Put me back in the machine

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

…I miss work already.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April was the cruelest month

So, April 2016. That was a month.

Let me tell you what I did last month (and by that I mostly mean within the last week).

I finished revising Raven’s Blood, fleshing out some relationship scenes and doing what I could to up the romantic tension in the story while still keeping focus on the core themes, i.e. being angry and punching people.

The revised manuscript is now with… someone. If they like it, that might go somewhere. Or it might not. And they might not like it anyway. The important thing is that it’s finished, it’s better than it was, I can get back to work on Raven’s Bones and keep this avian death machine ticking along.

My wife and I saw Captain America: Civil War.

My spoiler-free review… I wanted to like it more than I did.

It’s an ensemble film with Cap at the heart, but Iron Man located in a nearby organ like the lung, and the rest of the Avengersverse scattered around the viscera and nope this metaphor stopped working. Anyway, it’s a big film with a lot of characters, but it spreads itself thin to cover them all, and most of them only get a moment to shine.

I mean, they’re good moments; the script and direction is very good at character moments. It’s less good with the plot, which kind of collapses if you look at it too closely, and relies on characters that know and respect each other throwing that aside because of mumble mumble facepunch.

Still. Good action scenes and a lot of fun moments. Not as good as Winter Soldier, but way better than the original comics.

And speaking of comics, I finally read last year’s big Marvel event comic, Secret Wars.

My spoiler-free review… I wanted to like it more than I did. But I couldn’t, because it just wasn’t very good.

Okay, what else? Music? I’m listening to Carpenter Brut a lot right now, because a friend hooked me up to the video for ‘Turbo Killer’ and it is EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL IN THIS WORLD:

If European grindhouse electro is your jam then the album ‘Trilogy’ is your cream and scones. Trust me on this.

I’m also listening to Disasterpeace’s soundtrack for It Follows, which is creepy as hell and makes me want to see the movie even more, and getting back on board with the Fuck Buttons. Don’t ask me where my head’s at, man, I don’t even know.

I haven’t had the time or energy to read proper prose for a little while, but when I get back on that horse, I’m hitting up Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park and Cam Rogers’ Quantum Break: Zero State. Oh, and that Lauren Beukes book I’m part way through.

Fortunately, I’ll have time for proper reading coming very soon.

On Saturday night I robbed a bank. And it was great, apart from the time I got caught by security guards.

The bank in question is ‘Eureka Futures’ and the robbery was Small Time Criminals, a puzzle-room-like experience run by Melbourne ‘situation game’ company Pop Up Playground. They’ve rented an old bank, with offices and an actual vault, and they give you one hour to get in, crack the security, ferret out the secrets and stuff as much cash and goodies into a bag as you can manage.

Unless you get caught. Like I did.

I’ve done a few puzzle rooms and really enjoyed them, but Small Time Criminals is a step above – a team game that challenges you in new way and gets everyone thinking in different directions. If you’re based in Melbourne and can get a team together, you have to give this one a try.

And finally, I quit my job. My well-paying, mentally challenging publishing job. I resigned at the end of last week, and I finished up today.

It’s a big change. A huge change. But it’s the right change, and I had the opportunity to make it.

I’m looking for a new job, obviously, but I’m hoping to stay free for the entirety of May. I’d like a month to read, write, walk the dog, spend time with friends, drink in the afternoon and generally decompress from nearly three years of high stakes, high tension work.

It’s going to be a strange time. Maybe a difficult time. And maybe one that takes my life in a different direction. But I’m giving it a shot.

…also, yes, writing a lot more in May. Including here. Stay tuned.

Elevator to the Netherworld

In one of those totally normal coincidences, I learned about The Elevator Game after running into two totally separate references in a week – one in the Tanis podcast (which I wrote about last week, and which has since become one of my favourite things) and one in the new edition of the Unknown Armies RPG (another favourite, and currently on Kickstarter). And ever since, I can’t get it out of my head; I can’t stop feeling genuinely unsettled by it.

So what’s the elevator game? According to various places on the internet, it works like this:

  • Pick a building with 10+ storeys, and get into an elevator on the first floor, alone.
  • Staying in the elevator the whole time, go to the following floors in this order: 4, 2, 6, 2, 10. Wait for the elevator to arrive before pressing the next button; if someone else gets in then you’ll have to start again.
  • At the 10th floor, press 5. At the 5th floor, a girl or woman may come in; if she does, don’t speak or look at her. Bad stuff will happen if you do.
  • At the 5th floor, press 1. If the elevator goes down, it didn’t work. If it instead goes back to the 10th floor, shit’s gettin’ weird.
  • If you get off at the 10th floor, the girl will ask ‘Where are you going?’ Again, don’t speak or look at her.
  • Congratulations! You have now entered a otherworldly version of the real world with no other people in it and probably some other weird stuff. Go explore it and try not to go mad or get lost or maybe get eaten by trees.
  • To get back, use the same elevator and do the ritual again. Or maybe in reverse. You probably want to be sure on that part.

The elevator game seems to have originated in Korea, and it’s just another one of the weird creepypasta concepts that people post about on reddit and the like. There’s a lot of this stuff out there; it’s the kind of silly, offbeat nu-horror idea that made John Dies at the End such a crazy fun read.

So why do I keep thinking about it? And why does it creep me out? I think there are three reasons.

It’s such obvious bullshit

The elevator game falls apart the moment you think about it – not just because it’s supernatural, but because it’s ridiculous. How was this discovered? How was it tested? If you have to do it alone, how do we have stories about people who never made it back? How do we know not to speak to the ‘girl’ if speaking to her results in death/disappearance? Who told you about this? What the hell is this crap?

All of that should rob the ritual of its power, but instead, it somehow makes it more compelling. The game feels like a secret revealed, something shown to us by an outside observer or force, like the way demon-summoning rituals have been said to be provided by the demons themselves rather than worked out or created by mortals. And the nonsensical nature of the game reinforces this; there’s a kind of… confidence there, an assertion that the game doesn’t need to pander to ideas of sensibility in order to work. It’s a middle finger to reality; a finger that then crooks to beckon you forward.

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It’s arbitrary in all the right ways

To take that last point further – why elevators? Why 10 floors? Why is there a girl? What is she and what does she want? Why is there a red cross visible through the windows? How the hell does any of this make any sense? It doesn’t, and there’s power in that lack of sense. It suggests that reality isn’t just stranger than we know, it’s stranger than we can know – that applying logic and reason to the world is a fool’s errand, and that clinging to those notions will get us killed/lost/unmade in a world that we never truly knew.

(You could even say that this is the hook in every horror story, even those that deal with well-known tropes like vampires and curses. The protagonist thinks they know how the world works, but the story tells them (and you) that YOU ARE WRONG. Too bad for them/you.)

Similarly, the morality of the elevator game is arbitrary – not cruel, but not justified either. You can be a perfectly decent, upright person, but you say hello to a woman on an elevator and you’re lost forever; you can be a awful bastard, but if you do the steps right then you’re free to go explore the otherworld and maybe steal money from empty hell casinos or something. The game doesn’t care. And despite our protestations, deep down, most of us want to believe there’s justice in the world; that bad things don’t just happen to good people. But they do, because life is arbitrary despite all our attempts to impose our rules on it, and stories that reflect that get to us.

I kinda wanna try it

It would be easy. So easy! There are so many suitable buildings in downtown Melbourne. I could print the instructions and just follow the steps. It’s just silly weird nonsense. What’s the worst that could happen?

…well, nothing, because it’s just fiction. But it’s tempting fiction, the same way supernatural stories and tricks and parlour games have always tempted us. From ouija boards to secret handshakes to urban legends, there’s a pull to stories that let us dabble, or pretend to dabble, or pretend to pretend to dabble in the supernatural, even if we don’t believe in it. Especially if we don’t believe in it. Because the voice in your head saying it’s all rubbish, it’s silly fun, do it and laugh at the credulous is also saying, in a subliminal whisper, but what if it works?

Any story that gets into your head, that makes you say to yourself but what if?, even if you then deny it, has power. No matter how ridiculous.

So why spend 1000 words talking about this? Partially to get it out of my head; partially to play with some ideas that I might return to in the horror story concepts I’m working on.

Partially to get some of you a tiny bit spooked on an otherwise unremarkable night.

…partially to see if anyone else wants to try it.

No, I’m kidding.

…maybe.

The slow sound of terror

I love horror, and horror has been on my mind a bit lately. I’m gearing up to run a short horror game, I have ideas for two adult horror novels and a middle-years series with age-appropriate horror elements, and I’ve been reading…

…um, well, I haven’t been reading much of anything lately, because my head isn’t in the game in the window I have for reading. But when I am reading, my horror options seem more limited than they used to. The genre is changing, the market is changing, and books you could call ‘horror’ rather than ‘paranormal thrillers’ or ‘dark urban fantasy’ are harder to find (for me, at least). That’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing; there are cycles, and old-fashioned ghost-stab-blood-in-your-shower-head books will no doubt come back in vogue, hopefully when I have more reading time.

However! This weekend I discovered a whole new vector for horror, one that I can enjoy while also doing some of my other major activities – i.e. walking the dog or standing on the train – and I wanted to tell you about them.

Here’s a thing about me – I can’t listen to audiobooks, or similar spoken-word performances of texts. Prose is a visual medium for me – I need to see it, read it and process it in the optic centres of my brain to get enjoyment out of it. Hearing prose read aloud, even if you get actors in to read dialogue, leaves me cold at best and irritated at worst, because I can’t see the shape of the words; I can’t sense the weight of the lines on the page. I know this makes no sense, but it’s how I’m wired.

However! This aesthetic blindspot does not extend to audio drama, radio plays and other narrative works that were designed from the start to be listened to. And thanks to a minor aside in another show, this weekend I discovered three narrative podcasts that tackle long-form horror narrative in interesting and different ways. And so far, they seem worth a listen.

First and best – Limetown, which I described on Twitter as ‘like Serial, but about the Roanoke disappearances’. This is a limited-run podcast (about 10 episodes, most about 30 minutes or so) that applies the style and production of investigative journalism podcasts to a fictional crime – the disappearance of the entire population of a small Tennessee town, and an investigation ten years later that blows the case wide open.

Limetown manages to play it subtle while still being an obvious genre piece – there are markers and hints in the first episode, but it doesn’t over-egg the pudding and turn into a Twilight Zone episode. (At least, not so far, but I’m only two sessions in.) The production is top-notch, the voice-acting good to excellent, and the actual writing remarkably strong; the folks behind this know how to work with words.

There’s a second season coming, and possibly a novel or TV show in the works, so get in early before everyone’s into it.

Next up is the Black Tapes podcast, recommended by  Twitter-peep Filamina Young. So far this one’s reasonably interesting, but hasn’t grabbed me as strongly.

The premise is solid; it’s a semi-journalistic podcast, the kind of thing you’d get from studios like Gimlet or Radiotopia – something based on research, interviews and stories. Specifically on the case files of Dr Richard Strand, a paranormal researcher who remains highly sceptical that the paranormal exists at all. But in his black tapes, the show’s host and researchers keep drawing out questions that aren’t easy to answer.

It’s a good setup for an ongoing, episodic show – each ‘cast can look at one case file, explore it to some kind of conclusion and then move on to the next while adding a little bit to the overarching metaplot/mythology of the series. So far, though, the idea’s been a little stronger than the execution – some of the tropes and twists in the case files smack too much of the plot hooks we were throwing out in World of Darkness RPG sourcebooks in the late 90s. A bit dated, a bit obvious, a bit too derivative.

But hey, I’m only 3-4 episodes in, and it could lift its game a bit – and the production, sound design and voice acting are solid. I’m keen to keep listening, if only in the hope that the writing rises to meet the rest of the work.

Finally, Tanis – which was the one I was iffiest about, but rattled me to the extent that I had to stop listening to it while I was home alone tonight.

Tanis is from the same stable as Black Tapes, and has the same semi-journalistic feel – and on reflection, I really like this approach. It’s writerly without being just about prose; they call it a docu-drama style, and I’m not sure that’s the right use of the word but who cares.

Anyway, Tanis is about conspiracies – all the conspiracies. It explores the idea of mystery, and about finding the truth about ‘Tanis’ – which might be a city, a god, a state of mind or something else again. Tanis moves, Tanis changes, and in trying to uncover the truth, the show touches on a variety of classic conspiracy and weirdness tales/tropes, stuff of old that I recognise but that feels refreshed by this take on stitching it all together.

Tanis suffers a little from a lack of definition – it’s still not clear what Tanis is meant to be, or why the podcast exists – and some of the writing doesn’t quite click in the first few episodes. But most of it does, and it feels dangerous in a way that Black Tapes doesn’t – like it might not call up ghosts and demons, but it will still draw some kind of unwelcome attention. Like it’s a door into a world that takes advantage of open doors.

I’m only a few episodes into each of these shows, and they could all fall apart – but I’m willing to buy the ticket and take the ride nonetheless. And I don’t think they will.

Anyway, that’s what I’m listening to. Listening while thinking about the possibilities of diagetic storytelling. And wondering if I could pull it off myself. And wondering what else is out there.

So yeah, check these three shows out. I think there’s something very cool here. And if you know of another podcast that presents horror narratives in this way, rather than a straight prose reading – or indeed ‘casts in other genres, ‘cos it’s not like horror is unique in this – please throw up some links in the comments.

(However! You don’t have to mention Welcome to Night Vale, because we all know about that and I lost interest a couple of years back. Sorry to be an arse about it.)

And with that, it’s time to run from the writing shed back to the house, to grab the dog and hope that he will protect me from the consequences of the elevator game.

Oh man, the elevator game. I gotta do something with that.

No-one puts Bloggy in the corner

Okay, let’s talk turkey.

This blog’s been pretty crap for the last year. Maybe the last couple of years.

Not very coincidentally, the last couple of years have had their difficulties, and it’s been hard to manage all the demands on my time, energy and good spirits. When there are ten things that need attention during a week, and nine of them involve the day job, completing a book or the people I love, it’s just too easy for item #10 -‘write a blog post that doesn’t suck’ – to get dropped into the too-hard basket.

I put too many things in that damn basket. It’s less a basket and more a dumpster.

But I’m tired of throwing things aside. I’m tired of giving up on tasks that I’ve set myself because I decide that I suddenly have something better to do. I’m tired of writing throwaway posts full of hollow ‘wisdom’ that no-one reads or bothers to comment on.

I’m tired – so, so tired – of my weaksauce bullshit.

So here’s the deal.

One blog post, once a week, Sunday nights (Melbourne time).

One blog post, once a week, that’s about something that’s actually interesting, not just housekeeping. Something that I can actually talk about engagingly and meaningfully, rather than just being open questions and neophyte big-noting.

One blog post, once a week, that people might actually read.

…and it’ll probably have silly pictures, yes.

Ironically, this particular post? A bit light on content. I’ve got a project deadline, and I can’t devote too much time tonight to blogging. This is more like the introduction to a period of greater quality, rather than the quality itself. A blog preface, maybe.

But come back next Sunday, when that project’s wrapped up and I have a head full of OPINIONS. Opinions and uncredited images sourced from around the web.

I’ll try to make it worth it.

On a semi-related note, I went through my blog list on Feedly last week and cleared out a few blogs that had gone silent over the last couple of years. And now I am left with a much-diminished set of writing blogs that I follow – Chuck Wendig, Peter Ball, Foz Meadows, some fellow hopeful-up-and-comers. The rest have shuffled off to, I dunno, maybe Instagram. Or finishing books.

So if anyone’s reading this, let me know – what other writers have blogs that you follow? And what makes them worth your attention?

Transmission resumed

…and we’re back.

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NEWSFLASH: House-hunting and moving are THE WORST. Like, worse than leprosy.

Okay, maybe not, but they’re sure as hell time-consuming. The last two months have locked me into a space where all I did was a) look at houses on real estate apps, b) text real estate app listings to my wife, often while she was sitting next to me, c) look at houses and be disappointed, and finally d) put everything we owned into boxes into a feverish yet determined rush. That left me no time for writing books, writing blog posts, writing emails or even getting drunk.

And come on, I can get drunk ANYTIME.

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But the great national nightmare is over, and we are living in a new house. It’s a bit more off-the-beaten-track than we used to be, with fewer bars and cafes within walking distance, and yeah, I miss being able to go to the cinema on 90 seconds’ notice, whether or not I ever used that dread power.

On the other hand we have a library room, the tram isn’t far away, and there’s a back yard that the dog is slowly realising is there for him to roll around in.

Also? I HAVE A WRITING SHED.

…okay, technically it’s a writing bungalow. And the writing part is currently playing second fiddle to the storing-boxes-full-of-stuff part. But damnit, I now have a detached office where I can go to write books, complain about the cold and scowl artistically, so suck it Wendig, you’re not so special.

Ahem.

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I know it doesn’t look like much right now, but once we move some boxes, install a coffee plunger and hook up the smoke machine it’ll be so rad, bro.

As for what I’m doing in my shed?

Not a huge amount just yet, as there’s still a lot of unpacking and furniture assemblage that needs doing. But once we have some bookcases out and can cram them full of stuff, I’ll have enough physical and mental space to get back to work properly.

First job? Taking another revision pass through Raven’s Blood, because it’s not quite where it needs to be just yet, and I could do about 50% more with it if it was about 5% better. Once I finish doing that, it’s back to work on Raven’s Bones, and seeing if I can fit more fantasy superhero action into the story without all the seams bursting.

On top of that, blog posts! Honest. It’s time to get back on the regular posting wagon, and I swear to you, my adoring (or at least patient) public, that the long and terrible silence is finally over.

…but not right now, ‘cos I have to put together a futon.

Ciao for now.

SHED.

In (and out of) the zone

An update:

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

I have not been in The Zone.

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OR HAVE I?

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

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

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

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

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I could go on with these examples, but the point is – the first step to creating is getting into that zone. And that’s something I’ve both found difficult to do of late, and also something I often try to skip over at the best of times. I’m too impatient, too angry at my own laziness; I just tell myself to suck it up, sit down and do the goddamn work, then get angry at myself when that doesn’t end with me being productive.

Which, on reflection, is not all that useful. Especially when I can get into that zone easier when I’m doing something low-stakes, like working on a game, designing a playlist or making some personal world-building notes. When I don’t put that pressure on myself right off the bat, I can hit the right mindset – and when I’m in the right mindset, I’m a lot more willing to spend it writing on something more significantly. Eventually.

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So right now my plan – remember how I’ve been talking about planning for months, with little to show for it? – is to focus on getting into the creative zone, as often as possible, and not to dwell too much on how long I stay there or what I bring out when I’m done. To look at every five minutes spent making something as worthwhile, to keep hitting those five minute stretches whenever I can, and to try different activities that could help make those times in the zone longer and more frequent. That could mean exercise, healthy meals, smart drugs, drunkenness, sobriety – right now I’m trying sobriety and it’s working better than I expected – showers, cartoons or whatever else could spur and support that mental shift.

Will that get me to the target of a finished draft of Raven’s Bones by mid-year? Coupled with a stable home environment and a little external motivation… well, let’s find out.

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And if you’re blocked, frustrated or just plain weary with whatever project you’re working on, try putting it aside for a bit and creating something else, something that doesn’t need to be good. Draw a picture, take some photos, write a poem, do rude things to photos of politicians in Photoshop. Stay in the creative zone, the makerspace, even if you’re not doing the thing you’re meant to be doing – and later on, or next time, cutting back to your Number One Priority might be that bit easier.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to look at some houses, eat some dumplings, and write… something. Because something is better than nothing.

House hunter-gatherer

I had some definite plans for another chunky blog post, this time about why all the old superhero cartoons I’m watching on Netflix are in fact really great pieces of storytelling that totally justify me goofing off.

But then we got an email from our landlord, asking us to move out.

The last five days have been a blur of real estate apps, 15-minute viewing appointments, drive-bys past jumbles of blue concrete cubes that are what pass for apartment complexes these days and wondering whether we can find a place large enough to keep all or even most of our books. (And other stuff, but mostly books.)

So my energy for blog writing – and for novel writing, which I need to get back on track – is kinda low right now. I mean, I could probably come up with a post about five story ideas around house hunting, including the ever-popular ‘we rented this great place but it’s haunted and the wardrobe is a doorway to Murder Narnia’, but I just can’t be stuffed tonight.

In any case, this is your ‘we are in a holding pattern, please come back again soon’ announcement. Hopefully I can stop thinking about storage solutions relatively quickly and get back to the burning issue of how awesome Kevin Conroy’s Batman is.

He’s pretty great.

Maybe he can rent us a place.

Apocalypse now

As we all know, I’m a big ol’ nerd (you knew that, right?) as well as a sporadic and undisciplined writer. In the past I’ve blogged – oh man, it was almost 18 months ago – about particular roleplaying games that writers could get useful ideas and inspiration from.

Well, it’s that time again – but this time I want to talk about one game. Which is also an entire family of unrelated games from different creators and companies. And it’s a collection of games that presents a really powerful set of story-creation tools that are just as useful for prose as for punching mutants.

That game is Apocalypse World, created by Vincent Baker, which went on to spawn dozens of ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’ games.

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These games share a lot of the same core mechanics and systems, but that’s not what I’m interested in talking about. Instead, I want to look at the specific set of GMing tools the games also share. The GM (generally) never rolls dice in PbtA games, but they also don’t just make up results on a whim. Instead, there are non-mechanical story-creation imperatives that the GM uses to make decisions and determine outcomes – imperatives that can also be applied for writing fiction.

Agendas

Your creative agendas in a PbtA game are the big-picture ideas you keep in mind during the whole process – from setting up the campaign and coming up with story ideas to setting every scene and winding up every session. As Dungeon World puts it, these are ‘the things you aim to do at all times’. In that game, which is heroic fantasy in the D&D mold, the agenda is:

  • Portray a fantastic world
  • Fill the characters’ lives with adventure
  • Play to find out what happens

153464Meanwhile, in the political urban fantasy game Urban Shadows, the agenda is:

  • Make the city feel political and dark
  • Keep the characters’ lives out of control and evolving
  • Play to find out what happens.

(‘Play to find out what happens’ is a key rule in PbtA games; it’s an admonition against scripting or pre-planning, in favour of setting up situations and seeing how they shake out. Which is great fun for gaming, but less relevant to writing. Mostly.)

When writing fiction, you need to keep a similar agenda in mind – the high-concept knot of tone, theme, story, setting and character that makes your story work. In some ways it just boils down to ‘Create an interesting setting and populate it with interesting characters who have interesting lives’ (where the value of ‘interesting’ depends on a variety of genre, theme and tone markers, plus your own unique takes).

That seems really obvious – and it is. But really obvious things are worth remembering, because sometimes they fade into background noise and get lost. When a story slows down or stops moving, when characters become comfortable and stop changing, when world details stop being colourful and just become sensible – that’s when you need to come back to that agenda and remind yourself of the fundamental goals.

Principles

Running a game is all about coming up with ideas, and principles are the criteria you use to weigh up ideas and see if they fit. When running a PbtA game, the GM is responsible for setting and starting the majority of scenes; their principles are the guidelines they consult to see if those scenes are right for this game.

tremulus is a PtbA game about Lovecraftian horror, and its principles are guides like:

  • Introduce the strange, the weird, and the alien at every opportunity.
  • Look through a cracked lens of madness.
  • Ask provocative questions. Build upon the answers.
  • Successes should be bittersweet at best, with rewards few and far between.

Meanwhile, the remarkably awesome World Wide Wrestling game has principles that include:

  • Explain the audience reaction
  • Describe everything as larger than life
  • Use a real-world cause for a kayfabe effect; use a kayfabe cause for a real-world effect
  • Book for maximum drama

(‘Kayfabe’ means ‘treating wrestling as real’, sort of. It’s complex.)

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Fundamentally, then, principles are the tools that help you distinguish between different games – that let you say ‘this is a horror scene, this is a wrestling scene’ and have that be more that just talking about set dressing.

While agendas are big-picture, principles are middle-picture; they’re the elements of theme and tone that establish your story in its genre while also acting as its unique points of difference. When you’re writing your story, you need to ask yourself every now and then: ‘Does this fit? Is this right for my world, my characters, my tone?’ Because sometimes we get that great idea that we try to fit it, but it won’t line up with everything else, and we waste time and energy until finally giving up on it. Keeping principles close to mind/hand won’t stop those ideas coming, but might help you get past them and stay on thematic track.

Moves

Finally, moves are the actions and outcomes the GM takes within scenes – the tools they use to decide what happens when the player rolls badly, or looks across the table for an idea of where things are going. Principles are set-up; moves are follow-through.

night_witches_cover-683x1024Night Witches is a historical game about female Polish bomber pilots in WWII (and it’s amazing). Its moves include:

  • Bring their gender into it
  • Bring a threat to bear
  • Put them somewhere they don’t want to be
  • Doubt them and demand discipline

While in the superhero adventures of Worlds in Peril, some GM moves are:

  • Show a downside to their character, appearance, equipment or power
  • Encourage creative use of powers
  • Change the environment
  • Introduce a new faction or type of enemy

There’s crossover there, of course, because moves are dramatic turns and progressions in the story, and things like ‘change location’ makes sense in any dramatic story. But the spin you put on each move, in accordance with agenda and principle, makes the difference, as do the unique moves for each games. For a story about defying gender roles, putting gender front and centre underlines the entire thing, while supers stories are full of ‘these aliens were actually being controlled by Dr Doom all along!’ type twists.

When you’re writing, moves are… do I even need to explain it? These are the little-picture building blocks of plot and character; the things that keep stories moving, twisting and changing. Agendas shape; principles guide; moves act. Moves are what makes stories go.

So what do I do with these?

Am I saying you should come up with agendas, principles and moves for your novel? Am I saying you should write these things down and consult them as you write? Am I saying you should codify every tool in your kit?

No, I’m not. But I’m not saying you shouldn’t do those things either.

What I think is that it can be worth thinking about what makes your story your story. What’s the point of your story? What are the themes? What’s the tone? What kind of characters fit into it, and what kind of things could happen to them? It can be easy to think of what doesn’t work – hmm, maybe I won’t put an extended car-chase and bloody shootout into my Regency romance – but we don’t always articulate and define the story-space that we do want to work in. Thinking about agendas, principles and moves – purpose, themes, story elements – ahead of time can help with that, and so can writing them down and sticking them above your desk if you’re that way inclined.

I’m trying out the wall-sticking route at the moment. And trying to define my story-space before I get too deep into it. It might work, it might not, but it’s worth a shot.

Which games?

If you want to take a closer look at a game that’s Powered by the Apocalypse – well, I reckon that’s an excellent idea. You might get a stronger grasp on these concepts than you can from my ramblings – and even better, you might find a game you want to play.

The obvious choice is Apocalypse World itself, especially as the Kickstarter campaign for the 2nd edition just went live this week (and helped prompt this blog post). That said, it’s not the game I’d recommend – partly because you won’t be able to get the finished game until September, partly because I find Vincent Baker’s authorial voice incredibly irritating. (He’s a great designer, but I have to push myself to read his work because it pisses me off so often.)

Fortunately, there’s a massive family of PbtA games that build on Baker’s ideas with their own voices and visions. Not all of them are great, let’s be honest, but the best of them are brilliant. The standouts include:

  • Night Witches (war, gender politics and nightly desperation)
  • Monsterhearts (young supernaturals in transgressive love/lust)
  • World Wide Wrestling (who thought a wresting game would be this damn good)
  • Urban Shadows (the talking-plotting-scheming kind of urban horror/fantasy)
  • Monster of the Week (the shooty-punchy-splodey kind of urban horror/fantasy)

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Plus a bunch of others that are really good. Look around. You’ll find something.

Right, that’s 1500 words on nerd tools for storytelling.

Does this mean the long blog drought of 2015/16 has finally broken?

Ask again next week. The Magic 8-Ball remains unclear.

A tally sheet for the new year

Things what I have done thus far in this year of our Lord 2016

Gone back to work. Which is something taking up a lot of my focus and energy right now, but – crucially – not all of it.

Played more Pandemic Legacy. Oh man, those poor folks in South America. They never asked for [CENSORED DUE TO SPOILERS BUT LEMME TELL YOU IT AIN’T GOOD].

Become kinda hooked on Parks and Recreation. Everyone was right, that first season was rough and mean and not funny. And everyone was right, the following seasons are SO GREAT YOU GUYS and I love all of them even Jerry and one time I got a bit teary watching it but it might have been because I hadn’t slept in 36 hours but anyway it’s great.

Committed to a program of walking 10 000 steps a day, as measured by my phone’s pedometer. Okay, ‘program’ sounds more complicated that it needs to. I have a dog, I use public transport, I go to various meetings rooms at the office – by the end of the day it pretty much takes care of itself. But now I have an external driver, which is something that works well for me as a motivator to do things I was doing anyway.

Sheltered from the blazing sun.

Listened to a bunch of podcasts and also The Jezabels and Halsey on repeat.

Went to my first ever Android: Netrunner store tournament and got completely rofflestomped by people who actually know how to play it competitively instead of just casually with friends. Which is fine! Losing is about as much fun as winning, and a better way of learning how to play next time. But still, I’m going to have to do some heavy lifting before I get good at this game. Or even mediocre.

Took the dog for a haircut.

Went to the wedding reception of two lovely people that I hope move back to Australia sometime soon.

Formed a little writers’ group with three other like-minded folks who are also writing YA and genre novels. We have our first actual meeting this weekend, which is mostly just brunch and chatting about what we want from the group. After that… we’ll see. I’m hoping it’s a way to help each other stay on target, improve our skills and generate those kind of external drivers I was talking about earlier.

Submitted Raven’s Blood to a publisher – more, a publisher who actually asked to see it. That’s a pretty sweet egoboo, believe you me, even if they eventually decide to pass on it. It’s weird and confusing and gratifying and nice when people know who I am. Even more when that’s a positive.

Read The Accidental Creative, which is all about improving work practices to generate strong ideas and get things done. Some potentially useful ideas in there, for both my day and night jobs, so long as I can work out how to implement them. Thinking about that at the moment.

Mourned. As did we all.

Things what I have not done thus far in etc etc

Enough work on Raven’s Bones.

But that will change.