Some Tips on Voice-Finding

Today we follow up on what I wrote earlier this week.

Jeremy Morgan asked:

I fear that my voice (my worldview in particular) will come out as a ‘tell’ and that it will be off-putting to readers. (I know, I know, be true to yourself and write!) But the fear is still there. Any tips on conquering (or at least allaying) that fear?

Now, Jeremy’s answered this question partially – that the key to this is to be true to yourself and write, but I know there are a lot of people saying, “Easier said than done.” So let’s talk about it.

For starters, it may be easier to say to be true than it is to actually be brave enough to be honest and write without a veneer or cover, but it’s doable. Everyone can do it. We may not all do it at the same time, it may come easier to some and harder to others, but everyone can do it. 

The Fear
The fear can be found in the second half of Jeremy’s first sentence: “that it will be off-putting to readers” Lots of things can be off-putting to readers, and it’s up to the reader(s) to choose whether or not the thing you’ve written is upsetting to them. 

Sure, there are topics that lead to that choice faster than other (religion, politics, racial commentary), but whatever you wrote is just words. Words have only the power imbued, so the interpretation is wholly subjective. 

The point: The reader chooses whether or not to be offended. Do not make that decision for them. Do not pretend to have already made that choice for them before you start writing. Just write. Write and be brave. Write and be honest. 

To fight the fear, I have some tips.

The Tips

Write as if you’re the (only) audience. I often tell people to think of their audience when writing salescopy or promotional material, so that they can find a sympathetic rather than an aggressive starting point. Here, I ask you to write as though YOU are the audience. I don’t mean write to yourself (No, “Dear self: blah blah blah”, that’s a different exercise), I mean write as though you’re the sort of person who the material targets. What would you say to someone exactly like yourself?

What’s the worst that could happen? Let’s say you write whatever it is you’re writing. What’s the worst case scenario? That it never gets published. Then you’d never have to worry about your voice upsetting people. Let’s assume it gets published. Are you really going to care at that point though if ten people from the middle of nowhere didn’t like it? You’ve had one book published, you may be well on your way to a second, so what’s the worst that could happen? (The trick here is to distinguish the practical possibilities from the irrational — people not liking your work is not the same as starting a controversial global discussion about whether or not pigs fly or whatever your work is about)

Remember why you’re writing. Are you writing because you have something to say or some story you want to birth unto the world? Or are you writing to please others? Note: one of those two questions is a path to frustration and disappointment, choose wisely. Writing for the right reasons is critical. What are yours?

I know I promised a dozen tips Jeremy, but I think those 3 are going to be the ones you want to keep close at hand. 

Happy writing.

Finding Your Voice

Good morning readers, I hope you had an excellent weekend. I did. I played some games, relaxed on the couch, did some reading and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Very restful.

I’m sorry the blogposts have been few and far between, that’s more because I’ve not been sure what to say, rather than lacking topics to potentially talk about. It’s a frustrating feeling when I have things to talk about but I can’t seem to get the words straightened out in my mind, which usually leads into some sort of panic that I’ve lost my writing-groove and unlike Angela Bassett, I’ll never get it back.

But I have my groove this morning, so I thought I’d sit down and write. What we’ll talk about today will be blunt and candid, but important. I want to talk about your voice as a writer, and why it above all else is critical if you want your writing to take you places, personally and professionally.

So what is it? Some resources will tell you that voice is the way your narrator sounds. Some people will tell you it’s the frequency that you use particular phrases or word. Some of the shady / less-than-reputable resources won’t expressly spell out what it is, but for the low low cost of however-much-their-book-is, you can figure out your voice BEFORE you get to writing “seriously”, as if whatever you were doing before was mute and you’re nothing without their book.

For me, and I can only ever speak for myself when I talk about writing terms, voice is the sum of the word choice, inflection, tone and medium through which the ideas are attempting to reach me. Every author has a voice, and every project shades, tints and spins that voice as I digest the material.

Do I figure it out BEFORE I write? When I was learning all that I know about editing, I was mentored by a man named Sid. In his later years, the cancer was pretty intense and his long-windedness became short-windedness, but I remember a lot of what he taught me, and kept rather obsessive notes. On the subject of voice, when I must have asked if you’re supposed to find your voice before you write, he said this:

Voice is like sex. When you’re getting some, you’re not worried about it. It’s when you hit a dry spell and don’t get any that you start to question it.”

And that’s true. When you’re writing, when the fingers dance over the keys and the ideas take shape on the screen or the page, you’re not worried about whatever the voice is.

You’ll develop that voice AS you write. It’s something that grows out of the act of writing, as well as from the confidence of having written.

Why is it important? One of the things looked for when you want to take work from the “I’m writing as a hobby” to “I’m writing because I want this creation to do something for other people, and possibly make me some money” is voice — Yes you need a strong story, well-written, with characters and growth and a plot, but you also need to demonstrate that you’ve created something, and that this story is a lens through which you show off a particular idea and view of the world.

Imagine you have a camera with a powerful zoom lens. You can use that zoom to create some very arresting images, images that you may want to share with other people. By using that zoom, as well the light and exposure of the camera, you’re able to take photos that evoke a particular reaction in whoever seems them later. It’s no different in writing. The voice is your camera; the words and style your zoom lens.

How do I find this voice? You write. You create. Don’t judge the writing as good or bad, that’s something for later down the road, when you have the benefit of hindsight or the expertise of others as a reference model. For now, to find your voice, you write. You write and create and discard and hone your work until you can sit down and nearly on command, summon the ideas so that you may broadcast them (that’s a little hyperbolic, but precisely what I mean)

Any other notes? Yes, have some bullet points:

  • Voice is what you get when you let yourself show through your work. There’s an old saying “Voice is vulnerability.” and that’s not too far off. I’m not saying you should expose your pink underbelly to every predator on the veldt, I’m saying you don’t have to prop up some tower shield and defend your actual and perceived weaknesses from the mean scary world.
  • Voice doesn’t waiver, but your mind will tell you that it does. How you sound doesn’t change. You can effort to mask it for one reason or another, through a variety of techniques (read: lies), but there will always be a ‘tell’ as they say in poker and facial recognition, that will expose your native sound. Your brain, not wanting to be scared or exposed (see above bullet point), will tell that your voice is wobbly or that your writing isn’t at its best today…because your brain is trying to protect you ((technically, it’s protecting its addiction to specific chemicals released when you feel certain things, and if you suddenly were to change behaviors, you may not release the same chemicals and your junkie-brain may have to change)). But don’t believe this hype. Your voice is always there, always the undercurrent of your work – it’s just up to you as to whether or not you tap into that.
Now go and let your Voice be heard. Happy writing. 

Post-GenCon – The Ups and Downs

I’m writing this after spending 2 hours in traffic (it’s normally about 15-20 minutes in the afternoon), so if this is a little plodding, it’s entirely because I’m tired and am torn between the age-old debate of eating versus sleeping. I’ve decided to eat something (egg whites) while I figure out what else there is to eat (I think I should go grocery shopping).

So, I’m home from GenCon. It was such an amazing and wonderful and overwhelming experience that I’m not sure I can chronologically track it all. I mean, I wanted to, but there was just SO much going on and so much that happened (all of it good, even if at times it was a bit more and a bit new), that I’ll just hit you here with the highlights in a semi-broad sense. The personal details, well, those are just going to be for me and the people involved.

I disclaim right now that I’m going to cover a lot of topics and speak personally here. If that’s too much for you, or you’re not interested, just know that I had a good time and we’ll talk more soon.

1. I benefited from a space to getaway. There’ s a lot of things going on at this convention — tens of thousands of people make a lot of noise and generate a lot of sensory overload. Really critical for me was the ability to get away from that, even for an hour or so and head back to the hotel room, where the environment was more stable and I could unwind.

2. I can’t say it was flawless, but I am really proud of myself. Okay, honesty time – I had some ups and downs. The specifics aren’t really for this blog, but just know that they weren’t anything catastrophic or ruinous, and I still have all my fingers and toes, and my heart and soul are still kicking. Several of the events, being big huge anxiety-triggers (few things make me go all shallow-breathing and fidgety like the idea that I’ll meet ALL the people I admire in rapid succession), did lead me to pop a pill, but that’s what I have them for right?

And sure I pushed quite a few comfort zones for five days straight. But I came out okay. I made great new wonderful beautiful fantastic friends, made great incredible memories (some of which I’m not sharing with anyone who doesn’t already know), and in general had a great experience.

Order and structure prevailed. Those days where I made sure I ate regularly, stayed hydrated, got rested and took charge of my thoughts and moods were days I was this great new me that I am really coming to love. That’s not to say that when my head got the best of me, or when I didn’t eat and got all fidgety and wan I was sub-human…but there was a clear difference between John-in-charge-of-his-shit and John-at-the-mercy-of-rising-mental-floodwaters.

I did it. I fucking did it.

3. In the face of fears, I took the chances. I can cross quite a few things off my bucketlist after this weekend. I won’t give you the whole list (that’s not for you, gentle readers) but I’ll give you some highlights:

a. Ran a game at GenCon (for people I didn’t know) — I don’t know why I waited so long to do this…I should have been doing this sooner. Okay, yeah that would have taken more prep, but seriously, to have absolutely new people get so into a game and enjoy themselves sincerely (it’s hard to doubt people screaming “Hell yeah” and “That was awesome!”) is deeply gratifying.
b. Ran a game (for people I did know) — Yes, I do this all the time, but here it was different. I ran a hack of a game I am deeply in love with. And it was a HUGE HUGE success. Again, I cannot believe I was so afraid to be expressive with my friends.
c. I went out to eat with people. Sure, that’s not a big deal. No, that’s a very big deal. I tend to eat with, at best, one or two other people. Maybe three on weekends or holidays. I tend to prize my meal times since I’m actually a little embarrassed by how fast I eat (well, ate, I’ve slowed down since beginning treatment). There was a group of people, sometimes upwards of 8, and we all ate together. Indian food, grilled meats, whatever. It wasn’t awkward. It wasn’t scary, even though those people do somewhat affect my livelihood and I do answer to some of them on occasion. But this…this was a meal. With friends. Together, and happy. I could seldom ask for better.
d. I saw my name in A LOT of print. There were piles of books that all had my name in them, and it was very humbling (I admit now that after seeing my name in 2 piles of books and watching people buy them like mad, I did walk away crying happy tears)
e. I was recognized. People sought me out. And not in that we’re-going-to-find-you-and-chase-you-away style I was expecting. I had a lot of great people come tell me that the blog is wonderful, that I’m a good person, that they’re happy for me, that they’re following my progress and it’s inspiring them to do things. Better still these people were happy to see me and put a an actual personage to my online presence. I even signed a few autographs and got a shout-out in an acceptance speech.

Speaking of which….

4. I WON AN ENNIE. (There’s a photo of me with said ENnie floating around Facebook). If you go here, then scroll down to “Fans Favorite Publisher” you’ll see that Evil Hat took the silver. Evil Hat is one of the companies I work for. It was also pointed out to me afterward that I was entitled to go up on stage and receive the award, but at the time it didn’t register (much of the work I’ve done hasn’t really come out yet in full force) nor did I feel like I really did anything to deserve it.

And then the scope of the award was explained to me, as was my role. I shall spare you a lot of that summary, suffice to say it was incredibly moving to know just how well I am regarded and how people I respect see me in such positive ways.

So yeah, it was a great first GenCon.

Have a great evening. I’m off to eat something and crash out on the couch.

Editors Are Not The Boogeyman

Special thanks to Tom Cadorette for prompting the discussion that lead to this post. One day I’m sure he’ll out-ninja me in our immortal editorial duel. No not really. Tom is awesome and much like the Shaolin and the Wu-Tang, we’ll totally join forces to fight off the Manchu dogs. Or something.

I’m an editor. I make my living editing things. That means people (individuals, companies, agents, groups) send me their creations (novels, games, plays, scripts, manuals and even cookbooks) and I help make them better.

Notice that I didn’t say that I live under the bed and terrorize small children. Or that I live under a bridge and consume goatflesh weekly. No, I’m an editor, editing is what I do.

The word and concepts of editing carry such weight, such anxiety and such stigma that I often wonder about what people are thinking when they engage or don’t engage an editor. So I asked a lot of people this last week that question, and the answers really stuck with me. I’ll address the concerns in this post.

Editors won’t understand what I’m trying to do, they’ll just ruin it. This idea, I think, comes from some sort of pride or ego and suggests that whatever you’ve created, you think it so good and so brilliant that no one can understand it without your explanation or patronizing hand-holding. What it screams at me is: “I’m afraid of sending my work to an editor because they’ll suggest changes.”

What that thought doesn’t talk about is that engage an editor is a conversation, not supplication. When you retain me to help make your project better, we talk about it before, during and after the edits. In fact, I won’t edit something if I don’t understand it, so it’s up to you to be able to explain to me what the manuscript is trying to accomplish before I jump in there and help it do that.

As nice as it would be for you to genuflect and offer your work to me and my ego on some humongous platter along with a steak (rare) and a milkshake (chocolate), that’s just not what I do, and the idea voiced above demonstrates a lack of investigation.

Yes I’m saying it’s totally fine, well and cool for you, authors and creators, to ask an editor questions about HOW they work, so that they can demystify the process. Investigate before you act. Don’t avoid taking that step forward because you’re operating under a false premise.

Also give us some credit. We might not have been there for the genesis of your creation, but if you are able to explain what it is and what you want to do with it, I’m sure we’ll figure out the best way to help you.

Editors are so expensive. Well, yes, you’re going to pay money for a professional to do their job and improve the situation, hopefully. Were this not about a manuscript or creative effort and all about a clogged drain or a busted washing machine, you likely wouldn’t think twice about calling a service technician to come out and address the problems, and you likely would accept that paying them for their time and labor is part of the deal.

So why can’t you have that same sort of concept for an editor? Sure, we don’t wear coveralls and lug a toolbelt around, but we do work on diagnosing and fixing problems in the things you care about.

Is it a commitment? Yes. Is it sometimes pricey? Yes. But if your goal is get this creative endeavor out into the hands of consumers and customers, why wouldn’t you do everything possible to get there? And why wouldn’t you pay to get the best help possible to make that happen?

But I want to get my product out to the market now! If I wait, I’ll miss “the window”. This is pure and raw impatience. This is sort of like starting a course of antibiotics and wondering why you’re not all better after you swallow the first dose. It takes time. It doesn’t take lifetimes, sometimes it’s days or weeks or months to get something edited (depends on what it is, who’s working on it, and what their schedule is like). While you can mitigate some of the time by doing things like working on how you’ll market the creation once it’s out of editing, or you can start gathering ideas for the next idea you want to develop, or you can just plain go sit down and take it easy. Have a cup of coffee. Go for a walk. Things will get done and get very exciting for you soon enough. Savor the downtime.

Rushing a product out to consumers is a disaster-in-the-making. A rushed product may lack the necessary or desired layout as well as contain errors large and small that an editor would have caught and flagged. Not only does a rushed product hurt itself, it impacts all the future products that may also occur…a dangerous precedent for production. (Because it raises the question: “Do I want to buy the next thing they make if that one thing was sloppy?”)

Guidelines, guidelines, guidelines. Okay, please find me the person who says you have to only use Deep POV to get a book published. How about the person who wants all stories to be romance tales? I’ll wait here.

Okay, so this idea comes from the assumption that you can only publish a book by going through the “traditional” model (agent to publisher). Lots of publishers have guidelines as to what they accept and what they reject. They’re detailing in the Writer’s Market, for example. I’ve got my copy open to page 309 for instance, and I’m looking for the paragraph ANYWHERE on the page that says “We require Deep POV, omniscient narration and no puppets.” It’s not on that page. Or 310. Or 311. Why?

BECAUSE what a publisher wants is a book to publish. That’s their job. Your job, author/creator is to produce a book of a publishable nature. And part of shaping that story is to get it edited so that it can be published. That’s all. What you do with it after publication is entirely up to you. The nuts and bolts of the book are important because they need to work towards the goal of making the story enjoyable or stronger or better crafted, but your authorial success is not measured by how well you turn a phrase (unless you’re one of the douchey people who live and die by journals and literary snobbery. Or that one Lit professor I had).

I don’t need an editor because I’ll never be a success story. With that attitude you’re right.

I don’t know where to find an editor. You can ask me. I can give you the names of quite a few editors who you may be interested in.

Look, editors are available to you to help you make your creation into a reality for other people. That’s all. Sure, the process of finding one, working with one and seeing your work marked up is difficult, but the end goal remains the same – to get the best stories out to hungry audiences.

Ultimately the choice is yours.

See you guys after GenCon. Follow me on Twitter or Like Me On Facebook for updates while I’m at GenCon.

Post 101 – Where I Speak Honestly About Writing

Good rainy afternoon (well, it’s raining here as I write this),

I’m feeling a little frustrated today. It’s the kind of head-shaking frustration you feel when you catch a glimpse of someone else making not just mountains but Himalyas out of molehills. It’s the kind of frustration because it’s the sort of thing you know you’re guilty of too, but at least this time you’re observing it from afar, rather than experiencing it.

What I’m talking about today is a few bullet points about writing and editing. I will disclaim in advance that I may get a little vulgar, and that I will very likely make statements that rankle a few readers. I’m not doing either of those things to be malicious, I am doing both of those things to express how I feel.

Here now are those thoughts on writing and editing

Quit making it harder for yourself. Viewed from far enough away (zoomed out) writing can be scary. You have to tell a complete story, use characters, have a plot, show some talent, find an agent, get the story edited, get the story published and hope that people like it enough to pay money to read it. That can be A LOT of stress and A LOT of anxiety.

By that same token, if we look at another activity: cleaning a room in your house, we can just as easily find ourselves overwhelmed by the amount of mess, the perception of how long that’s going to take, and how tired that will make us when we’re all done — we have to clear a path to the garbage can, take out the garbage, clear the counter, wipe the counters down, fold clothes, put away clothes, probably have to vacuum or wash the floor, recycle papers, take out the recycling, and then still have the energy to do all that in other rooms in the house.

Or we could change our perspective and do all in our powers to act like writing is just the act of putting one word down after another, and that cleaning a room is working in one 2-foot radius after another.

There’s a lot of things you can worry about when you get into writing. You may even believe that some of the terms are serious and you should devote a lot of energy into warding them away. You may needle yourself into a panic attack over just how third-person your third-person point-of-view is, you may give yourself a headache because some blog somewhere said you can’t use “of” more than thirty times in a chapter.

It’s all bullshit. Horsefeathers. Nonsense. Overthinking, committed to pages and screens.

Burying yourself in jargon or “terms you totally read on the internets” and then hiding behind them as a shield or a crutch is just one more of the many ways NOT to get any writing done.

Seriously, do you think the reason a book got published is because they used a certain word a certain number of times between pages 30 and 47? How reasonable does it sound that a story sold thousands of copies because there was a very crafty application of gerunds in the middle of the book?

Conversely, do you think the reason your story didn’t get published is because you split a few infinitives in chapter 6? Or because you have (gasp!) used a “filter word”? (we’ll get there in a minute).

Your story likely didn’t get published because:
1. The story itself is weak.
2. The characters are flat, uninteresting and fail to present the author’s desired lens on the world
3. The market is saturated with stories of similar ilk.
4. The writing (the specific words on the page) is of a poor quality.
5. The story is fraught with errors big and small that an editor should have examined before you went ahead and submitted it

Yes, there are other reasons, but those are the big five I keep telling people about. They are NOT in any particular order (other than the order I typed them).

Basically, writing is sort of a test. Authors/creators test themselves to see if they can complete a goal – it takes time, discipline and skill…and at no time should they complicate that efforts. You don’t see marathon-ers suddenly adding hurdles to the last six miles do you?

Tell the best story possible. Get help when you need it. Get an editor. Practice your craft (that means improving your writing as well as writing regularly).

Don’t make this harder.

The problem isn’t the finer points, the problem is what you do with them. Show of hands – how many people know what “filter words” are? Or “Deep POV”? Or “Sustained suspension?” Does anyone know if they’re good or bad in storytelling? How about why they’re good or bad?

The answer, by the way, is that those things AREN’T GOOD OR BAD. Filter words are just words. POV is just how the story is told. Sustained Suspension is how well you tell the story. That’s all.

It boils down to what you do with these things, whether or not you let a weak story be told because of poor word choice, inconsistent or weak point of view, and weak commitment to world-building.

I edit what seems like ALL THE THINGS lately. My editorial calendar is dense, my schedule is so packed I don’t even update Google Calendar so much anymore (yay for handwritten desk calendars), and there’s conventions and panels to be at (GenCon in less than a week!). And not once in the 18 years I’ve been editing things has anyone (publishers, agents, other editors, writers, librarians, consumers) ever asked me one damned question about filter words. When I go out to a meal with other editors, they don’t double-check my work to see that I’ve correctly flagged errors with suspension or point of view.

There’s no reward, there’s zero “bonus” for touting that you’ve eliminated such jargon-y traps from your work. The goal isn’t to find alternatives to “touch” because “touch” is a filter word…the goal IS TO MAKE YOUR WRITING BETTER BY PICKING BETTER WORDS, WORDS THAT MORE CLOSELY RESEMBLE AND REFLECT THE WORLD OF THE PROTAGONIST OR CHARACTERS INVOLVED.

Here’s where I get all rage-y.

Do you know why there are blog posts and blogs and podcasts about these little nuances in writing? Because people have to fill webspace and audiospace with words. Because repeating “Tell the best story the best way you can, taking the rules you need and discarding whatever doesn’t serve you” would be a pain in the ass to hear over and over again (although it would totally help).

In the course of spitting out tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of words, one of the goals you’re trying to accomplish is to create a world where these characters exist, and the reader will follow one or more characters more closely than the others and see this created world through their eyes and experiences. (Those characters are protagonists and that created experience is the reaction to the plot). The method on how you accomplish this goal is ENTIRELY UP TO YOU.

There are authors who don’t use a lot of punctuation or capitalization. I know this, because I’ve bought their books at my local bookstore — so somehow they got published.
There are authors who (gasp!) use sentence fragments. I know this, because I’ve bought their books — so somehow they got published.
There are even authors who break EVERY single grammatical rule I talk about and some I don’t — and I’ve bought their books at stores, so they’ve been published.

Forget the bullshit coward cop-out of “well those people are the exception to the rule, I’m not like them, I’m not special enough, waah waah” and seriously look at your writing. YOU CAN MAKE IT BETTER. THERE EXIST PEOPLE AND SERVICES YOU CAN AVAIL YOURSELF OF TO GET BETTER AT DOING THIS.

It has nothing to do with you sucking ass while other people are special. We’re all capable of getting published. It might take some people longer, and they may have to work harder, but IT CAN BE DONE.

You’re going to face critics, bullies, jerks, haters and idiots. What you do in response to that is what matters. Sometimes people aren’t going to like what you do. There are LOADS of people who don’t like this blog, scores of people who think I’m still a lying douche, quite a few professional people who find me obnoxious, heaps of folks who don’t like my edits, and I’m sure an assload of people who don’t like what I say on Twitter.

Prior to about three weeks ago, I’d totally let their vitriol and commentary keep me from writing, out of fear that every time I’d be doing something, they’d be upset. And I…didn’t want to upset them, because I wanted everyone to approve of me, like me, and tell me I was doing a good job.

And then I had a few really intense things happen to me, and I got a big dose of reality mashed into my face. Now, I’m not seeking that approval (because in many cases, I’ll never get it), and I cannot control if other people are upset over something I do or said – so long as I know I didn’t write or do something intentionally to upset them, all I can do is accept that their reaction is their choice, and it’s on them to own it and be with that.

While there is no shame in backing down, hanging up your typewriter ribbon and ceasing to dream of writing professionally (hey, it’s hard and not everyone is cut out for it), there exists an equal amount of potential that you can succeed. Not to spite the haters or prove them wrong, but just because YOU want to succeed.

Personal story — I spent YEARS (like 2 decades) doing things because I thought other people wanted me to. If I go see a doctor, my girlfriend won’t leave me. If I curb partying, people in my life won’t hate me — I was doing these big huge tasks so that other people (who I couldn’t control or influence) would make some kind of invisible decision (that I thought they were making, even though they weren’t) and I’d get the happy results I wanted. 

And then I did those things, and didn’t get the happy results. 

People were still upset, I was angry and resentful, I still lived in this pattern of shitty behavior. And yeah, I thought that made me a bad person. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to do EVERYTHING for myself. The important distinction here is that I’m not being selfish, I’m not doing what I do to put down others, I’m doing what I do to make me the best me possible, because that’s what I want. I’m sick of the pattern of shit, I’m tired of the fear and the doubts and the approval seeking, so what would happen if I’m the only approval I need? And what would happen if I didn’t have to fall into that pattern, what’s that like? 

Everything changed, that’s what happened. I’m doing things for myself, and I’m benefiting. Yes, the haters still exist, but I don’t go out of my way to bait and engage them. They…just cease to be the source of where I’m seeking approval. I approve, and therefore I keep doing what I doing. 

I think that empties my thought jar on the subject. This is very likely the last post I’ll write before GenCon starts up. It’s possible I’ll have the ability to write something during the Convention, but I’m not expecting random folks to say “John, do you need a laptop?”

So we’ll talk post-GenCon. You can follow me on Twitter if you want.

Have a great weekend.

Post #100 – Thank You Editors, Writers and Publishers

This is officially the longest I’ve ever maintained a blog. So I’d like to look back for a minute and sum up things to date:

1. This blog is a pretty good combination of my life and my business, and I’m happy with sharing the things I share.
2. A year ago this time, I was feeling the heat that I was failing professionally, and strongly considered getting a cubicle or retail job – the clients were infrequent, the checks moreso and I was really unsure of what the next steps were. (Note: Some people will step in here and say they are the cause for my upswing and success, and I want to take this sentence to thank them for their support. They were helpful, and I do not minimize their efforts, but I also don’t maximize them either.)
3. My personal life has been…well, an adventure. And right now, I’m in some pretty intense therapy. So if you’re wondering why I’m handling things differently, thank my therapist, my psychiatrist and the support group. They’ve helped me figure out more about myself in 2 weeks than a whole load of experiences and failures over 2 years. I look forward to keeping that up and going onward and upward.
4. I cannot claim to be cured, or in remission, but I can tell you that who I was a month ago and who I am now are not the same person – this isn’t because I’m conflating things and posting bravado, this is because I finally had no other choice but to stare myself in a metaphoric mirror and get a handle on my shit. Not easy, not fun. But progress.
5. Where this blog goes for the next 100 posts, I don’t know. I’ve got classes I want to teach in the fall. I’ve got Conventions I want to travel to, people I want to meet, and I’d like this blog to be my record of that.

Now, onto the message of the day.

I want to thank all the editors, writers and publishers I have come to know and work with this last year. I had toyed with mentioning them by name, but felt that such a list was grandiose. I then tried paring down the list, but thought that it was too exclusionary. I have since settled on this statement —

To everyone who has met me, talked to me, shared their ideas with me, hired me, retained me, and paid me, thank you so much for making me one thousand million percent sure that what I’m doing as an editor and consultant is the absolute best course for my life.

To everyone I have spoken with, carpooled with, been to your homes, read your manuscripts, exchanged emails with, laughed with, played games with, ran games with, been supported by, confided in, shilled for, helped, listened to, consulted, advised, amused, chatted with and been introduced to, thank you so much for making my life better.

I know that what I do sometimes becomes more than just my job; that it is a passion and in part an identity, and that I’m not known for my thank-yous or recognizing my friends, peers, employers and colleagues, but I’m making an effort to change that, and I hope that you all can forgive me for how I was, and understand that I’m doing all in my power to get better. For me, for once.

I know that I’ve not always been the best sort of guy – my tone still sucks, I can be a real jerk and an ass, and that I haven’t always been the kind of person people want to be around, or that I haven’t always wanted to be around people. To the people I’ve hurt, I am sorry. I will not air out my laundry for everyone to see, but I will say my apologies publicly – I am sorry that anything I did or didn’t do upset you. I’m sorry I lied, I ignored, I stayed quiet, I boasted, I bitched….all of it. I know that for some people this is just more hot air from the jerk, and I know that I’m not going to be trusted or liked and that every word I’m writing is another nail in the coffin that buries me. Whatever. See above statements about being different now. I cannot make you believe it, that’s up to you. All I can do is work on being the best me possible.

Editors, thank you for letting me work alongside you, for you, with you and under your expert tutelage. I am a better editor, writer and enthusiast of craft because I can point to the lessons you’ve taught me. I learn new things every day, and am so lucky and grateful to have the opportunities to do so.

Publishers, thank you for taking a chance on me. A year ago, I was just another guy in a room who happened to know a thing or two about getting books into peoples’ hands. (That post is coming…wait for November) And now my name has been on projects, some people even know who I am, and I finally have a use for all these thousands of business cards. Without you, I’d be…well, probably making $35 a week teaching how to write query letters.

Writers, it is to you I owe the greatest thanks. You have brought me such joy, such happiness, such moments of clarity as I face down my preconceived notions, biases, shitty attitudes and nonsense en route to finding and refining my core value of “Help tell the best stories”. I am so lucky to count some of you among not only my clients or acquaintances, but also my friends. All three of those things, I didn’t have too many of last year. Again, what a difference a year makes.

I really have been #livingthedream this past year. Thank you all for it.

For those that don’t know, my birthday is Tuesday. I have to be honest and tell you I don’t quite know how I’ll feel or what to do, but I can tell you I’m treating it like any other Tuesday (weather permitting) – I’m going to get up early, walk a few miles, then go to therapy and come home and work. There’s also a dinner-thing happening. If you see me online Tuesday, please feel free to say hello.

Thanks for reading these 100 posts. I know some of them have been more popular than others. I know some of them have been better written than others. I’ll keep being awesome for the next 100, I promise.

I’ll be back probably Friday to talk more writing. Happy writing.

P.S. 2 things: Make sure you thank your editors. And please for the love of Pete, if you’re not sure you need an editor, talk to one first. DO NOT trust your Aunt Petunia with your manuscript. She may have cooties. Or be an idiot.

What Total Recall Taught Me About Storytelling and Gaming

I just came home after seeing the new version of Total Recall. I will avoid spoilers and will avoid specific commentary on the film, but before I go into what the movie taught me, I’d like to make a few points:

* I tire of the idea that the only way to demonstrate a “strong female character” is to give them a gun, get them bloody and occasionally make them grunt. There are many kinds of strength, and I am eagerly waiting for the next batch of media creators who realize that “strong women” aren’t limited to action beats.

* I do not like Kate Beckinsale’s nose. It seems quite shaved and pinched, and I’m concerned that she’s not taking in enough oxygen. It was rather hard to look away from it, since 90% of her shots were facial close-up. (That’s not a spoiler, just look at the trailers)
Note – for those who think the above point was too dysmorphic or sexist, my intent was just to point out that  it bothered me, much the same way people pointed out Christian Bale’s moles in Batman.

* I’m beginning to conclude that lens flares are used to conceal green screen composite shots – and are used to distract from what I call “blurry CGI motion syndrome”, those parts of scenes where suddenly a character moves too fluidly and hurriedly, seems to bleed a little (colorwise) on film and looks…sometimes cartoony. (See: Legolas in LOTR, several stunt-beats in the early Harry Potter movies and some parts of Twilight.)

Now, onto what I learned.

I. Subjective Reality

At its heart this movie (and the short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale) plays heavily with the questionable nature of reality, of what’s real and what isn’t, and what/who you can or can’t trust. This concept is often a goldmine when done well and lazy writing when executed poorly.

In writing, this idea is explored most often as an unreliable narrator, so that it is more often the audience and not the narrator who must navigate the blurred lines of truth and untruth. (In film this task often falls to the protagonist who is also the audience surrogate.)

In gaming, it’s a lot harder to pull this off, because most people want to play characters that have much of their facets already in place and seek only to improve upon them. Reality is expected to be somewhat dictated as a response to mechanics, as well as what (if any) expectations the players have based on what they bring to the table in terms of character ideas, themes or concepts.

A game that toys with this idea to my great satisfaction is Rite Publishing’s The Demolished Ones – a game that takes the idea of “I don’t know my character” (thanks amnesia!) and allows you to have an absolutely present-tense experience because you “remember” things in order to put them on your character sheet. So at once, the player is co-conspirator in the unreliability, having to choose whether or not a particular item, idea or moment is one they will use to their advantage for character improvement.

In my own writing and gaming, I tend to avoid explorations into what is and isn’t the case – this is in part because I doubt my ability to keep a daisy chain of misdirections going long term, and also I find it grating trying to figure out just how long a narrator is supposed to be unreliable, or if the degree I’m being uncertain is strong enough. Too many questions cross it off the writing list. In gaming, my players, well they get testy when they can’t figure out what is and isn’t happening.

The strength of subjective reality is not the adversarial nature of I-know-something-and-you-don’t, but rather the idea that whatever story you’re telling, you can throw a wrench into the chronology. Changing the “when” component of an event allows you to constantly reshuffle the order of development around, freeing you up to tell the best story possible.

Also, it allows you to play with the nature of expectation…but we’ll talk about that next.

II. Expectations

Expectation is one of the three E’s that you manipulate to create tension (the other two being Emotion and Excitement). Expectation what drives play and storytelling forward. We expect the protagonist to win, we expect the “boss fight” to be at the end of the film, book or adventure, and we expect three-act structure to permeate our experience.

In same cases there’s a spin on it (Nolan’s Memento presents the end of a story at the beginning, so the Third-First Act creates a sort of mobius loop, Leverage presents a heist or caper through flashbacks that bend the Second Act into the Third Act based on the lead-out of the First Act).

But expectations are not just macro views of story development. You can change expectations in-scene as well. The most common version of this is the betraying-character, who turns against the protagonist(s) when either the reasons are valid or when the story gets tired and needs a perk (I’m looking at you, Crystal Skull)

The same is true of objects. A gun can malfunction at the worst possible moment, the bomb could fail to detonate (or detonate too soon) or the printer could run out of paper just when you need it the most.

No expectation should be permanently set in concrete – it’s your story, do all that you have to make it the best story you can.

III. Psychic Distance

I talk a lot about Psychic Distance in Workshops. It’s the imagined camera between audience and character – zooming in for close-ups and emotional display, pulling back for exposition and demonstrations of scope.

Understanding that as a creator (author, game designer, GM, Storyteller, Director, etc) you control the speed of the “camera” by parceling out what and how much detail you give to your characters and non-player characters makes storytelling that much more a richer experience.

Remember too that players (and the audience, for you book types) will respond sympathetically rather than quantitatively — they’ll respond to a positive emotion positively and a negative emotion empathetically — rather than assess the situation mathematically and end up with emotions going to 11 as if to complete an equation of solving for X.

* * * 

Think of these elements as sliders, with the creator of the story able to ramp them up and play with them throughout the experience of the story (don’t think this is something you set once and then walk away from) – in fact, I would go so far to say that ‘riding the levels’ will keep the story experience fresh and evocative for the audience/players/readers.

Happy writing.