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Theseus and the Werewolves

September 7, 2014 Leave a comment

Wait, what?

It’s all right. I haven’t created a new contemporary urban fantasy franchise with sparkly Greek heroes battling emo lycanthropes in high school. But hold on while I just make a note of that….

No, this post is going to be about my next two books for Osprey Adventures. If you haven’t heard of Osprey Adventures before, the legendary military history publisher has been branching out with two new lines aimed – at least partly – at gamers and fantasy fans.

Osprey Myths and Legends does exactly what it says on the tin. This series presents the world’s greatest heroes (and monsters) in the classic Osprey format, combining well-researched text with lavish illustration and high production values. My first book in this series, Thor: Viking God of Thunder, was well received (click here for some links to reviews), so I was asked to write another – on Theseus and the Minotaur this time. It’s scheduled for release on November 18th and features some stunning color plates by Jose Pena.

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I guess I was seven or eight years old when I first discovered this tale. I had become obsessed with Greek mythology after discovering a children’s retelling of Homer’s Odyssey in my school library and seeing a Saturday-morning rescreening of Ray Harryhausen’s 1963 classic Jason and the Argonauts on TV. Over a decade later, my first game of Dungeons & Dragons featured a fatal encounter with a minotaur. Along the way, I also read about Theseus’ early adventures on the road to Athens. But when I got stuck into the research for this book, I discovered something intriguing. Well, two things, actually.

The first is that Greek myths used the comic-book technique of “retconning.” After he became the Official Hero of Athens, Theseus began to pop up in the adventures of Hercules and various other heroes, usually in a minor role. He was one of the super-team that took part in the Hunt for the Calydonian Boar, along with his faithful sidekick Pirithous. He appears as a wise and compassionate King of Athens in the tragic tale of Oedipus. A few writers even tried to add him to Jason’s companions aboard the Argo, but some serious timeline problems prevented their attempts from sticking. He was too old for the Trojan War, but a couple of his sons were among the Greek troops in the legendary wooden horse.

The other intriguing thing is that the core of the Theseus myth looks like it could be an allegory. Theseus lived – if he lived – at a time when Athens was growing in power and throwing off Minoan and Mycenaean cultural and economic domination of the Greek mainland. It was developing its own distinctly Greek identity, which would become the template for Classical Greek culture. There is evidence for a war – or at least a raid – led by Athens in which the famous Minoan palace of Knossos was burned. And some ancient sources refer to a Cretan general with the name, or nickname, of Taurus, the Bull. Likewise, the six enemies Theseus defeated on his journey to Athens could be seen as symbols of the various independent city-states that Athens assimilated as its influence spread across Attica. There’s little if any definitive proof that the myth of Theseus is based on actual historical events, but the coincidences do seem to be telling a consistent story, and it made my dormant archaeological reflex twitch.

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The second book, Werewolves: A Hunter’s Guide, is for the Dark Osprey line which focuses on horror and conspiracy, and follows on from earlier volumes about Zombies and Vampires. I collected werewolf legends and trial reports from across Europe and researched shapechanger myths worldwide to paint a picture of lycanthropy that expands upon what you will find in most movies, games, and novels. It touches on the standard fare – silver, the moon, Viking berserkers, SS werewolves, and so on – but I also uncovered a few surprises. Like, for instance, the fact that there are at least four distinct types of werewolf, each with its own unique characteristics. And the Greek tradition that a dead werewolf rises from the grave as a vampire. And the ancient werewolf cult that centers on Mount Lykaion in Greece.

Werewolves: A Hunter’s Guide
is scheduled for release in March 2015, and there are some interesting titles scheduled for both of Osprey’s non-historical ranges.

Osprey has also expanded into wargames with an interesting and growing range of rule sets presented in slim, affordable books. There are historical rules, of course, but they also cover mythology, steampunk, and Hong Kong action movies. My personal favorite is Of Gods and Mortals, a compact and tidy little skirmish game in which the gods of various mythologies can take to the battlefield as super-units, accompanied by mortal and monstrous followers. It has a very neat mechanic which makes gods and mortals heavily interdependent.

Osprey Publishing has a long-standing reputation for quality that is very well deserved. I’m very happy to see them expanding into these new areas, and even happier to play a modest part myself. Check out the links below. I’ll be very surprised if you don’t find at least one title that surprises and intrigues you.

Osprey Myths and Legends
Dark Osprey
Osprey Wargames

Euro-friends!

December 21, 2013 1 comment

If you read my blog from anywhere in the Euro-zone, this might be of interest. I’ve just discovered that Amazon.de has the (English) Kindle version of “Thor: Viking God of Thunder” marked down to 0,99 Euros.

Early Buzz for “Thor: Viking God of Thunder”

August 19, 2013 16 comments

I posted earlier about Thor: Viking God of Thunder, which I wrote for Osprey Publishing’s new Myths and Legends line. It was a lot of fun to research and write, and I guess that must show because it’s getting some great early reviews. I just received a very excited email from my editor, Joseph McCullough, to let me know that it has won a coveted Kirkus starred review. If you subscribe to Kirkus, you can read it here.

Kirkus is not the only place that people have been saying nice things about the book. Here are a few more:
Goodreads
Blog of Erised
Comicbuzz

The book is due for release on September 17, and it’s currently available to preorder from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and, as they say, all good booksellers. I recently received an advance copy, and I have to say it looks absolutely gorgeous. The team at Osprey did a bang-up job with the graphic design and layout.

The Vikings have been good to me down the years. When I couldn’t find a grant to fund my Ph.D. research on the British Bronze Age, Chris Morris at Durham University found me a job processing material from his excavation of two Viking farms in the Orkneys. My first freelance project after leaving Games Workshop in 1990 was writing GURPS Vikings for Steve Jackson Games, and a decade later Steve asked me to create an expanded second edition: it’s still selling steadily as an ebook. My first video game contract was to write some Viking storylines for Interplay’s historical strategy game add-on Castles: The Northern Campaign. A few years after that, The Creative Assembly contracted me as a writer and researcher on the Viking Invasion expansion for their acclaimed PC strategy game Medieval: Total War: the add-on garnered some very good reviews and led to more freelance work and a job offer. More recently, and in a more light-hearted vein, the Russian mobile game developer AILove hired me to develop the characters and dialogue for their arcade-y Viking Tales iPhone game.

I’m currently working on a second Myths and Legends book for Osprey, and having even more fun. This one is on a Greek myth, and I’m finding all kinds of interesting corners to poke around in. More news on that when Osprey makes the official announcement.

Lemmings and Zeppelins

February 16, 2013 3 comments

It’s long been my intention to write more fiction, and the first fruits of that plan are finally available. As of yesterday, the Stone Skin Press webstore is open for business.

If you haven’t heard of Stone Skin Press, you should check them out. The themes for their anthologies are never less than intriguing, and their people know what they are doing. Right now, four anthologies are available in electronic form, and preorders are open for the dead-tree versions. I have stories in two of their volumes: one features lemmings and the other involves a zeppelin.

The New Hero is a two-volume collection based around the idea of the iconic hero. Distinct from the dramatic hero whose story is a journey, the iconic hero stands firm in what he (or she) is, bringing order to an imperfect world. Think Conan rather than Frodo, or Batman rather than Luke Skywalker. My story “Against the Air Pirates” is a tribute to the airpulp sub-genre: I pitched it as “Disney’s Tale Spin written by Robert E. Howard.” I am, and have always been, a vintage plane geek.

The Lion and the Aardvark is inspired by Aesop’s Fables, and consists of 70 short-short tales with a modern twist. My tale “The Lemmings and the Sea” is about leaders and their visions, and how staying the course might not always be the best idea.

Shotguns v. Cthulhu does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a collection of action-adventure tales set within H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. If you like Howard’s muscular take on horror – whether or not you also like Lovecraft’s more cerebral approach – you will like this book.

I’m hoping for great things from – and for – Stone Skin Press. In a world full of Major Fantasy Trilogies and sparkly vampires they are taking the road less traveled and returning to the roots of fantasy and horror fiction, the short story. They are people who know what they’re at, and I found them very pleasant to do business with. I would recommend them to anyone who is interested in writing short fiction for themed collections.

But I have to go now. They have just announced a new book titled The New Gothic and issued a call for submissions. A storm is rising, and it’s a long walk across the lonely moor to the dark old house….

The Lion and the Aardvark

December 6, 2012 1 comment

Stone Skin Press’ anthology The Lion and the Aardvark has now shipped to UK bookstores, and just in time for Christmas. You can find it at Waterstones, Amazon.co.uk, Foyles, and other bookshops.

I can’t wait to see this, and not only because it includes my short-short The Lemmings and the Sea. I was intrigued by the concept ever since Robin Laws approached me to write something. I remember reading a children’s edition of Aesop’s Fables at the age of about seven, and being amazed at how insightful they were (even if I couldn’t have articulated that thought back then) as well as loving all the talking animals. I loved having the chance to try my hand at writing something in the same style. But mainly, I just can’t wait to see what the other 69 contributing authors have done.

The roster includes some big names from the gaming world like Greg Stafford, Ed Greenwood, Sandy Petersen, and John Kovalic, as well as writers like Matt Forbeck, Jonathan Howard, and Chuck Wendig. It’s a wide and eclectic group of people, each of whom is bound to come up with something great. I’m proud to be among such company.

The book looks nice, too – a satisfyingly chunky hardback with a lion and an aardvark gold-stamped into the cover underneath a simple but appealing dustjacket. Rachel Kahn’s internal art has a light touch that is perfect for the subject matter.

I’m told that an announcement about North American distribution is expected any day now. I really hope it will be in time for Christmas-gifting on this side of the Atlantic.

Getting a Job in the RPG Industry

October 10, 2012 2 comments

There must be something in the air. After the last two posts on breaking into video games and getting your game published, today one of my LinkedIn groups had a question from someone who wants to get a job in the tabletop RPG industry. Here’s what I told him. I think it’s realistic, but others may think I’m being too negative. If he’s really committed to tabletop RPGs as a career, he won’t be put off by what I say anyway.

All my tabletop RPG pals out there, please weigh in with your own advice and experiences – either here or on the LinkedIn discussion.

There’s barely an industry to break into. With very few exceptions (WotC, Paizo, Fantasy Flight), the industry is made up of garage operations doing it for love rather than money. Almost no one makes a living at it: I don’t. A little while ago I wrote a blog entry on the reasons for this.

If this doesn’t discourage you, start by freelancing. Pick your favorite 2-3 game systems and become an expert. Write a few pieces for each one and send them to the appropriate line editor. Don’t expect these to get published: they are just samples. If and when you get paying gigs, use the published work build up a portfolio.

Look at Kickstarter and Indiegogo for RPG projects. If you see anything you like, contribute cash (this establishes good faith) and write to the project’s owner and offer to create something for a stretch goal. Don’t expect payment for this until your name carries some weight.

Review games for sites like DriveThruRPG, RPGGeek, and Roleplayers Chronicle. Start a blog and post your work there alongside intelligent discussion of issues and market developments. Be active on the forums for your favorite 2-3 games. Go to GenCon and other major shows, visit the booths of your favorite publishers, and find someone to talk to about their needs.

Give this process 5-10 years (seriously). With a little luck and a lot of hard work your name will become sufficiently established that you can get regular freelance work. No matter how much you get, though, you will still need a “day job” to pay the bills. You will always be competing with an unlimited number of fans who write or draw as a hobby, and this keeps payment rates too low to sustain anyone as a career.

Keep an eye on publishers’ web sites, looking for vacancy announcements. Develop skills in graphic design, layout, and web site development that will set you apart from the mass of writers and/or artists. Consider acquiring business skills as well. Take your cue from the vacancies you see advertised: in my experience business and production vacancies are the hardest to fill. Writing vacancies, when they exist, are almost never advertised, for two reasons:

a) Any ad for RPG writers produces an unmanageable flood of applications. Picking out usable candidates from the mass of semi-literates and enthusiastic schoolkids takes too long. True story: when I worked for Games Workshop, an ad for a game writer produced multiple applications from 12-13 year olds (and a touching one from a 9-year-old, written in black crayon and accompanied by a sketch of his character) asking us to keep the vacancy open until they finished school.

b) All RPG companies use freelancers extensively to keep costs down. Therefore when a vacancy arises, hiring managers usually approach their best freelancers, filling the vacancy without needing to advertise.

Or, you can do what most people do and found your own company.

Set up a blog and post regularly, including free samples (skeleton rules in the GURPS light mode, free adventures) to give people a taste and make them want to spend cash on your products.

Use Facebook and game forums to develop a fan base. Send electronic samples to every review site you can find.

Once you have a base and some good reviews for your initial products, use Kickstarter to fund more. Look at current Kickstarter campaigns to see what works and what doesn’t.

Using print-on-demand and electronic distribution, you can avoid tying up too much cash in stock, but you have to do everything yourself because it will be years (if ever) before you have enough money to hire any help.

You’ll have to keep a day job, and free time will become an unknown concept, but you’ll be working in the industry you love and for some people that is enough.

I’m sorry if this sounds negative, but the reality is that the tabletop RPG industry is (and looks to remain) idea-rich but cash-poor, with writers in particular being a heavily oversupplied commodity.

A Blast from the Past

June 29, 2012 4 comments

Well, not a blast, exactly. Probably more of a slightly damp phut.

I was casting about for a subject for a new blog entry this morning. I remembered that sometimes, online booksellers advertise books I have written or co-written at prices that just make me laugh. For example, someone on Abe Books wants over $500 for a copy of the third Doomstones adventure, Death Rock. Other people on the same site are offering it for $7.00 to $22.00, which is altogether more reasonable.

I was going to muse a little about perceived value, and maybe throw in a wry comment about how much I wish I could claim royalties on these kinds of prices, but then I saw this. This particular sighting took me back 26 years, to the point where I first thought I might be able to make a career as a writer.

It was 1985, and I was an archaeology postgrad at the University of Durham. I was compiling 150-odd years of excavation reports on Neolithic and Bronze Age burials, systematizing the data, and building a database on NUMAC, the mainframe that Durham shared with Newcastle University. In FORTRAN 77. I was starting to become dispirited: this was my first experience with computers, and it usually took me two weeks to get a 15-minute meeting with my Ph. D. supervisor, who only wanted to know what books I’d read since last time and took no interest in the project itself. But that’s a story for another time.

Gamebooks were everywhere in the mid 80s. Following the success of Fighting Fantasy, all kinds of imitators – of all levels of quality – had sprung up like dandelions. Imagine magazine had just published an article on the gamebook phenomenon that I had co-written with their book critic Colin Greenland, and I was doing an occasional gamebook spot on BBC Radio Newcastle’s children’s book programme. Then, out of the blue, I got a phone call.

Now, “getting a phone call” wasn’t easy for a college student back in the 80s. Collingwood College had maybe half a dozen payphones throughout its corridors, for the use of 300-odd students. Mobile phones – which did exist, just about – fell into two categories: large consoles that Captains of Industry had bolted into the back of their Bentleys, and portable units that came in a satchel and weighed only a little more than their cost in gold. What I got was a scrawled message that someone from a company called Scribos had rung, and wanted to talk to me about a freelance writing project.

There was no Internet to look up this Scribos, and I had no idea who they were. So I collected a fistful of 10p pieces, wandered the corridors until I found a free phone, and called them back.

It turned out that they were an educational publisher, and they wanted someone to write two 6-volume fantasy series in the Choose Your Own Adventure format. The twist was, the language had to be kept simple: the books were aimed at teens with reading ages of 6-7. The concept relied on the read-comprehend-decide activity loop of the gamebook format, along with the popularity of the gamebook phenomenon as a whole. I was equipped with a Fry Reading Age Chart, and told that each book should come in at 50 entries.

I’d been sending articles to White Dwarf and Imagine for a few years by this point, but I never seriously considered the possibility that I might be able to make a living as a writer. But two things sealed the deal for me. First, the books were to be published by Oxford University Press. And second, I was offered 600 pounds for the project.

It just shows how touchingly naive I was back then. Certainly, 600 pounds was a tidy sum to a college student, but this was a one-time project and I never did the math about how many such projects I’d need each year in order to make a living. Between this and my modest but semi-regular checks from White Dwarf and Imagine, I thought it was a sign. I was on my way. Over the next few months, my archaeological research tapered off until I withdrew from the project entirely.

I never received publisher’s comps of the Quest Books series (The Adventures of Kern the Strong and The Adventures of Oss the Quick) so I still don’t know how they turned out. One was turned into a CD-ROM a few years ago, but no more seem to have followed so I’m guessing that wasn’t a great success. I’m sure they weren’t masterpieces; I was just starting out as a writer, and finding my way.

The winter of 1985-6 was a tough one financially. I finished the Quest Books project and was paid (which isn’t always the case, as any freelancer can tell you), but the 600 pounds didn’t last all that long. TSR Inc. shut down Imagine magazine – my most lucrative market – and eventually the whole of TSR UK as well. Editor Paul Cockburn started the short-lived GameMaster Publications and I became a regular contributor, but I just wasn’t bringing in enough money.

Then, out of the blue, I got a letter. Paul and a bunch of others from TSR UK had fetched up at Games Workshop’s new headquarters in Nottingham. There was a plan to make a roleplaying game based on Warhammer, which had come into GW’s portfolio in the recent merger with Citadel Miniatures. And would I like to come down to Nottingham and talk? Everyone knows what happened next.

I come across isolated titles from the Quest Books series online now and again, but this is the first cover shot I’ve ever seen. I think about collecting them sometimes, but I’m not really a collector by nature. And what if I should look at these books for the first time in 26 years and discover they really weren’t all that good? Silly, I know, but there it is.

When I remember my confused, conflicted and wildly over-optimistic mid-twenties self in that winter of 1985-6, I can’t suppress a rueful smile. I really had no idea what I was doing, and in a reasonable universe I would never have got away with it. The Games Workshop job, coming when it did, was an unbelievable and completely undeserved stroke of luck. But that one decision, swung by the name of Oxford University Press and the promise of six hundred pounds, set the course of my life from that point on.

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