What It Took to Write My Third Novel, “Light of the Outsider”
It’s the first novel in my Shaper’s World storyworld. The Shaper’s World is, speaking simplistically, a fantasy setting like Narnia or Middle Earth… but… no. It’s not like those at all. There are no elves, no hobbits, no talking lions (no tigers or bears or fawns, even), no dwarves or dragons. No portal to our world.
It didn’t start out that way.
The development of the Shaper’s World, and the origin of Light of the Outsider, stretches back more than three decades.
In the interest of revealing just how many twists and convolutions and changes the creative process can endure over time, what follows is a rough-as-memory history; a tale of a tale that would not let me go.
Thank You, Gary Gygax
In the summer of 1984, I was seventeen years old. Home life was a metaphorical floor of planks laid over quicksand. My girlfriend was in a non-metaphorical mental hospital. Although it was all I knew, my normal was… not.
Thank goodness I had comic books, science fiction, rock and roll… and, since 1980 or so, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games published by TSR, Game Designers Workshop, Chaosium, and others.
My world wasn’t so hot, but I could make a different one.
Which is what I’d done, many times.
The latest creation provided the day’s distraction as I played Dungeon Master (“referee” or “narrator,” for the three or four people in the audience who don’t know what I’m talking about) during a role playing game session with my pals around the picnic table on the back patio of my house.
My friends portrayed intrepid adventurers invading the mountain lair of a recently revived dragon that had been terrorizing the countryside and amassing a small cadre of evil followers. We quite literally cheered when, to everyone’s glee and by sheer luck in the roll of the dice, one of my friends’ characters cracked the dragon’s skull with a single, perfect throw of his hammer (a “critical hit” in the parlance of the game, if I remember correctly).
It was one of the last times I played a tabletop role-playing game session. None of the few that followed were anywhere near as epic and fun. It stuck with me.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had kinda re-invented the plot of The Seven Samurai: a band of mercenaries save a bunch of peasants from a nasty, overwhelming threat.
Thanks to an afternoon of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons with my friends, and the years of inspiration that had come before that summer day, from that germ the Shaper’s World began to take… well, shape.
Maps and Legends
I’ve always been fascinated by maps and atlases. As I write this, the Reader’s Digest Atlas of the World I’ve had since 1992 sits within arm’s reach. It’s not even my oldest atlas.
Remember, as a teen-ager, escaping reality was a coping / survival skill for me, although I wasn’t sophisticated enough to realize it. Atlases — all kinds of maps, really — provided a visual gateway to other lands, other worlds, other environments… beautifully realized in faux relief and lovely, muted, literal earth-tones.
Role playing games depend heavily on maps to represent the places players might adventure, and what they might find there. The maps associated with AD&D and other role playing games didn’t just tell stories… they told me how to tell stories.
So it makes sense that I started to sketch out the continent that would eventually be called Kaebrith, on the world of Gundi-Fai, also known as the Shaper’s World.
It was a few years after that picnic table AD&D session, around 1989 or 1990 or so, when the guitar player in my band happened to see a hand-drawn map of Kaebrith and immediately recognized it as… Britain.
That’s one of the pitfalls of drawing on an 8 1/2″ x 11″ piece of paper in “portrait mode” — you’re gonna end up with a land mass that fills up more vertical space than horizontal. Subconscious influence does the rest, if one isn’t careful.
I kept at it; refining the lands and coming up with names of countries and mountains and forests and seas… letting my pencils guide my imagination, and my imagination guide my pencils.
Finally, somewhere around 2000, I discovered a remarkable application with an unusual name: WILBUR. This free software from Joe Slayton creates realistic planetary “maps” through complex fractal mathematics and random numbers. Of course I started playing around with different random seeds and other settings. How fun!
And then… there, before my eyes on the computer screen, was the Shaper’s World.
I was smitten. I was home.
Not Quite Right and Better For It
Now, geographically and geologically, there are things about this computer-generated Gundi-Fai that are simply just not right. Over the years, I’ve come to look at the precise representations of these landforms as inspirational rather than literal.
Except for that central continent, Kaebrith. It cannot change. I love it so much, from its wide inland sea to the great central gulf to the archipelagos of the south.
Iteration, Variation, Evolution
Now that I had a location so vividly represented, things really started to happen.
What started out as a rather generic fantasy setting gradually became… something else. Something that, like the seeking aerial roots of a vine or orchid, extended to make tenuous connections with my other fictional worlds, especially the Sovereign Era and the larger Humanity Continuum.
I was beginning to uncover a multiverse.
As the connections strengthened, I became dissatisfied with the idea of populating my world with the usual fantasy races, species, and tropes. No more elves and dwarves and orcs. No more dragons, no matter how inspiring and influential had been the doomed dragon that started it all.
So now I had the magn, the faien, and the gundynal — hominids, to be sure, but not humans, elves, and dwarves. These are people. Maybe they couldn’t pass for people in downtown Manhattan, except maybe for the magn, if you don’t look too closely… but they are people.
No traditional dragons, fine, but there are monsters. However, “monsters” — unnatural or magical creatures — are very uncommon in this setting. Animals can be interesting and dangerous enough, no?
But what kind of animals?
It’s My Party, So…
A long-lingering image informed the nascent ecology of the Shaper’s World: a smallish hadrosaur (a “duck-billed dinosaur” we called trachodon when I was a kid) that didn’t just get around on four legs… when it needed to put on the speed, it hopped.
The fieldhopper was born… and if you’ve got one kinda-sorta-dinosaur, why not, reasoned this guy who never really grew out of his six year-old terrible lizard phase, have a whole terrestrial ecology based around dinosaur-ish animals?
Sure, Anne McCafferty had done it before. Didn’t care. Don’t care. It’s my world, and if I want dinosaurs, I’m gonna have dinosaurs. So there are, for all intents and purposes, dinosaurs.
How do mammalian hominids exist on a planet where mammals aren’t really a thing? I had to answer that question to my satisfaction, and following that trail helped me refine not just the Shaper’s World storyworld, but all my fictional worlds.
By the way — the Shaper’s World is a world. It’s a planet — not Earth — around a star, in a galaxy. I know which star, even if it’s not…
Hey, y’know what? Never mind. You get me talking like this, I gotta be careful not to give certain things away..!
Thirteen years after that afternoon game of AD&D, the second Shaper’s World short story I wrote became my first commercial short story sale. “Trouble Day” appeared the 15th issue of Bardic Runes, “Canada’s Magazine of Traditional and High Fantasy,” in April, 1997. Bardic Runes would only publish one more issue, so I got in under the wire there! I was paid ten bucks. While I have sold essays and articles to an anthology or two, that remains my one and only magazine sale.
I was searching for information about Bardic Runes and its publisher, Michael McKenny, for this article, when I discovered you can actually read the issue of Bardic Runes in which “Trouble Day” appears, right now, thanks to the Pulp Magazine Archive at the Internet Archive.
I had no idea. I teared up a little!
The very first proto-Shaper’s World short story also featured Scor, the hero of “Trouble Day” (and you’ll meet him again in the fourth novel in the Shaper’s World cycle!). I wrote a kind of origin story for the merchant Daen Caul (featured in “Trouble Day”) as well, and another Scor story.
Trying to See the Light…
In May of 1997, over the course of three weeks or so, I wrote a 6,672-word short story called “The Light of Amang’huru.”
I submitted it all over the place. I have a “keep writing; this one’s not for us” rejection letter from Gordon Van Gelder over at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, among “no thanks” notes from other esteemed publications.
No one bought it. No one should have bought it, frankly.
I shifted my attention to discovering my answer to the “what would realistic superhero fiction look like” question and started the webzine Sovereign Serials. My literary focus was on my Sovereign Era storyworld for… some time… after that. Brave Men Run, as Garrett Morris might have said, “been veddy veddy good to me.”
My life in that first decade of the twenty first century was… fraught. A divorce. A new marriage. Another divorce. Moving three times. Lots of uncertainty.
I still tinkered with Shaper’s World stuff, but nothing solidified. To say it was hard for me to focus would be a kindness. It’s a wonder I was able to do so much around my first novel and the converging worlds of indie publishing and podcasting in those years… and no wonder I didn’t accomplish more.
It’s easy for me to be hard on myself about that, and future periods of instability and diminished productivity.
By the beginning of 2011, things had, at least temporarily, settled down enough for me to start thinking about starting another novel.
“The Light of Amang’huru” called to me.
So in February of that year, I wrote an outline expanding the core elements of that short story (informed by what I’d discovered about the Shaper’s World across thirteen years) into the bones of a novel.
Then, I started writing that novel.
In true “new media” style, I started a YouTube series, Writing “Light,” in which I checked in with viewers on the progress being made on the book and shared lessons learned. Boldly and optimistically, I declared the book would be done by summer of that year.
By the end of 2011, I abandoned my attempt to release a weekly video series, and I abandoned my attempt to write Light of the Outsider.
I wrote close to forty thousand words before I realized the structure of the story was deeply, deeply flawed… and I didn’t have the skill to fix it.
Lots of self-examination followed, and self-education.
It paid off… just not for the Shaper’s World.
My second novel, the Sovereign Era tale Pilgrimage, came out in January of 2014. It’s a huge leap beyond my first book, both in complexity and in craft, and doing that hard work helped me level up, as the kids say.
All along, Light of the Outsider lingered. Indeed, the entire Shaper’s World storyworld continued to expand and develop, mature and grow. I played with a short-lived serial set in the storyworld, but something about it wasn’t working for me.
I knew I’d come back to Light of the Outsider before long.
Took a little while. Life, as it usually does, had other plans for me.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel is an Oncoming Train…
How many clever “light” references do you think I can make before I come to the end of this article?
Let’s move up to September, 2018. I was in the middle of a good streak of creative work, regularly producing episodes of my podcast Sonitotum, creating new installments of my free serial Hazy Days and Cloudy Nights, and I’d written about 25,000 words in articles across five months. I felt warmed-up. I felt ready to step back up to the plate, get back in the ring, get back on the horse… y’know.
So I declared the start of something I called The Autumn Project 2018 — I gave it a year because I believed I’d have a new Project every Autumn! Yes!
In the event that you’d rather not take the time to read the blog post / listen to the podcast linked above: the Autumn Project 2018 involved planning and completing the first draft of a new novel by the end of 2018.
That novel would be Light of the Outsider.
Man Plans, God Laughs
I did pretty darn well with the Autumn Project 2018 in September and October, and even well into November.
A death — not of someone I knew, but the close friend of someone close. I was called out of town and away from my regular routines to lend support over the course of about a week or so.
Another death, this time much closer to my immediate circle of friends. There was drama, betrayal, disappointment. My social landscape shifted and it took quite a while to find my footing.
That was all December and January.
February, I moved.
March and April, there was a lot of disruption involving roommates.
In April, my mother’s health took a downward turn. By May, I was spending three days out of seven with her. By June, she was in a nursing home and in hospice care.
By the end of August, she was dead.
I wrote about my mother’s influence on my creative life, and, by extension, the creative lives of many others.
I didn’t write, then, about the night, not long after her death, when I lay in bed with my girlfriend and told her I would do everything I could to not die as my mother had, alone in a nursing home because no one in the family had the resources to do better for her.
I vowed, in so many words, to build a creative life that would support me. To create a lasting, sustaining legacy and, as much as possible, a safety net.
“Nothing,” I told my girlfriend, “is more important.”
Nothing is. This is life and death for me.
It took September to attend to all the things one has to deal with following the death of one’s mother.
In the middle of October, I reserved a little cabin in Idyllwild, California for four nights and literally and figuratively got the hell away from my still-nothing-like-normal (which, the older you get, makes it more like normal) life.
Back to the Light
In Idyllwild, alone, I hiked and I cried and I wrote.
That’s all I did.
By the time I came back, I had thousands of words added to Light of the Outsider… the first since November of the previous year. I kept up a fairly regular writing practice back home: a scene per day most days. It still took until April 19, 2020, to finish the first draft.
Seven years since my last novel.
Twenty three years, ‘pert near, since writing “The Light of Amang’huru.”
Thirty six years since that session of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.
I started this post days ago. As I finish it, there’re only three hours or so before Light of the Outsider is commercially available.
There are thing to do.
Finish the audio book (it’s finished). Rustle up some promotion and marketing. Spread the word and boost the signal so all the people who would enjoy the book get to know about the book.
Regardless of all that…
The thing I made is done.
No Perfect Time
It’s a strange time to release what is — my own claims of literary quality aside — essentially a work of popular entertainment.
This week, one of my dearest friends lost two people to the pandemic. A creator for whom I have great respect has been revealed to be, at best, a manipulative womanizer. Black lives are being lost to police violence and lynching. There’s a lot of pain and uncertainty and sadness and anger in my country and in the world.
Which is why it’s an ideal time to release a work of popular entertainment. In fact, it’s my duty.
Light of the Outsider is all about taking desperate, difficult action in order to make a better life, no matter what the immediate consequences may be. It’s about believing in possibility, and letting potential guide you.
Self publishing a fantasy / thriller hybrid when all of your existing fans only know you for a very different kind of book, in the middle of a crippling pandemic work slowdown… damn if that’s not a desperate, difficult action committed regardless of immediate consequences in order to make a better life.
Writing and publishing a book is the definition of believing in possibility and letting potential guide you.
Also? I feel zero shame in writing my work of popular entertainment. Art is medicine. This is what I do: I make things for people who like the kinds of things I make.
I’ve quite literally bet that you’re one of those people.
On Thursday, June 18, 2020, as Light of the Outsider drops onto the Kindle apps and devices of a couple dozen people and another dozen find paperbacks in their mailboxes, I’m going to…
- Take a walk in some nature somewhere.
- Take stock of some shorter works — a novella, a couple short stories — I put aside across the last twenty months or so. One of them will likely be a little palette cleanser; something to write and release before I dive into planning the next Shaper’s World Cycle book, Shadow of the Outsider.
- Permit myself an unstructured day spent, more than anything, breathing in gratitude.
I wrote another book.
Thanks, very much, for letting me share how it happened.
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