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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.

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.

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

Not-so-secret agency

In addition to slowly writing novels and taking on swathes of freelance work, I like running roleplaying games, which I think everyone who reads this blog knows by now.

Well, this week I ran a really shaky gaming session, one that wasn’t much fun for either the players or myself. The game was a weird horror RPG called Don’t Rest Your Head, and it wasn’t to blame – it’s a very neat game that you should totally check out. But the session I read was kind of a failure, and after several days of introspection and self-flagellation, I think I’ve worked out why- it’s all about character agency.

(If you’re curious about the game, by the way, you can read summaries of this and other games on my Obsidian Portal page, and my navel-gazing thoughts about GMing on my gaming Tumblr, Save vs Facemelt. Go on, live a little. Leave a comment, even. It’s so lonely over there.)

dryh

‘Agency’ is one of those terms that writers bandy about, and better bloggers than myself have worked on defining it. But from my point of view, it’s about whether characters – more importantly, protagonists – make meaningful decisions that impact the narrative. That is, do the characters’ decisions (and decision-making processes) matter?

When characters have agency, their decisions drive the story – but more importantly, they make those decisions deliberately, with some degree of understanding of possible consequences and a willingness to accept those consequences if necessary. When characters don’t have agency, they’re propelled through the plot by external events or circumstances – and when they do make decisions, those decisions aren’t any more meaningful than random chance.

Let me put it this way: If a character has to choose between two doors, one with a lady and one with a tiger, with absolutely no information to draw upon about which is better, that’s not agency; that’s no different to a coin toss. If the character has spent time uncovering the secret of the doors, or practised the mysterious arts of tiger-taming, or shoots the door controller and leaves the TV studio, then that character has agency; that character has a chance to drive the plot, rather than being driven around by it.

Actually, you know what? I have better examples, courtesy of the two big-budget, ensemble-cast superhero movies I saw this month, Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse, because they portray both ends of the agency spectrum.

(No specific plot spoilers here, I promise – but if you haven’t seen these movies yet, and want to, you might want to stop here and come back next week.)

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Civil War is fundamentally a movie about character choices, and the consequences of those choices. The two main protagonists (Captain America and Iron Man, because Cap doesn’t get to headine his own movie for some reason) are faced with situations where they have to decide what they think is right and appropriate – and after thought, discussion and a modicum of punching, they make their choices and they live with the consequences, where ‘consequences’ = ‘pretty much the entire movie’. And they’re not alone in this; almost all of the other eleventy-dozen heroes in the movie pick a side, and we get to see why they make the decision that they do. (Not so much with Ant-Man, but Bobby Newport just does what he’s told.) It’s a film with a very strong foundation in character agency.

xmenapocalypse

Apocalypse, on the other hand, is a film where the plot pushes on characters until they go where the plot needs them to be and do what the plot needs them to do. Many of them are just stuck in place, waiting to be acted upon, or make decisions about action in which there are no real choices or alternatives – it’s all ‘I have to do this or we’ll all get killed’ or ‘sure, I’ll join Team Evil and then not have any further dialogue’. Only a very small number of characters get any real moments of agency, points where the audience gets to see them actively make a decision or change their arc – and those are primarily the characters who headlined the previous films (Magneto and Mystique), or Big Bad Guy Apocalypse. It’s a film with very thin levels of character agency; it has lots of interesting characters that act out of dramatic necessity rather than something that feels real.

Now, I’m not trying to say that one of these films is good and one is bad.

Okay, I am saying that X-Men: Apocalypse isn’t very good, but let’s move past that.

What I’m saying is that agency is complicated, and that a narrative with lots of colour, movement, story, characters and skin-tight body stockings can still be lacking in agency – and that that can make a big difference on two narratives that, on the surface, seems pretty similar in genre/tone/mood/explosion level. And that that difference can be enough to make a story work or fall apart.

I have more thoughts on this. Many, many more thoughts.

So let’s leave it there and come back next week.

April was the cruelest month

So, April 2016. That was a month.

Let me tell you what I did last month (and by that I mostly mean within the last week).

I finished revising Raven’s Blood, fleshing out some relationship scenes and doing what I could to up the romantic tension in the story while still keeping focus on the core themes, i.e. being angry and punching people.

The revised manuscript is now with… someone. If they like it, that might go somewhere. Or it might not. And they might not like it anyway. The important thing is that it’s finished, it’s better than it was, I can get back to work on Raven’s Bones and keep this avian death machine ticking along.

My wife and I saw Captain America: Civil War.

My spoiler-free review… I wanted to like it more than I did.

It’s an ensemble film with Cap at the heart, but Iron Man located in a nearby organ like the lung, and the rest of the Avengersverse scattered around the viscera and nope this metaphor stopped working. Anyway, it’s a big film with a lot of characters, but it spreads itself thin to cover them all, and most of them only get a moment to shine.

I mean, they’re good moments; the script and direction is very good at character moments. It’s less good with the plot, which kind of collapses if you look at it too closely, and relies on characters that know and respect each other throwing that aside because of mumble mumble facepunch.

Still. Good action scenes and a lot of fun moments. Not as good as Winter Soldier, but way better than the original comics.

And speaking of comics, I finally read last year’s big Marvel event comic, Secret Wars.

My spoiler-free review… I wanted to like it more than I did. But I couldn’t, because it just wasn’t very good.

Okay, what else? Music? I’m listening to Carpenter Brut a lot right now, because a friend hooked me up to the video for ‘Turbo Killer’ and it is EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL IN THIS WORLD:

If European grindhouse electro is your jam then the album ‘Trilogy’ is your cream and scones. Trust me on this.

I’m also listening to Disasterpeace’s soundtrack for It Follows, which is creepy as hell and makes me want to see the movie even more, and getting back on board with the Fuck Buttons. Don’t ask me where my head’s at, man, I don’t even know.

I haven’t had the time or energy to read proper prose for a little while, but when I get back on that horse, I’m hitting up Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park and Cam Rogers’ Quantum Break: Zero State. Oh, and that Lauren Beukes book I’m part way through.

Fortunately, I’ll have time for proper reading coming very soon.

On Saturday night I robbed a bank. And it was great, apart from the time I got caught by security guards.

The bank in question is ‘Eureka Futures’ and the robbery was Small Time Criminals, a puzzle-room-like experience run by Melbourne ‘situation game’ company Pop Up Playground. They’ve rented an old bank, with offices and an actual vault, and they give you one hour to get in, crack the security, ferret out the secrets and stuff as much cash and goodies into a bag as you can manage.

Unless you get caught. Like I did.

I’ve done a few puzzle rooms and really enjoyed them, but Small Time Criminals is a step above – a team game that challenges you in new way and gets everyone thinking in different directions. If you’re based in Melbourne and can get a team together, you have to give this one a try.

And finally, I quit my job. My well-paying, mentally challenging publishing job. I resigned at the end of last week, and I finished up today.

It’s a big change. A huge change. But it’s the right change, and I had the opportunity to make it.

I’m looking for a new job, obviously, but I’m hoping to stay free for the entirety of May. I’d like a month to read, write, walk the dog, spend time with friends, drink in the afternoon and generally decompress from nearly three years of high stakes, high tension work.

It’s going to be a strange time. Maybe a difficult time. And maybe one that takes my life in a different direction. But I’m giving it a shot.

…also, yes, writing a lot more in May. Including here. Stay tuned.

The slow sound of terror

I love horror, and horror has been on my mind a bit lately. I’m gearing up to run a short horror game, I have ideas for two adult horror novels and a middle-years series with age-appropriate horror elements, and I’ve been reading…

…um, well, I haven’t been reading much of anything lately, because my head isn’t in the game in the window I have for reading. But when I am reading, my horror options seem more limited than they used to. The genre is changing, the market is changing, and books you could call ‘horror’ rather than ‘paranormal thrillers’ or ‘dark urban fantasy’ are harder to find (for me, at least). That’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing; there are cycles, and old-fashioned ghost-stab-blood-in-your-shower-head books will no doubt come back in vogue, hopefully when I have more reading time.

However! This weekend I discovered a whole new vector for horror, one that I can enjoy while also doing some of my other major activities – i.e. walking the dog or standing on the train – and I wanted to tell you about them.

Here’s a thing about me – I can’t listen to audiobooks, or similar spoken-word performances of texts. Prose is a visual medium for me – I need to see it, read it and process it in the optic centres of my brain to get enjoyment out of it. Hearing prose read aloud, even if you get actors in to read dialogue, leaves me cold at best and irritated at worst, because I can’t see the shape of the words; I can’t sense the weight of the lines on the page. I know this makes no sense, but it’s how I’m wired.

However! This aesthetic blindspot does not extend to audio drama, radio plays and other narrative works that were designed from the start to be listened to. And thanks to a minor aside in another show, this weekend I discovered three narrative podcasts that tackle long-form horror narrative in interesting and different ways. And so far, they seem worth a listen.

First and best – Limetown, which I described on Twitter as ‘like Serial, but about the Roanoke disappearances’. This is a limited-run podcast (about 10 episodes, most about 30 minutes or so) that applies the style and production of investigative journalism podcasts to a fictional crime – the disappearance of the entire population of a small Tennessee town, and an investigation ten years later that blows the case wide open.

Limetown manages to play it subtle while still being an obvious genre piece – there are markers and hints in the first episode, but it doesn’t over-egg the pudding and turn into a Twilight Zone episode. (At least, not so far, but I’m only two sessions in.) The production is top-notch, the voice-acting good to excellent, and the actual writing remarkably strong; the folks behind this know how to work with words.

There’s a second season coming, and possibly a novel or TV show in the works, so get in early before everyone’s into it.

Next up is the Black Tapes podcast, recommended by  Twitter-peep Filamina Young. So far this one’s reasonably interesting, but hasn’t grabbed me as strongly.

The premise is solid; it’s a semi-journalistic podcast, the kind of thing you’d get from studios like Gimlet or Radiotopia – something based on research, interviews and stories. Specifically on the case files of Dr Richard Strand, a paranormal researcher who remains highly sceptical that the paranormal exists at all. But in his black tapes, the show’s host and researchers keep drawing out questions that aren’t easy to answer.

It’s a good setup for an ongoing, episodic show – each ‘cast can look at one case file, explore it to some kind of conclusion and then move on to the next while adding a little bit to the overarching metaplot/mythology of the series. So far, though, the idea’s been a little stronger than the execution – some of the tropes and twists in the case files smack too much of the plot hooks we were throwing out in World of Darkness RPG sourcebooks in the late 90s. A bit dated, a bit obvious, a bit too derivative.

But hey, I’m only 3-4 episodes in, and it could lift its game a bit – and the production, sound design and voice acting are solid. I’m keen to keep listening, if only in the hope that the writing rises to meet the rest of the work.

Finally, Tanis – which was the one I was iffiest about, but rattled me to the extent that I had to stop listening to it while I was home alone tonight.

Tanis is from the same stable as Black Tapes, and has the same semi-journalistic feel – and on reflection, I really like this approach. It’s writerly without being just about prose; they call it a docu-drama style, and I’m not sure that’s the right use of the word but who cares.

Anyway, Tanis is about conspiracies – all the conspiracies. It explores the idea of mystery, and about finding the truth about ‘Tanis’ – which might be a city, a god, a state of mind or something else again. Tanis moves, Tanis changes, and in trying to uncover the truth, the show touches on a variety of classic conspiracy and weirdness tales/tropes, stuff of old that I recognise but that feels refreshed by this take on stitching it all together.

Tanis suffers a little from a lack of definition – it’s still not clear what Tanis is meant to be, or why the podcast exists – and some of the writing doesn’t quite click in the first few episodes. But most of it does, and it feels dangerous in a way that Black Tapes doesn’t – like it might not call up ghosts and demons, but it will still draw some kind of unwelcome attention. Like it’s a door into a world that takes advantage of open doors.

I’m only a few episodes into each of these shows, and they could all fall apart – but I’m willing to buy the ticket and take the ride nonetheless. And I don’t think they will.

Anyway, that’s what I’m listening to. Listening while thinking about the possibilities of diagetic storytelling. And wondering if I could pull it off myself. And wondering what else is out there.

So yeah, check these three shows out. I think there’s something very cool here. And if you know of another podcast that presents horror narratives in this way, rather than a straight prose reading – or indeed ‘casts in other genres, ‘cos it’s not like horror is unique in this – please throw up some links in the comments.

(However! You don’t have to mention Welcome to Night Vale, because we all know about that and I lost interest a couple of years back. Sorry to be an arse about it.)

And with that, it’s time to run from the writing shed back to the house, to grab the dog and hope that he will protect me from the consequences of the elevator game.

Oh man, the elevator game. I gotta do something with that.

House hunter-gatherer

I had some definite plans for another chunky blog post, this time about why all the old superhero cartoons I’m watching on Netflix are in fact really great pieces of storytelling that totally justify me goofing off.

But then we got an email from our landlord, asking us to move out.

The last five days have been a blur of real estate apps, 15-minute viewing appointments, drive-bys past jumbles of blue concrete cubes that are what pass for apartment complexes these days and wondering whether we can find a place large enough to keep all or even most of our books. (And other stuff, but mostly books.)

So my energy for blog writing – and for novel writing, which I need to get back on track – is kinda low right now. I mean, I could probably come up with a post about five story ideas around house hunting, including the ever-popular ‘we rented this great place but it’s haunted and the wardrobe is a doorway to Murder Narnia’, but I just can’t be stuffed tonight.

In any case, this is your ‘we are in a holding pattern, please come back again soon’ announcement. Hopefully I can stop thinking about storage solutions relatively quickly and get back to the burning issue of how awesome Kevin Conroy’s Batman is.

He’s pretty great.

Maybe he can rent us a place.

A tally sheet for the new year

Things what I have done thus far in this year of our Lord 2016

Gone back to work. Which is something taking up a lot of my focus and energy right now, but – crucially – not all of it.

Played more Pandemic Legacy. Oh man, those poor folks in South America. They never asked for [CENSORED DUE TO SPOILERS BUT LEMME TELL YOU IT AIN’T GOOD].

Become kinda hooked on Parks and Recreation. Everyone was right, that first season was rough and mean and not funny. And everyone was right, the following seasons are SO GREAT YOU GUYS and I love all of them even Jerry and one time I got a bit teary watching it but it might have been because I hadn’t slept in 36 hours but anyway it’s great.

Committed to a program of walking 10 000 steps a day, as measured by my phone’s pedometer. Okay, ‘program’ sounds more complicated that it needs to. I have a dog, I use public transport, I go to various meetings rooms at the office – by the end of the day it pretty much takes care of itself. But now I have an external driver, which is something that works well for me as a motivator to do things I was doing anyway.

Sheltered from the blazing sun.

Listened to a bunch of podcasts and also The Jezabels and Halsey on repeat.

Went to my first ever Android: Netrunner store tournament and got completely rofflestomped by people who actually know how to play it competitively instead of just casually with friends. Which is fine! Losing is about as much fun as winning, and a better way of learning how to play next time. But still, I’m going to have to do some heavy lifting before I get good at this game. Or even mediocre.

Took the dog for a haircut.

Went to the wedding reception of two lovely people that I hope move back to Australia sometime soon.

Formed a little writers’ group with three other like-minded folks who are also writing YA and genre novels. We have our first actual meeting this weekend, which is mostly just brunch and chatting about what we want from the group. After that… we’ll see. I’m hoping it’s a way to help each other stay on target, improve our skills and generate those kind of external drivers I was talking about earlier.

Submitted Raven’s Blood to a publisher – more, a publisher who actually asked to see it. That’s a pretty sweet egoboo, believe you me, even if they eventually decide to pass on it. It’s weird and confusing and gratifying and nice when people know who I am. Even more when that’s a positive.

Read The Accidental Creative, which is all about improving work practices to generate strong ideas and get things done. Some potentially useful ideas in there, for both my day and night jobs, so long as I can work out how to implement them. Thinking about that at the moment.

Mourned. As did we all.

Things what I have not done thus far in etc etc

Enough work on Raven’s Bones.

But that will change.

Dismembering the year that was

Folks, can I be real with you for a minute?

2015 was kind of a rough year. In a lot of ways.

I don’t talk much about my day job here, and I’m not going to break that habit, but suffice it to say that it’s been tiring, stressful and demanding this year. The knee injury I took at the end of April left me in pain for months, and painkillers left me drained and unfocused after that. I put on weight because I was too tired and pained to exercise, and I became irritable and moody because I didn’t like how I looked or felt.

And writing… this was not a good writing year. I get home from work of an evening, or roll up on the computer on the weekend, and I’m usually too frazzled, grumpy or flat to write anything coherent or worthwhile. My output has been dismal – even my blogging dropped from twice-weekly to weekly to fortnightly to I-don’t-know-whenever.

Yes, I finished and published The Obituarist II, and I finished the final, polished version of Raven’s Blood, and I’m happy and proud to have done those things. But The Obituarist II has only sold 40 copies so far, because I can’t stomach the effort required to properly promote it. And Raven’s Blood got knocked back – I got knocked back – by an agent last week, and while that’s not the end of the world or anything the news came at the end of a bad few weeks and left me feeling pretty lousy.

I don’t generally get depressed, stressed or anxious; I’m not wired to be unhappy for more than a few minutes at a time. But the gravity of 2015 was heavy, and clinging, and more often than not it dragged me down. Sometimes to a point where I contemplated just dropping the whole writing business as a bad idea that was never going to get me anywhere.

So is that going to happen?

…no.

Screw that.

It’s pretty ridiculous for me to call this a difficult year, when I have friends and loved ones that have endured far, far worse tragedies and losses in 2015 and still kept going. Whatever setbacks and troubles I’ve got on my plate are transient and manageable, and I can get past them and back on target if I make an effort and remind myself that not everyone has that luxury. A little end-of-year whinge on a blog almost no-one reads is a forgiveable level of blowing off steam – but not anything more like that.

As for giving up writing… you know, that would be easy. The idea of not making an effort any more appeals to my lazy, weary soul. What doesn’t appeal is living with that decision – with not doing the only thing I’m halfway good at, the only thing that might let me leave something behind in this world that anyone cares about.

I don’t always love what I do. But it’s what I do. It’s who I am. And a year of doldrums, knee pain and heavy drinking isn’t enough to change that.

So okay. 2015 was a bit shit. 2016 might not be that much better. But I’m still going to plug away at Raven’s Bones, I’m still going to hit up agents and publishers about Raven’s Blood, I’m still going to keep sticking my face in the fan – and every week (or two) (or whatever) I’m going to tell you about it.

Because having the chance to do that… that counteracts a lot of the bad shit.

For the rest, there’s friends, Netrunner and good liquor.

Have a happy new year, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England. See you in more pleasant climes.