Welcome back! Today I’m continuing with my retrospective on the novels I’ve worked on over the course of my career. So here’s the story of my adventures with the Birthright book line and The Falcon and the Wolf, my second novel.
The Falcon and the Wolf
In October of 1991 I started as a game designer at TSR, Inc. – pretty much the job any D&D geek growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s dreamed about as a kid. While it was extremely cool to work on D&D game products, those of us on the game-design side of things didn’t have much to do with the novel lines. The Book Department and the Game Department were separate entities, and in fact there was a fair amount of “interservice rivalry” at times as novels and game products vied for control of the meta-narrative of each D&D world.
Despite that rivalry, many TSR game designers and editors aspired to write novels, and naturally we all tried hard to persuade the Book Department to let us have a shot at one (which we’d have to work on during our own time, since our day jobs were in game design). Unfortunately, opportunities to land a book contract just didn’t come along very often. During my first four years at TSR, I recall only one “open audition” opportunity where the Book Department offered the folks in the Game Department a chance to submit a first chapter and an outline for a new Ravenloft novel. I took a crack at it along with about a dozen of my game-side colleagues, even though Ravenloft wasn’t a world I had much interest in—I wanted to break through that glass wall and get established, whatever it took. But as it turned out, the Book Department decided that nobody’s submission was up to snuff, and none of us got a chance to write that Ravenloft novel.
That stuck in my craw at the time, and I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Given the number of novels appearing in the early ‘90s and the, er, uneven quality level of some of the books that were being published, being told that none of game-side folks were good enough to be “real” writers didn’t sit well. I should also note that we were not allowed to publish with competitors, so if you didn’t get a novel with TSR’s Book Department, that was a final “no” unless you were ready to quit your day job. (EDIT: My friend Jim Lowder reminds me that the Book team was careful to use a blind submission system so that they wouldn’t be influenced by knowing who had submitted what. Doesn’t change the fact that my game-side peers and I found the results unsatisfactory.)
Anyway, the upshot of all this is that after writing (and failing to sell) Kingslayer and getting a job at TSR, I didn’t get a chance to write another novel for several years. But I sensed an opportunity when I was tapped to design the Birthright Campaign Setting. I went down to Brian Thomsen’s office (he was the head of the Book Department) and told him that, as one of the guys who was building this cool new world for the game-side, I had the expertise and ability to write a great novel for the setting. Brian politely dismissed me, explaining that the Book team wasn’t planning on supporting the Birthright setting with a novel line.
That struck me as a little short-sighted and a big missed opportunity, but as I noted above, games and books often pulled in different directions back at TSR. However, I didn’t let that deter me. I *knew* that sooner or later TSR’s executive management was going to suddenly realize that we were publishing a new D&D world, and that a new D&D world ought to have a novel line. So periodically I reminded everyone of my interest, and settled back to wait for the day when we’d put those novels on the schedule. And, sure enough, one day six months before the game was scheduled for release, TSR’s management suddenly had the brilliant idea to add an epic Birthright novel to the schedule.
Rather pleased with myself for having long foreseen this very outcome, I went down to Brian Thomsen’s office and told him I was ready to go . . . at which point Brian told me that since the time frame was very compressed and the stakes were high, there was just no way they could trust a first-time novelist with the job. They had to go get a pro, even if nobody in that building knew more about what was going on with the new world than I did.
I found that pretty frustrating. After all, if folks had listened to me at the beginning of the process, we wouldn’t have had to try to do it as a rush job, and maybe that whole “not a job for a first-timer” thing wouldn’t have come up. Anyway, that first Birthright book slot went to Simon Hawke, who wrote The Iron Throne. (I have some stories about that process, too.) But a year later, my persistence paid off, and Brian agreed to let me write the sixth Birthright novel: The Falcon and the Wolf.
After watching several other authors missing some of the story elements and opportunities we’d built into the Birthright game setting, I was determined to craft the most definitive, straight-down-the-middle-of-the-fairway Birthright novel experience I could manage. I came up with a story about the prince of Mhoried’s heroic battle to win back his homeland from invaders after the Mhor’s trusted wizard ally betrayed the kingdom to the Mhor’s enemies. My book featured bloodtheft and blood abilities, realm magic, the Shadow World, and of course big battles against long odds. Whether it was better than some of the other Birthright books I couldn’t say, but it was certainly more Birthright than the previous novels, if you follow me.
I suspect I’d probably write a much better book now—remember, this was back at the beginning of my career, and I feel there really is something to that “10,000 hours to mastery” idea. It must have been readable at the very least, because Brian Thomsen approved me for a second Birthright novel: The Shadow Stone (more on that book next time). Eagerly I settled in to wait for the publication of my very first novel, scheduled for December of 1996.
Then, mere weeks before The Falcon and the Wolf was scheduled to come out, TSR Inc. ceased publishing new products of any kind. I waited, and waited, and waited, hoping that it was merely a temporary delay until the business un-kinked itself and things started to move again, but it was not to be. In April of 1997, Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR. The WotC business team came in, looked things over, and came to the conclusion that TSR’s crazy-ambitious publishing schedule (over 100 products a year!) was not sustainable. Unprofitable product lines had to go—and one of those was the Birthright book line. So, a few months after it was originally scheduled to be published, the second novel I ever wrote (and the first one I sold) was canceled.
I did receive a modest kill fee, but believe me, that was not much of a consolation. If you’re still thinking that being a professional writer sounds like an easy way to make a lot of money, let this story serve as a cautionary tale: It’s a heartless business and it will ruin you.
There is one little postscript to the story of The Falcon and the Wolf: The book was eventually published, sort of. Wizards of the Coast (with my concurrence) made the book available as a free download years after the Birthright setting was cancelled. At least a small number of the most committed Birthright fans finally got their chance to read my book and see what sort of stories I thought the setting was built to tell.
Next time: The curious fate of my second Birthright novel!