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SFFWRTCHT: A Chat With Author-RPG Designer Ari Marmell

Ari Marmell is the author of many books, including Gehenna: The Final Night, Goblin Corps, and The Conqueror’s Shadow.  He lives in Austin, Texas and works as freelancer, where he writes RPGs, tie-in novels, originals and more etc. He hangs out on RPG forums and game site as Rodent of the Dark Mouseferatu. His works have been published by publishers including PYR and Wizards Of The Coast. Find Ari online at and also on Facebook and Twitter as @mouseferatu!

SFFWRTCHT: Where´d your interest in SFF come from?

Ari Marmell: From my father, absolutely. He introduced me to Star Wars, and then fantasy novels, when I was in kindergarten. Maybe before. Been reading/watching it ever since. Often instead of studying.

SFFWRTCHT: Who were some of your favorite authors/books growing up?

AM: David Eddings, Raymond Feist, Steven Brust would definitely be the top three when I was growing up. Lots and lots of others, but those stand out.

SFFWRTCHT: I’m a huge Eddings fan, too. Especially the Sparhawk books.

AM: Me too. I started with the Belgariad, but The Elenium is my favorite of his.

SFFWRTCHT: Were you involved with cons and fandom? Cosplay?

AM: Not really. I did the occasional Star Trek convention, but most of my convention experience has been recent, for professional purposes. Kind of wish I had, though.

SFFWRTCHT: When did you decide to start writing? How did you begin?

AM: I did some writing as a kid, based on my D&D campaigns. But as far as being serious about it, that started in college. I decided it was what I wanted to do end of freshman year. Began taking courses and writing my first attempted novel (that’s an important word there) in sophomore year.  I have three early attempted novels that will never see the light of day.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you study writing in college? How did you learn your craft?

AM: Yeah, I graduated with a creative writing degree. It helped, but not nearly as much as just the constant practice of writing, and learning to accept feedback.

SFFWRTCHT: How long did you write until your first sale? What was that?

AM: Well, my “first sale” is tricky. I worked as a freelancer in role-playing games for several years before my first fiction sale.

SFFWRTCHT: So you sold some RPG stuff freelance first then?

AM: I submitted a sourcebook for Vampire: the Masquerade on spec. They couldn’t use it, but they liked it enough to contract me for other stuff. Started that in 2001. That got me the chance to do some tie-in fiction, which helped me land an agent and sell my first non-tie in.

SFFWRTCHT: Where did your involvement with/interest in RPGs come from?

AM: Been playing RPGs since I was 9. A friend got me into the D&D “Red Box” basic set. Haven’t stopped since. Played lots of other games, too–mostly World of Darkness games–but I keep coming back to D&D.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you have a lot of characters or a few core ones you loved to play? Who were they?

AM: Huge numbers of them. I was a character fiend. For a long time, creating characters was practically a separate hobby from actually playing. I really liked paladins when I started D&D. First character in Advanced was a paladin named Terron Nightsbane.

SFFWRTCHT: How much does your RPG experience influence your writing and vice versa?

AM: Definitely some influence. RPGs were good for learning how to develop characters that were interesting outside any specific plot and vice-versa. But it’s also important not to let the two overlap too much. They have different requirements and strengths.

SFFWRTCHT: What´s your all-time favorite RPG experience?

AM: My favorite was a five-game mini-campaign I ran in the Ravenloft setting. Everything came together for that one.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you ever roll play scenarios for scenes or stories to see where they go and use that in writing them?

AM: Not really. I tend to design different kinds of stories for fiction vs. RPGs. I might later adapt an idea from a game into a story or vice-versa, but I rarely set out to use one to feel out the other. They have very different requirements. The most obvious being that one has to entertain an audience, the other has to entertain (and be guided by) multiple participants. It’s a whole different way of building a plot/story. One is (or can be) heavily planned; the other must be open. One can be torture for the characters; the other can’t.

SFFWRTCHT: Where did the idea for The Goblin Corps come from?

AM: Having said all that… The Goblin Corps was, indeed, based on a game, one played with the 2nd edition Humanoids Handbook for D&D. You can’t directly novelize a campaign. Again, they’re too different. But you can adapt certain story concepts and characters. That’s what I did. Took the same basic concepts, and some specific scenes, and rewrite/modify them.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you start with characters or plot in writing Goblin Corps? It´s the story of a special Demon Squad made up of an orc, a troll, a goblin, an ogre, a Bugbear and a kobol sent on dangerous quests by their king.

AM: Well, Corps was different than my norm, obviously. I started with some plot, and some characters, but not an entirety of either.

SFFWRTCHT: Pantser or Outliner generally?

AM: Outliner. Not generally, fully. I cannot write a novel without an outline. Heck, I outline short stories. Occasionally, I’ve even outlined individual chapters, if they were tough or complex.

SFFWRTCHT: How detailed are your outlines?

AM: Reasonably detailed. Sometimes scene by scene. But I don’t describe each scene in too much detail. For instance, I’ll often say “There’s a conflict here,” but I won’t come up with specifics until writing. Or I’ll say what trouble the characters get into in the outline, but won’t figure how they get out until writing.

SFFWRTCHT: How hard is it to take the usual bad guys and make them heroes?

AM: Well, it’s easy (for me, anyway) to write from a villain’s perspective. The trick is to make them sympathetic without being any less villainous. That’s the really tricky part, and I struggled with it at times.

SFFWRTCHT: It was a fun read but the ending was a bit sad. Any plans to continue the story or revisit the characters?

AM: No current plans, which doesn’t mean “never.” I just need to make sure I have the right idea and the right voice. Corps has a specific tone/voice, and if I can’t match it and/or do it justice, I absolutely refuse to “force” a sequel that’ll detract from the original. So if/when the right idea hits me, I’ll do it. If it doesn’t, I won’t force or fake it.

SFFWRTCHT: It definitely seems like there’s a lot more story you could tell with the characters.

AM: Oh, absolutely. But again, it needs to feel to me like it’s the right story to tell with them.

SFFWRTCHT: How have readers responded to the unusual heroes and tale of the book?

AM: Overall, pretty positively. There are, of course, some who don’t like it. But for the most part it’s my best-reviewed non-tie-in. And you’re far from the first person to ask about a sequel, so…

SFFWRTCHT: Yes, I’d imagine Lou Anders asks that a lot. Tell us about Gehenna. Where did that idea originate?

AM: Gehenna was my first novel, and the basics of the idea came from White Wolf. They asked me to write a line-ending book, and they had certain specific requirements. The details, plot, and many specific characters were mine, but they were all designed to serve book’s stated purpose of starting the “End Times.” I mean, often the plot details are up to the writer, but the book often has a specific purpose. And even if it doesn’t, every detail requires approval. Finding the balance between “creative” and “faithful to the source” is one of the hardest aspects.

SFFWRTCHT: Tell us about Conqueror´s Shadow?

AM: The Conqueror’s Shadow was my first published non-tie-in. The entire book sprang from a single sentence. One day the thought occurred to me: “Hey, it’d be cool to take your traditional ‘dark armored fantasy evil warlord’ and see what happens to him after he’s retired and living a normal life.”

SFFWRTCHT: If he’s even allowed to retire and live a normal life…

AM: Well, yeah. Obviously it can’t stay normal, or there’s not much of a book. But I wanted to play with an anti-hero who’d done truly horrific things, but for what he honestly felt were the best of reasons. And how it all comes back to bite him, of course. I’m a big fan of taking standard fantasy tropes and doing something different with them. Both Shadow and Corps explore different aspects of that. I always argue with people who say “Avoid the tropes.” Tropes exist for a reason. They’re useful tools. Just don’t rely on them, or use them without doing something interesting with them.

SFFWRTCHT: And how did people respond to it?

AM: Again, mostly positive, albeit with some notable exceptions. Well enough that I’m happy with the reception. Not the sales, mind you, but the reception. But of course, I would say that no matter what, wouldn’t I? Warlord’s Legacy is the sequel to The Conqueror’s Shadow. Not as well reviewed, but I thought it was better, so what are you gonna do?

SFFWRTCHT: Do you have a rising scale of revealing more horrific things he’s done as the series goes on?

AM: I reveal a lot of the horrible stuff he’s done in flashback throughout the book. So hopefully, you’re already invested.

SFFWRTCHT: What´s your writing time look like? Planned time? Grab it when you can?

AM: I have a set minimum daily word count. If I’m on fire and it only takes a few hours, great. I can write extra or take the rest of the day off. If I’m not in the zone, and it takes all day, so be it. Fortunately, this is all I do, so I can treat it as “full time” when I have to. Also fortunately, my wife works.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you use any special software or music playlist?

AM: No special software yet, though I’m considering Scriviner. Plain ol’ MS Word. I think I’ve given the built-in dictionary a complex. I tend to write to various orchestral movie soundtracks. Which ones depend on my mood and what I’m writing, of course. But I like horror and fantasy tracks, oddly enough.

SFFWRTCHT: So does the bulk of your writing time go to tie-ins or your own work now?

AM: Not sure if I can say the “bulk” leans either way. I’ve got more non-tie-in than tie-in out or coming, but lots of tie-in coming as well. I’m up for basically anything.

SFFWRTCHT: What role do beta readers play, if any, in your process as a professional author?

AM: My beta readers are my wife and my sister. And they’re vital. Nobody sees nothin’ until they’ve seen it. They’ve caught everything from numerous typos to major plot holes or character problems.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best writing advice you ever gotten?

AM: “Write what you want to write, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” Mundane, perhaps, but absolutely necessary.

SFFWRTCHT: For kicks, what’s the worst writing advice you ever gotten?

AM: That I was wasting my talent with “genre” fiction–which was inherently inferior–and I should do “literary fiction.” This from a creative writing professor, who frankly should have known better, and who was clearly basing his opinion of genre on stereotypes, since he knew nothing about it.

SFFWRTCHT: Have you gotten any criticism of your style that you refuse to change, like from editors?

AM: Not so much from editors, but from occasional reviewers. Some people don’t like my tendency to combine sarcastic humor with horrific or serious events. Me, I love that combo. No intention of moving away from it.

SFFWRTCHT: What tools do you use in creating characters? Any shortcuts?

AM: Hmm. Not sure how to answer that. I’m not really conscious of using tools. I just try to develop characters that I think will be interesting to read and write about. A lot of what I do is by feel/instinct, honestly. (Which might be why I have to outline–to counter that.)

SFFWRTCHT: What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?

AM: Well, I’ve got some YA Renaissance-era fantasy coming out form Pyr. Should appeal to my adult readers as well as the younger audience. I’ve got an urban fantasy book complete (at least the rough) which I’m currently trying to market. And of course, lots of stuff that I can’t talk about yet, including some more tie-in material.

SFFWRTCHT: Any plans to write science fiction?

AM: I’d love to. I’ll always be a fantasy/horror guy first and foremost, but I have a few sci-fi ideas floating around. Unfortunately the sci-fi market isn’t doing too well right now, and while I’ll still write them if I feel the need, I have enough other that I also want to write, which are more marketable, that I can’t afford to make the sci-fi a priority right now. If you want more sci-fi, buy more sci-fi. Publishers respond to what sells. Quick plug: I do have some free short fiction on my site, for those who want a taste.

Interviewer Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.

‎3 5-star & 8 4-star reviews THE WORKER PRINCE $3.99 Kindle or Nook $14.99 tpb

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