From D&D Campaign to Fantasy Novel – Part 1

I am certainly not the first person to attempt to convert a Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) campaign into a series of fantasy novels, and I probably won’t be the last. But I’ll wager that my campaign has been running longer than anyone else who has tried. It’s been running since the final core rulebook of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) was published over thirty-eight years ago. The official rules of D&D changed over the years, and we made changes of our own, but we remained true to the the original spirit of the game. It’s all about role-playing characters in a fantasy setting, but only in a semi-serious fashion, because it also has to be fun.

I have gotten in the habit of writing detailed summaries of the adventures that I have run as part of my campaign, but they’re not exactly publication-ready. Things need to be described in a more realistic manner. Even though it’s a fantasy setting with monsters and magic, characters have to be believable. They need to have backstories, aspirations, faults, quirks, etc. They need to seem real to the reader.

When I started working on the first book, I ran into a myriad of issues. Do I keep the traditional Tolkien-inspired trappings, such as dwarves and elves? What units of measurements are used? What type of currency is used, and how much do things cost? What do people eat? What do they do for fun? How do the government and economy work? Are there taxes, and if so, how are they levied? And those are only a few of the things I had to consider.

Another problem is that I hadn’t created everything from scratch. I took ideas and names from books, and from the real world. My campaign has the usual pantheon of deities, but I took the names from Hinduism, also integrating the idea of having three major deities. The names clearly had to change, because Hinduism is a current religion with many followers, and I didn’t want to offend them. Vishnu became Arwon, Lakshmi became Lasrina, Krishna became Kyran, and so on. In my books, the names are all different, but the deity’s associations remain basically the same. For example, Lasrina is associated with beauty and luck.

And now we come to what I really want to discuss: death. In D&D, if a character dies, they can be brought back to life using magic. (This is generally performed by a cleric—priest or priestess—but could also be done with some type of enchanted item.) Multiple lives are common today in computer games, but it was a novel concept in 1974. And it was clever. It meant that a player didn’t have to worry that the character they had spent months or even years developing might die and then have to be replaced by a new and far weaker one. Death was merely an inconvenience. Most fantasy novels have nothing like this, or if they do, it’s very limited. But it’s an integral part of D&D, so I decided to not only make use of it, but to embrace it.

What are the ramifications of death not necessarily being permanent? First, there have to be limits. I decided that a body reduced to ashes couldn’t be restored by any means, and that this was the usual method of disposing of bodies. (In D&D, dead bodies can be reanimated as undead—something that most people want to avoid.) I also decided that everyone had a limited number of lives that was unknowable, but was almost always at least two.

There were other decisions to make and questions to answer. What if part of the body is missing, or is in bad condition? Does it always work? What will the person brought back experience? Will they remember being in some kind of afterlife? How will having died affect them? How does knowing that death isn’t necessarily permanent affect society in general? Are people less careful?They would certainly be more comfortable knowing that they had more than one life.

I explored some of these issues in the first book, and more in the second. And it will continue to play a role as I write more books in my Andoran’s Realm series. I think this is one of things that makes my books stand out from many other fantasy novels.

In Part 2, I will discuss issues related to gender equality within my series.

The unintended consequences of chapter titles

I’ve mentioned this before, but my first novel, Audrey of Farmerton, ended up with chapter titles that were single words, such as “Impossible” or “Determination”. Those titles were originally for the sole purpose of helping me to navigate such a long book, but the beta readers liked them so much that I left them in. That had both positive and negative consequences, as I will now relate.

Coming up with a single word to describe a chapter turned out to be tricky. Sometimes a chapter is just a group of chronological scenes that don’t really relate to one another. In some cases, I ended up moving scenes to different chapters or modifying them to make everything fit. It became an annoyance, and some of the titles still seem somewhat contrived. Furthermore, I was handicapped by not being able to reuse a title, because that would be confusing to readers.

When I started to write the second book of my series, The Witch’s City, I realized that I had no choice but to continue with the single word titles. I also decided that I would not duplicate any of the titles used in the first book, further constraining myself. Fortunately, the English language has synonyms for just about everything, and a huge number of words.

I now think that my odd choice has actually helped me to improve as a writer. Chapters are supposed to be somewhat separate entities, to have a theme of some sort. Selecting a chapter title helps to drive my writing process, giving me ideas. And coming up with an appropriate title for a group of scenes is an interesting challenge. I’m now writing the third book of the series, and it follows the same pattern. It’s a bit darker; the first chapter is entitled “Death”.

Listening for Typos

For my final proofreading of The Witch’s City, I made use of my computer’s text-to-speech feature. I mentioned this technique in a tweet, but I thought that I would go into more detail about how to do it and why it works.

These days, virtually every computer, tablet, or smart phone, offers some type of text-to-speech capability. This is partly for convenience—such as having a text message read to you—but is also included to aid those with visual disabilities. As a result, the set-up for this feature is usually found under “Accessibility” or something similar. In this area, you should find options to select both the voice and the speaking rate. Apple devices come with only a small number of voices pre-installed, but many others are available for free using the “Customize” option of the voice menu. I downloaded every English language voice that sounded decent and then experimented.

As far as using this technique, I found that I could customize Scrivener’s toolbar to include a speech button. (It’s also possible to define a function key to invoke this using the speech set-up under Accessibility.) If I push this button, one of two things happens: The computer reads the highlighted text and then stops, or the computer starts reading from the text cursor location and continues until the button is pressed again or the end of the document is encountered.

For proofreading, I typically place the text cursor, invoke text-to-speech, and then read along while listening. This combination works quite well. For example, I had written “scrapping” when I actually meant “scraping”. Visually these two word look very similar, but listening I immediately heard the difference and was able to correct my mistake. Another example would be distinguishing between “though” and “through”.

There are some annoyances to using text-to-speech. Names, particularly unusual ones, may be pronounced wrong. Some voices tend to pause too long for some types of punctuation. Some voices don’t pause after paragraphs, especially if the next paragraph is dialog. But these are minor issues. The important thing is being able to hear the words as you read them.

In conclusion, I highly recommend that all writers who do their own proofreading at least give this technique a try. You will never get all the typos out, but every little bit helps.

The 2017 Tennessee Writing Workshop

I would like to share a few of my thoughts on the 2017 Tennessee Writing Workshop. It was held on July 22, 2017 in Franklin, TN (just south of Nashville). This was my first time attending something like this. The event featured a number of established authors sharing their wisdom. Also present were a number of publishing agents, eager to hear pitches from aspiring authors and give advice.

First, let me compliment the people who planned and ran the event. From what I could tell, everything went very smoothly. People were always on hand to answer questions or provide guidance. The only complaints I heard involved the scheduling. Some people found themselves with two simultaneous sessions that they really wanted to attend, but parallel sessions are the norm. There was also grumbling about having to skip out of sessions for pitches or critiques, but I’m not sure if there’s a way around that particular problem.

Being older and semi-retired, I was worried that the workshop might be filled with younger people that I didn’t fit in with. In fact, there were people ranging from teenage to older than myself. And age really didn’t matter. The important thing is that we were all writers seeking to improve our craft.

I did end up standing out to some extent because of my complete lack of interest in traditional publishing. Most people were there at least partly so that they could pitch their work to agents. I definitely admire and respect those seeking recognition by a publisher, but it’s just not for me. One of the sessions I attended included an excellent discussion of the pros and cons of traditional vs. self-publishing.

One thing that I was really looking forward to was a critique of my own work. C.J. Redwine, an established author of science fiction and fantasy, reviewed the first ten pages of my soon-to-be-published book, The Witch’s City. During our ten minute discussion, she was both complimentary and critical, just as I had hoped. The good news is that she very much liked my opening scene and writing style. I am already at work addressing the issues that she pointed out.

The sessions I attended were all interesting, and they have certainly given me a great deal to think about. I don’t necessarily agree with all of the advice that was given, but that’s fine. There is no one correct way to write as far as style.

Will I attend the 2018 version of this event? Almost certainly. But if the sessions are largely the same, I may simply participate as a volunteer. Either way I will be able to engage with other writers, and that is what counts.

Quantity vs. Quality

Is it better to produce a large number of mediocre books or a small number of well-written ones? The answer, surprisingly, depends primarily on the author’s goal. If the goal is money, then quantity is the way to go. Book series can entice people to continue to purchase an author’s works. It also helps to write in multiple genres and to target underserved genres. If, on the other hand, the goal is to be considered a great author, it’s probably better to prioritize quality and hope you get recognized.

One thing that had puzzled me was how some indie authors are able to be so prolific. I recently heard one brag that he had written an entire trilogy in twelve weeks. Was he lying? No, but he was being somewhat deceptive. It’s common practice for some authors to write a normal length book and then break it into several parts. They are either published simultaneously or in rapid succession, and each is touted as a separate book. The first “book” is generally either free or 99 cents, while the others are priced higher. This is a clever technique to generate more revenue. It also helps to explain the insane number of self-published books. The only real downside is the necessity of creating more covers.

After realizing this, I wondered if I should do something similar. I could pull Audrey of Farmerton, break it into three chunks, commission more covers, and then proudly publish it as a trilogy. And just like that, I’ve written three books instead of one! And I’ve nearly got three more done! Hurray! Before long I’ll be able to produce a single poorly-written “book” in less than a month!

Joking aside, I am not going to go down the quantity path. My goal isn’t to become rich off of writing. I want my books to be the best I can make them, and I want them to actually be books. That means a low production rate, but I’m fine with that.

My thoughts on Grammarly

For those who don’t want to read a long review, here’s the brief summary: The free version of Grammarly is a useful utility for writers, but only if they already have a good knowledge of English grammar.

Grammarly is an English language grammar checker. It is available as a browser extension, an MS Word add-on, or as a standalone application. It is seemingly free but promptly starts urging you to upgrade to the premium (subscription) version. They offer a 7-day money-back guarantee on subscriptions, but I found so many people complaining about it not being honored (and poor customer service in general) that I opted to only test the free version.

I installed the macOS version. To test it, I employed the text from my 160,000+ word first novel. I pasted each scene individually into Grammarly, and it then proceeded to analyze the text and flag issues. The issues are divided into critical and advanced categories, with the advanced requiring the premium version. Critical issues are flagged to the right of the line of text where they were found. There are options to accept (and apply) the recommended change, to view more information, or to simply ignore it. An example issue is to flag “afterwards” and suggest a change to “afterward”.

So how did Grammarly do? It did an excellent job of spotting repeated words and mistakes such as writing “though” when you meant “through”. These kinds of errors are the ones that our brains often skip right over without us even noticing. It also did a good job of recognizing when commas were either omitted or unnecessary. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the complete list of things Grammarly does well.

Grammarly will often recommend changing a verb from singular to plural or vice versa. It is occasionally correct, but often wrong. It will also make suggestions when it thinks you have typed the wrong word by mistake, but most of these are wildly wrong. For example, it repeatedly suggested replacing “robe” with “role”. This is the kind of mistake no human proofreader would ever make.

I also experienced problems employing the Grammarly application. Sometimes when I pasted in new text it would fail to scan it, forcing me to start a new document. Sometimes the scan would get stuck and never complete. To me, this feels more like beta software than a finished application.

Would the premium version of Grammarly have performed better on the so-called critical issues? I have no idea, but I rather doubt it. Automated checking of English grammar is incredibly difficult. In my opinion, it’s going to take a large company employing advanced AI to really crack the problem.

I did look for other reviews of Grammarly and found them mixed. Disturbingly, many of the positive ones end with buy links for Grammarly, suggesting that they may be biased or even paid for. The best reviews were those that looked at several different grammar-checkers and compared their performance to a human’s.

In summary, the free version of Grammarly can be a useful aid for finding some types of simple grammar issues. It caught typos that have been in my book for ages without anyone noticing. On the other hand, blindly following its suggestions would have wrecked my book, filling it with bizarre and ungrammatical sentences. So don’t even think of using Grammarly unless you already have a good knowledge of proper English grammar.

And never start a sentence with a conjunction!

A good friend of mine was actually taught in school that a sentence should never begin with a conjunction. In other words, a sentence shouldn’t be started with “And”, “Or”, “But”, etc. And she’s not the only one. Many people have been taught this, even though it is complete nonsense. Even today, you will find idiots on the internet claiming that this is the proper way.

The reality is that the use of conjunctions to begin a sentence has been part of the English language for centuries. In general, about ten percent of sentences start that way. Never starting with a conjunction can also lead to confusing run-on sentences that may annoy or confuse readers. Sometimes it’s simply better to break a compound sentence into two separate ones, even if the second one starts with a conjunction.

So do begin sentences with conjunctions when there is a need, but not all the time.

How realistic should a fantasy story be?

First, let’s distinguish between fantasy stories set in what is basically our own world, and those set in different worlds. A fantasy set in our world can leverage existing settings, cultures, languages, etc. This simplifies some aspects of the writing process, but can add complications, particularly if set in the modern era. But it’s the other type I want to discuss.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth is the iconic example of a fantasy set in a world that is distinctly different than ours, but still has many similarities. There are different races, different languages, strange monsters, and powerful magic, but the world itself looks much like our own in terms of the flora and fauna. The technology level is medieval, with castles and keeps and walled cities. It’s swords & sorcery, in modern terms. Many fantasy novels hew to this pattern, including my own.

It is certainly possible to write a fantasy set in a completely different world. The world can have a green sky, ten moons, and three suns. All of the animals and plants can be different. There can be unique races, each with differing language, titles, units of measure, religion, magic, culture, government, etc. But unless the author is incredibly talented, I can pretty much guarantee it will turn into a confusing mess for the reader. I know, because I’ve read both fantasy and science fiction novels that have taken things too far. The reader needs something to identify with, and they don’t want to be constantly having to look things up in appendices.

Dungeons & Dragons was heavily influenced by Tolkien, and my world was based off of my own D&D campaign. That provided the basis, and I made a deliberate decision to not make any drastic changes. Medieval fantasy worlds of that kind are traditional now. The familiar elements comfort the reader and make it easier for them to imagine what is being described. And the magic and fantastic creatures thrill them, or so the author hopes. It certainly seems to be working for George R.R. Martin.

In a future post, I may discuss the specific decisions I made, and some of the unintended consequences that resulted. Happy writing.

Pronoun Trouble

rabbitduck3.jpg

(image from the classic Warner Bros. cartoon “Rabbit Seasoning”)

In the process of reviewing my first book and looking for issues, I noticed something that I could then not unsee: I underuse personal pronouns. What do I mean by this? I mean that I tend to repeat character names when I could just as well have used “he” or “she” or “they”, as examples. Fixing this issue is taking considerable time, and is complicated (as I will describe below). When I am finally finished, I will upload a revised version of the book and ask Amazon to push out the changes to anyone who has automatic updates turned on.

My primary concern is that I will go too far and end up erring in the other direction. If the reader can’t figure out who is speaking, or who is being referred to, then they’re probably not going to keep reading. A sentence like “She told her that she wasn’t interested.” can be a nightmare. Each of the three personal pronouns could potentially refer to a different person, e.g. “She told Jane that Sally wasn’t interested.” But even that version requires that the reader understand who “She” refers to.

The use of personal pronouns depends on both the number of characters involved and their genders. If there is only one male, then “he” and “his” are clear. Two of the same gender makes it much more difficult to use personal pronouns. Three or more speakers in a single conversation almost always requires the repeated use of the actual names.

This issue is something that I am still struggling with, and it’s probably only a matter of time before I discover yet another of my bad writing habits.

The Editing Never Stops

I am currently making another pass through my book, Audrey of Farmerton, preparatory to offering a paperback version. Despite the best efforts of both myself and my beta readers, I am still finding typos and minor mistakes. It appears that no amount of copyediting will ever find all of the mistakes. The good news is that when I am done, I can update the ebook version, and the new version will be automatically pushed out. You can’t do that with printed books.

It is my contention that there simply aren’t that many decent editors left out there. These days, even books by popular authors are published with obvious typos and grammar errors. Last year, I read a science fiction novel that had won major awards despite having significant plot holes and the author not really understanding how to use commas. The editor was either incompetent, or was too rushed to do a good job.

The advent of easy self-publishing is probably to blame for the current situation. The publishing industry in general has dealt poorly with  emerging technologies. That has led to cutbacks, including editorial staff. And when cutting staff, it is invariably the most experienced (and best paid) people that are let go.

What makes a good editor? They obviously need to have a good knowledge of the English language (or whatever language they are editing). This includes both spelling and grammar. But they also need to understand composition. They need to be able to judge if sentences are properly grouped into paragraphs, paragraphs into scenes, and scenes into chapters. They also need to understand what they are reading, otherwise they will be unable to spot larger issues such as plotting and pacing. To be perfectly honest, a good editor first needs to be a good writer. But a good writer isn’t likely to be interested in editing the works of someone else unless they’re a close friend or relative. A good writer would rather be writing.

I can’t offer any magical solution. For now, I’ll just rely on my own editing skills, resigned to the fact that the things I write will never be perfect.