As I said last time, it’s been almost six months since I had the energy, the focus or the basic self-confidence to do any writing.
I’m not sure that I have any of those things back.
But I’m tired of waiting for them to return. Time to get back to work.
So, in the interests of holding my feet to the fire, here’s an initial teaser from The Obituarist III: Delete Your Account. See? It’s a thing that could eventually exist.
I was the only person at Benny Boorns’ funeral.
Seriously, the only person. Not even a priest to give a service. Just me, sweltering in my black suit, standing at the side of the grave and wondering how long I had to stay there before I could leave. Theoretically I could go at any point; it’s not like I would miss anything. But there were a couple of gravediggers loitering at the edge of the cemetery, smoking and waiting to fill in the hole, and I didn’t want to bug out too quickly in case they judged me for it.
I feel like gravediggers are probably the judgey type.
I moved to the left to get under the shade of a tree and away from the morning sun. It should have been cold, dark and rainy; that’s how funerals work on TV, and what can you trust if you can’t trust television? But the weather didn’t give a damn about Benny, or me, and so it was hot, bright and muggy, even though it was only a little after 9am.
Seriously, who schedules a funeral this early in the day, and during the week? Is that why no-one else showed up? Or did the cemetery manager know that no-one would show up, and thus schedule the funeral for the matinee session, leaving the peak-attendance spots for dead people that the living gave a shit about?
Bah. I was just marking time for show at this point.
I looked down into the grave at Benny’s coffin. It wasn’t one of the giant fancy ones that’s covered in silver filigree and takes six men to carry it; it was plain and it was small, an economy child’s coffin, like a black wooden packing crate that might have held a bar fridge. Benny had been a small man, his growth stunted and twisted by a smorgasbord of birth defects and congenital health issues. His wheelchair weighed twice what he had, and they hadn’t bothered to bury it with him. Kind of a shame; at least that way he could have ridden to the afterlife instead of having to crawl.
Fuck, this was a morbid start to the day. I needed coffee and escape from the presence of death.
‘I know I should say something sad and poignant, Benny,’ I said to the coffin, ‘but it’d just annoy you and make me look stupid. So let’s just call it a day, alright?’ And with that I turned and headed for the cemetery gates.
The gravediggers – burial ground custodian is, I believe, the formal job title – stirred to life, walking back towards the grave as I pulled out my phone to get an Uber. One stomped past me, not bothering to conceal that he was still finishing his breakfast McMuffin, but the other still retained some sense of shame, possibly from a Catholic upbringing, and stopped for a moment. ‘I’m, ah, sorry about your friend. I guess his other friends all had to go to work.’
‘Benny didn’t have any friends,’ I said. ‘He was a really unpleasant, antagonistic person and nobody liked him.’
‘Oh. Well, I mean… you liked him, right?’
‘No, I can’t say that I did. But someone had to come and see him off. Might as well be me.’
The gravedigger – sorry, custodian – seemed both confused and offended by what I said, as though a statue of the Madonna had farted in church. ‘Christ, this fucking town,’ he muttered, and went to join his friend in dirt-piling detail.
And then there was that time I vanished off the internet without warning for like six months.
Miss me? Notice I was gone? It’s okay if you didn’t. I didn’t notice a bunch of writer-blogs I follow quietly fading away over the last year or so; everyone’s focusing on social media these days.
Not that I was doing that. I was doing a bunch of things like moving house, working hard at my day job, playing games, drinking too much and suffering paralysing self-doubt any time I thought of doing any kind of writing.
I don’t know why all my self-confidence dried up and blew away like spilled cocaine under a flophouse fan. Maybe because I hit a plot wall in The Obituarist III and couldn’t see an easy way to fix it; maybe because I’d had no success interesting an agent or publisher in Raven’s Blood; maybe because of depression, seasonal affective disorder, fucked-up sleep habits and the constant psychic pressure of this hell year.
Or, to quote a bit of Obituarist III that I actually finished:
Maybe nihilistic depression is what 2017 demands. I mean – Trump, Brexit, section 44, North Korea, Putin, floods, Syria, war, refugees, climate change, neo-Nazis, terrorism, um… I dunno, hot hail, dank memes, disappointing new Tay-Tay singles… what’s the point of trying to do anything in the face of that? Better to hide under a blanket, get drunk and look at baby animal GIFs until Armageddon finally caves in the roof. That’s the only sane response.
Whatever the reason, the last six months have been… difficult. Not just from lacking confidence, but from lacking much ability to feel engaged or interested in pretty much anything. It’s all been too hard, too pointless, too much; much too much. Easier and better to just drift and not worry about anything.
Drifting, for the record, is less cool than it appeared in The Fast and the Furious. Or indeed Mario Kart.
So what’s changed? I dunno. Not sure if anything really has, other than spring finally hitting, getting diagnosed with an iron deficiency (yay, a problem I can fix!) and my new glasses making reading/writing a bit less arduous. Mostly I’m just tired of feeling three-quarters empty, and I’d like to work out how to refill whatever tank was keeping this engine running until now, and once again we can see that I’m bad at metaphors.
I’m not going to go on about MY EMOTIONS at length; I did that last year, last time I fell in a hole, and besides I now pay someone to listen to that kind of talk. I just wanted to say: hey, I’ve been gone a while, and I’m not all the way back yet, but I’m working on it. Thanks for sticking around.
Next step – back to work on Obituarist III, with an eye towards fixing the plot, working out what the hell it’s about and getting it out online by the end of 2017. And putting Raven’s Blood back into query rotation. And going to GenreCon come November. And maybe drinking a bit less.
Go well, my darlings. Don’t let 2017 murder you just yet.
I’m currently working on The Obituarist III: Delete Your Account, the final instalment in the novella series. (Well, what eventually became a series.) While I write by the seat of my pants, I try to stuff the arse-pockets with ideas first, and I had a pretty decent idea of what I wanted this book to be – how the story would start, how it might end, the themes it presented and the characters that would carry them.
And when I sat down to write it, it was like peeing out a kidney stone. I had everything in my head, but nothing engaged me or made me interested in putting things down to find the next bit of story. I wrote some chapters and scenes, but it was slow and unenjoyable going and I started to wonder if this project was doomed, if I’d lost the ability to write, and whether it was time to just give it up and devote my life to mastering PS4 games.
But last week I had a sudden epiphany about why I was struggling. I’ve been writing the wrong story – worse, the wrong kind of story.
I meant to write a mystery, but instead I’ve been setting out a thriller.
What’s the difference?
Other people have opined about the difference between these two related genres, and I don’t want to retread well-trampled ground, but let me give it a quick try.
A mystery is about solving puzzles and answering questions – the who, the why, the how. Classical whodunits are all about the puzzle, and giving enough info to the reader that they can solve it before being fed the answers – as are stories like mine, that pretend to be honest whodunits for a bit and then cheat like crazy.
Meanwhile, thrillers are about defeating challenges. Almost all the problems and obstacles in a thriller story are defined or at least hinted at before the action starts; the protagonist doesn’t have to seek out information about their existence or what they did in the past (although he/she may need to discover what they’re planning in order to dickpunch them).
Mysteries are about finding solutions; thrillers are about overcoming obstacles. Both may have elements of the other, but the point of the mystery is not the frantic chase, and the point of the thriller is not piecing together the clues.
Alternatively, the short version: Mysteries are games. Thrillers are sports.
Why is that a problem?
Because I like games but I’m not much for sports, other than pro wrestling (the sport of kings, the king of sports).
In other words, I think mysteries are more fun (for me at least) to write than thrillers are. Mysteries are a puzzle from this side as well, with lots of questions to solve – what clue fits here? How can I misdirect the reader? Where is this story going? Oh damn, who am I going to pick as the murderer, and how can I backtrack to justify that? Answering those questions as I go is awesome – it’s the sort of thing that leaves me awake at night, or turning over ideas in the shower, building up a head of steam that drives me to the computer to write.
Thrillers aren’t bad or anything – I like reading ’em just fine – but they’re more straightforward stories to read and to write, at least for me. There’s an inevitability to their direction, and while there are questions that need answering as you write, they’re more about details and processes than swerves, tricks and fake-outs. Again, at least for me.
What needs changing?
When I conceived this book, I thought I wanted to do something more straightforward, to break the pattern of the previous stories. But you know what? I was wrong. It needs to be a mystery, or at least to have some mysteries in it. To have questions that Kendall Barber, king of bullshit schemes and getting punched in the dick, needs to answer.
But I couldn’t just start a murder in the middle of…. okay, like five-six chapters into the book. That’d be weird. So I came up with a whole new first chapter, kicking off the book with an early morning funeral rather than a bout of self-pity, and gave myself a new plotline to chase through the book. The existing chapters needed some modification, but less than you might think – I tend to compartmentalise the A/B plots until they cross-pollinate later in the book, so A just had to add some contextual markers, tweak the pacing and break the story up with investigation scenes.
And I still have the original plotline to play with – someone is trying to kill Kendall, his whole life is falling apart, his business and relationship are failing, he feels useless and the local cafe makes really shit coffee.
So, you know, there’s stuff going on.
Has it helped?
Oh yeah. I went from totally blocked to banging out the new start in like two hours, and I’m still riding that momentum into exploring the new parts of the book. And more – the energy I’m getting from activating my puzzle-posing, puzzle-solving neural circuits is carrying over into the fast/furious/fiery explosions chapters, so I’m having more fun writing them too.
Having fun while writing. What a concept.
I mean, it’s not like I’m going to bang this book out immediately – it’s only a novella, but I have a day job and many social commitments, and I can’t manage more than a couple of pages a day.
(I have a friend halfway writing her third novel just for this fucking year AH GOD I HATE HER SO MUCH but I don’t think she needs sleep or feels pity or remorse… wait, that’s the Terminator, never mind.)
But a couple of pages a day is a lot better than I’ve been doing. So I’ll take it.
The moral of the story
Eat your vegetables.
Cheats never prosper.
Write the genre you want to write, not the genre you think you should be writing.
Okay, blog time. When did I last write a post? One week ago? Two?
…four? On like the last day of January?
I guess that’s how blogging works when you have increasingly less and less to say or enlighten people about.
So fine! We’re in End-of-Month-Summary-Purgatory, and perhaps one day we will make our way out of it, like jailbreaking ghosts escaping Spirit Prison to at last drink ecto-cooler in the Spirit Paradise hot tub.
Most of what I’ve been doing this month, and for the last several months, is talking with agents, and by ‘talking with’ I mean ‘getting form rejection emails from’. That’s not the most encouraging or motivating of things, but I keep at it. I’ve had a few more personal rejections, which are useful and worthwhile, and there are still a couple of people reading manuscripts and considering Raven’s Blood.
Do I have any tips for querying? Nothing particularly earth-shattering. I wrote a standard query email with an intro, flavourful high-concept pitch for the book and a super-short bio, and I fine-tune it for every agent I approach. (And based on recent feedback, I include a note that the book uses British punctuation and spelling, so any oddities are probably because I’m foreign, not because I don’t know how quotes work.) I keep a spreadsheet of names, agencies, what they’re after and how to submit, which I follow to the letter, and I keep track of when things go out and when they come back. As for where I find agents to contact, I’m drawing info from the usual places – AgentQuery, Writer’s Digest, WritersMarket etc – and keeping 6-7 queries going at a time.
Most of all, I’m polite. I thank them for their time and attention when I get in contact, and don’t take it personally when they knock me back. (Which doesn’t really seem like rocket surgery – but still, you’d be surprised how some people get this wrong.) I’m not crawly or fawning or whatever, just pleasant and polite – and while that won’t get me special treatment, it won’t hurt if/when I come back to those agents with a new project.
Just as soon as I find a home for this one.
13th Age goodies
What’s 13th Age? It’s a role-playing game that is pretty much like 4E D&D but different in ways that don’t really merit a huge amount of wordcount right now. It’s pretty cool.
What’s also cool is The Forgotten Monk, Greg Stolze’s 13th Age novel that he kickstarted back in early 2015. It’s the story of an amnesiac kung-fu fantasy detective getting into fights with ghosts, demons and hags in an attempt to learn his backstory and understand mortal morality. It’s a damn fine adventure novel, and well worth a read even if you’re not into RPGs but like books about magic and superkicks and gnome shenanigans.
What’s also, also cool (and the point of this ramble) is that the stretch goals for the Kickstarter were free short stories about some of the minor characters in the novel, written by gaming luminaries Jonathan Tweet, Ron Heinsoo, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan and I DUNNO SOME RANDOM ASSCLOWN yours truly.
For whatever reason, these stories were written ages back but not released – but now they are! And they’re free! And you don’t need to have read the book or played the game to make sense of them! WHAT A FREAKIN’ DEAL!
If that sounds tempting to you, there are links to download all four stories (in various digital formats) over at Greg’s Kickstarter page, no purchase or login required. Mine is called ‘Imperial Business’ and features a character named Sergeant Dovestrom, who may well be the biggest douchebag in The Forgotten Monk (which is saying something). It’s a little bit action, a little bit horror, a little bit fantasy; it’s kind of like ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ except it’s about an unpleasant soldier and a flying murderlion and the sparks that fly when they meet.
…that probably makes it sound more romantic than it really is. Sorry.
Other gaming news
Speaking of roleplaying games, man, I sure am doing a lot of that right now. Probably too much, let’s be honest.
My urban fantasy game (the one I talked about last time) is kicking along, with two sessions of drama and running through sewers and negotiating with demons – all the traditional stuff. One player is moving to Canada to write video games about space ninjas, so there’s some rethinking and tweaking in the near future – but so far, everyone’s having a good time.
On the side, I’m also running a short InSpectres game that is turning out even sillier than expected (these ghostbusters also run a pizza restaurant and their cases all seem to involve CHUDs), and organising self-contained Fiasco games in local shops/bars at the end of every month. And now I’ve signed up to play a game of 5E D&D. Which I’m sure I’ll enjoy, even though my heart will always belong to 4E.
But really. Something’s gotta give at some point. I’m starting to dream about dice. And, more pertinently, not getting enough work done.
Congrats to my friends with work ethics
There are people who have been getting work done, though, and I’m proud to call some of them friend, acquaintance, Tweep or at least person-I-keep-meeting-in-festival-bars. So I want to take a moment to call some folks out for being awesome:
Alan Baxter, Kirstyn McDermott, Amie Kaufman, Jay Kristoff, Kim Wilkins and favourite-blog-commentator Dave Versace for their shortlist nominations in this year’s Aurealis Awards for Australian spec-fic.
So when I want to focus on writing, one of the first things I need to do is pare away my distractions. I’m not much of a TV guy, but I either stop watching or limit myself to watching in lull periods, like the two episodes of Young Justice I allow myself on Saturday mornings. Video games are my crack, so I make sure not to have any hanging over my head that can suck me in for hours on end; right now, all I have in the PS4 is Bloodborne, and I can only play that for maybe 30 minutes before becoming so stressed and upset that I can’t continue. Social engagements and beer… well, those are important to me, but as a project gets more and more pressing, those things gradually drop down the priority list.
And then there are roleplaying games.
I started a new RPG campaign this month, one I plan to run every two weeks, because I am a goddamn idiot.
Shadows of New Jerusalem is an urban fantasy campaign that I’m hoping to run for the rest of 2017. (Maybe into 2018, if my players are keen.) This is a concept I’ve actually talked about before on the blog, way back in… jesus shit, back in 2013. (although it’s morphed a lot since then.)
My original plan for the game was an ‘anthology’ game using the Chronicles of Darkness setting, but I gave up on that after some of 2016’s games didn’t pan out so well. I felt that I wanted a game with very strong player buy-in and minimal upfront reading/effort – which suggested a much more collaborative approach was needed.
So I got a group together, pitched a basic concept (urban fantasy, Fate system) and we went around coming up with ideas about what we did and didn’t want to see in the game, as per the whiteboard below. After some more back and forth, we had a rough sketch of a game about a family of dodgy artefact merchants, scavenging for mystic items and doing deals with otherworldly forces, along with some initial plot hooks and NPC names.
There’s plenty of conceptual and tonal fodder there, and it didn’t take me long to put together some ideas that would be enough to launch a game and run with, developing them as we play.
But then the high kicks in.
Hey, maybe I should define what non-mortal magic can and can’t do. Or pin down some location interconnections. Oh man, I should definitely stat out half-a-dozen NPCs and creatures for each faction so that I have someone/thing to hand whenever the need arises! How about I create specific Photoshop filters and processes, then make like 50 individual pieces of character and setting art!
And obviously I need to write aaaaalllllll that stuff down so that it makes sense to someone who isn’t me!
This urge to fill in all the gaps ahead of the game, to nail down every possible option so that I have what I need at all times… it’s a powerful urge, and it’s utterly wrong-headed. Especially in a game where a lot of that detail is either a) unimportant, or b) supposed to be created collaboratively with my players.
Making stuff is great – if it gets used.
Making stuff for its own sake? That’s just another distraction.
It’s the same for me and writing. I know there are authors who do tonnes of worldbuilding ahead of time, and use their rock-solid grasp on their setting as the framework for choosing and shaping their stories, and I respect that. But I don’t understand it.
For me, story is something that comes together through decisions and in-the-moment choices, rather than through planning. If a story needs a distinct world, I’ll do a little rough work at the start, but not a lot – you’ve pretty much seen the entirety of my notes and planning for both Raven’s Blood and the Obituarist books here on the blog over the last couple of years. The bare minimum I need to know what things look and sound like in chapter 1, and then make it up as I go along.
When I get sidelined by worldbuilding, I’m not actually telling/making stories. I have a bad habit of forgetting that when it comes to games, but I’m trying to keep it under control. I’m just grateful that when it comes to writing – arguably the space where things need to be more coherent and polished at the start, I know – I’m mostly able to ignore that urge and just charge headlong at things like a loon.
The Obituarist III continues apace – slowly than I would like, yes, but I’m on it.
Hmm. Where did I put that blog? Sure are a lot of cobwebs in here.
Oh wait, yeah, here it is.
So, three months after going on hiatus to work my way back out of the depression hole, here I am. I hope some of y’all missed me! There were certainly a shitload of spambots who were super interested in this blog a few days ago. Maybe I should invite them to a party.
Anyhoo, we made it through 2016! (Except for all the folks who didn’t. I miss them.) That’s an achievement we should celebrate – it was an awful year for pretty much everyone and we have done well to escape its poisonous gravity. Sure, 2017 looks to be mad, terrifying and surreal, but in different ways, and that has to count for something.
And now, bullet points.
What did I do for the last three months?
I got accustomed to my new day job (textbook publishing), which I’ve been doing since August and I’m still really enjoying. There’s a lot to do, but the work is engaging, the team great and they gave me my own office. Which, admittedly, is actually a records filing room that I have to share with ten years of finance paperwork, but it has a door so I’m happy.
I went to America with my wife for her annual visit. We went to a tiki bar in San Francisco! I explored the old Shanghai tunnels of Portland! We indulged in the entirely legal pleasures of Colorado! And we watched Donald Trump win the election, which was WAY less fun and enjoyable than when we were there for the previous two Presidential elections. But so it goes. There will be resistance.
I watched all of Season 2 of The Flash and half of Season 1 of Supergirl, and realised that I’m now pretty much bored with superhero TV shows.
I got a Playstation 4 for Christmas, ‘cos that’s going to be super useful for keeping me focused on writing. Games played so far: Alien Isolation, which is both a master class in world building & design and an object lesson about not relying on character failure and constant escalation as your core story drivers.
I drank beer, read comics, played board games, hung out with friends and did all the little things that make life seem worthwhile and enjoyable rather than a gray emptiness like the hollow insides of a dead tree.
I thought about writing. A lot. But I didn’t do any, and I didn’t make myself feel guilty about it for a change.
Am I still depressed?
No. I’m actually feeling pretty chipper now.
Does that mean I’ll stop wasting time and do some frickin’ writing like I’m supposed to?
Jeez, back the hell off, first person interrogator. You don’t know me.
I’m just saying, people aren’t here for the talk about PS4 games. Am I going to get back to writing?
Yes, damnit, I am. God. This attitude is why no-one comments.
What’s the plan for 2017, then?
Glad you asked. And grew some manners.
I’ve been submitting Raven’s Blood queries to literacy agents every weekend, and I’m going to keep doing that. So far I’ve had a fair few rejections (which is fine), a fair few that I’m still waiting to hear back from (also fine) and a couple of agents who were interested in reading and considering the whole manuscript (WOO-HOO). I’m going to keep doing that until the book sticks, and then… well, I’ll work that out later.
I’ve started writing The Obituarist III: Delete Your Account, and by that I literally mean I’ve written like a paragraph. But I’ve nailed down the premise and direction and have scenes finalised in my head, and later this month I’ll work on it in earnest, trying to nail one 1000-word chapter a night, five nights a week, letting the momentum carry me where the story winds up. I’ll have more to say about that when I’m further into the project.
Once that book’s out in the wild, I’m starting my wrestlers-vs-dream-monsters YA series, tentatively called the Legacy series but that will almost certainly change. (As will the working title of the first book, Piledriver.) I want to approach this book in a different way, with a stronger focus on character relationships driving the plot, so there’ll be a lot of thought experiments and process blogging once that gets started. And maybe some more talk about wrestling (sorry).
I’ve been talking to some people about a project that could be very cool and interesting, but which I can’t talk about right now. But if I ever get to discuss it, you’ll be the first to hear about it! (After all the people I tell in person.)
I still haven’t forgotten about Sick Beats. You never know.
I’m going to try to be better at blogging regularly. Honest.
So things are better. They’re not fantastic-amazing-six-figure-contract-and-a-bag-of-cocaine better, but they’re better. And that’s enough.
I don’t get depressed. Except when I do, like everyone does; when I get sad or down or lost in a funk for a while. That’s not proper depression, that’s not the clinical kind that actually matters and is hard and needs treatment and understanding, the kind many of my friends and loved ones suffer from. I don’t dignify my brief, occasional moodiness by calling it ‘depression’; I just get into a funk for a bit and then forget about it the next day.
Or, alternatively, fall into a hole for eight months and never realise I’m in it.
My own emotions are a bit of a mystery to me. Again, not in any kind of clinical or on-the-spectrum way; I just don’t pay too much attention to them. I’m generally either vaguely perky or I’m not, and I’m too focused on external things to be all that attentive to (or even interested in) internal states.
So when I get depressed, I don’t usually realise it until afterwards. Which isn’t that big a deal when I’m mopey for a couple of hours. When it’s 200+ days… that’s more complicated.
I think we can all agree that 2016 has been a cunt of a year.
Without getting into boring details… yeah, mine too.
There are writers who work best when they’re depressed.
I am absolutely not one of them.
I’ve written pretty much sweet-FA this year.
Guess how that made me feel.
Also, it was dark, it was cold, my knee hurt, my back aches, it got really hard to access American Netflix, waaaahhhhhh
And then, a couple of days into September, I realised I was in a hole. It suddenly hit me: oh man, I’ve been depressed all year.
Which was basically the first sign that I’d stopped being depressed – or had, at least, begun the process of ceasing being depressed.
I only become self-aware when I’m chipper. I’m like the world’s shittest AI.
Maybe you feel like this too.
If you do, it’s okay to acknowledge it. It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to forgive yourself.
It’s okay to be better at this than I am.
Please, for your sake, be better at this than I am.
What’s the point of all this fragmentary introspection?
It’s to say that it’s been a tough year, and that I’ve not accomplished much. (I wrote about this a while back, when I was still pretty deep into The Funk.) It’s become a lot easier for me lately – new job that I enjoy, good times with friends, it’s not cold and dark and raining every fucking day – but I’m not entirely out of the hole yet. Most of the way up, yeah, but my legs are still dangling down into the void. Just a little.
So now that I’m aware there’s a problem, it’s time for me to focus on a little self-care for the rest of the year, to maybe try some of the things Delilah Dawson has talked about as ways to combat depression. And that probably means taking a break from writing – or trying to write, and failing, and getting sad and angry at myself for failing – for a month or two. To build up my strength and energy again, rather than feel sapped and achy whenever I sit down in the Writing Bungalow of a night.
Which also means taking a break from blogging for a month or two. Because none of us need more irregular waffle about stories, wrestling and maybe something I saw on TV.
What to do between now and January 2017? Get some exercise. Lose a little weight. Head over to the US for about three weeks with my wife to visit family and see the sights of Portland and San Francisco. Pick up a freaking book and read it, goddamnit (because oh yeah, my ability to concentrate on reading vanishes when I’m depressed). Live a little.
And when I resurface, I have three things on my to-do list:
Shop Raven’s Blood around agents until I finally find a home for it and the whole Ghost Raven series. (I’ve been doing that, but I’ll do it better.)
Plot, plan and take the first steps on a new project, the YA wrestling-urban-fantasy series I’ve been alluding to lately, something I’m currently thinking of as ‘The Squared Circle’ (name almost guaranteed to change).
Write something short, fun and punchy to get my juices (eww) flowing again.
I think we all know what that last one means. Let me paint you a picture:
The Obituarist III: Delete Your Account
And with that – yeah, taking a break. Remembering how all this works again.
I hope I see all y’all on the other side in a couple of months.
Once again I’ve ventured into the world of professional wrestling and colourful grappling to learn its storytelling techniques, and once again it’s taken me like two weeks to come back and write about it. Pretty slack of me, I know. Will this improve once I return to non-powerbomb-focused content, i.e. after this week’s post? We’ll talk about that next time.
This time, though, I want to look at a third wrestling promotion, the one that is probably my favourite now that I’m watching wrestling again – a promotion that has quickly developed its own identity and unique style while staking out a storytelling space somewhere between the extremes of WWE’s ‘realism’ and Chikara’s out-and-out fantasy.
I’m talking, of course, about the high-octane action of Lucha Underground.
Lucha Underground is a televised promotion created and broadcast on the El Ray Network, a US cable channel, that has just kicked off its third most-of-a-year season. It’s connected with Mexico’s respected AAA promotion, and features a lot of Mexican wrestlers and lucha libra influences. Matches tend to have a lot of high-flying action and/or power-based mat wrestling, with a bit more blood, weaponry and brawling-through-the-audience than you’ll see in WWE shows. Characters range from traditional competitive athletes through a variety of masked luchadors (including my personal favourite heel, the deer-head-wearing King Cuerno) to outright horror/fantasy figures. (It’s a promotion where a dragon-man wrestled an alien superhero five shows in a row, and it was awesome.)
And from a storytelling perspective, they do a number of other things that set them apart from other promotions and provide useful lessons for writers.
Crafting a unique voice
The thing that immediately stands out when you watch an episode of Lucha Underground is that it looks like a telenovela or soap opera rather than a wrestling show. (I mean, other than all the wrestling.) Backstage scenes are lit and shot like moody dramas, and they’re all vignettes and fictional in-character scenes rather than promos or to-camera interviews. (They have occasional sit-down interviews but film them differently.) There’s also an unusual cinematography for wrestling action, thanks to the use of an overhead camera as well as the usual ringside views. All of this combines to create a fresh, distinct voice for the show, one that captures its pulpy grindhouse story style, encourages viewers to suspend their disbelief and keeps them coming back to witness more plot developments. (Lesson: a unique voice may be the single most important thing a writer can develop; more than any other skill, it’s what captures readers attention and keeps it on you.)
When you can see the wires
Lucha libre is a thrilling style of wrestling to watch – high-flying, high-energy, full of impressive spots and sequences. But it’s also a style that relies on orchestration and cooperation, with wrestlers working together to pull off those spots and sequences. If done well, you never notice the wrestlers waiting for the spot or holding their opponents’s hand in position – but if you do notice, that’s a problem. Nothing pulls me out of a match faster than seeing three guys hang around at the side of the ring, waiting for their opponent to come over the ropes and land on them (except maybe a wrestler who’s meant to be unconscious adjust his tights and mask in full view of the audience). And this happens in pretty much every Lucha Underground episode, damaging the tension of the match and my engagement with it. (Lesson: Action scenes need to feel natural and organic, no matter how much orchestration goes into them. Don’t let logic gaps or too-overt direction creep into your fight writing, or readers will see the wires and lose engagement.)
Setting your tone and sticking with it
Lucha Underground eschews both pure escapism and pure realism to stake out a space somewhere in the middle. Alongside stories of athletes fighting for belts or settling personal grudges, there are arcs about mystical prophecies, warring lucha families, monsters in the basement and a witch recruiting an army of death-cultists to take over an Aztec temple. It all works because there’s a consistent tone across the board – a pulpy, grindhouse kind of action-adventure/urban fantasy-horror that can accommodate both straight and weird stories without much difficulty. (It’s kind of like how From Dusk ’til Dawn could fit both crime and horror action – not surprising, since Robert Rodriguez is an executive producer of LU.) This tonal scope lets shows veer from the normal to the weird and back without losing audience buy-in, and is also a heap of fun. (Lesson:you can fit a lot of different ideas together in a story so long as you have tonal consistency – so work out how you want your stories to feel, then go crazy on plot points that support that feel.)
Flabby in the middle
In wresting they call it the build – that mounting sense of tension and drama that pays off in the final match, after weeks and months of feuding and escalation. It’s the thing that sets up the stakes for the fight – and it’s something that Lucha Underground mess up about half the time, maybe more. Too many angles (storylines) fall apart due to injury or external factors, while others are cobbled together on the fly to justify a match ten minutes later.
(Exhibit A: A match built up between Texano and Chavo Guerrero for the end of Season 1 that could have been great – but when Chavo got injured, they quickly subbed in over-the-hill wrestler Blue Demon Jr rather than cancel the match, and the outcome was not good.) Even if what’s in the ring is solid, a weak build makes it feel pointless – and when the match is lacklustre, the whole thing falls apart. (Lesson: Short, medium and long-term pacing all matter, and it’s rarely good enough to get two out of three.)
Hit that payoff and all is forgiven
But having said that – when Lucha Underground get the build right, they blow the roof off. Their in-ring pacing is almost always really solid, and when it’s embedded in the overall tone and backed up by rising tension and clear stakes, the matches can be so amazing that you forgive every other misstep and rush-job. And there’s no better example than 2015’s brutal and riveting ‘Grave Consequences’ casket match between the high-flying Fenix and the unstoppable murder-machine Mil Muertes. I wish I could show you the whole match, but hopefully these edited highlights show you just how engaging and fascinating the LU take on wrestling can be.
(Lesson:Good is better than perfect, and any story that grabs the reader and keeps them engaged is doing just fine, even if it’s not 100% what you thought or hoped it might be. Take the win.)
Lucha Underground airs on El Rey in the US, as noted earlier, but it’s not on any streaming services. You can buy and download seasons on iTunes as they come out – so long as you’re using the US iTunes store. If you’re in Australia, or indeed any non-US country, then… well, tough. I don’t know why El Rey are so determined not to accept money from international fans, but they seem intractable opposed to taking our $35. So if you want to watch it, there’s only one option – fly to the US, borrow a local iTunes account and credit card, buy the season, save it to a USB and then fly back to watch it at your leisure. I mean, that’s what I obviously did. Anything else would have been illegal and wrong.
If you can afford the plane ticket – or magically find some other way to obtain US-only content – and want to see some really strong wrestling shows (and the occasional weak one), Lucha Underground gets all the thumbs up.
ALL THE THUMBS
Okay, I think I’m done talking about wrestling now. If you’re into it, I hope this has been fun; if you’re not, I hope it’s demonstrated that almost any kind of performance or genre can have range, variation and complexity to it. Plus crazy bumps.
Come back next week for a trip to PLANET OVERSHARE!
Hey folks – first, an apology for running so late and slow on blog posts right now. Turns out that when you’re writing about the way someone else tells stories, you need to do your research – which, in this case, means watching a lot of wrestling.
Oh boy. So much wrestling. It eats up all my time.
Because there is a lot of wrestling in the world, even though most of what you see/hear about is the WWE product. There are some very different ways of arranging grappling matches, and different ways of telling stories in that space. And if you want to see something that goes in a really distinct direction, while still having some of the same foundations (and still being in English), then you want to look at Chikara.
Chikara is a large independent promotion based out of Philadelphia, who put on shows in their own venue while also travelling for some national and even international shows. (They haven’t come to Australia yet, but fingers crossed.) They’re known for solid wrestling that mixes technical and lucha libra styles, a large roster of over-the-top characters, complex comicbook-inspired plotlines and a (mostly) light-hearted, family-friendly approach to the wrestling form.
What does that mean in terms of storytelling, and what lessons can be learned for prose writing? I have many thoughts. And another long-arse post in which to unpack them.
Making the most of what you’ve got
The first thing you notice when you watch a Chikara match is the low production values – well, low in comparison to WWE, anyway. There are no big display screens, no pyro, no video packages summarising feuds – just a ring and some wrestlers performing for maybe 200 people sitting near the stage. But what Chikara does is use those limitations to their advantage, funnelling almost all their storytelling (apart from the occasional, very basic speech-to-camera promo on their recordings) into the ring. That means that stories and character development happen right in front of the audience, who are close enough to the action to feel like they’re genuinely part of it; that keeps them in-the-moment so that they don’t feel distanced from the crazy plot elements. It all works, and it wouldn’t in a bigger, louder, glitzier environment that fostered a sense of detachment in the fans. (Lesson: Limitations provide the boundaries around a creative space, so work with the tools you have to make something distinct and effective in that space.)
Playing the long game
Chikara storylines are strange (more on that later), but more than that, they’re long. Plotlines play out monthly, rather than weekly, and a plot point set up in January might not fully play out until December or even the following season. The biggest plotlines play out the longest – I think the current major arc, with the evil god Nazmaldun corrupting wrestlers to make an army of demon heels, has been going for about 18 months – but smaller arcs start and finish in the foreground as the big stories grind on. It’s these big plotlines that hook Chikara fans, and the degree to which the promoters commit to them – for one major storyline, they shut Chikara down for an entire year so that they could return with a bang. But they can also make new audiences feel overwhelmed, they’re vulnerable to real-world changes (like wrestlers getting injured) and they have to be paced very carefully to maintain the momentum. Chikara generally pulls these stories off, but the effort involved is clear. (Lesson: Big stories fascinate audiences and get attention, but you have to manage them carefully, and provide entrance points so that readers don’t get lost in all the detail.)
Diversity ain’t hard (but it ain’t always easy either)
Chikara fields a huge roster of wrestlers, with different fighting styles, body shapes, skill levels and performance techniques, and they often host wrestlers from other promotions. WWE’s wrestlers are all ‘competitive athlete’ archetypes; Chikara has many of those but also fantasy princesses, superheroes, clowns, humanoid ice-creams, monsters, cultists, sea creatures, ants (so many ants), dudes with weird names (my fave is FLEX RUMBLECRUNCH) and a man with a mustachioed baseball for a head. And if you held a gun to my head I still couldn’t tell you about 90% of the their personalities or story arcs, because I haven’t had the time to invest in learning about them over those aforementioned long, slow arcs. Chikara has wonderful diversity, but I feel like it comes at the expense of strongly defined characters. (Lesson: try to embed diversity and personality in a small, controllable set of characters, rather than a sprawling ensemble, or else variation comes at the expense of depth.)
So okay, let’s talk about storylines. Chikara’s are weird. They involve demonic corruption, supervillains, time-travel, evil duplicates, mind control, black ops military units, magic… it’s superhero-universe craziness, but with fewer special effects. The shorter arcs tend to be a bit less over-the-top, but still aren’t ‘realistic’, and the in-ring storytelling often involves superpowers, magic and other shenanigans. And the audience loves it, because a) it’s fun, b) it’s underpinned by a foundation of really solid, high-energy wrestling, and c) everyone watching knows coming in that this is what Chikara offers, and that getting on board with it is the price of admission. The price is worth it; this is, after all, a promotion where a wrestler wins matches by throwing an invisible hand grenade at his opponents in slow motion, and you can’t get that on Smackdown.
(Lesson: Know your audience and what they’ll enjoy, then make that without too much worrying about justification. They’ll suspend disbelief and come along for the ride if they’re with you.)
Using structure to set up stories
The other, less obvious thing about Chikara’s plotting is how it actively uses the trappings and structure of genuine athletic competition as a storytelling foundation. Like most promotions they have single and tag-team champion belts, but wrestlers have to gain points in order to qualify to compete for those belts; they also have a variety of trophies and other prizes, and tournaments to qualify for them. These elements help to ground the crazy stories, but more importantly they provide a reason for two (or more) wrestlers to fight in the first place – which then opens up storytelling space for more personal issues or feuds to emerge from that initial match. The upshot is that every match, no matter how ‘standard’, feels like it has a reason to exist (something WWE often fails to achieve). (Lesson:every action/conflict scene needs a premise (why they’re fighting) and stakes (what they win/lose) in order to connect to the reader.)
Chikara are a family-friendly promotion, with storylines and ring action meant to engage and entertain kids (and adults). They back this up with some pretty strict performance rules – no blood, no swearing, no sexual content. But murder? Murder is fine. Many wrestlers and side characters have been ‘killed’ in the ring by heels and monsters; a long-running storyline saw the supervillian Deucalion murder more than a dozen wrestlers before he was himself killed by the heroic Icarus. So – kid-friendly, except full of death. Is that weird? Kids don’t think so, because kids love elements of horror and danger in their adventures – just listen to the stories they tell each other – and they can differentiate between fun horror and real my-parents-scream-at-each-other-every-night horror. Sanitised, stylised death raises the wrestling stakes in a way young audiences can enjoy, and it can do the same in many other stories as well. (Lesson: Everybody loves murder. Everybody. Go drop a murder into your Regency romance novel right now; it can only help sales. Especially with kids.)
Oof. That was long. I gotta get these things under control.
If you’re interested in checking out Chikara, almost all of their shows going back 16 seasons (years) are available to stream on their website through the Chikaratopia service; it costs $8 US a month, and you can trial it for a week to see if it’s your speed. If you want to get in on the ground floor of stories, start with the beginning of Season 15 or 16; if you want immediate action, watch one of the King of Trios multi-part specials, which is their annual three-person tag tournament that brings in many wrestlers from other promotions. (I hear this year’s was particularly good; watching it as soon as it’s up.)
But be warned when you watch it. You might be exposed to the most illegal move in all of wrestling history:
So I’ve been talking about how pro wrestling is a great space for communicating character and story through action – but talk is cheap. What does that actually mean? How do you use ten minutes of sweaty grappling and backflips to define a character, and what kind of stories can you tell through that platform?
The answer is – more than you might think.
I was going to wrap up this series of pro wrestling posts tonight and get back to beating myself up for my lack of productivity, but I kept finding new stuff to write about (and distracted by other stuff, which is why this Monday night post is going up on Friday night) – so let’s assume this is (at least) a two-part post and use part one to set some foundations, with a look at something everyone already knows about – World Wrestling Entertainment/WWE (and also NXT) – and what lessons might be learned.
Even if you’ve never seen a match in your life, you know about WWE; they’re a multi-billion dollar company, the single biggest wrestling organisation in the world. They have two big weekly shows (Raw and Smackdown) on regular TV, monthly pay-per-view events (even bigger shows) and their own $10-a-month wrasslin’ Netflix with more shows than I care to contemplate. The WWE Network is also the home of NXT, their ‘developmental’ offshoot where new performers build their skills/discipline before graduating to the main roster; just as importantly, it’s where they build an audience so that anyone cares about that graduation.
Tonal change is hard
A lot of folks I follow on Twitter, or who make podcasts I enjoy, are really into the current WWE promotion, or more directly into NXT, and that background interest is probably what drew me back to the sport after a decade away. It’s kind of sad, then, that I find their current product, well… kind of boring. Compared to the flash, speed and silliness of the Attitude Era (late 90s-early 00s), or even the mid-2000s, the current WWE/NXT style of wrestling is more low-key and PG-rated. The focus is on mat-based wrestling, with a mix of technical grappling and strength/power moves – there’s very little aerial wrestling, use of weapons/tools or straight-up brawling. In many ways it’s a ‘purer’ form of wrestling, but I can’t help but miss table/ladder/chair matches. (Lesson: when you set a tone early on, it’s more difficult to bring that tone down and retain readers than it is to raise the stakes and escalate.)
Risk aversion is sensible but boring
The other big change is in the attitude of the corporation, which has come to really emphasise the ‘professional’ in pro wrestling. WWE is a big, big business, and they don’t want to jeopardise that business by relying on unpredictable, idiosyncratic wrestlers with their own style or ideas about things are meant to work. The result, to my biased eye, is a growing homogeneity among the wrestlers, who are all drawing from the same set of moves and character concepts – moves and concepts largely chosen by an external group of coaches, managers and marketers – rather than bringing their own individual style and flair. And I get that, because you want a reliable and commercially viable product, and for your staff to be safe from injury due to unpredictable circumstances, but it makes it hard for me to tell many of them apart, or to care which one of them wins the day. (Lesson:you don’t have to play it safe, and you can depict any kind of character doing any kind of thing. SO DO THAT. Leave the homogeneity for the real world.)
Stick to the schtick
A lot of character development in WWE comes through visual flags – a wrestler always dresses a certain way, has a specific entrance, uses identifiable gestures. Similarly, every wrestler has signature moves and catchphrases that they’ll use in almost every match and promo – things that reinforce the character in your mind, that make them memorable even if you can’t connect that memory to a specific action or event. That’s a technique that’s very powerful in visual media, but can also be tapped in prose storytelling. (Lesson:set out simple, short signifiers for a character like a piece of clothing, a phrase or even a radical haircut, something you can describe in five words, and drop them into scenes so that readers get that instant bit of connection.)
Use all your tools – but use them properly
WWE make heavy use of promos, vignettes, backstage skits, brief interviews and other non-match showcases to build character, but their in-ring character development is a bit lacking; the current product doesn’t do much to showcase agendas, motivations or unique traits once the bell rings to start the fight. Almost all of that comes before and after, which is maybe the main reason I find their stuff a bit dull right now. Still, all of that developmental material works in building character nuance and substance. What doesn’t work is when the announce team just tell you a character is awesome, even when you can see that they’re a bit shit. WWE have been doing that for years, and if anything it’s even more distancing and annoying now that the video quality is so good and you can see mediocre characters underwhelm you in HD. (Lesson: character can come from lots of interactions and presentations, big or small – but keep the focus on what characters do, and don’t forget about ‘show, don’t tell’, okay?)
We don’t talk about the weird stuff any more
WWE’s storylines used to have a few weird and strange elements, but that’s largely been excised these days. Modern storylines revolve around professional rivalries for belts and prime roster positions, which bring larger paycheques and more merch opportunities. In other words, they’re wrestling stories about wrestling; the business is about the business. That has potential for metatextual shenanigans, but they’re rarely explored, and the end result is a storytelling environment that leaves me kind of cold. At the same time, the rare inclusion of a new element – a personal grudge, a lapsed friendship, a reflection of external factors – is just enough to stand out and get my interest, even if it’s never anything as over-the-top as the Undertaker fighting Kane in the fires of Hell. (Lesson:it’s good to set a baseline of realism, but staying there is kind of boring; look for ways to make stories be about more than their own immediate, sensible and predictable contexts.)
Good pacing makes up for many sins
The thing that WWE really understands these days, after decades of experimentation, is the rhythm of action storytelling – the pacing skeleton that supports all manner of wrestling meat. A standard WWE feud starts just after a pay-per-view, with hostilities rising between two wrestlers; at the next PPV they either settle things (short arc) or the situations escalates (medium arc). There’s a consistent, engaging build with peaks and troughs, highs and lows – something that gets you pumped and then lets you cool off. Matches are the same; the rise and fall of energy and spotlight in a WWE show is so crisp you could graph it. (Well, usually; I hear the recent SummerSlam PPV was 6 hours long, peaked too soon and burned the audience out by the halfway mark.) (Lesson: knowing the rhythm and flow of fights and stories is more than half the battle of conveying both effectively.)
I signed up for a free month of the WWE Network; that subscription renewed today, and that’s fine, but that’ll do. That gives me time to watch some of the ancillary shows (Breaking Ground is intriguing) and the Cruiserweight Classic, which is my kind of flippy-skippy wrestling, and maybe to take a few more notes on Raw and Smackdown. After that, I think I’ll be happy enough to let it lie. WWE have their own thing, and it works very well for their audience, but I’m okay with not marking out for them any more.
Who do I mark out for? And plunder for storytelling ideas?