Ghosts in the IM: Conversations between Writers

So, I had this idea that I’d talk to other writers about writing and post it up our conversations for other people who don’t really know what writers talk about amongst ourselves. I’m ultimately very lazy, so I made it Instant Message conversations so I wouldn’t have to transcribe anything. I also had the ulterior motive of wanting to talk to some writers one on one that I’ve never had the opportunity to. For my inaugural conversation I chose:


Richard Dansky



Richard Dansky is a writer and game designer, an enjoyer of Scotches and watcher of Sasquatches. For more about him check out his website, wikipedia, Twitter, or y’know go buy his newest book: Vaporware


Minerva Zimmerman: Do you ever worry what Google will eventually do with your chat history after you’re history?

Richard Dansky: Actually, I’m hoping that someone’s going to go through them and compile and annotate them, so that writers of distant generations will be sure to get all my obscure Van Der Graaf Generator references.

I mean, in a lot of ways, this is the new literary correspondence. It’s just much more available to those of us with terrible handwriting.

MZ: Oh man, I’d hate to be the poor bastard that’d have to annotate writer chats

It’d be a grad student, I’m sure of it

RD: And probably their first step on the road to a career as a supervillain.

MZ: Well, they would have all of the body disposal methods writers discuss among themselves.

Now, I don’t actually know you all that well. We harass each other on Twitter and have mutual friends but I think this is the first time we’ve talked directly.

I went and did a little research (I checked your wikipedia page) and I knew about White Wolf: Wraith, and that you wrote for video games, but for some reason I never really put it together that you work on the Tom Clancy games.

RD: It’s a mixed portfolio, I confess 🙂

MZ: I’m kind of curious how that happened since it doesn’t seem like an immediate fit for the spooky reputation I know.

RD: Red Storm was founded in part by Tom Clancy, and so the Tom Clancy’s games were always very much at the core of what the studio did. I actually was brought on board for another project entirely, one that was non-Clancy in nature.

But when we were bought by Ubisoft and development on Clancy games got spread out to various studios, having central subject matter experts was seen as a good thing – people who could elucidate what “Clancy” was and wasn’t in terms of games, and who could say “No, you can’t set a mission there because we did it two games ago” and so forth.

And on the writing side, my skill set was a good match for that and I was already in-house, so it just sort of rolled from there.

MZ: So you default were the game world bible, and thus became the keeper of the bible?

RD: And I was very good at generating more verses rapidly as needed, as it were.

MZ: gotcha. What do you enjoy about game writing vs. fiction? I know for me, it was the fun of doing all the world building without having to go through the full-draft and then editing process of fiction.

RD: The fun of game writing is collaboration, both with the other people working on the project and with the players. My words, combined with models and animations and physics and systems and everything else, makes something amazing that I could never make by myself, and to see that come together is a thrill. And then, once players get their hands on it and get to do /their/ own thing with it, that’s fun all over again.

At the same time, fiction’s a nice change of pace from that precisely because it’s not collaborative and the restrictions that come from coordinating with other folks – disc footprint, number of voice sets that can be loaded, etc. – don’t exist. So I can cheerfully do my own thing and have an army of dead warrior leaves in the millions without wondering if the AI engineers are going to have a heart attack.

MZ: I have a really really difficult question.

RD: Yes?

MZ: If you were a radio DJ with your own show, what section of what prog rock song would be your opening music?

RD: Oooh.

Tough choice there between something from “Scorched Earth” by VDGG or the opening chords of “Slainte Mhath” by Marillion.

I wear my neo-prog influences proudly on my sleeve. And in my voluminous collection of concert t-shirts.

MZ: I personally think it’s one of the more interesting things about you

I dunno what that says about me

RD: It says that you’re easily amused, possibly 🙂

MZ: I do resemble that. I think that just makes me have a more fulfilled life though.

One of the other things that sticks out for me about you, is your Kill the Goddamn Vulture column

Is “the vulture” something you struggled with? Ok, what I want to know is; Does it get better?

I keep thinking that this writing gig will get easier and the self-doubt will ease up, but it seems to mutate.

RD: It is, and it’s something I’ve seen many of my friends, all of whom are ridiculously talented people, struggle with as well.

You see brilliant folks who are great writers or singers or musicians or designers or whatever do all the work and finally have the opportunity in front of them where it can pay off, and they decide they’re not worthy or they’re not good enough or they don’t deserve to do it or hey there’s this other thing that they’re going to focus on until the opportunity’s passed. And that’s painful.

But the good thing is if you recognize it, you can do something about it. You can spot yourself “vulturing” and not let yourself get away with it.

MZ: Are their passed opportunities in your own past that help remind you?

RD: And it helps if you have friends who love you who will point it out, too, and call you on your own bullshit. God knows I’ve needed it on more than one occasion 🙂

MZ: I know that’s what’s made the difference for me in some cases, because I’ve had those times when I know I let something amazing slip through my fingers and I don’t want to do that again.

RD: I have a list of opportunities I just sort of aw-shucksed my way past, and I pull that out every so often as a reminder. Because I not only hurt myself by not taking an honest swing at those, I hurt the people who’d helped get me those chances, and that’s what really bothers me still.

MZ: Wow, yeah. That sounds really familiar.

I don’t understand people who claim they got to where they are all by themselves. I know there have been so many people who have caused me to have opportunities. I hope I’m paying it forward for other people, but sometimes I don’t know that it’s something you can ever really pay back.

especially when you didn’t cash in some of those opportunities you were given

RD: There’s a certain value to self-mythologizing, I’d guess, and I don’t mean to denigrate the hard work anyone who achieves a level of success puts in. But I know how many folks have helped me along the way, and I always try to give them credit, and to follow their example by helping others where I can.

MZ: Where do you sort of consider yourself to be in your career arc? I know I have trouble sort of seeing where I am in the big picture and tend to focus really myopically on where I am Right Now. I consider you to be a fair distance ahead of me on the arc and I’m wondering if you have a better idea of where you are?

RD: I have absolutely no idea where I am in my career arc, or if it can really be described as an arc at all. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had the chance to work on some wonderful projects in multiple fields – best-selling RPGs, million-selling AAA videogames, writing a novel that got a starred review in PW – and occasionally I look at my credits list and say “I did all that?” Because it’s always easy to nitpick what you’ve done and say “Oh, I got lucky there” or whatever and downplay that you’ve done something really exciting and cool.
But at the same time, there are so many things I want to do that I haven’t done yet. I want to do more novels. I’ve got a card game I’m hoping to publish soon. I’m attempting a graphic novel collaboration with someone, and even the cockamamie sports blog I write because it amuses my father.

So I guess if I were at the end of the arc, it would be an arc that I could be proud of. But I’m hoping I’m in the middle, and that I’ll always be willing to be at the beginning for something new.

MZ: I like that. I want to be perpetually in the middle.

I like the feeling of having a long future of lots of things.

I guess I just wish I had some long fiction to point at too

RD: As Brian Upton once told me, you never add multiplayer at the end of the development cycle, because adding it means you’re back in the middle 🙂

MZ: there are additional reasons not to add multiplayer at the end too 🙂

Is there something you wish you could tell your baby writer self?

Like, right when you were starting out and starting to take it seriously?

RD: Ease up on the Diet Coke 🙂

On a more serious note, I would tell my younger self to build and reinforce my professional writing habits. It’s easy when you’re 23 and made out of caffeine and lightning and you’re immortal to say “well, I’ll just pull six all nighters in a row and BAM”, when really developing a solid, steady work process would obviate the need for that sort of heroic effort.

And probably produce better work in the end.

There’s certainly a romance to staying up 97 consecutive hours to write fiendishly, but there was also a certain romance to gallivanting over the Alps with a poofy shirt and a bad case of consumption while writing poetry, and that tended to turn out poorly for everyone except the pathogens.

MZ: Is there anything additional you would tell your 30ish self?

RD: “Get some sleep”. You’d be amazed at how much better everything is if you get enough sleep.

MZ: There really isn’t a good transition for this… but, Sasquatch.

RD: Oh dear. Yes.

MZ: One of my favorite bits of following you on Twitter is your livetweets of watching Finding Bigfoot.

RD:I have such a love-hate relationship with that show. On one hand, I love cryptozoology and I love the enthusiasm that the four cast members go out in the woods with. I mean, they’re actually going out there and looking, and they’re doing it in good faith. At the same time, sweet fancy Moses, there are moments when you just look at what they’re doing or they’re saying and it’s just, c’mon, really?

I freely confess I have never seen, heard or smelled a bigfoot, but I caught the bigfoot bug from an episode of “In Search Of” – the old Nimoy version.

MZ: I loved that show! I’m a huge fan of “ancient secrets” and cryptozoology and the like shows.

RD: The Amityville Horror ep freaked me out. I was maybe 6 or 7 when I saw it and it was pure nightmare fuel.

MZ: I have never managed to watch past the first 20 min or so of the original movie, and then to see all the “true crime” investigations of the house… AHHHHH

RD: I love those shows too when they’re done in a spirit of inquiry. When it’s “bad rhetoric 101”, like, say, Ancient Aliens, well, then it’s hate-watch time.

MZ: yeah, I’m not a fan of Ancient Aliens

RD: But I maintain affection for Finding Bigfoot. Ranae’s actually RTed a few of my snarkier comments, which means I can die happy.

MZ: Well, I should probably wrap this up before we talk all evening.

How about a couple influences you think other writers should read/be aware of?

RD: Read “The Simple Art of Murder”. Read Bradbury’s “Zen In the Art of Writing”. Read stuff you wouldn’t read by choice to broaden your horizons. It’s a big world out there with a lot of stuff that can make your writing better – be open to it.