Saturday, January 31, 2009

When the Fat Lady Sings...

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It's over.

The juice that was in the story is gone. You're working on something - a short story, a novel, a game, whatever - and it isn't going anywhere. You're getting increasingly frustrated, you aren't feeling creative, and you aren't having any fun. What happens next?

It's a real quandary. On the one hand, do you kill the story dead? I don't think anyone wants to create more ghost stories than he has to. Every writer of fiction has more than enough of those hanging around. You also don't want to do anything to hurt your chances of finishing a story that you're really just sick to death of, and we all know what a bad an idea it is to take a break. On the other hand, there's such a thing as beating a dead horse. We write because we're passionate, because it's fun, and because we want to finish what we start. There are parts of writing that are less fun than other parts (editing, for example), and if you quit when it gets tough, you'll never finish anything, but sometimes you need to know when to quit.

I have to admit to having very little experience in ending a project with forethought and dignity. Until now, I've been more of the "leave it sitting on my hard drive feel guilty until I finally forget about it" type. However, as my writing world explodes with freelance contracts and super secret projects, I've gotten better at starting things in such a way that I am set up to succeed; therefore. Unfortunately, a natural side effect of trying is failing, which brings us to today's topic.

So, when is a project really over, and when have you just hit a rough patch? I don't think there is a clear answer to that question. Rather than try to tell you when something is irretrievable, I'm going to focus on how you know it isn't.

  • Sick to Death: I've already gone over this, but before you decide a project is done remember that when you write, you engage more intimately with your material than anyone else ever will. As a result, you're going to get sick of it long before anyone else does. If what you're experiencing is just plain old boredom, the oft-linked to post referenced above includes some thoughts on dealing with the situation.
  • Distraction: Defined here as the "but I wannas" - as in "but I wanna write something else!" - distraction is no excuse to abandon a project. Sure, sure, writing is about passion and doing what you want, but it's also about doing the hard work. Sometimes you need to be disciplined. If you look hard at your desire a project and realize that it's just due to distraction, I recommend that you suck it up.
  • But it Sucks: As I mentioned a little more briefly in the same post, you are probably not the best judge of the quality of your own writing. We are writers. We have internal critics, and these internal critics base their comments on our own insecurities, not an honest and objective assessment of our work. If what you feel is simply down on yourself, do something to boost your confidence and get back to work.
  • Stuckness: Being stuck - defined here as not knowing what to do next - is no reason to abandon a project. Either skip the part you're stuck on and pick up again elsewhere or just keep on writing. Even if a plot point is sketchy or inconsistent, you can always clean it up in editing... but you won't have anything to edit if you don't get over that hump. Once the skeleton of a story is on the page you are more likely to be able to make into something usable later. If you just stop, you're probably screwed.

There are many reasons to not abandon a project, but when should you?

So far, I have only abandoned two projects for a reason that left me respecting myself in the morning. The first project to be ditched in such a way was Cartomancy. As I noted later, the problem with Cartomancy was that it lacked a firm foundation. In the end I looked at what I had and realized that I had been going about it all wrong from the beginning. It wasn't that the project was flawed or I was bored, it was that the project was never really there to begin with. The second was an unnamed short story, and the reason was similar. Everything started well enough, but on later reflection I realized that I was writing something that was painfully, well, typical. It wasn't that I was scooped - writing a story someone had gotten to already - it was that I was writing something that totally failed to distinguish itself from the Sword & Sorcery canon. I could have continued it, but I saw no reason to. There was no way I could produce something that I would care about. Again, it wasn't a project that developed a flaw, it was a project that I came to see was nothing but flaw.

And there we have the only reason to up and abandon a writing project short of completion that feels really valid to me. There are no"insurmountable" problems, but there are insurmountable structural faults. It's not that you should not continue, it's more that sometimes you should never have started.

Is there a hard and fast rule that tells you the difference between "God I'm sick of this story" and "flawed to death?" I wish there was. Ultimately, however, it's a hard and personal decision. Even with everything I've written about the topic in mind, you're going to have to wrestle with it yourself every time you decide to abandon a project, and the conclusion you come to is wholly your own.

Once you've decided to kill a project, what is the best way to go about it?

For all that I bitch about my ancient hard drives full of moldering stories, I recommend against taking dramatic action. Sure, it might feel rewarding to delete the offending files, but you never know when some old story will catch your attention. You'll be perusing some of those stories, contemplating your old foibles with a weird mix of pride and embarassement, and suddenly something will jump out at you. You'll realize you never gave that idea - you know, that idea - a fair hearing. You'll want to try it again. And maybe, this time, you'll get it right.

That's the secret of the fat lady's song. You see, nothing is ever really over.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Oracle at Motherfucker

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As I mentioned in this post, time travel is a bitch. Today, however, we're going to talk about her bitchy little sister, prophecy. It's a whole bitchy family. For the love of God, please don't ask me to extend this metaphor any further.

Prophecy is a funny word. In the religious tradition it belongs to (the Abrahamic trio: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), prophecy is the function of the prophet. That is, to receive information from God and disseminate that information among the people. So in a way, the biblical prophets were divine marketers. However, in the bible, some of that information concerned future events. In the real world, when most people think of a prophet, they think about someone who sees and talks about the future, so that's the definition that we're going with.

Trust me, I could go on at great length about the possibilities inherent in a story about prophecy in the biblical sense - it's strongly tied to how awesome I find paladins - but that's not the goal today.

Prophecy can be problematic in writing, but it's even more problematic in roleplaying and story games. After all, in writing you probably know what's going to happen next. Story games, on the other hand, are an emergent experience. If you reveal the future, you've revealed the future. If you know where a story is going to go, it isn't an emergent experience anymore. It's an experience that already happened.

A few games exist that try unique approaches to this problem. Legend of the Five Rings, for example, included a spell that created what those of you who play video games will recognize as a "save point." Essentially, you cast the spell and then continue to play. At any point thereafter within a set duration - such as when the characters have just uncovered some important information at a great personal cost, or all been eaten by the monsters behind door #2 - the would-be prophet can stop play and revert to the moment he cast the spell. Everything the players just experienced was the prophet's vision, which he can communicate to his buddies. The players can can go on to act on the prophesies, using the information without paying the price or picking door #1 instead. This solution is clever, but limited to short-term prophecies; there's no predicting the fate of empires in this game.

Weapons of the Gods takes a broader approach. Instead of opening his ears and recieving information, the player opens his mouth and creates. Before the dice hit the table, the player of a character with the power to predict the future declares what he wants to happen in the future, and the Game Master sets a difficulty based on how likely she judges that future to be. If the player's roll succeeds, events are now influenced to turn out the way he describes. However, the characters in the game don't percieve this as an influence; instead, they percieve it as a prophecy. Although prophecy is not a major part of this game, it would probably work similarly in Houses of the Blooded, which uses many techniques of player-driven narrative. This technique, allowing the player to create the future, is interesting in that it preserves the emergent nature of story gaming. Prophecies can happen, but they become part of the evolving progress of the story, rather than the Game Master simply telling the players how the story ends.

The challenges facing a writer of fantasy when it comes to prophecy are oddly enough, similar to those facing a writer of game material. Even though a story is static - once written, that's it, and you probably have at least a murky idea of where it's going from the very beginning - you don't want it to feel static to the reader. That is, the reader wants to be able to imagine that what she's reading is really happening, somehow, that every moment counts. Prophecy tends to undercut that illusion by reinforcing the reality that what the reader is experiencing is a book, an artifact of dead trees (or these days, plastic and electrons) sitting in her lap, unchanging. In my experience, fantasists combat this experience in one of three ways:

  • "Gee, can you vague that up for me?": Some writers have dealt with the problem of prohecy by making prophecy unreliable. Cryptic utterances, confused visions, gnomic texts, and other situations rife with opportunities for interpretation - and misinterpretation - help keep prophecy from becoming too deterministic. The downside of this approach is that figuring out what the prophecy actually means becomes the focus of the story, and while potentially fun, this can also be tiresome if poorly handled. Also, while the characters (and the reader) don't necessarily know what the future holds, the fact remains that even a crpyic prophecy fixes the future in place. While the hand-to-forehead experience at the end of the story "so that's what the old woman meant!" can be fun, it still means that the characters had no free will, and that's a downer.
  • Fauxcephy: I'm enormously clever, aren't I? Faux prophecy? Fauxcephy? Moving right along... some writers handle the problem of prophecy by making it less than perfectly reliable. Unlike the above solution, though, it's less a matter of user error and more a matter of limited hardware. It isn't that you might misinterpret the prophecy - it's that the prophecy might be wrong! Fate is flexible, and just because a prophet said it doesn't mean that it's going to be true. As you might have guessed, I prefer this solution strongly. It does have a flaw, however: making something less itself is rarely a good solution to anything. Good writing is dominated by strong choices, not cluttered by wishy-washy choices, and prophecy-that-isn't-really-prophecy is the very image of wishy-washy if handled poorly.
  • Screw It: Prophecy doesn't exist. For whatever reason, magic can't do that. The benefits of this solution are obvious. As are the flaws.

There's no monolithic, pithy solution to the problem of prophecy. Like time travel before it, the answer is to write carefully and with forethought. Pick a theory of prophecy - does free will exist, or does it not? Is prophecy easy to read or open to interpretation? Can you fight your fate, or are you screwed, Oedipus-style? - and stick with it. Make your story work despite the problems, and your story will work.

Despite its problems.

* * *

  • When have you used prophecy in your writing? How did it go? Well? Poorly? Did you regret it later?
  • Where in fiction have you seen a particularly good example of prophecy well done or a particularly egregious example of prophecy done poorly?
  • Have you ever encountered the problems of prophecy in roleplaying? How did you handle it?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Burning Wednesday Experience: Top 10

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This Wednesday, let me direct you to this list of the internet's top ten blogs for writers as chosen by the readers of Michael Stelzner's Writing White Papers blog. Thanks to the Abigail for the heads up.

My personal favorite is Copyblogger, which I read for work (for that amazing copywriting job I want to have). However, some of the others look cool, too, including Men with Pens, Confident Writing, Writing Journey, and Urban Muse. Rest assured that I'll (eventually) (probably) look at them all and add the best of the best to my blogroll, but really you should check it out yourself, Of course, none of them have names as cool as Burning Zeppelin Experience (except maybe Men with Pens), but we shouldn't hold that against them.

The Abigail tells me that she's planning on nominating Burning Zeppelin Experience next year. Somehow I doubt anything will come of it. This blog is firmly in the "genre" category, which means that only weirdos like you read it (don't take offense - how weird do you think I have to be to write the thing?), but the sentiment is nice. Isn't the Abigail a sweetie?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Day Five

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At 0700 hours, the containment field suddenly vanished. Exactly three seconds later, the Biosilicate Nexus began to change. The number of faces increased every 17 to 19 seconds. By the time the containment was reestablished, the object had grown numerous additional sides, growing from a four-sided pyramid to an octahedron.

However, containment quickly proved ineffective. Fifteen minutes later the BSN changed again, becoming a ten-sided shape. The object continued to grow erratically throughout the day. By 1534:05, the object had 117 sides. At this point, the BSN began to rotate slowly within its containment field.

At 1534:05, the object lost a facet, going from 117 to 116 sides. At this point, spectral analysis indicated force buildup in the BSN. At 1537:54 the BSN lost another side, and analysis indicated that the rate of energt accrual inside the object was increasing exponentially. According to Lt. Tunsal's projection, we would be facing critical containment loss within six hours [see attached file].

With no other options available to me, I determined that it was time to speak to Subject Alpha.

Subject Alpha was evasive, as usual, but I eventually prevailed upon him that when we reported the change in the Biosilicate Nexus's change, the entire compound would be destroyed. Alpha was unconcerned about his destruction, but the thought of damage to the object disturbed him greatly. He became more tractable and agreed to halt what he called the "countdown."

He also noted "next time, captain, you're on your own." [See attached transcript]

When I returned to the containment unit, I discovered that the Biosilicate Nexus had stopped transforming, but remained in its current configuration - 108 sides - and continued to show signs of multidimensional energy buildup [See attached reports].

I repeat my recommendation that this project be abandoned. The Biosilicate Nexus - whatever it is - is too dangerous for us to continue our experiments. The object and Subject Alpha should both be liquidated and the project continued a total loss.

Until I recieve orders to that effect, however, our research will continue.

* * *

Happy Rabbit Hole Day, everyone.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Werewolf Mafia, On Fire

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As I noted a while back, Cartomancy is, for now, dead, but I have a new project. I think that new project is far enough along (that is, I've actually written something down - amazing!) that I can talk about it without dispelling all my inertia.

One of the places I haunt is Story Games Community, a message board for people who play games that tell stories. It's a fun board, recommended to me by my friend Albert on a day that RPGnet failed to amuse. One day, I saw a post on the Story Games board about a Werewolf Mafia game. I clicked, intrigued, and was disappointed to discover that they were talking about the party game Mafia (also called Werewolf) and how to allow "dead" villagers to continue to play make the game more of a story game.

But the seed, the seed was planted.

For me, werewolves are up there with ghosts, paladins, and tarot cards on my list of plot and setting elements that continue to fascinate me in strange and mysterious ways. And the mafia, well, I'm not particularly fascinated by the mafia, but one of the things that's interesting about urban fantasy is finding cool ways to port fantastic elements into a modern setting, little bits of sympathy between things that do exist and things that don't.

Werewolves and the mafia are a match made in hell. Humans who get power from their own inherent savagery, living in a tightly controlled environment to keep their own inherent violence in check... am I talking about werewolves or mafiosos? Exactly.

Here is my setting premise: in the wilds of (insert appropriate Italian locale here) an outcast mafioso was running from the family he'd betrayed, leaving behind the dead bodies of his wife and children, when he encountered a werewolf in the same situation. She was running from the wild werewolves she'd offended. The unlikely duo struck up a deal. She would teach him the secret of lycanthropy, and he would use his dwindling resources to transport them both to America, where they would both have a chance. Flash forward to the present day, and the werewolf mafia is growing in the United States. It is besieged on all sides by it's three primary foes: the mundane authorities, the conventional mafia, and the wild werewolves of America. However, the combination of supernatural power, and criminal savvy gives them an edge on every front. In a standard game, you play werewolf mafia types of this growing organization.

* * *

Is it three question time? I think it is:

  1. What is my game about?
  2. How does my game do that?
  3. What behaviors does my game reward and punish?

Line 'em up and knock 'em down.

What is My Game About?

On one level, Werewolf Mafia (working title) is about violence and the legacy of violence. It's about violent friendships - physically and emotioanlly aggresive friendships, physically and emotionally abusive romances, physically and emotionally violent parenting - and how that kind of violence begets violence. How emotional violence can turn into physical violence. How humans get aggression from one tense relationship and take it out in another.

On another level, Werewolf Mafia is about having an emotional problem, the legacy of abuse (which can be violent, or otherwise) and being just ever so slightly aware of it. It's about that feeling us crazy people have of our inner tensions rising, of knowing we are going to do something stupid and being only barely capable of stopping it.

In those struggles - to escape the legacy of violence, to fight the rising tide of tension and craziness - is this game's drama.

How Does My Game Do That?

Ok, here is where we get a little systemy (systemic?). This is also where we run into the parts of the game I haven't quite finished and am not sure of yet.

A primary trait on your character sheet is your various relationships and a brief descriptor of what raises tension in that relationship. In some scenes, the GM (with the help of your fellow players playing bit parts) gives you the opportunity to raise tension in these relationships - though it's also possible to want to raise tension and fail, or want to avoid raising tension and have the tension raised anyway.

The tension in your relationships is the fuel you use to power your character's werewolf abilities. However, if the tension gets too high your character might lose control and lash out at the people in his life, potentially harming them or permanently damaging his relationships.

On top of it all - adding to a sense of lost control - is the moon. The moon moves through its phases, exerting more and more influence over your character as it waxes, making it more likely that she will completely lose it and transform against her will.

What Behaviors Does My Game Reward and Punish?

Werewolf Mafia rewards playing your character behaving like a jerk to the people in her life to raise tension in her relationships so she can channel that tension into her life as a violent mafioso werewolf. It also rewards your character trying to keep the tension in those relationships under control, because if things get too tense, your character might do something she can never be forgiven for.

* * *

What I have so far is the beginning of a game document. It needs a lot of work, and not all of it is written, and I haven't even touched the "flavor" yet. Before I depart, however, I'd like to touch on my challenges with this project.

First of all, I don't like scene framing mechanics. The only game I've played with scene framing mechanics was Full Light Full Steam, and I found it problematic. Don't get me wrong, I had lots of fun that night and the motifs of Full Light Full Steam tickle me brass (get it? Tickle me brass? Like tickle me pink only steampunk? I'm hilarious), but I found the scene framing mechanics artificial and distracting. I prefer to let the flow of the story arise naturally from play, mediated by a GM to keep it consistent and coherent.

At the same time, I think I need some kind of framing mechanic, if only because there are clearly two kinds of scenes: scenes with your partners in relationships where you get tension and badass scenes of werewolf criminality where you spend tension. I want to make sure there's some structure for getting that tension. I don't want it to be totally GM fiat, because that would lead to too bickering at the table.

My current thought to solve this problem is some sort of intent-declaration thingy. At the opening of each relationship scene, the GM says something like "ok, your wife is annoyed at you because you were out late last night" and you say "I want to avoid letting her know how deeply I am involved with the Family." If your tension profile is "fighting about the affair I had last year," then it's pretty clear at the end of the scene whether or not you gained a point of tension. This can be handled through roleplaying, with the potential for social rolls thrown in. With some structure, I'm comfortable with GM fiat as a way of cleaning up ambiguity with fiat.

Secondly, I'm struggling with the core mechanic. Right now, I'm lifting a dice and bid mechanic directly from Houses of the Blooded and paring it down a bit. That means I need to check out how open source Houses of the Blooded is. The Fate Engine it's based on - the mechanics behind Spirit of the Century - is pretty open, but I'm not sure about Houses of the Blooded yet. Right now, I'm focusing on writing the damn thing. If I need to swap out the core mechanic or beg John Wick for an indulgence, I'll feel more comfortable when I've got a game to deal with.

I should also note - and this isn't a challenge, just a note - that I'm lifting the player-defined setting thing from Houses of the Blooded. That is, when rolls are made by players to decide what they see, know, or figure out, the player has the power to determine what is revealed. I find this mechanic fascinating in so many ways it's not even funny.

And that's it. Cartomancy is dead (for now), long live Werewolf Mafia!


* * *

Instead of asking any specific questions, I'm just going to open the floor for you thoughts on Werewolf Mafia.

I'm also going to note that, as with my White Wolf freelancing, I plan on continuing to blog about my experiences with this project. You all get to follow along with me as I muddle through the process of designing (and marketing? And selling? We'll see) this game. Don't you feel lucky?

Friday, January 23, 2009

Wednesday Wreckage... On Friday!

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Anyway, I was going to save this for Wednesdays, when I can never get the time together to make a decent post. However, I spent all day today at a job interview that I'm pretty sure was a scam, so I didn't have time to actually write a proper post.

Anyway, please enjoy this brief Burning Zeppelin Redirect.

* * *

The first is called Query Shark. A lovely human being working at a publishing house has generously volunteered her time to take emailed query letters and show us what's wrong with them. Mercilessly. Beautiful for schadenfreude, but more beautiful if you develop the balls to actually send a query letter.

Did I say you. I'm sorry. I meant me. I. As soon as I finish editing A Knight of the Land, anyway.

The second blog, called The Rejecter, is a little more general and just as useful. The Rejector is the blog of a similar personage, only instead of tearing a part a steady stream of hopeful attempts at successful query-letter-hood, he or she answers questions, offers advice, and generally comments on how to successfuly get your letters past people like her or him (remember, on the internet no one knows you're a dog).

Enjoy!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Burning Update Experience II: The Return

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It's that time again, the second ever Burning Zeppelin Update, where I own up to how I've been a bad, bad blogger.

Actually, I think you all probably already know how I've been a bad blogger - you were all here last week when I barely posted and my analytics numbers bombed. So really, have I been a good writer this past month, or not?

Honestly, I've been kind of crap.

So far, my personal fiction writing has largely fallen by the wayside. With my unemployment looming large, I'm just plain old stressed, and stress is not good for my creativity. My gaming with the Abigail has picked up, though. We're having a lot of fun with Mage: the Awakening, though we'll soon be revisiting one of our old Exalted characters. I'll write more on our play experiences and what gaming and writing issues they illustrate later.

On the other hand, I have a new project I'm not quite ready to talk about that looks like it will be a lot of fun (hint hint). I'll let you know more when I feel like it.

I also have another project that I couldn't tell you about until recently. However, now that the contract is safely in the hands of the United States Postal Service, I'll reveal all. White Wolf has hired me a second time!

You know what's even more awesome than getting paid for writing? When the people paying you like you well enough to pay you again. In fact, when they like you well enough that they seek you (well, me) out and ask you to write for them. That is made of solid awesome.

Of course, I can't tell you anything about the project - just like I can't tell you anything about the last project - but I'll do my best to tell you what I can, to let you walk through this freelancing process with me from (nearly) the start to the finish.

Starting now.

* * *

First of all, basic stats. On my last contract - my first - I had three months to write 6,000 words. This time I have one month to write 19,000 words. While White Wolf's faith in me is heartening, I won't pretend that the difference - three times the words! One third the time! Nine times the panic! - isn't intimidating, because it is.

My second challenge with this contract is that it's putting me far outside my traditional comfort zone. The last time I wrote for White Wolf I was creating game material. You know, dudes, places, and things of interest; plug-and-play stuff you can just as easily base an entire chronicle around as a single session. This time, however, I am writing something completely different. This time, A significant portion of my stuff is a lot more abstract: how to do this and how to do that. While I know I can write compelling concrete game material - I'm an experienced Storyteller, Game Master, hell, even Dungeon Master... I've had pretty much every title except Hollyhock God, so I write concrete game material all the time - I've never written abstract game material before. This is a new experience for me, and new experiences are always intimidating.

And exciting.

This time, to my surprise, I started off by creating a detailed outline. I wrote my outline, I looked at it long and hard, and then I started writing. So far, I'm surprised at how easily the words are coming - I'm at nearly 3k already - and my fears are evaporating. I know I have a lot of work ahead of me, but I'm much less worried than I was when I started. Intimidation is gradually giving way to pure excitement.

Before I go, I have one last thing to crow about. Fiction! My latest White Wolf contract includes a chapter fiction! Huzzah!

While this isn't quite as exciting as the mere fact of my getting the contract in the first place, it is pretty exciting. I know it's freelance work, so the fiction won't really belong to me, but it's still great. A (very short) story that I wrote is going to be in a real live book. It doesn't get better than that. Or rather, it does, but it starts with this.

* * *

One last note before I go: Saturday is my birthday. I'll be 26 years old. For simplicity's sake, I'm declaring the Burning Zeppelin Experience and I to share a birthday. Maybe one day I'll have a burning zeppelin-shaped cake?

Instructions for the Abigail: should you ever decide to do that, be sure to parse that sentence very carefully. That's burning-zeppelin-shaped cake. Not burning, zeppelin-shaped cake.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

And He Used To Be So...

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It's time for our Weekly Wednesday Postlet at the Burning Zeppelin Experience. It's funny, isn't it, how even when I'm unemployed I still have to rush my Wednesdays?

Who would have known that Will Wheaton would turn out to be an awesome internet culture/sci-fi and fantasy/roleplaying blogger? Probably everyone but me, since I'm reliably the last person to know about anything. Anyway, you should definitely check out his blog, which will presently be added to my blogroll.

It's funny, you know: Will Wheaton is probably older than I am, but since I first saw him in Star Trek, playing Wesley Crusher, I can't help but imagine him as somehow quintessentially young. Never mind that I was four years old when it started and ten when it ended and most the episodes I actually remember watching were probably reruns. The mind works in strange, mysterious (and wrong) ways.

I'll be back tomorrow with something more substantial. Till then, keep on burning!

Keep on burning? Who says that?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

First Ever Burning Zeppelin Prompt

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If you recall this post, I was grumpy because I wanted to post a creative prompt - in that case, art - and see what my readers made of it, and was grumpy because I couldn't find any fantasy art that was explicitly Creative Commons. Well, I finally found something to post.

What follows is a video of someone traversing part of Caminito del Rey (the King's Little Pathway), one of the world's most stupidly dangerous hikes. According to Wikipedia's article (insert praise of Wikipedia here), Caminito del Rey was built between 1901 and 1905 as a walkway to service a hydroelectric plant (I didn't know they had hydroelectricity in the early 1900s - did you?) and renamed in honor of King Alfonso XIII's trip along the road in 1921.

Caminito del Rey has seen better days. The three foot wide walkway is missing a safety rail in most places, leaving nothing between a hiker and a 984-foot fall but balance and chutzpah. In some places there are holes, and a few sections have fallen away completely, leaving hikers to walk along the underlying metal structure, balance-beam style. There's a safety cable, but the walkway has still claimed several lives. The Spanish government has closed the walkway, but you know morons people, and that doesn't stop them.

Your instructions are to:

  1. Watch the video (it's really, really cool).
  2. Tell me what it inspires you to create - a story, a game, a character, rpg or otherwise - and maybe leave some of said creation in the comments.

And that's it. Here's the video:




* * *

By the way, Burning Zeppelin Experience's Google Analytics data hit an all-time low yesterday, so I'd appreciate the comments, even if you haven't got anything to say. I don't want to whine (too much) and it's not like I'm going to quit or anything, but it was discouraging, and I'd appreciate the boost.

Monday, January 19, 2009

She's Not Heavy, She's My Setting!

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I know, I'm hilarious.

This topic has actually been one of some consternation in the Burning Zeppelin household. The Abigail and I have been arguing about the concept of narrative weight. I suppose I hope - just a little - that by writing it out I'll be able to articulate my thoughts more clearly and bring a little peace to my home. We'll see.

What do I mean by narrative weight? I mean the details, the clumsy meat and gristle that gets attached to the pure, simple skeleton of themes and motifs that make up a setting. Now, if you were paying attention to that last sentence you know that narrative weight isn't a bad thing. Though it can sometimes be awkward to have too much flesh (which is why I'm a member of Weight Watchers, which I incidentally recommend without reservation to anyone trying to lose weight), your skeleton won't move without it. The same holds true of narrative weight. For all that you admire the grace and simplicity of the skeleton, it's those little details that make the skeleton dance.

But what is narrative weight made of? When do you have too much and need to put your story, setting, roleplaying game, or whatever on Weight Watchers and when do you have too little and need to buy it a narrative cheeseburger? That is the real question.

I will attempt to lead by example. Of the many roleplaying games I have mentioned in this blog, three stand out as prime examples of narrative weight in various positions: Weapons of the Gods, Dogs in the Vineyard, and Exalted.

Exalted stands on one end of the spectrum with a truly massive amount of narrative weight. The themes of Exalted are power and responsibility (and corruption, of course) and the danger and opportunity presented by a world on the edge of disaster. The motifs include high-flying, anime-inspired martial arts action, impossibly powerful sorcery, improbable fantasy technology, and a corrupt and decadent empire living on the ruins of an even bigger, more corrupt, more decadent empire of the past. However, although that is a somewhat large and unweildy thematic skeleton, that's not where the real weight is. The real weight is in everything that has been added to the game since it's inception. Exalted has five factions of Exalts - super-powered heroes and villains chosen by the gods and demons of the game to save or damn the world - each of which is chosen by a different deity or group of deities, each with different powers, goals, and responsibilities. White Wolf has provided a huge wealth of setting material, informatio on the cultures, practices, beliefs, and standard of living in various parts of the world.

I wouldn't say that Exalted is a bad setting; in fact, it's one of my favorites. However, it is, undeniably, heavy.

On the other hand, we have a very similar game, Weapons of the Gods. Ostensibly based on a Chinese comic book, Weapons of the Gods is another high-flying kung fu action game. However, it is much lighter than Exalted. The themes: power and responsibility and the dangers and opportunities afforded by living with one foot in society and one foot outside of it. The motif: high powered kung fu action. Note that it doesn't take me nearly as many words to describe Weapons of the Gods's themes and motifs. The weight... not much. The setting is described in broad strokes, with many options that could interellate, but don't necessarily. Or, rather, those interellations are not detailed. Absent, for example, are powerful gods who empower and therefore take an interest in player characters. Instead, each character is simply an ordinary person who chose to empower himself through kung fu. Also absent is a single corrupt empire that defines the setting. Instead, there is a corrupt empire - the fading remains of an empire that once claimd the Mandate of Heaven - and several other kingdoms, clans, societies, and factions. Again, the relationships are not detailed, only hinted at. Finally, there isn't a huge amount of detail about the setting. This is mythic China. The people live like the mythic Chinese did. They are farmers and cow herders, pretty much everywhere, with a few merchants and nobles living in luxury. That's all you really need to know to play the game.

This doesn't mean that Weapons of the Gods is a better game, just a lighter game. There's less to it. A Weapons of the Gods character can more easily embody the game's themes because they are closer to the surface.

On the third hand (third hand?) we have Dogs in the Vineyard, an example of a setting so light it's practically anemic. In very broad strokes, the author paints a picture of a wild west (specifically, Utah) that never was, with groups that are allegorical to the American government, the Mormons, and the Native Americans living in an uneasy equilibrium. Other than a few details about the theology of the pseudo-Mormons, that's it. That's all she (well, he) wrote. The rest is left to the imagination. The themes are faith and morality and dealing with the burdens of being a moral authority.

I think it's pretty easy to see how the themes of Dogs in the Vineyard are right there, on the surface. Just to be fair, I'll also point out that Dogs in the Vineyard has some problems due to it's enormous lightness. Just reading Dogs in the Vineyard I sometimes find it hard to figure out what I'm supposed to do with it. The characters wander from place to place, solving moral dilemmas (and getting into badass gun fights, and possibly encountering supernatural evil, if that's your bent), but the book doesn't supply any advice on how to make it any more complicated than that. Exalted and, to a lesser extent, Weapons of the Gods, is full of a huge plethora of plot hooks. With those games, it's hard not to know what to do with them.

Being a setting-building (and setting writing) concept, the idea of weight applies to fiction as well as roleplaying. When a setting is portrayed in broad strokes, a minimalist masterpiece that gives you just enough information to know where the characters are and what they're doing, it's light. Works of urban fantasy, where most of the world is just the ordinary world we live in, like War for the Oaks, comes to mind. Heavy literature include worlds where the setting is huge and rich, full of conflicting themes and tiny details. Pretty much anything by Ursula Le Guin seems an appropriate example, but I'll keep it concrete by giving you a link to The Left Hand of Darkness.

The problem is applying this concept elsewhere. Can a character be heavy, for example?

I'm still mulling this concept over. My thought is that characters have 'weight' directly related to where they connect to the setting. Does she connect to the setting in terms of its themes, or does she also have numerous entanglements with the setting's assorted chaff? I'm not sure, yet, how to measure this aspect of the concept, but it seems that it might be useful and compelling.

Fiction, on the other hand, is an easy transition. We all know the difference between light and heavy stories. The fairy tale is the quintessential light story. A well-written fairy tale is all themes and no details, a simple allegory conveyed with sparse, evocative prose. Of course, fairy tales are probably too light. Like light and airy snacks, they are tasty, even memorable, but a diet of them would leave me wanting more. For heavy, greasy fantastic fiction, consider The Wheel of Time. Case in point. There's something clunky about the Wheel of Time and it's cousins, even when they are more tightly written than Jordan's work. At the same time, there is something enormously satisfying about them.

I think I've outlined my thoughts on the matter as they stand now. I hope you enjoyed my post.

* * *

  • Have you ever encountered the concept of narrative weight in your own work? Have you ever written anything you can now identify as "heavy" or "light?"
  • What about in books and roleplaying games? What have you read that was a good example of heavy and light?
  • Is this concept compelling for you? Does it explain anything, or did I just run off my metaphorical mouth for two pages?

Friday, January 16, 2009

Hey, Look @ That!

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Instead of my own brilliance, today I will regale you with someone else's. As I wrote yesterday, I have a genuine Burning Zeppelin post all cooked up and practically ready to go, but this is just too delicious to not pass along.

Cory Doctrow, co-editor of Boing Boing, science fiction writer, and blogger deity, has posted an essay to Locus Online (follow follow follow follow the blue hyperlink) about his writing habits. It's all good advice, and you should read it. Hell, I read it and I should probably read it again.

You can probably look forward to the missing post as a Weekend Bonus Burn.

Damnit

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I was hell-bent on providing a post for Thursday. I was even going to finish it now, at one in the morning, because I love you all so much.

But then I took some cough syrup and a nose spray in an effort to dry up my sinuses and now I'm slightly stoned. I'd love to give you all a taste of what the Burning Zeppelin is like when the pilot is in an altered state, except that actually I wouldn't.

So, instead, check out Whatever, the blog of one John Scalzi, a science fiction writer who made waves by releasing his work online when the publishing industry wasn't interested, only to discover that his ensuing online success caused the publishing industry to become very interested. May we all be so lucky.

I'm sure he isn't looking for work. *grumble grumble grumble*

The good news is that the post I was going to post on Thursday is almost done, so the only way I don't post on Friday is if I actually die of this cold, which is unlikely, to say the least.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Wednesdays Suck

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You're going to have to forgive me for not posting today. Thanks to job search woes, this may be happening a lot in the coming weeks. Once my life is a little more steady, I'll be able to get back to a schedule that works better for everyone - that is, me.

See you tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

I'm a the Moth Man

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Today is a sad day on the Burning Zeppelin. Jon has departed (on a conventional airplane, of all things!), leaving the Abigail and I alone. I could go on and on about how much it sucks that the modern world is so big, how we make great friends in college - some of you are some of those great friends - and then scatter to the four corners of the earth, but this is a writing blog, not a whining blog. Onwards!

In honor of Jon's departure, please allow me to direct you towards something he recommended to me. The Moth is a not-for-profit organization that promotes storytelling. Performances take place at the Moth's stages in New York City and Los Angeles. For those of us who live in neither city, you can also download the Moth Podcast (also available in my blogroll, to the right), from which you will receive one free story per week, the cream of the crop, as it were.

Now, as far as I can tell, the stories in the Moth are all true. I know, I know, this is a fantasist's blog, but before we are fantasists, we are storytellers, and the fundamentals of storytelling are universal. Even if the stories we tell are lifelike - even if they are actually true - we are still telling stories, and we have a lot to learn from each other.

Also, this is one fun podcast.

Damnit Part II: Sick to Death

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In honor of being laid off at my day job, I present Damnit Part II of a series, discussions of the aggravating shit that comes with being a writer. I hope you find it as edifying to read as it was cathartic for me to write. Enjoy, and wish me luck with my job search.

God, that was the lamest introduction yet.

* * *

I think we have all faced that moment: you're working on something and you realize that you are completely and totally sick of it. The characters seem flat, the plot seems contrived, the setting is boring, and even your own turns of phrase make you feel vaguely ill. All of this was thrilling just last week (or even just yesterday), but today you've had enough of it.

You are sick to death.

Of course, the trouble is that writers are often the least qualified of anyone to judge their own work. I know I am - that's what the Abigail is for. I also know Franz Kafka was - most of his work was published posthumously, and then only because his best friend Max Brod defied Kafka's deathbed request and published his writing against his will - but that's not 100% relevant right now. The point is, just because you've suddenly decided that it's all crap doesn't mean that it really is. Ok, it is relevant: Franz Kafka decided right before he died that all his stuff was crap, and if his friend and lover hadn't ignored his wishes, the world wouldn't have Franz Kafka today.

Why, then, other than overactive inner critics and other psychological problems, do writers come to become totally sick of their own creations? I'm convinced it's because we engage with our creations in such a painfully intimate way. Readers go out on dates with our short stories and have long term relationships with our novels, but we marry every single thing we write. We don't see a clean, finished product - we see the work when it sucks, when it's full of rough patches and blemishes. Even the good parts get tired. We stare at our creations for hours at a time, contemplating their faults. Given that we spend so much time on our writing, is it any surprise that we get sick to death of it?

The question is, what do we do about it?

I start by acknowledging the reality of the phenomenon. Realizing that it's you who are sick to death of something, not dealing with a piece of writing that is genuinely worth not finishing, is the first step.

What do you do next, though? To extend the relationship metaphor, you need a way to make the story sexy again. Remember, it's not about the story, it's about you. Below are a few things that have worked for me:

  • Read something that reminds you of why you wanted to write this thing in the first place. You should be careful that it's not something that makes you feel scooped, of course. If you're permeable, like I am, use it to get your juices flowing again.
  • Take a page from the National Novel Writing Month book and just write through it. Set yourself a number of words per day and commit yourself to putting those words down, no matter what. Even if it means writing something painfully stupid. Hopefully, if what you're feeling is just a slump you'll get through it and start writing quality stuff again. You might have a hell of an editing job ahead of you when you're done, but you'll be happy again. More importantly, you'll be writing.
  • Find some way to make what you're writing fresh and new. Like the above option, this might not result in anything you want to use later, but the worst case scenario is that you do some writing you don't get to use later, and if that's a new experience for you, why are you bothering to read this?

There is one more possibility - not an option in the romantic metaphor, but fortunately stories are more forgiving than significant others - and that is to take a break. You can spend a little while working on something else, or even not working on anything at all, and then get back to your old idea when you're feeling fresh.

I do not recommend this option. I won't use it. I have a really hard time recapturing creative energy once I've let it go. Hell, I wrote the first 90% of A Knight of the Land in two months, lost track of my enthusiasm for two years, and then wrote the last two chapters in a single weekend. Probably I should work on this. However, what fails for me might very well work brilliantly for you, so if you think you can put something down, wait a while, then pick it up again, well, more power to you.

Either way, there's a cure for being sick to death - a Dramamine for the nausea in your soul.

Now, if only the cure for sick to death of not having a job, I'd be feeling a lot better.

* * *

  • When have you experienced the "sick to death" phenomenon.
  • What cures have worked for you?

Friday, January 9, 2009

Minis of the Year!

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Here's a postlet, but I wanted to direct your attention to something highly amusing. On either the Story Games Community or the RPGnet forums (I can't remember which!) I found this, a blog where the blogger is dedicating himself to painting one miniature a week, every week, until the end of 2009.

Now, I'm not a big minis man, myself, but you have to admire the sheer chutzpah, the geeky ambition of it. Also, the dude is pretty good at painting minis.

Anyway, I'll be watching 52 Weeks 52 Miniatures, and if you want to, now you can, too! Tell 'em BZE sent you. They probably won't know what the hell you're talking about so... uh, be prepared to explain yourself.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Cards Say...

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Up there with ghosts and paladins (and, as you'll someday hear, robots), tarot cards are a symbol - or set of symbols - that I find pretty endlessly fascinating (see this post for my roleplaying game based on tarot cards, and stay tuned for more news on that particular project). Does that make them a darling sacred cow? Probably not, at least, not yet. While I certainly like tarot cards, I don't shoehorn them into my stories with any frequency. In fact, I don't think I've written a single story that leaned heavily on tarot cards. However, it's something to look at.

Enough self doubt! On with the show! What is it, exactly, that makes the tarot so interesting?

According to Wikipedia, tarot is also known as tarochi or tarock. It is composed of four suits - Coins or Pentacles, Cups, Rods, and Swords - numbered from one to ten, with four face cards: page, knight, queen, and king. Each of the suits has a different set of themes - Cups stands for emotion, happiness, and the element of water, and Swords stands for intellect and the element of air, for example - as does each number - the five, for example, tends to stand for destruction and disaser. Each of these "minor arcana" cards also has an individual meaning which may or may not have anything to do with its meaning on the suit/number grid. There are also twenty-two "trump" or "major arcana" cards, unique cards, each with a name, a number, and a complex meaning. In addition to its divinatory uses (many and varied) the deck can also be used to play an Italian game called Tarocchini and a French game called (unsurprisingly) French Tarot (both of which I now want to play).

Before we go any further, let's tackle the whole divination issue. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that my position is actually quite tame. Do the cards really reveal the future? Are they tied to some power that transcends space and time? How the hell should I know. All I know for sure is that using the cards - performing divinatory spreads, meditating on their meanings, and so on - is fun and relaxing. My current belief is that as a set of flexible symbols, the tarot allows me to tap into my own subconscious and see the things I don't let myself see with my waking mind. Is there anything else down there in the depths of my mind? Who knows? You'll be the first I tell if I ever figure it out.

That being said, the tarot is a huge wealth of themes and cultural threads. The tarot is based on Jewish mysticism. It's also got roots in Medieval alchemy. Some legends say that the tarot is all the remains of an oracular book that was destroyed with the Great Library of Alexandria (the illustrations, that is, the text explaining them having been lost). Others claim it originated in Atlantis, Lemuria, Mu (or Pittsburg! No, wait a minute, that doesn't make any sense...), or one of the other legendary fallen civilizations of our past. The venerable yet culturally nonspecific nature of the tarot is probably part of it's general appeal for fantasists. You can stick tarot into any story of myth and magic (modern or otherwise) and discover that it doesn't clash with your general motifs.

The illustrations on the cards have remained thematically similar over the years, though the past forty years or so has seen an explosion of new tarot decks. These days, you can buy the classic Waite-Rider deck, a Celtic tarot, a Mage: the Ascension tarot produced by White Wolf, the Tarot of Marseilles, and a Vertigo tarot (the Abigail's Hannukah gift to me - thanks, the Abigail!), just to name a few of the decks I own, and I'm picky. I try avoid heavy-handed decks that beat the original cards about the head and shoulders with an external agenda/symbolism, like the Vampire Tarot or the Goddess Tarot - though that's less because I believe that the cards are offended and more because I'm a snob and would be too distracted to have any fun. However, as a writer, the huge variety of tarot decks adds to its flexibility. Again, especially in a modern story, you can always pick the tarot deck that matches the general motif of your work.

From a roleplaying perspective, tarot cards add a great little twist. Prophetic powers (possibly worth a whole post) can be really problematic - how do you deal with your players knowing the future of your game - but the tarot is a unique solution. Instead of forcing yourself to reveal your plot in plain language, use of the tarot (or another, similar divinatory tool) in your game allows you to reveal the future in general terms and then let your players have fun trying to figure out what the cards mean and arguing about in character, as their characters' various personality issues and agendas join the fray.

From a narrative perspective, the cards have an interesting trick. You see, according to some mystics the symbols of the tarot tell a story. Not just any story, the story - the story of life. The cards begin in youth and innocence with the Fool, progress through adolescence and self-mastery with the Magician, the High Priestess, and the Emperor, through old age and wisdom with the Hermit, to, well, Death.

Of course, the tarot doesn't stop there. At that point, it progresses to the themes of mythology and spirituality. After the journey of life, we have the soul's journey: the Devil, Justice, Judgment, and the World, whatever that means.

As a writer already enamored of the idea of stories within stories within stories, the tarot as a flexible storytelling device within my stories tickles me pink. And that is probably the center of my fascination with the tarot. Each card is a part of a story, is a story in itself. All these stories interacting, within a story of my devising... it's a pretty beautiful concept.

Of course, and at last, but not least, there's something about the aesthetic of the tarot that strikes my fancy. That's probably part of why I don't like to stray too far from the original symbolism, or at least from decks that remain inspired by the original symbols. Take a long, hard look at a tarot card (I've provided two for your enjoyment). The symbolism is messy and weird, with strange little details; strange little details that have been memorized and pored over and reproduced from generation to generation. Do they mean anything? Who knows?

Look at a tarot card. Isn't the symbolism often powerful, sometimes even a little spooky. Look at the Hanged Man - hanging by his ankle but staring at you with a look of total peace on his face. Look at the King of Pentacles, brooding on his dark throne, gazing at the huge coin in his hand. Consider the Magician with his youthful face and table full of arcane implements, with his snake-shaped belt and his mystically significant disco-pose. Contemplate the angel that stands behind the Lovers, with his hands held in the air and his whole body afire.

What's not to be fascinated with?

* * *

In other news, I have bad news.

I have decided that it's time for Cartomancy to spring off this mortal coil. That is, to send it from the Back Burner where it's been relaxing to the Threshing Room for recycling (for an explanation as to what the hell I'm talking about, see this post). Why am I doing this? I've realized that I was all wrong about Cartomancy from the very beginning.

The trouble I was experiencing with Cartomancy was that the setting fell off. I worked very hard on a system that I thought was clever and captivating, but the system was total derivitive crap. Not derivitive in the scooped sense, in the "contains no original ideas, or even original combinations of ideas, and really I can do a lot better" sense.

Once I realized that the setting was not only nothing special, it actually wasn't any good, it got me thinking. What was I trying to do with this game, anyway? What is it about? When the answer came to me, I didn't like it. The answer was "this game is about making a game that uses tarot cards as its randomizer."

Maybe tarot cards are a bit of a darling cow for me, after all.

Once I saw that, all my difficulties became painfully obvious. The somewhat overcomplicated system, the flat and uninspired setting, it all made sense. I had started off on the wrong foot; my failure was inevitable from the beginning. This doesn't mean that I'll never write Cartomancy or something like it, but it does mean that it's time to let this project steep a little longer. I still want to write a game that uses tarot cards, but I'll wait until the right idea comes along.

Probably I could write an entire post about when to give up on a project of any kind (roleplaying game experience, roleplaying game writing, story), but this is not that post. Allow me, instead, to leave with this:

I have other ideas. A new game is in the cards.

* * *
  • What is your favorite tarot card and why?
  • When have you used the themes of the tarot in your writing?
  • When have you used actual tarot cards as a prop in your stories?
  • Have you ever used the tarot as a writing tool?
  • Isn't this the prettiest Burning Zeppelin post yet? I think it is.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Paracosmogenesis

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Ah, Wednesdays, days of staff meetings and Burning Zeppelin posts that are either painfully delayed, painfully rushed, or painfully short.

Today, please allow me to direct your attention to the livejournal of Sherwood Smith, fantasy author extraordinaire. The Abigail is a big fan of Smith, and it was she who first introduced me to her work with Wren to the Rescue and the rest of the Wren series, followed by Crown Duel and Court Duel, all of which are brilliant. Smith is a young adult fantasy author who has built an impressive niche for herself. All hail Sherwood Smith, long may she write!

In any case, today, please allow me to bring this post to your attention. Here, Smith posts a questionnaire on the topic of paracosms - imaginary world - and the process of juvenile paracosmogenesis (speaking of made up words). I recommend Smith's livejournal as a great "electronic salon" for the discussion of all topics writerly and fantastic. If you have a livejournal, you can even comment! I do so there as frequently as I can under the name electricpaladin (the same moniker by which I tweet).

As a writer of fantasy, I am definitely a paracosmologist. I was a paracosmologist from an early age, and I plant invent imaginary worlds forever. Even divorced from the desire to actually do anything with them, I find the process fun.

Anyway, I'm going to do three more things with this post. First of all, I'm going to link to my previous post of world-building because it seems relevant and I can't think of a clever way to do it. Secondly, I'm going to reproduce the survey Smith reproduced on her blog, so you can all fill it out and let me know about your secret inner lives... or barring that, at least contemplate the answers, which I found interesting. And then, at last, I'm going to ask you a few questions.

Happy Wednesday, all, and keep on paracosming (via a process of paracosmosis? Oh, shut up...).

* * *

  1. At what age did you first construct your paracosm?
  2. Do you remember what aspects of paracosm you began with—story, history, environment, character, etc?
  3. Were you moved to represent your paracosm outside the privacy of your head? If so, by what means?
  4. Did you share your paracosm with anyone?
  5. Have you met other paracosmologists?
  6. How much faith did you put, if any, in the reality of your paracosm?
  7. Did you outgrow your paracosm or does it still play a significant part in your inner life?
  8. If you've left your paracosm behind, when? What were the circumstances?
  9. Have you been influenced by other paracosms/paracosmologies?
  10. Did your paracosm evolve over time?
  11. Do you think any factors in your biography contributed to your tendency towards paracosm?
  12. If you would, write a paragraph or two sketching in the broadest outlines of your paracosm for a lay reader. (What are its customs and myths? What does the material space look like? Who or what populates your paracosm? How is your paracosm most different from (or most similar to) the world we know? etc.)

* * *

  • Fill out the questionnaire? Pretty please? I'd really like to read your answers.
  • That's about it for questions. See you all tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Killing Your Darling Sacred Cows

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It has been said that writers should kill their darlings and slaughter their sacred cows. That is, that we need to be constantly on the watch for little turns of phrase, clever anecdotes, overused themes and recurring character-archetypes that we like too much.

Why are we on the lookout for such things? So we can kill them. That is, mercilessly excise them from our manuscripts, utterly erase them from our stories, and in general not use the things we like the most.

The problem is simply one of laziness and self-indulgence. By focusing too much on things we already know we like, we give ourselves the freedom to write without really thinking, to create the same old same old over and over again. Without growth, change, or challenge, or writing stagnates, and we begin to suck. Worse, or writing can become self-indulgent, cluttered with things we like that have no bearing on the work itself. When you find yourself including characters or plot devices just because you like them, not because you've seriously considered whether or not they fit the story at hand, it's time to be vewy vewy qwiet, because you're hunting dawlings.

Ok, so where am I going with this? I've repeated an admonition that I'm sure you're all already familiar with, and I've done it in a passably clever way. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will now progress to reveal a few of my sacred darling cows and dedicate myself to their all-to-timely demise.

* * *

Evil Parents: If you've been paying attention or otherwise know me in real life, you know that I've had a rocky relationship with my parents. We've argued, we've fought, we even didn't speak to each other for a while. As a result, I became quite fond of the evil parent or parents theme at an early age, to the point that it eventually graduated to a personal trope and from there to a darling sacred cow. Sometimes I find myself including difficult parents simply... because, without giving it any thought. Darling material. Time to die.

Helping & Creative Professions: Similarly, I grew up in a family where all the adults were either of a so-called "helping" profession - shrinks and social workers, doctors and nurses, teachers, etc. - or a creative type (yes, the same family). As a result, I find myself immediately thinking of potential characters in terms of which of these professions they have, when in fact there are many other possibilities. Nothing's wrong with being a businessman or a shopkeeper or a laborer, or a government official or a repairman or a dog walker. In fact, it's possible to live any profession in such a way that it is helping and creative. Besides, who said you had to be defined solely (or primarily, or even at all) by your job? It's time for me to stop jumping to how each of my characters is helpful or creative and start giving them jobs that serve the story.

Unrequited Romance: I'm a little too fond of this theme, and I've been known to throw it in there just for the hell of it. I've gotten better since my own love became requited, but sometimes I still have to catch myself from writing stories where the would-be lovers are kept apart just 'cause.

Magic: I like magic. I mean, who doesn't? However, possibly I like magic a little too much. When I begin imagining any kind of fantastic setting, my mind immediately jumps to "how does magic work, who can use it, and how?" and "which of the characters should be the magical one?" without passing go or collecting 200 mana. I'd be better served by asking myself the tougher questions, like "should magic exist in this setting at all?" and "if magic exists, should it be accessible to main characters, or something mysterious, more of a problem than a solution?"

I don't think I'm alone in this darling sacred cow. I'm not pointing fingers or naming names (*cough* the entire fantasy genre *cough*), but I think a lot of people need to think harder about magic.

The Gruff Yet Ultimately Lovable Dude Who Doesn't Want to be a Leader, Yet Takes Charge in an Emergency: If you've seen me play in a one-shot I wasn't thinking hard about, you've met this guy. He really has to die. Some of these darling sacred cows have redeeming characteristics, and this isn't one of them. After any one-shot in which I realize I've played this same guy, I am left with a bad taste in my mouth. I mean, it must be bad if I'm boring myself, right?

Similarly, the Lovably Eccentric Yet Incredibly Powerful and Influential Mentor Type is a goner. This is another one you know if you've ever gamed with me. Sometimes he's sweet and fun and clever, but sometimes he's boring and repetitive. I have some idea of why he has taken up such residence in my consciousness, but I don't care. This character has some redeeming qualities, but he needs to be a real person who appears this way, not a walking, talking type.

That's all the darling sacred cows I can think of right now. But get a good last look, because they're dead, each and every one of them.

Say your prayers, varmints!

* * *

  • If you're familiar with my writing (and I know a few of you are) what other darling sacred cows might I have missed?
  • What are your darling sacred cows?
  • Have you ever had a work seriously plagued by the appearance of this bovine scourge? What did you do about it?
  • Have you ever made a wholesale effort to slaughter your darling sacred cows? How did it go?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Damnit Part I: Scooped

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How many times has this happened to you: you have this awesome idea - a really killer, brilliant idea - and then it turns out that someone else got to it first. Maybe you find out when you tell someone else all about your brilliant idea, or maybe you stumble across the offending book yourself. Maybe you feel like someone is tearing a part of you out of your body and holding it in front of your face so you can watch it die, even as you try to laugh it off so your friends can't tell that your soul is shriveling up inside... or maybe for you it's a more mellow experience. Either way, it's never pleasant. I've seen good stories die after hitting this stumbling block, and I've let good books gather dust on my shelf for months to avoid it (The Sharing Knife Volume 1: Beguilement by Lois McMaster Bujold, borrowed in December of 2007, read in April 2008 - sorry, Gavin!).

My friend Jon, in conversation about this post, helped me identify what I wanted to say far more clearly and cleverly than I was going to on my own. So rather than pretending all the good ideas are mine, here is the conversation (paraphrased) in all it's gory glory.

"What are you writing?" Jon asked.

"A Burning Zeppelin Experience post about how much it sucks to be scooped."

"Scooped?"

"That's when you have a great idea, and then it turns out that someone else got to it first."

Jon eyed our (my and the Abigail's) bookshelves, full from top to bottom with probably more than a hundred titles of all kinds of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, not to mention a huge collection of roleplaying games, and said "that doesn't seem to stop anyone."

I thought about it for a moment and presently replied "and you know what the difference between them and me is, Jon? They're published."

And that just about does it.

I always feel like a dick when my advice comes to "suck it up and do it anyway," but that's about the shape of it. There are not an infinite number of plots. There aren't even an infinite number of words (even if you sometimes make some up). Therefore, there aren't an infinite number of sentences you can write, or stories you can write them in. That means that whatever you write, there is a chance that someone else will write it in the future, and worse, a chance that someone already has written it in the past.

The trick is, you can do it differently, you can do it better, and you can do it your way. And who knows? Maybe your way will be better. Maybe it will touch lives in a way that the other work couldn't. Maybe it will even sell. For example, while I would never claim to be a better writer all around than Lois McMaster Bujold, a master of the fantasists craft who has been doing this for a very long time, I think A Knight of the Land is better than Beguilement.

That's right. I said it.

I think A Knight of the Land has a more interesting setting, more dynamic characters, and a more compelling story arc. I think it manages to achieve in one book what the whole Sharing Knife series hasn't achieved in two. I also think it needs a lot of work before it's even ready to go to agents, let alone publishers. However, I'll never get that chance if I don't edit it, and I'd never have gotten to edit it if I hadn't finished it.

So, case in point, when you are scooped, get off the floor, pull your heart back into your chest, and write it anyway.

* * *

One last point: the great ones deal with this, too.

In his introduction to Martin Millar's The Good Fairies of New York, fantasist god Neil Gaiman wrote that he let The Good Fairies of New York sit on his bookshelf for months - months! - because he was afraid that it would kill his enthusiasm for American Gods.

This brings me to my last point: if you think reading something will kill your enthusiasm for a project of your own, do what I (and, you know, Neil Gaiman) do. Don't read it! Trust me, books don't go anywhere. It will still be there when you're done (and ready to steal the best ideas for your first edit!).

* * *

  • When have you been scooped?
  • How did it feel?
  • What did you do about it?
  • Am I a dick for sometimes writing advice that comes out as "get the hell over it?"

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Weekend Bonus Burn!

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If you, like me, are interested in making fun of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series (and I know you are), read this. You'll thank me when you're through. I think you'll be able to guess what tickles me about this particular mockery very quickly.