Fiction & Fatherhood Update and Roadmap

Most of what I’ve posted about lately has been theological in nature, so I thought it might be good to give some of my readers more interested in other aspects of the blog an update and information about what to expect in the future. Here we go:

Fiction

I’m currently working on the following for my fiction:

Avar Narn Novel

By the end of NaNoWriMo last November, I’d put on paper what I estimate to be about 40% or so of the novel. I’ve been editing and slowly rewriting scenes and plot lines for this portion of the book and have the intention of attempting to finish the first draft during NaNoWriMo this year. I may be looking for early readers of drafts, so contact me if that’s something you’re interested in.

Short Stories

I’d like to put some more short stories on the blog to give readers a better feel for my writing. I’ve got one currently under way set in the world of the Worldbuilding Example Series. Not currently sure whether most of what I work on in the near future will fall into that setting or into Avar Narn; we’ll just have to see. I’m also not sure whether I’ll try to submit the short stories anywhere before posting them here–that may depend on how good I feel they are. Again, if anyone out there is interested in critiquing and helping to edit some of these, shoot me a message.

Dark Inheritance

I’m a pretty big fan of the Warhammer 40K universe. While the logic of the setting is highly questionable at times, it’s a science fantasy setting I spent a lot of time in while I was younger, I respect the depth of accreted material over the years since, and it’s just plain fun. Also, there’s a new 40K roleplaying game (Wrath & Glory) due out about August, and I’m excited about that.

Dark Inheritance will be an expansive campaign for Wrath & Glory. It will be posted here in PDF format for any gamemaster who wants to run it for their players. I’m excited about this project as a different form of writing (for public consumption) than I’m used to, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to be writing full story arcs for the RPGs I run rather than building stories on the fly in the last minutes before it’s time to game.

Since the ruleset won’t be out until August or so, the campaign won’t be published until after that. But I’m working now on the story arcs, flow of the campaign and locales and dramatis personae, so it hopefully won’t take me long to add the rules-based information after I have it in my grubby hands.

Cortex Prime Shadowrun Ruleset

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I’m a big fan of the Shadowrun setting. Not so much the rules. I am, however, a big fan of the Cortex Plus system and its soon-to-be-released successor, Cortex Prime. So, I’m working on a ruleset for Shadowun using the toolkit that Cortex provides.

This has been done before by others, but I’ve never seen a conversion done that I really liked, so I’m doing my own. Cortex Prime has also not been fully released yet, but I expect that it has enough in common with Cortex Plus that only minor tweaks will be required after I have the new rules.

The Cortex Prime kickstarter said to expect a first draft of the rules in the next week or two nearly three weeks ago, so I assume I’ll be able to wrap this project up sooner rather than later.

Yes, that’s a lot of projects. Yes, if I focused on one at a time I’d get at least something to you faster. But that’s not how my creative side works, so it is what it is.

Fatherhood

Tonight, K and I begin several days of refreshing our training as foster parents. We are currently scheduled to renew our home study on July 5th. If all goes according to plan, we should be fully licensed for a new placement shortly after that.

We’re not yet decided on the timing of a new placement, but I would expect that we will take one sometime between late July and early September.

When there are kiddos back in the house, I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to write about in the currently-on-hiatus “Fatherhood” section of the blog.

Wonder Woman: Some Thoughts

I know, I’m way late to the game. I’m not a big superhero fan (being that I like my fiction a bit grittier, though I acknowledge that there are some gritty comics), so I didn’t see Wonder Woman until it happened to show up on one of the streaming services to which we subscribe.

I didn’t like it.

I didn’t like it, not because it wasn’t entertaining (it was) or I had any issue with the acting (it was pretty good) or I didn’t like the setting (WWI is interesting). I didn’t like it because of the way it argued against its own narrative.

SPOILERS AHEAD.

If you haven’t seen the film, or have forgotten it, or have paid no heed to the spoiler warning, the main conflict of the film turns on the conflict between Wonder Woman (as champion of the mythical Amazons) against Ares, the god of war. In the story’s twist on Greek myth, Ares killed the other gods in a war over humanity but was injured himself such that he is only returning to exert his influence to destroy humanity in the early 20th century.

A key point of his plan is to create a souped-up chemical weapon (an improved mustard gas, if you will) to prevent an armistice from ending World War I so that humans will keep fighting and killing one another because Ares believes they are evil, selfish beings that deserve to be wiped out.

You can bet my ears perked up at this, because this is an existential-level question about the nature of man. An interesting set-up, but poor followthrough. Despite some platitudes between Diana and Steve Trevor about how you can’t defeat the kind of evil that Ares simultaneously represents and accuses humans of possessing with more violence, that’s really the only tool they employ (except perhaps for Trevor’s attempt to detonate the poison gas at a high enough altitude to render it harmless).

I couldn’t help but compare Wonder Woman to the poison gas itself–she functioned in most respects as a weapon against which there is no ready defense. If she entered a room full of German soldiers, you can bet that they were all dead within seconds despite the feeblest of attempts to defend themselves (which was the best that they could manage given that Wonder Woman herself is later revealed to be a god).

And thus, despite a clear intent to communicate something more, the film falls fatally into that great American lie: that the road to peace is travelled by being stronger than everyone else and able to coerce them into following your idea about what is good–or else.

Violence is never more than a temporary solution that causes as many future problems as it overcomes in the present. I’d like to say that that’s the reason I never really got into superheroes like many of my friends did–this latent power fantasy that we all in our darkest selves want to own, the ability to be forced, coerced or conquered by no man and no thing, thus establishing what is “good” and “true” by fiat.

I am not against fictional violence. I play and enjoy combat-oriented video games and tabletop games, preferring those that force tough moral choices. I watch and enjoy action movies and TV shows that often feature violence. They are exciting and when death or severe injury is on the table, the meaning of the action is heightened. This is excellent for narratives and games, but not so much for real life.

Thus, I think it’s important that we treat characters a little more realistically. Not that we can’t or shouldn’t have characters with kewl powerz, but that we take the time to nuance the choices and morality of those involved in a story. Maybe this is why, ultimately, I prefer my fiction gritty: it’s easier to put into context people who are broken and flawed participating in violence because they are unable to take more noble courses of action, separating my enjoyment of their struggles and stories from my beliefs about right behavior and moral action when real lives are at stake.

So, while the film was well-acted and well-shot, I just couldn’t get over the characters’ actions arguing so strongly against the values that they claimed to espouse. The cognitivie dissonance I felt on their behalves became too much for enjoyment.

Punctuation

This is going to seem like a relatively random posting, but as I’ve been writing on my novel, reviewing a friend’s novel and having some discussions about Biblical interpretation, I’ve been thinking a lot about punctuation lately. Here are some of my musings:

Punctuation is critical in all forms of writing; understanding and properly using punctuation lends authority to anything you write. In my experience, most people do not use proper punctuation. I don’t mean that they make occasional mistakes in their punctuation–everyone does that. I mean that they flagrantly ignore the rules of punctuation and how to use (and intentionally misuse) those rules to greatest effect.

The most egregious culprit is the semi-colon. When I was a graduate student and teaching assistant in English, I would (usually frustratedly and spontaneously after grading the first round of tests) spend a class period reviewing grammar and punctuation with my classes, with a particular focus on the semi-colon. Much to my dismay, what I typically found is that after this session, many students would liberally disperse semi-colons throughout their writing in an effort to seem more capable writers. “What’s the problem with that?” you ask? Nothing, if done correctly. But my students seemed to sprinkle semi-colons over their papers like literary glitter without regard for whether their sentences required glitter. Have I mentioned that I hate glitter? It’s craft herpes–once you’ve contracted it, you’ll be finding it on you forever.

So my students committed a cardinal sin of writing–using something (whether punctuation, a word, a stylistic device, etc.) you don’t understand in an attempt to come across as more talented than you are. Like most good writing techniques, punctuation is most effective when subtle, when it influences the reader without their perceiving that it is doing so. Like much social subtlety, this is crass when recognized and only acceptable in polite society when carefully concealed. The improper use of punctuation breaks the illusion, making this manipulation painfully and embarrassingly clear. A misused piece of punctuation–whether a comma splice or an unneeded semi-colon for instance–thrusts itself into the mind of the reader like an unwanted and socially awkward guest who cannot read the room. It breeds mistrust of the writer and should thus be avoided at all costs.

I think many of us, myself included, are embarrassed to look up rules of punctuation when we don’t know a proper usage. These are things we’re taught in elementary school, so we assume that they are so basic that a person of reasonable intelligence would not forget them. Nothing is farther from the truth. We start learning punctuation and grammar early because these things are difficult and require much practice. Writing is like a muscle, not like riding a bicycle–it atrophies if unused. Because of that, there is nothing wrong with having to refresh your memory about “basic” grammatical concepts. If it’s that big a deal, clear your browser history afterward. But, for the love of God, look up the rule in the first place if there’s any question.

The opposite of the above is, thankfully, also true. The proper use of punctuation is an extremely effective aspect of writing style. To be clear, the word “proper” as used here relies heavily on context. In (most) professional writing, rules of grammar and punctuation should be kept religiously. In fiction writing or circumstances where the perspective and mind of the author are part of the writing itself, the rules should be liberally–but carefully and thoughtfully broken.

I came across an excellent example of this (and probably the impetus for this post) while starting to read a friend’s young adult novel. The novel (at least as far as I’ve gotten) is told in the first person point-of-view of a sixteen year-old young woman. The style of the writing is clipped, using short sentences, sentence fragments and well-placed punctuation to convey the fleeting, sometimes confused and quite excited thoughts of this character as she attends a sort-of debutante party that she knows represents a crucial fork in the road of her life. The character comes to life not just in her words, but in the way that the punctuation groups her thoughts into clusters, abruptly changes subjects and gives us a feel not just for what she thinks but how she thinks. That is great writing; the kind we should all strive for. I’d love to include some examples here, but it’s not my writing to share.

And in that effort, we should bear in mind that there are a number of approaches to punctuation in any writing, but fiction in particular. I would–admittedly making this up as I go–call the above example an heuristic approach to punctuation. But maybe I ought to be less pretentious and call this a “character-based” approach. Alternatives, if you like, might be to call this a “stream-of consciousness” approach or even a “Joycian” approach. The punctuation defines the character, not the author or the style of the writing itself necessarily.

We might alternatively use a dramatic or theatrical approach. In dramatic works, actors are trained to use the punctuation as keys to the pacing, pauses and breaths in speech. Here, the punctuation serves as a code to help the written word mimic normal speech patterns. I find that most people naturally follow this approach when reading aloud, whether or not the piece is dramatic. So, using this method, good punctuation should be used to assist the flow of the text for the reader and to enhance both comprehension and enjoyment of the text. Does this sometimes overlap with the first-described approach? Probably, but not necessarily. Some people don’t think or speak in ways that are easy for others to understand, and not all points of view in narrative are going to be able to characterize and define those involved in the action described.

A more formal adherence to the “rules-as-written” of punctuation would likely serve the same function as the theatrical approach, though perhaps with a different feel. The ease of communication of content is paramount here, but should not be sacrificed for other cognitive effects that might be created in the mind of the reader through creative and effective punctuation.

I don’t think that it’s necessary, nor probably even helpful, to spend a lot of time trying to categorize your punctuational approach by the groups given above (or any others for that matter). What is important is to be intentional about your punctuation. This takes us back to Professor Brooks Landon’s comment that writing is “brain hacking.” Punctuation is an integral part to how your text creates, divides and sequences images and thoughts in the mind of the reader. Your punctuation should always be calculated to bolster the substance of the text to your desired effect. Is that easy? Hell no. But it’s certainly worth the effort.

 

Review: Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies

I love pirates. Maybe it’s the frustration in H.L. Mencken’s quotation (“Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.”). Maybe it’s the rawness of men living by their own ideals (however misguided) and skill and cunning. Maybe it is the more idealistic aspects of piracy–a good scholarly argument exists that American democracy has more in common with how pirate vessels voted on their leaders and courses of action than with ancient Athens. I can’t put my finger on it, but I just love pirates, whether historical or fantastic.

If you read my review of the previous novel in this series, The Lies of Locke Lamora, you know that I had many good things to say about it. The characters, the tightness of the plot, the fantasy heist–all of these worked in concert to create a story I very much enjoyed.

The sequel, more or less, picks up where the first novel lets us off. I don’t want to go to far into the details lest I give too much away, but Red Seas Under Red Skies takes what works in the first novel and throws in some maritime hijinx and semi-fantastic pirates. I must admit that I had my doubts about this at first; it seems a strange turn for the novel to take after its opening (and in light of the substance of the first novel). By novel’s end, my reservations were allayed; the story and its nautical elements manage to work their way in while preserving the atmosphere and mystique created in the first book.

Again, Lynch proves a master of “narrative circles,” those precognitions and slight references that turn out to have great significance before all is done. I’m not sure that I can remember any “loose ends” left at the end of the novel that proved unsatisfactory.

What really interested me about this novel was its focus on the relationship between Locke and Jean. Their brotherhood drives the plot, the complexities of their emotions toward one another and their interactions ring true of familial relationships, and the story ultimately turns on the extent of their willingness to sacrifice for one another. That’s a strong–and effective–message for a fantasy novel.

Perhaps that’s the best compliment I can give Mr. Lynch. If stories ought to entertain, educate and inspire, the fantasy genre manages to reach its highest art when it manages to effectively do these things with style. As more writers like Lynch are able to do this, the fantasy genre gains legitimacy, legitimacy it greatly deserves, as the fantasy genre allows us to address all manner of existential and philosophical questions with creativity and relative safety (compared to the cost of exploring these questions in “real life”).

Don’t start with this book; I don’t think it stands alone without the extensive character background for Locke and Jean in The Lies of Locke Lamora. But if you’ve read the first novel, I highly recommend that you proceed to the second.

NaNoWriMo Debrief

Well, I finished. Fifty-thousand words in twenty-nine days; I finished a little early on the 29th.

I don’t know why I didn’t attempt this earlier, and I owe a special thanks to my friend Lauren (herself a longtime veteran) for spurring me to participate this year.

What I found is that it was easier to get my words in every day than I’d first thought. That’s good, because fifty-thousand words isn’t even half of my novel.

What did I end up with at the end of the month? What I’d consider a more complex plot outline–I’m not sure that I’d really even call it a partial first draft. Maybe this is me being too hard on myself; there are parts I feel very good about. But I also think I’m going to have to go through and rewrite almost everything–perhaps several times.

My plan is to finish this rough draft, use that to rework plot gaps and what I like to think of as “narrative circles”–those plot lines, events or references to things that come back around by the end of the novel to make the reader think, “Oh, that’s why that was in there.” I’ve been reading Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies when I’m not writing (expect a review soon), he’s an absolute expert at this.

Once I’ve finalized the plot where I’m happy with it, I’ll do a rewrite for quality of writing and “style.” I spent two months plotting the novel (not the full thing either, but more than I’ve written in fifty-thousand words).

That provided one of the interesting experiences in the writing–those places where the plot morphed and mutated on its own in my hands. I’d start writing and realize, “Nope, that’s not how that should happen, let’s do it this way,” or “Wouldn’t this be even better if this character was responsible for this event; everything holds together better that way.”

I’d heard about this phenomenon in reading the advice books of other authors, but (mostly because I’d never plotted before writing–I always will from now own) I’d never experienced this joy of writing before. It is exceptionally rewarding when something you’ve been working on begins to come alive–even for you.

I’ll likely be taking a short writing break from the novel (maybe a week or so) and then trying to continue the momentum into finishing the first draft. I’m nowhere near happy with it at this point, but I’m also confident that it will become something I can publish.

In the meantime, my hiatus on this blog is at an end; export more posts shortly. Hopefully fast and furious!

Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Lies of Locke Lamora is the first book in the “Gentlemen Bastards” series by Scott Lynch (first published in 2006). Go read this book now. I can’t stress that enough; go read the book. For those of you who are by now used to ignoring my advice (don’t worry, you’re in good company), by all means continue to read.

As is my wont, I listened to this book on Audible. The narration of Michael Page truly brings the text to life—his voices, accents and narrational panache accentuate the style of the writing in a powerful synchrony. That said, you do not need to listen to Mr. Page read the book to you to enjoy the pleasure of this novel.

I love a good fantasy heist novel, and that motivated me to pick up this book to give it a try. The story begins with a focus on a fantasy con with all the cleverness of anything that’s been done in our own world. If, like me, you’re interested in the schemes and stratagems of con artists (fully knowing that I’ll never put such knowledge to use), you can follow along with the realistic moves made as Locke Lamora masterfully strings along Don Lorenzo Salvara and his wife Sofia by appealing to their egos, their greed, and their credulity by turns.

But this is not a heist story, or even a con story. Yes, the Gentlemen Bastards at the heart of the story are thieves and con artists of the highest level, but the story quickly takes a turn. Where the tale begins as somewhat light-hearted and jaunty, with the unpleasant aspects of the criminal underworld only appearing at our peripheral vision, it soon becomes a grim and gritty tale of survival, revenge and underworld power plays. This only made me love it more.

There are four major compliments I can give to Mr. Lynch to help establish his bona fides as a talented author:

First, his style is simply a pleasure to follow, accentuating the tone of the story and shifting ever so slightly to fit the mood—he just plain writes well.

Second, Lynch gracefully steps back and forth in time in telling the story. Intermixed with the present struggles of the Gentlemen Bastards are stories of their upbringing. They were raised together from their tender youth by a master thief and priest of the Crooked Warden known as “Father Chains” or “Old Chains” to be exactly the kind of expert thieves and conmen that they presently are when the book begins. This reminded me somewhat of the TV show Lost, where every episode would reveal something about the past of one or more characters that gives us insight into their present motivations and behavior. But Lynch goes even beyond this—each childhood story told not only reveals something about one of the Bastards, it directly relates thematically to the present-day scenes that follow it. Which leads me to my third point:

Mr. Lynch is a master of firing Chekov’s gun. I like to think of this tactic as a “literary circle,” where something in the early text returns to add significance to a later event. Most published authors whose advice for writers I’ve read strongly suggest that the culmination of a story needs to create some level of both surprise and a sense of inevitability in the reader when confronted with the story’s climax. This is, I think, exactly what Chekov’s gun is about, and Lynch liberally distributes them throughout the work, some subtle and some not so much.

Fourth, his worldbuilding is excellent and hits that unicorn of a middle-ground such that the setting amplifies the story without overwhelming it. To be fair, Lynch has taken the shortcut of basing the City of Camorr, where the action takes place, on late-medieval or early-Renaissance Venice. But he does so in a way that shows that an author can use a historical backdrop as an influence in a way that gives the reader quick insight—as a Renaissance scholar and lover of early-modern Italian history, I readily recognized the inspiration for the setting and this allowed me to make assumptions about how the world of Camorr works without Lynch having to say much about it. At the same time, the Venetian inspiration does not prohibit Camorr from standing on its own, from being different enough from a historical place and time (this is a fantasy novel, after all) that the reader finds herself satisfied with the setting and not turned away from the story by it. If this had been a real-world story, early-modern Venice would have been the perfect setting for it. As it is a fantasy work, Camorr serves in the same role.

I ought to admit some personal bias here. There are a number of aspects of Lynch’s world that are close to some of the setting choices I have made (or will make) in writing some of the Avar Narn novels. While the settings are ultimately vastly different in many ways, the feel of the setting and story matches what I hope to capture in my own works and it seems that Mr. Lynch and I share similar positions on certain meta-approaches to “modern fantasy.” So, take with a grain of salt my glowing review of his choices—I may be lauding him in the hopes that my agreement with him means that I may, too, be successful as a fantasy author. That very much remains to be seen. Very much.

And let me leave you with my greatest criticism of this work. The antagonist is well, meh. He’s two-dimensional and unfortunately just not very interesting. He exists mainly as an obstacle for the Bastards to overcome, as a threat to their existence, rather than as a fully-realized and believable character. In a novel with so many interesting characters, written by an author with such talent, this is a grave oversight. Not one that tempts me not to recommend the book to others, but one that nevertheless leaves a bad aftertaste in my mouth when the rest of the work was so satisfying.

I’ll be beginning the next book in this series presently—and hopefully I’ll finish it in a shorter time than it took me to get through this one.

Mindmaps for Writing

As I’m plotting the first of my currently-planned novels, I thought I’d share some of my experiences that might be helpful to other writers.

Before long, I’ll post about my own experiences specific to apps and tools I’ve found supremely helpful so far. That said, I found all of these apps and programs by searching the web, so in the interim you can, too. As a shortcut to the things I’m getting the most mileage out of: Scrivener (PC), Index Cards 4 (IOS/Ipad), Mindly (IOS 4/Ipad).

In this post, I’m going to focus on the process used by the latter app–mindmaps. If you’re not familiar, mindmaps are a way of visually organizing thoughts into webs of association. I imagine that, on one occasion or another, many of us have done something like this intuitively without thinking about it. I’m sure that there’s not just one way to do this, but the common fashion seems to be the construction of planetary orbits–a central idea around which sub-ideas float, each potentially with their own sub-ideas ad infinitum.

For me, a tool is only as good as the time it saves me, and this is why (I think) the popularity of mindmaps has soared in recent years. On paper, a mindmap will likely take more time to configure than it eliminates, as you draw, erase and redraw ideas and associations. To gain some advantage, one could use index cards to create easily-reconfigurable mind maps on a table or corkboard, but even this adds unnecessary time and effort to the process that is obviated by the use of software that handles those background tasks efficiently and intuitively.

For me, mindmaps are a consummate brainstorming tool. As such, I use them with a specific approach to brainstorming that I have found greatly helpful in avoiding mental blocks and “analysis paralysis.” I learned this process from the Great Course by Gerard Puccio, “The Creative Thinker’s Toolkit.”

As Dr. Puccio teaches, there are several stages to brainstorming (and I hope I remember them correctly). The first is to identify the problem–for a mindmap, this becomes the center of the mindmap’s universe, the first thing entered around which all else will orbit. Stages two and three are to be repeated as much as necessary. In stage two, without judgment, criticism or analysis, you simply write down all the ideas you can think of related to the problem. It is only when you reach stage three that you turn the critical eye toward your ideas, thinking about which might work and which might not.

For a mindmap, I think it’s a good idea to be fluid about how you go about applying stages two and three. One strategy is to deal with one tier of the mindmap at a time. Alternatively, you may progress to using stages two and three on subtiers before returning to higher-level orbits.

An example will be better than explanation. Right now, my favorite use of mindmaps is for resolving plot problems–not meta-problems in the structure of the plot, mind you, but the sorts of problems that are: “oh, that’s an interesting obstacle, how do my characters resolve it?”

The obstacle goes in the center of the map. Now we go to our first round of brainstorming. Here, I list all of the large-scale ideas about possible resolutions. For instance, this morning, I’ve run into an issue in my plot where the characters have run out of money and need a way to get more. I filled the first orbit with all the possible things I could think of that might make the characters money. Here, I’m not asking questions of each methodology and I’m not trying to eliminate anything–the goal is to create as expansive a list of options as is possible.

Once this is done, I have choices about how to proceed. I could go to stage three and start to eliminate the more-outlandish or less-useful ideas I came up with in the brainstorming. Typically, though, I prefer to go to an additional set of brainstorming first, taking each idea created in orbit around the problem in turn and brainstorming ideas, plot consequences, and connections that will orbit around each of the ideas I created in the first round of brainstorming. Once this is done, then I go to the first round of analysis, eliminating those first-tier ideas for which I either couldn’t come up with much further or for which the additional ideas I did generate simply don’t work for reasons of plot, logic, characters, etc.

Protip: teachers of writing and authors themselves often use the following mantra when constructing plot: “What’s the worst thing that could happen to this character? That’s what I’ll make happen.” You can get a lot of mileage out of that, too, I’m sure.

I’ve found this system immensely useful for eliminating or preventing writer’s block. As a bonus, more often than not, this process adds twists, subplots, additional set-up scenes and more that enhances both the plot itself and its flow.

Many of the mindmapping apps are available for a free trial–it took me exploring a few different ones before I stuck with Mindly, which seems to be the most intuitive and least obstrusive of the ones I experimented with. It has free trial for use on Ipad and is worth checking out. Regardless of the platform, though, I highly suggest you experiment with mindmaps as brainstorming tools for writing–not just for plot, but for creating characters and setting, generating writing prompts, mapping the flow of scenes and more.

Review: Structuring Your Novel and Outlining Your Novel, by K.M. Weiland

I wrote my first attempt at a novel more than 10 years ago, back in college. It will never see the light of day; the print manuscript lies in a sealed envelope even I dread to open. It’s really quite terrible, but at least it’s out of my system. Maybe one day I’ll go back and completely rewrite it into something good, but it will look nothing like the monstrosity confined to a bottom desk drawer that currently exists.

Why do I think it’s so bad? Partially because my writing skills have vastly improved in the decade since then. But more to the point, I “pantsed” the whole thing. That is, I wrote it without any attempt at outlining or creating more than the loosest possible structure in my head. This lead to a story full of non-sequiturs, lost story arcs and missing character motivations—a long pile of words on pages that don’t come together into something whole in the end.

Never again.

I’m also reminded of an anecdotal story about Jim Butcher, acclaimed author of the Dresden Files novels and more. As the story goes, like most of us young and idealistic writers, Mr. Butcher railed against the idea that a novel must follow a particular structure. To prove the professors of his creative writing program wrong about this, he set out to write a novel according to the classic structure, assuming that it would, as expected, turn out to be drivel. In doing this, he wrote the first of the Dresden Files novels, the one that would eventually be called Storm Front (though at the time it was titled Semi-automagic—how I love that title!). Following the “formula” not only created a work that proved gripping, entertaining and—most important—creative, it launched his career as a professional author.

With all of this in mind, I highly recommend that the amateur writer (myself included) read K.M. Weiland’s Structuring Your Novel and Outlining Your Novel. Or, as I did, listen to them on Audible, where they’re both narrated by the same person, Sonja Field, who effectively brings the conversational tone of the books to life.

I’m not willing to suggest that anything Ms. Weiland does in these books is truly revolutionary. You will find a presentation of the “classic” approach to story structure, with definitions of standardized terms (“catastrophe” and “sequel,” for instance). But the information is delivered in a clear manner by someone who has used these techniques to publish several novels. She effectively uses well-known literary classics in different genres as illustrations for these structures and ideas. If I have one complaint about these books, it might be that there are too many examples. Impatient as I am, I’d be satisfied with shorter books with fewer examples.

Along with those examples, Ms. Weiland includes snippets of interviews with a breadth of authors (particularly in the outlining book). These interviews can be easily summarized: every author approaches the act of structuring and outlining their novels in different ways, but these are typically variations on a theme and very few successful authors do not outline their novels before beginning writing—though almost all of them leave themselves free to improvise on that outline when a spark of creativity hits.

This last sentence, I think, summarizes the major effect of both of these books, and why I highly recommend them to aspiring authors. First, the books give you tools and constructs to allow you to approach story structure and outlining in a productive manner—whatever your personal process turns out to be. Second, the books prove both the value of using “traditional” story structure and the fact that using “formulaic” story structures does not prohibit creativity in writing. Like all “rules” in writing, a person who understands the purpose of the rules can occasionally break them to great effect—knowing the intuitive expectations a reader has in how a story should go allows you to more effectively twist those expectations into something cathartic, or at least entertaining.

These books collectively touch upon several other grounds important to planning novels—the value of creating characters before outlining, the fact that novel-writing is a process and that you’ll likely need to make revisions to story, characters and outline as things developed, methods for brainstorming and then sorting through generated ideas (though I highly recommend the Great Course by Professor Gerard Puccio, The Creative Thinker’s Toolkit for that particular issue) and details of some of the ways stories and characters surprise their creators and develop lives and wills of their own.

These are both (relatively) short reads and, though I’d prefer them to be shorter, are easy to turn out in just a few sittings. If you intend to write novels and have not recently (or ever) reviewed story structure techniques and ideas, I’d definitely recommend picking up these books and reading them as a set.

After that, there are some alternative analyses of story structure that might be useful as well. Robin Law’s Hamlet’s Hit Points (designed for structuring roleplaying games but also generally applicable to fiction-writing, I think) comes quickly to mind. Maybe I’ll review that in the near future.

Rules Versus Rulings: Failing Forward, Difficulty and Gaming Theory in Mechanics

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve recently been running Apocalypse World (and have also run several sessions now of its derivative Dungeon World). Meanwhile, I’ve been (re-)reading the 7th Sea 2nd Edition rules, and this has got me to thinking, as I’m wont to do, about RPG game theory and design in general and what sorts of selections and conceits I might use myself in designing my own ruleset (particularly for Avar Narn).

The first pen and paper RPG I played was the old West End d6 Star Wars RPG. This was in late elementary school—well before I had much thought on system mechanics at all. My later youth was spent with the White Wolf games (Old and New WoD), with my perennial favorite, Shadowrun, and reading through—but never actually playing—Rolemaster. Surprisingly (and this is another story for another time), I didn’t play Dungeons and Dragons until college (aside from one abortive attempt at a game of AD&D during a Boy Scout campout).

Most of the games I played or was familiar with growing up were heavy on the crunch, with far more rules than were strictly necessary. As I’ve GMed more and more games, I’ve come to look for “Goldilocks” games that have just the right about of rules, erring on the lighter side. I try to read all sorts of rules for design ideas, but there are many I just would not run a game of. I really like Burning Wheel, for example—it has a depth to it that builds genre and atmosphere. At the end of the day, though, I would never run BW—I have too many minor nitpicks with the system (“scripting” combat for example) and don’t want to have to use that many rules.

As I’ve also mentioned in other posts, I’m quite a fan of the Fate ruleset and of Cortex Plus, though, as I’ll explain, I certainly have my concerns and gripes about these rules as well (I can’t say I’m ever completely satisfied by a ruleset, which is probably why I spend the amount of time I do thinking about RPG rules).

But this post is not really about the rules “lightness” or “crunchiness” of gaming systems. Nor is it about the “GNS” debate—which, while a useful construct for thinking about designs, probably shouldn’t have the level of concern about it that it does.

What I want to talk about instead is how much the metaphysics of gaming (or, more appropriately, design priorities and theories about rulesets) should be hard-coded into the rules of a game. Which returns us to the Apocalypse World Engine/PbtA games and the second edition of 7th Sea. I’ve heard both John Wick and Vincent Baker called pretentious by gamers for their approach to games, but if they’re pretentious, I’d be happy to be in their company all the same.

Baker’s games (not just Apocalypse World but also the excellent game that I’d never actually play Dogs in the Vineyard) and Wick’s new edition of 7th Sea are emblematic of a late trend in roleplaying games—games that know what they want to be and are unabashed about it. It’s not simply that these games are “rules-lighter” or more narratively focused, it’s that they are built on specific design principles.

I don’t want to confuse (in fact, quite the opposite is the point of this post) the theory of running a game and the theory behind mechanical choices. Baker’s agenda for Apocalypse World (barf forth apocalyptica, view every NPC through crosshairs, etc.) is not the same as his design theory.

Here’s a design principle used by both 7th Sea and AW that has become something of a byword in design lately: “fail forward.” This idea behind fail forward is that every action, success or failure, should move the story forward. Another way to put this is “no whiffs.” A statement that “you fail,” by itself doesn’t progress the story and just isn’t interesting. Adding a complication as a consequence of failure, or interpreting failure on the dice as “success at a cost” does and is.

Mechanically, this is hard-wired in both Apocalypse World and 7th Sea. The very resolution mechanic of AW provides various costs for failure and presents a result range that is specifically “success at a cost.” 7th Sea has a sidebar about the lack of a Dodge skill—because simply dodging and being missed isn’t fun or exciting (by the theory of the game). In 7th Sea, your approach is to use obstacles, climb the walls, defend yourself with your weapon, throw sand in the enemy’s eyes and otherwise create exciting and innovative maneuvers to avoid being struck—maneuvers that likely manipulate the environment in addition to stopping an attack, thus pulling double duty.

Having run AW and Dungeon World, I will say that the system’s mechanics do push the story inexorably forward, giving the GM a chance to complicate the story without having to prepare this in advance. My reading of 7th Sea seems to indicate a similar drive, with the additional qualifier that the generation and spending of Raises in that system creates a sort of bargaining system where failure and its consequences are not accidental. As an aside, I strongly suspect but cannot confirm that the Raise system used by 7th Sea drew heavily on Vincent Baker’s dice-bidding in Dogs in the Vineyard.

While some form of “fail forward” mechanic could be converted into use with any RPG’s core mechanic, the question I ask myself is whether this is necessary. In a Dungeons and Dragons game, a skilled GM can do the same thing without needing a mechanic for it—“Your sword strikes true but shatters against the mail of your enemy. Roll your damage and count your sword as a dagger from now on.” Success at cost. On a bad lockpicking test: “You manage to pick the lock, but the time it takes you to do so means that you’re exposed for too long—a guard notices you just as you slip through the door.” If you look, this idea, this reluctance to mechanically codify the theory of roleplaying into hard rules is at the heart of the OSR—you’ll see many OSR players say something like “Yeah, that’s the way we’ve always done it. That’s why 3rd, 4th and 5th edition move in the wrong direction—too many rules and not enough flexibility for the players and GM.”

To add to this, Apocalypse World reverses this pattern with the difficulty of tasks. In “traditional” games, like D&D, there are rules to modify the probability of success by shifting the target number for a skill roll—a mechanical effect for the narrative difficulty of a task. In Apocalypse World (and derivative games), the GM is supposed to narrate the outcome of the roll based on the narrative difficulty of the task without ever changing the percentage chance of success. The GM simply determines that a success means less for a difficult action than it would for an easier one, or, conversely, that failure means more for a difficult action than for an easier one.

It’s in this reversal, I think, that we find something we can latch onto in this discussion. Either approach (with either “fail forward” or difficulty) works; even though there’s something that intuitively bothers me about static difficulty numbers, I have to admit that I don’t think either me or my players notice it when running a game. At the same time, I’m wholeheartedly unwilling to admit that system doesn’t matter; it most certainly does, and this discussion is probably, more than anything, my argument for that fact.

That’s because the choice of mechanics you include in an RPG ruleset tells players and GMs what’s important about the game and establishes that ever-intangible “feel” of a system. This goes well beyond, “a game about pirates without any ship rules has a problem,” though the scope of the rules you include in the ruleset and the areas you leave to GM interpretation is part of the same equation.

Let’s look at editions of D&D, for instance. Early editions of Dungeons and Dragons were, in many ways, closer to Dungeon World than later ones. Admittedly, with only that one attempt at pre-3rd edition D&D I’m relying on “scholarly understanding” instead of experience, but the whole “rulings not rules” idea that we hear about—particularly from the OSR diehards (no aspersions cast)—is based in the idea that the rules provided a framework to support the narrative, allowing for creative problem-solving. As D&D “matured,” the agglutination of rules brought about a focus on knowing the ruleset to exploit it and on complex character-planning (mechanically) rather than the creative and explorative wonder of the early game. 5th edition has attempted to go back toward the beginning, but with competitors like 13th Age, 7th Sea, Dungeon World, the entire OSR, Shadows of the Demon Lord, Barbarians of Lemuria and even more “universal games” like Fate and Cortex Plus, I’m not sure that there’s any going back—for me, at least.

Of course, there will always be a place for players who want massive libraries of rules like Pathfinder has constructed (aspersions cast this time). I’ll admit that I enjoy reading Pathfinder rulebooks because they are full of interesting ideas shoved into rules, but I’m sure that, if I’d ever run Pathfinder, I ignore 95% of the rules, probably throwing out some of the baby with the bathwater (not my best analogy). So, what’s the point?

But I’ve diverged from point here, rambling again about rules-heaviness rather than design choices (this, I fear, is representative of many of the gaming theory discussions I’ve seen lately—they’re about how “crunchy” a system should be overall—or how much it should cater to each aspect of GNS theory—rather than what the point of this or that particular rule is).

Again, this allows me to circle back to 7th Sea and PbtA. These are systems that know what they want to be and the mechanics push the game to fit the niche the designer(s) had in mind. Agree with those design choices or not, I have to have a lot of respect for that. The static difficulty system in Apocalypse World tells players and GM that consequences and results are more important than difficulties—we’re telling collective stories that are exciting and fast-paced rather than attempting to simulate a fantasy world in excessive detail. This merges well with the PbtA position that the GM should be playing “to find out what happens” as much as the players are—if the GM doesn’t have influence over difficulty numbers, the GM has less narrative control for railroading players and is therefore freer to play “to find out.” Here, the rules influence the style of the game.

Similarly, the (new) 7th Sea system, with its generating and spending Raises for narrative effects (whether in scenes of action or drama) supports the narrative feel of the game. Having been watching the BBC Musketeers (why so much leather?) at the same time as reading 7th Sea, I can’t but conclude that the RPG does an excellent job of capturing the feel of the show, which itself is of course drawing upon the tide of swashbuckling adventure in the works of Dumas and others. The rules support the game the designer wants you to play. I cannot wait to run a 7th Sea game. One question remains for me, though: could the new 7th Sea rules just as effectively run a game in the style of Black Sails? I think so, but I’m not quite sure.

Not to rag too much on D&D, but the major problem I have with that game—the conglomerate of my distaste for Vancian magic, classes, levels, etc.—is that the rules become the setting of Dungeons and Dragons, rather than the setting influencing the rules. We can talk about gamer nostalgia or market demand as causes of these things, and I’ll concede there’s some truth to that, but in the end I’m just of the opinion that a good RPG ruleset facilitates the underlying (and overarching—it’s that important) narrative rather than forcing a narrative to conform.

To make clear that this is not about the “rules heaviness” of D&D (whatever your position on that might be), let me look at a “crunchier” game that accomplishes something similar to 7th Sea and PbtA: The One Ring.

Having run a small set of adventures in The One Ring, I’m impressed by the thoughtfulness of the rules in evoking the feel of Tolkien’s world rather than adding Tolkienesque elements to a setting that’s really higher fantasy. The Journey rules in TOR are probably the best I’ve ever seen—a brilliant mix of zooming in and out of the narrative to make journeys important and exciting rather than tedious or the entire focus of the game. As I’ve said before, I think the aspect of journeying in the wilderness is vastly underrated in both roleplaying games and the fantasy genre as a whole.

Additionally, the battle mechanics for TOR require players to work as a team—an archer can’t be an archer without front-line fighters to protect him; the positioning of player characters, while abstract enough to not require tokens, minis or a map, still has a tangible tactical influence on a fight (since the difficulty to hit or be hit is determined by position within the party). This is not the careless, reckless heroics of other games (7th Sea and Dungeon World perhaps included), this evokes the sense of a dangerous world where people survive through teamwork and fellowship.

Here’s the insight I glean from the long thinking-out-loud above: those concepts that are core to the principles of design adopted for a roleplaying game probably ought to be hard-wired into the mechanics themselves. At the same time, some concepts—fail forward, for instance—are just good advice for how GMs run their games. Do they need to be incorporated into the rules? No. Does it say something specific about the game when they are? Absolutely.

If, like me, you’d really like to create a marketable RPG, whether independent of or in conjunction with a setting you intend to write fiction in, I’d suggest you start with these questions: “What is this game about? What is it trying to be? How should it make players and GM feel?”

The answers to those questions may help answer what kinds of rules your game needs, how they should work, and—most important—why they work the way they do. This sense of purpose is the only way I know of to cut through the analysis paralysis of the infinite possibilities of game design and to avoid simply stealing concepts that worked for other games.

Expeditions in the Western Wilderness

The first of the two novels I’m currently working on—and the one I think I’ll write first, as it is in its nature the narratively simpler of the two (though I wouldn’t call it narratively simple)—is about an expedition into the Wilderness of the West in Avar Narn (I’m going to ask you in advance to forgive the seeming randomness of some of my capitalization—I blame this on too much time studying texts written before orthography, punctuation and capitalization were standardized). I thought I’d share some information about the background of the novel to see if anyone would like to offer feedback.

These notes are tentative and potentially subject to change.

The Background

Long ago, the Aenyr people came to the known world from the West (legend says from an island). The Aenyr were powerful thaumaturges and magi; this power made their dominance over the peoples of the Avar all but assured. They founded great cities of wondrous artifice and thaumaturgical genius, but their ascendency was built on the backs of enslaved humans. The Aenyr Empire expanded as far as the Altaenin island in the Central Sea before internal conflict and abuse of their sorcerous powers caused civil war, rebellion and eventually collapse. The Aenyr retreated from the Avar for over a thousand years. Though they have returned in small numbers more recently, they are no longer the masters of thaumaturgy they once were, no longer interested in dominating the Avar (at least most of them are not), and they have forgotten most if not all of the secret knowledges they had once discovered.

When the Aenyr abandoned the Avar (a story for another time), they left their magnificent cities to rot and crumble. Farther east, many of the current great cities (each of the Seven Sisters, like Ilessa, for instance) are built upon the ruins and remains of those ancient dwellings. In the West, though, these cities—some of the greatest built by the Aenyr—were abandoned fully by civilized folk.

But there is much coin to be made in the realm of thaumaturgical advancements and Artificial devices (those powered by arcane energies). While some research to innovate on their own, the Artificer Houses, the universities, and those looking to make a name for themselves (or just put coin in their pouches) look to these forgotten places to rediscover secrets of the past—to monetize them.

Elderyn

From the town of Elderyn, venture companies form to search the Wilderness of the West for ancient ruins to be looted for their knowledge (and gold).

The town started small but has grown to great proportions to harbor the trade that spawned it. Once merely a last stop before the Wild, now Elderyn caters to the every need of venturers and expeditions. Tradesmen and craftsman make the weapons and tools for surviving the Wild; brothels and taverns provide respite from the weariness of travel and adventure for those who return successful.

At the edge of the Western Wild, Elderyn is beyond the reach of the lordlings who rule elsewhere. A Governor rules Elderyn, one elected by a combination of the town’s landowners, “registered” members of venture companies and expedition patrons. The Governor’s primary role is providing some rule of law for the business of expeditions bound for Aenyr ruins—a buffer against the might of the Artificer Houses, cheats and swindlers. Of course, the Governor himself is amenable to the occasional bribe, and skullduggery remains the status quo except for the vilest of offenses. Petty crimes—minor thievery, murder and the like—are handled by popular justice.

Venture Companies

The men and women of venture companies are no shining heroes—they are a desperate lot who find themselves unfit—by history or by inclination—for life in civilization. They are cutthroats, murderers and oddballs willing or forced by circumstance to risk their lives for gold and glory. Mercenaries, thugs, thieves and assassins, many came to Elderyn to avoid their deserved justice.

And these are just the type of people that sponsors of expeditions west want in their employ—rough men and women who have few qualms about doing what it takes to return from the Wild with something to show for themselves.

The typical arrangement between an expedition patron and a venture company is a contractual one—the Governor’s foremost role is to enforce these contracts once written. The customary arrangement is that the patron is entitled to all discoveries of written goods and Artifice, for which the company will be compensated at a rate determined by a neutral appraiser. Valuable objects that are not significant vehicles of lost knowledge are loot kept by the company—after they are studied and logged by the group’s scholars.

Venture companies are no small affair. A company needs wilderness scouts and trackers; barber-surgeons to tend to the inevitable injury and disease; scholars and scribes to understand and document any finds; cartographers to preserve the way for the company’s future expeditions; thaumaturges to protect the company and assist in finding valuable ruins; handlers for the expedition’s pack animals, etc.

To somewhat reduce the number of people required for an expedition (and thus increase each company member’s share), there is an “everyone works, everyone fights” mentality. No one in the company is dedicated to only one task, no one is exempt from the heavy labor required in the field, and no one may refuse to fight when necessary.

Some expected occupations among the company are lacking. No company brings a member on to be a cook, though a venturer who can prepare tasty meals rarely lacks for employment. Unlike mercenary companies, which venture companies superficially resemble, no camp followers are brought on expedition. Company members are expected to satisfy such needs “catch as catch can,” though such issues are not infrequently the causes of jealousies and fights between company members.

The average size of the venture company is sixty souls.

A venture company is perhaps one of the most egalitarian organizations in the Avar. Members are judged on merit, not on gender or appearance—remember that they’re all outcasts together. Women are as valuable as men if they pull their own weight. As important, venture companies are democratic—they elect their captain and vote on major decisions. Only when the company is in crisis or under direct threat is the rule of the captain absolute and infallible.

Despite the possibility of new elections at any time the company is not threatened, most captains maintain their positions solidly, resting on the reputation of past successes and trust built in the crucible of conflict.

The Great Game

Thaumaturgical know-how and the secrets of Artifice are perhaps the most valuable commodities in the Avar at present, so it should be no surprise that those involved in expeditions to discover lost secrets in Aenyr ruins are willing to resort to unsavory ends to increase their profit margins.

In the Wild, the only rule of law is the steel you bring with you; armed and violent conflicts between rival venture companies are not uncommon when one has made a discovery. Some companies—under patronage or not—attempt to make their fortune by following other companies and poaching their finds by force. If discovered, such companies face harsh retribution from the Governor and the security forces of Elderyn (undoubtedly supplemented by angry fellow venturers). Few, though, leave witnesses to their crimes.

Espionage also is a constant threat. A company’s maps and experience are its prized possessions in securing patronage for ventures West, and rare is the company wealthy (or foresighted) enough to be able to fund its own expedition. Both the theft of company secrets and espionage are punished in almost unthinkable ways. Yet, the lure of gold still outweighs such deterrents for some.

As might be suspected, the Artificer Houses are the most to be feared when it comes to poaching and espionage. Though they can fund the best equipped and supplied venture companies, they are always looking for ways to maximize profits while minimizing costs, and any opportunity to limit knowledge of Artifice to their own makers has a value of its own. Their airships allow them to send men into the Wild to steal another company’s find with alacrity, though the ancient wards of Aenyr cities make them impossible to spot from the air and the limitations of such craft make them unfit to deliver whole expeditions into the great wilderness, they are useful for suddenly overtaking an unwary venture company that’s made a find—the House men delivered by airship may then appropriate the slain company’s equipment to bring back their treasures to Elderyn.

What does it all mean? 

The idea for a novel based in this commerce is manifold. Some of these ideas arose out of the worldbuilding for Avar Narn itself—the commerce in Artifice is fundamental to many of the setting’s inherent conflicts.

But I’ve also always wanted to write a more modern take on the classic fantasy quest. Here, hard and desperate men and women are cogs in a machine of commerce—not valiant heroes saving the world. Though there is much wonder in the Wild, the life of an adventurer is more commonly one of suffering, labor and boredom punctuated by moments of terror. At its heart, I just love fantasy fiction that is gritty and “realistic.”

Don’t mistake my stated goals here for pure cynicism. Classic fantasy quests are morally instructive tales—look to the Grail Quest, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings. But I believe that both moral instruction and fantasy that are more mature are able to provide morality and ethics in a more complicated world—one of pragmatism and expedience, ambiguity in righteousness, competing needs. A world in some ways more like our own. I think that the novel (still without a working title) based on these ideas has a chance of doing just that. We shall see.