Wednesday, November 26, 2008

And He Laughs

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I'm sorry about the lack of a burning zeppelin post today. I'm sorry to say that it was not for the reasons I expected (general overload of work, parental proximity, and piemaking). Today in the early afternoon, the Abigail and I were informed that the Abigail's grandfather, Gabriel Lehrer entered what is almost certain to be his final illness.

Gabe hasn't been well for a while now. The details aren't really interesting, or for public consumption, but let's just say that we are all looking forward to the cessation of his pain, even though we'll miss him. It should take another three days.

I haven't known Gabe long, but the stories I have heard have astounded me. He was in World War II, where he distinguished himself by rushing towards danger to pull his shipmates out of a burning wreckage, which shortly thereafter exploded. Reports of his death were greatly exaggerated, and he pulled through despite serious injuries. Gabe spoke numerous languages fluently, and had some ability with several more.

Most of all, though, Gabe knew how to listen. When the Abigail was but a tiny geekling, Gabe listened to her. He listened to her endlessly describe her days at school, he listened to her talk about the fantasy books she was reading, and he listened to the stories she wanted to write. And he would share his stories. Gabe told the Abigail about the war, about his childhood in Brooklyn, about his life. He spoke frankly about his victories and his failures. He even wore the Abigail's silly knitted hats.

I don't really know Gabe very well. By the time I came onto the scene, he had already begun his decline. I do know, however, that he was a brilliant man, and he loved his granddaughters very much. He made the Abigail the awesome person she is to this very day. That's how I know how beautiful and brilliant he was - I see him in the Abigail.

Gabriel Lehrer was a blazing beacon, and in knowing the Abigail I get to touch a little of that fire, and I know that I am truly blessed. The fact that the Abigail says I remind her of him is an even greater honor.

So, today, for whatever it's worth, Burning Zeppelin Experience prepares to say goodbye to Gabriel Lehrer.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Whedonesque Surrogate Playlist

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NOTE: I'm actually not listening to my Whedonesque Surrogate Playlist, for two reasons. Firstly, I'm in a Starbucks and my headphones are crap, meaning I'm at the mercy of whatever Starbucks chooses to inflict upon us. Secondly, I haven't actually assembled the Whedonesque Surrogate Playlist - which will consist of Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog and everything on the Buffy: the Musical album that was released a while ago - because while I aquired the latter years ago, I have yet to get my paws on the former.

The significance of the Whedonesque Surrogate Playlist will be explained presently.

* * *

In anticipation of the upcoming holiday, what could be more appropriate than a discussion of family? I've already covered smell, death, and wolves, and I'm not sure I can think of sufficient connections between fantasy writing, roleplaying, and food... wait, scratch that, of course I can. There's tomorrow's post!

Anyway, family is important. In the real world, everyone has a family, even though we might sometimes wish we didn't. In fantasy, we have more options. Tragic Orphans and last survivors of ancient races are a dime a dozen, and you can even choose to have your characters spring forth ex nihilo. But a character's family is where she comes from. On some level, it's very important to who she is.

I consider myself lucky that I have never had a hard time keeping my characters' families in mind when I write or roleplay. In Rat and Starling, Rat is defined by her mother's extreme neuroses and borderline abusive behavior, while Starling is a Tragic Orphan who was raised by people he calls - affectionately, I'm sure - the evil monks. In A Knight of the Land, Kurzon Mors's family doesn't come into the story much - they're pretty normal, pretty functional bunch of middle-class types - but Iveren Mors's obsessive efforts to ensure the safety of his people eventually bring the brothers into conflict. In Ghostly Tam Lin (the working title for my NaNoWriMo novel), Janet comes from a broken home, and piecing together her mother after her parents' divorce left her with a powerful mothering instinct, while Erik still carries his father's rage and bitterness at being crippled in World War II. Perhaps this is because I, as you already know if you know me in real life, have a somewhat rocky relationship with my family, but it has always come naturally to me to think of a character's family.

In roleplaying games, it becomes much more complicated. When you write a character's family you are handing these central characters over to someone else - the game master, Storyteller, or whatever (*snicker* Hollyhock God *snicker*) - to portray. That can be tough, because if the game master gets it wrong, your character is suddenly cut loose, disconnected from a past that no longer refers to him. My best experience with this was with Glyph (the Changeling version), who you'll recall, if you've been paying attention, had an adoptive father who he wanted to be just like when he grew up. The Storyteller, Jon, did a brilliant job. Sir Corrigan was delicately portrayed as a tragic figure, a man of honor whose very nature as a fae being was killing his beloved wife; the toughest Changeling warrior in Georgia, but unable to protect his own son. His wife - Glyph's mother's - growing madness and unflagging love for her adopted son made the eventual quest to save her life one of the most powerful roleplaying experiences I've had. Glyph was connected to the world and deeply enmeshed in the plot, in part through his parents.

Another concept I'd like to touch on is chosen family, known between the Abigail and I as the Whedonesque Surrogate Family (see, I told you I'd get to it), a reference to Joss Whedon's fondness for, well, surrogate families. He does it in Buffy: the Vampire Slayer, he does it in Firefly, and if he doesn't do it in House of Dolls, I'll eat my hat.

Well, I'll eat your hat. I don't really wear hats.

What is a chosen family? A chosen family is what you get when a group of characters makes the leap from frends into something else. When they love each other like siblings, care for each other like parents, and can't stand each other in the way only family can't. Have you ever looked at a friend and thought to yourself "Well, God, I guess I'm stuck with this dude, because getting him out of my life would be like cutting off my arm"? That's chosen family. You roleplayers out there should be familiar with the idea of chosen family: a lot of Obligatory Player Character Groups end up becoming a chosen family.

I find chosen family particularly fascinating for several reasons.

Firstly, you can write (or roleplay) the formation of a chosen family. Blood families gather together much more slowly, and you can't really write them growing unless you're willing to write smut (not that anything's wrong with that). Chosen famlies gather the way friends do, however. Over a matter of a few years, friendships deepen, new friends are introduced through mutual friends, and complex interrelationships grow, combine, and mutate.

Secondly, chosen families provide me as an author and game-runner with a particularly fascinating opportunity to create families that are narratively interesting. Blood famlies are potluck. Sometimes you get something fascinating and sometimes you get the Brady Bunch. But because chosen families are chosen, it's a lot easier to write characters ending up with people who challenge them in interesting ways. Many people look for friends who challenge them, and those friendships can often become chosen family.

Finally, blood families are forged in the exciting heat of... time and breeding. Not exactly dramatic. Dramatic things can always happen to blood families, but nothing about the concept demands it or makes it easy. But chosen families, on the other hand... chosen families are intense friendships, forged in the hot fires of whatever plot comes to mind.

The one thing chosen families don't do is anchor a character's past. They can provide context for the present and the future, but only blood families tell you where your character came from. So, when you're looking at the pack of rabid monkeys you call your kin this Thanksgiving and wishing you had sprung into being ex nihilo, try to remember that.

And pass the gravy.

* * *

For the record, I think Nobilis is actually a fun game. I just think the title they use for game master is absolutely ridiculous.

  • When have you read or written a particularly interesting family?
  • When has the appearance of character's family positively or negatively effected a roleplaying game you were involved with?
  • Do you or any of your characters (roleplaying or written) have a chosen family as well as or instead of a blood family?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Thanksguh-oh Update

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And, while I'm at it, a real life update and warning about this week's posting schedule.

I have family members coming out to see me this Thanksgiving Weekend and a ridiculously full Thanksgiving Day planned, so this week's posting schedule is likely to look like this:

  • Tuesday: A post is nearly a certainly.
  • Wednesday: A post is quite likely, but not definite (I'll be making a pie!).
  • Thursday: I am incredibly unlikely to post.
  • Friday: A post is unlikely, but not as unlikely as Thursday.

I'll make an effort to create an extra post on Saturday and/or Sunday to make up for Thursday and/or Friday, but no promises at this time. NaNoWriMo remains my primary concern.

Seriously, whose bright idea was it to put National Novel Writing Month in November? November! Month of the first truly lousy weather of the year, the beginning of Seasonal Affective Disorder for those so inclined, Thanksgiving and its wild mess of relatives, cooking, and recovering afterwards, and, frequently, college and grad school finals. What's wrong with June? Nothing happens in June!

That being said, I wish each and every one of you, personally - even those of you that never comment - a happy and healthy Thanksgiving. I hope you all survive your families enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner and whatever pre- and post-Thanksgiving activities you have planned.

Paladin, a Love Story

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I have always had a love-hate relationship with paladins. It was one of those "I hate you I hate you I love you" romances, where the two of us spent years at each others's throats, until the day we fell on each other's lips and declared our undying affection.

Let me explain: in the old days, I used to play Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (2nd Edition - please, I'm not that old). One of the game's persistent concepts was of the paladin, a sort of a holy warrior, empowered by the gods, but not a priest. Paladins needed to live by a strict code of law and good, acting with kindness towards all, comporting themselves with dignity and respect, and obeying the letter and spirit of the law. Sure, a paladin could disobey bad laws, but she had to do so in a bold and open manner. A paladin could employ tactics, but she had to fight fair. A paladin could look the other way while her friends used stealth and deceit to achieve good ends... but she couldn't.

Of course, there were benefits to balance out these restrictions. Paladins had nearly all the benefits of a warrior, in addition to a limited ability to use magic like a priest, heal and dispel disease with a touch, and an inherent immunity to all fear, natural and otherwise. If they lived long enough, they got the service of a magical, super-tough horse (in later editions, a magical super-tough horse from heaven).

At the very beginning, my thoughts were "who the hell wants to play that?" Such a limiting code of behavior! Such goody two-shoes self-righteousness! I wanted a roleplaying experience that was freeing, not restrictive. I wanted to play characters that had some darkness to them, not four-color heroes.

It didn't help that a lot of the people I roleplayed with used 'paladin' as a code word for 'asshole,' or knew too many people who had. They liked to take advantage of the paladin's code of honor as an excuse to ruin other people's fun. "I'm sorry," they'd say, smirking, "it's not my fault my character just totally stepped all over your thief's efforts to sneak/your wizard's efforts to be clever/your bard's efforts to fast-talk - I'm playing a paladin! It's in my code of honor that nobody but me gets to have any fun my character can't tolerate that sort of thing!"

Over time, however, my antipathy began to transmute into curiosity. What would it like to play a character who was religiously obligated to care about the things that got glossed over in most roleplaying games: the cleanliness of his clothes, arms, and armor, the quality of his pipe tobacco? What would it be like to play someone who had a firm moral code? Could I find a way to play a character who was deeply, truly good, but also had a dark side to explore? What kind of dramatic tension was inherent in a character who partook of something pure and otherworldly in a deep and inherent way, living in a world full of cruelty and doubt?

Yeah, I was hooked.

Before I go any further, let's take a moment to explore just what a paladin is.

Wikipedia (ah, thank you, Wikipedia), claims that the the title 'paladin' comes from a group of knights also known as the Twelve Peers, "the foremost warriors of Charlemagne's court, according to the literary cycle known as the Matter of France." They also appear in the Song of Roland, an example of early French poetic literature, as warrior-paragons who exemplified Christian martial valor in the face of Islamic expansionism (or in the name of Christian expansionism - it depends on who you ask). The word itself apparently has its roots in Latin - 'palatinus' refers to a high level official of the Roman Empire associated with the Imperial palace. Later on, the word became associated with a high level official in any imperial or royal court, and later, to the warrior-paragons of Charlemagne. From there, the word spread to encompass any group of noble knights: the Knights of the Round Table, for example.

When Dungeons and Dragons came out in 1974, they adopted the word 'paladin' to refer to their holy warrior class. The rest, as they say, is history. Like the lich, the paladin entered our fantasy consciousness by way of Dungeons & Dragons and has now become a staple of fantasy everywhere. An entire roleplaying game - White Wolf's Exalted - now exists that explores themes of chosen-ness and divine favor, albeit in a much more cynical and morally ambiguous world.

I first experimented with paladins in my freshman year of college. Of course, I couldn't just play a standard paladin. I had to mess it up a little, see how far the trope would bend before it broke. I played Sir Glypharous Fleckeren, a half elf (by now D&D 3.0 had come out, and were liberated from cruel restrictions regarding race and class) paladin who had been raised up from life as a street rat by a noble knight who was inspired by his pluck. Sir Glyph was noble and good, with a healthy respect for the law, but he also had a mischevious streak and a 'live and let live' attitude towards his fellow adventurers. He would be a good example, but he wouldn't preach and pontificate. He knew how much people hated that.

The goal was to play a paladin who stressed the 'good' half of the 'lawful good' equation. My feeling was that most people stressed the 'law' half, making paladins who were sticks-in-the-mud (and sticks-up-the-ass!), at the expense of the 'good' half. It seemed just as fair to make a paladin who thought it was more important to be good, but still obeyed the paladin's code to the letter.

The experiment failed. In part, it was a weakness of the game - among the best Dungeons & Dragons games I've ever played in, but certainly far from my finest roleplaying experience to date - but in part it was a weakness of the character. I was simply inverting the concept, producing a character who was as much a failure at being a paladin as the assholes I'd played opposite in high school.

Sir Glyph produced two more characters before the experiment was over. One of them was a fun-loving pathological liar Changeling who wanted to be a noble knight just like his adoptive father (check out this post for more teasing details and stay tuned for a more full explanation when I finally get around to posting about the joys and challenges of playing kids). The other was Sir Imaz Aronide, the Red Prince, the Flame of the North. Imaz was the son of a border lord, vassal to a dying empire, who had, after a fight with his father, decided to go see for himself if the empire's decay had reached the point that breaking their oaths to the empire and striking off on their own was the lesser of two evils (the other potential evil being sticking with the empire and risking being dragged down with it).

Imaz was fun. He had issues. His honor caused him problems. Imaz had all... um... needs of any young man, but he didn't do anything about it. He didn't want to lead any women on, since he knew he would have to make an alliance marriage for the good of his father's kingdom. Imaz couldn't let his friends kill prisoners who had surrendered in good faith, so he took personal responsibility for making sure they didn't escape and cause trouble. The Empire needed to be warned about the monsters swarming through a misfiring magical gateway, so Imaz was the one to give up a chance of honor in battle and ride his horse nearly to death so that reinforcements would arrive in time. Imaz made sure his (and his friends) had the best gear they could find and the best food they could get, because dignity is important - and yes, Imaz worried about the quality of his pipe tobacco.

That game didn't last (or my involvement in it didn't last - I can't remember), but I really got a handle on the concept. I reprised the character once more, in a BESM-powered fantasy game, but after that, I realized that I had learned what I needed to, and I could let the concept go.

I realized that I was right. There is fun tension inherent in a character who is otherworldly, connected to something pure and good, but living in and a part of a world that is venal and cruel. There's something interesting and challenging about playing a character who holds himself (and, to a lesser degree, others) up to unrealistic standards. It's fun to play someone who wants to do the right thing, even when it's at odds with his desires. Especially when it's at odds with his desires. Most importantly, I learned that there is a place for fear, doubt, ambition, and darkness even in a paladin's story.

So, I get paladins: tension between the faith and corruption, the problematic consequences of honor, being the kind of person who doesn't settle for less, check, check, check. What do I do with it now?

I want to try writing some fantasy stories centering on this trope, but stories like that are a dime a dozen. Paladins are a fantasy trope, and just repeating a fantasy story about a fantasy paladin might be fun and easy to right, but it doesn't really fire me up.

The idea that I've had living in the back of my head for a while now, though is to try writing a modern take on the paladin trope. The setting: typical urban fantasy, a world where magic exists in hiding, waiting in the shadows. I'd probably want to make the world a little darker than average, a little more corrupt, so the main character would have more to push against. And then, there's lightning and thunder, and someone who was just your run of the mill decent dude is chosen.

I don't know exactly where I want to go with this next, but the idea is living in my head. It's been there for a few years now and it won't go away. I don't know what I'm going to make of it, but I'll keep you posted.

* * *

In the meantime, here are some questions for you to consider:

  • When have you explored the trope of the paladin in your writing?
  • When have you tried playing a paladin and how did it go?
  • Have you ever played opposite a particularly inspired or particularly obnoxious paladin?
  • Where in fiction have you found the trope of the paladin taken into a new context, updated, inverted, explored, or otherwise rendered more exciting?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Creative Commons

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So, today I was going to do a quick "creative prompt" style post, on account of having a lot of work work to do, not to mention NaNoWriMo. So, I was going to post some artwork for you all to look at and say "tell me who this person is!" I had spent a little while last night looking at my favorite online artists when I realized that there was a small problem.

None of my favorite artists - but none - have put a Creative Commons badge on their web page.

This is silly. I want to give them free advertising! I want to post their beautiful pictures on my blog, encourage people to talk about them, and include an attribution and a link. It's also incredibly frustrating, because that would have been a lot of fun, and I think I have just enough readers to carry it off.

However, let it never be said that I am the kind of person to be frustrated with a problem and do nothing about it. Here is my pitch for Creative Commons:

Old fashioned copyright doesn't quite know what to do with the modern world. Traditional copyright law clashes with the realities of the internet age in two ways: you own intellectual property only as long as you pursue it (that is, chase after people who try to steal it with a legal hatchet), and ownership is binary (either you reserve all rights - and people posting your images to their blogs need to be sued - or you reserve none, and what you created basically doesn't belong to you anymore). You can't take advantage of the internet, where information is everywhere, just begging to be posted and reposted and linked to, if you aren't willing to let your stuff be copied, but if you're willing to let your stuff be copied, it won't be your stuff for long. What's a creative person of the internet age to do?

Then, along comes Creative Commons to save the day. Their licenses - human readable, by the way, which means they are written in language that everyday people can understand rather than extensive and complicated legalese - cover all the needs of the internet age. They have licenses like mine that demand attribution and forbid derivative works, and they have licenses that allow derivative works and are 'viral,' meaning that all derivative works must have the same license, and everything in between.

Best of all, it's free! Actually, that's second best. Bester of all, it holds up in court.

So, if you are a creator with a blog, you should go to their website. They even have a nifty quiz to help you figure out which license is right for you. And maybe if that spreads to those fantasy artists, we can have that creative prompt post one of these days.

Actually, while I'm at it, here are a few of my favorite online creative artists:

Fredrik Andersson is a Dutch (I think) fantasy artist. I don't believe he's been published yet, but that doesn't stop him from being awesome. His work is very clean and simple line drawings that reveal a sense of humor and drama that I admire and envy. Just one thing, be warned of teh sexeh. Some of his characters don't exactly wear enough clothing. It's all gentle and fun... but some of it is naked.

One of my favorites from the world of rpg art is Melissa Uran (that site actually doesn't work - to check out her work, go to her DeviantART page), whose stuff is common in Exalted. Her style is very rich, clearly anime-inspired. She's the artist who frequently works for Exalted who I really, really want to illustrate my contributions.

Finally, I'm contractually obligated to plug Nicole Chartrand, who the Abigail hired to do a drawing of her Exalted character Leonore, and her then-boyfriend (now husband) Last Autumn Firefly. I suppose you could see her as a happy medium between Melissa Uran and Fredrik Andersson - clean lines, rich colors, and ornate situations.

Finally, Storn A. Cook brings the comic book style. He's a frequent poster to rpg.net and one of the Sons of Kryos. I actually ran into him at GenCon twice (though I don't think he remembered me from one encounter to the other), and he's a nice guy. His art is clearly comic inspired, but he has a good sense of drama, energy, and motion, able to create a great sense of movement with still shots. I also think his character design is among the best.

These are not my only favorites by any stretch of the imagination, but my list of art bookmarks is longer than my screen, so I'll share the rest of them over time. And maybe, if any of them get around to posting a Creative Commons license on their web page, I'll get to share their art, too.

Instead of a wonderful creative prompt, I will share with you my new favorite video on YouTube. The fact that this is my new favorite tells you something about me - probably nothing good.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

For Mortal Men, Doomed to Die

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Between anxiety attacks and writing a ghost story (for ghosts), I have death on the brain (as opposed to brain death, which is much more serious and even less pleasant). What does a blog exist for if not to channel such morbid urges into meaningful content? Let's talk about character death.

In the roleplaying arena, I've only had a character die on me the once. It was my freshman year of college, and we were playing the granddaddy game of them all, Dungeons & Dragons. We were playing in the Forgotten Realms, and my character was from some obscure middle eastern-esque nation. He was a wizard. He had some elaborate backstory I can barely remember now, full of wealth, betrayal, and usurpation. It mattered a lot to me at the time, but not to anyone else. I was proud of his appearance - elegant, thin, and dark skinned, with rose-colored hair (red hair that was bleached by the strong desert sun of his homeland). The most I got from that was that a friend's barbarian called him "pinky." Then, on some fairly meaningless dungeon crawl, we encountered a hulking, six-eyed, gray-skinned monstrosity that tore my dude apart.

In case you hadn't guessed, I don't exactly have fond memories of that particular gaming experience.

Anyway, my next character was better suited to that particular game, and after a while I drifted away from those gamers and started playing with people whose philosophy of gaming matched mine better. The experience, however, stuck with me.

When it comes to writing, I've only killed off two main (point of view) characters, both in A Knight of the Land. Ibosh Idabelesh, best friend of the main character, Kurzon Mors, doesn't make it. He dies heroically in the final battle... though I kind of wimp out. Ibosh lives on as part of the Council of Voices, the disembodied spirits that guide the Knights of the Land. I also kill of Kurzon's brother Iveren, though that death is much more ambiguous. Iveren started off sympathetic, but he slowly loses sight of his moral compass throughout the story, until his death is almost the best thing that could happen. In all my long history of writing stories, I've never killed anyone other perspective characters, and not just because I have a bad habit of not finishing stories. I haven't even planned on killing anyone in most of them.

Frankly, I think it's that death is the ultimate downer. Even if you contrive to make a character's death not the end of the story - impossible in a roleplaying game, at least for that character's player, but sometimes feasible in a fiction - it's still pretty depressing. And really, who wants that?

The trouble is, some of the best character killers are also the best writers. George R.R. Martin, for example, has cut out my heart and made me eat it twice in A Song of Ice and Fire, and I love him for it. He has very nearly no mercy on his audience, and it makes his series hard-hitting, gritty, and intense.

That doesn't mean I think killing characters off right and left is a sure way to create hard-hitting stories. I think that Joss Whedon's habit of giving characters stupid deaths just to prove that he is 'hard' is his only glaring flaw, so it's more complex than a love-hate relationship with character death. There is definitely a right way and a wrong way to go about killing characters.

I don't quite know how to resolve this paradox. I don't like kill characters in stories, and I don't like to run roleplaying games where my players feel like their characters are in danger of dropping dead left and right, their stories left hanging in the air. At the same time, I don't want my players to feel like their characters don't matter and their choices don't have consequences, and when I read authors like George R.R. Martin, I think "I want me some of that."

The only guideline I have so far is this: when a character dies it's the end of a story. Even if the plot continues, that story is over. Don't do it lightly. Have compassion on the readers (and the players), because we love our characters and want them to live forever, even though we know it can't happen.

But they have to die sometime. If I ever figure out how that's done properly, I'll let you know.

* * *

  • When has a character death - fiction or roleplaying - left a particularly good taste in your mouth?
  • When has a character death gone poorly?
  • When have you killed off a character in a game you were running, playing in, or in a story you were writing? How did it go, and what might you do differently if you had it to do again?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Storyteller: The Wolves

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One of the central conceits of The Storyteller is the storytelling duel. The theory is this: two storytellers sit down and tell stories at each other, each of them trying to tell a story that out-does the other's, and the power of the stories is such that neither combatant can deny it when one does. In addition to all the stories that Quinn tells to the various things and people he meets, there are two storytelling duels, one smaller duel between Quinn and the evil storyteller who used to be a god, and the larger, climactic duel between Quinn and the evil queen herself.

In each duel, each storyteller tells stories according to his nature. As you could probably guess from the last story I posted, Quinn's tales are triumphant - though sometimes tragic - and praise the power of love. The evil storyteller's stories are mad little tales, disturbing and surreal. The evil queen's stories are all stories of lies and deception and of defeat snatched unfairly from the jaws of victory.

This is one of the queen's stories.

* * *

The Wolves

Once there was a boy who lived in a town at the edge of a vast forest. In this forest there were terrible wolves. Fell creatures, as large as a man, wise beyond their animal shapes, and possessed of many magical powers. Like most people who live at the brink of disaster, the folk of the town came eventually to forget the wolves that dwelled nearby. They went about their business, day by day, and at night they slept peacefully, willfully ignorant of their voracious and dangerous neighbors.

But this boy could not forget. He lived in fear of the wolves. Everywhere he went he was ever looking over his shoulders, convinced that the wolves were coming for him. He slept fitfully at night, his ears always peaked for the sound of the wolves howling at the moon.

One day this boy was walking in the town with a good friend of his, another boy of the town. He said something and turned to his friend to see what his reply would be, and all of a sudden it was as though a shadow had fallen between them. His friend’s eyes glinted strangely in the sun and there was a lean, hungry look to him.

"My friend is not my friend," the boy said to himself in horror, "he is a wolf who has devoured my friend, and believes himself to be my friend, but one day he will remember that he is a wolf, and then he will come for me."

The boy took his leave and hurried home.

At home, the boy found his mother, dressing a rabbit. In one hand she had a cleaving knife, and both her hands were covered in rabbit’s blood. As she asked her son about his day, he looked up and saw that there was an unusual hardness to her features, and the blood and rabbit flesh hanging from her hands seemed dark and sinister. His mother, the boy realized, had been devoured by a wolf as well.

The boy left his mother and hid in his room, locking the door behind him. When she came to ask him for dinner, he replied that he was not feeling well, that he wanted to be alone, whatever he thought it would take to get her to go away.

In his room, alone, the boy wondered how this could have happened. He had been ever careful of the wolves, even when no one else was. He had always watched over his shoulders, always locked and barred the doors at night. Nothing unusual had ever escaped his sight, and he had been confident even if those he loved refused to protect themselves, he would be able to protect them, for their own sakes. But now two of the people who mattered the most – his mother and his best friend – were taken by wolves, and he alone had noticed.

What were the wolves planning, the boy wondered. Was this some random mischief, or was there something deeper? Would they devour everyone, until no one in the town was human, and all of them were merely wolves, waiting for the day that they would remember what they were, and leave the town for weeds and dust? All of them, except the boy. Would he wander in that wilderness, forever alone?

He could not sleep, not with the wolf downstairs pretending to be his mother. He escaped out his window and ran out into the town at night. Even if the wolves were loose, the boy knew secret ways. He would be safe.

At last he came to his destination, the home of his true love. She was a girl of the town, as fair as the moon and as kind as the gentle western wind. Her house was much bigger than his, for her father was the town’s mayor and her mother was a pampered rich man’s wife, whereas the boy’s father was moldering in the churchyard and his mother worked hard to keep her little family together. The boy tapped at his love’s window until she pulled it up and crept down into the darkness.

"What’s wrong?" she asked, for she was as keen-eyed as she was beautiful, and even in the darkness she could tell that the boy she loved was unhappy.

"Not here," the boy said, looking around fearfully, “follow me.” He led her away from her father’s house, to the fields where they could sit side by side on a hill, without watchers.

"I think the wolves have come," the boy said at last.

"The wolves?"

"The wolves of the forest, the dangerous ones. The ones we all pretend don’t exist.” His voice became low and wary. “They’ve eaten my friend, and eaten my mother, and now they think they are who they say they are, but one day, one day soon, they’ll remember, and then they’ll kill us all."

"What are you talking about?"

"The wolves! The beasts of the forests. The things that make sounds in the dark. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten. Please don’t tell me you’ve forgotten." He looked up at her face, and her expression was one of anger and fear, and her eyes were sharp and strange. She was not the lovely, understanding girl he had fallen in love with. No, she was a wolf. A wolf had eaten his love, and now walked in her skin and waited to remember what it was, and there was nothing in the world that he could trust.

With a cry, he thrust her away from him and ran. She chased him, but he had a head start, and she wore no shoes. He ran, far across the fields, across and beyond. Hot tears ran down his face, and he tasted the salt of them and howled curses at the moon. So great was his grief that for the first time in his life he did not remember to be afraid of the wolves.

Did not remember, that is, until he reached the forest.

For a long time, the boy wandered alone in the wood. He was lost, of course, but he thought that if he walked in one direction long enough he would find a way out. He never could keep to a straight path, though, because before long he heard the sounds of the wolves walking in the forest besides him, behind him, ahead of him. He ran when he heard the wolves, and then tried to pick a new direction, one that would hopefully take him away from the wolves and out of the forest. In this way did the boy soon find himself at the forest’s heart.

And there he was surrounded by wolves. Lean, dark creatures with glowing eyes and gray pelts, as large as men or larger, and all of them looking at him with unreadable, wolfish expressions. One wolf, larger than the others, lay on a rock and looked down its long nose at the boy with its shining yellow eyes.

"Hello," the wolf said, and the boy was shocked that it could speak, and he could understand its tongue. "We have been waiting for you."

"For me?" the boy stammered. "Why?"

"You remember what you have forgotten."

"That you exist? That you live in the forest, beyond the fields, and wait for the day that you can come and devour us all? That you can eat a man and take his shape and his mind, and learn of us by pretending to be us? That you are wicked and cruel and bloodthirsty?" The boy suddenly felt defiant, and he stood as tall and as proud as he knew how before the parliament of wolves. "Yes, I remember, and I will fight you to the moment of my death, even if that moment is now."

The boy had expected to be eaten then and there, he had not known what he had hoped, perhaps that the wolves might be impressed by his courage and let him go, or at least grant him a few more moments of life. Never in his wildest imaginings had he thought that the wolf might laugh at him; but laugh it did, a full-throated laugh, throwing its head back. The other wolves laughed with her – for its voice was that of a woman, old and wise and hard – and soon they were all howling at the moon. The sound made the boy want to scream, and he fell to his knees with both his hands held fast to his ears.

"No, boy," the wolf said when she was done laughing. "Not those things. Not that you remember those things."

"What then?"

"You remember what you are."

"And what am I?"

The boy percieved that the wolf was smiling. "A long time ago you ate a boy, and since then you have thought you were a boy. You are not a boy. You are a wolf. Now, shed your soft, pale skin and your blind eyes and cotton-ears and dead nose and run in the night with us. The time as arrived for you to come home."

"No… that cannot be!" the boy said, shaking his head. The wolves were mocking him, he knew it, and yet there was no longer any laughter in their faces. They stared it him with serious eyes.

“Yes it can," the lead wolf replied gravely, "and it is."

"I can’t shed anything. I’m a man!"

"Yes, you can. And no, you are not."

"But I have a mother."

"She is not your mother, she is the mother of the boy you killed, and she will hate you forever, even if she does not know who you are. Such is the way of the world."

"I have friends."

"They are men, and you are a wolf. There can not be friendship, only truce. Ever they will hunt for your skin, and you will hunt for their children. Such is the way of the world."

"And… and there is a girl…"

"It is not meant to be, for she is a daughter of men, and you are a wolf. She will love the sunrise and the candlelight, and you must love the moon and the darkness. Such is the way of the world. It is long time past for this to be over. Remember. Now."

The boy shook his head. "I don’t want to," he said, and he sounded like a child.

"But you must."

And the boy closed his eyes and thought his mother, and his friend, and the girl he had loved, all for the last time, and then put them forever into a corner of his mind that he knew he would never visit again, save in the quiet, lonely moments between sleep and waking. With a sigh, he shed his skin and his eyes and his ears and his nose, and he became a great gray wolf the size of a man, and he ran in the forest with his kin for the rest of his days.

Delay

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NaNo Wordcount: 14,488

I just wanted to let you all know that there will be a real Burning Zeppelin post today, with content and everything. It will just be later than usual. I'm at work now, but I'm going to post a short story, which means posting from my home computer, which I didn't do this morning because I thought I had to rush out for a meeting (turns out I'm two weeks early). Also, last night I had insomnia and I was exhausted.

I know, I know, bitch bitch, moan moan - we don't care; where's our Burning Zeppelin!? Coming right up, this evening, as soon as I make it home, have something for dinner, and have a chance to reformat the short story from Word to html. Microsoft Word has this little problem where there is tons of hidden text in the document that screws everything up when I try to post it to this blog.

In the meantime, check out Book of Roads, my abortive attempt at serialized fiction from about six months ago. I learned the hard way that "serialized" means "with a real dedication to continuing it" and "even though you post as you write, make sure you're three episodes or more ahead before you open your big mouth." If there is enough in the way of clamor for continuing it, I may even consider it.

Anyway, see you this evening.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Part of This Complete Breakfast

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Ever since I first starting watching, of all things, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I've been attracted to the idea of writing serialized (get it? serialized... cereal? cerealized? breakfast? I'm hilarious) fiction.

Let's be good and define our terms, shall we? By serialized fiction, I mean anything produced and released over time, in sections. Comic books, television, radio, and podcast all count. However, I don't mean anything that is finished ahead of time and then released over time. As you will see below, that doesn't interest me nearly as much.

So, now that we know what we're talking about, what is it about serialized fiction that attracts me? Or rather, what is it about me that's attracted to serialized fiction?

The first is the length of it. If you haven't guessed so far, I have the uneasy honor of being a real novel man. Oh, I can write short stories if I put my mind to it, but I don't find it nearly as much fun as writing something with length. So, I suppose it's rather inevitable that I would enjoy writing something that could be, all told, many, many times the length of a normal novel.

Secondly, I am nothing if not impatient. This is sharply at odds with the above - I like writing long stuff, but I don't like waiting for it to be done. I want to know if it's any good, I want to know what you think of it. I want to see it in print (or what passes for it when you're self-publishing, for free, on the internet). Most of all, I want it now. Thus, the idea of writing something that is both extremely long and also provides immediate gratification is also very attractive.

Thirdly, I'm not one of those writers who gets too stressed about the 'purity of my art' versus the 'demands of the public.' At this point, I'd be too pleased to have a public in the first place to complain about their demands. In fact, I'd welcome a format that lets me interact with fans. I'd love to read comments from readers and incorporate their ideas or defy their expactations in exciting ways. This might be a little of my inner gamer showing; it would be kind of like me getting to run a game for all of you.

Finally, I relish the idea of collaboration. I write best when I have limitations to help me structure my thoughts. Often these limitations are self-imposed ("you're interested in urban fantasy modern noir, huh? Ok, do that!") but it's more exciting when they come from somewhere else. A lot of serialized fiction (TV writing included) comes with coworkers. I say, that sounds like fun.

A little of it also comes from my history. I have always been fond of comic books (though I've never collected them, unlike our next president - Conan the Barbarian? Spider Man, I get, but Conan! You're kidding me. Crazy!). I don't watch much TV these days, or even own one that's more than a glorified DVD player, but I keep up with Heroes and Lost thanks to the magic of the internet. And when I was a kid, I loved Star Trek (Original, Next Generation, and Deep Space 9 - Voyager and Enterprise lost me), Quantum Leap, Forever Knight, Hercules, and Xena (yes, Xena: Warrior Princess. Deal). My impetus to write has always been a desire to produce the same sort of stuff I like to consume, so it is it any wonder I eventually came around to the idea of producing serialized fiction of my own?

Where is there some great free serialized fiction on the internet?

There are a couple of great blogs and podcasts right over there to the right, in my blogroll. The first is Wormwood, an old-fashioned radio play-style podcast telling a story of Lovecraftian horror and modern noir-style mystery set in Southern California. I have to admit that Season Two isn't quite as good as Season One was, but there's evidence that the situation is improving, and even at its worst, it's still compelling and interesting.

Up next is Paper and Dice, which I put second only because I don't know for sure if Montgomery Mullen's stuff is written ahead of time or not. Either way, it's good. He recently finished a novel that I haven't read yet and started something new that I am eagerly keeping up with, about zombie alchemists who raid battlefields for the parts to make new zombie alchemists. It's better than it sounds, I swear. Actually, that sounds pretty awesome.

The last place I suggest you go is (of course) Mur Lafferty's I Should Be Writing. ISBW itself is not serialized fiction - it's an awesome podcast about writing, for writers, by a writer - but Mur is a near-goddess of the internet writing scene, and there is a ton of awesome stuff linked off the ISBW site. She herself has written and released no few serialized stories (most of them, I believe, in podcasts) all of which can be found in links on her site.

Am I going to actually write that serialized fiction idea of mine? After all, I'm clearly getting into the wide world of linear internet self-publishing (what's next? The Burning Zeppelin Podcast? Not bloody likely). Am I going to linearly publish my own serialized fiction?

Probably not. At least, not right away. I'd probably consider jumping on the wagon if the right collaboration offer came along, but right now I have enough to do with the projects I'm currently working on. In the meantime, though, I can dream.

And also read.

* * *

  • Have you ever been involved in creating serialized fiction? How did it go? What were the rewards, and what challenges did you face?
  • This one's simple: help me feed my furnace! Post links to some of your favorite internet serials.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Ides of NaNo

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Now that we are at the halfway point of National Novel Writing Month, it's time to take a clear-eyed look at my progress. With two weeks to go, I am at about 10,000 words. In order to succeed (reach 50k), I will need to write more than 3,000 words a day, every day, from now until November 30th.

I am probably not going to make it.

This is a very bitter pill for me to swallow. I can see how I set myself up for failure. My arrogance was tremendous. I was sure I could win NaNo, and easily. Admittedly, I wrote A Knight of the Land, more than twice as long as a NaNo novel needs to be, in two months, but 50k words in 30 days is a huge undertaking, and I should have been more realistic about it. Also, that summer - one of the otherwise most wretched of my life - was unique. For all that I was able to dedicatedly write a novel in two months, I should have expected that I wouldn't be able to reproduce the same feat in a less miserable state. Finally, while accepting one's quirks is admirable, as I wrote about in a previous post, I should have come to NaNoWriMo more prepared to challenge my assumptions about myself and how I write. I probably would have squeezed more writing time out of our sharply limited 24 hour day if I had.

Well, the take home lessons are obvious. Next time, I will approach NaNoWriMo with more humility and more flexibility. I'll start faster and finish with more grace and elegance, and I will win.

That doesn't mean I'm going to give up, though. I may not win this race, but I will finish it. That may be the biggest take home lesson of all. It's easy to quit when failure looms ominously and harder to soldier on, take the lumps, and stumble on past the finish line with as much pride as possible. What won't be hard at all, though, is to try again next year. If I find it so, I know I can trust you all to keep me honest.

And who knows, I may just surprise myself. The Abigail and I are going to a write-in this weekend and as I wrote, I'm not giving up. I will fight to the last man, to the last shred of graphite in my mechanical pencil, to the last drop of ink in my veins. Time, perhaps I cannot defeat you, but I will make every inch of empty space, every unwritten word, as dear as I can. A dumb force of nature you may be, but you will remember this fight!

Finally, to wax self-referential again, I noted when I wrote about success that we all need to define success differently and should not hold ourselves to goals better suited to another. Now, it's cheap to redefine success as soon as failure becomes too likely, but perhaps failure could do with some perspective as well. Succeeding at NaNoWriMo was not beyond my abilities, but can I look at my achievements - a good start to a good story, 10,000 words of evocative writing, two cool characters - and stare the likelihood of failure (not giving up, remember?) with pride? Can I say "well, I didn't do what I set out to do, but I did something worthwhile"? I can.

The Abigail's novel, by the way, is awesome.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Good News!

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Here's a very brief - and very happy - update. Scattercat, from this post, has started his own delightful Blogger Blog, Mirrorshards. In addition to the regular flitterfic (100-word stories), he'll occasionaly be posting conventional short stories, too. He's on my blogroll, so if you're a follower of Burning Zeppelin Experience you should have no trouble keeping up with him.

I mean, now that he's on Blogger he has his own RSS and Atom feeds and everything, but I'm not going to complain if you want to pass through my site on the way to his. High Google Analytics numbers are good for my ego.

I'll catch you all on Monday with a real post.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Ghost Stories

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Once upon a time, there was a writer. He liked to start stories, but he didn't like to finish them. Then, one day, he sat down at his computer and saw one of his sad, unfinished stories staring up at him from the screen. He blinked, pulled away from the table, but when he looked again, it was just his desktop.

It happened again at work. He was looking at spreadsheets of data, when suddenly the screen changed at he was staring at a poor story that had only made it five pages before being abandoned. He screamed!

Soon he was seeing them everywhere: on his cell phone, in the pages of the book he was reading, among the words of the newspapers being read by people sitting across from him on the train. All the stories he had ever abandoned were coming back to haunt him...

He ran to a cabin in the woods to escape them, but what happened next, no one knows, because he was never seen or heard from.

Ever.

Again.

* * *

Last night I finally took a fire wire cable and snagged all my old writing off one of the three half-dead computers I have lying around my apartment. Unfortunately, it didn't include what I really wanted - my science fiction story, Useless Nick, which I was hoping to post here today - but I did find something else. In addition to a lot of music I had been missing, I found a huge wealth of other old, unfinished stories.

It's been a mixed experience. Some of them make me happy. They're like old toys, little glimpses of my younger days. A few of them I'd love to play with again, maybe finish some day. But others... oh my God. I'm ashamed of myself just looking at them. The horrible over dependence on tropes: parties of adventurers, boring magic swords, lazily written settings, and typical magic mythologies. And my obsession with lost love... gah. I think I may have been ruined for "plucky young man sets out for adventure after being rejected by his true love" forever. By myself.

On the other hand, even in the worst of them I see things that make me smile. I see a certain ease with dialog that I'm proud of to this day. I see characters that refuse to be flat (even when the world around them is a $#@! pancake). I see plots that are never quite pedestrian, that always have a certain twist to them. I suppose it's fair to say that I see some echo of the writer I am today in the writer I was then, which is a heartening thought. Not that I'm so awesome now, but that I can grow so much in so few years.

Of course, the fact that in another five years I might look back at what I'm working on now (which includes one completed novel) and think the same thing is a disheartening thought, but you can't win them all.

This brings me to the topic of the day: how does one go about resurrecting these ghost stories? I've never made a concerted effort to restore the dead to life before. Sure, I've blown the dust off an old story or two and taken a crack at them, but I've never had a plan.

The first question is continue or remix? Do I give what I've got a quick edit and then forge ahead, or do I read it carefully, take some notes, and then toss it and start from scratch?

After that, has anyone out there had any luck with this before?

Because the ghost stories... they're after me.

* * *

I know I closed the body of the post with a question, but here are a few more I hope you might find amusing.

  • Have you ever had a particularly interesting reaction to finding some of your old writing lying around?
  • What's the oldest, weirdest manuscript of yours you've ever found, and what did you do with it?
  • While I'm on old and weird, what's the strangest place you've ever found old writing of yours? A shoebox? Under the floor? Tattooed on the back of a Spanish prostitute in Berlin?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

I Smell With My Little Nose

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First of all, a brief Burning Zeppelin Update. Last night I opened up Google Analytics (seriously, the most awesome tool for web site owners - since you folks don't comment very often, it's the only way I know I have readers - it's also how I know I have readers in Sweden and Japan) and saw a new referring site added to the list. Slightly Moderated Stream of Consciousness, another blog by one of writerly ambitions. At first, I wondered how Loren Hopkins heard of me. Then, I saw that she he had also added Urraca to her his blogroll, another blog that, like mine, recently attracted the attention of the inestimable Mur Lafferty of I Should Be Writing. It hit me. People were visiting me because they read a link on Loren's site, which she he put up there because of a link she saw on Mur's site. In all fairness, Mur might not have heard of me had I not, as a faithful and ambitious consumer of I Should Be Writing, sent her a voicemail asking her to check me out. But nonetheless.

It feels like a milestone for this blog.

Also, Japan! Crazy!

* * *

What I actually want to talk about today is smell. Smelly, smelly smell.

The Abigail went away to the yearly NADT conference of drama therapists. Like all conferences, this one included swag, the nicest of which was an adorable stone candle holder. It's really quite nice, all milky and translucent and very attractively shaped, with a nice heft to it. Oddly enough, though, I kept on lifting it to my nose and giving it a wiff, as though I expected it to smell like something. Every time I did this and my nose reported "nope, still no smell," I experienced this funky little puzzled sensation.

I kept at it for about three days until it finally hit me: I was expecting the Abigail's candle holder to smell like goat.

As you may recall from here, I am of the Jewish persuasion. One of the artifacts of our faith is the shofar, a hollowed out ram's horn upon which can be played a sharp clarion-call which we use to mark the beginning of the year and the end of the High Holy Days (it's also a call to arms - "to your tents, oh Israel!"). The paler shofarot (that's more than one shofar) are milky and translucent, the exact same shade of yellow as the Abigail's candle holder. It was then that the power of smell was driven home to me.

Also, I was finally able to stop sniffing the Abigail's candle holder, which is good because she was finding it quite disconcerting.

Anyway, it then occurred to me how little I use smell in my writing. I don't describe how places and people smell, let alone traditionally smelly objects. Every now and again I note that a corpse is stinky, an incense is spicy, a food is tasty, but usually I forget. The funny thing is that smell is one of the most important smells for establishing mood. Smell is intimately tied to memory in a deeply subconscious way. The smell of peppermint still reminds me of a certain ex-girlfriend who was really fond of it. Apparently, the appearance of a shofar makes me think of the smell of goat in a deep gut way.

The trouble is that smell is subtle. It's all around us, hooked directly into the deepest parts of our brains, and we don't always notice it. This shofar/candle holder incident makes think about all the other places where my life has been influenced by smell. When might I have made a friend because one of us smelled right? Or, more disturbingly, an enemy? When have I had a negative experience of a place because I walked in, smelled something that activated a bad memory, and acted like a jerk until I left?

More importantly, what is my writing missing?

The other funny thing is that I have used smell before. I wrote a whole fantasy story in which I usually described magic in terms of its smell and taste (Gwydion's magic smelled like earth, leaves, and grass; Randall's magic smelled like metal and spices). I think it worked really well.

So now, I rededicate myself to producing more stinky writing, and you should consider it, too.

* * *

  • Have you ever had a similar experience of an object, person, or place's smell? Please, God, tell me I'm not alone...
  • When have you used smell in your writing to a particularly notable effect?
  • When have you written something and later realized that adding more about smell might have improved it?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Oh Noes! Teh Sexeh!

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I don't think anyone will argue with me when I say that there's a lot of weird when it comes to sex in America (and much of the world). I think the situation is, if anything, worse in science fiction and fantasy literature and roleplaying.

A brief anecdote: in college, I was two really compelling games of Changeling: the Dreaming. In one of them, I played a child, an 11 year old pathological liar who could turn into a dog and wanted, most of all, to be a noble knight, just like his adoptive father. It was great fun - possibly there's a longer post in here about the joys and challenges of writing and roleplaying children - but at the end of the game, the Storyteller noted something rather disturbing. He had been able to get away with exposing the characters, all children, to horrific levels of violence. Exposing our characters to a similar amount of sex would have squicked us all out, but the fact that our characters were repeatedly beaten, cut, burned, and imprisoned didn't phase us. We used to joke that my character, Glyph, couldn't go outside with his shirt off anymore because people would see his scars and think he was an abused child. Grownups did this to Glyph, but if we had played scenes where grownups tried to seduce him, I guarantee that game would have ended prematurely, and right now I'd be writing "in college, I was in this one really creepy game..."

Clan of the Cave Bear? Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter (click here for the author's site)? Kushiel's Dart and its sequels by Jacqueline Carey? Anything by Anne Rice? Did you read them or did you avoid them? Was it for the sex - and I don't just mean the sex scenes, I mean the sexiness of it, the 'adult themes and situations' - or despite it? More importantly, what do you feel when you look at them? Are these fine examples of science fiction and fantasy, or are they something you're a little ashamed of?

I see two main reasons for this.

First of all, science fiction, fantasy, and roleplaying lack the veneer of sophistication that conventional fiction enjoys. This layer of legitimacy (usually) protects the art from the negative associations attached to sexiness. When you see something sexy in 'art' you don't think, "how trashy!" you think "well, that's nice." Of course, some people are insensible to this layer of sophistication, but we call them "philistines."

Secondly, I think we are ashamed of our past. Oh, sure, we started out classy enough. Tolkein and Lord Dunsany wrote epics, very sophisticated, with roots in the old European epics. After them, however, it was a short downhill ride to mighty heaving thews and glistening bosoms. And since we live in a culture that likes to pretend that sex isn't happening, except for when we're plastering it all over everything (like I said, crazy) that means it's bad. Now that we're trying to rise above our past, to grab the coattails of magical realism to the promised land of legitimacy, we want to pretend that all those thews and bosoms never happened.

Where do we go from here?

Well, I don't think science fiction and fantasy are going to save the world from itself. There is a lot of crazy when it comes to sex, and it's going to take us a while to sort it all out, if we ever do. However, there are a few things we can do.

Firstly, I think fantastic fiction and roleplaying has to stop being ashamed of itself. We are making art, and it isn't pretentious to say it and act like it. I don't think this is going to help us with outsiders, but at least it will let us not feel ashamed of ourselves. Secondly, I think a little more bravery is in order when we write sex. Let's not go crazy here and write sex scenes at every juncture, but let's write it when it's important. If we want to live in a world where sex is something to be explored and celebrated, not something to be hidden and ashamed of, we need to start living like it and writing it.

* * *

  • What successes and failures have you had writing sexiness into your fiction?
  • Have the paradoxes of sex and violence occurred to you? In what form?
  • When have you had to defend your choice of reading material, to yourself and others?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Look! A Distraction!

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Two of my livejournal friends are using their journals as a media for writing. I think both of them are talented and fun to read, so I am directing you to check them out. Livejournals don't come with RSS feeds, so you won't see these folks in my blogroll. This is your one and only chance to leap from the Burning Zeppelin into the welcoming arms of Merovingian or Scattercat. Just come back, y'hear!

The first journal, Merovingian, is exclusively used for surreal microfiction. Merovingian writes about robots, lizards, sandwiches, and dog diseases that cause them to transform into cats. I find his style to clear and playful, and I recommend you check him out.

Then, you should check out Scattercat, who is doing something similar. Only, Scattercat is writing stories that are always exactly 100 words long. Scattercat is, likewise, a fun, clever, and clear writer. Scattercat's stories tend to make more sense. His stories are always stories, with discernable characters, a beginning, a middle, and an end, whereas Merovingian's stories sometimes only imply those things without actually containing them. Be warned, however, that Scattercat also uses his livejournal as, well a livejournal. You may sometimes be subjected to posts about his everyday life. You have been warned.

Finally, while I'm at it, you should check out Ommatidia, the blog of Brendan Adkins, and the source of Scattercat's inspiration to undertake this one 100 word story a day discipline in the first place. Now, I've read a lot of Merovingian and Scattercat's writing, so I can heartily recommend them. Ommatidia I didn't know about before yesterday and I haven't read it yet, so if it sucks you can't blame me. However, if you presently see it appear on my blogroll you'll know I have read it and found it pleasing.

Finally, while we're on the topic of livejournals, if you're interested in hearing about my personal life for some reason, you can check me out at Electric Paladin.

Now, go forth and read!

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Big Issues II: Heroes and Villains

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When I was (more of) a lad, I had this story idea. It was awesome. I told my friend Aaron about it. And Aaron liked it (because it was awesome) but said, of one of the characters "try making him a her. You have too many villainous women in this story and someone's going to think you have something against girls."

He was right, and not just for the reasons he gave. I never finished that story, but when I do, that 'he' will be a 'she.' It started me thinking, though, about the messages we send in our writing.

As you probably recall from this post and my reference here to spending 14 hours on my feet campaigning, I care about the big issues. While I don't want my stories to be preachy (except for when I do), I do care that they are accessible. I don't want to alienate my audience, and I don't want to end up saying things I'm not really saying.

Now, the trouble is that thinking too hard about all this can make your head spin. I mean, somebody's got to be the bad guy, right? Maybe not - some stories lack personified villains - but we can't all be heroes. And sometimes your bad guy (or, at least, less-good guy) is going to have an ethnicity, a gender, a religion, or a nationality. Even if you're writing in a totally made up fantasy setting, chances are pretty good he's going to look something like people in the real world, be male or female, and come from a country and a religion that probably at least slightly resemble something real. Every villain can't be an amorphous blob of bad.

The trick, I think, is to keeping an open mind and an open heart about your writing. Keep an eye out for stereotypes and avoid falling into a rut. People are surprisingly forgiving when it comes to this sort of thing.

Let me illustrate this point with an example: say you're writing a fantasy story in which you need a noble ruler to be entranced by a wicked, manipulative wrongdoer. There's something a little, well... typical about making it a noble king and a selfish, alluring sorceress. But make it a noble queen and an alluring sorcerer (or really mix it up and write a noble king and an alluring sorcerer), and you've got something altogether else.

That's the golden secret of breaking with stereotypes - you get more interesting stories.

Even if you can't invert the stereotype (say, you're writing in a world where only women can do magic and you have a good reason for not making the queen a lesbian), you're probably ok if you don't carry the stereotype out everywhere in your story. If, for example, you have a wicked and alluring sorceress, and also the main characters include a physically flimsy by morally pure priestess and a cunning but untrustworthy thief... uh... ess, and your main character is a helplessly macho, physically impressive, faultlessly noble dude... well, you've got a problem. If you don't at least provie counter-examples elsewhere in the story, you are is sending a clear message, whatever your intentions, about women, men, and gender.

The trouble is you can go to far. That is the dirty secret of inverting stereotypes. If you write a story where every woman is kind-hearted, liberal, noble, trustworthy, and physically fit and every man is one or more of the following: cowardly, untrustworthy, evil, wimpy, sexist, or dumb, you're going to alienate your readers in exactly the same way. I have sometimes felt this way about Charles de Lint, who I sometimes feel portrays magic as belonging exclusively to the 'outsiders.' The solution is to simply do your best, write real, deep characters, and accept that despite your best efforts, some people (sorry, Mr. de Lint!) are going to be a little alienated.

Incidentally, I still read and enjoy de Lint's work. Sometimes it just leaves me feeling a little sad.

Ah, you say, but what about sexism? What about sexist cultures? And for that matter, what about racism and racist cultures? Does this mean I can never again write in a setting that discriminates for fear of offending someone?

Absolutely not.

In every sexist, racist, or whateverist culture that has ever existed, there were people who bucked the trend, whose talents, drive, and spirit set them above the rest. You will also find, if you look, that even in the darkest days of our dark past, the out-groups lived secret lives in which they expressed all the traits they couldn't in public. If you want to write a story set in Medieval Europe among the nobility without portraying all women as simpering weaklings, give us a glimpse of their private world. Show us strength, and we'll understand what you're trying to say: "this female character is strong, and even though I can't show her beating her enemies up with a sword, I can show you that she has spirit, style, and strength."

A final word: you can't please everyone. You won't please everyone. And there are crazy people out there who are going to be offended no matter what, because whatever they say, they're really upset about something that has nothing to do with you. However, by keeping an eye on your writing, you can create real stories that don't fall back on stereotypes to fill in the gaps in plot, theme, and characterization.

Most importantly, you'll find that writing with an eye to avoiding stereotypes will create stories that are more interesting and exciting than stories that do fall back on those same old saws.

* * *

  • When have you inverted a stereotype and had it work?
  • When have you inverted a stereotype and had it fail, and why?
  • What are your experiences with books whose treatment of identity issues left you feeling good or bad?
  • Have you ever tried to write a perspective character that was radically different than you in some 'hot button' way (gay to your straight, latino to your black, Jewish to your Muslim)? How did it go?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

When Frustration Attacks

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NaNo Wordcount: 4,208

Today has been a frustrating writerly day.

As you can see, I'm still far, far behind in NaNoWriMo. Luckily, this weekend will be largely empty, so I can keep on trying to play catch up. And similarly (clearly), today isn't exactly a huge day for the Burning Zeppelin Experience. I'll do my best to find some way to amuse and enlighten you.

The best I can think of is that when frustrating happens, the only thing to do is to get back up and try again.

I can't think of much more to say about it. It strongly resembles "just write" in that it's one of those things that sounds stupid but is really quite true.

And I'll get right on it. I'll pick myself up and get back to writing. I'll catch up on NaNo, produce an awesome Burning Zeppelin post, and generally kick every available ass.

Starting tomorrow.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Naming the Name: Story or Game?

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My NaNoWriMo Wordcount: 3,143
Where I should be: 10,000
Response: Ugh

I'm a writer, a game designer, and a game player, and from time to time I find myself faced with a difficult (if ultimately pleasant) choice: what sort of idea is it that I'm having, anyway? Am I looking at a story idea, a potential game setting, an idea for a character I want to play, or a plot I want to run? Sometimes it is very clear what I'm looking it - this idea is definitely a novel or short story, that idea is definitely a character, this other idea is definitely something I want to inflict on one of the Abigail's characters - but sometimes it's not so easy.

I say the choice is ultimately pleasant because one some level it's like being asked if I'd rather eat a chocolate cake prepared by Julia Child with Jesus, Mohamed, Moses, or the Buddha. No matter what I choose, the company is going to be awesome, the conversation is going to be stirring, and I'm going to get some really cool questions answered. In case you haven't noticed, I really like writing.

The fact is, however, I have to choose one. And unlike the above example, choosing the wrong path can have consequences. Who out there hasn't read a novel that was a little too in love with its main character? Played in a game that felt too much like a story? Run for someone whose character was never really cut out for gaming (or even been that player. You know, that player)? Yeah, I thought so.

Now, I think you all have an idea of the basic attributes of each of the creative types in question. I'm going to go into it nonetheless, just to make sure we're all on the same page.

A story is probably the most balanced of the types. A story needs to have some themes, a setting, and some characters. The setting needs to have a some places, a history, and some other characters living in it (for the main characters to interact with). You need to know where the story has been and have some idea of where it's going. Most importantly, you need to be ready and willing to invent all of this yourself.

A roleplaying game has a lot of the same attributes as a story. It's full of themes, history, places, and people. Some of those people are interesting, but none of them should be too interesting, because you don't want to overshadow the player characters this world will eventually be host to. The most important difference between a story and roleplaying game is what a roleplaying game lacks: a roleplaying game does not have a clear arc from start to finish. It is what it is, all at once, poised on the edge of moving, but waiting for players to come along and make it live. A story, on the other hand, already has a destiny. You might not be sure of what it is, but it has it, already, somewhere deep inside you. The second most important distinction of a roleplaying game is that it is usually big. It doesn't contain just one story, it contains a multitude of stories

A game idea is a lot like a roleplaying game, except that it's lighter and more specific. A game idea is like a roleplaying game idea in every way except for that final distinction. It contains only one story, and that story is flexible, able to change depending on what the players do.

Finally, a character is a piece of a story who has wandered off the page and into your head. Only, it's important to make sure that he isn't secretly carrying the story with him. For an idea to be well and truly a character, it needs to have no future and a flexible past, ready to accommodate itself to the demands of the setting and conform to the hooks of your fellow players.

Let me share a small anecdote.

The first ever time I ran a one-on-one game, it was for my then-girlfriend, the Anya. The system was Dungeons and Dragons (then 3rd Edition), but the setting was one of my own devising. Oh, it was awesome. You see, the illithid (horrible brain-eating squid-men) had come up from the underground and enslaved everybody else. And then, after years of slavery, the elves led a revolution and freed everyone! Only, then the elves - themselves more traumatized than they wanted to admit - had gone on to enslave the humans, claiming that the humans had forgotten how to be free and needed to be guided. The elves had magic, and the illithid had psychic powers, and the rebel humans were torn about what powers to use, since they had the potential for both. Oh! And there was this secretive cabal of psychic humans (each of whom I had lovingly detailed) who were fighting to save the world, and-

I think you all see the problem already. This wasn't a game idea or a roleplaying game, it was a story. Why, exactly?

Well, there's nothing wrong with the setting (unless there's something about it you don't like). It's got themes, history, and I think you can see where some of the non-main characters live. The first problem is that I was clearly far, far to fond of my secretive cabal of psychics. They existed for their own sake, not because they would foil or interact with the Anya's character in any particularly compelling ways.

The second, more subtle problem was that the setting demanded a single idea. Really, what else are you going to do with it? Clearly, this is a story about how a plucky human overthrows the elves despite a resurgence of the illithid menace and eventually leads all the races to a new age of harmony and prosperity. Or, if you go in for that sort of thing, it could be a story about how intolerance and cultural trauma lead the free races of the world to death and misery. The thing is, the central tension of the setting was very clear and very specific. The humans were going to fight back against enslavement. The illithid were going to come back.

I think it's a pretty nifty idea. One day, I'll even write it. However, because I had applied an idea to the wrong category, the game eventually ran out of steam and died, and the Anya and I broke up shortly thereafter.

Ok, that last part had nothing to do with the game, but I digress.

The most important thing to remember is that this problem really isn't a problem. It's a matter of looking with clear eyes at what it is that you have and then deciding what to do with it. There's nothing wrong any idea that could be a story, a roleplaying game, a game session, or a charater, if you do with it what it was always meant to do.

On some level, I believe that writers are like artists who look at blocks of wood or chunks of marble and try to discern what the wood or marble needs to become. And just like them, on some level it is pretentious frippery to pretend that wood or marble needs to become anything. Creativity comes from humanity, not from chunks of wood or stone or blank pieces of paper. But despite that, on some level, it's also true. Sometimes you need to look at an idea and let it tell you what it's supposed to be.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Charismatic Umbrella Fighters: A Weary & Rambly Post

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My NaNoWriMo Wordcount: 2,181.

I'm way, way behind. I should be able to catch up this weekend, if I'm lucky.

Wow. Campaigning yesterday was really, really rough. I'm still extremely tired and... well, footsore doesn't begin to cover it. Legsore? Mesore? Also, while I don't want to go into politics, let's just say that yesterday's results were less than ideal for me. There are reasons to be sad and reasons to be happy. If you don't already know me, I'll let you look at my blogger profile and try to puzzle out exactly which local results made me sad, if you care to.

The only writerly thing to come out of yesterday was the odd gentleman I met on the early, early morning bus as I made my slow and torturous way to the hub from which I would be doing my best to influence the election.

He was an older man, probably in his fifties, and he looked hard-used. His tousled white hair was thinniny on top and his face was lined. He looked like he might have at one point been boyish, which clashed strangely with his age. I suppose there was something puckish about him. He smelled faintly of alcohol and his movements were a little blurry, but that was all. I'm not entirely certain that the alcohol smell was coming from him - I was on a late night bus, after all. This gentleman was wearing old, but not dirty clothing, and carries a large rolling suit case. I gathered from our conversation that he was homeless (he mentioend shelters) and a veteran of some sort.

What struck me most was that while I had a very hard time understanding what he was saying, he was enormously charismatic. He spoke very quickly and slurred slightly, the bus was very loud, and I was very tired. And despite the fact that I usually had no idea what words were coming out of his mouth, he was incredibly compelling. His voice was smooth, his vowels well-rounded. He smiled a lot and made expansive gestures.

As a writer, it was an encounter that reminded me that every detail is important. It's not enough to write what a character says, we need to include how he says it, because that is where a great deal of his personality lives.

Similarly, the content of a conversation is largely nonverbal. To get all sciency on you all, according to this article:
"Dr. Albert Mehrabian, a noted researcher in the field of nonverbal communication, found that the total impact of a message is about 7 percent verbal (words only), 38 percent vocal (including tone of voice, inflection, and other sounds), and a mammoth 55 percent nonverbal. Professor Ray Birdwhistell made similar conclusions as to the amount of nonverbal communication that takes place among humans.

He estimated that the average person actually speaks words for a total of 10 or 11 minutes a day and that the standard sentence takes only about 2.5 seconds. Like Mehrabian, he found that the verbal component of a face-to-face conversation is less than 35 percent and that more than 65 percent of communication occurs nonverbally."

So, if we're going to write realistically, we need to remember that most of what a conversation means likewise isn't in what is said, it's in how it's said.

Perhaps that's why most of a character's personality is in her manner of speaking. After all, on some level isn't personality what you're thinking while you're saying? If the words coming out of someone's mouth are about, say, indian pizza (have I mentioned that this is my new favorite food in the universe?) but what he's thinking is, "I respect you as a human being and have affection for you in the brotherhood of mankind," some of that is going to come across. Similarly, if someone is talking about lizards but thinking "God, I hate you," you are going to have a very different experience of that conversation.

Landmark Education defines charisma as giving up "in order to." If you talk to achieve something, you come across as though you are trying to achieve something. If you talk to experience your fellow human beings, you come across as an open and loving human being. Charisma.

For all that he was probably homeless and possibly alcoholic, the man I met on the bus talked like he wanted to talk, not like he wanted anything.

And that brings me back to the topic I began with: my experiences yesterday. Perhaps it was so exhausting for me because there was no room for me to speak the way I like to speak. Instead of interacting with my fellow human beings in an open and honest way, I was reduced to tiny snippets of conversation.

"Good morning, we're here encouraging folks to vote-"

"Have you decided how you feel about-"

"How are you doing today? We-"

I don't know what I was projecting yesterday - did I give up "in order to?" Was I charismatic? - but the issue was contentious enough that all I encountered was hostility.

I'm going to take it as easy as I can. Perhaps tomorrow I'll be back to my bouncy, clever self.

* * *

  • What are your experiences writing a character's nonverbal self in conversation?
  • What are your experiences with writing a character's charisma or lack thereof?
  • How have you interacted with charisma? Do you have it? Do you know someone who has it? What do you think it is?
* * *

Also, I had a very silly idea yesterday:

A martial arts story set in fairly mainstream modern America, in which the main character is (and perhaps all the characters are) a martial artist trained in a secret fighting style whose weapon is an umbrella. Think about it, an umbrella with a crooked handle can be held along the forearm like a tonfa, or wielded like club, a spear, or a hook.

Plus, the fighters can all wear trench coats and fedoras.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Fighting the Good Fight

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So, let's be honest, the chances of a post today are extraordinarily slim.

As you can see from the timestamp, I'm up at an absurd hour. Presently, I'll be leaving the house to go fight the good fight and try to secure votes for a cause I favor. I'll be out and on my feet all day, and I'll come back exhausted.

There may be a real post this evening... and there may not. We'll see how tired I am.

Don't forget to go out and vote!

Monday, November 3, 2008

The World of Transaction

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One of the principles of writing that I aspire to adhere to is that we live in a world of transaction. That is, everything costs something. Nothing comes for free.

Understanding transaction isn't the same as cynicism. Sure, love costs something. It exacts a price in loyalty, energy, and time. We make sacrifices for love: we put up with our parents even though they annoy us, we spend time with our children even when we're tired, we agree to only have sex with our spouse even when we're tempted. However, the price is right. We make these sacrifices gladly.

In part, it's how we think. The best things in life have value in part because they cost so much. We know they're worth something because we have to fight to get them and sacrifice to keep them.

Fiction - especially fantasy and science fiction - is often wish fulfillment. We read to vicariously experience lives other than our own. Sometimes the wish fulfillment is obvious (who doesn't wish he had magic powers, a sweeping destiny, and a magic dog?). Sometimes it's more subtle - even though you probably don't wish you were a gay cowboy in a doomed love affair you're still reading for the passion and the tragedy - but it's always present.

However, wish fulfillment can go too far. When worthwhile things stop having a cost, the story is cheapened. We want to read about good but flawed people achieving great things at great (and stirringly dramatic) cost, not good but flawed people achieving great things with little or no difficulty. Or alternately, we want to read about good but flawed people ruining themselves because the cost of their desires is too high and they fail to pay... or they pay anyway, and are destroyed. That is the importance of transaction. Think about it. Would anyone want to read Of Mice and Men if George hadn't... I won't spoil it for you. Let's just say that peace has a price, and it is paid in the end.

In fantastic writing the importance of transaction can be even more striking thanks to the presence of magic (or technology, or whatever). The magic or magical technology of science fiction and fantasy exists to grant wishes. It is in the consequences of these wishes that fantastic literature finds its plots, its dramas, it's burning zeppelin experiences. However, if too many wishes are granted too easily, happiness becomes too cheap and the story loses its drama.

This is one of my (several) problems with Stephanie Meyers's Twilight series. In this world, being a vampire is too easy. They are beautiful, powerful, and immortal... at the cost of being too sparkly to come out by day without the harsh light of the sun revealing their nature. I much prefer Anne Rice's vampires, who drink blood to live, must contend with the gradual cooling of their human emotions, and die from sunlight. Call me a traditionalist, but I want beauty, power, and immortality to cost something.

Actually, call me a transactionalist.

Whenever I write, I look for the costs. My characters go after what they want. Along the way, they find smaller goals and pay smaller prices, all leading up to the realization of what their real goals, their heart's desires, are going to cost. Then, they pay the price, or try to cheat, or give up and go home. The story happens in the moments along the way, the small decisions, the little victories and tragedies. It may sound formulaic, but it really isn't. It's just life in a world of transaction.