A couple of years ago over on my blogspot.com page, I devoted a few months to exploring the RPG adventures I’d written during my game design career one by one. I called the series Twenty-Eight Adventures because at the time I started that was my count on adventures I’d written. Anyway, it proved to be a good organizing scheme for thinking up new blog content, it let me explore some of my work I hadn’t looked at in a long time, and I think that longtime D&D fans found it pretty interesting to get a look behind the curtain at how some of the adventures they might have played through came together. So, as a bit of an early New Year’s Resolution, I’m starting on a similar look back at the novels I’ve written during my career.
This list includes every novel-length manuscript I’ve completed, regardless of whether or not it was ever published. (Fortunately for me, most of them were.) Most are currently out of print, but if you poke around in a used bookstore you might find ‘em hiding on the shelves. I’m proceeding in chronological order of when I wrote them, so these essays are going to start a long time ago and get fresher as I move along.
With that out of the way, let’s start at the beginning: Kingslayer.
I wrote my first novel during my naval service, shortly after graduating from Virginia Tech. I began the project while living in the Bachelor Officer Quarters on Norfolk Naval Base in the summer of 1988. I was living by myself in a strange town (the BOQ is pretty much like a motel room), and I had a lot of time on my hands in the evenings and weekends. Since I’d been an avid reader of sci-fi and fantasy from a young age and I had some aspirations of becoming a fantasy writer, I started to fill those lonely hours with my first attempt to write an epic fantasy novel.
My only real writing experience up to that time consisted of a couple of creative writing classes and short stories in college, so I really was inventing my process as I went along. I built the world first, basing it on extensive notes I’d developed for a D&D campaign in college. (Yeah, I know—could I have hit any more stereotypes of wannabee fantasy writers?) Then I worked out a grand plot about a rebellious prince getting his hands on an evil artifact that possessed him, and the heroic soldier-prince trying to save the kingdom. Hey, it was my first try.
I brought my big clunky desktop computer along with me when I went up to Newport, Rhode Island for Surface Warfare Officer School, I took it back to Virginia Beach when I finished SWOS, and then it came along to New Orleans when I reported to USS Tortuga’s PreCom detachment. When we finally moved into our quarters on the ship, I basically lashed the computer into the tiny little cubbyhole that served as my stateroom desk. The whole time I kept working away, an hour here and a couple of hours there, and after about two years, I discovered that I’d actually finished the book. I called it Kingslayer.
Then I tried to sell what I’d written.
This was in the early days of the Internet, so good resources or advice on how to sell a book were harder to come by than they are now. I mailed off gigantic SASE envelopes with the novel—hundreds of pages of print-out, because you didn’t send publishers diskettes or email them files at that time—to half a dozen publishers. No dice with that effort, so I cast about for an agent, and I found a literary agency that was willing to read my manuscript for $600 (it was close to 200,000 words). Having had little luck otherwise, I coughed up the money.
(Most people will tell you that you shouldn’t pay someone to consider representing your manuscript. That’s absolutely true if you’re already published, but I won’t presume to advise you on this if you’re trying to break in right now. I can’t entirely blame agencies that feel like they need to make sure you’re serious enough about what you sent them to put a little skin into the game; keeping up with the slush pile is a time-consuming and expensive part of what they do. Anyway, go in with your eyes open, and understand that even if you pay, you’re still facing long odds.)
To return to the point, the agency I sent Kingslayer to gave it a good look, and sent back a 10-page letter explaining why they wouldn’t represent it. (Short version: they thought I showed talent and should keep writing, but I probably couldn’t fix what was wrong with the book I’d sent them.) So I shelved Kingslayer, and went on with my life. I suspect a lot of writers have a first-miss story like that.
While Kingslayer never saw the light of day, little bits of it eventually did. When I first interviewed for a game design job at TSR, Inc., I showed the book to Jim Ward to prove that I had the discipline and the vision to start a creative project and finish it. I have no idea if that helped Jim to hire me or if he hired me in spite of Kingslayer, but hey, I got the job. And a couple of years later, when Colin McComb and I were given the assignment to develop a new campaign setting for the D&D game, I asked Colin if he’d mind if we used some elements from my unpublished novel, just because I felt that I’d done some pretty interesting worldbuilding with the story and I wanted to make sure that at least something from all that work eventually saw print. So that’s how the Anuirean Empire became a part of the Birthright Campaign Setting.
At the end of the day, Kingslayer whiffed—I wrote it, and only a handful of friends (and someone I paid $600) ever read the book. But it was crucial to me as a writer because it taught me that I could write a book, from Page 1 to The End, and that I might be good enough to learn some lessons and turn failure into success if I tried again. As it turned out, that next opportunity came about five years later.
Next time: Part 2, The Falcon and the Wolf.