2020 Year in Review

Last week, I shared my reading list from 2020 as part one of summarizing my year. If you’re interested in seeing what goes into my mind to create the stuff in this article, you should check it out.

This week, I’m going to discuss what I’ve been working on—both published, and unpublished.


The Year of Jonstown

At the end of 2019 I published my first piece, an adventure for the tabletop roleplaying game RuneQuest, titled The Throat of Winter. It was published as one of five initial products provided on the Jonstown Compendium, Chaosium’s community content program for RuneQuest on DriveThruRPG.com. Almost everything I’ve fiddled with or written this year has been a direct consequence of that choice.

I think I can say, pretty unreservedly (and immodestly), that this has been a success. A significant success! I had never published a piece—nor even submitted a piece for publication—before publishing The Throat of Winter. I’m still, in my opinion, quite a novice writer, with about four years under my belt. I’ve begun learning how to use InDesign for layout, a splash of Photoshop for print prep, and a dollop of art direction for putting my various Jonstown books together.

Better yet—people seem to like them! My work’s received generally good reviews and sales, despite ongoing imperfections and improvements. I’m humbled by the positive response—if you’ve picked up anything I’ve written, thank you.

Without a doubt, 2020 for me has been the year of Jonstown. RuneQuest content has been the focus of my writing and reading, with varying degrees of success in creating words-on-page.

Monster of the month

This year, I started a short monthly magazine for RuneQuest, “Monster of the Month.” I successfully published an issue all twelve months of the year—even if I did cut it close a few months, and even if my definition of “monster” has become sort of amorphous.

My goal with MOTM was to provide bite-sized chunks of content—something I’ve seen achieve success in other games media, such as EN World’s magazine EN5IDER—with minimal drain on myself, such that I could work on longer projects simultaneously.

Ha!

MOTM takes up a lot of my time and attention. I don’t regret this, but it does occupy an unexpected chunk of my mental bandwidth, and that’s something I need to be aware of. MOTM is why I haven’t published a second long-ish work for Jonstown in 2020.

I published a deluxe-sized issue for December to round out the year—THE QUACKEN!

In total, my MOTM manuscripts add up to 57,306 words. This is including the full manuscript of Air Toads, written primarily by Diana Probst of Beer With Teeth, but also doesn’t include any of the pages which went into the generic-statblocks issue Heortlings of Sartar. That’s a novel. 50,000 words is the formal “novel” starting point—for example, it’s the goal for National Novel Writing Month.

Until I’d put those numbers together, I hadn’t really processed that. Wow.

Treasures of Glorantha

In addition to MOTM, I published one longer work this year: Treasures of Glorantha Volume One: Dragon Pass. If you’d like to find out more about it, I discussed it in a previous blog. Its manuscript word count came out to 33,191, of which somewhere between half to two-thirds was my writing.

Treasures was my attempt to get a taste of what it’s like being a publisher. I wrote a lot of the book, but I also solicited work from other RuneQuest writers, performed the substance of the editing, and organized and commissioned the book’s production—further editing, art, layout, and later on, print proofing. Looking back through the copies on my shelf, I’m still really proud of this book.

Treasures of Glorantha, in good company with other JC and RQ titles.

In total, that puts me at just about 90,000 words published in 2020, with somewhere around 75-80,000 of them written by myself. (That’s not including one other little publication I put together, a printer-friendly version of some stats for “The Woods of the Dead” in The Pegasus Plateau & Other Stories.)

I repeat: Wow.


Unpublished Writing

My unpublished work is also mostly gaming stuff for RuneQuest. There’s spatterings of fiction laying around, and off the top of my head at least three idea-level outlines (two fiction, and one non-D100 game), which I think I’ll leave undiscussed, for today.

The largest piece of unpublished writing is my Melikaphkaz manuscript. This is a forthcoming Jonstown book about traps and dungeons, using the religion of “the O-God Melikaphkaz” as a framing device. It’s currently 21,492 words long, and is probably still substantially incomplete.

I wrote the first 10 or 15,000 words of Melikaphkaz in one of my strongest bouts of creative energy this past year. That section is a long-form cult writeup for RuneQuest describing the story of Melikaphkaz and how his religion functions. That few weeks of inspiration is why I still feel really beholden to this work, in a way. I sincerely believe that Melikaphkaz will be interesting for RuneQuest players—if I can figure out how to finish it.

Melikaphkaz isn’t in the worst sort of Austin-Development-Hell. I still feel I have a strong mental concept of the book’s framework. That hasn’t changed since I first put pen to paper on the manuscript. However, the middle section—where my attention sort of dribbled off—has experienced significant bloat.

It probably needs to be cut and re-written. God, I hate saying that. It’s not bad, per se, but it’s not what the book needs to be.

The other problem with this work is that I’m this far in, and I’m still not even at the “core product” part—the traps! The initial concept of Melikaphkaz was “a book of traps for RuneQuest” because the core rulebook has the Detect Traps spell, but no rules about traps. I’m not frustrated with the lore bloat, because I think RuneQuest’s audience will enjoy that sort of content. But the temple/dungeon-design section in the middle slogged down my attention, and ultimately I lost my momentum.

The other major piece of writing I spent time on in 2020 is Sylthi. Sylthi is a book about the city of the same name, in Esrolia. I love this book. It is in the worst sort of Austin-Developmental-Hell. This manuscript is currently 28,702 words, and it’s a total mess. Sylthi has been a victim of the worst sort of bloating as I keep expanding the scope and ideas for the book. A significant portion of that manuscript wordcount is organization and outlining, framing the book’s structure.

I love Sylthi. I think it’s strange and interesting. I think it will provide a wonderful picture of a small corner of Glorantha in significant detail. My goal was to finish and publish it in 2020; now, I’m not entirely convinced I’ll even finish the manuscript in 2021. I don’t yet feel there are structure or content problems which will require revision—like with Melikaphkaz—but the way the scope has grown is daunting.

Another major piece of writing was a standalone adventure for RuneQuest, titled The Fouled Earth. I was working on this as a palate-cleanser, ostensibly between Treasures and Sylthi‘s primary writing. It blew up in my face about three-quarters of the way through the outline, and just wasn’t working anymore. I don’t know if this will ever see the light of day, but there’s a good chance I’ll harvest material from it either as a small standalone project, or for use in something else. This dead manuscript came out to 18,575 words.


Odds and Ends

Another important moment for me this year, as a writer, was beginning to do some freelance work as an editor. This has so far been working for other Jonstown Compendium authors. It began as attempting to find work to expand my own art budgets, but has also become something I enjoy. I’m finding that when I have a certain block of my “writer time” dedicated to editing tasks, I value my writing time more, and use it more effectively.

This year, I was the editor for Vinga’s Ford by Diana Probst, and I was the proofreader for Valley of Plenty by Troupe Games. I’m pleased with my work on both, but I feel especially honored to have been a part of Valley of Plenty—Shawn and Peggy put together an absolutely gorgeous book. They—and other Jonstown Creators—have been creating works which inspire me to do better in my own.

Besides, what’s the harm in a bit of friendly competition?

I had another, smaller, first as a writer this year as well: I submitted a piece to a literary magazine. A short story about magic fruit aimed at younger readers, titled An Early Harvest. It was rejected, with an email sharing a few good points of feedback. I ultimately feel good about the experience—and was happy to discover that I wasn’t reflexively rejecting their editor’s feedback on my work.

Finally, I wrote 12,165 words in blog posts during 2020. That brings my total wordcount up to around 146,000 words over the course of the year, not including odds and ends, handwritten scribbles, meandering outlines, probably a few flash pieces trying to kickstart my brain, and so on.

I repeat yet again: Wow.


Reflection, and the Next Year

Collating all of that adds a new perspective onto what I do. Doing this sort of thing—both blogs, and end-of-the-year blogs specifically—usually does, which is the main reason I continue to write them.

I’m a writer. I’m, really, a writer. I write things, and then go publish them, and people tend to say they liked it. I’ve been writing mostly for me ever since I started with The Rule of Iron during NaNoWriMo in 2016. I didn’t really ever consider stopping in the time since, but I’m not sure I ever really believed that I would be writing and people would be liking it would happen.

Not just that, but I’m capable of writing quite a lot. For context, 140,000 words would be about a 560-page trade paperback. That’s in one year. And further, I didn’t feel I worked exceptionally hard doing this. I mean, I write pretty much every day, but I don’t think I’ve put in anything resembling full-time, 40-hour work weeks on my writing, not even when you add in art direction—oh god, that’s got to add a bunch of words, too—layout, editing, and all the other associated tasks.

Getting to do this sort of thing as my pays-the-bills employment still feels far out of reach, but… plausible, in a way. Distant, but believable. That feels weird.

At the moment, I’m struggling with three primary problems in how I go about my work: lack of attention span, scope bloat in my work, and idea bloat in what I want to work on.

MOTM is a double-edged sword for me. It’s something which keeps me focused, because it gives me a deadline. That’s good. But it also breaks my focus when I’m working on other projects. I can’t get “stuck in” on a manuscript, because I have to break away to write the next MOTM.

Scope bloat, on the other hand, I suspect is just something I’ll need to learn to handle by engaging with material. Idea bloat is more difficult for me, conceptually, to avoid because I find idea generation creatively fulfilling. Sketching out and outlining ideas I want to work on is refreshing when I’m in the bloodier stages of writing or editing a manuscript. It’s also a major way I engage with what I’m reading—for example, sketching a cylinder seal while reading about Near Eastern archaeology, or designing palaces or frescoes.

I want to cut down on scope bloat. I’m not sure I want to cut down on idea bloat—but I do need to learn how to work with it, how to harness that tendency.

Keeping that in mind, I’ve come up with a tentative priorities list for 2021:

  1. Writing 2021’s issues of MOTM.
  2. Working on Treasures of Glorantha Volume Two.
  3. Publish at least one other long-ish work for the Jonstown Compendium.
  4. Dabble with Sylthi as my “spare” project.

I think the key to getting my brain back into a better groove will be to write out MOTM for the year in one go—or at the absolute least, writing several months of the magazine, and then continuing another long stretch of it later on.

I’m already making a good start of this. January’s issue is already written, and in editing. Art’s nearly done, too. I’m a few thousand words into February’s issue of MOTM. For the start of this year, I’m doing a series of Rune Masters—powerful NPCs which, traditionally, make the most interesting RuneQuest antagonists. I know I want to do at least six, but I’m not sure if I’ll do more after those. By structuring these issues this way, I hopefully can create ideas and write the drafts more quickly and more consistently.

If I say, “I’m going to finish Sylthi!” I’ll get stressed and it will never happen. But I love working on it, and I’m going to be (hopefully) starting a new RuneQuest campaign soon set in the city. This will hopefully let me play with and explore my ideas about the city.

Part of my scope + idea bloat problems with Sylthi is that I’ve grown to see it as a line of content, rather than as a single standalone work. I hope that by playing a game there, my ideas will become more structured, and I’ll be forced to consolidate them. This consolidated version I’m currently thinking of as the Adventurer’s Guide. It’ll be a shorter product, with short-form versions of the cults, history, and so on—everything a player needs to make an adventurer from Sylthi for play there or elsewhere, along with a simple primer on the setting. Later, I want to publish the City Guide, which is that half-explored manuscript. It may include a detailed history, weird archaeology, NPCs, factions, long-form cults, a short story collection (in the form of local mythology), and so on, depending on what happens. I plan for the City Guide to include gamemaster secrets in a separate chapter, but be generally readable by all players. I’d also like to write a Greater Sylthela book, describing (in less detail) the major locations around Sylthi. That book should include maps, adventure seeds, more NPCs, and so on. Finally, I want to create a collection of adventures for Sylthi—I’ve got a couple of those half-written already. They might feature a murder mystery, feuds over pottery, festival games, city-state warfare, trading with elves, and being kidnapped by giant sentient ants.

I’m planning to use the campaign prep time for sketch-level ideas which eventually turn into the Adventurer’s Guide. I may publish this as a black & white “Open Beta” with Austin Doodles and maps; we’ll have to see. I hope, however you can see how Sylthi excites my mind—I find it engaging, and whenever I get to really dig in on the project I keep finding new ways to create this really intimate corner of the world.

Once I’m done (or very far along) with MOTM, I’m going to commit to researching and writing my portion of the content for Treasures of Glorantha, Volume Two: Relics from the Second Age. The first book was successful, and I feel I promised a follow-up. I know I’m going to write one of the articles, “An Abridged History of the Second Age” to introduce newcomers to the Empire of Wyrms Friends and the God Learners. I’m not yet certain what other content will be in the work, although I do have some ideas.

Finally, I want to publish at least one other long-ish work on the Jonstown Compendium in 2021. That might be Sylthi material, but it’s more likely that it will be something from the side. The prime candidate for this is, of course, Melikaphkaz. However, I also have an idea for a book looking at odd corners of Prax. This latter has the distinct advantage that I could construct it piecemeal, looking at a variety of locations, adventures, characters, and so on, for sandbox use with other published material for the setting (like Borderlands, or Jon Webb’s excellent Sandheart books on the Jonstown Compendium). So it’s definitely possible that my nibble-project will be “random Prax things” rather than Sylthi, and that’s okay.

MOTM. Treasures. One Other Thing.

Well, at least I’ll be keeping busy.


Until next time, then.


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