Thursday, May 23, 2019

Vasily Mahanenko: Shaman is the worst cheater of 'em all

Simon Vale talked to Vasily Mahanenko about writing LitRPG, being a literary agent, getting back to Barliona (with his new series - a direct continuation of The Way of the Shaman) and Galactogon 3. 

Have you read anything interesting just lately?

Recently, I organized two literary contests: a fantasy and a LitRPG, so now I'm busy reading the works sent in for the former. There was a very strong manuscript among them, amazingly so. I think it's going to win. It's a powerful work at the same level as Abercrombie. It does drag out a bit, but I've already contacted the author and he agreed that the book requires some editing in order to pick up the pacing. He's already busy with this, so I hope that very soon we might have a translation-ready manuscript. The moment I started reading it, I realized that all my efforts organizing the contest hadn't been for nothing. I'd never have found this manuscript otherwise. It just doesn't show up in online fiction rankings.

Really? Why? Was it because it was written only recently?

Not at all. The book was actually written several years ago, it's just that the author doesn't do anything to spread the word. He doesn't do any link exchanges or reposts, the book has no likes: basically, the author doesn't bother to make the book visible, so naturally, its progress is stalled because there isn't enough awareness. And that's considering we had about 150 manuscripts submitted to the contest. Out of the hundred I've already studied, I've only accepted about twenty. And this book... it stands out among them like... like a new Lukyanenko in a slush pile. And this is the author's first book ever! Which is why I'll do my best to give him a hand promoting the book, get him published traditionally, have him translated, etc., etc. I hope the book takes off. And even if it doesn't, a story like this is well worth the effort.

And what about the LitRPG contest? Found anything interesting?

It already has over forty submissions, but most of them are still works in progress so I don't interfere. You see, because I'm already sort of an accomplished LitRPG author, it definitely affects my reading process. I can clearly see each manuscript's shortcomings and the little tricks an author uses which have nothing to do with LitRPG as I understand it, causing me to lose interest in the manuscript.

The way I see it, one of the genre's most serious problems is that the main character often has it way too easy. Having said that, the readers don't really seem to mind. Do you think this is one of the genre's tropes or rather one of its weaknesses?

99% of all authors are guilty of making things too easy for their MCs who just have to be the coolest, the strongest, the best looking and serve as an irresistible magnet for the opposite sex whichever it is. In other words, their MCs just have to be the best at everything. Very often, such a character reaches God level by the end of Chapter Two and spends the rest of the book defeating everyone and everything in their path. My Shaman used to be like this, so I ended up rewriting the first book. Some of the readers were quite unhappy with me removing all the "god-mode" bits but admittedly, they're still present in all the seven books of the series, simply because I used to identify myself with Mahan as I wrote. When authors put some distance between themselves and their MC, that's when they feel like making the character's life difficult. But an author's first series always ends up like this. I'm yet to read one where the author doesn't feel tempted to let things fall into their hero's lap. My very own Shaman is the worst cheater of 'em all!

So do you think this is something authors should try to avoid?

Balance. My favorite term in my favorite online game. It's all about balance. The MC should be cool and tough, that goes without saying. No one's gonna read a book about a wuss who starts whining the moment the going gets tough. It just doesn't make for an interesting read. But whether he should be able to slice starships in two with his laserlike glare - that's another question entirely. Personally, I think he shouldn't. You need to look at things logically, finding a happy medium between the MC's powers and the hardships he or she has to overcome.

I know that you're currently working on the new series, Invasion, which is a followup to the Shaman with a new MC. Are you going to make things easy for him?

When I wrote the Shaman, I was on a roll. I simply went with the flow, pouring it all out on paper. So in the end, my Shaman too turned out quite emotional, the sort of guy who never overthinks it. At some point, I even came up with this idea that shamans don't think, they feel things. I even expanded on it a bit in the book. Thinking is for mages, so they’re very welcome to it. But my new hero, however, is a professional project manager. He spent thirteen years managing projects before joining the game. So he knows very well what he wants from his new experiences. The guy is an executive with a CV to match. So basically, this new book is about myself again. So this time, things will be different for him. There'll be no secret doors opening wide every time he waves his hand in their direction. Why? When you think logically and plan accordingly, miracles just start to happen naturally. Of course I'll still be on his side. I might even have him meet a pretty girl - but I'll make sure it happens logically, so that the reader didn't suspect him of being plain lucky. In order to get her, he'll have to perform a number of very conscious and logical steps. It doesn't mean I won't help him at all. It's what authors do, after all. Even George Martin used to spare Jon Snow and the dwarf. Okay, he did kill Snow, but then he promptly resurrected him, didn't he?

Actually, when are you planning to release Invasion in English?

That largely depends on the translator. I hope that the first book will be available in English by summer 2019.

Is it a big series?

Definitely not a trilogy. Five or seven books, most likely.

Before, all English-language LitRPG books used to be to be more or less alike. These days, however, you need to really stand out in the crowd and surprise the reader with a new take on the genre. Does this apply to Russia too? Do you feel obliged to comply with this genre inflation?

Good question. In actual fact, In Russia it happened already in 2015 when the genre became widely known, resulting in a mass of new manuscripts, most of which were predictably quite mediocre. Readers hated those books because the stories just weren’t engaging enough to follow their inner mathematics. Because any book, LitRPG included, is a good story first and foremost. This story can spread over several novels if it’s a series, with a separate plot for each one. The story can unfold against the backdrop of some interesting game mechanics but that’s what they are, a backdrop. If you write a book based on the game mechanics alone, no one’s gonna read it. In Russia, we’ve already passed this stage. Some authors tried various ways of attracting the readers’ attention, either by writing blatant gore or by trying to invent  new plot devices but the things that really do count are the actual story and the author’s style, the quality of writing. Simple things like that. Me too, as I wrote Dark Paladin I tried to focus on the real world. In Galactogon, I tried deep space. Still, I tend to gravitate toward traditional fantasy. I’m not prepared to bend over backwards simply to attract attention. I’d rather spend time developing my world and the story. So if the same sort of thing happens in the US, it sounds perfectly logical. Then again, if you take Aleron Kong, for instance, he writes standard fantasy without any frills. So there must be other factors at play.

Very briefly - in the light of what you’ve just said - if a new author arrives tomorrow with a perfectly traditional LitRPG with a well-developed world, a clever story, etc., - do you think readers will go for it?

Absolutely. It’ll be a good product. Provided it has a good story and good game mechanics, and provided it’s devoid of cheap tricks, like the MC killing off all his enemies with a simple swipe of his hand, winning himself a princess, etc, etc. If the book is free from all this for at least the first two chapters, it has every chance of being a success.

How do you manage to combine writing with your work as editor and literary agent?

That’s a totally different hat I’m wearing. And yes, it does take a lot of time. At the moment, I’m quite enjoying doing it. But it’s very possible that if I don’t see any financial payback, I might at some point reconsider. But the way things are now, I’m on a roll. And I have something to show for it, too. There’s this author I know who wrote a series which I liked a lot. Recently, I gave it another read. It requires a lot of editing, of course. In 1998, he signed off the translation rights to some American firm who took his books, translated one of them and published it on Amazon, then forgot all about it. And the contract they’d given him to sign was so cleverly worded that it stripped him of virtually all of his rights. He couldn’t have the remaining books of the series translated, despite the fact that those guys had only translated the first one; he couldn’t even request any sales information or whatever. It was surreal. Once a year they’d send him a letter saying, like, “we haven’t recovered the translation fees yet, so would you please take a running jump”. And when I started wondering about more Russian books to translate into English, I thought about this one.  I spoke to the author. He said he’d signed off his translation rights. And I had this reader who’d just received an attorney’s license. I turned to him and asked for his help. The guy spent three months looking into all the intricacies of the US copyright law - but in the end, he did find a way to annul the contract.

Didn’t it have a termination date?

No, it didn’t. It was for life, if I remember rightly, threatening enormous fines in case the author had his books translated elsewhere. Simply because the author was just a layman who dutifully signed on the dotted line. As a result, he lost his manuscript for many a long year without receiving a penny. Luckily, we've managed to sort it out, which makes me very happy. It’s a good result any way you look at it. 

Could you tell us more about Barliona? Why did you decide to go back there?

As I finished The Way of the Shaman, I left a lot of plotlines dangling. I know I should have brought them to their conclusion. Still, I’m not going to write another book just for the sake of it. The Shaman has run itself out. I have no intention of squeezing more story out of myself. But still I like Barliona: as a world, it turned out really well. So the events of Invasion will logically progress from the seventh book. It is indeed a sequel albeit with a different MC, a different set of problems and with a different approach both to the worldbuilding and the game itself. I’ve considerably expanded the game mechanics and I still keep doing so, trying to improve the things that are already there. I find Barliona easy to write, therefore I’d like to know more about its mechanics. But that doesn’t mean I won’t write about other worlds. I have the Dark Paladin series which is completely standalone. I have the two books of Galactogon, with the third one on its way. But Barliona is my baby, my newborn. I don’t want to let go of it. 

Was it difficult for you to allow Eugenia Dmitrieva into Barliona?

Not at all. We contact each other a lot anyway regarding various aspects of game mechanics. She often asks me questions. I advise her a lot and sometimes even include some of the ideas she suggests into my new series. I offer some background information for her manuscripts, the things that she can mention in her books. But we still have totally different stories as well as main characters, who only meet once over the course of the books. We worked really hard on setting this up. Apart from that, our characters are perfectly independent. Barliona is a big world. Eugenia is working on the third book now and in all this time, we’ve never had any issues with this.

And if someone else wants to be admitted?

I don’t mind. If they think they can work their way through Barliona’s entire mechanics (I even have an entire Wiki dedicated to it). So if someone wants to join the game, I’m all for that. We could discuss the mechanics, and if they need any assistance with the story, I’d be happy to help. With this in mind, I even created a short story competition, and some stories we received are really good. I’m toying with the idea of having them translated and offering them for free to our English-speaking readers.

Will there be a third book of Galactogon?

Yes. I have enough story for another book which should wrap it up nicely. I’m planning to write it after I finish the second book of Invasion which should be sometime in late 2019, and expect to finish it by springtime 2020.

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