Tuesday, December 29, 2015

To Do List - 2016

Around this time, there's lots of talk of new years resolutions. I think it's great. I don't partake in it, but I think it's great.

What I do every year is make a To Do List. I make a list of all the things I want to accomplish through the year. They're not resolutions because they're not about a change in behaviour or altering my lifestyle. They're not on-going goals like most resolutions are, they're binary. It's not like a diet which I'm doing, then I slip, then I'm doing it again, then it's the holiday season and I'm bending it a little for social necessity, then I'm back to it. Either I achieve them or I don't. They're either done or they're not. Once they're done, they can't be undone. It's a small distinction but it's important enough to note.

It began in 2013, the year after Sorceress' Blood was published. I decided at the start of that year that I'd have my next novel ready for publication, a collection of short stories in the editing stages and the first draft of a third novel begun.

I accomplished none of those goals in 2013.

In 2014, I basically had the same list. Pilgrimage published and knee deep in the next novel by the start of 2015. I decided not to go with the short story collection idea and instead sell a short story to a magazine. Just one.

Well I did a little better that time. In 2014, I finished Pilgrimage and it was released in November for the whole wide world to read and enjoy. I'd made a dent in the next novel's first draft but I hadn't sold a short story. So I took those left overs and made them my To Do List for 2015.

2015 was a tough year for me for a whole bunch of reasons. I had some hyper productive days, I made some great progress and I learned a lot. In fact, this year's biggest triumph has been how much I've learned about planning a story. But in terms of my To Do List? I didn't tick anything off. Projects aren't finished yet and projects I never intended to work on made a lot of progress.

2015 has been interesting, if not my most productive year.

Now we're just days away from 2016 and I'm looking at my next To Do List. I'm going to share it with you. Hopefully you'll come up with your own. It doesn't have to be long or complicated. Mine is just, well, take a look...

  1. Sell a short story
  2. Finish second draft of Sorceress' Blood 2
  3. Plot fourth novel
After doing this a few years, I'm working to find the right balance of goals that I can accomplish, goals that will challenge me, goals that won't get in the way of each other and goals that are important to me.

The first two are obvious, but those second two are also important. I believe your writer's To Do List for the year should not have goals that interfere with each other. I'm not trying to write two novels at the same time. Those are two massive tasks that I can't split my attention between. I don't know if anybody could juggle that. On the other hand, my first goal is selling a short story. The focus here is selling. The market for any short story is going to be limited and if I've got something in review in that market, I can spend the waiting time working on Sorceress' Blood 2. And I only need to work on it. My goal is not to finish the book this year, it's to complete the second draft. Once the first draft is done, I'll take a break from it and if I haven't sold a story by then, I can work on a few more while taking a break from the novel. These are two different goals, two different tasks. They won't interfere with each other. The third goal is the same. Plotting is something I can do in the spare moments of the day, be it sitting on the train with a notebook or brainstorming in the shower. Plotting time doesn't have to overlap writing time.

The fourth criteria for a goal is being important. I've ranked them in order of importance. For the last two years I've been working here and there on some short stories to try and sell them. So far I've been unsuccessful. The stories I've written have been rejected. Many more I started and wrote didn't even make it to the pitch because they didn't work in a fundamental way or weren't good enough for a wide audience. But I'm not stopping because it's important to me. I want to do it, I want to prove to myself I can do it.

A very early lesson I learned about writing is that you're going to fall short of your dream. You're going to be rejected, you're not going to be a best seller, you're going to get bad reviews, your dreams are not going to come true, your "final draft" is going to suck and you need to do another one. It sucks. But lucky for you and me, there's infinite retries. Get out there and do it again. Maybe this time it'll stick, maybe you'll be lucky. But to be motivated, to be persistent, it has to matter to you.

Writing books matters to me. Right now, selling a short story matters to me.

Every year I've made a To Do List, I've had left overs to carry over to the next year. I've carried over more of my list than I've ticked off. But that's fine. I don't plan on dying any time soon and that is literally the only thing that's going to stop me. I can keep going because it's important to me.

And as long as you don't stop trying, you haven't failed yet.

So just make sure Giving Up isn't on your To Do List.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Writer's Group: A Reflection

So back in August last year, I wrote briefly about being part of a writer's group and also about my hesitation towards such things. I'd been burned before.

But I went in with an open mind and no shortage of eagerness, in part because it was being conducted different to any group I'd been a part of before and also because it included many of my close friends. Indeed, the tremendously creative and ever enthusiastic Craig Robotham cooked up the whole idea.

Every month we set ourselves a challenge to write at least 500 words to a particular theme of challenge and then workshop it together, take notes, give notes, discuss and so on. I submitted for their approval a slice of Pilgrimage's prologue (this was not long before Pilgrimage was published) and received some wonderful feedback to help pick up my game on it.

Our first month was very productive, full of participation and conversation and we swapped ideas and worked together and everything was just dandy.

Then came the second month and, sadly, my prophetic visions began to be realised. Mostly, it seemed, people were unable or unwilling to commit. I don't say that in a judgmental way. We've all over committed ourselves at one time or another and for many or most in the group, writing wasn't a job, just a hobby. Whatever the reason, participation dropped sharply in the second and third month. A few new people joined in, revitalised numbers and contributed their best and then fell away. Less than six months after we began our great experiment, with only a few people contributing, we pulled the plug.

More than a year now, since we started, with everything unfolding more or less as I expected (in my tremendous cynicism) I'm disappointed but my view of writing groups has changed significantly since last August.

If you're not part of a writing group, you should be.

Or maybe groups aren't really your thing. You could be a grumpy recluse like me. That's fine. Then find a buddy or two, find a writing partner and make friends with them.

Either approach is fine, so long as you find somebody or somebodies and use them. Talk shop with them, trade ideas, collaborate, swap writing and give each other feedback. Make it detailed, make it honest, most importantly, make it helpful.

Remember how I said a little while back that books aren't written by one person? This is the sort of thing I'm talking about. You are not an island. You can't expect to be an island and a good writer. I have a number of good test readers for my work and an exceptionally talented editor to help me, too. But I also have writers in my peer group that I can go to. Writers have a different perspective to readers. They see the code, they know the secrets, they've learned the language. Even if you don't think they know more than you (and you shouldn't be so arrogant, really) odds are good they can remind you when you forget something important.

So if you haven't, find some writers near you or some writers online. Give them a chance, meet with them, talk with them, swap some work and some feedback. See if they're the right kind of people for you and stick with them.

That last bit is important, too. It's not enough that these people merely be writers, they have to be writers you respect, writers you will be willing to listen to and spend a lot of time talking to. If you find yourself having inexplicable bouts of rage when you see their faces, move on and find some different people. Don't let one bad experience jade you to the point where you are deprived of valuable learning experiences and opportunities to improve your craft.

Like the man said...

Just do it!

Also, go and look at Craig Robotham's work because it's awesome and he's awesome and you'll won't regret it.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Are You Representing?

I thought about posting this over on the soap box but decided I want to talk about this not so much from a philosophical perspective but from creator's perspective. Because of the nature of the topic, we can't avoid the politics completely but we're going to go light on that.

I'll go into this a little at the end but right now you need to accept an axiom. Before we go further, you've got to get keen on this idea. If you can't, what I have to say will be moot to you. Ready?

Diverse representation of humanity in your work is a good thing.

So when I wrote Sorceress' Blood, I set a chunk of the book in China. This meant there were a number of Chinese characters. But that makes sense, right? Book set in China, got to have some Chinese walking around. Why was it set in China? Why not? China is cool. I'm Chinese history hobbyist and I wanted part of the book to be in China.

Pilgrimage is set entirely in Australia but one important member of the supporting cast is a Japanese woman. A Japanese sorceress living out in small town Australia. Why is she Japanese? Is it important for her to be Japanese? Does her being Japanese mean anything? Is it just because I'm a massive Japanophile? Is there an in plot justification for her to be Japanese? No. No there isn't. Her magic is heavily drawn from Japanese Buddhist mysticism* but she could just has easily have been an Irish woman with magic drawn from druidic tradition or a Native American shaman type figure or a Voodooist (is Voodooist the right word?) But I chose Japanese. Sue me.

Right now I'm writing a book with a bit of an ensemble cast. One protagonist is a half-Italian girl and one is a homosexual man. Is there a reason? Does this have any bearing on the plot? Would it change anything if he was straight or bi? No. I just thought it'd be good to have a homosexual character.

I just thought it'd be good to have some diversity. I want to write a world in which there's more than hetero white people walking around.

But equally important is that those characters are not defined by the things that make them diverse. The homosexual character is not defined by his sexuality, it's just part of his make up as a (fictional) person. It no more defines him than that he is male or that he is English or that he is a Sorcerer. Rather, all of that informs the person he is and the actions he takes in the story. You know, like people.

Yasu, in Pilgrimage, is a sorceress of legendary power who also happens to be Japanese. She isn't a powerful Sorceress because she is Japanese, or because she's a woman, or because she's old. All these are traits she has but you cannot reduce her to one trait. At least, I like to think so. Critics may disagree.

But the point here is that when you're writing a diverse cast of characters, it is extremely important that you avoid tokenism and fetishisation of that diversity. I think we can all agree that Will & Grace was kind of funny but also kind of awkwardly a little offensive too but it's over and we're a more enlightened culture now and we don't need to have stereotypes in our work.

If you think you might be falling on sexual, gender or racial stereotypes, stop and reset yourself. Try writing the character without any reference to their gender, sexuality, race etc. and just write them as you think they should be written to be the most interesting character possible, then go back and add those missing details in revision.

Now I'm sure some of you are thinking, asking, "Surely if I'm writing a transgender character into my story, there should be a reason for them to be transgender. Their gender identity should be part of their arc or it should have an impact on the plot or there should be an in world reason for it." This question isn't usually asked about non-white characters but it often comes up talking about LGBT characters in fiction.

And I ask you: Why? Do you ask LGBT people in the real world to justify themselves? Do you think they need permission from you in the real world to exist? No, of course you don't because that's insane. Including diverse characters doesn't need a special reason because it doesn't need to be a big deal. It doesn't need to be any kind of deal.**

So if it's not part of the plot in anyway, how do you work this sort of thing in? Again, this isn't such an issue with racial heritage. You can tell your reader this character is a black American as easy as you can tell the reader their hair colour or what shoes they're wearing. But what about gender and sexuality?

Again, the key is not to make it a big deal.** We reveal all kinds of little and inconsequential details to the reader as we develop our characters. This character's father is dead, this character likes driving muscle cars, this character did some boxing in university, this character is homosexual, this character is allergic to latex. It's not a plot twist and it doesn't need a big reveal. Work it in naturally, just make it a part of who that character is and you'll see the place and time to bring it out and show the reader.

"Okay, Carl, so you've convinced me. This is a piece of cake. I'll make my writing more diverse. I'll include more and varied women characters, I'll have a whole range of nationalities and ethnicity in my cast. I'll have some LGBT characters. Of course, I won't go overboard. One in 20 people in the real world is homosexual, so one out of every twenty characters I write will be homosexual. On average, you know."

Look, I don't want to tell you that every book needs to have a transgender character, a Mexican character, a black character, a homosexual character and also has to pass the Bechdel test. That's not my goal here at all. I don't hold myself to that standard. But just because your life experience or some statistics you found on the internet tells you that homosexual women only ever appear once in a blue moon, that doesn't mean they should be that rare in your fiction. The goal here is to show a diverse world, not an accurate to real life world.

I'm saying make an effort. Because diversity is good. The problem is a lack of variety of humans in fiction.

Because your readers want to read about people like them. Because you provide a better experience for your diverse audience if you give them people like them, characters they can better relate to. Because there's a lot of romance and erotic books about homosexual characters but not enough homosexual action heroes. Because when you include diversity in your writing, you become a better writer.

I'd like to leave you with this image that's been floating around the internet for a little while now. If you need any more convincing, just take a look here.***


 *but more on the Buddhist reading of Pilgrimage another time...
**Obviously stories where racial and sexual identity is the main theme do exist but they're a different topic.
***I've focused on sexual and racial diversity here but it extends beyond that. Diverse representation can also include characters with autism, or characters suffering depression. I have by no means been exhaustive.
****If this image is yours or you know the author, please let me know so that I can give appropriate credit and kudos to them.
Note: While I have tried to refer to all people by non-offensive terms, I apologise if my politically correct language is not current. I tried my best. Correct me in the comments if you like.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Kick Start Your Imagination

So you've sat down at your desk, picked up a pen, turned on the computer, dusted off the type writer, cut the throat of a chicken or otherwise prepared your writing tools. You're ready, you're willing. You want this, you need this, oh baby, oh baby.

It's time to write.

And you sit there. And you sit there. Nothing happens.


So you want to create but the White Queen has come and turned your Brain-Narnia into a frozen wasteland. There's no sun, no warmth, no growth and no Christmas. So what are you going to do? Well, here's a few tips.

Listen to music

Hardly a secret. Everybody says listen to music. But that's because it works. Music stimulates us, gets our minds going. Music can be like dropping acid on our imagination and sounds become images become stories become inspiration. So choose some tunes and let it happen. For some people, any music will do. Just that addition of sound to their work space gets them going. For some, it's got to be classical music. Classical music is the smart man's music. Classical does you well. I've known writers who choose music that suits what they want to write. Fast, energetic music for action, somber and slow for drama. Film soundtracks are excellent for this. There's also many musicians who offer their music for free online for personal use. Finally, some writers, like myself, will choose music that their POV character would enjoy. What do you think your character would listen to? What artists? What genres? Use music to get a little deeper into that POV and think like your character.

Take a shower

It is well documented that we have some of our deepest, most inspired and most creative thoughts while we're showering. Can't seem to get the creativity turned on? Go jump under the water for a little while, stand and reflect, think and imagine. The shower is a great environment for meditation and it might be what you need to put yourself in the right frame of mind for creating.

Punch the keys, for God's sake

I hope you read that in a Sean Connery voice. If not, for shame. Anyway. If you just can't get the next sentence started on your work in progress, try opening up a new file or turning to a blank page and hit the keys. Start just by hitting keys, then make words, any words. You can type your thoughts, or type all the words you know in alphabetical order. I like to free style some kind of brief narrative, just putting one event after the other no matter how they connect (or don't, as is often the case.) We're not trying to create art here, we're just getting the hands moving. It's purely physical. Once your body is warmed up and you've got your attention where it should be, turn back to your project and keep the fingers in motion.

Read a book, watch a movie

Somewhere in our life, we decided we wanted to write. I would bet that it happened for you in a similar way to me. You watched a movie or a TV show or read a book or a comic or saw a stage show and you said, "Damn, I want to create that." This trick for kick starting your imagination is all about feeling. Dig out one of your favourite stories - in whatever form that takes. Watch/read for a little while, until you get inspiration. Find that feeling that made you want to write in the first place. For my money, I like to watch 'Terminator 2' because damn. Dayum. I watch that movie and I say "Why am I sitting here? I want to make a story that good! I want to give somebody the same kind of experience Mr Cameron just gave me!" Again, you want something that will inspire an emotion, not an idea.

Brain Storm

Or maybe what you need is ideas. Maybe your work is at a dead end and that's why you don't know how to get writing again. So start writing down ideas for what could happen next. Anything. No, really, anything. Begin with something like "the world explodes," or, "Main character wakes up and finds he is a cockroach," or absolutely anything else and if that ideas doesn't quite suit you, go onto the next one. Eventually you'll get past the absurd and you'll be writing down implausible ideas, and boring ideas, then possible ideas and if you write down your ideas for long enough, you'll eventually write down THE BEST DAMN IDEA YOU EVER DID SEE THERE, BOY.

Your mileage will vary. Some methods will work for you, others will not. Give them all a try at least once, see what gets you going. If none of these are your cup of tea, trust me, there's plenty more for you. You'll find something.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Face It, You Suck

Yesterday I say down and I wrote for an hour and I sucked.

It happens.

It may have been because it was getting late and I was tired, or I hadn't eaten dinner yet and I was hungry. It could be that I've recently lost a friend and didn't feel so creative. It could be I'd spent a little too long playing a video game and my mind had gone numb, all my creativity dried and turned to dust.

What may have caused an evening of some terrible writing doesn't matter. Fact is, I wrote some absolutely awful prose. I was productive, but in the same way food poisoning makes you productive. You're welcome for that thought.

So I finished an hour of writing and said, "I'm going to put a hold on this for now."

I'll try again tonight. I might still be in poor form. I might write some more crap. Depending on how the day goes, I might write crap for two hours, or three.

In the end it doesn't matter. It doesn't bother me even a little.

Normally I like to flatter myself and say I'm a decent author. I write some good stuff, some exciting stuff, some engaging stuff. Mostly I like to say I write something worth reading.

And often, I don't. Days like yesterday happen. No big deal.

I'm going to say something that's pretty standard writer's advice. This maxim gets shared around plenty and, unlike many writer's maxims, I tend to agree with this one.

Give yourself permission to suck.

It's going to happen. It's probably going to happen more often than not. A lot of the time, it's going to happen when you don't even realise it. You'll write something and you'll be very happy with it and later you'll come back to edit it and you'll say, "What happened? This was good when I wrote it! Those damn Suck Goblins snuck into my house again and ruined all my work!" But the Suck Goblins aren't real. I know they're not because I just made them up. Literally, I made them up just now. So you can't blame the Suck Goblins. That bad writing is all you. Bad prose, bad dialogue, bad plot, bad metaphors, all of it is on you.

And that's just fine. It happens. Nobody writes a perfect first draft. Nobody writes a perfect second draft. Third draft? Nope. Fourth? Fifth? I highly doubt it. Personally, I usually take six or seven drafts to get something right. Every draft up to that point is full of suck.

I plan to go into detail on editing in the near future so I won't dwell on this idea for long but let me say this: Good writing happens in pieces, in stages, over time. Drafts one to five aren't terrible and then draft six is all strawberries and cream. Each stage sands off the edges and polishes the surfaces until you've got it right.

What are the caveats, you ask? Good. You're learning. There's always fine print, always some extra detail these maxims demand. Sadly, they don't get shared as often as the maxim itself - because writers just love a snappy little truism. But this is why you come to me, right? We don't play around, here. We get down to the hard nosed truth.

All right. So, give yourself permission to suck.

But don't. Don't ever let yourself get the idea that writing something crap is okay. It's not. We're not put upon this earth to write bad stories with bad prose. We're here to produce quality. So when you notice yourself writing something that makes babies cry for all the wrong reasons, just make a little note of it to yourself and keep going. You'll come back later and fix it up. All this bad writing here is an error that must be fixed like a typo. It's a typo that the government gave psychic powers to and now its powers are out of control and its body is mutating into this giant fleshy baby looking monstrosity and it's shouting "KANEDA!!!" and you're shouting "TETSUO!!!" and half your audience is scratching their heads at this point, wondering just how we got to this point. The take-away from this is that you don't want to write badly, and when you do, remind yourself that it is bad and that you'll fix it up later.

Don't get comfortable with bad writing.

This is all about acceptance of the inevitable and giving our self the space to keep going. Bad writing mustn't become a stumbling block. It's a part of life that we acknowledge, and then we keep writing and we finish what we're doing and we get to the end of the draft and then we start again and we polish the surfaces and we sand the edges and bit by bit we remove all that sucky writing we did. But in the mean time, you have permission to suck.

Fortunately for us, that's the long and the short of the fine print on this one. It needs to be said, but it's said briefly. Maxims are great and that's why we love to share them around and make them into memes and say "Hey there, creative buddy of mine, just remember that when the tough gets going, it's okay to suck." Or something like that. But we must always look deeper and unpack pithy phrases like these to make sure we really understand them.

If we don't, we may get the wrong idea and when somebody says "Hey, this thing you wrote is kind of craptastic. You're usually better than that," we go and turn into a giant raging were-honey-badger and scream "I GAVE MYSELF PERMISSION TO SUCK AND THAT'S WHAT I DID AND YOU CAN'T TELL ME I'M WRONG I DO ALL THE THINGS THOSE FUNNY GREETING CARDS SAY TO DO AND I AM BEST WRITER EVER NOW I EAT YOUR FACE."

And nobody wants to be that guy.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Things I Find Mildly Annoying

For your entertainment, here's a short list of unimportant things that bother me.

People who say Christine and The Phantom should have gotten together at the end of The Phantom of The Opera

I get it. The Phantom is oh so handsome (with his mask on) and the way he broods is almost as appealing as the way he sings if you're into the dark and mysterious stalker/murderer type. And Raoul is douche bag, too, so seeing him get the girl is unsatisfying. But, seriously, the Phantom is a bad dude. You know he would have been abusive. How about an ending where Christine don't need no man?

Discussions about George Lucas' films

These just get me in trouble. Many of my friends are giant nerds and, being giant nerds, they have strong opinions on the prequel Star Wars and the fourth Indiana Jones film. I, being a giant nerd, also have opinions on them. My opinion is usually different to theirs. At this point, I'm just a little tired of being told why I'm wrong.

People who dismiss arguments or opinions for stupid reasons

If I ruled the world, everybody would be issued with debate licences. You don't have to do anything to earn it, it's your right from birth. But you can lose it if you break the debate laws that also exist when I rule the world. One of those laws is using statements like "You only say that because you're too young to know better," or, "I guess you need to have children to understand," or, "I went to university and you didn't, so obviously I'm right," or any similar dismissive bullshit like that. I mean the fact that it's incredibly rude should be reason enough not to do it, right?

The phrase "You didn't like that movie because you just don't get it."

Basically the same as above but this one annoys me so much it gets its own entry. How about when we have conversations with people, we begin from a point of not being a condescending asshat?

This thing my friend does where he cracks the bones in his neck

It's just weird!

Zack Snyder

'Nuff said.

Stanley Kubrick

At this point, my hatred of Kubrick's library of work is well documented.

People playing with their phones, their computers, or their portable game consoles at the RPG table

The Nintendo DS and the PSP are bad enough, but I once played in a Dungeons and Dragons game where a guy brought his entire desktop computer - tower, monitor, gaming keyboud and mouse, headphones - and sat there playing a video game until his turn in combat. Of course once it got to his turn, he would then ask for a recap of what happened while he wasn't playing attention! This isn't game-ception, guy, there's no need to game while you game. It's irritating and it's rude and you should feel bad!

News media that isn't The Guardian

At this point, there's hardly any integrity or standards left in journalism and The Guardian is one of the few news sources that seems to give me what I want from them: The news. The hilarious satire of First Dog on The Moon is a bonus.

Excessively negative people

People who are excessively negative and like to focus on things they don't like instead of things they do? Screw those guys. We don't need that kind of attitude around here. The only thing that bothers me more than them is obvious irony. It's like, yeah, we all see the irony,try to aim a little higher next time, pal.

List done! Enjoy the rest of your day, Also, I made a new Soap Box. If you like that kind of thing, go have a look.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Television's Big Lie

A few years back I was watching this TV show called 'Californication'. You may have heard of it. It chronicled the adventures of an American author played by David Duchovny. Decent TV show. I made it few two or three seasons before I stopped watching. Nothing on the show, I just rarely make it to the end of TV series.

The way 'Californication' presented the writing process is fairly similar to how many movies and TV shows present the writing process. Here's how it works.

1. The writer struggles. Writers can't just come up with an idea or a story or a topic, sit down and write it. They can't just set aside time in their day to brain storm and plan. Or rather, they could, but it always ends up being fruitless and they have a montage of making pencil towers and throwing scrunched up paper into their waste bin. Writing can't just happen.

2. Inspiration strikes. Somehow, some way, somewhere, the writer is inspired. Often it's because of something they see or somebody might say something that makes all the pieces of their potential novel fall into place. More often, however, they experience something amazing and unusual and it becomes the catalyst for their story. Whatever the case, inspiration comes and at last they can write.

3. The writer writes. They sit down at their typewriter (or computer, but often a typewriter because writers are quirky like that or because it's a Stephen King story from the 1970s) and they punch out a story. This also often involves a montage or similar time lapse but the suggestion is that the writer simply does nothing else but write from when the time inspiration hits until the time that first draft is done?

4. Did I say first draft? Oops! That's not how it works. Because inspiration is so strong that you only need to write a book once. You get those last words down and BAM! Your work is done. Time to send it to your agent or maybe straight to the editor working at the publishing house. This person may also be your best friend and wing man when you go out drinking. Having a purely professional relationship with your professional colleague would just be weird. They love it to. Best thing you ever wrote! Sold! Print it!

5. Six months later, the book is on shelves. Everybody is buying it. It's 10/10 and you're doing interviews for Time Magazine. Fame, money, prestige and acclaim are all yours! Midlist? Obscurity? What's that? You, sir, are a genius!

Obviously it's fiction. Nobody believes this is what it's like. Nobody wants a montage for the author's third draft, most of which he does while watching repeats of Bewitched in his pyjamas. There's no value or charm in an episode where the author browses BabyNames.com in search of a good name for a throw away character. And seeing the hero's hard work reap little to no reward, unless that's the key conflict to the story, isn't much fun to watch.

So whatever. It's fiction. Who gets upset about fiction? We all know it's not true. Writing's not like that and anybody with half a brain gets that.

But there's an idea in here I think does need some proper refuting,and that's the idea that authors work alone. Writers write the book, send it away and go onto the next book. The author jealously guards his manuscript, crafting it his art like a lone wolf. He is the keeper of the magic.

But that's not how it works. Books are made by teams and if that's an idea you need to get friendly with or you're in trouble. You, the writer, are not enough. At least, at the absolute very least, you need an editor.

And by editor, I mean an editor. Not you with an editor's hat on, not your friend who knows grammar really well. You want to make a professional book? Get a professional editor.

But books aren't made by writers and editors either. You're writing a book for people to read, yeah? So get some people to read it. Find some readers. Obviously they should be people who read lots of books. They'll have the best knowledge, intuitive or otherwise, of what works. They'll also probably get through the manuscript. Other writers are good, presuming they're writers who read books. But what's really important is that they're somebody willing to give you an honest opinion, not just of the manuscript as a whole, but as a play by play commentary, picking over each scene and telling you what they really think. Some people suggest this shouldn't be your mother or your spouse or your friends. But they can be, so long as they're willing to give you honest feedback.

We're not quite done though. Because books are made by writers and editors and test readers, but they're also made by your friends and your family, by people you brainstorm with and who suggest ideas, by their encouragement and their interest in your creative endeavors.

What it all comes down to is you are one person with one mind and one imagination. There's not enough in you to make a good book all by yourself. It takes a team, one bigger than you may have thought. Like the man said...

It's dangerous to go alone.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Soap Box: Homosexuality and The Church

A Christian opines on the politics around sexuality... Again.

For the longest time, the issue of sexuality was one of my greatest theological concerns. I've since lost interest. I interpret scripture one way, you interpret another way, he, she and they interpret it their way. We might all be wrong. In the end, God knows how he feels about sexuality and what we think means very little.

It's not a theological discussion I'm interested in anymore.

It doesn't matter.

Because what does matter, and what I am 100% certain of is that the church is wrong.

The church is just wrong.


And by the church I mean the Christian community globally in general and, especially, the leaders of that community.

The loudest voice in the church, right now, on this issue, is one with a political agenda. It's one that is strongly conservative, and one that wants to fight tooth and nail against same sex marriage in particular. Further, it's one that says homosexuality is wrong. Just plain old wrong. It's a sin. You shouldn't do it, you shouldn't be it. If you do and you are, then you are bad. Occasionally the word I hear is "abomination." And it's okay to use that word because it's in the Bible. This loud voice is one that sounds hateful and angry and it's full of condemnation and outrage.

But there's a problem with that.

It's missing something.

Did you see it?

Can you guess?

I'll tell you. This is the important part. This is why the church is wrong. Right now those loud voices are offering a big section of the Earth's population judgment and nothing else. That is NOT the church's job. It has never been the church's job to judge and it never will be the church's job to judge people. Judgment is not in our portfolio.

But Carl - you say, stepping in to hold a hypothetical conversation and explore the issue deeper - But Carl, if it is a sin, shouldn't something be said?

No. Usually the answer is yes, but this time it's no. You're wrong. You, Mr Church, hypothetical question asker, are wrong and you need to shut up about this one for a while and go sit in a corner and think about it. You can come back to the grown up's table when you are going to be responsible and offering something worthy to the discussion.

It's important to talk about sin. Sin is a big deal in Christianity. The church has a responsibility to discuss it and be aware of it. But the church has a much bigger responsibility and that is to lead people to God and encourage people to follow the examples set by Christ for all humanity. Because no sin is beyond God's power to forgive and no heart is outside God's power to change and nobody on this Earth now or ever is beyond God's love and compassion. The church's number one task in this world is to share that with people, and bring people to God.

And guess what?

You don't do that be being a judgmental arse!

If you, Mr Church, are certain beyond doubt that homosexuality is a sin then that's your business. I'm doing trying to argue that point one way or another. But before you open your mouth about it, you need to think, is what's about to come out of your trap going to bring people closer to God or push them away from God? If the answer is not the latter, then it's back to the corner for you. You can do better.

Okay, now, look, I know that you might not be like that. Maybe your little section of Christendom and your part of the community and your church leaders aren't like that. Am I annoyed by you? Well, maybe just a little. But it's not just you, it's me too. You see we're not loud enough. Maybe that angry, political, judgmental voice is coming from just a small few nutjobs or well meaning folks who lost their way. Maybe. Sure. I hope so. But what are you doing about it?

If you're not fighting against that voice, then you are complicit. You are complicit in driving people away from God and that makes you and I just as wrong.

Okay, I'm done with you, Mr Church. Go back to your corner. We'll chat later. There's a lot to discuss. Have a snack while you wait. I'm going to finish up talking to everybody else again.

This is the conclusion I've come to. This is my considered, insider opinion. It makes me kind of sad, too. That's why I've said something. This is me, personally, refusing to be complicit. I'll never be ashamed of my faith, but damn if I'm not sometimes embarrassed by my people.

You'll just have to forgive them.

A lot of them are old.

Old people. Am I right?*

By the way, since I want this blog to be informative and fun first and a place for me to opine at the masses second, I'm going to be making some changes to move these controversial soap boxing entries out of the main feed and into their own section. That way if you want to engage on the controversy, you can, if you just want updates and writing talk, they'll be the first thing you see. I'll still soap box as much as I feel inclined to, it'll just be slightly less visible for people who aren't interested.

*Jokes Old people are cool. They always have the best stories.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Action Speaks Louder Than Action

I want you to watch this scene from my all time favourite film 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'. The important part is from 1:54 to 2:06, if you don't want to watch the whole thing. It is worth watching, but I'll fill you in on what happens before that important part.

You've just witnessed dialogue. You've just witnessed character development.

If you are familiar 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' then you know this as the scene in which Li Mu Bai (played by Chow Yun Fat) gets his sword, The Green Destiny, back from Jen Yu. But he does that 20 seconds into the video, long before this fight even begins. This resolves one of the major plotlines early in the film and, yet, the scene goes on for another two minutes and forty seconds after Li Mu Bai gets his sword back.


Is it because Li Mu Bai wants to find Jen Yu's teacher, The Jade Fox, and he wants to question her? Yes. Is it because he wants Jen Yu to leave her teacher and study under him, becoming the worthy disciple he longs for? Yeah, it's that too.

But in terms of scene questions (Will Li Mu Bai get the sword back? Will Jen Yu reveal where Jade Fox is hiding? Will Li Mu Bai convince Jen Yu to join him?) they're resolved pretty quickly and, in fact, they're answered with some pretty simple resolutions. He does get the sword, she doesn't join him and she doesn't tell him where Jade Fox is hiding. If you're keeping track, that's a Yes a No and a No for resolutions. "There's no Yes, but..." and zero "No, ands..." We can't even say it's "No, and Jen Yu gets away" because Li Mu Bai clearly lets her go willingly.

So this is bad, right? We've talked about this. Simple answers to scene questions lead to dead ends and pointless scenes and waste both space and opportunity, right? Right.

I'm glad you're paying attention.

But this scene is doing double time. There's another conversation going on here that has nothing to do with what the characters are saying. Did you see it? Do you want a chance to watch again? Remember, we're watching with the sound off.

For that minute that I got you to watch, Li Mu Bai picks up a sword and proceeds to smack Jen Yu around with it, then let's her go. Jen Yu is using a live blade, that's some real cutting steel she's swinging at him. Li Mu Bai hits her a couple of times, but mostly he blocks and deflects.

What Li Mu Bai is saying in this fight scene is "I can beat you. I am beating you. I'm so much better than you, I can use a stick to beat you. I'm barely even looking at you and I'm beating you. I am the superior fighter." But he's also saying something else. He says, "I don't want to kill you. I'm using this stick because I'm not here to kill you." Before this fight, earlier in the video, Li Mu Bai uses his sword to cut straight through the tip of Jen's weapon. Before that he blocks her attacks with his sword's scabbard, clearly making the statement that he is unafraid and that he can easily overcome her if he wishes. Li Mu Bai speaks to Jen Yu through combat.

And it's not a monologue. Jen Yu is speaking back and she is screaming. She strikes at Li Mu Bai with full force, with her sword drawn, putting everything into it. She says, "I will not be shown up. If I can, I will kill you, and I believe I can. I don't need you. Look at how great I am!" This is not a fight scene, this is a conversation. They are developing their relationship, learning about each other, setting up a lot for later in the movie. Li Mu Bai's frustration with Jen Yu and the doubts that she is worthy all begin here and they climax later on in the film in a similar but even more beautiful fight scene.

Did I say this scene is doing double time? Scratch that. This scene is doing triple time. Something else is happening here.

The characters are not only speaking to each other, they are revealing themselves to the audience. This is a big scene for character development and for showing who these characters are to us the film viewer. We learn a lot about both Li Mu Bai and Jen Yu in this scene all in how they move.

Jen Yu makes big attacks, throwing herself into every movement, adopting long stances and wide lunges, swinging the sword in big arcs over and around Li Mu Bai. On every retreat she flurries the sword again. She steps back and forward, switches and crosses her stances. She strikes mostly for Li Mu Bai's head, going for a killing strike in every movement. Her sword is always up, tip aimed at her opponent. In a matter of seconds, we learn that Jen Yu is aggressive and merciless, that she likes to look good when she fights and put on a show of her skill. Jen Yu is doing the martial arts we all think about when we think of martial arts movies.

Now look at Li Mu Bai. He barely moves at all. His stance is high, his guard is low, he follows Jen Yu's retreat with small steps. He holds The Green Destiny in his other hand, but keeps it pressed against his back at all times, essentially fighting one handed. He strikes at any target he's given - head, neck, hand, stomach. Li Mu Bai is a calculating and ruthless fighter, backing up an extraordinary confidence with an extraordinary skill that is tempered by his mercy. He doesn't show off, he fights. He makes direct movement, countering and striking in time with his opponent. He is completely at ease with what he is doing, not afraid or angry in his actions.

Well damn. It's no wonder Jen Yu didn't have a chance.

It's tempting to keep going and analyse this from a purely martial perspective, but let's focus on the writing.

Okay, so in three minutes, we've barely nudged out plot along. This is a long scene for a lot of quick resolutions. But this isn't about plot, this is about character. This is about developing the characters for the audience and developing the relationship two characters have in the story. We're doing three big things here all at the same time.

When I started writing 'Pilgrimage' and started developing Roland's character, one of the first questions I asked was "How does Roland fight?" If you're working on a story with lots of fighting, as 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' is and, indeed, as 'Pilgrimage' is, there is no reason for you not to think about how a character is revealed by the way they fight.

In 'Pilgrimage' Roland is big and heavy and he's strong and he likes to use all of that weight, throwing himself into and onto many of his enemies. But more importantly, Roland doesn't ever restrain himself. Roland hates himself and has the next best thing to a death wish for most of the book. He doesn't have a survival instinct to tell him that grabbing a sword with your hand is a bad idea, he just takes the opportunity to win, regardless of what it costs him. His self-loathing is reflected in his fighting. As is his desire to win. Roland will use whatever is on hand to give himself an edge, be it a magical artifact or a can of beans, and will gladly strike an opponent while they're down or severely injured.  The only sense of accomplishment Roland has is victory in a fight and he will do what it takes to feel that satisfaction. He has no sense of honour or poor form in combat, he's only there to win.

At various times through-out the book Roland's self-loathing, lack of restraint and need to win is the subject of discussion, criticism, discovery and introspection by Roland and by other character. But he shows all of those features in the way he fights as much as he does in how he drinks and how he interacts with others and how he sees himself in quiet moments of reflection. Roland doesn't stop being Roland just because it's time for an action beat.

If you're writing a story with any fighting, there is no reason for you not to think about how a character is revealed by the way they fight.

If you're writing a story with any fighting, there is no reason for you not to think about how a character is revealed by the way they fight.

That's what I want you to take away from this.

Writing a fight scene to be dialogue is a little harder and you may take some time to figure that out, but this one is easy.

If you're writing a story with any fighting, there is no reason for you not to think about how a character is revealed by the way they fight.

This extends beyond fight scenes, too. Action scenes of all kinds can reveal character in the way they move and overcome obstacles. Characters can talk to each other in how they work against each other.

Bad actions scenes exist to fill time with spectacle.

Good action scenes exist to move the plot forward with excitement and suspense.

The best scenes do double or triple time, moving the plot, developing characters and/or revealing characters, expanding on subplots.*

*Note I did not say "The best actions scenes" but "The best scenes." That's all scenes, people. All of them.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Feed Your Imagination

I love ebooks. Ebooks are a fantastic development for readers. But the ebook vs print book is a false dichotomy and despite the arguments you see about the issue, I think most readers agree. People who like to read books just like to read books, printed or digital.

For me, I find I impulse buy more print books than ebooks. Seeing something new in a book store, taking it off the shelf and buying it on a whim is a far more satisfying experience than buying digital. Yes, consumerism has trained me well.

But this is how I happened to come across a book titled How To Disappear. It's a fascinating book on hiding in plain sight and making it hard for people to find you. It's a guide for people wanting to escape abusive relationship, people wanting to start their life again, and all manner of (legal) reasons for wanting to vanish into (and not out of) the system. I've never thought much about the topic or why people would want to disappear, but it certainly is a fascinating book. What really attracted me to it was the case files included in the book - the real life examples of people the author had helped to disappear.

I finished the book over the next couple of days and it now sits on my shelf alongside other books on topics as broad as religion, philosophy, psychology, sociology, history, art, politics, crime and assorted other books on random topics that have caught my interest.

Reading, as you no doubt know, is important for the writer. Reading is key to learning how to write. Study and consume literature as much as  you can and learn from it. You can't write good fiction unless you read good fiction. Our favourite authors are our teachers.

But are you also reading non-fiction?

This all comes back to that old maxim "Write what you know."

What do you know? Do you know history? What about religion and philosophy? Psychology, sociology and politics? Martial arts? Superstition? Mechanics? Science? What do you know?

You see "write what you know" is layers upon layers of wisdom that you should be heeding. But I also look at it as a challenge. "Write what you know" demands that you know things. It's not just about knowing what it is like to be a middle class suburban white boy who likes cats and the rain but prefers not to mix them. It's not just about knowing what it's like to be a human that loves and hates and cries in sadness and in joy. It's not just about knowing what life in a city is like, or life in a small town, or growing up in the '90s or staring at a long list of job adds and feeling the struggle between your pride and your desperation.

All of that is part of your human experience and it is what you know.

But what you know is also about how to hold a sword, how to ride a motorcycle, how to quote classic literature and form a logical argument and teach using the Socratic Method.What you know is how to cook a damned good hamburger using whatever ingredients you have on hand and knowing the serene pleasure of a long walk or the short lived thrill of a downhill sprint. What you know is the biographies of serial killers and the detectives who stopped them.

All of that is what you know, too.

And the more you know, the more you can write.

The things we learn from non-fiction is food for our imagination. We can find inspiration and ideas in the true stories of our world. How much truer is the climactic sword fight you've planned in the third act going to be for your reader if you have also stood, sword in hand, staring down a bigger, stronger opponent? How accurately can your murderer-come-nihilistic-philosopher if you have never read Dostoyevsky's 'Notes From Underground'?

I've said this before and it bears repeating: "Write What You Know" is not a limitation but a challenge. Learn. Know more and write more. Fill in those gaps in your experience with other people's experience. Non-fiction will feed your creativity and take your imagination to new places.

So read widely and read often and make space in your schedule for non-fiction.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Book Club 3: This Time It's Personal

It's that time again, kids! Yes, it's time to get your read on. And because this is the third annual* book club book recommendation, I'm recommending twice the books for twice the fun!

Sort of!

So the first book I want to recommend is one you might already be familiar with. It's 'The Princess Bride' by William Goldman. You've no doubt seen the movie and heard the quotes and considered buying the t-shirts. I personally recommend the 25th or 30th anniversary edition because it has more features that are quite enjoyable. 'The Princess Bride' is a lot of fun and you should read it. I approve this message!

The second book is not actually a book, it is a series of books. It is 'A Series of Unfortunate Events' by Lemony Snicket (AKA Daniel Handler.) Yes, I am recommending that you, all you adults out there, read a thirteen book series aimed at children. At least read the first one and maybe the fourth. Books two and three are sort of optional in that they don't do much that the first one didn't. Book four is where it really picks up. But regardless, I say read them all. They're quite enjoyable.

But I'm not just here to recommend books that are good. You can find those books without me. I'm here to recommend books that will teach you something.

Both 'A Series of Unfortunate Events' and 'The Princess Bride' will teach you to be weird. Being weird is good. It's good to be different, to stand out, to be noticeable.

You see there's a standard for books. We see the standard all the time and we learn to write a book like these standard books and there is nothing wrong with that. Many great books are standard books. Some of the greatest books are standard books. But they're still standard. They follow the set conventions. One convention is particular is that the world of the book and the world of the reader are separate and do not intrude on each other. We the reader are not a part of the book and we acknowledge that the book is not a historical record and we're okay with that.

Not these books.

William Goldman provides a framing device for his books in which he is not writing the story but abridging it for re-publication. The book has a fictional history, the world has a fictional history and William Goldman has a fictional history but by constantly addressing us, the reader, and by providing a framing device like this, he blurs those lines and invites us to be a part of the world in which the story is taking place. 'The Princess Bride' is a story told in layers. Both the creation of the book is a story and the book is a story.

It's hard to explain.

I have to admit I didn't care much for it at first and I sometimes wished that William Goldman and his framing device would get lost and let me just read the book. But in the end it grew on me and I became as much involved in the fake story about the book as the fake story that is the book.

Head spinning yet?

You'll have to read it to get a full grasp of what I'm talking about.

A little easier is 'A Series of Unfortunate Events.' The framing device here is similar: The story is real, the people and places are real. The narrator (Lemony Snicket) is a character in this world, a researcher reaching the story, and he is telling the story to the reader. Daniel Handler (as Lemony Snicket) constantly addresses the reader to remind us that the story is true and that there are many happier and less unfortunate stories you could be reading.

Again, the author is blurring the line between the world of the book and the world of the reader by directly speaking to the audience and asking them to believe that they are also a part of the world. You see in the world of 'A Series of Unfortunate Events' by Lemony Snicket, there is a book called 'A Series of Unfortunate Events' and it is written by Lemony Snicket and that book is the same book as the one you are reading.

Chew on that idea for a little while and let it settle in your brain's stomach.

Now you might like this way or writing or you might hate it. You might decide to try something similar or you may not. The point is that we have conventions - many of them for a good reason - and we write within those conventions - often for a good reason. But some people don't and we should be aware that we don't have to, either.

As authors we do not read for just enjoyment but also to learn. We learn from those who succeeded and failed before us. William Goldman and Daniel Handler have succeeded and met with much acclaim for their work and they did it, in part, by breaking with convention. Whether or not we walk a similarly unconventional path, we can learn from what they did and we should be aware that rules can be broken.

Jive to your own groove, kids, and keep writing.

*Not really annual.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Soap Box:Don't Feed The Trolls

Fair warning, this post is me doing a bit of soap boxing and some thinking out loud. If you're here for writing type stuff, go on and skip this one and I'll see you next time.

I don't like the word troll. Specifically, the way we use the term for 'internet trolls.'

I've been on this here internets for a long time now and, as the man said, "I've seen shit that will turn you white."

Way back when, around the time the term "troll" started being used, a troll was a kind of prankster. They were the people who spent their internet time dicking with others on whatever forum they happened to be a part of. To call them "devil's advocate" is too be far too generous, but they got their jollies winding people up and fanning the flames of controversy. A troll would drop into a conversation, leave a short inflamatory comment about something, and duck out again.

If I had gone onto a Lord of The Rings fan forum in 2001 and said "This movie is basically a rip off of the Dungeons and Dragons movie that came out last year." and then sat back and watched the fans go nuts trying to prove me wrong and give me an enraged historical lesson on Lord of The Rings, we'd call me a troll.

There's an old joke on 4chan known as "The day /b/ went too far." Google this at your own peril. You'll probably be offended. But the idea is that one person posts a specific picture and asks if anybody has seen it. Everybody who is in on the joke responds with messages like "Too soon, OP." and "Oh god, why did you have to remind me?" and everybody who hasn't been around starts asking what the picture is and why everybody is so upset and nobody tells them exactly why, but keeps on making a fuss about how heart broken they are. It's all done to mess with the newbies.

This is trolling. You could call it juvinile, you could call it a lame way to get your kicks. You can criticise it in all kinds of ways but what you could not call it is damaging or illegal.

Somewhere along the way, the word has changed. I'm tempted to blame news media. The word got picked up by some reporter who didn't understand it but used it anyway. It could also be just plain old evolution of language. How it happened doesn't matter.

But I don't like it.

Because lately there has been a lot of talk about trolls, especially in regards to things like Gamers Gate and similar internet controversy. And now, when we hear reports of people getting threatened with rape and murder, when people's home addresses are shared online against their will, when private data and photographs are hacked and spread around, when people are verbally abused and stalked online or campaigns of hate and character assassination are launched against them, we call it trolling. These are internet trolls.

I can think of some better terms. Scum of the earth, assholes and criminals all come to mind.

Make no mistake, many of these things we call "trolling" are actual crimes. If you did this shit offline, you would be arrested.

I can see no reason why troll should become a euphemism. I see no reason why we shouldn't call a stalker a stalker or why the asshole in the YouTube comments is described as "trolling" when what he is doing is "threatening to break into your house and violently rape you." If you said this to somebody in a bar or on the street, nobody would call you a troll, they'd just call the police.

I don't like the way we use the word troll. It's not because I am resistant to the way language changes out of principal and not because trolling used to be something so harmless. It's because when we call this "trolling" we are hiding what it really is and making it sound a lot less damaging than it really is. These kinds of serious and aggressive actions don't need euphemisms, they need stopping.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Failure Is A Dead End

I'm going to keep talking about success and failure in narrative because it's an important and broad topic and we should all be aware of it.

Last time we spoke I said that success should come with conditions and unconditional successes are boring and should not be common for your protagonist. I'm going to expand on this a little and we'll do that by talking about doors.

A locked door is a basic catch all obstacle for narratives. The protagonist wants to go through the door but the door is locked. The door might not be a door, it might be a wide chasm, a foe he has to fight, a guardsman to sneak by, a shape shifting fox woman he must seduce, a wall he much climb, etc. etc. The point is, when I say "locked door" I'm using it as a kind of stand in for any obstacle which your protagonist must do something to in order to get past it to his or her goal.

A Locked Door.

Broadly speaking, there are four results that can come from trying to go through the locked door. I'm going to borrow RPG terminology again because it's where my brain is lately. Your protagonist can have a...

Critical Success (They get through the door.)
Conditional Success (They get through the door but with a consequence.)
Failure (They do not get through the door.)
Critical Failure (They do not get through the door and something bad happens.)

We've covered why Critical Success is dull and Conditional Success is preferable. So now we'll cover Failure and Critical Failure.

I may have said that writing your protagonist to fail instead of succeed is generally preferable as it does a better job of building tension and drama and excitement and all that good stuff. This is true. But you can write yourself into a trap very easily in doing this so be careful.

Failure is, or can easily be, a dead end. Your protagonist tries to break through the Locked Door and his attempts end in Failure. Now the protagonist is in front of the Locked Door and what he wants is on the other side and he... What? He tries again? He gives up and goes home? More than likely he walks off and finds another Locked Door to go through to reach his objective.

We have a couple of problems immediately with these options. If he can just try again or find another route, then your scene runs the risk of being pointless. It has become padding. If you took this scene out and started with his second attempt to overcome the Locked Door (or his attempt at a different Locked Door) and that's where he succeeds, then you've lost nothing except words and time. It hasn't impacted the plot.

If you can excise a scene from your book and it doesn't change the plot in any way, then maybe that scene shouldn't be there anyway. Judge for yourself. Give scenes purpose.

So Failure at the Locked Door creates problems with your narrative. It can mean pointless scenes and it can mean narrative dead ends (more on this later.)

So instead, consider a Critical Failure. Your protagonist tries to break through the Locked Door. Your protagonist not only fails, but he alerts all the Locked Door's friends of what he's doing and they start gunning for him. Or he fails to break through the Locked Door and knocks himself unconcious, letting the Locked Door take him prisoner. Maybe the Locked Door knew he was coming all along and prepared a trap to drop the failing protagonist into a vat of toxic waste.

What all these results have in common is that they create new scenes out of the protagonist's failure. They up the tension and up the ante and make things happen and move us from one event into another natural event. No dead ends here.

Before we finish I'd like to just elaborate on this idea of a "dead end."

When I say dead end, I'm talking about a scene that stops the narrative flow and forces your protagonist to start again and build up more momentum. A story shouldn't always be moving at 100km/h but it should always be moving. Anything that grinds the flow of scenes to a halt and stall your plot is probably a bad thing.

You might be thinking of another kind of dead end, however. The kind of dead end that impacts you the writer. You say in Chapter 1 "The only way to get the McGuffin is to go through Locked Door 1. There are no other Locked Doors." And then in Chapter 2 the protagonist gets to Locked Door 1 and tries to go through and he fails - because Carl said failures are better - and now you don't know what to do because there's nothing else your protagonist can do to. We call this "writing into a corner." It's something I hear mentioned from time to time and don't worry because it's really easy to fix.

Delete the corner. Just go back, highlight that corner and delete it. Change things up and try again. Or even easier still is if any kind of failure is going to write you into a corner, give the protagonist a break and offer him a Conditional Success. Let him get the McGuffin from behind Locked Door 1 - but in doing so he breaks his leg and then in the next chapter that broken leg means fails to stop the antagonist from stealing his McGuffin.

Writing yourself into a corner sucks and we all do it from time to time, but all it takes is a little work to get out of it. No sweat. Corners are not the same as dead ends. They're more like creative road bumps or caltrops that you drop in front of yourself like a buffoon.

Okay, so, what did we learn today class? No dead ends! Failure is an option but it might be a sucky one so avoid it where you can.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A Great Success With Terms and Conditions

Just a short one today because I accidentally stabbed my finger this morning and now typing is both difficult and painful. If I'm going to suffer, I'd rather suffer for a project and not the blog.

A belated wish for a Happy Easter for anybody who is into that kind of thing.

Easter is a long weekend here in Sydney, Australia. The Friday and the Monday are public holidays, which means four days of weekend. Somebody, many years ago, had the bright idea to use this weekend for a Tabletop Gaming Convention. I attend every year and, more often than not, I run RPGs over the weekend as my bit to help out the community. This year I ran Deadlands, if you're interested. Much for was had.

But a good friend of mine ran a game called Dungeon World. Dungeon World is a low crunch rule system that reminds me a lot of first edition Dungeons & Dragons, only with a lot less suck. But there's a very interesting rule in Dungeon World that I've often thought should be included in RPGs but, to my knowledge, hasn't been.

And that is, conditional success.

Now it's not uncommon for RPGs to have varying degrees of success. Most games have some kind of critical success mechanic in which a good roll is a success and a super good roll is a faster, better, cleaner success with a happy ending. That's normal. That's standard. Likewise there's fails and critical fails.

But Dungeon World has a conditional success, in which you succeed on your action at a price. That price might be you take a little bit of damage, you draw unwanted attention to yourself. You succeed in picking the lock but not before the patrolling guard gets back and sees you. In my experience, this is unique to Dungeon World.*

And it works well. But of course it works well. It works well in a tabletop RPG for the same reason it works well in, say, a book. A straight up success is boring. Too many successes is really boring. Failure creates tension, creates drama, creates story. The protagonist succeeding at something without consequence should be the least common kind of resolution to problems in a story you're telling. And when I say "without consequence" I mean consequences that matter after the fact. A chase scene in which your protagonist must outrun a killer cyborg armed with a chain hammer (part chainsaw, part war hammer) is tense and exciting, but if your hero gets away from the cyborg and crosses the border into Mexico where no cyborg may follow, then the drama only lasts until the end of that scene. If your hero gets across the border but drops his teddy bear, without which he can not sleep at night, then you've created a lasting consequence and created drama that lasts until he gets the bear back. You've also given yourself more avenues for story.

Failure is harder in a narrative game. I've mentioned this problem in regards to video games before, but it must be said about tabletop RPGs, too. Failure does not feel good. Players don't want to keep failing. We're trained to see failure as bad and success as good. When a protagonist in a book we are reading fails, it pushes us to the edge of our seat and makes us bite our nails and drives us to keep reading, but it is not as though we failed. We're just spectators. But in a game, where we are not spectators, we want to succeed and feel awesome.

And I don't begrudge anybody wanting to feel good, it's just that it limits how we can tell stories. That's not so good.

Dungeon World has found a way around this by adding a very simple mechanic that replicates the way we write stories for books and movies. By adding a fifth option to the failure/success spectrum, it opens up new opportunities for excitement and conflict in the game. Dungeon World even goes so far as to making this the most likely version of success you get. It makes sense and more designers should use such a mechanic.

And so in the way that the designers of Dungeon World took from literary theory to improve their game, so can we use Dungeon World as a reminder to ourselves of how we can write better.** So I encourage you to make note here and do as Dungeon World do. Failure for your heroes is always best, but when failure is not an option, make them suffer for it, give your protagonists consequences to go with their victory. Give all triumphs conditions. Your readers will thank you for it.

*Various FATE systems make it more or less implicit that you can do this, but only as a thing that is encouraged and not as a core part of the mechanic.
** Role playing and RPGs very rarely serve as a good source of writing lessons. Role playing and writing are not the same thing and should not be mistaken for the same thing. Write to practice writing. Don't role play to practice writing.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Quoth the Sharehouse of Darkness

So over the last couple of months I have been running a World of Darkness game. I've called this short lived campaign of mine, "The Sharehouse of Darkness." The set up is a simple one, a variety of supernatural monsters (A changeling, a mage, a werewolf and a promethan) share a house in the quiet northern suburbs of Sydney, Australia. They are young, hip, university students who get up to a variety of shenanagins in an episodic fashion. It's "Being Human" meets "The Young Ones." It's a World of Darkness sit-com.

Because I find things like the "Out of Context D&D Quotes" tumblr to be hilarious, I'm going to share some finer moments of Sharehouse of Darkness.

The players in this comedy of errors are...

Dom: A werewolf a gym junkie. He is currently on parole for unspecified crimes. He is doing his undergraduate degree in "Bro Science." He lives in the garage because it's the only room that can fit all his exercise equipment and mirrors.

Marian: The resident mage, Marian considers the arcane secrets of the universe to be his life's second calling. First and foremost he is an artist, a film maker and a visionary. At least that's what he says. He uses a variety of mind magic to control his unwitting actors and forces magic to do the special effects.

Nicolas Tesla: A chap from the 1920s and a wizz when it comes to electricity, Nicolas Tesla has spent the last few decades in the world of the fae. The changeling has since escaped and is living off the interest his family money earned while he was away. Nicolas has a goblin servent named Geofferson, a door that opens to London and lives in the linen closet. He is English and may or may not be the real historical Nikola Tesla.

John: John is just the happiest and good spirited Promethean you will ever meet. He has a mild addiction to electricity but that never gets him down. John believes that the highest virtue in the world is charity and frequently donates his and other people's worldly belongings to a good cause.

And now, for your entertainment and mine, the out of context quotes. Attributions are given where I've bothered to write them down.

"I ate a shoe this morning." - Dom

"We could just go kill things." - Marian

"I kind of need to watch these guys sleep."

"Wait, do any of us have brains?"

"Tasers are my drug!" - John

"This is going to be weird. Come with me into the bedroom." - Dom

"The Saucy Gibbon - where you get your rump steak nice and saucy."

"We are not stripping guys!"

"Dead people don't need clothing."

"Oh yeah, that's bad. We just killed three people."

"I'm not that kind of Mage!" / "You are tonight."

More things topical (maybe) next time!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

I Don't Want To Know Everything

I was going to title this post "I don't need to know everything" but I think "I don't want to know everything" makes a stronger point. That's why I am going to say it again.

I don't want to know everything.

So don't tell me everything. This does, of course, apply to that dreaded "500 years of history" prologue at the start of your fantasy epic trilogy. But even if you're being a good writer and not giving me large dumps of exposition before the story has even begun, I still don't want to know everything. Not right away, anyway.

You see if your character is in the middle of battle and your narration mentions that the only thing he can do to win is use the special Mattapachinko technique he learned from The Great Sage Charlie Dumbell, that's enough. If you're really into your fighting porn (and I am, so you're not alone) you might describe what the special Mattapachinko technique looks like or why it is effective. But what I don't need to know or even really want to know is who The Great Sage Charlie Dumbell is or how he invented the technique or why or when and what he was wearing at the time. Unless it is really, actually, no-arguments-allowed important to the story, I don't even need to necessarily know how it is your protagonist came to meet The Great Sage Charlie Dumbell and why or how he was taught the special Mattapachinko technique. It's enough to know that these things have names and that they exist.

William Goldman's 'The Princess Bride' is full of this kind of thing.* When Inigo Montoya and The Dread Pirate Roberts are fighting, there's a lot of talk about different fencing techniques and masters and both characters know them inside and out and we're not given any details except that these sword fighting masters and their techniques exist and that's enough. It tells us about the world and the characters and we understand that the more of these great moves a fencer knows, the more learned the fencer must be. That's it. That's all we need to know and, frankly, telling anything can get distracting and disjointing for the story. Best just to leave it alone.

Or say your protagonist is a wizard. He's only a novice Wizard at the Thumpertink Academy. Novice is the lowest rank. Grand MacDonald is the highest rank. There is only ever one Grand MacDonald at any time and when the Grand MacDonald dies, there is a bloody fight to the death for the title. It's held in the cafeteria and anybody may sign up.

Why is the school called Thumpertink Academy? Why are the newbies called Novice and the big guy called the Grand MacDonald? Why must wizards fight to the death for the title? Some of these questions, especially the second one, might have very interesting answers. There could be a lot of rich history involved in all of this. But is it important to the story you are telling? Does it affect your protagonist Wizard in anyway if the history of the Grand MacDonald is revealed? Answer this honestly and if the answer is no, tuck that history into a notebook somewhere and leave it alone.

Nobody needs to know everything about your fictional world, not even you. Nobody needs to know the detailed history, the who and the where and the how of every major event and every significant relic and every secret cult that shaped the destiny of mankind. That doesn't mean you can't have all that and use it in your story. It just means that often enough, it's enough to drop a name or an idea and leave it. The audience can fill in the blanks for themselves or - and this is even better - you can fill in the blanks with later stories! If you give it all away now, what do you have to say in book two?

This is true of any fictional world, whether it's a distant planet, medieval fantasy land or a slightly darker, zombie filled version of Austria.

When you mention something fictional in the world's past or present, be it an event, a place, a person, a particularly popular internet meme, feel free to leave it just one more decorative noun in the picture you're painting for the story. Remember you're not telling a world, you're telling a story. Only tell what me what I need to know for the story.

*'The Princess Bride' also has a lot of exposition dumps but that's part of the style and the humour and plays into his framing device for the story and is another conversation all together.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Carl Tries Planning

When I wrote Pilgrimage, I got about a third of the way through and then I thought up the plot. You see I had the premise and I had the characters and I had a general idea of how the story would happen, I just wasn't sure what the story would be. I didn't have a central conflict. I was about a third of the way into the first draft - That's about 28,000 words in - when I came up with the drama that would make Pilgrimage into something more than a walking tour of New South Wales.

That worked out all right in the end. It took a lot of work and a lot of editing and a significant amount of rewriting that first third of the story. Many scenes were cut, many later scenes were moved to earlier in the book. It took quite a bit of breaking and rebuilding, until the final product looked like a Frankenstein's monster of a manuscript, compared to the first draft. Mind you, it is one sexy, sexy monster compared to that first draft, too. Okay, so maybe Frankenstein's Monster is the wrong analogy. Editing was more like...

Did you ever watch Ren & Stimpy? There was one episode where Ren gets massive pectoral muscles through surgery. They cut the fat tissue out of Stimpy's arse and stuff it into Ren's chest, making him look buff. The editing process was more like that. I took the useless flab of the early drafts and moved it around until it had big, impressive, attractive muscles in its chest... Made of fat... From a cat's arse...

You know, looking back, Ren & Stimpy didn't make a whole lot of sense.


The way I wrote Pilgrimage worked. Once I had worked out what was going on, I was able to start planning what came next. I did that by writing down one sentence about the chapters coming next. I wrote these ideas down as they came to me. This usually meant I was about five chapters ahead at any one time, until I had thought up the right way to end the story.

This is more or less how I wrote Sorceress' Blood and how I've written a lot of short stories and some of the early drafts for Winter City. This is how I've been working for a long time. There are many ways you can describe this kind of writing, but efficient probably isn't one of the words you would use.

The problem with winging it like this is, well, there's a lot of work to do in editing. The structure can come out a little sloppy and all over the place without you noticing. It is an exciting way to write, but it also creates a lot of problems.

Note that I'm not talking about a method that is devoid of planning. There's method to this madness and there is always, ultimately, a plan and a structure in place. It's just a very loose structure and the plan is very simple. That's not a bad thing, it's just the way it is.

But now I'm working on a new book and I've been doing something different. Before even beginning the writing part, I've planned the whole thing, every significant event, every significant character, every twist in the plot, ever conflict and personal drama and fight scene and mystery and reveal are all being written down and arranged in a kind of textual storyboard.*

And so far so good. I'm liking this approach. Although I've created less prose than I otherwise would have, I've still created a solid story. The time I would have spent in brainstorming and rearranging the plot and coming up with new scenes hasn't been increased, it's just been moved to the start of the process. Instead of staring at my word processor, halfway through a chapter, wondering what comes next, I've done it first.

Much of this approach is new to me and even when I've pre-planned a project, I've never done it to this kind of depth. The actual writing has begun, now, and it's been productive and I always feel directed and certain of what I'm doing. Is this more efficient? Maybe. That remains to be seen. If anything I think this approach has taken me longer because there's a lot to learn about this method. But it hasn't been so much longer that I'm willing to write it off as a failed experiment and go back to the old ways. Mostly it's changed the way I've spent my writing time. I won't really know if this is the right way for me to work until I've completed the book and tested this method some more, but it's definitely been a worthwhile use of my time.

So, as always, I encourage you to do as I do and experiment. Always experiment, and test and push yourself. It doesn't always have to be with content. Next time you sit down to write, think about experimenting with your creative process. Who knows what will happen?

*A good friend of mine and fellow writer, Craig Robotham, put me onto the program Scrivener for my experimentation in planning. It's very cool.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

It's kind of weird.

I sometimes like to imagine what really happened to Ron Weasley later in his life. Once the dust has settled and everyone is getting on with their lives, graduated and adults stepping out into the adult world. Harry is, of course, fine because he's already stupidly rich. Ron, however, not being conveniently wealthy, has to get a job. He hopes to one day be a wizard chess champion and would love to do that for a living, but he has no idea where to begin and that dream won't pay the bills. He asks his father to help him get a job in the ministry, but Arthur Weasley is working hard to destroy corruption in the ministry and probably has a good career ahead of him at last - he can't risk appearing nepotistic at this delicate point in time. So Ron tries out for the only other obvious job for wizards - teaching. But while Ron has his talents, he's not an impressive wizard and although he has a lot of hands on experience in Defense Against The Dark Arts, there's a plentiful list of substitute teachers and casual teachers with more classroom experience than Ron. Plus, with such a high student death count over the last few years, Hogwarts has seen a big drop in new enrollments and they're struggling to pay the staff they've got at hand. Disappointed, Ron sets his sights lower. He tries waiting tables, just to pay the bills, and gets a job as a sales clerk in Olivanders. But as Hogwarts lacked even the most rudimentary maths or economics classes, he's constantly counting out people's change on his fingers and he doesn't last long in the customer service industry.

During this time he starts seeing Hermoine - who being naturally brilliant all her life, has already landed a promising career in the wizarding world. Ron realises that while he might fail at everything else, Hermoine is the best thing that's ever happened to him. He asks her to marry him and she says yes. But having already borrowed money off his good friend Harry just to live, and unable to ask his eternally-financially-struggling parents for any help, Ron takes out a sizable loan from the bank to buy the engagenemt and wedding rings and to pay for the wedding. After they're married and they are living together, Hermoine discovers the massive amounts of debt and financial hardship Ron is under. This is their first argument as a married couple and, taking place in the early days of their life together, becomes a sore point they return to again and again over the years, always growing like a cancer on their relationship.

And after all this, Ron still can't hold down a steady job. He gets short term work, contract work and casual positions here and there, but many of them barely cover the cost of his uniforms and the floo powder he uses to get to work. It doesn't take long for depression to sink in. Ron constantly compares himself to Harry, who is now marrying his sister and still living in luxury, and even to his own wife, whose constant triumphs vindicates all the time she spent studying. Even though it's her success that pays their bills, Ron resents himself for being unable to take care of his family - like his father did - and comes to resent Hermoine for not even allowing him that small success in life. A friend of Ron's father eventually gets Ron a job as an apprentice fireplace maker or something, which Ron takes and does his best at. But he's got no passion for the job and, being accident prone all his life, struggles to find any success. Hermoine is now pregnant - they both know it's unplanned and probably the consequence of post-argument make up sex. Ron realises that's the only time they're ever intimate anymore and now that she's with child, and determined to keep it, he'll forever be trapped in this loveless, hopeless marriage with a woman he resents more and more each day.

It's been years since he even looked at a Wizard Chess board and sometimes struggles to remember the rules. There isn't a single wizard in the world with a degree in psychology, so Ron's depression goes unchecked. He eventually learns to be complacent, settling into life as a husband to a woman he hates, father of a child he knows he'll just disappoint, and always playing "Keeping up with the Potters" so Harry will stop looking at him like he's some kind of fucking charity. Hermoine has another child. He's not sure if it's his. It's not impossible, but its not likely. As it grows up, sometimes he wonders if it doesn't look a little like Harry. He doesn't really care either way. Ron stops seeing his family, eventually stops seeing his friends and only talks to his wife and children out of necessity. He snacks a lot and drinks a lot in his spare time. His workmates whisper "alcoholic" behind his back but he doesn't care. Although the anger and resentment never ends, the booze doesn't make him violent. Violence demands a passion that Ron will never know again in his life, maybe never did know.

At the age of 65, Ron dies of a heart attack. A small funeral is held. He's got few friends left who bother to show and only a handful of family members he hasn't pushed away. He's cremated and Hermoine keeps the ashes, storing them in the attic until she gets a big promotion at work, moves into a bigger house with her children and "forgets" to pack the urn containing the remnants of her late husband. The new tenants find it and promptly throw it away as they're moving their stuff into the new house.

I sometimes like to imagine what really happened to Ron Weasley later in his life. It's kind of weird.