Category Archives: writing

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.

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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.

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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.

Breaking all the rules

I heard about the Detection Club a couple of weeks ago on the excellent Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff podcast. It was a club that included all the great whodunnit writers of the 1930s, from Agatha Christie to GK Chesterton, and man, I think I would have liked going to one of their parties.

But I doubt they would have invited me, because my crime stores don’t always follow their 10 Commandments for Writing a Mystery. They wrote those rules down and expected their members to follow them so that they wrote the right kind of mysteries, which is both amazing and kind of terrible – and incredibly entertaining when you read them and realise how cheerfully many of them (especially Christie) broke the rules when it suited them.

(The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Ten Little Indians are like the biggest fuck-yous to the expectations of the entire whodunnit genre. They’re great.)

Anyway, below (and stolen from here) are the rules of the Detection Club, that must be followed to produce a good and proper mystery:

1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.

2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.[Editor’s note: At the time, trashy, mass-media mysteries always featured a character of Chinese descent. This rule meant the writer should avoid cliché plot devices, although yes, it sounds totally racist.]

6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.

8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.

9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Me, I broke at least two of these rules multiple times in The Obituarist and The Obituarist II.

And now I really want to break the rest of them. Preferably all in the same story.

A story about an angel detective, accompanied by her super-genius best friend, solving a murder in the Winchester House with the aid of her supernatural insights and intuitions – and where the sudden twist ending is the revelation that the killer was a pair of twin brothers, who used magic to disguise themselves as the angel’s best friend all along, who used an incomprehensible reality poison engine to commit the murder!

Or something like that.

I should probably make someone Chinese, but eh, that’s one I’m okay with leaving be.

Someone pay me to write this.

Hell, someone dare me to write this.

But not anytime soon, ‘cos I really have a lot on my plate right now.

…still. Man. That’s a tempting idea…

Dragon Age Inquisition – the storytelling do’s and don’ts

By this stage of my life, people should know better than to give me video games for Christmas, and I should know better than to ask for them.

But we all do things against our better judgement, and that’s why I spent most of the last two months slouched on the mezzanine, playing the absolute shit out of Dragon Age: Inquisition when I should have been writing regular blog posts, or indeed books.

On the other hand, playing DAI for so long – more than 100 hours! – made me think an awful lot about what worked, what didn’t, which parts of its epic storyline were compelling and which made me want to drink bleach. And so, much as I did with Arkham City and Guild Wars II (at length), I’d like to look at the game from a writing perspective, and turn my timewasting into a set of storytelling lessons.

This is how I justify my life, and the wasting thereof. Please indulge me.

(WARNING: Spoilers! Not a huge amount, but some!)

Screw with expectations, but then live up to them

Dragon Age: Origins amassed a massive body of fans (myself included) who loved its story and characters; DA2 had problems, but still built on that foundation and set up a situation that the new game needed to follow up. So DAI launched with many ideas about what it should be and what it should include – and then struck its own balance between those preconceived ideas and desires and a variety of new concepts and content, taking the franchise in new directions (some of which are successful). Take the same attitude to your writing – don’t be hidebound by what readers think you’re going to write, but surprise them by striking out in a new direction while still writing with the same craft and level of polish. Readers may think they want The Comfortable Further Adventures of X, but they’re really attracted to your voice and skill; give them more of that, while fucking with expectations, and they will (hopefully) love you for it.

Wherever you set your stakes, make them matter

DAI is filled with adventures large and small, some of which feel urgent and engaging and some of which do not. The ones that work have genuine consequences and payoffs – expressed in character/story terms – while the ones that don’t just give you better equipment and no-one discusses them again. The first lot of quests are the ones that stay with me and made the game interesting; the second are already forgotten. So too with your own plotlines; stakes need to engage the reader on a personal level, not just be a way of making your character collect plot tokens or better equipment for the important scenes.

Endings need to matter as well

The end of your story is the payoff of everything that’s gone before, and it needs to connect up with everything that’s gone before. It needs to have impact, it needs to be engaging, it needs interaction and choices and it needs to encompass the themes you’ve established. More to the point, it needs to be more than an uncomplicated two-stage boss fight that you win by just hitting one guy over and over again with your best attacks, followed by an unsatisfying denouement.

Someone please travel back in time and explain this to the DAI development team.

Worldbuilding needs to be a sometimes food

Writers love worldbuilding, and readers/players love the feeling that they’re engaged in an almost-real place. But you can convey that feeling with a light touch, and by dropping details into scenes so that readers take them on board almost without noticing. Or, like DAI, you can have chunk after chunk of exposition scattered around the narrative space, communicated in books, letters, paintings, mosaics, conversations and dream sequences, so that you have to stop engaging with the story/game in order to read them.

I’m sure there are people who love this level of detail, for whom learning about the world of Thedas is the entire point of the game. I’m just saying that they’re wrong. And as writers, those are not the readers you need to be serving.

Go for killer, not filler

Inquisition positions your character as someone of immense importance, a world-changer who is the only hope of stopping the apocalypse. It also asks you to collect hunks of iron, pick flowers, kill assorted bandits and generally piss-fart around the world doing micro-errands in true MMO style. The result is a massive disjunct between how you’re supposed to see yourself and how you actually behave, and a whole lot of boring crap to do over that 100+ hours of playtime. Do not do this in your fiction! Do not make characters perform meaningless or boring-to-the-reader tasks just because they’re ‘realistic’ or the connective tissue you think is needed between the interesting bits! If you write scenes that are engaging and meaningful, you can bridge them with a paragraph or a handwave; better that than a scene where your hero slowly hunts and butchers mountain goats to make blankets for a bunch of people that she never talks to again.

It always comes back to character

People focus on NPCs and relationships as the selling points of BioWare games, and that’s because they’re (mostly) the strongest and most engaging part. DAI is no different, and the game is at its best when you’re connecting with those characters, exploring their stories and deciding how your priorities align with theirs. The character mix isn’t as strong as in the two previous games – there are too many NPCs, some of whom (well, mostly Sera) are boring or terrible – but there are many good characters who will draw you in. In prose, you need to make readers care about your characters, their relationships and their journeys; do that  and the story and worldbuilding can almost take care of itself.

So don’t run out of character stuff

I played DAI for nearly 110 hours. The first 70-odd hours were (on the whole) terrific, because I punched monsters and explored the Deep Roads and made swords AND THEN I went and told my special digital friends about it. We laughed, we cried, we kicked evil in the dick; it was great. And then I hit the point where they had nothing new to say; where every NPC had reached the end of their personal story and arc.

And I still had 25+ hours of game to play.

They were boring.

Without character hooks, without interplay, without an emotional payoff that you can attach a face to, your story (probably) just ain’t that interesting. It’s a string of events and situations that don’t matter to the people in them – and that means it doesn’t matter to the reader. So don’t keep the plot going if there isn’t any character-meaningful story going along with it; wrap it up then and there.

Good villains are hard to write

Inquisition‘s villain is kind of rubbish, but I can’t give BioWare too much stick for that. It’s easy to write a bad guy who rants and raves and puts into play a poorly-thought out plan that doesn’t really make any sense. I know, I’ve done it (currently rewriting it). Going beyond that is difficult; you have to give your villain a personality people can connect with but still want to see defeated, you have to let them appear multiple times and engage with characters to build up their mystique, and you have to make their nefarious plan hang together at the end and be more than ‘he turns up and punches EVERYONE’.

Alternatively, he should be Doctor Doom. Who is the opposite of so many of those things, but still AMAZEBALLS.

Maybe next game.

So is good romance

The first Dragon Age game treated romance as a vending machine where you constantly gave NPCs presents and said nice things until sex fell out and you got a dodgy underwear-on cutscene. DA2 made you wait for specific opportunities – I call them sex windows – to flirt with NPCs, but every NPC was totally into you so you could pick one and just mash the heart option until you were rewarded with a dodgy underwear-on cutscene. DAI continues with the sex window mechanic, but gives NPCs specific sexualities and preferences, so you can in fact waste the entire game trying to chat someone up until she reveals at the 60-hour mark that she’s not into girls and now it’s too late to sex someone else and DAMNIT I JUST LOST THE GAME no cutscene for me.

What I’m trying to say is that writing a believable, engaging romance is hard. It probably looks more like the DAI version than the other two. But it’s still hard. And no, not ‘hard’ in a dirty way. For god’s sake, grow up.

Moral choices are more interesting than strategic choices

Dragon Age Origins was full of difficult moral choices, many of which boiled down to ‘do the right thing and suffer a penalty, or do something terrible and get a bonus’. It was simplistic and overdone, but by god it worked; that and the chance to sex up Morrigan/Alastair were the big drawcards of the game. Inquisition’s choices, on the other hand, mostly defaults to ‘choose one kind of benefit or a different kind of benefit’, with moral choices being either peripheral or non-existent. And I’m sure there is a kind of reader who would prefer that, who is not interested in messy stuff about feelings and ethics and consequences and more interested in effective tactics and strategies for taking down the Big Bad in the faster, smoothest and least difficult way.

Do not write books for these people. Trust me.

Never be afraid to go for a hit of real emotion

Video games tend to be a shallow and simplistic medium in many ways, and DAI is no different; running around the Hinterlands setting fire to bandits is not deep. But there’s a moment about 1/3 of the way in, at a point where everything has gone wrong and a group of people come together to find some kind of way to endure and continue… it gave me chills. Hell, it nearly made me cry. It was lightning in a bottle, nothing else in the game mattered like that and it won’t work when I play it again – but I will remember that moment for years, will remember it long after I forget the boss fight at the end oh shit I already forgot that bit.

You can do that. You can aim for that. You can write that moment when everything MATTERS. And if you can do that even once in a story, your story will fucking own. So aim for that and give it everything you’ve got.

Do not dress your main character in beige pyjamas while they’re running around a castle or talking with people about important stuff

Just don’t.

I shouldn’t have to tell you this, damnit.

Revise-wise

I don’t revise my work very much. Wait, scratch that, it makes me sound like a terrible writer. I mean, I revise my work all the time – while I’m writing it. I’m constantly tweaking, polishing, deleting and rewriting my work as I go, which is one of several reasons why it takes me 20-3 freaking years to write a book.

(The other reasons: day job, energy levels, easily distracted by games, drunk all the time.)

But I don’t tend to do a lot of heavy after-the-fact revision – except for right now, when I’m revising both The Obituarist II (due to be published next week!) and Raven’s Blood (due to be published if the fates are kind!). Yes, I’m elbow-deep and mucking out the word-stables in an attempt to clean the horse poop off these drafts, and it’s clear that my metaphors are not yet fit-for-purpose in 2015.

Anyway – yes, I am working on making my writing better. And if you too are trying to do that, and feel the need for some tips and advice from someone with no more claim to authority or expertise than the adorable dog sleeping at the end of his desk, then read on and marvel.

Read it like a virgin

I think the single best way to start a revision is to read your entire draft manuscript, start to finish, as if you were coming to it for the first time, just as your alpha-readers did, just as any reader would if you were foolish enough to upload it to Amazon right now no stop don’t do that. Take a virgin eye to your work, looking for the bits that don’t work (and relishing the bits that do) and being honest about how well it all hangs together. Don’t let yourself think excuses like this confusing scene in chapter 2 will totally make sense after I read chapter 9 or the worldbuilding in these five pages of exposition is utterly vital, because no-one else is going to cut you that slack. Read it, decide whether or not you actually like it, and then get to the business of making it better.

Slice away the weak spots

Pretty much all drafts (mine included) have big problems – dull characters, confusing plots, every single thing being awful – and little problems. Start with the little problems – the repeated phrases, the excessive adjectives, the punctuation errors, the way half the dialogue starts with ‘Well,…’ and yes I am pretty much talking about myself here. These little moments of weakness are pretty easy to fix and they get you into the mindset of revising so that you gain momentum for the more systemic issues. Think of these small victories as the mooks that protect the end-of-level boss, and your revision as a rising swagger of heroic power. That unnecessary comma? DEAD. His friends? DEAD. The flawed book that commanded them? BRING IT.

Re-connect all your pipes

Structuralists and screenwriters talk about ‘laying pipe’ – putting information in one scene that pays off or unfolds in later scenes. It’s about more than just clever foreshadowing; it’s that consistent logic of narrative that means a story makes sense. But pipe isn’t always laid down cleanly and perfectly in the first draft, as you forget about old ideas and introduce new ones that aren’t fully justified yet. The revision process is the time to finally work out the path you want this story to follow, and to backtrack, reorient and trailblaze so that the map is clear all the way from start to finish. That might mean deleting plot bits that didn’t pay off, or inserting new bits of data in the first half to give stuff in the second half a solid foundation. Then all your pipes will connect up, and your book-water will flow cleanly rather than dribble as stinky effluent from cracks in the middle.

I’d like to apologise for my metaphors. And I wish I could say they’d get better this year.

Kill your darlings, yes, but also birth new ones

Revising is not a time for sentiment. It’s a time for ruthlessness and no weakness, a time to delete (or at least cut-paste into another document) anything that isn’t making your book better. But it’s also a time for creation, because just cutting and flensing is probably going to leave you with a bloody skeleton rather than something readable. Writing small inserts (see above) is just the start; you may need new pages, scenes or whole chapters to make the story better. (Both my works-in-progress needed a new chapter, and Raven’s Blood may end up needing more.) If this is the case, then write them. Duh. Occasionally I hear advice like ‘your final draft should be 10-20% shorter than your first draft’. No, your final draft should be good, and if that means it’s as long or longer as the first draft, but all-killer-no-filler rather than a box full of Hamburger Helper, then you’re doing the job right.

Don’t fix what ain’t broke

And speaking of dumb writing advice – some pundits say that you should rewrite everything, that the first draft is a ‘vomit draft’ or an outlining exercise, and that the second/third/eighth draft should be written from scratch. Good luck to ’em if that works for them, but for my part, fuuuuuuuuuck that. A flawed draft is not a piece of mouldy fruit that is irrevocably riddled with bacteria; it’s a work of craft that can (probably) be improved with time and effort. Your draft has good stuff in it, probably more of it than you thought while writing it, and you should retain that good stuff rather than ditching it. Embrace what works and be proud of it – and then focus on lifting the rest of the work to that high bar you’ve set for yourself.

Next week: BIG IMPORTANT STUFF

DEPENDING ON YOUR DEFINITION OF ‘BIG’

Looking ahead

Let’s not talk about 2014. I had a fairly good year, overall, but it wasn’t perfect – and in the larger world, 2014 was pretty shithouse for almost everyone else. Natural disasters, planes crashing, police militarization, Tony Abbott and the car-crash of Kindle Unlimited… so much unpleasantness.

So I’m gonna get in before Wednesday night’s planned NYE bacchanal – well, before cocktails and Birdman – with a look at what I already have planned for 2015. They’re not resolutions – resolutions are bullshit, he said smugly and annoyingly – but solid goals and agendas, things I know I can hit and work towards if I just stay focused.

Staying focused… well, that’s more of a resolution.

Anyway, here’s the list of what you can expect from me in the next 12 months (or indeed 6-8 if I stay on track):

Finish revising Obituarist II and publish it online: I’m about a third of the way through revising the draft, and I’m aiming to finish that by the end of January. In theory I could do it faster, but there’s a lot of work and new writing to do in the last third, so I’m giving myself more breathing room rather than rush to the finish line and do something sloppy. Once the book is finished, though, it’ll be up and on sale on Amazon the next day; the cover was done ages ago and fine-tuning the formatting won’t take long. So expect to see that within about four weeks, along with a tedious wave of self-promoting tweets to go with it.

ObituaristII-PDuffy

Finish revising Raven’s Blood and find a publisher: This one’s going to take longer, although there probably aren’t as many major issues with this 90K novel as there are with my 25K novella. Such is life. Anyway, I’m hoping to get this wrapped up by April/May, and then to pass it along to an agent (not definite yet, but we’ve talked about it) who can find it a print-publishing home. Which will be an entirely new learning experience, and one that I can hopefully keep you posted about as it progresses.

Write a new horror novella (maybe): I’ve got some ideas for a horror story based around the history of Yarra Bend Park and the 19th century insane asylum that used to be there. I used some of those for a game I ran a few months ago, but barely scratched the surface of them or used most of the research I’d done, so I’d like to go back to that well as see what else I can draw up. However, we all know how shit I am at deadlines, and there are likely to be a lot of demands on my time in the second half of the year, so I’m not 100% committing to this yet; Sickness Dreaming (provisional title, almost certain to change) might be something I start but don’t manage to finish until 2016.

Experiment with outlining: I’ve always preferred to come up with a loose narrative framework in my head and then pants my way through it, discovering where the story takes me. And that’s worked, except for the times it hasn’t, and perhaps there’s value in trying it the other way. So with the new stuff I write next year, I’m going to try writing a plot outline first – maybe a super-brief one, maybe something more detailed – and see if sticking (mostly) to it makes a difference.

Write more short fiction: I didn’t write any short fiction this year… well, okay, I wrote one piece. It’s for an anthology due to be published next year, but there’s been no announcement about it and I have to stay quiet for now. That aside, no new short stories for ages, and that’s a lack that I’d really like to make up for. Although I should probably come up with some story ideas first.

Find a more effective balance between work and writing: My day job is taking up an increasingly large amount of my attention right now, to the point where it was stressing me out for a while and making it very hard to switch gears into writing mode. The stress has lessened, but I’m still busy and still kinda drained after the end of the day. I’ll be experimenting with some ways of juggling the two demands on my time – and still have a social/personal life – so that I’m hitting my writing goals every week and not taking 9 months to write a bloody novella.

Do some RPG writing again: I used to write a tonne of RPG stuff back in the day (i.e. last decade), but left that behind ages ago. Still, a company I really like asked me to work on a property I enjoy with a number of other writers I really respect… so what the hell, let’s do it. Timeline’s not quite definite yet, but I expect I’ll be working on it around February/March (yes, the same time I’ll be revising Raven’s Blood; I’ll have to make a schedule and swap between gigs).

Be a better blogger: The program of writing two posts a week really fell apart in 2014 – partly because I had no time/energy for it, partly because I kept feeling I had nothing to say. I don’t know if I can go back to that program, or if I even want to, but I can surely manage more than one low-content post every 2-3 weeks. So look for a bit of an uptick in posting, and more posts focused on what I’m working on right now rather than more general theory.

Read more books: I read two novels in 2014. And they weren’t long ones. Instead I read a lot of graphic novels and skimmed a lot of Twitter, because that was a better fit for my reading-while-commuting habits. But that’s shameful, and I miss proper books with words in them, so it’s time to recharge the Kindle and start making my way through the backlog.

Post more photos of my dog: Because I’m out of control and I can’t stop now.

B5xevArCAAALQBE

Hope y’all have a good end-of-2014 celebration.

Catch you down the crossroads when we gather to put a stake in the old year’s heart.

The five stages of grief (and rewriting)

When you finish the first (or foundation) draft of your creative work – be it novel, novella, epic poem or installation artwork – it’s the best feeling in the world.

It follows, then, that getting negative feedback on that draft from critics you trust, and the realisation that you have to go back to that beautiful work of creative brilliance and *sigh* revise it – that must be the worst feeling in the world.

(It’s not, of course, but please excuse the comic exaggeration and don’t write me angry letters.)

As we (the royal and collective we) struggle to deal with these feelings, it’s worth considering the psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ ground-breaking analysis of the stages of editing. Oh sure, she dressed it up as something more general, but if you can read between the lines you can see what she was really talking about.

So if you’ve recently shown someone you trusted your brand new body of work, and they’ve come back telling you that the whole last third of it doesn’t work, the protagonist’s motivation doesn’t make sense and a couple of supporting characters have no reason to exist… and I’m obviously just talking off the top of my head here… then consider the Five Stages of Grief as your guide to the emotions you may feel during the process of re-writing.

Denial

What? No! No, the draft is fine! There are no problems here! The plot is complex and twisty, but it totally makes sense – it’s just that the reader didn’t have enough sense to understand it. Your protagonist’s motivations are equally complex, but they make him a deep and multifaceted character, propelled by nuanced drives. And the supporting characters play subtle yet vital roles that make the story richer and more satisfying. It’s fine! Everything’s fine!

…oh god.

Anger

God-damnit! All the work you put into this thing and it’s crap! You’re so mad you could punch a manatee right in the mouth! Mad at your book for not being perfect but instead being a bucket full of garbage. Mad at your alpha reader for being such an inconsiderate bastard as to cruelly point out its flaws. Mad at your loved ones for not supporting you more. Mad at yourself for not being perfect. Angry at God because WHY DIDN’T YOU STOP ME GOD

angrybaby-12

Bargaining

Okay. Okay. You can fix this. You don’t need to do a massive rewrite – you can do spot fixes! Yeah! Rather than rewrite the entire last third of the book, you can just tweak a couple of scenes. Change some minor plot points to spack-fill over the gaps. Hey, maybe those scenes can give those supporting characters something to do! And look, if you do a quick pass through the whole book and cut out every second adverb, that’s almost exactly the same as a re-write, right? You can meet this thing halfway and come to a convenient agreement!

This is totally going to work.

Depression  

This isn’t working. This is fucked. FUCKED. You have wasted six weeks/months/years of your life on this book and it is a giant pile of shit. You have failed yourself, you have failed your friends, you have failed literature and language. Look at all the things that would need to change to make this book work. This is a Sisyphean task, and the boulder on your shoulders smells like failure and poop.

There’s no point. This is hopeless. There’s nothing left you can do.

Acceptance

Almost. There’s nothing left you can do but what needs to be done.

Sigh.

Open the file, hit the keyboard and fix the damn draft.

This is normal. This is what every writer does. This is quite possibly exactly what I am currently going through on Obituarist II, down to the uncanny resemblance to what my alpha readers have told me.

Accept it. Embrace it. Work through it as fast as you need to. Maybe take some notes on the things that occurred to you when you were bargaining and/or feeling depressed. And then write your way back to daylight.

As it happens, writing my way back to daylight is going to take a little while, so Obituarist II won’t be out before Christmas. But look for it come January 2015! Buy it for friends and relatives who have received Kindles and Kobos and similar things! Just wait a little bit longer for me!

Holiday. Celebrate.

You know how this works.

You get online and someone with a blog or a podcast or an Instagram of their cat says ‘Write Every Day!’ because that’s a thing that’s really fucking important.

You go onto Facebook and someone – Chuck RR Martin, Harlan Wendig, JK Tolkien or whoever is famous and productive and good at the social medias – has posted a meme where Mr T or Big Bird or Grumpy Cat or your mum looks stern and says YOU SHOULD BE WRITING.

You nod and weep and do another paragraph on your work-in progress (or possibly your Work-in-Progress, depending on how significant this draft is) and then cut yourself in the shower because it’s the only way to feel anything.

Here’s a radical suggestion:

Why not just take a fuckin’ break?

So I was in America last month (pause for impressed gasps), and I took work with me – some day job stuff, but also the not-yet-finished-but-almost-done foundation draft of The Obituaist II. Whenever I got a chance, I did some more work on the book, trying as hard as I could to sort out the ending and write something concrete for my editor to work on. It wasn’t easy – a satisfying end kept eluding me, and I couldn’t tell if my plot made sense or not – but I kept plugging at it. Finally, two days before heading back to Australia, I found the time/energy/opportunity and wrapped the whole book up, at long last.

And now I’m wondering if thinking I gotta do this I gotta do this I gotta finish this was actually the best move, or whether it pushed me to rush through a shaky ending that maybe makes no goddamn sense because I was so focused on completion over quality.

Here’s the other thing: when we got back from the US, I decided to take a week’s break from writing. One week, specifically – from one weekend to the next with no work being done. No stories, no novels, no blog posts, not even any emails. (This does not apply to my day job, mind you, because I answered 200 emails last week and deleted a pile more.) I’ve spent the last week playing games, drinking beer and talking to people I care about, with absolutely ZERO work done on any project.

You know what it did? It made me calm down. It gave me perspective. It allowed me to drink even more beers than you think it did.

And, God help me, it made me want to write. It made writing into an opportunity I wanted to explore, with exciting new ideas about social media detectives and/or tattoo demons and/or brains in jars (I should write these notes down), rather than a chore I had to complete or a duty I had to sweat about. It gave me perspective and the room to – on my own terms – think about what I was/would be writing and how it could be better.

It was great. I drank so much beer.

NaNoWriMo is over now, and everyone’s in full-bore-crank-the-word-engine-and-fire-all-sentences-at-once mode, and I get that, and it’s understandable, and you’ve done a good job.

Now take a break. Take a week (or whatever) where you deliberately say ‘I will not write anything this week’, and see what happens.

Perhaps it will suck. Perhaps you will end up scribbling novella outlines in blood on the backs of cereal boxes. Perhaps you will OD on porn and unfunny podcasts. Perhaps it will just not be fun.

Or perhaps taking a short, specific, deliberate and discrete break will open the Eye of the Tiger once again. Or at least twitch the Nostril of the Tiger. Because when you don’t have to do something, that opens your heart/mind to want to do something.

Right now I want to write.

Bear with me.

Also, some TOTALLY FUCKING AWESOME stuff happening right now!

And no, I can’t tell you more than that!