Laying down the smack

So I want to talk about professional wrestling for a few weeks.

If that immediately turns you off, it’s okay to tap out and come back another time.

Wrestling. Yeah.

When I was in my early 30s I freakin’ loved pro wrestling. I caught the bug from a friend who’d been into it his whole life, and before long I too was invested in the world of spandex, piledrivers and shit-talkin’ promos. I was also dating a girl who loved it, so we’d watch WWE shows and PPVs, go to local indie shows, hang out with wrestlers and – this next part is very important – get very, very drunk in the process.

It was a pretty sweet time.

It’s a time that culminated for me, just before I moved from Brisbane to Melbourne, with Wrestlemania XX – a night when my two favourite wrestlers, Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit, overcame all the odds to win the two championship belts. The pay-per-view ended with them in the ring together, hugging and holding up their belts in triumph, confetti raining down around them. It’s a moment that gave me so much joy.

A couple of years later, both men were dead – Guerrero of a heart attack, Benoit killing himself after murdering his wife and son – and all the joy was gone out of wrestling for me. I was done with it.

…and yet.

About a year ago, wrestling started pinging my radar again. Lucha Underground is cool, people said. Chikara have intricate comicbook storytelling, they said. WWE’s NXT spinoff have brought back the joy, and wrestlers aren’t suddenly dying the way they used to, they said.

I resisted the urge to dive back into the ring for a long time. But then I started getting some ideas about a YA urban fantasy story centred around pro wrestling, and I had a poke around the internet for things to cement those ideas together, and I watched some matches… and the hooks were back in.

I marked out. Again.

So what did I love about pro wrestling, and what am I rediscovering now?

Athletic performance

No, it’s not ‘real’ fighting, but wrestling is absolutely real action, in the same way that you see action in martial arts and superhero movies, gymnastic performances and dope dance numbers. It’s practised and (to a limited extent) choreographed, but that doesn’t stop it from being exciting and entertaining (and more fun than real fighting, which is mostly just sad and horrible).

I’m particularly enthralled by the smaller, faster performers who jump off ropes, hit crazy spots and generally have a ‘flip-dee-doo’ style (phrasing stolen from the hosts of the excellent How2Wrestling podcast). I could watch cruiserweights, high flyers and luchadors go at it all day – especially if ever now and then you bring in a big muscle dude or a skilled technical wrestler in to change things up and show another dimension to the dance.

Yeah. It’s a dance. And dancing is fun as hell.

Telling stories with action

Almost all of my storytelling focus these days is on action – not just on writing engaging fight scenes, but using those fight scenes to demonstrate character, progress plot threads and develop the tone of the overall story. And the start of that focus was watching wrestling and looking at how they used fights to communicate plot and character.

A typical wrestling match isn’t just ‘two guys fight’, although that happens sometimes. What makes a match engaging is stakes and conflict – making the fight about something and giving the fighters a personal reason to win. Even the simplest feud sets two wrestlers against each other, usually over matters of ‘dignity, family or money’ (according to wrestling wisdom), and then that conflicts builds and becomes more personal through fights, confrontations and occasional promos. Plotlines may be simple or intricate, but they’re always immediate – and they find resolution through physical action. And all of that translates one-to-one into prose writing.

Wrestling is also a masterclass in demonstrating character through action – in what people do and how they do it. If a heel cuts promos about his courage, then runs away from danger in the ring, you immediately understand that he’s both a coward and a liar. If a face is outnumbered and overwhelmed by enemies, but refuses the offer of help in the ring, preferring to fight – and maybe lose – on his own terms, then the audience knows more about his character than any interview or vignette could tell them. Character is what you do – that’s one core principle of wrestling. The other is even simpler – everything that matters happens in the ring. Again, this plugs directly into writing engaging action.

Also, sometimes an alien superhero fights a dragon.

Metatextuality

OMG WHAT A WANKER

Look, I know that’s a ridiculous thing to say, but it’s true – the very first thing that attracted me to wrestling was the strange tension between performer and character, and the plotlines that mixed real-world and fictional (‘kayfabe’) realities. Wrestling is a world where there is an actor called Dwayne Johnson, and there is an athlete called The Rock, and they are two different men except on those occasions when they are the same dude and sometimes they are both and neither at the same time and everyone agrees to accept this and pretend it isn’t weird. AND I LOVE THAT.

Wresting is a world where the fictional and the real grind together, informing and shaping each other and generating story from that grind, and from Day One I found that completely fascinating. And I’m not alone; Roland Barthes wrote about the metatextuality and symbolic density of wrestling – yes Roland Barthes the father of semiotics he loved wrestling and I HAVE (most of) AN ENGLISH DEGREE SO GET STUFFED – back in the 1950s and he was FRENCH so you know it was very clever.

That’s why I love wrestling. Simple-but-effective storytelling; complex-yet-straightforward commercial metatextuality; fit people in short shorts doing crazy stunts.

What’s not to love?

So please, join me over the next few weeks as I explore the new world of WRESTLE 2016 and try to make storytelling fodder from it.

Come on, it’ll be fun. There’ll be suplexes.

Post-stocktake audit

Hey folks!

So last update was a bit downbeat, even if I tried to look on the positive at the end. (I’m a regular Pollyanna like that.)

Things haven’t substantially changed since then, but my mood is better and I’m even more inclined to accentuate the positive. So on that note, and because I can’t think of anything too substantial to talk about this week, let’s talk about some Things What Are Pretty Good.

Freelance work

I’m getting a fair bit of it! And people have actually started paying their invoices this week, which is awfully nice.

I also worked last Saturday at the election, spending the day issuing declaration ballots at a local polling centre. That was kind of fun and interesting for a large part of the day – you get to chat to people and get a feel for their character when you’re asking them where they live and finding their voting papers. Once the polls closed and we had to spend almost seven freakin’ hours reconciling paperwork, counting votes and sorting the gigantic Senate ballots into messy piles (above the line, below the line, informal, drawings of penises and angry screeds)… that part was less fun. And very tiring, which is why I didn’t post anything last weekend.

I have stories I could share about that experience, but I think I’m legally prohibited from doing so publicly. If you see me in person, buy me a beer and I’ll explain to you how awful democracy is, and why it took a week to work out a government.

Writing work

Still not a huge amount of progress on this lately, since overlapping freelance gigs have taken up a lot of my headspace, and I gotta make that cheddar somehow. Still, I’ve been working on tweaking the dialogue in Raven’s Blood to make it a little less archaic for some of the characters. I was trying to invoke a bit of Elizabethan manner and idiosyncrasy in the characters’ speech patterns (especially swearing), but on reflection it’s more important to keep dialogue accessible and immediate, at least for the viewpoint characters. (Plus it lets me show immediate contrasts between them and more mannered, formal characters.)

Once I do the dialogue revision, the next thing is to get this book in the hands of a few agents and go the hard sell on the series. I’ve been researching appropriate agents for this kind of work, and I’m pulling together a query letter and book/series pitches into a package. Soon I’ll be releasing it into the wild – or at least emailing the names in my spreadsheet.

Yeah, I got a spreadsheet. That’s how you know I’m serious.

Books

I’m still trying to improve my reading practice and schedule reading time; some days I’m better at it than others.

Right now I’m most of the way through The Squared Circle, David Shoemaker’s history of professional wrestling in the 20th century. Specifically, looking at that history through stories of dead wrestlers. That sounds grim, and it is terribly sad in places, but Shoemaker’s writing is both intelligent and compassionate; he uses the stories of the dead to show how they shaped (and still shape) the land of the living.

There are also piledrivers.

I’ve also been reading Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook, a really fascinating writing guide that focuses more on inspiring and shaping imagination than it does on rules of grammar, plot construction or time management. (Although those are in there too.) Beautifully illustrated, engaging written and at times appallingly irritating, I don’t agree with everything in it but I want to keep reading it. Sadly it’s back at the library now, but I’m going to overcome my cheapskate impulses once I get another freelance cheque and buy it (along with Vandermeer’s more prosaic Booklife, which is about effective practice) for some sustained deep reading.

Music

I just keep listening to Grimes’ Art Angels over and over again.

You know how it is.

Games

I’m about to start running a short game of the World Wide Wrestling RPG, as I continue falling back into the world of pro wrestling I left a decade ago. However, this game is set in a haunted RSL, with wrestlers that include a werewolf, a glitter-addicted alien and a puppy summoner, so I think it will be less tragic than mid-00s WWE.

I’ve also been playing a bit of Pillars of Eternity, a CRPG that I’ve been wanting to play for a while and that was finally on sale. It’s a modern game in its own setting that reuses the style (and most of the systems) of old D&D CRPGs like Baldur’s Gate. It’s an interesting one, and there’s a lot to like in its plotting and development; it’s a great lesson in how to draw multiple stories, characters and situations out of a tight set of consistent themes and motifs. It’s also a great lesson in how execution can undercut mood, and how catering to the whims of 70 000 Kickstarter patrons can damage both story and gameplay.

Hmm. Might write more about it when I finish. Probably in a few months.

MY POKEMANS LET ME SHOW YOU THEM

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Um, I mean… the local wildlife is kinda weird in this suburb.

So anyhoo, that’s what I’m up to.

Check back soon and see whether I have anything interesting to say.

It’s gotta happen eventually.

Stocktake

2016.

Christ.

It’s been a bit horrible so far, hasn’t it?

Bowie died; Prince died; a whole lot of innocent people died in Brussels, Orlando, Manus, the Middle East and everywhere else that innocent people try to live in peace. The UK voted to smash European unity, along with the careers, relationships and lives of millions of people around the world. Next week’s election doesn’t promise much joy no matter who wins, and there’s still a possibility that Trump will become US president.

Some days it seems like the world keeps getting crueler, darker and colder (while also heating up), and there’s so little any of us can do about it.

…not a very jolly way to start a blog post, but it’s been on my mind a lot.

As for my 2016, it’s not anything comparable to all of that. My problems are the smallest potatoes you can imagine compared to the real, society-shaking and life-threatening issues other people face.

But with the mid-point of 2016 just days away, I still have to say that this year hasn’t been so great.

You may remember that I quit my day job a couple of months ago, which was working as a publisher in the education industry. That was the culmination of about a year of just not enjoying my work, for reasons I’m not going to get into, and of getting more stressed and unhappy with things as time went on. I reached a point where the only way to fix the problem was to cut it open like the Gordian Knot and walk away. And I stand by that.

But the ramifications of that situation – and that solution – are still affecting me.

I ended last year by saying that I wanted – that I needed – to become more professional in my writing practice, to treat writing as a job rather than a hobby.

So far, I have failed in that.

Instead, I’ve treated writing as a delicate flower of creativity that can only blossom when conditions are 100% perfect. Work getting me down? Too stressed to write! Work non-existent? Too stressed (and lunchtime-drunk) to write! Work coming in from freelance sources? Too busy to write!

End result? Nothing gets done. Nothing gets written, nothing gets finished; no opportunities are opened up and followed. (Well, maybe not no opportunities, but my follow through is still lacking.) I keep tinkering around the edges of Raven’s Blood, I’ve made minimal progress on Raven’s Bones and I’ve yet to think seriously about writing a third and final Obituarist novella.

It’s like there’s this gap between where I am and where I need to be, and even though I know the conditions on both sides of the gap, what would bridge the gap and what needs to be done to build that bridge… I just can’t build it. I can’t summon up the focus, motivation and energy to do what I know needs to be done to get me to where I want to go. And I can’t work out why, and it’s frustrating the hell out of me.

Self-sabotage is the worst kind of sabotage.

And yet, I’m honestly not here just to whinge; I think a lot of things are looking positive.

(I have to believe that; I’m not wired to accept my own negativity. It makes life complex. But mostly cheerful.)

Yes, I have a problem; yes, I’m standing on one side of a broken bridge. But the bridge can be fixed, the problem solved; the fact that I have been failing doesn’t mean that I have to keep failing. I’m the only thing in the way of my own professionalism, after all, and I can change. I’ve been trying a lot of time/effort management tools and techniques, from journalling to scheduling to yelling at myself for being crap. None of them have worked as well as I wanted them to yet, but they may still pay off – or I might find something new that does the trick, so long as I keep looking. Freelance work is going to keep taking up writing time/energy as long as we have rent to pay, but I can work on mitigating the loss, and planning effectively for when I go back to full-time work.

The bridge can be repaired. A new one can be built. Fuck it, I can just learn to jump real far.

As for missed opportunities… I spent a lot of time over the last few months in discussion with a publisher about the Ghost Raven series. While they eventually decided not to proceed with it, the process of pitching, discussing, re-visioning and revising the project was incredibly useful and worthwhile for me. It made me see ways I can improve the book(s), helped me get a better grip on the YA market and genre, and opened up new publishing contacts that might be interested in seeing future ideas and pitches from me.

It also helped me realise that approaching individual publishers myself isn’t the best use of my time or efforts, which need to feed back into the actual writing. So I’m switching focus towards finding an agent who can do that for me, and do it better; I’ve spoken to a few author-peeps about how they did that, and I’m working on a query package and a list of appropriate people to contact.

I’ve fiddle-faffed around for six months. I admit that. But I still have six months left.

To recap, then:

First half of the year: I didn’t get much done.

Second half of the year: Same goals, different methods. They may not work either. But I’m still going to give ’em a try. If only to stop 2016 from sinking its venomous fangs all the way into my spine.

Yes, I will wear this if I have to.

I will also try writing more, and better.

We’ll see which tactic works best.

Activate all agents

Hi folks,

Sorry for taking a few weeks between drinks – things got away from me, and then last week’s awfulness with the Orlando shootings made me feel that no-one needed to hear me blather about unimportant things for a while.

But I’m back on board, I’ve got some space between freelance tasks, and it’s time to talk more about the fascinating topic of character agency.

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The question of how to emphasise agency – how to write specifically for agency – is on my mind a lot right now as I re-examine the Raven’s Blood MS and continue working (more slowly than I would like) on Raven’s Bones. Both these books focus on a single protagonist, Kember Arrowsmith, and are meant to be driven by her actions. But there are also times when Kember isn’t the most powerful or active character in a scene or chapter, and I’ve been thinking about how to deal with that – how to make sure she still has agency and that her decisions matter even when her actions aren’t pivotal.

Here’s what I’ve come up with (and some RB examples), framed as a response to some of the agency-diminishing traps I suggested last time.

Explore consequences

Whenever the character acts, show the consequences of that action. If the reader feels that a decision or action changed the status quo of the story, or had an impact on the plot, then they immediately feel that the character matters. Not every action has to change everything forever – minor consequences can still be engaging, especially if they’re emotional consequences for characters – but some actions should really shake things up.

In Blood, pretty much everything Kember does has a direct effect on the situation – sometimes making things better, sometimes worse, but almost never inconsequential. She starts fights, provokes gods, angers allies and hurts enemies (and friends); she also does less impactful stuff, but I gloss over a lot of that to keep the focus where it matters. In Bones, I’m trying to keep that same approach, but I have to adjust the set of appropriate consequences to fit (and change) the new status quo in that book.

Let plot emerge from character decisions

Writers throw around terms like plot-driven or character-driven quickly and easily, but everyone has a different idea of what they mean and how they differ. I’m a bit leary of such labels, but I think it’s fair to say that some stories revolve around things happening to characters, and others around characters causing things to happen. The latter are the stories that emphasise agency – where actions start chains of consequences, and the story is following one or more chains to the branching end.

The way I tried to make this happen in Blood is simple – I didn’t plot that far ahead. I had a beginning, a vague idea of an ending, and as I wrote each scene, I tried to make the next one emerge fairly organically from the characters’ actions. Sometimes that worked, something it didn’t, and sometimes I had to revise both my ending and how I could get there. With Bones I’m working from an outline, so the plot is already more pinned down than last time; I still don’t know if that’s going to work for me.

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Give characters the information they need

The reasons mysteries are fun isn’t because the detective doesn’t know who did it – it’s because they find out who did it and then use that information. Similarly, decisions aren’t interesting if they’re made from ignorance; they’re interesting when characters know something about the possible outcomes and then make a choice. If your characters don’t know what’s going on, make the story about finding out, at least for a while, then about following through on that information.

There are a couple of mysteries in Blood, but Kember solves the biggest one by the end of the first act. That was very deliberate – I wanted the story to revolve around her dealing with that knowledge, rather than about her pursuing it. Bones also has some mysteries, but solving those will take longer; what I need to work on is making sure the search for answers is engaging and leads to interesting consequences, rather than just jumping through hoops.

Reveal and modify setting through character action

In quantum physics, the observer effect means that observing a system also acts upon a system – that is, watching something changes it. (Look at me, I’m dumbing down complex philosophical concepts for the masses!) I think good storytelling should do the same thing – that when a character observes the setting, they should change the setting. Again, that can be minor or major, but every time a character interacts with the setting they should leave a mark – revealing it to the reader, then reshaping it through their actions so that it’s different than it was just a page before.

Observer-Effect
Like this, but less crazy

This is probably the technique I’ve been best at with the Ghost Raven project so far. Blood is full of scenes where Kember explores elements of Crosswater (my fantasy city), then causes them to explode/catch fire/be the scene of a pitched battle through her actions and decisions. I plan to do the same with Bones, but maybe alter the balance a bit; spend some time showing how she’s affected the greater setting, with less focus on individual elements.

That’s all I have in my head tonight. Last time I also wrote about preferencing tone over agency, and I think that’s something that can be addressed, but I can’t quite work out the how/why of it yet. Maybe later.

…hmm. This post was a bit dull, wasn’t it? It’s good for me to work out my ideas, but I don’t know if that’s useful for anyone else.

Maybe next post will be more interesting, as we move from the topic of character agency to discussing why 2016 has been rubbish. So rubbish for so many of us.

Why agency gets forgotten

Last week I talked about character agency – that is, characters actively making decisions that propel the narrative – with an example of a story that does that well and a couple that don’t, one of them my own gaming efforts.

But how do stories like those latter ones happen? It’s not like authors/scriptwriters/GMs think ‘man, I’m all fired up to create a story in which the protagonists don’t get to make any meaningful choices that affect the narrative’!

Well, maybe Zack Snyder. I’d believe anything of that guy.

Thinking it over this week, I came up with a few reasons why agency might get overlooked or forgotten in a story – hell, they’re reasons why I’ve done that overlooking in the past. (And things I need to look out for while writing Raven’s Bones at the moment.) Let me know if any of these sound familiar, as a writer, reader or viewer.

Not enough information

‘Agency’ is more than just acting, it’s about making choices between options. Run away or fight back. Lady or Tiger. Shit or get off the pot. And often, just like in the real world, those decisions aren’t based on a full understanding of all possibilities, because time is short and data is missing and important people are currently on fire.

All of that is fine. But there’s an information threshold that decisions have to meet in order to be genuine, to be more than just surrendering to random chance. Come in below that point, and the character may as well just flip a coin. This is kind of realistic – it happens to us regular folks all the time – but it’s frustrating and disengaging in real life, and it’s more so in fiction.

We can’t get excited by reading about someone blindfolded in a maze and stumbling randomly about. we get excited when the character peeks through the blindfold, or works out a way to navigate, or changes the rules of the game. We want characters to make a real decision, and that means that character knowing (or at least suspecting) what will happen when they do it.

Decisions that don’t matter

If decisions drive stories, it’s because the consequences of those decisions determine the outcomes of stories. A meaningful decision disrupts the flow of events, for good or ill, and the story has to take that change on board. And not just the right decisions – bad decisions are as important to character agency as good ones, maybe more so. A story where the reader worries that the characters have decided to do the wrong thing is one where the reader is invested in what’s happening, and that’s a winner.

But it’s too damn easy to write a story that spends lots of time exploring or demonstrating a character but not let them really do anything to change outcomes. The character gets lots of spotlight time and they do a bunch of things, but those actions don’t have consequences that alter the way things are moving – it’s choices about what clothes to wear or which gun to shoot, rather than where to wear those clothes or who to shoot at.

Sometimes this happens in stories where the author loves the character too much to ever let them risk bad outcomes, so they go for no outcome instead. Sometimes it’s about mistaking small decisions for ‘relateable’ decisions, an effort to keep the character grounded but instead just rooting them in place. It also happens A HELL OF A LOT in video games, where player decisions tend to be cosmetic or incidental, while the meaningful decisions get made by the ‘character’ (ie the game designers) during cut scenes.

Too much plot

And why are those decisions taken out of player hands in games? Because the game has a plot in which the next event has to happen, and then the event after that, and that, and that. (Not all video games, obviously, but a lot of them.) You can’t screw up that workshopped plot, and waste all those expensive-to-produce graphics, by letting the player decide not to follow the trail all the way to the end.

It’s easy to rag on games (I just did it!), but any narrative can get overwhelmed by plot, and by the desire to explore and go through with the great set of events, twists and payoffs that you’ve come up with. Plot’s important, and you need to move from A to B to C to Q, and the audience wants that. But if plot happens to characters, rather than something that they make happen, they’re more like a witness or catalyst rather than an active participant. Characters become passive or helpless, following the plot rather than creating it – which makes them seem ineffectual, even if the text says they’re not, and makes it hard for the audience to engage with or identify with them.

Too much setting

The parallel to spending all your time pushing the plot onto the characters is when you spend all your time showcasing the setting of your story or world. And again, I get it. You have all this information you want to share! You have a detailed setting bible and a timeline of the world! You’ve got to show this to the reader somehow, and it’s much better to let the character explore and appreciate the world around them than to just dump a bunch of exposition in the readers’ laps!

All of this is true, and yeah, showcasing the setting is important, especially in stories that take place in totally fictional worlds. It helps make the setting seem real, and many readers want that experience of exploration and glimpsing wonders. But once that setting is displayed, the character needs to do something in or with it, or else what was the point? If the story would have taken the same course whether the protagonist was exploring the Purple Centipede Swamps or exploring a plain white room, then neither the setting or the character’s engagement with it matters.

Give your setting the space it needs – and then let the character take hold of it and effect it. That jolts way more engagement from 99% of readers than ten pages of loving descriptions of giant arthropod mating rituals.

(And if you’re in that 1% – hey, you be you.)

Too much tone

This one’s a bit tricky to unpack, but… horror is a genre that’s all about helplessness, right? So it makes sense that characters are helpless and can’t change things. War stories are all about being part of something bigger than you, so emphasising a character’s lack of impact reinforces the theme. And an exciting chase story isn’t going to work if the characters are always stopping and deliberating on what to do – it’d totally ruin the pacing and feel!

All of these things are true, and this might be the biggest thing that gets between storytellers and character agency. It’s why I stumbled so badly with my DRYH game – it’s a game about horror, weirdness and hallucinatory paranoia, and having characters in control of situations would diminish that.

But there’s a big excluded middle between ‘powerless to effect things’ and ‘tone-destroying competence’, and too many writers (myself included) push things to the wrong end in trying to maintain the feel we want for stories. Instead, we should be looking at ways in characters can be active within the tonal confines of the story – how to present them with decisions that reinforce the desired themes and style, rather than damage them.

How to do that?

Well, I’ve got some ideas, but I’m already 1200 words into this diatribe, so I’ll carry this over for one more week.

Stay excited. And leave comments if you have any thoughts.

Please. Go on.

MAKE A POWERFUL DECISION

YES EVEN IF IT’S BAD

Not-so-secret agency

In addition to slowly writing novels and taking on swathes of freelance work, I like running roleplaying games, which I think everyone who reads this blog knows by now.

Well, this week I ran a really shaky gaming session, one that wasn’t much fun for either the players or myself. The game was a weird horror RPG called Don’t Rest Your Head, and it wasn’t to blame – it’s a very neat game that you should totally check out. But the session I read was kind of a failure, and after several days of introspection and self-flagellation, I think I’ve worked out why- it’s all about character agency.

(If you’re curious about the game, by the way, you can read summaries of this and other games on my Obsidian Portal page, and my navel-gazing thoughts about GMing on my gaming Tumblr, Save vs Facemelt. Go on, live a little. Leave a comment, even. It’s so lonely over there.)

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‘Agency’ is one of those terms that writers bandy about, and better bloggers than myself have worked on defining it. But from my point of view, it’s about whether characters – more importantly, protagonists – make meaningful decisions that impact the narrative. That is, do the characters’ decisions (and decision-making processes) matter?

When characters have agency, their decisions drive the story – but more importantly, they make those decisions deliberately, with some degree of understanding of possible consequences and a willingness to accept those consequences if necessary. When characters don’t have agency, they’re propelled through the plot by external events or circumstances – and when they do make decisions, those decisions aren’t any more meaningful than random chance.

Let me put it this way: If a character has to choose between two doors, one with a lady and one with a tiger, with absolutely no information to draw upon about which is better, that’s not agency; that’s no different to a coin toss. If the character has spent time uncovering the secret of the doors, or practised the mysterious arts of tiger-taming, or shoots the door controller and leaves the TV studio, then that character has agency; that character has a chance to drive the plot, rather than being driven around by it.

Actually, you know what? I have better examples, courtesy of the two big-budget, ensemble-cast superhero movies I saw this month, Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse, because they portray both ends of the agency spectrum.

(No specific plot spoilers here, I promise – but if you haven’t seen these movies yet, and want to, you might want to stop here and come back next week.)

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Civil War is fundamentally a movie about character choices, and the consequences of those choices. The two main protagonists (Captain America and Iron Man, because Cap doesn’t get to headine his own movie for some reason) are faced with situations where they have to decide what they think is right and appropriate – and after thought, discussion and a modicum of punching, they make their choices and they live with the consequences, where ‘consequences’ = ‘pretty much the entire movie’. And they’re not alone in this; almost all of the other eleventy-dozen heroes in the movie pick a side, and we get to see why they make the decision that they do. (Not so much with Ant-Man, but Bobby Newport just does what he’s told.) It’s a film with a very strong foundation in character agency.

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Apocalypse, on the other hand, is a film where the plot pushes on characters until they go where the plot needs them to be and do what the plot needs them to do. Many of them are just stuck in place, waiting to be acted upon, or make decisions about action in which there are no real choices or alternatives – it’s all ‘I have to do this or we’ll all get killed’ or ‘sure, I’ll join Team Evil and then not have any further dialogue’. Only a very small number of characters get any real moments of agency, points where the audience gets to see them actively make a decision or change their arc – and those are primarily the characters who headlined the previous films (Magneto and Mystique), or Big Bad Guy Apocalypse. It’s a film with very thin levels of character agency; it has lots of interesting characters that act out of dramatic necessity rather than something that feels real.

Now, I’m not trying to say that one of these films is good and one is bad.

Okay, I am saying that X-Men: Apocalypse isn’t very good, but let’s move past that.

What I’m saying is that agency is complicated, and that a narrative with lots of colour, movement, story, characters and skin-tight body stockings can still be lacking in agency – and that that can make a big difference on two narratives that, on the surface, seems pretty similar in genre/tone/mood/explosion level. And that that difference can be enough to make a story work or fall apart.

I have more thoughts on this. Many, many more thoughts.

So let’s leave it there and come back next week.

Confessions of a lapsed bibliophile

At some point in the last few years, I forgot how to read.

Let me rephrase that. I forgot how to read books. (I still vaguely remember how words work.)

When I was younger, books were everything in my life, the only thing that mattered. In my twenties I still read voraciously, picking up a book whenever I had downtime between work and a social life. In my thirties I read a lot, but there were other things on my plate now – jobs that demanded more attention, relationships that required additional effort, this internet thing that was full of words that also needed reading, and that was the same as reading books, except that it wasn’t. The ties began to weaken.

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In my forties I spent more time working and writing, less and less time reading – but there was still a good hour or more I could devote to books every day, usually during the morning bus ride to work. Until the job changed, the commute changed, my mental energy levels changed. Reading became inconvenient, taxing, awkward to fit into my schedule. There were podcasts and mobile games and social media micro-interactions as alternatives, little things I could squirt into my day to fill up the spaces like packing foam, and they were a lot easier to manage than complicated things like books that demanded concentration and remembering plots and using the part of my brain that appreciated good prose.

And now here I am, with lots of free time, and I’ve still barely glanced at any of the unread books on my shelves, desk and Kindle. Instead I write, I do housework, I walk the dog… and I potter about. I check the same websites every hour or so, I flick through RPG sourcebooks, I poke half-heartedly at a dozen things that don’t matter and then I do it all again. Sitting down with a book never makes it onto the agenda.

(A quick Google search reveals that I’m not alone; lots of people have written about losing the reading habit. It seems like a very common modern problem. Yet that comes as very little comfort.)

Frankly, I’m tired of being a reader that doesn’t read. And I’m horrified by the thought of being a writer that doesn’t read.

I want this to change.

So how to fix this, other than just strapping a Kindle to my face like some kind of homemade Oculus Rift?

As I said last week, I’ve been focusing on structuring my time more effectively – blocking out hours that are just for writing, or watering the yard, or getting drunk while watching Eurovision (oh my god we almost won how crazy and glorious is that?). That’s still a work in progress; it’s harder than I would like to keep to that schedule, or to stay focused on what I’m supposed to do in that block of time. (I need to schedule things in mid-sized blocks of 90 minutes each, rather than half-hour snippets or three hour icebergs of effort.) But it’s helping, and it’s a habit-shaping engine I want to keep using.

So I’m literally putting ‘read a book’ into my daily schedule, with start and end times – again, aiming for 90-minute intervals where that’s all I do. (Ninety minutes is apparently how long a typical sleep cycle goes for, which probably means it’s a good ultradian rhythm for other tasks because, um, because magic.) Tomorrow, for instance, I’ve put down a block in the morning, to do straight after watering the yard, but before I head off to a lunch date. (Not sure what I’m going to read just yet, but I have plenty of options.) Once I get back, the afternoon is scheduled for writing, but I’ll see if I can include another reading block in the evening. It’ll take some fine-tuning, but I’ll fiddle with it, as well as shoring up some habit-enforcing infrastructure (a stack of books within reach of my work desk, going out to read while leaving my tablet full of game distractions at home, and so on).

Will this make reading a chore, another task I have to tick off my to-do list rather than something I actually enjoy? Maybe, but I doubt it. There are plenty of things I enjoy that I have to schedule and organise – I’m a roleplayer, after all, and 90% of my hobby is sending scheduling emails – and that just means that they actually happen, rather than something I just wish would happen by magic.

At age 45, I’m slowly, finally realising that magic is in short supply – even the magic of reading. And it tend to occur only after you do all the work of setting up the trick yourself.

This is some Wizard of Oz shit right here, lemme tell you.

Plus, here’s a bonus – it’s easier to read with a dog in your lap than to write with one. Especially a dog that likes to plant his face on the keyboard.

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I’ll let you know how it works out.

And whether Ernie gets addicted to the smell of paper.

Put me back in the machine

Having said good bye to my day job last Monday, the rest of the week has been relaxing and cruisely. I’ve had lunches with friends, applied for some jobs, attended an interview (fingers crossed), played a bunch of Sleeping Dogs, enjoyed afternoon drinks and generally treated life like a bit of a holiday.

…I miss work already.

No, I don’t miss my old job; I miss productivity, making an effort and getting things done. I miss structure, more specifically. And that comes as a little bit of a surprise, considering how much time and effort I’ve spent pushing against imposed structures in life and work over the years.

But we don’t know what we’ve got ’til it’s gone, as the sages say, and it turns out that when you give me complete freedom from the productivity machine, I go all floppy, forget to wear trousers and generally don’t get much done. Which isn’t much chop if I want to use this time to get back to work on Raven’s Bones and reach a halfway decent wordcount target before I land myself back on Planet 9-to-5.

The productivity machine. Probably.
The productivity machine. Probably.

In a way, time management and productivity is a lot like creativity – complete freedom isn’t good for you. Creators needs some kinds of limits and boundaries in order to focus their efforts, and a lack of structure just results in a mess. Tell me ‘just write as much as you want about whatever you like’ and I’ll stare at a blank page for weeks, paralysed by formless choice. Tell me that you want 15 000 words of pirate fantasy adventure in two months and I’ll have something started before the email gets cold.

Which seems like a good point to plug my new Pathfinder RPG scenario Curse of the Brine Witch, also known as ’15 000 words of pirate fantasy adventure’.

I gave up RPG writing years ago, but I maintain a soft spot for the Freeport setting; it was the basis for my first real D&D campaign, and years later I was one of three writers that re-developed the setting in the Pirate’s Guide to Freeport. So when the guys at Green Ronin asked me to contribute to the Return to Freeport adventure path project – hell, to write the first adventure in the series – how could I say no?

Writing this was a lot of fun – a chance to mix horror and fantasy ideas into something that’s hopefully enjoyable to play through. It has half-genie pirates, mysterious curses, red herrings, street battles, spooooooooooky mini-dungeons and some tongue-in-cheek subheadings. (I love subheadings; like I said, structure matters.) The tricky part was the rules stuff, because my head is calibrated to 4th Edition these days rather than 3.5/Pathfinder, but I think it all came together (and Owen Stephens developed it, so it’s bound to make sense).

Anyhoo, if any of the above is intelligible to you, and you like rolling dice and pretending to punch monsters in the face, check out the adventure – and hopefully stay around for the rest of the series, which has work from gaming luminaries like Crystal Frasier, Jody Macgregor and John Rogers.

So I hope we all had fun with that little aside.

But if I just wanted to plug my gaming work, or whinge about the week-that-was, I’d have stayed on LiveJournal. Let’s talk about solutions. If I need structure in my writing life to keep me tethered and fully dressed, what are some options?

First up is making a plan for the week, something that has specific tasks, goals and milestones. Some of this are things like ‘do the shopping’ and ‘walk the dog for like the fifth time today’, sure, but others are ‘finish the chapter’, ‘revise the outline’and ‘write 1000 words before running off to play Netrunner‘. I also asked two of the most organised and focused dudes I know, Peter Ball and Kevin Powe, for some recommendations for get-your-shit-together books; I’ve got their list and will report back on whether any of the suggested reading transforms my efficiency.

Most of all, I’m trying to treat the week like work, rather than an extended weekend, and to keep the pottering, dithering, procrastinating and pantlessness to a minimum, just as if Iwas in the machine and someone was paying me to pump the controls. Because without that kind of structure, my ideas, my productivity, my work and my trousers will just fly off in all directions.

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And I don’t need that. Not in this weather.

I’ll check back next week and let you know how it’s going.

April was the cruelest month

So, April 2016. That was a month.

Let me tell you what I did last month (and by that I mostly mean within the last week).

I finished revising Raven’s Blood, fleshing out some relationship scenes and doing what I could to up the romantic tension in the story while still keeping focus on the core themes, i.e. being angry and punching people.

The revised manuscript is now with… someone. If they like it, that might go somewhere. Or it might not. And they might not like it anyway. The important thing is that it’s finished, it’s better than it was, I can get back to work on Raven’s Bones and keep this avian death machine ticking along.

My wife and I saw Captain America: Civil War.

My spoiler-free review… I wanted to like it more than I did.

It’s an ensemble film with Cap at the heart, but Iron Man located in a nearby organ like the lung, and the rest of the Avengersverse scattered around the viscera and nope this metaphor stopped working. Anyway, it’s a big film with a lot of characters, but it spreads itself thin to cover them all, and most of them only get a moment to shine.

I mean, they’re good moments; the script and direction is very good at character moments. It’s less good with the plot, which kind of collapses if you look at it too closely, and relies on characters that know and respect each other throwing that aside because of mumble mumble facepunch.

Still. Good action scenes and a lot of fun moments. Not as good as Winter Soldier, but way better than the original comics.

And speaking of comics, I finally read last year’s big Marvel event comic, Secret Wars.

My spoiler-free review… I wanted to like it more than I did. But I couldn’t, because it just wasn’t very good.

Okay, what else? Music? I’m listening to Carpenter Brut a lot right now, because a friend hooked me up to the video for ‘Turbo Killer’ and it is EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL IN THIS WORLD:

If European grindhouse electro is your jam then the album ‘Trilogy’ is your cream and scones. Trust me on this.

I’m also listening to Disasterpeace’s soundtrack for It Follows, which is creepy as hell and makes me want to see the movie even more, and getting back on board with the Fuck Buttons. Don’t ask me where my head’s at, man, I don’t even know.

I haven’t had the time or energy to read proper prose for a little while, but when I get back on that horse, I’m hitting up Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park and Cam Rogers’ Quantum Break: Zero State. Oh, and that Lauren Beukes book I’m part way through.

Fortunately, I’ll have time for proper reading coming very soon.

On Saturday night I robbed a bank. And it was great, apart from the time I got caught by security guards.

The bank in question is ‘Eureka Futures’ and the robbery was Small Time Criminals, a puzzle-room-like experience run by Melbourne ‘situation game’ company Pop Up Playground. They’ve rented an old bank, with offices and an actual vault, and they give you one hour to get in, crack the security, ferret out the secrets and stuff as much cash and goodies into a bag as you can manage.

Unless you get caught. Like I did.

I’ve done a few puzzle rooms and really enjoyed them, but Small Time Criminals is a step above – a team game that challenges you in new way and gets everyone thinking in different directions. If you’re based in Melbourne and can get a team together, you have to give this one a try.

And finally, I quit my job. My well-paying, mentally challenging publishing job. I resigned at the end of last week, and I finished up today.

It’s a big change. A huge change. But it’s the right change, and I had the opportunity to make it.

I’m looking for a new job, obviously, but I’m hoping to stay free for the entirety of May. I’d like a month to read, write, walk the dog, spend time with friends, drink in the afternoon and generally decompress from nearly three years of high stakes, high tension work.

It’s going to be a strange time. Maybe a difficult time. And maybe one that takes my life in a different direction. But I’m giving it a shot.

…also, yes, writing a lot more in May. Including here. Stay tuned.

Elevator to the Netherworld

In one of those totally normal coincidences, I learned about The Elevator Game after running into two totally separate references in a week – one in the Tanis podcast (which I wrote about last week, and which has since become one of my favourite things) and one in the new edition of the Unknown Armies RPG (another favourite, and currently on Kickstarter). And ever since, I can’t get it out of my head; I can’t stop feeling genuinely unsettled by it.

So what’s the elevator game? According to various places on the internet, it works like this:

  • Pick a building with 10+ storeys, and get into an elevator on the first floor, alone.
  • Staying in the elevator the whole time, go to the following floors in this order: 4, 2, 6, 2, 10. Wait for the elevator to arrive before pressing the next button; if someone else gets in then you’ll have to start again.
  • At the 10th floor, press 5. At the 5th floor, a girl or woman may come in; if she does, don’t speak or look at her. Bad stuff will happen if you do.
  • At the 5th floor, press 1. If the elevator goes down, it didn’t work. If it instead goes back to the 10th floor, shit’s gettin’ weird.
  • If you get off at the 10th floor, the girl will ask ‘Where are you going?’ Again, don’t speak or look at her.
  • Congratulations! You have now entered a otherworldly version of the real world with no other people in it and probably some other weird stuff. Go explore it and try not to go mad or get lost or maybe get eaten by trees.
  • To get back, use the same elevator and do the ritual again. Or maybe in reverse. You probably want to be sure on that part.

The elevator game seems to have originated in Korea, and it’s just another one of the weird creepypasta concepts that people post about on reddit and the like. There’s a lot of this stuff out there; it’s the kind of silly, offbeat nu-horror idea that made John Dies at the End such a crazy fun read.

So why do I keep thinking about it? And why does it creep me out? I think there are three reasons.

It’s such obvious bullshit

The elevator game falls apart the moment you think about it – not just because it’s supernatural, but because it’s ridiculous. How was this discovered? How was it tested? If you have to do it alone, how do we have stories about people who never made it back? How do we know not to speak to the ‘girl’ if speaking to her results in death/disappearance? Who told you about this? What the hell is this crap?

All of that should rob the ritual of its power, but instead, it somehow makes it more compelling. The game feels like a secret revealed, something shown to us by an outside observer or force, like the way demon-summoning rituals have been said to be provided by the demons themselves rather than worked out or created by mortals. And the nonsensical nature of the game reinforces this; there’s a kind of… confidence there, an assertion that the game doesn’t need to pander to ideas of sensibility in order to work. It’s a middle finger to reality; a finger that then crooks to beckon you forward.

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It’s arbitrary in all the right ways

To take that last point further – why elevators? Why 10 floors? Why is there a girl? What is she and what does she want? Why is there a red cross visible through the windows? How the hell does any of this make any sense? It doesn’t, and there’s power in that lack of sense. It suggests that reality isn’t just stranger than we know, it’s stranger than we can know – that applying logic and reason to the world is a fool’s errand, and that clinging to those notions will get us killed/lost/unmade in a world that we never truly knew.

(You could even say that this is the hook in every horror story, even those that deal with well-known tropes like vampires and curses. The protagonist thinks they know how the world works, but the story tells them (and you) that YOU ARE WRONG. Too bad for them/you.)

Similarly, the morality of the elevator game is arbitrary – not cruel, but not justified either. You can be a perfectly decent, upright person, but you say hello to a woman on an elevator and you’re lost forever; you can be a awful bastard, but if you do the steps right then you’re free to go explore the otherworld and maybe steal money from empty hell casinos or something. The game doesn’t care. And despite our protestations, deep down, most of us want to believe there’s justice in the world; that bad things don’t just happen to good people. But they do, because life is arbitrary despite all our attempts to impose our rules on it, and stories that reflect that get to us.

I kinda wanna try it

It would be easy. So easy! There are so many suitable buildings in downtown Melbourne. I could print the instructions and just follow the steps. It’s just silly weird nonsense. What’s the worst that could happen?

…well, nothing, because it’s just fiction. But it’s tempting fiction, the same way supernatural stories and tricks and parlour games have always tempted us. From ouija boards to secret handshakes to urban legends, there’s a pull to stories that let us dabble, or pretend to dabble, or pretend to pretend to dabble in the supernatural, even if we don’t believe in it. Especially if we don’t believe in it. Because the voice in your head saying it’s all rubbish, it’s silly fun, do it and laugh at the credulous is also saying, in a subliminal whisper, but what if it works?

Any story that gets into your head, that makes you say to yourself but what if?, even if you then deny it, has power. No matter how ridiculous.

So why spend 1000 words talking about this? Partially to get it out of my head; partially to play with some ideas that I might return to in the horror story concepts I’m working on.

Partially to get some of you a tiny bit spooked on an otherwise unremarkable night.

…partially to see if anyone else wants to try it.

No, I’m kidding.

…maybe.