On Writing Two Hundred Thousand Words

I hit a pretty significant writing milestone this past week. My work in progress novel crossed the two hundred thousand word threshold.

I knew when I started out that this book would be close to 200,000 words in length. My very first estimate for the book was about 175,000 but I quickly pivoted to an estimate of 225,000 words. Now I expect it to be a little longer, closer to 250,000. If that’s still accurate, then I should finish my rough draft late this year or early next year, given my current productivity.

I honestly thought I’d be more excited to cross this threshold in my writing journey. But instead I can’t help but reflect on how long the journey has taken.

You see, I started writing “Book of M” not terribly long after I started chronicling my writing journey with this very blog, way back in roughly February of 2011. Twelve long years of sporadic writing. Twelve years of struggling with a variety of factors that have stymied my free time to write. Twelve years of a, frankly, mediocre career mostly in corporate finance that sometimes sucked the will and energy to write out of me. Twelve years in which multiple chronic illnesses took their inevitable toll on my mind and body. But also, twelve years of fatherhood which, even now, I wouldn’t trade for a finished book. Twelve years of good and bad, growth and decline. Twelve years of a life lived the best I could, but not the life I always dreamed I’d be living.

That’s a long dang time to write a book. Long enough to put George R. R. Martin or Patrick Rothfuss to shame (though, to be fair, those guys are great when they do finish a book). And reality is, I’m still just at the beginning of this thing. A book well written and worth the time to read goes through no few drafts in number. This is just the first draft. How many revisions and edits save rewrites will it take to have a viable manuscript? That’s anybody’s guess.

I do still look forward to finishing this rough draft. And it is a rough one. I’m going to need a lot of revision, there’s no two ways about it. But passing the finish line will still be cause for celebration. I’ll have done the thing. The thing I’ve dreamed of doing since childhood: writing A book. Rough draft or not, that’s a significant accomplishment. Time will tell if I ever get it in good enough shape to get it published. I’ve got my doubts these days. But regardless, the book will be what it will be: my first full, epic fantasy novel. I can’t wait to write those two little words that tie it all together: The End.

Until then, well, there’s work to do. Here’s hoping I finish it sooner than later…


Writing Year In Review: 2022

Number of Writing Weeks: 23 out of 52

Total Word Count: 42,420 words out of a goal of 60,000

Average Word Count Per Week: 800

% of Annual Word Count Goal: 70.7%

Other Stats: 47 Writing Days

Wow. So 2022 happened, didn’t it? And man… was I blogging and writing machine!

Yeah. Except not.

I mean, honestly, although I fell suuuuuuuper short of my goal for the year (i.e. 120 writing days total; I didn’t even make it to the halfway point), still the net output in terms of Word Count for the year wasn’t all that bad. About average for me. But the blogging? If I’m once again honest I haven’t even given a second thought to the blog since my last post more than one-year-ago today. If I’m sitting down to write, with how limited my time to do so is, you better believe ninety-nine times out of a hundred it’s actually to write my book.

2022 was another hard year for me, personally. I’ve mentioned before that I’m battling chronic illness (illnesses if I’m still being honest, as in more-than-one) and the fight continued with some wins and many losses. I have a very demanding day-job. I have a family to provide for, a wife and kids that I love and love to spend time with. And I’m an imminently practical and sometimes even painfully realistic person. For all my flights of fancy, at the end of the day writing isn’t a practical pursuit.

And still I do it.

Because besides all those other things that are true about me, deep in my heart-of-hearts, I’m still a writer. And writers write.

Even if, as in my case, only a little.

Without the writing, I feel less of myself. Like a critical part of my personhood is fading into the background. So I pursue it, despite all the forces in life arrayed against me being able to find the time to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Because I can’t let that part of myself disappear entirely. I won’t let the exigencies of life take that away from me.

But the practical side of me that I alluded to above has been working to assert some influence over my thoughts in the past year. For better or worse, I don’t know. By which I mean this: I’ve always wanted to be a published author. It’s been my dream since I first fell engrossed with Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles as a kid. That was the catalyst for a life-long dream. I wanted to do what he did. But practical-me sees the toll chronic illness has taken on me, the taxing day-job, the demands of life that are not going away ever. And practical-me says: the dream is, for all practical purposes, unattainable. It’s not going to happen. That’s… that’s the reality, I guess. Like… I don’t even have one book finished after laboring on it for over a decade. I don’t even have one draft finished. You can’t get a book published if you don’t have a book that’s ready to be published. And real-talk here: but will I ever be finished with this book? I honestly… don’t know.

Maybe in 2023 I’ll get lucky and finish the first draft. But if I’m frank, it’s an ugly first draft. There are scenes and things in the second half of the book that directly contradict the first half, because I hadn’t thought something up yet when I started that I added or changed as I wrote. And rather than go back and fix it then, I decided to make a note in the draft of what I needed to do, and move on. But the as-yet-unfinished draft manuscript is littered with notes to myself about changes I need to make. The second draft will need to overhaul a ton of stuff that I already wrote, throw out whole scenes and write new ones to replace them, and so on. It’s no small task that I face.

So what if I finish the first draft in 2023? At my current pace, it will almost certainly take another 5, 6, even 7 years to polish up the second draft. I could potentially be in my fifties by thy time I finish. By then, I’ll basically be riding the roller-coaster of life down that last big, terrifying drop before the end-of-the-ride. That’s the part of the ride where the threat of cognitive decline may, capriciously, decide to flex itself: the point past which writing anything that’s actually good becomes a vanishingly unlikely proposition. Or at least that’s what I start to worry about…

Yeah. Practical-me is one depressing persona. He’s a nasty little bugger. But he’s my nasty little bugger.

Depressing doom and gloom aside, the reality is I can’t possibly get this book in publishing-ready shape for at least another year or two at the most aggressive minimum. Sure, I could do it faster if I devoted myself full time to it. I’ve done the math, and given my real-life productivity rate (in 2022 I wrote at a rate of almost 800 words per hour, for example) if I wrote for even just 3 hours a day, five days a week I could finish the first draft in a couple months. That would leave me a comfortable 10 months of the year to edit and revise. So yeah… If it were my day job I could conceivably turn this book around in under a year.

But it’s not my day job.

And it’s not going to be my day job.

That, sadly, is my ultimate reality. Which means instead I get to write in the margins, where my family and I are able to find an hour here or sometimes even two hours there to set aside for me to write. Weeknights, though, are increasingly difficult. Those chronic illnesses I mentioned… have taken their toll on my evenings. Which is to say I very rarely have productive evenings anymore, because by the end of a typical workday I’m fresh out of spoons (yeah, those spoons; no I don’t have lupus). Indeed, I’m in negative spoon territory most weekday evenings, which means it’s all I can do to go through the motions of getting ready for bed and going there straight away. So that leaves weekends. And yeah, many weekends I’ll be able to squeak in a couple hours of writing time.

Here’s the positive counter-point: I am still going to write this book. It may never see the light of day. It may never get published. Heck it probably won’t be published. But I am going to write it, just the same, even if I am the only person who ever reads it.


Why even bother, if it’ll never earn me a dime in royalties?

Because I’m a writer. It’s what I do.

That’s the real truth.

I mean… I don’t actually know whether accepting the fact that my book will never be published is a healthy outlook or is just too depressing to consider. But knowing that I’m going to write it regardless: that feels right to me. That feels true.

So. Onward and upward.

Well then: where does that leave me in 2023 with regard to writing goals? Last year I wanted to write on 120 days out of the year. Thanks mostly to my friend chronic illness that fell out in spectacular fashion. Looking back not great. But looking ahead: what can I reasonably do in the year before me?

For one thing, I’m not setting a “number of writing days” goal again this year. Instead, I’m going to look at what I can reasonably commit to doing. Which is this: there are, roughly speaking, 52-ish weekends in a year. I can reasonably expect to find time to write on, maybe, at most between 30 and 45 of them. Let’s go conservative-ish and say 35 weekends with writing time. If I can scratch together 2 hours per weekend of writing, that’s potentially 70 hours of writing in the year. Not a lot, honestly. But I think that’s what I can reasonably commit to.

So that’s the goal. 70 hours of writing in 2023. My goals are typically based on a rate of 500 words per hour, which therefore translates to 35,000 words in 2023. I’ve beaten that target multiple times in the last few years. But my real writing rate is somewhere between 600 and 800 words per hour (in 2022 it was closer to 800; so far in 2023 it’s closer to 600). So with a more realistic rate, I can reasonably expect to write between 42,000 and 56,000 words in 2023. I’m going to zero-in on 48,000 words as my target word count for the year. In summary: 70 hours of writing to tally up 48,000 words. that’s my 2023 annual writing goal.

I’d like to end with a few questions to all the other undiscovered authors out there: my fellow writers who struggle in anonymity. I mean, there’s a slight chance you encounter this blog. If you do, share in the comments:

Do you struggle to write in spite of your anonymity? Do you still dream of one day getting published (or self-publishing)? If not, does this deter you from writing or are you bound-and-determined to write regardless? And if you’re writing regardless of the outcome, do you set writing goals for yourself? What are your goals for this year?

Well. That’s all she wrote. I guess, chances are, I’ll see you all again this time-ish next year! 😉 I kid. But only sorta.

Writing Year In Review: 2021

Number of Writing Weeks: 33 out of 52

Total Word Count: 41,896 words out of a goal of 48,000

Average Word Count Per Week: 806

% of Annual Word Count Goal: 87%

Other Stats: 75 Writing Days

Who’s sad to be looking at 2021 through the rear-view mirror? Anyone? Hey, it’s okay. I certainly understand. 2021: well… it was a year wasn’t it? We can all breathe a sigh of relief now that that’s over.

Honestly, though, in spite of everything: the ongoing global pandemic, my own (thankfully unrelated) ever-present health problems, family and work commitments, and spending an inordinate amount of time with other, non-writing-related hobbies/obsessions, I have to look back at 2021 with a certain sense of satisfaction.

Did I hit my, frankly, modest goal for the year? No. No I did not. But I got kind of close. And realistically, it was the third-best year of writing productivity that I’ve had since I started tracking my writing back in 2012. It’s not where I’d need to be if I want to make it into the professional leagues, no. But it shows that in spite of everything I’ve struggled with, it’s within my grasp to make this push, if I just focus.

Which is why 2022 is going to be my year. I went into 2021 with what I knew was an achievable goal: I’d just done even more than 48,000 words in a single year’s worth of writing already. And despite falling short this year, I’m getting ready to really stretch my ambitions. But I’m re-framing my goal, this year. I won’t be setting a goal in terms of number of words on the page.

You’ll notice in my other stats this year that I actually sat down and wrote fiction on just seventy-five days out of the year in 2021. That means on average I physically put my hands on the keyboard and strung words together a little over once a week (not counting any blogging time). Some weeks I wrote two or three times in a single week. Many weeks I wrote none at all. At the end of the day, though: that’s a poor enough result for someone who aspires to be a professional author. I need to do better.

That’s why, in 2022, I’m setting a goal for the total number of times I will actually sit down and write – in any amount of words. And what is that goal? 120 days of writing productivity, in total. Broken down into weekly chunks that comes to just over two writing sessions per week. But I’m planning on giving myself some padding, and building in free weeks (because some weeks I definitely will not be writing coughhellovacationcough). I’m framing the goal as 3 writing days per week, every week, for 40 weeks in the year. That gives me 12 free weeks.

The way I see it, I can generally put down probably about 500 words per hour, if I’m prepped and ready and in the right headspace to write. If a writing session lasts, on average, maybe about an hour or so, then 120 days of writing in 2022 would translate to approximately 60,000 words of new fiction. It’s a stretch for me. I’ve never written that much in a single year. I’ve never had the stamina, the dedication, the consistency, or, frankly, consistently cooperative and fair health to make that achievable. But I’m going to do it. I’ve got to do it. One-hundred-twenty days of writing. I’ve got this.

Are you ready 2022? I’m about to grab you by the horns and take you down. And when I’m done with you, “The Book of M” is probably going to pass the 200,000-word mark, and be looking pretty good for me to write the words “The End” sometime hopefully in 2023!

So that’s the goal. But I’m going to need help to get there. Including regular accountability. I’ve been struggling to maintain this blog on a monthly cadence. But I’ve also got to do better with that. So here’s the blog plan. I want to really stretch here. I want to report on my writing goal on a semi-weekly basis. I’m going to aim to update you all – that’s right, all 1.25 of you – at least once every two weeks with my current progress toward my 120-day goal.

Who’s with me? Who’s excited to see me draw incrementally closer to crossing the finish line on “The Book of M”? Okay, let’s be real, probably not the 1.25 of you who accidentally stumbled on this blog while googling something completely unrelated, but this guy? I am so on this!

Designer Diary: Epic Fantasy & Tabletop RPGs – A Look at the Fundamentals of the Genre

I’ve talked about my strong personal affinity for the Epic Fantasy genre, and why understanding the genre matters when thinking about designing and playing a Tabletop RPG. But all of that begs the question: Just what is Epic Fantasy, anyway?

The easy (and flippant) answer is: “I know it when I see it”. But that’s hardly satisfying.

In fact, as I spent some time thinking about it, there are some features that most if not all examples of Epic Fantasy (with which I am personally familiar) in the body of the literature share in common. What are those common features? And how central are they to the experience of Epic Fantasy?

In my musing on the subject, I came up with over a dozen different genre features. Some of them, I reasoned, are very central to the experience of Epic Fantasy. Some less so. And some are actually red herrings – features that appear common but in fact are not central to the experience at all. This latter category can be confounding, as these features, if present, may lead one to mistake a given work of fiction for a work of Epic Fantasy even when they are not.

Accordingly, I grouped these different features into three buckets, or categories: the Fundamental Elements of Epic Fantasy, the Auxiliary Elements of Epic Fantasy, and the Common Supporting Tropes.

The Fundamental Elements of Epic Fantasy

These are the genre features – or “Elements” – that I deemed the most critical and defining features. In my game design notes, I wrote:

These are the irreducible core of the genre without which you lose the very heart of the genre. So essential are these that any single element lacking, in whole or in part, almost certainly excludes a story from the corpus of the genre. But while the Fundamental Elements are necessary to define the genre, they are by themselves insufficient.

Now, how true this is in practice may vary in part by the individual’s own personal preferences. But for me, they make up the heart of what I’m after. They are, in summary:

1. Wonder & Magic

This is the first and most obvious element or feature. It’s core to all of the larger Fantasy genre. It’s what defines Fantasy. Somewhere in a story there is that sense of wonder, that magical, mythical beating heart. Find it, and you’ve found your way into a Fantasy story.

While it’s the most irreducible feature of the genre, it may be that it’s also the easiest to capture. From the perspective of writing a TTRPG: is there some system or mechanic or key setting detail that supports the inclusion of the magical, mystical, wonderful world of the impossible? Congratulations: you have a Fantasy!

So my game needs something magical, wondrous, or supernatural. Since it’s a fantasy game, that’s basically a given. But the field is wide open as to what that looks like. Do the players get to dabble in the magic of the world directly, or is everything done indirectly or through NPC intermediaries? This gets to the heart of what the “magic system” looks like. And see: D&D has a magic system – it’s not exactly my favorite magic system ever, but it works. A lot of other fantasy games have gone before me that also have magic systems. Some well-regarded fantasy RPGs notably lack a defined magic system – magic is an alien and mysterious aspect of the world that is beyond the ken of mere mortals.

What makes figuring out what this trait of the game perhaps the most difficult is that what the magic system looks like really is dependent on the setting of the story. But if the game is meant to be setting-agnostic, focused instead on genre as the backbone of the game, then how can magic be addressed directly? It’s a challenge I’ve yet to figure out, honestly. Instead, as I’ve worked on the game, I’ve focused the vast majority of my attention on creating a solid system underlying everything else – everything mundane and non-magical. And yet, if my goal is to have magic and wonder woven into the fiber of the world (and the game system), shouldn’t figuring this out be one of my first priorities?

So in the near-term, figuring out a systematic approach to “magic” that comfortably encompasses “high-magic” and “low-magic” settings, whether “hard-magic” or “soft-magic”. At this stage, I don’t have an answer for that.

What’s more: there’s a lot more to what makes a fantasy story epic than the presence of magic.

2. Secret Lore & the Ancient Past

Not everything is known or, indeed, even knowable about the world. There is a rich and vibrant history to this world, but some of the most important aspects of that history remain, to this day, a mystery waiting to be discovered, apprehended, and as often the case may be, corrected.

Now, honestly, as an element of a game, it seems to me that maybe this feature trades more on the setting than on the mechanics. But let’s think about that, and unpack that assumption. Are there ways to pull in the secrets of the ancient past in a mechanical way? I honestly don’t know yet. But I suspect there’s something there. Maybe it’s just mechanics for how you go about building a setting from scratch. But I think there’s more to it than that. It’s an aspect of the game that I want to explore further as I dive deeper into designing and developing this game.

3. A Moral Landscape

What do I mean by a “moral landscape”? Simply this: that Epic Fantasy is by its nature heavily invested in interrogating questions of morality, ethics, right and wrong, good and evil. Some may do it in a simplistic, black-and-white approach (indeed, that may be the ur-example of this feature of the genre) but modern Epic Fantasy focuses more especially on the areas of gray, on the uncertainty of right and wrong.

Epic Fantasy heroes almost invariably choose the “right” path – from their own perspective. But that path is fraught with danger, peril, and threats to life and limb. And, sometimes they discover that what they believed to be the right path was, in fact, problematic – forcing them to re-calibrate their moral and ethical assumptions and re-navigate the moral landscape of the world to discover the true right path.

The mechanical options here present myriad possibilities. There’s D&D’s relatively simplistic “alignment” system, sure. But more often games these days take a more subtle and more story-driven approach to morality in the game, many with more impactful rules and systems. My own preference, here, is to use a somewhat freeform “Trait” system to allow players to define their own personal moral alignment, ethical priorities, and beliefs – and then to invoke those traits in a back-and-forth, give-and-take mechanical tug-of-war, using those Traits to provide mechanical advantage when appropriate, but just as often or more, to create story complications and material that directly interrogate and invoke those traits, and to provide key milestones to allow players to revise and update their alignment Traits based on changes to their characters’s worldviews.

4. The Main Characters Exemplify Heroic Ideals

This is straightforward enough. Sure, the Main Characters of any good story should be flawed, imperfect, and relatable. But in an Epic Fantasy they are also, in the heart of their hearts, Heroic. Heroism doesn’t mean the characters are flawless beyond reproach. But they have a strong internal sense of right-and-wrong, a powerful moral compass always pointing to what they perceive to be the good, and they follow that compass with purpose and intent.

I can possibly just roll this into the former element, since the two have significant overlaps – so I don’t have any more mechanical musings to add to what I already discussed above.

5. Grand Scale, Sweeping Scope

What it says on the tin: Epic means Epic. Big, important stuff happens. The characters travel across the world in their quest to save it. Many secondary and tertiary characters’s lives are touched by the Main Characters’s actions, most for the better, some for the worse.

Now, if I’m entirely honest, I’ve actually read a few Epic Fantasy’s that have a much more intimate and close focus. So maybe this isn’t a “Fundamental” trait? But it feels Fundamental. Even in those stories where the Epic Fantasy had a more narrow and intimate focus, there were hints of this grand, sweeping scope lying just beyond the boarders of the village, of big things happening which related directly to what the Main Characters were doing. At the end of the day, even when the Main Characters didn’t go globe-trotting, you just know that the ripples from their actions will have macro-scale consequences.

Once again, my instinct is to see this feature as an aspect of the world-building and the way the Players and GM navigate the core conflicts of their individual stories. But, once again, I have this distinctive, unshakable feeling that there’s something more to this element – something that I can and probably should reflect in my game’s mechanics.

6. An Ensemble Cast

Epic Fantasies are often about one or two main characters – the proverbial “Heroes”, the neophytes to adventure who nonetheless have the biggest destinies to fulfill . But those few more central characters are almost invariably surrounded by a large, ensemble cast of supporting characters fulfilling a variety of key story roles. There’s the Hero’s Mentor, for instance, and the Hero’s Guardian (a more experienced character who protects the neophyte Hero until he or she is strong enough to stand on his or her own), and the Hero’s Foil or Jester – and so on.

There are plenty of roles for a good-sized group of Players to fill. But here’s the key: these characters don’t all play the same way. The Guardian is strong, experienced, worldly. In D&D they’d be high-level character, whereas the neophyte Hero starts at a low level. Using D&D’s paradigm of class and level simply won’t work to capture the range of characters that populate an Epic Fantasy story.

Mechanically, you need a way to combine the stronger, more experienced characters like the Mentors and the Guardians together with the Neophytes and the Jesters and others who are relatively “weaker” in the traditional RPG, combat-oriented sense, and to have them all play a role of roughly equal narrative weight in the game. This is one of the key areas where I think I need to spend time thinking about how to model the sort of ensemble cast that I envision filling an Epic Fantasy story translating to a Role-Playing Game experience.

7. Sacrifice & Loss

Saving the world, or whatever other epic task is laid before the heroes of the story, isn’t an easy job. In fact, to succeed the Main Characters will have to make sacrifices. Some of them will not make it to the very end and THAT’S OKAY. That’s part of what makes it “Epic“. Even when we’re not talking about the sacrifice and loss of characters’ lives, there are other sacrifices that may need to be made. A traditional one is the loss of innocence – it’s a loss that most of us members of humanity can directly relate to. But there may be still other, more tangible sacrifices: Losing an object of value. Losing access to privileges. Loss of freedom.

The point is… someone, somewhere along the way will lose something. And that loss itself will propel the story forward. Loss and sacrifice isn’t capricious. Character death is not random. These things serve a greater purpose.

This is another one that I consider supremely important to implement in a mechanical way. But it’s a nut I haven’t quite cracked yet. The simple version of what I imagine is to have players voluntarily make sacrifices at key story moments – voluntarily give up something of value up to and including voluntarily giving up your character’s life, but to have those sacrifices generate new resources or increased effectiveness in proportion to the sacrifice being made, allowing the good guys to triumph over evil because of and not in spite of the sacrifice that was made. But how do you mechanically codify that in a satisfying way?

8. Drawing the Eyes of Gods or Goddesses, Powerful Wizards, Supernatural Beings, or Mighty Kings and Emperors

You can probably file this under “Grand Scale, Sweeping Scope”. The point of differentiation being: even if the main characters aren’t themselves inherently important and powerful people, the things they do will draw the attention of and engage characters – many of them likely to be NPCs – who do have power, authority, or prestige in the world. Or, sometimes, the Main Characters are those mighty kings, savvy generals, powerful wizards. Or sometimes the characters start out as people of little import but transform through the story into those mighty kings and wizards.

The real point is – one size doesn’t fit all, here. Somehow or other, the powerful will make their presence felt in the story. That may be the Main Characters themselves, or others in the periphery who seek to influence or to enjoy the influence of the Main Characters.

It’s also worth pointing out that this particular trait doesn’t boil down as easily as the others to a simple and pithy headline. That’s because what constitutes the “Mighty” and most influential non-player characters in a given game will vary from game to game, potentially even from session to session. In one world the “Gods & Goddesses” may be a distant memory, mythical beings that are no longer followed and who don’t appear to directly interfere with the affairs of mortals. Kings, Emperors, and Wizards may be the extent of the powerful and influential NPCs the main characters will meet. Or the main characters may find themselves drawn into the affairs of the Lords, Ladies, Kings and Queens of Fairyland or a similar supernatural realm. In another story they really will meet the Gods and/or Goddesses who reign over the world directly, whether to petition them for aid or to directly confront them. Or it might be a mix of any and all of the above, or other related events I’ve not personally conceived of.

As I said above: the real point is, one size doesn’t necessarily fit all. And yet, without some interaction with those of power and influence in the world, there’s a bit of a hole where the “Epic” in “Epic Fantasy” hasn’t been entirely filled.


And those are, I believe, the Fundamental Elements of Epic Fantasy. But I’m just one person. I can barely contain my curiosity. What do you think? What makes an Epic Fantasy for you? What did I get right? What did I miss or forget? And what did I include that just strikes you as wrong or odd?

That was a lot of ground to cover all at once, so I’m leaving the rest – the Auxiliary Elements and the Common Supporting Tropes – until next time, and thus I’ll complete my portrait of the Epic Fantasy genre, and how I envision translating it into a game.

Writing Month In Review: September 2021

Number of Writing Weeks: 3 out of 4

Total Word Count: 1,461 words

Average Word Count Per Week: 365

% of Monthly Word Count Goal: 37%

Other Stats: 5 Writing Days

Well that didn’t go quite as planned, now did it?

September was kind of a train wreck in terms of writing consistently. Once again my health – with respect to my tendency to be too physically exhausted by the end of the day – left me struggling to find opportunities to write. I did my level best to put words on the page, but it just didn’t amount to very much. And yet – better I wrote over 1,400 words than I wrote none at all. Got to keep putting one foot in front of the other and all that.

I actually don’t really have much to say about the writing this month. Things kind of hit a slow-down in terms of progressing the story when I stopped writing in the actual book to fill out my background notes with details about the religions and mythologies and beliefs of the different peoples of this world. I did that in part because I planned for the characters to have a brief but enlightening discussion about their comparative religious ideologies.

When I finally got back to the story, that discussion didn’t unfold quite as I’d planned. And that’s okay. The key, I realized, was that the story itself keep moving, and keep readers engaged. And if that means that there’s less “comparative religion” in the story than I’d intended, but the final result keeps up the pace, then so be it. Certainly, I don’t want to bring the story to a halt and bore the readers.

In fact, this discussion was planned to occur at a point in the story where there’s a bit of a lull in the action, immediately after a (hopefully tense and engaging) action set piece. What happened then is the characters who survived the action scene think they’re getting a moment of rest, but I ended up introducing what I hope was a good amount of tension as their religious differences came to the fore.

And that’s where I am, now. Next up: my main character is set to learn more about the other characters, which hopefully drives her to make some crucial decisions.

Until next time! Keep writing, keep reading, keep living!

Sneak Peak: Work-in-Progress of Draft 1 of “The Book of M”

So I had this idea, however unfounded it may be, that the “readership” of this blog (readership in “square quotes” because I know looking at my site statistics that using the word stretches its meaning somewhat) might have some passing interest in what I’m writing – what I’m actually working on. To that fanciful end, I’m going to, occasionally and as time allows, select and share a snippet of the oh-so-very-rough-draft of the code-titled “The Book of M” (I use that code-title because even though I do have an actual working title for the book, it’s not one I’m sold on, so the real title is more than a little TBD).

I expect to dance around the book a bit: by turns sharing more recent work from the book’s second half, on which I’m actively working, and from the book’s first half, most of which I wrote over the past seven years in spurts and starts.

Today’s snippet happens to come from the near the end of the first act (out of an unknown number of total “acts”). So, without further ado, I give you: “The Book of M”:

The center of the bridge was dominated by a large round wooden wheel attached to a chest-height metal column. Captain Valente held to the wheel’s extended spokes with a firm, steady grip. Nearby was another metal pedestal topped with a strange lever hinged to a semi-circle marked with words that felt unfamiliar to Isa.

But her eyes were drawn to the tall, wide, upward-sloping windows that formed the walls at the tip and front half of the wedge.

She was deaf to the chatter of the captain and crewman as she stepped unthinking toward those windows, her mouth agape, and staring out over the endless rolling dunes of yellow-white sands below and up into the cloudless blue skies beyond. To the east and north, short of the horizon, was a range of tree-lined hills.

“It’s…” She could not find words.

“It’s freedom,” Sidalto said.

She glanced at the captain. He gave her a flashing, toothy smile. He nodded toward the expansive view. “Up here, the world is for the taking.”

The Book of M, Scene 22: Above Desert Sands, by Stephen A. Watkins

Designer Diary: Epic Fantasy, Genre Fidelity, and TTRPGs

As I start to reframe this blog – to refresh it and update it more frequently – I wanted to spend some time here talking about my Tabletop Role-Playing Game (commonly abbreviated as “TTRPG”) design efforts, because it’s one of my two major writing efforts. That means I’ll be, in good time, discussing various aspects of the game’s design, my intent for the design, debating different mechanical approaches to achieving my overarching goals, and so on. So welcome to the first entry in my Designer Diary.

Now before I can get into the nitty gritty of game mechanics and how I imagine the game working I’ve got to spend a minute talking about my goals for the game: what I envision the end-product looking like at a high level.

And for me, for this game, that means talking about genre.

Genre isn’t a new topic of discussion here. It’s something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about since I set out on the path of trying to become a writer. But why is genre so important to my game design?

Because, in my view, genre is an irreducible aspect of the play experience in TTRPGs. Mechanics can either support or undermine the genre of the game, and I firmly believe that if you are aiming for a certain experience in play, you have to be cognizant of the genre tropes you are seeking to emulate in play. You have to think about how those tropes can best be represented in play, and how to build up or subvert those tropes, and why you might want to. Which means understanding the genre you’re working in.

But there’s another reason genre is so important to me. There’s one genre in particular that is nearest and dearest to my heart. One genre that speaks to me like no other. One genre that, in my view, has some of the most powerful potential to tell stories that examine and build up the human condition.

Epic Fantasy.

But there’s a problem that I see. There are literally thousands of TTRPGs on the market – everything from the behemoth that is Dungeons & Dragons to free, single-page RPGs and the thousands of games in between. Just peruse the offerings at DriveThruRPG.com if you want to take a gander at the plethora of offerings. What chance do I have in crafting a game that stands out?

No chance, honestly. But that’s not the point of design. For me, the design process itself is rewarding – and it would be even if I ended up with a game that was too similar to any other game on the market. I want to create a game that matches my vision of what a Role-Playing game can be. And that means zeroing in on that genre: Epic Fantasy.

And yet, of these thousands of games I know to exist, few if any manage to capture the essence and tropes of Epic Fantasy in a thoroughly satisfactory way. Granted, I can’t possibly know about every game on the market – thousands is too many for any one soul to meaningfully comb through. Even so, among the many high-profile games with which I am familiar, I find that quintessential Epic Fantasy experience ever elusive. There are games that I believe, if I got a chance to play them, would come very close. (I’d truly love to try out games such as FATE, which may have the flexibility to do Epic Fantasy as well as it does any other genre, Fellowship, which is definitely billed as Tolkienian Epic Fantasy, and Ironsworn, which isn’t Epic Fantasy per se but looks like it has a lot to offer that mirrors the experience I’d want to see in an Epic Fantasy game.) But none (that I know) that have quite everything I want to see in a game. None that match my vision for what an Epic Fantasy game could be, arguably should be. I perceive this gap between the gameplay experience of even those games that I know are aiming firmly at an Epic Fantasy experience, and the ideal Epic Fantasy experience.

I call this gap between what Epic Fantasy embodies in the ideal sense, and the actual play outcomes “Genre Fidelity“. Inasmuch as some games are ostensibly trying to go for the Epic Fantasy experience, or at least market themselves as such – let’s pick on Dungeons & Dragons for a moment shall we? – and the play experience falls short of the ideal, there’s a very low degree of genre fidelity.

Using our example of Dungeons & Dragons, it largely markets itself as the quintessential Epic Fantasy game. (Yes, arguably, they are positioned more as a Swords & Sorcery game, which is a different genre entirely, but in my opinion it’s not really marketed that way.) But when you dive into the mechanics and the kind of play the game supports? It’s a fantasy combat simulator game. Does combat happen in Epic Fantasy? Well, sure, of course it does. But Epic Fantasy isn’t exclusively or even mostly about fighting. It’s about so much more. And none of that “more” is supported by the mechanics of D&D. If, while playing D&D, you happen to get a high-fidelity Epic Fantasy play experience, that’s mostly in spite of the game’s mechanics, and not because of them.

But if Epic Fantasy is so important to me, and the play experience I want to engender so entangled with the genre, what does that mean for me, as a designer?

First and foremost, it means defining what it means to be Epic Fantasy. Which, even for a genre as “prescriptive” as Epic Fantasy, is a tall order.

Next time I’m going to tackle that very question.