Saturday, March 28, 2009

Weekend Bonus Burn I: Delaying Tactics II: Wait A Little Longer

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Gentle readers, please forgive me for breaking my twitter-given promise of a post about the brilliant Amber Benson reading at Borderlands Books in San Francisco to promote her new book, Death's Daughter (that's a link to Amazon.com, click here for the official site). However, I have good reasons. It occurred to me that if I wait until tomorrow, I can include the pictures the Abigail took.

Don't think of it as a broken promise - think of it as an investment.

Instead, please enjoy this awesome, free, online graphic novel by Warren Ellis, Freak Angels. Tomorrow's weekend bonus burn will include actual content, I promise.

Plus, a chance to see what myself and the beautiful the Abigail look like (also, Amber Benson, if by some strange chance you don't already know her by sight).

Friday, March 27, 2009

Autumn Moon Intertainment

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Normally, the informational interviews I'm going on as part of my job search (and there have been many of them) don't warrant a comment on the Burning Zeppelin Experience. After all, they're with consultants and ghostwriters and the managers of Godiva chocolate shops, not fun people like William Tiller, the CEO of Autumn Moon Entertainment, the computer game makers who brought us A Vampyre Story, A Vampyre Story 2: A Bat's Tale, and a mysterious new game tentatively entitled Teal Harvest: Terror Beyond the Act or Power of Forming a Mental Image of Something Not Present to the Senses or Never Before Wholly Perceived in Reality.

You see, nearly every time I tell someone that I am a roleplayer and that I freelance for game design companies the first thing I hear is "you mean like computer games?" After the fourth or fifth time this happened, I decided to give it a shot. After all, what did I stand to lose?

I had a great time having lunch with Bill today at the delightful Hallie's Diner in Petaluma, California (I recommend the patty melt - Bill had a tuna melt, which also looked and smelled great), not far from Autumn Moon Entertainment's offices. Our conversation meandered back and forth across a wide variety topics, and I came home with several take-home lessons:

  • The computer game industry is perpetually suspended between creativity and the bottom line. Ideas often bounce back and forth between various departments - marketing, finance, design, and the licensing departments of other companies - which can lead to great collaboration or huge headaches. Conflicts between the Suits and the Hawaiian Shirts are common.
  • Politics is a problem in larger companies, with people shooting each other's ideas down for the sake of their own ideas or to pursue various obscure agendas of their own, rather than on the ideas' own merits and flaws.
  • Making art is hard, and making money is harder.

In other words, making computer games is just like everything else in life: easy to do poorly, hard to do well, and worth it.

On a more optimistic note, I do carry this good news for all us writers:

  • There are jobs for writers in the computer gaming industry. Thanks to the technology of "scripting," which uses an easy-to-learn engine to create the skeleton that the real programers later use as a basis for the meat and potatoes of the game, you don't need to be a computer expert to write for a game company. It certainly doesn't hurt to know something about some of the simpler programming languages, but you can go to a game company with "I'm a writer who loves video games" and stand a chance of finding work.
  • The entry level positions of the computer gaming industry are level designer and game tester. You can start teaching yourself with the Unreal Tournament or Neverwinter Nights level editor.
  • The best way to prepare yourself for a job in the computer gaming industry is to play a lot of video games.
  • The go-to website for aspiring game designers of all kinds is GameJobs.com, which includes a mailing list function. I'll be signing up, myself, presently.

And finally, on a completely unrelated note, Bill Tiller recommends Crook Factory by Dan Simmons. I haven't read it myself, so you'll have to take Bill on his word until I do.

I don't know if the video game industry is the place for me, but it's good to know that I have more options for making the craft I love my life. After all, I'm already involved in one of the geekiest forms of professional writing - what do you say I make it a life goal to hit them all?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Burning update Experience IV: Son of Burning Update

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Fear not, gentle readers. Today's Burning Zeppelin post is late, but not forgotten.

Clearly, a lot has been going on, so I'm going to do my best to give you an update before I go under again. Here is a quick list of what I'm working on:

FREELANCE MADNESS!

Remember how I crowed about the contract that sought me out rather than the other way around? Well, I have the last 8k of that assignment to write in just 5 days. It's going to be a wild ride. My situation is compounded by the fact that I just found out about a great teaching program (the Oakland Teaching Fellowships, if you care to know) whose application is due the day before my first draft. Fortunately, I have the Abigail, who helped me plan out the weekend, hour by bloody hour.

I'm beginning to understand what people like my boss at White Wolf meant when they warned us about taking on too much. I'll add to that advice: just because I don't have a day job doesn't mean I have unlimited time to write. Looking for work always takes up more time than I think it's going to - I think it has a way of worming itself into the time allocated to other tasks and duties, invading and corrupting it like a nanite plague - and the structure afforded by having a day job is, surprisingly, good for me.

There is good news on the horizon, however. If the Oakland Teaching Fellowship works out (or the Godiva thing, or the standing on street corners accosting passers-by to donate to charity), I might have a day job as early as next week. Freelancing will slow down on Tuesday when my first draft is due, which will be nice. There will still be final drafts due in another month, and I'm always looking forward to my next paid gig, but it will be nice to spend some time hacking away at my personal projects. I haven't done that since December.

The final piece of good news to come out of the Burning Zeppelin is that White Wolf finally announced the book that started it all, my very first freelance contract.

Have a look at the bottom of this page. The very bottom, in the October to December range.

Look closer.

Fine, here it is.

I can't reveal anything more, however, except that I worked on it, which is why you should all buy it and tell White Wolf how awesome it is, especially the part about...

I'll tell you later.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Why It Sucks

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Bookgasm, a blog of books, for books, and by books (wait a minute...) recently posted this list of the top fifty reasons why no one wants to publish your first book, and you should check it out. Not because it is particularly enlightening - the essay is entirely and intentionally tongue-in-cheek - but because it will make you smile. If we can't laugh at ourselves and our desperate scrabble to get our words in print, what can we laugh at?

Some highlights of the essay include:

  • “ts u hor! i dnt gv dam :< !”
  • “Mommy and Daddy’s door is always locked and your online access is completely blocked! You asked them why and they say, ‘Don’t worry, honey, we’ve just found a fun new way to earn some money!’”
  • “’Oh, Morimoto,’ Chef Batali sighed, ’stuff me like a pepper!’”
  • And most of all: "where are the freaking vampires?"

Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Barf! Barf Barf!

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And then, life happens.

I'm sorry there wasn't a post yesterday, and there won't be a post today. There will, however be a post tomorrow.

You can count on at least one weekend bonus burn to make up for this heinous mistake on my part. The Burning Zeppelin Experience isn't going anywhere; I promise.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Burning Humility Experience

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I have a bad habit. I talk about books I haven't read. I could blame it on my days as a bookseller, when being able to talk intelligently about books I hadn't read was absolutely necessary, but really it's that I have a tendency towards arrogance. I've been called out on this blog (once by a childhood idol of mine and the author of one of the books I was talking about!), but until now I haven't wanted to do anything about it.

Until now.

As I'm sure you know, I've talked a lot of trash about the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer, all without reading it. That's going to change. I have in my very hand, Twilight, and I'm going to read it with an open mind.

All of it.

And if I like it, I'll admit it. I'll sing it's praises, even. And if I don't like it, I get to say whatever I want about it for the rest of my natural life.

More to the point, I'm promising right here and right now that I'm going to stop it with the talking about books I haven't read. It's obnoxious and arrogant, and if you catch me at it you have my permission to mock me mercilessly.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Theory from the Canon Keeps Me A Messiah

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Near the end of February, Clyde Rhoer of Theory from the Closet posted this podcast in which he interviewed and was interviewed by (it was an ambi-interviewal situation) Chris Perrin, formerly of Canon Puncture. Clyde talked about his game Silence Keeps Me A Victim (the link is to a stub in a Wordpress Blog that I believe will eventually hold information about Clyde's game), while Chris talked about his roleplaying strategy game, Messiah.

This is shaping up to be a link post, so I'm going to let all these beautiful links speak for themselves. You don't need to have been reading the Burning Zeppelin Experience for long to understand why these projects will tickle me in particular. For those of you who are knew to the Zeppelin, I'll lay it out for you.

  • Silence Keeps Me A Victim is a roleplaying game that tackles child molestation and the wall of silence that keeps survivors of molestation cut off and isolated. I believe that fantastic literature - including roleplaying games - is just as well, if not better, suited to dealing with serious issues as "conventional" literature. I applaud Clyde's efforts and think everyone should follow his game eagerly and buy three copies apiece when it finally comes out. I was at the GenCon where it was released as an ashcan, and I'm still kicking myself for not buying it.
  • In this interview, Chris Perrin spoke passionately and intelligently about grappling with faith and rationality in the modern world, as a Christian and a roleplayer, and how out of that grapppling came...
  • Messiah, a strategy roleplaying game about how if the messiah came tomorrow, humanity would try to pervert, silence, and subvert his or her message, just as the Christian Bible depicts was done to that infamous nice Jewish boy from the Galilee. Dealing with themes of choseness, bible-style prophecy, and the screwed-upedness of the world we have created, Messiah looks like a sure buy for me, except that I don't really go in for roleplaying strategy games. If you do, however, this is another game you should follow eagerly.

That's all for now.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Burning Zeppelin is Over...

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Because the editors of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, an Australian science fiction magazine, have produced a comprehensive list of every problem ever to plague a story. Remember how I (finally) produced a post about writing sins months and months ago? They did the same thing, and better. My work here is done, and by someone else. How embarrassing. I shall now weep.

I don't know how perfect this list really is, but I thought I'd pass it along for your collective perusal and see what you all think of it.

My thoughts? I definitely do #1, beginning a story in the wrong place - in fact, I did #1 with regards to A Knight of the Land for about six years before I finally realized where the story was supposed to start - and it can be a real pain. The rest I have done with less frequency. Some of them I can reliably claim to have never done, and I'm very proud of it. #20 and #21, for example; my stories were more complex than "the bad guys die" and my heroes have never been two-dimensional or unchanging. My spelling (#23) may be awful by nature, but I always clean it up in the final draft.

I also disagree with the fine editors of ASIM on a few points. What's wrong with exclamation points (#15)? Certainly, if overused, they lend a certain hysterical quality to the story, but I think they can be used in moderation. Similarly, while I get the point about epiphanies (#22), I think the idea of protesters burning them in the streets is amazing, and I may need to write a story about it.

Of course, both the editors of ASIM are attempting humor when we say that this list is comprehensive and totally universal, so fear not. The Burning Zeppelin Experience isn't going anywhere soon.

Most of all, this post has left me with a profound sense of... pride. I don't do most of those things, and I haven't in a long time. Does this mean that I'm head-and-shoulders above most writers? Does it mean I'm ready to seek publication?

I'll have to contemplate the matter. In the meantime, you all should contemplate Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine's amusing and enlightening post.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

World Creation Redux: Example Time Part One and Two

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I wasn't originally going to do this - provide an example of world creation - but then I had this idea, and now I can't help myself. I'm going to do it. Alongside my World Creation series (Part One and Part Two of which are already posted).

The format will be this: at some point after each world creation post and before the next, I'll post how the concept dealt with in that post relates to this growing world. I'll be creating this "real time," as it were. You can help me refine this idea, adding things you think would be cool and taking out things you think aren't. I'm invested in this being cool, but my vision of the setting's details is still pretty flexible, so I'm inclined to accept any and all input.

Let the game begin.

* * *

Part One: What Are We Doing Here?

Steampunk.

Skyship.

Swashbuckling.

Adventure.

I'd add "enough said," but really enough is not nearly said at all, so allow me to elaborate: I see a world that is in some way itself an enormous clockwork, with humans eking out a living amongst the huge gears and unknowable machinery. I see an enormous city - a city of interlinked cities - rising out of the machine chaos. I see a society that is rigid and genteel because of limited resources, because the people believe that not everyone can afford freedom.

The structure of the world is this: the senseless, unknowable machine is infinite, as far as anyone knows. In the "center" (at least as far as the people are concerned) is a roughly spherical hollow about the size of the Earth. In the center is a tiny star, a source of light and heat that is sufficient to make the inner surface of the hollow habitable. People live along the walls of the hollow, in cities built out of salvaged machines. They have all the usual human interactions with each other - wars, alliances, societies - and they fear the things that crawl up from the darkness.

The setting is steampunk in style (follow the link above for a definition if you need one), but with an emphasis on over-the-top swashbuckling adventure. By "skyship,"I mean that if you had a hollow the size of earth, but filled with air, in which to have fantastical steampunk zeppelins and ornithopters and other unlikely flying machines, how could you afford not to take advantage of it? If I have to explain swashbuckling adventure to you, I don't know who I'm talking to anymore.

That will do for Part One, I think.

* * *

Part Two: Cosmogony

Of the various options for using a cosmogony in my story - as something I know, as something the characters know, and as something the readers know - I am going to focus on options two and three. I'm confident in my ability to maintain consistent setting without a cosmogony to pull it all together, and the idea that the machine world is unknowable and senseless is an important part of the setting. I want it to follow its own rules, but those rules shouldn't be intuitive to human beings, anyway.

However, I do like the idea of a strong cosmogony informing the actions of the characters and the perception of the readers, so here we go.

Most cultures share a common myth: that time began with a journey through the darkness of the machine towards a promised land, led by a charismatic, Moses-like leader. The different cultures don't agree on what was going on before the journey: some say they were fleeing slavery at the hands of inhuman creatures too horrible to remember, others believe that they came from a beautiful world where there were no terrible machines and strange beings to contend with, and yet others claim that humanity was born in the bowels of the machine and this relative paradise of light and heat is a gift. They also don't agree on the details of the journey (though the place where their ancestors emerged into the light is a holy city, revered by everyone, a Steampunk Jerusalem), the metaphysical status of their Steampunk Moses (Man? God? Both? Neither? Is he dead and gone, or will he return in our time of greatest need?) or the ethics he espoused ("He totally thought of women as lesser beings who needed to be protected from their own moral weakness." "Did not!" "Did to!") or what happened to him after the journey was over ("He died in bed, an old man." "He vanished into the machine and swore to return when he found an even better place for us." "He would be with us still as our benevolent god-king except you killed him!"). Although the basics of the cosmogony is agreed upon, these differences of opinion help create a variety of cultures and contextualize their historical conflicts.

At the same time, giving all the cultures something of a shared mythology implies that it might be true, which establishes an important fact about the setting in the mind of the reader (and, on some level, the characters, though they lack the same points of comparison that the reader enjoys): although beautiful and fantastical, this world is inherently hostile to humanity, and humans do not belong.

I'd like to note, in a self-satisfied way, that I maintain several of what I consider to be important distinctions regarding cosmogony. My cosmogony for this setting does not attempt to establish the ultimate origin of everything - the machine's origins are as unknowable and unknown as everything else about it - but instead gives the origin of everything relevant. Similarly, although I created a cosmogony that was strong in some ways - the most important part of the myth is constant across cultures - I am leaving room for other interpretations. Variety, after all, is the spice of stupid people killing each other life.

That will do for cosmogony.

* * *

Questions, questions, questions! In this project, I'm going to post places where I see need for input. That doesn't mean you should feel limited to answering my questions; by all means, say whatever you want.

Remember, if you like this direction, vote with your comment button. The more you say, the more I'll pursue this topic.

  • I'm having a quandary with regards to some of the world's physics. Specifically: gravity. I don't know if I want "up" to be A) a constant direction, meaning that in some places cities are built below the sun, in some places they are built into the walls, and in some places they hang from the ceiling; B) towards the sun, meaning that everyone walks around on the inside of the hollow like a (@ the Abigail: "*sigh*...") Dyson sphere; or C) towards the machine (away from the sun) so that all cities are built like hanging gardens, clinging to the walls of the hollow. (See below)
  • While I was in the shower, it also occured to me that I want ideas regarding basics like day and night and the seasons. How do these things work here? Are there seasons? Is there day and night at all? What do you think would be coolest?
  • I am looking for more ideas in the matter of mythology. Specifically, I'm looking for brainstorms ("Someone should believe this!") and whole ideas ("I've got an idea for a culture that thinks this, this, this, and this!") regarding humanity's ultimate origins, the events of the long journey, and the fate of Steampunk Moses.
  • I'd also like input regarding the various cultural mores that inhabit the setting. See "Steampunk" above for an idea of what I'm going for, but remember that I'm not married to a purely European-esque interpretation of the text. In fact, I'd like to get away from that, inject a little new blood into the genre.
  • Don't you just love the phrase "Steampunk Moses?" It's not one you hear everyday. "The Burning Zeppelin Experience: Coining Phrases Like 'Steampunk Moses' since 2008!"

That'll be all for today. See you tomorrow.

* * *

In the interests of keeping my process transparent, I'm going to keep my question and explain the answer I chose between writing this post and actually uploading it, and why I chose it.

Gravity works like this: imagine that the sphere is two bowls placed with their open sides pressed together. Gravity pulls towards the bottom of each bowl, with an area of confused gravity in between. The bottom of each bowl is full of water, forming two circular oceans. A huge, slender pillar extends from the bottom of each bowl, meeting in the middle, where it holds up the ball of light and heat that is their sun.

First of all, this kind of more complicated construction gives me a wider range of environments. I'll have my flat coastal cities near the bottom of each bowl and my cities built on an increasingly steep slope as they approach the middle of the sphere. That's just cool. Secondly, the area of confused gravity (and powerful, near constant storms) provides an Atlantic Ocean-like barrier between an "old world" and a "new world," which could make for some fun cultural differences. If the humans all entered the sphere in the same place, but some explorers braved the storm zone and founded a new culture on the far side, only to be cut off for years... I see plot. Since a thread I'm increasingly fond of is the idea of the city of Emergence and its holy portal, through which the first explorers entered their new home, as a Rom/Jerusalem like spiritual center, with all the attendant political and cultural conflicts, the idea of a "new world" is particularly tickling. A place where people are less superstitious or have developed a weird heterodoxy would contrast nicely with an "old world" that is obsessed with influencing and being influenced by Emergence.

That's really all. I mean it this time.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Lessons of Redlines

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As I respond to my boss's redlines, I find myself moved to make a special post dedicated to what I'm learning from this contract. Perhaps if I bracket these ideas off and tell you all about them, I will find the lessons easier to incorporate. And, perhaps, you will find them useful as well.

  • Where There's a Will, There's a Won't: Cut it out with the "will!" It's always "this will" and "that will." Nobody wants to hear about what something "will" do, they want to hear what it does! This construction is about as undynamic as the passive voice (my old enemy). It sucks the energy out of every paragraph it appears in. It's time to stop.
  • The First Sentence Always Sucks: Before sending anything anywhere, highlight the first sentence of every paragraph. For each highlit sentence, consider very carefully if it belongs. If I'm not 100% sure, delete it. Chances are pretty good its a waste of words.
  • Active Voice! Active Voice! Seriously. I'm not as bad at this as I used to be - my friend Jon once asked me "does the passive voice pay you to endorse it or someting?" - but I still have room to improve. Clearly.

And now that the edits are done and sent in and the check is in the mail, it's definitely time to post this thing. I can only hope these lessons make an actual impression on me!

Friday, March 13, 2009

World Creation Redux: Part Two: Cosmogony

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This post is a continuation of World Creation Redux: Part One, which was meant to establish that you need a starting point - a hook of some kind, an idea of where you're going and what you're doing - before you start the process of designing a world. This hook can be different things for different people, anything from a question ("what if...?") to a premise, to plate tectonics. Today, however, we'll discuss how everything got to be the way it is.

The Abigail and I actually met in a class called Cosmogony & Ethics. The Abigail's first impression of me was as that obnoxious Freshman who wouldn't shut up, but also asked the best questions and was the only other smart and sane member of her discussion group. So this post is just a bit nostalgic for me.

* * *

Wikipedia defines cosmogony as "any theory concerning the coming into existence or origin of the universe, or about how reality came to be." The term is distinct from cosmology, which is the study of how the universe is shaped or structured. Of course, this partifcular wikipedia article is tagged as lacking references and sources. If you know what you're about when it comes to wikipedia, I urge you to fix it. For now, however, the definition stands: cosmogony is where we all came from (just like eschatology is where we're going and teleology is how we're going to get there).

People have believed all sorts of crazy things about where the world came from. Chinese myths claim that the world hatched from an egg in the form of a giant named Pangu, the Aztec creation story involves a pair of gods tearing a monster in half, and there's this obscure middle eastern tribe whose creation myth begins with a formless god flying over deep water and speaking the world into being. Today we have stories about big bangs and superstrings that make about as much sense to most people.

Now, you might be saying to yourself "don't be ridiculous! I don't need a cosmogony in my story!" And, on some level, you may be right. If your story actually begins with "in the beginning" and your name isn't "God" or "J.R.R. Tolkein" (and even then, only if you're writing The Silmarillion), you're probably making it hard to write something tight and concise. If you're writing a contemporary or science fiction story, you might even insist that your audience already knows where your setting came from.

On the contrary, even if your imaginary setting branches off of this one (that is, the real world), you have the story of how it got to be the way it is. Even Shadowrun has the Awakening and Star Trek has the Eugenics War and first contact with the Vulcans. As distinct from history, which is what happens in your setting, a cosmogony is where it all begins.

The way a setting begins continues to have an impact throughout the rest of the history of the setting, or at least it should. There's a certain striking elegance to Middle Earth, for example which began in transcendent song and become the setting for an epic that was beautiful and sad. On the other end of the spectrum, Shadowrun begins when our world is struck by a plague of supernatural transformations that ruin lives and tear families and nations apart. It's a messy, complicated, and unpleasant end to one age and beginning of the next, and it goes downhill from there.

Now, one important thing to distinguish is how the world really began versus how the world actually began. Another way of putting it is this: there are three points of view on how your world began: yours, your characters', and your readers.

A cosmogony that only exists for you contextualizes the rest of the setting's history. This is the sort of thing you find in setting bibles, the secret truth of the world that no one knows. In addition to sometimes being fun to write in behind the scenes, this kind of cosmogony helps you keep everything in order. Maybe the audience doesn't know that the whole world is the dream of a sleeping 14 year old D&D player, but the fact that you know this helps keep the logic consistent.

A cosmogony that your characters know exists in the world of myth. As in real world mythologies, cosmogony informs culture and ethics, works into religion and superstition, and generally involves a whole lot of stuff we're going to get to later when we tackle culture. In this case, it matters less that the cosmogony be true and more that it be believed. I don't think I have to establish for this crowd, however, how myth is as important as truth, if not more so.

It's important to remember your typical world will have lots of cosmogonies. As noted above, the many cultures of earth have produced all sorts of crazy shit. Inventing the various cosmogonies of your world's cultures could be part of the fun. These disagreements could also play into various cultural and historical conflicts. People have killed each other for much less.

Finally, letting your readers know the cosmogony gives them access to one of the above. Either it opens the door to your readers understanding what you understand about the context of your setting or it contextualizes the beliefs of your characters. It's important to note here, however, that the only way you're likely to let the reader know about the world's cosmogony is through the mouth or mind of a character, since "in the beginning" is usually a poor way to start a story, which means that usually you're going to do both.

* * *

And last, but not least, a few questions!

  • What is the best cosmogony you've ever seen? What was so great about it?
  • What is the best cosmogony you've ever written? What was so great about it?
  • What is the worst cosmogony you've ever seen or written? What was so bad about it?
  • What do you see as the continued influence of a setting's origin, other than what I've outlined here?
* * *

Before I go, I'd like to thank all of you who commented on my last post in this series. It's always great to get comments. In fact, the wealth of feedback on the last post is what urged me to post Part Two so quickly. Remember, the Burning Zeppelin Experience is not a democracy, but you still vote with the "comment" button!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Internet Flaps It's Wings

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So, the other day I posted with a real-life story about finding something and how it effected me and invited my readers to tell their own stories of things lost and found. One of my readers, Kathryn (aka Kat) recently posted one such story on her livejournal.

In addition to filling me with glee - because I love evidence that not only do I actually have readers, they are moved to creativity by my posts - I think the story is pretty good. You should all read it and tell Kat how awesome she is.

World Creation Redux: Part One: The Why and Wherefore

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World creation is one of my favorite things about writing fantastic literature, and I've given up with only a single botched (if ultimately useful) attempt? Not likely!

In my finite wisdom, I have decided that the problem was that paracosmogenesis is just too big a topic to handle in a single post. So, I'm going to break it up over (n) posts, each one covering a stage in the process of creating a setting. I don't know how long this is going to take, and I don't assure you that I'm going to tackle this issue with any regularity. All I promise is that I will finish what I start, albeit in my own sweet time.

The first step is answering that immortal question "why bother?"

* * *

I would like to establish an important first step for setting creation: deciding what the hell you're about before you ever put pen to paper or electron to hard drive. For all that world creation is a lot of fun, you can't just start at "in the beginning" and expect anything good to come of it (or, at least, anything useful - I should confess that I've been known to do just that when I'm feeling like a bout of intellectual masturbation). You need to have an idea of where you're going.

What sort of world are you trying to make? What are you going to use it for? Do you want to tell a story? What sort of story do you want to tell? Are you going to use it for a roleplaying game? What kind?

Once you've got an idea of what you're about in the process - a paragraph, an image, a scene, a conversation, something - you're ready to move on.

* * *

  • I'm making this up as I go along: what do you think is step two?
  • Am I the only writer who occasionally makes up half-worlds, pantheons, and cosmologies for fun? It wouldn't bother me if I were, I'd just like to know.
  • What are your experiences of this all-important first step?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

By the Power of Greyskull!

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Last night the Abigail and I finally watched that episode of Lost that had been sitting on her hard drive, which got me thinking of something I noted during the early days of the TV show, back when they were still a gaggle of castaways wandering around on a tropical island, looking steadily more grubby (yet never, oddly enough, so grubby as to detract from their essential sexiness): the power of the gun.

At the very beginning of Lost, lots of people desperately wanted to kill each other (Jack and Locke, Locke and Sawyer, the audience and Kate), but they didn't have any guns. Without guns, they were forced to rely on old-fashioned methods, like fists, rocks, sticks, and ganging up on each other; old-fashioned, unreliable, brutal, and messy. As a result, the characters had to come to grips with their own visceral emotions and the eroding of their civilization ("I've been tortured by a spinal surgeon and a genuine eye-raki!"). It was good times.

Then, they found a gun.

At first, the gun took on an almost divine power. Here it was, a handheld object capable of killing cleanly (or relatively so, compared to a knife, stick, rock, or fist) and at a distance. Here was a weapon that trumped all other weapons anyone else on the island had. The lostaways worshiped, it, traded it back and forth, ran for it, lusted after it. It was better times.

Then, they found a whole lot more guns and the times became significantly less good, at least in this regard. The lesson remains, however, that it is possible to create situations in which objects that are completely ubiquitous - at least in fiction - become infused with a strange and deadly power, which is a phenomenon I find fascinating.

That's all I have time for today, but I'll leave you with some questions:

  • What else have you found that involves strange power attributed to a mundane object by the situation?
  • What have you written that did the same?
  • What is the strangest object to be treated in this way you have ever come across, either in your writing or in someone else's?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Finders Keepers

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About three months ago, while walking through a residential neighborhood on the way to a meeting, I encountered a huge pile of garbage.

Now, those of you who don't know me in real life don't know that I am an inveterate scrounger, as was my father before me, and his father before him. Some of my fondest memories are of a now deceased local bookstore in Brooklyn Heights, where I grew up. You see, not only did I hang out there all the time, but the bookstore had this bad habit of piling boxes full of stripped books on the street for my father and I to pick through. Well, maybe not for us to pick through, but that is what we did, and often. Every pile of garbage we encountered, provided it wasn't too rotten, was a potential treasure trove of books, magazines, and sundry wonders. Once we even took home a portfolio of x-rays we found in a trash can. It was great.

As a disclaimer, as an aspiring-to-be-published author I now know what a naughty thing it is to take home stripped books and I won't ever do it again. I promise.

Speaking of naughty things, that evening three months ago, I pawed through the pile of boxes and discovered a huge number of classic porn magazines. By huge, I mean huge. There must have been more than a hundred of them. And by classic, I mean classic. These things dated from the mid 1970s, back in the day when Playboy really could be read for the articles. They were amazing.

It wasn't so much the sexy that made an impression on me - though I'll admit straight up that some of those women were nice to look at, even if in real life they are now all my mother's age, at least - it was something else. Finding all those (relatively) ancient porn magazines was a magical moment of serendipity, a gift from the universe.

I wondered about who had thrown these away and why. Why would the kind of person who would collect nearly ten years' worth of Playboys get rid of them. Had his wife found them - or I dunno, her husband - and objected? Had he thrown them away joyfully, to make room for a new love in his life, or had he grown old and forgetful of what had made them worth keeping in the first place? Or had he died, and the magazines left on the road by the children and siblings who survived him, a memento of their loved one they did not chose to keep.

Of course, that's what's really fun about being a scrounger. Sometimes, like all those stripped books, it's a matter of finding something cool and useful. Sometimes, however, like the x-rays or the playboys or the tiny glass dove with a broken wing I once found, it's the stories. What are these things, where did they come from, who left them behind, and why?

I'd like to invite you all to tell me the stories of things you've found, or a totally made-up story about something found by someone.

Monday, March 9, 2009

That Dragons Can Be Beaten

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“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” - G. K. Chesterton

Last night Becca, Aaron, the Abigail, and I (finally) went out to see Neil Gaiman's Coraline (based on the book by the same name) in 3D at the San Francisco Metreon and had a great time. A lot of it was just the company and the atmosphere. We ate curry (prepared by yours truly), bought way too much candy at a local shop (and smuggled it into the theater), and marveled at the enormous Princess Leah statue we encountered on the way (the Abigail: "it's going to come for me in the night and suck out my soul!" Me: "and then it will be a person and you'll be an enormous stylized Princess Leah statue... God, this movie has warped my view of reality."). The rest of it, though, was the movie. Coraline was brilliant.

Of course, I have some nitpicks, and the Abigail has more, but it was overall an enjoyable experience. Although the movie doesn't have much to do with the book, the changes they made were all well-intentioned and well-chosen. The addition of an extra child character for Coraline to bounce off of, for example, while diluting the sense of loneliness that pervaded the book, was important, because characters talking to themselves works better in a written format than it does on film.

I was a little annoyed by some talking-down that happened. I didn't need the cat explaining the metaphysics of the other world, and I'm a grownup. Do the writers really think children need these things explained? They get stuff like that immediately, it's only idiot adults who don't (though, as the Abigail pointed out the explication might have been there for the adults, which makes it more forgiveable). There are also a handful of moments where Coraline is somewhat, oddly, disempowered, her victories and cleverness turned into mere good fortune or someone else's victory or cleverness. The big finish, however, is still all Coraline's.

In the end, my only serious criticism is a direct result of the stop-motion and puppetry used in the movie. The ordinary world was so hyper-real that the wonderful and sinister other world was less fantastic by comparison. Perhaps the movie would have been better served by some combination of animation and real life to create a greater contrast between real and other. However, given the choice to use puppetry and stop-motion animation, the creators of the film did an excellent job.

In other words, Coraline was such a brilliant movie that it barely registers as having any flaws at all. The high points: the other world was brilliantly fantastic and creepy and the characterization was so evocative I fell in love with Coraline herself immediately and even became terribly fond of the added character. The low points: some awkward explication, some disempowerment, and a hyper-real reality. I still award Coraline five Burning Zeppelins out of five. I've already bought the soundtrack on iTunes, and when it comes out on DVD, I'm going to add it to my horde.

* * *

I was going to turn this into a segue into a post about what's so awesome about stories and games about children... but I haven't got the time. My deadlines beckon, creepily, in the distance. So, I hope you're all satisfied with this (by now largely irrelevant) review of Neil Gaiman's Coraline.

In other news, if I don't see Tim Burton's 9, my soul will fall out of my body. End of story.

* * *

  • Have you seen or read Coraline? What did you think of it?
  • What measures should the Abigail and I take to ensure that the enormous Princess Leah statue doesn't come for our souls in the night?

Friday, March 6, 2009

Just Getting It Out of My System

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Dear Sir or Ma’am:

I am contacting you regarding the entry level necromancer position at Sangorg Cryptomatics Incorporated advertised on Craigslist. After a thorough review of your ad and website, I believe I can make a significant contribution to Sangorg Cryptomatics Incorporated and am enthusiastic about the opportunity to join your necromancy team. I bring several important qualifications for the position:

A firm grasp of the necromancy basics: My arcane skills are broad-based and reliable. I am skilled in many applications of the Art, including curses and sympathetic magic, posthuman communication/animation, and contact/negotiation with nonhuman entities.

Excellent written and oral communication skills: As a published writer, popular teacher and successful retail customer service representative, I have repeatedly demonstrated an ability to communicate clearly and effectively in a variety of environments.

Strong team player: I have repeatedly shown my ability to collaborate successfully in a variety of work environments with a broad range of co-workers and managers.

I am eager for the chance to prove myself at a prestigious firm such as Sangorg Cryptomatics Incorporated. I am confident that I can be a powerful addition to your necromancy team. I have attached my resume for your review and look forward to meeting with you at your earliest convenience. I will follow up with a call to your human resources department by Friday, March 13th.

Best Regards,
Mark Simmons

* * *

"Sangorg Cryptomatics Incorporated" inspired by Seventh Sanctum, the Internet's finest collection random generators for all purposes.

I don't know... would you hire me?

Delaying Tactics

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I just wanted to let you all know that there will be a Burning Zeppelin Experience post today, it's just likely to be a little later than I'd like. So, instead of a post in the mid-morning to noonish zone, you're more likely to see one in the late evening to pre-midnight zone. I can't imagine anyone cares too much, but there you have it.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Two Heads are Better (and Ickier) than One

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The title? I have this phobia of two headed things. The whole idea of conjoinment has always squicked me out way more than it should: I twitch, I get chills running up my spine, I toss illustrated biology textbooks across the room in paroxysms of disgust.

Anyway, I'm not here to talk about unfortunate birth defects. I'm here to talk about collaboration. When a mommy writer and a daddy writer (or a mommy and a mommy, or a daddy and a daddy - we're not picky here at the Burning Zeppelin Experience) love an idea very much, they get together and make something magical happen. Working together, they bring that idea into reality.

I have always wanted to collaborate. I am a very social creature, even as a writer - compare this to my mother, for whom writing is a solitary and painful art - and I love to talk about my work, hear about others' work, compare notes, and swap ideas. Certainly, actually writing is always lonely, but there is more to writing than the act of putting words on paper or computer screen. Writers must practice the discipline of writing, creating a physical and mental place to write, learning how to think about ideas until they are ready to write, and, in my case, talking. For me, the idea of actually making the writing a social, collaborative act has always been exciting.

Unfortunately, I have never thought myself very good at it. I am very exuberant about my writing. I get excited, I throw ideas on the table at a rapid pace, and I work very quickly. Sometimes, I leave my partner behind. I'm just feeling excited, but he or she feels like I am defining too much of our shared story, cutting him or her out by sheer creative volume. This problem has poisoned several working relationships, and for a while I gave up on collaboration.

Or so I thought.

When I thought about it a little more, I realized that I had been collaborating all along without ever realizing it. Every time I made a character for a roleplaying game, I was collaborating. Every time I co-ran a roleplaying game, I was collaborating. The nail in the coffin was when I started working with Nathan on a super secret project (details forthcoming) and realized that without any extraordinary effort on my part, everything went just fine.

What I eventually realized was that my "problem" with collaborating was all in my head. I'd had a bad experience at some point and talked myself into believing that I was bad at something. It's funny how the mind works. Now I'm happily collaborating left and right. In addition to continuing my collaboration with Nathan I am working on both a novel and an rpg setting (unrelated to each other) with the Abigail.

I could go on and on about how it's possible to totally convince yourself that bad things are true when they totally aren't - perhaps that could be another post someday - but that's not what I'm here to talk about right now. What I want to talk about today is collaboration. Since I am now, apparently, a successful collaborator, I would like to share my hints and tips for collaboration:

  1. Communication, Communication, Communication: This really goes without saying. Like any working relationship, creative collaboration can only work when all parties involved keep lines of communication open; not just professional and creative, but personal as well. When you are ticked off at your partner, you need to let her know - clear the air - and hope that she does likewise. Otherwise, resentments fester and the whole thing goes to hell.
  2. Good Fences Make Good Neighbors: It's important to divide the work clearly and cleanly between the writers. The exact divisions doesn't matter - each writer might take one or more characters or plot threads, or alternate chapters, or whatever - but the division is necessary. Because the act of actually writing is solitary, a writer needs to know where his territory lies: where he can forge ahead, where he has to brainstorm with his partner, and where he can't go at all.
  3. It's Not True 'Till It's Written: This one has been important for me to impress upon my partners in collaboration. Ideas don't count until they've been agreed on. This means that the originator of an idea shouldn't get too attached to a thought before it's been cleared, and the receiver of an idea shouldn't get intimidated by a high volume of ideas coming out of his partner.

In retrospect, I should admit that Nathan and I break Rule 2 all the time, so while it seems like a good idea in the abstract, maybe it isn't so firm a rule after all. Be warned when following it or ignoring it that I'm unclear on this point; your mileage may vary.

So, go forth and collaborate! If you're anything like me, you'll find it fantastic fun. As long as you don't collaborate to write stories about things with two heads. I approve.

And hydras... ugh, don't get me started on hydras.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Life Happens

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Ah, blogging time. When the magic happens. Or, at least, when it's supposed to. As I'm sure you've noticed, I've been less than stellar of late. I closed last week with a post about two books I haven't read - that just stinks of desperation - and since then I've missed one day and posted a rather third-rate link on the other.

Continuing to keep writing commitments when life pounces can be rough, but it's important to keep on trucking. Do I want to be a writer? I need to create myself as a writer. Be a writer. Write. The same applies to being a blogger. Or, for that matter, to being husband, wife, mother, father, or friend. The lesson of this week has been, for me, to remember that fact. I am what I make myself to be. My life is what I make of it.

That being said, despite the last few days of bloggy failure, my writing life is actually pretty good. I haven't had a chance to work on my own projects - of course - but I have recently landed a contract with Green Ronin, I've heard back from Greymalkin Designs and can finally get started on my project for them, and my White Wolf redlines are nearly done. Nearly, but not done.

Of course, whenever I start to get upset, I dwell on this thought: ten years ago - when I was 17 - if you told me that I'd be struggling with too many freelance contracts, I'd have laughed in your face and then wondered why some asshole pretending to be from the future (and/or with the power to see the future; I'm not picky) was mocking me.

So, when life pounces, write.

Apologies and Rededications

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I'd like to apologize to all of my readers for missing a post yesterday and rededicate myself to providing what I promise: one post a day, Monday to Friday, of essays, discussions, and links of interest to fantasists like myself.

Why apologize and rededicate? Isn't that a little excessive? Not at the Burning Zeppelin it isn't. We keep our promises here, and we're genuine when we don't.

Rest assured, gentle reader, that you can look forward to a Burning Zeppelin post this evening, and Thursday, and Friday. And next week. And so on.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Off the Net

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Today's post will be short and cheap, but I think you'll like it. This website lists the 100 most beautiful words in the English language according to some dude named Dr. Robert Beard. There are many, many Dr. Robert Beards, so I don't know who this guy is or what his qualifications are to decide what English's most beautiful words are, but you folks are wordy and interested in the internet by definition, so this link is sure to entertain.

The signs indicate that tomorrow's post will be late and hurried as well. If I'm lucky, I can give an uncharacteristically awesome Wednesday post, but if that hope fails us, it will be Thursday before you get a truly new post.

Brace yourselves.