My thanks to authors Rachel Aaron and Travis Bach for answering my questions!
TMR: Did you decide to each write one PoV character, or did you write both throughout? If the former, who wrote which?
Travis: While it so looks like I’m James and Rachel is Tina, that’s not the case. The split POV was chosen for story reasons. Starting out, it was too hard for one character to show as many sides of the story as we desired. That’s why James starts alone, surrounded by NPCs, and gearless while Tina has max gear, no NPCs, and tons of players to deal with.
It was also a good chance for some fun gender stereotype reversals. The majority of raid leaders are usually alpha-male guys. But we didn’t want to write that kind of character (so boring!). Turn that guy around though and we get Tina. A female main tank guild leader is far far more interesting IMO. Bonus: Even though there are many kick-ass heroines out there, they are not often placed in leadership roles. This kind of uniqueness is cat-nip for us.
Rachel: We both wrote on both halves of the book, but I definitely identify more with Tina than I do with James. I played a Death Knight tank through three expansions, so I might have a lot to say about what it means to raid lead while female.
That said, I loved writing James too. He’s a good person who’s struggling with a lot, and it was fun to watch him grow into his own. He starts out way lower on the totem pole, so he has a much broader character arc than Tina does. Something we will be fixing in book 2! (Poor Tina’s in for a very rough ride in Last Bastion).
TMR: How easy was it to write FFO together? I know Travis has helped Rachel with her books before, but I imagine that’s not quite the same as writing a book together.
Travis: Pretty painless I’d say. Since we’ve done this for so long already, we have a lot of trust between us. This is hugely important when, say, Rachel has to inform me that the last 50,000 words I wrote are great story but so poorly written than I have to redo all of them. Some people would melt down at that, but because of our trust I could see that she was right (so so right). This let me accept her criticism and knuckle down to get it done. I’m a much better writer today for it.
But out trust flows two-ways! I’ve done some things which have hilariously scandalized her. For example: A lot of the first draft of FFO was me doing pure discovery writing. If you know anything about Rachel’s methods, then you can imagine how much this freaked her out. She rolled with it only because it was me doing this. Again, it comes back to trust between writing partners.
Rachel: Yeah, the first bit of FFO was terrifying. Travis would just write things. Without planning. I died. I’m a massive control freak who plans everything. Bulleted lists are legit my favorite things in the world. I make power points for myself for fun.
Suffice it to say, a discovery writer I am not, but as close as we are, Travis isn’t me. I’ve never met two writers who create in exactly the same way, and Trav and I are no different. The way he wrote freaked me out, but I’ve known Travis for almost 20 years. He always delivers something amazing, so I closed my eyes and trusted him, and wouldn’t you know it came out great!
TMR: How do your writing methods – and indeed writing times – vary? Does either one of you prefer to pull an all-nighter?
Travis: We’re actually pretty opposite people when it comes to actual writing. Turns out that I’m more of a discovery writer. She’s a planner through and through–famously so. I write best in the morning, Rachel is strongest in the afternoon. She hates writing short-stories, I love them, especially as a tool for learning about my characters or setting.
That said, after I garden, I go back and plan like mad for the edits. I still demand that the book be a well-constructed machine of plot, theme, and characterization. You can’t really get that without being analytical about the manuscript.
Lastly, Rachel has much stronger writing muscles than I do. She can write all day! My brain goes soggy after about 4 hours, so I don’t know how she can routinely produce for eight. She’s incredible.
Rachel: *flexes writing muscles* Yeah, it’s funny how different we are, but that lets us shore up each other’s weaknesses. Since we’re so different, we ended up kicking the story back and forth like a football rather than trying to both work on it at once. This let each of us do things in our own way without interference.
I’m not sure if other collaborators work like that, but it did wonders for us. Also, it was super fun to get the book back and see what new surprises Trav had added while I was working on other things!
TMR: Did you have any disagreements over the plot’s details? For example, I recently listened to a podcast in which authors Karen Healey and Robyn Fleming discussed co-writing Empress of Timbra together, and one of them mentioned that the other was quite opposed to cutting the hair of their male protagonist.
Travis: Our disagreements weren’t over plot, but over prose. I consume a lot of manga, it’s my primary reading choice, so I don’t think about descriptions when writing prose-only content. This is a fancy way of saying that I describe nothing when writing. Rachel has accused me of setting chapters that happen in a 10×10 white windowless room. That was being nice IMO.
Because of this, our biggest battles have been about how much description to put in the book. I don’t just not use description as a writer, I also don’t like too much description when I read. The moment there’s more than two sentences of “what things look like”, my eyes glaze and I start skipping. Authors who have paragraph long descriptions–or worse, sequences of description–I skim so hard. It’s a bad habit and I know I’m missing a lot when I read, but I can’t help it. I think that’s why I like manga so much. The pictures are worth a thousand words that I don’t have to slow down for.
I understand that description is important, though, so a lot of my personal battles have been learning how to write good descriptions. Not too long, not too short, and always dramatic. Thankfully Rachel is great at description so this book isn’t suffering for my shortcomings on this score.
Rachel: I find this really funny in hindsight, because I am generally not a big description writer. I’ve had readers get grumpy at me because I don’t describe little details like character hair and eye color. This is because I also find huge blocks of description annoying as a reader, and so try my best to avoid them in my own books.
THAT SAID, compared to Travis, I am a Romantic poet. Dude describes NOTHING. Saying he put his characters in a 10 x 10 windowless white room is an insult to white rooms because at least they tell you they’re white and windowless right there in the name. Travis didn’t even give me that! His original draft was like reading a screenplay it was so terse (except for his battle scenes, those were highly technical and very well described).
So yeah, there was a lot of smacking hands with rulers and making him redo things, because like hell was I writing all of that description alone. Thankfully, he more than made up for this when it came to the plot. He has always been the master plotter of the two of us. Many of “my” plots in my other books were actually his. He’s the guy who always figures out the most interesting thing to happen next, which more than makes up for putting his characters on a blank stage.
TMR: What were the practicalities of writing FFO together? Did you just have one document with two different coloured fonts, or something else?
Travis: We passed the Scrivener project back and forth. Only one of us worked on the book at a time. This is because Scrivener doesn’t support author collaboration or version reconciliation in any way, so there’s not a lot of options here (other than not using Scrivener…which isn’t an option.)
Rachel: NOT an option. Scrivener 4 life.
Travis: I had the book the longest simply because this was my first novel and I had to learn to write, so I’m much slower than Rachel. I think she did as much in two months as I did in the first entire year.
Rachel: I do have a bit of experience on you! It also helped that I’ve always been good at the prose part of writing. I just instinctively know how things should sound, so the actual “write something and make it sound good” part was a breeze for me. Getting the plot and characters right was always where I spent the most time, but Trav had that down pat most of the time, which meant all I had to do was go through and make things pretty, which is the easiest writing ever. No wonder I got done fast!
TMR: How long did it take the two of you to write FFO together? Because the final Heartstrikers book only came out 3 months ago, so did you start writing it before ‘Last Dragon Standing’ was complete/out? Or did you really just turn out around 120k words of a brand new book in just 3 months?
Travis: I wrote the first draft in early 2016, then spent all of 2016 and part of 2017 working with Rachel to turn it into a good book. I had to rewrite the whole thing twice. It was basically an apprenticeship project. Once we’d gotten the manuscript as good as my skills-plus-her-advice could get it, Rachel sat down and personally rewrote it yet again. So that’s why it came out so close to HS, because Rachel wasn’t having to do a lot of the time-intensive writing work until the end when Last Dragon Standing was at the editor.
Make no mistake though, she was integral to the finished story, not just the prose. She’s put in months of effort for FFO1 and on mentoring me. It’s her book too.
Rachel: Aww, thank you! Originally, this was Travis’s book and I was just helping him out, but as we worked more and more, I sort of muscled my way in and it became our book. Thankfully, he was happy to have me and it turned into a really wonderful project! Trav came up with the initial idea and characters, but both our fingerprints are on every part of the end product. I’m very proud to put my name on it!
TMR: I understand FFO will have a sequel. Is there any hint you can give as to the how/why of the FFO game suddenly becoming real and trapping gamers inside its world? Or are you saving that reveal for book 2? Additionally, are you planning more than two books, or is this going to be a duology alone?
Travis: It’s a three-book series for sure. I’d love to speak as to the “why” of the inciting event, but that’d just be spoilers. Book 2, Last Bastion, brings in some serious hints about how all of these people got stuck in FFO, but Book 3 is where the really big questions will be addressed.
Rachel: Classic trilogy format! Book 1 establishes the conceit and initial problem. Book 2 takes it to its logical conclusion (and makes everything worse). Book 3 brings it all back around, giving us answers and (hopefully) resolving the crisis.
Needless to say, the actual story won’t be that clean or predictable! Tina and James have some major problems ahead of them. We’re editing the second book, Last Bastion right now, and man, things get rough. I love it!
TMR: Final question, just for Travis, has writing this book given you a desire to write your own epic fantasy/SF/other genre series?
Travis: Oh yeah! Being able to write feels like a super-power haha. I’m running around left and right these days trying to use it. I’ve already done some unrelated script and game writing (which I can’t talk about sadly) and various short stories of ideas I’ve long wanted to explore. I’ve brought a lot of our writing tools over to my pen-and-paper role-playing as well. AND, since FFO is already planned to the end, I’ve been planning my next series in my free time.
The next series I want to write is called The Lightning Empire. It’s a wuxia (Ancient China) inspired fantasy set in a world where ranked martial artists draw power from their soul spring–which has a color-aspect called a hue as well as a shape determined by one of the twelve mystic beasts. The main character, Li Teoka, starts the series as the Black Phoenix Emperor, but the timeline he’s in is already doomed. To save it and bring back his best friend, whose death he blames himself for, Li throws away his powers and title as Hue Emperor in order to jump backwards into another timeline and take over his eight-year-old self of the past. He’ll have to climb all the way back to Hue Emperor for a second time, only faster, if he’s to have a hope of saving his friend and preventing the horrible future from happening.
A much better blurb is to come, of course. This novel isn’t more than some short stories, a sample chapter, and a pile of notes at the moment. I hope that I’m a good enough writer by the end of Forever Fantasy Online to write this on my own with just editorial help from Rachel. I’ll feel like a real writer if I can do that!
Forever Fantasy Online is in the genre of LitRPG – not something I’d normally read since I don’t play computer games beyond Solitaire and Mahjong, but one of its two authors is Rachel Aaron/Bach, with whose books I’ve been in love since I discovered a second hand copy of the Eli Monpress series on a bookstore shelf a few years ago. I whizzed through them and her Paradox Trilogy (which I’ll review here at a later date), and then discovered she was writing the Heartstrikers series, featuring Julius, the Nice Dragon (review of the series here). I beta-read books 2 – 5 of the Heartstrikers series after I contacted Rachel via Twitter and told her I’d found some mistakes in the very first book and was she interested in knowing about them. (I always make this offer as respectfully as I can – I’m not trying to be obnoxious, I’m trying to help authors produce better books, insofar as I can do my small part to do so.) So when she contacted me a few months ago and asked if I’d be up for beta-reading a new Super Sekrit Project – a book which she’d co-authored with her husband (who’d helped her a great deal with the writing of the Heartstrikers books), I jumped at the chance out of sheer curiosity, even though I was aware I might not like the book (I’m not always lucky enough to love every single thing an author writes, though thankfully I usually do).
Forever Fantasy Online stars Tina, Guildmaster of Roxxy’s Roughnecks, a raiding crew who’re very highly ranked for their ability to successfully complete quests and take down the Bosses (bad guys within the game), and her older brother James, who plays a jubatus (humanoid cat person) who’s a Naturalist (ie does Nature magic) – he’s not that fond of raiding so rarely plays with Tina/Roxxy within the game. The two are online one evening, and get into a fight, right before the game goes weird on them and they suddenly discover that they’re no longer playing a game but have been transported to the world of the game’s setting, which is real in and of itself. Tina finds herself stuck in the Deadlands, a nightmare landscape of nothing but grey – no trees, no grass, just like the name implies. She also finds herself teamed up with roughly 40 people, most of whom she’s never met before as she was having a try-out night, wherein a number of other players were trying out for a place in her guild. She nevertheless has to lead the group on a forced march through the Deadlands to the sanctuary of the Order of the Golden Sun’s fortress, chased all the way by Grel’Darm, the Boss of the Deadlands, who wants nothing more than to kill everyone.
James, meanwhile, is on the savannah that’s home to the jubatus, where he discovers that the NPC, non-player characters, who make up the background people within the game’s quests, have been wholly aware of being caught up in the FFO game, forced to stick to the game’s scripts and forced to die/be tortured over and over, every time a Player fails to successfully complete a quest on the savannah. The NPCs call the experience the Nightmare and, completely understandably, they hate Players, so James’ reception is less than welcoming when he makes it into the jubatus’ town square where he finds them about to celebrate being freed from their 80 years of enslavement to the game.
Unfortunately the game ‘went real’ just after the successful ambush of Scout Lilac (which made up one of the major quests in the savannah zone of the game) – meaning she’s been poisoned and has only 24 hours to live. James has successfully completed this quest many times as the savannah is his favourite zone within FFO, so he’s completely confident he can easily save Lilac as he confidently declares when Lilac’s brother and grandmother take him prisoner on realising that there’s a Player in their midst. What James doesn’t know, however, is that his equipment bag is now, within the confines of the ‘real world’, an ordinary backpack, rather than a ‘bigger on the inside’ pack as it was within the game – so when he goes to collect his armour, weapons, and other gear, he finds himself coming up empty. This doesn’t please Lilac’s brother, the Ar’Bati (head warrior), who is already angry about being sent with James to destroy the orb that’s got Lilac in its thrall. The head warrior has vowed vengeance on all Players for the Nightmare of being repeatedly captured and tortured, often to death, so he automatically hates James, and discovering he’s less capable than he’d boasted of saving Lilac makes him angrier. Nevertheless the pair set out to the Red Canyon, home to the gnolls (hyena-like humanoid NPCs) who are working in concert with this zone’s Boss, the lich – an undead elf.
Both James’ and Tina’s new ‘quests’ proceed with the sort of setbacks, and unexpected triumphs, that readers familiar with these kinds of games or quest style books would expect. Unfortunately for the siblings, however, once they’ve succeeded in killing off the bosses in their zones, and made it to Bastion, the city that houses the bank where the Players keep their loot, gear, and equipment, they discover that Bastion is under attack – and burning. So it’s not over yet…
Forever Fantasy Online is the first in a trilogy, and the second book, Last Bastion, will be out in the Autumn.