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Notes from a Thief

I’ve told the story before, but back when I was 22, just as I was graduating with a writing degree and heading out into the real world, I had a bad experience that left me with a startling insight:

Fantasy is dumb.

That concept rocked my world. I’d spent my whole life devouring fantasy literature (Eddings, LeGuin, McKillip, McCaffrey, Tolkien, and Pratchett), not to mention fantasy games, fantasy movies, fantasy action figures…. Anything I could get my hands on, I fell in love with.

Of course, this was before Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings movies established fantasy as mainstream. But I’d grown up surrounded by fans of the genre.

Then this one experience at a particularly vulnerable time in my life made me reconsider everything. I felt a little bit ashamed that I’d dedicated so much time and energy to…well, kid stuff.

Outgrowing my Own Oeuvre

But I had a finished fantasy novel, so I started shopping it to publishers. I got no response. That was mainly because I was doing it wrong, but I didn’t know that at the time. I took it as proof that I wasn’t meant to be a fantasy writer. I settled into life in my miserable day job and gave up on writing altogether.

I’m a writer, though. It’s in my bones. For several years I didn’t write a word of fiction, but in time I came back. I came back with post-apocalyptic thrillers. I came back with near-future sci-fi cop-drama romances. I came back with a weird story about a sort-of angel/muse who goes around inspiring artists and almost triggers World War III.

But I didn’t write fantasy. And I wasn’t happy. I was learning a lot, and I put everything I had into all those other stories, but I wasn’t really getting anything back from them. Because those really weren’t the kind of stories I loved as a reader.

The stories I loved were the ones I’d stopped writing. I’d mostly stopped reading them, too. I’d cut myself off from one of the happiest things in my life.

Daniel Wood

The story of my life is a character-driven one. It’s made up of the friendships I’ve made (mostly in spite of myself). And one of the oldest and most important friendships in my life is with a dude named Daniel Wood. We met in high school. We played Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons and shared our favorite authors with most of the other fantasy fans out there.

Dan was my best friend in high school. He was in my wedding. We’ve borrowed money from each other to afford lunch at Taco Bell. We’ve crashed on each other’s couches. We’ve shared some exciting experiences and some pretty heavy disappointments. We were friends through it all.

And then one day a couple years back, Dan and I were talking about our futures. I was talking too much about my day job and not enough about my writing career, and he called me on it. So I started talking about my new Ghost Targets series and everything I hoped to do with it, and he said, “What about fantasy?”

I shook my head. “I don’t have any fantasy stories left to tell.”

He hit me with a withering look. He’d been around when I made up all my fantasy stories. Taming Fire was still gathering dust somewhere, but he knew about more than that. He probably could have recited the plot of King Jason’s War or Faithful Jake. He knows the rise and fall of the FirstKing. He helped me design the plot arc of the Brothers War and first suggested the Caleban Knights. He knows what darkness lurks in the heart of Damion Dragonprince (or will lurk, when I get around to that one).

Auric Truefaith and the Godlanders War

But he didn’t talk about any of those. He asked me to help him with a new project he’d dreamed up. He said he wanted to write superhero fantasy–he wanted to get back to the big, exciting fantasy adventures we’d enjoyed so much as kids, instead of the wretchedly stark stuff that’s become so popular since the turn of the century.

So he sketched for me the beginnings of a world. The beginnings of a concept. There would a populist king in rebellion against the tyrant gods. There would be a cloud of superhero-style adventurers who gathered around him–Knights of the Round Table with all the themed branding we’ve come to expect from caped crusaders. And of course there would be villains. Arch-nemeses and super-villains and some of those oh-so-temporary deaths and imprisonments.

And what superhero fantasy would be complete without an origin story? We imagined ourselves a cast of thousands. We made them up and wrote them down. We plotted out a pair of epic trilogies, but decided that before we started on the novels, we should make some short stories to introduce the characters to the world and start generating some reader interest.

Like so many creative projects do, that one burned briefly bright, then slowly faded. We had hundreds of pages of notes, and I even finished rough drafts on several of those short stories and a novella. But they went in the drawer along with Taming Fire, to gather dust for a few more years.

Full Circle

Now Taming Fire is an astonishing success. Now the sequel is already a bestseller. Now I’m writing fantasy again, and discovering all over again how much it beats in time with my own heart.

The world of the FirstKing has an illustrated map! I’m glancing over old outlines and fleshing out new corners of my history. I have fans! I have become the writer I always wanted to be, and I get to do that on my own terms.

And I owe so much of that to Dan Wood, for dragging me back to adventure fantasy. I’m turning a lot of my attention to the world of the FirstKing, but I can never forget the world of Auric and the Godlanders.

In tribute to that, I dusted off one  of those old origin stories, cleaned it up, and published it to Kindle.  “Notes from a Thief” is the first story in the world of Auric, and I dedicate it wholly to my old best friend who knew what I needed far better than I did. I hope there’ll be many more such stories to follow.

3 Responses to “Notes from a Thief”

  1. Dave Doolin says:

    Right on!

    I was into this stuff in the ’70s, back when it was considered, well, some considered it “satanic.”


  2. “I hope there’ll be many more such stories to follow.”

    There had better be.

    ; )

  3. I’m glad you went back to your first love.

    Maybe we all write best when we write what we love. It’s one theory, anyway.