Thick Skins & Total Honesty: Matt Forbeck & Jeff Grubb on Collaboration

Here’s the eighth interview on collaboration.  This series celebrates collaborative creativity in honor of the Shared Worlds summer camp, which challenges teenagers to build and share imaginary worlds.  I should note that Matt Forbeck was integral in the creation of the Shared Worlds camp.  He has been extremely generous with his ideas and expertise since the beginning.  Many thanks, Matt!


Both Matt Forbeck and Jeff Grubb are legends in the gaming industry, an industry that thrives on collaboration, ingenuity, and… creative playfulness. 


Known as The Nicest Guy in Gaming, Matt Forbeck has done work for everyone from Atari to Wizards of the Coast.  Forbeck’s CV reads like a case study in creative diversification.  He “has designed collectible card games, role-playing games, miniatures games, board games, and logic systems for toys and has directed voiceover work and written short fiction, comic books, novels, screenplays, and computer game scripts and stories.”  Most of Forbeck’s fiction is set in shared universes, though his recent novels, Amortals and Vegas Knights (forthcoming), take place in a creator-owned setting.


Jeff Grubb is a master of world-building and collaborative design.  A civil engineer turned game designer and writer, Jeff Grubb has written fiction set in the Warcraft, Spellcraft, Magic: The Gathering, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, and Marvel universes.  (Of his novels, he is the most proud of his novels The Brothers’ War, Lord Toede and Azure Bonds, which he co-wrote with his wife, Kate Novak.)  Grubb worked on the creative teams that designed the Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Al-Qadim, and Spelljammer campaign settings.  Recently, Grubb’s been playing in the Guild Wars universe at ArenaNet.

Below, Forbeck and Grubb talk about collaborating in general and on their forthcoming novel, Guild Wars 2: Ghosts of Ascalon, in particular.


What are the benefits of collaborating on fiction writing? How do you do it? When does it work? How does it positively affect the final product?


Matt Forbeck:  Having worked on many games, I’m used to being part of a large team of people brought together to get a job done. However, Guild Wars 2: Ghosts of Ascalon is my first collaboration on a work of fiction. ArenaNet hired me to write the book, and I wrote the first draft myself. As we worked our way through revisions, though, it became clear that this wasn’t something I could best handle on my own. The world of Guild Wars is just too big for me to get every one of the details right, and it would have taken years to become a qualified expert on it. This is doubly true since the Guild Wars 2 game still has yet to be released.

Fortunately, ArenaNet had just such an expert on tap in the form of Jeff. Of course, Jeff’s not only an unlimited font of knowledge on all things Guild Wars, he’s also a fantastic writer. I’ve known him and his work for years, and we’re both part of the same writers’ group, the Alliterates, although he’s with the hip Seattle branch while I hang with the Midwestern originals. Because of this, the collaboration worked well. The book is, I think, better than anything either of us could have created alone.

Jeff Grubb: The advantage of collaboration is that two heads are better than one, and your collaborator is guaranteed to be just as involved in the book as you are. Matt writes some of the best combat scenes I’ve seen, and the overall outline and characters are his. I’ve got the insider knowledge and deeply understand the races and histories. Together we both do dialogue well. It is a melding of strengths to produce a good final book.

I call this the book that swallowed me. I was there at the start, working out the plot with Matt and the rest of the creative staff, but in a support function — a shadowy figure pulling strings and making suggestions. As time went by, I became more and more directly involved, such that I was soon writing large sections, like the parts in the Charr territories and some of the folktales. Eventually I joined the book fully for a final draft.

This is not always the case — my work with my wife, Kate Novak, came about when I started explaining the plot to her on a drive to Milwaukee. By time we got there, I had a co-writer and one of the characters had changed gender. With Kate, we worked from a tight outline (much like with Matt), and I barreled through the first draft, and she handled the revisions. Working with Ed Greenwood on Cormyr: a Novel had a different approach — since the book broke down into present and past sections, we split the chapters, then switched up and rewrote each other.


Can you share some advice (and maybe some words of caution) for fiction writers setting out to collaborate?


Jeff Grubb:  The best advice I can give to any collaboration is to hammer out the outline first. Know where you’re going with the book, so that if you’re splitting the initial writing tasks or alternating, there are no (well, fewer) surprises down the road.

Matt Forbeck:  Jeff’s right that you should have a good outline to work from, but I find that’s the case with any work of fiction. It always helps to know where you’re going before you head out, and that’s even more true when you’re traveling that road with someone else at your side.

It’s also important to keep the lines of communication open and make good use of them. You want to be sure everyone’s happy with the end results, and that’s easier to do if you make sure that you’re not working at cross purposes at any point in the process.

If you don’t have a thick skin about criticism, be sure to develop one fast. You need total honesty in a collaboration to get the best results. It doesn’t have to be brutal though. Be as kind with your own criticisms as you would want your writing partner to be with you, and hopefully you’ll receive the same kindness in return.


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and part-time professor.  Jones is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magazine.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.

3 thoughts on “Thick Skins & Total Honesty: Matt Forbeck & Jeff Grubb on Collaboration

  1. Thanks for the interview. I play Giild Wars and write collaboratively with a friend, so this advice is welcome :)

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