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Writing Excuses 7.43: Editing with James L. Sutter

Writing Excuses 7.43: Editing with James L. Sutter


Key points: To write for Pathfinder, first write for someone else professionally. Then get in touch with Be creative, but also write excellent prose. Avoid submitting manuscripts that have not been proofread. Don't be boring. To write tie-in fiction, start by doing the research, and knowing the setting.

[Mary] Season Seven, Episode 43.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Editing with James L. Sutter.
[Howard] 15 minutes long, because you're in a hurry…
[Mary] Because you're… And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Mary] I miss Dan so much. This is Mary.
[Howard] And I'm Howard.
[Brandon] And we're live at GenCon.
[Brandon] Dan is still in Germany. He hasn't flown back in between our five minutes of [inaudible -- rest breaks?] between each cast. We are missing him, as you can tell by us all flubbing our lines. James! Introduce yourself if you would.
[James] I'm James L. Sutter. I'm a writer and editor. I'm one of the co--creators of the Pathfinder role-playing game and the Pathfinder campaign setting. I'm specifically the person in charge of all the fiction we do, all the tie-in fiction related to the Pathfinder world. Also my first novel just came out. It's a Pathfinder Tales novel called Death's Heretic. It's big claim to fame is that it was number three on Barnes and Noble's list of the best fantasy of 2011.
[Mary] Cool.
[Brandon] Awesome.
[Mary] Well done.
[Howard] I sensed a lot of pent-up applause in the room. You guys love Pathfinder.
[Howard] Make some noise.
[James] Thank you.

[Brandon] If there are listeners who don't know what Pathfinder is, it's… Basically started out as an independent RPG using the open gaming license from D & D 3.5 and eventually became the best-selling RPG in the world, right?
[James] By many metrics, yes.
[Brandon] Yes. There are lots of metrics. But it eventually outsold its parent. The thing that gave it birth. So that's kind of cool. I invited James, even though he is a writer, mostly under his editor hat. Because we haven't talked with an editor for a while on the podcast. All of our listeners or most of them are aspiring writers. So partially, number one, I want to ask, how would people submit fiction to you? Let's say that they want to write in the Pathfinder setting. How would they end up going and doing that?
[James] Well, the first thing to do, if you want to write Pathfinder, is to write for someone else. At the moment, just simply because of the demand, so many people want to write for Pathfinder, my bar really is you have to have written fiction professionally, which means sold to... really smaller presses are fine as long as you're getting paid to write fiction. But once you've had some sales, it's really as simple as just sending me an email. I'm With a little resume that says here's where I've been published and here are a couple of short stories or chapter excerpts from novels I've done. And then... We go from there. I mean, the competition is stiff. I've got a lot of great folks from... Dave Gross, whose book Mary was reading in the phone sex voice earlier... Prince of Wolves, that's one of the Pathfinder novels, and it has never sounded so good.
[James] But really, there's... It's always open. I'm always looking for authors.
[Brandon] Do you do short story collections or are you only doing novels?
[James] We do everything actually. So the novels are sort of the big thing that we're pushing, but we also do serialized novellas, that we do alongside each of our adventure paths, which are our giant six-part campaigns. Then we also do short fiction, which we release for free on, p-i-a-z-o. So every week, we release a new serialized short story that's also illustrated. I'm always hiring authors for that. Many times those authors go on to be our novelists, as well.

[Brandon] Okay. Excellent. Now tell me kind of, from an editor's standpoint, what you're looking for. When they send those short stories that may be published, what is it in there that grabs you and says, "Ah, this is someone who could write for us?"
[James] Wow. You know, creativity is part of it, but a lot of it is just show me that you have really excellent prose. Like I know a lot of people who they care only about the ideas, they don't really care so much about the writing. I'm not that person. I really want to see that somebody can do… Smooth prose, good dialogue, that they can grab me quickly. But also that there are interesting ideas there. Even though I'm buying for a Pathfinder role-playing game audience, I really want people who aren't just going to give me all the time the transcript of their role-playing game. I want people who can be creative within the setting. But if you're sending me your independent stuff, show me that you can be creative on your own. Then… I'd rather cram somebody creative into the sandbox we've created then have somebody who can't do any of that.

[Brandon] Okay. Now you have just basically launched the book line pretty recently?
[James] Yeah. It's only about two years old at this point.
[Brandon] How did… I'm curious how you went about doing that? Like, what… Really… How did you adapt role-playing setting to fiction? You oversaw this whole thing?
[James] Yeah, I've been here from the beginning.
[Brandon] So what did you do? How did you do this? How did you like… I don't even know how you would begin…
[James] Well, it's something we've always wanted to do, because I know I, like probably many fantasy authors and readers, grew up reading tie-in fiction. I mean, I think that often times it gets a very negative stereotype. People go, "Oh that's corporate fantasy." Or "It's got a brand name on the top, so it can't be good." Yet the people saying that probably, when they were younger, read Dragonlance, read Forgotten Realms, read Star Wars or Halo or whatever, the same way that I did and and everybody else I know pretty much did. So we really had always thought that one of the ways we'll know we're really a successful RPG is when we have novels set in our world. So it was kind of a labor of love for us. But it was also scary. We did a lot of experimenting, publishing for a while classic novels as part of the Planet Stories line. That sort of taught us… That was all like old grandmasters who'd fallen out of print in science fiction and fantasy.
[Brandon] Oh, okay. So you were doing reprints.
[James] That we brought back. That sort of gave us an idea of how the book channels worked.
[Brandon] That's really smart. A smart way to approach this. Wow.
[James] Well, yeah. It was hard. Surprisingly hard, selling classics. The attention span is very short, we've discovered.
[Howard] You want to open a grocery store, so you experimented by opening a fruit stand.
[James] Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Then we moved on, and we launched the line. Dave Gross with Prince of Wolves was the first novel we published. But we've really just been trying to bring in people from both the established game writers, folks like Dave and Robin Laws and Elaine Cunningham who had done tie-in fantasy that a lot of people knew, but also going to the just general science fiction and fantasy authors and bringing in folks like Howard Andrew Jones or Dan Marcio or Tim Pratch who's a Hugo award winner. Like folks who really had pull sort of on both sides of the line, because I think that I really want to break down that stereotype that tie-in fantasy isn't good fantasy. I really think that it can be great, it's just you really have to care about it. So caring about it a lot is my job.

[Brandon] Right. All right. Let's stop for our book of the week. James, you are going to pitch a book for us.
[James] Yeah. I thought that China Mieville's Railsea, which I'm actually reading right now on audible, is fabulous. I really love with all of China's stuff his ability to take ideas that sound ridiculous, perhaps even stupid, and by writing it so well, make you totally buy-in and be so excited about it. In this one, it's a novel that starts out, and it's all about… Essentially Moby Dick, if instead of boats it was trains, and instead of whales, you're hunting giant moles. That's one of those ideas that sounds ridiculous, and he makes it work.
[Brandon] That's kind of the way his career has gone. He makes it work with these like screwy things.
[James] I told him one time, I was like, "Just so you know, I describe you to everyone I meet is the guy who took cactus people as an idea and made it fly." Which I think is an incredible  accomplishment.
[Brandon] And it's very literary, too. It's not like he's… I mean it's really serious and it works. It actually just totally works.
[James] China is brilliant. He's actually… I've had the honor to work with him on some Pathfinder stuff as well because he's a gamer. It was really fun. I worked with him to create an angler fish person monster and a whole little kingdom for them in our world. It's a small world.
[Brandon] Awesome. Howard?
[Howard] audible You can go out there, start a free 30 day trial membership, and download Railsea by China Mieville narrated by Jonathan Crowley. There's also a version narrated by Tom Lawrence. So Mieville is covered twice out there.

[Brandon] Yeah. Awesome. All right. So I'm going to throw a question at you I threw at Monte earlier. That is, he has never taken any of his like campaigns, anything he's played, and written fiction based on it. Have you done that?
[James] I also have never taken stuff from my game and put it into my fiction. I have taken stuff that I've written for the game and then put it… I mean, since I've designed so much of Golarion with my coworkers, there are certainly parts of that that are mine that I love to play with. But never from my personal game for a lot of the same reasons he said. I just… I think that a lot of what's fun around the table is based on the people involved. What's funny about that character might not be that character, but the way that that character is so different from your friend that you already know in the real world.
[Brandon?] There's so much baggage.
[Howard] From the sounds of this, James, after having both you and Monte, who are both game designer, game creator, world builder, and authors saying, "Yes, I role-play and I never try to do this." That might be good advice for our listeners.
[James] Now that said, I will give a caveat that I don't think Monte did, which is I find myself sometimes playing with themes and tropes that then show up. Like I realized that… So my novel Death's Heretic which just came out is… It's all about an atheist who's forced into solving problems for the Goddess of Death.
[Brandon] Neat.
[James] Because it's set in a world where the gods are objectively real. I'm fascinated by this idea of how do you be an atheist when anybody… You can walk up to any cleric on the street and say, "Is God real?" And they say, "Well, let's ask." They cast commune and God says, "Yes." Then you're done, right? So I was really fascinated by that idea…
[Brandon] That's one of the best book pitches I've heard, by the way.
[James] Thank you. So I wrote this book and I was all extremely pleased with it. Then realized much later that I had actually been playing… Had several different atheist characters, different takes on that idea, that I'd played in various home games. And actually one of them that I'd actually published that character somewhere else. Somebody said, "You've kind of got a thing going on." I went, "Oh no, you're right." Or yeah, I've got a thing.
[Brandon] As an aside, that's kind of scary as a writer, but you end up doing it. Like books will tackle themes. You write a book and it'll make you really interested in this theme. Then you say, "Oh, I didn't do that all the way. I could do it again from a different perspective." You end up writing this other book. Then people are like, "Oh, you've typecast yourself."
[James] You know what I always hated about lit classes in college was that I felt like every time they're saying, "Well, what theme is the author trying to get in here?" Now that I've been doing it longer, I realize I think most of those authors weren't trying to get that theme in there at all. I think it was just what the author was thinking about at the time.

[Brandon] Now, getting back to the whole editing thing. I don't know if you can answer this in a different way than before, but we talked… I asked what you liked, what really grabbed you? What are some turnoffs to you? When you were doing this initially and getting maybe fiction submissions, what really turns you off on a submission?
[James] Well, I mean, I think it's the same for tie-in as it is for editors everywhere. Things that really turn me off are manuscripts that have not been proofread. I can never believe the number of even quote unquote professional authors who you look at the first page and it's typos and misspellings and just clunky sentences. I don't know why they're not going through the very basic process of spell checking their work, letting something sit and coming back to it a week later, having a friend read it. Like, there's a lot of stuff you can do that's very basic to polish up your first draft. But after that, you know really, the thing… The worst thing you can do to me, other than just like having crappy writing, is being boring. Like I was saying earlier, I really don't like seeing stories if they're creator owned that are just Tolkien with the serial numbers filed off, or Pathfinder with the serial numbers filed off. You might think that because I helped make this thing, I want everything to be like it. But I'm a world builder. I love world building. So I want to see other people build interesting worlds. When I read… The novels that I really like, whether they're China or Dan Simmons or whoever are the ones that take me to totally different worlds that I haven't seen before. That's what's really exciting, that's why I read science fiction and fantasy, is to see new things. If I don't see that in somebody's work, then it's just another epic fantasy piece.

[Brandon] If someone wants to write tie-in, not breaking in, I'm talking more about the technical stuff. Is there any advice? Like when you've got an author, let's say you brought this creative person in that you really… And they're going to write a book for you. Now they have to kind of be in this box, a box they've never been in before. Is there advice you give them on how to go about doing that?
[James] First off, do the research. Know the setting. Play the game if you can. I think that helps you a lot. I've been fortunate enough to have a lot of authors come to me saying, "I'm an established author. Also, I love your game." Which makes it way easier on my part. But, yeah, other than doing the research, I think that… Realize that the rules are there for a reason. Like the rules are an attempt to mimic… Or to represent the physics that govern the world that we've created. So sometimes authors will say, "Well, why can't you just bend the rules for me?" It's like, "Well, why can't you bend the rule of gravity in your historical fiction?" The rules regarding our magic system…
[Mary] I do.
[James] But then it is magical.
[Mary] Right. I'm kidding.
[James] Yeah. But a lot of authors don't really get that. Sometimes, depending on the rules system you're working with, it can be useful to stat up the character. But most importantly, talk to your editor. Your editor is there to help you. So if you don't know how to make something work withing the game, talk to your editor, brainstorm it out. I mean, half my job is when an author comes to me and says, "I've got this scene. I want this to happen. But I don't know how to make it work. What spell would be good here?" Then I go and essentially talk to the designers, and tell them, "Well, here's how we think that could work." It inevitably ends up being better than if the author had just tried to fudge something or kludge it together.

[Brandon] All right. Well, I think we're out of time. I'm going to hit you up for a writing prompt.
[James] Okay. So, for a writing prompt, I really like moral ambiguity. So write a story in which all the characters are simultaneously the good guy and the bad guy.
[Brandon] Okay. And your book, again, was...
[James] Death's Heretic.
[Brandon Yep. All right. Thank you very much for being on the podcast. Thank you all for listening. You're out of excuses, now go write.
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