Interview with Rachel Aaron and Travis Bach

Interview with Rachel Aaron and Travis Bach

Hi everyone, TS here!  This is the first time Novel Notions is hosting an interview on a co-authored series.  Forever Fantasy Online is both the name of this LitRPG trilogy and the first book.  Its sequel, Last Bastion, was released yesterday and I have to say that the book was fantastic and an improvement over the first book (which was a fun and great read as well) in every way possible.

Rachel Aaron and Travis Bach have kindly agreed to answer a few burning questions that I have, and so let’s get right to it. 

Hi Rachel and Travis!

Welcome to Novel Notions and thank you for being here.  I am really interested in the writing process for these books.  To start things off, how did the idea of a jointly written trilogy come about? And what inspired the MMORPG setting for the story?

Rachel: This (like all of our really good ideas) was Travis’s brain child. When he told me about it, though, I instantly wanted in. I absolutely love trapped in the game/gamers in a fantasy world stories like Sword Art Online, Log Horizon, and No Game No Life, so the moment Travis suggested the set up for FFO, I was chomping at the bit to write our own version using the video games we played and the types of gamers we knew.

Travis: The video game that Rachel and I have played the most of, by an order of magnitude over all others, is World of Warcraft. (Please don’t ask what my /played time is.) MMOs like Warcraft are living worlds packed full of characters, players, history, and politics. We had to make all that up for our fake MMO in the story, but the default setup is still fertile ground for growing stories in.

How does the collaborative writing work between the both of you? For eg. do you take turns writing different chapters or characters?

Rachel: We’ve worked together on every book I’ve written, but this was our first time sharing the actual writing part. Since I was very busy working on Heartstrikers when this project started (and Travis wanted to try his hand at writing without me hovering over his shoulder) he wrote the first draft on his own. After that, I read the book and made a ton of suggestions, which he added, and then I took over and added my own layer onto the manuscript.

It was a truly collaborative process. We’ve both touched every word in the book!, and I think the end result is better than anything either of us could have written on our own. It’s a real blending of our styles, and I could not be happier with how things turned out!

Travis: Early on in days of writing the first FFO book, this experiment of ours became an apprenticeship of sorts for me. For books 1 & 2 (and soon 3), I bring the first draft to Rachel for her critique. Note that I didn’t say editorial. What Rachel’s done for me is to give very detailed, at-length writing advice on every part of the manuscript.

An editor might say, “The battles are messy and confusing.”

Rachel would said, “Don’t wax poetic with your prose in battle scenes. It’s confusing to the reader. Be clear and be specific. Also, we need more landmarks and more focus on them so that the reader can easily keep track of where everyone is.”

Sometimes she’s taken an entire week to deliver all the feedback for me in the form of 20-30 pages of notes. Then I go off to rewrite the novel and try to fix it all over the next several months, before presenting the next version of the book to her for another round of feedback.

The first book of the series took 2.5 years to produce as I rewrote it four times. But I made fewer mistakes every time. Book 2’s first draft only took me 9 months to get to a satisfactory level. Book 3…well life has gotten in the way of that one a lot so I’m not counting. Though I will say I think that book 3’s first draft is my best yet.

Anyway, once I’m done learning on the manuscript, it goes to Rachel and she elevates it to her usual amazing land of awesomeness. I read that version and weep over how much better it is than what I did. ^_~ (Though a lot of my words do remain, it’s not a 100% rewrite.)

Had there been any major disagreements on the direction of the story or development of a character, etc? If yes, do you toss a coin or something like that to decide? 😄

Rachel: Not really. One of the reasons this collaboration came about is because we work so closely together on all of my books already. This really felt like the next natural step. There were a few disagreements, but we hashed everything out pretty early on, so by the time we actually got into the text, we both pretty much knew where everything was going and why.

Travis: There’s only one I can remember so the rest must not have been significant. But I can’t talk about the one because it’ll be the spoiler from hell. There is a major plot point near the end of book 2 that was causing me great troubles in the first draft and the edits. I couldn’t make it not awkward and I wanted to remove it. Rachel won that argument though because she was right that the novel is best for the scene being in rather than out. Book 3 is better for it as well since that scene’s impact is long-reaching.

I’m happy in the end. It was good that she pushed me to make it work cause I was just frustrated from banging my head against the wall too much.

Were any of these characters drawn from those in other books? I find a lot of similarities between James Anderson and Julius Heartstriker.

Rachel: That’s because Julius was Travis! He’s was the original Nice Dragon. Obviously neither character is Travis exactly, but there’s always a lot of us that comes out in our characters, especially the main ones. I’m very much like Tina when I game, for example, though not nearly as hardcore. But I’m also like Marci and Opal (from Minimum Wage Magic).

Really, I think there’s a bit of us in every character. Julius and James just stand out because there are so few nice guys who want to solve problems with civility in genre fiction, which is a shame. I love a decent hero trying to bring peaceful solutions to crazy fictional problems!

Travis: I’m a buddhist, so compassion is a very important trait in any hero I write. James is more violent than Julius is though because James isn’t a pacifist. To be fair, Julius had to become that way because he was up against a might-makes-right society and one cannot reform such via bloodshed. James has different villains though so he can occasionally pummel them. Overall, I really like his sort of warrior-sage thing that’s going on.

My thoughts: It all made sense now. I could not tangibly discern any major differences between FFO and the rest of Rachel’s books in terms of the overall style or tone of the storytelling and characterisation. Eli, Julius or James, they are very distinct characters in their own way but none of them are the typical badass warrior-type heroes and I love them for that. 

Speaking of, James can really talk his way through most problems and not once did I find his method or argument ludicrous. How did you guys do this so well?

Rachel: Because that’s how Travis is in real life. Seriously, he will civility you into the ground.

Travis: I don’t know what she’s talking about… look! Kirbies! (>’.’)> <(‘.'<)

Cough, anyway… I’m super-happy to hear that you found James’s arguments authentic. I put a lot of work into them.

It’ll come as no surprise that I’m a fan of diplomacy and diplomatic tactics. I read Foreign Affairs Journal for years. Which is also why James is a former political sciences major. Since the story of FFO is one about societal clash and upheaval, I really wanted a diplomatic character as that would mean diplomatic problem-solving.

Though my secret weapon for James’s arguments was that he wasn’t convincing the characters in the room so much as he was convincing the reader. That was my aim the whole time when writing his persuasion scenes. Getting there involves a fair amount of research on topics like, “how to resolve a blood feud” and “how to convince racists to not be racist.”

Tip: It all comes down to humanizing the “enemy” and finding common ground. Check out Daryl Davis if you want to read something shockingly inspirational on this score.

These were amazing, and empowering, topics to learn about. I feel like I’m a better person now for having written James. Thanks James!

I love the growth in James’ character arc as it was inspiring and heartwarming.  So thank you for creating and writing him.  And thank you both again for taking the time to answer my questions.

Both my reviews of Forever Fantasy Online and Last Bastion can be found in Novel Notions.  If you are looking for a fun, geeky, thrilling and engaging read with great characters, I highly recommend these books.


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