Book Creation: The power of role playing to engage, market and connect

When I was a kid, up to age 16, I loved to play, master and create Dungeons & Dragons games. The thrill of these games for me lay in the act of creating stories, places and characters while designing and playing the games.

This thrill complemented and fed my drive to write, which by this time was already well developed. I was in fact outlining my second book, Oenn, and just conceiving The Lost Room during this time.

My association with Dungeons & Dragons was my first taste of publicly sharing my writing, an early form of a writing group for me. The interest of others for more of my games made me quite prolific in game creation and writing, and is a testament to the potential of good writing groups.

Role playing games then, though limited in their storytelling depth and scope, bestowed a special boost to my writing development.

Around this time, I discovered a single choose-your-adventure book, The Forest of Doom by Ian Livingstone. It was a good book for its purpose (I take it out and replay it occasionally), but it lacked the substance of comprehensive story and the collaborative socialization of multi-player Dungeons & Dragons.

The idea of choose-your-adventure books intrigued me. I still think about their potential, but also their shortfalls. For me, a growing writer bursting with story, writing full stories and poems dominated my attention and practice. Choose-your-adventures and even Dungeons & Dragons took a back seat, present but neither driving nor co-piloting.

The Book of Briars

Jump ahead a few decades to a couple of weeks ago when I read a guest post, How to Build a Readership & Sales — Before Publishing Your First Book, written by C. J. Bernstein in Nick Stephenson’s Your First 10,000 Readers blog.

I highly recommend you read this article. Nick says it himself, “sometimes, a story lands in my inbox that I just can’t ignore”.

Let me summarize for you. C. J. wrote a book. He had no fans, no followers. No one knew his book existed. And he bet his family’s financial stability on the chance he could sell it and future books connected to it. Sounds familiar?

With all the unsure, and let’s face it low yielding, ways of promoting a book and building a platform out there, he wanted to find a way to engage fans who craved The Book of Briars (his book) and writing, something that would really involve them.

So, he wrote a choose-your-adventure prequel to his book and world. Then a choose-your-character prequel to that to immerse his potential readers into his story world. And he advertised that, once, in Facebook. (His guest post in Nick’s blog serves as more advertising, as intentionally does this post.)

His marketing went viral. Strangers flocked to his choose-your-adventures and formed a society, the Mountaineers. C. J. not only grew a following but a lively fan base, not just people craving his work, but people already enjoying it and wanting more.

Hmm. Did I mention the interest of others in my Dungeons & Dragons modules? I know how C. J. is feeling and expect great writing from him.

Read C. J.’s guest post on Nick’s blog. Not only does it describe how C. J. came to market his book with choose-your-adventures, but it also describes the awesome concept behind The Book of Briars. And while you’re at it, enter C.J.’s Magiq world.

The Edge of Magic

As you may recall, I am writing a compendium of independent, contemporary, magic realism shorts, tentatively The Edge of Magic, that have been organized into a story world through a common world map, connected elements and a sweeping underlying story.

The underlying story is wrapped into cycles: the Possession Cycle, Keeper of Dreams Cycle, Trapper Cycle and Lost Room Cycle. Each cycle contains a number of stories.

(And for those of you who have been with me for a while, the Lost Room Cycle does indeed connect The Edge of Magic with my Stiefrasta stories. You might consider The Edge of Magic a coquel to the Stiefrasta world. It has in fact a specific and vital niche, a tangent point, in Stiefrasta.)

I have outlined and written several origin and connecting tales that bind the complete independent fictions of The Edge of Magic together into the underlying story. These tales bring unity and continuity to the compendium and the world. They also, however, fit tightly together, making them less stand-alone stories and more chapters. This has the adverse effect of featuring the independent fictions like out-of-place sore thumbs, even though the book is designed around them — they are its purpose.

To rephrase, the underlying story, which I meant to keep subtle, threatens to overwhelm the star fiction shorts.

Enter choose-your-adventure stories.

First, yes, I think I would enjoy marketing The Edge of Magic with a choose-your-adventure exploration of Tals, the world of The Edge of Magic. That would be exciting.

But, the concept of choose-your-adventures has potential in The Edge of Magic itself, as links and conveyors between the independent stories.

Grouping the stories in a cycle into a self-contained adventure that in turn is interconnected with other adventures so that all cycles and all stories are visited, though in any order, can bring structure to the compendium and underlying story. This would emulate Bateman’s dynamic object-orientated narrative structure with the stories serving as nodes.

I might reverse the role of adventures and stories, where adventures might become nodes (gates) in the compendium, rather than the stories being nodes (narratives) in an adventure.

Either structure would make The Edge of Magic a hybrid adventure-compendium.

Now, I don’t think I will do this exactly. There would be problems with those wanting to play the adventure stalling on the stories and with those wanting to read the stories having to endure the adventure. As I mentioned above, and as confirmed by the resources I provide below, choose-your-adventures are great for reader engagement and immersion, but are limited as media of alluring story.

The choose-your-adventure stories do give me an out from the interdependence of the origin and connector stories of The Edge of Magic. Even if I do not include choose-your-adventures in the book, just having the possibility of them allows me to shift the connectivity of the origin and connecting stories to the adventures, enabling the origin and connecting stories to stand alone, independent from each other and free to be written in a variety of styles and scopes.

I like this idea.

A Pique (Pun)

As a gift for reading this far into this post, I offer a short excerpt from one of my Edge of Magic stories, The Wicked Slaver. This is one of the origin stories for the book. The excerpt comes from page four of this story.

A deafening drip shattered Ceap’s thoughts. The drip chimed around the forest cavern, reverberating in the darkness and back to him. Ceap stiffened. His skin crawled. The drip fell into the dark water beneath him.

“You never could do anything right, Ceap. You couldn’t even walk decently without falling.”

The voice rasped into his ear. Even so it still lulled him. The darkness hid all other sound. Even the forest whispering was silenced. It had been silent for a while.

“Grab him and let’s get going. The sooner we are back in Andhorm, the sooner we sell him and make some money.”

“You hear that, Ceap? Drod’s eager to get you to market.”


Interactive Story Creation

Interactive Story Programs

Interactive Stories


The Edge of Magic, the Land of Tals and a Soundtrack

A few months ago, I described a dream I had of mapping several of my magical-realism shorts together to create a world and a short-story collection. This post is an update of my progress.

Since the stories are fantastic folktales — magic-realism shorts, I decided to title the book The Edge of Magic and the land Tals. Yeah, Tals ranks right up there with Fantasia, Wonderland, Faerie and similarly trivial names, but for now I like it.

Obviously, many of the tales are complete. A few need polishing to make them publishable. Consistency and unity are concerns, since the stories were never written to fit together. I am undecided whether I want to rewrite them for consistency or publish them as is.

However, I have outlined a few connector and origin stories and am currently writing one of these. This story, Glint and Bite, will serve as the origin story of two of my already complete ones, A Pril of the Thirst and A Giant or a Nack?. It is coming along well.

I even mapped the landscape where this short is set. The map is not necessary, but I wanted to materialize the Stair that I visualize for the story.

I also created a soundtrack for the story, something new for me that was actually quite revealing. This is what I wanted to share with you today.

Glint and Bite: The Soundtrack

The music in the soundtrack captures the tonal flow of the story, rather than the events and characters. The lyrics in some fit the story, but those of others do not. Some work well on their own; others interact. Some juxtapositions are creepy. They will definitely pull you in and raise the hairs on your neck. The songs mirror the mood I want you to feel when you read the story.

Several of the songs go together to stimulate an overarching mood. I rarely listen to music, so I made the best selections I could from dozens of YouTube searches. No doubt other songs would capture the mood I want you to feel better than these. If you have suggestions, by the way, I’d be willing to consider them over some of these songs.

I compiled the songs on a playlist on my Youtube channel. Here I categorize and describe them in more depth.

Glint and Bite Soundtrack
© Compiled by Shawn Urban, June 29, 2017


The Living Years — Mike and the Mechanics


This is the setting of the story as viewed from one of the characters who live in the valley. The songs, except the last one, reflect this character’s love of the valley. The last song is actually a playlist of ice-thawing sounds.

Beauty : Start of Time — Gabrielle Aplin

Paradise : Children (Dream Version) — Robert Miles

Echoes of Ice : Playlist of Videos

Watching Glint

Here the viewpoint character is rejoicing in the life of a loved one, who also lives in the valley.

Proud, Happy, Serene : Happy — Marina and the Diamonds

Nostalgia : Childhood Nostalgia — Emotional Film Soundtracks

Owe : I Am — Nichole Nordeman

Gratitude : Gratitude — Nichole Nordeman

Care : Lullaby — Libera

Enter Kids

Two young teens intrude in the valley as the viewpoint character watches Glint. Here I wanted to capture the spirit of adolescence and all the freedom, potential, hope, dreams and audacity of this age.

Narcissism : Children of a Miracle — Don Diablo and Marnik

Own It All : The World is Ours — Eleven Past One

Able : Young Blood — Bea Miller

Ah, flirting. The boy’s efforts to woo the girl and her aloof teasing causes him through the next three sections to up his game toward recklessness.

Boy Hitting On Girl (Part 1)

Promise : Rule the World — Take That

Infatuation : Magic — Coldplay

Desire : Music to Watch Boys To — Lana Del Rey

Woo : Can’t Pretend — Torn Odell

Impress : Everyday Superhero — Smash Mouth

Girl Admiring Boy

Notice : Secret Admirer — Lisa Punch

Falling : No Name — Ryan O-Shaughnessy

Encourage : Keep Holding On — Avril Lavigne

Boy Hitting On Girl (Part 2)

Want Me : I Want You to Want Me — KSM

Pay Attention : Attention to Me — Nolan Sisters

Together Strong : We Can Move the World — Alessandro Fortin

Entice, Exhilarate : Everything is Happening, the Clouds Have Parted, I’m Free — City of the Sun

Glint Dying (Part 1, Placeholder)

The killing of Glint is sudden and surprises everyone. The story skips from the recklessness of Everything is Happening, the Clouds Have Parted, I’m Free to the anguish of Wait. In the story the transition is abrupt, but the soundtrack makes more sense with this expository placeholder. What do you think? Do you like the soundtrack with or without this song?

Earth Song — Michael Jackson

These next two sections are my favourite in the story and soundtrack.

Bite Angry (Part 1)

Glint’s death is the inciting incident. It pivots the story which quickly turns dark. So obviously in the soundtrack I want to build Bite’s loss and anger.

Sad, Loss : Wait — M83

World Changed : Slipped Away — Avril Lavigne

Slow Rage : Arsonist’s Lullabye — Hozier

Revenge : Everybody Wants to Rule the World — Lorde

Bite Attacks

This is where the action peaks. This is also where the soundtrack reveals a surprising (to me) twist and dramatic irony in the story. Notice the change in tone from the last song to the next one. I hope the story is just as creepy.

Disarm, Lure : Children of the Night — Kate Covington

Promises : Paparazzi — Greyson Chance

Attack : Wild Hunt — Dorian Marko

In the story a lot of events occur quickly and simultaneously. So while Bite is overwhelmed with loss and rage then attacks the confused teens, Glint tries to calm Bite, and the girl begs for forgiveness and peace.

Kids in Danger

Trouble : Run Boy Run — Woodkid

Confusion : Hide and Seek — Imogen Heap

Trapped (Betrayed), Regret : Toy Soldiers — Martika

Anguish, Determination : Star Trek Voyager Pop Intro — Jerry Goldsmith

Glint Dying (Part 2)

Forgive, Accept : Daddy, You Can Let Go Now — Crystal Shawanda

Love, Goodbye : My Heart Will Go On — Celine Dion

Always With You : I Will Always Be With You — Sheena Easton and Jesse Corti

Girl — Sorrow, Forgiveness and Peace

Girl to Bite : While My Guitar Gently Weeps — Regina Spektor

Girl to Boy : Silhouette — Aquilo

Glint Dying (Part 3) — Girl Dying

Both the girl and Glint die here. This section bridges Glint and Bite and A Pril of the Thirst.

Glint’s Gift : Live Your Life — Yuna

Transcend to Pril : Music to Help You Uplift to Higher Frequency (0-282 [4:42] sec) — AwakenByArchangels

Boy — Sorrow

After Glint and the girl die, shock and regret overwhelm the boy.

Regret : Forever Young — Alphaville

Miss : I Found — Amber Run

End Theme

Resonance : Time — Libera

Silence : The Sound of Silence — Simon and Garfunkle

Epilogue — Bite Angry (Part 2)

The story ends with this bridge between Glint and Bite and A Giant or a Nack?.

Boy Anger : Evil In Me (Requiem for a Dream Remix) — Thomas Edwards

Descend to Nack : Footsteps — Pop Evil


World Creation: A Book From a Map

For fifteen minutes after every lunch when I was in grade six, from her desk in the far front corner of the room, Penny Gwillim read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to our class. I was already a storyteller by then, but those stories read by Penny Gwillim inspired me to write.

Tolkien populated his world with story. Every named element — person and place — had a purpose and story built into it. Every horizon hid a land beyond. Each name and land had a history and significance. This built boundless depth and breadth into Tolkien’s world. And, as these persons and places overlapped, so their purposes and stories intertwined.

Today’s post is about world building. It is about creating endless story potential by mapping instead of outlining.

My favourite Tolkien quote is this.

A story must be told or there’ll be no story, yet it is the untold stories that are most moving. I think you are moved by Celebrimbor because it conveys a sudden sense of endless untold stories: mountains seen far away, never to be climbed, distant trees (like Niggle’s) never to be approached — or if so only to become ‘near trees’ (unless in Paradise or N’s Parish).

— J.R.R. Tolkien (1945)

He also extolled, in the same letter (1945), “the heart-racking sense of the vanishing past”.

Tolkien’s underscoring of names and unexplored-places-beyond-horizons with histories and stories, to me, is a powerful way to build worlds.

Plotting and Pantsing

I am a plotter and a pantser. I typically write short stories and poems on my computer with no plotting nor sense of where the story is going, other than the steeping inspirational idea. Many of these stories and poems comprise my best writing. They sing and dance for others and me. Long stories and “important” poems I sketch, write on loose-leaf, then after several versions revise and edit further on computer.

The sketch is my tool of choice: a quick list, map or outline of places, events, scenes and characters that I typically then ignore and pants around. On the continuum of pantsing to plotting, I believe most writers do some form of sketching a little in each story. Usually I sketch after I get a good start on a story.

A Sudden Insight

I have been writing several unrelated magical-realism shorts over the years. I label these as fantastic folktales. They are subtle stories, with that unmistakable undercurrent of impossibility and fantastic flowing through them. They are explorations of my imagination and my craft, vents of my passion. They have different styles, different characters, different premises, nothing really connecting them.

One morning a couple of weeks ago, I woke with the idea of creating a map for one of these stories. And to this map I added the landscape of another story, then another. Suddenly, these stories all fit together. They even had a chronology to them. Further, the map and story element connections suggested several connector and origin shorts. And under them was that hidden undercurrent of overarching fantastic which suggested it own story.

It seems so obvious, with that map and the similarity of the genre of the stories, that the stories belong together, that beneath them was a larger, suggested, untold story.

Several of the stories are ready for publishing. Others need fleshing and tweaking. But this is a project I am excited to pursue. This is a book I want to write.

It would be just if my first book contained a selection of my short stories, which each took a short while to write, rather one of my long ones that I have worked on and played with for so long. And to discover this potential in an odd urge to create a single-short story map is thrilling.

My Take on Plots and Maps

Plots come in many forms. Some plots originate from intuitive exploration (pantsing). Some from first drafts. Some from outlines. Others from maps.

Maps also build worlds (more) and, unlike the constriction of outlines, manifest unending stories, just like Tolkien’s names and horizons.

Every map is an outline to endless stories. Details and names infill a world with story. Horizons in space and history inspire a broader and deeper world and more story.

A Comparison of Outlining and Mapping

Outline maps out a story. Like a pathfinder of new lands and events, it explores the lands and events and chops a route through them. The path it picks clearly leads further travel through the lands and events. But it also restricts the possibilities of exploration. It winds from point A to point B, however complex the labyrinth of its trail. Further travel may head off the outline, but in doing so will clear its own route — its own outline — between A and B.

The outline is a good guide and even its winding and rolling trails and oxbow loops can be revised into a smooth road.

Map outlines a world. It does not blaze a trail from point A to point B, but instead suggests wilderness (forests, oceans, city blocks), encounters and adventure between and far beyond the two points. The map opens new places, new events and new context to explore — in fact, uncounted places and events, and burgeoning context. But more importantly it reveals endless new places, events and context to explore once the current story is complete. And a map can be grown. Its limits can be pushed deeper and farther beyond what the map revealed before. Horizons always have story beyond them. Unnamed places can always be named.

The map is an atlas of unending potential tales. It is not direct and smooth like an outline, but it reveals possibilities and twists the outline misses.

Used together, the map and the outline can guide the writer to and through grand stories. The outline unearths and shepherds a story. The map opens and reveals a world of stories. Just like Tolkien emphasized.

How do maps influence your stories and build your worlds? Join the conversation. Comment below.


World-building Resources

Culture-generating Resources

Map-making Resources


Tolkien, J.R.R. (1945.) Letter 96. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. First Edition, 1981. Carpenter, H. and Tolkien, C. London: George Allen & Unwin. P. 125.