17 Novels: Condemnation

Sorry for the skipped week last time: On Wednesday I was down in Portland, conducting critical reconnaissance of the best taprooms to be found in the City of Roses. I belong to an elite team of beer aficionados known as Beer Team 6, and we have to go when we’re called. We take an early morning Amtrak from Tacoma down to Union Station in downtown Portland, buy an all-day transit pass, spend the afternoon visiting promising locales or dropping in on old favorites. Then we catch an early-evening train back up to Tacoma, which gives us a couple of hours to rest up from our long day before we have to get in our cars and drive anywhere. It’s a demanding regimen, but we take pride in our work and we’re dedicated to our mission.

Anyway, on to Condemnation, the next book in my bibliography, and my first (and so far only) appearance on the New York Times bestseller list.

Condemnation

(Beware, spoilers ahead!)

In 2001, Forgotten Realms book editor Phil Athans hit on a bold new plan for Realms novels: R.A. Salvatore’s War of the Spider Queen. Observing the success that big-name writers like Tom Clancy had in lending their names and a bit of creative direction to spin-off series like Tom Clancy’s Op-Center, Phil figured that Wizards of the Coast could do something similar by pairing up the top seller in the Realms with a stable of good mid-list writers whose work would benefit from the extra name recognition and marketing push. It was a really  good idea.

As I understand it, Phil had to do some persuading to get Bob Salvatore to buy in. Bob didn’t have any doubts about the writers Phil was lining up for the project, but he did want to make sure that he put his name on a project that he could be proud of. That was just good common sense on Bob’s part; he’d worked hard over many years to establish the value of his “brand,” as they say, and it was important to him to protect that brand. As a result, he didn’t agree until he was satisfied that he would have the right level of overall story direction and contribution to work that would be done by six other writers. However Phil and Bob worked it out, they did indeed work it out. The two of them outlined a big-picture story arc designed to span multiple novels, and Bob came out to the WotC office in Renton, Washington for a big story conference to kick off the whole thing. Richard Lee Byers and Thomas Reid, already penciled in for books one and two, joined in.

So did I—but not as one of the writers.

Now, my feelings weren’t especially hurt by that. At the time I was pretty busy with my day job. I was the creative director for the 3rd Edition Forgotten Realms game product line. In that capacity I got to sit in on several days of War of the Spider Queen conferencing, because our brand team had decided that a major push like WoftSQ merited a major game-side product release. (That would eventually become James Wyatt’s City of the Spider Queen super-adventure, which went on to win an Origins Award.) I had a little concern about that because coordinating novels and game products had often presented some serious challenges in the past, but our story conference went well and we all got to an understanding of the storyline that we were happy with. And, just a month or two later, Phil and the Book Department team decided that, since I was knocking out pretty good books like City of Ravens and I clearly knew what was going on with War of the Spider Queen, I’d be a solid choice for the author of Book Number 3.

I thought about it for a few hours; I wasn’t sure how I felt about not being the headliner in my own book. But I talked myself into it pretty quick since I knew War of the Spider Queen was going to be a big deal, and I jumped in.

Rather like the Double Diamond Saga, each book in sequence had to begin with the characters at Point X (where they’d been left by the previous writer) and deliver them to Point Y (where the next book would pick up). But inside those wide goalposts and the overall story arc we’d worked out, I had a lot of latitude to figure out what the story was and how to tell it. When I sat down to outline the book in detail, I discovered to my surprise that the major protagonist wasn’t who I thought it would be. Initially I’d been drawn to Ryld and Pharaun, who were the most sympathetic characters in the story. But I realized that the most important character at this moment in the story arc—and the one who was hurting the most—was Halisstra Melarn. Once I worked that out, I went back to Phil and Bob, and explained why Condemnation had to be her book. They loved it, and told me to run with it.

Then I started looking at Danifae’s role in the story, and how she would use what she had to gain power and influence. The initial story arc we agreed on suggested that Danifae’s natural path to power would be to seduce one or more of the major male characters in the story, providing her with an alliance that she could use to challenge for leadership later on. At that point, I had my second big insight about what ought to be going on: Danifae shouldn’t bother with males, regardless of how useful they were. The real opportunity for an ambitious drow woman armed with nothing but her sexuality would be to seduce Quenthel, the priestess in charge of the whole mission.

That, I was not expecting. Nothing about lesbian love triangles was anywhere in the storyline we’d all talked about in that big conference. More to the point, I was not at all sure I was the right person to try to write that. It was already a bit ambitious to choose a female PoV like Halisstra; now trying to put myself in the shoes of non-straight female characters using sex as a weapon, well . . . why would I even think I could pull it off? But the more I considered it, the more it made sense to me.

With a bit of trepidation, I went back to Phil. “Listen, if Danifae is really ambitious, she’d go straight to the top,” I told him. “What would be remarkable about a drow priestess getting drow men to do her bidding? That’s a dog-bites-man story in drow society. No, showing that you’re clever and resourceful enough to wrap another priestess, an important priestess, around your little finger, that’s a real conquest. And that’s how Danifae should start her climb to the top.” I expected Phil to shoot me down. I kind of hoped he would shoot me down. But Phil thought about it for maybe a minute, and said, “Damn, you’re right. Let’s run this by Bob and adjust the story bible.”

From there, things worked out pretty well. I did have a tough moment when I turned over the first draft; Bob nixed my original ending, explaining that I’d advanced the Menzoberranzan civil war too far. (I felt that I simply executed on exactly what I said I was going to do in my outline. Oh, well.) I slashed 15,000 words or so and rearranged a bit, and it turned out fine.

Condemnation made it to number 34 on the NYT list when it debuted, and eventually reached number 31 (for some reason the list goes to 35). It was the first in the series to reach best-seller status. I wish I could tell you that it was all my doing because I’d written a brilliant story, but let’s be real: Brom covers on drow books with R.A. Salvatore’s name on the masthead kind of stack the odds in your favor.

 

 

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