I had a chat with Patrick O’Duffy recently to ask him a few questions about writing, gaming and self-publishing. His latest book The Obituarist 3: Delete Your Account, an oddball crime story, can be found here and here.
A few questions…
with Patrick O’Duffy
1. What was your first published piece of writing?
It was a short story in my high school yearbook, but let’s not count that. Or the occasional bits of fiction and reviews I wrote for my university’s student newspaper. That was all more like typing practice than writing.
The first piece of published writing I’m prepared to own up to was an essay about emphasising the consequences of characters’ actions/decisions in roleplaying games, which came out in the Hunter: The Reckoning Storytellers Handbook in late 2001. I have only rough memories of the essay, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t ground-breaking – or particularly good. Still, it was enough to get my foot in the door, and I made a solid part-time career out of game writing for the next 5–6 years. Eventually I got better at it.
My first published piece of fiction writing was a short story called ‘Seven Down’ and was about a man repeatedly stabbing himself. (It was cleverer than it sounds, honest.) It was part of a ‘Mini Shots’ concept/series by a small Melbourne publisher – individual short stories published as pocket-sized pamphlets, cheap and ideal for reading on public transport. ‘Seven Down’ came out in September 2007; Amazon released the Kindle two months later and that pretty much killed the notion of printing individual stories in hardcopy. So it goes.
2. Are there any particular themes that you like to explore in your writing?
I’ve always got some theme in mind when writing fiction, but I’m not trying to make the same particular point in every story. Except… as I thought about this, I realised that maybe I do – and it might be the same point that I struggled to articulate in that 2001 gaming essay. If I have a signature theme, it’s perhaps that actions have consequences. There are potential repercussions to any action – big or small, well-intentioned or otherwise – and characters either do something in response or become part of the problem.
There’s a lot of plot fodder in exploring or reflecting consequences; even small, personal ones can have impact on the small, personal parts of the story. They’re a big emotional hook for my characters as well. Some regret their past actions and are trying to make amends; some were hurt by others’ actions and have to process their anger or sadness; some know they’re making things worse for themselves but feel they probably deserve it. It’s cheery stuff!
All that aside, I like to write horror and weird fantasy, stories that suggest ‘normality’ is a thin and easily damaged disguise covering up a bizarre, dangerous or illogical world. I don’t know if that’s a recurring theme or just part of working in that genre space. And I often try to write stories that are hopeful to some degree, in which the characters do manage to deal with consequences, make amends for their mistake, help others and generally make a difference. Because I think that’s possible in the real world as well, if we make the effort.
Huh. Turns out I was totally wrong about this whole ‘not exploring particular themes’ thing. Good to know.
3. What have you learned through self-publishing some of your work?
That self-publishing is hard, man!
I worked in the publishing industry for years. I understand the time, effort and expense that goes into creating and selling any book, and for some reason I decided to forget all of that when I started publishing some of my work as ebooks in 2011. I just jumped in feet-first without a plan and, surprise surprise, I didn’t do a very good job of it! I was disorganised, I had no business plan, I didn’t promote my work effectively – I treated it as an adventure or an experiment, not a professional act of publishing, and that meant that very few people read my books and I’ve made very little money from them over the years.
I’m not alone in this, of course; Amazon was deluged in self-published books once their systems went live, and while that initial tidal wave has fallen back a lot since then, there are still enormous numbers of them coming out. And to be clear, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Self-publishing is a hard thing to do well, and a very hard thing to make money from, but not every writer cares about that; they care about telling the story burning inside them, to the best of their ability, and putting it out for the world to discover. That passion is worth respecting, even if it doesn’t fit the definitions of ‘success’ that capitalism tells us are important.
That said, I’ve met a number of writers who are successful self-publishers, and without exception they are incredibly hard-working and professional about the business of not just writing but of editing, publishing, marketing, design community management, self-promotion and everything else. They are dedicated and driven, I admire them enormously – and I’m not like them. I’m glad they keep the majority of their royalties; they deserve it.
Me, I will happily give away 80–90% of my writing income to anyone who will do all the hard stuff for me. Interested? CALL ME.
4. You’ve recently finished writing The Obituarist series. Tell us about the series. What inspired the books?
The Obituarist series is a trilogy of crime novellas about a ‘social media undertaker’ – someone who cleans up and closes down the online presences of the recently dead. This is important work, both for the emotional and personal aspects but to prevent identity theft and other forms of fraud. Okay, that might not sound terribly exciting, but the books also include action, mysteries, swearing, violence, sarcasm, scary men with guns, weird crime stuff I found online, snappy dialogue and a moderately dodgy protagonist.
As for what inspired the series… Facebook, for the most part. It didn’t have clear policies in the early 00s about what to do when users died, so their pages would be left uncontrolled or get taken over while their friends were grieving in the comments. That seemed like an interesting and fast-changing situation worth exploring through fiction, and genre stories are a great opportunity to explore real-world situations at a slight distance. I considered some fantasy and horror directions, but quickly saw the potential for a slightly oddball crime story, one that built on my love of Raymond Chandler’s writing while having its own distinct, modern voice. And because this all comes back to how our society deals with death, the books dig into that theme I unpacked earlier – the lingering consequences of our actions, the things the dead leave behind for the living, the regrets we carry with us and the things we do because of those regrets.
Okay, now these books sound very serious. They have fun stuff too, I promise. And they’re cheap!
5. What have you learned about telling stories from gaming?
Lots of things – pacing, world-building, describing action in an engaging way, tailoring a story so that it better connects with the audience, how small ideas can still provide a core around which to build bigger and more complex ideas… I could go on. But I won’t, because I don’t think my experiences are true for everyone; gaming (i.e. roleplaying, Dungeons & Dragons, etc.) is a very individual and idiosyncratic thing, and people get different things from it. I think many writers could find things in gaming that help their craft, but they’ll be different things than those that help me, and some writers won’t find much or any value in it.
If there’s one (almost) universally valuable thing about gaming for writers and storytellers, it’s that your audience is right there, sitting with you and engaging directly with your imagination and your ability to craft a story. If your ideas work, they will tell you immediately; if there are conceptual gaps, or your story is unengaging, or your characters don’t pop, you know right away. That’s true whether you’re playing the game or in charge of it, whether the game directly references a story/concept you’re writing about or is about something totally different. That immediate, interactive audience is like a mirror being held up to your work, your storytelling craft, and reflecting both its strengths and weaknesses directly back at you. That’s a great learning opportunity, and the main reason I recommend more writers give it a try. And it’s fun, too.
6. And finally, describe your ideal writing space!
I really only need three things:
- A computer that runs Word (no, not Scrivener or Open Office or whatever) and lets me access the internet for research purposes, but with no video games and a block on all forms of social media.
- A chair with strong lower back support, because I am tall and old and everything hurts now.
- A large and terrifying gentleman who takes away my phone, checks on me every hour and delivers credible threats of horrific violence befalling me should I fail to meet my daily wordcount goals.
They’re simple things, but all that I really need in order to do my best writing.
Maybe I should try crowdsourcing them.
Patrick O’Duffy is a writer and editor from Melbourne. In addition to his work for RPG publishers such as White Wolf and Green Ronin, he’s the author of the weird fantasy Hotel Flamingo and The Obituarist series of offbeat crime novellas. He’s currently working on a couple of YA fantasy adventure novels and waiting for the world to stop being so… so everything, you know? His website can be found here.