Category Archives: writing

Digging a hole in the flaw

I’ve had something on my mind for a while now, but I didn’t feel like it was the right time to get into. It was too soon. Our wounds were still too raw.

But months have gone by, and it’s time to finally step up and admit it.

Avengers Endgame was kind of a mess, y’all.

I’M SORRY BUT YOU KNOW IT’S TRUE

Why was it a mess? Lots of reasons, but two in particular I want to talk about – plot holes and story flaws.

…wait, aren’t those kind of the same thing?

No! And that’s the thing that I actually want to discuss and unpack, using Avengers Endgame (and another piece of media that I’ll get to presently) as my go-to example.

Do I need to tell you that there will be spoilers? Oh my, so many spoilers. Read on at your own risk.

I mean, the film was fun. I liked most of it a lot! And I jumped up and down in my chair like a giddy child when – and here’s the first spoiler – Captain America picked up Mjolnir and used it to smack Thanos in the face. It wasn’t a surprise, but it was very satisfying.

But someone on Twitter said that Endgame was a better experience than it was a movie, and that’s about right. It was a movie terribly susceptible to fridge logic – those moments days or weeks later when you open the fridge, look inside and think ‘hey, wait, that thing in that movie didn’t make much sense!’

Those moments are usually the times when we notice plot holes – ways in which the logical flow of a plot fails. Plots need to have a flow from A to B to C, even if that flow is sometimes only visible when looking back from C. Is that obvious? Yeah, maybe, but this post is about how these terms get confused, so I might as well kick off with some definitions.

Let’s start with a little one – Rhodey changes War Machine armours between scenes without explanation, shifting from black-and-grey to big-bulky-red. Plot hole! And one that doesn’t matter! This kind of minor continuity error might bother a few people, but that portion of the plot flow isn’t too important in the overall scheme of things.

The hole that matters is a lot bigger. And that is – how the hell did Thanos and his army of minions time travel to fight the Avengers? You can’t time travel without a dose of Pym Particles, but the team have just enough to make their own round trips. There’s no scene where the bad guys get more, no explanation of how they break the rules the film spends aaaaaaages detailing, unpacking and using to propel the plot forward.

That, friends, is a bonafide, load-bearing plot hole. As is the question about how geriatric Steve Rogers popped up at the end of the film; once again, this breaks the rules the movie already established, which stated that going into the past created alternate timelines. He couldn’t have been there all along – so how did he get there?

The question is always ‘how’ with a plot hole. It’s mechanical, it’s about process; it’s linking up that chain of causality.

Now, in this case, the Russo brothers have apparently addressed these plot holes (and others) after the fact, saying ‘one of Thanos’ henchmen made some Pym Particles’ and ‘other timeline inventors came up with a way to get Steve across.’ It must be so liberating to just say, after the fact, ‘oh, there’s an explanation that makes sense if you accept that the movie has an objective reality outside what we filmed’ and to have (some) people accept it. Kind of makes you wonder why you’d bother with a plot at all, rather than just three hours of CGI explosions and then naked Stan Lee saying ‘A wizard did it!’ in the post-credits scene.

For the rest of us, plot holes need to be fixed before the book/movie/game is out in the world. Luckily, they usually aren’t that hard to fix. ‘How’ questions have fairly straightforward answers, because they’re (once again) about process. Just work out an explanation, then write a scene or two to insert that explanation and then smooth over the edges. It’s work, but it doesn’t have to be incredibly hard work. Logic can guide you.

Logic is your friend. It’s here for you. Even though you never call.

But it’s not always easy finding logic when you need it, because in these benighted end time, people – and I mean internet people – tend to slap the PLOT HOLE sticker onto anything that they don’t like or understand in a piece of media.

Case in point – I’m not linking to it, ’cause I forgot the address and also can’t be bothered, but there was a fansite that listed multiple instances of ‘The Avengers changed stuff in the past, but it didn’t cause a paradox!’ as plot holes in Endgame. And I’m like… buddy, work on your comprehension skills! That stuff was specifically called out within the film as not causing paradoxes! There were whole scenes devoted to explaining that changing the past actually just creates a new timeline – which, okay, is one of the things that set up that whole Old Steve thing I mentioned earlier.

But yeah – sometimes a ‘plot hole’ is just the audience missing something. And try as you might, you can’t make your plot points foolproof. You just gotta move on.

A much bigger point of confusion is when a ‘plot hole’ is actually a story flaw. And that’s a much more complex thing to unpack.

Quick question: what’s the difference between plot and story? Here’s my take:

  • Plot: a series of things happen
  • Story: a series of things happen for reasons

It’s super-reductive but it works – a story is a plot with purpose, rather than just a chain of events. A problem with the story is a problem with those reasons and purpose, not the chains of connection. The links are there – they just don’t feel right.

For me, the big story flaw in Endgame was Steve Rogers decided ‘fuck it, I’ve done enough, going back to the past to dance with my sweetheart for 60 years and retire’. That decision doesn’t click with what we’ve seen of him in the movies up to this point (and absolutely doesn’t work with the character as developed in the comics, but that’s a whole different nerd-argument). The story needed to provide the right context to underpin and justify that decision, which it didn’t; instead, it’s basically just waving it off and moving on.

Chris Evans would like to eat carbohydrates again please

A story flaw is a why question. Why did that happen? Why did this character make that decision? Why do I find this story emotionally unsatisfying? These are outcome questions, context questions; they’re harder to pin down than how questions, and the answers are murky and unreliable. A fix for one reader/viewer may not work for another, and definitely won’t work for a third. But still, they need to be addressed – if only to the point where you’re happy with your solution and think it makes emotional sense.

The other issue with story flaws is that, well, sometimes they say less about your work and more about your audience. Which is where we turn to our second example piece of media – Game of Thrones.

I’ll be honest up front – haven’t watched it. Haven’t watched any of it. Never plan to, either! But I am aware of its details through geek osmosis and the omnipresent discourse. And thus I am aware that its ending was… controversial? Many people on the ‘webs thought that the ruler of Westeros should have been someone other than Boy Who Looks Like an Sleepy Ferret. To me, that sounds like a story flaw.

Meanwhile, some of the other commentary around that last season was ‘How is Arya Stark so competent, given that she’s a girl and therefore sucks?’ Which sounds like someone’s prejudices dangling in their face like a flaccid dick flopping down from their forehead. And also sounds like about 75% of online geek discussion.

And it can be hard to tell the difference (sometimes) between ‘this doesn’t make sense to me for valid reasons’ and ‘this doesn’t make sense to me because women/PoC/LGBT folks/I-dunno-Norwegians shouldn’t have agency’. Because both those statements are framed the same way, and both get stated (or shouted) a lot in these dying days of human civilisation. So we need to bear that in mind when hearing criticism that speaks to whether something ‘makes sense’.

When presented with a how problem, you get to work. When presented with a why question, you need to dig deeper and decide whether you agree before you try to fix things – or not.

So… why go into this in so much depth? Or at least length? Well, because ‘plot hole’ gets bandied around far too much, and I think it’s good to distinguish between problems. And because the Endgame thing was nagging at me, and I needed to find a way to unpack that.

And maybe because this year’s batch of Seasonal Affective Disorder is finally wearing off, and I wanted to write something for a change.

And I did.

Anyway. Fix the things that need fixing. Be clear about which things don’t need fixing, and which audience members can be ignored and ideally jettisoned. Don’t sign over your kingdom to Baby Liam Gallagher.

And remember to include the goddamn Pym Particle scene next time. I swear to god.

Skin deep

One notable thing about the 2010s is how many popular concepts from the 20th century are getting a revival. Some of those popular things are bad, like measles and Nazism. Others are good, like D&D and audio drama.

Let’s focus on the good for the moment. It’s a great time for RPG actual play podcasts, also known as ‘let’s listen to total strangers playing D&D for two hours as if that’s somehow entertaining rather than torturous’.

1000% accurate depiction of ‘Critical Role’

I kid, I kid. I used to think listening to other people roleplay was incomprehensible, but now an embarrassingly large proportion of my podcast playlist is taken up with AP ‘casts. They’re a good way to learn how other players/GMs approach games, after all – and god help me, the best of them are entertaining.

(The worst… look, it’s real easy to unsubscribe to a bad podcast 2 minutes after starting it.)

The successful ‘casts also have big fan followings – again, a concept none of us thought was possible or sane back in the day. The people, they LOVE listening to the D&D. They tweet about it. They tumble it. They patron it.

Anyway, if you check out social media activity around AP casts, or indeed any other form of audio drama/comedy/etc., the number one thing that comes through is that listeners, desperately, desperately want to know what these characters look like.

And that baffles me.

The thing I find least interesting, the thing I skip over in any book, the fast-forward-or-fuck-it-delete-the-whole-thing trigger in any audio medium… it’s what people look like. It’s descriptions of clothing. Of facial features. Of ohfuckmedead hair colour. Tell me about the character’s ringlets and freckles and I’m putting down the book/’cast in favour of strong drink.

Look, I get it. I know I’m wrong. I’m the weird one here. It’s utterly natural for human beings, a species that (mostly) uses sight as their primary way of perceiving all of existence, to want that sense reflected in their fiction.

But fuuuuuuuuuck it bores me.

I blame Raymond Chandler, as I often do. He taught me that you could describe characters through metaphor and simile without ever specifying what colour pants they were wearing. Consider lines like:

From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.

He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.

She had eyes like strange sins.

(Yes, I know Chandler described people more thoroughly at other times, and even what they were wearing. Don’t blow up my spot, I’m on a roll.)

I read lines like that at an impressionable age, too young or dumb to register Chandler’s misanthropy, misogyny, homophobia or general shittiness as a person, and they stuck with me. To the point where I struggle to engage with any prose or audio that takes the time to spell out all the details, and to where I look at fanart and clamourings for ‘official’ artwork of podcast characters as some kind of missive from an alternate reality that I would prefer not to visit, thank you.

The principle holds true in my writing. The best description I ever wrote of a character was ‘He had a face like a stab’. That suggests not only what the character looks like (sort of), it speaks to his personality and attitude – and to the personality and thought processes of the narrator that described him.

(I abandoned the project that included that description. But I swear I’ll use it again someday.)

But here’s the thing, and the reason why this is a blog post rather than a grumpy tweet – I realise this might be a problem. That readers – the readers I want to obtain and retain – like knowing what people look like. Especially in YA fiction, which I have decided to keep plugging away at like a punch-drunk bantamweight too concussed to know when to quit.

(Hmm. Might keep that Chandlerism too.)

So with Raven’s Blood, I started working on describing characters more. I’m not sure I succeeded. But as I start planning the next, hopefully final revision pass through that MS in a hope of finding it a home, and indeed to start writing the next novel, descriptions – of characters, clothing, places – are something I’m trying to focus on. And to find some middle ground between a five-word simile and a page-long then I looked in the mirror and listed all of my cute identifying traits monologue. Surely I can manage that.

(As for The Obituarist series… Kendall Barber’s skinny, bald and missing some fingers. And honestly I’m not sure he’s that skinny any more, 5-6 years on. I couldn’t tell you any more than that, and I hope you don’t ask.)

So that’s where my head is right now. Chime in with a comment if you’re so inclined. How important are visual descriptions or depictions to you? Do you feel the need to imagine what characters look like? And what kind of descriptive shorthand (if any) works for you?

BORING PRODUCTIVITY UPDATE: We moved house in the long gap between this post and the last, and I took a lot of concentration-destroying painkillers to cope with a knee injury.

But now we’re settled, I’m (mostly) off the drugs and walking straight, and I’m past the halfway mark on The Obituarist III. Which is proving to have a remarkable number of scenes in which Kendall is just wandering around without pants on.

Don’t blame me. I’m just a vessel for his truth.

I like yes-and-no-buts and I cannot lie

Okay, so this post starts by talking about improv theatre, then moves into roleplaying, then into writing, then maybe back and forth between gaming and writing for a bit?

I dunno, I’m writing this bit at the start. Which is probably a bad move.

Anyhoo, moving on.

One of the truisms of improv theatre – which I used to do a lot of back in my 20s, a revelation that should shock exactly no-one – is that you never block an offer. An ‘offer’, in this case, is an idea from your co-improviser, or the audience, or whoever, and ‘blocking’ is the act of shutting that idea down.

The obvious block is saying ‘no’ and negating someone’s offer:

  • ‘Good lord, Holmes, how will you solve this mystery while you’re all fucked up on cocaine?’
  • ‘What are you talking about? I’m not Sherlock Holmes and I’ve never touched drugs.’

More subtly, you can block an offer by saying ‘yes’ to it, but not actually building on that offer – you accept the suggestion but don’t take it anywhere.

  • ‘Good lord, Holmes, how will you solve this mystery while you’re all fucked up on cocaine?’
  • ‘I don’t know, Watson. My reasoning skills have shut down due to all this coke.’
I didn’t watch this and I do not regret that decision.

So the rule that improv students internalise is ‘yes and’ – you accept the offer and you extend or build on it.

  • ‘Good lord, Holmes, how will you solve this mystery while you’re all fucked up on cocaine?’
  • ‘You fool, Watson! This cocaine energises my reasoning faculties, leading me to the inescapable conclusion that you murdered all these fish cultists!’

Once you get enough experience, you realise that ‘yes and’ has its own problems, and there are other ways to manage offers, but it works at the start. And it’s such a simple, powerful principle that it’s managed to escape the gravity well of improv and get taken up in other creative quarters, such as gaming and writing.

But I’m not convinced that that’s always for the best.

Okay, moving on to gaming, specifically roleplaying.

99% of RPGs involve some kind of success/failure mechanic – either at the granular task level or the larger scene level. D&D kept it simple at first – everything was pass/fail, succeed or don’t. Over time, critical successes and failures crept into the lexicon – you could get a very good success with extra benefits, or a very bad failure with extra you-drop-your-sword-and-your-pants-at-the-same-time.

Over the course of, jesus shit, 45 years(!) (!!!), RPGs (as a whole) have expanded to allowing six different levels of payoff or detail in success/failure outcomes. We can define these using the language of improv, which has definitely influenced RPG discourse:

  • Yes-and: You succeed and you get something more in addition
  • Yes: You succeed and you get what you want
  • Yes-but: You succeed but something goes wrong, or you get somewhat less than what you want
  • No-but: You fail but something else goes right, or you get something to mitigate the failure
  • No: You fail and don’t get what you want
  • No-and: You fail and something else goes wrong; it’s even worse than not getting what you want

(I’m far from the first to block things out this way; the Freeform Universal RPG (FURPG), which I have never read nor played, also does this. Apparently.)

Sure, Google Image Search, this will do.

Over the last few years I’ve been running a lot of games that lean into the more complex outcomes, such as the various Powered by the Apocalypse games, and spinoffs like the excellent Blades in the Dark. These games generally revolve around four outcomes:

  • Yes-and
  • Yes
  • Yes-but
  • No-and

These aren’t equal weightings; yes-and is vanishingly rare (if it’s an option at all), while no-and comes up all the damn time. More importantly, a straight no is off the table. You can’t just fail and hit a wall; failures always add complications to the story. (As do some successes.)

As a GM, this is fuckin’ awesome. I want complications, I want messiness – goddamnit, I WANT DRAMA. And I love that these systems not just give me opportunities for that drama, but that most of these games give me guidance about what kind of drama and complications will suit the story we’re putting together.

But – you knew there’d be a but – I’ve come to realise that this kind of dynamic doesn’t always work for players. There are players that find this frustrating or stressful, because nothing is ever straightforward or low-stakes. Obstacles never just sit still, or allow characters breathing room to try again or think of new approaches. When everything is shifting and dynamic, aiming for maximum drama, some players feel stressed and pressured, missing the chance to brush off low-stakes failures and move on.

And to be 100% clear, there’s nothing wrong with feeling this way. Games are meant to be fun; if a players isn’t having fun, that’s not their fault, but the fault of the game/game-master for not meeting players’ needs.

Thinking about this kind of GM-player divide has made me think about what players get out of games, and what readers get out of stories. Sometimes we don’t want drama; sometimes we want harmony, or simplicity, or just relief from this dumpster fire of a world.

We need to remember that sometimes we want stories to help us feel happy.

Which brings us, FINALLY, to the writing part of the post.

Here’s the thing about writers – we love to fuck over our characters.

WE LOVE TO SHOVE OUR CHARACTERS FACE-FIRST INTO THE DRAMA TOILET AND FLUSH FLUSH YEAH TASTE THAT DRAMA AND PEE-WATER FLUSH

…ahem.

But is that what our readers always want? Is that always what’s best for the story? Does everything have to be yes-and/no-but all the time? Or is there room to pull the stakes back – to make some challenges less dramatic and more enjoyable or even cathartic for the reader? To live in the land of yes/yes-and and have no truck with no-but?

And if we do that, how do we show it?

In fiction, yes and no outcomes tend to be kind of invisible. If your daring thief/spy easily sneaks past the guards, the story usually skips past that scene in one line to get to the dramatic bit. If they fail to slip past but don’t get caught, the next scene is usually them acknowledging that, trying something different and focusing on that instead. Simple outcomes don’t translate well into prose; all of our tools are about portraying the tension and drama of complex outcomes. ‘Thank U, next’ works for songs, not so much for stories.

But I think we need to consider this, especially in a ‘tumultuous’ (i.e. THE WORLD IS ON FIRE) time when so many readers look to fiction for support and comfort as much as they do challenge and drama. We need to think about easy victories and minor defeats – what they can add to our stories, and how we portray them in ways that develop and cement our characters.

Because without these small victories, these cankers and medallions (yes that’s a reference sorry), some of the readers that we want to engage are going to bounce off out stories.

And fool that I am, I want to engage everyone.
I want us all to get the yes (and occasional yes-and) outcomes that we crave.

WRITING UPDATE: I’m about halfway through The Obituarist 3: Delete Your Account and there is precious little yes/yes-and in this story. I’m okay with this; after Kendall got his [REDACTED] bitten [NOPE] by a [SPOILERS] in the second book, I figure what few readers remain are reconciled to him having nothing but bad days from now on.

I too am having bad days, though – specifically, days where our lease doesn’t get renewed and we have to look for a new house YET AGAIN. This will likely slow down my writing schedule, ‘cos house hunting is a full-time occupation rivalled only by the actual packing and moving process.

But I’m keeping at it.
Will let you know how it goes.

2019 and all that

In previous years I’ve done an end-of-year roundup post.

2018 didn’t deserve one.

Image result for good day sir

Let’s move on.

Hey, it’s me, I’m back.

I’m feeling pretty jazzed and energetic right now, partially from getting an early night (10 minutes of fireworks and then straight to bed) and partially from finishing off a big writing project from last year.

That was LEVIATHAN, an Australian bio-horror espionage campaign I co-wrote for Greg Stolze’s Reign 2E RPG. Yes, game writing; I tried to give it up but Greg asked nicely, and also offered about double the usual payrate. Hard to turn down a friend, especially if the friend will pay your car insurance and registration bill for the year.

Anyway, I wrapped LEVIATHAN up yesterday and submitted it. Look for it as part of the Reign 2E release in August this year. Writing it was fun, and has given me a burst of word-energy like a stallion that I want to keep riding until it dies under me oh no the metaphor went dark.

New Year’s resolutions are bullshit.

Me, I have an agenda.

ONE: Finish and publish The Obituarist III: Delete Your Account. Yeah, I know I said I would do that before the end of 2018, but the contract for LEVIATHAN came through a couple of weeks later. I tried alternating between projects but wasn’t getting anywhere. so I had to go with the one that had a deadline (and would actually earn me money). Now the half-finished O3 is back on my to-do list, and I’ll be working on it solidly for the next 2-3 months.

TWO: Re-edit Raven’s Blood and find it a home. I made a lot of fruitless attempts in 2017 to pitch Raven’s Blood to agents and editors, and that failure was one of the things that sent me into a depression hole that year. But I’m well out of that hole now, and it’s time to give it another try. After I do some rewrites to tweak the themes and characterisations in the book, I’ll pull out my big spreadsheet of agent details and start firing off queries. I can’t control whether that will work out, which makes this more a hope than an agenda item, but on the plus side I can do it while working on…

THREE: Write a new novel – or at least make serious progress on one. If Blood had a publisher I’d get back to work on the next instalment, Raven’s Bones, but it’s foolish to keep building on an uncertain foundation. Instead I’ll get to work on The Squared Circle (draft title), first in a YA series about professional wrestling, 17th-century witch cults, dream demons and teenage romance. A more sensible author might pick just one of those genre ideas and run with it, but where’s the fun in picking anything but the narrowest and least attainable overlap in Venn diagrams, I ask you.

FOUR: Be a better blogger. That’s a vague statement, but vague is probably best right now. Mostly I want to have a blog worth reading on a semi-regular basis, rather than posting one entry full of vagueness, self-flagellation and unfulfilled promises every few months. There’s a few ways to do that; I’ll try a few of them and see what sticks.

That’s it for the year – four tasks/priorities/whatever. Four should be an achievable list, even for an all-mouth-no-trousers slacker like me.

2019 isn’t going to be any better than 2018 if we don’t work at it.

Let’s do that.

I’ll go first.

The Hoseface Chronicles

Apparently regular weekly, fortnightly or even monthly blogging continues to be too much effort for me to handle at the moment. Is it because I suck? Or because this is a fallen world in which the Throne of God sits empty and demons run wild to stoke and inflame the weakest and most despicable impulses of base humanity?

I mean, I know which one has the most evidence pointing to it. My intrinsic suckiness ain’t involved with The Bachelorette.

But anyhoo, some stuff has happened, is happening or will be happening now that we’ve hit November, so lemme talk about that for a bit before returning to the important work of patting my dog.

2017 has been notable in that I’ve felt like hammered shit pretty much all the time. Which is fine (note: not actually fine) if I’ve been drinking all weekend (note: don’t you judge me), but less great when it’s just a regular Tuesday morning and I wake up wishing I was dead (note: DEAD).

Poor sleep has been my biggest issue, so in September I took myself to hospital for an overnight sleep study. It was great fun (note: no it wasn’t), as you can see from the photo.

Turns out, really hard to sleep with all that crap attached to your head.

But all that glue in my beard paid off, as it revealed that I have a moderate case of sleep apnea – as well as a moderate case of upper airways resistance syndrome, which is basically a more obscure, less mainstream version of sleep apnea for hipsters, or something. (note: you probably haven’t heard of it)

It’s kind of a crap thing to deal with, but at the same time I’m really glad about this.

Depression and ennui and self-doubt are hard to tackle and overcome. Physical problems? Those can be fixed! You can take a pill for those!

Or, more accurately, you can sleep with a hose in your face.

(Peter Ball has written on dealing with sleep apnea and crushing exhaustion, much better than I can, and he covers pretty much everything that needs to be covered. Go read him talk about it.)

Sleeping with a CPAP machine doesn’t magically fix all your problems – but damn, it fixes some of them. Since I started using it a few weeks ago, I don’t wake up exhausted in the morning, I don’t hit a wall of tiredness by mid-afternoon, and I don’t get home with a grey haze on my brain that drives me into bed by 8pm. All that’s pretty great.

That said, I’m shifting from waking up 5-6 times a night because I stop breathing, to waking up 5-6 times a night because there’s a bloody hose sticking out of my face. I’m not waking up tired, but I am waking up dehydrated and headachy – which are more easily treated than exhaustion, thanks to the miracles of running water and paracetamol, but it’s still not ideal.

What would be ideal is losing a bit of weight (note: maybe like 5 kilos? I’m honestly not that fat for a bloke my height) so that the apnea fades away. As for the UARS – well, that will probably improve if I drink less alcohol, which would also help with the weight (note: it’s like some circle of life shit). If I can get all that under control, there’s no need for the CPAP machine, and Hoseface can go hang out with the rest of the Nightbreed.

What’s all this got to do with writing?

Not a lot just at the moment, admittedly. But it means that there are more hours in the day in which I can write – when I actually have the physical and mental energy required to sit down and bang out words without greying out or shutting down.

Is that happening? Yeah. A little bit. Not enough to be worth noting as yet – but still more than a few months ago.

In a few days I’m hitting GenreCon in Brisbane – going to workshops, talking to other writers, singing karaoke, drinking with friends (note: but not too much, ‘cos of the UARS thing), networking and, most of all, reconnecting with writing. (I would say ‘getting inspired’, but I feel a bit silly using phrases like that because I’m a dickhead.)

(If you’re also going, say hello! Just don’t tell me I look tired.)

Will I come back next week raring to go, pound my way through Obituarist III by the end of November and start writing about teenage wrestling-mages by December? Umm… possibly/hopefully the first part of that; probably not (note: yeah, nah) the second part. But even the first part wouldn’t be happening without 7-8 hours sleep every night – so if it does happen, we can thank Hoseface.

Let him be your new favourite Marvel superhero. Thor can piss off.

Crisis on infinite confidences

And then there was that time I vanished off the internet without warning for like six months.

Miss me? Notice I was gone? It’s okay if you didn’t. I didn’t notice a bunch of writer-blogs I follow quietly fading away over the last year or so; everyone’s focusing on social media these days.

Not that I was doing that. I was doing a bunch of things like moving house, working hard at my day job, playing games, drinking too much and suffering paralysing self-doubt any time I thought of doing any kind of writing.

I don’t know why all my self-confidence dried up and blew away like spilled cocaine under a flophouse fan. Maybe because I hit a plot wall in The Obituarist III and couldn’t see an easy way to fix it; maybe because I’d had no success interesting an agent or publisher in Raven’s Blood; maybe because of depression, seasonal affective disorder, fucked-up sleep habits and the constant psychic pressure of this hell year.

Or, to quote a bit of Obituarist III that I actually finished:

Maybe nihilistic depression is what 2017 demands. I mean – Trump, Brexit, section 44, North Korea, Putin, floods, Syria, war, refugees, climate change, neo-Nazis, terrorism, um… I dunno, hot hail, dank memes, disappointing new Tay-Tay singles… what’s the point of trying to do anything in the face of that? Better to hide under a blanket, get drunk and look at baby animal GIFs until Armageddon finally caves in the roof. That’s the only sane response.

Whatever the reason, the last six months have been… difficult. Not just from lacking confidence, but from lacking much ability to feel engaged or interested in pretty much anything. It’s all been too hard, too pointless, too much; much too much. Easier and better to just drift and not worry about anything.

Drifting, for the record, is less cool than it appeared in The Fast and the Furious. Or indeed Mario Kart.

So what’s changed? I dunno. Not sure if anything really has, other than spring finally hitting, getting diagnosed with an iron deficiency (yay, a problem I can fix!) and my new glasses making reading/writing a bit less arduous. Mostly I’m just tired of feeling three-quarters empty, and I’d like to work out how to refill whatever tank was keeping this engine running until now, and once again we can see that I’m bad at metaphors.

I’m not going to go on about MY EMOTIONS at length; I did that last year, last time I fell in a hole, and besides I now pay someone to listen to that kind of talk. I just wanted to say: hey, I’ve been gone a while, and I’m not all the way back yet, but I’m working on it. Thanks for sticking around.

Next step – back to work on Obituarist III, with an eye towards fixing the plot, working out what the hell it’s about and getting it out online by the end of 2017. And putting Raven’s Blood back into query rotation. And going to GenreCon come November. And maybe drinking a bit less.

We’ll see.

Go well, my darlings. Don’t let 2017 murder you just yet.

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.