JANE: This week I’m interviewing Dave Gross, the author of the recently released Lord of Runes, the most recent of his “Radovan and the Count” novels set in the Pathfinder gaming universe.
I always start these interviews by asking the same question, so here it is…
In my experience, writers fall into two general categories: those who have been writing stories since before they could actually write and those who came to writing somewhat later.
Which sort are you?
DAVE: The first sort, with an asterisk.
One of my first big treasures was an old Olivetti typewriter with which I struggled for years before taking a proper typing class.
I can’t remember when I first started writing stories, but I’ll never forget my earliest positive feedback on a writing assignment. Mrs. Hughes was the fourth-grade English teacher for the problem students, of which I was clearly one because of my habit of reading comics instead of listening. Mrs. Hughes was young, sweet-natured, and a knockout. I’m pretty sure I already had a crush on her before she cemented my affections by reading us The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. That was possibly my earliest introduction to full-on fantasy. Before that, I was more interested in horror and science-fiction.
Anyway, for my assignment I wrote a short story about a young guy who goes to Hollywood, gets work with a film crew, and gets bitten by a werewolf, as one does. I don’t remember much detail except that the actress’s name was Rae and a silver pocketknife was Chekhov’s gun. Mrs. Hughes was so delighted to receive a coherent and typed narrative that she read it aloud to class, simultaneously humiliating and inspiring me.
Alas, the school soon gave us standardized tests. When the results came in, I got kicked out of the slow class and the new, stricter teacher confiscated my comics. It was too late for that brand of discipline, though. I was already reading novels instead of listening in class.
The asterisk: My fiction writing became far less frequent as an adult, when I poured most of that energy into college essays, then technical manuals at my first proper job. Later, when I was teaching, and later still, when I was editing, I found most of my creative energy spent on the day job. Only in the mid-90s did I start publishing stories, and my first full-length novel didn’t come out until 2001.
JANE: So often I meet young people – like your fourth grade self – who are enthusiastic about writing or art (or both) and find that enthusiasm dampened by the demands of their school. I’m glad you found your way back again.
You mention having been an editor first. Can you talk a bit about that? How does one move from teaching to editing? And how did you find your way into the gaming magazines?
DAVE: One of the good things about my college experience is that I never accumulated student debt, but I did end up with three part-time jobs, two of them teaching gigs at the university and at a local business college. Even combined, they barely paid a subsistence living, so I soon realized I couldn’t afford to send myself through a Ph.D. program. I was going to have to take a proper job.
A buddy pointed me to a job opening at TSR, makers of Dungeons & Dragons, which I’d played since I was 12 or 13. The application process is a story in itself, but after a long period of waiting for a traveling VP’s approval, I joined the company as Associate Editor of Polyhedron. Soon I moved up to editor, then over to Dungeon, and then to Dragon and editor-in-chief. A few years after Wizards of the Coast bought TSR and moved us out west, I transferred to the Star Wars magazines. Later still, after we’d all left Wizards to form Paizo, I briefly edited Amazing Stories before being enticed up to the Great White North.
The teaching experience made the transition to magazine editor easy, because marking papers isn’t far removed from blue-lining stories.
JANE: As you know, I’m a gamer. That’s a hobby that, back in the late eighties, when I was getting started writing and selling fiction, was something one sometimes had to be careful about mentioning. Certainly, there was a lot of bad gaming fiction out there wherein, to borrow a phrase from the time, “you could hear the dice rattling.”
However, now game-related fiction is a major sub-section of SF/F publishing. Can you talk a little about what goes into writing for a specific game franchise? How familiar does one need to be with the game, for example? How directive are the editors as to plot, pacing, and such?
DAVE: Some tie-in fiction writers barely know the games (a combination of rules and setting), and a few of them can pull it off anyway—but most can’t. The challenge is to write a story that appeals to non-gamers while assuring gamers that the novel’s characters are in the game world. That means getting the laws of magic right, and there are rules for that. That means paying attention to the names of queens and heroes, gods and nations, and basically doing all the same research you’d do if preparing an historical fantasy. So yeah, don’t let them hear the dice rattling, but make sure you’re as absorbed in the setting as, say, a Star Wars novelist is in the films, comics, and everything else about the galaxy far, far away.
I’ve been fortunate in that, when I wrote for the Forgotten Realms, I knew the setting better than the book editors did. When I wrote for Pathfinder, I didn’t know the setting as well as the editors, but I learned it, played it, studied it, immersed myself. When I wrote for Privateer Press, it was even more challenging because, while I read a lot of the setting material, I hadn’t played the games much, so I relied a lot on guidance from the continuity team.
I like it better when I have the time to do the research, including the “lab work” of playing the games. If I’ve done that as a gamer before writing a book, so much the better.
As for how much of the plot is directed, it depends on the publisher. I enjoyed writing for TSR, Wizards of the Coast, and Paizo the most because they generally left everything in the author’s hands, editing primarily for setting continuity. Other publishers want you to write their existing characters. That’s fun in its way, but I much prefer creating the plot and characters while using the publisher’s setting.
JANE: I’ve very much enjoyed the three Radovan and the Count novels I’ve read to this point (Lord of Runes, Queen of Thorns, and Prince of Wolves). One of the elements that I enjoy the most is how very different the sections narrated by Radovan are from those narrated by Count Varian. You change not only point of view, but vocabulary, narrative style, and – most importantly – interpretation of events.
Since I’ve been reading the novels out of order, I’ve become aware of how your style shifted over time, especially in the parts narrated by Count Varian. Can you talk about some of the choices you made?
DAVE: The first Pathfinder story I wrote was a novella. While I considered alternating points of view from the very start, since it was a shorter work I decided it would be better to focus on the henchman, Radovan. That put him in the position of recording the stories of the great detective. However, I had just come off a month-long binge of film noir. The voice I developed for Radovan was more Sam Spade than James Watson. I took it a step farther into hardboiled territory by using present tense.
That worked fine for the novella, but when my editor wanted a novel pitch with the same characters, I realized that alternating first-person POV, especially in present tense, could challenge some readers. I ended up rewriting the first four or five chapters several times: first-person, third-person, present tense, and past. Once I started to “hear” Varian’s voice, I went with first-person, past tense, which felt like a good balance between the hard-boiled Radovan and the aristocratic Count.
In the beginning, I wrote Varian’s POV in more compound-complex sentences with occasional $5 words. Then I doubled down and composed his early chapters in an epistolary style to stick a red arrow over the plot point—a missing Pathfinder agent. Looking back at it, I realize the style, along with a first chapter heavy in setting names, was all a bit thick.
That’s why in Master of Devils, and again in Queen of Thorns I relaxed Varian’s diction, depending more on vocabulary and class prejudice to express the character. Queen of Thorns seemed to hit the sweet spot, so while I’ve experimented with slang and diction and different types of low humor for Radovan since then, the style has remained consistent from Queen to King of Chaos and Lord of Runes.
Even while writing Prince of Wolves I was aware that Varian’s voice could use another buff before the final draft, but those first few novels for Pathfinder Tales were on unusually short deadlines, and then my October release got moved up to August, which turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. Rather than a month, I had only a couple days to revise. If I could go back and edit any of my published works, I’d expand and revise “Hell’s Pawns,” “The Lost Pathfinder,” and Prince of Wolves for a deluxe edition.
As for the boys’ different interpretation of events, I think it’s important that every character sees the world through a distorting lens of prejudice, ideals, limitations, and desires. How else do you explain why perfectly reasonable people don’t agree with you on every little thing? There are times in my life when I completely disagree with myself at other times in my life. Perspective is slippery, and we’re all unreliable narrators.
JANE: That reminds me of a question a friend of mine who does a series of interviews for YALSA always asks her subjects. I think I’ll adapt it here.
Is there any advice you’d give your young writer self – either that fourth grade kid or the man who turned to writing novels after that long hiatus? As a former editor, you’re in a rather unique position to provide such advice.
DAVE: Recently I read an anecdote about a pottery teacher who offered students a choice: he’d judge their work on either quality or quantity. By the end of the term, the students who cranked out many pots to earn their As were also making the finest pieces, better than those by students who agonized over making a single perfect vase each time.
So my advice to Young Dave would be, “Crank ’em out!”
In a way, I’ve had that opportunity by working as what the great Garrison Keillor calls a “deadline writer,” sometimes turning out a short novel in a month when I wanted three. Now there are some fine writers who pride themselves on spending ten years on a single novel to “get it right the first time,” and there’s something to be said for that ethic, but I think quantity and repetition is also a good teacher, maybe a better one for beginning writers.
So, Young Dave, write a story every week, even if it sucks. Then write another one and another and another.
JANE: I’d agree… Although I’d also tell Young Dave, “But don’t expect them all to sell…”
Finally, do you have any future projects you’d like to tell us about?
DAVE: I’ve started a novel in a new setting that combines several of my favorite genres: epic fantasy, wuxia, and Mythos horror.
The other new thing is I’ve broken from my habit of starting with a novella-length outline. While I have a good sketch of the first half of the story, I’m holding off on outlining the second half until I establish the rules of the world and the principal conflicts. It feels like starting a coast-to-coast trip with a map of only the first state. It’s terrifying. It’s exciting. I’ve got the top down and the wind in my hair.
JANE: That last is particularly fascinating, since my Wandering a couple of weeks ago touched on the subject of intuitive plotter or outliner… It’s neat that you’re permitting yourself to be both!
I’ll let you get to your novel, and stop taking up your valuable writing time. Thank you very much. It has been a distinct pleasure chatting with you!