Aaron Rosenberg is a prolific novelist and roleplaying game designer. His credits run from White Wolf Roleplaying Games such as Exalted and Mage to the Pete’s and Penny’s Pizza Puzzles children’s books to Star Trek media tie in novels and original novels, some under his cooperative publishing venture Crazy 8 Press.
Paul Weimer sat down to talk to Aaron about his work and career.
Paul Weimer: My opening question is the deceptively simple one: Who is Aaron Rosenberg?
Aaron Rosenberg: Heh, yeah, you don’t start small, do you?
And that’s a hard one to answer. In fact, my agent was just asking me the same thing the other day: Who is Aaron Rosenberg? Is he the guy who writes fun, fast, action-packed science fiction like Star Trek and StarCraft and Stargate: Atlantis and the original Dread Remora space-opera series? Or maybe he’s the guy who does fantasy novels like WarCraft and Warhammer, and the modern-day fantasy anthology ReDeus: Divine Tales? Is he the guy who does tense occult thrillers like the O.C.L.T. series? Or is he the guy who writes mysteries, like half of his other books have been, just wrapped up in other genres? Maybe he’s the guy who writes really silly humorous novels like the Eureka novels and his original SF novels No Small Bills and Too Small for Tall? My agent’s advice was to pick one of these and stick to it, because it’d be easier to market myself if I focused on a single area.
That’s hard for me, though. Because really what I am at heart is a storyteller. And when I come up with a story, I don’t stop and think to myself, “oh, wait, that’s a fantasy story and I only do SF these days,” or “darn, that’s a straight-up mystery and I just do occult thrillers,” or “well, sure, but that’s a dramatic story and I only do funny ones.” I just think, “Oh, that’s cool, I want to write that next!” And then I do. Which is terrible for marketing myself but I can’t see giving up so many wonderful stories just because they’re spread across different genres and tones.
That probably sounds a bit pretentious of me. But it isn’t that I think, “well, if I don’t tell that story no one else can.” Or even “I’m too good to be restricted to one genre.” Though I guess maybe I do think the second one. But I think if a writer only likes telling stories in one genre, that’s great for him or her. On the other hand, if he or she has other stories to tell, and wants to tell them, why not? Yeah, some fans may not pick them up because they’re fantasy instead of thriller or mystery instead of horror, but I know when I like an author’s voice I’ll consider anything he or she has written, as long as the story itself interests me. I guess I’m just hoping people who like any of my books will do the same with me. Maybe at some point I’ll have stories in mostly one genre, and then that’ll be all I write. But for now the stories that come to me are all sorts, and I don’t want to pass any of them up.
AR: You mean besides the art of writing REALLY fast?
Game writing is all about the worldbuilding. And to this day it astounds me how many authors—not all, of course, there are those who do a great job at worldbuilding—never do that properly. They come up with a story, a setting, some characters, but they never stop to look at the underpinnings. How does this world work? How does its magic function? What sort of history does it have? What is the culture like? All of these things are crucial, because all of them shape the characters and their stories. If you say that this is a world where there’s never been rainfall, where does drinking water come from? How do the oceans and lakes regain the moisture that evaporates out of them? How is there any plant life outside of those bodies of water? How can anything survive the harsh sunlight that beats down on them every day, since there’s no cloud cover? What sort of cultures would have to form in a world like this? What sort of occupations and rules and restrictions? What would the characters who grew up never knowing anything else be like? Writing games taught me to always worry about the world behind the story, and to actually develop that first. Oh, I don’t have to know the name of every town and river before I start writing, but I do need to understand what this world is like, how it works, and see how that influences the story I’d intended to write.
On a completely different level, writing for games taught me to be a professional. Especially with licensed work. Any time you’re working on an RPG, unless it’s something you came up with yourself you’re writing for someone else. That requires you to listen to what they want from you, and to make sure you can deliver that properly, cleanly, and on time. Then there are the actual licensed RPG,s like Deryni and World of WarCraft and Lord of the Rings and so on, where you’re working not only for the game company but for the license holder, so you learn how to satisfy everybody’s demands on your writing, how to write something that’s true to the property and works for the game and makes you happy you wrote it, all at the same time. And all under deadline. It’s a natural transition from writing for games to writing tie-in novels, because it’s the same basic process. And in some ways novels are easier, because you don’t have to worry about the mechanics as much. Though before I started my Exalted novel and later before I wrote my Warhammer trilogy I actually statted the main characters out according to the game rules. That way I knew exactly what each character was capable of, what skills and abilities he possessed, even what equipment he had on him. I couldn’t pull a rabbit out of the hat because I’d already noted that he didn’t have a hat in the first place!
PW: Developing that line further, from RPGs to Tie-in novels and fiction (such as your recent story in Tales of the Far West), what has been the transition like going from that to original work of your own? What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages?
AR: Writing original novels is hard! It’s so much easier when other people tell you “I want you to develop this society over here” or “detail this character’s adventures in this place” or “turn this movie into a novel.” When you have to invent all of it out of whole cloth, that’s really difficult.
On other hand, of course, it’s very freeing. You get to invent not only the specific elements of that story but the characters, the world, the whole shebang. It’s daunting, sure, because you have to rely on your own imagination and your own worldbuilding and your own plot-sense (yes, it’s like a superpower) and your own ear for dialogue and all of that, and be able to put it all together and write it well enough that readers can get into it and hear it and feel it and enjoy it.
It’s all on you, that’s both the good and the bad of it. There’s no one else to blame if the story stalls or the characters fall flat, but there’s also no one else to take credit when everything works. When someone comes up to you at a signing or a con or online and says “I loved this book!” you know that you did all of that yourself.
The other big difference between original work and tie-in work or work for hire is deadline. When you’re writing for someone else, you have a clear deadline, usually a short one. When you’re writing an original novel, though, usually you come up with it and write it and clean it up and THEN you send it out, which means it’s up to you to get it done in a reasonable amount of time. There’s no one around to tell you, “hey, buddy, it’s been five years–you done with that book yet?” Of course, that also means if you realize you need an extra week to flesh out a subplot you can take it and no one’s going to yell at you or dock your pay, but you can’t let that turn into three weeks or three months or three years. You have to police yourself, which is really difficult.
PW: Speaking of policing yourself, how do you manage the myriad distractions tempting writers today? How do you buckle down and get the wordcount done, when push comes to shove?
AR: That’s one of the hardest things for any writer to do, to stay on target and stay focused and hit word counts and deadlines. I’m lucky in that I’m very deadline-driven–I hate to blow a deadline, so that really is a powerful motivator for me. The way I work is to mark my calendar when I get a new project. But I don’t just list the due date–for anything more substantial than a short story I work backward, figuring out how much time I have and how much I’ll need to write each day, plus when I really need to start writing instead of researching or outlining. Then I write those daily word count goals on the calendar as well, and I have to hit those before I can quit each time. It helps that I don’t have a single game on my computer–I spent way too many years addicted to Forty Thieves (an old computer solitaire game) to risk that again! I do have my email up in the background while I work, but I won’t check it while I’m in the middle of writing. I’ll do a quick scan before I write, if I’m taking a break and stretching or hitting the bathroom, and then after I’ve made word count for the day, but not in between. Same with the Internet in general–once I’m writing I only pause and hit the Web if I need to research something or pull up a map or some such. I know I could easily get sucked into browsing the Internet, so I make sure it’s only when I need something specific and only until I find it or realize I’m not likely to. And the whole time I’ve got the word count progression and final deadline looming over me from the calendar right beside my desk, so it’s easy to remind myself how much time I have to get everything done, and how I can’t afford to sit around browsing when I should be writing.
PW: What sort of software and technology do you use when writing?
AR: Nothing too exciting, I’m afraid. I write in Word, have for years–I’ve got friends who swear by Scrivener and it does look cool but I just don’t have the time to get up to speed on a new program and a new work flow. I’m solidly a Mac guy, and I work on a Mac Pro desktop. I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a tablet and a Bluetooth keyboard at some point and writing that way–cheaper and more portable than a laptop–but, again, haven’t had the time to test that out.
PW: Time is the fire in which we all burn, and there is always the push to get the newest thing done. What’s new and forthcoming from your desk?
AR: Right now I’m working on The Honor of the Dread Remora, which is the second book in my Dread Remora space-opera series from Crossroad Press. Then I’ll be starting Digging Deep, my second novel in the O.C.L.T. occult thriller series David Niall Wilson and I are doing there. Steven Savile and I are working on a Kickstarter for an epic fantasy series we want to do, and Robert Greenberger and I are going to be co-writing a different epic fantasy some time early next year. I also just did the junior novelization for the upcoming movie 42: The Jackie Robinson Story, and I’m finishing a junior novelization for Disney as well.
PW: That’s quite a full plate, Aaron. Where can readers find out more about you and your work, and keep up with all that you do?
AR: I do like to keep busy. My website is at gryphonrose.com, though I’m terrible at keeping it updated. It’s easier to follow me on Twitter @gryphonrose, or on Facebook. I’ve also got an author page on Amazon, and one on crazy8press.com, and I’ve been told my Wikipedia entry is reasonably accurate.