The Big Idea: Mark Teppo
The Mongoliad, Book One (there will be two more) was put together by what could only be called a supergroup of seven science fiction and fantasy rock stars, including Hugo-winning authors Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear. But it’s often hard enough getting just one writer to figure out where a tale is going; what happens when you try to wrangle seven writers at the same time in the service of a single story? Mark Teppo, co-writer and chief writer wrangler for The Mongoliad, gives us insight into the process (hint: It may involve bladed weapons).
Sure, The Mongoliad trilogy started out as the justification the writing team used to explain why they hit each other with swords as often as possible in the name of research. (Yes, there is a team; it is comprised of Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Erik Bear, Joseph Brassey, E. D. deBirmingham, Cooper Moo, and myself.) And what better way to justify this research than to collaborate on a rip-roaring adventure epic that posits a secret history of medieval Europe? We invented a martial order–Ordo Militum Vindicis Intactae, the Knights of the Virgin Defender—and we set out to make them as real a part of history as the conspiracy theories regarding the lost Templar gold of the 14th century. We wanted to bring back the joyous pulpiness of weekly serials while accurately portraying the very rich history of Western martial arts.
That was the basic plan, but along the way, we formed a company whose goal was to realize a new paradigm in publishing methodology, and to promulgate an argument that transmedia empires could be built using small, highly agile teams that could shift direction quickly and efficiently based on customer need and reaction. Do more of what the fans like; less of what causes them to make the ‘meh’ noise. It got very Big Picture very quickly, as you can imagine, and getting lost in that landscape was entirely likely, but we kept our heads down. We never lost sight of one simple—yet very central—narrative question: “What happens next?”
I’m ostensibly in charge of the writers’ room, but as anyone who has spent any time in the company of writers knows (especially when writers have been given the “go!” sign to make things up), being in charge means I’m the guy who makes sure the coffee pot is full and there are enough snacks. Sure, sometimes I would dangle a shiny plot point for someone to glom on to, but mostly, it was like directing a cattle stampede. You spook them in one direction, and then get the hell out of the way. I make it sound chaotic and terrifying, but it’s really quite glorious to watch. The room turns into a self-perpetuating machine that spews ideas out on a logarithmic curve.
However, at the end of the session, we’ll always come back to the basic rule. What’s the story? Where does it go next? Planning ahead was a sucker’s game because with a team like this, plans change. A lot. It’s like micro-managing a vacation getaway down to every minute that you’re away, and then never getting out of your home airport because some heavy weather has rolled in. All that work gone to waste. But it wasn’t the planning that was wasteful. It was the time spent planning. Time you could have spent writing the story—the next page, the next scene.
Once upon a time, during the traditional visit to the local bakery after a rousing morning of banging metal sticks together, Neal offered the following during a lull in conversation. “I have this idea,” he said, “A monk walks into a bar . . . ” And he went on from there for a few minutes. When he was finished, there was a pause, and then someone asked: “And then what?”
Neal mulled that over for a moment and then shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess we should find out.”
That was two and a half years ago. In that time, we’ve produced a nice door-stopper of a trilogy; we’ve strewn story seeds across two thousand years of narrative; we’ve written a screenplay, two game narratives, and an entire iconography that we’re stealthily inserting into every era of history.
At our most recent writers’ meeting, I pulled the rug out from under the team. After the usual hour of kibitzing and waving swords around, I quietly erased the chalkboard and wrote two numbers: “4” and “5.” I got the room’s attention and said, “Everything you’ve been working on for the last few weeks is now on hold. We’re changing direction.” I wrote some explanatory notes on the board as I talked; then, I put the chalk down, dusted off my hands, and offered them a smile as I got out of the way. “Now, let’s talk about what happens next.”
For the next two hours, the room was a raucous cacophony of ideas. And they’ve only just gotten started . . .