Garwulf’s Corner #15: Through a Glass, Demonically


Through a Glass, Demonically

In August 2000 I received the most challenging writing assignment of my life. In fact, I don’t really think I will ever write anything more difficult. Even so, I got to fulfill a couple of dreams, and have the time of my life.

For those who haven’t worked out what I’m talking about, it’s my e-book, Diablo: Demonsbane.

It has honestly been one of my proudest achievements, and, at the same time, one of those things that had me shaking my head in bewilderment at the results.

Sounds rather contradictory, doesn’t it? Well, my dear readers, I’m going to take you through the looking glass on this one. I’m going to tell you the story of Demonsbane.

To tell you the truth, I was utterly shocked when Marco, my editor at Pocket Books, called me up and asked me to make a pitch for an e-book to Christopher Metzen. I had telephoned him, talked to him, been told that there were no slots for Diablo novels open, and sent him a couple of short stories. Two days after this, he called me, and asked if I could make a pitch on Friday.

(Later, he told me that I had REALLY impressed him with the short stories.)

So here I was, this basically untried, unpublished fantasy writer, frantically brainstorming for a telephone conference with the creative head of a company that had become a giant in the field. Story ideas filled my head, half of them getting shot down because they were too clich?d, another half being removed as I realized that they just wouldn’t work in the Diablo setting.

It took two meetings, but I got the contract. Granted, the story that was chosen had been a left-field idea originally tabled by Marco, and later developed into a storyline by yours truly, but the assignment was mine. I was the author who would lead the Diablo games into literature, and I could make certain it was done RIGHT! I may have been given a limit of 30,000 words (about a hundred to a hundred and fifty pages), but I could work with that…

(Hey, I was still in ego-boost mode. Trust me, I came down afterwards.)

It was around this time that the implications of the publication date, which I had been told when I was first asked to make the pitch, set in.

You see, I got to start writing in August. The e-book would hit the shelves on Halloween. This meant I had approximately a month and a half to write, edit, turn it in, and make whatever corrections were necessary. You’d better believe I was praying that neither Chris Metzen nor Marco would ask for a re-write (it’s one thing to know you are close to up the creek; it’s another to have somebody take away your paddle).

Now, I am not a fast writer; the sort of fiction I write comes out very poorly if it’s done at warp speed (in fact, I have it on good authority that there is an ancient tortoise somewhere in the Galapagos Islands who is writing circles around me with a rusty typewriter). When I really get going, I can put out 10,000 words (fifty pages) in a week, but that’s usually after the story has been gestating for around a half a year or so. And that is rough draft work; for every day I spend writing, I get to spend another day editing. So, something like Demonsbane would usually have taken me around three to four months to put out. As I said, I had a month
and a half.

Now, I’m going to segue off into some of the things that made it even harder. Diablo is, when you boil it down, a computer game. Demonsbane is a piece of literature. Combining the two is a hazardous task, fraught with danger, in which it is very easy to misstep and end up writing sheer crap.

I had decided, from day one, that I was going to write serious fantasy. No bubble-gum fantasy, the sort where you just have the hero, the villain, and the quest. Instead, there would be historical references, literary references, mythological images, philosophy and theology. A proverbial umpteen-decker sandwich of a book that will allow a reader to notice something new every time.

This meant that the first thing I had to do was toss the game out the window. The background was fine, but nothing else was. The character classes were all superheroes, perhaps vulnerable to kryptonite, but nothing less. The magical items were randomly generated weapons and armor that would make any book they appeared in the Plan Nine >From Outer Space of fantasy novels. The monsters could be killed by a hero of sufficient size spitting on them. Healing potions, mana potions, they all had to go. They were fine for the game, but they simply wouldn’t do for a book.

So, I grabbed a corner of the world that the writer’s bible hadn’t touched, and re-designed it. I created an Entsteigian society based on the early Medieval Anglo-Saxon and Germanic cultures, with a few Viking skalds thrown in for good measure. All that was left was to let my characters wander around and explore this nifty new part of Sanctuary that I had created.

And thus Siggard the reluctant hero, Sarnakyle the confused wizard, and Assur the evil Archdemon developed and grew. I also took the opportunity to flesh out Tyrael, and add a bit of my own touch to the conflict underlying the story. Hey, as I said, I had the time of my life.

And now back to length. If I had been writing a full-length novel, 30,000 words would have given me just enough time to introduce the characters and send them on their way, with a brief warning not to feed the monsters. Instead, I had to tell the entire story within that length, while still keeping the characters and world
interesting, and the subtext intact. Not an easy job at all, but I did it. I spewed words from my computer at breakneck speed, and finished the first draft in two weeks. It was a simple story, with no sub-plots whatsoever, but I managed to bring it in at 25,000 words.

And then a dream came true. Dennis McKiernan, a man whom I had considered a friend, became my mentor as well. I have a lot to thank him for; he’s the one who made Demonsbane publishable. He gave me a thorough edit, and taught me more about writing in a week and a half than I had learned in the previous year.

And then came the moment of truth. I handed it in, praying like a madman that Blizzard would actually like it, that they would not glare at me and say, “Who did you think you were, writing this drivel?”

Let’s just say that I was a bit relieved when Chris Metzen commented: “I f*cking love it!”

(Okay, I was more than a bit relieved. I had an orgasm on the spot from sheer relief. Happy?)

Demonsbane made it out on time, with relatively few hassles. Oh, there was that little argument about the name, and there was the typesetter who decided to play with punctuation and see if any of us noticed, but that was all cleared up quickly and easily. So, I sat back and, against everybody’s advice, waited for reader reviews to come in on the websites. After all, they might give me some ideas of how to become a better author.

At this point, I got flabbergasted, and learned WHY I shouldn’t pay attention to the reader reviews. It’s not that people who read it missed the point; indeed, I have gotten several emails from people I’ve never heard of telling me what a good story they thought it was. It was just the quality of the reviews.

At least one half of the reviews had been penned by people who had not actually bothered to read the book before writing. My first chapter, excerpted for all to see, must have become the most reviewed chapter in history. Of the other group, who had actually bothered to read it before they commented, at least half missed the point in some of the most vocal manners possible.

One person complained that there were no game quests. Another (who actually declared himself on the website to be “a best-selling author;” when I looked up his name, it turned out that he wrote video game guides), completely ignoring the length, protested the lack of subplots and the simplicity of the storyline.

I am not making these up. They’re real; you can find them on the Barnes & Noble and the Simon & Schuster websites. And while I will say that these people are entitled to express their opinions of my work, I did not find a single helpful reader comment.

I guess part of being a successful writer is to be willing to do your own thing, and not really care what the public thinks. It is physically impossible to please everybody, and, quite frankly, going out of your way to try is a good way to bring on insanity.

But, the people who count the most in my life (my editor, my mentor, and a few choice others who are close to me) liked what they saw. After all, I wrote what I thought would make a good Diablo book, the sort of fiction that I would enjoy reading myself. And quite frankly, albeit in my slightly biased opinion, it is a book I am proud of.

Disclaimer: Garwulf’s Corner is written by Robert B. Marks and hosted by Diii.net. The views expressed in this column are those of the author, and are not necessarily the opinions of Diii.net.

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