Category Archives: writing

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.

Falls the shadow

So a month ago I came back from GenreCon all fired up with big ideas and focused ambitions. No more writing at random! I was going to GET SERIOUS. I was going to follow a PLAN. I was going to put together AN OUTLINE and then probably FOLLOW IT.

I mean, this was some GROWN-UP SHIT, MOFOS.

So how did that work out?

Well.

Or as TS Eliot put it:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

I had a lot of big ideas and ambitions, but in the end my mouth was writing cheques that my arse couldn’t cash, and that’s a metaphor you probably didn’t need and I’m sorry.

See, here’s the thing: you need to do more than say ‘I need a plan’. You actually have to make a plan and follow it, which is the point where I’ve come unstuck. Instead I’ve been sitting at the computer most nights, saying ‘I think plans are swell!’ and then smacking my face into the keyboard in the hopes that it would somehow turn into a 6-figure advance for Raven’s Bones.

End result: I’ve written like a page and a half. And the half is shaky.

It turns out wanting a plan isn’t enough; you actually have to create and follow one for it to work. Which is, god, so hard you guys. That requires actual planning and thinking instead of just pie-in-the-sky tweeting and six hours of Saints Row IV.

At this point I should probably say ‘failing to plan is planning to fail’ but uuuggghhh *makes jerk-off motion* no thanks. That’s a bridge too far.

Look, I meant well. I still believe that I need to have a coherent plan and direction for my work. I need to have structures, processes, benchmarks; I need to treat this like a job, because that’s what it is. And I totally intended to follow up on that.

The key thing is, good intentions don’t count for shit.

 

Right now, I don’t have the time or energy for much more than good intentions. Between a demanding day job, Brisbane-style summertime (WTF MELBOURNE) and a shameful need to interact with other people on a regular basis, I don’t have enough in the tank most nights for more than a few hundred words – hell, a few dozen. I want to treat writing like work – and sometimes work is hard. Harder than I can manage.

So what’s the alternative? What can I do with what I do have in the tank (we’re just shitting the bed on metaphors tonight, sorry) and where can good intentions actually be useful?

The answer, I think, is preparation. And making December into a month where I actually prepare, organise and yes, even plan for a better 2016. One free from false starts, self-recrimination and flesh-eating viruses.

December is when I’ll spend time genuinely planning this book like a proper project, with milestones, metrics and timelines. (I’ve taken the advice of several friends and started reading Todd Henry’s The Accidental Creative, which is apparently good for this sort of thing.)  December is when I’ll write more world-building notes – time to flesh out the Lunar Pantheon, name more districts and neighbourhoods of Crosswater, update my maps and character sketches and setting history. And December is when I’ll fine tune my outline, do more research and kick the kinks out of my plot. (All this and Christmas too.)

These things don’t need to be polished, they don’t need to be understandable to others, they don’t even need to be ‘good’. They just need to work. And as a long-time GM, I know all about making shaky, unintelligible, borderline-incoherent notes that nonetheless are enough to maintain a campaign for months or even years.

So there’s something for y’all to look forward to when this book finishes.

And with that, enough self-flagellation; I need bacon and sleep.

Not at the same time.

Welcome to the machine

Thanks to a work-related windfall last month, I splurged and bought myself something I really needed.

Hah hah, no, not a work ethic. I meant a new computer – something to replace the 8-year-old PC that is taking longer and longer to start up and keeps forgetting how to display things on its tiny monitor.

So I bought myself a spanking new PC. I call it Brainiac 5, and my phone Vril Dox, and if you are the right kind of nerd you will get that and if you’re not then you probably dated more than I did in high school.

So is Brainiac 5 sexy and powerful? Yes and no.

It’s an all-in-one PC, so yes, it’s sexy and sleek and glossy as all get-out, and has a lovely big 23″ monitor, but it’s not all that powerful. Which is deliberate. A powerful PC could be used to play high-end games, watch videos and create other kinds of distractions that would be SUPER EFFECTIVE at luring me away from my writing. This is just moderately effective, as are housework, Netflix and beer, and I can probably fight against the urge.

Probably.

And on that note, a quick Raven’s Bones update:

uuuuuuuggghhhhhhh writing is hard

At first I struggled with starting the new book because I didn’t have Word on my new computer, and holy crap it turns out all of my writing techniques are cued to that program. My pacing is all calibrated to the length and density of a standard page, my editing techniques are all based on keyboard shortcuts, and my feel for what makes punchy dialogue matches a standard line length. Take those things away and I just flail, with no idea of how to make it work.

I tried downloading a demo of Scrivener, along with an explanatory video. I deleted both of them after ten minutes going nope nope nope nope nope.

Fortunately I have now installed a recent version of Word. So now I’m just struggling with not knowing what the hell the book is about, having to check Blood every five words to make sure I keep consistent, being brainfogged after a hard day at work and generally not wanting to make any kind of effort. You know, the usual.

Last time I wrote about wanting to have a plan for my writing. I still don’t think the plan is there yet.

The other task with a new computer? Transferring all the music files over, then re-sorting and re-labelling everything for consistency.

In doing this, I discovered that I have a lot of old music – in which ‘old’ means ‘1995-2005’ and bugger-all new music. Which is kind of embarrassing for someone who likes to think of himself as a neophile.

In fact, this concerned me so much that I put together a spreadsheet and used it to make a graph of my music library. Because I’m that kind of guy.

Albums (pre)

Points to note:

  • I don’t have a huge amount of 90s albums, but what I have is 90% killer and less than 1% filler. Nick Cave, Nine Inch Nails, Faith No More, the Afghan Whigs, the Wu-Tang Clan, Tricky, DJ Shadow, the Dirty Three, Portishead, Unkle, Tool, Juno Reactor, Underworld… my 90s game is tight, y’all.
  • On the other hand, while I have some solid stuff in the 2000-2005 window, including more work by some of the aforementioned artists, I also have a lot of DJ mixes and breaks/D&B cuts/collections. These albums aren’t bad – most of them are really good – but they just don’t stick in the head. They’re music for the feet, not the heart.
  • Not included in graph: like 11 full gigs of BBC Radio DJ sets and Essentials Mixes. That would just complicate matters.
  • The 1970s albums are two Toms Waits and a Meat Loaf record. This should come as no surprise to anyone.

Faced with this graphic realisation of my shortcomings, I reached out to social media last week for new (i.e. post-2010) music suggestions. Now, thanks to the magic of public libraries, I have some 30-odd new albums to listen to, which is pretty damn exciting. So far the standouts are Frightened Rabbit’s Pedestrian Verse, the Jezabels’ Prisoner, Metric’s Synthetica and Chelsea Wolfe’s Pain is Beauty.

I also tried listening to Taylor Swift, but she’s not my flavour. So it goes.

So anyway, hit me up with your bangin’ new music suggestions! I promise to add them to my list, then to probably just listen to superhero-movie soundtracks on repeat while writing.

But hell, at least that means I’m working.

Getting to work – Raven’s Bones

As discussed last week, I’ve had a change of plan – or, more accurately, I actually have a plan for once.

That plan is to put Sick Beats aside for a while to write Raven’s Bones, the next in the Ghost Raven series, and to do so in a reasonable timeframe – six months rather than three years. That’s a totally reachable target – it boils down to about 4000 words or two chapters a week, and I can definitely manage that if I actually work rather than just faffing about.

So what the hell is Raven’s Bones anyway?

Without getting into spoiler territory for a book that only half-a-dozen people have read, Bones (like Blood) is a YA superhero fantasy novel set in a sorta-kinda-Elizabethan world of magic, artifice, gods, refugees, racial tension and occasional masked adventurers. It’s the next chapter in the story of Kember Arrowsmith, angry young woman with a need for justice, and the Ghost Raven, long-lost hero of the city of Crosswater.

Set a few months after Blood, it shows Kember dealing with new responsibilities, new relationships and new dangers, and having trouble with all of them. She’ll encounter figures from the past along with brand new threats, she’ll hurt everyone she cares about and she’ll punch a lot of people right in the face. Bad people. Probably.

And yes, it involves actual bones. Entire skeletons-worth, in fact. Along with super-villains, dwarves, sulky gods and a giant mechanical spider in a Dracula cape.

Google Image Search, you have failed me

But just sitting down at the keyboard and saying ‘Punching! Feelings! Capes!’ isn’t a plan or a coherent direction. So I’m writing an outline – for the first time ever – to give myself more of a roadmap at the start. I may end up following it, I may end up ignoring it, but it’s there to keep me focused.

I’ve also written myself a list of questions, which I need to answer before or during (probably a mix of both) the process of writing Bones:

  • What are the core themes of this book? How are they different to those of Raven’s Blood?
  • What new regions of the setting do I want to explore? What new concepts and elements?
  • What characters are coming over from Raven’s Blood? What new characters are coming on board?
  • How will this book raise the stakes from Raven’s Blood?
  • What will be Kember’s arc over the course of the book?
  • What does Kember want to achieve over the course of the book?
  • Who gets punched? Like, a lot?

These, along with the outline, a variety of notes and as much visual/creative idea fodder as I can find, are going up on the wall behind my computer to be the first thing I see every time I sit down at the desk. A constant reminder that hey, stop playing Pillars of Eternity (which I don’t have yet but totally need to get) and hit your goddamn targets for the week.

Do the work. Follow the plan. Focus on the mountain, as Neil Gaiman apparently said (according to this kick-arse blog post from Peter Ball, which I interpret as a whip specifically and personally aimed at my back).

Will it work?

Gonna find out.

First chapter is due this weekend.

Let’s do this.

Post-Con tactical assessment

So GenreCon 2015. That was a thing.

A good thing, at that. A really great chance to meet other genre writers, discuss craft and practice with new and established talents, catch up with old friends in Brisbane, drink excessive amounts of beer and bust out ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ at karaoke once again.

Good times. Great times. Very much worth the trip. Definitely heading back in 2017 for the next one.

But mostly it’s made me think about what I’m doing wrong.

I don’t mean that in terms of my writing per se, or my general level of craft. While I’ve lots of room to improve there (as does pretty much every writer), I’m reasonably happy with where I currently am on that learning curve. (Hopefully you folks are too.)

Fundamentally, I’m talking about my treatment of writing as a career or a professional practice; hell, even as a job. About taking myself seriously as a working writer, who has a plan and is actively striving to meet goals, rather than a hobbyist or dilettante who flits from project to project, randomly ‘experimenting’ and then giving up when it’s too hard. Because flailing about at new things, rather than picking one target and shooting for it, is getting me nowhere.

In other words, I’m talking about planning and strategy.

Which is tricky. I’m not a planner by nature, not much of a one for strategy. I’m okay with setting short-term goals and direction, but medium- or long-term? Not my strength. I’m better as a problem-solver, a fixer, a tactician – someone who copes with change and can overcome immediate obstacles quickly and with minimal stress.

But just as my day job is demanding more strategic thinking and coordination from me these days (and giving me some PD around that, which is nice), so too is my night job. Writing a novel every three years, or a novella every 18 months, doesn’t make for any kind of sustainable career. Even if I look at non-financial definitions of ‘success’ – and I think writers should think about more than just dollars-in-pocket when deciding for themselves what success looks like – I’m still only making haphazard progress, and towards goals that are ill-defined.

A defined, coherent strategy is well overdue. And bloody hard for me to think about.

Is there a middle ground? Well, maybe. I discussed this with a couple of folks over the weekend, and they got me thinking about whether I can lend my tactical sensibilities/strengths to my writing practice. In other words, approaching projects as a series of short-term goals and obstacles that collectively create a medium-term success (i.e. a finished book), and that in turn contribute to a coherent long-term goal. To fight a series of self-contained battles, and in doing so win the war.

You know, just like in D&D.

So what’s this all mean in real terms? Not sure yet. These notions of ‘tactical writing practice’ and ‘a problem-solving approach’ are just words right now, and it’s going to take some more thinking before I can turn them into meaningful goals, plans and praxis. Once I manage that, I’ll talk about it more here.

In terms of concrete, short-term things though, the main one is that I’m putting aside the Sick Beats horror novel concept for a while. Not dropping it, not at all, but prioritising it for later (and taking some time to do fuller research for it). And I did sketch a quick theme/motif mind map for it yesterday to keep me going:

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(It makes sense to me, honest.)

Similarly, while I have some thoughts on a third (and final) Obituarist novella, that’s not on the cards for now.

Instead, what I’m going to focus on next, and stay focused on, is the next Ghost Raven novel, Raven’s Bones, and after that Raven’s Ashes. To continue with what I’ve started and develop the entire trilogy as a package now, rather than later on when momentum and direction is lost. I’m writing up an outline for Bones right now – the first time I’ve ever written an outline, and it’s kinda hard – and one that’s done, I’ll try to develop some intermediary goals and milestones that I can set as problems to be overcome while moving towards the end-state of a finished book that fits into a greater series framework.

This is all very Project Management 101, I know. But I do so love re-inventing the wheel.

Anyway, stories of radio pus and dubstep horror will return. Right now, I’m filling my head with masked adventurers, problematic teenage romance, angry punching and a major supporting character that’s a giant robot spider in a Dracula cape.

…see, I’m good at the imagination part. No-one can take that from me.

Hey, remember me?

Tum te tum te tum…

…I’m sure there was something else I was meant to be doing…

…hey, what’s this note on my calendar…

OH MY GOD I FORGOT TO UPDATE MY BLOG FOR SIX WEEKS

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Okay, it’s not so much ‘forgot’ as ‘couldn’t spare the time’. The last six weeks have been heavily focused on doing my Raven’s Blood rewrites, which took significantly more time and energy than I expected.

But once I got past the first half-dozen chapters, which required the most work, I started picking up speed. The last two weekends? CRUSHED IT. Just blitzing through chapters, either because I’m so damn good at this or because the second half of the book was stronger than the first.

(Or because I just stopped trying HAHAHA no it wasn’t that.)

As a result of upping that focus through October, with only occasional breaks for roleplaying and getting drunk, the Raven’s Blood revisions are DONE. The book is DONE. My liver is DONE. A tan or grey-gold colour is DUN and okay I’ll stop now.

Anyway, that book is finished. It’s off being considered and read by TOP PEOPLE and we’ll see what happens with that. Hopefully it’s good news and I haven’t wasted three years and 85 000 words.

So what’s next? First up, GenreCon – I head up to Brisbane on Friday morning for a weekend of panels, networking and drunken karaoke, as well as catching up with a few of the friends I left behind when I moved to Melbourne lo these ten years ago. If you’re coming to GC, I’m the tall bloke with short hair and an occasional limp; feel free to stop me and berate me for being slack all the time. Or come to the two panels I’m on – ‘Indie tools for established authors’ (chair) and ‘True tales of indie publishing’ (panelist). That might be more fun.

Second, I’d be remiss if I didn’t plug Gods, Memes and Monsters, the new anthology out these last few weeks from Stone Skin Press. I have a story (sort of) in this 21st century bestiary, along with a wide and exciting variety of authors that I’m really pleased to be part of. Want to see what gorgons, manticores and (my contribution) the catoblepas are up to these days? Want to learn about modern creatures like meme mosquitoes and trashsquatches? This is the book for you. Read and be AMAZED.

Third thing… oh yeah, this blog (sigh). I know I’ve been slack – not just this last couple of months, but all year. Time has not been on my side, and the demands of my day job don’t always leave me with much energy in the tank come blogging night. But with two books finished this year – that’s right, you all forgot about The Obituarist II: Dead Men’s Data, but I didn’t – I’ve got some downtime coming back, and I’m gonna use it to jumpstart this here thing and yes I know that’s a mixed metaphor BACK OFF YOU’RE NOT MY REAL DAD

And finally – what’s next? What am I going to do once I come back from Brisbane, finish schmoozing and get through Silent Hill Downpour?

Start a new book, obviously.

This one’s a horror novel about a few things. Mad science, disease, audio engineering, bad romance, the layers of history, 19th century patriarchy, the consequences of bad decisions and my local dog park.

Here’s an image to inspire me (and you), courtesy of artist Simon Stålenhag.

And here’s the (provisional) first few sentences, which suggests a little something about the narrative voice:

Question: Do peacocks like dubstep?

Experiment: BAAAWWWWW WUBWUBWUBWUBWUB SQUAAWCK EH EH EH EH EH

Answer: I guess not.

It’s called Sick Beats, and I’ll keep you posted as it progresses.

Hopefully this one won’t take three goddamned years to knock over.

Back next week.

Honest.

Abel Wackets is a Jackanapes

As I revise, rewrite and generally tinker with the new draft of Raven’s Blood, one thing I’m paying particular attention to is the language – not my language, but the way my fantasy characters speak.

Okay, mostly the way they swear.

Raven’s Blood is set in a world that’s a bit like Elizabethan England with some more contemporary elements thrown in – plus magic and and superheroes and golem cyborgs and stuff – and so I’m using some sources of period language to add resonance, name items/activities and give the characters terrible things to say to each other. And tonight I wanted to share some of the best offenders with you folks.

I’ve drawn Elizabethan terms from a number of places, in particular Lisa Picard’s fantastic Elizabeth’s London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan England – but for the slang terms and dirty words, I’ve relied on this excellent website from the University of Tulsa. Here are some favourites from that source:

  • Apple-squire: Pimp
  • Bing a waste!: Bugger off!
  • Bousing ken: An ale-house
  • Clapperdudgeon: Chief beggar; a term of reproach
  • Pillicock: Penis; a vulgar term for a boy
  • Doddypol: A foolish person
  • Cocklorel: An insult of moral character
  • Jackanapes: A bestial insult
  • Eater of broken meats: An insult of social position
  • Hundred-pound: An insult of social position
  • One-trunk-inheriting: An insult of social position
  • Worsted-stocking: An insult of social position

The insults of social position are amazing.

My other major source of words is not Elizabethan but it is historical – Francis Grose’s 1811 hit The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, available on Amazon and also as a free text file from Project Gutenberg. This guide to early 19th century British slang is massive, engaging and filled with every word for prostitute you could ever desire, as well as a staggering number of slang terms for the vagina (referred to throughout as ‘the monosyllable’).

As it happens, I don’t have much need in my story of teenage female heroics and face-punching for either of those kinds of terms, but I do have a number of other favourite phrases and activities that I use in this book (and that I’ve dropped into other projects in the past, such as The Pirate’s Guide to Freeport):

  • Autem cackletub: A conventicle or meeting-house for dissenters
  • Bear-garden jaw: Rude, vulgar language
  • Deadly nevergreen: The gallows, the tree that bears fruit all the year round
  • Galimaufrey: A hodgepodge made up of the remnants and scraps of the larder
  • Grinagog, or the cat’s uncle: A foolish grinning fellow, one who grins without reason
  • Paper scull: A thin-scull’d foolish fellow
  • Sword racket: To enlist in different regiments, and on  receiving the bounty to desert immediately.
  • Word grubbers: Verbal critics, and also persons who use hard words in common discourse
  • Barking irons: Pistols
  • Abel-wackets: Blows given on the palm of the hand with a twisted handkerchief

There’s so much to love in The Vulgar Tongue, assuming you can get past all the casual misogyny and talk about arses.

Mind you, I have to be careful to use this kind of language sparingly; it’s a heavy spice and one that can quickly take you from ‘flavourful’ to ‘incomprehensible’ if applied too generously. Otherwise I’d write passages like this:

‘Ames-ace!’ the scurvy recreant spat as he pawed the bale of bones in the atrium of the bousing ken. ‘I’ll not be taken in by thy inkhorn words, Dibber Dabber. You’ve cogged me, you lily-livered coistril!’

The Upright Man smoothed his commission and toyed with the chive he drew from his farting crackers. ‘So God mend me, no need to cheer so glimfashy, cousin,’ he said. ‘Like you not the dice? Perhaps we could go bat-fowling instead – or I could nap the teize with veney stick, if that’s more to your liking, you spunger.’

If you read that you would think you’d had a stroke. Or that I had.

…although now I really want to know more about those farting crackers.

Anyhoo, that’s what’s amusing me this week – feel free to chime in with your own favourites.

Now back to it.

Writer’s block – THREAT OR MENACE?

I never really thought that writer’s block was actually real, until recently I –

…okay, that opening’s a little more Dear Penthouse Forum than I had planned. Let’s change tack.

What is writer’s block? Can it happen to you? How can you overcome it? Is it in fact a thing? I’m not going to answer any of these questions because every second writing blog already has an article on this and it’s not like I have anything new to say on the subject.

What I will say is that it’s never been a problem for me in the past. Procrastination, laziness and just not wanting to write have been problems for me, sure, and still are – but when I actually make the decision to write, sit the hell down and start working, the words come out and I can get stuff done.

Until lately. Now that my knee is healing (slowly) and I’m not hopped up on painkillers all the time, I’m getting back to the revision of Raven’s Blood – or I would be if I was getting any writing done. Instead I’m opening files, staring at them and doing nothing, even though the plan is in my head and I already know what I need to do to the draft to improve it. It took me two weeks to write an outline for the revision, most of that spent sitting in my chair, frowning at the monitor and wishing I was already asleep.

(This is also why my blogging has been irregular. Well, that and laziness.)

What am I going to do about this? I could read any of those aforementioned articles, but instead I’m trying something more daring – I’m embracing it.

If my brain isn’t ready to write, then dang it, I’m not going to force it. How is that going to make my final draft any good? Better to let the energy and ideas build up in my head – along with the occasional dash of self-loathing for being too damn slow, sure, it’s a good motivator – until it hits some kind of critical mass and the explosion artfully slams my fingers into the keyboard over and over again.

Warmer weather might also help.

The upshot of all this is – we build up writer’s block as being this thing we must fight and overcome if we want to write. But shit, son, it’s not like people are gonna die if you don’t finish Chapter 17 before Cup Day. Unless you’re on a deadline, there’s no harm – and maybe a lot of good – in cutting yourself some necessary slack and waiting for inspiration, energy or even just inclination come back to you.

If you are on a deadline, straighten the fuck up, you’re meant to be a professional. Alternatively, fake your own death. It worked for Ambrose Bierce.

Another thing on my mind – pulling my head out of my butt with this here blog.

For a while now I’ve been trying to make this one of those Sage Writerly Advice blogs that you find online, because that’s what writers are meant to blog about. It’s what Chuck Wendig does, after all.

But let’s be real here. Chuck’s a friend of mine and I like his work a lot, but we can’t all be Chuck Wendig because the weight of our beards would crack the Earth in half. And also because he’s a full-time writer with an incredible work ethic and a dozen finished novels behind him, so he has stuff worth saying and people want to hear it. I, on the other hand, am a part-timer with a handful of self-pubbed novellas and too quick a tendency to paste in memes for comic relief. Which doesn’t mean I can’t share my thoughts and experiences, but there’s only so much wisdom I have to drop.

Peter Ball, another excellent writer of my acquaintance, wrote recently about going back to the ‘public diary’ form of blogging, of just sharing thoughts and interests rather than Sharing a Teaching Moment every week. This has been on my mind of late, especially on nights when I have nothing of great import to disseminate with my adoring public. And I think if I pull the self-importance back and just, y’know, shoot the shit with all y’all a bit more, things might be more regular – and more fun – around here. Gonna give that a try.

Also, Peter’s new Gold Coast urban fantasy novella Crusade just came out this week, and you should read the hell out of it. I plan to.

Demanding better

Tonight is Real Talk Night.

There will be no jokes.

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

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

1208 - Obituarist-ol - new

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

That’s the aim.

Sometimes I fall short.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That doesn’t make anything better, I know.

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

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

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

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

Thanks and goodnight.