Early in Ed Greenwood’s novel Elminster: the Making of a Mage, the ragged knight Helm gives young Elminster a sword and encourages him on his journey. As the smiling boy heads off, the knight wrestles with his own ambivalence, thinking, “The first duty of a knight is to make the realm shine in the dreams of small boys—or where else will the knights of tomorrow arise, and what will become of the realm?”
As the creator of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting and author of the Band of Four novels, the Falconfar Saga, the Niflheim series and the Knights of Myth Drannor novels, Greenwood makes realms shine—many realms. He’s sent countless readers off on grand and perilous journeys that change the way they see themselves and the world they live in.
Here is part one of four in our interview with Greenwood, in which he generously discusses his craft.
Jones: Let’s start broad: what do you write about? [More…]
Greenwood: I write about life. Imaginary life that’s hopefully more fun and less sordid and boring than most real life for most readers—and therefore more entertaining to read about—but “life” just the same. Fulfilling moments of life, hopefully, where by tale’s end characters achieve something exceptional. They’ll see their moral choices made during the tale vindicated—or land them their just desserts.
For heroic fantasy, that’s the payoff most readers want: to right some wrongs, see good prevail and a measure of justice befall the dishonest.
In the end, I have hopefully entertained readers and left them wanting more.
On another level, I can answer this question by saying: I get the chance to get published because I write about what publishers ask me to. In the same way that a student will fail if, when given a math exam to write, they instead write a whimsical short story or a treatise on Napoleon better suited to their upcoming history exam, I write about what those who set the assignment want me to. And do so in a way that is entertaining and leaving the reader wanting more, as above.
Jones: You write in a variety of genres and settings for a variety of publishers. What are the pros and cons of writing shared world fiction, as opposed to writing creator owned fiction?
Greenwood: Except as constrained by editors, publisher word counts and formats, readers’ expectations (as defined by laws governing what can be said, and how), and their own vision, creators who own their own creations have no limits on what they can do. They can write what they please, and are free to sail in any direction, charting new waters and finding new horizons for others to follow.
Not that they always will, mind you. Moreover, even the most brilliant creator-owned, original story can be published and then sink without a trace, doomed to poor sales by readers never discovering it.
Shared world fiction more often has a better chance of finding an audience. Other writers have usually paved the way, a book line has already established a habit in some chain bookstore buyers of ordering each new title as it comes along, and the setting (Oz, or the cosmologies of Star Trek or Star Wars) or an iconic character (Sherlock Holmes) may already have gained strong popularity. Dozens of fantasy writers—many of them “unknowns” when they started—have paid their bills over the years writing Conan novels.
Yet the shared world writer faces many constraints. Character descriptions, backstories, aims, and mannerisms are usually well-established, and the writer faces the daunting task of “fitting in” (perhaps even to a particular prose style) and not contradicting what may be a sizable body of existing lore. I have spent more than forty years now filling in details of wines, cheeses, plumbing systems, ballads, “news of the day,” and a thousand-thousand more details of the background lore of the largest world-setting I’ve created, the Forgotten Realms — and still I keep on adding more, and fans keep on demanding more.
As many comic book writers have discovered down the years, shared worlds have an inherent “too many cooks” problem. Another writer will kill off a character you were going to use, or portray them very differently, or write them into a corner you never wanted to see them in. If you’re the original creator (as I am, for the Realms) this can be astonishing as well as annoying. How can someone else look at Character X and see them so differently? And now what? Tugs of war over artistic control and consistency fragment fandoms and can sink an ongoing series. Some battles have even ended up in court—the Howard and Tolkien canon among them—and publications have been canceled, delayed for years, or altered dramatically while fans can’t read or see more of what they’re waiting for.
Jones: You really seem to enjoy what you do. Your fiction reads like you wrote it with a big smile on your face.
Greenwood: Over the years, I have deliberately tried every approach I can think of to writing fiction. From the detailed outline to “just throwing the characters together or starting from an illustration and seeing what happens,” from rearranging scenes on index cards to aping the styles of various picaresque narrators . . . I’ve tried it all.
Touching up afterwards really is like rearranging and polishing apples to make the impact of their display better, but when I’m actually writing, I’m always trying to have fun.
I don’t mean everything has to be slapstick comedy or that I don’t sometimes end up crying at what I’m writing about. I mean I plunge into the story and imagine that I’m there. I’m smelling what the characters are smelling, tasting what they’re—well, you know the rest. What I then have to do is write down enough of what I can see, in my mind’s eye, so that any reader will feel they too can see the moldering crypt where the skeletons are unsteadily rising to stand upright amid the cracked stone coffins, or the glittering court of Zayang the Unimpeachable as furious nobles draw their swords and guards react too late, and the princess is snatched.
Some people who produce books seem to like being “authors,” and appearing in public or in television studios to tell us all what torture writing is, and how they agonized and struggled to bring us their great masterwork.
Well, writing is work, sometimes hard work, but writing is what I do. And being as I “have to write,” I decided as a young boy that I might as well enjoy it. And, dang it, I do. I leave the world behind and plunge into my own world, my imagination, and draw sword and fight dragons and defy evil sorcerers and kings and have a grand old time doing it. And people pay me to do this.
I wasn’t born pretty, or athletic, or rich. I wasn’t born with the largest this or that body part, or the best singing voice, or the owner of the only Cinnamon Diamond in the world. But like every other kid who got the chance, I knew how to play make-believe and to have fun doing it. So I stopped right there, and never stopped enjoying it.
Jones: Has your understanding of the craft itself changed much over the years?
Greenwood: I’ve been at this (writing for payment, that is) now for over 40 years, and I’m still learning more and more, with everything I write. As a precocious child, I read voraciously through my father’s considerable collection of books, plus other family and the public libraries, and wrote pastiches of tales and series that grabbed me the most. So from an earlier age I’ve been intensely interested in narrative and entertainment and in the “how” of presenting a story.
Any understanding on my part of “how the industry works” and the ongoing changes in society and the popularity of various forms (print, e-book, audiobook, dial-a-story, the radio or onstage monologue) and genres of publication (such as the fall of the war story and the western, the rise and fall of horror, the rise and fall and gentle rise again of mass market paperback fiction anthologies, the crash of comic books as a widespread public medium, the rise of graphic novels and media tie-in books as publishing genres) has come later. I’m still learning more and more about such things, too.
However, as a library worker, reader, book collector and journalist for decades, I’m beginning to think I see some trends and realities more clearly than many publishers. Some people play “if I was rich enough to own a stock portfolio” games where they pick stocks in a newspaper and follow them, to see if they would have made money if they’d actually bought the stocks. Increasingly, I watch the publishing industry in the same way, making my own decisions about the timing, presentation, and marketing given individual books (not my own), and seeing if a publisher’s decision was right, or mine was. The point is not to “beat” publishers, it’s for me to improve my understanding of what readers want and how best to get stories to readers.
Certainly my years of trying to publish, edit, write, illustrate, market and design books has made me far more understanding of “the other sides of the fences” than the thinking I had when I started out, as a “I’m the writer, and I’m brilliant, so don’t touch a word of my story, dang it!” scribe.
I’ve also learned, as a librarian and as someone interested in the history of publishing, that there is no higher calling than entertaining readers. That’s the ultimate. There’s a reason Terry Pratchett sells so many more books than your average university professor dressing up his or her doctoral thesis as a fat, scholarly non-fiction title. This is a service industry; if you want lasting success—as Arthur Conan Doyle discovered when he tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes—it’s not about the great tales you want to tell, it’s about the great stories your readers want to read.
For instance, the Planet Stories reprints from Paizo Publishing don’t represent books their authors thought were classics; they are books readers decided they loved, and wanted more of. A publisher, bad timing or bad marketing, or an editor or writer can all kill or cripple a book that might have been a classic. But it’s the reader that makes a classic.
Jones: How does a story (of any length) work on a reader?
Greenwood: First and foremost, a story must entertain. We all have a limited amount of time in our lives, and reading a story uses some of it, irrevocably; the writer owes the reader or listener enjoyment. This does not mean the writer must write the story the reader is expecting, or with the ending they most want; this is about the journey — the act of reading — rather than the destination, or the outcome of the story. As Rudyard Kipling famously said: “I’ll have wrought my simple plan/If I give an hour of joy…”
Stories can also instruct by imparting practical or historical information and spur a reader to think. Most non-comical science fiction stories involve spurring readers to consider alternatives to reality, or the consequences of “if this goes on” (as a classic Robert Heinlein short story is entitled).
Many modern mystery novels tell readers how coroners and forensic examiners go about their work, or tell us all about a poison or (red herring) herb, or how betting on horses or railroad timetables or various firearms work. If a story starts to preach a point of view, or abandons action to hurl reams of information at a reader, it suffers, but if the information is worked into the ongoing narrative, the story feels more “solid” and “real” and effective to most listeners.
Great fiction changes many readers, enriching their lives. Any work of fiction can enrich and enlighten one or a few readers, because they encounter it at the right time in their unfolding journey through life.
That’s another, rarer, thing stories can do: cause readers to think and perceive something differently, and therefore change them as people.
There’s more to come in Greenweek, including gaming and Realms Q&A with Mr. Greenwood — come back tomorrow!