Thursday, April 30, 2009
You should read it. It's funny. I'm ElectricPaladin.
Further proof that Twitter is the neatest thing ever.
Seriously, then, what's the matter with elves?
The biggest problem facing elves today is that they are a grossly misunderstood, debased version of a much more nuanced original. Much of modern fantasy is descended from Grandaddy Tolkien, and elves feature prominently in his epic. The elves of Tolkien possess many of the traits that define modern elves: tall, slender, and beautiful bodies, a sense of sadness and detachment, an appreciation of beauty and craftsmanship, enormous dignity, and a calm intellectualism that often precludes taking direct action, despite their boundless compassion for life. Some readers miss is that Tolkien's elves are largely inactive during The Lord of the Rings not because they think they're too good for the story, but because they think they're too bad for it. If you read the Silmarillion, Tolkien's elves have a long and elaborate history of screwing up. Sauron, for example, is almost entirely their fault. The reason Elrond and his buddies don't get involved is because they are certain that if they do, they'll manage to botch it up even worse this time, and although they're mostly convinced that the world is doomed, they'd rather not be the ones responsible. Twice.
What some people see is that elves are pretty, old, snooty, pricks. The elves are better than you. You deserve what's coming to you, but the elves don't, and it's probably your fault. Often the elves spend the entire story finding excuses not to get involved in the plot, only to do so at the last possible minute and save the day - compare to the Lord of the Rings, where the elves spend the entire story finding excuses not to get involved only to do so at the last possible minute in a confrontation that has no bearing on the actual conflict, because the real heros (Sam and Frodo) are out of reach.
And then, for some reason, that's what they write. I'm baffled by the prominence of this interpretation of what it means to be an elf. Some really brilliant authors - Tad Williams, for example, in his otherwise brilliant Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn - fall into this trap, and I can't imagine why.
Incidentally, I really do love Tad Williams's work. Except for the elves, I thought Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn was great. His Otherland series, beginning with City of Golden Shadows blew my mind, and I can't wait to read Shadowmarch (the series even has its own website - who knew?). I just can't stand his elves.
The second problem facing elves today is something I alluded to in my public service announcement: elves are an old race, a dying people, and it's really past time they shuffled off to the West already.
I believe that tropes - oft-repeated narrative themes - have life cycles. This is probably true of conventional fiction as well, but tropes are more noticeable in fantastic fiction (probably because they have pointy ears, ride in spaceships, and/or have psychic powers), so we can observe the life cycle with greater ease. Tropes are born, budding off parent tropes, the result of the union of two older tropes, or rising on their own out of the narrative unconscious. They grow, becoming more complex and nuanced. They develop relationships with other established tropes, spawn baby tropes of their own, and eventually become old and decrepit.
You can tell when a trope is entering old age when it needs to reinvent itself. This works, for a little while. Creators change the names and the details. You get, for example, the desert elves and drow (ugh.... drow) of Dungeons & Dragons; still essentially elves, but shaped by strange new environments. Eventually, even that doesn't work. The trope has become too tired and worn out - it can't adapt itself anymore. For an example of this phenomenon in action, check out this RPGnet thread about ways to reinterpret elves and make them fresh and new. Note how many of the posters, despite their best efforts, wrote elf-variants who were the same old same old with a thin and largely ineffective coat of paint. At least one of those is mine, by the way.
This is where a trope enters its final stage. Dying tropes can't take themselves seriously anymore. They resort to shallow self-mockery (elves are silly!) or blatant reversals that are just as tired as the original concept (elves that are bad! elves that are ugly! elves that hate the woods!), but none of this works anymore.
I believe that this is where elves are, or will be soon. We're just sick of them, and you can only put so much lipstick on, well, an elf.
Two permutations bear consideration, however. The first is that some tropes will never die. They have such a wide base that they will always find new individuals to carry the torch even when the rest of us are bored silly, or they have managed to situated themselves such that they have become something elemental, unapproachable, supported by a huge number of lesser tropes that continue to feed and care for it into eternity. Consider, for example, the basic "Sword & Sorcery" trope - that one's not going anywhere. Immortal tropes have ups and downs, but they're in it for the long haul.
Secondly, tropes that die don't really go away, they just sink into the narrative subconscious. As I wrote of elves, they may go away, but they might do so only to return when we least expect it.
But if they save the day when they do, I'm going to be really annoyed.
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
- The act of writing a weblog post about a dream about a weblog post.
- Any act of blogging or dreaming more recursive than the situation described above.
We all know how much I like making up words. This one is among my favorites so far.
Last night, the Abigail dreamed that the famous and brilliant Diane Duane read yesterday's post about pets in fantastic fiction (which mentioned a character from one of her books) and posted to her livejournal about it. The best part is that the Abigail's dream is just barely plausible, since Diane Duane has been known to comment here, which implies that she has read me at least once.
Of course... Diane Duane might not still be reading me, since technically her comment was to chastise me for talking about one of her books without finishing it. This was one of the events that lead to my pledge to never again talk critically about books without reading them and the beginning of the Burning Humility Experience.
Is it wrong that despite being a grown up who has never met the woman in person, it would still thrill me beyond all belief for the Abigail's dream to come true? I remember reading the Young Wizards series when I was nine or ten (I think). I found the first book when the local library was renovating and thus temporarily moved to a basement storage room. The children's section was in a little side room with tiny windows high on the walls, where they were level with people's feet on the sidewalk outside. So You Want to be a Wizard had a green border and an image of the young wizards themselves dealing with a dragon.
I don't recall exactly how reading So You Want to be A Wizard impacted my life and creativity, or my desire to write and tell stories, but I can tell you this: the image of the lions outside the Central Library coming to life to fight evil remained with me for years. It still sends chills up my spine.
I'm honestly surprised at how intensely I want this author I've never met to think well of me. Here's to the power of fiction and the malleability of young minds, I suppose.
Elf Rage is a rare condition that afflicts less than ten percent of the fantasy community. It is rare, but a diagnosis can be life-changing. Those suffering from Elf Rage experience intense disgust at the mention of elves, enough to sour their experience of otherwise excellent games and novels. They even become aggravated at the appearance of elflike species - beings that aren't actually elves but in some significant way look or act like elves - in otherwise elf-free fiction. They frequently experience a wistful nostalgia for the early days of their fantasy experience "back when all I'd read was Conan and Tolkien" and elves were still fun, before the tragedy that is Elf Rage ruined everything
Science still isn't sure of the cause of Elf Rage. Some point to an air- or book-born pathogen or mutated gene. Others simply say that Elf Rage sufferers are "just different" or "need to chill out." However, some research indicates that the cause is demographic rather than biological. According to these scientists, elves actually are a tired, worn-out trope, fit only to be put out to pasture alongside similar themes, like gnomes, dwarves, halflings, and the concept of human/nonhuman crossbreeding. These scientists believe that Elf Rage may be the way of the future, that as time passes we will see more and more cases of Elf Rage until elves are finally excised from our fantasy.
Is this the case? Will Elf Rage rise until the elves are no more, or will it subside? Does a golden age of elfdom await on the far side of a barren winter, when Elf Rage finally fades and elves return? Or will Elf Rage consume the elves forever?
If you believe that you or someone you love suffers from Elf Rage, please visit your local science fiction and fantasy bookstore for an immediate diagnosis. The label "Elf Rage" may be frightening, but less frightening than the cost of living with undiagnosed Elf Rage.
This has been a public service announcement from ERAS, the Elf Rage Awareness Society.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
- The Disreputable Dog: A (snarky) talking dog, the companion of Lirael in Garth Nix's Lirael and Abhorsen.
- Faithful: A cat/lesser deity/avatar of the goddess who guides (at least two) generations of heroes in Tamora Pierce's extended fantasy universe.
- Huan: My personal favorite - Tolkein's probably angelic dog, companion of heroes, and owner of most badass and the second most heartbreaking dog death in the history of the universe.
And did you know that at some point in the bowels of Batman history, there was a Bat Hound? His real name was "Ace," and he was, in fact, Bruce Wayne's pet. Crazy.
Fantastic fiction is pretty big on the magic talking (and not-talking, and sometimes-talking, and allowed to talk three times before he dies) pets. From a magician's familiar to a farm-boy's hound, the prevalence of special pets is a trope that occurs and recurs and will probably never go away. I'm guilty of perpetuating the pet problem myself; as the Abigail is fond of mocking me for, in A Knight of the Land (my unpublished - hell, unedited - fantasy novel), the main character has three companion animals and most of his friends have at least one.
What's the appeal?
Much of the time, a pet is nothing more than an accessory, a visual and behavioral prop that explicates something about the character. A wizard gets an owl or a cat if he's a good guy and a raven, snake, toad or other icky thing if he's more ambiguous. Princes and other assorted gentry have hunting hounds and white warhorses. Exotics acquire improbable pets, like tigers and peacocks. Boys get pets that do something useful, girls get pets that are pretty and useless. Characters who are close to nature get lots of pets, each of which is invariably disliked by characters who are somehow unnatural. Nothing is wrong with this approach, exactly, though it is a little flat. This tactic sees best use in short stories or with bit characters in larger stories, when you want to provide lots of flavor for few words.
Similarly, but in a slightly more complicated way, villains and other hard-to-like characters often get pets to soften their image somewhat. He might have made bargains with the blackest dark from beyond the walls of the world, he might be hell-bent on domination and damn the consequences, and he might have killed the hero's entire family... but he loves that damned cat. He might be stern and unkind and mean to the protagonist, but he's good to his horse.
Oddly enough, I'm more forgiving of the former than the latter. I'd rather see a two-dimensional character with an equally two-dimensional pet that adds to her style (and therefore adds to my experience of the story) than a two-dimensional character with a two-dimensional pet that is supposed to add depth, but doesn't. I feel it cheapens the genuine bond some people share with their animals to slap a pet on a villain and call him three-dimensional. I will grant, though, that done well, as part of a more generalized campaign of deepening a character, this tactic can work wonders. By itself, though, it's cheap, silly, and clichéd.
Talking and magical pets, on the other hand, occupy a very special niche.
The talking magical pet phenomenon is partly simple wish fulfillment. I was a lonely little geek when I was a kid, and I spent years wanting a pet dog before I actually got one. Once I had one, I spent years soaking him up. Max was an important part of my life, and the only thing better than being with Max is... having Max talk and have magic powers! Then we could really be friends. We could finally share everything intellectually that we already shared emotionally - my dog could really be my best friends.
I can't have been the only lonely geeklet with a pet dog, so I doubt that I'm the only one who had this fantasy growing up and continues to revel in stories of magical talking pets.
I think the preponderance of pets in fiction, however, is based on this simple fact: dialog is generally more exciting than monologue. As I noted in my review of the movie based on Neil Gaiman's Coraline, explicating a character's thoughts when she has no one to talk to can be rough on the author. Sometimes the narration can simply dive into the character's head, but sometimes that's not appropriate, or simply becomes boring. Giving the character a talking pet provides him with someone he can bounce ideas off, even when the story takes him somewhere where company would be improbable. Even a pet who doesn't talk can react to the character's emotions and situation, which is sometimes all it takes to turn a monologue into something a little more exciting.
And if the big narrator in the sky ever sees fit to provide me a magical pet of my own (talking or otherwise), I'll be terribly grateful.
As the Abigail is wont to say "can we have a puppy now?"
- Who's your favorite fictional pet? Your least favorite?
- Where have you seen a pet used to particularly good or bad effect in fiction?
- If you could have any magical pet, what would it be? What would it be able to do? Talking, or not? These are important questions, people!
Monday, April 27, 2009
Today's post directs your attention to a pair of articles in the amazing science fiction webzine io9 (also, why wasn't I told about this a long time ago? I hold you personally responsible for this egregious oversight!), both of them related to the Naughty Zeppelin's longstanding interest in the sexy side of the fantastic.
The first article, 10 Authors who Put Sex in their Science Fiction does what it says in the title. I only have personal experience with only two of the ten authors (Robert Heinlein and Ursula K. LeGuin), one of the several books (LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness), and one of the short storie's (Heinlein's All You Zombies). However, I think I might have a new reading list. Some of these books and stories sound great. I'm particularly fascinated by how many science fiction authors chose to tackle some really complicated issues, like sexual preference, gender relations, and so on. That, of course, and what happens when aliens and humans deal with sex and love together, because you know that if we encounter humanoid life, the first thing we're going to do (as a species) is try to have sex with it. That or kill it and take its stuff.
The second article is an amusing story of the great Heinlein's lost tale of love and lust among the stars, how it got to be lost, and why Heinlein wanted it to stay lost. I haven't got as much to say about this one, except that its very comforting to know that even the masters of the craft have off days and you should read this article as well.
Many thanks to Alan for the linkage.
Friday, April 24, 2009
Please accept in its stead a link to Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, the magazine that I hope will soon provide my second rejection letter.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
Dear Mark Simmons,
Thank you for sending us "The Invisible Kingdom". I've reviewed the story and decided not to purchase it. I enjoyed reading it and found it well written and very funny - here's the thing, though, there wasn't really much "horror" to it, although the implication that these people may be telling the truth certainly puts it in the "weird" category, it seems like weird fantasy to me. I wonder - have you tried submitting it it PODCASTLE? We don't share submission 'tween the PODS and I think your story would be a much better fit over there, so if you haven't tried it, you should consider it. As it stands, unless the story had some more horrific detail, it doesn't seem to be for Pseudopod.
Minor detail - if you are still shopping the story around, there is a minor grammar mistakes you might want to fix:
"while two adults I took to be her parents looked on and beamed to the guy at the Quizno's..." should have a comma - "while two adults I took to be her parents looked on and beamed, to the guy at the Quizno's..." or they are beaming to the guy at the Quizno's.
Also, I found the line "She had this weird look in her eyes, too. I can't describe it. It's like she was crazy, but not." seemed like an odd thing for Natalie to say, considering we're told she's a Psych student a few paragraphs later - I'd expect her to phrase it better than that (maybe not correctly, but attempt to use the lingo)..
Thanks for submitting, and I hope my comments have been at least a tiny bit helpful.Sincerely,
Ur-Karrassas, Master of Blood
Seriously. With rejections like that, who needs acceptances?
Well, an acceptance would have been nice - you know, money and fame and all - but I'm pleased with this letter for several reasons. First of all, I got some very solid constructive criticism. I agree with all his points, and I'll do my best to address them all. Secondly, there's nothing nicer than a magazine editor telling you "I enjoyed reading... [your story] and found it well written..." except possibly the sentence continuing with "and that's why we'll buy it." As rejection letters go, this one is a peach.
Finally - I barely need to explain this because I'm sure you all have a grasp of causality - in order to get this letter of rejection, I needed to send a story out in the first place. Which is precisely what I did, about two weeks ago. Sending stories to magazines of any kind is an unprecedented step for me, and I'm understandably very proud of myself.
Which brings me to the real meat of the post: the Burning Rejection Letter Challenge! I am challenging myself to get not one, not ten, but fifty rejection notices by the end of the year. I will report on my progress here as the rejection notices pile in and perhaps post any letters that are particularly interesting. The only rule is that I will readdress the entire challenge should I actually get an acceptance letter.
Who's with me?
- No, seriously; who's with me? Don't make me do this alone!
- Do any of you have any thoughts on the details of my challenge: the time period is too long or too short, the number of rejection letters is too high or too low? Any other advice or comments on the content of the challenge?
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
A couple of people have asked me to talk about how I got to be a freelancer in the first place, but I've been resisting actually writing the post. I'm kind of uncomfortable crowing too much about my RPG freelancing, in part because it seems rude and in part because I'm afraid that if I seem to enjoy it too much, someone will take it away from me. Of course, I am also enormously proud of myself, my freelancing is a big part of my life and it's silly to try to talk around it, and the lure of rockstardom is often too strong to resist (once, at party, after I managed to work in that I was a White Wolf freelancer a cute girl actually said - only partly in jest - "wow, you just got a whole lot cooler"), so it usually ends up slipping out eventually anyway. In any case, I promised this post, and what the Burning Zeppelin promises, it delivers.
The story of how I got my first freelance contract is short, sweet, and almost entirely thanks to the Abigail.
About a year ago, I started reading the livejournal of one Matthew McFarland, a White Wolf writer and developer whose work I was very fond of. In a sense, it was the beginning of my use of the web to market myself, though at the time I didn't see it as such. I was just interested in reading the thoughts and comments of someone whose writing I liked, not to mention the length Actual Play posts about his Mage: the Awakening, Werewolf: the Forsaken, and Promethean: the Created games. Anyway, at some point last June or May, Matt posted about working on a project for White Wolf and believing that it was a good opportunity to get some new blood into the line. The request was for writers who, if I recall correctly, could write cool and evocative stuff, could meet a deadline, knew the setting and system of Mage well, could meet a deadline, knew how to take instruction from an editor, and could meet a goddamn deadline.
With the Abigail's urging (and by urging, I mean "checking on me three times to make sure I'd actually done it) I sent Matt an email saying that I believed that I could do all of the above. He asked for a writing sample, which I spent about a week agonizing over. You can read the results here: Mason's Angel. By the end, I was reasonably fond of it, but more importantly, Matt liked it. I had a contract in my hand within a week.
Of course, that was only the beginning. I had my first contract, but then I had to keep it. Ultimately, the key to successful freelancing proved very simple, and Matt summed it up pretty well in his livejournal post:
Cool and Evocative isn't something I can't give you, but you can give it to yourself. Write lots and you'll write better. Of course, you don't need me to tell you that.
On the other hand, Knowing the Setting and System only really applies to RPG writing, though I suppose something similar could be said about any other kind of freelancing. You're going to find it a lot easier to write about something you know well. When it comes to RPGs, however, this requirement gets a lot more specific. One of the things I wasn't surprised to read in my writer's guide or hear at the GenCon "How To Write for White Wolf" seminar is that nobody wants a setting guy who can't write system. If you think you can write awesome, evocative, chilling setting material but would rather someone else did the statting, well... guys like that are apparently a dime a dozen. People who can back their ideas up with cold, hard mechanics are a lot more valuable.
Some writers apparently have trouble with Taking Instruction, which kind of baffles me. If you give shit to your boss about how he tells you to do your job, you get fired, right? I should know, it happened to me once. Writing shouldn't be any different. I've always taken the attitude that when I'm freelancing, the developer is the boss and I'll do whatever he says. If my precious writing-baby was so dear that I couldn't compromise it, I should have kept it at home, or better yet, in my head. Taking money for my writing means letting it out into the world, fitting it into other people's visions and ideas, and making it comprehensible to customers. I think this makes writing better, but even if you disagree, you have to acknowledge that the editor is the boss and you are the lowly employee. Deal.
Finally, one of my strengths is Meeting a Goddamn Deadline. This is very hard for me to acknowledge, because in the rest of my life I'm the reigning king of late, rushed, and incomplete (and I stand to inherit totally fucked up when I come of age). Despite all that, I have never handed in an RPG contract late, and I never will. I'm pretty convinced that I could be half the writer I am and still get work in the RPG industry based on that fact.
There you have it, the sum of my wisdom when it comes to RPG freelancing: be in the right place at the right time (with the right girlfriend - no, you can't have mine), and once there, write your best, know your stuff, do as your told, and have it in on time, and you to can have cute girls (or boys, or both, whatever floats your boat) telling you you're cool.
And also, money for writing.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
What's been going on here on the Burning Zeppelin? Too much and not enough, all at once.
I've had a lot of other matters pressing on my mind, starting with two deadlines - a final draft for White Wolf that I can't say anything about at all and a first draft for part of a supplement to Green Ronin's Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying Game - sneaking up on me and continuing with my application to the Oakland Teaching Fellowship, which has involved speed-writing several essays, taking the CBEST, and preparing for an interview on Saturday. A grueling day-long interview on Saturday. Further compounding all this is that yesterday my computer's power cable finally melted all the way through, my ipod (which is essentially my second soul) is on the fritz in a really frustrating way (it uploads everything - podcasts, music, everything - and then decides that it isn't audio after all and won't play it), my glasses broke, and I need a haircut.
More to the point (you know, of this blog), I haven't been writing very much. My writing has been suffering ever since January, when I lost my last stable job. The time between September - when I first got the job - and then was a real renaissance for me. That was when the Burning Zeppelin Experience got started properly, I began building my career as a freelancer, and I started listening to I Should Be Writing. Stress has angst has a way of sucking the creativity out of a person, though, and it's been rough ever since.
Which is not to say that I haven't been writing. Rat and Starling is unfortunately on the back burner, but I've got a great project on the writing desk, a short story based on a fake cover letter for an entry level necromancy position I posted a ways back. Fear not, Rat <3 style="font-style: italic;">Rat and Starling will eventually be finished. The Abigail doesn't take any crap when it comes to that sort of thing.
The best news I have recently, though, really is my three new favorite podcasts: Escape Pod, PodCastle, and Pseudopod. It's hard to find time to read, with so much going on, but it's relatively easy to find time to listen. I just plug my ipod into the car as I drive or into my head as I walk, or I turn on my computer's speakers and listen while I clean or do the dishes or play Angband. It's great to feed my writer brain with stories, and much more convenient than reading.
Speaking of which, the relevant update material is the Burning Humility Experience, in which I read Stephanie Meyer's Twilight and, as it turns out, try not to gag. I cannot stress this enough: I am reading it, actually experiencing the words on the page, and it is very, very bad.
Let that suffice for now. More when I've finished the thing.
And on that cheery note, I will bid you farewell for now.
Monday, April 20, 2009
In addition to simply being a brilliant story, I'd never experienced anything quite like Bright Waters before. Science fiction dealing with culture clash and colonialism, sure; these are staples of the science fiction genre, except that the natives are aliens instead of Iroquois. However, I'd never before read (or heard, for that matter) anything that took theose themes in a more fantasy-centered direction.
Magic doesn't have to be explained in the same way that science does, which does something for colonial fiction that science fiction can't. In a science fiction story, giving the natives some kind of special biological or technological resource usually means explaining it, which tends to suck that mystery out of it. This isn't a criticism of science fiction in general - many people, myself included, read science fiction when we want to marvel in the scientific cleverness of the author - but one of the themes of colonial fiction is often the sense of wonder and mystery experienced by natives and invaders when faced with each others' ways. Fantasy helps maintain that mystery. The main character of Bright Waters never discovers how the magical tattoo works, the fact that it does work is all the story needs. In my mind, this is the primary strength of Bright Waters when compared to similar treatments of the same themes.
I was also fond of the way Bright Waters dealt with all the baggage of colonialism. The story neatly sidestepped the bloodiness, the oppression, and the death and misery caused by colonialism by focusing on the characters. The people involved with the story were basically good, interesting, and sympathetic people. For them, life was about living and surviving, which meant coexisting with each other. The future that chokes us up, here in the present in the real world, was unimagineable to them. Freed from the weight of history by the fascinating characters, I was able to relax and enjoy the story.
Finally, Bright Waters passed the ultimate test: it got me thinking about what I want to write next. Remember how I posted a while about how bored I am with traditional fantasy races? This story got me thinking about how much fun it might be to write a fantasy story with nontraditional species, telling my own tale of magic, culture shock, and characters embroiled in the struggle for love and survival.
It will have to wait a while, though, as I'm currently embroiled in a short story based on this grumpy post from last month.
The long and the short of it, though, is that Bright Waters is a great story and you should all listen to it, and also everything else on PodCastle.
- Where else can I find cool colonial fantasy?
- What colonial fantasies have you read, and what did you think of them?
- Are you listening to PodCastle yet? Why the hell not?
Friday, April 17, 2009
I'm really proud of the last one.
More to the point, I announce each day's Burning Zeppelin post on Twitter, which is what's so terribly relevant about it. My Twitter handle is ElectricPaladin. If you follow me, I'll almost certainly follow you back. If I don't, just send me a Direct Message affirming that you are not, in fact an evil robot (the Abigail and I have a history with the evil robots) and I will.
A lot of writers don't seem to know when to stop a line of description. They're doing well, making an evocative metaphor or simile, and they take it just one or two words too far, transforming it from evocative to overwrought. Some (liberally paraphrased) examples from a story I just finished listening to:
Stanley felt as though he had been dumped into
a giant vat ofice water.
It's hard to escape the instincts of your tribal
Both descriptions take it just a little too far. What does it add that Stanley feels like he's been dumped into a vat of ice water? Why not just say his body went cold with shock? For that matter how does a vat of ice water feel different from an swimming pool of ice water or an ocean of ice water or having a bucket of ice water poured over your head? Similarly, what's relevant in the second line isn't the hunter-gathererness of Stanley's ancestors, but their tribality (why yes, I do like inventing words for comedic effect, why do you ask?), so why bother to mention it? How does it relate to their propensity to seek out powerful leaders to make their decisions for them that their ancestors had, at one point, not yet developed agriculture and supplemented their hunting with fruits, vegetables, and tubers found by foraging?
I'm picking on one story here, but only because it's the most recent. I've found this phenomenon in a number of stories.
My first instinct is to say that the author needs an editor, but I don't think that's actually very fair. I don't know much about the author in question's process and for all I know he already has an editor. Perhaps its merely a matter of taste - I trust you'll all tell me so in comments if it is - or perhaps this is something writers really do struggle with.
What I find puzzling is that I don't think I struggle with this. When I look at my own writing, my descriptions generally seem delightfully concise (or, at least, they do after a second or third readthrough!) and without excess verbage.* Which brings me to my conclusion: tighten up your prose! If you can lose a word, lose it!
That being said, if any of you think I'm being picky, my stylistic demands are subjective (or wrong), or you've read my writing (you can find some samples of it here, here, here, and here) and think I do do this, after all, let me know in comments!
*That sentence was originally going to read "...without excess verbage that doesn't pull its own weight," but I took off the last part. See! Style in action.
Remember how a ways back I posted that White Wolf had finally announced the release of the book I worked on, the one that was my first professional contract ever? Well, they just posted the cover, too, faithfully reproduced here for your viewing pleasure:
Isn't she lovely?
I cannot wait to see my work in print, with art and layout and sidebars and everything. Unfortunately, the listed release date is August 5th, and I'm not likely to recieve my author copies until somewhat after that. So it looks like I'll have to.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
As for today, please have a look at The Wit and Weirdness of Al Bruno III, a writer and roleplayer who hangs out on RPGnet under the alias Ab3. The blog has a slightly... unfinished look to it - perhaps one of my more technically or graphically talented readers will be inspired to lend Al a hand? - but I can vouch for Mr. Bruno's wit, weirdness, and writerly... um... wexcellence. He's the author of the infamous RPGnet rants (apparently they can be found at the blogspot blog linked above), where Al gave somewhat (I hope) fictionalized accounts of his early days as a roleplayer, dealing with some interesting characters. By which I mean his fellow players. Who were universally horrible people.
Check him out.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
For those of you who are too lazy to follow the link (read it - it's a great essay), I'd be doing Dodson a disservice by summing it up as "she agrees with me." However, I think it's fair to say that Betty Dodson's criticism and mine stem from the same sentiment: it's not enough to simply have a voice. You need to pay attention to what that voice is saying.
I'm sorry that today's post is brief, a link in the dark, and really about as off topic as I've ever gotten. I just found out yesterday that I'll be taking the CBEST on Saturday, and I haven't got much time. I will mend this with the following:
Image Courtesy of RPGnet's "Spirit of the Century Inspirational Art" Thread
Which really is about as on-topic for this blog as you can possibly get.
Let's treat this as a creative prompt post. Tell me the plot of Zeppelin V. Pterodactyls. Who are the characters? What do they want? Where did they get a Zeppelin? How did they end up fighting dinosaurs? How can I get that job?
And if you can manage to tie the second half of the post into the first half, well... no one's stopping you.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Today, I'd like to talk about a phenomenon that touches on writing and roleplaying, something the Abigail introduced me to: the letter game.
Wikipedia defines a letter game as:
the exchange of written letters, or e-mails, between two or more participants. The first player writes a letter in the voice of a newly created character; in this first letter, the writer should establish her own identity and that of her correspondent, should set the scene, and should explain why she and her correspondent must communicate in written fashion. In subsequent letters, plot and character can be developed, but the writers should not talk about plot outside of the letters and the characters should never meet. Letter games can be a writing exercise or a form of collaborative fictionWikipedia lists Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot (I'm back to Amazon links because it looks like Amazonfail was accidental) by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer as an example of a novel produced by a letter game (Wikipedia also lists the sequel, The Grand Tour, but I don't believe it counts, as The Grand Tour is written in the form of diary entries, not letters). Those books I've read and can vouch for enthusiastically. Wikipedia also lists P.S. Longer Letter Later and Snail Mail, No More by Ann Martin and Paula Danziger. I haven't read those books, so you're on your own. Another novelized letter game, this one also unread, but sitting on my shelf and eagerly awaiting me, is Freedom and Necessity by Emma Bull and Stephen Brust.
Before I start gushing about how awesome letter games are, let me come clean: I have never successfuly completed a letter game, if by "completed" you mean "finished telling the story" and assume that a thing like a letter game really needs an ending. My every effort so far has either bombed abominably in the first letter or eventually petered off into nothing. Sometimes it was my fault, sometimes it was someone else's fault, and sometimes it was nobody's fault. However, perhaps the greatest testament to this form of writing is that no matter how many times I fail, I keep on trying.
The rules of a letter game are fairly simple and the Wikipedia article does a good job of summarizing them.
So, what is so cool about a letter game?
As a form of roleplaying and interactive storytelling, letter games are extremely low rent. It doesn't take much energy to read a letter and reply, and once or twice a month is all it takes to keep a letter game going.
As a writing discipline I find the structure of a letter game fascinating. The fact that I can't write whatever I want, but instead have to adapt my ideas to the form of letters and make sure the characters can't and don't ever meet, is invigorating. I love having to stay fast on my feet, reacting to my partner's letters instead of just to myself and my own ideas.
Letter games are awesome, and you should all be playing them all the time.
And if any of you want to start one... you know where to find me.
Monday, April 13, 2009
This is my first time seeing the Vagina Monologues, and I wish I could say I was struck by the weight and beauty of the piece and completely blown away, but I wasn't. My problem with the Vagina Monologues (and this is relevant to the Burning Zeppelin Experience, I promise) is founded in some terminology I learned a few months ago at a weekend seminar. I'll do my best to make it quick.
In any conversation, you have three factors: what one person (or faction) is saying, what the second person (or group) is saying, and the way the conversation is taking place. The nature of the conversation. In essence, the way an issue or debate is framed is the third participant in any conversation.
To me, the conversation of the Vagina Monologues was something like "how can we protect vulnerable women from bad men." Of the monologues I saw, most of them were about the pain and suffering of women - women as the victims of violence and cruelty at the hands of men, women as losing something precious about themselves thanks to our male-driven culture, women as needing women to save them, protect them, and teach them - with only one exception. This conversation is extremely well-intentioned. After all, when bad men and vulnerable women come together, the result is always pain and suffering.
The problem is that conversations make themselves true. They need to, otherwise they can't exist. So, the conversation "how can we protect vulnerable women from bad men" requires that women be vulnerable and men be bad. No matter how hard you work at keeping vulnerable women away from bad men (and vice versa), no matter how hard you work to make some women vulnerable and some men less bad, what you are working with is still vulnerable women and bad men. More and less is not a real change, it's just more and less of the same. I saw that the Vagina Monologues was totally caught up in a conversation that would never let it succeed at its goal.
To really transform the world, you need a truly transformative conversation, like "how can men and women live together" or "how can we make a world where everyone is equally valued regardless of gender." Alternately, more personally, "how can the Abigail and I create a relationship that works for both of us" is a more powerful and liberating conversation than "how can we make sure the evil patriarchy doesn't sneak into our relationship." The goal is (kind of) the same, but the way of thinking and talking about it is completely different.
How does this relate to the Burning Zeppelin Experience?
The thing I love most about science fiction, fantasy, horror, magical realism, and every other kind of fantastic literature is the power it has to transform conversations. A favorite of mine is Sharon Shinn's Heart of Gold (which I reviewed here), which tackles issues of ethnicity, gender, and culture. By making its characters blue, gold, and white-skinned humanoids with cultures made out of bits and pieces of recognizeable human ways of life glued together into new configurations, Heart of Gold allows the reader to examine the issues in a new way. With fantasy, we break out of old habits and create new ways of seeing the world. We turn our challenges into games we can play over and over again, until the pain has no power over us and we can give up conversations that can't help us and embrace conversations that will.
That's all I've got to say on the matter. I'm looking forward to your comments.
Friday, April 10, 2009
"As an example of what?" the Abigail replied.
"Of everything right with geekery!" I declared, opening a new tab on my browser and aiming it at the Burning Zeppelin Experience.
Soon they would see. Soon they would all see.
Warning: this is not quite safe for work. I mean, it depends on who you are and where you work. I'd watch it at work, but I'm me, I'm unemployed, and I hang out in a coffee shop all day. If you work at The Saint Whatsit's Home for Crusty Old Nuns, you might want to wait until you get home.
Of course, if you are an inmate at Saint Whatsit's, go ahead. More power to you.
Thursday, April 9, 2009
Say what you want to about religion in general, but you can't beat the story of Exodus. A nation of wanderers is enslaved by the most powerful empire of their time. One man is charged by a being from beyond space and time with freeing them. There's blood and death, love and sex, the danger of the divine and the iniquity of evil men. Nobody's perfect - not even the hero, and especially not the people he's come to save - but things will change by the end of it. It's great.
A lot of literary headspace is given to the Jesus myth. Fantasy is full of magic destiny babies, chosen heroes, and great men doomed to die. Rand Al'Thor of The Wheel of Time is Jesus, with wounds that will not heal inflicted by a villain's spear and a destiny to die fighting the Dark One. To his dismay, Thomas Covenant of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever turns out to be Jesus, too; he's an asshole leper Jesus, but Jesus nonetheless. The Buddha has Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light (the only fantasy - science fiction, actually - interpretation of the Buddha myth). However, to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever taken a stab at a fantastic version of the story of Moses and the Exodus.
I'm not entirely sure why. The best explanation I've come up with so far is that there just aren't very many Jews out there. Those Jews who do right science fiction and fantasy might not be interested in basing a story on a myth that they fear won't make a huge impression on the greater part of their audience. However, even if there aren't many Jews in the world, there are tons of Christians, and the story of the Exodus is a part of their mythology, too. For that matter, as far as I (and Wikipedia) know, Roger Zelazny wasn't a Buddhist. Maybe there's no good reason no one has written a fantastic version of the Moses myth. Maybe the world is waiting for me to write it.
Or maybe I'm just waiting for one of you to recommend it to me. That'll work, too.
That being said, what is it about the story of Moses and the Exodus that does it for me, other than a long association with one of my favorite Jewish holidays?
First and foremost is the character of Moses. A lot of people try to gloss him over, make him into a bland and uninteresting hero, but there's actually quite a lot of depth there. We have a man who murders an Egyptian overseer - ignore what the cartoon version tells you, it was no accident; Moses killed him, loooked around to make sure no one saw what he'd done, then buried the body in the sand - and only runs away when it becomes apparent that people know about his crime. Yet, he then helps some women draw water for their sheep and is rewarded with a wife and a new life as a shepherd. Just when he thinks he's left his old life - and his old crime - behind, a voice out of a burning bush tells him that he has to go back and free his people from bondage?
Him? Him of all people? A shy, possibly stuttering, short-tempered nobody, wanted for a crime he did commit?
The rightness of the choice only becomes apparent later on. Once dedicated to the cause, Moses refuses to give up. He reveals himself as a talented leader, so obsessed with doing the job right that his father-in-law has to invent delegation. Moses deals with a nation that has been enslaved for so long it has forgotten how to be free. Moses has to teach them how to think for themselves, how to follow orders that aren't backed with violence, and how to be worthy of the covenant they are going to sign into.
Then there's the character of God. God as cranky and insecure - at one point, when the Israelites have seriously offended him, God offers to kill them all and make Moses the origin of a new bloodline and Moses has to talk him down - and God as dedicated to his people, but also dedicated to making an impression on them that they'll never forget. The midrash (stories that fill in the gaps - basically rabbinic fanfiction) gives us God as a reluctant destroyer, regretting the fate of the Egyptian warriors even as he sends the waters of the Reed Sea in to drown them. Like Moses, God isn't nearly as unambiguous a character as
Finally, there's the enormity of it. Over the course of this story, Moses cons, connives, and intimidates Pharoah into letting his people escape, and a whole nation up and leaves another nation, making for freedom. It's epic! It's huge! If it had kung-fu, it could be Exalted.
As a second finally, there are some fun, little-known details that start the gears in my head turning. Did you know that God claims to have "executed" the gods of Egypt? No, it's not what modern theologians would have you belive, that the gods of Egypt never existed at all. God killed them. That's a scene I'd love to write. Did you know that at one point God arrives - in person! - to kill Moses? Moses is only saved when his wife, Zipporah, circumsizes their son with a knife right there and presses the bloody foreskin to Moses's thigh. What the hell is up with that?
I don't know if I want to do it in science fiction or fantasy, I don't know what other motifs I want to cut it with but I want to do it. And if it's been done, I want to read it. And then I want to do it anyway.
Who's with me?
- The first question is obvious: is there a fantastic retelling of the Moses myth that no one's bothered to tell me about?
- Next up, how would you do it? What choices would you make if you were going to write a fantastic take on Exodus?
And finally, once more, from a non-brain-worms-infested blogger: Happy Passover!
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
It's not that I'm not good at it. As a rule, once I wrap my head around a game, I'm very good at reliably churning out characters that are, if not optimized (honestly, I find optimization to be critically boring), a reliable portrayal of the concept I was aiming for. What bothers me is that it's boring. When I sit down at the table I want to play, not dick around getting ready to play. And I want to be able to do it from the get go. I want it all and I want it now.
The quandary I face is that I also like heavily character-driven games where a character's feelings, ambitions, and backstory elements are all essential to the plot. Unfortunately, without a character creation stage, where the players create these things, tying their characters to the plot and to each other, where will all that delightful story meat come from?
Alas, I find myself contemplating what seems like an unsolvable conundrum. I hate character creation... but I need character creation. I love character creation... and it bores me. I feel like I'm in an abusive relationship with a game concept, and I can't tell if I'm the bad guy or the victim.
Some games I'm aware of have attempted to tackle this issue. Their efforts tend to fall into several categories. None of them seem to do exactly what I want them to do, but that doesn't mean they aren't worthy of consideration.
The first category is led by Evil Hat Productions' Spirit of the Century, which attempts to make character creation into a miniature game of narrative mix-and-match. This category - making character creation a fun task - seems to be relatively new. As for myself, I find myself liking it. I haven't actually played Spirit of the Century yet, but I've read the book cover to cover, and the process seems neat.
The downside of this approach is that it seems like it would make character creation take a lot longer. This seems to be the case of Spirit of the Century - remember, I've only read the book, I've never actually played it - where you have to build part of your character, play a little narrative mix-and-match (each round of which informs more of your character), and then do more work to finish your character. Given that my problem with character creation is part impatience as well as part boredom, Spirit of the Century ends up seeming like a cool reaction to the problem I see, but not necessarily a solution.
The next category belongs to games like Dogs in the Vineyard, Houses of the Blooded, and many, many others. The games in this category do their best to make character creation short. You spend some points, name some traits, do the usual work of outlining relationships and histories, and then you're done. There's no math higher than addition and subtraction and only a handful of points to toss around.
I know I talk about this game a lot, but Houses of the Blooded deserves special mention. Firstly, Houses does a good job of pacing character creation without resorting to overall mechanical simplicity. The game is quite deep - it even includes a minigame for handling the rising and falling fortunes of your character's lands - but it's possible (easy, in fact) to build an effective character without knowing all the rules. As your character grows and becomes more interested in his lands, or a skilled duelist, or a sorceress, you can learn the rules that become relevant. There aren't many games out there that don't lean to on one side or the other. Either character creation requires a fairly deep knowledge of the mechanics (most games out there), or the mechanics are, for good or ill, overall very simple(Dogs in the Vineyard is a good example).
However, while games in this category address the matter of my impatience, they do so imperfectly. You still have to do character creation, even if it's bitter and brief. They also don't tackle the essential problem of my boredom, though making the process shorter does lessen it somewhat.
What to I really want? I want a game that I can sit down and play, just like that, out of the box, with minimal planning on the GM's part and no "character creation phase." However, I also want the characters to be deep, background-driven, with intense emotions.
One game which comes close - and inspires my solution to the problem - is Ralph Mazza's unfinished Robots & Rapiers which is still cycling through ashcans and revisions. Robots & Rapiers is another game I've never read or played, but I did hear Theory from the Closet's wonderful interview with Ralph Mazza, so I feel qualified to discuss the game in abstract. The premise of Robots & Rapiers is that you play a robotic attraction at a Three Musketeers-themed amusement park of the future, long after all the humans are dead. Now, after years of playing out your programming over and over again, you have finally begun to come awake and have the potential to grow, change, and transcend what you were. Instead of creating a character, you choose which swashbuckling archetype your robot represented, and that's it. As your character grows, he chooses where he's going to rebel against his programming and where he's going to go with the flow, and that's how your character becomes unique.
It's an intriguing concept, but very tied to the game's delightful conceit, so it doesn't really solve my problem.
The only solution, I suppose, is to cook what I want to eat and write the game I want to play. But how, exactly, do I approach the problem of not really like character creation?
The thought that comes to mind is to keep character creation fast, fluid, and have it happen in play. Perhaps you get a pool of dynamic points that can be spent to improve actions you take by forcing a flashback to how you got to be good at something or care about something, which translates to a bonus on the roll and a bonus on future rolls of the same type - essentially, a new trait. As the game goes on, you gain more points which you can continue to spend to improve your character in the now or in the past, defining swaths of the character and how she interacts with the world with every scene.
I'll have to keep chewing on this idea. I'd love to hear what you think about it.
- What are your experiences of character creation, good and bad?
- What are your feelings about character craetion? Do you like it? Dislike it? Find it boring? Exciting?
- How would you achieve the game experience I'm reaching for?
Before I depart for the day, I'd like to bring two things to your collective attention:
First of all, if you glance over at my blogroll, you'll notice two new entries. Pseudopod has been joined by its siblings: Podcastle, the fantasy podcast, and Escape Pod, the science fiction podcast. I'm only listening to Pseudopod so far - I just listened to a wonderfully gross story about a person with... woman troubles - but if the other two are anywhere near as good, they deserve a place on my blogroll, and in your mp3 player.
Secondly, Chad Underkoffler of Atomic Sock Monkey Press has produced an awe-inspiring new game. Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies (S7S for short) combines swashbuckling pirate adventure, magic, and airships and floating islands to produce a game that could only be more designed just for me if Chad had actually asked for my input. And, in that case, I'm not sure how much would have changed, both because the game sounds awesome the way it is andbecause I haven't read the thing yet. It's only out in hardcover, and I am a poor, poor man. I will buy and run S7S as soon as I can. And if one of you buys it first, you can tell me all about it.
That's all for now. Goodbye, everyone.
Monday, April 6, 2009
Ah, the Amber Benson on the Borderlands. I remember running through that adventure back in high school. The party comes to an isolated castle in mid-coastal California, surrounded by mountains infested with goblins, kobolds, vampires, and Joss Whedon. There, they must contend with colorful local characters while exploring their surroundings, getting embroiled in the schemes of the town's inhabitants, the evil dwelling deep underground, and delightful science fiction and fantasy bookstores in the Mission. I played a wasabi blob multiclassed fighter/mage and my friend Matt lurked in doorways. Good times.
Wait a minute. None of that makes any sense.
The Saturday before last, I was happily able to take a break from my busy schedule of beating my head into the wall that was writing essays for the Oakland Teaching Fellowship and attempting to finish my first draft for Green Ronin's (I can say this now!) Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying Game's first supplement (In case you hadn't noticed, it was a bad week for the Burning Zeppelin). Becca, the Abigail, and myself took the Muni down into the Mission to Borderlands Books and treated ourselves a delightful hour or so with Amber Benson - one of the stars of memory's Buffy: the Vampier Slayer - as she read from her new book, Death's Daughter, signed copies, answered questions.
And I have proof (photographs courtesy of the wonderful Mr_O, a gentleman with a camera who takes pictures at events such as this and posts them to his Flickr stream for no reason other than to provide a service for his fellow fans - all photos are Creative Commons: Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share Alike):
The lovely young lady on the left is the Abigail (isn't she cute?) and the alarmingly cheerful gentleman on the right is myself (I had no idea that I have that many teeth). Now you know what we look like. If you can't recognize Amber Benson in the middle, well... there's no hope for you.
What were the take home lessons of Amber's talk?
First of all, Death's Daughter sounds like a lot of fun. It's a fun modern fantasy, self-identified chewing gum for the brain, about the daughter of Death (the CEO of Death, Inc.), who has to win an interdimensional scavenger hunt to remain in control of the family business after her father... well... dies. The passage Amber Benson read involved the main character's search for some of Krishna's ambiguously sexual sea foam, and how the avatar of Vishnu's Gopis - milkmaids/harem girls/assassin bodygaurds (the last is an Amber Benson innovation) - kick the crap out of her while her younger sister and pet hellhound are decidedly unhelpful. If that paragraph doesn't serve to sell you on the book, there's something wrong with one of us.
Secondly, it was fun to hear Amber Benson confirm her inherent geekery. It seems that she got started on Stephen King and similar works, consumed massive quantities of young adult fantasy (including the Dark Is Rising Sequence - a favorite of mine as well), and continues to read implacably. To this day, she regularly wiles away the hours in her trailer between shoots by reading - at least, until recently she did. These days, she writes.
Amber Benson confirmed in her Q&A session that the key to successful writing is to view it as a job and approach it professionally, whatever that means to you. For Amber Benson, it means going to a local coffee shop (like me, apparently, she cannot write in her own home) and putting in a solid workday at the laptop. There you have it, the same advice we always hear and tell ourselves, confirmed by someone who actually finished and published her novel.
Amber also recommends the website Bitten by Books, a site dedicated to providing reviews of paranormal fiction, urban fantasy, and horror (with occasional forays into fantasy and science fiction as well). I'll explore the site further myself before I put an official Burning Zeppelin stamp of approval on it (for whatever that's worth), but there's a link, so you can check it out herself.
And finally, contact lenses are a pain in the butt:
I was also lucky enough to run into S. G. Browne, author of Breathers: A Zombie's Lament, the story of a boy, a girl, and the zombification that brings them together. It seems that Browne and Benson are friends, and he was there to cheer her on. I have barely cracked the book's spine, but I'm eager to dive into its fleshy innards and drink the sweet (narrative) marrow from its bones. Also, kill it and eat its brains. You can expect a review of both Breathers and Death's Daughter when I get a chance to read them. Unless you are already a zombie, however, I wouldn't hold my breath if I were you. With the levels of business I'm maintaining right now, it might be a while.
That's about it for today's Burning Zeppelin Experience. Have fun, keep writing, and buy a copy of Death's Daughter at your local independent science fiction and fantasy bookstore.
And since I have photos to spare, this is Becca, a good friend of the Abigail and I and frequent companion on our adventures. Becca is part-originator of the challenge that has me reading Twilight. She also seems very happy to meet Amber Benson and have their picture taken together, but she doesn't have quite as many teeth as I do. This is only to be expected, I suppose.