bland without interesting characters. Given Ed Greenwood's careful crafting of a world that became a staple in the D&D universe, one might think that Wizards would enforce copious boundaries in the creation of characters both major and minor. In that case, one would be wrong.

"I created my own protagonist: Erevis Cale, assassin and spy," says Kemp. "The only preexisting fact for which I needed to account was that he was the butler/majordomo for a powerful merchant family, and that isn't really much of a constraint. One of the common misunderstandings about writing shared world or tie-in fiction is that it places enormous creative shackles on the authors. That might be so in some lines or with some properties, but it's not the case with the Forgotten Realms. Yes, there's an underlying setting, but it's so flexible that it's a simple matter to tell the story I want to tell in the way I want to tell it."

"Imagination was the limit," agrees Cordell. "For my most recent novel, Plague of Spells, I followed my usual habit of bringing forward one character from a previous novel and making that character the new main character--Raidon Kane in this case. The other characters came to me as I sat during my week of outlining, as outlines first, that became more fully fleshed out by the end of the process. Of course, the moment you begin writing a character, he or she takes on a life not imagined in the outline, which sometimes takes the stories in directions also not in the initial outline."

To aid in their planning, Kemp and Cordell received materials from Wizards that detailed information to keep in mind while still allowing the authors plenty of opportunity for creative freedom. "All the authors were provided with a series bible that contained some information on the realm of Sembia and the city of Selgaunt, where [my] stories would be set," says Kemp. "The bible included things like common turns of phrase, a list of the leading merchant families, that kind of thing. In general, writing in the Realms means reading up on the available lore applicable to the subject matter/setting pertinent to your story. There's often far less than people imagine. At the time, there was nothing on Sembia other than the series bible. It had been left deliberately blank in the gaming materials--a place for individual DMs to develop on their own."

While the brunt of a story's direction is in the hands of the author, some projects do occasionally come with a short list of objectives that should be accomplished via any means the author sees fit. "For Lady of Poison, I had to feature someone who worshiped a god in the novel," says Cordell. "For Darkvision, [I needed] someone who practiced arcane magic, and for the Dungeons series, a suitably dungeon-like site. Really, pretty loose restrictions. For the Abolethic Sovereignty trilogy, I needed to cover what was up with the city of Xxiphu. But given Xxiphu was my creation in the game campaign guide, I was happy to be given the opportunity to write a novel trilogy about it by the publisher."

"With The Erevis Cale Trilogy, the stories simply needed to feature Cale and not result in the planet getting torched. Those are fairly broad parameters," says Kemp with a laugh. "The Twilight War Trilogy [also] needed to feature Cale but I needed to show how the Shadovar--an ancient, magical people with an affinity for darkness--took over a neighboring realm. The whys and wherefores were left to me entirely."

After receiving approval for the outline, the project is given a green light, and penning the story begins in earnest. Depending on the author's respective duties in his or her personal life and other professional capacities, writing schedules can fluctuate wildly. "I write as time allows and shoot for 1,000 to 1,500 good words per day," says Kemp.

"On regular days, I write about 500 words before going to work," says Cordell. "However, I usually end up missing days here and there, so at the end of the first draft, I take off work a couple weeks and finish up, which hopefully works out to be no more than 2,000 or so words a day--for City of Torment, it was 2,400 words a day for two weeks! Which, actually, proved to be some of my best writing on the book."

Over the course of crafting the story, authors are expected to meet explicit milestones set by Wizards in order to ensure a smooth pace from conception to publication. "Wizards Book Publishing sets very specific deadlines for outline, first draft, and second draft," explains Cordell. "If it's a first draft, the editor reads it over once to get an idea of what's going on, then again very closely with comments added. That commented manuscript, plus a separate document with uber-comments comes back to me. I incorporate all of that into my second draft. That goes back to editor, who may read it, send it to a copy editor, get it back and send it to a typesetter, get it back and send a copy to me so I can go through the thing one more time while the editor does the same. The editors say they end up reading each novel at least five times."

Certain special considerations add stipulations to the timeline. One exceptional case is an author requesting his or her protagonist's interaction with another author's character. So, what precautions and setup would be required if, for example, Erevis Cale wanted to go adventuring with R.A. Salvatore's Drizzt Do'Urden? "The general rule of thumb is that you get the other author’s permission and treat their characters with respect," says Kemp. "Were I to allow [such interaction], I would have the other author read the section in which their character appears and tweak as necessary to maintain consistency."

Like any process, writing a Forgotten Realms novel is not without its share of setbacks, yet the creative freedom granted by Wizards of the Coast encourages authors not to see setbacks as obstacles, but rather opportunities to tighten their stories. "Different books present different challenges, but I’ve never conceptualized any of those challenges as setbacks," says Kemp. "I do sometimes look at my first full-length novel and think – boy, I wish I could rewrite that now – but I think that’s typical of many authors. We grow in the craft over time, and something I wrote nine years ago is not at the level I write today. So it goes."

Once the process is complete, a sense of satisfaction at seeing one's work become part of the Forgotten Realms' cannon settles in--in addition to, one might imagine, an overwhelming desire for a nap. Paul Kemp and Bruce Cordell reflect on past and recent releases with fulfillment. "My most recent trilogy, The Twilight War, does a couple things of which I am proud," shares Kemp. "First, I think it presents an epic fantasy storyline without losing touch with its roots in sword and sorcery. Second, it has an unusually high number of point of view characters and I think I not only manage the number well, but provide each with an interesting and satisfying character arc."

For Cordell, whose Abolethic Sovereignty trilogy is just ramping up, the satisfaction of looking back on the project's writing was not coming up with the perfect conclusion, but the perfect segue -- and without a moment to spare. "The biggest triumph [in writing Plague of Spells] was coming up with the ending that perfectly set up the second book, City of Torment, literally during the final day of writing the first draft [of Plague of Spells]," says Cordell.

Since 1987, readers and gamers alike have enjoyed following the daring exploits of their favorite characters, as well as forging their own daring campaigns -- all thanks to the Realms' most attractive feature: "Its breadth," Kemp says simply. "There is something in the Realms that appeals to everyone."

"It really is a land of adventure that can contain hundreds of stories simultaneously," agrees Cordell. "Beyond that, Toril has been allowed to grow and develop; it hasn't remained a static world, and fans have been able to see that change through novels, and feel as if they were a part of those changes."

More than 20 years after Ed Greenwood opened his imagination to the masses, and dozens of books and player-created campaigns later, is there any nook or cranny left to explore? "I see it remaining an interesting, exciting place sprouting with ever more stories that grow one from the next," says Cordell. "New characters and some old will continue to stride the world achieving victories large and small. And readers will continue to enjoy peeking into those exploits via the written word -- and one hopes, electronic and audible word, too."


Adam Whitehead said...

I have GMed in the Realms on and off for a decade. It gets a lot of stick - Erikson is very scathing about it and has said MALAZAN is partially a reaction against it - but it does its job quite well as a magic-heavy setting with some nice unique flavouring and ideas. A lot of the novels have been admittedly weak, but Kemp's work is strong and there are some really good books in there if you look hard enough.

Unfortunately, what Wizards of the Coast did to the Realms in 4th Edition (nuking the continent in a magical conflageration) is pretty ridiculous and I won't be picking up any more new Realms material. On the plus side, the 3rd Edition stuff is now going much more cheaply! :-)

Saibot said...

I have also stopped buying Realms material after the whole spellnuke thing, but I will probably start buying novels from the authors I'm already a fan of as soon as my anger wears of.


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