Conversations Between Writers

Tracy Barnett

Tracy Barnett

Tracy is the author of the novel Iron Edda: Sveidsdottir, writer/designer of the RPGs such as School Daze, and Iron Edda: War of Metal and Bone. He is one of the minds behind Exploding Rogue Studios. You can follow him on Twitter as @TheOtherTracy.

MZ: Hey, how’s it going? Are you in the frozen wastelands or somewhere warmer?

Tracy Barnett: It just got pretty frozen here in Ohio. We had a little, uh, warm snap, I guess? But we’re back to mid-20s with windchill. Unfun.

MZ: Hopefully a bit less snow than New England though

TB:  Yeah, we’ve gotten nowhere near that level of snowfall.

MZ: I can’t even comprehend that much snow. I’ve always lived on the West Coast, and you don’t have to shovel rain.

TB:  I was born here in Ohio, and I have to have some snow in the winter, or things just don’t feel right to me. I need the seasonal change. It signals transition, and that’s important to me.

MZ: Yeah we’ve sort of… skipped? winter this year. It’s weird. There are geese flying north, frogs singing at night, and flowers blooming. In February!

TB:  I’ve had winters like that. We’re all still expecting a big freeze and accompanying snow. Dunno if it’ll hit, though.

MZ: Yeah I keep expecting something to hit here and kill off everything that has woken up early.

You’re a bit of a Jack of all Writing, you’ve got a huge amount of projects going. What is most on your mind right now?

TB:  Heh, I guess that depends on the day. I’m getting close to wrapping up the writing for Karthun (current RPG project). I’ve also got a novel in the works, and I’m at the revision stage, to get to the second draft. And there’s a weird thing where even though I want to finish those things, I also want the energy and juice of working on a new idea. Plus, I do regular writing for my Patreon… so yeah. Depends on the day.

MZ: That new idea energy is almost like a drug for me.

TB:  It so is. I get it when I go to conventions, but I get to use to to help me get current projects done. But the thrill of getting a new idea and seeing it through the first draft.. it’s amazing.

Revisions are my anti-drug.

MZ: I love science panels for getting new ideas. I read as much science news as I can get my hands on. Yeah, I’m staring down a several month spell of revisions. I’m looking forward to being done with them, but not doing them 🙂

TB:  Yeah. I’ve come to accept that revisions are a necessary part of writing. No draft is going to spring fully formed from my forehead. I’m hoping to start to learn to enjoy that part of the process, too.

MZ: Me too. I keep hoping anyway. I have a question I’ve meant to ask you

TB:  Sure!

MZ: what’s the story behind Exploding Rogue as a name? It is very evocative in the best way, but I was wondering if there’s a specific incident behind it?

TB:  We wanted to try and come up with a name we could brand and get behind. The name popped into my head one day and I floated it past Brian. He dug it, and drew some concepts for logos. The more we saw it, the more we liked it. Plus, it’s hell of fun to tweet as the Exploding Rogue. He’s the worst rogue ever.

MZ: I mean, who hasn’t had a party where there was a rogue explosion at some point?

TB:  Truth! I wish there was a more compelling story behind it, but we really just needed to find something we could both get behind.

MZ: …it is usually best to stand behind the rogue

TB:  Yeah, the rogue’s either gonna disable the trap or get turned to paste. But then you need to get another rogue.

MZ: also they have a difficulty modifier on backstabbing people behind them

TB:  Unless the rogue is really just projecting an illusion of themselves…Yeah, that’s getting too complicated.

MZ: unless they’ve taken the lesser known talent, “frontstabbing”

Now, personally I find RPG writing and fiction writing to be very different. How does it shake out for you?

TB:  They’re extremely different, but I think that writing RPGs in a conversational tone makes them more similar. RPGs give the framework for stories that groups will tell. You want to give information and hooks for a group to use.

MZ: I think for me, it’s that for fiction I’m very much a pantser up to a point, and you just can’t do that for RPG stuff. You have to plan it out more ahead of time.

TB:  For fiction, you’re in charge of the whole story, tip to tail. For me, it’s almost like I set up the RPG hooks, then write the adventure group that is the cast of characters. For RPGs, I have to think about what I’d like to see in a product I’d pick up from a store, how I’d want to use it. Then I have to deliver that to the highest level I can. And yeah, for fiction, I’m a pantser. No way I could outline a novel ahead of writing it. Not yet, anyway.

MZ: Yeah, thinking of it like a product is just difficult for my brain. It helps more if I’m thinking of someone else’s RPG world. I tend to outline at the 50% or 2/3rd mark by outlining what I’ve already done and seeing what the shape is it helps overcome the muddle in the middle, but outlining to start with tends to screw me up and kills that new project energy

TB:  Yep. I’m only on my second-ever novel, so it’s still new to me. I can tell you that my WIP has a much more fully formed shape in my mind. I have a sense of where I want it to go, and the revisions will help get me there. Like a mental outline.

MZ: I’m writing my.. 6th? Depending on how you count stuff. And this is the first one that isn’t overly long.

TB:  What’s the wordcount on not overly long?

MZ: First draft is looking like 60k

TB:  My first draft of my WIP hit 65k. Hoping for 75k by the end.

MZ: maybe 70k, depending. but my first couple novels were 120-160k 😛

TB:  Yeeahhh! That’s way long for me.

MZ: …which is also why they aren’t published. I couldn’t write clean enough.

TB:  I’m pretty sure that my first novel, Sveidsdottir, should have been longer. But it was near-torturous to write.

MZ: though it turns out you can take a 140k manuscript that was written in 3 acts and cut and expand to make it 3 novels. So, I’m learning. Why torturous?

TB:  1: First novel, and no idea what I was doing. 2: Unintentionally really wrote what I knew. Meaning, the protagonist has a lot of my worst qualities, her wife has a lot of qualities of my ex-wife, and I predicted my divorce through the plot arc of the novel.

MZ: Yowch. Brains man… they sneak up on you in fiction.

TB:  Right? Except my divorce didn’t prompt me to… eh, I’ll save the spoilers.

MZ: Heheheh. Your last few years have been super full of life, both good and bad.

TB:  No kidding. That’s one thing I wouldn’t want to change. There have been parts that have sucked all the butts, but “full of life” is a really good description.

MZ: Yeah, I don’t want to change my past. It made me who I am, and what I’m capable of today.

TB:  That’s seen by some as a trite statement, and it can be difficult to see that when in the middle of it, but it’s true.

MZ: It does seem like a trite statement when you’re currently bemoaning something, but once you can see how it shakes out and all the threads of your life it changed… I guess I see some of the other things I could have done that are much more damaging

TB:  The last part of that statement makes me smile. “I definitely could have fucked up worse,” when said in a positive manner, is a powerful statement.

MZ: Well, for example, my very first relationship was everything that storybooks say you should want. And… also controlling, emotionally needy, and a host of other things. If I hadn’t been in that relationship as early in my life as I was, I would have let myself get into similar situations when I wasn’t as equipped to leave them.

TB:  Yeah, definitely. It just took me… I dunno, six, seven relationships to get to that point? Still. Learning is learning. And that’s worthwhile.

MZ: I try to tell young friends and relatives that part of dating is finding out what you can’t deal with, and making the choice not to deal with it.

TB:  Yeah. 34 year-old me sees that. 17 year-old me wanted to find THE ONE so badly it hurt. And it did.

MZ: Yep. I thought I’d be one and done. But once my one was very much not The One, it took a lot of pressure off.

TB:  Oddly, there are parallels to writing there. Or maybe not oddly.

MZ: There are. You put a lot of pressure on yourself the way you did it, (editorial note: Kickstarting a first novel) but I think you probably condensed a lot of learning into it.

TB:  Now that I’ve gotten my first novel finished and published, I know a lot more about what I want out of my writing.

MZ: I kind of wish I’d given myself a bit more pressure at first. My first novel took 10 years (probably part of why it was so overly long) and then I realized I wasn’t good enough to do it right.

TB:  And yeah, the hubris of “I can totally do this” carried me for a while. And I made it through.

Still, that’s definitely a learning experience you had.

MZ: You’d also produced many finished RPG products before taking on a novel too, so you knew you could push through and finish. I splashed around in the “I never finish anything” for way too long

TB:  That’s a true thing. Finishing is one of the most important first lessons to learn.

MZ: I wish I’d written as many endings as I’ve written beginnings 🙂 I’d probably be better at plotting

What do you wish you were better at?

TB:  Plotting and outlining. For all that I said I like the idea of pantsing, I feel like I could write stories that are better if I could plan better. It’s hard to get a sense of where you are and how well you’re doing if you can’t keep a sense of the story.

MZ: I will admit that someone pointing out that the scene selection screen of a DVD is basically a plot outline helped my brain.

TB:  That’s definitely a good point.

MZ: so now when I outline I try to kind of make that screen for my own use

TB:  I’ll have to give that a shot.

MZ: not imagining it as a movie so much as just looking at it as a collection of scenes with one still image

TB:  Yeah. “This shot encapsulates the scene” is good thinking, I, uh, think.

MZ: I’m a very visual thinker, so it helps more than a spreadsheet, though the spreadsheet is good for editing

TB:  Yeah, I used a spreadsheet to outline Sveidsdottir. Not sure I knew how to apply it properly, though. So many things to learn.

MZ: it depends what you’re doing. When I switch POV it’s nice to know who the POV of each scene is, if it is a talking scene, action scene, word count…. but it doesn’t help for outlining per say Is there anything in particular burning up your brain or that you want to make sure we talk about?

TB:  The thing I want the most right now is to be a full-time writer. I know it’s going to take a while, and take a lot of different sources of income, but damn do I want it.

MZ: Do you have lots of thinky thoughts about diversifying income streams and markets and all that too?

TB:  SO MANY THINKY THOUGHTS I make RPGs via Kickstarter, do a leetle bit of freelance RPG and fiction work, I have a Patreon for fiction and such, and I want to sell a novel to a traditional publisher. And I have a day job. I want that last part to not be the case. I don’t make enough annually that a novel advance is a small thing, so that’s what I’m hoping swings things closer to Fulltimewriterville.

MZ: I like my day job, but I absolutely need a financially stable partner to make both my writing and day job possible.

TB:  It’s not a silver bullet, but it’ll get me closer.

MZ: Yeah. I’m conflicted about full-time writing. Mostly because I’m one of those people that does better with a schedule and can’t be assed to enforce it on myself.

TB:  I’m conflicted about the viability, financially, but I’m so sure of it personally.

MZ: It financially seems so feast and famine.

TB:  That’s why I’d need to keep things diversified. And, if I got an advance, I’d have to set myself a monthly income. And keep a schedule for writing. Because yeah, day jobs provide structure. There’s actually a place near where I live that’s a shared workspace.

MZ: and advances have gotten so much smaller, which is good for earning out… but still.

TB:  If I were able to write full time, I’d want to head there to work, if possible.


MZ: I live in a relatively cheap rural area, but still $5-7k isn’t going to get you much.

TB:  Right now, that 7k is 1/3 of my yearly salary. Like I said, it’d be a start.

MZ: My thought is to have enough products out there that make a small amount on a consistent basis… the little lumps will make more of a difference.

TB:  Yep. My lovely little lumps.

MZ: My lumps bring all the milkshakes to my tummy /looks vaguely ashamed/ that was terrible

TB:  Terribly funny! Is there anything you wanted to make sure you asked me?

MZ: Not ask so much as make sure I mentioned. I wanted to tell you that I really admire you, not only for what you’ve done for yourself, but in how you’re always out there supporting others and cheering people on. It makes a big difference to a lot of people, and you should know that.

TB:  That’s really flattering. Thank you! Damn, now I’m blushing.

MZ: 😀 Mission accomplished