Thursday, 20 August 2015

The Writer's Corner Episode 3: Colin McComb, The Oathbreaker series

Here's my written interview with veteran writer and game designer Colin McComb. Nowadays, Colin is known as the Creative Lead/lead writer and a game designer for the upcoming video game, Torment: Tides of Numenera.

Instead of going too much into his video game chops, and making this a Game Dev Corner, I thought I'd focus on Colin as a writer. As of today, August 2015, I've found the first book of his Oathbreaker series to be one of the best fantasy stories I've read this year.

1. You've been writing for a good 20 years, from TSR table top PnP game campaigns, to video games, to music in magazine reviews. Fantasy and medieval worlds seem to have become your passion and fortitude. As a writer of a novella series, what is the one of the main features, qualities, or ideas you wish to express to your audience? In this medium of novella, what do you want to say that you couldn't in others?

Mostly I just want to tell an interesting, engaging story in a world of my own creation. It’s not, at least on a conscious level, intended to be any sort of polemic or message-based story. Perhaps there’s something of human nature and power’s tendency to corrupt, both within and without an organized system, and something of the viciousness of established regimes as they accrue power to themselves and stamp out dissent. I first started writing this during the early years of the Iraq War, so there’s a critique of the faux-patriotism, jingoism, and misplaced rage of that era as well.

But all of that is coloration, rather than the main point - which is the story.

The novella format was a challenge for me because as a piece of static media, there’s only one way to communicate with the readers. There’s no open-endedness of encounter design, no sandbox for the readers to play in - it’s a linear, directed experience, but it’s also one over which I have sole control… so it was, in large part, a personal experiment as well.

2. Oathbreaker: Book 1 is so far my favorite story to read this year, on syntax alone. (note: I'm about a book a month, and a stickler for English. The grammar, to my eye, is impeccable; which is one of the greatest things as a critic that I can say to an author.) I noticed in your credits you have a dedicated editor, Ray Valesse, as well as several friends, family, and patrons. Are they all involved in the editing process, how long is it, and what is it like? (note: I just discovered, upon writing question 4, this was a KickStarter project. Interesting reward tiers.) I'm curious, as lots of authors seem to have problems with editing, and they feel pretty beat up throughout the process.

Ray was the primary editor for the project. I’ve worked with him for over twenty years now. Part of the reason I like working with Ray is because of his keen eye and careful nature, but part of it is that he couches his critiques in professional language. He directs his feedback at the work itself, and his suggestions uniformly make it better. Yes, it’s something bruising to get that level of attention, but it’s better to get it at the developmental level than it is to get it at the mass-market level. I should add that I’m a huge proponent of the editing process. Writers in general need to recognize that editors want the same things they do - to make the strongest book possible. A good editor can save a bad writer… or at least help a bad writer limp to publication.

3. You have an odd way of writing chapters. You start off introducing a character, but then go off into character vignettes for entire chapters. This coincides with the main 2 characters, but it's connected and told from several side characters' perspectives, and in 1st person. What influenced you to use structure, instead of telling a 3rd person omniscient story from start to finish? How does that impact your sense of pacing you wish to grant the reader? (note: Your style of pacing, I noticed, felt more like a slow, gentle march, as if the reader has a long journey ahead.)

I wanted to tell a story not just about the titular main characters of the story, but about how the actions and the choices of those characters affect the world around them - especially as Terona bends its might toward finding Pelagir and his stolen infant, how this impacts the people who are simply trying to survive in the midst of this regime. A lot of times in fiction, it feels to me that the slaughtered townsfolk are there to serve as a crutch for the main character. They don’t exist people in their own right, but as dramatic dressing for a hero’s journey. I was trying to get a sense of what it’s like to be a common person in a genre more often reserved for kings and knights and court wizards… a fantasy Howard Zinn, maybe.

It’s a little more disjointed in the sense of pacing, but I’m not trying for an unbroken stream or recitation of facts. I’ve always liked the vignette, because used properly it’s a great story in its own right, and you can use vignettes to tell a larger story that gets pieced together over time. There’s a narrative arc here, but it’s intentionally occluded, and there’s much we don’t know about that happens off the page.

4. Oathbreaker has the makings of a serial epic. Book 1, or Part 1, is a novella. In "The General's Tale" chapter, you describe a fantastical world outlined in this persons' memoirs. You describe numerous ideas: Simonides method of loci, noble Houses and groups of mages all part of a political plot, and later with Pelagir, describing a series of Knight Elite characters. What kind of research and preparation do you do before constructing a tale, and how many stories do you have planned? (i.e. Do you have a middle and end already in mind, or are you more an episodic storyteller? Will all these named characters have their own interwoven plots?)

I tend to read popular science journals, check out cool stuff online, read about medieval and Renaissance history, and so forth as background material. For preparation in writing for this universe, I’ve drawn maps, sketched out timelines, created some of the Houses, listed the magi and their specialties, made the orders of knights… you know, all that world-building stuff. I’m trying not to let the world-building dominate the story; it should come out naturally… which is another advantage to the vignette style of writing.

I have at least two more books planned (one to gather the final protagonist, and then one that puts the three of them in contention with each other and with the empire). I do have the middle and end semi-planned, though I’m more than willing to let the characters take me where they need to go, rather than the places I have planned for them. They will definitely have interwoven plots.

5. The anthology book, Dreams in Shadow, showcased a small and very different tale of a shaman's mystical-tribal-like quest, which is part of Oathbreaker: Book 2. It seems it can be it's own independent short story. While short stories are my favorite type of story, I find they're more fun and allow for a freedom of experimentation compared to other prose. But, I get the impression -- at least from Book 1 -- that writing for you is not only very satisfying, but a huge struggle. Is it just a relaxing fun experience, or am I reading into things too much? Are you settling into your own anthology-esque novella-style, or will Book 3 be a stream-of-consciousness beer haze?

I love to write, but I need a deadline to keep it moving. That constant pressure to push ahead is hugely valuable, because otherwise it’s far too easy to get caught up in editing and reworking sentences, nitpicking when I should be writing, and staring blankly at the page because I’m afraid of messing it up. It’s perfection paralysis, essentially, and i have to keep reminding myself that the first draft’s most important job is to exist - improvements can only happen when the first draft is ready to be improved. Editing will always happen later - the first draft is about creation. I’ll note that this is a battle that I have been fighting for twenty+ years, so this may not be resolved anytime soon. ;)

Book 3 will likely continue in the same vein as the first two. However, I’m probably going to scrap and rewrite the interstitial pieces (that is, the pieces directly about the titular character), because I’ve found I don’t like the story there much, and I need to define some more elements to make it more satisfying. That will probably require some rework on the surrounding stories. Beer haze is good for the first draft, but drafts 2-7 require a more concentrated focus.

6. Your current writing work, for the game Tides of Numenera, which you've shared some secrets in recent presentations (e.g. Rezzed), revolves around the generic and compulsory-contextual question of "What does one life matter?" Without context, without jumping into existential philosophy (which if you were using, I'm sure you couldn't reveal anyway), and aside from using sex & violence, how are we going to care for your characters? What's the drama? Will it be a profound sense of connection to their plight, miniature Shakespearean style tragedies, or something unique to the game world and its function and player choices (i.e. Death to The Nameless One, the Sensory Stone scene, etc.)?

We hope that you’ll care for the characters because they’re interesting and well-written. We want them to have some breadth across the human experience, with the hope they can shed some light on their shared existence. Each of them has a story, with losses and desires that provide their animating forces. Some have lost friends, some have lost family, some have lost themselves. They’re seeking something - absolution, vengeance, immortality - and the choices you make can help them grower into stronger, more fully realized individuals… or into stronger, less-human killing machines. Each of them has a unique perspective, and each of them has a different approach to our game’s central theme, and the way you treat them will change their answers accordingly.

In answer to the last part of the question, yes. That is, we want to connect you to their respective plights, we want to paint some with tragedy (and some with comedy/pathos), and the stories of others will exist as a function of the world.

Follow Colin on twitter at: @ColinMcComb


  1. I wonder if there any way for me to get through with this comment without appearing a complete and utter douche, but I'm rather inclined to risk it.

    First off, I'd like to thank Colin for this interview and wish him success in all his beginnings. After all, I have a personal stake in one of them, and hope for the new Torment game to be as close as possible to that Pinkfloydesque entity that I baselessly dreamed up.

    It ought to be mentioned though, that I did not conceive this comment solely out of gratitude for your an Colin's work. In part the promise of a game key is to blame, but only for setting me up with an idea. So here goes nothing...

    Stefan, it's safe to assumet that you often get bombarded with viewer requests that invariably have to be discarded for lack of time. But what if instead of giving out the Into the Stars keys, you could allow for your audience to name games which they would like to hear your opinion on? Is it even feasible?

    1. Depends on what my opinion on them would look like. Doing a plot analysis of some wouldn't be worth it, and others would take too much time.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.