Monday, September 8, 2014

What Was Your First Book?

Hi, folks! Just one topic this week: How I got started as a writer. The question arose because I was driving around with my daughter today, and she asked, “What was the first book you wrote?”
I realized that it’s actually a complicated question. Is it the one I actually wrote first? The first one I sold? Or the first book to actually be printed and distributed? Those are three different answers. So, here’s the story!

I wrote a handful of short stories in college, mostly for creative writing classes. The first novel I wrote was an epic fantasy called Kingslayer, which I started in the fall of 1988 (shortly after I graduated college). As a longtime devourer of all things fantasy and sci-fi, I felt that I could write the sort of books I liked to read, so with the confidence of youth I set about it.  I was an ensign in the Navy at the time, and I made writing my book into my hobby. When I finished it, I sent it off to a literary agency that charged me $600 to read it. (I was pretty wet behind the ears and back before the internet it was harder to figure out how to start doing things.) They said they saw potential, but declined to represent me and suggested that rather than trying to rework the story, I ought to set it aside and try something new. With some reluctance, I set aside the book—although a year later I showed it to Jim Ward at TSR during my job interview to prove that I could write a lot of words and see things through. I never asked Jim if that was a difference-maker in my hiring or not, but I did wind up with the job!

Working as a designer at TSR, I soon learned that the Book Department occasionally opened up novel auditions to the R&D types. I took a shot or two at various opportunities that came around, but no luck. Then, in 1993, I got a chance to design a whole new D&D world – Cerilia, the world of the Birthright campaign setting. I pestered the Book Department for months about writing a novel to go with the RPG release. They passed me up, going with Simon Hawke instead. But a few months later, Brian Thomsen (managing editor of TSR's Book Department) decided to give me a shot. I got a contract, and I knocked out my first professional novel: The Falcon and the Wolf.

That turned out okay, so TSR’s Books team gave me a second Birthright novel: The Shadow Stone. That turned out quite well, in my humble opinion: On my third try, I think I wrote a pretty good book. By the middle of 1996, things were looking up for my writing career. I had two books in the pipeline for publication, and I was hungry for more.

Then TSR stopped printing things. I mean, everything. The entire production line of games and books was put on hold as the company’s difficulties deepened into a complete death spiral. Months went by, and neither of my Birthright books saw print. If you’re acquainted with the history of the gaming hobby, you know that Wizards of the Coast (working through Ryan Dancey and Five Rings Publishing) purchased TSR. In the spring of 1997, many business meetings were held, and the fate of TSR’s various lines and properties was determined. The first few books in the Birthright book line hadn’t done well, so the decision was made to kill the line outright, with both my novels still waiting to be printed. To put it another way: My first two novels, complete and ready for printing, were canceled in the same meeting.

(Brian Thomsen did something damned decent then—he excused himself from that meeting, and came and told me in person so that I wouldn’t hear of it through the rumor mill.)

So, by the summer of 1997, I’d finished up something like 400,000 words of novels, and I had nothing but two small kill fees to show for it. I was getting kind of discouraged.

Later that year I moved out to the Seattle area with a bunch of the other TSR creative types, and I went to work for Wizards of the Coast. A few months later, Peter Archer (my editor from The Shadow Stone) approached me with another opportunity: The Double Diamond Triangle Saga, a group of nine novellas modeled after Stephen King’s Green Mile “chapbooks.” They needed someone to write book #8, Easy Betrayals. So I immersed myself in the story materials they’d put together up to that point, and knocked out the novella Easy Betrayals. That ended up becoming my first published novel, debuting in 1998.

After Easy Betrayals, Peter Archer suggested taking The Shadow Stone and converting it to a Forgotten Realms novel. It required a top-to-bottom rewrite and a ton of work to make it a Realms book, but I wound up with a decent Realms novel. From there I got a chance to do a book for the Alternity science-fiction line: Zero Point, published in 1999. (Zero Point remains my only sci-fi book; I mean to do something about that soon.) Then I got a chance to return to the Forgotten Realms with City of Ravens. That was an odd duck, because the Book team was obligated for some reason or another to set a novel in Raven’s Bluff, the home of the RPGA’s Living City campaign. Creating a story that fit in such a densely detailed locale and touched on the major storylines of the campaign was pretty challenging, but it worked: City of Ravens is one of my best.

Following City of Ravens, I got the opportunity to join in R.A. Salvatore’s War of the Spider Queen. My contribution was Condemnation, the third book in the series—and (just barely) a New York Times bestseller in 2003. That led to The Last Mythal trilogy, and then the Blades of the Moonsea trilogy. Finally, I returned to Raven’s Bluff and the roguish Jack Ravenwild in 2012 with my novel Prince of Ravens. To my intense disappointment, Wizards of the Coast elected to publish that only as an e-book; their publishing business was in disarray at the time, and they didn’t know what to do with the book.

On the bright side, I’ve got a new book I’m looking to sell in now, and a start on the book that will come after that one. It’s a strange business and it is very far from stable… but I guess I’m still in the game. So that’s the story of how my writing career has unfolded so far!

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