Nathan Long: The Terribleminds Interview

When Stephen Blackmoore says, “Pay attention to this author,” I pay attention. In part because Blackmoore is wise. In part because I figure maybe Blackmoore’s warning me about some author who’s trying to stab me with a shattered absinthe bottle because said author is jacked up on two dozen five-hour-energy-drinks. In this instance, Blackmoore pointed me to Nathan Long because he’s a smart guy with a new delicious pulpy book out — Jane Carver of Waar. Further, Nathan’s a guy with a lot of game-related tie-in fiction under his belt which I think appeals to you crazy cats and kittens. So, here he is. Meanwhile, find him at his website — sabrepunk.com. Or on the Twitters — @Nathan_R_Long.

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

A few years back, I was head writer on a Saturday morning adventure show called Kamen Rider Dragon Knight, which was of the same genre as Power Rangers and Beetle Borgs, etc, only slightly more adult and ambitious. It was funded by an independent Japanese production company, basically two guys who had made some movies, but who had never done TV before, nor done any business with TV people. This meant they ended up putting a lot of their own money into it up front and praying really hard that someone would buy it somewhere on down the line.

Now, at the beginning, these producers told us they wanted Kamen Rider Season One to be 40 episodes long, which struck us as an odd number, but whatever. If that’s what they wanted, that’s what we’d give ’em. I wrote out a big 40 episode arc, which took our hero Dragon Knight on an epic journey of self discovery and self sacrifice, while at the same time allowing him to kick serious ass on a lot of monsters – and of course save the world. It was a rich and complicated a plot, probably too rich and complicated for Saturday morning, thinking back on it, but like I said, we had ambitions.

Anyhow, on the Monday of the week when we were shooting episode 23, and I was busy cleaning up the scripts for the next three, I got a call from the producers saying they were short on money, and that, instead of 40 episodes, we were only going to do 36, and could I replot the story so it would end four episodes earlier than previously planned.

Well, that sucked, but whatever. These things happen in Hollywood. So I dropped everything and got to work replotting, and had the new plot all worked by Tuesday afternoon, just in time for the producers to call and tell me that, actually, they only had money to do 30 episodes, and could I shorten it again. This time it was a lot tougher. I had a whole shitload of interweaving story lines running, and now I only had seven episodes to tie them up, instead of thirteen. But I did my best and had a new outline sorted out by Wednesday afternoon, at which point the producers called again and said the money situation was really, really bleak, and we were only going to be able to shoot one more episode, so could I wrap the whole series up in one final twenty two page script.

By this time I was tearing my hair out, but I sat down once more, pulled an all nighter, and came up with an outline for a script that, while not great, would at least pay off the main plotline and give the lead character’s arc some kind of resolution. Then, just as I was printing it out on Thursday morning and getting ready to bring it into the office, I got a further call from the producers. They had resolved their money issues. We were back on for 40 episodes. Could I put it back the way it was before.

That I stand before you a free man, and am not currently doing time for first degree murder is entirely because I work from home, and my homicidal rage was spent upon an entirely innocent office chair and an Ultra Man action figure that just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Had I been at the production office, things might have gone very differently.

So, what is the moral of this tale of woe? I think it is this. A professional writer must be able to adapt to whatever changes are asked of him. He must also be ready to change his mind, and to remember that there are a thousand ways to tell every story – and that sometimes he’ll be asked to use every one of them.

Why do you tell stories?

Because I can’t stop. Because stories are secular church. They tell people how to be and how to live. Because real life has no satisfying endings, so we gotta make ’em up. Because I always loved reading stories, but there were some that weren’t being told, so I had to tell them. Because nothing else has ever held my interest for more than five minutes.

Just because.

“Stories are secular church.” What’s a good writer’s prayer? Or storyteller’s mantra?

Dear God of the Beginning, the Middle and the End, may my tale feel natural and unforced. May my meanings be clear and my intentions understood. May my endings elicit the emotion I intended them to. May I reach the reader that needs to be reached, and inspire (or at least amuse) the downhearted. Forever and ever, Amen.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

Know the ending before you begin. I’m not saying you have to know it in detail, but you should know where you want to go. A good story makes a point. It isn’t just some events and characters strung together on a timeline. It works toward a conclusion, and if all you’ve got when you start writing is a hero, a setting and a conflict, you don’t have a story, you have a box of ingredients. You may find a story along the way, but it’s a hell of an inefficient way to go.

I don’t start until I know that “She’s going to chose honor over family,” or “He’s going to realize he’s an spoiled jerk and finally do the right thing,” or “He’s going to save his people and ruin his personal life.” You notice that, even though those are the actual payoffs for some of my actual sword and sorcery stories, they don’t mention swords, sorcery or monsters. That is because, stripped of the frosting of genre, all good stories are about a guy, or a gal, and how they choose to deal with the shit life hands them. The rest is candy.

Endings. What, then, goes into a good ending?

A novel is an extended joke, and the ending is its punch line. You have spent many many pages setting up and complicating a central conflict, whether internal, external, or hopefully both. The ending must pay off those conflicts in emotionally satisfying ways. That doesn’t mean that all books have to have happy endings, or even that they all have to completely resolve. But you have to satisfy the reader’s expectations in some way. That is part of the contract you made with them at the beginning of the book. You cannot promise them chocolate cake for desert all through a long dinner, and then give them bean sprouts, or tell them that the cake is actually at the end of the next book. I am also not a fan of the oblique ending, where the reader is not sure what happened or why. When someone finishes one of my books I hope that the ending will trigger some kind of emotion, whether they laugh, cry, cheer, or curse my name.

A good ending with find strong and surprising ways to pay off both the book’s external conflict (the action story) and the internal conflict (the emotional story) as well as any side conflicts that have not been tied up, and it should do it without appearing mechanical or forced.

What’s great about being a writer, and conversely, what sucks about it?

The greatest thing about being a writer is hearing that somebody read your story and it affected them in the way you intended it to, whether they laughed, cried, cheered or cursed your name.

The thing that sucks about writing is that I have 11 novels out and I’m writing this on the sly at my day job.

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

Favorite word: This changes on a daily basis. Today it’s “batshit.”

Favorite curse word: Cunt. Nothing else sums up a man in so satisfyingly angry a syllable.

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

I’m a teetotaler and a tea snob. I like high-end oolong, the richer the better. Whenever I get money I go down to Chinatown to score.

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

Book: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters – Fantastic characters, delicious setting, perfect construction, heartbreak, romance, and an lovely, satisfying ending. I read it in a single night.

Comic book: The original Tin-Tin comics. Fuck that movie.

Film: Diggstown – hands down my pick for the best constructed screenplay ever.

Game: Planescape Torment – Creaky old-school graphics but the first game I ever played that made me feel like I was living a novel.

What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable zombie war?

I always know where the exit is.

You’ve committed crimes against humanity. They caught you. You get one last meal.

That’s a tough choice. Sushi at Nozawa. No wait, barbeque pork at Hong Kong BBQ. No no, I changed my mind. Ramen from Jinya. Okay, no. I got it. I’d like a meal on the first commercial space station, and I’m willing to wait. That oughta give me 50 more years to live, right?

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

This is a big year for me. Night Shade Books has just published my first original novel, Jane Carver of Waar, which is about a kick-ass biker chick who goes to another world that is not at all like Mars, and I am currently in the middle of a mini signing tour for it here in southern California.

It’s funny to feel like a first time novelist when I have published ten Warhammer novels in the last six years, but I do. I truly enjoy the fun and challenge of tie-in work, but I can’t tell you how exciting and gratifying to be able to put that word “original” in front of that other word “novel” for the first time. Of course it’s terrifying too. My personal writing is finally out there, unfiltered by having to stay true to the IP or write to the target age demographic of a game. I’m bare-ass naked now, and a little nervous about what people will think.

Still, despite Jane, I haven’t abandoned Warhammer, and I have two books coming out from that world as well. The first is the Gotrek and Felix Anthology, in which I have two short stories, also out in March. The second is my third Ulrika the Vampire novel, Bloodsworn, which is coming out in June.

Beyond that, Night Shade Books have already contracted me for a second Jane Carver novel, this one entitled Swords of Waar, which I am cleaning up as we speak, and I have a bunch of other cool side projects that I’ve been putting off in order to finish Jane that I’m itching to get back to.

And on top of all that, I’m looking for a job writing computer games. I hear it pays better than novels, and it’s a medium in which I have always wanted to try telling stories. Any takers?

You’ve worked predominantly with tie-in novels — what’s the trick to writing a satisfying tie-in? Feels like a tightrope walk to me.

There are many different kinds of tie-in writing – novelizations of movies, continued adventures of TV characters, children’s books about Saturday morning cartoon characters, but the only one I have any experience with is game tie-ins, and to me, that kind of tie in writing can give a writer more freedom than any other. It is much more like TV or comic book writing, where you are asked to write new stories for existing characters in an existing world. When I was asked to take over Warhammer’s Gotrek and Felix series, that was the equivalent of taking over Batman for a five year run, or writing a few episodes of 24. You know you’re not the first guy to do it, and you won’t be the last, but you try to bring some spark to the franchise and make it your own.

And if you’re really lucky – like I have been once or twice – they’ll let you come up with your own heroes and create your own series. That is even better than taking over an existing series, as you don’t have to worry about matching the style or storyline of previous authors, and can write pretty much what you want – as long as your editor approves, of course.

As to the trick of writing a good one? Easy. Treat it like a regular novel where someone else has done all the world building. That’s all there is to it.

Why Jane Carver? Why is it a book by Nathan Long and not by anybody else?

Good question. I think it stems from my love/hate relationship with adventure fiction. I have always loved high adventure stuff. I love the look of it, the dash of it, the swashbuckling action, but at the same time I am often frustrated by its limits. The writing can be pedestrian, the characters can be shallow, and the heroes often seem to all be cut from the same cloth – male, unflawed, impossibly noble or unrelentingly dark, and generally not actual humans. Changing that has always been my goal. From the beginning, I have wanted to make adventure fiction with more depth, character, emotion, and a more inclusive cast. I hope Jane Carver of Waar shows that it can be done.

Also, I fell in love with Vasquez from Aliens, and thought she should have her own movie.

Jane Carver is pulp-sodden. Recommend some other good pulp for us to read.

Hmmm. I don’t know if all of these will qualify as pulp, but a lot of them are the ancestors of Jane in one way or another, so here you go:

-Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series – for language and wit

-George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series – for sex and skullduggery

-Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat series – for alien cultures and action

-Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, Scaramouche, etc – for swashbuckling and romance

-Michael Shea’s Nifft the Lean series – for horrific invention

-John D MacDonald’s Travis McGee series – for southern style

-Robert E. Howard’s Conan – for rough-hewn heroics

-Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter series… for starting it all.