Jean Rabe may not be a household name, but it should be. Chances are, if you are into gaming, if you are into fantasy, if you are into mysteries, you’ve encountered her byline atop a story or two. Check your bookshelf, and you just may find her stories or novels in your collection. Her latest novel, The Dead of Jerusalem Ridge, has just hit bookstores, while the author was just named a grandmaster by theInternational Media Tie-In Writers. Jean was gracious enough to speak with Story By about the award and her career, as well as share some timeless writing tips.
Congrats on being named a grandmaster by the International Media Tie-in Writers. What an accomplishment! You posted on Facebook and in your newsletter that you were “dancing” over the news. Has it sunk in yet? What does this achievement mean to you?
I never expected to win an award like this; there is no higher honor a tie-in writer can achieve. I still don’t consider myself in the same league as a Grandmaster. I’ve been on the USA Today Bestseller list several times, but I never hit New York Times. I’ve been published in lots of languages in lots of countries. I’ve been in the game lots of years. I’ve just never considered myself a “big deal.” The award is typically presented at the San Diego Comic-Con, a huge venue with well more than a hundred thousand attendees. Despite my fear of crowds, I would have braved it to get the Faust. So maybe it wasn’t a bad thing, the virtual presentation, kept my knees from knocking too much. I am so incredibly honored to have been handed the Faust, an award for doing something I’ve loved and enjoyed. I still am in disbelief.
When did you get the writing bug and how did you get your start? Who are some of your influences, past and present?
I started writing fiction in second grade. I always loved stories, sf in particular when I was a kid. I told my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Burleson, I wanted to be a paperback writer—she’d asked everyone what they wanted to do when they “grew up.” She said my plan wasn’t practical and that maybe I should consider being a nurse or a teacher. I won some writing contests in grade school and high school and got a bachelor of science in journalism. So I’ve been writing a lot of years … newspaper reporter, game designer, and editor, and now a full-time novelist. Maybe I’ve always had the bug; I can’t imagine doing anything else. Mrs. Burleson was wrong.
My influences. Hmmmmmmm. Mark Twain, love reading his stuff. Byron and Shelley and Keats, really like the English old masters. Louis L’Amour. Also: Elmore Leonard, Gene Wolfe (who was a very good friend of mine), Andre Norton (a very good friend and co-author), Ed McBain, Joe Haldeman, James Lee Burke, and W.P. Kinsella, to name some. I’m influenced by a lot of people; I think all writers are.
How did all of that lead to you writing media tie-ins?
After writing for three newspapers (and deciding I wanted to do something else), I took a job at TSR, Inc., the then-producers of the Dungeons & Dragons game. I worked as the head of the RPGA Network (Role Playing Games Association), and later as an editor and a designer. TSR published game-related fiction and occasionally had open tryouts. I submitted ideas, outlines, and sample chapters and finally one year I scored! It took me three rewrites … it was my first novel, after all … and Red Magic came out in 1991. It’s a Forgotten Realms tale set in the land of the Red Wizards of Thay, a creepy and powerful bunch. After that I wrote a couple of choose-your-adventure books…which are tough to write, then I managed to land in Krynn with Dragonlance, where I fit the best. Three standalones there, and three trilogies, several landing on the USA Today Bestseller list. After leaving TSR I still wrote Dragonlance, but I added a few Shadowrun titles, and I got to play with Rogue Angel for quite a few books. As for tie-in short stories Twilight Zone, Transformers, Metamorphosis Alpha, Pathfinder … I even got to write a Star Wars tale.
What are some of the challenges of writing characters and places in someone else’s world? Are there certain restrictions or guidelines you have to play by with each series? How do you keep it all straight and maintain the tone of each series?
There are a lot of restrictions and guidelines. You have to respect the property and its characters and stay true to what already exists. People read tie-ins because they are fans of the property—be it a TV show, roleplaying game, computer game, movie, comic book, etc., and they want more of a particular world. You have to honor the “sandbox” you are playing in, and treat it with care. There is a lot of competition to land a tie-in, and many authors were New York Times Bestsellers before they landed their tie-in gigs. If a tie-in author doesn’t stay true to the subject, he won’t get another chance … too much competition out there. Some properties help their writers, handing over “bibles” and world books. A good tie-in author reads other books in the line for flavor and background. One of the things I did with Dragonlance was to create a spreadsheet containing the characters I used. I filled in the details for canon characters, then I added the characters I was creating from whole cloth. I was fortunate with my Dragonlance trilogies that I got to craft the main characters for the sagas and sprinkle in the veteran heroes and villains as the plot merited.
What is your favorite story or novel you’ve written among all of your media tie-ins and why? What is your favorite series to write in and why?
My favorite character is Dhamon Grimwulf, who I took through two Dragonlance trilogies and a standalone. I tortured the poor soul, but he came out a hero in the end. I have two favorite media tie-in projects: my goblin trilogy—Goblin Nation. I love writing characters who are other than human, and I had a boatload of them to craft. The goblins and hobgoblins were born from whole cloth, and I based some of them on dogs I’d had through the years. Because the goblins were a slave race I gave them an odd speech pattern: they didn’t use “I and me” because they didn’t have a real sense of identity, they were property. Tough to write the dialog, and frustrating when a copyeditor at the last minute threw in some “I and me” here and there and I couldn’t do anything about it. Anyway, I liked taking my cadre of goblins from slaves to the masters of their own destiny and setting up their nation. Made me feel all fuzzy inside. My other favorite tie-in was a Shadowrun novel called Shadows Down Under, which I set around Canberra, Australia, where I visited many years back. I’d made notes when I was there, saved postcards, and subsequently sent the characters to the nifty places I’d traipsed through, and past some questionable spots, too.
A few years ago you began writing your own mystery series of novels. Your fourth novel in the Piper Blackwell series has just been released. What were some of the challenges of making the transition to your own original works?
So many of my tie-ins were original works, set in established worlds. The real transition for me was in swapping genres. I’d been writing fantasy and science fiction, and I wanted to jump to a new spot on the shelf—mysteries. I’d been reading mysteries for a lot of years and just wanted to try my hand at writing them. A former news reporter, I’d covered courts, crime, plane crashes, assorted things, so I had a good background for mysteries. And I’d written a true crime novel with F. Lee Bailey, When the Husband is the Suspect. The problem was being in a new pond. I didn’t know editors in the genre, so I had to start from scratch. Then agents told me they liked my writing, but that my books were cozy police procedurals and they’d have a tough time selling them. So I formed Boone Street Press, and I hire an editor, copyeditor, layout guru, cover artist, and publicist … all the things a traditional publisher does. It lets me write my cozy police procedurals, or uncozy-cozies as some call them. And I don’t have to wait years from when I send it off until it might show up on a shelf. Indie publishing fits me fine.
Which do you like best? Writing tie-ins or your own original stories? Will you continue to write media tie-ins?
I love to write … so both! Lately, my tie-in work has been short stories for fantasy roleplaying games, going back to my roots. I adore writing short stories, as they are a lovely break from long fiction. But the original stories I’m writing now are my property, and that’s a big thing to me. I own them. And I’m responsible for them, producing, promoting … my babies. I have two originals outlined and I’m partway into writing both. I need to pick one and crank on it. And I need to start outlining a fifth Piper Blackwell book—I already have some idea nuggets.
Now that you have been named a grandmaster, what’s your next big goal as a writer? A Shamus, maybe?
Ha! I wasn’t expecting the Grandmaster nod, that oh-so-coveted Faust. I certainly don’t expect any more awards. This past fall I took first place in the Illinois Author Project adult division for The Bone Shroud, a standalone thriller I set in Italy. I didn’t expect that one either. Awards are just surprises to be treasured. Icing on my writing cake.
What advice would you have for new writers, regardless of age, trying to break in?
I could expound on that question for days. I used to manage the Gen Con Game Fair’s writing track and so scheduled many topics on that question, but I’ll take a quick stab here.
There are more than one million books published a year. Most of that because self-publishing is an option now, offering an alternative to the big houses. So you’re competing in a huge market. Make sure your book is clean—well edited, has no wasted scenes, and is filled with memorable characters. To that end, take advantage of writing programs available on the internet—blogs, classes, online workshops all designed to help hone the writing craft. I have more than forty novels and more than one hundred published short stories to my credit. And I still read writing advice blogs and books and take classes. Never stop learning. Never stop trying to improve.
Make sure your shelf has some essentials: Strunk & White, Chicago Manual of Style or the AP Stylebook, a good dictionary, thesaurus, and maybe a dictionary of word origins. Why physical books? So you don’t have to shift screens to consult an online reference book. Curl up with a dictionary some night and just read it. Highlight words that sing to you and that you want to put in your writing.
Follow posts about which agents are looking for clients and what type of books they specialize in. Read blogs about which publishers are buying, or educate yourself on all aspects of self-publishing. Consider attending a writing-focused convention: World Fantasy, World Horror, Killer Nashville; there are a lot out there … many doing virtual seminars because of the pandemic.
Write every day … even if you have something you’d rather do. And read each day, too, even if it is just a chapter; it keeps you thinking about stories and words.
My biggie: Always carry a notebook. Buy one of those small chunky ones at the Dollar Store, a size that’ll fit in your pocket. And take it everywhere. I see abandoned buildings during my travels that I want to describe; people—how they are dressed, walking, talking; cars; all manner of things. I fill my notebook with stuff I want to sprinkle in my fiction. And a notebook is handy for jotting down plot ideas. Always carry a notebook.