Daniel M. Ford

Author of The Paladin Trilogy

Daniel M. Ford is a teacher, poet, writer, and author of The Paladin Trilogy, forthcoming from SFWP.

Filtering by Category: Writing

Role Playing and Learning to Write

I am pretty deep into the first big developmental and copy edit of Stillbright: Book II of the Paladin Trilogy and let me tell you, trying to get a nearly 600 page novel into shape is no easy task. This is hardly the first time I've been through it; naturally it's undergone several revisions from the first draft I wrote in the winter/spring of 2012 (I know I began it in February of 2012 but am not entirely sure when I finished it). 

Revising  is different from editing. Sure, I would try to clean it up and fix mistakes, but revision, as I mean it anyway, is mostly about consistency and story. Now that it's been through the hands of an editor, it's a whole different ballgame, and there's work to do on nearly every page. 

But that's not what this post is about. No; what it's about is that I've realized how much of my writing style has been influenced by something I spent a lot of time doing back around the turn of the century: MUSHing. 

No, it has nothing to do with sled dogs. 

A MUSH or a MUX or a MUD (or MU* as I'm probably going to use it from here on out) is essentially a text-based online roleplaying game inhabited by multiple player simultaneously. Yes, I said text-based. Back in 1997, we didn't any of your fancy graphics to kill Orcs or pretend to be Jedi. 

The games I mostly played on were Star Wars based; I'd played (and still do!) play the old West End Games (WEG) d6 Star Wars RPG, and finding out that I could, through the magic of the internet, open up a screen and essentially be playing that very game with dozens of other people at any hour of the day was pretty transformative. There is an enormous difference between MU*ing as I experienced it and playing a tabletop session, though; in a tabletop session you generally expect some action or plot to occur every time you pick up dice. On a MU, in large part, you were simply engaging in roleplay, developing a character in concert with other people. There were plots (or TinyPlots, for reasons I'm not entirely sure about) that would involve combat and conflict and possible PC death, but those were fairly few and far between, especially compared to tabletop roleplay. 

I knew at the time that I wanted to be a writer, and so playing on MU*s felt like writing every day. I wouldn't consider them that now, but we're talking nearly twenty years ago now, so bear with me. 

What I'm getting at is that as I'm revising Stillbright, it has occurred to me that a good deal of my writing style, things I do well and things I need to work on, was developed in those days, with the patience and collaboration of a whole host of other roleplayers. 

For the most part I played on a game called Star Wars: The Minos Cluster. I played, briefly, on the game known as Star Wars I, a bit on Star Wars: Brak Sector, and a little more than briefly on Star Wars: Legacies.   I played on a few fantasy games here and there, but never as long or as devotedly as I did on Minos Cluster (MC). There were a couple other SW MU's I'm failing to remember adequately; one that was post Return of the Jedi but ignored the continuity of the growing Star Wars Expanded Universe and posited the Empire splitting into factions, each controlled by different Dark Side disciples of either Palpatine or Vader. And another, the name of which I cannot recall at all, where I continued playing the character I played the most, from the Minos Cluster. 

What I took away from the hours (you could honestly count it in days; when I fall for something I fall hard) is dedication to character building and the importance of dialogue. If you can't keep people interested you're not going to find much RP on any given day. When I'm working on a story and I don't know what to do next, I just have two characters talk until something happens. The reason for this, I think, is that's generally what you did in any given RP session on a MU. You logged in, went somewhere other people were hanging out, and figured out a way to interact with them. 

Now, this has its downsides; because when you're posing your character on a MU, you want to give everyone interacting with you something to react to, you use a lot of character tags, a lot of movement, a lot of description. At least, I did. So this has filled the early drafts of my books with a lot of people moving their hands and their eyes and their brows and their mouths, and in a story that's just not interesting or necessary. In a collaborative setting where the story is being made moment to moment, you want to be clear about what you're doing, how, why, who you're looking at, how you sound, and so on. By the time I stopped playing on MU*'s, perhaps a decade ago, I wrote all my character's poses entirely in "emits," where I could churn out a paragraph (or more) of movement, reaction, dialogue, expression, and so on. I never tried to spam anyone by over-filling their screen and I hope I generally made RPing with me pleasant and entertaining. 

I know for a fact I was terrible when I started, and it was only the patience and the continued good modeling of the people I played with that made me any good. I do think by the time I was done I was at least pretty good at it, given how often I could find folks to RP with. Who was I, and who were they? My most-played character was a Devaronian (the race in the cantina in ANH with horns; they look like devils) with one missing eye and one busted horn named Ereqai Du'Hrollac. Yeah, the apostrophes; in my defense, I was continuing a naming convention given to a Devaronian character in a really solid piece of Star Wars short fiction called "Empire Blues: The Devaronian's Tale" in Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina.  I enjoyed that story so much I even tied my character's backstory to it. He was a hard-nosed career military man (alien) with a drinking problem (because of course) and some war crimes in his past (read the above story, it's honestly quite good) who knew more than his share about blowing things up or stopping things from blowing up (I put a lot of points into Demolitions, is what I'm saying). Eventually he went from being "the EOD guy" to an MP and an officer leading a New Republic Spec-Ops team. 

The point of this blog post, besides reminiscence, is really just to say thanks to all the people I played with back in those days. I used to talk to some of you on AIM or in email, and more than once wound up meeting them in person. A couple, I'm friends with on Facebook. One was already a lifelong friend and one became a lifelong friend (and another I married, but that's a long story I'm not telling). I'm going to attempt a partial list here of people I played with who really stuck with me (by character name, naturally). If I forget you, it's not, I swear, personal; it's just that this was a long time ago and I spent ten years in college (you do the math). So, thank you to; Kylariss, Boon, Bourne, Jervis Ishner, Bec, Hollifeld, Ril, Nahren, Val Zular, James Ravis, Terre, Fontane (played by the fellow who drew the amazing map for Paladin!) Nadirehs, Valdetta, K'rrayn, Harbinger, Pryden...I know I'm forgetting folks from Minos Cluster but that's all I can dredge up right now. Thanks, all of you! 

On other games: Legacies, I mostly played Droshka, an Ubese conspiracy theorist and arsonist, who worked for the criminal cartel run by a Falleen (played by my IRL pal and roommate named above) along with the greatest Gamorrean character of all time, Arglebargle, and a half cyborg badass whose name I cannot, for the life of me, remember. I tried dredging old email accounts but they appear to be gone; I know there are logs on the hard drive of an old computer but I just don't have the time to drag them out just now. We even met up and hung out at the Maryland Renfaire one day long ago. Thank you. 

On another game where I continued playing Ereqai, only now out of the military and working as a detective; Selynn, who once sent me a great piece of art of her character and the above named pal's character who ran a bounty hunter's guild she was a part of. There were definitely other people I played with there, and you were great, and I'm ashamed that I can't remember your character's names. Thank you. 

Thanks, I mean it, to all the above named people AND all the folks I'm forgetting. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but all of you helped me become one, a pose at a time in a galaxy far far away.  

If any of you read this, stumble across it, have thought about any of these old games or all the roleplay we did, please don't hesitate to say hi. 

Reviews and ARCS and Appearances....

This week represented a pretty significant milestone for Ordination: Book I of The Paladin Trilogy. 

I got my first review, from Publisher's Weekly. You can read it here.  They liked it! They call it promising, single out characters and dialogue, two things I work really, really hard on. I'm not gonna lie; this was pretty exciting, and I must've read the paragraph two or three dozen times by now. I know I should probably be acting cool and composed about it, acting like I've been here before, tempering my enthusiasm...but you know what? 

Screw that. 

I haven't been here before. This is my first novel, I've been working on it since August of 2011, and getting a good review right out of the gate from a big publication felt great.

I only let it feel great for a day, though, and went right back to working on Stillbright: Book II of The Paladin Trilogy which is now in the developmental/copy edit stage. I'm not going to bore you with craft talk (I'll do that some other time) but this is easily the most difficult part for me. It's no longer in the fun, creative, anything-can-happen-and-who-knows-what-it'll-be-stage. It's a real thing that I'm working on with other people, with expectations, with professionals involved. Thankfully they're brilliant (just like they were with Ordination) and working with them makes me a better writer and produces a better book. But it's harder than just writing; it takes more care, more precision, more cooperation. 

Also making sure every character's got the same color horse and the same color of eyes and nobody changes their handedness or other salient features across a 500 page novel isn't the easiest task in the world. And now's the time where I've got to make sure it's all getting neatly sewn together. Details; they're evil, but also the most important part of any craft or art, if you ask me (a theory I might expound on later if you're willing to listen). 

So a good review is great, but the thing I can control is how hard I work on the next book. So that's what I'll focus on. 

By the way, I'm still looking for opportunities for appearances; I'm booked the weekend of April 9, May 21, and October 8. Some other dates, I'm hoping, will get blocked off soon. But there is no convention, no book festival, no gathering of fellow writers, readers, and nerds (I use this word out of love; I am a nerd) I can drive to that I'll turn my nose up at. 

I still have Advance Reader Copies of Ordination to give away, so if you're a blogger, podcaster, librarian, bookseller, reviewer, or just someone who wants to stand on a corner, real or otherwise, and shout about my book, get in touch! 

Oh, and while I'm linking things, check out the latest issue of the SFWP Quarterly, wherein yours truly is interviewed, along with fellow spring 2016 fiction writers and GMU MFA alums Tara Laskowski and Brandon Wicks. If you want a little peek into how the Paladin sausage is made (it involves a roomful of action figures, earbuds, and a lot of swearing) or what I've been reading, give it a look. 


The Sword's the Thing: A Look at How I DM

If you know what a Paladin is and that's what brought you here, then chances are you know what is meant by “DM” in the above, but in case you don't, it's shorthand for “Dungeon Master,” the storyteller, arbiter, and referee who runs a typical Role Playing Game (RPG). Probably more often than not, among the various groups of gamers I've been lucky enough to be a part of, I've taken on that role. Not always, but with a natural bent towards storytelling and a willingness to spend more than my budget should really allow on gaming books, it's often fallen to me to provide the backbone of story for the friends I game with. I have no complaints about this; the DM or GM's role is a complex and challenging one, but it has its benefits. For one, they can't play the game without you, so your scheduling matters. Two, and this is key, it has undoubtedly made me a better writer. A good DM learns to gauge an audience, work a room, manage expectations, drop the right kind of clues without giving up the plot, build characters out of thin air, and develop an instinct for killer story moments, the kinds of things players talk about for years after the fact.

If I had to break my DMing approach down into a few rules, they'd be as follows:

1. Let the dice fall where they may; what happens happens when the dice hit the table. This goes both ways! If the players cook up a clever strategy or simply get hot and roll a spate of Nat 20s to take down my big bad, so be it. But I won't pull my crits either.

2. The game – that means the DM – should reward risk-taking. Overly cautious play grinds the game to a halt and turns every dungeon crawl into a dice cleanse.

3. The player characters should get their time to shine, their chance for Big Damn Hero moments. What else are you playing the game for, if not that? Obviously if you're running an 'evil' campaign this may have different wording, but I don't care to run or play that kind of game, generally.

4. The PCs aren't heroes without the real threat of death. I do not think I've ever run a campaign that didn't wind up with at least one player death. I have, essentially, run a campaign that ended in a TPK, or close enough to it that we never picked it back up. I will reward risk, but I won't wave away stupidity, bad choices, and remember what rule #1 up there says.

5. Magic and treasure are one of the most fun parts of the game. I find this to be true as both a player and a DM. There's almost nothing I enjoy more than building a treasure hoard for a significant encounter, or designing specific magic items for player characters.

To that end, I recently designed a weapon for a new character for my current campaign, The Dragon Seas, a homebrew world for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. In another post some day, if there's interest, I'll go ahead and post up some info on that world and you can tell me what you think. For now, though, I'm just going to give what info is necessary. Be warned; the following is deeply nerdy. I mean, to the point of containing words in Elven. Errors in grammar, spelling, or usage there are entirely mine and not the fault of my source, which is https://www.elfdict.com/

The character coming into the campaign is new, but the player is not. In fact, we've been gaming together since 1999. His first PC in this game didn't die, but voluntarily retired due to recent actions by the rest of the party and the dictates of his own conscience. The new PC is going to be an Elven Barbarian. Barbarian by class, mind you, not by instinct or social role; I am pretty liberal in terms of the presentation of a class. So long as we're not altering the actual functional abilities, I don't really care if your barbarian is a gentleman of perfect breeding and impeccable stock who carries a heavy walking stick and has occasional episodes that end with blood under his fingernails and some ruffians beaten to a pulp. In this case I imagine the character is going to be much more like a samurai whose 'rage' abilities are more like a trance he deliberately induces in battle. Nothing changes about the class, only how it's role-played.

So, he's going to be entering the campaign at a pretty high level, 8. His previous character had some pretty sweet items, and took every one of them with him. This new character needs to bring some firepower to replace the old one, and some of that needs to be represented in his weapon. Now, I know that you technically don't need magic items to function in this version, not in the way you did in 2nd and 3rd.

But who doesn't want magic items? I know some folks prefer low magic settings and they have all kinds of good reasons for that.

I'm not one of them.

Give me the flaming sword and winged armor for my paladin every time. Give me a wizard with so many ioun stones orbiting his head he has trouble seeing through them, or a rogue with so many stealth-boosting magic items that a guard can be standing on his foot and still miss him. That's just how I like to play, and your mileage may vary. Besides, the more powerful the PCs get, the more force I can bring to bear to crush them and everything they love.

Now, given the level, and the nature of the campaign, I want to give this new character a solidly powerful sword, one that will remain useful for the entirety of the game. We started last April and I imagine we'll still be playing for several months yet, approaching level fifteen or sixteen by the time we're done.

I don't want to give too much background on my homebrew world in this post, but two things merit a brief gloss. First, there is an ancient order of elven knights-errant (though they need not be knights; any class can be a part of this order) called the Oniranya, or 'Wandering Force.' This is taken directly from the Youxia tradition of Chinese poetry. Second, slavery is an issue of political strife in this world, mostly in the form of humans enslaving orcs, though they're not too shy about enslaving one another, either.

And in the next session – which will be the first one the new character participates in – the players are about to attempt to foment a slave revolt by freeing and arming the thralls held in the slave market of one of the two major slaving cities.

Enter an Oniranya devoted to principles of freedom and courage. Carrying his sword, En Poldor Angwendh. The Breaker of Chains. As I described it in an email to the player:

Your sword has had many names, and has known many hands before your own. Always, it returns to Dolen Caras Randhirim (note: the only elven city in this world) and is given to another Oniranya – but seldom is it passed directly from one wielder to another.

In the wars against the Unnumbered Hordes of the Goblins it was known as Dangweth,or The Answerer. Later it was known as En Felectha, The Equalizer. When it came to you while you underwent your Oniranya training in Dolen Caras Randhirim, it was, as tradition would dictate, given a new name:

En Poldor Angwendh – The Breaker of Chains

It is a +2 Greatsword that is wreathed in flames when drawn and casts bright radiance to 30 feet. When you draw it, as a bonus action, by speaking aloud the command word, you can determine what kind of bonus damage the flames do; Radiance, Thunder, Acid, or Fire. To change this in the midst of combat also requires the use of a bonus action. It does an extra 1d6 damage of this type.

Furthermore, as an action, you may use this sword to cut through any chain, lock, or bar made of iron or steel (or other mundane metal) that is being used to imprison a sentient being. There is no need to roll an attack or damage; the bar/chain/lock is simply cut. This does not effect a magically strengthened or locked door (like 'hold portal' or 'arcane lock') it does not affect anything made of mithril, adamantite, or other exotic metals (gold, silver, platinum). It does not effect doors primarily made of stone or wood (i.e., if prisoners are being held in a room with a locked oaken door, the sword can't effect the door, but if there are bars or chains or fetters binding the prisoners INSIDE that room, those would be cut).

Requires attunement by an elf of CG alignment. In the hands of anyone else it functions as a simple +1 Greatsword.

So, my thought process and some clarification; I want the players to love their signature items. I want them to be meaningful to the character, rather than some rusty old sword they found in a dragon's hoard and said, “eh, it's 5% more effective than this old thing I've been carrying through all my adventures and won fame and fortune with, so out with the old.” I wanted to give him something that will remain useful to his character from now until the end of the campaign, reflect his culture and role, and generally do cool stuff without being overpowered.

So, that variable 1d6 of damage? That's useful forever, especially in this world. Remember that mention above of goblins? They're sort of the old bugaboo that even Stone Giant parents use to scare their children with, for good reason. The first is overwhelming numbers. Individually, they're totally nonthreatening, but they don't come in small numbers. Secondly, these are not standard Monster Manual goblins; they adapt in the midst of combat to develop resistance to whatever kinds of damage are being done to them.

No, it really isn't fair. Hence an ancient elven sword designed originally to fight them called The Answerer.

But goblins aren't seen as much of a threat anymore, or haven't been for eight hundred years, and the Oniranya don't focus only on the past.

I feel like the sword's ability to cut chains is the kind of thing that's fun, and lends color to the game without breaking anything or making it too overwhelmingly powerful.

And in his first session with a new character, an old friend and player will get to immediately prove his value and his total badassery to a bunch of strangers (the rest of the party) who won't have to invent some lame reason to keep him around – one of the perils of PC mortality.

So, there you have it; a glimpse into me as a Dungeon Master, how I create items, how I try to make space for the players to do the cool stuff we all sit at the gaming table for, and one of the many reasons I keep coming back to D&D and games like it; magic swords are just cool. 


Writing Music

I listen to the same music, more or less, every night while I work on a book project. The same playlist, really, carefully constructed and modified over the past few years. Sometimes, new songs slip in; rarely, I take a song out. As it stands, this playlist is roughly 3.5 hours long (it's been as long as 4, I think) and since I work 2-3 hours each night (more on weekends) I tend to hear the bulk of it on a normal night. 

My sense is that 'writing music' is a fairly common part of most of the routines of writers my age or younger, but I could be wrong about that. I'm also pretty sure I hear the people saying “how do you listen to the same 3 hours of music again and again, day after day, and not get tired of it?” 

Well, first and foremost, I choose really excellent songs that no one would ever get tired of. Obviously. Secondly, the fact that I choose the same music over and over again is likely part of what helps me stay focused. If I was constantly changing it up, I'd probably be more easily distracted. My writing playlist hasn't become white noise by any stretch, but I am not paying attention to the music while I write. I'll get absorbed in writing a scene and then suddenly I'll catch the familiar strains of a song by The Decemberists or John Prine or The Indigo Girls and think, hey, it's that song, I love that song. I do, very seldom, change it up. I have an Emergency Album* for when I'm having a hard time and if I feel I need to crack the whip a bit, I'll put on a bunch of sea shanties. This has mostly happened

To a large extent many of the songs on my playlist either have a specific personal significance, are related in my mind to the nature of inspiration** or the act of creation, or help remind me why I write and how to stay honest about its challenges and my goals. 

So I thought when this blog opened, one interesting way to generate some discussion is to run down my writing playlist, in stages, and say a bit about why each song is on it, why I chose it, and so on. 

I want to offer a quick editor's note here; your comments are welcome and encouraged. I'd love to hear what you listen to while you work. What I'm not going to put up with are comments that say, essentially, “OMG YR MUSIC SUXXORS.” It's fine that you have that opinion. I probably don't enjoy most of the music you listen to, either. And that's ok; the world is a rich tapestry, and so on. It's just that comments like that are not useful or interesting, and this is my blog, not your personal forum. Remember that the philosophy here is talk about what we like and why we like it, not what we hate and why it sucks. 

So, here, in order, are the first five songs of my writing playlist: 

1. Ripple, The Grateful Dead – Setting the tone here. If you are not down with the occasionally noodly acoustic jam, you'd hate this playlist. So, why Ripple? Is it my favorite Dead song? No, that's probably Sugar Magnolia or Box of Rain or One More Saturday Night (I'm not AS big a Dead fan as I am of some other artists, but I will always regret never seeing a show). But this song, with its direct address of the listener; 

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music
Would you hold it near as it were your own?

I mean, that's what I'm trying to do as a writer, yes? Get someone else to hear my voice and, hopefully, treasure it. There's a lot of mystic stuff in there, later on (Let it be known there is a fountain/That was not made by the hands of man) that I find relevant to my experience of writing and creating. I keep coming back to the fountain and it hasn't dried up yet, and so on. I don't want to get too mystical, or write an essay about this song (Lord knows I could probably write an essay about every song on this list) so let's move on before we're both uncomfortable. 

2. He Was in Heaven Before He Died, John Prine – John Prine is the greatest American songwriter since Woody Guthrie. Fight me. You'll lose.

3. January Hymn, The Decemberists – I have a sense that other fans of The Decemberists sort of look at The King is Dead as an anomaly of an album, their 'bad' album or their 'popular' album. I'm not about to play the game of 'who's been a fan since what album.' I bought The King is Dead on release day and it has never gone out of my regular listening rotation, not ever. This song is beautiful, it moves me for reasons I can't really pinpoint. To some extent it's largely responsible for making my wife a Decemberists fan as well, as she'd found their other albums hard to get into, but fell in love the moment she heard this tune.

4. In My Life, The Beatles – Some of you are probably shocked, SHOCKED to see this appear on this list, knowing how I feel that The Beatles are endlessly overrated. I still feel that way, especially about John Lennon. I'm not going into that; remember that this is for stuff we like. I'll just say that this is easily my favorite Beatles song. 

5. Paradise, John Prine – Not his first appearance on this list and it won't be his last. I meant exactly what I said above. I think John Prine wrote more masterpieces by the age of 25 (seriously, go look at the track listing for his first album, do it, I'll wait, and note that came out when he was, I think, 24) than most people have any hope of writing in a productive lifetime. 

There is also the fact that Paradise was one of my dad's favorite songs, if not his absolute favorite (other contenders are mostly via CCR, The Clancy Brothers, or Simon & Garfunkel, but Prine is definitely the part of that list I connect with most these days). This song has the highest play count on iTunes for me, vastly higher than any other. 

Well, there you have it; the first glimpse at my writing playlist. What do you listen to while you write? 

*Takk, by Sigur Rós. Been leaning on that for writing music since my MFA days. Most of my poetry thesis was written while listening to it, for which I can only offer my sincere apologies to the fine musicians of that outfit. 

**Real Talk, and I cannot be dissuaded from this point; inspiration in the sense that people use it in regards to making art, and especially writing, is essentially bullshit of the highest order. Inspiration comes from the habit of doing the damn work. The muse finds you when you're already at your task. 



All contents of this website are copyright Daniel M. Ford and may not be used without permission. In short, don't be a jerk. Background image/cover art © Santa Fe Writers Project.