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+1 to Writing: A Conversation with Robert Denton III, Part 1

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How do you go from being a fan of a franchise to one of the people who gets to work on it? What is it like to write tie-in fiction, and what are some of the challenges these writers face?

+1 to Writing is an ongoing series of interviews with writers at different stages in their writing career, from veterans wordsmiths to emerging authors. It looks at the RPG, tie-in media, and sci-fi and fantasy fiction industries in particular, and what those authors did to break in and keep growing their professional writing business. By the end of the interview, we hope readers feel like they’ve got a “+1 bonus” to continue their own writer’s journey–like a small Guidance spell from popular roleplaying games. Then, readers can experiment with their own writing and editing process to find what works for them.

I’m extremely grateful to be joined this week and next by Robert Denton III (@ohnospooky on Twitter) for the next installment of the +1 to Writing series. He’s the author of the upcoming The Sword and the Spirits novella, which I worked with him on as his editor. Set in the Legend of the Five Rings setting, the 144-page hardcover is due out soon from Fantasy Flight Games. The story features the spiritual Phoenix Clan and fan-favorite characters Shiba Tsukune and Isawa Tadaka, along with introductions to Kaito Kosori, her family, and their secrets.

I tracked Robert down amid several nor’easters (and power outages) to ask him a bit about his background in writing, his process, and some tips and tricks he’s discovered along the way. Next week, in the second part of this interview, we’ll dive into more of his writing process and more advice for aspiring authors.

Katrina: In addition to authoring The Sword and the Spirits, you’ve written over sixty short fictions for the Legend of the Five Rings universe and have contributed to several roleplaying books for the fourth edition of the Legend of the Five Rings RPG. You’ve also written for other roleplaying games such as Tiny Frontiers and its expansion Mecha and Monsters, not to mention you’re the Creative Lead for Radiant: Offline Battle Arena. So, you’ve been busy! First of all, how did you break into professional writing (back in the AEG days—or even before)?

Robert: This is a funny story. I never believed I would ever write anything professionally. I didn’t study writing in school, I took no creative writing courses (except for a poetry class in college), and to this day I have no official training. I honestly considered having a book published to be a pipe dream. A dream I gave up on, actually. My degree was in Art.

When I was twenty-eight, an L5R fan forum called “Home of the Crane Clan” held a fanfiction writing contest. I entered completely on a whim. As it turns out, I won that contest with an entry that was mostly tongue-in-cheek. My entry might still be up actually…

Shortly after, I was contacted by Fred Wan, who was the Continuity Editor for the L5R Story Team back then, when the game was under AEG. There was an opening on the Story Team and he asked me to try out. At that time, I was already well-known among the L5R community as a frequent visitor of L5R forums and a participant in the play-by-post RPG community at the time. To cut the story short, I was offered a position on the L5R Story Team that GenCon. My tryout fiction was “Fortune of Horses,” which was published as an entry for “Scenes from the Empire.”

I’ve been writing professionally ever since. So I owe everything to Fred Wan!

Katrina: So you got noticed through your fanfiction, but that begs the question of why you write, and what do you get out of writing?

Robert: I think I write for a lot of different reasons. I like telling stories. I enjoy the writing process. I want to get better at my craft. I have a lot of thoughts throughout the day and I sometimes feel that I need to get them down on paper or else they’ll pile up in my head. And of course this is one of the ways in which I make a living, so I also write to get paid (haha).

Katrina: Fair enough! It helps when you can turn your hobby into a job!

Robert: But my biggest motivator is that others might read what I’ve written. I’ve heard many people say that they write/draw/act/whatever purely for self-enjoyment or personal fulfillment, that the ideal state of a creator is to be completely fulfilled only by the act of creation, and they don’t care if their creations are ever seen or experienced. They create purely for the joy of it and nothing more. I personally cannot relate to that. I definitely enjoy the process, and I have fun with it, but I almost never write just for myself. In fact, if others weren’t going to read what I was writing, I probably wouldn’t do it. I think it’d be disingenuous to suggest otherwise, that I’m totally punk rock and don’t care what others think. That’s not me at all.

I think on some level, everyone creates because they want to be seen, to be remembered, to be recognized. That’s what pushes me to try and get better. I keep thinking, “Someone’s going to read this someday, so you have to do better!” Maybe that’s not healthy (haha), but it’s the truth!

Katrina: I think that makes total sense—most people read books to go on a journey or have a kind of emotional reaction, so the author has a specific message or emotion they want to convey. I think there’s also a community element to it, especially surrounding the Intellectual Properties (IPs) in which people are already playing games together. Something along the lines of, “Here are what my adventures in this world look like, what about yours?” So then, what kind of scenes and characters and stories do you most enjoy writing?

Robert: I like writing all sorts of stories, but my favorites are about seemingly “normal” circumstances that rapidly become extraordinary or absurd. I like twists and unforeseen consequences. I especially enjoy mysteries, horror, and comedy (and especially all three in the same story). I also enjoy writing stories that safely provoke the reader, but this is hard to do so I only attempt it when I’m really confident I can pull it off.

My favorite sorts of characters are those who try to function in spite of huge shortcomings. I like writing about losers: the disenfranchised, the overlooked, the clearly in-over-their-heads, that sort of thing. I especially like characters that are clearly good at one specific thing, and that’s not the thing they do for a living, because life has forced them into a different path, and they’re sort of making do. To really hook me, a character needs to be relatable to me somehow, and also to amuse me in some way. So I try to inject characters with my own anxieties and shortcomings whenever I can.

Katrina: So there’s a little bit of tragedy mixed in there, or at least, a strong sense of adversity. The characters you describe sound a bit like player characters from a roleplaying game: specialized, has a few distinctive disadvantages or drawbacks… Do you ever find that your roleplaying or card games inspire your writing, or does your writing mainly get channeled as inspiration for game-related fiction or supplement writing?

Robert: I think it’s important to write about one’s interests in order to maintain inspiration or motivation. Right now, writing is at the intersection of all my gaming. The vast majority of my work is for L5R, either promotional fictions or roleplaying supplements. The rest are roleplaying supplements for other franchises. So one could say my interests in gaming and my writing overlaps significantly!

I am definitely inspired by my roleplaying. Ideas pop up at the table that lead to other ideas, and these will find their way into my drafting. Sometimes I’ll play with a character that is surprisingly fun to depict, so I’ll tuck them away to write about later. It’s surprising how many useful ideas come up when you don’t intend for them to.

Katrina: Absolutely! I think that’s the case for a lot of RPG gamers (myself included). So that covers what you really enjoy and where you get some of your ideas from, but what about the elements of writing that challenge you? What do you feel like you still struggle with as an author?

Robert: Wordcount, definitely! (Haha.) In all seriousness, succinctity is a challenge for me. I’ll get spontaneous ideas while I’m writing, something to add or a way to elaborate upon what I’m describing, and before I know it my wordcount has tripled.

Katrina: Hahaha, yeah. Usually you’re, what, 50% over the target word count for a story? It makes my life hard as an editor, too, because the stuff you’ve added is usually pretty fantastic and I think to myself, “Do we have to cut this? Surely we can squeeze it in.” So if our readers have ever wondered why some of the Phoenix stories run long…

What other challenges do you face as part of your writing?

Robert: I tend to suffer from confidence issues as well. Especially with my first drafts, I’ll look over what I wrote and think, “This is awful, no one will like this.” Intellectually, I know that first drafts are not your good drafts, but anxiety over the final result can get in the way of my productivity, my ability to generate ideas, and sometimes even my drive to get started. I’d like to say that as years have passed I’ve gotten better managing my self-doubt when writing, but that’s really not the case.

Katrina: I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of expecting too much from the first draft, and then agonizing over all the places where you feel you’ve fallen short. And when you’re spending your energy worrying, it can be hard to muster up the energy to be creative. I’ve found that I really do need to give myself conscious permission to write a shitty first draft, sometimes in order to even get words on the page.

But then again, you’ve already succeeded in writing a novella, not to mention the sixty-plus other fictions you’ve already published! What advice do you have for people who want to turn their writing into a published work and become professional writers?

Robert: It feels odd to give advice in regards to breaking in to the industry. What worked for me was being noticed, being willing, and making myself as easy to work with as possible. Once I had a regular gig, I started networking and making connections, and slowly that led to more work. In many ways, I got very lucky.

But if I had some advice to give, it’s this: trust your editors. I’ve been surprised by writers who thought they knew better than their editor and resisted feedback. I watched these writers lose gigs as a direct result. Most of them were better than me. The only thing I did better was follow directions. No one wants to work with someone who makes their job difficult.

Here’s a secret they never told me that I had to discover on my own: professional writing is collaborative. It’s not just you, it’s you and your editor. Especially so when writing for franchises. Don’t look at your work as your “baby,” something you cannot compromise with and refuse to change. Look at it as a collaborative work you will eventually present to others. Don’t think of your story as something you own. Find an editor you trust, build a professional relationship with them, and then listen.

Katrina: It’s true that there’s a big difference between editing original work versus editing work in an IP that is ultimately owned by a whole studio. For the former, the editor is really focused on asking what the author’s vision is and then evaluating whether the work is fulfilling that vision effectively. But in the case of franchises, the editor also has to consider the goals of the different product lines and the particular product, and work toward fulfilling those. But luckily, there’s usually a lot of room for the author’s unique vision, too!

Do you have any other advice for new writers?

Robert: Make friends with other writers and absorb everything. You want to do what they do, so learn everything you can from them. In business, connections and networking is king, so take advantage of conventions and local writing groups and be as visual as you can be!

Katrina: This is all fantastic, Robert, thank you so much for joining us!

Next week, we’ll take a look at Robert’s writing process from start to finish, as well as some insights into how longer-form fiction differs from writing short stories. In the meantime, you can check out Robert’s Goodreads author profile and pre-order his upcoming novella from Fantasy Flight Games!

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