I’m on my way to Boston for PAX East this morning. While I make my way through several states on what are certain to be lovely roads, have a look at my thoughts on the lines between video game developers and video game players, and what might happen if they get blurred.
I feel we are rapidly approaching what I’ve chosen to dub “the Video Game Singularity”. It’s the point at which the lines between developers and players of video games blurs to the degree that the storytelling experience these games convey is one truly shared between both camps. We’re on our way with RPGs with user mod tools like Skyrim, massively multiplayer experiences and yes, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure tales like the Mass Effect trilogy. Now, things like marketing departments, stratospheric fanatical expectations, and the limitations of current technology will hinder this advent, but it’s sooner than we think.
The Internet’s instant communication and dissemination of information is accelerating the process as we, as gamers, find and refine our voices. While we’ll never be able to excise every single idiot or douchebag from the community, we can minimize their impact while maximizing what matters: our investment in our entertainment. We are patrons, and video games are the art for which we pay.
Games are unquestionably art. Moreover, they a new form of art all their own, with their own traditions, their own classical periods, their own auteurs, their own mavericks. So I pose the question: why do we judge them as works of art extant in other forms when they clearly do not belong there?
Think about it. A movie critic, with little to no exposure to gaming in general, has no basis by which to judge the merits and flaws of BioShock or Killer7 in comparison to Kane and Lynch. By comparison, many gamers who only see a handful of movies may not recognize the reasons why film aficionados praise Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Odyssey. The two mediums are completely different, and the biggest difference is in the controller held by the player.
From the moment we put our fingers on buttons, sticks, or mice at the start of a game, we have a measure of control over our experience. A well-designed game lets the player feel like they are truly a part of the world they’re being shown, that their choices will help shape the events to come. In a movie or a book, there’s no interaction between the observer and the observed. We experience the narrative the authors want us to experience regardless of whatever decisions we might have made differently. Video games, on the other hand, invite us to make our choices and experience the consequences for better or for worse.
Since players are a part of the building process for the narrative, it could be argued that they have just as much ownership of the story as the developers do. That isn’t to say they should get a cut of the game’s profits, as not everyone can render the iron sights of a gun or the glowing eyes of a dimensional horror-beast as well as a professional, who has to pay for things like training and food. A game done right, however, makes the player feel like a part of its world, and with that comes a certain feeling of entitlement.
That word’s been bandied about quite a bit lately, and to be honest I don’t think gamer entitlement is entirely a bad thing. The problem arises when gamers act like theirs is the only opinion that matters. Gaming is, at its best, a collaborative storytelling experience. Bad games shoulder players out of their narratives with non-interactive cutscenes or features that ruin immersion. Bad gamers scream their heads off whenever things don’t go exactly the way they expect in a given story. “This sucks and so do you” is not as helpful as “I think this sucks and here’s why.”
Not to belabor the point, but you can tell an author or director how much a book or movie sucks in your opinion, and the most you might get is a “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Game developers, however, know their medium is mutable. It can be changed. And if mistakes are made in the process of creating a game that slipped by them or weren’t obvious, they can go back and fix them. Now, the ending of a narrative is not the same as a major clipping issue, games crashing entirely, or an encounter being unreasonably difficult, and not every complaint from the player base is legitimate. And in some cases, the costs in time and money required to make changes to adjust a story even slightly can be entirely too prohibitive. But when there’s truth found in the midst of an outcry, some merit to be discerned from a cavalcade of bitching and moaning, game developers have power other creators of narrative simply don’t have.
The question is: should they exercise it?
Let me put it another way:
Should finished games be considered immutable things like films or novels, set in stone by their creators? Does listening to players and altering the experience after much debate ruin the artistic merit of a given game?
I think the answer to both questions is “no.”
Changing the ending of a novel or film because fans didn’t like it is one thing. Most directors and authors would cite artistic integrity in keeping their tales as they are. There are those who feel game developers should maintain the same standards. That doesn’t seem right to me, though. For one thing, a writer may change an ending if a test reader can cite issues with it, and a director can re-cut their film if focus groups find it difficult to watch without any benefit. Moreover, gaming is so different from every other art form, so involving of the end user of the content, that sooner or later a different set of standards should be observed.
As we approach the Video Game Singularity, it becomes more and more apparent that the old ways of judging those who create the stories we enjoy no longer apply. We are just as responsible for the stories being told through games as the developers are, and while games empower and encourage us to make decisions to alter the outcome, we must realize that our power in that regard is shared with the developers, and is not exclusively our own. By the same token, the onus of integrity does not solely fall on the developers. We, as participants in the story, must also hold ourselves to a standard, in providing constructive criticism, frank examination, and willingness to adapt or compromise when it comes to the narratives we come to love. Only by doing this can we blur that line between gamers and developers. Only by showing this desire to address these stories as living things in which we have a say and for the benefit of which we will work with their original creators will gamers stop coming across as spoiled brats and start to be considered a vital part of the game creation process.
We can stop being seen as mere end-user consumers, and start participating actively in the perpetuation of this art form. To me, that’s exciting and powerful.
I mean, we still have people using racist and homophobic language in the community, but hey, baby steps.
If you don’t know who Chuck Wendig is by now…
First of all, watch this.
Second of all, what the hell is wrong with you?
I’ve worshipped at the Altar of the Terriblemind more than once. It involves sacrifices of coffee, whiskey, tacos, and an outpouring of creative swears while dancing naked under the light of a full moon. While it’s yeilded quite a few fantastic books, which I’ll get to, it’s also given me the sense that I need to kick my writerly ass.
The last few months have been surprisingly stressful at the dayjob, which is perhaps due to extenuating circumstances in my head and diet and whatnot, but that’s not really an excuse. The dayjob only lasts a certain number of hours per day, and I could easily carve out more of the remaining time for writing. Hell, Hearthstone has long queues, as does Heroes of the Storm (waiting on my invite, Blizzard!), World of Warcraft has pauses for travel and queues of its own… and those are just the Blizzard games! I like to write posts like this while watching Crash Course or The Cinema Snob. It’s possible to pour the words into the cracks between the day’s longer hours. I just need to do it more often.
A while back, Chuck posted a photo of where he writes. It’s beautiful. Isolated. A window to the outdoors, a rig for his iPad (disconnected from the Internet, I’d imagine), a place for his coffee. I’m reminded again that not only do I need to make the time, I need to make the space. Sitting here tapping out blog posts isn’t too difficult, writing-wise, but it’s still incredibly easy to be distracted and if I want to get anything done, I need to focus. I must do that more often, just like I should work out more often. I can make all of the excuses I like about the dayjob or my mental/emotional state or what have you, but in the end, the only way to write is to write.
Wendig reminds me of this because, damn, that motherfucker’s prolific. He’s writing novels, novellas, serialized fiction, non-fiction about writing… basically everything a canny genre writer can write to keep writing. He’s got various points of entry if you’re not up on his work, too. Are you into vampires and/or zombies? Read Double Dead. Want a powerful female protagonist? Blackbirds is for you. How about urban fantasy mashed with gripping crime drama? Try The Blue Blazes. Young adult reader looking for something unique? Under The Empyrean Sky might be your bag. Just need advice/a kick in the ass for your own writing? Buy The Kick-Ass Writer already.
See what I mean? Whenever I worry that my ambitions are too “all over the place”, that what I write can’t possibly make it, Chuck reminds me that such thinking is bullshit. All I have to do is get off my ass. Or at least sit my ass down and write.
It’s an unfortunate truth: we don’t all have the luxury of doing what we love all day, every day.
Some do, and that’s wonderful. The world needs more people who come fully alive and do what they love for the benefit of others as well as themselves. I support them wholeheartedly. But we can’t all do that. Some of us toil. Some of us put aside what we want to fulfill our obligations and make ends meet in a more expedient but less satisfactory fashion.
You have to remind yourself that this is okay.
There’s nothing wrong with committing to a bit of the old day-in day-out. Being as present as possible where you physically are can help make a better future for yourself. Employers like to see reliability and adaptability in their assets, and these attributes can make future employment opportunities easier to secure. From that perspective, putting aside other ambitious is a worthwhile sacrifice.
You also have to remind yourself not to give up.
Our dreams matter, and are worthy of being pursued. Having goals beyond the mundane day-to-day helps us see beyond the inbox, work through the frustations that come from tasks that ultimately have no real impact on us, and give us hope for the future. Our problems are temporary. To paraphrase Theodore Parker (who was himself paraphrased by Martin Luther King Jr), the curve of history is long but it bends towards justice. If you can hold onto what’s good in your life, and strive towards your goals even if your steps on that journey falter, you will see that your setbacks and failures do not matter anywhere near as much as your joyous occasions and your successes.
In the end, our measure is not truly taken in the unfortunate difficulties that hinder us and the oversights and mistakes we are bound to make. We’re going to get in our own way. We’re going to leave aside what we’ve put aside for the sake of our sanity and decompression. These are forgivable, human, and ultimately temporary conditions. If we keep moving forward, if we persevere, if we eventually reach that goal towards which we strive, all of the frustation and all of the shame and all of the despair will evaporate, and satisfaction is all that will be left.
Tomorrow will be a new day, no matter how badly today might go.
Try to remember that, especially when the days begin to turn sour. You can make it. And you will.
Until then, do what you gotta do.
I think it’s normal for creative types to experience a measure of jealousy in the entertainment they enjoy. “Why didn’t I think of that?” “How do they do that?” “What are they doing right that I’m doing wrong?” So go the thoughts one can have when consuming media in line with what one wants to create themselves. Jealousy can become trepidation and even fear. Why try to create something new where something new that’s very similar has already been created?
When I run into this question, I try to remind myself of what I feel is the correct answer: Try to create anyway.
It’s difficult, at times, not to care about the works other have done that lay within our interests and skill set. We want to know the competition, after all, to gauge our chances at meeting with the same level of success. We want that knowledge, that assurance, even if it means we have to give up on our ideas because, according to all of the evidence, the ideas don’t stand a chance.
That knowledge, as essential as it seems, gives rise to our fears. We’re afraid our dreams aren’t good enough. That our ideas will never find an audience. That at the end of all things, all we’ll have to show for our desire to create is some disconnected scraps of thought and art, a bitter feeling of repeated and callous rejection, and a whole lot of wasted time.
You shouldn’t be afraid of these things. And if you want to give your dreams a fighting chance, you can’t be afraid of them.
It doesn’t matter if what you want to do has been done. What matters is, how are you going to do it? What parts of your creation will set it apart from others? Why is it yours? Answering those questions, instead of the others I posed, will help you move forward, create more, and bring your dreams to life. You’ll find confidence and joy in doing so. And you will leave your fears behind.
The world needs more creators. Go forth, and make something new. And when you do it, do it without fear.
You might think, from the title, that this is going to be another post about Netrunner. As much as I could ramble about cyberpunk card games until the post-apocalyptic cows come home, I want to talk more about the weather. No, not the weather in Night Vale, that’s yet another post. Lately the weather where I live has been cold. The winds have teeth. Snow is everywhere. And slowly but surely, almost every surface has languished under a coat of ice.
We’ve had to dig ourselves out of weather like this, situations like this, before. Even if you haven’t (in which case, consider yourself very fortunate), I’ll enumerate to facilitate better understanding. We have a bit of a hibernation instinct, the impulse to withdraw from the biting winds and damaging cold, to retain all the warmth we can by staying as huddled and insulated as possible. Whatever we leave behind, whatever escaped our notice in our withdrawal, becomes encased in that ice we’re desperate to avoid.
So it is with projects we leave behind. It could be for any number of reasons – fatigue, stress, more pressing projects, mere distraction – but whatever the cause, we put our ideas on a shelf in the freezer of the mind, to preserve it for later. Thankfully, ideas do not themselves suffer from freezer burn; the only real danger is that time may have made the idea too hip or too passé to be completely actionable. But no idea is completely without merit. All you have to do is break the ice around it and see what you have to work with.
This goes back to reinterpreting the entire concept of writer’s block. I maintain that it doesn’t really exist, at least not in the form of some ineffable construct that simply appears in the path of the writer. What does exist is this reshuffling of priorities in our heads. If you feel like something is preventing you from doing what you want to do, all it takes is some time to recharge, rethink your approach, and maybe break the ice covering something in your mind that hasn’t had attention in a while. I’m sure, in some case, there are truly daunting things in the way that can mess up one’s personal productivity, so I don’t mean to generalize. However, for the most part, if you’re wondering what’s happened to that idea you once had, if it’s any good or if there’s something fresh about it you can use elsewhere, I encourage you to dig it out from the back of that mental freezer, chip off that ice around it, and see what you can do.
Pic Posted on Instagram
For Chuck’s latest challenge, I thought I’d describe one of the constants in my life over the past decade or so.
1) He only ever wears one coat, the same creamsicle orange with slightly darker stripes.
2) He likes to wander around the apartment and shout pitiful meows at the walls when I’m not around.
3) According to the vets, he is a “senior pet.”
4) When I’m writing or blogging, his very favorite spot is right in front of my word processing window.
5) He has a cool, moist nose, which you notice when he nuzzles his way under your hand so you pet him.
6) If I put dough on my lap, he’d be making bread, while purring (and wheezing) to beat the band.
7) Be he loafing with all four limbs tucked under his bulk, or pushed through a tissue box, he’s not as stealthy as he thinks.
8) He bats at his sister until she moves, then takes her spot to soak up the best sunlight.
9) He has especially stinky crap when he eats fish.
10) He trots towards me, his tail high and kinked, when I walk through the door after a long day.
I’ve now seen The LEGO Movie twice, and I loved it just as much the second time around, if not more. The composition and action are clever and inventive, the aesthetic is charming, the humor is genuinely funny, and the theme is something I can jam on. But a thought occurred to me that I was not expecting:
There isn’t a single character I don’t like.
The primary audience for the movie is going to be youngsters. As much as it’s written at a level that parents can both grok the themes and laugh at the humor, it’s basically a kid’s movie. It would be terrifyingly easy for the writers to keep the heroes and villains simple, if not one-dimensional, to make sure there’s no ambiguity or confusion on the part of the young audience.
However, the writers of The LEGO Movie demonstrate a level of skill and an abundance of trust in their audience. The characters in their movie are nuanced and deeper that you might think. Emmett, our hero, has no real power or even imagination to speak of. What I like about his starting position and presentation is that you don’t have to be born with some sort of special power or destiny to do the right thing or to be heroic. This comes to fruition in the end when he’s talking to Lord Business about what it means to be special (or The Special if you want to get technical).
Speaking of Lord Business, it’s been a long time since I’ve sat in a family movie and realized that the antagonist is really only villainous in presentation. Sure, his methods for going about what he wants are pretty diabolical, especially in the visuals, but in the end, Business just wants things to be ordered and organized. This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. He is driven to get what he wants to an extreme, and that extreme leads to some real scorched-earth moments, but the amplification of this desire for order comes from a place where such desire might seem terrifying. I won’t say more because I still want to avoid spoilers (you really should go see this movie if you haven’t already), but suffice it to say that what the writers do with the main villain really struck a chord with me.
I mentioned that the message in The LEGO Movie isn’t quite as strongly delivered as that from Wreck-It Ralph, but I’m not going to be too hard on a movie this inventive telling kids to be themselves. Again, Emmett is encouraged to cultivate what is special about himself. So too is Wyldstyle. What impressed me the second time around is how much the girl whose name sounds like a DJ’s handle is struggling with her own identity. She’s tied so much of her desires and ambitions into the quest that Emmett stumbles into that she seems to wrestle with who she is as opposed to who she wants to be. It’s subtle, but the desire for definition of identity touches her as much it does any of the other characters.
Last but not least I want to talk about Bad Cop. In addition to just loving hearing Liam Neeson voice this character (and Good Cop… and Dad Cop…), this is another character that easily could have been one-note: the primary hench-villain. The switching between Good Cop and Bad Cop could have just been an inventive little gimmick in a movie full of them. And yet here, again, we have a character who struggles to define who they are and who they want to be. At one point, Bad Cop says a line (again, spoilers) that indicates he’s painfully aware of the better nature he could be following. He’s in a position where he has orders to follow, prides himself in results, and does not give up in pursuit of a quarry, and yet as an officer of law, he wants to do the right thing, not necessarily just what he’s told. Again, for what’s ostensibly a kid’s movie, this is pretty deep and interesting stuff.
I could talk about this for a while, about how Benny’s identity is perhaps the most one-note of them all yet he manages complexity of his own, or how Princess Unikitty’s brave-face facade reflects those of kids trying to pretend everything is fine when things are anything but fine, but I think I’ve made my point. The LEGO Movie is not just a two-hour sales pitch for plastic building blocks; it is a story about finding what’s special about one’s self and completely embracing it, because that’s how we make the best of ourselves for our own benefit and that of the world. For a family picture, one that could have skated by on pop culture references and physical humor, it’s obvious to me that this tale of LEGOs and characters and realms and spaceships was very carefully assembled.
I’m looking back over my characters, both old and new. The ones I’ve just met definitely need to be fleshed out properly. Older ones that I already know could benefit from some tweaks here and there. But for all characters created in fiction, not unlike people I encounter in real life, walking a mile in their shoes yields incredible benefits.
It can be difficult to get inside the mind of another person. Their background, upbringing, experiences and personality are unique to them, and create a very different reference point from which they approach life. Yet we are encouraged to ‘walk a mile in their shoes’, to imagine them as complexly as we imagine ourselves, in order to achieve some measure of understanding and, in so doing, make the world a better place to in which to live.
Since writers are, for the most part, writing about people, it benefits the writer to walk that mile in their character’s shoes. In some cases, this is actually more difficult than walking the mile in the aforementioned person’s shoes. We can understand (to an extent) things like playing football or doing other people’s taxes or fighting depression or falling in love. It’s a little more difficult to wrap our minds around walking in space or riding a horse in pursuit of a dragon or surviving in a dystopian city of cybernetic nightmares.
The focus, I think, should not be on the specifics of the experiences, but the emotions and thoughts involved. What scares the character? What motivates them to do what they do? What are their dreams? Who do they love, admire, despise, pity? What drove them to the choices they’ve made so far, and what will push them to make the choices that change your story?
It can be difficult, but you definitely should walk that mile.
Normally, on Thursdays I use this space to geek out about something related to games. For example, I have a deck in Hearthstone that’s doing really well, I have thoughts on how important board game expansions are to a base game’s life cycle, and I want to help more people get comfortable with the somewhat daunting game of Twilight Imperium. But I can’t talk about any of that today. Last night, something happened to me that is so writerly, I just have to share it with you.
I was laying in bed last night, having trouble getting to sleep. I rolled around, trying to clear my head, but it wasn’t shutting down. There was too much noise. It took a while, but at around 2:30 am, the noise started to take shape. It was dialog. A scene. An idea.
At 2:45 I rolled out of bed and came back to my desk. I pulled out my Moleskine and started writing. It’s a rough outline, little more than the barest of bones for a story, but it got the idea out of my head enough for me to get some sleep. This morning, I’m still thinking about it. I’m turning the idea over in my head. And I likely will consider it throughout the day.
I have no idea if this story will work. It’s an extremely raw idea that could simply be unworkable. But the point is, it didn’t let me go. It grabbed my attention and I had no alternative but to deal with it before I could get any rest. This happens when you’re a writer. And the only thing to do is write the idea down.
It’s okay if you look at the idea in the light of day and say “why did I think this was good?”, since if you don’t take the moment to write the idea down, you won’t know either way. Things that seem vivid and crystal clear at night can dissolve by the light of day. But we mustn’t fear new ideas, when it comes to story or life.
We need our ideas, even the ones rude enough to keep us awake. We need to always be considering new alternatives, notions that keep us motivated, points of view we hadn’t considered. The brain, despite its composition, needs to be worked like a muscle to stay in shape. Let it atrophy or fester or dwell on the same-old same-old, and it’ll deteriorate faster than an ice cream cake at a corporate luncheon. The muse, that ephemeral and often anthropomorphised part of our minds that generates new ideas, is almost like your brain’s personal trainer. Listen to it.
There are a lot of things that can keep one awake in the dead of night. Worries over finances, anxiety about relationships, wondering if you left the gas on, and so on. New ideas are one thing that can not only be adequately dealt with, but also can lead to new patterns of thought, new creative endeavors, entire new pathways in life. Don’t be afraid of them. Don’t be afraid of your muse. Let it guide you to imagine, to think, and to create.
Then give it a warm glass of milk and send it back to bed because dammit, I need sleep already.
I’m happy this morning, but I’m really, really tired.
It almost feels redundant posting a Writer Report the day after discussing Cold Streets and how it’s not ready yet. I mean, things I’m working on are nowhere near ready yet. But I do think people get a lot out of learning about the artistic process, and I’d like to be as transparent as possible about my work.
So yes, I’ve been plugging away at the new novel. In addition to the dayjob, the freelance writing, and the games that keep me up late, I’ve been aiming to write at least 350 words a day on the thing. I have a character spreadsheet started, to track the descriptions and motivations of the people I dream up, and a general outline of how things go that I should really write down one of these days.
What I don’t have is a title.
I’ve had a couple of ideas, but none of them have really stuck in my mind the way Cold Iron or Godslayer did. Do I just call it ‘the novel’ until something pops out of my subconscious? I’m not sure what alternatives I have.
In the end, the important thing is for me to keep writing, as much as I can, as often as I can. That is, after all, how this shit gets done.
Simmering on the back burner is something I’ve been working on for over a year. It’s relatively complete. It’s got a beginning, a middle, and (in my opinion) a pretty cracking end. I’ve gotten people to look it over and agree it’s at least decent. And yet it sits there. It simmers. It waits.
Because it isn’t ready yet.
Cold Streets is going to be my second self-published novella. And as veteran self-publisher Chuck Wendig will tell you, there’s nothing second tier or ‘minor leagues’ about it. While you don’t have to go through the rigors and the wait and the hoops of the traditional publishing model, part of the trade-off is that the onus of the actual publication process is on you, the writer. You have to be your own PR. You have to be your own editor. And you have to be your own critic.
Despite the good words from my test readers, regardless of what polish and improvements I plan on making, the fact of the matter is, I am the sole arbiter of quality when it comes to what I write. And if something I’ve written isn’t good enough, it won’t see the light of day. That’s why I shut down Godslayer, and it’s why Cold Streets continues to simmer. I want to publish it, sure – it’s decent enough to warrant that – but I don’t feel it’s quite good enough yet.
They say you only get one chance to make a first impression. With Cold Iron, I held back on lining up the cover and arranging publication until I felt it was ready. And even as I fired it off, I felt there were things I could change about it. But it was prepared, and worked over, and good enough for other eyes. It may not be perfect – most of my work may never be perfect – but it worked well enough to earn some decent sales and good reviews. Cold Streets needs to be better. It will be, but it isn’t yet.
That’s the price we pay for publishing ourselves.
Well, that, and paying for talented folks to help us with our covers and whatnot.
Another nasty winter storm has slapped the area, leaving people buried in snow and shivering in near-zero temperatures (negative teens or lower in Celsius). Today sees the sun shining, but there’s a nasty wind out of the north-northwest and temperatures show no signs of going up. Local traffic is certain to be dicey at best. Thankfully, I am in a position where I am capable of working from home.
Doing so not only allows me the opportunity to feel more like a novelist, as they are a reclusive breed who rarely leave their homes, but also preserves energy that would otherwise be expended on my least favorite part of working in an office: the commute. Even though I moved closer to the office at the end of 2012, it can still be a major pain to get there even when conditions are good. And today, conditions remain dicey at best.
After doing so yesterday, I was able to make more headway in the new project (which needs a title at some point) and get a post over to Geekadelphia for the opening of the Hearthstone beta. Now, anybody can play! I’ve been trying to balance out my leisure time a bit more, and despite the advantages of working from home, I’m looking for ways and means to get out and about a bit more. Going strictly from home to the office and back again with deviations existing only in the context of errands can get tiresome.
Which is why I went to the cinema on Sunday night, and when Friday rolls around, I’ll tell you all about that.
A late night working plus working from home today equals headaches and other complications, the least of which is the fact that I didn’t prep a blog post yesterday. So while I brew coffee and hunt down painkillers, enjoy reading this post about what writers are.
Courtesy Floating Robes
You can’t say I haven’t warned you.
Living with writers is a tricky business at times. Look here, here and here for some of the proof. Over and above any cautionary tale you might here from the trenches is a deeper truth that is ever-present but rarely discussed. Writers, especially creators of fiction, for all their imagination and altruism and creativity and willingness to share their inspiration to inform and entertain, share a common bond that has nothing to do with what they drink and everything to do with how they do what they do.
I know I may be exaggerating somewhat, but bear with me through the metaphors. Writers, you see, are criminals.
Writers are Thieves
A writer may talk about someone or something that inspires them. What they’re really doing is confessing to theft. Now it’s rarely wholesale thievery, and you may need to look very carefully to see the seams between ideas stolen from other sources, but trust me, the wholly original idea presented by a writer is exceedingly rare.
Many writers have talked about this, at times obliquely, but Joseph Campbell is probably the best-known whistle-blower for this sort of thing. The idea of the hero’s journey is nothing new in the slightest, with the task of the writer being to modify that narrative through-line to make it interesting and relevant. Often the words being used have their roots in outside sources. However, the important part is not the words themselves, but rather what they are talking about.
Writers are Voyeurs
When you pick up a work of fiction, be it rattled off by a fan of a particular current narrative or a story spanning multiple volumes and years, you are looking into the lives of other people. You are seeing as much or as little as the author wants you to see. At times, you’ll be witnessing moments and aspects the people in question may not wish you to witness. You’ll be watching them at their most vulnerable, their most monstrous or their most intimate.
What is this if not voyeurism?
We often find or are told that the act of watching another person, especially if they are unaware of our presence, is something abhorrent. It’s invasive and we should be ashamed of ourselves. Yet we do it all the time. And it is writers, of stage and screen and page, who encourage us to engage in this sort of sordid, vicarious living.
It’s not all steamy windows and heavy breathing, though. When we see the lives of others unfold, the possibility exists for us, despite only being involved as observers, gaining something from the experience. The exploration of these fictional people can give us insight into our own perspectives and motivation. If we can relate to, understand and care for original characters, there’s no reason we can’t relate to, understand and care for our fellow man.
Writers are Murderers
George RR Martin, I’m looking at you.
What are writers if not gods of their own little worlds? They create the people that populate their stories, give them backgrounds, motivations and personalities, sometimes to the point of being all but living and breathing in the minds of the audience. Then, for the sake of the plot or to drive home a point, the writer kills them. Don’t be fooled by something like old age or heart failure or an “accident” – the character is only dead because the writer murdered them.
You can smooth over the stealing in a few ways, and the voyeurism is victimless, if a bit creepy. But murder? Man, that’s serious business. The writer is destroying something they themselves have created for the sake of telling a story.
Or rather, if they’re any good, for the sake of telling a good story.
The only two true inevitabilities in this life are that you are going to die and you are going to pay taxes. And writing about taxes isn’t very sexy or exciting. It goes back to the vicarious nature of experiencing fiction: by seeing how others deal with death, we can gain some measure of peace, understanding and even inspiration to apply to our own lives. The writer’s murders take on an edge beyond this due to the finality of death, but it can still be to the ultimate benefit of the audience.
There’s also the fact that it can be a hallmark of a writer doing their job well. If people are truly outraged by the death of a character, if they cry out in protest or flip tables or what have you, the writer’s done something very special. They’ve made the audience care about an imaginary person. The people experiencing the story feel something on a personal level, have become engaged if not immersed in this tale, which means the writing has done more than convey a story. It’s drawn people into it and inspired them to care.
You can’t make an omelet without making a few eggs, and you can’t tell a truly compelling story without characters dying.
Writers are dark. They’re dastardly. They’re absolutely despicable.
But do we really want them any other way?
It can be difficult to start over. The process consumes both time and energy, something that an individual may not have in abundance. It can even be frightening. Yet it’s something we have to do on a regular if not constant basis, to continue on our journey from where we are to where we want to be.
I’m struggling to maintain the groove of writing every day. Things were sporadic at the end of last year and I’m telling myself it’s okay to ease off of the throttle of some areas so I can focus more on others. I have big changes lining up for the year, and I want to be prepared so I can enjoy the benefits they’ll bring. I’m trying to recoup lost energy, and conserve it so I have some when I get done with the daily work.
I’m writing every day, and I feel like I’m doing a bit more than I have in months, but I’m still not quite up to 1000 words a day. I’m also easing back into a daily routine of exercise, and some parts of that are proving difficult. It’s going to get easier and I’ll see more progress, it’s just slow going right now. New beginnings are difficult.
To me, however, they’re always worth embarking upon. Every year, even every day, is a chance at a fresh start. I commented on this theme last year and I still hold to what I said. We have to keep trying. We can’t give up. When things are difficult or daunting or even just inconvenient, and the benefits are certain, we have to keep going until we attain those benefits.
Even if it means getting out of bed earlier.
Courtesy Floating Robes
I’m going to tell you a secret. You might already know what I’m going to say, but it’ll be said anyway, as it needs to be repeated.
Come on, get closer. Don’t be shy.
Here it is:
Being a writer is not about publication.
Being a writer is about one thing, and one thing only: writing.
To be a writer, you must write. What is a fighter who does not fight? What is a designer who does not design? It’s less about what these labels mean to the outside world, and more about what they mean to the individual. It’s important to do what motivates and drives us, even if it doesn’t immediately turn a profit or satisfy a client. As Howard Thurman put it (and I’m paraphrasing), “the world needs people who come alive.”
So you need to write. You need to write whenever you can. And you even need to write when you can’t.
This last part may seem confusing, but consider the following scenario. It’s been a long day. Maybe you commute to and from a dayjob, maybe you maintain a household, maybe you have studies that consume most of your time. None of these things are bad. But these things are not writing. And they can sap your energy and your will to be productive.
It’s times like these you simply need to keep writing.
Jot down notes by hand. Cram a line in here and there on coffee and lunch breaks. Carve time out of the mornings and evenings, in bloody chunks if you have to, so you can write more. Convert some of the time in which you “can’t” write into moments where you deliver the facts, breathe life into characters, or open up a new world for readers to explore.
It’s a lot like physical fitness. The more you do it, and the more you work to establish a routine, the more it becomes a part of your life and the harder it is for you to quit. And if I had one true piece of advice, one thing that I know from experience that can be applied to the lives of others, it’s this:
Please don’t quit.
The world needs people who come alive.
The world needs you, whether it knows it or not.
A rather large book arrived from Amazon yesterday. It’s a prep book for the Graduate Record Examination, or GRE. I rented it with the intent of taking the daunting test, and returning to graduate school. The question is, once I have a Masters of Fine Arts in, for example, Creative Writing, what will I do with it?
I don’t necessarily need the degree to be more successful as a writer. For that, I just need to write more. Promote more. Be more productive after long days of productivity. Continue to essentially work two jobs. So on, and so forth.
The more I research MFA programs, the more it dawns on me that it isn’t just my education that concerns me. I think others could use some help when it comes to writing. It’s always been a goal of mine to inspire others to want better stories, to be the ones to write those stories, and to make a difference in the world. I think part of my frustration with my current circumstances is that it’s difficult to see the difference I’m making when the work I do with the lion’s share of my time could be done far more easily by someone ten years younger who’s half as jaded and nowhere near as exhausted.
I wish I was the kind of person who could just accept things as they are and roll with it until outside circumstances improve. There’s a part of me that’s jealous of people who have that capacity. My life would be a lot easier if I could just internalize and accept my situation. Yet here I am, nursing both headache and heartache, making what amounts to an escape plan and trying to plot a better future for myself rather than being content with and making the most of a less than ideal situation.
I’ve gone forward blindly before, without any semblance of a plan or strategy, into the future, and so far it hasn’t yielded anything resembling ideal results. I really need to change that, for myself, and that means some pretty radical changes. Taking the GRE, going back to grad school, convincing myself that it isn’t too late to get myself in a position to make others better readers, better writers, better consumers of media… that all sounds pretty radical, to me.
I’m still learning. More to the point, I’m still learning things about myself. As volatile and changeable and mercurial as my thoughts and emotions can be at times, I’m trying to learn that my instincts are worth trusting. I’m learning that it’s okay to be up-front about my feelings and questioning of my circumstances. And I’ve learned that it’s never too late to take steps to do what is best for me, not necessarily what I’m expected to do or what I think someone else would do no matter how much I aspire to be like that someone else.
In the end, isn’t that what being an individual is all about?
It isn’t easy for a writer to realize, completely and utterly, that an idea of theirs isn’t going to work.
This is especially the case if it’s an idea they’ve had for years. You can make a good story out of just about anything, it’s true. But if too many characters are in need of depth or development and proceeding from flawed or over-used premises to begin with, getting a fresh start can only take you so far. The more times you begin to start from scratch, only to be tripped up by questions and concerns and thoughts of “wait, this doesn’t actually make sense,” the more the truth begins to dawn.
And the truth is, I don’t think I can save the story I was thinking of calling Godslayer.
Maybe if I had the skill and time to program it into a computer game of some kind, it could turn out differently. The fact of the matter is, while literature is overflowing with flawed but good-natured protagonists who lean more towards being scholars or ‘nerds’, the lion’s share of gaming’s leads are burlier, surlier, and more boring. Godslayer could work as an adventure game, a point-and-click exercise from days of old revitalized by the likes of TellTale Games, but as it stands, the story is pretty much dead in the water as far as I can tell.
Thankfully, I’m not starved for ideas. I’m moving forward with other projects. This year is going to be a busy one, and the plans I have for fiction are no exception. It’s a shame that an idea I’ve had for years is ultimately going nowhere, but I’d rather be honest with myself and my readers about the quality of what I’m doing than try to keep polishing the same turd. If something old is going to stink up the place, the best plan is to ditch it and try something new.
Previously I have discussed villainy in terms of how we relate to and perceive various villains. I’ve praised villains who achieve their aims through intelligence, charm, and guile. These traits tend to appear in villains who are not necessarily a physical match for their heroic counterparts, doing their dirty work through henchmen or other means. Usually, a villain who is smart, playful, and erudite is not an overwhelming physical presence that inspires awe without necessarily having to say a word.
Usually, that villain is not a dragon.
I’ll go into detail about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug tomorrow, but after a few days of reflection on the film, I’ve come to the conclusion that, whatever else might be said about it, they pretty much nailed the ideal portrayal of the ancient magical beast. As impressive as the effects are that brought him to titanic, fire-breathing life, I’m more over the moon regarding the way in which his personality, perspective, and above all, his flaws have been transcribed from page to screen.
One of the first impressions we get is that Smaug likes to play with his food. Or at least, his curiosity overwhelms your typical violent response to intrusion. He is so massive and deadly, and Bilbo so small and insignificant (relatively speaking), that he could easily devour or eviscerate the hobbit at any time. However, he engages the thief in conversation. He learns more about this tiny burglar, and we in turn learn more about him. This is not anything like Bilbo and Gollum swapping riddles. There, we had a sense that the two of them were counterparts, diametrically opposed but somewhat equal. Here, the dread is palpable and ever-present, even as Smaug speaks in almost dulcet tones.
Being a creature that can fly, Smaug sees other beings as beneath him. He is so well-armed for devastation, and so capable of escape and endurance, that he really has no real sense of fear. He speaks and moves boldly. His speed belies his size and makes him all the more intimidating. All of this is conveyed through excellent effects in the film, matching well with our imaginations regarding how dragons should behave. The highlight of Jackson & Weta’s execution of Smaug, however, has got to be his flaws.
With that perspective comes a haughtiness, an arrogance, that blinds Smaug to the threats ‘lesser beings’ could present. From the dwarves of Erebor to the people of Laketown, he never once considers that his centuries-long life could be in danger. Most of all, Smaug is greedy. All of his treasure is HIS treasure, and he won’t part with a single coin of it. Dragons tend to have an instinctual draw towards shiny piles of treasure, which is somewhat odd for creatures of intelligence and articulation, but it’s worth considering that human beings can have similar instincts towards things of little consequence to overall life that still brings them joy, like football paraphernalia or Magic cards or cats.
What other dragons in literature would you like to see executed the way we have seen Smaug?
The North looms once again in my very near future.
Winter brings a lot of things with it.
It brings snow, ice, and cold winds. It brings holidays, travel, gift-giving, and an overabundance of consumerism. And, for me, it brings long lulls between truly rewarding writing sessions.
I’ve felt a general lack of storytelling overall in the past month or so. Even casual exchanges have fallen away. I’m out of the habit of writing letters and even interesting emails to friends. Godslayer remains the story I most want to give the once-over to, yet all I’ve been able to muster is a few notes in my new writing notebook, jotted down during a lunch break so as not to forget them.
I have so much I need to do. I need to get back on track with exercise. I need to keep my attentions keen in certain areas. I need to stay on top of what’s going on with the dayjob. But most of all, I need to write more.
I know all the words already. Not the words I need to write, necessarily, but the words I need to hear to make me write again. The words won’t write themselves. You never get back the time you waste. You should be spending this time writing. Why aren’t you writing? Doesn’t the world need your art? ART HARDER, MOTHERFUCKER!
These are all things I know. Things that gnaw at me. And I’m going to get myself back on the right path.
I’d do it sooner if I weren’t so damn tired all of the time.
Writers are human beings. With the exception of any NSA parsing programs or Google search generators or the like, readers tend to be human beings, too. And something that all human beings have in common is that they’re flawed. I’m sure some pundits and others would disagree, but every person on the face of the planet makes mistakes. As a writer, if you want your audience to relate to the characters in the story you write, your characters should have flaws, too.
A character with flaws is more believable, and it’s easier for the audience to sympathize with them as they can see their own struggles in the words and depictions, and exalt with the characters when they succeed (if they succeed). A ‘perfect’ character is a lot more difficult for people to relate to, and it’s a problem you can see in a lot of fiction out there. I’m sure you can think of some examples.
By way of examples of flawed characters, let’s look at Steve Rogers.
I know what you’re thinking. “Captain America? Flawed? He’s a super soldier! He’s a good person and a nice guy! How is he flawed?” His old-fashioned sensibilities make him relatively humble and willing to help people out, for certain, but he isn’t perfect. Those same thought patterns, habits, and viewpoints are out of sync with the modern age. In holding onto those aspects of himself, Steve shows that he can be a bit stubborn, even bull-headed, in the face of change and personalities that clash with his. He has a few moments in The Avengers where he has it out with Tony Stark, and if the previews for The Winter Soldier are to be believed, his optimistic view of how things should be is going to get him into a heap of trouble.
The thing I like about Cap’s flaws is that they’re surmountable. They open avenues for change. The great thing about organic, human characters is that they are not limited to a single arc. The problem with a lot of sequels is that they extend the story but do nothing for their characters. A good writer knows that keeping their characters from achieving perfection by the end of one story leaves the door open for future tales with the same characters. I’m a big fan of subtle sequel hooks, and these are some of the best ones a writer can employ. So the more flaws you can find in your characters, the better the experience will be both for your writing and for those who choose to read it.
What are some of your favorite characters with flaws? What’s a good example of a character overcoming a flaw but having others left to challenge them in stories to come?
I’m crossing my fingers and knocking on wood (ow) in the hope that the worst of 2013 is behind me, and that the new year will not open with bad news. Cold Streets is still getting tested, and I’ve got a decent idea of what to shore up, what to cut, and what to expand. I’ll wait until everybody’s chipped in, though, before I get started on that.
In the meantime, I’ve been getting more ideas about Godslayer. Specifically, how it should begin. My recent foray back into TV-watching has had me taking in some cracking good pilots, and they all have a few things in common. They hit the ground running with their stories, they get the audience invested in their characters and worlds pretty quickly, and they don’t over-complicate the opening of a long narrative. I think a lot of genre novels can have trouble doing this, and I would rather not be counted among them. Especially if I want to gear Godslayer towards a younger audience.
Let’s see, what else? Got some local projects cooking. Keeping up with Flash Fiction. Still not sure if Fantasy Flight would be interested in a novel set in the Twilight Imperium universe.
Was something else happening today?
Couldn’t be that important.
This week was a good news/bad news week in terms of writing. The good news was that I banged out some work for a project I’m not quite comfortable discussing yet. I need more details before I do that! The bad news is, I’ve been working the dayjob too hard to do much else. Hopefully, the next few weeks will calm down, and I can return to a more reasonable schedule of things.
You can’t see it, but I’m knocking pretty furiously on some wood.
I was going to write something about writing when you can’t write (which I may still do), but due to time constraints I couldn’t quite get it together. Here’s a similar bit of advice from earlier in the year. Today I’ll do a better job of carving out writing time than I did yesterday.
Writing, as a creative endeavor, has a lot of advantages. You don’t need special equipment to write – at the bare minimum you just need something to write with, and something to write on. You can write about literally anything you want – fiction or non-fiction, on any subject or in any style, you can even write about writing itself! And you can write just about any time you like.
This is, however, the biggest potential problem writers might encounter. Delayed writing is writing that suffers. It’s better to write right now.
Chuck recommends writing in the morning. In fact, he recommends a lot of things that writers should pay attention to. But one point he hammers home like ten-penny nails your skull didn’t know it needs is Writers must be writing. And the sooner you write, the better.
Unless you completely shun human contact and seal yourself into some kind of bubble, things are going to come to your attention that interrupt your writing time. Spouse. Children. Chores. Tumblr. Any number of items that you are compelled to contend with vie for your attention, and you will not always be able or willing to resist their call. And you know what? That’s okay.
What matters is, you learn what works and what doesn’t, and you refine what works until you’re pounding out the words as immediately and completely as possible.
If you need to get up earlier in the morning, do that. Gotta rearrange your schedule? Do that too. Discuss new divisions of chores with the other humans you live with (if you live with any). Stock up on things that motivate and energize you – coffee, Clif bars, Oreos, booze, whatever. Make yourself a plan to write more, and do everything you can to stick to it.
Because, let’s face it – we’re at war.
Time wages a ceaseless battle against us. Every day you’re vertical is an act of defiance in the face of inevitability, even moreso if you write. Which means, to me, that every day you don’t write is losing ground to the enemy. You can fight to get that ground back, but it feels like running uphill. It’s more trouble than it should be. You do much better if you simply write right now.
So stop reading blogs on the Internet, and go do that.
To paraphrase a line from Terminator 2, the future is like driving down a long highway in the middle of the night.
Even if you know your destination, the road right in front of you is shrouded, dark, and uncertain. When there’s enthusiasm and hope, the darkness doesn’t matter as much as the destination, and it’s easier to do things like sing along with the radio or look for interesting landmarks that appear out of nowhere – generally, having a better time. But when the driver’s tired, the car rattles, animals wander out onto the road, and the Check Engine light comes on, there’s little a driver can do but keep their eyes on the shadowy road just in front of their headlights.
I say this because I have no idea what’s going to happen next. I’m doing my best to handle things day to day, and stay on top of everything that’s happening. Cold Streets has been getting pretty good feedback so far, and I have other projects I am embarking upon, all while giving the dayjob as much attention as I can so details are not missed and communication is clear. One way or another, I will be relieved when this holiday season is behind me. Q4 is always a rough time at the office, and this one in particular has taken a toll.
But I’m not going to give up, nor am I going to pull over. Too much is at stake and too many people are putting faith in me for me to turn back now. I honestly believe that I used to be a lot better at quitting things. In the past, if something didn’t work, I’d give up a lot sooner and then wonder why I felt like such a shitheel. I’ve come to realize that successful people aren’t necessarily more talented or more devious or even luckier than I am; they’re simply determined and stubborn. And, of late, I’m doing my utmost to be determined and stubborn, as well.
For me, there’s no other way to see this journey through to the end. And as dark as the road may become, daybreak is coming. It’s inevitable. No matter what happens in my little life or how dark I feel things have gotten, the sun will always rise again. If I can at least face the dawn knowing that I’ve done everything I can, I can face it without shame. And, at the end of everything, that’s all one can really ask for.