Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Direction of the Zeppelin

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After the some of the discussion of blogs on the latest I Should be Writing podcast, I've been thinking about making a minor course correction for the Burning Zeppelin, and I wanted to give my reader(s) a chance to comment.

In her podcast, the inestimable Mur Lafferty comments that, in that they are a platform, blogs should be about the author as well as her work. In other words, I shouldn't just post about stories, ideas, my takes on writing, and so on, but also about my life, my day, and the thousands of small victories and challenges that make me (and my writing) who (and what) I (and it) am (are?).

On the other hand, the Burning Zeppelin Experience was founded to explore a certain kind of fiction in literary, visual, and experiential (that is, roleplaying) form. I don't want to stray too far from my roots here.

Full disclosure here: in my other existence, I have what I think is a pretty interesting life. I'm a teacher in an inner city school and my wife, the Abigail, is a counselor who specializes in trauma, especially bullied and traumatized kids. I have strong, and in some cases iconoclastic, opinions about widely varied issues, and I'm not afraid to speak my mind about them (or, get up at a ridiculous hour and campaign about them). If I open the Burning Zeppelin Experience up to posts about my real life, you aren't going to be deluged by "my sandwich was great today; how about yours?" posts.

I don't eat many sandwiches, anyway.

So, what do you think? Do you want to read about my other life as a teacher, husband, friend, and dude? Or shall we keep it strictly professional here on the Burning Zeppelin Experience? Your comments have the power to influence me this way or that, so don't be shy. Comment away!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

INS of the Father

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As you probably already know, my friend Nathan has his own bog, Mirrorshards, where he posts a daily 100 word story.

If you don't already read Mirrorshards (dude, what's wrong with you?) you don't know that today's piece is particularly clever. Check it out.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Dugger

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Back when he lived in Palo Alto, my friend Ben (originally a high school friend of the Abigail's) used to throw awesome cheese parties. These parties were so named (by me) because Ben has excellent taste in cheese. He loved to share his expertise, and would bring excellent cheeses to all parties, making them all into awesome cheese parties.

Ben moved to DC and took his cheese with him. I miss Ben.

Incidentally, you can find Ben here, doing surreal photocomics that I can't recommend heartily enough.

But I digress.

The point of this story was that it was at one such awesome cheese party that I first saw Digger on someone else's computer. That was back at the dawn of Digger when it was still a paysite, which is probably why it took me five more years to start reading the comic for myself. I did, however, eventually start reading Digger, and I've never regretted it.

Digger, by Ursula Vernon (whose other work can be found at the eponymously named ursulavernon.com), tells the story of an extremely lost wombat named (oddly enough) Digger who finds herself embroiled in an epochs-old conflict between god and demon, priest and hyena, oracular slug and fierce shrew highwaywoman.

Everything about comic is excellent: the art is creepy and fantastical, the setting is deeply weird and subtly explicated, and all of its inhabitants are wonderfully eccentric and fully realized people (even if some of them are hyena people). The character of Digger herself is really what carries the comic, however. In this brave little wombat, Vernon combines cynicism and idealism, compassion and pragmatism, and genre-savvy and dimensionality in a way that is uniquely endearing and compelling.

I'm also partial to hyena people, myself.

Despite being a webcomic about talking animal people, Digger is also surprisingly deep. It deals with issues of culture and ethics as well as even larger issues of fate, faith, and freedom, with surprising depth. And that's not "surprising for a comic about talking animal people," that's "surprising, period." I've had shallower from philosophy courses in college.

You may have noticed the past tense in this post's title. Not only is that because I am scorchingly, unbearably clever; it's also because Digger is over. Like all good things, it finally came to its conclusion. It's sad, sweet, and strange conclusion.

The entirety of Digger is still up for you to read, however, and I recommend you do it. Now.

Until next time, remember tunnel 17, and remember Ed.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

This Just Zeppelin!

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AKA: Blatant Zeppelin-Mongering

You may recall that some time ago I posted my review of Brandon Sanderson's excellent Mistborn series? You may have also heard that Sanderson is working with Crafty Games to produce a Mistborn roleplaying game. However, if you aren't listening to the excellent (relatively) new Ace of Geeks podcast, you probably haven't heard this (the news is also available at Crafty Games' website, along with other information, I'm sure).

If you've ever wondered how many links I can fit into a single paragraph, now you know.

Anyway, if you don't want to follow the link and listen to the entire episode (which is understandable, since Ace of Geeks follows the "meander at length about awesome stuff" model of podcasting, so if what you're after is the news I'm talking about you'll probably be frustrated), the news is this: the Mistborn RPG will use the FATE system originally popularized by Evil Hat's Spirit of the Century.

And you thought I was done with links.

This is excellent news. I don't know anything about Crafty Games, except that they are the makers of SpyCraft and FantasyCraft, both games I know absolutely nothing about. What I do know a lot about is FATE. I've read and loved a lot of games based on FATE, including Legends of Anglerre, for which I've written my own setting. FATE is an excellent system, one I think is particularly suited to the world of Mistborn.

In any case, my level of anticipation for this game just, ah, gained a level. I'm really eager to get my paws on this thing and run the heck out of it.

Before I depart for the evening, I'd like to throw a shout-out at Ace of Geeks. This is an extremely solid podcast, full of cleverness and fun. The hosts are both my kind of people: clever, smart, open-minded, socially conscious, and extremely nerdy. They have the most important quality of all podcasts: fun. Not that they're fun to listen to - which they are - but that they're clearly having so much fun podcasting. It really rubs off. One of the hosts, Mike, also plays D&D with me at the local Borders. I really enjoy Ace of Geeks, and I'm willing to bet you will, too.

If you are an obsessive archive-trawler (like me), be warned: the early episodes, before the Aces bought new microphones, are a bit... rough. I found some of them very hard to listen to. If you are less deaf - or less commuting in an increasingly loud car that probably needs a tune-up - than I, you might very well have no difficulties. Anyway, the most recent episode is completely audible at all times. I look forward to watching this podcast continue to grow and improve, as all things do.

And that's it for tonight. Until next time, folks, how exactly does one mong a zeppelin?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Creative Prompt, Take II

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Ok, I guess the D&D fans aren't out there.

Instead, give me this, somewhat more generically fantastic thing:

Tell me the story of a world in which a god associated with a generally malevolent phenomenon is viewed as a benevolent force. The more negative the phenomenon, the more genuine the god's benevolence, the more points you win. The who, what, where, when, why, and how are entirely up to you.

Go?

Please?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Creative Prompt, 4th Edition

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To all my D&D fans (I know you're out there):

Tell me about the Astral Chaos.

Tell me about the Elemental Sea.

Go.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A-NO-nymous

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It's common wisdom - as I understand it - that what every writer needs is a good crit group, full of people who don't know you, don't care about you, and are perfectly willing to tear your work to shreds, sparing not a thought for your feelings. The internet is great for this sort of thing, as are groups that meet in coffee shops. Don't show your work to your friends and family, because they'll be too kind to you. Presumably, also, be wary of becoming friends with your anonymous crit group, lest they start to love you and also begin sparing your feelings.

Honestly, I call bullshit.

First of all, there are stories like the one mentioned in a recent episode of I Should Be Writing: crit groups turned mutual appreciation societies. I've heard of this happening again and again, both online and in real life. It seems to me that there is a powerful tendency in writer's groups to develop toxic social norms. Real criticism is unsafe and frowned upon; only bland positive feedback is permitted.

Secondly, there's my personal experience. My alpha reader is the Abigail, a former English major and avid consumer of short and long science fiction and fantasy (well, mostly fantasy). My alpha and a half reader (in that he lives across the Internet and usually doesn't get to my work until after the Abigail has had a crack at it) is Nathaniel Lee, of Mirrorshards. My beta readers are the aspiring writers of the Escape Artists' writer's forum (it's hidden on their regular forum - you need to message a moderator to join). Of the three, only the folks at EA even resemble an anonymous and disinterested group. Most importantly, I have had no difficulty getting cutting negative feedback from the Abigail and Nathan when it's appropriate.

I know that single exceptions don't actually disprove established rules, so I'm going to provide the mechanism by which my system works:
  1. Because most people are basically nice, only someone who really cares about you will tell you when you suck. Getting someone to tell you when you suck is even harder when they know that you are going to get a turn telling them that they suck. This is how mutual appreciation societies form - everyone is afraid to be the one to give negative feedback because they don't want to be the first to receive negative feedback. Norms form (as they will) until negativity is outlawed.
  2. Not all feedback is created equal. With all due respect to my beta readers, I usually get the best and most useful feedback from Nathan and the Abigail. They are both intelligent, tasteful, talented, and beautiful (well, the Abigail anyway) (Nathan - imagine me sticking my tongue out at you). I know them, I trust them, and they tend to have more useful and specific things to say.
  3. I've found it especially true that people who get me get my work and people who don't, don't. When the point of a story is obscure or poorly communicated, people who understand me are more likely to understand what I'm going for and help me draw it out. People who don't understand me are more likely to completely miss the point and give me feedback that sends me in the wrong direction. I'll concede that an audience who can miss the point this way is important, because I need to know if my point is that hard to get... but when it comes to getting me back on track, it's the people who know me who can lead the way.
  4. Finally, and relatedly, relationship is key. Readers who know me and know what I find interesting can make much more cutting and perceptive comments. The Abigail knows when I'm shying away from a decision I'm excited about but afraid my audience won't get. Nathan isn't afraid to point out when I'm being too nice to my characters. In my experience, this insight is priceless.

Now is the time on the Burning Zeppelin Experience when I undermine my own point with concessions to the very thing I'm railing against.

Firstly, I do believe that there is a time and a place for an anonymous crit group. It is incredibly useful to have a group of people, hooked in to some kind of feedback mechanism, who can let you know what an audience is going to make of your work. After all, not everyone is going to be as intelligent, tasteful, talented, and beautiful as the Abigail (and Nathan). Not everyone is going to know me as well, either.

Secondly, I also know that I have lucked the heck out. I'm married to a former English major, with whom I share a love of fantastic fiction and roleplaying games (in fact, I'd better wrap this post up so I can finish planning our next Exalted session...). I have a college buddy who is a talented writer, but in such a way that he is my complementary inverse (rather than being so different we have nothing to say to each other or so similar we share all the same foibles). Not everyone is going to be so fortunate.

That said...

I can't help but set myself up against the common wisdom. I think that alpha and beta readers who understand you, care about you, and relate to your work are absolutely indispensable, much more so than an anonymous or distant crit group.

Until next time, remember, that Zeppelin stands alone.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Funk Over?

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So, I was going to post last night, but I hadn't had a chance to work on anything for Trump III: The High Priestess. I was too busy working on The Corpse-Eater in Love, the first of two story ideas I've had in the last two days (the second hasn't got a title yet, or I'd tease you with that, too).

Yeah.

I think the funk might be over. Rather than depress myself anew over this, I'm going to suspend this little blog project until the next time I need an artificial creativity structure. Don't worry, I won't forget.

This brief interlude is brought to you by love-struck ghouls, magical brain parasites, and the color zeppelin.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Zeppelin Bureau

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Last night, despite PACTing, teaching, job and budget woes, the Abigail and I went to see a movie. Specifically, we went to see "The Adjustment Bureau", a new film featuring the talents of Matt Damon and a wide variety of other entertainment industry personalities that I, philistine that I am, don't know from Adam. The movie tells that story of David Norris, a Senate hopeful whose chances are dashed by a single bad choice coming home to roost. The Adjustment Team is also a short story by Phillip K. Dick (the full text of the original story is available here).

I don't want to write too much. So much of this story rests in the suspense, in the starts and stops of the central unlikely and ill-fated romance that I'm genuinely afraid of spoiling it for you. I will tease you by saying that "The Adjustment Bureau" reminded me of In Nomine, Demon: the Fallen, and Exalted's Sidereals, all of which it added to and compared to favorably.

I will say this: I recommend this movie without reservation.

I will also say this: The creators of this movie do things with the use of space, light, color, and camera angle that make me keenly aware of the limitations of the written word. They literally took my breath away. I got it back, but it was close there.

I will finally say this: "The Adjustment Bureau" defines and redefines the idea of a Burning Zeppelin Experience.

So, go see "The Adjustment Bureau."

Until next time, folks, the Zeppelin would like to remind you that everything is going according to plan.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Presenting: Thetis

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As part of my continued efforts to turn off the funk, I now bring you Thetis, a world of nautical high fantasy. Based on part on some ideas provided by the Abigail and partly on some ideas of my own creation, Thetis is a world of ancient mysteries, seafaring mutants, and crazy alchemists. I think you'll enjoy it.

Oh, and the Abigail - follow that link! It leads to an improved and updated version of the document I emailed you last night.

Also, a pdf. Thanks Google Docs!

Anyway, I can hear you saying: "dude, why are you giving us an RPG setting for Trump One: the Magician?" You sound annoyed, confused, and a little congested. You might be coming down with something, and should try to get some sleep tonight to see if you can kick it.

I have two reasons.

Firstly, Thetis has several themes in common with the Magician: mystery, exploration, and the struggle to balance (or conquer) the occult with the rational. Of course, Thetis also has the aforementioned seafaring mutants. I'm pretty sure there aren't any seafaring mutants in the Magician.

Secondly, Thetis uses an adaptation of Cubicle 7's Legends of Anglerre (itself an adaptation of Evil Hat's FATE system, which first hit the market as Spirit of the Century), making it a drift rather than a purely original creation. There is something about the art of drifting and hacking that has always reminded me of the Magician, a kind of arcane virtuosity. To drift and hack, you manipulate obscure variables, pulling some themes forward into the light and pushing others back into the shadow.

As above, so below; as the themes, so the dice.

I'm going to take that as my cue to wish you adieu. Until next time, folks, sing it with me: "hey, ho, the wind and the Zeppelin!"