The Burning Legion Returns

I’ve spent the last month in the country with very limited access to internet so I missed most of the build-up to the release of Legion. No dread lord invasions of Ogrimmar for me.

Last night though, after attending a Legion launch party at Geekarna, a splendid local cafe, I hit the beaches of the Broken Islands and began to do my part in rolling back the demonic invasion of Azeroth.

Blizzard has done an excellent job in making this feel suitably epic. I was with Sylvanas during the doomed attempt to close the demon gates and witnessed Vol’jin’s last stand. My rogue’s Outlaw spec helped me keep a suitable distance from the big monsters and not die. Then it was back to Ogrimmar to see Sylvanas take up the position of warchief and swear to avenge her predecessor. Stirring stuff.

I watched Dalaran being teleported to its new location. This was a real nostalgia-fest for me. I have always loved the flying city though I shudder to think how much time I spent there back during Wrath of the Lich King. After that, it was down into the underbelly of the city to assume my new position in the Hall of Shadows.

I decided to level Legion as an outlaw, so I took up the quest for the Dreadblades. I died a lot on the beach before I got my brain out of easy mode and I started thinking about things again.

I can’t remember how long its been since I died while questing. I’m not saying this to show how leet I am. It’s just that all of my levelling over the past few years has been done with alts in artefact gear or with a main completely empurpled from the previous expansion. This levelling has usually been done in the company of my son Dan’s similarly well-geared characters. Getting killed is not easy under those circumstances.

Anyway, once I decided to swim to the boat and climb the cliffs rather than detecting mines on the beach path by standing on them, things started to swing my way, and I was soon the proud possessor of a pair of artefact weapons.

It feels suitably epic, all the more so as Dan wields the Doomhammer but I can’t help but feel its going to start to seem a little ridiculous when Dalaran is overflowing with Doomhammer-brandishing shaman and a hundred paladins waving the Ashbringer. We’ll see soon enough.

I like the class-based Order Halls. I like running into my fellow rogues as I stalk through the tunnels. It feels like a step-up from the instancing of garrisons which I’ve always thought atomised the world a little too much.

After being inducted as a new Shadow, it was off to Stormheim for some adventuring proper. The opening questline saw me at the throat of the Alliance, which does not bode well for any sort of united front being presented by the people of Azeroth to the threat of the Burning Legion.

It was fun though to ride bats and commit acts of airborn atrocity on flying ships. When landfall was finally made on the BrokenIsles, we were off to find Sylvanas, who rather irresponsibly for a warchief had taken herself off on some sort of solo quest.

Stormheim itself has a Northrend feel to it. Lots of giant wooden elevators leading to astonishing views, huge mountains and Vyrkhul. It made me quite nostalgic triggering the holograms for the assorted Test of quests. I was up past midnight exploring the zone and I feel like I am only scratching the surface.

It was nice to see lots of people out there as I quested but things never felt too overcrowded as the opening of many previous expansions have. It took me hours to get off the beach in Northrend because I was competing with hundreds of others for every kill. Kudos to Blizzard for letting players choose their starting zone in Legion. This helps contain the overcrowding problem.

So far then Legion has been great. The presence of the Legion and the deaths of some well-known NPCs has given it a suitably epic doomy feel. It reminds me of Lich King and in a good way. I’m keen to see more. Always a good sign.

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Writing Illidan Part Five


This is the fifth part in my series of blog posts about writing my World of Warcraft novel, Illidan. The earlier parts can be found here:

Writing Illidan Part One

Writing Illidan Part Two

Writing Illidan Part Three

Writing Illidan Part Four

So, after all the preparation, I set merrily to work. I wrote the first draft in Scrivener with the outline broken down into scenes in its index card window. Any additional information I needed was in the research folder. I kept all the artwork I had been given by Blizzard in that Scrivener file too along with all the screenshots I had taken during my research trips. In some scenes and chapters I kept pictures of the characters in Scrivener’s document notes window. It was singularly the largest Scrivener file I have ever used.

I wrote with the Burning Crusade soundtrack playing in the background to keep me in the mood. I paused every now and again to fly around Outland and remind myself of how it looked and felt. I would occasionally pay a visit to the Black Temple, once managing to get myself killed particularly stupidly in the process. Every week, Dan and I would venture into Azeroth and its environs for some PvP just to keep our hands in.

I wrote in the workspace in Prague and in a hotel room in London while I was traveling. I worked on a MacBook Pro or a Microsoft Surface. I was looking after my three-year-old son a couple of working days a week, so I worked on Saturdays to give me some extra time. I think it helped because the maximum length of time that went by between writing sessions was one day rather than a whole weekend.

I wrote, as I usually do, using the Pomodoro Technique. That is to say, I worked in 25 chunks, broken up with 5-minute breaks. Sometimes, for variety, I would write in ten-minute sprints. For me, single tasking in discrete chunks of time is the simplest and easiest route to productivity.

There’s not much to say about writing the first draft. I can’t remember another one that went quite as smoothly. I had promised to deliver the first draft manuscript in a couple of months. I was writing to a very tight deadline, but once the process got underway, much to my surprise, I did not feel a lot of pressure. I was having too much fun.

I liked the characters, and I enjoyed watching their interplay. It was a pleasure getting inside their thought processes.

Writing the book provided me with a whole new way of looking at Outland. World of Warcraft gives a brilliant sense of the look and sound of Azeroth and Outland but what does it feel and smell like? Is Zangarmarsh hot or cold? A Florida swamp or a cold North European one. I asked these questions of Sean and the other lore wizards in Irvine and got prompt answers back. (For the record, Zangarmarsh is hot.)

Questions about the story still needed to be answered and new bits of information about demon hunters and other things needed to be woven in as I went.

There were technical problems that needed to be solved, questions of time and distance. What were plausible lapses of time between events? Mostly though it was a case of following the outline and the characters as they improved on it or fought against it.

When I first started the book I had no idea of Vandel’s eventual fate. I knew everything would have to come to a head during the final climactic battles at Black Temple, but I had no idea exactly how things would be resolved with him.

I pushed on anyway carried by momentum, caffeine and the BC soundtrack. There were days when I wrote 7000 words. There were days when I wrote a lot less. I probably averaged about 3000 words per working day as I wrote. For those of you keeping count, that does mean I hacked some text out before it was finished the manuscript.

And then, one fine day, it was done. I exported the book from Scrivener onto PDF and went through it on Drawboard on the Surface Pro, marking things up with a pen.

At this stage, I was looking for inconsistencies, bits that needed cut, spelling mistakes, anything I could spot. This is not the easiest thing to do when you have just completed a draft, which is why I like to do it in a different format from the one I write in. Things look different in a PDF, and this can jog your brain and make you look at things afresh.

I used to do this on paper but these days its easier to edit on a tablet. Much less bulky to carry around with you as well. Which is important because I normally do my editing in a cafe or a bookstore or some place totally different from the place I wrote the first draft. I do this for the same reason as I do the editing in PDF. To trick my brain into looking at things afresh because it’s in a different environment.

There were the usual glitches that still needed editing, but in general, I thought it read well, and I was pleased with it. Then I sent it off to Del Rey, and the real work began.


Image copyright Blizzard. No challenge intended.

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iTunes Warcraft Promo

Just a quick head’s up for all the Warcraft readers out there with Apple Devices 15B0E809-412A-4FE9-9386-B6653A3BBA92 copy

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Writing Illidan Part Four

I had worked out what I wanted to say about the characters. Or at least I had a starting point for it. More always gets revealed as you write. Now I needed to start building a framework for the story.

Most of this was already there in the Blizzard briefing document, and in what I knew about Illidan’s life from Warcraft 3 and Burning Crusade.

Most WoW players know what happens at the end of the Black Temple raid and most of us know the events that lead up to it. We know that Akama betrays Illidan and Maiev is there at the end. Along the trail that leads to Black Temple, we find Maiev imprisoned.

In part plotting the book consisted of taking these events and asking how they happened. By implication, Akama must have met Maiev before Black Temple, and they must have some relationship. Maiev must have been captured at some point and so on. From this, I could spin back a chain of events leading up to Black Temple.

There was also all the new information I had been given in the briefing document and in Irvine. That needed to be woven into the framework as well. For Vandel, the demon hunter we needed to see his training and recruitment as well as his participation in Illidan’s mission. Vandel’s tale needed to dovetail with what we already knew about the lore and show certain well-known events from different angles.

This was the most difficult thing to plan for because I still did not know a lot about the demon hunters at this stage. In addition, huge events happen in the background that I could only hint at for fear of giving away to many spoilers. I pushed forward anyway, working all the stuff in that I could.

I already knew there were scenes I wanted to do. I wanted to show the first meeting of Akama and Maiev. I had it pretty clearly in my mind from the get-go. Akama is the only point of view character who sees both Maiev and Illidan close up. I wanted to contrast his personality with theirs. I wanted him to make some observations about both of them that would resonate through the book.

There was another scene I knew was going to be key. During the discussions in Irvine, I had talked with one of the developers. (Apologies to him since I cannot remember his name and give him the credit he deserves. My excuse is that I was extremely jet-lagged at the time.) He spoke with enormous passion describing the mission of the Burning Legion, and he conjured up a particularly Apocalyptic vision of what it was doing and why. He interlaced this with a very clever description of the cosmology of the Warcraft universe.

I knew communicating that vision was central to getting across what the Legion was about, and why Illidan was involved with it. I wanted to do it with as much force as I could muster since it was, in many ways, the heart of the book.

I also knew I was going to be writing about demon hunters, so I thought it would be a good idea to make that Apocalyptic vision central to their creation. In my mind, I had a clear picture of the ritual in which this vision would be transmitted.

Plotting then became a process of taking all the key scenes and putting them together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. I needed to put in connecting sequences, buildups and bits of exposition. It was mostly done by working backward and asking what has to happen for this to happen? This gave me a timeline of events that needed to be dealt with.

There were some dead ends and false starts. In the original briefing document there were references to Quel’thas to Tempest Keep and other things. I decided that these were distractions from the main story, so I took them out. There was a fair amount of this. There was just so much I could put in from the lore. The trick was going to be leaving it out. 90000 words sounds like its a lot, but it is limited when it comes to shoehorning in so much good stuff.

I wrote a very basic outline in Scrivener, mostly scenes in chronological order. As I wrote things expanded from the bare bones of the ideas I had in my head. This is normal for me. What was not normal was that so much stuff just poured onto the page. Bits of business and dialogue just emerged almost as they would appear in the finished book.

Parts of my outline were mini-scenes in and of themselves. The thing took possession of me. By the time I had finished the outline I had written well over 16000 words, almost 20% of the length that the book was supposed to be. More than three times the length of the longest outlines I had written previously, and way longer than the normal outlines I use these days. Normally I do about a paragraph for each chapter.

I suspect this was a reaction to pressure, a coping mechanism. There was a lot riding on this book for me personally. I love WoW, particularly the BC era stuff, and I wanted to do it justice. Unlike with my previous work for hire projects, I was coming in late, not from a position of having been a developer. I think I was as much trying to reassure myself as the people at Blizzard and Del Rey that I could do this thing. By the time I had finished the detailed outline, I was convinced that I could write the book. As it turned out this very detailed outline was to cause me some problems. But that’s for next time.

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Writing Illidan Part Three

It was time to set about outlining Illidan. I knew who the main point of view characters of the book were going to be. The story of the Burning Crusade and Black Temple pretty much dictated three of them: Illidan, Maiev and Akama. The Demon Hunter Vandel was in the briefing document I got from Blizzard. Since this novel was going to tie into Legion and show us something about demon hunters, he was going to play quite a big part. Before I set out to write the outline I needed to think about the characters since a lot of the action would flow from them.

I needed to make some decisions. How much space was each going to get in the book? Which was the best point of view to use for the various events? How was I going to show their history and relationships with each other. More to the point, what did I want to show about each of them? What was their role? How do they interact? Who were they?

Illidan was the easiest to deal with. His name was on the title. He was the central figure around which everything revolved. He is a towering charismatic figure. To me, he’s not really a hero, although I know many people disagree. He’s more complicated than that. He’s a very bad person trying to do an awesomely heroic thing. He is driven, domineering, sardonic, and his own worst enemy. He’s the smartest man (ok elf) in the room and he knows it. He has no time for fools. He is lonely, thwarted in love, far too proud for his own good. Above all he has a mission and he is going to complete it. No matter what the cost to himself or anyone else. In some ways what destroys Illidan, his tragic flaw is hubris. He is too proud, too confident and too self-reliant. It brings him down in the end. He is also ambiguous. To most of the world he looks like a villain, a traitor that has betrayed his entire world to the forces of destruction.

Maiev is in some ways Illidan’a mirror image— a driven hunter with an over-riding purpose, which is to bring Illidan to justice. The irony of her position is that she has much more in common with him than the people she serves and protects. She too has given her life to a mission. In her case, imprisoning Illidan and now bringing him to justice. In the book, she was going to be our window into the world which Illidan has come from, and the one that sees him as a villain, quite correctly by their lights. She too is a charismatic leader, fighting a battle against overwhelming odds.

Akama always seemed to me an interesting character. He engineers Illidan’s downfall for what he sees as the best of reasons. He is a mighty spiritual leader of his people but he is kinder and gentler than Illidan or Maiev. He has a kind of ruined decency to him. He also mirrors Illidan from a different angle. He is forced to treachery and wickedness in the service of a cause he believes to be good.

Vandel was the easiest in some ways, the hardest in others. During the original discussions of Demon Hunters in Irvine it was made clear he would need to be either a Night Elf or a Blood Elf. I chose Night Elf, not just because my original main character was one, but because it was the background that would show the depth of the transformation he is to undergo in the strongest possible way. Blood Elves already had a tainted slightly corrupt nature that put them further along the dark path a demon hunter must follow. Making him a Night Elf would give him the furthest distance to travel and make the ordeal he was to endure all the more shocking to him and the reader.

As all of this thinking was going on I was also trying to look at things from a technical point of view.

The reader was going to have to spend some time in Illidan’s head, getting to know him. The idea was slowly to shift the reader’s perception from seeing him as an ambitious villain to something more heroic. One problem in doing scenes in this way, is a very basic one for a writer. Illidan is smarter than I am. A lot smarter.

Showing the mental processes of someone cleverer than you is always difficult. There are some tricks, of course. A very smart character can figure out solutions to complex problems that it would take me hours to solve (if I could solve them at all) in moments. All you need is the solution and you can show the lightning fast mental processes at work.

The other main trick is to show him from the outside, from the point of view of people closer to my own mental level. Both Akama and Vandel would be useful for this. They would have a lot of scenes with Illidan, and they both had ambiguous relationships with him. These would allow us to see both them and Illidan. Akama and Vandel provide foils for Illidan that let us see him as his own followers see him.

Maiev would tell us a lot about Illidan simply by the relentless nature of her pursuit. You can judge characters by the potency of their foes, and she was a very potent one.

By the time I finished writing my character sketches I had a pretty good idea of the people I was going to be dealing with. I needed to find some way of fitting their stories together. It was time to deal with the outline proper. Of which, more next time.

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Writing Illidan Part Two

So there I was back in Europe, trying to figure out how to proceed. I had a long document full of ideas from the folks at Blizzard and the somewhat confused and incoherent notes I had taken myself in Irvine. Now all I had to do was make a book out of them, and with a fairly tight deadline too.

My first stop was to read through the Blizzard notes. These gave an outline of the story, its themes and the marks I was going to have to hit. I had never really dealt with anything like this before. My previous tie-in works consisted of coming up with characters and/or storylines and getting them approved.

The outline I had been given was dramatic, and I was familiar with large chunks of the story. Most Blizzard fans would be. It was the tale of Illidan from Warcraft 3 and Burning Crusade very cleverly reworked to stand what people thought they knew about the lore on its head. Without changing any of the details of the story, it changed everything about my understanding of what had happened during BC.

Running inside the main narrative was a new one, detailing the recruitment, training and eventual fate of a Demon Hunter. This was exciting. In game terms, it was a whole new class, and as a player, I was thrilled to have some input here and to get a sneak preview of what was to come. There was a problem, though— the details of the class were not set yet, so I was going to have to go ahead with many specific details about the class and trust that they would be filled in as I went along.

In addition, there was a truly unique problem in my experience as a tie-in writer. I had actually been present at many of the events described in the outline, in some cases many times. In the case of Black Temple, I had seen it from both Alliance and Horde sides. This raised some questions.

I had to make a decision about what to cut and what to keep in. You could write a book just about the Black Temple Raid itself— which given everything else that was going on was not an option. I also had to find points of view and key scenes that would make it clear to the reader what was going on, and I could not assume that any reader of the book would necessarily be familiar with the raid itself.

The second question was a doozy. This novel would be part of continuity. How in the name of the Betrayer was I going to show something that hundreds of thousands of people had been part of, myself included, and not invalidate their experience?

I could hardly hand out definitive laurels for the victory at Black Temple to either the Alliance or the Horde. In the end, I chose to fudge it. Most of the scenes in Black Temple are shown from the point of view of people who have no real reason to know anything about the player characters they encounter. Thus I did not have to give too much detail.

I decided I needed to go back and take a look at the raids, just to remind myself of the details. So recruiting my eldest son’s Shaman and my own Rogue, I headed back to Outland and plunged into the heart of the Burning Crusade.

It was an interesting experiment in nostalgia, wandering through Magtheridon’s Lair, Black Temple and Tempest Keep with my level 100 and a personal healer. I only had to give many mobs a hard stare, and they died. The aggro distances were so low I virtually had to hit them to get noticed. It felt as if all these elite monsters were whistling to themselves and pretending not to see us. It was not like this during the Burning Crusade. Still I got to revisit a lot of fun places, and it was a lot less stressful this time around. I even took screenshots, like a demented tourist clicking away amid the ancient ruins of Outland. I imported them all into a Scrivener file for future reference.

I requested and got the soundtrack of the Burning Crusade from the good people at Blizzard, imported it onto iTunes, set it on a loop and got to work on my outline. Of which more next time.

And here are some more snaps from my trip to Irvine. That trike actually works, you know.

I am going to be on the road for the next few days so comments will be moderated and replied to even more slowly than usual. They will be read and responded to though! No pics this week either since the terrible hotel internet I am using keeps giving me a server timed out message when I try to upload them.

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