Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Dmitry Bilik - Interview

Dmitry Bilik is currently one of the most popular LitRPG authors in Russia. His Interworld Network  series (5 books) is an absolute bestseller. Amazingly written and fast paced Urban Fantasy/Real-LitRPG with multiple worlds, immersive adventures and well developed characters. 

How did the Time Master come about?

I’ve just been thinking about it recently. And I've come to the conclusion that the Time Master was born eight years ago when I didn’t have a story at all. I had this idea for a fantasy novel with a Gatekeeper as the main character. There’s this order of Gatekeepers who guard various important locations. I jotted the idea down and put it on the backburner. Many years and several other books later, I came up with an urban fantasy idea - because The Time Master is UF first and foremost - about a multitude of worlds inhabited by players. That’s when I remembered the Gatekeepers and decided to combine the two premises. It often happens to me that a certain idea is shelved only to be used at a later date when it turns up just at the right time. The Gatekeepers seemed to be tailor-made for my new concept and basically jump-started the whole thing. The whole book just basically wrote itself. Normally, I struggle with book openings trying to hook the reader. But I breezed through the first three chapters of The Time Master in a few days, and just kept on writing.

That’s as far as the first book is concerned. How about the followups?

True, they weren’t as easy. The more plot elements restrict an MC’s progress, the harder it is to write. Book Four was the hardest one because I already knew how it was all going to end - but I hated the route I’d taken in order to get my hero there. I didn’t want his journey to be for its own sake. I wanted it to help him grow and discover his own identity. And I wanted it to work for the plot.

I’ve only had time to read the first two books but I really like them. How many books are there going to be in this series?

Five in total, then it’s all over. But recently I started a subscription to a new series set in the same world: The Gatekeeper, which picks up where The Time Master ended. But I’m not going to reveal the MC’s name to you because it would be a huge spoiler. It’s just that I realized that this world really interested me. So beginning from Book Three, I started introducing certain elements which I knew weren’t going to fit The Time Master. Now I’m going to expand on them in The Gatekeeper.

Don’t you suffer from series fatigue?

I actually did when I worked on Book 5. Not so much of the series itself as of my hero. So I just wrapped it up and started a new story. I have an infinite number of worlds I can add to the existing universe and every time it’s going to be something new for me. Having your MC travel from A to B for the duration of ten novels is quite a feat, I tell you, so I always have a bunch of ideas on the backburner waiting to be written. I just let them sit there and ripen until one day they grow into something bigger.

Unlike other LitRPG novels, yours are absolutely teeming with literary allusions which is something I actually quite like. I’ve spoken to many LitRPG authors and noticed that they have a tendency to distance themselves from the existing literary tradition - with the exception of sci fi and fantasy, of course. You don’t seem to share this opinion, why?

This is probably something to do with one’s upbringing. I loved reading ever since I was a child. Then I studied philology - or rather, I studied at the sociology department of the faculty of journalism but we studied really a lot of literature there. I spent a lot of time reading and even more time trying to work out each author’s style, applying what I’d learned to my own writing or deciding I couldn’t use it. In the end, I knew pretty well what I wanted my writing to achieve. What I don’t like is that the literary bar is set really low in LitRPG. Every person who can string two sentences together think they can write LitRPG. It really hurts when I hear that LitRPG is a niche genre which anyone and their grandmother can write. Having said that, I wasn’t much better when I first started out: I just went with the flow and made no effort to be different. But then I realized that this wasn’t really the right way to go about it. I needed to find my own way, so I started writing what I wanted and the way I wanted to. That’s how I wrote The Time Master. And I actually liked this method, even though normally authors hate their own work when they reread it at a later date. It’s perfectly normal. But in that particular situation, I really liked how I’d done it. I knew what I was doing. For instance, I have a lot of sentence fragments - that was done on purpose, creating a choppy feel. And no matter how I tried to the contrary, the literary side of it all - the allusions, the metaphors, that sort of thing - it was still visible. So that’s how it all started.

You’re saying it hurts you to hear that LitRPG is a niche genre. But in order to change things around and in order for the genre to join the world of big literature, it really needs to sprout some big authors of its own, right? The authors who stay in sync with the great literary tradition. Know any?

Not really. I have a lot of respect for Russian LitRPG authors. Their writing skills are really good. But their books still miss a certain something that might allow us to call them big literature. It’s still “neterature”, as we call it. Including myself. There’s a certain line that separates book readers from Internet readers. And I’m trying to attract both readerships.

But don’t you think that you might lose some of your own online readership that way?

Absolutely. Still, I have my principles.

Still, you seem to follow the main conventions of net literature. Like having only one POV character.

The reason I don’t do multiple POVs is because I tried it and realized that it didn’t really work. I tried both first-person and third-person; I added lots of characters, including other POV characters. And then I’d receive lots of comments complaining about it. Readers just don’t seem to like it. They tend to lose track. So eventually, I stopped doing it. Having said that, I have this idea for an urban fantasy with a third-person POV and lots of minor POV characters. In actual fact, the book won’t have a single main character at all.

So as far as I understand, you’d like to bring LitRPG up to a new level?

It’s just that I have a certain opinion and I’m trying to stick to it. Certain reference points, if you wish, which I'm not going to abandon. It does baffle me a little that some LitRPG authors view their work as content writing, something their reader might skim over while commuting to work. Don’t get me wrong, I do realize that this kind of fiction has every right to exist. It’s just the way both literature and neterature seem to evolve these days. There must be a reason for it. The reader probably needs it too. But I’d be lying if I said I was happy about it. If a book is badly written with lots of elementary mistakes, I don’t think I’d be tempted to read it. Not because I’m such a grammar Nazi, not at all. It’s just that these authors don’t even try to make an effort. They pour out on paper whatever occurs to them, then upload it on the internet often even without rereading it.

Could you tell us more about the game mechanics in The Time Master? How important is it to you?

Of course it’s important. When you write about a game, you can’t just ignore its conventions. You can’t write three numbers off the top of your head and call it LitRPG. I have whole charts and leveling systems. Sometimes I do lose track, in which case my readers point it out to me. It’s very important. I might write a scene where my hero is victorious, and my readers would then write back pointing out why it wasn’t possible. I’d start replaying it in my head and indeed, it didn’t sum up, so I’d have to rewrite the whole thing. Pure fantasy is so much easier. There, you can ignore that kind of stuff.

Which means self-inflicted restrictions, right? But at the same time, there’s the OP problem. The ability to rewind time that your hero possesses seems to be a very powerful weapon in and of itself. What did you do in order to restrict his powers?

I just gave him a limited number of charges he could use. A Player like this still can’t confront a whole army and win, simply because he’ll run out of charges. He’s not a superhero, he’s a regular guy, and he has his share of shortcomings. I also realized that I couldn’t give him the ability to go back in time for, say, 10 seconds. Because you can do an awful lot in ten seconds which you can’t in three. You can’t cheat a roulette in three seconds simply because its spin takes longer than that.  

How important is OP to the genre of LitRPG?

There’s a whole lot of things that might help the MC to win even difficult fights. I read some books written by people who had a very good knowledge of how things work in a game. Their heroes didn’t have any mega bonuses or imba abilities. A character like that would just start leveling, becoming a rather strong player by the end of Book Two. By the end of Book Three, he begins to win. By the end of Book Four, he becomes a god. Personally, I think it’s just boring. No one bothers to watch online videos streamed by regular players. We love to watch truly great players who know how to combine all sorts of abilities and other cool things. Few would be interested enough to watch a schoolkids’ game of Dota. It’s the same with books.

So do you think the MC has to be awesome?

Absolutely. A net writer’s task is to whirl his readers through the book, making them forget all about TV, coffee breaks and even the author’s own literary style. The reader should only stop once the book is over.

Do you imply that a LitRPG author can’t afford to digress?

You can, provided you do realize that long philosophical passages don’t sell. I have no desire to indulge in sanctimonious preaching simply because I presume that my readers are my peers. There’s no point in me trying to lecture them.

Now my favorite question. The LitRPG market saturation. Can you feel it? How do you solve this problem for yourself?

Of course I feel it. More books means more of the same old same old. We need to start looking for new angles. About three years ago, there was an advent of books with NPCs, mobs and AIs as MCs. These days, there’s also RealRPG, a totally new direction. Authors have finally realized that the reader can get bored pretty quickly reading about the trials and tribulations of a character whose sole goal is either to get out of the game he’s trapped in, or simply earn a bunch of money.  The beauty of RealRPG, in my opinion, lies in the fact that its characters continue to live in the real world devoid of game conventions. You have your own character traits and your own mentality, and that’s what you have to play with. This is actually quite exciting because it shows you in a new light. What I don’t like about Korean LitRPG is their mechanisticity. The hero comes, hits the monster 300 times and kills it. There’s no emotion, no empathy. The characters engage in dialogue but you can’t tell what they feel as they speak. You have no idea who, or what, you’re supposed to sympathize with. The author might even tell the reader that his MC is an orphan but he can’t show him as such. The beauty of Russian literature is in its tendency to focus on the characters’ emotions and inner struggle.

But does it gel well with the genre’s esthetics? Because let’s face it, LitRPG is mechanistic by definition.

Well... it’s just that I lose interest in a book which is heavy on technicalities.

Last time I spoke to Vasily Mahanenko, he told me that in his opinion, the most important thing about a book is the story. According to him, things like the setting and game mechanics take second place. As long as the story is good, the book will sell. Do you agree with him?

I do, with one reservation. Personally, as a writer, I don’t like following cookie-cutter rules like many other authors do. I’m just not interested. But the story - of course, any good book is based on a great story.

Does the story need to excite you as a writer?

Absolutely. I’m not a plotter in any shape or form. I just can’t write from an outline. For instance, I have a fantasy mystery - and as you can well imagine, a mystery has to be plotted from A to Z. All the elements in it have to connect and make sense. But even so I was really struggling to write from an outline. I kept tweaking things and changing them around. I’m much happier working on a novel when I know nothing about the story apart from the actual ending. In this respect, I always struggle with the last books of series because knowing how it’s all going to pan out takes the excitement out of it. Writing the first books is much more fun! You can allow your fantasy to run wild. Bu technically, writing is just a skill. Like, I’ve just spent four days without writing a word. And yesterday when I finally sat down to write I just couldn’t get in the zone. I set it aside, deleted the last paragraph, then rewrote it and deleted it again. And then the moment came when I was back in the flow, ideas just poured out for various stages of the book. I wrote a whole chapter in one sitting and it doesn’t look too bad. Now I need to edit it. So yes, I do think that writing is a skill. Lots of people imagine writing to be some sort of divine inspiration when a muse comes from the skies and kisses you, and you just start pouring your precious ideas down on paper. But mainly, writing is all about butt in chair. The authors who’ve already made it online had to work really hard for a long time.

What became your gateway to LitRPG? Was it the books or actual games?

The games. And the books. My favorite game world is definitely The Elder Scrolls. I started with Morrowind followed by Oblivion and Skyrim. I love the world and the system itself. This is the world I lost my gamer virginity in. And there were lots of books, of course. I tended to read a lot of classical sci fi and fantasy, authors like Stanislaw Lem, Herbert G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein... I don’t think that at the time, I read much contemporary stuff at all, apart from a few books by Sergei Lukyanenko and the Dyachenkos. I devoured classical literature - the books written in the 17th, 18th and 19th century. This isn’t exactly the right background for a net author, so no wonder my first attempts weren’t very successful.

But why did you want to become a net author?

I didn’t - not at first, anyway. I just wanted to write and be read. So I wrote a book and sent it to a publisher. They rejected it. Now I understand it was perfectly fair. Firstly, what I wrote wasn’t what the publishers were looking for at the time. That was in the era of heroic fantasy and military fantasy, and that was what all publishers wanted. And once I’d started making a bit of money online, I realized that I didn’t really need a publisher. So yes, now I’m an online author first and foremost, whatever anyone might say. That’s neither good nor bad. Just a fact of life.

Have you tried the Elder Scrolls Online? What do you think about MMORPG, anyway?

I used to play Warcraft quite seriously at some point. But I have no intention of trying the Elder Scrolls Online for fear of getting hooked again, which might compromise my writing. That’s why I don’t play at all at the moment. I know only too well how it happens. When I was working on my master’s thesis, I discovered one particular game - and I got seriously addicted. That’s when I realized that I was wasting my life playing children’s games while others around me were busy doing something with their lives. So I quit it cold turkey. I used to play lots of different games. Now I just don’t. I might spend an hour in the evening playing Civilization, just to unwind.

Does that mean that a LitRPG author doesn’t need to stay in top form as a gamer?

Not really. Coming up with a good story is much more important. And how you’re going to present it is entirely up to you. I once spent ten minutes watching a friend play a game. Before the ten minutes had expired, I already had an idea of how to use that game in a book. That was the extent of it. I didn’t have to play it for one moment.

Do you prefer single games or MMO?

I’m an introvert, so it has to be singles. That way I can retreat into my own shell and do the things that I want to do. I have an excellent imagination, so for me it’s not a problem coming up with a story even if the game itself is pretty pointless. I might tell myself that my character is the son of one of his opponents. And once he confronts them, I’ll start wallowing in remorse about attacking my own father!

Interworld Network, Book 1 is also available in audio format

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