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+1 to Writing: A Conversation with Robert Denton III, Part 2

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Last week, as part of the continuing +1 to Writing series, I asked Robert Denton III (@ohnospooky on Twitter) about how he went from being a fan of a franchise to one of the people who works on it. We talked about what it’s like to write tie-in fiction, and what are some of the challenges writers face. If you missed it, you can catch up on Part 1 of our conversation here!

+1 to Writing is an ongoing series of interviews with writers at different stages in their writing career, from veteran 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.

In addition to authoring The Sword and the Spirits, an upcoming Legend of the Five Rings novella that I worked with him on as his editor, Robert has written over sixty short fictions for the Legend of the Five Rings universe. He has also contributed to several roleplaying books for the fourth edition of the L5R Roleplaying Game, including Secrets of the Empire and Imperial Histories 2. Robert has also written for other roleplaying games such as Tiny Frontiers and its expansion Mecha and Monsters, and he is currently the Creative Lead for Radiant: Offline Battle Arena.

This week, we dig deep into the art of writing itself and get a glimpse into what it’s like to work on these projects from start to end. Robert also offers some insights into how longer-form fiction differs from writing short stories, and how to make your tales feel genuine so that they resonate with your audience emotionally.

Katrina: What does your process look like? How do you brainstorm and research?

Robert: I have a weird process, I think. I’ve been writing professionally for about six or seven years now, and I’m still figuring out what works best for me. A lot of what I do is instinctual, for lack of a better word. Maybe that means I don’t really have one (haha)!

Usually, I’ll start with a general hook or idea, and I’ll sort of let the ideas generate while I’m doing other things, if that makes sense. I find that inspiration strikes me spontaneously when I’m not really thinking about the story. I’ll be driving my car, talking to friends, reading a book, or just walking and observing people, and something will happen that just makes me go, “Hey! What if I do this?

Katrina: You’re not the only author I’ve talked to who gets their ideas while on the move. Sometimes you have to just get away from the computer desk in order for the creative juices to start flowing again.

Robert: At the same time, I’ll be sure to research subjects relevant to my story. I’ll discover something I didn’t know and that will lead to a plot point or some inspiration. The internet is a big resource for me, but I also check out books at the library or talk to people with similar life experiences. Since my goal is to write from a position of authority, emotionally centric information is more useful than the purely academic. So I look for personal accounts and small details that would be useful in a narrative sense.

Kaito Kosori by Pavel Tomashevskiy
©2017 Fantasy Flight Games

For instance, when I was writing a story about an archer from a family with strong Japanese-influenced archery traditions (and those archery traditions were an important plot point), a friend put me in contact with a kyūdo archer living in Japan. Talking to him led to all sorts of great insights. I asked him things like how it specifically felt to practice for a long time, how his archery applied to other aspects of his life, what aspects of archery he thought were most commonly misrepresented in fiction and movies, and other stuff like that.

And of course, I tried my hand at some archery myself, because that’s the only way I could really make the visceral connections.

Katrina: Wow, that’s definitely a level of hands-on research that not every writer has the chance to partake in! So once you have some ideas floating around, what happens next?

Robert: When I sit down to write, that’s when all these ideas and experiences come together. Sometimes I just open an RTF file and write without thinking and then organize my thoughts into a narrative later. Other times, I’ll write scenes and story events down on notecards and then organize them into a “timeline,” filling in gaps with other necessary scenes until I have something resembling a story outline. For The Sword and the Spirits, I used notecards again, but this time I wrote out multiple storylines, one for each spotlighted character and then the main plot, then mixed them together into a single stack of cards. That provided an outline and some direction.

When I’m drafting out my story, my goal is to write freely and constantly, whatever comes to mind and whatever I want, without regard to the finished work. The idea is to get all the stuff down and form a general narrative out of it. Sometimes I’ll even act out scenes in my study and improvise as all involved characters just to see what makes sense or sounds natural to me in a scene, which I’m sure would look insane to anyone who witnessed it!

Then, I’ll go back, read what I’ve written, and cut anything that doesn’t work or that I don’t like. I usually do this a day or so later, just so I can approach it with a fresh mind. I try to find more succinct ways to say something, cut stuff that isn’t relevant or characterizing, and so forth. Sometimes that means something that took me all day to write gets reduced to one page. If I find I really can’t cut something I’ll leave it in, but the goal is to get rid of the chaff.

There’s a lot of chaff.

Katrina: That’s the case for a lot of authors, honestly. They say “writing is rewriting,” and it’s totally true.

Robert: I also rarely write chronologically. More often, I write whatever I’m inspired to write about at that particular moment. If I’m particularly moved by how my story ends, I write that first. If I have a specific scene in my mind that I’m in love with, I write that. When I resist my inspirations, I get stuck, so instead I sort of go with the flow and smooth everything out later.

Katrina: What goes into your outlines? Do you usually stick to them, or do you find yourself being surprised partway through? How do you deal with that, how do you decide when to stick to your script or veer off in a different direction?

Robert: I find it hard to write bare-bones outlines. Usually, I’ll have specific ideas in mind or a specific “vision” of a scene, and I’m usually afraid I’ll forget them, so I elaborate on the outline to a significant degree. Details are the most important thing, after all. Broad strokes don’t make a story interesting. As a result, I’ll usually end up sticking to my outlines pretty closely.

But if I get a spontaneous idea or something inspires me, I’ll absolutely abandon the outline. The only reason for the outline, at least to my mind, is to let your employers know what you have in mind when you start drafting and to help you with direction and organization. So if my writing process takes me elsewhere, I just go with it. If I don’t like where I end up, I can always delete it and return to the outline, but typically I go with it and trust my instincts.

Katrina: Once you’ve got your outline in place and you’re ready to begin fleshing out the manuscript itself, what does a typical day look like when you draft?

Robert: I have to be in the right mood to draft. If I’m not inspired, it shows in my writing. So my task is to arrange things in my day so that I become inspired. I always write in the same place (my study, my living room, or outside), during the same times of day, and when I’m in the same mindsets.

I usually start in the shower, if you can believe it! Something about the shower gets my mind running. It’s almost like a kind of sensory deprivation. You only feel the water, you can’t really hear anything, and there’s nothing to interact with, so ideas come easily. I’ll take a shower, talk to myself about the story, and start drafting that way.

Starting is the hardest part. I’ll take frequent breaks in the beginning, usually to walk around and generate some energy. But once the ball gets rolling, I forget myself and just write. I don’t eat, I don’t move or take breaks—I just write whatever comes to mind. That’s the state I’m trying to achieve, when there’s no “thought process” happening. I don’t think, “now I’m going to write X,” I just write.

Katrina: That sounds like the flow state, when you can let the writing almost guide itself in a way. Once you’ve gotten “pen to page,” so to speak, and have a full manuscript on your hands, how do you tackle revision?

Robert: The most important thing is to be as unattached to what you’ve written as possible. That’s easier said than done, but the truth is that very rarely is a draft satisfactory on the first try. My writing is only as good as my editor. Sometimes I get a revision back that requires removing something I thought was good, or something I was very attached to. 95% of the time, removing that thing is the right call.

I find redrafting and revising to be sort of like gamemastering a tabletop RPG. You might spend weeks creating the perfect boss encounter or puzzle room, only for players to completely trivialize or bypass it. One could twist things in gameplay to force the encounter back in the way you envisioned, and that’s certainly a temptation given all that you’ve put into it, but I find that’s a pattern for bad GMing. Instead, a good game master will let it go, and maybe put those ideas back into their pocket for later implementation.

Revising is like that. You may be really attached to something, but if it’s pointed out as a problem it’s better to cut it than to try to force it to work.

Katrina: That’s such great advice for GMs, and it’s interesting to hear it applied to writing as well! Sometimes, including something you thought was cool feels forced, but it doesn’t mean you have to give up on it forever. What other lessons have you had to learn as a growing writer?

Robert: I think one of the hardest lessons I had to learn was that the biggest mistake a creator can make is to explain their creation. I think writers want their work to be interpreted in specific ways, and personally speaking I definitely did! But the writer’s intention is not the objective meaning of the work, and by imposing a specific interpretation, writers make their work less engaging and sometimes expose shortcomings that spoil the work.

Katrina: A lot of readers are familiar with your short L5R pieces from the AEG days, as well as the short stories “Risen from the Flames,” “Family Duty,” “Fireflies,” and “Repentance Does Not Come First.” The Sword in the Spirits is the longest work you’ve written for FFG yet. How does writing a novella differ from a short story or a novel for you?

Robert: In some ways, writing a novella was easier than a short story. Short stories require everything to be very condensed, and with the novella, I had a little more room. The pacing is different, however. In a short story, I feel more like I’m elaborating on a specific set of limited experiences, while the novella felt more like I was presenting a character’s entire transformation or journey. Short stories tend to stay in the same place and keep the same amount of action throughout. With the novella, I had to know when to speed things up, when to slow things down, and not to use the space to just chew scenery.

I started writing the novella thinking I would approach each chapter as though it were a short story, then just string them all together. I did that for about a week before I trashed the entire draft. That method doesn’t work. The story seemed disjointed and the constant buildup and slowdown in each chapter made it exhausting to read. I’m glad I dropped that idea early and decided to approach writing it completely differently.

Katrina: Flexibility is a great skill for any writer to have, as you said before. What advice do you have for other writers who are just getting started or who want to develop better writing habits?

Robert: I feel that I am just a beginner myself, so whatever insights I may have are very limited. But I will suggest one big thing that has helped me so far.

Be genuine when you are writing. The reader can tell when you are “faking it” or making things up, and your prose will suffer if it isn’t from a personal angle. Even if what you’re writing is speculative or abstract, directly relate to the scene and write from your own experiences and observations.

For instance, I tend to write in genres that frequently depict people hitting one another with swords. Personally, I have never been in a sword fight. I’ve never had to take a life. I couldn’t begin to tell you what it’s like to be in that sort of fight. So if I tried to describe a sword fight in that way, I wouldn’t have access to the real-world experiences or insight to depict it convincingly. Even if I read first-hand accounts of swordfights, I still wouldn’t have true insight. I simply don’t know what it’s like.

But I have had to risk my own well-being for my principles. I have had to fight circumstances that I felt were unfair. I’ve had to confront people who held my wellbeing in their hands. I’ve had to argue a point upon which my future depended on whether or not I could convince others of my rightness. In other words, I’ve had to fight in different ways. So when I write about swordfights, I draw upon those experiences. I try to relate to the fight in some personal way. Then I write from that angle.

Whatever you’re writing, be genuine about it. Write from a position of authority. Many writers’ shortcomings can be readily forgiven if what they write is compelling, and the easiest way to craft compelling prose is to directly relate to the subject. If you can find a way to see the character’s challenge like those you’ve personally faced, then your writing will be that much better.

Katrina: That is some great advice, and it gets to the core of those emotion-centric details you talked about earlier. That advice could probably be applied not just to writing, but to roleplaying as well. Whether you’re an author or a GM, tapping into our lived emotions and drawing on that as a creative wellspring will make our stories resonate all the more.

I appreciate you taking the time to talk, and I can’t wait to see what writing you do you next!

If you’re interested in reading more of Robert’s work, you can check out his Goodreads author profile, and there’s still time to pre-order his upcoming novella from Fantasy Flight Games! Thanks again for joining us, Robert!

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