I’m about to attend the Gen Con’s author panel, a biennial pilgrimage for writing advice. At the risk of posting multiple updates in the same quarter, I’m posting before the convention to explain what I’ve been doing in the spring. I’ve been sick for a week, and not writing, giving me time for housekeeping chores like blog updates.
Being sick hasn’t been the only wrench in my gears. Amazon closed my seller account at the end of May over thousands of dollars of purchased made by someone else under my account, costing me six-weeks of despair and unproductiveness. I won’t bore you with the details, but it involved the police, a lawyer, non-existent responses from the FTC, and weeks of emails and multi-hour phone calls with banks and Amazon’s support staff. It was so disheartening that I dreaded getting out of bed. Calliope, the muse of epics, proved elusive amid the turmoil, and I got no writing done. The ordeal wasn’t writer’s block, but its distant cousin, depression.
After the storm passed, I started book 5 of The Book of Dungeons. It’s my most straightforward narrative, but strangely, my progress has been fraught with inconsistencies and adjustments. My daily rate dropped from 2,000 to 1,500 words. After editing and creating book covers, it’s been almost a year since, so perhaps the pokey pace is understandable.
Gen Con might energize me with fresh advice, perspectives, and ideas, but hopefully it won’t derail my workflow.
Back to Minis?
The Book of Dungeons board game was based on my desire to lighten RPG rule books. After a long meditation, I determined positional play (figures on a grid) to be the biggest contributor to rules. Representing physical locations for combatants slowed down gameplay and inflated the rulebook.
By shedding over-designed systems, I culled the rules for movement, speed, range, flanking, cover, and engagement. None of these systems affected basic RPG decisions, such as, Do I heal from behind or engage in the melee? Fundamental choices for positioning are obvious to most class roles, so why have rules for them?
Without a dungeon layout and minis, RPG gameplay speeds up. While The Book of Dungeons combat engine was quick and fun, it was abstract and ugly. Everyone missed minis!
Miniatures offer players something tangible to look at and move, but I didn’t want to add them to just to check off a box. They needed to be meaningful.
WoW’s team lead, Mark Kern, once called me the most tenacious person he’s ever met. My determination to have my cake and eat it too finally payed off when I figured out how to make my board game to look as cool as it plays. I did this by adding a greatly simplified layout. Instead of using dice to represent the player’s position, players will move miniatures to optimize their actions.
Adding layouts should do more than reintroduce miniatures. Another system should eliminate the rinse-and-repeat feel of my game. Players seemed satisfied with playtests, but I wanted more game in my game. Layout enhance the value of pets—another lackluster element on my game’s chopping block.
When I finish book 5, I’ll mock up a playtest to see how my new layouts work. I’ve been chewing over minis for close to three years, so I have very high hopes.
While I haven’t yet suffered from writer’s block, editing four books in a row is unbearable. I’m midway through book 4, so tearing my eyes out seems like an attractive alternative to my current situation. It feels like my book is better with every pass, but the number of changes makes me wonder if it’s not ready for public consumption. The few beta readers are enjoying my stories, but I can’t read them without changing every sentence, every paragraph. It feels like I’m improving, but evidence suggests I’m working laterally.
I’m shortening lots of my sentences, trying to simmer my narrative into quicker punches. I’m removing unnecessary words, phrases, and while I’m getting better, editing isn’t fun. It’s mechanical—like checking math on hairy equations and finding mistakes on every step of a problem.
The good news is, I think my first few books are ready for open beta readers, but I don’t want to uncork that genie until I have book 5’s first draft finished. Supporting a Patreon page seems like a lot of work. The other good news is the amount of “bread crumbing” I’m able to do is insane. Whenever I have a great idea in later books, I drop hints and build set-ups early, so the story holds together and resolutions don’t come from out of the blue. I can’t imagine writing a series any other way.
This quarterly update on my author’s blog is yet another stalling tactic before renewing my hateful journey into editing. The story itself is enjoyable, but it’s hard to appreciate while fixing grammar and language problems.
My first draft is an incomprehensible mess of ideas, and perhaps that’s a bad habit—but this series is far more complicated than most. My disorganized writing comes from my fear of forgetting something, so I put everything down, like throwing spaghetti at a wall, to be cleaned up later.
Why is my writing so messy? Consider most story-tellers only need to remember a sequence of events. I’m doing this while tracking the progression of stats, spells, and base-buildings—all of which change as the story progresses. Part of my job is maintaining accurate use of cooldowns, character levels, and everyone’s equipment. I have to give characters new spells and goodies along the way. They have to be exciting, but none of them can be so useful that they trivialize scenes later down the road. Combat is especially difficult to write because the character powers are in a constant state of flux.
When there are so many narrative details to remember, things like grammar, spelling, sentence structure, and paragraph structure are things to be sorted out later.
Here’s an example. A random, relatively uncomplicated paragraph from the chapter 16, book 4.
With the imminent completion of our fourth roundhouse, Ally and I had agreed to make defense courses mandatory for everyone in Hawkhurst. These would probably be much like the classes we took in Belden’s academy, but I was looking forward to seeing the arena in full use. We decided everyone would train one day for every two days working.
This is the state of my second draft. It’s horrible, right? I’m merely giving readers an update of a town’s progress, but I’m so focused on the accuracy of my references (Belden classes, the citizens’ state of training, Hawkhurst’s build order) that my language describing it is downright awful. In contrast, when I’m writing playful dialog or sorting out a character’s emotions, the narrative is far easier and cleaner. Unfortunately, most of The Book of Dungeons relates to game mechanics.
Here’s the same paragraph, cleaned up.
When we completed the fourth roundhouse, Ally and I made weapons training mandatory for all Hawkhurst citizens. Workers rotated twice a week into introductory courses, similar to what we studied in Belden, and it was gratifying to see the battle college in full use.
It’s easier to read, more descriptive, and shorter.
Editing includes eliminating weak phrases like had agreed to and was looking forwardto and would probably be much like. I combine and reorder thoughts so they better relate and flow into one another. I remove unnecessary words like academy and repeated words like everyone. Shortening phases is important. Instead of one day for every two days, I wrote twice a week. It’s close enough and easier to parse.
The tough part isn’t implementing these issues, it’s identifying them—rereading everything until the proper order becomes apparent. How long would this take you to rewrite this 44-word paragraph to the level of polish where there is no room for improvement? 15 minutes? A half hour? Imagine editing 6,000 words a day, seven days a week.
Some people think writing fantasy books concerns fruity decisions, like whether your character rides a dragon into battle. Far from it, friends. In my experience, it’s grinding through these persnickety issues is what my life it like. It sucks, but it’s part of the job.
I finished my book covers! It took a month to build the 3D mesh of my basic layout, a week to paint the first book, and another month to render six variations. The grand total of time was around nine months. This is utterly unacceptable by most commercial standards, but with self-publishing, it’s par for the course. Blizzard self-publishes their products, and they invested a little more time on the box art for Warcraft III. They assigned one of their lead artists, Justin Thavirat, to do high-resolution paint overs of their cinematic stills. It took him over a year to do five variations (including the expansion).
For the entertainment industry, everything is driven by hits, so persnickety levels of polish are a must. Books, movies, and games have to look better than their predecessors, so I’m determined to distance myself from the competition. Most fantasy book publishers proffer illustrations for their cover art. Though they are well painted—publisher follow this formula because it’s cheap, so most fantasy books look the same.
Three decades after leaving Kent State University’s graphic design program, I still feel like a student who doesn’t know what they’re doing. I think that’s healthy. David Bowie warned there was a danger when artists feel confident and secure about their work. He describes the artistic sweet spot is where “your toes are barely touching the bottom.” There’s enough experimental spirit in me to harbor avant-garde ideals. If it flops, I’ll fall back on traditional illustrative covers, but I wanted to gamble on my vision first.
I’ve been staring at this design for so long I was blind to fundamental issues, so I solicited help from an old Blizzard co-work, Matt Milizia. My inner geek wanted to be faithful to the unreadable aesthetic of The Book of Kells, but Matt pointed out the folly of this pursuit. He did a quick paint-over and showed how he would render the cover. It was immensely helpful to have a fresh pair of eyes on the project.
I took the final renders into Photoshop to composite together the painted 3D model with the text and parchment background. It was strange how my earlier attempts at doing everything in illustrator and Photoshop produced failures. I still haven’t figured out why I needed 3D models. The subsequent covers will take advantage of the 3D form. I learned Blender—yet another 3D program—to light and render them. I’m not ready to show them all, so I have something fresh when the books come out, but here’s another cover.
The past month was fraught with computer breakdowns. I replaced my dead keyboard, an inadequate power supply, an antediluvian video card, and upgraded my system with enough RAM to render my artwork. Even the “on” button broke! I must have hauled my PC to a repair shop half a dozen times in February. My email got hacked, and someone ordered thousands of dollars of electronics using an Amazon credit card I didn’t know existed. Between the scams and hardware issues, I lost half the month to customer service calls and knucklehead problems.
My printer accidentally purged my remaining inventory of The WoW Diary from their warehouse, so I won’t have much of an income in 2022. It will be quite a while, if ever, when I can afford to print another edition, so the only remaining copies are signed, spot-varnished copies I’m keeping in my house. I’m sending them to Amazon.
What’s Next for 2022?
After I implement a round of edits, I’ll write book five. In summer, I’ll release my series as a web novel on sites like royalroad.com, fictionpress.com, and a Patreon to give beta readers convenient access to my work. Together, we’ll correct mistakes, smooth out inconsistencies, and clarify the narrative.
Going live on Patreon means my readers can give feedback, which means I’ll need to allocate time to respond. I’ll support my Patreon with essays about the series and give my readers insight into my creative process. Between maintaining a constant connection with beta readers, editing, and writing the rest of the series, I’m going to be a very busy boy these next few years.
If you want to be a beta reader, shoot an email to staats dot john at gmail dot com and I’ll add you to my list. Until then, I’ll see you at the deep end.
It’s never a good sign for your blog that posting counts as a New Year’s resolution. Since Thanksgiving, I skipped big family gatherings because of COVID, but eschewing holidays has done wonders for productivity.
I’ve been teaching myself a 3D sculpting program called Zbrush. It’s the gold standard for hi-res modeling for games and movies. Zbrush’s interface is a bit wonky, but it makes magic. Not many graphic designers do 3D layouts, so I feel a little bit of a vanguard in this respect. It’s either that, or everyone is doing it, and I’m simply too out of touch to know any better.
After investing nearly five months into abandoned cover designs, the prospect of beginning another was daunting, but iteration is the formula for success.
I began by making a giant letter D in Adobe Illustrator. After a day or so, I framed the space around it with separate panels, making sure I had enough room for the title and author. I formated the layout for traditional books and Audible.com’s square thumbnail. All seven novels will share the same design with distinct color schemes.
Below is my first comprehensive sketch and an early screenshot of my 3D layout in Zbrush.
For the hundredth time, I studied The Book of Kells, making dozens of notes and tracing patterns to make sense of the scrollwork. I wanted to create a proper tribute, and that would involve more than scribbling lines of tangled spaghetti. I needed to understand the method to its madness.
Scholars believe The Book of Kells was the work of 3-4 monks which hasn’t been replicated in 1500 years. The lack of replication is partly because The Book of Kells is so abstract that the page is confusing and unreadable. For these same reasons, my first covers fell short. Still, I believed I could reverse engineer the style to capture its beauty.
I learned through my previous covers that Celtic scrollwork can become too messy. I want it busy, but not overpowering, so I identified three weaknesses. 1) Celtic designs needed evenly spaced lines, or it looks messy. 2) Many of these lines needed to form simple geometric shapes. 3) Lastly, I needed to resist the urge to zoom in on the computer and work on a scale smaller than the human eye could see.
I redid designs in my panels until they looked right. Through trial and error, I discovered a process that produced promising results.
I divided the panels into simple, readable forms before adding details. In the above panel, I mirrored lines along a corner axis to create a dominant pattern (above left), figured out how to shoehorn book elements inside it (above middle), and connected the dominant lines together with smaller details (above right).
After a fortnight of sketching, I unified my panels in Illustrator and filled in minor details. From there, I took the leap from 2D to 3D. This meant learning how to use Zbrush.
After two weeks of slow death by YouTube tutorials, I acclimated myself to Zbrush’s persnickety workflow and interface. After another week of stumbling around, I finally produced unusable art. Every day, I got faster and learned more about the program’s shortcuts. I enjoy working in Zbrush, and it’s fun to watch the cover come together. Some days, I sculpted for over 12 hours.
These images are screenshots, not renders, so I’m hoping to remove the heavy shadows. It’ll be interesting to see how painting, lighting, and rendering will affect the design. I expect to be done in February, raising my overall investment into the covers to around 8 months. Ouch.
Once the covers are finished, there’s nothing stopping me from releasing my book. I’ll make them available to beta readers on webnovel websites like Royal Road for feedback. I’m also sending out my first three novels to beta readers. If you’re interested in giving me early feedback, please email me at staats.john at gmail dot com.
Throughout the sturm and drang over Blizzard’s toxic work atmosphere, I kept my head down and focused on my writing. The allegations were shocking, but the company had changed since it released WoW. My last years weren’t enjoyable ones, but I’m not always a fun coworker, so my 2011 departure was for the best.
What do I do all day? Edit, edit, edit. I’m roughly capable of editing 15 pages a day before my brain jellifies. The first three books are pretty polished, but I’m investigating new avenues to improve my work (more on that below). With my first four books written, I’m pleased the see my later books more polished than the first, so I have empirical evidence that my writing has improved.
I still haven’t experienced writer’s block, but my latest novel included a scene for which I had no plans how to resolve. It was my first attempt at discovery-writing and it turned out to be an organic and creative sequence. But the pride I feel over my most recent book only makes me worry that its successor won’t be as good. I guess I’ll find out when I write it, which I hope to do by the end of the year.
I discovered the Facebook group called Writers Helping Writers. There are over a quarter-million members so whenever someone posts, they get tons of supportive (and unsupportive) advice. I helped create a book cover for one of the group’s authors looking for design advice. She was flooded with terrible opinions, so I pre-empted my post by saying, “I’m a formally trained graphic designer from the nation’s #1 ranked school in graphic design.” It was a bit heavy-handed, but I got her attention, and we worked together to make a great cover. It was a fun exercise and I had fun chatting with another author.
The Origins Tabletop Gaming Con was amazing–it was my first convention since COVID. The con didn’t include a program booklet, so there was no advertising for their panelists, and I was the only person attending many of the events. Fortunately for me, the lack of an audience allowed me to monopolize the questions! I learned that authors formed writing groups to hone their craft, and received tips on how to join one. I learned about horror.org, SFWA, and one of the panelists, Donald J. Bingle gave me a copy of his article about how RPGs prepare writers for story-telling. How cool is that?
The Origins convention followed a week at Kentucky’s Mammoth Caves wherein I garnered story ideas and generally enjoyed the first vacation I’d been on in years. The caves and con was my first foray into the post-pandemic world. I wore out my legs with a 4-hour underground hike, slept in an unheated cabin, and ate in restaurants like they do in the movies. It was a nice diversion, but I’m glad to see my vacation time at an end. The outside world has its charms, but I’d rather get back to writing.
After a year and a half of writing and working on the front covers, I’m around halfway through my seven-book series, The Book of Dungeons. With 50,000 words into my fourth book, I’m happy to say I’m still writing at 2,000 words/day seven days a week. I’m still in love with my characters and story. At the end of most afternoons, I’m very pleased with the day’s progress. For the nonwriters out there, it’s a big deal that I’m still geeking out over this stuff. As Harlan Ellison used to say, The trick isn’t becoming a writer, it’s staying one.
Some mornings I approach the keyboard with trepidation and angst, not knowing how I’ll move the story forward, but this is as close to writers’ block that I come. After a half-hour of puttering around, I get moving. Today I nearly pounded out 2,600 words–which makes up for the lousy 1,500-word-day yesterday. I love writing.
Not all is sanguine on the work front, I’m afraid. After enough time away from the cover, I’m looking at it with fresh eyes, and I’m not loving it anymore. The Celtic scrollwork looks great when zoomed in, but it isn’t readable in thumbnail form. I’ve come to the same conclusion for The Book of Kells’ Chi Rho page, my cover’s inspiration, so it’s small comfort to know it’s not just me. I’m planning to do a third rework. The first version of the cover took three months to create. The second version took half that amount. I’m expecting this third iteration to gobble even more time. Sigh.
I got sidetracked in April, namely due to a board game idea that I couldn’t ignore, and I’ve been working on iterations of it since. It’s derivative of Clank! but it improves several aspects of the game that I thought needed improving. I’m a Clank! fan, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that everything can be improved upon. I’m particularly excited that I’ve figured out a new way of dungeon exploration using game mechanics I’ve not seen before. The first 4-player playtest went well, with the testers refusing to end the game once I got a general idea of how things went. They wanted to finish their 90-minute game–which was a positive sign.
My sidetrack also included a weekend lost to COVID shots and two more to adding windows in my home office. Now I can enjoy the outside view while I write. It’s a big upgrade and I added a 1300 lb. rock, blueberry, and raspberry bushes to admire as the season pass. When the berries bloom, I’ll enjoy watching the birds gobble them down.
With the lockdown lifting in Ohio, and all my sane friends vaccinated, I launched my bi-weekly poker game featuring plaques I had manufactured in China. I hope to sell them on Amazon, but there are so many hoops to jump through to get something like that going, I dare not set a timetable.
It took me 6 weeks to finish all these side-projects, but as of yesterday, I’ve started book 4 in my series. Every writer will tell you, it’s easy to write a book, but hard to keep writing. I’ve not had writer’s block yet, so I’m still on target for writing 3 books in 2021.
I have a complete outline of where I *think* book 4 will go, but we’ll see what happens. I was pleasantly surprised by book 3’s ending, so I was a little worried the next one will be hard to top. After my 6-week vacation, I put down 2,500 words today, and the flow felt good.
The third novel in The Book of Dungeons is one-quarter finished, and I’m happy to say I like where this series is going. The MasterClass instructors say it’s easy to write but hard to keep writing, but I’ve yet to experience what they call “writer’s block.” I’m still not sure what it is or what causes it. Sure, there are times when I want to sleep in, but once I’m up, have eaten, and I have a good block of time, I sit down and begin typing. Being frozen or unsure what to write just hasn’t happened yet, but I’m sure I’ll get to a point sometime when I’m burned out. So far, I’m typing at the modest pace of 1,500-2,500 words a day before mental fatigue hits.
I cannot recommend MasterClass enough. While I’m not necessarily a fan of their work, Margaret Atwood, James Patterson, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, and Davie Baldacci have proven valuable sources of writing advice. I’ve also put to good use the feature for speeding up the playback, as Neil Gaiman is such a careful talker he’s too slow to listen to! I’ve even found Steve Martin’s class to be insightful. Surprisingly, advice from David Lynch, David Mamet, and Will Wright was so general, I didn’t get much out of them and bailed after a half-hour of listening.
And since we’re talking about writing recommendations, I discovered how to connect my iCloud Apple Notes (to which I’m slavishly devoted) to an editable webpage using a nifty Chrome plugin. To me, this is amazing! Now every silly thought, joke, idea, and observation I record on my phone is immediately accessible from my PC.
I’ve also made progress with my cover art. I plan to do variations of the illuminated manuscript design for each book, similar to the title shots in the Netflix series Dispatches from Elsewhere. They are works in progress.
While the ravages of COVID are wrecking economies worldwide, I’m still happily typing away at home. My only regret is that the winter climate keeps me inside, and I’m unable to take long walks through Cuyahoga Valley National Park for exercise. Instead, I stay warm with my thermostat set in the mid-seventies Fahrenheit and cook comfort food.
One of my Kickstarter contacts put me in touch with an editor, who read my first novel, The Great RPG Contest. This is someone who knows the genre, the market, and has seen it all, and he gave me a couple of hours of his time in a video chat whereupon sage advice was handed down.
First and foremost, they seemed to genuinely like my book. They said the story was fresh, would have appeal to many readers, that the text was clean and well-written. That was a tremendous relief, and I was grateful for their praise. For me, criticism is a greater sign of respect, so I focused on critiques.
The biggest change he suggested was to add more dialog. I’m good at dialog, but I’m such an advocate of pushing plots forward that I have a bad habit of summarizing exchanges between characters to “keep things moving.” I was inadvertently squeezing flavor out of the story. The editor said, “If the dialog is working, readers won’t know or care if the book is a little bit longer.”
I invested another rewrite into my book, adding another month of work. With regard to the dialog, I’m currently fleshing out the conversations and I cannot express how much of a difference that it makes–and it’s not making the scenes or book any longer than what I’d originally started. It was a great improvement.
He suggested that I increase the stakes of the story and put the protagonist more on a hot-seat. In retrospect, it seems like an obvious decision, even if my story was working even without the added tension. I followed his advice again and it made the story more interesting.
He advised me to purchase MasterClass.com, a video service that connects artists and students with the most successful people in a given field. Having purchased a $40 Amazon Fire Stick, I can say the monthly subscription to MasterClass is worth it, so dutifully I’m grinding through the classes. I watched courses taught by authors including Aaron Sorkin, James Patterson, Dan Brown, and David Balducci’s class. While I’m not always a fan of their work, some of the advice is quite good and they communicated aspects of writing that I previously missed.
For example, James Patterson illustrates the importance of the first sentence, describing it as a contract with the reader about what to expect from the book. James read examples of good opening sentences and it resonated. If the author can write a synopsis in a clever way, it’s a promise to the reader that more cleverness will follow.
James’ advice was more specific than just saying, “Have a good opener,” and it convinced me to revisit my first paragraph. This is what I came up with:
“I wouldn’t have guessed that my struggle to survive a fantasy-game universe would begin with The Trials of Air Travel.”
I tell the reader what the book is about while throwing a non sequitur about air travel. The capitalization plays with formalizing the pain dealing with the airlines, suggesting that it’s so common that it deserves a proper name. The mention of the airlines appears to be a curveball until I reveal the protagonist’s anxieties of leaving home and making it on his own. Missing a simple domestic flight is just one of the unknowns he must face. It is an obstacle that many of us take for granted, but it reveals his immaturity and harkens back to the nervousness we first felt when leaving the nest.
I’ve finished the second pass of my second book, The Plans We Make, and am happy to report that it was cleaner than the one before it. It only took me one month to complete (an improvement of 3 weeks), so I’m seeing major strides in my writing. Still, there were so many changes, book 2’s next pass will probably not be its last.
The great thing about having more than one book to edit is that it gives me distance, so whenever I revisit my copy, I have a fresher set of eyes. I’m looking forward to beginning the 3rd book on January 1st.
I’d finished the second Book of Dungeons, The Plans We Make, at 106,000 words and finished my last (5th?) revision of the novel preceding it. My year-long ambition to write and polish 3 books and create a cover was on track when I received an email from my landlord about renewing my lease. I did the math and realized how much rent was costing me, so I began hunting for houses. A week later, I closed on my first home in a quiet little suburb called Cuyahoga Falls and will be moving in next week.
I’m taking October off and enjoying the fall colors on 14-mile hikes along the Cuyahoga River. These salubrious constitutionals calm my nerves while I arrange for my big move. The month seems like it’s lasting forever. I miss writing and feel self-conscious from stalling my series, but my nerves are too frayed to concentrate. After I settle into my new burrow, I’ll plunge into my work again.
Before my sidestep, I was about 10 pages into revising my second book and was pleased to find it much more polished than the first. In addition to being a more experienced writer, I discovered a training-wheels app called Grammarly, a $10/month gizmo that catches hiccups that spellcheckers don’t. I heartily recommend it.
I’ve also decided to release my first book for free on a website called Royalroad.com in 2021 that works in tandem with Patreon which I’ll need to support my writing career. When that time rolls around, I’ll include a linkypoo.
Quarantine life agrees with me. I’m reclusive anyway, so avoiding social engagements isn’t unusual. I miss my family, but I’d rather keep to myself until the medical community finds a vaccine. I’ve finished my first front cover art and I’m happy with it, although I might tweak the colors or designs. This cover took a few months to finish, but it gave me a chance to listen to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History series. I can’t listen to Podcasts when I write, so I took the opportunity to do so while I created my cover. I’ve also discovered Brandon Sanderson’s YouTube channel, where he posts classroom lectures on writing. The first few episodes are sensible strategies for writing, but every episode after #5was wonderful. I highly recommend them.
I already finished five drafts of the first book, and I’m only looking for typos or changing things for consistency. For the most part, it’s done. A couple of beta readers finished it in two days, so book one is getting positive feedback. I’m writing the second book at an average rate of two-thousand words per day. I’m about 70% done with the first draft and writing it is such a joy that I’m bracing myself for the subsequent drafts. Editing and rewriting things isn’t a joy. But I am pushing things to a level of excitement and creativity that I hadn’t expected when I first started, so I’m feeling good about where things are going.
If anyone is interested in being a beta reader for the first book, let me know and I’ll send you a copy of the ebook.
After many playtests and iterations, it crossed the pivotal milestone of being a fun game. It seemed like the sensible next step would be creating content and artwork for it, but a little voice inside was telling me to write books about the game’s universe. I’d recently fell in love with a new literary genre whose stories came from RPGs, and the flavor from a series of novels could spice up my game. The longer I listened and wrestled with this notion, the more it made sense.
At the end of 2019, I put my game on the back-burner and outlined a seven-book series based on my board game. In January, I began writing book 1, and finished the rough first draft in seven weeks; after another seven weeks of editing, I started the cover art. I was passionate about the enterprise because it felt like I was fixing things in the genre I discovered, called litRPG. After reading dozens of litRPG books there wasn’t a single series that I could recommend to fellow enthusiasts; each one has problems severe enough to make me cringe. Perhaps my book feels the same way to other authors. In either case, I hope to distinguish my work for fans to consider calling my novels RPG fiction instead of litRPG.
What is litRPG?
A new style of story-telling emerged from Russia a decade ago called litRPG, or literary role-playing game. Russian writers have translated their novels, and English-speaking authors have since joined their ranks. It has become popular in countries like Japan and South Korea, but it’s still an undiscovered subculture for most Americans. I first discovered it a year ago, but I’ve torn through 38 litRPG titles even though they’re relatively lengthy books.
It’s easiest to explain litRPG by comparing it to Jumanji 2. The story’s main characters play avatars that are fully aware that they’re inside a fictional video game. They aren’t just in virtual worlds like Snowcrash, The Matrix, or Ready Player One. True litRPG characters interface with game mechanics like health, experience points, items, spell acquisition, and NPCs. The Ryan Reynolds movie, Free Guy, is similar in that he realizes the Earth is a giant MMORPG. I think once people understand what this genre is, it’s going to go mainstream.
How underground is litRPG?
It’s difficult to judge the popularity of new genres because book sales are never released, and the Amazon sales rank fluctuates greatly every few hours. Amazon doesn’t even have a category for it. LitRPG authors are all self-published, so they have zero exposure. I can surmise that none of them have been picked up by a publisher because self-publishing makes more sense. litRPG books are selling so well online that authors eschew the headaches of working with corporate sponsors, sharing creative control, and signing away licensing rights.
Let’s look at the initial books of popular fantasy series next to those of popular litRPG titles. They’re relatively close. These side-by-side comparisons show that litRPG sales aren’t dwarfed by bestsellers listed on USA Today and The New York Times. Considering that litRPG books are new to the market, it’s impressive that their ratings stack-up against titles adapted to mainstream media.
Book 1 in Series
2,800 (films in production, DMG)
3,000 (4 Seasons on SyFy)
An Ember in Ashes
1800 (films in production, Paramount)
Creatures & Caverns
As I write this, the Goodreads app lists under a thousand books with litRPG in the title (authors do this because Goodreads has no category for it). Despite this small number, litRPG books comprise about 6% of top-sellers in the fantasy category, which lists over 12 million titles. In late 2019, a litRPG sequel peaked in sales at #5 out of 32 million titles. This genre is selling, so why hasn’t it broken into the mainstream?
Why isn’t litRPG more well-known?
As I’ve said before, this movement remains underground because its authors are self-published. But there are other challenges.
litRPG doesn’t sound good. Video games haven’t transcended into other media. Attempts have resulted in terrible movies, and there’s often a stink on licensed adaptations. Contrast these expensive failures with comic books or anime who enjoy a healthy cross-pollination of films, toys, shows, and, yes, video games. The name “litRPG” is weird too. It’s confusing and doesn’t explain itself very well. It’s not apparent why stories set inside games make for compelling reading. litRPG also sounds like clumsy fan fiction or uninspired licensed novels where the main characters are never at risk.
litRPG readers are working blind. Without a publisher, there’s no one vouching for or maintaining quality, and that includes editors with enough clout to say, “Whoa, dude! You can put that in there!” Publishers have long-held onto licensing rights and can help market properties adapted by film studios. Self-published authors cannot achieve the same exposure. Peter Wier’s self-published smash-hit The Martian wasn’t optioned by Twentieth Century Fox until Penguin Random House purchased the print rights in March 2013. Without publishers, there is no advertising or retail presence; there’s no brand, like Marvel or DC; there’s no safe stamp-of-approval for new customers. Without all this, it takes a lot of digging to find good titles.
litRPG is pulp fiction. The absence of a publisher means there is no editor to supervise the content. While this makes for incredibly creative pockets of brilliance, readers must navigate a mine-field of disturbing scenes to reach them. While RPGs employ violence, litRPG authors sometimes tend to take things to uncomfortable levels. There are graphic torture scenes, and they make an otherwise enjoyable story unpalatable. Avenging rape victims is a common theme. Some authors even pepper their stories (set in fantasy MMO universes) with real-world political commentary; some are racist and nationalist.
Many litRPG authors don’t appear to like gaming. In many books, the aspect of being embedded in an RPG is tangential at best. Some young adult fantasy writers are just cashing in on this category because it sells well on Amazon. When much of their story takes place out-of-game or between NPCs, it’s clear they’re dressing up their fantasy sagas only in the guise of an MMORPG. They often portray gamers as stereotypes; their portrayal of developers is usually bizarre, and are almost always evil. A popular series once described them as “steely-eyed suits being followed around by sheepish, corporate analysts.” This kind of characterization isn’t just crazy; it’s lazy writing. Any Google search could inform authors about the gaming industry. They could even buy The World of Warcraft Diary on Amazon.com, hehe!) For reasons beyond my understanding, many stories end with the main character terminating the MMORPG itself, which is quite a hostile comment on gaming. Instead of slaying the dragon or orc king, the closure for the series is often destroying the game, which, I’m guessing, is supposed to be a happy ending because games are a waste of time, right?
Much of the writing is immature. Many litRPG authors wallow in corny jokes and puns. There’s an abundance of references to internet memes, slang, and pop-culture that date the book. There are too many campy jokes, potty humor gets old fast, and it just strikes me as someone who doesn’t take their work seriously.
Attitudes toward sex and females are disturbing. Maybe it’s a culture shock to Russian paradigms, but the main characters commonly make blatant chauvinism and sexist remarks. I’ve yet to find a female main character in a top-selling series. I’m not one of these guys who bend over backward to find innuendos and insults where there aren’t any, but half the books I’ve read contain shocking opinions about females. I’m not talking 1990s old fashioned attitudes; I’m talking 1890s.
Why RPG Fiction and not litRPG?
RPG fiction is a better term. The Russian translation, “litRPG,” doesn’t explain itself because “lit” isn’t a common abbreviation for anything, and placing in front of RPG is just weird. It’s probably too late to distance myself from litRPG entirely, but the genre is so new, I figured it might be worth a try.
There is also an author of a popular series who is aggressively trying to trademark the words litRPG, and who was smart enough to acquire the litrpg.com URL. He also calls himself “The Father of litRPG” even though he started writing many years after its pioneers, so advertising the phrase, litrpg only boosts his sales.
Why is this genre so good?
Despite the issues I’ve listed, this storytelling is the most addictive reading I’ve encountered, and my literary tastes are broad. When an RPG series is well-written, it celebrates the spirit of geek culture and ignites the gaming itch to “see what happens next.”
RPG fiction fosters obsessive reading habits. These books are so hard to put down that when you do, your curiosity will drive you crazy until you pick them back up again. Like games, RPG fiction characters move forward, usually towards clear goals and sensible objectives. After establishing the rules, characters hit the ground running toward their short or long-term ambitions. Incremental changes pull the reader through the story. Once you’ve experienced this pull, it’s hard to go back to the plodding pace of traditional fantasy series.
RPG Characters always develop. At the end of the story, Conan is the same barbarian he was at the beginning. RPGs aren’t so static: Characters learn new spells, improve their gear, and grow their village. These changes aren’t in lieu of story or character development; they’re in addition to character arcs, mysteries, and creative hooks that one encounters in fantasy epics. RPG characters establish new relationships with the NPCs around them. Old relationships change as the main characters become more ensconced in the game world. Enemies are frequently dynamic, and gradually improving their seats of power, especially if they’re other players.
Action is more exciting. RPG fiction describes action better than any other type of literature. RPGs have a built-in vocabulary that is both concise and precise. Readers understand the level of danger a character is in when their health is only 10/150. Knowing what can and cannot happen in an RPG universe creates more tension. The audience understands what “tanking a boss” means. Things like mana costs and creature levels give a deeper understanding of what’s happening in the chaos of battle.
It takes fewer words to accurately describe things: Physical descriptions were always a weakness of literature. Unlike movies, books can’t depict action scenes well without a high word count. Readers can get lost in paragraphs describing precisely how James Bond escapes from the death laser. Because there is a shared vocabulary, RPGs don’t have this problem. Their economy of quantified descriptions (like a monster being “level 35”) and defined terms (such as “casting Fireball”) allows writers to paint a more detailed picture.
RPG fiction is more immersive. Traditional fantasy sticks to mostly lore and character development, and can only gloss over aspects of the game world. RPG writers can quickly relate to how magic, combat, items, crafting, village construction, or morale works. If a character has 450/1000 toward reaching a friendly reputation with the Blacktooth Orcs, the readers expect that they’re probably neutral with the orcs and can safely travel their lands. When the character is 990/1000 toward being friendly, there’s a sense of excitement, that there might be a reward or new shopkeeper available when the character crosses the “friendly” threshold.
RPG fictiondefines and quantifies the world. Like Brandon Sanderson’s novels, readers aren’t passive observers; they understand what’s going on. Compare this to The Lord of the Rings. We never understood Gandalf’s capabilities. But RPG readers know why magic users avoid melee with warriors. They understand concepts like healing and crowd-control. They can enjoy guessing how a protagonist might use their items and abilities to survive an encounter.
RPGs are fertile ground for story-telling. Do you ever get the feeling that you’re surrounded by creativity when you walk into a comics store? RPG fiction feels the same way, partly because the gaming culture is already rich with flavor. The many ways an RPG can come to life lies at the heart of this genre. NPCs or monsters can become self-aware and behave differently. Main characters might turn into monsters or boss monsters, and play an MMO from a different perspective, by organizing resistance against other players. Aliens could turn Earth into an MMORPG.
There are a lot of ways to play RPGs. When I was on the WoW dev team, the designers were fond of saying, MMORPGs are everything to everyone. That’s how I feel about this type of fiction. Some authors focus on characters crafting items, others on village-building. Characters often have amusing relationships with their pets, who also develop new abilities throughout a story. Battles range from siege to duels. Dungeons are particularly inventive. There’s even a crazy subcategory called Dungeon Core fiction, wherein the protagonist becomes a dungeon–and the story comes from its perspective! Their plots are in fantasy, science fiction, or post-apocalyptic MMORPGs. There are even scenarios where present-day Earth becomes “gamified” by aliens, magic, or gods.
What am I writing then?
I’m following the typical Blizzard formula: Find a cool proof-of-concept that I enjoy, identify its flaws, and develop a product so polished it becomes a must-have for fans. It’s a tall order, but it just takes hard work.
I am focused on my seven-book series that’s set inside a fantasy MMORPG. Seven books may sound like a lot, but when you start reading RPG fiction, you’ll understand why it’s so addictive. I’m going to release several books at once, and I’ll publish in eBook, print, and audiobook formats. While the physical books will be cheaper because the pages aren’t full-color, I’ll probably run a Kickstarter campaign to help pay for the editing, printing, sound engineering, and fulfillment costs. My board game will come after, and I think the flavor I put into these books will make the game better.
The year after my Kickstarter went as expected. I learned about fulfillment and distribution logistics, and playtested my upcoming board game. I surpassed milestones in both regards. Now that a year behind me, and my Kickstarter backers have been taken care of, I feel comfortable lowering the Amazon price of The WoW Diary back to Kickstarter levels.
I’m also selling extra copies of The WoW Diary slipcase edition, which doesn’t have the Kickstarter extras except the spot-varnished pictures, so it’s still a crazy-high quality book. I signed a hundred copies and sent them to Amazon. Each contains a companion booklet of promotional articles about post-launch drama and things we learned after WoW went live. Order it while supplies last!
Board Game News: Fun Ho!
It looks like my simplified RPG is turning out as well as I hoped. Thorough playtesting and iteration are showing that my game’s mechanics are going to be enjoyable in the long run. I’ve done more than two years of playtesting from coast to coast, and I have a working proof of concept. Finding fun was always the primary concern in the early stages of development, so I’m happy to say I’ve crossed that milestone. My game solves something that has been missing from the RPG genre, but innovation isn’t always fun, and I had to make sure I wasn’t giving up one for the other.
My game boils down the RPG genre into two elements: Boss fights & loot. Both were hard nuts to crack, especially when I’m simplifying the RPG experience into something palatable for the casual audience. In each dungeon, players fight four bosses; each fight takes between 15-20 minutes, and full-clears have taken playtesters between an hour and 80 minutes to complete…including teaching time.
If you’re interested in the game’s progress, sign up to my mailing list in the sidebar (I haven’t sent any emails yet, so don’t worry about spam), and I’ll let you know when I’m ready to announce the game’s Kickstarter.
Starting at the beginning of 2020, I’m going to focus on content creation and art, which are my next hurdles to cross. With content, I’ll need to playtest entire campaigns, and balance the loot. With art, I hope to raise the bar and spend a little more time on visuals than you normally see in a board game. I’ve been cruising through museums (Cleveland, NYC, Philly) and artist alleys at some of the biggest cons to build a roster of top-tier artists. Fantasy art has been in a rut, so I’m looking for abstract depictions of monsters. I’m leaning toward fine art examples, like Postmodernism and the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th century, but ultimately, I’ll have to see what works.
I’m happy to say The WoW Diary is finally available on Amazon and as a PDF on my online store. It was no small matter shipping my Kickstarter rewards, 99.99% of which have been delivered. Month-long waits for Canadian customers will soon be eliminated after my inventory reaches the Amazon.ca fulfillment center in Calgary. I’ve learned so much about fulfillment and inventory management that I could write quite a lengthy article on the subject; although I suspect the average reader would find such an essay to be of little interest.
I’ve made barely any effort (or progress) in retail distribution, but retail margins are so thin, it’s unlikely I’ll lose sleep over it.
As I move forward promoting my book, I’m making myself available for podcasts again (checkout my appearances on Countdown to Classic), and I’m publishing a number of excerpts from the book for promotion. I realize now that The WoW Diary is ideal for this, since its essays are mostly bite-sized. I could have used them during my Kickstarter, but that’s only a hindsight realization.
I’m hoping to translate my book into Chinese, but the costs are insane, and the Chinese audience can’t afford hardcover prices. I’m even toying with the idea of a Chinese crowdfunding campaign, but it’s questionable whether the expenditure on such a campaign will be justified.
Board Game Progress
I’ve passed a couple milestones for my board game (my second project), although much of it is being redone from scratch. Even with years of research and prototypes, playtests often reveals flaws that require major changes. I expected this from the onset, and what I’m working on is more exciting than I originally imagined, a dungeon crawl for the casual audience. I hope to open up the genre the way Diablo did. If anyone can remember video games in the 1990s, RPGs were niche titles until Diablo conquered the market. I want to make something that features tactical combat, loot, and boss fights with simple rules, short set-up times, and 90-minute play sessions.
To meet these goals, I’m actively playtesting my game with other designers in the Cleveland area. My fulfillment experience with The WoW Diary has influenced my manufacturing plans: I’m pricing components to deliver the most bang for the buck with possibilities like ceramic pieces and plastic injection molds. I’m also learning from publishers about the industry, especially during cons (Pax Unplugged in Philly, Origins in Columbus, and GenCon in Indianapolis). So far, it’s already been an interesting ride.
If you missed The WoW Diary Kickstarter you can get a copy until mid-October. We could only get enough paper for 10,000 copies. But we’ll be printing the non-Kickstarter version soon after, and it will be made available on Amazon in early 2019.
I was so blitzed by my Kickstarter, I didn’t even attempt to make a coherent update on my homepage, although many things transpire and were covered in my Kickstarter updates. The coolest news was we shattered Kickstarter’s fund-raising record for our category, nonfiction publishing. The WoW Diary raised roughly 33% more than its previous record-holder, and placed in the top-five over all publishing, behind three podcast-driven projects and, well, The Bible.
I’ve collected some of my interviews and promotional materials for anyone interested in a preview of The WoW Diary’s level of detail. Feedback is very positive for my Scholomance article. I’ll have a second promotional article available next Monday on Wowhead.
The WoW Diary is the seventh largest non-fiction Kickstarter in history! The sheer number of the Kickstarter backers has changed logistics; increasing the preparation I need to do for the post-campaign fulfillment and data management. I’m also looking into ways to alleviate shipping costs for overseas, but I am dubious.
The Kickstarter campaign for The WoW Diary will launch August 28th at 2 PM EST. I got helpful advice from lots of people, the most recent of which was board game maker named Gerald King III of Ultimate Team Up. It was Gerald’s idea to tweet quotes from my book, and my followers seem very receptive. He’s in the center of the Midwest’s board game development community, and is incredibly proactive and supportive. He has vast networking skills. He’s connected me to the editor-in-chief of Source Point Press, Travis McIntire (who also runs Deepwater Games) and Jacob Way of KrakenPrint. Their advice convinced me to scale back my Kickstarter text from sounding all professional and shit, so my campaign has lot more personality to it–and I’m no longer referring to myself in (gag) third-person. When I talked to an old WoW teammate, Mark Kern, he said basically the same thing, although Mark was the first person to point me in the right direction.
I’m doing a live stream tonight with Countdown to Classic at 7 PM EST. I dunno when Danger Dolan’s interview get’s posted but I’ve got a couple more shows (I’m recording tomorrow with Soupa Soka and Monday with Patrick Beja of Icy-Veins.com’s podcast). I’ve more interviews down the pipe, but overall the streamers are focusing on covering Battle for Azeroth (go figure!), so if you know anyone hosting a channel, who can get the word out about my book, have their people call my people. I enjoy interviews. 😉
My promotional articles will be hosted by Wowhead.com on Monday the 27th. Much props go to Perculia for helping me get that together.
I’ve also a couple Facebook group AMAs (ask me anythings) scheduled, but we’ll see how that goes…it’s all a learning process.
I’ve been quiet because updates are counterproductive when legal matters are involved: You’re either signed or you’re not, there’s no such thing as “almost there.” The good news is I am signed and moving forward again. Blizzard and I have amended the licensing agreement to allow for electronic distribution, and four months isn’t terribly long for legal agreements, so everybody just quitcher bitchin.
My new Kickstarter has been updated to include PDFs, eBooks, and signed copies, although you’ll still get the best bang for your buck with the book, the whole book, and nothing but the book. My new campaign will also have some promotion (which will be nice). Said promotion will include, but not be limited to: Tweeting quotes from The WoW Diary, (follow me on @JohnStaats_WIR or my facebook page if you’re interested), interviews, promotional articles with post-launch WoW stories, podcast and YouTube appearances. The arrow isn’t in flight quite yet, but I’m hoping to launch my Kickstarter on Tuesday, August 28th.
I’m now in Akron, Ohio. I didn’t realize my home state had turned into such an active community for board game development. I’ve made some design milestones (cutting, cutting, cutting) in my tabletop game, so after this WoW Diary storm blows over, I’ll be more focused on board game development in 2019.
The WoW Diary will happen, just not in this recent Kickstarter campaign. I’m guessing the least obnoxious thing is to let it run its course before I put it out of its misery. I figure there’s no sense in creating broken links for the people supportive enough to post them. Sorry about all the confusion.
I will launch another Kickstarter for this project. Let’s review the things I learned:
First off, my funding goal will be less totally insane. The next goal will be ~$40,000 and run for 30 days (not 14). If I sell out 1,000 copies early, I’ll just add more goals. Secondly, I’ll reach more people around the globe, assuming the bug that dropped availability to random countries has been fixed. If not, copies will be available on Amazon a month or so later. I’m also eschewing the dubious Canadian Heritage Act. If they deport me for selling books with intent to educate, then so be it.
The next Kickstarter will include an eBook version. It will be without my fancy layouts and images because they break the dynamic formatting of eBooks. I can’t distribute Blizzard’s images in eBooks anyway, so there it is. I am on the fence about using a lower quality printing press and paper stock to reduce costs. I’m not yet ready to pull the trigger on this. Quality matters. Lastly, I will be much better prepared to market this book. I was woefully naive about getting the word out and better understand the mechanics behind PR. The WoW Diary’s next campaign will begin probably start between 1-4 months. Timing will almost wholly depend on marketing costs and schedules. I need to learn the business behind eBook formatting and distribution but it should be easier compared to print.
The most important thing for anyone who wants to know when the next Kickstarter will begin, is to include their email on my spam-free preview list. I only will send messages for major updates (once or twice a year). Thank you for your patience!
If I knew how to track the visitors to my page, I’d probably see that I was the only person checking it out. That’s fine. With all the HTMLing and WordPressing involved, it’s good to iron out the mistakes outside the reach of a spotlight. But a spotlight is what I soon shall be under. With the slowly turning wheels of legal agreements behind me, I’m planning on revealing my Kickstarter campaign on a podcast I participate in, called Roll For Combat. Let’s call this post “Announcing an Announcement about an Pre-sales for my book.” My pal Steve runs the podcast, and he records my friends and I playing Pazio’s Starfinder campaign, called Dead Suns. Starfinder is a new tabletop RPG system, similar to Pathfinder, but it’s rules are slightly more elegant in a Next Gen sort of way. Steve is treating our group to a vacation in Seattle for the PaizoCon, and he’s running a contest on rollforcombat.com for a free trip the the con. If you endorse this sort of behavior, feel free to support our efforts on Roll For Combat’s Patreon page.
Anyhoo, I’ll be at the PaizoCon. Steve signed us up for an interview about my book and we’ll probably do a panel for our podcast. It’ll fun seeing my podcast friends again, Steve, Jason, Chris, and Bob. I’m so lonely here in Nevada, I even want to hang out with Bob! Cray-cray, right?
So look for all this good stuff! We also have a podcast preview about my book on rollforcombat.com, heralding The World of Warcraft Diary’s crowd-funding campaign. There’s probably an Inception-like trick using a totem; one that prevents these announcements within announcements from inverting our reality–but so far it’s not working. My totem still spins.