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’.)

Zone-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Dismembering the year that was

Folks, can I be real with you for a minute?

2015 was kind of a rough year. In a lot of ways.

I don’t talk much about my day job here, and I’m not going to break that habit, but suffice it to say that it’s been tiring, stressful and demanding this year. The knee injury I took at the end of April left me in pain for months, and painkillers left me drained and unfocused after that. I put on weight because I was too tired and pained to exercise, and I became irritable and moody because I didn’t like how I looked or felt.

And writing… this was not a good writing year. I get home from work of an evening, or roll up on the computer on the weekend, and I’m usually too frazzled, grumpy or flat to write anything coherent or worthwhile. My output has been dismal – even my blogging dropped from twice-weekly to weekly to fortnightly to I-don’t-know-whenever.

Yes, I finished and published The Obituarist II, and I finished the final, polished version of Raven’s Blood, and I’m happy and proud to have done those things. But The Obituarist II has only sold 40 copies so far, because I can’t stomach the effort required to properly promote it. And Raven’s Blood got knocked back – I got knocked back – by an agent last week, and while that’s not the end of the world or anything the news came at the end of a bad few weeks and left me feeling pretty lousy.

I don’t generally get depressed, stressed or anxious; I’m not wired to be unhappy for more than a few minutes at a time. But the gravity of 2015 was heavy, and clinging, and more often than not it dragged me down. Sometimes to a point where I contemplated just dropping the whole writing business as a bad idea that was never going to get me anywhere.

So is that going to happen?

…no.

Screw that.

It’s pretty ridiculous for me to call this a difficult year, when I have friends and loved ones that have endured far, far worse tragedies and losses in 2015 and still kept going. Whatever setbacks and troubles I’ve got on my plate are transient and manageable, and I can get past them and back on target if I make an effort and remind myself that not everyone has that luxury. A little end-of-year whinge on a blog almost no-one reads is a forgiveable level of blowing off steam – but not anything more like that.

As for giving up writing… you know, that would be easy. The idea of not making an effort any more appeals to my lazy, weary soul. What doesn’t appeal is living with that decision – with not doing the only thing I’m halfway good at, the only thing that might let me leave something behind in this world that anyone cares about.

I don’t always love what I do. But it’s what I do. It’s who I am. And a year of doldrums, knee pain and heavy drinking isn’t enough to change that.

So okay. 2015 was a bit shit. 2016 might not be that much better. But I’m still going to plug away at Raven’s Bones, I’m still going to hit up agents and publishers about Raven’s Blood, I’m still going to keep sticking my face in the fan – and every week (or two) (or whatever) I’m going to tell you about it.

Because having the chance to do that… that counteracts a lot of the bad shit.

For the rest, there’s friends, Netrunner and good liquor.

Have a happy new year, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England. See you in more pleasant climes.

Falls the shadow

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

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

So how did that work out?

Well.

Or as TS Eliot put it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not at the same time.

Welcome to the machine

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

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

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

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

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

Probably.

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

uuuuuuuggghhhhhhh writing is hard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Albums (pre)

Points to note:

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

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

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

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

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

Getting to work – Raven’s Bones

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

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

So what the hell is Raven’s Bones anyway?

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

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

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

Google Image Search, you have failed me

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

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

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

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

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

Will it work?

Gonna find out.

First chapter is due this weekend.

Let’s do this.

Post-Con tactical assessment

So GenreCon 2015. That was a thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know, just like in D&D.

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

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

IMG_1492

(It makes sense to me, honest.)

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

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

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

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

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