Monday, January 24, 2011

Check it Out!

My story The Invisible Kingdom has been published in The Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine. People! Who I don't already know! Experiencing my story! It's ridiculous. And there's album art and voices and music and sound effects and everything.

Direct link here.

I can't recommend the Dunesteef enough (after all, they publish such fine works of fiction). I'm very proud of myself (as the Abigail keeps on reminding me I should be), and eager to see where continuing to send out my fiction takes me.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

It's Time to Face the Facts

I still like D&D.

I thought my love affair with D&D ended after college, when I wished it farewell in one last fling (Sarah's WoW-inspired D&D campaign) and then threw myself fully into the more narrative games I have always preferred. My brief experimentation with True20 (Blue Rose) seemed to cement it. The world of d20s and D&D, of races and classes and levels, was no longer for me. The birth of 4e was the last nail in the coffin. The D&D I had really come into my own with - 3rd Edition and 3.5 - was gone.

As it turns out, it didn't last.

First, there were the Indie Guys on the various podcasts I listen to, who sang 4th Edition's praises as a fundamentally well-written, highly focused game. Then there was my own dry streak, when finding time to play and people to play with became extraordinarily hard. And then, out of my own curiosity, I became the recipient of a bequest of 4th edition D&D books. I joined a Dark Sun D&D game down in the peninsula, and shortly thereafter left it and joined another one that meets at my local Borders (woo hoo!). Now I've got an Amazon wishlist full of most every book they've released so far - a fair number of which I own - and it's time to admit that maybe this isn't as over as I thought it was.

What's the appeal?

This really is a very well designed game. It's very focused on a linear, have adventures and grow in power game model. It's also focused on maximizing every player's fun at every moment. Gone are the days of mages and priests benefiting from an entire chapter of rules, all for them. Now everyone has cool powers that let them enjoy the spotlight for their brief moment.

For the kind of playing I truly prefer - narrative and emotion-based storytelling - none of this is an asset. However, I have discovered that I really do enjoy 4e D&D as a tactical minis combat game, and if you don't mind having your tactical minis game interrupted by high fantasy adventure (or your high fantasy adventure spiced up with the occasional tactical minis game), D&D can produce a genuinely enjoyable experience. You banter, you deal with NPCs, you solve puzzles, and then you kick ass - wash, rinse, and repeat in whatever order you see fit. It's not gonna be high art, but it could be high adventure, and sometimes that's all you need.

I know 4th Edition D&D takes a lot of flack in some roleplaying circles. It gets accused of being too easy to play, too high-powered, too much like a computer RPG (*cough* World of Warcraft *cough*), and designed to sell books rather than to promote a genuine creative experience. To this I say: *thbthbthbt*! Ease of play is an advantage, power level is relative, and I don't care if the design sells books because the design is fun! Far more fun (do I dare I say it?) than 2nd or 3rd editions ever were (guess I do).

So, if you're looking for me on a Tuesday night, you can find me at the Stonestown Galleria Borders, kicking ass and taking names as Alexander the slightly mad summoner psion. The game I'm in is full, but what we've got here is a growing community of gamers, and I'm sure we'll find somewhere to put you.

Until next time, remember: Move, Minor, Standard, and flanking is your friend. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

'Cause It's Cool

I realized belatedly that I might have overstated my point in my last post, so I wanted to make something clear. There's nothing wrong with including something in your story simply because it's cool. I am a full supporter of stories that include cool things.

What I'm against is writing words just because the words are cool.

What's the distinction?

Something that's in your story has a place. It is thought out, considered, and connected to other story elements. It exists to serve the story - sometimes, simply by being cool.

Words that just happen to occupy the same page as your story are not connected. They simply exist, for their own sake rather than for the story's sake. They are selfish, disruptive, and parasitical. They take up space without contributing anything, not matter how cool they are.

For all my pontificating, I don't pretend to always know the difference between the two. Cool but parasitical words can be very good at masquerading as cool stuff. I am still a wannabe, after all. Though, I am swift to point out, I firmly believe that even when I am an actuallyis I'll still need editors and good friends to help me figure it out.

Monday, January 10, 2011

War on BAUF

Hard to admit I fought the war on BAUF
My hands were tied and the phone was... BAUFed.


BAUF is an acronym of my own devising for a thing that I would like to see eradicated, or at the very least reduced: Business As Usual Fantasy. I'm sure you've heard me ranting about BAUF before, when it comes to fantasy species, and the prevalence of BAUF themes was my main criticism in a recent podcast novel review.

Now let us define our terms: what us BAUF?

In my opinion, the fantasy genre is plagued by a tendency to include fantasy elements for their own sake, rather than because they serve the story or contribute to the setting. It's the kind of logic that leads to elves somewhere in the world - it's a fantasy, after all - even if there are no elves or elvish works in the story itself. Worse, this is the kind of lack of thought that leads to the presence of elves even when the elves add nothing to the story.

For a relevant counter-example, check out science fiction. In science fiction, story elements are generally well-considered and weighed out, included because of what they add, not simply because it's science fiction. Space ships are usually only present in science fiction stories that need space ships - because the story takes place on an alien planet, or the social and economic effects of space travel help drive the plot, or whatever - and are absent from stories that don't. There are warlike cat-people-aliens in Larry Niven's Known Space - a seminal work of science fiction - but there aren't warlike cat-people-aliens in Carl Sagan's Contact. That's because Carl Sagan and Larry Niven both thought long and hard about what was needed to drive their stories and only included those elements that were needful.

Just to be clear, I've got nothing against orcs and dwarves, dragons and spellcasters, when they are necessary to the story. I've even gotten over my elf rage (mostly). I'm even writing a novel that includes elves as a major plot and setting piece. What I have a beef with is the practice of including these elements when they are totally extraneous. Business As Usual Fantasy. Fantasy elements that are included for no reason other than that they are expected.

So, I've explained what I mean by BAUF. But what, you ask, is the problem?

The problem with BAUF is that it's fat, pure and simple. Although I'm not always good at it - just ask everyone who critiqued The Dead of Tetra Manna in its earliest incarnations - I believe that slim and focused writing is a virtue in and of itself. Unnecessary and extraneous elements don't belong in a tightly written narrative. Readers shouldn't be distracted by stuff that doesn't need to be there. Everything you include takes attention away from everything else you include, so include as little as possible (without rendering your story completely sparse) and spend your narrative energy on what matters.

Let's keep it positive - I don't want to condemn specific works as BAUF here. Rather, let's take a little while to talk about a couple of works that are definitely not just Business As Usual.

  • The Guild of the Cowry Catchers (and The Prophet of Panamindorah, which I have never spelled correctly the first attempt), both excellent podcast novels by Abigail Hilton. The world of Panamindorah (I got it right!) is completely free of BAUF, and quite compelling besides.
  • N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is exactly what I'm talking about when I ask for tightly written fantasy that only includes what it needs and excludes what it doesn't. In addition to being a tightly-written novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms takes place in a truly unique setting that is lean, mean, and evocative.

I'd love to see more examples of BAUF-free fantasy in the comments.

Until next time, folks, remember: go not to the elves for council, for they will say both yes and "zeppelin!"

Frickin' elves.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Free (From) Agency

I've been listening to the Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine a lot lately. The podcast is distinguished in two ways: firstly, they do professional quality full-cast audio productions that are really fun to listen to, and secondly, they are still a relatively small and young non-professional market, which means that goons like me stand a snowball's chance of getting published there. Most of my other podcasts are single reader and professional or near-professional, which makes the Dunesteef a welcome change of pace.

As a sub-professional market, the Dunesteef also publishes a lot of stuff by relatively inexperienced writers, which has given me the opportunity to notice something interesting. Many writers - myself included - siaplt a fondness for what I call the "Agency Hook." While the Agency Hook is a venerable tradition and has spawned numerous popular books and television shows, there are problems with it, and reasons that inexperienced writers find it so attractive.

I can hear you asking me: dude, what the hell are you talking about?

The Agency Hook works like this: the main character(s) are operatives of some organization who sends them out to do its bidding. The characters might be cops, soldiers, FBI agents, part of a secret cult, or members of some shadowy and clandestine bureau. Almost invariably, there are problems of organizational politics, bureaucratic incompetence, and secret agendas. Famous examples of the Agency Hook include Mission Impossible, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers, and many other spy shows and movies.

The advantages of the Agency Hook are manifold. The agency at issue can provide numerous premises; want your characters to go anywhere, do anything? The agency sent them! Need a complication? From agency politics and antagonistic superiors to simple disorganization and stupidity, the possibilities are nearly endless.

So, then, what's the problem?

In the hands of an inexperienced writer (or, for that matter, someone who just made a mistake), the Agency Hook can have the side effect of deprotagonizing the protagonists (which is never a good idea). Put bluntly, (in my opinion), when a main character is only doing what he does for someone else's reasons, what you have on your hands is a dead fish of a story. Characters are good when they take charge of their destinies and make both interesting decisions and interesting mistakes (or, alternately, dramatically fail to take charge of their destinies, which is itself an interesting mistake).

In my mind, the best way to make sure you're using the Agency Hook and not the Agency Crutch is to carefully examine your story. Is your character personally, deeply, passionately involved in what he does, or is he only doing it because it's orders? Does your character have a unique style that shines through the narrative, or is he simply falling into the role of Yet Another [Insert Organization Here] Agent (or - and this is harder to spot - Yet Another Archetypically Styled [Insert Organization Here] Agent. Spooky FBI Dude, anyone)?

I've kind of moved away from the Agency Hook these days - not because it's universally bad, but because it doesn't really interest me right now. I'm finding it more interesting to explore character who act wholly on their passions and experiences rather than being tangled in an organization that dictates their actions. That said, I still engage with the Agency Hook - anyone who's ever run or played a White Wolf game, especially the old World of Darkness, plays with the Agency Hook - so I'm definitely not condemning it. I'm just saying that it has its flaws, and you should remain cognizant of them.

That's all for now. Until next time, remember that orders are orders, and if you've got a problem with that you should take it up with the boss.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

New Year's Cleaning

I'll probably reflect on the writing of 2010 at some point, but we here at the Burning Zeppelin Experience have never been bound by standards of punctuality, how have we? What I want to write about this year is writerly organization.

You see, I was recently lucky enough to buy myself a new computer (a MacBook, by the way, which means that we will see the return of the •, which is remarkably hard to type on a PC, you know). As I was (slowly, laboriously, via flash drive) migrating stuff from my old computer(s), I realized that my computer organization system sucks. My professional stuff is pretty well sequestered in an island of stability, but the rest of it my hard drive is a welter of miscategorized files, enormous folders filled with trash, and folders called simply "Sort."

In fact, in one place I even have a folder called "Desktop Stuff" inside a folder called "To Sort" and that one inside another folder called "Sort."

Considering my recent discovery that I am actually more of an outliner than I thought I was, I decided that it might be a good idea to bring some method to this madness. After all, if I'm going to be writing outline after outline, it might be prudent to have some place to put all these files.

After some thought (and a conversation with the Abigail), I came up with a system that goes something like this:

  • Fiction
    • Flash and Flitter
    • Short
      • Notes
      • In Progress
      • Completed
      • Hiatus
    • Novel
      • Notes
      • In Progress
      • Completed
      • Hiatus
    • Well

There's also a somewhat better organized place for all my gaming stuff - including the games I'm trying to write - but that's neither here nor there. What does all this mean? Well, Flash and Flitter is for flashfiction, flitterfiction, and perhaps even the occasional microfic or drabble. You don't need much more categorization in there; if you can't finish a flash piece in one sit down or need to keep extensive notes, you're probably doing something wrong, as that's kind of the point. Short and Novel are, unsurprisingly, for short stories and novels. Within each of those folders I have a place to keep a story when it's just a collection of notes, when I'm actually working on it, when it's done, and when it's on hiatus. For organizational purposes, each story that gets beyond the "single word document of notes" stage will get a folder of its own for storing outlines, successive versions, dumpster files (more on those some other day) and notes.

The Well, on the other hand, is an idea I've alluded to before (there, though, I called it the threshing floor). Basically, this is the place where ideas go to die and be reborn. When a character study fully fails to produce something I'm going to use, when a cosmology turns out to be nothing more than so much high concept gibberish, or whatever, this is the folder I'll dump it in. Maybe once in a while I'll clean it out and get rid of the stuff that I deem totally useless, but it's not like my new machine has any lack of storage. After all, you never know when something is going to turn out to be useful later.

Well, I hope this was useful for you all. I'm going to bed.

And by the way, I've decided to name my new computer Bright Itempas, because after one gray computer, one black computer, and one navy blue computer, this dude's whiteness is intolerable. Also, you should be reading N. K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Why? Because it's good. I'll review it later.

Until next time, remember who you are, hold on to yourself, and see it through.