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[SFFWRTCHT] A Chat With Author/Game Designer Erin Hoffman

Erin Hoffman and her muse

Erin Hoffman has set a record for the most Chrome tabs open at once in her office. Born in San Diego, she now lives with her hubby, two parrots, and two dogs in Northern California and works as Lead Game Designer at Loot Drop. She’s the author of the Chaos Knight series from PYR Books, Sword of Fire and Sea, followed by Lance of Earth and Sky in April 2012. Shield of Sea and Space will follow in 2013. Her video game credits include Dragon Realms, Shadowbane: The Lost Kingdom, GoPets: Vacation Island, Kung Fu Panda World, and FrontierVille. She writes for the award-winning online zine The Escapist, and her fiction and poetry have appeared in Asimovs Science Fiction, Electric Velococipede, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies . Erin’s games have won multiple awards and have been played by millions of kids and adults worldwide. She is multiethnic, with family names including Lee, Asakawa (yonsei), and Drake in addition to Hoffman. She can be found online at, on Twitter as @gryphoness and on Facebook.

SFFWRTCHT: Whered your interest in science fiction and fantasy come from?

Erin Hoffman: Greek myths, and– hope you’re sitting down—a gryphon. Specifically the griffin in Piers Anthony’s A Source of Magic, which I got from my local library. What’s funny about that griffin now that I think about it—his name was Crombie—he was a transformed human, so also intelligent.

SFFWRTCHT: Are gryphons normally dumb then? They aren’t really in your books.

EH: Usually—good question though. Requires an analysis to know for sure. The original main characters for “ancient Andovar” in the Di’Quinasev writing group were gryphons.  We all met on an AOL board called ‘gryphons’. I still don’t know why it existed. I’d like to know, someday.

SFFWRTCHT: Who were some of your favorite authors and books?

EH: I read every Xanth book after Source, then the Adept books, Incarnations, etc. Moved then to Mercedes Lackey, Anne McCaffrey…McCaffrey had a huge influence on me both as a writer and a world-builder. Later, Philip K Dick, Ursula K LeGuin, Neal Stephenson.

SFFWRTCHT: When did you develop an interest in writing and how did you pursue that? Classes? Workshops? Learn on your own?

EH:  That’s blurry because I wrote for ‘play’, as a kid and then online as a teenager. Formed an online writing group, where Andovar began.

SFFWRTCHT: So does that mean you and the group are self -taught? Learned as you went?

EH: Yeah, very much. None of us were educated/studied. We wrote for fun purely. I should say though that I read everything I could get my hands on… Marion Zimmer Bradley articles on writing, etc.

SFFWRTCHT: Were you involved in Cons or CoSplay as a kid?  Anything besides collecting free AOL disks to get free internet as you confess in your book? 

EH: Haha. Not at all. I don’t even think I knew what they were/that they existed. I ordered Valdemar filk CDs from a catalog, though.

SFFWRTCHT: How long did you write before making your first sale? Did you start with shorts or novels?

EH: Again blurry. I think two years. I wrote literary fiction in high school, won some awards. First fantasy story to sale was two years. I started with shorts. But there was also huge volume of writing I did for my writing group in “ancient Andovar.” I think it amounts to over 300,000 words. I also wrote small bits for Pern fandom, and the character I played in Dragon Realms. Very early fanfiction, zine type stuff, etc.

SFFWRTCHT: What drew you to fantasy/epic fantasy, not sure where youd classify these novels?

EH: Ahh, sub-genre. I think it’s adventure fantasy. I set out to write “non-brick” fantasy— three hundred pages, fast-paced with an epic sweep. Synopsis-based chapter compression. Tight plotting. I think ‘epic’ has come to mean “cast of thousands” (and thousands of pages). I’ve very little interest in such books except academically.

SFFWRTCHT: So no Chihuhua killing with your book then. What, to your mind, are the core elements of a good fantasy?

EH: I love fantasy best that takes you to another place—a delicate balance between action and invocation. I want to go somewhere.

SFFWRTCHT: So something that transports you to a different world, unlike our own?

EH: Not just unlike our own but one that is in harmony with our own, that makes us look at our world differently.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you usually start with characters or plot?

EH: Kind of moebius strip question.  Character, I think. Maybe world->character->plot. Because, to me, character comes from world/system.

SFFWRTCHT: Whered the idea for the Chaos Knight come from?

EH: As a character he came from a world intersection—he is a force produced by the world that acts in opposition to it.

SFFWRTCHT: Hmmm, so like God creating the Devil. The world creating its own antagonist?

EH: Very much. Or maybe like alchemy. Here’s what’s in the world, what happens when we add character! Phosphorous! I think of it as looking for truth, if that makes sense in this context. Truth through conflict.

SFFWRTCHT: Give us a brief elevator pitch of the plot for Book 1.

EH: Lou Anders calls it “Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion meets Avatar the Last Airbender with Final Fantasy.” He outpitches most. I say it’s wild elemental adventure fantasy with gryphons, wrapped around an existential core & fundamental ethical questions.

SFFWRTCHT: Um well, you’re each pitching to different levels of readers, I’d say.

EH: Yes, see?  Easy to out-pitch me.  I think it’s a difference between high concept and where I come at it from, inside out.  (tries again) Vidarian is obligated thru an ancient family debt to fulfill a ‘Godfather’-esque promise.

SFFWRTCHT: There you go. And he gets involved with gryphons and a magic war of sorts.

EH: Yes. He starts following the thread into a secret world and keeps unraveling more and more. Discovering his own abilities, discovering reality was not as it was taught to him or thought by most.

SFFWRTCHT: You have a lot of the first book at least taking place on board seafaring vessels. How much research did you do about that?

EH: Quite a lot. I have books, I’ve been aboard ships. My dad worked his whole life for the US Navy, so he fact-checked me too.  I remember in particular I was referring to “stairs” (for clarity) and he was insistent I should change it to “ladders”, so I did.

SFFWRTCHT: Tell us a bit about the setting, cities and world please. What inspired its creation and aspects?

EH: It was important to me that Vidarian, being so deeply sea cultured, not just live on ships but think in them, metaphors, etc. I wanted to do elemental magic, shapechangers, and gryphons thrown against Golden Age of Sail. (Am a Sid Meier’s Pirates! junkie.) And I wanted to treat magic like science. Meaning, I wanted a non-earth force that resulted in technology and industry.  Then I wanted nonhuman sentient species that would intersect with this human corporate technological enterprise. -> Andovar. Lance is almost entirely about consequences. It’s a book that happens after the story, in a way. I wanted to explore what would happen if the hero made the big choice at the end of book 1 and the results weren’t all good.

SFFWRTCHT: You game designers and your fancy schmancy vocabularies. Like science, your magic does seem to have different magics i.e. sciences.

EH: It’s primarily planar, as in “dimensions of reality” planar. The elemental ‘plane’ is actually “three dimensional”. Intersecting the elemental plane is a telepathic plane. You (people, sentients) have a ‘position’ within these. The closer you are to the positions of others on the telepathic plane, the stronger your ability to communicate with them. The closer you are to an elemental ‘pole’ on the elemental dimension, the stronger your magic in that element. (And therefore also the weaker your abilities in the opposing elements, generally.) Shapechangers use chaos magic ‘inside’ the crystal of the four elements. So do healers. ‘Subelemental’.

SFFWRTCHT: Right, so characters communicate telepathically and verbally.

EH: Right… I thought the first thing that magic approached as science would do was specialize.

SFFWRTCHT: Is there a gap between book one and book two chronologically or does Lance follow closely after?

EH: There’s a short gap of four to six months between each of the books.

SFFWRTCHT: Why choose a male POV character? I know the lack of strong female characters is often a complaint. 

EH: A very good question and one I thought a lot about, especially after writing the book. I really wanted to know why I did that. I’m still not completely sure. It wasn’t deliberate. My next protagonist will be female. I think in the end it was fantasy hero -> male.  I don’t like that, but have to own it. It’s something I’ve been working on changing. But I also stand behind him as a character. I was also a total tomboy for most of my life. I think they’re connected. I think of Vidarian as neutral on gender identity… Especially as the books develop and he learns more about the world. It begins in rigid definitions of self and reality, becomes other. For me this is him undergoing some unfolding of reality that the world traverses, the external happening internally. Revelation.

SFFWRTCHT: Well, it was interesting to me that the magical beings in the beginning are females, except gryphons but then V discovers his own magic.

EH: Right—I think that was my way of balancing it. The world in the beginning is matriarchal.

SFFWRTCHT: Of course, then Ariadel’s father is magic but it’s a lost art and he’s the sole remaining practioner in hiding.

EH: Right. That’s another dimension of where the magic went, and there’s a very specific reason why… It actually has to do with a magic application of neuroscience and I’m getting to it in book three.

SFFWRTCHT: One element is that some powers have disappeared but they are wanting to get them back and it’s a less controllable form.

EH: Right. Everything in flux. That’s the other thing… because it’s an organic force, it changes proportional to sentience.

SFFWRTCHT: In Book two, Lance, Vidarian Rulorat faces the consequences of opening the gate between worlds.  Elemental magic is awakening after centuries of dormancy, bringing magically-powered wonders including flying ships and more. You had me at flying ships but ancient automata too? Come on!

EH: Ha! My short fiction reveals a robot fixation. But it’s thematic too.

SFFWRTCHT: Does Book three occur with a gap or just pick up where Lance left off?

EH: The precise amount of time is actually a little bit of a spoiler, but I will say it’s more than a month and less than a year.

SFFWRTCHT: How much time did you spend thinking up all this complexity? Did you do it all before you wrote anything?

EH: Well, it was kind of bits and pieces over a long period of time—hard to measure. There was a ton there: Magic system, Diagrams of magic system.

SFFWRTCHT: Are you planning more with your magic system, game or books? It sounds very intricate.

EH: It’s very complex. I think of interactive fiction as a kind of ultimate form. Text based games specifically. But that’s a slow thing to work on over a long period of time. I definitely think cross-media.

SFFWRTCHT: Was it planned as a series from the start?

EH: Originally I wrote part one of book one, a novella. When I expanded it into a full book, I knew it’d be a trilogy. The novella I wrote the short for got cancelled.

SFFWRTCHT: Have you written other shorts in this world besides that?

EH: Yes! Two available free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies:  “Sightwolf” and “Stormchaser, Stormshaper”, which sold book  one. Lou read “Stormchaser” in 2009 and asked if I had a novel set in that world. I have a few others cooking—always interested in expanding the world through other perspectives. And tell very different kinds of stories. My goal with Andovar is to be able to have almost any kind in it. “Sightwolf” is my take on ‘gritty’ first person fantasy.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you outline or pants it?

EH: Heavy outliner. I start with ton of brainstorming/research/thematic exploration, then synopsis, then chapter-by-chapter outline.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you ever find that a book changes direction, radically, midway?

EH: Not radically. Sometimes what will happen is I’ll grind to a halt & know I need to fix something. But the big stuff stays on track if I’ve done the right theme planning.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you use Scrivener or other “writing software tools”? Write to music? Any rituals?

EH: Scrivener, omg yes. Saved me from going postal. Was using yWriter and lost about 5k words of book one. As for rituals, I go back and forth. Changing things up is actually good for my process. I used to write to music but at the moment am not.

SFFWRTCHT: Besides Adventure fantasy, where do you think your writing interests will take you?

EH: All over, I hope. Have interests in middle grade, technothriller, cyberpunk, science fiction, urban fantasy.

SFFWRTCHT: Whats your writing time look like-specific block? Write til you reach word count? Grab it when you can?

EH: Yeah, grabbing. Late nights / mornings. Right now my target is 6k per week, which means  around 1k per night. Unusual, exhausting.

SFFWRTCHT: So what other projects do you have going on for the future? Finish book three, a few short stories? Any science fiction story plans?

EH: I’m mainly focused on wrapping up the trilogy as best I can. It’s a big ending. I know what my next project will be, but it probably won’t be announced until I sell it…or move on to something else.  Scifi… in short fiction, yes. In bigger fiction, my thing now is stealth sci fi… which you might say Andovar is.

SFFWRTCHT: Good luck! Tell us a bit about your gaming background. What’s a Lead Designer do?

EH: Lead Designer is different between companies and company sizes. I’m what you might call a ‘vision holder’ here.

SFFWRTCHT: Does that mean you keep track of someone else’s vision or you make up a game and guide production to reality? Do you do any programming? Write the game story? Create characters? Do art?

EH: Vision: in this case, it’s my vision. Big step up for me.  I don’t program, but can script – I do the story, yes, characters. Not art.

SFFWRTCHT: Very cool. You dream up worlds for a living. Awesome gig!

EH: It’s about as good as it gets, yes.

SFFWRTCHT: Last questions: Best writing advice you ever got? And worst?

EH: Oh man. Best advice is a quote from Ursula K LeGuin. “A story should convey one precise emotion.”

SFFWRTCHT: To clarify, a story as opposed to a novel? Or story or novel?

EH: I think she meant short story, but I also apply it to novel. Longer length = more complex emotion. Worst… hmm. I really can’t think of specifically bad advice. Anything that isn’t ‘get paid’, though.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and several short stories featured  in anthologies and magazines.  He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction.  He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter under the hashtag #sffwrtcht. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF PublishingGrasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.