Demanding better

Tonight is Real Talk Night.

There will be no jokes.

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

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

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

That’s the aim.

Sometimes I fall short.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That doesn’t make anything better, I know.

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

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

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

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

Thanks and goodnight.

Done

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

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

CSI CSI CSI

…is concluded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To the pain

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

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

67146bf23182e3a95785520da2dc2392H-cockedhat

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No? That was just me?

…the hell with you people.

Greetings from Planet DONE

Hiya folks,

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

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

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

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

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

Check you later.

Tony Toni Tone

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guess what? Totally didn’t work.

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

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

Meanwhile, this is a fairly standard Pathfinder encounter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or something like that.

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

Breaking all the rules

I heard about the Detection Club a couple of weeks ago on the excellent Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff podcast. It was a club that included all the great whodunnit writers of the 1930s, from Agatha Christie to GK Chesterton, and man, I think I would have liked going to one of their parties.

But I doubt they would have invited me, because my crime stores don’t always follow their 10 Commandments for Writing a Mystery. They wrote those rules down and expected their members to follow them so that they wrote the right kind of mysteries, which is both amazing and kind of terrible – and incredibly entertaining when you read them and realise how cheerfully many of them (especially Christie) broke the rules when it suited them.

(The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Ten Little Indians are like the biggest fuck-yous to the expectations of the entire whodunnit genre. They’re great.)

Anyway, below (and stolen from here) are the rules of the Detection Club, that must be followed to produce a good and proper mystery:

1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.

2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.[Editor’s note: At the time, trashy, mass-media mysteries always featured a character of Chinese descent. This rule meant the writer should avoid cliché plot devices, although yes, it sounds totally racist.]

6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.

8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.

9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Me, I broke at least two of these rules multiple times in The Obituarist and The Obituarist II.

And now I really want to break the rest of them. Preferably all in the same story.

A story about an angel detective, accompanied by her super-genius best friend, solving a murder in the Winchester House with the aid of her supernatural insights and intuitions – and where the sudden twist ending is the revelation that the killer was a pair of twin brothers, who used magic to disguise themselves as the angel’s best friend all along, who used an incomprehensible reality poison engine to commit the murder!

Or something like that.

I should probably make someone Chinese, but eh, that’s one I’m okay with leaving be.

Someone pay me to write this.

Hell, someone dare me to write this.

But not anytime soon, ‘cos I really have a lot on my plate right now.

…still. Man. That’s a tempting idea…

Dragon Age Inquisition – the storytelling do’s and don’ts

By this stage of my life, people should know better than to give me video games for Christmas, and I should know better than to ask for them.

But we all do things against our better judgement, and that’s why I spent most of the last two months slouched on the mezzanine, playing the absolute shit out of Dragon Age: Inquisition when I should have been writing regular blog posts, or indeed books.

On the other hand, playing DAI for so long – more than 100 hours! – made me think an awful lot about what worked, what didn’t, which parts of its epic storyline were compelling and which made me want to drink bleach. And so, much as I did with Arkham City and Guild Wars II (at length), I’d like to look at the game from a writing perspective, and turn my timewasting into a set of storytelling lessons.

This is how I justify my life, and the wasting thereof. Please indulge me.

(WARNING: Spoilers! Not a huge amount, but some!)

Screw with expectations, but then live up to them

Dragon Age: Origins amassed a massive body of fans (myself included) who loved its story and characters; DA2 had problems, but still built on that foundation and set up a situation that the new game needed to follow up. So DAI launched with many ideas about what it should be and what it should include – and then struck its own balance between those preconceived ideas and desires and a variety of new concepts and content, taking the franchise in new directions (some of which are successful). Take the same attitude to your writing – don’t be hidebound by what readers think you’re going to write, but surprise them by striking out in a new direction while still writing with the same craft and level of polish. Readers may think they want The Comfortable Further Adventures of X, but they’re really attracted to your voice and skill; give them more of that, while fucking with expectations, and they will (hopefully) love you for it.

Wherever you set your stakes, make them matter

DAI is filled with adventures large and small, some of which feel urgent and engaging and some of which do not. The ones that work have genuine consequences and payoffs – expressed in character/story terms – while the ones that don’t just give you better equipment and no-one discusses them again. The first lot of quests are the ones that stay with me and made the game interesting; the second are already forgotten. So too with your own plotlines; stakes need to engage the reader on a personal level, not just be a way of making your character collect plot tokens or better equipment for the important scenes.

Endings need to matter as well

The end of your story is the payoff of everything that’s gone before, and it needs to connect up with everything that’s gone before. It needs to have impact, it needs to be engaging, it needs interaction and choices and it needs to encompass the themes you’ve established. More to the point, it needs to be more than an uncomplicated two-stage boss fight that you win by just hitting one guy over and over again with your best attacks, followed by an unsatisfying denouement.

Someone please travel back in time and explain this to the DAI development team.

Worldbuilding needs to be a sometimes food

Writers love worldbuilding, and readers/players love the feeling that they’re engaged in an almost-real place. But you can convey that feeling with a light touch, and by dropping details into scenes so that readers take them on board almost without noticing. Or, like DAI, you can have chunk after chunk of exposition scattered around the narrative space, communicated in books, letters, paintings, mosaics, conversations and dream sequences, so that you have to stop engaging with the story/game in order to read them.

I’m sure there are people who love this level of detail, for whom learning about the world of Thedas is the entire point of the game. I’m just saying that they’re wrong. And as writers, those are not the readers you need to be serving.

Go for killer, not filler

Inquisition positions your character as someone of immense importance, a world-changer who is the only hope of stopping the apocalypse. It also asks you to collect hunks of iron, pick flowers, kill assorted bandits and generally piss-fart around the world doing micro-errands in true MMO style. The result is a massive disjunct between how you’re supposed to see yourself and how you actually behave, and a whole lot of boring crap to do over that 100+ hours of playtime. Do not do this in your fiction! Do not make characters perform meaningless or boring-to-the-reader tasks just because they’re ‘realistic’ or the connective tissue you think is needed between the interesting bits! If you write scenes that are engaging and meaningful, you can bridge them with a paragraph or a handwave; better that than a scene where your hero slowly hunts and butchers mountain goats to make blankets for a bunch of people that she never talks to again.

It always comes back to character

People focus on NPCs and relationships as the selling points of BioWare games, and that’s because they’re (mostly) the strongest and most engaging part. DAI is no different, and the game is at its best when you’re connecting with those characters, exploring their stories and deciding how your priorities align with theirs. The character mix isn’t as strong as in the two previous games – there are too many NPCs, some of whom (well, mostly Sera) are boring or terrible – but there are many good characters who will draw you in. In prose, you need to make readers care about your characters, their relationships and their journeys; do that  and the story and worldbuilding can almost take care of itself.

So don’t run out of character stuff

I played DAI for nearly 110 hours. The first 70-odd hours were (on the whole) terrific, because I punched monsters and explored the Deep Roads and made swords AND THEN I went and told my special digital friends about it. We laughed, we cried, we kicked evil in the dick; it was great. And then I hit the point where they had nothing new to say; where every NPC had reached the end of their personal story and arc.

And I still had 25+ hours of game to play.

They were boring.

Without character hooks, without interplay, without an emotional payoff that you can attach a face to, your story (probably) just ain’t that interesting. It’s a string of events and situations that don’t matter to the people in them – and that means it doesn’t matter to the reader. So don’t keep the plot going if there isn’t any character-meaningful story going along with it; wrap it up then and there.

Good villains are hard to write

Inquisition‘s villain is kind of rubbish, but I can’t give BioWare too much stick for that. It’s easy to write a bad guy who rants and raves and puts into play a poorly-thought out plan that doesn’t really make any sense. I know, I’ve done it (currently rewriting it). Going beyond that is difficult; you have to give your villain a personality people can connect with but still want to see defeated, you have to let them appear multiple times and engage with characters to build up their mystique, and you have to make their nefarious plan hang together at the end and be more than ‘he turns up and punches EVERYONE’.

Alternatively, he should be Doctor Doom. Who is the opposite of so many of those things, but still AMAZEBALLS.

Maybe next game.

So is good romance

The first Dragon Age game treated romance as a vending machine where you constantly gave NPCs presents and said nice things until sex fell out and you got a dodgy underwear-on cutscene. DA2 made you wait for specific opportunities – I call them sex windows – to flirt with NPCs, but every NPC was totally into you so you could pick one and just mash the heart option until you were rewarded with a dodgy underwear-on cutscene. DAI continues with the sex window mechanic, but gives NPCs specific sexualities and preferences, so you can in fact waste the entire game trying to chat someone up until she reveals at the 60-hour mark that she’s not into girls and now it’s too late to sex someone else and DAMNIT I JUST LOST THE GAME no cutscene for me.

What I’m trying to say is that writing a believable, engaging romance is hard. It probably looks more like the DAI version than the other two. But it’s still hard. And no, not ‘hard’ in a dirty way. For god’s sake, grow up.

Moral choices are more interesting than strategic choices

Dragon Age Origins was full of difficult moral choices, many of which boiled down to ‘do the right thing and suffer a penalty, or do something terrible and get a bonus’. It was simplistic and overdone, but by god it worked; that and the chance to sex up Morrigan/Alastair were the big drawcards of the game. Inquisition’s choices, on the other hand, mostly defaults to ‘choose one kind of benefit or a different kind of benefit’, with moral choices being either peripheral or non-existent. And I’m sure there is a kind of reader who would prefer that, who is not interested in messy stuff about feelings and ethics and consequences and more interested in effective tactics and strategies for taking down the Big Bad in the faster, smoothest and least difficult way.

Do not write books for these people. Trust me.

Never be afraid to go for a hit of real emotion

Video games tend to be a shallow and simplistic medium in many ways, and DAI is no different; running around the Hinterlands setting fire to bandits is not deep. But there’s a moment about 1/3 of the way in, at a point where everything has gone wrong and a group of people come together to find some kind of way to endure and continue… it gave me chills. Hell, it nearly made me cry. It was lightning in a bottle, nothing else in the game mattered like that and it won’t work when I play it again – but I will remember that moment for years, will remember it long after I forget the boss fight at the end oh shit I already forgot that bit.

You can do that. You can aim for that. You can write that moment when everything MATTERS. And if you can do that even once in a story, your story will fucking own. So aim for that and give it everything you’ve got.

Do not dress your main character in beige pyjamas while they’re running around a castle or talking with people about important stuff

Just don’t.

I shouldn’t have to tell you this, damnit.

In the game of thrones you self-promote or you die

It’s been about a week and a half since I published The Obituarist II: Dead Men’s Data, and it’s been on sale via Amazon and Smashwords ever since, as well as propagating out through SW’s distribution channels to places like iBooks and the B&N Nook store.

So has it sold a million copies yet? A thousand? A hundred?

Well.

As of right now, I’ve sold 30 copies across the two platforms. Which is not terrible, really, but it’s also not very exciting. Were I the self-pitying type, I might get a bit down about those figures.

But this is not a blog post about self-pity.

This is a blog post about graphs. Graphs and what they tell self-publishers.

Here’s the graph for how my Amazon sales behaved this last fortnight:

O2 Amazon sales

 

(That first sale is to myself, so I could check the formatting.)

And here’s the graph for my Smashword sales (which has slightly wonky scaling; it’s 12 sales but looks more like 9):

O2 SW sales

 

Can you spot the common theme?

On the day I published the book I tweeted up a storm, talking about the book, why it was good, where to buy it, how happy I was about publishing it and so on. I also posted to my Facebook fan page with details and a link back to here. People picked up those tweets and posted and retweeted/reposted/shared them, and the result was 24 sales in 24 hours.

But since then I haven’t really talked any more about the book on social media, thanks to a mix of busyness (work, sleeping, playing Dragon Age Inquisition) and reluctance to spam people. And because of that silence, the book became invisible and I only sold six copies over a week – and at the very beginning and end of that week.

So what does this mean? It means that SILENCE = DEATH, or at least SILENCE = LACK OF SALES. Without a marketing push to promote a book to readers, you get an initial spike and then a rapid fall-off – and that’s the same whether you’ve got a marketing department or you’ve just got Tumblr and maybe some semaphore flags to get the word out.

This is one reason why some not-particularly amazing authors get great ebook sales – because they put the hard yards in and promote those ebooks every damned day in some way. And this is one reason why some really good authors get crappy ebook sales – because they feel self-conscious about self-promotion, or they’re not good at it, or they just don’t like doing it.

And I get that. I don’t much like it either. But it’s the only way to get people to know about and read your book.

The graphs show this. And everyone knows graphs don’t lie.

Actually, another really good way to get people interested in your work is word-of-mouth, or at least word-of-keyboard.

So if you’re one of those 30 early adopters, and you liked this new instalment of The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Kendall Barber, please consider leaving a review (or even just a star rating) of The Obituarist II on your preferred sales/discussion platform. That would be ace.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go tweet ’til I puke.

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!

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

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’