Invisible story grenade

Hey folks – first, an apology for running so late and slow on blog posts right now. Turns out that when you’re writing about the way someone else tells stories, you need to do your research – which, in this case, means watching a lot of wrestling.

Oh boy. So much wrestling. It eats up all my time.

Because there is a lot of wrestling in the world, even though most of what you see/hear about is the WWE product. There are some very different ways of arranging grappling matches, and different ways of telling stories in that space. And if you want to see something that goes in a really distinct direction, while still having some of the same foundations (and still being in English), then you want to look at Chikara.

chikara-2014Chikara is a large independent promotion based out of Philadelphia, who put on shows in their own venue while also travelling for some national and even international shows. (They haven’t come to Australia yet, but fingers crossed.) They’re known for solid wrestling that mixes technical and lucha libra styles, a large roster of over-the-top characters, complex comicbook-inspired plotlines and a (mostly) light-hearted, family-friendly approach to the wrestling form.

What does that mean in terms of storytelling, and what lessons can be learned for prose writing? I have many thoughts. And another long-arse post in which to unpack them.

Making the most of what you’ve got

The first thing you notice when you watch a Chikara match is the low production values – well, low in comparison to WWE, anyway. There are no big display screens, no pyro, no video packages summarising feuds – just a ring and some wrestlers performing for maybe 200 people sitting near the stage. But what Chikara does is use those limitations to their advantage, funnelling almost all their storytelling (apart from the occasional, very basic speech-to-camera promo on their recordings) into the ring. That means that stories and character development happen right in front of the audience, who are close enough to the action to feel like they’re genuinely part of it; that keeps them in-the-moment so that they don’t feel distanced from the crazy plot elements. It all works, and it wouldn’t in a bigger, louder, glitzier environment that fostered a sense of detachment in the fans. (Lesson: Limitations provide the boundaries around a creative space, so work with the tools you have to make something distinct and effective in that space.)

Playing the long game

Chikara storylines are strange (more on that later), but more than that, they’re long. Plotlines play out monthly, rather than weekly, and a plot point set up in January might not fully play out until December or even the following season. The biggest plotlines play out the longest – I think the current major arc, with the evil god Nazmaldun corrupting wrestlers to make an army of demon heels, has been going for about 18 months – but smaller arcs start and finish in the foreground as the big stories grind on. It’s these big plotlines that hook Chikara fans, and the degree to which the promoters commit to them – for one major storyline, they shut Chikara down for an entire year so that they could return with a bang. But they can also make new audiences feel overwhelmed, they’re vulnerable to real-world changes (like wrestlers getting injured) and they have to be paced very carefully to maintain the momentum. Chikara generally pulls these stories off, but the effort involved is clear. (Lesson: Big stories fascinate audiences and get attention, but you have to manage them carefully, and provide entrance points so that readers don’t get lost in all the detail.)

Diversity ain’t hard (but it ain’t always easy either)

Chikara fields a huge roster of wrestlers, with different fighting styles, body shapes, skill levels and performance techniques, and they often host wrestlers from other promotions. WWE’s wrestlers are all ‘competitive athlete’ archetypes; Chikara has many of those but also fantasy princesses, superheroes, clowns, humanoid ice-creams, monsters, cultists, sea creatures, ants (so many ants), dudes with weird names (my fave is FLEX RUMBLECRUNCH) and a man with a mustachioed baseball for a head. And if you held a gun to my head I still couldn’t tell you about 90% of the their personalities or story arcs, because I haven’t had the time to invest in learning about them over those aforementioned long, slow arcs. Chikara has wonderful diversity, but I feel like it comes at the expense of strongly defined characters. (Lesson: try to embed diversity and personality in a small, controllable set of characters, rather than a sprawling ensemble, or else variation comes at the expense of depth.)

Audience buy-in

So okay, let’s talk about storylines. Chikara’s are weird. They involve demonic corruption, supervillains, time-travel, evil duplicates, mind control, black ops military units, magic… it’s superhero-universe craziness, but with fewer special effects. The shorter arcs tend to be a bit less over-the-top, but still aren’t ‘realistic’, and the in-ring storytelling often involves superpowers, magic and other shenanigans. And the audience loves it, because a) it’s fun, b) it’s underpinned by a foundation of really solid, high-energy wrestling, and c) everyone watching knows coming in that this is what Chikara offers, and that getting on board with it is the price of admission. The price is worth it; this is, after all, a promotion where a wrestler wins matches by throwing an invisible hand grenade at his opponents in slow motion, and you can’t get that on Smackdown.

(Lesson: Know your audience and what they’ll enjoy, then make that without too much worrying about justification. They’ll suspend disbelief and come along for the ride if they’re with you.)

Using structure to set up stories

The other, less obvious thing about Chikara’s plotting is how it actively uses the trappings and structure of genuine athletic competition as a storytelling foundation. Like most promotions they have single and tag-team champion belts, but wrestlers have to gain points in order to qualify to compete for those belts; they also have a variety of trophies and other prizes, and tournaments to qualify for them. These elements help to ground the crazy stories, but more importantly they provide a reason for two (or more) wrestlers to fight in the first place – which then opens up storytelling space for more personal issues or feuds to emerge from that initial match. The upshot is that every match, no matter how ‘standard’, feels like it has a reason to exist (something WWE often fails to achieve). (Lesson: every action/conflict scene needs a premise (why they’re fighting) and stakes (what they win/lose) in order to connect to the reader.)

Family-friendly murder

Chikara are a family-friendly promotion, with storylines and ring action meant to engage and entertain kids (and adults). They back this up with some pretty strict performance rules – no blood, no swearing, no sexual content. But murder? Murder is fine. Many wrestlers and side characters have been ‘killed’ in the ring by heels and monsters; a long-running storyline saw the supervillian Deucalion murder more than a dozen wrestlers before he was himself killed by the heroic Icarus. So – kid-friendly, except full of death. Is that weird? Kids don’t think so, because kids love elements of horror and danger in their adventures – just listen to the stories they tell each other – and they can differentiate between fun horror and real my-parents-scream-at-each-other-every-night horror. Sanitised, stylised death raises the wrestling stakes in a way young audiences can enjoy, and it can do the same in many other stories as well. (Lesson: Everybody loves murder. Everybody. Go drop a murder into your Regency romance novel right now; it can only help sales. Especially with kids.)

Oof. That was long. I gotta get these things under control.

If you’re interested in checking out Chikara, almost all of their shows going back 16 seasons (years) are available to stream on their website through the Chikaratopia service; it costs $8 US a month, and you can trial it for a week to see if it’s your speed. If you want to get in on the ground floor of stories, start with the beginning of Season 15 or 16; if you want immediate action, watch one of the King of Trios multi-part specials, which is their annual three-person tag tournament that brings in many wrestlers from other promotions. (I hear this year’s was particularly good; watching it as soon as it’s up.)

But be warned when you watch it. You might be exposed to the most illegal move in all of wrestling history:

And that’s terrible great.

Plot, character, piledrivers

So I’ve been talking about how pro wrestling is a great space for communicating character and story through action – but talk is cheap. What does that actually mean? How do you use ten minutes of sweaty grappling and backflips to define a character, and what kind of stories can you tell through that platform?

The answer is – more than you might think.

I was going to wrap up this series of pro wrestling posts tonight and get back to beating myself up for my lack of productivity, but I kept finding new stuff to write about (and distracted by other stuff, which is why this Monday night post is going up on Friday night) – so let’s assume this is (at least) a two-part post and use part one to set some foundations, with a look at something everyone already knows about – World Wrestling Entertainment/WWE (and also NXT) – and what lessons might be learned.

WWE-logoEven if you’ve never seen a match in your life, you know about WWE; they’re a multi-billion dollar company, the single biggest wrestling organisation in the world. They have two big weekly shows (Raw and Smackdown) on regular TV, monthly pay-per-view events (even bigger shows) and their own $10-a-month wrasslin’ Netflix with more shows than I care to contemplate. The WWE Network is also the home of NXT, their ‘developmental’ offshoot where new performers build their skills/discipline before graduating to the main roster; just as importantly, it’s where they build an audience so that anyone cares about that graduation.

Tonal change is hard

03A lot of folks I follow on Twitter, or who make podcasts I enjoy, are really into the current WWE promotion, or more directly into NXT, and that background interest is probably what drew me back to the sport after a decade away. It’s kind of sad, then, that I find their current product, well… kind of boring. Compared to the flash, speed and silliness of the Attitude Era (late 90s-early 00s), or even the mid-2000s, the current WWE/NXT style of wrestling is more low-key and PG-rated. The focus is on mat-based wrestling, with a mix of technical grappling and strength/power moves – there’s very little aerial wrestling, use of weapons/tools or straight-up brawling. In many ways it’s a ‘purer’ form of wrestling, but I can’t help but miss table/ladder/chair matches. (Lesson: when you set a tone early on, it’s more difficult to bring that tone down and retain readers than it is to raise the stakes and escalate.)

Risk aversion is sensible but boring

The other big change is in the attitude of the corporation, which has come to really emphasise the ‘professional’ in pro wrestling. WWE is a  big, big business, and they don’t want to jeopardise that business by relying on unpredictable, idiosyncratic wrestlers with their own style or ideas about things are meant to work. The result, to my biased eye, is a growing homogeneity among the wrestlers, who are all drawing from the same set of moves and character concepts – moves and concepts largely chosen by an external group of coaches, managers and marketers – rather than bringing their own individual style and flair. And I get that, because you want a reliable and commercially viable product, and for your staff to be safe from injury due to unpredictable circumstances, but it makes it hard for me to tell many of them apart, or to care which one of them wins the day. (Lesson: you don’t have to play it safe, and you can depict any kind of character doing any kind of thing. SO DO THAT. Leave the homogeneity for the real world.)

Stick to the schtick

A lot of character development in WWE comes through visual flags – a wrestler always dresses a certain way, has a specific entrance, uses identifiable gestures. Similarly, every wrestler has signature moves and catchphrases that they’ll use in almost every match and promo – things that reinforce the character in your mind, that make them memorable even if you can’t connect that memory to a specific action or event. That’s a technique that’s very powerful in visual media, but can also be tapped in prose storytelling. (Lesson: set out simple, short signifiers for a character like a piece of clothing, a phrase or even a radical haircut, something you can describe in five words, and drop them into scenes so that readers get that instant bit of connection.)

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Use all your tools – but use them properly

WWE make heavy use of promos, vignettes, backstage skits, brief interviews and other non-match showcases to build character, but their in-ring character development is a bit lacking; the current product doesn’t do much to showcase agendas, motivations or unique traits once the bell rings to start the fight. Almost all of that comes before and after, which is maybe the main reason I find their stuff a bit dull right now. Still, all of that developmental material works in building character nuance and substance. What doesn’t work is when the announce team just tell you a character is awesome, even when you can see that they’re a bit shit. WWE have been doing that for years, and if anything it’s even more distancing and annoying now that the video quality is so good and you can see mediocre characters underwhelm you in HD. (Lesson: character can come from lots of interactions and presentations, big or small – but keep the focus on what characters do, and don’t forget about ‘show, don’t tell’, okay?)

We don’t talk about the weird stuff any more

WWE’s storylines used to have a few weird and strange elements, but that’s largely been excised these days. Modern storylines revolve around professional rivalries for belts and prime roster positions, which bring larger paycheques and more merch opportunities. In other words, they’re wrestling stories about wrestling; the business is about the business. That has potential for metatextual shenanigans, but they’re rarely explored, and the end result is a storytelling environment that leaves me kind of cold. At the same time, the rare inclusion of a new element – a personal grudge, a lapsed friendship, a reflection of external factors – is just enough to stand out and get my interest, even if it’s never anything as over-the-top as the Undertaker fighting Kane in the fires of Hell. (Lesson: it’s good to set a baseline of realism, but staying there is kind of boring; look for ways to make stories be about more than their own immediate, sensible and predictable contexts.)

Undertaker_vs_Kane_in_the_inferno_match_on_Raw_February_22_1999_crop_exact

Good pacing makes up for many sins

The thing that WWE really understands these days, after decades of experimentation, is the rhythm of action storytelling – the pacing skeleton that supports all manner of wrestling meat. A standard WWE feud starts just after a pay-per-view, with hostilities rising between two wrestlers; at the next PPV they either settle things (short arc) or the situations escalates (medium arc). There’s a consistent, engaging build with peaks and troughs, highs and lows – something that gets you pumped and then lets you cool off. Matches are the same; the rise and fall of energy and spotlight in a WWE show is so crisp you could graph it. (Well, usually; I hear the recent SummerSlam PPV was 6 hours long, peaked too soon and burned the audience out by the halfway mark.) (Lesson: knowing the rhythm and flow of fights and stories is more than half the battle of conveying both effectively.)

I signed up for a free month of the WWE Network; that subscription renewed today, and that’s fine, but that’ll do. That gives me time to watch some of the ancillary shows (Breaking Ground is intriguing) and the Cruiserweight Classic, which is my kind of flippy-skippy wrestling, and maybe to take a few more notes on Raw and Smackdown. After that, I think I’ll be happy enough to let it lie. WWE have their own thing, and it works very well for their audience, but I’m okay with not marking out for them any more.

Who do I mark out for? And plunder for storytelling ideas?

Let’s find out next time.

Wrestling with words

I am still writing about wrestling, and if that bores you then I imagine you stopped reading like ten words ago. So all that’s left are the rest of you, so eager to read about men in tights slapping each other that you’d come here to my humble little bespoke word servery. But there are way more places you can read about wrestling – in these things called books.

Yes, I have read far more books on wrestling than one might think, and tonight I come to make some recommendations for you.

First, let’s talk about autobiographies of wrestlers. There are dozens and dozens and dozens of autobiographies of wrestlers. They’re pretty much all terrible – and, since they’re mostly all written by the same small cabal of ghostwriters, pretty much all terrible in the same way. They give stories of coming from humble beginnings and overcoming adversity, vent a few frustrations with WWE management – but not so many as to damage the wrestler’s livelihood – and rival wrestlers, share some hilarious anecdotes and say that the best is yet to come. Rinse, lather, repeat. The worst I ever read being Goldberg’s, because he ran out of stories halfway through and the rest of the book was about football.

(I will admit that The Rock’s book has some interesting stuff about growing up in a Hawaiian wrestling family, and I kinda want to read William Regal’s autobio because, come on, William Regal… but other than that, they’re usually terrible.)

That said, there are three autobios that are really worth checking out, all for different reasons.

218496First is Mick Foley’s Have a Nice Day, which maps pretty closely to the formula above but is told with a distinct voice – Foley turned down the offer of a ghost and wrote the whole thing himself. It turned out that Foley’s image – a bearded, husky everyman with a weird sense of humour and a sentimental streak – was pretty much exactly who he was, and that he also had a decent ability to write genuine, engaging prose that didn’t aim too high and thus hit its mark. Have a Nice Day is readable, fun, remarkably bloody – Foley was the Hardcore Legend, after all – and paints a picture of late 90s WWE that is sanitised but not to the point of flavourlessness. Foley wrote two further autobios, with predictable diminishing returns, and there’s absolutely no reason to ever try reading his novel, but Have a Nice Day is worth checking out.

quackenbush_bookAt around the same time Foley wrote his book, indie wrestler Mike Quackenbush wrote his own memoir, Headquarters, which is fascinating because it follows the same arc as all the other bios – until Quackenbush realises that he’s not going to make it to the same happy ending as all the big name wrestlers. Instead, his career has plateaued, his injuries are becoming more serious and his dreams are fading away. That sounds maudlin, but Headquarters is that rarest of things, a story of failure that doesn’t descend into self-pity; Quackenbush writes with good humour and nerdy flourish, and makes you feel sympathy for him rather than pity. Headquarters was self-pubbed and is difficult to find, but if you can dig it up it’s a really interesting read. And I’m keen to read the sequel, Secret Identity, and see how he turned his career around into founding and managing the popular, family- and nerd-friendly Chikara promotion.

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Finally, there’s an autobio that seems written out of spite rather than self-aggrandisement – Pure Dynamite, the story of Tom Billington, aka The Dynamite Kid. Billington was one of the most skilled and ferocious wrestlers to ever come out of Britain, hugely influential in the 70s and 80s and a top draw in Japan. He was also arrogant, belligerent, petty and just plain mean – and he doesn’t back away from admitting to any of that in his book. He doesn’t apologise for it, but he doesn’t try to absolve himself either; he’s content to show himself, warts and all, and he’s too old and bitter to care about what anyone thinks of him now. As prose, Pure Dynamite is pretty lacklustre; as a peek at the 70s/80s wrestling industry, and into the head of a star who burned bright and then out, it’s fascinating. And damned hard to find nowadays, but so it goes.

51nWdhCkSNL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Moving on from 15-year old autobiographies to newer material, I recently read and really enjoyed David Shoemaker’s The Squared Circle, which I know I mentioned a few posts ago. Shoemaker’s book is a modified collection of some of his ‘Dead Wrestler of the Week’ columns in Deadspin; he uses these stories to underline the events, changes and overaching themes of 20th-century wrestling. He’s a very skilled and clever writer – sometimes a little too clever, and too fond of quoting Barthes, but I like that kind of thing -and there’s genuine affection, scholarship and sadness in his stories of Owen Hart, Andre the Giant and Brian Pillman. I got pretty damn sad at the end when he talked about Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Speaking of Andre the Giant, there’s a graphic novel about his life that’s apparently pretty good; I have to get round to reading it sometime.)

And finally, I couldn’t discuss books about wrestling without covering the glory that is Big Apple Takedown, a novel in which the NSA recruit six WWE wrestlers to fight terrorism as undercover secret agents.

I shit you not.

December 2001: Vince McMahon steps out of a snowy night into a diner in upstate New York for a meeting with old friend Phil Thomson, now a highly placed government official. Thomson has a strange proposition: creating a new covert black-ops group using the Superstars of World Wrestling Entertainment.

675941March 2006: The Superstars have been handed their latest assignment — take down a commercial-grade methyl-amphetamine plant that is bankrolling terrorist activities in Europe. Their mission seems simple and straightforward, until a member of their team is taken prisoner. Now all that they’ve worked so hard for is in jeopardy, and one of their own might be killed…

Note how the cover has bosoms. Not sure why they don’t get mentioned in the blurb.

Obviously I am not saying you should read this; merely marvel that such a thing exists. If you’re curious enough to want to experience its deathless prose and poorly described action sequences, try listening to the I Don’t Even Own a Television podcast, which discusses it at hilarious length.

The best thing? This makes me happy that my YA wrestling-dream-warriors-versus-oni novel won’t be the weirdest thing written in the powerslam oeuvre.

More on that another time. Once John Cena takes out that meth plant.

 

A brief interlude

Quick update:

I went back to full-time work today after three months of freelancing and drinking at noon.

It’s going to require some adjustment.

And I’m tired now.

So in lieu of a proper post, please read Peter Ball’s fantastic essay on how the art of wrestling ‘booking’ (choreographing matches and deciding winners) provides incredibly relevant tools for writing. It’s way better than any of my recent blatherings.

And with that, I’m gonna have a sandwich, hug the dog, watch some grappling and hit the hay.

All the wide world round

(Pardon the downtime between posts; I’ve been working on a proofreading job with a tight deadline.)

So yeah, professional wrestling. We’ve established that I love like it a lot; now how best to express that love like? Watching wrestling on TV/the internet is the obvious answer, and I’ve been doing just that lately. Watching live shows is fun too, and there’s a lucha libre and burlesque show happening next week (oh, Melbourne) that I want to catch. Doing it myself… well, no, because I’m old and my knees dislocate if you look at them hard.

But there’s one other way to experience wrestling, in a way, and that’s by pretending to be a wrestler. Which brings us to the World Wide Wrestling roleplaying game.

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I wrote a while back about the Powered by the Apocalypse family of RPGs, and World Wide Wrestling (or WWW) is one of the most interesting of that suite. I’ve just started running a short campaign, which is turning out to be very silly; it’s all aliens, werewolves and time travellers brawling in a cursed RSL. Gameplay writeups are on Obsidian Portal, with GMing notes on my gaming Tumblr, Save vs Facemelt, if that sort of thing interests you.

But this isn’t a gaming blog, it’s a writing blog. So if we’re primarily interested in action storytelling, what kind of thought fodder does WWW provide?

Understand your tools

As with other PtbA games, WWW provides the GM with a set of agendas to keep in mind throughout play, principles to refer to when developing scenes and moves to make that keep gameplay moving. These are the core tools for the GM, and the GM is meant to use only these tools (although WWW is more forgiving on this than some related games), because they’re designed to produce a satisfying game for all players.

I won’t go on about these things in detail (I did that last time), but WWW‘s suite of gameplay tools are very strong because they clearly and effectively emphasise the nature of professional wrestling stories, conflicts and shows. But even then, they’re unlikely to do that if you just pick moves at random, or apply principles without considering why they say what they do. You need to look at wrestling, look at the tool, consider the connection and understand why it’s valuable to ‘make the world seem constructed but frail’, or how sticking a microphone in a wrestler’s face opens opportunities to demonstrate character.

WWW doesn’t set a terribly high bar for understanding, and it explains what it can, but it makes it clear that you need to do a little conceptual work to get the most of your tools, just as you do in the larger world of writing and story creation.

Embrace your genre

I’ve seen a few wrestling RPGs over the years, and almost all of them focused heavily or exclusively on the kayfabe side of things – you played a wrestler, your opponents were other wrestlers, and the mechanics existed to explore matches in blow-by-blow detail. But that’s only part of the wrestling genre, and that focus excludes a lot of what gives in-ring action flavour and meaning.

WWW is broader than this; it embraces the metatextual tension between the reality and the fiction of wrestling, and uses both worlds as a setting for play. As I said to my players, it’s a game where you spend 50% of your time in the ring as The Rock, 40% of it backstage as The Rock, and 10% of it as Dwayne Johnson organising cross-promotion efforts between the wrestling promotion and the film studio for your new movie.

Most genres aren’t neat, simple things; they’re tracts of conceptual space with fuzzy borders and idiosyncratic corners. A lot of stories land in one part of that space and try to maintain control over the local narrative environment, and there’s nothing wrong with that (other than being a fairly iffy metaphor). But there’s also fun in embracing the other aspects, taking in the less straightforward ideas and exploring the tension between seemingly incompatible genre concepts, just as WWW does with reality vs kayfabe.

Remember your audience

Roleplaying is usually a private affair, experienced only by the half-dozen or so folks at the table. (Yeah, I know ‘actual play’ videos and podcasts have become a thing, but I’m not counting those because I don’t like ’em.) WWW asks players to bend that assumption and act as if their characters are trying to entertain a viewing audience – one that loves in-ring action, watches backstage interactions and enjoys the metatext of breaking kayfabe. Every part of play is aimed at that audience – especially matches, which operate by narrating interesting, engaging sequences rather than rolling dice to see if you manage to hit with your five-star frogsplash.

Writing is also an act aimed at an audience, whether a large body of readers or just the author his/herself. It’s a creative act that functions by communicating ideas to an audience, and the audience has to read the text to understand what’s going on. That seems obvious, but it’s easy to forget that readers still need a little exposition or explanation here and there to provide context, or that they won’t be able to fully understand a scene because they don’t have your knowledge of backstory.

WWW reminds me that I have to play to an audience when I write, even if I don’t necessarily know who that audience will be; it also reminds me that maybe I should try to work that out, and what that audience might want, before I finish the story.

Is it silly to hold a game about grappling and smacktalk up like it’s On Writing? Well, a bit. But you gather your rosebuds where you may, and I think the mark of a strong game – or film, or book, or interpretive dance sequence – is that it makes you think about your own work, even if just for a minute or two.

Anyway, World Wide Wrestling is pretty fun. I’m running the next session of my game in a few hours; let’s see if El Gastro can solve The Mystery of the Haunted RSL while also dropping some piledrivers onto Ned Kelly.

Also in this blog instalment, GENERAL LIFE UPDATE

I have a new day job! Next week I return to the world of educational publishing, which seems to be my eternal niche now, and start making textbooks again. I’m looking forward to it; three months of freelancing, dogwalking and not-doing-enough-novel-writing was plenty, thank you.

What will this do to my writing output and blogging schedule?

Well, it can hardly make it worse, can it?

Laying down the smack

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

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

Wrestling. Yeah.

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

It was a pretty sweet time.

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

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

…and yet.

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

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

I marked out. Again.

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

Athletic performance

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

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

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

Telling stories with action

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

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

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

Also, sometimes an alien superhero fights a dragon.

Metatextuality

OMG WHAT A WANKER

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

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

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

What’s not to love?

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

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

Post-stocktake audit

Hey folks!

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

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

Freelance work

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

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

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

Writing work

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

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

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

Books

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

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

There are also piledrivers.

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

Music

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

You know how it is.

Games

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

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

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

MY POKEMANS LET ME SHOW YOU THEM

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

So anyhoo, that’s what I’m up to.

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

It’s gotta happen eventually.

Stocktake

2016.

Christ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So far, I have failed in that.

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

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

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

Self-sabotage is the worst kind of sabotage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To recap, then:

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

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

Yes, I will wear this if I have to.

I will also try writing more, and better.

We’ll see which tactic works best.

Activate all agents

Hi folks,

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

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

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

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

Explore consequences

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

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

Let plot emerge from character decisions

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

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

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Give characters the information they need

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

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

Reveal and modify setting through character action

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

Observer-Effect
Like this, but less crazy

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

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

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

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

Why agency gets forgotten

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

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

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

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

Not enough information

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

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

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

Decisions that don’t matter

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

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

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

Too much plot

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

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

Too much setting

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

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

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

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

Too much tone

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

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

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

How to do that?

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

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

Please. Go on.

MAKE A POWERFUL DECISION

YES EVEN IF IT’S BAD