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Now on sale - The Obituarist II At last, it's the post you've been waiting for all this time; the sign that 2015 is off to a flying start. Because today's the day that The Obituarist II: Dead Men's Data is finished, published and available for purchase! -- Who's settling accounts for the dead? Two years after his last adventure, obituarist Kendall Barber is still trying to make amends for...

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Revise-wise I don't revise my work very much. Wait, scratch that, it makes me sound like a terrible writer. I mean, I revise my work all the time - while I'm writing it. I'm constantly tweaking, polishing, deleting and rewriting my work as I go, which is one of several reasons why it takes me 20-3 freaking years to write a book. (The other reasons: day job, energy levels, easily...

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Looking ahead Let's not talk about 2014. I had a fairly good year, overall, but it wasn't perfect - and in the larger world, 2014 was pretty shithouse for almost everyone else. Natural disasters, planes crashing, police militarization, Tony Abbott and the car-crash of Kindle Unlimited... so much unpleasantness. So I'm gonna get in before Wednesday night's planned NYE bacchanal - well,...

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The five stages of grief (and rewriting) When you finish the first (or foundation) draft of your creative work - be it novel, novella, epic poem or installation artwork - it's the best feeling in the world. It follows, then, that getting negative feedback on that draft from critics you trust, and the realisation that you have to go back to that beautiful work of creative brilliance and *sigh* revise it - that...

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Holiday. Celebrate. You know how this works. You get online and someone with a blog or a podcast or an Instagram of their cat says 'Write Every Day!' because that's a thing that's really fucking important. You go onto Facebook and someone - Chuck RR Martin, Harlan Wendig, JK Tolkien or whoever is famous and productive and good at the social medias - has posted a meme where Mr T or Big...

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Now on sale – The Obituarist II

Category : ebooks, obituarist

At last, it’s the post you’ve been waiting for all this time; the sign that 2015 is off to a flying start.

Because today’s the day that The Obituarist II: Dead Men’s Data is finished, published and available for purchase!

ObituaristII-PDuffyWho’s settling accounts for the dead?

Two years after his last adventure, obituarist Kendall Barber is still trying to make amends for his past by cleaning up the online presence of Port Virtue’s dead. Business isn’t great, so he jumps at the chance to work for the estate of a racist demagogue, while at the same time accepting an under-the-table job to find out who hacked the social media accounts of a police captain.

Who’s playing games with the living?

But nothing is ever simple, not in a town full of petty criminals and poor decision-making.

Before long Kendall is being beaten by neo-Nazis, smacked around by cops, berated by a beautiful journalist and caught up in a murder investigation. Actually, make that multiple murders. There’s also a fight between a badger and a baboon.

Who’s in over his head? Again?

Kendall has a quick mind, a smart mouth, a good computer and a large Samoan friend. But will those be enough to help him wrap up the case and pay his rent? Or more importantly, keep him alive?

The second book in the Obituarist series (yes, it’s a series now) features thrills, chills, internet security jargon, desperate action, a free bonus short story (wow!) and swear words. So many swear words. You have been warned.

This one’s been a long time coming, I know. I spent two years off writing Raven’s Blood (which I have to get back to revising next week), and then another six-plus months writing and rewriting this second (and hopefully not final) instalment in the strange life of Kendall Barber. Thanks for hanging around and being patience; I hope the book was worth the wait.

Once again I’m dipping my toe into the world of online security and post-mortem social media, although I’ve tried to follow a different road than I did in the first book. The Obituarist was ultimately a book about identity; Dead Men’s Data is a book about secrets, and how far we’ll go to reveal and/or protect them. I like to think it’s a worthy successor to Kendall’s first adventure, and with any luck readers will agree.

Dead Men’s Data is $3.99 (US), a dollar more than The Obituarist, but it’s also 50% longer than that novella and I’ve included the short story ‘Inbox Zero’ with the ebook package, so I think it’s still pretty good value for money. Right now you can buy it from Amazon, Amazon UK, Amazon Australia (but don’t use Amazon Australia, it’s rubbish) and Smashwords; other ebook sites such as Barnes & Noble and the iBookstore will follow as the SW version is distributed. I’ll add links and reviews and all that stuff to the site once they’re available and once I have time to do a proper update.

(Also, just in case anyone is wondering – yes, this is a direct sequel to The Obituarist, and you need to read that book before reading this one. I hope that’s not too onerous.)

As always, indie ebooks live and die by word-of-mouth, so if you like Dead Men’s Data, spread the word! Tell your friends and family! Write reviews! Invite me onto your blog or podcast to blow my own trumpet!

And if you don’t like the book… well, do those things anyway. I beg you. (But also tell me about your opinion, because writing is a process and criticism is how I get better at things. )

Many thanks to everyone who helped me put this book together; much love to everyone who reads it. You’re the reason I don’t just play Dragon Age all day every day.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go play Dragon Age all day every day. Well, for a few days. And then it’s back to work.

Laters.

Revise-wise

Category : ghost raven, obituarist, writing

I don’t revise my work very much. Wait, scratch that, it makes me sound like a terrible writer. I mean, I revise my work all the time – while I’m writing it. I’m constantly tweaking, polishing, deleting and rewriting my work as I go, which is one of several reasons why it takes me 20-3 freaking years to write a book.

(The other reasons: day job, energy levels, easily distracted by games, drunk all the time.)

But I don’t tend to do a lot of heavy after-the-fact revision – except for right now, when I’m revising both The Obituarist II (due to be published next week!) and Raven’s Blood (due to be published if the fates are kind!). Yes, I’m elbow-deep and mucking out the word-stables in an attempt to clean the horse poop off these drafts, and it’s clear that my metaphors are not yet fit-for-purpose in 2015.

Anyway – yes, I am working on making my writing better. And if you too are trying to do that, and feel the need for some tips and advice from someone with no more claim to authority or expertise than the adorable dog sleeping at the end of his desk, then read on and marvel.

Read it like a virgin

I think the single best way to start a revision is to read your entire draft manuscript, start to finish, as if you were coming to it for the first time, just as your alpha-readers did, just as any reader would if you were foolish enough to upload it to Amazon right now no stop don’t do that. Take a virgin eye to your work, looking for the bits that don’t work (and relishing the bits that do) and being honest about how well it all hangs together. Don’t let yourself think excuses like this confusing scene in chapter 2 will totally make sense after I read chapter 9 or the worldbuilding in these five pages of exposition is utterly vital, because no-one else is going to cut you that slack. Read it, decide whether or not you actually like it, and then get to the business of making it better.

Slice away the weak spots

Pretty much all drafts (mine included) have big problems – dull characters, confusing plots, every single thing being awful – and little problems. Start with the little problems – the repeated phrases, the excessive adjectives, the punctuation errors, the way half the dialogue starts with ‘Well,…’ and yes I am pretty much talking about myself here. These little moments of weakness are pretty easy to fix and they get you into the mindset of revising so that you gain momentum for the more systemic issues. Think of these small victories as the mooks that protect the end-of-level boss, and your revision as a rising swagger of heroic power. That unnecessary comma? DEAD. His friends? DEAD. The flawed book that commanded them? BRING IT.

Re-connect all your pipes

Structuralists and screenwriters talk about ‘laying pipe’ – putting information in one scene that pays off or unfolds in later scenes. It’s about more than just clever foreshadowing; it’s that consistent logic of narrative that means a story makes sense. But pipe isn’t always laid down cleanly and perfectly in the first draft, as you forget about old ideas and introduce new ones that aren’t fully justified yet. The revision process is the time to finally work out the path you want this story to follow, and to backtrack, reorient and trailblaze so that the map is clear all the way from start to finish. That might mean deleting plot bits that didn’t pay off, or inserting new bits of data in the first half to give stuff in the second half a solid foundation. Then all your pipes will connect up, and your book-water will flow cleanly rather than dribble as stinky effluent from cracks in the middle.

I’d like to apologise for my metaphors. And I wish I could say they’d get better this year.

Kill your darlings, yes, but also birth new ones

Revising is not a time for sentiment. It’s a time for ruthlessness and no weakness, a time to delete (or at least cut-paste into another document) anything that isn’t making your book better. But it’s also a time for creation, because just cutting and flensing is probably going to leave you with a bloody skeleton rather than something readable. Writing small inserts (see above) is just the start; you may need new pages, scenes or whole chapters to make the story better. (Both my works-in-progress needed a new chapter, and Raven’s Blood may end up needing more.) If this is the case, then write them. Duh. Occasionally I hear advice like ‘your final draft should be 10-20% shorter than your first draft’. No, your final draft should be good, and if that means it’s as long or longer as the first draft, but all-killer-no-filler rather than a box full of Hamburger Helper, then you’re doing the job right.

Don’t fix what ain’t broke

And speaking of dumb writing advice – some pundits say that you should rewrite everything, that the first draft is a ‘vomit draft’ or an outlining exercise, and that the second/third/eighth draft should be written from scratch. Good luck to ‘em if that works for them, but for my part, fuuuuuuuuuck that. A flawed draft is not a piece of mouldy fruit that is irrevocably riddled with bacteria; it’s a work of craft that can (probably) be improved with time and effort. Your draft has good stuff in it, probably more of it than you thought while writing it, and you should retain that good stuff rather than ditching it. Embrace what works and be proud of it – and then focus on lifting the rest of the work to that high bar you’ve set for yourself.

Next week: BIG IMPORTANT STUFF

DEPENDING ON YOUR DEFINITION OF ‘BIG’

Looking ahead

1

Category : writing

Let’s not talk about 2014. I had a fairly good year, overall, but it wasn’t perfect – and in the larger world, 2014 was pretty shithouse for almost everyone else. Natural disasters, planes crashing, police militarization, Tony Abbott and the car-crash of Kindle Unlimited… so much unpleasantness.

So I’m gonna get in before Wednesday night’s planned NYE bacchanal – well, before cocktails and Birdman – with a look at what I already have planned for 2015. They’re not resolutions – resolutions are bullshit, he said smugly and annoyingly – but solid goals and agendas, things I know I can hit and work towards if I just stay focused.

Staying focused… well, that’s more of a resolution.

Anyway, here’s the list of what you can expect from me in the next 12 months (or indeed 6-8 if I stay on track):

Finish revising Obituarist II and publish it online: I’m about a third of the way through revising the draft, and I’m aiming to finish that by the end of January. In theory I could do it faster, but there’s a lot of work and new writing to do in the last third, so I’m giving myself more breathing room rather than rush to the finish line and do something sloppy. Once the book is finished, though, it’ll be up and on sale on Amazon the next day; the cover was done ages ago and fine-tuning the formatting won’t take long. So expect to see that within about four weeks, along with a tedious wave of self-promoting tweets to go with it.

ObituaristII-PDuffy

Finish revising Raven’s Blood and find a publisher: This one’s going to take longer, although there probably aren’t as many major issues with this 90K novel as there are with my 25K novella. Such is life. Anyway, I’m hoping to get this wrapped up by April/May, and then to pass it along to an agent (not definite yet, but we’ve talked about it) who can find it a print-publishing home. Which will be an entirely new learning experience, and one that I can hopefully keep you posted about as it progresses.

Write a new horror novella (maybe): I’ve got some ideas for a horror story based around the history of Yarra Bend Park and the 19th century insane asylum that used to be there. I used some of those for a game I ran a few months ago, but barely scratched the surface of them or used most of the research I’d done, so I’d like to go back to that well as see what else I can draw up. However, we all know how shit I am at deadlines, and there are likely to be a lot of demands on my time in the second half of the year, so I’m not 100% committing to this yet; Sickness Dreaming (provisional title, almost certain to change) might be something I start but don’t manage to finish until 2016.

Experiment with outlining: I’ve always preferred to come up with a loose narrative framework in my head and then pants my way through it, discovering where the story takes me. And that’s worked, except for the times it hasn’t, and perhaps there’s value in trying it the other way. So with the new stuff I write next year, I’m going to try writing a plot outline first – maybe a super-brief one, maybe something more detailed – and see if sticking (mostly) to it makes a difference.

Write more short fiction: I didn’t write any short fiction this year… well, okay, I wrote one piece. It’s for an anthology due to be published next year, but there’s been no announcement about it and I have to stay quiet for now. That aside, no new short stories for ages, and that’s a lack that I’d really like to make up for. Although I should probably come up with some story ideas first.

Find a more effective balance between work and writing: My day job is taking up an increasingly large amount of my attention right now, to the point where it was stressing me out for a while and making it very hard to switch gears into writing mode. The stress has lessened, but I’m still busy and still kinda drained after the end of the day. I’ll be experimenting with some ways of juggling the two demands on my time – and still have a social/personal life – so that I’m hitting my writing goals every week and not taking 9 months to write a bloody novella.

Do some RPG writing again: I used to write a tonne of RPG stuff back in the day (i.e. last decade), but left that behind ages ago. Still, a company I really like asked me to work on a property I enjoy with a number of other writers I really respect… so what the hell, let’s do it. Timeline’s not quite definite yet, but I expect I’ll be working on it around February/March (yes, the same time I’ll be revising Raven’s Blood; I’ll have to make a schedule and swap between gigs).

Be a better blogger: The program of writing two posts a week really fell apart in 2014 – partly because I had no time/energy for it, partly because I kept feeling I had nothing to say. I don’t know if I can go back to that program, or if I even want to, but I can surely manage more than one low-content post every 2-3 weeks. So look for a bit of an uptick in posting, and more posts focused on what I’m working on right now rather than more general theory.

Read more books: I read two novels in 2014. And they weren’t long ones. Instead I read a lot of graphic novels and skimmed a lot of Twitter, because that was a better fit for my reading-while-commuting habits. But that’s shameful, and I miss proper books with words in them, so it’s time to recharge the Kindle and start making my way through the backlog.

Post more photos of my dog: Because I’m out of control and I can’t stop now.

B5xevArCAAALQBE

Hope y’all have a good end-of-2014 celebration.

Catch you down the crossroads when we gather to put a stake in the old year’s heart.

The five stages of grief (and rewriting)

Category : writing

When you finish the first (or foundation) draft of your creative work – be it novel, novella, epic poem or installation artwork – it’s the best feeling in the world.

It follows, then, that getting negative feedback on that draft from critics you trust, and the realisation that you have to go back to that beautiful work of creative brilliance and *sigh* revise it – that must be the worst feeling in the world.

(It’s not, of course, but please excuse the comic exaggeration and don’t write me angry letters.)

As we (the royal and collective we) struggle to deal with these feelings, it’s worth considering the psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ ground-breaking analysis of the stages of editing. Oh sure, she dressed it up as something more general, but if you can read between the lines you can see what she was really talking about.

So if you’ve recently shown someone you trusted your brand new body of work, and they’ve come back telling you that the whole last third of it doesn’t work, the protagonist’s motivation doesn’t make sense and a couple of supporting characters have no reason to exist… and I’m obviously just talking off the top of my head here… then consider the Five Stages of Grief as your guide to the emotions you may feel during the process of re-writing.

Denial

What? No! No, the draft is fine! There are no problems here! The plot is complex and twisty, but it totally makes sense – it’s just that the reader didn’t have enough sense to understand it. Your protagonist’s motivations are equally complex, but they make him a deep and multifaceted character, propelled by nuanced drives. And the supporting characters play subtle yet vital roles that make the story richer and more satisfying. It’s fine! Everything’s fine!

…oh god.

Anger

God-damnit! All the work you put into this thing and it’s crap! You’re so mad you could punch a manatee right in the mouth! Mad at your book for not being perfect but instead being a bucket full of garbage. Mad at your alpha reader for being such an inconsiderate bastard as to cruelly point out its flaws. Mad at your loved ones for not supporting you more. Mad at yourself for not being perfect. Angry at God because WHY DIDN’T YOU STOP ME GOD

angrybaby-12

Bargaining

Okay. Okay. You can fix this. You don’t need to do a massive rewrite – you can do spot fixes! Yeah! Rather than rewrite the entire last third of the book, you can just tweak a couple of scenes. Change some minor plot points to spack-fill over the gaps. Hey, maybe those scenes can give those supporting characters something to do! And look, if you do a quick pass through the whole book and cut out every second adverb, that’s almost exactly the same as a re-write, right? You can meet this thing halfway and come to a convenient agreement!

This is totally going to work.

Depression  

This isn’t working. This is fucked. FUCKED. You have wasted six weeks/months/years of your life on this book and it is a giant pile of shit. You have failed yourself, you have failed your friends, you have failed literature and language. Look at all the things that would need to change to make this book work. This is a Sisyphean task, and the boulder on your shoulders smells like failure and poop.

There’s no point. This is hopeless. There’s nothing left you can do.

Acceptance

Almost. There’s nothing left you can do but what needs to be done.

Sigh.

Open the file, hit the keyboard and fix the damn draft.

This is normal. This is what every writer does. This is quite possibly exactly what I am currently going through on Obituarist II, down to the uncanny resemblance to what my alpha readers have told me.

Accept it. Embrace it. Work through it as fast as you need to. Maybe take some notes on the things that occurred to you when you were bargaining and/or feeling depressed. And then write your way back to daylight.

As it happens, writing my way back to daylight is going to take a little while, so Obituarist II won’t be out before Christmas. But look for it come January 2015! Buy it for friends and relatives who have received Kindles and Kobos and similar things! Just wait a little bit longer for me!

Holiday. Celebrate.

1

Category : writing

You know how this works.

You get online and someone with a blog or a podcast or an Instagram of their cat says ‘Write Every Day!’ because that’s a thing that’s really fucking important.

You go onto Facebook and someone – Chuck RR Martin, Harlan Wendig, JK Tolkien or whoever is famous and productive and good at the social medias – has posted a meme where Mr T or Big Bird or Grumpy Cat or your mum looks stern and says YOU SHOULD BE WRITING.

You nod and weep and do another paragraph on your work-in progress (or possibly your Work-in-Progress, depending on how significant this draft is) and then cut yourself in the shower because it’s the only way to feel anything.

Here’s a radical suggestion:

Why not just take a fuckin’ break?

So I was in America last month (pause for impressed gasps), and I took work with me – some day job stuff, but also the not-yet-finished-but-almost-done foundation draft of The Obituaist II. Whenever I got a chance, I did some more work on the book, trying as hard as I could to sort out the ending and write something concrete for my editor to work on. It wasn’t easy – a satisfying end kept eluding me, and I couldn’t tell if my plot made sense or not – but I kept plugging at it. Finally, two days before heading back to Australia, I found the time/energy/opportunity and wrapped the whole book up, at long last.

And now I’m wondering if thinking I gotta do this I gotta do this I gotta finish this was actually the best move, or whether it pushed me to rush through a shaky ending that maybe makes no goddamn sense because I was so focused on completion over quality.

Here’s the other thing: when we got back from the US, I decided to take a week’s break from writing. One week, specifically – from one weekend to the next with no work being done. No stories, no novels, no blog posts, not even any emails. (This does not apply to my day job, mind you, because I answered 200 emails last week and deleted a pile more.) I’ve spent the last week playing games, drinking beer and talking to people I care about, with absolutely ZERO work done on any project.

You know what it did? It made me calm down. It gave me perspective. It allowed me to drink even more beers than you think it did.

And, God help me, it made me want to write. It made writing into an opportunity I wanted to explore, with exciting new ideas about social media detectives and/or tattoo demons and/or brains in jars (I should write these notes down), rather than a chore I had to complete or a duty I had to sweat about. It gave me perspective and the room to – on my own terms – think about what I was/would be writing and how it could be better.

It was great. I drank so much beer.

NaNoWriMo is over now, and everyone’s in full-bore-crank-the-word-engine-and-fire-all-sentences-at-once mode, and I get that, and it’s understandable, and you’ve done a good job.

Now take a break. Take a week (or whatever) where you deliberately say ‘I will not write anything this week’, and see what happens.

Perhaps it will suck. Perhaps you will end up scribbling novella outlines in blood on the backs of cereal boxes. Perhaps you will OD on porn and unfunny podcasts. Perhaps it will just not be fun.

Or perhaps taking a short, specific, deliberate and discrete break will open the Eye of the Tiger once again. Or at least twitch the Nostril of the Tiger. Because when you don’t have to do something, that opens your heart/mind to want to do something.

Right now I want to write.

Bear with me.

Also, some TOTALLY FUCKING AWESOME stuff happening right now!

And no, I can’t tell you more than that!

Checking in again

Category : Uncategorized

Miss me?

Yes, I am back from the freezing wastelands of Iowa, where I finally got to play in snow for the first time, an experience that was super-amazing fun until I realised that snow is really freaking cold. This was after significant amounts of it went down the back of my pants.

LEARNING.

More importantly for you, my cherubs, is that I am back, I am rested, I am full of word ideas and I finished the foundation draft of The Obituarist II while I was away. It’s with my editor and alpha-readers, and if they can give me their notes in the next couple of weeks – notes that hopefully aren’t ‘this story makes no goddamn sense’, a possibility that has been worrying me – then I should be able to revise and improve it in time to put it up online for Christmas.

And once that is done, it’s back into the revisions of Raven’s Blood with a vengeance, possibly pausing only to outline a horror novella idea (provisionally called Sickness Dreaming) that’s been in on my mind of late. I’ll even write a few substantive blog posts. Remember those?

But that all comes later. This week I’m jetlagged, frostbitten and desperately trying to catch up on three weeks of dayjob emails. There will be no further writing this week. I’ve earned that much.

Catch you next weekend. Promise.

Checking in, checking out again

2

Category : Uncategorized

Although just at the moment I feel close to it.

I mean, hi! Here’s a lightning fast update on what’s happening with me right now.

  • My day job is kicking my butt. A lot. And I’m not being left with a lot of time or energy for much else.
  • That includes Obituarist II: Dead Man’s Data – but I am really close to finishing it, I swear. It’s about 30-40% longer than the first one, so I’ve had to adjust for that, but includes more action, more one-liners and a significant amount of more swearing. At least, it does in this foundation draft. My plan was to finish it tonight and send it off to my editor and alpha-readers tomorrow, but I’m going to miss that deadline due to packing; instead, I’ll finish it over the weekend, or possibly while in flight, and email it out then.
  • Packing? In flight? Yes, we’re going away on holiday for a few weeks, where I will hopefully recharge some of the energy I’m been using up over the last month. There’ll be pictures and anecdotes when we’re back – and if I get a chance to hang with any writers, maybe even some interviews.
  • Don’t worry, Ernie’s staying with a neighbour. He’ll have fun.
  • I was thinking hard about submitting Raven’s Blood to Hatchette’s open call for YA manuscripts, but decided against it. It’s still too rough and I need more time with it, and right now I don’t have any time to spare. There’ll be other opportunities.
  • I listened to Night Terrace. You should too. It’s really good!

And with that, it’s off to eat tacos, pack suitcases and maybe get a little bit of writing in before collapsing into an exhausted slumber.

Back soon. I promise. Let’s not go so long without talking in future.

Burn notice

1

Category : obituarist, writing

I’ve kind of got the shits with myself at the moment.

Sure, I’ve been busy. I have a demanding day job, we just moved house and I like to hang out with my friends so that we don’t forget each other. But we’ve reached a point where those stop feeling like reasons and start feeling like excuses, and the thing they’re failing to excuse is not writing.

Shut up, Batman. You’re not even my real dad.

(But I wish you were.)

Like many writers, or indeed many folks in general, I am torn between conflicting desires and motivators. For me, those are:

  • Imagination: hey, I have a great idea for a story other humans would like to read
  • Laziness: let’s get drunk and play video games
  • Self-loathing: you will die alone and forgotten and this is probably for the best

And life for me is a path through these desires, like the stages of grief, until #3 defeats #2 and allows #1 to emerge blinking into the sunlight long enough to bang out the wordcount before retreating back to shelter.

So yeah, I’m behind schedule on Obituarist II: Dead Men’s Data. I was meant to finish it in July, but here it is in late September and I’m only just getting to the point where Kendall Barber [CENSORED CENSORED SECRET REDACTED BUT LORD LEMME TELL YOU IT AIN’T GOOD]. Which is not acceptable.

To fix things, I’m going into what I call BURN MODE, mostly because I like being overdramatic.

Burn mode is when I set myself a specific, easily quantifiable target and then just fucking write it every night that I physically can until I’m done. For Obituarist II, as it was for Obituarist I, that target is one complete chapter of around 1000 words – beginning, middle, end that makes you turn the page to the next instalment. Which is kind of harder than just 1000 words, because everything’s got to be self-contained and wrap up/hook on at the end, and I have to work out an entire, coherent block of plot over my lunch hour, but that also kind of makes it more enjoyable and engaging.

But burn mode is a jealous mistress. If I’m to knock off this story and get it to my editor and alpha readers before heading overseas for this year’s international adventures, I can’t have no distractions. So I’m taking  a break from blogging for about two weeks, and this is my long-winded way of telling you folks that.

It gets the words out of my system. Cut me some slack.

See you when I’m done. But as a parting gift, enjoy this – the first glimpse of the cover of the new book, completed long before it was finished!

ObituaristII-PDuffy

Now get outta my way. I gotta put kerosene in this motherfucker.

Moving on up

Category : story, writing

So yeah, we moved.

It was a pretty big deal.

…okay, to be specific we moved one train station and we’re still in the same suburb. But none of that negates the time, effort, money, beer and stress that went into getting all our stuff in boxes at one end, sticking them on a truck, driving ten blocks and then unloading them all at the other end. Plus furniture.

So apologies for the radio silence; apologies too for being behind schedule on Obituarist II and a number of other things. But the roadblock is now mostly cleared away, there are only a few dozen more boxes of books and artwork to find homes for, and it’s time to get my blog on.

And tonight’s topic is… writing stories in which people move house. Yes, like the time I did a whole blog post about toothache, I’m taking ‘write what you know’ to its most quotidian extremes and then out the other side.

Off the top of my head, then, here are five ways to get story out of a change of address.

Human drama

You don’t have to have explosions or vampires to get a story that’s tense and full of conflict – you just need reasons for people to yell at each other, and moving house gives you plenty of those. The stress of house hunting, house viewing, making applications, dealing with estate agents, emptying your bank accounts, throwing out half of what you own, wishing you could throw out the other stuff, calling movers who never show up, waiting a damn week to get the internet connected… any and all of these can be fodder for a great story about fighting in cars, crying in the shower and having heroin for breakfast. Throw in poor impulse control and a blunt instrument and you’ve got a solid foundation for a crime story; throw in some dick jokes and you have one of the lesser Richard Pryor movies.

What you leave behind

Moving house is never clean; there’s always something that gets lost in the shuffle. What if it was more important, dangerous and/or embarrassing than a pair of socks or whatever was in the oven? How terrible (and storyworthy) if you left behind a door to Narnia or Venus, the Holy Grail, a bagful of severed heads or a body? Or if your wife/friend/housemate did, and this is the first you’ve learned of it? And while losing it is bad enough, the real story comes from what you’ll do to regain access and get it back (or cover it up forever) before the new occupants move in. Especially if things go wrong. (Spoiler: they’d better go wrong.)

Starting afresh

But forget about what you leave behind – think about where you’re going. Sydney, New York, Alpha Centauri… these are places to begin again, to discard the person you used to be and their problems. This can be simple and personal, something that matters to you and only you (much like when I moved from Brisbane to Melbourne). Or you could have the kind of past that follows you from place to place, and you have to do something dramatic and extreme to shrug off that warrant, that horde of evil shadows, that legacy of pirate vampirism that comes of being the last descendent of Captain Dracula. Moving gives you a new status quo – what will you do to maintain it?

New neighbours

It’s not just about where you live, though – it’s who and what lives around you that has a big impact on quality of life. Hopefully the people are nice, hopefully the streets are friendly, hopefully the pub has your favourite beer. It’s always a shame to move to a new neighbourhood and find the gutters choked with alien blood, the drug dealer upstairs constantly bumping 120-decibel dubstep or that the bottle shop only stocks gin and ichor. Or flip it – maybe your new neighbours are great. Better than great. Maybe they want to give you drugs, teach you their language and take you to bed. Maybe that’s when good neighbours become good friends. WHAT A NIGHTMARE.

The house from hell

Horror stories get it – new places to live always come with secrets. Dangerous secrets, like gates and doors that change you, corridors that grow longer and abandon you between dimensions, or maybe just a shitload of ghosts. Moving in means getting caught up in the baggage of your new address – and no matter it seemed during that ten-minute inspection, it’s going to have a hidden drawback. Maybe there’s a briefcase of stolen money buried in the basement, maybe the One True Grail Knight’s mail still gets delivered there… maybe it’s just asbestos in the walls. Hell, maybe it’s built on top of a forgotten graveyard  – it’s a cliché, sure, but then again there’s a golf course built on the cemetery of a 19th century insane asylum not ten minutes from my place. So now you’re stuck with angry ghosts. Or bones getting stuck in your plumbing.

Rightio, that’ll do. Time to walk the dog, climb the stairs, shove a box of assorted connection leads to one side and call it a night.

And if you’re moving house this weekend, best of luck.

Games for writers

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Category : games

I like games.

This comes as no surprise, I know; it’s about as shocking as learning that I like comics, beer or swearing. But I like games a lot, and I’ve written before about how roleplaying games (as well as story-telling games like Storium) can contain lessons relevant to writers as well as to 9th-level wizards looking to master cloudkill.

Anyway, GenCon (the annual giant gamer nerd-prom) was last weekend, and to mark it there’s been an RPGaDay hashtag and commentary program doing the rounds. (I’ve been posting notes on my Google + account, if that is a thing that might interest you.) Games have been on my mind, but so has writing – and it occurred to me that while I’ve made general comments about games (specifically RPGs) being good resources for writers, I’ve not ever spelled out which games might help with that.

WAIT NO LONGER

Here, then, are five games that set out to do very particular things and help create or facilitate very particular kinds of stories, and that do that in a way that can directly translate into key lessons for writers. You should check them out – they’re smart, they’re fun, they’re generally pretty cheap and they can do good things for your brain and your words.

Spark

Spark is a toolkit for creating and running games that focus on a core set of themes. Players and GM collaborate on outlining a world/setting and three broad themes (Beliefs), such as ‘Everyone has a price’ or ‘You are your culture’, that are expressed through it and its various factions. Characters have their own Beliefs that align with or challenge those setting Beliefs, along with a handful of broad stats and skills.

Play revolves around collaboratively setting up scenes with three components – a Platform (situation), a Tilt (something that pushes PCs to engage with the situation) and a Question (what is to be solved/discovered). The aim is to create a Question that challenges a setting Belief and that pushes the PCs into conflict – with factions, with each other and with their own Beliefs – in order to follow their own agendas.

Writing lesson: Stories have subtext, subtext is driven by theme, and theme can be embedded in every scene and external plot driver. Push characters to question those beliefs, and to engage directly with theme, and you can create rich, complex stories.

My Life With Master

The default setting of My Life With Master is 19th-century Europe, where a scheming Master sends his twisted minions out to prey upon local villagers for unspeakable purposes – and you play the minions, forced and cajoled into escalating monstrousness. Characters have only two stats, Self-Loathing (how much you hate yourself for obeying your Master) and Weariness (the degree to which you’re given up resisting), along with a pair of unique, non-numerical strengths and weaknesses.

Play has a specific rhythm that builds up inexorably over time. The Master applies increasing emotional pressure on his minions, forcing them to terrorise the villagers – but also giving them opportunities to make connections and friends. The stakes escalate and the minions do worse and worse things to those they wish to love until one of them overcomes control and stands up to the Master. Which doesn’t guarantee a happy ending, mind you.

Writing lesson: Internal conflicts can as powerful as external ones, especially if that conflict turns into action. A character who doesn’t want to do something but has to do it anyway, who tries to free themselves from control (whether they succeed or fail), can be fascinating.

Monsterhearts

Based on the Apocalypse World system, Monsterhearts trims that down and sexes it up to create a game about supernatural powers and teenage passions. Players choose a ‘playbook’ for a particular archetype, from vampire and werewolf to clique leader or misunderstood teen, and quickly finetune it with abilities and benefits. They then connect characters together with ‘Strings’, knots of emotional connection to help them influence (or be influenced by) each other.

What happens in a game of Monsterhearts? Teenagers fall in love, have sex, meddle with the occult and end up doing terrible things in the name of desire. To get what they want – each other – PCs have to use up their Strings and create new ones. Anything meaningful requires a roll, and failure (and sometimes success) enacts a heavy price. And at some point, PCs are bound to lose control and lash out at those around them, possibly supernaturally, only to regret it later.

Writing lesson: Desire, fear, love, hate, passion… these things can be as much of a plot driver as any kind of external situation or control. Characters who act from emotion push stories forward, as much with their mistakes as their successes, and you can find great drama in the aftermath.

Fiasco

I’ve talked about Fiasco before, but that’s because it’s great – a toolkit for making Coen Brothers/Breaking Bad/plan-gone-wrong stories in almost any genre. Using a ‘playset’ of ideas based on a broad story or setting concept, such as ‘small town news channel’ or ‘1930s transatlantic ocean liner’, players quickly sketch out characters, their relationships and three or more elements attached to those relationships – a Place, an Object and a Need.

Players then take turns to create scenes, either framing one around their character or deciding on the outcomes, and assigning white/black (good/bad) dice around the table. At the midpoint, players roll dice to introduce a twist and then continue. While the Place and Object play important roles, it’s the Need (and the Relationship connected to it) that drive play to the bitter, tally-up-your-dice-and-roll-‘em, most-of-you-are-fucked-now end.

Writing lesson: Some pundits say there are only 20 stories, or 12, or seven, or three. But if you want to get really reductive, there’s only one – what will you do to get what you want? Boil everything down to that one question, then write up from there, and you get a gut-punch narrative.

Microscope

While all those other games are about character, Microscope is something completely different – a game about history and the big picture. Players choose a concept, such as ‘an ancient empire rises and falls’, pick a beginning and an end for the timeline, and collaborate on setting and tone elements like ‘magic exists’, ‘magic doesn’t exist’, ‘aliens’, ‘robots’ or whatever. No character creation; no GM.

Players then take turns to create sub-Periods within the timeline, to populate Periods with key Events or to suggest Scenes for Events. You can jump around in time freely, adding Periods at any point. Once some groundwork is laid, players can zoom in to play out a Scene in detail or discuss an event, picking out specific elements (Legacies) to colour and influence the next round of establishment, until you can stitch a convincing narrative line from the timeline’s start to its end.

Writing lesson: Not everything is about character, and some stories are bigger than people. But if you pick a point and zoom in, you can crystallise all that scope into something we can connect to, something with a face, and through that create something grand that feels convincing.

In other news, we have an apartment, we move at the end of the week, we’re packing and spending all the money we can spare on the process.

Good times. Good times.

Please send bourbon and all your drugs.