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.