It’s been a looooooong time coming, but as discussed earlier this month, The Obituarist 3 is finished, published and out in the market, where it’s already enjoying literally dozens of sales.
(well, maybe not plural-dozens just yet, but I’m optimistic.)
Hooray! My white whale is dead at last!
So that’s great. Super cathartic and personally fulfilling, etc etc blah de blah.
But now what do I do with my spare time?
More Obituarist work
Surprise! Nothing ever ends! This world is a purgatory!
Publishing a book is never the final act. Marketing and promotion are still desperately needed if you want your work to make even a single ripple when dropped into the wide dark sea of the internet. Which is a shame, ‘cos I’m completely shit at marketing and promotion! Yet I must nonetheless talk about the book on social media, and attempt to harness my wagon to the caravans of more popular and successful authors, if there’s to be any hope of getting some sales for this book that is, objectively, a really fuckin’ good read.
(Incidentally, this – more than anything else – is why I want to leave self-publishing behind. Fuck the royalty share, I just want someone to do the marketing work for me, you can have all my money, I don’t mind, I’m so old and so, so tired.)
On top of that, I need to update this site with an Obit3 tab that has the blurb, image, purchase links, super-complimentary 5-star reviews (hint freakin’ hint, readers) and so on. Personal website maintenance! Yay! Just like a regular admin job except way less rewarding!
So yeah. Just when I thought I was out, blah blah blah.
Back to Raven’s Blood
And speaking of objectively good books – and by that I mean subjectively good books that I wrote, so don’t be rude – I want to return to Raven’s Blood, my YA superhero fantasy novel that I would dearly love to a) publish and b) turn into a whole Batgirl-meets-D&D series of Ghost Raven books.
I believe in this book, I really do, and that’s probably why my failure to find either a publisher or an agent that believed in it contributed to my… let’s say ‘mental health fluctuations’ over the last few years. I hit a wall, and that’s on me rather than the wall – but walls can be climbed, and it’s perhaps time to work on that again.
How to do that? Well, I’m starting this week by joining a YA writing program/course by Faber/A&U. That could lead to some networking opportunities, but I care more about the opportunities to write my book gooder better, which I know it could be.
Coming out of that, I want to do some rewrites and then YET ANOTHER round of approaching agents and publishers, and you’ll know how well that goes by checking in here and seeing how often I use terms like FUCKPIG and JIZZ SUICIDE.
Which is great, except that ideas are cheap and mean nothing if they aren’t developed and realised in some form!
There’s a lot of content I’d like to work on here – from YA to SF to horror to magical realism to I dunno fuckin’ swords & shit – and I think they’re all ideas worth exploring.
I will not get to explore all of these ideas before I die.
That’s fun to think about.
Alternatively, fuck it all
Thoughts like that – or like ‘we live in a virus-afflicted late-stage-capitalist hellscape to which a heroic dose of ketamine is the only sane response’ – are not especially great for productivity. But it’s hard to divert the brain once it starts wandering down that particular garden path, or to steer it away from concepts like ‘the sunk-cost fallacy’ or ‘the limited opportunities available to Australian writers in a US/UK-dominated publishing marketplace’ or ‘let’s take a heroic dose of ketamine because the future isn’t coming’.
It’s hard some days – these days, right now, in particular – to find a reason to keep trying.
If I was smarter, I’d be capable of giving up.
But that’s not who I am or where we are.
So I guess we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the… okay, this metaphor got away from me, like all the rest.
It was 1987 when Eric B and Rakim laid down this dope apology:
It’s been a long time, I shouldn’t have left you Without a strong rhyme to step to Think of how many weak shows you slept through Time’s up, I’m sorry I kept you
Thirty-three years later and I’m here to revisit this apology again.
It’s been a long time, and I’m sorry I kept y’all hanging, but the wait is finally over.
The Obituarist 3: Delete Your Account is out now.
Kendall Barber is having a very bad day.
His obituarist business is failing, his relationship is on the rocks and he’s pretty sure one of his friends has been murdered. All of that is bad enough – and then his office explodes. Kendall’s past has come back to haunt him, and it’s coming with guns, bombs and a truckload of regrets.
It gets worse from there.
Before the week is out, Kendall will be beaten, burn, torn up and hospitalised. He’ll have to alienate his closest allies and team up with his greatest enemy. He’ll have to talk to young people about internet security, uncover the truth about his friend’s death, avoid getting murdered by at least two separate sets of bad guys… and he’ll have to decide what kind of man he truly wants to be.
It’s too much to deal with.
The solution is obvious: fake his own death and start over again. But that’s easier said than done. Can Kendall stay one step ahead long enough to assemble what he needs to make a fresh start? Or will his enemies – or worse yet, his own stupid conscience – finish him once and for all?
It took me roughly a month to write the first Obituarist novella. The second took around 7-8 months. And the third took somewhere between 3 and 5 years, depending on what point counts as ‘really’ starting work on it.
I could make a lot of apologies for that, but I’ve made those several times by now, so let’s just move on. We’re here now, and the story is worth the wait! I hope!
As for that story… thematically, every book in this series has touched on concepts of not just death, but how we live our lives. The Obituarist was about identity, and how we construct it as a foundation on which to live. Dead Men’s Data was about secrets, and how the ways in which we protect or reveal them give shape to our lives. Delete Your Account… I’m still too close to it, and find the theme a little hard to articulate, but I see it being about endings and beginnings – of projects, of friendships, of enmities, of identities and of lives.
Deep stuff, yes, but it’s also a book full of sarcastic asides, tongue-in-cheek references and big-arse explosions. And it’s a book about change and escalation, inspired sorta-kinda by the ‘trilogy rules’ from Scream 3. Hell, from some angles it’s a book about how my own life and headspace has changed since 2012.
Why write clearly about one thing when you could write messily about a dozen things, that’s what I say. Apparently.
Delete Your Account is on sale right now for $3.99 US, and whatever today’s equivalent is in Aussie dollaridoos. You can get it from Amazon, from Amazon Australia or from Smashwords, and it should be available from other ebook storefronts in a few weeks. (These things propagate slowly, because of reasons.)
If you’re a longtime reader of the series, I hope you enjoy this one – it’s a departure, but one that makes sense, provides closure and is still full of sweary humour and desperate action. If you’re new to the series, well then don’t start reading at the end, you goose, start with the first book! Either way, it would be awesome if you left a review on some platform or another – especially if it’s a positive one. (Negative ones… maybe just email me to share your disappointment.)
It’s been a long time, and a long and winding road. But we’re all here now, and we all need something to read while we’re in isolation.
We’re all struggling to keep sane and safe during this monstrous era of collapse.
I just hope this helps in some small way – it’s the cover for The Obituarist 3!
…yeah, fair enough, probably not that helpful.
But still! We have a cover, thanks to the awesome work of designer Sharni Morter!
We have a story, which I rewrote again on the weekend to make the ending more coherent and more depressing!
And soon – before the end of May, I promise – we’ll have a new ebook for you to buy and read, hopefully doing something to make all of this – <gestures around helplessly> – just a little less dreadful.
If only in comparison to the shit I put Kendall Barber through this time.
Stay safe, stay sane, stay with us. I love youse all.
William Gibson once said, ‘The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed’. I’ve been thinking about that quote a lot in the last few days. About how it was framed as uneven access to positive change, but applies just as well to negative change; about how a grim version of the future might land in some parts of the world, but need time to spread out and take over the rest. How we can feel safe and secure, far away from danger, until suddenly we’re not.
I’ve also been thinking about the way the setting of the Mad Max films changes over the course of the series. In the first film, Max is a highway patrol officer, a cop in a functioning society (albeit one that’s doing it rough, and where eating tinned dog food is just fine). Then the setting – the world, society, environment, notions of what’s ‘normal’ – keeps sliding further and further into the abyss, each new film showing us an Australia that’s more broken, more ruined, more lost. Madder and madder within a man’s lifetime.
…yeah, my head’s not really in a great place, as you can probably tell. It’s my birthday; I’m 49 today. It’s not starting off as being the most enjoyable age, so far.
Fiction involving apocalypses tends to paint them as all-or nothing. If they’re something coming in the future, then they’re something to be averted or prevented. If they occurred in the past they look monolithic, their fine details unimportant.
It’s different when it’s apocalypse right now, when things are falling apart around us in real time. From inside the slowpocalypse we can see the uneven rate and intensity of collapse, the highs and lows, the gradually widening cracks in the foundations of our world.
But then again, maybe that means we have a window of opportunity to do something about it. Because if the End Times aren’t a monolithic moment but a protracted and uneven decline, there are lots of opportunities for optimism, for working together, for helping each other, for making a difference. To move just that little bit faster than the apocalypse before it’s done and dusted.
Right now it’s very difficult to consider what life will be like when I’m 50, whether my life or literally everyone else’s. But I guess we’ll all work it out together.
We have to.
NON-DEPRESSING OBITUARIST 3 UPDATE:
It’s still finished!
I reread the MS after a week of mental downtime and revised a few things that weren’t working.
The revised MS is now with my alpha readers, and I’m hoping to get feedback from them in 2-3 weeks.
The cover is done! I was hoping to share it with you folks today, but I’m still waiting on the final files. Should be able to splash it around this week.
Unless things go disastrously wrong – and that’s a caveat for pretty much everyone and everything right now – we’re still on track to publish in late April.
So stay tuned! For as long as that remains possible!
In case you missed it on the socials last night: I’ve finished the foundation draft of The Obituarist III: Delete Your Account.
The draft comes to almost 30 000 words, making it the longest book in the series – which befits a book that took more than three years to write.
Well, to be accurate, most of those three years were taken up with other activities – accruing mental fatigue, dealing with depression, working day jobs, losing days jobs, getting new day jobs, moving house twice, dealing with loss and the ever-popular wastinhg my life playing video games.
But still. I got there in the end.
Of course, this is just the start. I need to do a round of last-minute tweaks that keep occuring to me, run it past my alpha readers and respond to their feedback, have it copyedited, finalise the cover, try to do some (shudder) self-promotion…
This is a super-quick post just to note that last week I joined the #AuthorsforFireys program on Twitter, where authors auctioned off books, stories, naming rights, artwork, services and much more to raise money for bushfire relief charities and programs.
(Sure, in a perfect world the government would do that with our tax dollars, but hah hah hah well shit that ain’t this world)
Anyway, I didn’t have a huge amount of things to auction off, but I want to thank everyone who voted on my two offers, as well as the two stars who won:
Dave Versace, who donated $125 to charity in exchange for me using his name for the main bad guy in The Obituarist 3.
David Naylor of Faded Print Games, who donated $150 in exchange for me doing some editorial and development work on their forthcoming RPG Time Without Tide.
Both of these gentlemen are deadset legends, and I’m beyond grateful that they were willing to make the financial effort to help recovery efforts.
Right, it’s been a while between drinks. But rather than dwell on all that, let’s start the new year by focusing on the important things.
That was the year that was
Looking back at previous blog entries, I tend to be bitter this time of year, and ready to discard the past 12 months to the dustbin of history.
2016: it sucked and I got the depression
2017: ‘die screaming, year of fuck’
2018: I literally got a tattoo saying ‘I am going to make it through this year if it kills me’
And now 2019, arguably the most horribilus of this last set of annus, is over and done with. Thank fuck. My 2019 wasn’t all that great but vanishes into nothingness when considering those folks whose homes and families burned, sank, exploded or were doomed to suffer Brexit after all. Let’s respect their survival by jettisoning 2019 and moving forward to a year that… okay, it’s going to have a lot of problems, but perhaps we can handle them together.
State of the Patrick
Blimey, that was a bit self-indulgent, wasn’t it? Sorry, I haven’t had much sleep.
As noted, I encountered a few challenges last year – suddenly moving house, suddenly changing not just job but career (still writing/editing, no longer publishing), health problems, the relentless grind of getting old, Australia electing a happyclapper sociopath as friggin’ PM, the slow erosion of my attention span, the feeling that all creative work is pointless because we’ll all be dead in a few more years… you know, shit like that.
Yet despite all that, I’m actually pretty upbeat! Not about Earth and humanity, of course – we’re facing a global crisis that we have to overcome or go extinct. But personally, I’m starting 2020 with a less stressful job, more energy and enthusiasm most days, more time for writing & reading and more determination to finish the projects I’ve started, and to move on to new ones and finish them too.
That determination may sound pretty fundamental to the notion of being a writer, but believe me, it’s been hard for me to find for the last few years. Having a positive mindset in my arsenal should make a big difference to, you know, writing some damn books.
Writing some damn books
I had three writing project goals at the start of last year: finish and self-publish The Obituarist 3, completing the novella trilogy; do a major revision pass through Raven’s Blood to address feedback, then start shopping the MS to agents again; and to start work on a new YA urban fantasy wrestling series that I still haven’t named.
I met exactly none of those goals.
But that’s not to say I didn’t make an effort. After a shaky start to the year for reasons, I continued working on The Obituarist 3, since that was already partially written. I won’t claim that I worked on it steadily, but I put in time nearly every week – yet despite that, progress was slow. The first Obituarist novella was written at a cracking pace, one 1000-ish-words chapter each night; now it was taking well over a week to put a chapter together, and I often wasn’t fully satisfied with the finished pieces.
But I kept pushing at it, hoping that I could at least finish the foundation draft by New Year’s Eve. I got close to that milestone, and I could have met it – except that, one day and a few chapters from the end, the story just stopped working. I knew where the plot needed to go, and I could see a path of how to get to that point, but it was a bad path, paved with unconvincing character decisions and lacking the right thematic, uh, let’s say tollgates.
Stymied with my goal in sight, I chewed the problem over during a hot, insomniac night, and realised the problem at 3am – I’d screwed up a third of the book. Specifically, I’d screwed up the mystery plotline running through the story, while focusing all my attention on the thriller plotline and coming up with smartarse lines to repost on Twitter. The roadblock was the point where the two plotlines finally connected – or failed to connect. They felt like they belonged in different books, anchored in different characters who made different emotional choices.
It’s a hot mess.
But understanding a problem is the first step to fixing it, and last night I worked out a solution. Not a quick & easy solution, mind you – I have to write a couple of new chapters in the first half of the book, tweak every other chapter, and rethink the motivations and decisions of several major characters. Still, less work than chucking it all out and starting again, and less terrible than writing a book that even I thought was crap.
Once that’s done in 2-3 weeks (maybe), there’s still taking in editorial and alpha reader feedback, formatting the final MS for e-readers, sorting out the cover (I need a new designer) and working through the Amazon/Smashwords self-pub process. I figure the book should be out around… early April?
After that, it’s Raven’s Blood time; that book need to be 10% punchier and 20% smoochier. Will see how that process begins before predicting outcomes, timelines and next projects.
Oh, and there’s this thing.
Passage through Bloglandia
‘Dead’ is too strong, but I do think the blogging medium has been pretty badly wounded by social media and podcasting. It can survive, but it’ll take effort.
This specific blog may not be quite dead, but it’s been on life support for years, edging closer and closer to the point where its children pull the plug despite euthanasia being illegal, and hang on I’m sorry this metaphor has gotten away from me.
Anyway, it’s long past time that I make a decision about whether this blog continues, and I actually put in some effort to writing more than four posts a year, or whether I shutter it, focus the PODcom site on project blurbs and sales links, and just spray my fragmented meandering bullshit on Facebook and Twitter from now on.
Ultimately, though, it’s not my decision, gentle reader – it’s yours, assuming that a) you exist and b) you have a strong opinion on the matter. If you meet both those criteria, please leave a comment and share your thoughts. If you neither care nor exist – and frankly, I suspect the audience of this site is 99% imaginary – then your silence will speak for you.
Wait, sorry, that sounded creepy
2020 – time for the Guru
It’s 2020, gang.
Let’s make it science fiction rather than hindsight.
I’ve had something on my mind for a while now, but I didn’t feel like it was the right time to get into. It was too soon. Our wounds were still too raw.
But months have gone by, and it’s time to finally step up and admit it.
Avengers Endgame was kind of a mess, y’all.
I’M SORRY BUT YOU KNOW IT’S TRUE
Why was it a mess? Lots of reasons, but two in particular I want to talk about – plot holes and story flaws.
…wait, aren’t those kind of the same thing?
No! And that’s the thing that I actually want to discuss and unpack, using Avengers Endgame (and another piece of media that I’ll get to presently) as my go-to example.
Do I need to tell you that there will be spoilers? Oh my, so many spoilers. Read on at your own risk.
I mean, the film was fun. I liked most of it a lot! And I jumped up and down in my chair like a giddy child when – and here’s the first spoiler – Captain America picked up Mjolnir and used it to smack Thanos in the face. It wasn’t a surprise, but it was very satisfying.
But someone on Twitter said that Endgame was a better experience than it was a movie, and that’s about right. It was a movie terribly susceptible to fridge logic – those moments days or weeks later when you open the fridge, look inside and think ‘hey, wait, that thing in that movie didn’t make much sense!’
Those moments are usually the times when we notice plot holes – ways in which the logical flow of a plot fails. Plots need to have a flow from A to B to C, even if that flow is sometimes only visible when looking back from C. Is that obvious? Yeah, maybe, but this post is about how these terms get confused, so I might as well kick off with some definitions.
Let’s start with a little one – Rhodey changes War Machine armours between scenes without explanation, shifting from black-and-grey to big-bulky-red. Plot hole! And one that doesn’t matter! This kind of minor continuity error might bother a few people, but that portion of the plot flow isn’t too important in the overall scheme of things.
The hole that matters is a lot bigger. And that is – how the hell did Thanos and his army of minions time travel to fight the Avengers? You can’t time travel without a dose of Pym Particles, but the team have just enough to make their own round trips. There’s no scene where the bad guys get more, no explanation of how they break the rules the film spends aaaaaaages detailing, unpacking and using to propel the plot forward.
That, friends, is a bonafide, load-bearing plot hole. As is the question about how geriatric Steve Rogers popped up at the end of the film; once again, this breaks the rules the movie already established, which stated that going into the past created alternate timelines. He couldn’t have been there all along – so how did he get there?
The question is always ‘how’ with a plot hole. It’s mechanical, it’s about process; it’s linking up that chain of causality.
Now, in this case, the Russo brothers have apparently addressed these plot holes (and others) after the fact, saying ‘one of Thanos’ henchmen made some Pym Particles’ and ‘other timeline inventors came up with a way to get Steve across.’ It must be so liberating to just say, after the fact, ‘oh, there’s an explanation that makes sense if you accept that the movie has an objective reality outside what we filmed’ and to have (some) people accept it. Kind of makes you wonder why you’d bother with a plot at all, rather than just three hours of CGI explosions and then naked Stan Lee saying ‘A wizard did it!’ in the post-credits scene.
For the rest of us, plot holes need to be fixed before the book/movie/game is out in the world. Luckily, they usually aren’t that hard to fix. ‘How’ questions have fairly straightforward answers, because they’re (once again) about process. Just work out an explanation, then write a scene or two to insert that explanation and then smooth over the edges. It’s work, but it doesn’t have to be incredibly hard work. Logic can guide you.
Logic is your friend. It’s here for you. Even though you never call.
But it’s not always easy finding logic when you need it, because in these benighted end time, people – and I mean internet people – tend to slap the PLOT HOLE sticker onto anything that they don’t like or understand in a piece of media.
Case in point – I’m not linking to it, ’cause I forgot the address and also can’t be bothered, but there was a fansite that listed multiple instances of ‘The Avengers changed stuff in the past, but it didn’t cause a paradox!’ as plot holes in Endgame. And I’m like… buddy, work on your comprehension skills! That stuff was specifically called out within the film as not causing paradoxes! There were whole scenes devoted to explaining that changing the past actually just creates a new timeline – which, okay, is one of the things that set up that whole Old Steve thing I mentioned earlier.
But yeah – sometimes a ‘plot hole’ is just the audience missing something. And try as you might, you can’t make your plot points foolproof. You just gotta move on.
A much bigger point of confusion is when a ‘plot hole’ is actually a story flaw. And that’s a much more complex thing to unpack.
Quick question: what’s the difference between plot and story? Here’s my take:
Plot: a series of things happen
Story: a series of things happen for reasons
It’s super-reductive but it works – a story is a plot with purpose, rather than just a chain of events. A problem with the story is a problem with those reasons and purpose, not the chains of connection. The links are there – they just don’t feel right.
For me, the big story flaw in Endgame was Steve Rogers decided ‘fuck it, I’ve done enough, going back to the past to dance with my sweetheart for 60 years and retire’. That decision doesn’t click with what we’ve seen of him in the movies up to this point (and absolutely doesn’t work with the character as developed in the comics, but that’s a whole different nerd-argument). The story needed to provide the right context to underpin and justify that decision, which it didn’t; instead, it’s basically just waving it off and moving on.
A story flaw is a why question. Why did that happen? Why did this character make that decision? Why do I find this story emotionally unsatisfying? These are outcome questions, context questions; they’re harder to pin down than how questions, and the answers are murky and unreliable. A fix for one reader/viewer may not work for another, and definitely won’t work for a third. But still, they need to be addressed – if only to the point where you’re happy with your solution and think it makes emotional sense.
The other issue with story flaws is that, well, sometimes they say less about your work and more about your audience. Which is where we turn to our second example piece of media – Game of Thrones.
I’ll be honest up front – haven’t watched it. Haven’t watched any of it. Never plan to, either! But I am aware of its details through geek osmosis and the omnipresent discourse. And thus I am aware that its ending was… controversial? Many people on the ‘webs thought that the ruler of Westeros should have been someone other than Boy Who Looks Like an Sleepy Ferret. To me, that sounds like a story flaw.
Meanwhile, some of the other commentary around that last season was ‘How is Arya Stark so competent, given that she’s a girl and therefore sucks?’ Which sounds like someone’s prejudices dangling in their face like a flaccid dick flopping down from their forehead. And also sounds like about 75% of online geek discussion.
And it can be hard to tell the difference (sometimes) between ‘this doesn’t make sense to me for valid reasons’ and ‘this doesn’t make sense to me because women/PoC/LGBT folks/I-dunno-Norwegians shouldn’t have agency’. Because both those statements are framed the same way, and both get stated (or shouted) a lot in these dying days of human civilisation. So we need to bear that in mind when hearing criticism that speaks to whether something ‘makes sense’.
When presented with a how problem, you get to work. When presented with a why question, you need to dig deeper and decide whether you agree before you try to fix things – or not.
So… why go into this in so much depth? Or at least length? Well, because ‘plot hole’ gets bandied around far too much, and I think it’s good to distinguish between problems. And because the Endgame thing was nagging at me, and I needed to find a way to unpack that.
And maybe because this year’s batch of Seasonal Affective Disorder is finally wearing off, and I wanted to write something for a change.
And I did.
Anyway. Fix the things that need fixing. Be clear about which things don’t need fixing, and which audience members can be ignored and ideally jettisoned. Don’t sign over your kingdom to Baby Liam Gallagher.
And remember to include the goddamn Pym Particle scene next time. I swear to god.
One notable thing about the 2010s is how many popular concepts from the 20th century are getting a revival. Some of those popular things are bad, like measles and Nazism. Others are good, like D&D and audio drama.
Let’s focus on the good for the moment. It’s a great time for RPG actual play podcasts, also known as ‘let’s listen to total strangers playing D&D for two hours as if that’s somehow entertaining rather than torturous’.
I kid, I kid. I used to think listening to other people roleplay was incomprehensible, but now an embarrassingly large proportion of my podcast playlist is taken up with AP ‘casts. They’re a good way to learn how other players/GMs approach games, after all – and god help me, the best of them are entertaining.
(The worst… look, it’s real easy to unsubscribe to a bad podcast 2 minutes after starting it.)
The successful ‘casts also have big fan followings – again, a concept none of us thought was possible or sane back in the day. The people, they LOVE listening to the D&D. They tweet about it. They tumble it. They patron it.
Anyway, if you check out social media activity around AP casts, or indeed any other form of audio drama/comedy/etc., the number one thing that comes through is that listeners, desperately, desperately want to know what these characters look like.
And that baffles me.
The thing I find least interesting, the thing I skip over in any book, the fast-forward-or-fuck-it-delete-the-whole-thing trigger in any audio medium… it’s what people look like. It’s descriptions of clothing. Of facial features. Of ohfuckmedead hair colour. Tell me about the character’s ringlets and freckles and I’m putting down the book/’cast in favour of strong drink.
Look, I get it. I know I’m wrong. I’m the weird one here. It’s utterly natural for human beings, a species that (mostly) uses sight as their primary way of perceiving all of existence, to want that sense reflected in their fiction.
But fuuuuuuuuuck it bores me.
I blame Raymond Chandler, as I often do. He taught me that you could describe characters through metaphor and simile without ever specifying what colour pants they were wearing. Consider lines like:
From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.
He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.
She had eyes like strange sins.
(Yes, I know Chandler described people more thoroughly at other times, and even what they were wearing. Don’t blow up my spot, I’m on a roll.)
I read lines like that at an impressionable age, too young or dumb to register Chandler’s misanthropy, misogyny, homophobia or general shittiness as a person, and they stuck with me. To the point where I struggle to engage with any prose or audio that takes the time to spell out all the details, and to where I look at fanart and clamourings for ‘official’ artwork of podcast characters as some kind of missive from an alternate reality that I would prefer not to visit, thank you.
The principle holds true in my writing. The best description I ever wrote of a character was ‘He had a face like a stab’. That suggests not only what the character looks like (sort of), it speaks to his personality and attitude – and to the personality and thought processes of the narrator that described him.
(I abandoned the project that included that description. But I swear I’ll use it again someday.)
But here’s the thing, and the reason why this is a blog post rather than a grumpy tweet – I realise this might be a problem. That readers – the readers I want to obtain and retain – like knowing what people look like. Especially in YA fiction, which I have decided to keep plugging away at like a punch-drunk bantamweight too concussed to know when to quit.
(Hmm. Might keep that Chandlerism too.)
So with Raven’s Blood, I started working on describing characters more. I’m not sure I succeeded. But as I start planning the next, hopefully final revision pass through that MS in a hope of finding it a home, and indeed to start writing the next novel, descriptions – of characters, clothing, places – are something I’m trying to focus on. And to find some middle ground between a five-word simile and a page-long then I looked in the mirror and listed all of my cute identifying traits monologue. Surely I can manage that.
(As for The Obituarist series… Kendall Barber’s skinny, bald and missing some fingers. And honestly I’m not sure he’s that skinny any more, 5-6 years on. I couldn’t tell you any more than that, and I hope you don’t ask.)
So that’s where my head is right now. Chime in with a comment if you’re so inclined. How important are visual descriptions or depictions to you? Do you feel the need to imagine what characters look like? And what kind of descriptive shorthand (if any) works for you?
BORING PRODUCTIVITY UPDATE: We moved house in the long gap between this post and the last, and I took a lot of concentration-destroying painkillers to cope with a knee injury.
But now we’re settled, I’m (mostly) off the drugs and walking straight, and I’m past the halfway mark on The Obituarist III. Which is proving to have a remarkable number of scenes in which Kendall is just wandering around without pants on.
Okay, so this post starts by talking about improv theatre, then moves into roleplaying, then into writing, then maybe back and forth between gaming and writing for a bit?
I dunno, I’m writing this bit at the start. Which is probably a bad move.
Anyhoo, moving on.
One of the truisms of improv theatre – which I used to do a lot of back in my 20s, a revelation that should shock exactly no-one – is that you never block an offer. An ‘offer’, in this case, is an idea from your co-improviser, or the audience, or whoever, and ‘blocking’ is the act of shutting that idea down.
The obvious block is saying ‘no’ and negating someone’s offer:
‘Good lord, Holmes, how will you solve this mystery while you’re all fucked up on cocaine?’
‘What are you talking about? I’m not Sherlock Holmes and I’ve never touched drugs.’
More subtly, you can block an offer by saying ‘yes’ to it, but not actually building on that offer – you accept the suggestion but don’t take it anywhere.
‘Good lord, Holmes, how will you solve this mystery while you’re all fucked up on cocaine?’
‘I don’t know, Watson. My reasoning skills have shut down due to all this coke.’
So the rule that improv students internalise is ‘yes and’ – you accept the offer and you extend or build on it.
‘Good lord, Holmes, how will you solve this mystery while you’re all fucked up on cocaine?’
‘You fool, Watson! This cocaine energises my reasoning faculties, leading me to the inescapable conclusion that you murdered all these fish cultists!’
Once you get enough experience, you realise that ‘yes and’ has its own problems, and there are other ways to manage offers, but it works at the start. And it’s such a simple, powerful principle that it’s managed to escape the gravity well of improv and get taken up in other creative quarters, such as gaming and writing.
But I’m not convinced that that’s always for the best.
Okay, moving on to gaming, specifically roleplaying.
99% of RPGs involve some kind of success/failure mechanic – either at the granular task level or the larger scene level. D&D kept it simple at first – everything was pass/fail, succeed or don’t. Over time, critical successes and failures crept into the lexicon – you could get a very good success with extra benefits, or a very bad failure with extra you-drop-your-sword-and-your-pants-at-the-same-time.
Over the course of, jesus shit, 45 years(!) (!!!), RPGs (as a whole) have expanded to allowing six different levels of payoff or detail in success/failure outcomes. We can define these using the language of improv, which has definitely influenced RPG discourse:
Yes-and: You succeed and you get something more in addition
Yes: You succeed and you get what you want
Yes-but: You succeed but something goes wrong, or you get somewhat less than what you want
No-but: You fail but something else goes right, or you get something to mitigate the failure
No: You fail and don’t get what you want
No-and: You fail and something else goes wrong; it’s even worse than not getting what you want
Over the last few years I’ve been running a lot of games that lean into the more complex outcomes, such as the various Powered by the Apocalypse games, and spinoffs like the excellent Blades in the Dark. These games generally revolve around four outcomes:
These aren’t equal weightings; yes-and is vanishingly rare (if it’s an option at all), while no-and comes up all the damn time. More importantly, a straight no is off the table. You can’t just fail and hit a wall; failures always add complications to the story. (As do some successes.)
As a GM, this is fuckin’ awesome. I want complications, I want messiness – goddamnit, I WANT DRAMA. And I love that these systems not just give me opportunities for that drama, but that most of these games give me guidance about what kind of drama and complications will suit the story we’re putting together.
But – you knew there’d be a but – I’ve come to realise that this kind of dynamic doesn’t always work for players. There are players that find this frustrating or stressful, because nothing is ever straightforward or low-stakes. Obstacles never just sit still, or allow characters breathing room to try again or think of new approaches. When everything is shifting and dynamic, aiming for maximum drama, some players feel stressed and pressured, missing the chance to brush off low-stakes failures and move on.
And to be 100% clear, there’s nothing wrong with feeling this way. Games are meant to be fun; if a players isn’t having fun, that’s not their fault, but the fault of the game/game-master for not meeting players’ needs.
Thinking about this kind of GM-player divide has made me think about what players get out of games, and what readers get out of stories. Sometimes we don’t want drama; sometimes we want harmony, or simplicity, or just relief from this dumpster fire of a world.
We need to remember that sometimes we want stories to help us feel happy.
Which brings us, FINALLY, to the writing part of the post.
Here’s the thing about writers – we love to fuck over our characters.
WE LOVE TO SHOVE OUR CHARACTERS FACE-FIRST INTO THE DRAMA TOILET AND FLUSH FLUSH YEAH TASTE THAT DRAMA AND PEE-WATER FLUSH
But is that what our readers always want? Is that always what’s best for the story? Does everything have to be yes-and/no-but all the time? Or is there room to pull the stakes back – to make some challenges less dramatic and more enjoyable or even cathartic for the reader? To live in the land of yes/yes-and and have no truck with no-but?
And if we do that, how do we show it?
In fiction, yes and no outcomes tend to be kind of invisible. If your daring thief/spy easily sneaks past the guards, the story usually skips past that scene in one line to get to the dramatic bit. If they fail to slip past but don’t get caught, the next scene is usually them acknowledging that, trying something different and focusing on that instead. Simple outcomes don’t translate well into prose; all of our tools are about portraying the tension and drama of complex outcomes. ‘Thank U, next’ works for songs, not so much for stories.
But I think we need to consider this, especially in a ‘tumultuous’ (i.e. THE WORLD IS ON FIRE) time when so many readers look to fiction for support and comfort as much as they do challenge and drama. We need to think about easy victories and minor defeats – what they can add to our stories, and how we portray them in ways that develop and cement our characters.
Because without these small victories, these cankers and medallions (yes that’s a reference sorry), some of the readers that we want to engage are going to bounce off out stories.
And fool that I am, I want to engage everyone. I want us all to get the yes (and occasional yes-and) outcomes that we crave.
WRITING UPDATE: I’m about halfway through The Obituarist 3: Delete Your Account and there is precious little yes/yes-and in this story. I’m okay with this; after Kendall got his [REDACTED] bitten [NOPE] by a [SPOILERS] in the second book, I figure what few readers remain are reconciled to him having nothing but bad days from now on.
I too am having bad days, though – specifically, days where our lease doesn’t get renewed and we have to look for a new house YET AGAIN. This will likely slow down my writing schedule, ‘cos house hunting is a full-time occupation rivalled only by the actual packing and moving process.
But I’m keeping at it. Will let you know how it goes.