Category Archives: obituarist

Demanding better

Tonight is Real Talk Night.

There will be no jokes.

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

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

1208 - Obituarist-ol - new

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

That’s the aim.

Sometimes I fall short.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That doesn’t make anything better, I know.

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

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

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

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

Thanks and goodnight.

Breaking all the rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or something like that.

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

Someone pay me to write this.

Hell, someone dare me to write this.

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

…still. Man. That’s a tempting idea…

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

O2 Amazon sales


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

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

O2 SW sales


Can you spot the common theme?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now on sale – The Obituarist II

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

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

ObituaristII-PDuffyWho’s settling accounts for the dead?

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

Who’s playing games with the living?

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

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

Who’s in over his head? Again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

Read it like a virgin

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

Slice away the weak spots

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

Re-connect all your pipes

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

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

Kill your darlings, yes, but also birth new ones

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

Don’t fix what ain’t broke

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



Burn notice

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

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

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

(But I wish you were.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Diving into Dead Men’s Data

Welcome to June, or as I call it, The Month (and a half) in Which I Write Another Bloody Novella.

Yes, the omens are clear, the nights are still warm enough to write without losing a finger and I won’t have my Raven’s Blood notes back until the end of July, so it’s time to knuckle down on The Obituarist II: Dead Men’s Data!

1208 - Obituarist-ol - newThis book has been on the agenda since, well, pretty much since people finished reading The Obituarist – still available from all fine ebook retailers, and also Amazon – and started demanding a sequel. I wrote the short story ‘Inbox Zero’ as a quick thank-you to tide them over, but that was ages ago. Now, two years since I published that first story about Kendall Barber, social media undertaker, it’s time to visit Port Virtue again and see what’s hiding under its grease-stained rocks.

This time around, Kendall is hired to disentangle the online affairs of the late, unloved Earl Northanger, a scrap metal tycoon who killed himself in his private zoo. At the same time, he reluctantly takes on a job for a Port Virtue police captain whose online identity was hacked – and he’s being pursued by a local journalist who wants to find out all his secrets. And Kendall has more secrets than anyone else might think.

The world of the digital afterlife industry is again the focus for this second book – a world that’s had some interesting developments in two years, a world that’s no longer so unfamiliar to people. But Dead Men’s Data also explores some other ideas – secrets, lies, death, identity, Nazis, poor tattooing decisions, unexamined privilege, urban decay, the speed at which limbs decay in cement and more.

It also has a fight between a badger and a baboon, because I don’t know why just roll with it.

Anyway, this is the start of the writing process, and I’m hoping to get through this book faster than the last couple. The target is around 24 000 words, writing a full 1000-word-odd chapter (two pages of manuscript, because I find it’s easier to calibrate by page than paragraph) a night, four nights a week for six weeks. I could write it faster than that if I knuckled down – my friend Peter Ball is cranking out 2000 words of novella a day, because he’s hugely talented and works hard. I, on the other hand, have both a terrible work ethic and I’m (as usual) pantsing the hell out of this book. I know the start, I have a pretty good vision of the end, there are some snapshots in the middle… and then the writing process is a day of typing, a day of checking my Port Virtue map, looking through all my digital-afterlife-links and working out what the hell to do next.

(That approach also tends to mean I miss that 1000-word target at the start of the book, but nail chapters thick and fast by the end. It’s all much easier when you have some idea what you’re doing. I should probably learn from that. But I won’t.)

Anyway, enough talk of process – let’s wrap this up with the WORLDWIDE EXCLUSIVE first glimpse of the novella-in-progress! (Please note, this is unedited, untweaked and not yet funny-clever enough. But it’s a start.)


ECCENTRIC MILLIONAIRE COMMITS SUICIDE-BY-BEAR read the headline. The subtitle underneath directly contradicted it – Scrap metal tycoon Earl Northanger shoots himself; body mauled by bear in his private zoo – but who reads subtitles? The headline was pure print-clickbait and it did the job of grabbing eyeballs and sales. God knows the Port Virtue Voice and Advertiser needed them.

‘I’m very sorry for your loss,’ I said to my new client. That sounds like a lame platitude, but it’s usually the right thing to say to someone in mourning. You’re not saying you know how they feel, you’re not claiming to also be in mourning. You’re just expressing a personal sympathy for them and the difficulties they’re having in their time of grief.

Imogene Northanger shrugged; she didn’t seem especially grief-stricken. ‘My grandfather and I weren’t what you would call close, Mister Barber,’ she said. ‘I just want to focus on sorting out his affairs, execute his will and then go back home.’

‘Understood,’ I said, and mentally trashed the remainder of my sympathetic-yet-professional-in-this-difficult-time routine. Fortunately I could use the let’s-get-this-over-with routine instead. I had a bunch of these filed away in my head; I’d practiced them in front of the mirror.

I tried to give her back her newspaper; when she waved it away, I put the Voice and Advertiser to one side. In truth I’d read the paper a few days ago when it was new, although I’d only skimmed the story on Old Man Northanger. I was more interested in the story about the human remains being recovered from the bridge construction site, which had already faded back to page four. There was also a story about me on page twelve, but that was a problem for another time.

Ms Northanger was a well-dressed, well-accessorised woman in her I-would-guess-forties, with short hair and square-rimmed glasses, and when she took those glasses off it was an obvious signal that she was ready to Tell it Like it Was.

‘Let’s just cut the bullshit, Mister Barber. My grandfather was racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic – if it wasn’t like him, he hated it and he let everyone know it. Family gatherings were dire at best, at worst… it was a relief when I came out and the family just shitcanned the whole idea of ever getting together in case it gave him apoplexy. I’m sure he was furious that I was the only family he had left, and if he’d realised that I’d be the one made executor of his will he would have broken his neck sprinting to change it. But too bad for him. Now I just want to wrap up his affairs, sell off his assets, put him in the ground and get the hell out of this town once and for all. Can you help me with that?’

 Oh, I liked this lady. She was not at home to Mister Fucking About.

 More to come. Watch this space. And so on.

Beware the ides of May

I know I said I would take time off after finishing the foundation draft of Raven’s Blood, and I have. More or less.

But May has had other ideas, and in fact it’s been a bit hectic down on the ranch this last while. Some of that hecticness has been respectable and productive, and some of it has involved the kind of aggressive, determined sloth that accomplishes nothing but leaves you nonetheless exhausted.

…holy shit, that is a really scary-looking aggressive sloth. Calm the fuck down, man. Have a burrito or something.

Anyway, in lieu of a more substantive post – that may come next weekend, once I regrow some updates – here’s a swag of updates, links and disconnected bits. Which is pretty much like the rest of the internet, I guess.

Continuum X is in two weeks! The programme is out now, and you’ll find that I am speaking on a number of panels, as if I had something to say rather than just being some random yahoo off the street. Those are:

  • Remembering Iain Banks
  • It’s All Been Done: Writing in the Age of TV Tropes
  • Modern Roleplaying

Those are all on Monday 9 June, the last day of the con, so come along to hear my too-rapid ramblings after you’ve had your fill of everything and everyone else. On the other days, look for me in the local bars, especially if they’re karaoke bars; I have a feeling some of the GenreCon crowd and I are going to want to belt out ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ over a couple of tequilas.

As we all know, when I’m not writing I’m slacking off playing games, and I felt I deserved to play something  after April’s efforts. So I borrowed Batman: Arkham Origins from a co-worker, and thanks to some time off caused by mild food poisoning (yay) I was able to play it all the way through over a couple of weeks.

And I kinda liked it! I played Arkham City a few years back, and you may recall that while I enjoyed the gameplay I thought the story and tone was aaaaallll over the shop, and that the constant misogyny just ground all the joy out of playing. Well, Origins avoids the worst of that; it has a clear, consistent direction and it knows where to draw the storytelling line to keep everything hanging together. The core storyline – Batman fights a horde of assassins in the course of one night while early in his career – stays the course, while the side adventures never drift too far away from that in mood. (And it avoids misogyny largely by having no female characters to speak off, but that’s sadly predictable.) There’s even an honest-to-god character arc.

Of course it’s still overly grimdark to the point of being goofy, Batman is a violent thug and everything in Gotham is on fire ALL THE TIME, but that seems to be the established norm for this character now. While the addition of more detective-oriented plot bits is welcome, they all boil down to [push button to have Alfred identify murderer for you], the end-game is anti-climatic, and it runs into the problem all prequels do in that it has to try to foreshadow everything that comes later.

But still. Pretty fun. Definitely worth the nothing I paid for it.

In other gaming, I finished my other ongoing RPG campaign, the extremely intermittent Weird-West game Tribulation. We were a long time getting to the end, but I think it was worth it.

It was a strange ending, though, one that took in time travel and paradoxes, and pushed those to the point of rewriting everything that had gone before. That’s a hard road for a story to follow, and it’s made me think a fair bit about the nature of stories like that, the need for foreshadowing (and how to make that work), and whether you can end a story with ‘this story didn’t happen’ while still making it satisfying for the audience for whom it did.

Hmm. More thoughts on that later, perhaps – especially once I see X-Men: Days of Future Past, which looks to be trying to pull off something similar. Hopefully their special effects budget is bigger than mine. Although will they have as many Dr Who references? Probably not, he said smugly.

My dog continues to be pretty freakin’ cute.

The Emerging Writers Festival starts this week! I’m not involved in it this year, but if I get organised I’ll be heading off to various events and seeing how many friendly faces I recognise. If you’re headed that way, let me know what you’re going to and maybe we can have a play date. Come on, motivate me; don’t let me slack off.

Speaking of writing, the first couple of alpha-reader reviews have come back on Raven’s Blood, and they’re pretty positive. I think. I haven’t really looked at them; I’m trying to keep that book out of my head entirely for a while until I’m ready to rewrite.

In the meantime, I just finished a short story for an anthology that… actually, I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about that yet. But it’s an odd little piece that was fun to write; let’s hope the editor likes it.

And then next week, to kick off June, I begin work on the next book, for which I can finally reveal the title:


The Obituarist II: Dead Men’s Data


Yes, the continuing adventures of Kendall Barker, um, continue. Come back to the poorly-swept streets of Port Virtue for another tale of death, social media and spreadsheet abuse! There’ll be thrills! Spills! Returning characters! New characters! Poor life choices! Swearing! And some bits that I hope take readers by surprise.

The plan is to write this novella throughout June, aiming for a total of around 24 000 words by the start of July ready to hand over to test readers and my editor. (Who I also have to hire again, along with my cover designer.) I found a good rhythm with the first novella, punching out one 1000-odd word chapter each night; if I can get that vibe again I should easily be able to hit the deadline while still taking time off a few nights each week for nerding and bourbon.

And once that’s done, it’ll be time for Raven’s Blood rewrites.

This momentum is probably good.

I may need defibrillation by August.

Month of maps – The Obituarist

Having put up my cruddy Word-drawn map of Crosswater last week to deafening acclaim – I must be deaf as I didn’t hear anything – I’d like to follow up with my map of Port Virtue, the seedy seaside city that is the setting of The Obituarist. It’s equally cruddy, but I think it shows how different stories have very different priorities, and how place can work very differently.

And now, through the magic of <insert text box>, I give you:

Port Virtue

What the hell kind of map is this? I mean, last week’s attempt was a bit rubbish, but it least it had some proper features like rivers. This is just some words and an arrow pointing north – might as well be a mind map!

Well, yes – and it nearly was a mind map, but that started getting messy.

Tone first, geography second

When I looked back through The Obituarist to make this map – because I’d never drawn or envisioned one while writing it – I discovered that there was only one statement about a physical direction in the entire book. (Someone says ‘west side’ towards the end of the novella.) And yet Port Virtue is clear in my head – a run-down faded city of harsh lights, broken concrete and crappy nightlife – and readers have said to me that it’s been vivid for them as well. But all of that comes out through tone and from individual scenes, rather than how those scenes and places sit alongside each other.

Not every story needs a map, and not every map needs to show physical things. This diagram shows me tone more than anything else – there’s the boring part of town, a shitty part, a wet part where people probably get drowned, a relatively nice parts my stories will probably never visit and so on. Even though I have a rough direction marker, thanks to that one bit of dialogue, the important thing is seeing that if Kendall goes back to the crappy part (and he will) then it gets even crappy further out; if he stays at home he’ll get bored; if he goes into the middle of town there are cops on his arse again. That’s what I need and that’s what I think my readers want, more than a sense that Kendall can see the Brick House from his balcony.

1208 - Obituarist-ol - newPiecing things together

As I said, I made this map after the fact (specifically I made it last night), and most of that work was trying to work out where various locations fit into my… let’s call it a ‘tonal gradient’ because it makes me sound clever. That’s an interesting experience – like trying to puzzle out directions that I’d forgotten I’d written, possibly due to drunkenness at some point.

It’s like – okay, D-Block’s hideout is on the waterfront, that’s obvious. But the Brick House is in the shitty industrial part of town, and that turned out to be on the other side of the city. The biker lab must also be over there, because it’s crappy as fuck – but it’s in an old housing district, so it’s probably near a residential area, and probably the boring part rather than the nicer part. Where should I put the storage place? Waterfront sounds good.

It’s part detective work, part jigsaw puzzle, part throwing shit to see where it sticks – and it’s kind of fun. If your story is done and you never created a map for it, there can be value in going back to it and working out where everything goes, whether physically or conceptually. It can help you see connections that hadn’t occurred to you, suggest ideas for further events and even encourage dreams where the old Clint Eastwood biker guy has brunch with Benny Boorns.

Um. Yeah.

No districts, no place names, no fiddle-dee-dee

The Obituarist is around 22 000 words long. I ain’t got time to be naming things! I can’t indulge my little fetish for portmanteaus; place names chew up wordcount every time they appear. Ditto descriptions of places as discrete units, or attempts to flesh out the context of the snippets of space I have for setting scenes. No, no time for that; just tone and purpose, that’s all there’s room for.

You write to fill the space you want; you edit down to fill the space you need. And if something isn’t actually useful in the story – a description, a place name, a WELCOME TO SHITSVILLE ACRES PLEASE COME AGAIN street sign – then cut that crap out. Or don’t write it in the first place.

A shame. Shitsville Acres is really quite lovely in the spring.

Room to expand

Like most modern cities, I figure Port Virtue doesn’t have a wall around it or a distinct start and finish. One moment you’re driving down a rutted highway, then you pass some crappy houses and burned-out trucks, and a couple of minutes later you’re being carjacked in a traffic jam and wishing you’d gone to Zurich for your holiday. Cities are smears on the landscape, and a lack of a formal boundary helps give that sense of reality to your place.

It also gives room to add more detail as ideas and stories demand. The cliffs and the Jericho estate come from the semi-sequel short story ‘Inbox Zero’ – completely free to download, if you haven’t already – and I figure that the Jericho Bible printing factory is somewhere along the waterfront. And out further west, we see a few hints of what’s coming in The Obituarist II: Electric Boogaloo, which I’ll be working on as soon as I finish with Raven’s Blood. Who is Old Man Northanger and why does he have a zoo and a scrap yard out in the boondocks? You’ll find out soon enough – and learn the terrible secret of what lurks in the boring part of town!

Well, maybe. Still working that part out. And it’s probably not that terrible a secret. Not unless the next story involves Scooby Doo.

…I’m not ruling that out.

Two different cities, two different maps, two (or more) different purposes for those maps. I think that’s kind of cool.

I hope some of y’all agree. Speak up if you do. Or don’t.

Dramatic licentiousness

So ‘Inbox Zero’ was released into the wilds last Sunday and since then has racked up a measly 20 downloads. That’s not as many as I would like, given that it’s a free story and that I’ve sold more than 100 copies of The Obituarist and if you LOVED me you’d READ it and DISSEMINATE it and I wouldn’t have to BEG you to do YOUR PART in making this RELATIONSHIP work.

But I’m not going to get into that. Readers will find it, in their own time and own way, without any whining on my part. I’ve moved on.

Instead, I would like to talk a bit tonight about what ‘Inbox Zero’ might (or might not) mean for the ongoing development of the Obituarist concept. Because as a result of this story, I find myself starting to think of Kendall Barber as someone who has… adventures.

And I don’t really want that. Or at least, I don’t want to acknowledge it.

But to make sense of this, let’s first talk about dramatic license.

What do we mean by ‘dramatic license’? I think that, in simplest terms, it’s about choosing the interesting over the realistic; it’s making a decision that the world of the story would be better served by not making it line up with the world of the reader. That’s not the same thing as just including things in the story that don’t exist in reality, like dragons or faster-than-light travel; you can have those things and still write a story that cleaves to reality – it’s just a reality with extra stuff in it.

No, dramatic license is about making choices about how the elements of the story (real or imaginary, and let’s face it, they’re all imaginary) behave and develop, and why they go in that direction. To make the facts serve the story, rather than have the story serve the facts. Or at the very least, making up your own facts to replace the inconvenient ones of reality.

Some genre fiction is pretty forgiving to dramatic license, especially fantasy and science fiction. Crime fiction is much less so, because the best crime stories give the impression that they could have really happened, and hewing as close as possible to the real helps immeasurably with that. (Horror stories swap between realism and unrealism depending on what makes a story scarier or more emotionally unsettling, which is why horror is so much fun to write.)

Sometimes license is about physics and medical procedures and the physical doodads of a story, but more often it’s about character – about the decisions and actions characters take and the way the world reacts to those. On that  character level, dramatic license usually boils down to ‘things don’t change’ – because logical consequences aren’t always the consequences you want to explore, and a bad guy that followed all the pointers on those interminable ‘If I Was an Evil Overlord’ lists would bring your story to an early, not-very enjoyable halt. Vampires stay hidden behind the scenes despite investigators learning of their existence. The Dark Lord overlooks that one thing that allows a plucky young adventurer to find his weakness and cast him down. A superhero’s amazing inventions don’t transform the world, and he doesn’t have brain damage or post-traumatic stress disorder despite being punched in the skull by Bane every couple of days.

(You can write a cool story exploring what happens when you don’t take those dramatic liberties, of course. But those stories tend to deconstruct their genres, rather than celebrating them, and sometimes you want to read Justice League (Morrison-era, obviously) rather than Watchmen.)

So to bring this back to The Obituarist, I’ve set up a base in the novella that Kendall Barber is not a detective, and that he doesn’t go around solving crimes all the time – his job is unusual but mundane, his life deliberately ordinary, and when a crime falls into his lap he reluctantly gets involved mostly due to poor decision-making. That’s the setup for a stand-alone crime story, something with boundaries – you pass through, go out the other side and get back to reality.

But now here’s ‘Inbox Zero’, another situation where Kendall gets involved with a crime. I’m also planning a proper sequel, a longer story where – you guessed it – Kendall gets involved with a crime. There’ll probably be 2-4 more stories, long and short, in which our regular guy has to play Sherlock Holmes.

And the logical, real-world effect of this would be that the character does start to think of himself as a detective, as do the people around him, and that he attracts attention due to that; that his world and his personality change to reflect what he does. Which would mean that I wouldn’t be able to write the stories that I want to write – i.e. ones without that change.

So can I fall back on dramatic license and handwave away that logical development in tone and character while staying in the grounded genre of crime fiction?

I sure as hell can, ‘cos I’m gonna play the Murder, She Wrote defence.

How many crimes does your average homicide detective solve in a lifetime? Ten, fifteen, maybe more, maybe less, maybe depends what you mean by ‘solved’, and all that over the course of a 20-30 year career. Jessica Fletcher, a retired teacher turned crime writer, solved 268 murders in 12 years – and no-one said shit about it. No-one went ‘holy crap, that’s impossible’; no-one went ‘holy crap, she must be a serial killer’; the FBI didn’t hire her or lock her up. Within the confines of the narrative, no-one pointed out the sheer crazy fucking impossibility of Jessica Fletcher, and dealing with 268 murders didn’t drive her to drink, heroin or Chippendale shagging.

That’s the big dramatic conceit of ongoing crime fiction – that you can right a wrong and not be changed by it, and not have the world see you differently. That you can do it again, and again, and still be who you were at the start.

And that suits me fine at this point. Don’t get me wrong, I have changes and consequences in mind for Kendall Barber; I have shit planned that will turn you white. But I want to keep him in the Jessica Fletcher zone while I do so, and have him say ‘I’m just an IT undertaker, not a detective’ and not have anyone in the story – and hopefully none of you – call bullshit on him (or me).

Come on. You let Angel of Death Fletcher get away with it, and she’s seen more bodies than Larry Flynt.

After all of that waffle about what I want to do with my writing, let’s flip it around – what should you do with yours?

Well, whatever you want. Duh.

If you want to do painstaking research and hew as close to the real as possible, with little or no bending of physics, psychology or logic, then that’s great – many awesome books do exactly that, and their grounding in reality makes them feel genuine and engaging. And if you don’t want to do any of that, if you want to do whatever makes sense for your story even if it doesn’t outside its pages, then that’s fine too, and more than fine. Because being a writer is a license to make shit up in service to the narrative, and you’re the one who gets to decide when to keep it real and when to dump logic and realism in a sack and set them on fire.

Write what you know, sure – use the real world as your foundation and your font of ideas. Keep your readers engaged with tiny details, make them feel that your world and characters are genuine and not just amorphous blobs.

But stories have their own logic. Drama has its own needs. Characters will do as they must, even if it only makes sense to them (and you). And when the needs of the narrative demand that rivers flow upstream from the sea, then turn your boat around and paddle up a waterfall.

Because if you do it well, if you write it powerfully, your readers will pick up their oars and row right behind you. Reality be damned.