Category Archives: writing

February comes at you fast

Okay, blog time. When did I last write a post? One week ago? Two?

…four? On like the last day of January?

Huh.

I guess that’s how blogging works when you have increasingly less and less to say or enlighten people about.

So fine! We’re in End-of-Month-Summary-Purgatory, and perhaps one day we will make our way out of it, like jailbreaking ghosts escaping Spirit Prison to at last drink ecto-cooler in the Spirit Paradise hot tub.

Seems legit.

Query-go-round

Most of what I’ve been doing this month, and for the last several months, is talking with agents, and by ‘talking with’ I mean ‘getting form rejection emails from’. That’s not the most encouraging or motivating of things, but I keep at it. I’ve had a few more personal rejections, which are useful and worthwhile, and there are still a couple of people reading manuscripts and considering Raven’s Blood.

Do I have any tips for querying? Nothing particularly earth-shattering. I wrote a standard query email with an intro, flavourful high-concept pitch for the book and a super-short bio, and I fine-tune it for every agent I approach. (And based on recent feedback, I include a note that the book uses British punctuation and spelling, so any oddities are probably because I’m foreign, not because I don’t know how quotes work.) I keep a spreadsheet of names, agencies, what they’re after and how to submit, which I follow to the letter, and I keep track of when things go out and when they come back. As for where I find agents to contact, I’m drawing info from the usual places – AgentQuery, Writer’s Digest, WritersMarket etc – and keeping 6-7 queries going at a time.

Most of all, I’m polite. I thank them for their time and attention when I get in contact, and don’t take it personally when they knock me back. (Which doesn’t really seem like rocket surgery – but still, you’d be surprised how some people get this wrong.) I’m not crawly or fawning or whatever, just pleasant and polite – and while that won’t get me special treatment, it won’t hurt if/when I come back to those agents with a new project.

Just as soon as I find a home for this one.

13th Age goodies

What’s 13th Age? It’s a role-playing game that is pretty much like 4E D&D but different in ways that don’t really merit a huge amount of wordcount right now. It’s pretty cool.

What’s also cool is The Forgotten Monk, Greg Stolze’s 13th Age novel that he kickstarted back in early 2015. It’s the story of an amnesiac kung-fu fantasy detective getting into fights with ghosts, demons and hags in an attempt to learn his backstory and understand mortal morality. It’s a damn fine adventure novel, and well worth a read even if you’re not into RPGs but like books about magic and superkicks and gnome shenanigans.

What’s also, also cool (and the point of this ramble) is that the stretch goals for the Kickstarter were free short stories about some of the minor characters in the novel, written by gaming luminaries Jonathan Tweet, Ron Heinsoo, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan and I DUNNO SOME RANDOM ASSCLOWN yours truly.

For whatever reason, these stories were written ages back but not released – but now they are! And they’re free! And you don’t need to have read the book or played the game to make sense of them! WHAT A FREAKIN’ DEAL!

If that sounds tempting to you, there are links to download all four stories (in various digital formats) over at Greg’s Kickstarter page, no purchase or login required. Mine is called ‘Imperial Business’ and features a character named Sergeant Dovestrom, who may well be the biggest douchebag in The Forgotten Monk (which is saying something). It’s a little bit action, a little bit horror, a little bit fantasy; it’s kind of like ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ except it’s about an unpleasant soldier and a flying murderlion and the sparks that fly when they meet.

…that probably makes it sound more romantic than it really is. Sorry.

Other gaming news

Speaking of roleplaying games, man, I sure am doing a lot of that right now. Probably too much, let’s be honest.

My urban fantasy game (the one I talked about last time) is kicking along, with two sessions of drama and running through sewers and negotiating with demons – all the traditional stuff. One player is moving to Canada to write video games about space ninjas, so there’s some rethinking and tweaking in the near future – but so far, everyone’s having a good time.

On the side, I’m also running a short InSpectres game that is turning out even sillier than expected (these ghostbusters also run a pizza restaurant and their cases all seem to involve CHUDs), and organising self-contained Fiasco games in local shops/bars at the end of every month. And now I’ve signed up to play a game of 5E D&D. Which I’m sure I’ll enjoy, even though my heart will always belong to 4E.

But really. Something’s gotta give at some point. I’m starting to dream about dice. And, more pertinently, not getting enough work done.

Congrats to my friends with work ethics

There are people who have been getting work done, though, and I’m proud to call some of them friend, acquaintance, Tweep or at least person-I-keep-meeting-in-festival-bars. So I want to take a moment to call some folks out for being awesome:

  • Alan Baxter, Kirstyn McDermott, Amie Kaufman, Jay Kristoff, Kim Wilkins and favourite-blog-commentator Dave Versace for their shortlist nominations in this year’s Aurealis Awards for Australian spec-fic.
  • Jay Kristoff (again) and Justine Larbalestier, who are on the longlist for the YA Inky Awards.
  • Peter Ball and the QWC team for getting this year’s GenreCon up and running already! This time I promise not to hog the karaoke mike.

These are good folks. Y’all should read their stuff.

Finally, this month’s excuses for not writing enough of Obituarist 3

  • I was super-busy at work
  • And I had work travel as well
  • It was hot
  • I was tired
  • New baby (not mine, but nearby)
  • Anne Gracie got me drunk
  • Trump
  • Turnbull
  • Rain of fire and frogs
  • END TIMES?!?!?!
  • Mediocre Playstation games
  • *sigh* I’m just not, like, feeling it, you know?
  • I’ve lost so much blood
  • [insert image of coffee mug saying World’s Worst Everything]

Now, March. I turn 46 in a couple of weeks.

Let’s see if I can finish something before I hit 47.

World-building is a hell of a drug

I get distracted easily.

Don’t even try to pretend it’s not true.

So when I want to focus on writing, one of the first things I need to do is pare away my distractions. I’m not much of a TV guy, but I either stop watching or limit myself to watching in lull periods, like the two episodes of Young Justice I allow myself on Saturday mornings. Video games are my crack, so I make sure not to have any hanging over my head that can suck me in for hours on end; right now, all I have in the PS4 is Bloodborne, and I can only play that for maybe 30 minutes before becoming so stressed and upset that I can’t continue. Social engagements and beer… well, those are important to me, but as a project gets more and more pressing, those things gradually drop down the priority list.

And then there are roleplaying games.

Sigh.

I started a new RPG campaign this month, one I plan to run every two weeks, because I am a goddamn idiot.

Shadows of New Jerusalem is an urban fantasy campaign that I’m hoping to run for the rest of 2017. (Maybe into 2018, if my players are keen.) This is a concept I’ve actually talked about before on the blog, way back in… jesus shit, back in 2013. (although it’s morphed a lot since then.)

My original plan for the game was an ‘anthology’ game using the Chronicles of Darkness setting, but I gave up on that after some of 2016’s games didn’t pan out so well. I felt that I wanted a game with very strong player buy-in and minimal upfront reading/effort – which suggested a much more collaborative approach was needed.

So I got a group together, pitched a basic concept (urban fantasy, Fate system) and we went around coming up with ideas about what we did and didn’t want to see in the game, as per the whiteboard below. After some more back and forth, we had a rough sketch of a game about a family of dodgy artefact merchants, scavenging for mystic items and doing deals with otherworldly forces, along with some initial plot hooks and NPC names.

There’s plenty of conceptual and tonal fodder there, and it didn’t take me long to put together some ideas that would be enough to launch a game and run with, developing them as we play.

But then the high kicks in.

Hey, maybe I should define what non-mortal magic can and can’t do. Or pin down some location interconnections. Oh man, I should definitely stat out half-a-dozen NPCs and creatures for each faction so that I have someone/thing to hand whenever the need arises! How about I create specific Photoshop filters and processes, then make like 50 individual pieces of character and setting art!

And obviously I need to write aaaaalllllll that stuff down so that it makes sense to someone who isn’t me!

This urge to fill in all the gaps ahead of the game, to nail down every possible option so that I have what I need at all times… it’s a powerful urge, and it’s utterly wrong-headed. Especially in a game where a lot of that detail is either a) unimportant, or b) supposed to be created collaboratively with my players.

Making stuff is great – if it gets used.

Making stuff for its own sake? That’s just another distraction.

It’s the same for me and writing. I know there are authors who do tonnes of worldbuilding ahead of time, and use their rock-solid grasp on their setting as the framework for choosing and shaping their stories, and I respect that. But I don’t understand it.

For me, story is something that comes together through decisions and in-the-moment choices, rather than through planning. If a story needs a distinct world, I’ll do a little rough work at the start, but not a lot – you’ve pretty much seen the entirety of my notes and planning for both Raven’s Blood and the Obituarist books here on the blog over the last couple of years. The bare minimum I need to know what things look and sound like in chapter 1, and then make it up as I go along.

When I get sidelined by worldbuilding, I’m not actually telling/making stories. I have a bad habit of forgetting that when it comes to games, but I’m trying to keep it under control. I’m just grateful that when it comes to writing – arguably the space where things need to be more coherent and polished at the start, I know – I’m mostly able to ignore that urge and just charge headlong at things like a loon.

Mostly.

The Obituarist III continues apace – slowly than I would like, yes, but I’m on it.

And if you’re interested in seeing whether the Shadow family will outwit the Butcher Bishop and the schemes of Valentine, you can follow our New Jerusalem game over on Obsidian Portal. 

It’ll be cool. I promise.

Come at me 2017

Hmm. Where did I put that blog? Sure are a lot of cobwebs in here.

Oh wait, yeah, here it is.

So, three months after going on hiatus to work my way back out of the depression hole, here I am. I hope some of y’all missed me! There were certainly a shitload of spambots who were super interested in this blog a few days ago. Maybe I should invite them to a party.

Anyhoo, we made it through 2016! (Except for all the folks who didn’t. I miss them.) That’s an achievement we should celebrate – it was an awful year for pretty much everyone and we have done well to escape its poisonous gravity. Sure, 2017 looks to be mad, terrifying and surreal, but in different ways, and that has to count for something.

Surely.

And now, bullet points.

What did I do for the last three months?

  • I got accustomed to my new day job (textbook publishing), which I’ve been doing since August and I’m still really enjoying. There’s a lot to do, but the work is engaging, the team great and they gave me my own office. Which, admittedly, is actually a records filing room that I have to share with ten years of finance paperwork, but it has a door so I’m happy.
  • I went to America with my wife for her annual visit. We went to a tiki bar in San Francisco! I explored the old Shanghai tunnels of Portland! We indulged in the entirely legal pleasures of Colorado! And we watched Donald Trump win the election, which was WAY less fun and enjoyable than when we were there for the previous two Presidential elections. But so it goes. There will be resistance.
  • I watched all of Season 2 of The Flash and half of Season 1 of Supergirl, and realised that I’m now pretty much bored with superhero TV shows.
  • I got a Playstation 4 for Christmas, ‘cos that’s going to be super useful for keeping me focused on writing. Games played so far: Alien Isolation, which is both a master class in world building & design and an object lesson about not relying on character failure and constant escalation as your core story drivers.
  • I drank beer, read comics, played board games, hung out with friends and did all the little things that make life seem worthwhile and enjoyable rather than a gray emptiness like the hollow insides of a dead tree.
  • I thought about writing. A lot. But I didn’t do any, and I didn’t make myself feel guilty about it for a change.

Am I still depressed?

  • No. I’m actually feeling pretty chipper now.

Does that mean I’ll stop wasting time and do some frickin’ writing like I’m supposed to?

  • Jeez, back the hell off, first person interrogator. You don’t know me.

I’m just saying, people aren’t here for the talk about PS4 games. Am I going to get back to writing?

  • Yes, damnit, I am. God. This attitude is why no-one comments.

What’s the plan for 2017, then?

  • Glad you asked. And grew some manners.
  • I’ve been submitting Raven’s Blood queries to literacy agents every weekend, and I’m going to keep doing that. So far I’ve had a fair few rejections (which is fine), a fair few that I’m still waiting to hear back from (also fine) and a couple of agents who were interested in reading and considering the whole manuscript (WOO-HOO). I’m going to keep doing that until the book sticks, and then… well, I’ll work that out later.
  • I’ve started writing The Obituarist III: Delete Your Account, and by that I literally mean I’ve written like a paragraph. But I’ve nailed down the premise and direction and have scenes finalised in my head, and later this month I’ll work on it in earnest, trying to nail one 1000-word chapter a night, five nights a week, letting the momentum carry me where the story winds up. I’ll have more to say about that when I’m further into the project.
  • Once that book’s out in the wild, I’m starting my wrestlers-vs-dream-monsters YA series, tentatively called the Legacy series but that will almost certainly change. (As will the working title of the first book, Piledriver.) I want to approach this book in a different way, with a stronger focus on character relationships driving the plot, so there’ll be a lot of thought experiments and process blogging once that gets started. And maybe some more talk about wrestling (sorry).
  • I’ve been talking to some people about a project that could be very cool and interesting, but which I can’t talk about right now. But if I ever get to discuss it, you’ll be the first to hear about it! (After all the people I tell in person.)
  • I still haven’t forgotten about Sick Beats. You never know.
  • I’m going to try to be better at blogging regularly. Honest.

So things are better. They’re not fantastic-amazing-six-figure-contract-and-a-bag-of-cocaine better, but they’re better. And that’s enough.

Come at me, 2017. I’m ready. Let’s dance.

Invisible story grenade

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

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

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

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

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

Making the most of what you’ve got

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

Playing the long game

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

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

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

Audience buy-in

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

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

Using structure to set up stories

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

Family-friendly murder

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

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

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

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

And that’s terrible great.

Plot, character, piledrivers

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

The answer is – more than you might think.

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

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

Tonal change is hard

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

Risk aversion is sensible but boring

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

Stick to the schtick

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

Enzo_Colin_07312014ca_873-406214323

Use all your tools – but use them properly

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

We don’t talk about the weird stuff any more

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

Undertaker_vs_Kane_in_the_inferno_match_on_Raw_February_22_1999_crop_exact

Good pacing makes up for many sins

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

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

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

Let’s find out next time.

All the wide world round

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

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

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

download

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

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

Understand your tools

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

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

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

Embrace your genre

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

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

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

Remember your audience

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

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

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

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

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

Also in this blog instalment, GENERAL LIFE UPDATE

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

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

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

Stocktake

2016.

Christ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So far, I have failed in that.

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

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

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

Self-sabotage is the worst kind of sabotage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To recap, then:

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

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

Yes, I will wear this if I have to.

I will also try writing more, and better.

We’ll see which tactic works best.

Put me back in the machine

Having said good bye to my day job last Monday, the rest of the week has been relaxing and cruisely. I’ve had lunches with friends, applied for some jobs, attended an interview (fingers crossed), played a bunch of Sleeping Dogs, enjoyed afternoon drinks and generally treated life like a bit of a holiday.

…I miss work already.

No, I don’t miss my old job; I miss productivity, making an effort and getting things done. I miss structure, more specifically. And that comes as a little bit of a surprise, considering how much time and effort I’ve spent pushing against imposed structures in life and work over the years.

But we don’t know what we’ve got ’til it’s gone, as the sages say, and it turns out that when you give me complete freedom from the productivity machine, I go all floppy, forget to wear trousers and generally don’t get much done. Which isn’t much chop if I want to use this time to get back to work on Raven’s Bones and reach a halfway decent wordcount target before I land myself back on Planet 9-to-5.

The productivity machine. Probably.
The productivity machine. Probably.

In a way, time management and productivity is a lot like creativity – complete freedom isn’t good for you. Creators needs some kinds of limits and boundaries in order to focus their efforts, and a lack of structure just results in a mess. Tell me ‘just write as much as you want about whatever you like’ and I’ll stare at a blank page for weeks, paralysed by formless choice. Tell me that you want 15 000 words of pirate fantasy adventure in two months and I’ll have something started before the email gets cold.

Which seems like a good point to plug my new Pathfinder RPG scenario Curse of the Brine Witch, also known as ’15 000 words of pirate fantasy adventure’.

I gave up RPG writing years ago, but I maintain a soft spot for the Freeport setting; it was the basis for my first real D&D campaign, and years later I was one of three writers that re-developed the setting in the Pirate’s Guide to Freeport. So when the guys at Green Ronin asked me to contribute to the Return to Freeport adventure path project – hell, to write the first adventure in the series – how could I say no?

Writing this was a lot of fun – a chance to mix horror and fantasy ideas into something that’s hopefully enjoyable to play through. It has half-genie pirates, mysterious curses, red herrings, street battles, spooooooooooky mini-dungeons and some tongue-in-cheek subheadings. (I love subheadings; like I said, structure matters.) The tricky part was the rules stuff, because my head is calibrated to 4th Edition these days rather than 3.5/Pathfinder, but I think it all came together (and Owen Stephens developed it, so it’s bound to make sense).

Anyhoo, if any of the above is intelligible to you, and you like rolling dice and pretending to punch monsters in the face, check out the adventure – and hopefully stay around for the rest of the series, which has work from gaming luminaries like Crystal Frasier, Jody Macgregor and John Rogers.

So I hope we all had fun with that little aside.

But if I just wanted to plug my gaming work, or whinge about the week-that-was, I’d have stayed on LiveJournal. Let’s talk about solutions. If I need structure in my writing life to keep me tethered and fully dressed, what are some options?

First up is making a plan for the week, something that has specific tasks, goals and milestones. Some of this are things like ‘do the shopping’ and ‘walk the dog for like the fifth time today’, sure, but others are ‘finish the chapter’, ‘revise the outline’and ‘write 1000 words before running off to play Netrunner‘. I also asked two of the most organised and focused dudes I know, Peter Ball and Kevin Powe, for some recommendations for get-your-shit-together books; I’ve got their list and will report back on whether any of the suggested reading transforms my efficiency.

Most of all, I’m trying to treat the week like work, rather than an extended weekend, and to keep the pottering, dithering, procrastinating and pantlessness to a minimum, just as if Iwas in the machine and someone was paying me to pump the controls. Because without that kind of structure, my ideas, my productivity, my work and my trousers will just fly off in all directions.

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And I don’t need that. Not in this weather.

I’ll check back next week and let you know how it’s going.

In (and out of) the zone

An update:

House-hunting continues to be pants, with no new home in sight as yet. (Although we just applied for another place – fingers crossed.) This has led to a string of nights spent looking at real estate websites for hours, then desultorily plinking at Raven’s Bones for a bit, reading about wrestling storytelling ideas or watching TV before calling it quits.

I have not been in The Zone.

productivity-for-content-marketers-getting-in-the-zone

OR HAVE I?

Last weekend I talked with one of the folks in my writers’ group about the idea of the creative zone – the mental space you need to get into to effectively write, paint, compose, sing, craft flesh golems or whatever is your thing – and whether the value of what you do in that zone is distinct from the value of getting into it in the first place.

But what is the creative zone? Is it like Brigadoon? Some magic place where the laws of physics and post-work mental exhaustion do not apply?

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For some people, getting into the zone is easy, but controlling what they do inside it is difficult – they can sit down to create, but don’t know whether they’ll feel like writing a short story, working on a novel or busting out some game ideas. (Or some blog posts.) Other people struggle to get into the zone, but once they’re in there they can follow their plan and make dedicated, controlled progress on a specific project.

There are days when just managing to get into the zone is a win. And there are days when all that matters is what you bring out of the zone with you. (These days are called ‘deadlines’.)

Zone-11

I could go on with these examples, but the point is – the first step to creating is getting into that zone. And that’s something I’ve both found difficult to do of late, and also something I often try to skip over at the best of times. I’m too impatient, too angry at my own laziness; I just tell myself to suck it up, sit down and do the goddamn work, then get angry at myself when that doesn’t end with me being productive.

Which, on reflection, is not all that useful. Especially when I can get into that zone easier when I’m doing something low-stakes, like working on a game, designing a playlist or making some personal world-building notes. When I don’t put that pressure on myself right off the bat, I can hit the right mindset – and when I’m in the right mindset, I’m a lot more willing to spend it writing on something more significantly. Eventually.

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So right now my plan – remember how I’ve been talking about planning for months, with little to show for it? – is to focus on getting into the creative zone, as often as possible, and not to dwell too much on how long I stay there or what I bring out when I’m done. To look at every five minutes spent making something as worthwhile, to keep hitting those five minute stretches whenever I can, and to try different activities that could help make those times in the zone longer and more frequent. That could mean exercise, healthy meals, smart drugs, drunkenness, sobriety – right now I’m trying sobriety and it’s working better than I expected – showers, cartoons or whatever else could spur and support that mental shift.

Will that get me to the target of a finished draft of Raven’s Bones by mid-year? Coupled with a stable home environment and a little external motivation… well, let’s find out.

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And if you’re blocked, frustrated or just plain weary with whatever project you’re working on, try putting it aside for a bit and creating something else, something that doesn’t need to be good. Draw a picture, take some photos, write a poem, do rude things to photos of politicians in Photoshop. Stay in the creative zone, the makerspace, even if you’re not doing the thing you’re meant to be doing – and later on, or next time, cutting back to your Number One Priority might be that bit easier.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to look at some houses, eat some dumplings, and write… something. Because something is better than nothing.

Apocalypse now

As we all know, I’m a big ol’ nerd (you knew that, right?) as well as a sporadic and undisciplined writer. In the past I’ve blogged – oh man, it was almost 18 months ago – about particular roleplaying games that writers could get useful ideas and inspiration from.

Well, it’s that time again – but this time I want to talk about one game. Which is also an entire family of unrelated games from different creators and companies. And it’s a collection of games that presents a really powerful set of story-creation tools that are just as useful for prose as for punching mutants.

That game is Apocalypse World, created by Vincent Baker, which went on to spawn dozens of ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’ games.

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These games share a lot of the same core mechanics and systems, but that’s not what I’m interested in talking about. Instead, I want to look at the specific set of GMing tools the games also share. The GM (generally) never rolls dice in PbtA games, but they also don’t just make up results on a whim. Instead, there are non-mechanical story-creation imperatives that the GM uses to make decisions and determine outcomes – imperatives that can also be applied for writing fiction.

Agendas

Your creative agendas in a PbtA game are the big-picture ideas you keep in mind during the whole process – from setting up the campaign and coming up with story ideas to setting every scene and winding up every session. As Dungeon World puts it, these are ‘the things you aim to do at all times’. In that game, which is heroic fantasy in the D&D mold, the agenda is:

  • Portray a fantastic world
  • Fill the characters’ lives with adventure
  • Play to find out what happens

153464Meanwhile, in the political urban fantasy game Urban Shadows, the agenda is:

  • Make the city feel political and dark
  • Keep the characters’ lives out of control and evolving
  • Play to find out what happens.

(‘Play to find out what happens’ is a key rule in PbtA games; it’s an admonition against scripting or pre-planning, in favour of setting up situations and seeing how they shake out. Which is great fun for gaming, but less relevant to writing. Mostly.)

When writing fiction, you need to keep a similar agenda in mind – the high-concept knot of tone, theme, story, setting and character that makes your story work. In some ways it just boils down to ‘Create an interesting setting and populate it with interesting characters who have interesting lives’ (where the value of ‘interesting’ depends on a variety of genre, theme and tone markers, plus your own unique takes).

That seems really obvious – and it is. But really obvious things are worth remembering, because sometimes they fade into background noise and get lost. When a story slows down or stops moving, when characters become comfortable and stop changing, when world details stop being colourful and just become sensible – that’s when you need to come back to that agenda and remind yourself of the fundamental goals.

Principles

Running a game is all about coming up with ideas, and principles are the criteria you use to weigh up ideas and see if they fit. When running a PbtA game, the GM is responsible for setting and starting the majority of scenes; their principles are the guidelines they consult to see if those scenes are right for this game.

tremulus is a PtbA game about Lovecraftian horror, and its principles are guides like:

  • Introduce the strange, the weird, and the alien at every opportunity.
  • Look through a cracked lens of madness.
  • Ask provocative questions. Build upon the answers.
  • Successes should be bittersweet at best, with rewards few and far between.

Meanwhile, the remarkably awesome World Wide Wrestling game has principles that include:

  • Explain the audience reaction
  • Describe everything as larger than life
  • Use a real-world cause for a kayfabe effect; use a kayfabe cause for a real-world effect
  • Book for maximum drama

(‘Kayfabe’ means ‘treating wrestling as real’, sort of. It’s complex.)

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Fundamentally, then, principles are the tools that help you distinguish between different games – that let you say ‘this is a horror scene, this is a wrestling scene’ and have that be more that just talking about set dressing.

While agendas are big-picture, principles are middle-picture; they’re the elements of theme and tone that establish your story in its genre while also acting as its unique points of difference. When you’re writing your story, you need to ask yourself every now and then: ‘Does this fit? Is this right for my world, my characters, my tone?’ Because sometimes we get that great idea that we try to fit it, but it won’t line up with everything else, and we waste time and energy until finally giving up on it. Keeping principles close to mind/hand won’t stop those ideas coming, but might help you get past them and stay on thematic track.

Moves

Finally, moves are the actions and outcomes the GM takes within scenes – the tools they use to decide what happens when the player rolls badly, or looks across the table for an idea of where things are going. Principles are set-up; moves are follow-through.

night_witches_cover-683x1024Night Witches is a historical game about female Polish bomber pilots in WWII (and it’s amazing). Its moves include:

  • Bring their gender into it
  • Bring a threat to bear
  • Put them somewhere they don’t want to be
  • Doubt them and demand discipline

While in the superhero adventures of Worlds in Peril, some GM moves are:

  • Show a downside to their character, appearance, equipment or power
  • Encourage creative use of powers
  • Change the environment
  • Introduce a new faction or type of enemy

There’s crossover there, of course, because moves are dramatic turns and progressions in the story, and things like ‘change location’ makes sense in any dramatic story. But the spin you put on each move, in accordance with agenda and principle, makes the difference, as do the unique moves for each games. For a story about defying gender roles, putting gender front and centre underlines the entire thing, while supers stories are full of ‘these aliens were actually being controlled by Dr Doom all along!’ type twists.

When you’re writing, moves are… do I even need to explain it? These are the little-picture building blocks of plot and character; the things that keep stories moving, twisting and changing. Agendas shape; principles guide; moves act. Moves are what makes stories go.

So what do I do with these?

Am I saying you should come up with agendas, principles and moves for your novel? Am I saying you should write these things down and consult them as you write? Am I saying you should codify every tool in your kit?

No, I’m not. But I’m not saying you shouldn’t do those things either.

What I think is that it can be worth thinking about what makes your story your story. What’s the point of your story? What are the themes? What’s the tone? What kind of characters fit into it, and what kind of things could happen to them? It can be easy to think of what doesn’t work – hmm, maybe I won’t put an extended car-chase and bloody shootout into my Regency romance – but we don’t always articulate and define the story-space that we do want to work in. Thinking about agendas, principles and moves – purpose, themes, story elements – ahead of time can help with that, and so can writing them down and sticking them above your desk if you’re that way inclined.

I’m trying out the wall-sticking route at the moment. And trying to define my story-space before I get too deep into it. It might work, it might not, but it’s worth a shot.

Which games?

If you want to take a closer look at a game that’s Powered by the Apocalypse – well, I reckon that’s an excellent idea. You might get a stronger grasp on these concepts than you can from my ramblings – and even better, you might find a game you want to play.

The obvious choice is Apocalypse World itself, especially as the Kickstarter campaign for the 2nd edition just went live this week (and helped prompt this blog post). That said, it’s not the game I’d recommend – partly because you won’t be able to get the finished game until September, partly because I find Vincent Baker’s authorial voice incredibly irritating. (He’s a great designer, but I have to push myself to read his work because it pisses me off so often.)

Fortunately, there’s a massive family of PbtA games that build on Baker’s ideas with their own voices and visions. Not all of them are great, let’s be honest, but the best of them are brilliant. The standouts include:

  • Night Witches (war, gender politics and nightly desperation)
  • Monsterhearts (young supernaturals in transgressive love/lust)
  • World Wide Wrestling (who thought a wresting game would be this damn good)
  • Urban Shadows (the talking-plotting-scheming kind of urban horror/fantasy)
  • Monster of the Week (the shooty-punchy-splodey kind of urban horror/fantasy)

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Plus a bunch of others that are really good. Look around. You’ll find something.

Right, that’s 1500 words on nerd tools for storytelling.

Does this mean the long blog drought of 2015/16 has finally broken?

Ask again next week. The Magic 8-Ball remains unclear.