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[SFFWRTCHT] A Chat With Author, Editor and RPG Designer James L. Sutter

James L. Sutter is one of the creators of the Pathfinder role playing game, based on D&D, 3rd edition. He lives in the Pacific Northwest and writes and edits RPGs, tie-in novels, while working for Paizo. His stories have appeared in Dungeon Magazine, Dragon Magazine and anthologies like Human Tales and Beast Within 2. In addition to editing the Pathfinder Tales novel line, he also edits anthologies of Pathfinder and classic pulp stories. His debut novel, Death´s Heretic, a Pathfinder Tales novel, just ranked number 3 on B&N Book Club´s Best Fantasy Releases of 2011. A talented guitar player and performer, he lives in the Pacfic Northwest with wild roommates. He can be found online at, on Facebook and on Twitter as @JamesLSutter!

SFFWRTCHT: Congrats on the praise for your novel from B&N. Where´d your interest in SFF come from?

James L. Sutter: I’ve been interested in SFF for a long time. One of the first books I remember buying was Richard Knaak’s The Crystal Dragon. (It had a holographic cover. Shiny!)

SFFWRTCHT: Nice! Who were some of your favorite authors/books growing up? Besides just those whose books had shiny covers, of course.

JLS: Fantasy and science fiction have always been my favorite genres. Worlds other than our own–what’s not to love? My favorite authors growing up included Joel Rosenberg, Richard Knaak, Michael Crichton, Dan Simmons, Patricia C. Wrede… Many of those are still my favorites, honestly!

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

JLS: I actually never went to a con until I was a developer at Paizo. It was quite a shock, and a lot of fun! Definitely never did any cosplay, at least not at a convention. I’m not above crazy public art, though!

SFFWRTCHT: What made you decide to write about the Outer Planes and how long have you wanted to be a writer? Are any of your characters inspired by actors or real life people?

JLS: As soon as I realized I could write about the Outer Planes, I knew I had to go there. Everything else was justification. I’ve been writing all my life–some of my earliest memories are of my parents’ typewriter, writing 10-page “novels.” If they made a Death’s Heretic movie, Salim would be the guy who played Sayyid from Lost. He was in my head the whole time.

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

JLS: In college, I published some short stories and studied creative writing, and helped start an undergraduate erotica zine. It was called Penitalia: Collegiate Erotica at the University of Washington–it was filled with frustrated undergrads. It was my first glimpse into the editorial process–at the time, most of my paid writing was journalism. I was good at gonzo. Heh! I learned all sortsof stuff with Penitalia… we sold out our first print run in a day, hand selling at a card table. Later I started working at Paizo, and RPG design dominated my writing for several years. These days it’s a fiction-gaming balance. Fiction has always been my first and greatest love, but I learned a lot about being a professional writer from working in gaming!

SFFWRTCHT: How did your work as an editor and as a game creator influence and inform the writing of your novel?

JLS: Working as a game designer had an enormous influence on Death’s Heretic, as it’s a gaming tie-in novel. It’s a world I’ve been living in and helping to create for the last five years as a developer and editor at Paizo, so I had a lot of advantages over someone who was coming to the world for the first time. Writing in a shared world is like historical fiction–lots of research.  But I think you can also see in the novel that world design is one of my favorite parts of SF. I like books that take me on a tour of a world, and wanted to make sure to hit some interesting locales!  From gaming, I learned about building worlds, and about making sure that your story focuses on the characters. It’s easy to get bogged down in your world’s history, but if it doesn’t affect the plot/protagonist, the reader doesn’t care. I also learned writing habits (good and bad) from my coworkers, many of whom have been doing this longer than I have. They taught me to outline, how to be creative on command, and most importantly how to just churn out the words. The hardest part of writing is starting, and watching other pros made it seem so much more reasonable and methodical. A lot of folks idolize writers to the point that they have trouble writing themselves. You gotta break through that.

SFFWRTCHT: When did you start writing and how long until that first sale?

JLS: My first fiction publication came after my first year at college–no money, but a decent little literary zine called Hobart Pulp. My creative writing prof had recommended it, and the story was accepted immediately–that first spark of encouragement was huge and made it much easier to slog through the many dry spells to follow. The story was “The Weight of Wings”–magical realism about a world where everyone suddenly wakes up with wings but is so focused on their day-to-day that they don’t take advantage of them, just go to work, etc. A little heavy-handed, but I still enjoy the concept, and the moral remains worthwhile. My first paid publication was an SF story called “Dreamcatching” in Aberrant Dreams in 2007, four years later. Dungeon magazine was my first gaming publication–an adventure about a creepy old lady house co-written with Wes Schneider.

SFFWRTCHT: Where did your involvement with/interest in RPGs come from? When did you start writing RPG stuff? Was it just as a fan first or did you wait until they´d pay you?

JLS: For RPGs, I had played a lot as a kid, but hadn’t played in years when I started at Paizo. I actually sold my first D&D adventure before I bought the D&D 3.5 rulebooks (with that same paycheck). Little chicken/egg action. But I loved RPGs ever since my 5th-grade teacher taught us to play D&D. I would invent them all the time, up through high school. Then I started playing in bands and dating, and gaming took a back seat for a while. I started at Paizo when I was 20. I was fresh out of college, working newspaper jobs, and determining that I wasn’t made for reporting. I loved writing articles, but I hated ‘facts’. In college, I had done a lot of gonzo journalism–I’d do a thing then write about it. I’d go on crazy blind dates, or on-set at a lesbian porn shoot, or audition for Wheel of Fortune, etc. Turns out, aside from a little work at alternative papers, the real world doesn’t really want to pay you to do that so much. So I was looking for magazine jobs, found Paizo (Dragon, Dungeon, Amazing Stories), and contacted them with my resume. They didn’t have any editorial openings, so I started at the bottom, populating their web store with images at a nickel a jpeg. After a while of interning, I impressed them enough to get on staff, and I’ve been working there since. I’ve worn a lot of hats. Nowadays I still do a fair bit of world development and editing, but I’m primarily the head of the Pathfinder Tales fiction line.

SFFWRTCHT: How did you break into editing? What kind of training did you have?

JLS: In terms of formal training, what I had was a creative writing BA and a lot of newspaper articles and short story credits. In this business, I think a portfolio–proof of what you can do–is way more important than formal education.  The best way to learn to write and edit is to write and edit. Gain experience and resume credits. Everyone was an English major.

SFFWRTCHT: How do you approach working with authors as an editor? Has being an author yourself changed your approach to authors any?

JLS: As a tie-in editor, I really try to support authors, to help them be the best they can be and to take creative ownership yet I also expect them to understand that, as tie-in writers, they’re providing a service, not just being artists. Being an editor has made me a much better author, not just in terms of the prose, but in how I conduct myself professionally. I know what pressure an editor’s under, and I understand that if I can make an editor’s life easier, she’ll love me forever. The authors that get gigs aren’t the best artists–they’re the ones that are easiest to work with, who take advice, hit deadlines. One of my first editors said “You’re an amazing author–you’re always on time and wordcount!” The prose? “That’s nice too!” I’ve never forgotten that.

SFFWRTCHT: Death´s Heretic is about an atheist named Salim who has a debt to the goddess Pharasma and serves her as an investigator. Besides the B&N notice, you´ve gotten a lot of attention for dealing with Atheism in a fantasy setting, which is not common. Where´d the idea for Death´s Heretic come from?

JLS: I’ve been fascinated with the idea of atheism in fantasy for a while now, and got to explore that some in Death’s Heretic. I actually wrote a previous story about abortion in a fantasy setting, which Black Gate bought (not yet released), and I’m fascinated by the idea of our modern theological debates in a fantasy setting where gods are objectively real.

SFFWRTCHT: Was the Athiest sect, the Pure Legion, already a part of the Inner Sea world or did you invent them for the book?

JLS: The Pure Legion–the militant atheists in Golarion’s nation of Rahadoum–wasn’t my invention. It was already there. I’m just the Paizo staffer most interested in the issue, and other such controversial topics (like alignment and morality). To Salim, atheism isn’t about denying the gods’ existence, it’s about refusing to worship them, to maintain independence. Sure, gods are powerful, but so are kings and merchant lords. You may fear or obey, but you don’t worship them. To him, faith is indentured servitude–a few powers and promises in return for your soul. Naturally, this isn’t a popular view. Salim is, in many ways, the epitome of both faith as a prison and faith as free choice… plus, ya know, some zombie ass-kicking.

SFFWRTCHT: At the same time, the ending seems to make a compelling argument for faith which I found an interesting contrast. Why forego more traditional, familiar settings for these fantastical realms? Solely because of the religious themes?  Are you an Athiest yourself?

JLS: Actually, I’m not an atheist, though many of my closest friends are. I’m a staunch hands-in-the-air agnostic. I’ve seen too much I can’t explain to say definitively that there isn’t a god. But I’m probably a lot like Salim in that the idea of worshiping in an organized sense makes me uncomfortable. I’m all about personal divine revelation and am continuing to wait for mine.  It’s a valid question, though! I’ve actually been very curious to find out what religious and atheist folks think about the book. Because I think that SF which tackles contemporary social issues is really valuable.

SFFWRTCHT: Salim was featured in short stories before, correct? With Heretic, did you start with characters or plot?  

JLS:  Salim was actually created for Death’s Heretic–the short story “Faithful Servants” came later (That last link has the whole short story, illustrated, for free. There’s also a podcast version on Starship Sofa.)  For Death’s Heretic, I started with the character and the epilogue scene, plus a travel itinerary, and worked from there. I actually put myself through all the same rigors my authors go through, but publisher Erik Mona played my usual role. I pitched, and did a full chapter-by-chapter outline, and incorporated his advice. And actually had to jump through some extra hoops, just to be sure. But fortunately, he liked what I came up with! He and fellow editor @cpcarey were the main editors on my book, though lots of folks provided assistance here and there.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any plans yet to follow this up with other Salim stories or Pathfinder books?

JLS: At the moment, I can’t say for sure, but it seems likely Salim may show up again in a future book (if this one sells!)

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

JLS: I’m a big fan of writing on a schedule–if you wait for inspiration, you’re toast. I write two to three mornings a week, before work, when I’m fresh and not stressed/worn out yet, and the house is quiet. On a reasonably good day, I can get 1000 words that way, and that steady plod really adds up. The only quiet times are when the 4 roommates are at work. And I don’t have a word count–just write until I’m late for work!  Right after college, while unemployed, I wrote a new story every day (for the 4 days until I was no longer unemployed). All of those were eventually published. I’m a proponent of the idea that if you make yourself write, something will result. The starting is always the hardest part for me–once I’m actually writing, it’s easy to carry that momentum.

SFFWRTCHT: Are you more naturally a short or long form writer?

JLS: I always thought I was a short story writer, since I was terrified of the commitment of a whole novel, but having written one, novels are way easier. You can just keep rolling, not have to think up a new premise and characters every 5000 words!  (Not that either are easy, but that 100,000 words of short story is harder than 100,000 words of novel.) Actually, many of my short stories are setting-driven at their heart–asking “what if’s” about the world.  Character driven would be best, and plot driven almost as good, but I am what I am. World-builders unite!

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

JLS: I don’t use any special software, though Google Docs is useful, and I listen to ambient techno while writing. Death’s Heretic was written to Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada on constant loop.

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

JLS: I actually don’t use beta readers these days. I think writer’s groups are really useful, but when dealing with deadlines they aren’t always convenient. An author flying solo needs to be careful, though, you have to be very honest with yourself. If something isn’t working, don’t gloss over it or assume it’s okay. Trust your gut. That’s true in general–don’t expect your editor or beta readers to catch things. If you think something might be broken, fix it. I think reading aloud can definitely help! I should do more of it… it helps keep your sentences short and snappy.

SFFWRTCHT: Tell us about writing RPGs. How much originates with you? How much is a team effort?

JLS: For RPG adventures and sourcebooks, Paizo commissions everything from authors and gives them outlines for what we want. Since I work there, I generally get approval for a topic and then have free rein to outline and write about it until it’s done.

SFFWRTCHT: I know you have some short stories due out. What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?

JLS: New stuff I have coming out in fiction includes a podcast version of “Overclocking” at Escape Pod in February. New game stuff includes Distant Worlds, a guide to the Pathfinder solar system, and an adventure in the Shattered Star AP. Yeah, I got to design the solar system pretty much by myself, and it’s a chance to indulge my science fiction tendencies.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you ever role play a scene for a story or novel scenario?

JLS: I actually keep my gaming and my writing pretty separate–too much of a control freak, I guess!

SFFWRTCHT: Last question: You write RPGs, but do you still regularly play the games?

JLS: I indeed still game! It’s a weird thing in the RPG industry that more time writing means less time playing, but it’s important. I’ve been in one Pathfinder campaign or another with my coworkers for years now. They’re fabulously entertaining.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, 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. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SF Signal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.‎ Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

19 5-star & 4-star reviews THE WORKER PRINCE $4.99 Kindle or Nook $14.99 tpb