Category Archives: writing

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.

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

large

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.

To the pain

I had a pretty solid plan at the middle of April. Finish the Pathfinder gig, unwind for a couple of weeks watching Netflix, then get solidly stuck into revising Raven’s Blood and catching up on the old blogasaurus.

Then I went to a trampoline centre for a celebratory bounce and sprained my knee less than two minutes later. And that pretty much threw all my plans into a cocked hat, along with much of my anterior cruciate ligament.

67146bf23182e3a95785520da2dc2392H-cockedhat

 

 

 

 

 

So to remind y’all that I’m still alive, I’d like to call out a few things to remember when you’re writing about pain. Not, like pain of the heart and soul, although maybe that does count, but some stuff to think about when your story involves punching, shooting, getting fingers ripped off or wrecking your knee just by stepping onto a trampoline at the wrong angle I mean jesus christ I didn’t even get to jump on it.

Pain is a symptom of something not working right: You hurt when something in you is broken or damaged, and that damage does more than just hurt. A broken rib means you can’t bend properly; a sprained knee means you can’t walk; hell, a tooth abscess means you can’t chew or maybe talk. If your character is in pain, that’s just the start of the problem; make sure to reflect the actual impairment as well.

Pain is distracting: It’s hard to think when you’re hurting, hard to pay attention to other things, hard to keep track of things. I don’t type with my knee, but it’s been impossible to write or even think about writing for two weeks, because the constant pain overrode everything else in my head. (And made it hard to sit at the desk.) Don’t let your character ignore the pain – not unless you’ve established that that’s a thing they can do, and even then you need to show the effort involved.

Pain is exhausting: Your body puts everything it has into getting you better. Which is great! Except that that doesn’t leave you anything in the tank for the messy business of the entire rest of your life. Suddenly a walk to the shops – hell, a walk up the stairs – drains you and leaves you aching and short of breath. Even writing a simple blog post may wipe you out for the night, he said meaningfully.

Pain begets pain: When one part of you isn’t working right, the rest of the body takes the strain, and the hurt cascades like a train of squishy dominoes. You can’t eat properly because of your bad tooth, so you get stomachaches or maybe ulcers. You can’t stretch properly because of your bad knee, so the back pain you’ve been fighting for months suddenly has a resurgence. When stuff is bad, stuff gets worse of its own accord, because God/fate/biology is just a prick sometimes.

Pain is depressing: It just… it grinds you down, you know? You wake up in pain, you go to bed in pain, you can’t sleep because of pain, you can’t do anything because of pain, you get pushed to the side of your own goddamn life because of pain and it won’t stop and some mornings you just want to cry because you can’t fix it. If your main character is hurt, they will not be happy about it. About anything. Trust me on this.

Pain can be dealt with, but not for nothing: Hooray for painkillers! They fix everything! I mean, they still leave you in some pain, and they dry your mouth and disrupt your sleep and fog your brain and jumble your memory and make you nauseous and constipated and they cost too much and require doctor visits and don’t let you do your job properly and did I say jumble your memory already? Anyway, they’re magic! And just like magic they’re mostly tricks and blood sacrifice.

Pain is boring: Maybe this is the worst thing about being in pain. It’s fucking dull. It’s annoying. It’s crap and stupid and boring and it stops you from doing anything interesting and you’re left lying on the couch for hours at a time watching reruns and wishing you could become a cyborg. Until it starts to lift, just a little, and you rush out to finally do something after days/weeks/months of frustrated idleness and immediately hurt yourself enough to wind back in front of the TV again.

So, um, some of this is me venting, and I’m sorry.

But some of it is saying that hey, if your hero gets slugged with a mace/uppercut/defenestration ray in Chapter 3, don’t have her cheerfully doing parkour and winning at tournament bridge in Chapter 5 – not unless Chapter 4 is all about her soaking up Amazonian Purple Healing Rays or chugging a six-pack of potions of cure light wounds. Make the pain seem real; make the pain seem shithouse. The reader will understand, because we’ve all ripped the skin off our kneecaps on a concrete driveway on the way to Laser Tag at some time or another.

No? That was just me?

…the hell with you people.

Tony Toni Tone

Okay, first up, sorry for going several weeks without a blog post – especially after saying at the start of the year that I was going to try harder about that.

Secondly, the reason that I haven’t been blogging is that I’ve been – shock horror – writing. Specifically a kind of writing that I haven’t done in several years. Yes, I’m writing me some RPGs!

Specifically, I’m writing one of several Pathfinder adventures set in the pirate city of Freeport, a city I helped flesh out in Green Ronin’s Pirate’s Guide to Freeport, to tie into the massive new Pathfinder sourcebook Freeport – The City of Adventure.

I haven’t done any RPG writing for years, thought I’d left behind me, but was drawn back into thanks to, well, being asked. The Green Ronin guys are good people, I’m working with some amazing writers and it’s a property that I have a bit of emotional attachment to. So I’m trying to put together the best piratical-fantasy-horror adventure I can, and it’s taking some time and effort.

But that’s not what I want to write about tonight. I want to write about being ambushed by assumptions about tone.

See, I’m not a Pathfinder guy. I used to play 3.5E, but that was a long time ago, and for the last few years my fantasy adventure gaming has all been 4E, plus reading a lot of Dungeon World, 13th Age and Fate. So when I sat down to create the encounters in this adventure, that was the paradigm I had in mind and the style I went for.

Guess what? Totally didn’t work.

In 4E D&D – and yes, it’s a nerdy night tonight, apologies if this is all gibberish to you – this is the model for an ‘average’ encounter:

  • 4-5 PCs
  • An equal number of enemies of the same level as the PCs
  • Minimal attrition of physical resources
  • An environment with meaningful obstacles and possibly some situational benefits
  • Magic provides lots of flashy attacks but not that many ‘debuffs’ or situational benefits

Meanwhile, this is a fairly standard Pathfinder encounter:

  • 4-5 PCs
  • One enemy with a CR that matches the PCs’ level
  • Notable attrition of physical resources
  • An environment with no or few meaningful obstacles and situational benefits
  • Magic provides lots of ‘debuffs’ or situational benefits but (somewhat) fewer flashy attacks (at lower levels, anyway)

So I would try to put together what I thought would be a straightforward encounter, like the PCs fighting a zombie sea devil press gang inside a burning gunpowder factory (not an actual spoiler) and then realise it was a complete TPK slaughterhouse. More importantly, I’d realise that it didn’t feel right in the grander scale – that even if the heroes survived, that encounter would feel out of place compared to what followed, as well as leaving them so banged up and short on resources that they’d all succumb to Queen Hagfish’s octopus buccaneers right away (also not a spoiler, although damn, maybe I should be writing that plot instead).

And some things are more subtle. For instance, 4E NPCs aren’t built like PCs, so you can give them any abilities or qualities you like (although you should try to balance them) and the game just rolls along. Pathfinder NPCs are built like PCs, and you generally need to both define them in meticulous detail and be able to justify – both mechanically and from a story perspective – any deviation from the player-accessible pool of options. 4E games involve encountering a lot of unique entities; Pathfinder games involve encountering a lot of people who are just like you, and may be worth robbing for that +1 sword they’re showing off. All of which changes the tenor (and mechanical impact) of scenes and relationships.

None of this is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and I’m not here for a D&D edition war. What this boils down to is that I had to stop working and think things through from the beginning, and take my ideas  in a different and more appropriate direction for how this story was meant to work. You could call this a genre or sub-genre distinction, but that’s a blunt and clumsy tool and not helpful. Whether heroes are fighting one guy or five, throwing infinite fire bolts or drawing charges from a wand of magic missile, using encounter powers or 3/day spell-like abilities, it’s all still ‘heroic fantasy’, and the difference between that and ‘high fantasy’ or even ‘sword and sorcery fantasy’ are truthfully kind of minor.

No, for me this was all about tone; whether the style of encounters, plotlines and interactions I wanted to produce were right for the overall story I’d been asked to create.

Tone is partially about language and voice – horror stories work because they use spooky words and gloomy images – but that’s the only mechanism, and more importantly that’s a mechanism of story-telling and not story construction (and RPG adventure writing is all about you constructing and someone else telling). When you get into the meat  of building a story, I think tone relies on two major building blocks:

  • Situation: Is an appropriate fight scene a one-on-one battle or a struggle against overwhelming odds? Do the heroes get a chance to plan or are they just suddenly thrown into chaos and riot? Can they draw upon reliable and effective resources (magic, weapons, tools etc) or are their resources capricious and difficult to use? Is the location as important/distinctive as those within it? Does this scene make sense?
  • Outcome: Who wins a five-against-one fight – can a hero prevail against overwhelming odds, or a team prevail against a crazy-powerful uber-baddie? Who wins a five-on-five fight? Did magic provide an I-WIN button or was it just one element in determining the victor? Is the winner scratched and bruised or bleeding from wounds that could be fatal? What happens next?

(And of course, those situations and outcomes don’t have to be all about fighting; I just frame it that way ‘cos I like stories about punching. Social situations, clever heists, romantic moments, times of introspection, hotsexytimes – the principle applies across the board.) And this is true whether you’re creating a playground for 3-5 players to randomly set fire to things, or writing a 90K novel about young badgers in love.

So when setting a tone for your story – oh yeah, here’s the point of this post after 1000 words about pirate orc wizards – these are the two questions you need ask when setting scenes – ‘is this something that makes sense in my story?’ and ‘did that end in a way that makes sense in my story?’. As long as you can say yes to both of those, you’re golden.

Now, if you want to stay golden, you either need to stay tonally consistent for the duration of the narrative, or clearly signpost the degree to which the tone is changing as the story progresses, but that’s a post for another night. Maybe. Look, my deadline is in three weeks and I need to iron all the kinks out of this adventure before the heroes have to blow up a haunted house in order to stop Cthulhu from plundering Davy Jones’ Locker.

Or something like that.

Anyway kids, eat right, stay in school, back soon.