Categories
appearances writing

Emerge, learn, transform and roll out

May is nearly upon us, and that means the Emerging Writers’ Festival is again on the horizon!

And once again I’m involved not just as a punter but as a contributor. This time around it’s a really exciting role – I’ll be one of the hosts of the Rabbit Hole event. This is an orchestrated writing push where those involved do their level best to get down 30 000 words in just three days.

Cah-razy!

There are four teams of up to 20 participants, each led by a coach/cheerleader/host. In Victoria this is the redoubtable Jason Nahrung, in Brisbane it’s the undeniable Peter Ball, in Tasmania it’s the noncanonical Rachel Edwards… and in the rest of the country/world/internet it’s yours truly!

What do I know about pumping out 30k in three days? Well, I’ve got a fair amount of experience in grinding the wordcount from my RPG writing days, where I’d madly lay down 20 000 words in a weekend without stopping to eat or sleep or take in any sustenance other than stimulants. But I’ve also got a lot of experience in dicking around and not writing a goddamn thing, which has its own value – the best teachers are either those who can get things done or know exactly why they can’t/don’t get things done. And I can dish it out from both ends, which looks dirty now that I’ve typed it.

Anyway, I won’t talk too much about this here – part of my involvement is working on blogs and chats about it that get the participants all fired up, so I’ll let you know where to look for that when it’s up.

This event aside, there are a lot of great panels and projects in play at the EWF, as well as a great line-up of new and established writers who are looking to share their knowledge and help their peers. If you’re in Melbourne and have any interest in putting your work out there, this festival is a must.

Check it out and get involved!

Categories
writing

Defending the indefensible – let’s talk about adverbs

It’s been ages since I talked about the craft of writing, isn’t it? For months it’s all been about publishing and reading habits and how I’m slaving away on The Obituarist – due out next week, fingers crossed! – and no discussion of the nuts and bolts of writing.

I like talking about that stuff, and I hope other people like reading about it, so I’m going to make an effort to counterbalance the relentless self-promotion and introspective musings with some more thinking about the components of writing. Starting today.

(I’ll also make more of an effort to get back into the Thursday-Sunday posting schedule. It’s been a busy month.)

So, adverbs – threat or menace?

It’s accepted writing dogma that adverbs are generally not very good things, weak tools that seek to lend colour and detail to actions but instead leave text flabby and flaccid. Strong verbs are the way to go, y’all, strong verbs and vivid dialogue that show rather than tell and illustrate the characters and their actions.

And I pretty much agree with all of that. Adverbs definitely tend to be a hallmark of bad writing, and little turns me off a text like a string of qualifiers, especially in dialogue – the one page of a Harry Potter novel I read had an adverb after every single instance of ‘he/she said’ and I put that book down and never came back to it. Because I’m fucking hardcore, yeah.

But working on The Obituarist, which uses a more direct, conversational voice than something like Hotel Flamingo, has led me to draw upon the dreaded adverbs more than I normally would. And as I’m working through revisions and my editor’s notes, looking for things to cut, I find I’m leaving some of them in there because they serve a purpose; they do something right.

So what are the benefits of throwing an adverb into the mix rather than a verb whose mighty biceps bulge like pregnant anacondas? Well, here are a few.

Information density

Here’s the thing about ‘show, don’t tell’ – it takes more wordcount to show. And while usually you go fuck it, pile those letters on, sometimes you want to control the length of a story, maybe for a competition or because you set yourself an artificial threshold for your novella and its tiny little chapters. So you look ways to show without being boring about it, and if you want to pack data into the smallest possible space, adverbs can make a real difference. I could spend 100 words showing you how outrage and food poisoning combine to drive a character’s actions and interactions, or I can say ‘he vomited angrily on her shoes’ and let two words convey pretty much the same information. Which is tempting, ‘cos I’m tired. And on that note…

They make the reader do the heavy lifting

God, readers are lazy fuckers sometimes. They’re all like MAKE ME A MOVIE THAT PLAYS OUT IN MY HEAD MISTER WRITER MAN when all I want to do is drink stout and go to sleep. Make your own goddamn movie, or at least help me out with the soundtrack and special effects. Adverbs are the director’s tools rather than the scriptwriter’s, and used properly they direct the reader to put their own spin on an action, to visualise it in a way that makes sense to them. And if different readers play that out different ways in their mind’s eyes, that’s a good thing. Everyone gets a different movie! And if you end up watching Catwoman that’s your fault, not mine.

Filtering through POV

I kind of have a stick up my arse about strictly following POV – if a book or scene is seen through one character’s perspective (be it 1st or 3rd person), then by Christ it stays wedded to that perspective and never looks inside someone else’s skull or I WILL CUT YOU. Or at least mentally edit your work. Adverbs push meaning to the surface by tying it not just to characters’ actions, but to an external assessment of those actions made by the POV character. Don’t tell me that character #2 is upset, tell me how character #1 interprets her actions as ‘visibly struggling’; that keeps me centred in the right place. And hey, if the POV character turns out to be wrong about those interpretations, that just means the narrator didn’t realise they were unreliable – that’s right, mofos, adverbs be postmodern n’ shit.

When verbs can’t do it alone

‘He ran half-heartedly after her’ is something very different from ‘he walked/jogged/ambled/macarenaed after her’ because it adds an emotional component to the physical, it adds meaning to the movement; it throws the verb into a whole new light that makes you interpret it completely differently. If we were German we’d probably have a word that means exactly this, and it would be a little bit creepy that it happened often enough to be hardwired into our language, but instead we speak English and we have a vast buzzing swarm of qualifiers that allow us to undercut, deconstruct or completely reverse the meaning of our verbs in exciting and unpredicable ways.

Adjectives need love too

To be honest I tend to slap adverbs onto adjectives more than I do verbs. Probably because adjectives annoy me; they just sit there, static, defining a noun that isn’t in motion. Verbs are more exciting, and adding an adverb to an adjective implies a verb that just happened or could happen or that got us to the point where we’re looking at this noun now. Smell the excitement. I especially like incongruous pairings like ‘suddenly-moist’, ‘brazenly chaste’ or ‘grotesquely beautiful’ that set the reader a puzzle they have to pull apart to understand and that cause me to ignore the standard rule that you don’t stick a hyphen after an ‘-ly’ qualifier.

Having said all that, I’m still pretty harsh on adverbs. If all they do is emphasise things – like the ‘pretty’ in that last sentence, or the dozens that litter this post – then they’re up for culling in any MS I edit (and should be in any I write, if I’m disciplined, which I ain’t). But by giving writers a way to recontextualise actions and details, by making stories something that needs a little more thought to unpack, they have can have real power. We can only pray that we use that power wisely SEE WHAT I DID THERE.

…man, I really have to get out of this sudden all-caps habit.

So anyway, what are your thoughts on adverbs? Devil’s tools or wordage of the gods? And would you like to see more posts like this, or should I focus more on rants and relentless self-promotion? (There’ll be more of that next week, never fear.) Leave a comment or six and let me know.

Categories
reading writing

Ch-ch-ch-changes

This week I have been forced to wonder whether I have finally become a grumpy old man that fears change.

That would be a hard pill to swallow for a number of reasons. First up, I’m only 40, and while my joints are a bit creaky and I’m not keen on staying out to dawn every Saturday night like I used to, I prefer not to consider myself ‘old’ just yet. Frankly, given that I have every intention of living well past 100 and ideally forever, possibly as a brain in a jar or a cloud of energised iron particles in a magnetic field, 40 isn’t even middle-aged.

Like this, but a tad less evil

More to the point, I’m always been a neophile. I’ve always loved to discover new things, explore unknown places, try out the radical departure in sound and generally embrace change. Because change is good, bringing with it new opportunities and possibilities. I am four-square for change; I am hip to the new; I’m in yr paradigm changin yr traditional perspectivez. I have dared to eat a motherfuckin’ peach, yo.

So it’s been a bit of a blow to my self-image to consider how I’ve been reacting to recent changes to the pop culture entertainments that I like. Those reactions can be seen over on LiveJournal, which I seem to have reinvented for myself as a platform for Bitching About the New. First there were my two long diatribes about the rebooting of the DC Comics universe – one before the changeone after, both very grumpy – and this week I went into a blessedly-shorter grumble about the news of a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons being announced and how I was going to stick with my fun and shiny 4th Edition books, thank you very much.

Oh god, I’m a grognard. I’ve become the one thing I most fear and despise – A CONSERVATIVE. Well, a conservative who likes a particular style of superhero comics and fantasy gaming but is otherwise all about freedom and change. I’m not exactly Bob Katter or anything. My hats are much less irritating. And I don’t hate The Gays.

But let’s be honest about it – it’s oa natural human impulse to resist change. Because if you like something, and someone who is not you decides to change it, you may not like it any more. And now you’ve lost something you like, and there are so few of those, and every morning is now that little bit colder and greyer and you know what fuck it let’s just get this over with and help the Joker put the neurotoxin in the city reservoir so we can derail this rotten train to Disappointment Town one way or another oh noes Batman just kicked me in the spine.

(Ahem. Sorry, I had to work Batman into this post somehow, or I’d be violating the blog’s terms-of-service agreement.)

So it’s understandable that it happens, and it’s a problem when we cut ourselves off from something different just because it’s different, rather than judging it on its intrinsic merits. And because this is a writing blog, I’m specifically thinking about books and readers and the way we sometimes dig in our heels when we fear we won’t get the books we want.

Because that happens a lot. A writer changes gears, puts something out in a new style/genre/direction, and established readers reject it out of hand and grumble that they wanted more of the old stuff. Robert Parker faced a storm of petulance from fans when he sidelined the Spenser series to try writing about new characters; Iain Banks would cop flack every time he switched from SF to mainstream fiction or back, often from readers who didn’t bother reading his latest novel before complaining that they wouldn’t like it because it did/didn’t have spaceships in it. And this isn’t new; Arthur Conan Doyle was dragged kicking and screaming back to Sherlock Holmes after trying his best to leave the character behind for ten years. Even his own mother gave him stick about it.

When an author creates a series, or character, or oeuvre that readers connect with, they want that author to stay in that groove, to keep providing them with the thing that makes them happy. And I am no different, as the scores of Batman TPBs on my bookshelf attest. But it’s a shame when we as readers get so comfortable in that familiar zone that we grumble and rebel against not just the threat of being pulled out of it, but the potential threat of no longer being forcibly kept there – the vague danger that at some point the writer who gives us the dishes we love may change the recipe and then proceed to not actually force us to eat their new main course. Because it’s not the worry of reading something we don’t like that riles us; it’s the worry of not getting the chance to read something we’re already pretty we will like, because we liked the last 2 or 4 or 10 things very much like it. It’s uncertainty that makes us curmudgeonly, not fear of the new but fear of change itself, and like I said, that’s a shame.

It’s especially a shame when readers fixate on genre, or the lack thereof, and reject a work from an author they like because of the inclusion/exclusion of fantasy/SF/horror/whatevs elements. There’s something so frustrating about readers who love Stephen King’s horror novels but don’t want to bother with his Dark Tower fantasies, or who read Banks’ Culture novels but refuse to read The Crow Road or The Wasp Factory because the lack of spaceships makes them sound boring. And, of course, literary stick-in-the-muds who cut Banks off the same way but in the other direction, or who’ll read Arturo Perez Reverte’s The Dumas Club (a magnificent book) but not his boisterous, pulpy Captain Alatriste adventure novels. (Although, to be honest, I find that the number of snobs that won’t lower themselves to the occasional fun genre read is less than the number of genre fans who balk at the idea of reading ‘serious’ fiction every once in a while. But your experience may vary.)

Me, I say that change is something to be embraced, or at the very least taken advantage of. If you can’t get exactly the kind of stories you like right now, that’s not a reason to grumble, it’s a reason to explore, to find something else that scratches that itch, or hits some spot you hadn’t realised existed until rubbing up against something different, and okay this metaphor is getting a little inappropriate now and I’m going to move on.

There’s nothing wrong with knowing what you like. But perhaps there is something wrong in never trying to examine what you know you don’t like, or potentially discovering something new to add to your favourites. For all that I bitch about the New DC, I still read every new first issue, because I wanted to be sure about what I was rejecting – and while I read a bunch of shitty comics, I also read some excellent ones that I will go on to buy in trades, seamed costumes and popped collars be damned. For all that I’m happy with 4E D&D, I’m taking the change as an opportunity to rediscover other games and systems and get myself out of the gaming rut I’ve been in for the last couple of years, rather than dig myself further into it. I don’t need to take that change on board, but if I route my path around it, rather than just parking my butt in one place, I get to explore new territory anyway, but this way under my own terms.

So no, I’m not old yet. Not as long as I can still be delighted and surprised by something new. It’s that (and the regular implants of fresh glands) that keep me young. And all readers should do the same.

Except for the glands. MINE.

Categories
writing

Chicken lebensraum for the soul

Let’s start tonight by casting our minds back to last weekend’s post, where I said some things about extrapolation, imagination and the way in which I struggle to understand how other people can see a book/movie/text as ‘real’ (or perhaps ‘choose to treat as if it were real’, which is longwinded but perhaps more accurate).

Two things:

  1. In hindsight, that post was kind of crap. I was shooting for thoughtful, but instead hit incoherent and waffly. I’m staggered that as many people read and commented on it as they did (more than any other post I’ve written!), but I wish I’d written something more worth posting on. I can do better.
  2. Like I said, lots of comments – a number of which don’t seem very happy. People seem to have got the impression that I was holding up the way I approach texts as the ‘right’ way and criticising other views. That wasn’t what I was trying to say, which is why I loaded the posts with phrase like “I can’t turn it off” and “a boor with a stick up my butt” and “I wish I could overcome this”. I mean, I enjoy reading the way I do, but I’m hardly trying to say it’s the best way, and I genuinely suspect that most people enjoy texts in perhaps a more immediate and emotionally fulfilling way than I do. I’m spinning ideas up here like plates, albeit clumsily and with lots of broken crockery underfoot; believe me, folks, I’m rarely trying to tell you what to do or judge you. Not unless you vote LNP or like Brussels sprouts, anyway.
Books should taste like bacon

Anyway, let’s move on and see if we – okay, if I – can marshal some of those muddy points and turn them into a useful blog post this time around.

Okay, so some readers (e.g. me) look at a book solely as a crafted text, a mass of words that creates an interesting effect; many other readers (e.g. most normal people) look at a book as a window into an imagined world that can be treated as if it were real. And that’s cool; neither approach is the ‘wrong’ way to read a narrative, and nor are any others, except perhaps for those people who spread jam on the pages and eat books like toast.

Can a book appeal to both these kinds of readers? Well, sure – pretty much every successful book does. Can you try to keep both kinds of reader in mind when writing? Yeah, and here are a few ideas on how to do that. They’re standard writing principles that everyone talks about, but I think there’s benefit in getting them all in one place and talking about why you want to apply them.

Put it on the page

If there’s something in your head about your story, your characters, your theme or anything else that matters, the best place for it is written down on the page for everyone to see. It might be obvious, it might be subtle, it might be text or subtext or metatext, but the best way to get it from your head into that of your reader is to give it to them embedded in the narrative they’re reading. You can’t be sure that they’ll read your afterwords, your indicia, your RPG sourcebook or your mind; you can be sure that the people that read your book read your book.

If it matters, include it in the text. If you don’t feel right about including it there, ask yourself why. Is there a way to bundle that idea up into your narrative without making it either totally invisible or dumping it in a steaming pile of exposition? If yes, then do that. If not, then have a think about why that idea matters to you, and whether it matters to your story and reader or just to your idea of your story and reader.

Make them care 

The reason readers imagine your story as a glimpse of another world is (probably) because they want to – because they feel an emotional and intellectual engagement with not just your book but your ideas and they want to keep exploring those ideas over and over again.

How do you make them love your ideas? Well, yeah, good writing, but you want to write the best book you can no matter what. And people like me will just engage with your craft, but other readers need more than that. They need characters they give a damn about, dropped into situations that put them in peril, fighting for rewards that stir the minds and emotions of reader and creation alike. They need to want that world to be real, even in just one awesome-filled pocket of their imagination, even just for a little while. Characters that love and fear and hurt and need, in a setting with equal parts beauty and terror; that makes people care. Hell, that sounds goddamn boss even to me.

Leave some breathing room

The reverse of the put-it-on-the-page principle is that you don’t have to spell everything out, and that sometimes it’s best if you don’t. Nature abhors a vacuum and so does a reader, and what rushes in from our brains is not oxygen (oh thank god) but imagination. You need to give people something to work with, of course, but if you leave blank space carefully bounded by defined concepts and foundations, it’s human nature to take that canvas and fill it with our own ideas of what your ideas might be.

This sounds like it clashes with the first point, but it really doesn’t. If it’s important to you that every reader takes on board an idea the same way, include it in your narrative, be it the nature of magic or how your hero grooms his goatee. Lock that shit down. On the other hand, if you want every reader to have their own idea about the way the polar barbarians train their terrible war-penguins, just sketch the barest of essentials. Every bit of fan art you get will look totally different, but every artist will have bent their imagination to those bloody beaks because they wanted to fill the gap their own, with their own version of right. The one they cared about.

Be deliberate in your ambiguity

All of this ruckus kicked off from a death scene in Sherlock Holmes that no-one liked but that some viewers saw as ambiguous. Ambiguity is imagination fuel; ideas spill out like brain glue from your audience to fill up any fascinating little gaps in your narrative, even if those gaps are actually full in the first place. Lay down a couple of mysteries, or just a scene that could be interpreted in a couple of ways, and give the audience just enough clues to let them know that you didn’t give them enough clues, and they will take it and run with it and love the work that little bit more.

But that’s if you do it on purpose. The thing you need to avoid is accidental ambiguity – of not giving the audience enough clues simply because you didn’t think of enough clues, or because they don’t make sense, or because you just didn’t describe the scene properly and there’s not enough definition penning in the blankness. Accidental ambiguity is pretty much another way of saying ‘sloppy writing’, and it leaves the audience confused and annoyed rather than intrigued and theory-spinning. Don’t do that; play coy rather than play dumb.

Or, you know, don’t

It’s kind of strange to say it baldly, but it’s true – not every story has to ‘make sense’.

My favourite fantasy writer is Jorge Luis Borges, who never cared too much about the ‘reality’ of his stories. His work was more about imagery and resonance than about evoking a sense of describing a genuine place or state of affairs. If you read ‘The Library of Babel’ and wonder where the hermit librarians in their infinite expanse of full shelves and gibberish books get their food from, you’ve missed the point. It’s a story about knowledge, infinity and the need to search for meaning in the universe no matter how futile; it’s not a story about a place or situation that you could visit. And that’s what makes it awesome.

If your idea is awesome but doesn’t make sense, decide if you actually want it to make sense. If you do, well, you need to work on it some more and maybe file some of the fractally incoherent edges off that thoughtshape. If you don’t, write that fucker. I’ll read it. I promise.

…anyone offended by any of that? God, I hope not.

Got more ideas? Thought of a principle I should have developed but didn’t because this post is already 1500 words long? Leave comments! Talk to me! I’m slowly going back and responding to comments on last weekend’s post, so say something here and I promise to reply before the stars grow cold and dark.

Well. Most of the stars, anyway.

Categories
story writing

I can’t turn it off

So we went to see Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows a couple of nights ago. It was decent, if not amazing; it was more a straightforward action-adventure movie than a mystery, and the script was crammed with obviously deliberate Holmes-on-Watson shipping subtext, but the pace was cracking and the characters interesting. I liked the first one more, but this was okay.

Afterwards, though, there was a post-movie -dinner conversation about the fate of one character who is killed off early in the film (no spoilers – well, unless you count ‘people die’ as a spoiler). Everyone found the death unsatisfying and a waste of an interesting character, and a number of my friends speculated that perhaps the character faked his/her death, and wasn’t really dead, and what had really happened was an elaborate ruse.

I came back with my standard response to this sort of thing: ‘Well, nothing ‘really’ happened. These are actors performing from a script, not real people, and nothing that’s not up on the screen is part of the narrative. Unless there’s a scene in which the death is shown to be a fake, there’s nothing else to say.’

And this makes me sound like a boor with a stick up my butt, I know. That may in fact be true. Lord knows I can be a humourless git at times. But what I’m trying to say that is when I read a book or see a movie or whatever, all I see is the text; all I see is what’s there in front of me. Because that’s the thing that actually exists, that can be analysed and understood and picked apart, that’s the thing that causes an intellectual/aesthetic/imaginative/indigestive reaction in me. It’s an artefact that can be understood and/or appreciated for its own beauty.

But for many readers, there is the urge to extrapolate, to imagine further; to see the book/story/movie as a window into another reality about which statements can be made. This is the fanfic urge, the worldbuilding urge; the urge to see implications, to imagine the unseen scenes between the ones on screen/the page, to see the text as a partial glimpse of something larger.

And it’s fundamentally an urge I don’t understand. And my inability to understand that desire and that state of mind – to see a text as reportage rather than artifice – is something I often wish I could overcome. I think I’m missing something, because to me the book is only ever words on a page. Hopefully smart, beautiful, well-chosen and properly-punctuated words, words that make my brain race as I stitch together imagery and meaning from them… but still, I can’t understand how you go outside the text, how you can ask whether what happened on the page/screen was what really happened.

Nothing really happened. Someone made it up. And I always feel that that’s a much more amazing and wondrous thing that the notion that the author/creator is someone just channelling a reality that exists somewhere else.

If you like to imagine books as windows into another reality, one that can be envisioned and then examined… honestly, I kind of envy you. That’s pretty cool. There are times when I’d like to turn off the constant analytic assessor in my head and believe, even if only for a second, even if only as a deliberate choice. But I can’t, and when conversations turn to that, I get a bit incomprehending and should probably learn to be quiet.

I have a similar mix of incomprehension about, for example JK Rowling’s claims that the character of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter novels is gay. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read any of them, but I did hear about this in the news on a slow day a few years ago.) As I understand it, when criticised for not including any gay characters, she said that Dumbledore was gay but that she chose not to include any signs or suggestions within the text that that was the case. But that’s fine, because the character has a reality, and this utterly-invisible reality is enough to deflect any criticism.

This is my Potter-truth

For me, that’s the same as saying that Dumbledore was actually an animated chocolate golem, or fought crime as Batman between novels. Sure, it never came up in print, but if he can be gay without, y’know, being gay, then my theory that Harry is actually a sackful of ferrets perfectly pretending to be a human being is just as valid, because that’s a reality that just doesn’t happened to be mentioned in the text. And yet, if I say that loudly at Potter conventions, suddenly I’m the guy escorted from the building by security and beaten up in an alley by Hermoine cosplayers. Again.

Mind you, saying that you can’t extrapolate from the text isn’t the same as saying there’s no such thing as subtext. Subtext is the foundation of meaning upon which a narrative rests; it’s not overt, but it’s still internal the text. Extrapolation, on the other hand, is external to the text; it’s the reader/viewer bringing their own desires to the material and reshaping the narrative to fit. Which is an interesting process, and it’s one I’d like to understand more, but it doesn’t seem to be doable. This is the way my head is, and I can’t turn it off; all I can do when I encounter a text is dissect it on its own terms. It can’t be real for me; it can only be a crafted object.

But on the flip side, there’s something great about taking books (and movies and plays and comics, yeah, but mostly books) on their own terms – as works of craft and art and imagination. For me, saying that all there is is what’s on the page isn’t a way of denigrating narrative, or saying that those who like to extrapolate are crazy/bad/wrong/Republican; it’s a way of celebrating the text and the act of creating it. Text is a joyous thing; text is what you get when a (hopefully) passionate, inspired writer sets out to create a thing of beauty. To celebrate it for what it is, rather than what it can be inferred to be, is no different than celebrating the Sistine Chapel ceiling as a work of great artistry, skill and technique, rather than as an accurate depiction of God and, um, whoever the other guy is. Is it Adam? That would make sense, I suppose. But I don’t need to know that in order to appreciate the power of the work, and I don’t think we need to act like a narrative is ‘real’ to still acknowledge its power and its worth.

Invention is more fun than extrapolation. If only so we can argue that it was the Potter-ferrets that faked their death to throw Sherlock off their trail.

Categories
character games story superheroes writing

Arkham City – the writing dos and donts

I don’t think anyone will be terribly surprised to hear that I spent most of the last two weeks playing Arkham City, rather than Christmas shopping, writing or spending quality time with my wife. I mean, come on, it’s a video game about Batman; the only way to make that more attractive to me as a package is have it dispense a shot of bourbon from the controller every time you get an achievement.

But as of yesterday I have finished the game (both the core plotline and the host of side missions) and having done so I think there’s a lot to consider from a writing POV about the way the game handles its stories and characters. Arkham City does some things right and some things wrong – more the latter than the former, to be honest – and a lot of that is pretty directly applicable to writing fiction. So let’s step away from the fact that the game is a lot of fun and features my favourite character and see what else we can learn from it.

(No, this isn’t a transparent attempt to justify the hours I’ve spent beating the crap out of bad guys on the TV. Honest. Cross my heart.)

Also, warning: if you haven’t finished the game yet, there’ll be some spoilers here. They might ruin your enjoyment. Or they might not.

Plot from premise

For a start, let’s talk about plot. Although promoted as being sandboxy and ‘open-world’, AC has in fact a very central plotline. More specifically, it has two central plotlines. First up, Hugo Strange has turned half of Gotham City into a giant prison, full of psychopaths and lowlifes, and Batman has to find out what Strange is really up to. On top of that, the Joker has infected Batman and a lot of hospital blood supplies with a deadly disease, so Batman has to determine and find the cure before he (and hundreds of others) die.

This is classic stuff – you have an A-plot and a B-plot, you move the spotlight between the two as the story progresses, and you use developments in one to modify the other. It’s very much the approach I’m taking with The Obituarist, for example. By having two main plotlines, you can build tension in one and then move to the other to maintain suspense, or pull the trigger in one to ramp things up in the other. Having just one core plotline in a long-form work doesn’t give you the same richness or as many tools, and you run the risk of pushing that plot too hard and boring your readers.

In addition, AC has about a dozen side plots and missions, plus a parallel storyline about Catwoman. Most of these link strongly to the strong central premise of the game – Gotham City is now a prison that causes far more problems than it solves. As I’ve said before, a strong premise is a constant story generator; you can bring an simple idea to it, put it through the premise/machine and some kind of plotline will come out. Video games tend to be premise-driven, of course, but AC‘s a good (not exceptional, but good) example of how it can work.

Bait, switch, drive a truck through the holes

But while AC has a central plot, that’s not to say it’s a strong plot. Or a coherent one. Or one that makes a goddamn lick of sense in some cases.

So yes, Hugo Strange is doing something bad. But you spend most of the game ignoring that, despite the fact that it’s the A-plot that’s central to the premise and plastered all over the blurb of the CD case. Instead, the Joker-infection plot takes over the core of the game and drives it forward, forcing you to ignore the increasing urgency of prison developments while you look for a cure. Which requires you to fight ninjas in an abandoned subterranean steampunk cult temple.

…yup.

You’ll go on a vision quest. You’ll punch a giant shark and a pair of one-armed former Siamese twins. Solomon Grundy throws electrified balls at your head. And a bunch of other stuff that floats in and out of the story for no really comprehensible reason. Finally you’ll get a cure, only for it to be stolen and the Joker to target Batman. At which point the A-plot comes back and Strange gets the legal right to kill everyone in the prison (!), and you rush to stop him while the Joker allies with the ninjas. Except that’s all bait-and-switch too, and brings with it a couple of plot holes that left me staring slackjawed at the TV, wondering how no-one on the writing team stopped and said ‘wait, correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s just fucking stupid’.

The main reason why these plot turns and events are problematic (apart from the huge holes) is that they’re divorced from the central premise discussed above. Playing a shellgame with plotlines can be interesting if done well, but are frustrating when bungled, and when your story wanders too far afield from the concept that got the reader interested in the first place. Similarly, while some side plots emerge fairly naturally from the central plotline and core premise, others come out of nowhere and feel completely tacked on (especially the one involving Azrael, which is either utterly pointless or an extended teaser for the next game in the series). Fun in and of themselves, their stories don’t satisfy, just as a disconnected subplot in a novel leaves the reader feeling distanced from the main story because of the apparently-pointless detour.

Oh, and the game finishes before you get a chance to cure the hundreds of infected patients in wider Gotham. Apparently there’s a post-credit epilogue that deals with that. But here’s a free tip for writers – if 80% of your novel has focused on a race towards a vital goal that must be achieved, forgetting about it and leaving it to be resolved off-screen and mentioned after the novel wraps up is bad fucking writing.

Rising tension

The advancement model of most video games is well-established by now, and AC does not do anything all that different. You start off fighting small groups of weak opponents, mooks and thugs who do their best to fuck you up but fail because you put your boot through their faces. You fight a few more groups, encounter a boss who has to be fought using different tactics, gain a new gadget or skill, and after a scene advancing the plot you’re back on the streets – except now the groups of thugs are a little bigger, a little tougher and using new weapons/tactics that you have to adapt to with your new powerups.

This is so far from radical it’s practically voting for Malcolm Fraser, but AC does it very well indeed. As the inmates form into massive gangs and get access to guns, shields, body armour and other toys, you never get the chance to feel complacent, even though you’ve also gained new advantages. There’s a constant pressure there to counterbalance but not negate your sense of achievement and to push you to do better, to give you the feeling that the stakes are continually rising.

As in games, so too in prose. This kind of rise / plateau / fall back to a slightly-elevated status quo / rise again pattern occurs over and over again in novels, and that’s because it works. It’s a slow dance of action, consequence, elevated stakes and into action again that gives a story an engaging pace and a reason to keep reading, if only to find out how the protagonist deals with this new turn of events. And it works for both action-packed page-turners and more introspective works; the raised stakes may be bruised emotions rather than 20 dudes with knives and tasers trying to slice your nipples off, but it’s an elevation nonetheless.

Too many c(r)ooks

The premise of AC gives a lot of room for including distinctive characters, as does Batman’s massive rogue’s gallery, almost all of whom have enough depth and history to be a convincing central threat as a core antagonist. What we get instead is a lumpy mishmash of unclear roles and pointless cameos, where characters that deserve substantial development time instead get five minutes of focus before tagging in a replacement to handle the next blip of plot. Within the main plotlines alone there’s a confusing blur of characters, from Mister Freeze to Two-Face to R’as al-Ghul to the Penguin, and they fall over each other in the race to take centre stage and justify their existence.

The side quests are even more rife with these additional characters, such as Mr Zsasz, Mad Hatter, the aforementioned Azrael and (sigh) Hush. In addition, riddles and clues about the whereabouts of more villains are all through the game, in such volume that they become overwhelming. When you find Calendar Man, of all people, sitting talking to himself in a glass-walled cell under a building, not contributing anything to any plotline in any way, it doesn’t make you feel that you’re glimpsing a wider world, it makes you feel like DC is throwing every bit of their IP against the wall in the hope you’ll go on to buy the action figures. Or inaction figure, in this case.

More is not always better, and a massive dramatis personae doesn’t automatically make your setting feel vast and varied; if you stick them all into your story at once, it makes it feel cramped and cluttered. It’s better to use a small number of characters and give them multiple story roles, so that they have recurring reasons to take focus, undergo development and then organically move that focus to another character with an overlapping remit.

Also, don’t put characters behind glass. They might suffocate.

The perfect antagonist

But for all that there are too many characters, there’s one that stands out above all the others as an incredibly engaging and fascinating opponent.

No, not the Joker or Two-Face, and certainly not the barely sketched Hugo Strange. No, it’s the Riddler. Who can kiss my entire arse.

The Riddler’s shtick is that he’s littered Gotham with riddles and trophies, which you obtain by solving puzzles, some of which are simple, some of which are just goddamn bullshit. You could ignore them, but he has hostages, and to free them you need to solve the puzzles, unlocking the locations of deathtraps as you go. And all the while he’s alternately mocking you for your stupidity and accusing you of cheating when you work out the combination of tricks and gadgets required to save a hostage.

It took me a week to finish the core plot. I spent the second week collecting trophies and solving ridiculously complicated puzzles because it was personal – because everything about this plotline was the Riddler saying that I, the player, was not smart enough to figure out his shit. So when I finally found him, pulled him through a set of weak floorboards and punched the question marks off of his hat, the triumph wasn’t just Batman’s, it was mine.

Now, as a writer, you can’t make the reader solve puzzles to turn the page – not unless you’re doing some very interestingly ergodic sort of stuff – but you can target the reader directly through a character’s portrayal and development. If you can make the reader take a character’s actions personally, whether thanks to identification with the protagonist or pushing emotional buttons directly (which is tricky, but kudos if you can pull it off), you give the reader a big reason to care what happens next. Don’t just leave them wanting the protagonist to succeed – leave them wanting the antagonist to fail. Do that and they’re yours.

Action is character

I’ve harped on this in the past, and I’ll probably harp on it again in the future, but action – stuff actually happening, onstage, front and centre – engages the reader and defines character far more than description. And like most video games, AC is action-adventure focused, and you’re constantly doing stuff. Well, more precisely, Batman is constantly doing stuff, and that’s a meaningful distinction. You’re more like a director than an actor or author in this game, guiding and making decisions for Batman rather than micromanaging him. He knows what he’s doing, and his actions show it – he fights hard, he always knows what gadget to pull out, he moves confidently from hiding place to hiding place, pausing only to silently smother a goon or electrify Mister Freeze’s armour. And outside the fights, it’s action – confrontation with villains, working out puzzles, infiltrating hideouts – that advances the story (albeit unevenly at times). There are cut scenes and conversations, yes, but those are still focused around conflicts and the actions required to resolve them.

The upshot of this is that the story never stalls, because there’s always something happening – even if, yes, that story and those actions don’t always make sense or connect properly. And because of this, we never have to be told that Batman is a man of action, that he’s prepared to do whatever it takes, that he thinks on his feet and refuses to lay down even when weakened near to death by the Joker’s disease – because we see him doing those things, and because we help and guide him as he does those things. There are dozens of backstory snippets that you can collect as the game goes along, but you lose nothing by ignoring them, because the story and character development doesn’t take place there – it takes place in the now, in the action, and in the immediacy of the moment. Just as it does in a novel.

Action is character, even when you don’t want it to be

The flip side to the above, of course, is that when a character says one thing and does another, it’s the action that presents the character to the reader.

And what AC presents is a Batman that talks a lot about never killing and doing the right thing (he even makes a little speech about it at one point), but his actions say something else. No, he never kills anyone, but he’s fine with letting people die through inaction. The game is rife with instances where you stand by and let the body count rise because you’re too concerned with other priorities. For example, a plotline with Deadshot has Batman waiting for the assassin to pick off targets so that he can pick up clues afterwards, rather than working from day one to prevent the killings. And that’s not even touching on the ending, where Batman slowly and reluctantly gets himself organised while Strange’s men deliberately massacre a third of the inmates, or where he carefully knocks out and incapacitates half-a-dozen armed gunman and leaves them littered around Strange’s HQ, only to abandon them to die when the joint explodes. These actions reveal him as either callous or incompetent, no matter his stated plans and sensibilities.

Ditto the thuggishness of his brutal interrogation of captured henchmen – bad guys or no, you can’t help but feel a moment of sympathy for them when Batman first terrifies them and then smashes their heads into brick walls or drops them off ledges once they spill the beans. I get that Rocksteady’s vision of Batman is darker and grimier than the traditional DC version – although it’s a pretty good fit for the less-well-written depictions in the new DC continuity that’s deliberately targeting the age-18-35-male demographic – but they’re still trying to describe the character as heroic within the game, and his actions belie that, leaving their protagonist more like an easily-distracted bully.

As I’ve said before, actions speak louder than words, especially in prose – which is weird, given that it’s all words, but you know what I mean. It’s all show not tell once again, and if you show your character doing the opposite of what you tell the audience he’s doing, they’ll think he’s a hypocrite and that you’re confused about your work. Make sure it all lines up, and remember that what happens on the page is what the reader will take in above all else.

See, folks, that’s all it takes to get me to write 2500+ words – Batman. If only he popped up in Arcadia I’d have finished the book months ago.

Next week, some flash fiction (plus visual stimulus!) for your Christmas reading. Just the thing for warming your heart after you have your pudding.

Categories
writing

Play by play

There was a period there about two years ago when I started to see people using Kindles on nearly a day-to-day basis – on the bus, in the park, anywhere you might find time to read. E-readers were the new hotness, and it was cool that they were embraced (even in Australia, where they’re more expensive and slower to arrive) and that reading was on the uprise.

Then iPads came along, and they swept over the Kindles and Kobos and Nooks like a wave, and about 20% of the commuters on my afternoon train home have one. And they mostly don’t use them to read books, or magazines, or even the web; most of them use them to play games. Office workers playing Words With Friends, businessmen playing Ticket to Ride, shopgirls playing RTS games that I don’t know well enough to identify. Reading is out; games are in.

And that’s because games are awesome.

Yeah, see, you thought I was gonna come out critical of people not reading, but I fooled you with the rope-a-dope.

So good for my skin

Let me put my hand up and say that I love playing games, and pretty much not a day goes by that I don’t play some kind of game, whether it be a videogame on my PC/XBox, an app on my phone, a board game, a card game, an RPG or just something entirely in my head that involves secretly pretending to be a spy under orders to investigate out what everyone else on public transport is playing. Games keep me young; that’s why I look about 30 despite being 40 and have to get my hair thinned out every month. I played Batman: Arkham City all this weekend solely for the good of my health; that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

And why do we play games? Because we are, at heart, a species that loves to play – to do things that are fun and enjoyable solely because they are fun and enjoyable. From World of Warcraft to soccer to sex to dressing up as Harley Quinn even though you’re not going to a convention, humans are playful beings, at least at those times when we’re not fighting wars or denying homosexuals their fundamental human rights. We can play hard and play serious, but in the end it’s still play; the point when you care so much about winning and/or making money from it that it stops being fun is the point where it generally stops being play and turns into a job.

Which is how this loops back to writing. Because, for the most part, I don’t find writing fun, and I don’t feel playful when I write. Part of that is because I try to write Serious Stories About Serious Things; part of that is that I try to make money off it with the eventual aim of no longer editing maths textbooks every day until I want to stab a hypotenuse in the eye. And partly, probably mostly, it’s because writing is an effort, and that’s effort (and time) I could be spending playing games and having fun. Yes, I don’t have fun writing because I’ve defined writing beforehand as being the opposite of fun; I’m away of the self-fulfilling contradictions.

But there is room to have fun when you write, and lately many of the blogs I read and tweets I follow and articles I see about writing make it look like I’m not the only one who forgets that. It’s all so very serious and very focused, with posts about how to write and what to do, discussions on process, people feeling that they’ve let themselves down by not finishing NaNoWriMo… it’s all a bit bleak. So maybe we need to stop every now and then, step away from the Serious Story, and just fool around on the page for a while, like a freeform jazz session, except the instruments are words and none of the performers are wearing pants.

I know it’s a bit pot calling the kettle black, but I do give it a try now and then. Dave Versace, a regular commenter on this blog, wrote a review of Godheads in which he said that the stories ‘Metatext Otis’ and ‘The Salbine Incident’ were ‘essentially literary jokes’. That’s a very fair comment, especially for ‘Otis’, but from my end I didn’t write them as jokes, I wrote them for fun (and for class credit, but that’s a trifling detail). They were chances to play with ideas without worrying about story cohesion or voice or underlying theme; they were chances to shoot words off each other like I was rocking a pinball machine inside a dictionary. They do not accomplish much, but I smile when I remember the conceiving and writing of them, rather than the irked grimace that comes to my face when considering the more complex, more serious and generally more aggravating-to-write works I’m currently wrestling with.

So every now and then I write just for play, especially with silly flash fictions that are all bang and swagger and ridiculous hats. But fun isn’t just exercised through silly stories. Playfulness can also come out in voice and tone, in enthusiastic prose and tongue-in-cheek expressions, the kind of thing that often gets derided as self-aware cleverness. (As if it’s a bad thing to be clever and self-aware.) Look at the language of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, the deft wryness of Middlesex, the circular storytelling of The Orphan’s Tales, the delighted genre awareness of All-Star Superman; these are serious works that aim to be worthy stories, but in reading them I can’t help but feel confident that the authors had a good time even while working hard. I so, so love books like that.

(And let’s not even get into the joys of ergodic fiction, where readers actively play with story components to make a finished narrative. Because that’s a whole other post, and I would love the chance to drone on about The Dictionary of the Khazars for 1000 words.)

I’m not trying to say that all writers should play D&D or study the storytelling structure of Angry Birds; there probably are arguments to made on those and similar statements, but this post ain’t it. Nor am I saying we should write more Happy Fun Light Entertainment novels that can be easily digested on the beach or the toilet, because we have plenty of those and to be honest I don’t much care for that kind of thing.

But I’m saying that maybe it’s good to have fun when you write sometimes. I certainly need to have more of that.

Maybe then I’d write more.

Categories
writing

Some post-wedding prioritisation

Well, it’s a week later and I’m still married, which speaks volumes as to the patience of my new wife.

And a busy week it’s been, as we’ve taken our American houseguests on excursions, shuttled back and forth between the airport, unwrapped far too many presents and drunk the last of the special wedding beer we commissioned for our guests. (They got most of it, okay?)

In particular, it’s been far too busy a week to write, especially since there was someone sleeping in my study. And, let’s be honest, it’s been hard to write, or to think about writing, with the excitement and stress and work involved in the lead-up to the wedding. But that’s done now, and in the wake of perhaps the most significant thing I’ve ever done, I’ve got a renewed determination to get stuck into my writing projects and to finish some of them for fuck’s sake.

So tonight, let’s go through a bit of a to-do list, because I know how exciting that must be for you, my loyal fans and friends, to read and consider. These are too early for New Year’s resolutions, and as we all know those exist solely to be broken before the bedstains dry on the first of January; I’m taking these seriously, and I encourage people to call me a slack bastard at those times when I ignore writing for trivial things like having fun, spending time with my wife or going to my day job in order to pay the rent.

Arcadia: Languishing for too long in a half-finished – alright, only-barely-started – state, my number one priority is to regain my focus and momentum for this novel. I’ve written already about how the lack of a strong premise has made it tough going at times, and I’ve been stewing on that for a while, trying to pin down more concepts before getting back to writing. But you know what? Fuck stew. It’s oily and full of carbs. Momentum is a whole lot more important than polish and clarity of vision in a first draft; all that really matters in a first draft is writing some fucking words. So I’m just going to dive back into this and write without angsting about it too much, and if that means I produce a draft that’s uneven and full of notes like WRITE 200 WORDS OF SOMETHING HEARTWARMING YET UNCOMFORTABLE HERE, that’s still better than a blank page. Anyway, here’s the current progress marker; let’s see if we can push that up to the 30K mark in the next month or two.

The Obiutarist: The new novella that I spoke about two weeks ago is underway, and I have a pretty good idea in my head for half of its contents. The other half… well, still working on that, but I can do more to work that out while writing from what I already know. The themes, the premise, the character voice and the other stylistic elements are strong in my head – things are always strong in my head – and I’ve got someone to talk to about the ins and outs of identify theft. Plus, you know, I’ve actually written a bit. A little bit. So while Arcadia gets first dibs, I’m still planning to devote some time every week to this one. Especially since my deadline for a finished, publishable version of this is quite a bit closer; I’d like to have that out by January. So I’ll be juggling these two projects back-and-forth in a hopefully-amusing fashion for a while, and we’ll see which one falls to the floor first and cracks open like a raw egg filled with poodle blood.

Other writing: Do I have time for other writing? Christ, probably not, but I have a couple of ideas for new short stories that I’d really like to work on. They’re cool. So if everything else works, the heavens align, the good lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise, I should have a few things ready early next year. Whether I submit those to magazines/journals, sell them as 99c ebooks or just give ’em away in an effort to buy love get attention… well, I’ll work that out later.

Speaking of other writing, I have an article in issue 5 of Inscribe, Darebin Council’s biannual writing and literature magazine/journal. It’s about self-epublishing, but rather than try to claim some kind of authority on the subject, I talk about what I’ve done and what I’ve learned, with an aim to share that experience and (hopefully) be of help to other writers in the area that want to go down the same path. Inscribe is a community effort aimed at motivating and promoting local writers, and there’s some great stuff in this issue. If you live in the Darebin region, keep an eye out for Inscribe 5 in bookshops, cafes and the more intellectual bars; if you don’t, keep an eye on the council website for when they put up a PDF version of it.

Oh yeah, and I need to keep up the blog posts. Possibly with less ranting and more insight/wisdom/cleverness. Which reminds me, I need to respond to some emails, discuss some ideas with my peers and line up an interview post in the next week or two.

Relentless self-promotion: Now, in addition to writing things people want to read (fingers crossed), I’d also like to convince more people that they want to read said things, and so I’m trying to lift my game about self-promotion, building a presence online and generally whoring myself out like a strumpet drenched in cologne. I bitched a while back about the lack of online ebook review sites, but I went on to do some research and found quite a few, which means that now I could instead write a blog post bitching about how few of them are currently taking reviews or getting back to me as to whether they want to look at my stuff. But I won’t; I’m just gonna concentrate on getting Hotel Flamingo and Godheads out there and hope people talk about why they like them. Or don’t. Don’t is fine too.

(I’m contemplating dropping the price of Godheads to 99c, but I’m still thinking about that and I’ll probably write a post about it first. The joy of a blog is that you can blog about anything before doing it. Or even before not doing it.)

I also set up an author page on Goodreads, which offers a few tools and options for writers that I’m going to start exploring. I don’t know how useful they will be, as I’m not really sure how useful Goodreads is in general – enjoyable, yes, but useful? – but that’s (of course) a blog post for another time. But in the interim, go check it out – and if you’ve read Flamingo or Godheads, please feel free (feel encouraged) to put a review or even a star rating for them onto Goodreads. It all helps. Probably.

Distractions that are generally much more fun than writing: I just bought Batman: Arkham City and borrowed Dragon Age 2 from a friend, so I admit that everything I’ve just said I would do may evaporate like beer spilled on a barbecue. But my intentions are so very, very good, and surely that must count for something.

Oh, and I should probably spend time with my wife.

…man, I really enjoy writing the phrase ‘my wife.’

Categories
obituarist writing

The Obituarist

‘Social media undertaker.’

That’s the concept that came to me back in… holy crap, January. I don’t know what inspired it, but I suddenly thought that there could be a career – and a story, more importantly – in managing and then shutting down someone’s social media or internet presence after their death. Just what that story would be wasn’t clear, though. Something a little off-kilter, certainly, but would it be mainstream or genre? Horror or sci-fi? I’d had a vague concept in the back of my mind for years about a shut-in who slowly realises that the people he communicates with online are from alternate universes; the internet focus was an obvious connection between the two, but nothing immediately grabbed.

So I shelved the idea for a while. I shelve a lot of ideas. And by ‘shelve’ I mean ‘forget’ about half the time, unless I write something down immediately, even if it’s just a blog post. This is why I carry a notebook. Which I don’t use often enough.

Then in June, in one of those times when I put my imagination on cruise control and see where it goes, I came up with an opening paragraph. I do that a lot – just write 100-odd words to kick off an idea without thinking about it too much or knowing where it’s going. I usually file them away and come back to them periodically to see if they inspire me to go further.

I’ve tweaked the opener a little, but here in all its glory is the start of what I decided to call The Obituarist:

Jay Moledacker was far more handsome in death than he ever had been in life. Okay, not true, but at the very least his Facebook profile picture was now a lot more dignified. Not difficult, since his profile picture while alive had been a photo of him vomiting onto a horse after a drunken racing carnival.

Now that he was dead – of an embolism, rather than being kicked by an outraged thoroughbred or whipped by an equally horrified jockey – he looked regal, elegant and a good six years younger. That’s because I had to use his college graduation photo; everything after that point seemed to involve young Jay throwing up, getting punched in nightclubs or asleep on someone’s kitchen floor with FUCKWIT written on his naked chest in mustard.

A life well lived. Well, a life. Lived.

And it had fallen to me to close it all down.

Which didn’t stop my clients – i.e. his parents – from dicking me about on the invoice.

Looking at this, there are a bunch of signals in it about the kind of narrative that it would kick off – signals not just to readers but to me as I consider writing it. There’s an obvious streak of humour, but it’s not overwhelming, which is good because I can’t write comedy. But there’s also a slight hint of melancholy, or maybe resignation; it’s the speech of someone who’s aware of the funny and sad aspects of what he does. And there’s a character voice right there to work with – kind of my default voice, I admit it, but hey, my default voice is generally pretty entertaining.

So that was interesting, and it made me think that the idea had legs – and, to some extent, made me think that a semi-realistic story would better suit that tone than a horror or high weirdness piece. But nothing immediately sprang to mind, and so I shelved it again.

Cut to last month, as I started the process of changing email addresses. Which is kind of a pain, because I used my old email address as part of my login for a bunch of sites, and it’s connected to bank accounts and other important things, and if I don’t take care when changing details someone could maybe use my old email to log into something and then work out my bank details and steal my identity and holy shit the core premise of The Obituarist pretty much unpacked itself into my head. Because it’s not just a social nicety to clean up the internet footprints of the dead, it’s a way of stopping identity theft, and that means there’s the potential for crime and money and murder involved.

And there’s a story in that.

So I’m gearing up now to create The Obituarist (note: provisional title) as a novella to ideally write over the next couple of months and publish online by January/February. I’ll post some more information about premise, theme, tone and the like in the next few weeks, but here’s the basic pitch:

Kendall Barber (note: provisional name) used to be a professional scammer and identity thief. Then something changed in his life, and he decided to use those skills legitimately to become what he calls an ‘obituarist’, locking down the online lives of the newly dead.

But now his past is reaching out to catch up with him, just as he gets in over his head with a new client whose dead brother may have been murdered – if he’s even dead at all. If Kendall doesn’t play his cards right, he could wind up just as deceased as the usual subjects of his work.

On the other hand, Kendall may know more about what cards to play than anyone else realises…

20 000 or so words of slightly-surreal crime, touching on themes of death, identity and secrets, and taking more cues from Raymond Chandler than I should probably admit to in public. That’s The Obituarist. Or will be, if I pull my finger out and write it over the next two months. Which is the plan.

Stay tuned for more updates.

Categories
writing

Disarming the NaNoWriMo trap

November is a’comin’ in, and that means a number of things. Temperatures in Melbourne suddenly skyrocket, blokes start growing fabulous moustachios in the name of men’s health, Christmas ads explode all over your favourite shows and my wedding looms large on the radar.

I start wearing shorts again. Which is pretty major.

And, of course, it’s the start of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, or NNWM if you prefer just writing in caps, or maybe INWM if you recognise that it’s international rather than national, or… look, you know what I’m talking about. That thing where people dedicate themselves to writing a 50 000 word novel from scratch over the course of the month, that’s taken off from a one-off activity among a small group to be bigger than pogs worldwide.

A couple of writers of my acquaintance have blogged about NNWM this last week. Alan Baxter is very critical of the whole thing and questions what participants are actually achieving, while Jay Kristoff focuses instead on how to get the most out of it if you decide to give it a shot. I’ve tended to lean more towards Alan’s take on things for the past few years, feeling that NNWM is mostly a waste of time and effort. I think that it puts too much emphasis on output and not enough on craft, so that people get into the mindset that quickly writing an unpolished novel is more valuable than spending time deliberately constructing a good novel. It’s all quantity rather than quality, and I think craft and quality are being neglected in the new wave of self-epublishing.

The actual Komissar of the Writing Police

If I had my druthers, I’d prefer to see something like (Inter)National Short-Story Writing Month, where participants write a single 2-3 thousand word story in the first week and then polish and rework the fuck out of it for the remaining time.

But as it happens, I’m not the Kommissar of the Writing Police, and it’s not up to me to tell folks that they’re Doing It Wrong. Unless, I dunno, they’re writing with their feet, or spending all their time writing Abbott/Rudd slashfic. (Because that is wrong. So very wrong.) If people are getting something out of NNWM – be it a finished book, writing practice or simply the feeling of accomplishing something – I’m not going to belittle that. (And, just to be clear, I don’t think Alan is either). And hell, I understand the value of a deadline.

So okay, let’s be upbeat about NNWM. People have fun with it, people find it rewarding; let’s embrace that. If you’re giving it a shot this year, I wish you well with it; I hope you get something out of it and I hope your manuscript is good, or pretty good, or at least that it doesn’t suck.

But don’t fall into the trap.

Publish and perish

The trap is thinking that NNWM is enough; that it’s the end of a process, rather than the beginning. That’s the spiked-pit-filled-with-piranha that leads people to spend the first of December slapping a crudely Photoshopped cover onto their just-finished manuscript, uploading the file to the Kindle Store and then wondering why no-one downloads it. And that’s going to happen a lot this year and going forward, as the process of self-publishing becomes ever easier and the bar for what can be considered publishable drops ever lower. Work that might have been permanently consigned to the bottom drawer/hard drive, or perhaps given much-needed reworking and development, is immediately pushed out into a virtual marketplace that promotes variety over quality, and where bad work threatens to crowd out good until it becomes invisible.

NNWM is going to create a lot of bad ebooks. It’s inevitable. But you don’t need to be part of that dull, turgid tide.

The key to escaping the trap is this – think of NNWM as a tool, not a goal. It’s a machine that refines your raw material – your ideas, your style, your passion – into a 50 000 word first-draft manuscript. That MS is a tool you can then put aside for a couple of weeks while you decompress, maybe do some Christmas shopping, and then use to make the second draft. You might rewrite it completely, you might only need judicious editing, you might burn it and get high on the fumes, but the important thing is that you feed the first draft into the hopper and push the assembly line along to the next stop. And the next. And the next.

Getting that first draft together is an achievement, and there is no tool more important in creating a strong book. So don’t waste it; don’t just dump it on the world’s doorstep and run. Use it, wield it, rev it up and pull it apart. Because NNWM should not be something you do; NNWM is something you use. It’s the trap and the escape hatch at the same time. Trip the lock, map the route, start climbing until you get to the top. And then keep going.

In closing, let’s reflect on the irony of this post, namely that anyone giving NNWM a halfway decent burl is doing more writing than I am at the moment, thanks to the terrible one-two punch of preparing for a wedding and just being lazy and a bit crap.

So I’m going to put some money where my mouth is and start work on a new novella this month, as a side-project and occasional respite from Arcadia, with an eye towards having a first draft finished around Christmas and the ebook available by January.

It’s called The Obituarist, and I’m going to talk about it some more next weekend. Tune in.