Revelations in Cold Iron spun out of Monica Valentinelli’s Make Art Not War Challenge. I had concerns about not just the 2016 US election but all sorts of things happening around the world, including the Brexit, the French elections, the German elections, the Syrian refugee situations, climate change, science denial, educations standards around the world… many things. I wanted to write about it, but I didn’t know how. I had an idea for a setting, and after tinkering about it ended up as Cold Iron.
This was the most difficult thing that I ever wrote, not just on a technical level but on an emotional one. It was definitely a journey and a profound educational experience. Here are five things that I learn writing Revelations in Cold Iron.
Sometimes the Target Audience is You
Conventional wisdom says that when you’re writing a book you should know who you’re writing it for. What sort of people will want to read this thing? Why will they care? How can you make sure you’re giving them what they want? Because I am a self-professed hack, I embrace this concept and it has served me well.
With Cold Iron, though, I was writing for me. There are two levels to this. The first is that I just needed to get a whole bunch of ranty stuff out of my system so I could move on to other things. If other people connected with it, if it landed among fellow travelers, fantastic. If not, I said what I needed to say, cleared my head and my heart, and could move on to the next project without that baggage rattling around in my brain.
The other level was a matter of product. Behind the scenes, I needed to see how long certain processes took for a book of this size. Writing, proofreading, editing, layout, all of that stuff. This would allow me to better budget my time and make a more concise project plan for future books. Even if everyone absolutely hated the book and it didn’t see a single copy, I would would have learned something. So on that level, the audience was myself because it served a purpose and fulfilled a need I had.
Don’t Worry About How It Will Be Received
Cold Iron was meant to be a quickie. I thought it would be between 75 and 100 pages, a sort of one-note thing that I could bang out to fill a hole in my production schedule and, as noted about, use it as a test case for some production stuff. It not only ended up at over 200 pages, it went through three separate drafts. And by drafts, I don’t mean revisions. I mean I wrote this game over from scratch three times.
The first draft was full-on ranting and vitriol with game states. It made me feel better, but there was absolutely no way I could release it. That made me nervous, because the possibility that the types of people I was railing about could start attacking me seemed real. I mean, people get death threats over far less these days. So the second draft was far too tame. It had no teeth at all, and I think the people that the final game does resonate with would have been disappointed with it. The third draft is the one that was released, and to be honest, it probably leans too far toward the second draft.
If I had stuck to my original vision, I would have ended up in the same place. The first draft would have been toned down in editing, and looked a lot like the final release. By worrying about who would hate it and who would love it, I wasted quite a bit of time and energy. I need to trust my own creative vision.
You Need an Inciting Incident
In most great stories, and most compelling roleplaying game settings, you start with some sort of status quo. This is the world before. Then there’s an inciting incident. Something major happens, either to the setting or to the protagonists. The rest of the story is the protagonists dealing with the ramifications of the inciting incident.
There’s no clear single event in Cold Iron. The Party comes into power, but I left out details of how that happened so that guides and players could determine their own, or use something from the real world. Most people assume that it was the 2016 U.S. Election, but as I state at least twice in the book, I didn’t want the setting to be dated or locked to a place. If you want to play it as present-day America, great. If you want to play it as the Brexit, or what’s happening in Turkey, or what almost happened on France, you can do that. Ten years from now, you can hopefully look at the news, pick up Cold Iron, and play something based on what’s relevant then.
That’s how I tried to turn a possible weakness into a strength, but it’s the one thing I’m dissatisfied with. The alternate take, which I think is a point I could have punched harder, is to give every character their own inciting incident. What was the moment when they realized the Party’s policies and actions affected their life? When was the instant that they learned about the existence of the Cult of Moloch? Boom! The rest of the character’s story is dealing with that.
I Know How Long Things Take
This is a point that I already touched on above, but it bears repeating. Now I know how long it takes to put together a setting for Lighthouse. I have learned how to do things, so the next setting should take slightly less time. At the start of the year I set down some big, hairy, audacious goals about the books I wanted to write and publish this year. I knew that I’d end up writing less at the beginning of the year, as I floundered through the learning curve, and more toward the end of the year as I gained confidence and had a better handle on what I was doing.
Let It Go
People have asked Warren Ellis what Spider Jerusalem, the protagonist of his epic Transmetropolitan series, would think of current events. Ellis says he has no idea, because he got the bastard out of his head years ago. After three drafts, I was ready to left go of Cold Iron the day it was released. On the day it came out, the white supremacist march on the University of Virginia campus happened, and the next day there were the riots in Charlottesville. I really wanted to let myself get sucked in. Here are my fictional villains, in real life! And I had to let it go, for the sake of my own mental health. I could not allow myself to get mired in that sort of darkness, because I had been trying to write allegorically about things that had been frightening and frustrating me for years.
I completely understand why some actors hate doing press tours for movies. They finished that project. They have their own memories of making the film, good and bad, and their own emotions tied up in it. Now they have to pitch the thing, and they’re already on to some other project, and all of that baggage, for lack of a better term, comes welling up. That’s not the head space they need to be in at that moment.
So for now, I need to let it go, and focus on finishing up Starlight Manifesto, and allow Cold Iron to speak for itself.