Stupid rewriting tricks

So here’s a thing I’ve learned lately – rewriting is hard. Maybe harder than actually writing something in the first place.

When you’re writing  you’re trying to create something from nothing, which sounds hard but is actually easy – if you write anything at all you’ve basically succeeded. Rewriting, on the other hand, is about trying to make that first effort better – so the bar has been set higher and now you need to do more to clear it than just whacking the keyboard with your exhausted face.

I mean, that’s not how I wrote the first draft of Raven’s Blood. Honest.

…anyway, as I struggle through the process of revising the foundation draft – which is taking more time/effort than I had hoped, so there’s not much chance of finishing it by the end of August – I’ve stumbled across a few tricks, shortcuts and principles that have made the process a bit faster and simpler, which is great because I’m busy and also really lazy.

So if you’re neck-deep in rewrites and reader notes, consider these easy ways to reduce the workload:

Automatically uncover your weaknesses

There are a variety of free online tools that will take your raw copy-pasted text and analyse it six ways from Sunday, calculating everything from lexical density and language/reading level to a simple number-of-times-you-said-BLAH count. Dump your text into one of these sites – such as this one or this one – and you’ll get back a breakdown of how often you used specific words and phrases. Now you can go through your MS and mix things up on the rewrite, making sure you don’t say ‘and the vicar unbuttoned his trousers’ on six separate occasions.

The freedom of the blank page

When you’re trying to fit new writing into old writing, or replace what has gone before, the existing text can feel more like a prison or a stern matron than a welcoming home for your precious story. I found that writing the new text into a new, blank document, then copy-pasting it back into the old one, made me feel a lot less constrained by what I’d written earlier, even if I was switching back and forth between the pages every 30 seconds. Sure, once you’ve pasted in the new text you’ll need to do some tweaking to link it all up, but that’s (possibly) easier than trying to steer it towards the target from word one.

Gerund hunt

A gerund, for those of you who aren’t grammar tragics, is a verb that’s been converted to a noun by adding ‘ing’ to the end. Gerunds have their place, but they can turn prose flatter and less engaging because your active verbs – I run, I write, I defenestrate – get replaced by phrases with dull positioning or identity verbs – they were writing, he was writing, I am defenestrating. To revitalise your draft, do a search for ‘ing’ chapter by chapter and check every instance; when you find gerunds bringing down the energy levels, rewrite them back into active verbs.

No beginnings, only endings

One of my alpha readers opened my eyes to this – it’s boring when things ‘start’ or ‘begin’ to happen. Make them happen now! Don’t pad out the time, go straight to the action. As before, do a word search for the offenders, then rewrite to boost the energy. (You may also find, like I did, an unsuspected propensity to use ‘start’ as a noun, as in she awoke with a start. Consider whether this is actually the word you want. It’s kinda boring as a noun too.)

Let it go

Real talk: you are never going to write a final draft, a best draft. You will always find something you want to change and improve every time you look at your work, because you grow and change as an author every day. So you have to let it go, like the Disney Corporation says. That doesn’t mean you don’t work as hard as you can to make every draft better than the last, to be as good as you can manage right now – but the urge to make this draft PERFECT FOR ALL TIME is what will stop you from ever finishing your work. Draw a line. Very good is good enough. Let it go.

That last one is the hard one. It’s been kicking me around.

So yes, finishing this month? Not going to happen, not with the Melbourne Writers Festival – now with a genre writing stream! – starting in a couple of days and a bout of minor knee surgery knocking me out immediately afterwards.

The new target is GenreCon, which is at the end of October. If you see me there – and you should come, it’ll be awesome – feel free to bail me up and demand proof that I’ve finished the

Abel Wackets is a Jackanapes

As I revise, rewrite and generally tinker with the new draft of Raven’s Blood, one thing I’m paying particular attention to is the language – not my language, but the way my fantasy characters speak.

Okay, mostly the way they swear.

Raven’s Blood is set in a world that’s a bit like Elizabethan England with some more contemporary elements thrown in – plus magic and and superheroes and golem cyborgs and stuff – and so I’m using some sources of period language to add resonance, name items/activities and give the characters terrible things to say to each other. And tonight I wanted to share some of the best offenders with you folks.

I’ve drawn Elizabethan terms from a number of places, in particular Lisa Picard’s fantastic Elizabeth’s London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan England – but for the slang terms and dirty words, I’ve relied on this excellent website from the University of Tulsa. Here are some favourites from that source:

  • Apple-squire: Pimp
  • Bing a waste!: Bugger off!
  • Bousing ken: An ale-house
  • Clapperdudgeon: Chief beggar; a term of reproach
  • Pillicock: Penis; a vulgar term for a boy
  • Doddypol: A foolish person
  • Cocklorel: An insult of moral character
  • Jackanapes: A bestial insult
  • Eater of broken meats: An insult of social position
  • Hundred-pound: An insult of social position
  • One-trunk-inheriting: An insult of social position
  • Worsted-stocking: An insult of social position

The insults of social position are amazing.

My other major source of words is not Elizabethan but it is historical – Francis Grose’s 1811 hit The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, available on Amazon and also as a free text file from Project Gutenberg. This guide to early 19th century British slang is massive, engaging and filled with every word for prostitute you could ever desire, as well as a staggering number of slang terms for the vagina (referred to throughout as ‘the monosyllable’).

As it happens, I don’t have much need in my story of teenage female heroics and face-punching for either of those kinds of terms, but I do have a number of other favourite phrases and activities that I use in this book (and that I’ve dropped into other projects in the past, such as The Pirate’s Guide to Freeport):

  • Autem cackletub: A conventicle or meeting-house for dissenters
  • Bear-garden jaw: Rude, vulgar language
  • Deadly nevergreen: The gallows, the tree that bears fruit all the year round
  • Galimaufrey: A hodgepodge made up of the remnants and scraps of the larder
  • Grinagog, or the cat’s uncle: A foolish grinning fellow, one who grins without reason
  • Paper scull: A thin-scull’d foolish fellow
  • Sword racket: To enlist in different regiments, and on  receiving the bounty to desert immediately.
  • Word grubbers: Verbal critics, and also persons who use hard words in common discourse
  • Barking irons: Pistols
  • Abel-wackets: Blows given on the palm of the hand with a twisted handkerchief

There’s so much to love in The Vulgar Tongue, assuming you can get past all the casual misogyny and talk about arses.

Mind you, I have to be careful to use this kind of language sparingly; it’s a heavy spice and one that can quickly take you from ‘flavourful’ to ‘incomprehensible’ if applied too generously. Otherwise I’d write passages like this:

‘Ames-ace!’ the scurvy recreant spat as he pawed the bale of bones in the atrium of the bousing ken. ‘I’ll not be taken in by thy inkhorn words, Dibber Dabber. You’ve cogged me, you lily-livered coistril!’

The Upright Man smoothed his commission and toyed with the chive he drew from his farting crackers. ‘So God mend me, no need to cheer so glimfashy, cousin,’ he said. ‘Like you not the dice? Perhaps we could go bat-fowling instead – or I could nap the teize with veney stick, if that’s more to your liking, you spunger.’

If you read that you would think you’d had a stroke. Or that I had.

…although now I really want to know more about those farting crackers.

Anyhoo, that’s what’s amusing me this week – feel free to chime in with your own favourites.

Now back to it.

This august gathering

Henry Rollins once said:

August, the summer’s last messenger of misery, is a hollow actor.

Damn, that sounds deep. And very Northern Hemisphere, but whatever.

August starts on, oh jesus it starts on Saturday and I am probably not ready but screw it! I have plans for that month! And I want to share them with you!

First things first – I am going to finish this revision of Raven’s Blood, I swear with God and you folks as my witnesses.

Yes yes, I wrote last week about embracing writer’s block and letting things happen naturally and giving my muse time to come a’courting and all that. And I stand by that. But my internal frustration and self-loathing is coming to a head, and that’s the primary motivator I have for Getting Shit Done. (Healthy, no?) I want to finish this book and do something with it, if only so I can get free of its gravity for a while and write something else.

So yeah. End of August. Hold me to it.

August is also GENCON! The biggest four days in gaming! The massive RPG convention that I have never attended because it’s in America!

This year I will continue not going to Gencon. But I will write things on Twitter andFacebook or Google+ (depending on whether I want anyone to see them or not) using the #rpgaday2015 hashtag. Because HASHTAG, people. And nerdiness.

Keep an eye out for those if’n you’re so inclined.

CKqpS6xWgAAMKtY

August is also time for the Melbourne Writers’ Festival!

This year I was a minor member of a small programming committee that didn’t use many of my ideas, but that’s still enough for me to score a pass and see pretty much whatever I want. So hit me with your recommendations of people to see and panels you’d like to see vicariously through me!

My main plan – OH MY GOD KELLY LINK WILL BE THERE I HAVE ALL THE EXCITEMENT can’t talk already queueing

Okay, what else is happening in August… um, some parties you’re not invited to, a bunch of work events you don’t care about…

Hey, you know what you could do in August? Register to go to GenreCon in October! That’s what I’m doing, and I might even be helping out with a panel or something while I’m there!

I know, that’s a stretch. The main thing is writing, and possibly listening to a lot of music from The Dear Hunter.

But yeah, it’s mostly writing. And thinking about games. Maybe some drinking.

August: It’s gotta be more productive than July. That’s my epigram, Rollins be damned.

Come, join me.

Writer’s block – THREAT OR MENACE?

I never really thought that writer’s block was actually real, until recently I –

…okay, that opening’s a little more Dear Penthouse Forum than I had planned. Let’s change tack.

What is writer’s block? Can it happen to you? How can you overcome it? Is it in fact a thing? I’m not going to answer any of these questions because every second writing blog already has an article on this and it’s not like I have anything new to say on the subject.

What I will say is that it’s never been a problem for me in the past. Procrastination, laziness and just not wanting to write have been problems for me, sure, and still are – but when I actually make the decision to write, sit the hell down and start working, the words come out and I can get stuff done.

Until lately. Now that my knee is healing (slowly) and I’m not hopped up on painkillers all the time, I’m getting back to the revision of Raven’s Blood – or I would be if I was getting any writing done. Instead I’m opening files, staring at them and doing nothing, even though the plan is in my head and I already know what I need to do to the draft to improve it. It took me two weeks to write an outline for the revision, most of that spent sitting in my chair, frowning at the monitor and wishing I was already asleep.

(This is also why my blogging has been irregular. Well, that and laziness.)

What am I going to do about this? I could read any of those aforementioned articles, but instead I’m trying something more daring – I’m embracing it.

If my brain isn’t ready to write, then dang it, I’m not going to force it. How is that going to make my final draft any good? Better to let the energy and ideas build up in my head – along with the occasional dash of self-loathing for being too damn slow, sure, it’s a good motivator – until it hits some kind of critical mass and the explosion artfully slams my fingers into the keyboard over and over again.

Warmer weather might also help.

The upshot of all this is – we build up writer’s block as being this thing we must fight and overcome if we want to write. But shit, son, it’s not like people are gonna die if you don’t finish Chapter 17 before Cup Day. Unless you’re on a deadline, there’s no harm – and maybe a lot of good – in cutting yourself some necessary slack and waiting for inspiration, energy or even just inclination come back to you.

If you are on a deadline, straighten the fuck up, you’re meant to be a professional. Alternatively, fake your own death. It worked for Ambrose Bierce.

Another thing on my mind – pulling my head out of my butt with this here blog.

For a while now I’ve been trying to make this one of those Sage Writerly Advice blogs that you find online, because that’s what writers are meant to blog about. It’s what Chuck Wendig does, after all.

But let’s be real here. Chuck’s a friend of mine and I like his work a lot, but we can’t all be Chuck Wendig because the weight of our beards would crack the Earth in half. And also because he’s a full-time writer with an incredible work ethic and a dozen finished novels behind him, so he has stuff worth saying and people want to hear it. I, on the other hand, am a part-timer with a handful of self-pubbed novellas and too quick a tendency to paste in memes for comic relief. Which doesn’t mean I can’t share my thoughts and experiences, but there’s only so much wisdom I have to drop.

Peter Ball, another excellent writer of my acquaintance, wrote recently about going back to the ‘public diary’ form of blogging, of just sharing thoughts and interests rather than Sharing a Teaching Moment every week. This has been on my mind of late, especially on nights when I have nothing of great import to disseminate with my adoring public. And I think if I pull the self-importance back and just, y’know, shoot the shit with all y’all a bit more, things might be more regular – and more fun – around here. Gonna give that a try.

Also, Peter’s new Gold Coast urban fantasy novella Crusade just came out this week, and you should read the hell out of it. I plan to.

Stuff and/or nonsense

The last blog post was pretty focused and pretty serious.

This one? Not so much. On either front.

May and June have been crraaaaaapppppp for getting any writing done, thanks to the distracting powers of a) pain and b) painkillers. Instead I have been distracted and lackin g in energy, while my days, nights and productive weekends have been lost in a haze of aches, self-pity and Skyrim.

But! I’m off the painkillers, my leg is feeling a bit better, I’m taking a shitload of vitamin B&D every day to push through the seasonal doldrums, I’m super jazzed after calculating that I made $150 from writing last year (SARCASM) and I am determine to rewrite the living hell out of Raven’s Blood.

I’m back! I’m driving! Witness me!

Last year I read bugger-all actual novels, preferring instead to read graphic novels and Twitter in the blurry half-hour of regret and limited seat space that is my morning commute. But this year I swore to put that behind me and to read at least 50 proper novels, or at least comics that don’t have Batman in them, over the course of 12 months.

That target has slid badly of late because I’m reading David Mitchell’s epic doorstop The Bone Clocks and… I kind of hate it? Or at least don’t like it at all, at all? I’m probably going to keep reading it because friends of mine like it and I feel like I have to give it a burl for their sake, but I’m giving it a rest for a while. Maybe when I come back it will magically be half the length and significantly less repetitive, boring and self-indulgent.

Instead I’ve started reading Kelly Link’s new collection Get in Trouble, and it is of course wonderful and mind-blowing and fantastically well written and creepy as hell and I love it and you should read it. I wish all books could be as good and well-edited as this one.

 

Other books wot I have read and would recommend:

  • The Sugar House, Rose Bailey
  • The Martian, Andy Weir
  • The Cormorant, Chuck Wendig
  • Exile, Peter Ball
  • Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed
  • Sex Criminals, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

Look, just follow me on Goodreads, it’s probably simpler.

PODCAST TIME

Welcome to Podcast Time, our regular feature where I describe all the new podcasts I’m listening to – not during my commute, which is reading time, but in the 10 hours a week I spend walking the dog, usually in freezing darkness with a plastic bag in one hand and a torch in the other.

The things we do for love. And audio entertainment.

Anyway! Stuff you should listen to!

  • Rachel and Miles Xplain the X-Men, in which the titular Rachel and Miles work their way through forty years of mutant comics and explain how it all worked and why it was frequently awesome, hilarious or problematic, often all at the same time.
  • Shut Up and Sit Down, which is about board games and is very clever and funny and hosted by people who actually understand what makes games challenging and engaging.
  • Journey Into Misery, where one comics fan explains character continuity and backstory to his interested but easily distracted girlfriend, and I know that sounds mansplainy but it’s actually a lot of fun and they’re both young and adorable.
  • The Allusionist, which is about words and nomenclature and the power of language and if you’re the kind of person who likes words and dry wit  – and I know you are – then you’re probably already listening to it.
  • Unjustly Maligned, where writers, podcasters and other folks explain why they love particular bits of pop culture that other people do not, like Murder She Wrote, Italian cartoon theme tunes or Popeye the Movie and look I can’t agree with that last one but god bless that crazy person for his craziness.
  • Song Exploder, where musicians and composers deconstruct songs and tracks they’ve worked on, giving you a glimpse of their process and craft in a podcast that’s actually too good to make silly run-on sentences about.

Thanks for joining us at Podcast Time. We’ll return when someone finally starts making a good roleplaying podcast that isn’t just three dudes with identical mumbles talking about how much they hated 4th ed D&D and laughing at their own campaign references.

…this may be a long wait.

I wish this blog post was cleverer.

But given how rubbish I’ve been at updating these last few months, I think that it’s just a little victory that it exists at all.

More existence next time! Probably! Hopefully!

Demanding better

Tonight is Real Talk Night.

There will be no jokes.

There will, however, be major spoilers for The Obituarist, so maybe don’t read this before you read that.

Or do, so you know what you’re in for. Because that book ain’t perfect.

1208 - Obituarist-ol - new

One of the things I’ve always, always wanted to be as a writer is someone who depicts a world that is as diverse and multifaceted as the one we live in – to not just be someone who writes about straight white men doing straight white things, but to write stories about women, people of colour, GLBTI people and others. And even when I am writing about straight white men, the world around them needs to show all its colours and flavours as well.

That’s the aim.

Sometimes I fall short.

In the years since I wrote it, I’ve received two main pieces of criticism about The Obituarist.

First, that it has only one female character in it. Absolutely true, and something that happened without me really thinking about it too much; a misstep caused by trying to riff too strongly on hard-boiled detective genre tropes. I was annoyed at myself for that, and I made a point of bringing in more female characters for The Obituarist II and making them stronger and more active in the story.

Secondly (and this is the spoiler), that the female character is a transgender character; that the twist of the story is the hero (Kendall) learning that she is – was – the man she tasked him with investigating; and that after starting a romantic relationship with her, Kendall rejects her when he realises that she set him up to be beaten or killed before realising that he could be useful to her. In particular, a number of readers felt that I was playing into the trope/stereotype of ‘transgender deception’, the idea that transgender people can’t be trusted because they’re constantly lying about who they are.

I didn’t get that. That wasn’t the point of the story at all.

Part of the revelation was to have an interesting, deconstructive twist, but it wasn’t just that. The Obituarist is a story about identity and about moving from one life and sense of self to another. Kendall does this, so there’s a thematic resonance in having his love interest do the same, and for him to realise this over the course of the story. I made sure to say that the reason he rejected her wasn’t that she was transgender – well, I spelled that out more fully in the first draft but trimmed it back a bit later, but surely that was still okay.

(I took some dramatic license with the mechanics of gender reassignment, but not in a way that was meant to be disrespectful or played for laughs – just to make the story more interesting.)

As for the whole ‘transgender deception’ thing – that wasn’t a negative stereotype I’d ever considered. No, more, I’d never even heard of that, never come across it in my viewings and reading. That wasn’t a thing at all.

And isn’t that the very definition of privilege? That I didn’t have to worry about it – that I didn’t have to recognise that it existed – because it didn’t directly affect me? That I could merrily ignore the facts of people’s complex lives because it made for what I considered to be a ‘better story’? That I can relegate people’s lived existences to plot twists and platitudes that get edited out in the final draft?

I’m not sure when I started actually thinking about the criticisms, rather than just waving them away as people reading the book wrong – but at some point I did. And when I started thinking about it, I really that they were valid and that I’d done a pretty lousy job of being an ally.

Another element of privilege is never having to think much about representation, or the lack of it. I’m a straight white guy and I will never run out of books, movies and TV shows about people like me – heroes, villains, background characters, every kind of aspect of straight white maledom one could imagine.

But when you’re not in that group – when you’re desperate to see people like you in the stories you read and watch, people who aren’t relegated to one role over and over again – representation matters.

And in The Obituarist I represented transgender characters poorly – by reinforcing negative stereotypes, by treating them more as plot devices than as genuine characters, and by assuming that good intentions mattered more than doing my homework. There are some common pitfalls that I didn’t fall into, but that doesn’t mean much when I made up whole new ways to let people down.

Here’s the single thing I really want to say tonight:

If you were hurt, offended or felt let down by the representation issues in The Obituarist, then I’m sincerely sorry and I apologise. I should have done better by you.

I’m donating all of my 2014/15 proceeds from the book to Transgender Victoria – actually, since sales weren’t that great this year, I’m donating double the proceeds.

That doesn’t make anything better, I know.

This post is not a plea for validation or forgiveness. I’m not asking people to comment about how it’s all fine and I shouldn’t worry about it and why would anyone be hurt/offended/upset by that.

Nor is it a plea for congratulations or attaboys about how brave/honest I am to admit my faults and that I’m totally a great ally to all my trans peoples.

What I want is people to hold my feet to the fire, to make note of the fact that I got it wrong and to call me out if – or more likely when – I get this or something else wrong in the future. To tell me when I’m being hurtful out of laziness or preconceptions or just through simple mistakes, so I can fix it, learn from it and do better in future. Not just in terms of trans representation, but in general.

Please. Don’t let me slide on this if it happens again.

Thanks and goodnight.

Done

At one point – long, long ago when dinosaurs walked the Earth, The Avengers movie was still just rumour and fanwank and I updated this blog twice a week – I talked about my self e-publishing as an experiment.

Well, I’ve had a think about this lately, and I’m here to say that the experiment…

CSI CSI CSI

…is concluded.

That’s right, I’ve decided to call self-pub a day.

But why? Why, when so many authors talk about how it’s the future of writing and they make so much money and they have so much control and everyone should be doing it? Hell, when I’ve said (on more than one occasion) that everyone should try it?

Well, I stand by that last statement – it’s something worth trying for many authors. But trying it isn’t the same as sticking with it, as divorce rates make very clear, and for me I think the jury is in.

…does that need another meme? Like a Law and Order one? Let’s pretend I posted that Batman/L&O one and move on.

Hotel FlamingoI published my first ebook, Hotel Flamingo, back in late 2010, as a way of collecting the novella-length LJ-serial I’d written a couple of years earlier. From there I put one out every year – Godheads in 2011, The Obituarist in 2012, Nine Flash Nine in 2013 and The Obituarist II in early 2015 (okay, not quite every year). I think I’ve given the platform a pretty decent shake, especially when it comes to low-priced, shorter-form fiction – something that ebooks are pretty much perfect for, probably better than print publishing.

But the thing is… I’m not enjoying it.

I don’t mean that I don’t enjoy the writing. (I largely don’t, but that’s a different discussion.) What I don’t enjoy is the publishing aspect – the work required to make the books come together, hiring editors and cover designers to polish them and make them look good, fiddling with KDP and Smashwords interfaces to tweak and correct file glitches. And I really, really don’t enjoy the marketing and self-promotion aspect – the need to constantly try to get people’s attention, tell every social media platform about my work and convince them to part with their dollars.

This all crystallised for me in early April when I read a blog post by Delilah Dawson (you should check her books out, they’re pretty cool) about how/why self-promotion on social media doesn’t work. Her basic thesis is that it’s pushy and turns readers away – and reading through it, I could confirm that every behaviour she names is something that annoys me as a reader. So doing more of it as a writer… no, screw that.

(She wrote a follow-up about ways to positively and effectively self-promote, and it’s got some good stuff in it, but the damage was already done.)

And the thing is, you can’t just publish and not self-promote – not if you want anyone to read your books. When The Obituarist came out, I pushed it as hard as I could manage (and stomach), with tweets and FB posts and email and blog posts and guest posts and more besides. And it worked, to a decent extent – I sold 100+ copies in less than two months. I did a lot less promotion with The Obituarist II, because I had less time and energy and drive, and it’s sold half the copies in twice the time.

If you self-publish, you have to self-promote.  You have to play author, publisher and marketing department. Me, I publish books for a living. And when I come home from a day of making books and working with marketing, I’d rather not do that all over again.

It’s not about the money – I make sweet fuck-all, but I can afford that. What I can’t afford is the time, effort and attention needed to make that money. Not when I could spend that writing the next book instead.

Am I telling you folks not to self-publish? Hell no – like I said, I recommend you give it a try. There are writers out there that are making it really, really work for them, and it could work for you too. If you’re writing in the right genre, for the right audience; if you’re good at networking with other writers and reading communities; if you’re happy to do the hard yards of talking about your work and why it matters to you and why people should read it; if you want total control (and the lion’s share of the royalties) and are prepared to do what it takes to make that worthwhile… if you can do all that, or even some of that, you could definitely find an audience and sell some books and do what fulfils you.

But after five years of it, I think I’m done. I’m more interested now in making my work as polished and sellable as I can, convincing publishers (whether print or digital) to take a chance on it and letting them (and their marketing team) do most of the work.

And hey, it was worth it. I maybe wouldn’t go as far as saying it was fun while it lasted, but it was definitely worth it. Thanks a lot to everyone who came along for the ride.

…and having said all that, I still plan to self-publish the more-or-less inevitable third (and last) Obituarist novella. Because who’s going to publish just the third part of a trilogy?

1208 - Obituarist-ol - new     ObituaristII-PDuffy

If you would like to publish just the third part of a trilogy, please say so in the comments. No reasonable offer refused.

In other news, my knee isn’t back to normal, but it’s healed enough that I can walk properly and don’t have to take so many painkillers.

So it’s back to work on revising and rewriting Raven’s Blood, which I hope to finish by mid-July. And it’s back to more regular blog posts. I promise.

I know I promised that last time. But baby, I mean it this time, honest.

To the pain

I had a pretty solid plan at the middle of April. Finish the Pathfinder gig, unwind for a couple of weeks watching Netflix, then get solidly stuck into revising Raven’s Blood and catching up on the old blogasaurus.

Then I went to a trampoline centre for a celebratory bounce and sprained my knee less than two minutes later. And that pretty much threw all my plans into a cocked hat, along with much of my anterior cruciate ligament.

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So to remind y’all that I’m still alive, I’d like to call out a few things to remember when you’re writing about pain. Not, like pain of the heart and soul, although maybe that does count, but some stuff to think about when your story involves punching, shooting, getting fingers ripped off or wrecking your knee just by stepping onto a trampoline at the wrong angle I mean jesus christ I didn’t even get to jump on it.

Pain is a symptom of something not working right: You hurt when something in you is broken or damaged, and that damage does more than just hurt. A broken rib means you can’t bend properly; a sprained knee means you can’t walk; hell, a tooth abscess means you can’t chew or maybe talk. If your character is in pain, that’s just the start of the problem; make sure to reflect the actual impairment as well.

Pain is distracting: It’s hard to think when you’re hurting, hard to pay attention to other things, hard to keep track of things. I don’t type with my knee, but it’s been impossible to write or even think about writing for two weeks, because the constant pain overrode everything else in my head. (And made it hard to sit at the desk.) Don’t let your character ignore the pain – not unless you’ve established that that’s a thing they can do, and even then you need to show the effort involved.

Pain is exhausting: Your body puts everything it has into getting you better. Which is great! Except that that doesn’t leave you anything in the tank for the messy business of the entire rest of your life. Suddenly a walk to the shops – hell, a walk up the stairs – drains you and leaves you aching and short of breath. Even writing a simple blog post may wipe you out for the night, he said meaningfully.

Pain begets pain: When one part of you isn’t working right, the rest of the body takes the strain, and the hurt cascades like a train of squishy dominoes. You can’t eat properly because of your bad tooth, so you get stomachaches or maybe ulcers. You can’t stretch properly because of your bad knee, so the back pain you’ve been fighting for months suddenly has a resurgence. When stuff is bad, stuff gets worse of its own accord, because God/fate/biology is just a prick sometimes.

Pain is depressing: It just… it grinds you down, you know? You wake up in pain, you go to bed in pain, you can’t sleep because of pain, you can’t do anything because of pain, you get pushed to the side of your own goddamn life because of pain and it won’t stop and some mornings you just want to cry because you can’t fix it. If your main character is hurt, they will not be happy about it. About anything. Trust me on this.

Pain can be dealt with, but not for nothing: Hooray for painkillers! They fix everything! I mean, they still leave you in some pain, and they dry your mouth and disrupt your sleep and fog your brain and jumble your memory and make you nauseous and constipated and they cost too much and require doctor visits and don’t let you do your job properly and did I say jumble your memory already? Anyway, they’re magic! And just like magic they’re mostly tricks and blood sacrifice.

Pain is boring: Maybe this is the worst thing about being in pain. It’s fucking dull. It’s annoying. It’s crap and stupid and boring and it stops you from doing anything interesting and you’re left lying on the couch for hours at a time watching reruns and wishing you could become a cyborg. Until it starts to lift, just a little, and you rush out to finally do something after days/weeks/months of frustrated idleness and immediately hurt yourself enough to wind back in front of the TV again.

So, um, some of this is me venting, and I’m sorry.

But some of it is saying that hey, if your hero gets slugged with a mace/uppercut/defenestration ray in Chapter 3, don’t have her cheerfully doing parkour and winning at tournament bridge in Chapter 5 – not unless Chapter 4 is all about her soaking up Amazonian Purple Healing Rays or chugging a six-pack of potions of cure light wounds. Make the pain seem real; make the pain seem shithouse. The reader will understand, because we’ve all ripped the skin off our kneecaps on a concrete driveway on the way to Laser Tag at some time or another.

No? That was just me?

…the hell with you people.

Greetings from Planet DONE

Hiya folks,

At last I can emerge from my cave, blinking and scratching myself, covered with body hair and coffee stains like a freelance Bigfoot, to announce that I have finished working on my Pathfinder adventure for Green Ronin Games!

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It proved to be remarkably strenuous work. My RPG-writing muscles are not what they used to be.

The plan for the rest of this month is to watch Daredevil, see Black Diggers and Avengers 2, spend time with my lovely wife (she’s so lovely you guys) and generally not write anything except one or two blog posts that are currently rattling around my head.

After that, May and June are all about revising and polishing Raven’s Blood so that it’s fiiiiinnnnallllly ready for submission to publishers, and then to start work on a new book. Which will be one of two horror projects, depending on where my head is at, and doubtless we’ll talk about that more then.

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Tonight, though, I’m just popping my head up to say hello. Now to make dinner and watch a blind man in a leotard kick evil in the dick.

Check you later.

Tony Toni Tone

Okay, first up, sorry for going several weeks without a blog post – especially after saying at the start of the year that I was going to try harder about that.

Secondly, the reason that I haven’t been blogging is that I’ve been – shock horror – writing. Specifically a kind of writing that I haven’t done in several years. Yes, I’m writing me some RPGs!

Specifically, I’m writing one of several Pathfinder adventures set in the pirate city of Freeport, a city I helped flesh out in Green Ronin’s Pirate’s Guide to Freeport, to tie into the massive new Pathfinder sourcebook Freeport – The City of Adventure.

I haven’t done any RPG writing for years, thought I’d left behind me, but was drawn back into thanks to, well, being asked. The Green Ronin guys are good people, I’m working with some amazing writers and it’s a property that I have a bit of emotional attachment to. So I’m trying to put together the best piratical-fantasy-horror adventure I can, and it’s taking some time and effort.

But that’s not what I want to write about tonight. I want to write about being ambushed by assumptions about tone.

See, I’m not a Pathfinder guy. I used to play 3.5E, but that was a long time ago, and for the last few years my fantasy adventure gaming has all been 4E, plus reading a lot of Dungeon World, 13th Age and Fate. So when I sat down to create the encounters in this adventure, that was the paradigm I had in mind and the style I went for.

Guess what? Totally didn’t work.

In 4E D&D – and yes, it’s a nerdy night tonight, apologies if this is all gibberish to you – this is the model for an ‘average’ encounter:

  • 4-5 PCs
  • An equal number of enemies of the same level as the PCs
  • Minimal attrition of physical resources
  • An environment with meaningful obstacles and possibly some situational benefits
  • Magic provides lots of flashy attacks but not that many ‘debuffs’ or situational benefits

Meanwhile, this is a fairly standard Pathfinder encounter:

  • 4-5 PCs
  • One enemy with a CR that matches the PCs’ level
  • Notable attrition of physical resources
  • An environment with no or few meaningful obstacles and situational benefits
  • Magic provides lots of ‘debuffs’ or situational benefits but (somewhat) fewer flashy attacks (at lower levels, anyway)

So I would try to put together what I thought would be a straightforward encounter, like the PCs fighting a zombie sea devil press gang inside a burning gunpowder factory (not an actual spoiler) and then realise it was a complete TPK slaughterhouse. More importantly, I’d realise that it didn’t feel right in the grander scale – that even if the heroes survived, that encounter would feel out of place compared to what followed, as well as leaving them so banged up and short on resources that they’d all succumb to Queen Hagfish’s octopus buccaneers right away (also not a spoiler, although damn, maybe I should be writing that plot instead).

And some things are more subtle. For instance, 4E NPCs aren’t built like PCs, so you can give them any abilities or qualities you like (although you should try to balance them) and the game just rolls along. Pathfinder NPCs are built like PCs, and you generally need to both define them in meticulous detail and be able to justify – both mechanically and from a story perspective – any deviation from the player-accessible pool of options. 4E games involve encountering a lot of unique entities; Pathfinder games involve encountering a lot of people who are just like you, and may be worth robbing for that +1 sword they’re showing off. All of which changes the tenor (and mechanical impact) of scenes and relationships.

None of this is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and I’m not here for a D&D edition war. What this boils down to is that I had to stop working and think things through from the beginning, and take my ideas  in a different and more appropriate direction for how this story was meant to work. You could call this a genre or sub-genre distinction, but that’s a blunt and clumsy tool and not helpful. Whether heroes are fighting one guy or five, throwing infinite fire bolts or drawing charges from a wand of magic missile, using encounter powers or 3/day spell-like abilities, it’s all still ‘heroic fantasy’, and the difference between that and ‘high fantasy’ or even ‘sword and sorcery fantasy’ are truthfully kind of minor.

No, for me this was all about tone; whether the style of encounters, plotlines and interactions I wanted to produce were right for the overall story I’d been asked to create.

Tone is partially about language and voice – horror stories work because they use spooky words and gloomy images – but that’s the only mechanism, and more importantly that’s a mechanism of story-telling and not story construction (and RPG adventure writing is all about you constructing and someone else telling). When you get into the meat  of building a story, I think tone relies on two major building blocks:

  • Situation: Is an appropriate fight scene a one-on-one battle or a struggle against overwhelming odds? Do the heroes get a chance to plan or are they just suddenly thrown into chaos and riot? Can they draw upon reliable and effective resources (magic, weapons, tools etc) or are their resources capricious and difficult to use? Is the location as important/distinctive as those within it? Does this scene make sense?
  • Outcome: Who wins a five-against-one fight – can a hero prevail against overwhelming odds, or a team prevail against a crazy-powerful uber-baddie? Who wins a five-on-five fight? Did magic provide an I-WIN button or was it just one element in determining the victor? Is the winner scratched and bruised or bleeding from wounds that could be fatal? What happens next?

(And of course, those situations and outcomes don’t have to be all about fighting; I just frame it that way ‘cos I like stories about punching. Social situations, clever heists, romantic moments, times of introspection, hotsexytimes – the principle applies across the board.) And this is true whether you’re creating a playground for 3-5 players to randomly set fire to things, or writing a 90K novel about young badgers in love.

So when setting a tone for your story – oh yeah, here’s the point of this post after 1000 words about pirate orc wizards – these are the two questions you need ask when setting scenes – ‘is this something that makes sense in my story?’ and ‘did that end in a way that makes sense in my story?’. As long as you can say yes to both of those, you’re golden.

Now, if you want to stay golden, you either need to stay tonally consistent for the duration of the narrative, or clearly signpost the degree to which the tone is changing as the story progresses, but that’s a post for another night. Maybe. Look, my deadline is in three weeks and I need to iron all the kinks out of this adventure before the heroes have to blow up a haunted house in order to stop Cthulhu from plundering Davy Jones’ Locker.

Or something like that.

Anyway kids, eat right, stay in school, back soon.