Writing/Gaming – The Outline

When I was in school, the one part of English class I dreaded were the boring mornings (I often had English first in the day) where we had to learn how to write an outline.

I hated it for three reasons:

1. I had tutors and my parents teach me all about outlines in previous years, so this wasn’t anything new.
2. I disliked having so much structure in a story.
3. I disliked having to map out so much of the story in advance, because then it felt like I had already told it, so why write it?

I remember we had to learn how to outline for research papers (which oddly enough, I never did after high school, despite claims that everyone and their uncle wrote research papers seemingly daily in university classes and at their jobs), as well as fiction outlines (again, something I seldom did, because it took all the fun out of writing).

Basically, I was a brat who didn’t want structure to interfere with how I felt my story should develop. I didn’t want no chocolate on my peanut butter, no girls in my clubhouse and damned sure didn’t want “the man” telling me how to be creative.

Note: When I do develop that time machine / meet up with Doctor Who, we’re totally going back in time to shake some sense into younger me.

The outline is not your enemy. It doesn’t have to be your best friend, you don’t have to date it, or listen to it prattle on about how you can’t leave the empty milk bottle in the fridge.

The outline is just a tool, and like any big tool, if you treat it with healthy respect, it will help you out.

How did I figure this out?

Well, I started by getting so fed up with myself about my progress on my novel, The Kestrel Soars, that I decided to get a copy of Scrivener, which came highly recommended by Matt Forbeck (when you’re done reading this post, I want you to go out and get your hands on Carpathia. Please, do this, and enjoy yourself.)

So I install it, and start plugging my novel into the suggested skeletal format. Now in my head, where this and like 20 other stories reside fully formed, I figured this was just sort of a “jump through hoops” act, and I’d be maybe just making a title page and sending my story off later the same day. Because, to me, that story was done.

Oh no. Not even close to done.

When I broke down the chapters into scenes, and the scenes got sorted out by their arcs and progressions, my novel was…well, naked and gooey.

I’ll take one order of discouragement, and supersize that please. With extra You Suck sauce on the side.

I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to quit, because I had a story somewhere in my head, and I knew if I quit, I couldn’t live it down. And I knew that I going forward would be way hard, and I have this voice in my head that screams how much of a blackhole of failure I can be, so I was better off just not doing anything – just go back to editing other people’s things and put it off. Put it off, don’t take action, in fact, let’s not even edit today and just play a game.

That voice, if you can’t tell, is NOT on my Christmas card list. That voice, if you have to know is a tricky sumbitch that at times sounds like me, like my parents, like the English teachers who I hated, like women I dated, like more successful friends, like well-meaning friends who just ‘want to help’, like random people I work with, and sometimes, like the Muppets.

I didn’t quit. I didn’t stop. I didn’t put it off. I grabbed a stack of notecards and feverishly wrote out my scenes. And when I reached a spot where I didn’t have a scene….I wrote something down.

I kept asking myself, “Okay, And then…” or “Therefore…” because in my head, to my way of thinking an outline is just a rough map of where the story goes. It doesn’t have to be the rigid roman numerals and capital letters of term papers. It doesn’t have to be the overly detailed soul-sucking stack of facts.

It’s a way to get my brain on paper. And the story, if I want to publish it and have people buy it, has to be on paper.

So I came up with 35 scenes, in an order that tells a story.

I had 18 written, which I hacked, chopped and robo-built into 9 chapters.

Yeah, this book wasn’t done, but the voice was shocked into silence because I pushed myself to actually find the value in structure.

And there is a value in structure. My teachers may have begrudgingly doled it out because they got a paycheck for killing time until retirement and they didn’t give a shit, but it’s on me to do something with it.

Structure actually helps my story. (Scrivener, by the way, totally rocks).

The lesson here? Don’t always run from structure. And don’t think that you have to resign some of your power, your creativity and your fun/happiness to apply someone else’s structure to your stuff.  Find a structure you’re 60-80% happy with, and make it yours. Get all Jeet Kune Do on it. (This is also known as “making it your bitch, and discard the stuff that doesn’t work“)

Happy writing.

Writing/Gaming – Roles!

So somewhere on the internet right now, a lot of people are very very upset about the loss of “roles” as a component to the next edition of Dungeons and Dragons.

Oh right….yeah…disclaimer time….

DISCLAIMER! This post is going to start off a little nerdy, but I promise you, it’ll get back on track shortly, just ride the dork-wave back to shore. 

Now in the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, there are these things called “roles”, which were card-based pieces of organizational material that helped players figure out what their characters could and couldn’t do. (Yes, gamers, I’m way simplifying that for the reading audience, but today’s post isn’t ALL about gaming.)

And that is a terrible idea.

Your Character Is Not A Note Card
Let’s try an experiment. Go get your favorite book and go get a note card. If you really want to, go get the HUGE note card that your grandmother used to keep track of what pies she had to make for which social event, you know, those big huge ones that are practically half a page unto themselves.

Now, label the note card with the name of the book’s protagonist, or your favorite character or the antagonist or whatever – just write down a character’s name. And then all over that note card, I want you to write down all the relevant NOT-BIOGRAPHICAL facts about the character. This isn’t a space for a history of their life, this is where you can write down a list of their attributes and qualities, write down their skills and what makes them awesome, write down any relevant story actions (like “saved a cat out of a tree” or “totally defeated the bad guy in Book 2”).

It doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to be a list. Here, I’ll do one too with the first thing I grab off the shelf — The Complete Third Season of Night Court (what, you guys don’t have DVDs on a shelf in your office?) And from that cast of characters (which I own strictly for research purposes, I swear), let’s look at Harry Anderson’s character of Judge Harry Stone.

Judge Harry Stone
He’s a Judge
Comedic
Caring
Tall
Likes magic
Only child, broken family
Unlucky in love

That list has left my indie-gaming-senses tingling, because from that list (which I know is totally incomplete), I can generate a lot of Aspects (FATE), points (GUMSHOE) and verbs (Technoir).

But by no means did that list of seven lines sum up the character that is Harry Stone. And at no time should anyone think that a well-defined character can be completed summarized by half a note card. Yes, sure, we can do our best to find the right words that cover the most real estate of who the character is and what they stand for, but at some point, we cross a threshold of who they are and what they do.

You Are Not Your Khaki Pants
One of my great peeves in writing and gaming is that people have characters and define them by what they do. “Oh, he’s a wizard, so he’s some sort of Gandalf clone with a great sagely beard and staff.” or “He’s a detective, so he has to be a boozy, plodding womanizer.”

This is where roles are more harm than good.

There’s nothing wrong in summing up what a character CAN do in a few words or sentences – it’s nice and helps other characters know how best to coordinate and collaborate. But there is a difference between “can” and “only”.

If you’ve got a character with one particular skill, let’s say they’re the best chef in the county, are you only going to put them in situations where cooking is what gives them an edge? How many times are you going to imperil them with a mega-dangerous chili cook-off?

Just because a character has a go-to skill, it doesn’t mean they have ONLY that skill. Come back a minute to the best chef in the county. Sure, they make a mean lunch, but cooking also means they know how to boil water, work a knife and prepare lots of different dishes. “Cooking” is a broad term for a whole suite of skills.

So too must the role of the character be bigger than their best or strongest skill and attribute. It’s that fixed thinking that they’re all one-trick ponies that developed the great cliches and tropes of our time:

Barbarians are stupid, fur-wearing, berserker thugs.
Blondes are stupid.
Women are secondary citizens, good only for birthing babies
Librarians are dotty old ladies.
No McFly ever amounted to anything in the history of Hill Valley.
Clerics are just walking first aid kits.
All detectives need to have a drinking problem
Brown-skinned people are property and inferior.
Every cop is either on the take, or they’re the only good cop in a world gone bad.
Wearing a hoodie makes you a criminal.
To work in a cafeteria, you must have at least three moles with hair on them.
Bad guys will always tell you their plan just before leaving you cornered in an easily-escaped trap

When crafting a character, it is paramount that you get away from these thoughts and craft a character that exists OUTSIDE of these structures, not in defiance of them (because a defiance-built character is just a one-trick pony in the opposite direction).

So What Is My Role?
Gamers, your role is to participate at the table. Gamers, your character’s role is to make the game enjoyable for the people to your left and right.

Writers, your role is to produce the best story possible and practice your craft to the best of your ability.

That’s it. No pigeon-holing. No limitations. No restrictions based on personality, preference, or philosophy.

Gamers: Don’t let your characters be pigeon-holed by anyone, anything or any arbitrary or capricious sentiment. Note: This is NOT permission to act bat-squeak insane all the time, but this is a permission slip and big thumbs-up to acting how the character would, based on philosophy, desires and interests.

Writers: Don’t let the characters lapse from your creations into the commonplace templates of your literary forebears. Let them stand out, in their own ways, as you intended.

And with that definition of ‘role’ in use, that can never be taken out of a game. (Just like it never should have been adjudicated in the first place.)

Happy writing.

Writing/Gaming – Plot, Choice, & Characters

Over the weekend, I read a rather disappointing book about how to plot stories (I’m always looking for new theory and new ideas to incorporate into meetings, workshops, seminars and client opportunities), which I’m about to go give a one-star review to on Amazon, because not only did it take three chapters for the book to actually talk about HOW to plot something, but it’s basic premise is one I completely disagree with:

Plot is how the events in a story directly impact the main character.”
Danger Will Robinson, danger. This way lies madness. Don’t buy it. 

Here’s what Plot is:
Plot is conflict.
Plot is the problem that causes the character to change (positively or negatively). 
Plot is the evolution of a premise (and premise is the thing that brought people to the story in the first place)

Here’s what Plot isn’t:
Plot IS NOT a series of impacts on a single character. (Plot has consequences far and wide, even if you’re writing about a single character adrift in space)
Plot IS NOT the result of events happening (Plot is far too contiguous, interconnected and interdependent to just be a hodge-podge of “Oh by the way this happened”)
Plot IS NOT passive. (Plot is a very active response to a changing (or possibly changing) environment)

What Plot boils down to is a choice in the face of a test. 


Plot answers the question — “When this problem (we’ll call it X) occurs in a created world, how does the world respond, in ways large and small?”

To this thinking, plot could be on the small scale: the bully in the classroom or it could go large scale: the appearance of malevolent aliens coming to enslave mankind through smartphone apps….or something.

But there’s a problem, and like the song says, yo, I’ll solve it. The “I” in this case are the characters, not just the singular (or possibly titular) protagonist but the whole cast of characters – everyone from the sidekick to the doubters to the assistants to the random people who inject realism in flavor-text paragraphs.

Gamers, I’m looking at you here – Plot is why you’ve got people around your table. What are they doing? How will they respond? Why are they compelled to act in this way or that? How loosely or closely you play potentiality, that is to say how much leeway you give your players, directly ties to the strength of your plot and the potential of that plot.

If it’s a closed loop, or you’re working on a small scale, then the plot’s pretty linear — the party assembles and puts a righteous hurting on the badguy of the week. A wider view shows the problem isn’t just held to one instance of a certain badguy, or that taking out this baddie reveals a power vacuum that other nasties will rush to fill. The point here is — think of the plot’s consequences, both good and bad, and then see if the plot needs tweaks. And try for narrative options, rather than narrative solutions — the players should be the ones patching the holes, not the NPCs.

Writers, this one’s for you — The resolution of the plot WILL/CAN/SHOULD change characters, for better of worse. The problem might be one of internal struggle, or physical injury or whatever (I am loathe to name options here, lest I suggest there can only be certain kinds of plots).

Yes the above quote that started this rant has implications that suggest we’re going to find out what the consequences of decisions are, but that’s not the plot. The plot is a freight train that intersects all the paths of all the characters – the injuries and damage of collisions isn’t the plot, that’s the consequence of plot.

The plot IS the decision AND the reactions, not just the impact. The proverbial explosion had to get there somehow, and that’s part of the story.

When in doubt, give the characters/players/actors/participants choice, and trust their decisions (which is made easier if you’ve given them a core philosophy) to let them show you how they’re responding (yes, it’s an active process) to the challenge of the plot.

Note: I feel like this post got away from me, I may revisit this idea later in the week.

Happy writing.

Writing Theory – The Circle

Today, we focus on some writing theory. You may have seen this elsewhere, or seen it in pieces, but I rather like this method (it is not my own), and thought some of you could benefit from it.

For this, you’ll need:

  • 1 legal pad (or blank piece of paper)
  • 1 pen
  • 1 name for a character 
Now, draw a circle on the paper.
Now draw a plus sign in the circle, to create four quarters. (Divide the circle in half vertically then in half again horizontally)
Now number the ends of the plus with 1, 3, 5, and 7
In the middle of the quarters, number 2, 4, 6, and 8
It should, basically, look like this:
This is a cycle, and we’re going to go through the numbers clockwise. By the time we’re done, you’re going to have a  good idea about the development of your story.

Note: This applies to all kinds of fiction – from screenplays to novels to big epics to cave paintings – anything where you have a character and a mission to do something.  

Let’s get started.

1.CHARACTER
 You’re going to start this off with a character. I like to use protagonists for this, but it’s also possible you use an antagonist for this, depending on your tone or your objective. You want to stay away from using secondary characters here, because they don’t really need so much attention. 
The character starts at the top of this chart as we find them at the beginning of the story. Understand that the state we have the character at Position 1 is NOT going to be the state we find them in after Position 8. 
Also understand that if you go through this wheel several times (say it’s one character over a series of books), that each Position 1 is relative to the start of the respective book, and it’s not always going to be the stripped down Book-1 version. 
2.NEED (AS EXPRESSED IN PLOT)
This is the conflict or problem the story has put forth to challenge the character. This isn’t so much their internal desire, this is more like the plot of the book. For those people writing series, try and keep this to one book at a time — being too broad here really waters down the efficacy of the subsequent numbers. 

If your story has twists or big reveals in it, then Position 2 is where you document the most complete and most knowledgeable plot of the book — after all the twists, after all the misdirects, whatever the challenge is, goes here.

So, for something like The Usual Suspects, the plot isn’t so much “To let Kevin Spacey get away with it”, it’s to “have the detective/audience understand what happened” 

For something more linear, like Donkey Kong, it’s “To have Mario rescue his girlfriend (Who wasn’t Peach) from a gorilla.”

3.GO (TO THE UNFAMILIAR) 
It doesn’t have to be literal, this isn’t quite Campbell’s overdone Hero’s Journey, but the idea here is that you take the character and put them in an environment/situation that they’re not used to. An environment/situation different than what they’re used to from Position 1, and as we learned about in Character 101, this should be  filled with challenges big and small for the character. 
The comedic route is to make this an issue of extremes – the milquetoast suburbanite in the ghetto, the rugged outdoorsman in the big city, the disconnected pair of lovers in the wilderness, that sort of fish-out-of-water element plays well comically provided you stretch it far. 
In more serious work, this represents a larger context for the character – the character leaving their familiar confines for new and larger surroundings. It provides a sense of expansion and intimidation, while also offering hope that along with the challenges come rewards. 

4.SEARCH 
Here, the character is going to struggle. Not to their lowest point of their progression, hope isn’t entirely vacant here, but they will be tested. They will have to adapt to the new environment, and initially that process won’t be comfortable. Over time though, they’ll become more comfortable and more accustomed to the new environment so that they can expand their comfort level and possibly develop satisfaction in themselves for obtaining new skills.  
Position 4 is about the act of the quest, the progression from starting-point to further-along-point and the improvement of the character along the way. This is NOT about the specific item or knowledge that will make them better, because…
5.FIND/DISCOVER 
Position 5 is all about the item or knowledge they need to improve. For the stranded castaway, it’s the making of fire. For the nervous lawyer in court, it’s the discovery of the witness or a legal precedent that will change the tide in their favor. 
Critical here though is the idea this: In Position 4, they didn’t know the “thing” existed, in Position 5 they find out it exists and….
6.TAKE 
In position 6, the hero goes and gets it. He makes fire, she finds the legal precedent, the boy pulls the sword out of the rock. Ideally, Position 6 is made possible because of the confidence gained in Position 4 and the character benefits from the knowledge or awareness in Position 5. This is a pretty “hooray” moment for the character, and can very easily be the climax of the whole story if you wanted it to be, but often this can just be a moment of hooray on the path of the story. 
In RPGs, this is the item gained in a dungeon crawl, or the loot from a boss fight. 
7.RETURN 
The character is confident (Position 4), aware (Position 5) and armed (Position 6), and now they can go back to the environment (Position 3) and complete the plot (Position 2).
Like Orpheus, this is the character’s emergence from the trials thus far back to the environment he calls home. In some stories, this means they’ll go all the way to the village he was kicked out of or they’ll just go back to their “newer” home because they’ve matured/grown/developed independence from their old ways, and possibly can’t go back (either metaphorically or literally).
This can be a whole part of the story, like a return to areas previously thought dangerous now made easier because of equipment and experience gained, or it can be as simple as transitioning the story back to the bigger world. 
8.CHANGE. 
Lastly, the character is able to take on the plot, and (depending on how you want it to play out) possibly succeed. To reach this point, you had to go through all the preparation of previous positions (alliteration!). Without the equipment/knowledge acquired in Position 6, without the struggles and adaptation to a tougher environment of Position 4, they wouldn’t be as ready to take on the plot as they first heard about it back in Position 2.
How would Harry defeat Voldemort without any of the knowledge from the middle of the series? (Sure you can argue that all he needed was ‘Expelliarmus’ and Horcrux knowledge, but he had to gain those at some point.)
How would Indiana Jones be able to find the Grail without going through the harsh lessons of his youth? 
How would James Bond be able to defeat…whoever he defeated if he didn’t have the invisible car? (Seriously, dude had an invisible car…and fought someone on a glacier or something. I kinda blanked on some of the Brosnan films)
The point here is that the character has come full circle in some senses, but is on a whole new circle as well. Yes, there’s the plot to contend with still, but there’s also a visible set of benefits and consequences gained from previous actions. The character has matured, our understanding and appreciation of them has deepened and the story can move forward, through the plot and into resolution. Or even into subsequent stories, if you want to repeat the cycle with a whole new plot, and build forward. 
If ANY of this is unclear, let me know. Leave a comment, write me an email, catch me on Twitter.
Happy writing.

Writing/Gaming – Hooks!

What’s a hook?

It’s a critical pirate element.
It’s one half of Velcro Theory.
It’s also what gamers need to feel like what they do matters at the table, that it’s not just rolling dice, scribbling pencils and a way to spend an evening at a friend’s house.

What I’m going to talk about today is types of hooks (for different types of players) and how to figure out how to hook whoever you have at your table (or your future audience).

Now, a disclaimer – I broke gamer-types up into 4 types, just for the ease of writing this blog post, it is BY NO MEANS CONCLUSIVE. I just picked 4 because 4-is-a-nice-number-that-satisfies-my-OCD-eccentricities-no-don’t-make-that-face. You may not have ANY of these players at your table or in mind for your audience, and if you have a group that isn’t listed here, leave a comment below and/or send me an email, I’ll do a follow-up.

I’m supposing here that you’re designing your own game, or you’ve recently picked up a new game and you want to bring players into it.

What do I do for a new player, someone whose never played this game (or any game like it)?

For new players you want to create what I call ‘Hooks of Ease‘. Regardless of whether or not the player has ever played a game before, you want to make sure that this experience (the experience of playing YOUR game) is easy, so that they come back, or want to play it more.

Hooks of Ease are anything that makes play EASY to do, EASY to understand and EASY to repeat. On a mechanical level, this may be reflected in a lack of complexity or in a straightforward and unvarying checklist of steps.

Example: The GUMSHOE engine uses a six-sided die, terming a roll of 1-3 a failure and 4-6 a success. 
Example #2: Most board games have a roll dice/spin the wheel mechanic that doesn’t change as play advances. 

Hooks of Ease are anything (mechanical, narrative, etc) that create a sense that “I can do this”, because encouraging action is the first step to securing enjoyment and immersion. People like to do things (and repeatedly do them) if the task was not complicated, produced a result without too much effort and had a benefit for them.

The vulgar version of this is “If they get it, they’ll do it, and want to do it again.”

What about rules lawyers who are used to a very literal interpretation and strictly go by-the book?

I know, they’re tough. I play with a few, and they can leech the fun out of the room faster than a bad cabbage fart.

The first step is realizing that for ANY type of “difficult” player, you have to remember you are NOT at their mercy. They are not the boss of you, and you cannot let their existence act like an unseen hand in crafting the overall game. In short, you’re not playing FOR the rules lawyers of the world, they just happen to be a part of it, like midgets, clowns or the strange guy at the supermarket who talks to the produce as he bags it.

Chances are the rules lawyer is looking for control of the experience. In bad cases, this means they want to be “the guy” at the table (this is not a sexist thing, you can be “the lady” too), meaning all the plot and the decisions of the table go through them. This is likely because outside the game they’re unhappy with something, and in this fun-time, they get to correct their unhappiness, even if they do so somewhat obliviously to how the rest of the table may feel about their bluster and possibly douchebaggery.

Hooking the rules lawyer involves Hooks of Consequence. This isn’t consequence like punishment, more like an understanding of Newtonian laws — what the players do will generate reactions/ripples within the world. Knowing that following the rules and still creating good experiences will pacify even the most crusty of rulesmongers.

Narratively, this applies as well. When the player cries foul because the NPC has done X Y or Z, which may be mechanically supported, but not what they’re counting on having happen because it means the player(s) (read: they as individuals above all) won’t “win”, point to the actions that caused the response — and take note that their narrative argument, the fact that they’re bitching at all about what’s done, has proven them to be engaged.

Note — Just remember you don’t have to cow to the rules-lawyer or rules-lawyer-bully both at your table and as a designer. Stand up, put down those things at the ends of your legs (we call them feet) and have fun, above all else

What about the other end of the spectrum, the player who isn’t so rules conscientious? 

Someone who’s just sort of at the table, interested in having a good time but not too terribly invested in knowing that the particular combat mechanic is on page 44, second column 3rd paragraph, or that you can’t roll d10 for damage with a short sword, is a good person to have a table, because like the new people, they’re often malleable. (Unlike the aforementioned rules-lawyer or the later discussed jaded player who both may just be curmudgeonly or creatively-sedentary). With a good experience you make a light player into someone more serious or more invested, and that’s a great thing for your gaming.

What you need to offer them are Hooks of Potential. Like the line in the Aladdin song, you can show them a world…(I’ll let you keep singing). By showing that the game has a lot of opportunities to do things (both narrative options in-game and mechanically in-system), you spawn a stream of opportunities and if you pair these with a Hook of Ease, make these opportunities into easy decisions. 


Easy decisions become fun decisions very quickly, because they generate consequences and feedback (Are you starting to see how these things all come together?).

Help! I have jaded players (or “I’m writing a game that has a lot of competition in the marketplace!”)

I am apparently, a jaded player. I work in the industry, I write/edit/play games with designers and writers, I play multiple games a week if I’m lucky. No, I’m not bragging – I’m telling you that overexposure has dulled my sense of newness. I don’t get all aflutter over prestige classes and skill suites. I’m not entirely too jazzed about a constant evolution and progression of medieval and Renaissance fantasy. This tiredness is what drove me towards “indie” gaming – where settings, mechanics and play types are vast and hugely different from game to game and session to session.

I’ve asked Mike my GM about this, and he’s often expressed a concern that I’m bored with traditional model gaming, and I keep telling him I’m not. It’s not the game itself (because that’s inert), it’s how it gets developed at the table. This is the attitude I want to impart to all the designers who think about their game getting into the hands of people who have played more than half their lives or who are developers themselves. What brings the jaded to your game with a spark and interest is a Hook of Demonstration. When they see the game DO something, handle something mechanically, resolve a crisis narratively, introduce elements a certain way, they will sit up and take notice.

This is what happened to me at my first Dresden Files RPG game – I arrived early, and was still eating my turkey club. The GM (not Mike, this was another group) laid out the books and gave each player a legal pad. No dice yet. Just pad and pencil. He also didn’t let me crack open the books. Now, this was not typical of this group, who normally get very handsy with materials.

The rest of the players arrived and we got started. And our GM led us through City Creation. (We made some sort of amalgam between Newark, Elizabeth and Hoboken with a smattering of Atlantic City and Cape May — very different cityscapes within NJ). We consulted no charts, we made no rolls. We did however do a lot of Googling and Wikipedia reading (yes, it’s a credible source! Ask your local rockstar librarian!).

I took notice because this allowed me to combine my passions – storytelling, writing, creating with gaming into a new synthesis of awesome. I was no longer jaded (and many months later enjoy the game still).

So we have Hooks of Potential (show them what the game can do), Hooks of Consequence (show them that what THEY do has ramifications, responses and reactions), Hooks of Ease (that it’s not hard to try/do these things), and Hooks of Demonstration (show them how the game does something in a way that others don’t).

Remember: Hooks are not only mechanical, but can and should also be narrative tools as well. Remember also it is the combination of narrative and mechanics that create the game experience.

Happy (game) writing.

Hey everyone,

I’m sorry I haven’t updated much lately. Just wanted to let you know that will be changing later today. Updates, yes more than one, coming!

-John

Party Balance, Narrative Weight – Gaming/Writing

Today I’m going to try and explain a gaming concept that closely mirrors a writing concept. I can’t say they’re synonymous, but they’re pretty close. Game designers and players, this one’s mostly for you.

There’s a sense, I think due in part to more recent editions of products as well as a great deal of MMO-play, that an adventure/episode/campaign/game should be forever balanced or scaled to the party, that is to say a 4th level party should almost always encounter things within the range of 3rd to 5th level (3rd level presenting no obstacle, 5th level to challenge them), because that’s what a party can “handle”.

I completely disagree and find this a cowardly way to create play opportunities. I say this quite strongly because I’m a player in a group that is currently at odds with the idea that a party of more-or-less 4th level characters is having trouble with essentially an apex predator in its natural habitat. Because we’re not able to kill it quickly and celebrate gloriously then boo-hoo the game must be broken, or our GM must be an idiot.

This all smacks of selfish, spoiled play. And to go further and lob accusations that a GM is engaged in a game of “anything you can do, I can always do one better” is entirely the wrong attitude to take when your character struggled in a fight moments previously.

My opinion: It is the role of the GM and the players to work together to tell a story. The GM presents the plot, and the players offer characters and actions (hopefully) in line with the plot. The game, whether a single session or a campaign is a result of BOTH these things coming together. When one side believes they’re carrying all the weight (a GM who has to pull teeth to get things moving, or players who just roll dice and deal damage, giving no interest in story), then play stops. And when play stops, it’s a good chance to evaluate why and what can be done to make the process better.

Note: I didn’t say ’empower’ the players, because no one side of the table is subordinate or superior to the other. The whole table is in this together.

‘Balance’ is a tricky concept to handle in a game. Mechanically, you have to appropriately seed the possibilities of actions and reactions so that things work with almost a Newtonian elementary precision. Narratively, the story has to offer challenge and incentive for future challenge so that rewards may be had.

But, if you’re looking to create either a realistic or immersive world, you have to chuck balance out several windows. The world is not balanced. Balance is not the focus of worlds that present great danger or texture. There will be times when players are out of their element. A game should seldom be locked into zones where low-level creatures cluster, then they may head down a road to where there are tougher creatures, and the further still live the stronger beasts. This is the legacy of MMOs, creating pockets of gameplay that emphasize a need for mechanics over story. It is unlikely that a low-level character will ever have a reason to wander to the dragon’s lair, because they’ll know they’ll not survive – so they just won’t do it. Although still an option, the game restricts the likelihood of it occurring by incentivizing alternatives – closer zones offer more immediate rewards without the problems of character death.

However, looking at fiction, the opposite is true. The “low-level” character embarks upon a huge quest where failure exists and seems likely, but through the application of skills and equipment, succeeds in the face of great danger: The peasant kills the giant, the squire eliminates the dragon, the farm boy blows up the planet-exploding superweapon.

At the heart of fiction lies something called “narrative weight”, which is the idea that some portion of the character-pool (a single protagonist, a group of heroes, etc) is doing whatever is necessary to move the story forward from plot-point to plot-point, while the rest of the world keeps turning or while other characters go about their day/lives. The ‘weight’ refers to the decisions/reactions/consequences made at Point A that drive the character(s) to Point B. Often this can be traced down to a single character’s action or decision (the one party member who needs rescuing, the one who commits the rest of the party, the one who charges into battle, etc), and it can be said that this one character carries the bulk of the weight.

What’s funny is that when a single character carries more weight than others in fiction is that no one ever stops to question the balance. It’s only in gaming, where egos bubble up, that people worry about balance, because there exists the chance that they’re not getting heard or rewarded.

Example: You can argue that Lord of the Rings is as much Frodo and Sam’s story as it is Aragorn’s.The other characters serve a function, but it’s usually to assist one of those two branches in the narrative. Were this a game, this would be unbalanced, since the the mechanically disadvantaged characters (the hobbits with no combat skills) are ‘superior’ to the wizard, the ranger and the fighters (the combat-capable characters).

This is the danger of ‘balance’ – it requires that the game be about who has mechanical rather than narrative advantage, because the party only moves forward when the mechanics make it reasonable, rather than possible.

And gameplay should exist more in the possible rather than the reasonable (since it’s a subjective assessment), because that’s ROLEplay rather than ROLLplay.

If the goal of playing is to create a collaborative story, then there needs to be a synthesis of mechanical potential and narrative merit. Sure, the party can stroll through the fields until they reach the dragon’s lair on day 1. They have that option. If it makes for a good story, let them do it. If however the point of playing is to roll dice, feel superior to imagined scenario and gain stuff, then they should probably be dissuaded from moving forward and instead roam the fields and kill a billion mice until they gain the strength and prowess needed to make the dragon less of a foe, right? Which one sounds more fun?

I play a lot of level-less games, because without the emphasis on accruing improvements, it’s a chance to focus on story and let that build and reflexively shape the character. My characters are not a pile of numbers that translate into which-die-do-I-roll-to-beat-the-imaginary-beast, there are feelings and ideas I’m trying to express beyond hitting things with sticks.

So what’s a designer/GM/ST/DM to do? Take another note from writers. Just tell the story. If the party keeps hitting first and asking questions later, then perhaps its time there are consequences for those actions. A group of adventurers roaming the land killing creatures / endangering the peasantry is just a different flavor of danger to a nobleman’s land, right? Will the players balk? Possibly. But if you’re trying to reduce rollplay and insert even a smidge of roleplay, there aren’t many easy balk-less solutions.

I appreciate you reading this long rant. We’ll go back to more proper writing theory next post.

Soundbites and Language

“…a noir taste like we haven’t seen in years.”
“The impressionistic language dazzles.”
“Raw and edgy, this doesn’t disappoint.”

This is the sort of language you see in reviews and on back cover blurbs. It’s a quotable line, and something that hopefully attracts attention, if they’re phrased correctly. The theory is that the sound bite is a perfect miniature of the whole, that in one quote, you represent all the flavors and elements of the whole.

The problem is that some of the flavors and elements of the whole aren’t really great representations of the style, theme or even the author, but they make for dazzling copy, so they get used in quotes and the PR machine and somehow it’s okay.

But it’s not okay. Just because a review or a quote puts a word-label on something does not mean the item IS that thing. Anything can be mislabeled, mishandled or misunderstood. Now while so far in this post I’ve talked about the publishing side of the coin, it is also possible that from the authorial side things are misunderstood as well.

What follows are a few items I want to make clear, from both a reader and editorial perspective.

1. Profanity is not proof of hardboiled/noir anything. Yay for swearing. I enjoy a good string of expletives as much as the next guy, and anyone who can curse like a truck-driving sailor on shore leave will always be welcomed into conversation, but it’s not a style. It’s a string of words that, like adjectives, should be used for maximum impact and effect.

When I was away from home after high school, when I realized I was free of “the man” and had no sense of discipline or boundaries, the first things I wanted to do were all things I couldn’t before. Smoking, cursing, drinking, eating whatever I could whenever I wanted, carousing…all the typical adolescent rebellion tripe. And I remember conversations I had when I came back from being away where it seemed as though everything third word rhymed with “trucking” or had something to do with defecation. (See what I did there?)

Was I expressing myself? Sure. Was it effective? It was not compelling more people to listen to me, no. It was not intriguing people to see the college student rattle off eleven curses while ordering an omelet. It didn’t do anything to make me more bad-ass or more attractive. Too much cursing is not style. There is an art to language, and while provocative language is one technique, it shouldn’t be the only technique, whether we’re telling the story of a leg-breaking tough who discovers a dead dame, or whether we’re reading about a police station in the grip of a crazed serial killer.

Profanity without purpose are words ripe for deletion when you need to trim fat.

2. The purpose of a book is to tell a story, not drown us in levels of craft-work. This is something I’m very guilty of. And for this, I blame my education. A host of teachers showed me all the different kinds of writing and English-major-y bits (I mean allegory, metonymy, catachresis, foreshadowing, parallelism, semiotics, etc) and I was so eager and happy to dust any and everything I wrote with all these big flashy concepts. This is great IN school, where a professor may actually tell you to use these things because you’re getting a grade on how well you specifically use it, but out in the real world of writers and audiences, the great majority of your readers aren’t going to care that within Chapter 6 you’ve created a deeply moving hendiadys (google it) buried within a turn of phrase that is a reference to the plight of the American Indian prior to 1890. No, instead they’re just going to see the weird line of dialogue from a character.

2 sobering facts that I still find myself dealing with from time to time:

1. The vast majority of readers isn’t aware of all the terms and usages and fiddly bits of language.
2. The vast majority of readers doesn’t care about the terms, usages and fiddly bits of language – they want a story.

So for all the great exercising of years of English classes, it’s not wasted on the readers, as I’m sure some of them will find, appreciate and digest the nuances, and the studies did make me more capable and diverse as a writer, but I’m not telling stories to practice what I learned in the spring semester of my junior year twice weekly before lunch. I’m telling stories because the characters have something to say and ideas to express as they gnaw their way out of my imagination onto the page.

In short – people are not going to know the hard work that went into the outlines, drafts, and revisions – they’re going to see the end result. They may also miss the finer points of your writing prowess because they’re engaged elsewhere by story, character or development. Don’t hate them for it.

3. If the act of writing has a point, then it’s to write to completion not perfection. Some days it feels like I’m forever writing and rewriting the same paragraph, page or chapter. I’m doing all this rewriting because I want, I feel like I need to have each sentence be ‘perfect’, because that’s the only way someone will like it.

But then when I’ve handed out the first 60 or so pages of what I’m writing, the feedback I’m getting isn’t “this is imperfect, you suck, go sit in the corner” it’s more like “This is awesome, I want more please” and that’s a hard thing to wrap your head around when you grew up feeling like everything you did wasn’t good enough and as an adult you question your abilities pretty intensely.

Over time, and with the help of great people, I’m getting better at seeing my work in more appreciative and healthy ways. Sure, it chews a hole through me when it needs to be done, and I should make it more of a priority when I have great swathes of downtime, but I’m not chasing perfection here – I’m telling my story my way, the best way I can.

And that’s where the perfection is – in telling my story my way. Not in the constant obsession of perfect grammar, immaculate syntax and brilliant use of obnoxious literary terms.


I will admit that I sort of rambled through this and lost a little steam while writing, but this is definitely a set of topics I’d like to revisit later. 

Happy writing.

What I Learned In The Last Five Weeks

(Originally, this spot was a horror story about a guy who sent my old mentor a bottle of bourbon, porn and a kitten in order to get published. The story was about a paragraph long. In short, my mentor and I drank the bourbon, gave the porn to me and he kept the cat. The cat died in 2007, long after my mentor did.)

What’s here instead is me being honest. I hope you don’t mind.

It’s been a great five weeks for me. My calendar is extra loaded with fun work projects, and depending on where you look in some niches and circles, you’ll see the first bits of my work coming out. It’s an exciting time for me professionally.

Personally, it’s also been good, but that’s not for this blog.

Here now are some things I’ve learned in the last five weeks. I will effort to keep this list all-business related.

1. Be honest. Not ‘whenever possible’, not ‘whenever convenient’, ALWAYS. I can point to a few people as being big springboards for my success, and I should probably point to a few more than I normally do, but if I had to point at one thing I’m doing that’s helping it’s being honest. This isn’t to say I wasn’t honest before, but that I didn’t make it a priority. I had some weird hurdle that I made situations and people climb before they got to know me, and it gave them an impression I was a jerk or difficult or mean or something. Whatever they thought, I’m glad they don’t think it now. It’s still hard work making sure my tone is how I want and that I’m coming across how I want, but it’s easier now. Every day the new successes help.

2. There’s no substitute for outright loving your work. I am so fortunate to have the job I do. All the people I work for are GREAT, easily accessible, friendly, helpful and absolutely committed to putting out great products. My clients are incredibly hard-working people, who manage and juggle a thousand things I couldn’t even conceive of and still find time to scribble out books I’m lucky enough to read and help make better. If I didn’t love this job, if I didn’t want to wake up every day and do this, I’d..probably be working a job completely beneath me or have sunken into years-deep depression by now. People can tout high-paying glamor jobs all they want, but for me, I love what I do, and I won’t replace it for anything or anyone.

3. I don’t need to be a Lorax, or carry around a soapbox. Over the weekend, there was a little battle on the interwebs about some writers not getting paid and some other people spoke on their behalf about it. Now, admittedly, I am biased in this fight – I know and work with/for a lot of people who participated in that discussion, as well as with the company being spoken at. And because they’re my employer(s), I’m not going to get into who-said-what-to-who, because I do not know the particulars and because to the best of my knowledge it’s a non-issue by now. But it made me aware of just how far I’ve come in working on my tone. I would have SO been the guy on the soapbox spitting fire and drawing heat for other people, because I used to need that cause, I used to need a fuse lit under me to give a damn. But I don’t need that to make my life better any more. There’s enough on my plate and I’m happy with it all so that I don’t need to go stirring things up on the internet for either attention or sport. My days as a professional shit-stirrer are over.

4. Those skills I take for granted are often those for which I am praised, admired and loved. I do a lot of things differently than others. For a long time I felt like those were hindrances or signs of my worthlessness and inferiority, because honestly, who reads at least eight books a week and memorizes whole chunks of game mechanics, canon and material for fun? And who answers emails within minutes of their transmission to the depths I do? These are not the skills typically found in people. These are skills I just sort of assumed everyone has, because when I was developing them (read: young), it was no big deal that in elementary school I was reading so much or that in junior high I was writing speeches for people and working on college-level material. While this did create a blindspot for me that I’m occasionally smacking into (you mean you can’t describe the whole day in first grade where your teacher explained how to spell the word ‘miniature’? Or that you don’t remember what you wore the day you stood in a foreign airport and had a hot coed blow smoke in your face almost twenty years ago?) – Those are not the skills of the cave troll of Moria, Frodo, these are the skills that I can contribute and offer to those around me. Realizing I actually have the ability to matter to others has been huge.

5. I get listened to. For much of my life, professional and otherwise, either because of my tone or whatever, I didn’t think that what I say mattered. I’d make recommendations or give advice or write out reports and messages and then see the material totally ignored. But lately, and this is probably because I’m talking to/with a better class of people and working in ways that are positive and healthful, I’m getting listened to. I have actual evidence that what I’m saying translates into real-world stuff. Whether that’s a project taking shape based on my ideas or having my contributions to a Google document not just get deleted out…I thrill at seeing things I say actually mattering to other people to the point where something positive comes out of it.

6. It’s not about boundaries, it’s about budget. I once got told I have trouble building boundaries, that I don’t appropriate separate or afford things adequate distance. But they I also got told that I keep too distant from things, too objective and too cold. It’s hard to rectify that. Instead, what I did, because I am forever finding new routes between Point A and Point B, was look at the problem from a management issue – am I giving issue 1/issue 2 enough time or too much time? Are there tools I can use to make this more concrete? It turns out that given enough material and a good objective, I can manage a lot and do a lot effectively. This isn’t me bragging, because I’m NOT saying I can do more than you can, this is me saying that I don’t have a problem with boundaries. I have a problem with budgeting time and staying motivated and interested. Do you know why it’s been less of a problem lately? Because I’m doing more things that actually interest me. It’s quite cool.

I’ve learned a lot in the last five weeks. I look forward to what the next five teach me.

Happy writing.

Question Asked & Answered – How can I help you help me?

I occasionally get asked questions with answers that should be shared with other people. This is one of those times.

Andy asked, “I’m writing a manuscript (disclosure – I will one day have it done and send it to you), until it’s done, what are the best things I can do (editing, preparation, etc) to make your future job easier?

This is a common question. And I know a lot people who edit-as-they-write, either over the course of each sentence as they write it, or at the end of a spurt of writing when they can sit down and go through the day’s pages. I’m not always sure which is “better”, since both can be either helpful (in catching simple mistakes) or detrimental (they’re stall tactics to keep you from finishing or they’re just ways to heap a sense of failure onto your shoulders), but assuming that whatever you’re doing is working for you, there are other things you can do to make my life (and whatever editor you work with) easier.

Behold, a list.

1. Check your spelling. This is the easiest step, and probably the one most avoided. The majority of programs now provide you with very happy red squiggles under a word for a reason, and even if the dictionary is inaccurate, take the time to make it accurate. It’s one less obstacle to overcome and one more ‘check mark’ in the professional column for you.

2. Ask questions. If you’re going to blind-submit to me (which is totally an option, but I can almost guarantee you it will be an exercise in patience for you), or if you’re planning on submitting work, make sure you’ve asked some questions. What questions? These:

  1. What format would you (the editor) like to receive the manuscript in?
  2. How would you (the editor) like to be paid?
  3. In what format will I (the author) receive feedback?
  4. When can I (the author) expect that feedback?
  5. What sort of comments should I expect to see as feedback?
  6. Is there some sort of contract or agreement we make/sign for this?  

Yes there are loads more questions, I just gave you the first 6 that popped into my head as the first 6 I usually see or reply to. By asking these questions, and actually paying attention to the answers (more on that in a minute) a relationship between author and editor is built and the product of that relationship will be (hopefully) an improved manuscript.

3. Follow instructions. The majority of rejections and ignored manuscripts occur not because the work wasn’t any good, but because the submitter didn’t follow whatever directions necessary when sending the submission wherever they sent it. If you can’t follow directions, then the editor/author relationship is not going to go well. This is not said so that you think all editors are dictators bent on ruining your work, but so that you’re aware that the reason there are submission guidelines is often NOT arbitrary and often VERY important.

Now if you don’t know what you need to do or need to send for a submission, ask. It may take extra time (an extra email, for example), but it will be worth it.

For example, here are my guidelines:

  1. Digital submissions preferred, older Word formats especially welcomed.
  2. No Mac .pages or similar. Also, no PDFs. 
  3. If you have to print it out, DO NOT bind your manuscripts.
  4. If you have to print it out, DO NOT expect your printed manuscript returned to you in the pristine state you send it.
  5. When you send your manuscript, include in your email at least 2 ways to contact you (phone, social media).
  6. When you send your manuscript, include also the word count, title and genre.

That’s it. Why do I ask those things? Here’s why.

1. I have several old computers that I work from. They do not all have the newest version of Word installed.
2. I no longer own a Mac (it’s on the list to-be-bought)
3. On a print manuscript, I go through and write on/all over the pages. I need access to the individual pages.
4. I write on things. A lot.
5. I need to know how to reach you, and don’t like playing just email or phone tag.
6. I need to know what you’re planning to do with the manuscript, because that helps me know how to help you improve it.

(Fred Hicks really turned me onto this idea of transparency, and I’m really making an effort to be better at that, in addition to my on going efforts to mind my tone and be a good representative of myself, my business and my clients.  It’s an addictive, positive thing.)

4. Pay. There are bills to pay. This is my job. Writing your book may not be your only full-time job, but editing IS my only job. Prompt payment is appreciated. (Note: I know times are tough, if money is tight or could become tight, the best policy is to TALK ABOUT IT, and make it a non-issue. I personally am a lot happier and more comfortable knowing that it might be an extra week or two for that check to arrive if I know in advance.)

5. Respect is a two-way street. When I take you on as a client, even if we disagree over something in the manuscript (like I think you should change a verb or flip something around and you think I should go lick an outlet), I’m not going to jump online and air our problems out for people to hear. Likewise, in the event that the money gets tight, or it’s been a while since you cut me a check, I’m not using this blog to out you as some kind of non-paying ne’er-do-well. I respect you, and protect our relationship. Do the same for me.

6. Understand that I am going to talk about our successes. When things are rocking and good, I’m going to talk about it. I’ll hop on Twitter and talk about the great day or how much I enjoy the work we’re doing. And when the manuscript becomes a book and people can go buy it, I’m definitely going to talk about it.

Example: See this? I worked on this. It’s awesome. And you should buy it, because I know of no other story where a spunky heroine waps a raptor with a wrench.

The same is true for any promotional work you do, or any crowd-sourcing efforts. I will back your Kickstarter, tell my friends and family about the project(s), and generally drum up good buzz. It’s a good thing. I’m not doing this to call you out or put you on the spot, it’s what I do to help OUR project succeed.

7. Do your best. A lot of people think an editor’s job is to take whatever tangle of words you put on paper, in whatever form, and build a successful book/game/website/presentation/whatever from it. True, yes, I can do that, given enough time and with enough planning. But that’s not what my job is – if it was, I’d just be writing FOR you, which I’m so not doing. Now, I’m not going to be petty and say “If you don’t do a good job, I won’t either”, because that’s exactly the behavior I’m looking to avoid, but I cannot stress that if you want me to take you seriously and professionally, then you need to do your best. Write your best, even if that’s not perfect. Put together the best story you can. If there are imperfections or holes or problems, admit them up front so we can work on them. Don’t half-ass this. Don’t quit either.

If you do those seven things, the editor/author relationship thrives. And I agree with the prevailing sentiment that the relationship should be a collaborative one, not one where the editor goes for the jugular and breaks the writer down no matter who they are. That’s not healthy. That’s not writing. That’s power-tripping. And it smacks of not-actually-knowing-what-the-craft-and-point-of-writing-and-editing-is-ness.