Category Archives: writing

Plot, character, piledrivers

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

The answer is – more than you might think.

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

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

Tonal change is hard

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

Risk aversion is sensible but boring

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

Stick to the schtick

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

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Use all your tools – but use them properly

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

We don’t talk about the weird stuff any more

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

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Good pacing makes up for many sins

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

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

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

Let’s find out next time.

All the wide world round

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

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

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

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

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

Understand your tools

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

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

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

Embrace your genre

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

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

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

Remember your audience

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

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

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

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

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

Also in this blog instalment, GENERAL LIFE UPDATE

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

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

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

Stocktake

2016.

Christ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So far, I have failed in that.

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

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

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

Self-sabotage is the worst kind of sabotage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To recap, then:

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

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

Yes, I will wear this if I have to.

I will also try writing more, and better.

We’ll see which tactic works best.

Put me back in the machine

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

…I miss work already.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In (and out of) the zone

An update:

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

I have not been in The Zone.

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

OR HAVE I?

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

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

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

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

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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:

IMG_1492

(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.