With over 40 submissions, The Sword & Laser Collection Contest: The Sequel on Inkshares.com is well underway and is nearing its end. The writers who have submitted their stories can already hear Europe’s “The Final Countdown” in their minds as January 15th draws ever nearer. Currently in the lead, Joseph Asphahani is grateful for the opportunities the contest has given him for the duration of this contest, but with his first ever novel, The Animal in Man, he is ready to begin the publication process with Inkshares.
Asphahani said he has always been a video gamer, ever since he was a child and had to steal turns playing on his brothers’ NES when they weren’t looking. He played video games through high school and college, even dreaming of becoming a video game writer or developer because he loved the stories the games told. Life, however, had a different path for him to pursue. He graduated with an English degree and became a certified teacher, teaching in a Chicago high school for six years. He later found himself moving away from the city with his wife and two children and returning to school for a master’s degree in creative writing. “I had all these excuses to just give up on my dream: family, mortgage, bills to pay, [etc.]. But then, I was like, you know what? I can do this. I can still do this,” Asphahani said. With this mentality, he enrolled in Full Sail University’s Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program and completed it in one year with straight A’s, earning several Course Director Awards, and graduating as Valedictorian. “I decided, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to give it everything I have and I proved to myself that I’m capable of being a creative writer. And the program really opened my eyes to all the different kinds of media out there beyond just novels: comics, games, screenplays, [etc.],” Asphahani said.
The idea for The Animal in Man originated from a game Asphahani created about ten years ago. Besides video games, Asphahani always enjoyed table-top games like Dungeons & Dragons and participating in live action role playing. These types of games always fascinated him, so he started cooking up his own story in his own world with his own campaign, deciding that all of the characters would be animal-human hybrids. The players Asphahani invited to the game were excited to try it, but the game fell through when schedules clashed. Asphahani was left with a whole world of characters and materials and had nothing to do with them. “I decided one day that I was going to start structuring a plot, focus it on a main character, design a main villain, and this is what’s going to happen. And then from there, I started chapter one,” Asphahani said. “It’s been a long, arduous, ongoing process for almost a decade, but I need to get this thing done. I will get this thing done, and Inkshares has really given me the best opportunity I can ever imagine to do so.”
Inkshares offers many opportunities for hopeful writers, and even those who have been published offer assistance to future writers. Richard Heinz, author of The Seventh Age: Dawn, was one of the top five winners of the last contest Inkshares hosted, The Nerdist Collection Contest. The Seventh Age: Dawn is about a world Heinz created for a game, just like Asphahani. He took his idea, made it into a book, marketed it on Inkshares, and found great success. Heinz wanted Asphahani to find the same benefits, introduced him to Inkshares, and encouraged him to submit The Animal in Man to The Sword & Laser Collection Contest: The Sequel. “[Heinz] knew about The Animal in Man and he knew I had been writing it on and off. So he [said], ‘Look, this is your opportunity. You’re going to get this thing done. You’re going to get this in front of everybody. It’s a great story that deserves to be told.’” Asphahani said that ever since Heinz introduced him to Inkshares, he has never thought twice about submitting his book for publication. “We’re a community of gamers out here. It’s a lot of fun seeing these things morph from one portal of distribution into another: from a game into a book.”
So far, Asphahani has the prologue and first two chapters of The Animal in Man posted online, with another nine or so awaiting revision; however, even with these few chapters uploaded, Asphahani is keeping the story a mystery. “There are so many secrets,” Asphahani said. “When people ask me, ‘What’s the book about?’, I do not even know how to begin because there are so many things I’m holding back, I can’t say. It’s like a game I’m playing: it’s a science fiction story disguised as a fantasy story.” Asphahani is trying to pull a trick on his readers like in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” and even his villain, the red-scaled snake introduced in the book’s prologue, plays tricks on the animal people in the world of Herbridia, the world of The Animal in Man. “The book is really about what people will do when people find out they’ve been controlled all their lives. It’s also about, if you’ve been made to be violent, if it’s in your nature, and you never really knew that. Until one day, you woke up and realized what you are, what people have made you to be, so the question is: do you go back to what’s comfortable? Do you become what everybody thought you were or do you have it in you to decide for yourself who you are?” Asphahani hit many bullets on the head about what some real-life humans think of humankind: that humans are just animals. “It’s not necessarily my own opinion there. It’s just something I think about. I wonder what the answer is, like anybody.” He says it’s true that humans do horrible things to each other, and these terrible things happen on a daily basis. It is seen on the news: atrocities, everywhere. And yet, Asphahani, through The Animal in Man, asks humanity, “Can we be better? Can we actually become what we think humans ought to be?”
Though the story itself remains a mystery, Asphahani was willing to share a few traits about his characters and his world. The main character the readers follow, Maxan, is a fox. Asphahani wanted an animal that was cunning and smart, but wasn’t so physically strong. Someone that was vulnerable and small and had to rely more on wits, speed, and ability to avoid conflict. Maxan is a special kind of city guard: a Shadow. He’s supposed to just watch and observe, never leap in and help with a drawn sword. Aside from Maxan, Asphahani mentioned that every animal readers encounter is a kind of animal that gives off a natural aura of danger, “So, if readers are looking for a hummingbird, a sheep, a clown fish, or something,” Asphahani said, “you’re not going to find it in The Animal in Man.” The world of Herbridia is not large. It spans only five nations, and its map is spherical, complete. There are three celestial bodies circling Herbridia: the sun, Yinna; the dark moon, Yerda; and a city-sized object that floats just above the stratosphere, The Aigaion. These three celestial bodies are described in chapter one; but, as is the rest of The Animal in Man, Asphahani said there are some things beyond the stars that remain a mystery. Readers will only discover what the mystery is upon reading.
Though the contest has and continues to be stressful, Asphahani has a wonderful support network behind him. His wife has taken on his share of household duties while he works to finish the book, and his two young daughters have been helping with his campaign, starring in his YouTube videos and having fun while helping their dad. Many writers are introverts and Asphahani is the same way, but that has not stopped him from reaching out through his campaign to friends, family, and even to complete strangers. The bulk of Asphahani’s preorders so far have actually come from the students he taught and found online and they are so excited to support him. “It’s been very stressful, but at the same time, I think of all the little victories I get, like with every single preorder I make, or every one of my kids that says they’re looking forward to it. That has been the fuel in the engine that’s been driving me forward, to push through all the stress,” Asphahani said. “I don’t think I could do this without my students. There is no way.”
If and when Asphahani wins The Sword & Laser Collection Contest: The Sequel, The Animal in Man will be his first big published work. “Even though I’m in first, I’m not going to slow down,” Asphahani said. He continues to keep finding more eager readers and more of his past students to help him reach his goal. He admitted he is currently in campaign mode, but he is ready for, what he called, the “fun work” that follows. “I wanted to get to that point when Inkshares is calling me on the phone and talking to me about my story,” Asphahani said. “I want to tell everybody I can about the secrets in here. When you have a secret, you want people to know. You just got to keep it in and that can be painful.” He even admitted that there are only three human beings on the planet, other than himself, who know the secrets of The Animal in Man. Even though he still dreams of being a video game writer or developer, Asphahani is a true novelist at heart. “I’ll just throw a lump of clay at a chapter and be like, ‘All right, this is good for now.’ But I know that my strength as a writer is that when I go back, I can edit, revise, and mold that lump of clay into a really beautiful sculpture,” Asphahani said. Writing contests are wonderful experiences for all writers who want to put their work out into the world. Like the work he’s done with The Animal in Man, Asphahani has taken this experience and is molding it into something beautiful. As the final countdown commences for The Sword & Laser Collection Contest: The Sequel, Asphahani’s eagerness to begin the publishing process is close to becoming a reality.
Originally published at www.examiner.com on January 5, 2016.