Writing and Playing Dungeons & Dragons

As those who have read my books may know from my author profile, I was exposed to the fantasy genre back in 1980 when I played my first game of Dungeons & Dragons. Not to date myself too much, but I was still in grade school. The game was a big part of my life until I was 25 or so, and for various reasons I won’t mention, I gave it up. The next time I played D&D was Christmas of 2013, when I ran a short one-off game for my family as a group activity.

Dungeons & DragonsThat game had a big impact on me. Although I hadn’t intended for it to be so, it inspired me to write my third novel, and even provided some plot events that made it into the book. I didn’t play again until just a few months ago, when I picked up the 5th edition Starter Set and the three core rule books (Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual for those unfamiliar with D&D).

I walked into Goin’ Gaming, a game and comic store in Troutdale, Oregon, bought some miniatures and got to know the owners, Alan and Becky Schmid. (See other posts about the store and the owners and how that factored into my writing career.) They host D&D games every Thursday evening, and the group needed more players. I showed up at the next game session and was warmly welcomed.

Other walk-ins saw our enthusiasm and the group has grown to seven players, all of whom I now consider to be my friends. We play at least once a week. After our current campaign wraps up at the end of June, I’ll take over as Dungeon Master, and that gets me to the point of this post.

Once I read through the 5th edition rule books, I began to get ideas for the plot of my fourth novel. My vision is to write three trilogies in the Taesia world, of which The Taesian Chronicles is the first trilogy. The fourth novel will be book one of the second trilogy. (Forgive the seemingly strange logic for the way I’m structuring the series; there’s a method to my madness.) I brainstormed the plot and am very happy with it. But, that plot would also make an outstanding D&D campaign.

With the group’s permission, I will switch from being a player to being the DM. Our current DM, Joseph, will become a player, and the group will run through my new campaign. In a sense, we will be play-testing my plot idea. I don’t anticipate the game campaign directly translating into a novel. That was done with Against the Giants, and what was one of the best modules ever written failed horribly as a novel. However, as what happened with my one-off adventure played by my family over a Christmas holiday, I think there is some wonderful inspiration to be generated by the game that can feed into the novel.

It is my intention to run the D&D campaign first, at least for several weeks, before I begin work on my fourth book. The creative energy required to write a campaign and the amount of time it takes to flesh it out severely limits my available bandwidth for novel-writing. I can do one or the other, but not both. I don’t usually write much during the summer months anyway, so work on the book probably won’t begin until autumn. At that point I will have a pretty good idea if my plot idea holds water, and I will hopefully also have some great source material from the game itself. Players often come up with dialog or creative solutions to challenging problems that make excellent material for books.

We’ll see how this goes. Stay tuned.

The Taesian Chronicles in Paperback: The Process

The process to release the entire Taesian Chronicles trilogy in paperback is moving forward. I am using the print-on-demand service, CreateSpace, to make the book available in a dead-tree paperback edition.

Formatting a book for print is a more tedious, exacting process than it is for e-book. That took me several days to nail down. I followed some on-line tutorials various people have posted, which helped tremendously. Fortunately, I was able to export the print-ready file directly from Scrivener and didn’t have to use a specially-formatted Word template.

Another, more complex process was creating a cover for the paperback. With e-books, you only need a single-page graphic image. With paperbacks, you need the cover, spine, and back cover represented in a single image file. The thickness of the book needs to be determined based on number of pages and book size (5″x8″, 6″x9″, etc.), which determines how wide the spine portion of the cover image will be.

I spent almost a week working with my cover designer, Steven Novak [www.novakillustration.com], going back and forth and reviewing subtle changes and tweaks, before we created a design that worked. Steven is a fantastic designer and I’ve been very happy working with him.

CreateSpace lets you view your book cover to cover in a virtual tool online. This is a key part of the process. Once I was happy with it in virtual format, I ordered a proof copy, which is on its way. I’ll review that printed copy, and if any changes need to be made, I’ll modify the digital file, upload it, and order another proof. I will repeat this process as many times as necessary until the printed edition is perfect. Once that is done, I’ll mark it as complete. The book will then be listed as available for sale via Amazon.com.

How Scrivener makes Ohlen’s Bane possible

As I have mentioned on this blog and on The Ardent Scribe, Scrivener has proven to be a wonderful tool for my writing and creative productivity. It’s not about putting words to electronic paper — a basic text editor can do that — it’s about organizing and maintaining that text as the process unfolds.

My second book, Ohlen’s Bane, is possible because I am using Scrivener.

I started out with a plot event list. This is basically a list of sentences, each describing a specific scene in the book, in chronological order of how they will appear in the book. Once that is done, I begin my work in Scrivener.

I create a new scene, or text card, for each sentence. The scene title is 2-5 words describing what happens, and the full sentence I created in my plot event list goes into the card description. I drag and drop those scenes into roughly equal length chapters.

In the research section of Scrivener, I create cards for each named character in the book that describes their physical characteristics, personality and background. I also create a page of place names and yet another filled with randomly created names that I may grab from as new bit players turn up in my story.

Once Scrivener is pre-loaded with all of my research and scenes, I fire the trigger and begin writing.

Ohlen’s Bane started off somewhat slowly. I wrote the first six chapters, about 10,000 words, and then read over what I’d written. It dragged. I found myself growing impatient for the good stuff to start happening. Thanks to Scrivener, I was able to drag and drop scenes to rearrange their order. I scrapped entire scenes — not by deleting them, but by putting them into a Scrap chapter. This gave me recourse in case I found a use for them later on, or even just to grab fragments of scenes.

After paring it down and reorganizing scenes into a better order, I was able to start cranking away again. Now that my story found a good rhythm, thanks to Scrivener’s ability to keep my book organized, I was then able to crank out 12,000 words in a single weekend.

When I finish one scene, I open up the text card for the next. Since it has a brief 2-3 sentence description of what happens, I am up to speed on what happens next and can bang it out in record time.

Scrivener really is a brilliant piece of software, and I don’t think I’d ever get my second book written without it.

Ohlen’s Arrow character study: Merrick Stonehorn

This is the first installment in a series where I introduce key characters from my new novel, Ohlen’s Arrow. Rather than doing the predictable thing — focusing on Ohlen, the main character — I’m going to introduce you to the other key participants — his friends and his enemies.

Merrick Stonehorn and Ohlen go back more than a decade. In appearance, they couldn’t be any further apart, but in spirit they share much that would be familiar to brothers.

Merrick is a big man in both stature and personality, standing six and a half feet tall and weighing at least three hundred pounds. He’s in his late 40s and has long red hair with a few streaks of grey, and he keeps it tied into a single braid that reaches the middle of his back. He wears a large gold loop in each ear. His face, arms and hands show many scars from more battles than Merrick himself could count.

Despite his large physical size, Merrick moves about with a deceptive ease and grace. The way he moves isn’t the only deceptive aspect of this larger-than-life man. His mood can jump from friendly to deadly in the blink of an eye when he feels threatened. His trust is hard-earned, but once obtained, Merrick is loyal to his friends to the bitter end.

Merrick Stonehorn began adventuring while still a teenager and quickly gained notoriety for both his bravery and his cunning. Still in his mid 20’s, he singlehandedly infiltrated a cru’gan stronghold, killed the tribal leader, and escaped not only alive but carrying gold equal to his own body weight (which was substantial, to say the least!) This, and other adventures like it, soon made him rich.

In his late 30’s he used his spoils to purchase the Inn of the Three Fans in the lakeside town of Eeron. Despite appearances that he has settled down and given up his adventuring ways, Merrick still finds time to get into the wilds, often accompanied by his second-in-command, a beady-eyed rogue named Rinn.

The method of John Irving

Through iTunes U, I watched a brief lecture given by John Irving where he talks about knowing the ending of his books before he begins them. Something about that talk inspired me to take a new approach to how I write my stories, and after using this approach to crank out a short story in two days, it has proven to be amazingly effective. I feel stupid not having used it before, it’s that simple.

Elevator Speech

In a single paragraph, write what the story is about. This paragraph is called the High Concept. This kind of text could easily go on the back cover of the paperback novel or even as a teaser on the DVD jacket when your story is optioned by Steven Spielberg and goes blockbuster. It’s also referred to as an Elevator Speech and for good reason.

Let’s say you are standing on the ground floor of a New York skyscraper, waiting for an elevator to the top floor. Standing next to you is some guy in a tailored business suit. The two of you begin idle chit chat and at some point you mention you are writing a novel. As the elevator doors open and you both step inside, the guy says, “What’s your book about?”

You must convey the gist of your story in the amount of time it takes the elevator to reach the top floor in a way that makes the guy in the tailored business suit — who just happens to be the CEO of Random House — want to write you a six-figure advance check on that book plus sign a contract for your next four novels.

Create Character Bios

I create simple biographies for each of my main characters. These bios are usually 1-3 paragraphs long, depending on how important that character is to the story. Each bio will contain a brief description of the character’s physical appearance followed by any details germane to the story.

Plot Event List

Once you have decided upon the overall plot of your book and written it out in the form of an Elevator Speech, you must then figure out what actually happens in your story. This is the fastest part of the process. With a blank sheet of paper or document on your computer, write out a series of short, simple sentences, one per line, that describe the chronological events or scenes that take place. Try to keep each sentence short enough that it fits onto a single line. Brief is good. Don’t worry too much about the actual order of the events because you can rearrange them later if necessary. Here’s an example:

  • Alice meets John while standing in line at the coffee shop.
  • John takes Alice out to dinner.
  • Alice and John wreck their car while driving home.
  • John wakes up a month later in the hospital, confused.
  • A nurse tells John that Alice was killed in the car wreck.
  • John’s doctors discuss his prognosis.
  • John is told he’ll never walk again.
  • John thinks he sees Alice standing in his room.
  • Alice’s ghost visits John during his rehabilitation.
  • etc.

You get the point. Each sentence represents a single scene in your story.

Create characters and scenes in Scrivener

I’m a huge fan of Scrivener. It is a fantastic writing tool and it’s ability to help me stay organized really jumps my writing effort ahead. Part of Scrivener’s usefulness is it’s ability to help keep my story research organized and at easy reach. One way I do this is create character bios in Scrivener. As I’m writing, I can reference these notes with a single click, then jump back to my story, all within the same program.

I then create empty text blocks called scenes and then arrange them in any order I wish with a simple drag-n-drop operation. I can organize them into chapters, too. Using my plot event list, I create a new scene within Scrivener for each line on my plot event list. I use the scene description to label the scenes within Scrivener, so I can tell at a glance which scene I want to work on.

Write out each scene

Once I have created a scene for each item in my plot event list, I can now write the text for each one in any order I choose. Because I’ve broken down my entire story into manageable, discrete chunks, it’s very easy for me to focus my mind on the creative task at hand without worrying about plot holes and other details.

The plot event list is like framing a house. All the dimensions and layout of the rooms is decided here. Writing out each scene is like putting in the floors, drywall, fixtures, and even the furniture, one room at a time. Since the room itself is already defined, I can focus and flesh it out completely. Since all the other rooms have also been framed, I don’t have to worry about how this room will fit into the overall structure.

Mental Benefit

Since writing a novel is a very large undertaking (described as eating an elephant one spoonful at a time) this approach breaks it into manageable chunks. This helps my brain work more efficiently. I start with the high concept first, followed by brief descriptions of my main characters. Next, I create simple descriptions of scenes and key events in the story. This is an entirely creative process and it goes rather quickly. Finally, I flesh out each scene. Since I’m only having to creatively focus on one scene at a time, I don’t have writer’s block caused by feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of the overall effort. It’s like walking around the world but only thinking about the journey 100 yards at a time, yet knowing you’ll reach your final destination because you have the entire route planned in advance.