James L. Sutter is a lot of things he is co-creator of the Pathfinder and Starfinder Roleplaying Games, . an award winning author and musician. He was nice enough to take time out of his busy schedule to do an interview with us.
Q How did you get started as a writer? What was the first thing you did that made you feel like you were a professional?
I’ve been writing for pretty much as long as I’ve been reading—some of my earliest memories are of banging out “novels” on my parents’ old manual typewriter, or drawing my own comic books. In sixth grade, I wrote an autobiographical story about the death of my dog which made my English teacher cry—and then she gave it to my Math teacher and made her cry. That’s the first time I remember thinking, “Oh, I might actually be good at this.”
It’s hard to find a really distinct line where I became a pro in my own mind. In college I got my first short story published in a fiction magazine, and also started reporting for the college newspaper, writing mostly about sex and music. (Once I graduated, I realized that 99% of journalism is not about sex and music, and quickly lost interest.) So that was when I first started getting paid to write.
After college, I cold-called my way into a job at Paizo Publishing, editing and writing adventures for the official Dungeons & Dragons magazines, and that was a whole new level of professional—especially once we moved into creating our own roleplaying games like Pathfinder. But I think the single biggest moment of finally feeling like a pro came in 2011 when I published Death’s Heretic, a sword-and-sorcery fantasy set in the Pathfinder universe, in which an atheist detective is forced to track down missing souls for the death goddess. Finally being able to see a novel I’d written on a bookstore shelf felt like closing out a character arc that had begun on that old typewriter.
Q What is your writing process like? Are you more of a plotter or a pantser?
I can pants maybeone chapter to help find the tone, and then I have to plot everything out completely. Part of that is my background as a freelance writer—most publishers want to know exactly what they’re getting before they give you the green light. But I also find that outlining is incredibly helpful. If I don’t know where I’m going, it’s easy to start panicking the moment I get stuck. If I’ve got an outline, I know that everything will be alright as long as I push through.
When it comes time to plot a new novel, I first do a chunk of background writing exploring the protagonist’s problems and how they got this way. Then I break down all the character arcs into individual beats, print them out, and arrange them together like puzzle pieces on the floor, trying to consolidate into the fewest number of scenes that I can. My method is basically a mash-up of my friend Dan Wells’ Seven-Point Plot Structure (look it up on YouTube!), Lisa Cron’s Story Genius, and (if it’s romance) Gwen Hayes’ Romancing the Beat.
And you know what? I hate it. I totally understand why pantsers don’t want to do it—making all those decisions is terrifying. But at the end of those few days, I’ve got my outline, and then I can spend the next six months writing the book without having to worry that I’m going down a blind alley. When I first started writing full-time, I’d try to write 1000 words a day, five days a week, but recently I’ve switched to measuring success just in time spent writing. Quantity is not quality, and sometimes you need to revise the words you’ve got instead of generating new ones.
Q You co-created a couple of the biggest RPG’s, Pathfinder and Starfinder, with all the things you have going, do you still have time to just play with friends? If so, what is your latest campaign about?
By the time I left Paizo a few years ago, I had honestly gotten a little burned out on roleplaying—when you spend all day making RPGs as a job, it can be hard to turn off that part of your brain and just have fun.
The Covid lockdown really changed that for me. Since roleplaying was one of the few social activities that translated well to Zoom, I started running a weekly game for some friends. And I just fell in love all over again. We’re now three years in, having played several different campaigns and game systems, and I don’t think I’ve had this much fun GMing since I was twelve!
Currently, I’m running Pathfinder’s Gatewalkers Adventure Path, for which I wrote the first adventure, The Seventh Arch. It’s got a fun X-Files/alien abduction/paranormal investigation element to it, and explores some parts of the setting that I created back in the day, which is a fun trip down memory lane. But of course, even having written the adventure, I can’t help but improvise—gamemastering for me is all about eliciting a reaction and playing to your audience, and I love making my players gasp or laugh. So while the party may be going after an ancient unspeakable evil, the two main NPCs at the moment are a hedgehog who talks like Lenny Bruce and Doug, the Dog Who Does Crimes. (Fortunately, my players are equally absurd—one of them played a sentient otter marriage counselor in my last campaign, and totally crushed it!)
Q You have a wide variety of creative outputs, gaming, novels, even playing in a heavy metal band. Is there anything that you haven’t done that you want to do?
The problem with me is that I want to do everything. It’s literally impossible for me to enjoy a genre or art form and not immediately think “That looks like fun…” So there are a million ideas bouncing around my brain: I want to do a podcast interviewing other authors and creators! I want to write and star in a rock opera! I want to write horror and space opera and an epic fantasy trilogy, and be in a TV writers’ room, and… your get the idea.
Most of the genre-hopping I want to do in fiction will hopefully happen someday, but if I had to pick one artistic thing that isn’t related to my writing that I really want to do, I’d love to record a solo album in a quality studio with a great engineer. I love songwriting, but sound engineering makes me want to lie down in traffic, and it would be really cool to see what I could make with that professional help.
Q You have written traditional novels and gaming material. What are differences and similarities when writing the two?
The biggest difference between writing for games and fiction is that in games, you don’t get to decide what the characters do—you have to set up the situations with the proper incentives to subtly steer them on the path you want them to take. (Though of course novel characters benefit from that approach as well!)
When I’m writing fiction, I’m telling a story. When I’m writing gaming stuff, I’m collaborating—creating the tools for someone else to tell a story. So my goal is to inspire them. For me, that usually means focusing a lot on setting, and creating evocative details that make people curious: What’s the deal with that lost city on the horizon? What’s the story behind the bartender’s ominous tattoo? Why does everybody in the village wear a little knife around their neck? Often, I won’t give the answer, just the hook—if I can get the players and Game Master curious about something, then in the process of wondering about it, they’ll come up with their own answers. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had a fan at a convention tell me how they’ve spent a year playing in some location I spent literally two paragraph on—everything else came from them. For me, that’s RPG writing at its best. I’m just here to set the sparks.
Q What can you tell us about your new Queer YA novel darkhearts? What inspired you to write it?
Darkhearts is a queer YA rom-com all about falling for the boy who stole your shot at rock stardom. If you’ll forgive me for quoting the back cover:
When David quit his band, he missed his shot at fame. For the past two years, he’s been trapped in an ordinary Seattle high school life, working summers for his dad’s construction business while his former best friends Chance and Eli became the hottest teen pop act in America.
Then Eli dies. Suddenly David and Chance are thrown back into contact, forcing David to rediscover all the little things that once made the two of them so close, even as he continues to despise the singer’s posturing and attention-hogging. As old wounds break open, an unexpected kiss leads the boys to trade frenemy status for a confusing, tentative romance—one Chance is desperate to keep out of the spotlight. Though hurt by Chance’s refusal to acknowledge him publicly, David decides their new relationship presents a perfect opportunity for him to rejoin the band and claim the celebrity he’s been denied. But Chance is all too familiar with people trying to use him.
As the mixture of business and pleasure becomes a powder keg, David has to choose: Is this his second chance at glory? Or his second chance at Chance?
When the pandemic started, I was burning out hard on the big dystopian SF book I was trying to write. A friend suggested some new-to-me YA romance authors, and it was just such a breath of fresh air that I immediately had to try writing one.
For me, the book is really about two issues I wrestled with myself when I was younger. The first is feeling like a has-been: while my high school punk band got to play a lot of shows, and even got on the radio a couple times, I can remember being eighteen and thinking “well, we’re not famous yet, so I guess we’ve missed our shot.” So much of my young adulthood was permeated by that feeling of my dreams slipping away. And if I was no longer on the path to becoming a rock star… who was I?
Sexuality was another big point of confusion for me. It took until I was maybe 21 for me to realize I was bisexual, and even then, I often felt uncomfortable with the label—like, yeah, I was attracted to guys, and even hooked up with some, but was that enough to claim the identity? Bisexuality didn’t feel as common back then, and I had gay and lesbian friends who’d fought and suffered for their queerness… for me, who’d never really had to struggle, claiming the same label as them felt suspiciously like stolen valor. But at the same time, I clearly wasn’t straight. So it was just a very messy time in my head, and I wanted to write a story where the protagonist could have some of the conversations I wish I’d had when I was dealing with all that.
Q} if people want more info about you or your books where should they go?
My website, jameslsutter.com, has everything you could want to know about me and my books (and games, and comics, and music, and…), but I’m also on Twitter as @JamesLSutter and Instagram as @James_L_Sutter. Come say hello!
Final four questions –we ask everybody
Q) When the zombies take over the world where will you be?
Hopefully at home! I’m a huge proponent of intentional community—my wife and I share a house with two of our best friends, within walking distance of another 30 or so close friends, and we all know we can rely on each other when things hit the fan. I have no illusions about my ability to fend for myself in the apocalypse, but I figure they’ll need somebody to strum 90s songs while they do the hard work of keeping us alive.
Q ) What is your favorite Fandom
Honestly, I’ve never really identified with the concept of fandom—I have a million things I love passionately, but fandom to me always implies a certain subculture, and I inevitably feel like an imposter in those spaces. (That’s true even when the fandom is around something I work on professionally!)
That said, I’ll ride or die for Gravity Falls, The Good Place, and Coheed & Cambria.
Q) What piece of art, be it in the form of music, a book, a film or picture, do you think people must experience before they die?
Oh lord… I’m absolutely the worst when it comes to picking favorites. It feels like betraying all the other art I love. So I’m just going to pick something that’s had a big effect on me recently: the Touche Amore album Stage Four. I’m a huge hardcore fan, yet even I was surprised by the amount of raw emotion they pack into some of those songs—I literally can’t listen to a song like “Flowers and You” without crying, every single time. It’s just such a perfect encapsulation of the grief and self-recrimination that comes with the loss of a loved one.
Q) Give one fact that most people would not believe about you?
I once drank so much carrot juice that I turned yellow. Literally. I looked like a Simpsons character.