This Year in Jerusalem

In less than two months, I’m going to Israel. This will be my favorite kind of trip–a study trip with accompanying professors, homework beforehand, and the goal of coming to understand the cultures, history and geography of Israel and its surrounds to better understand scripture.

I am fortunate enough to have this opportunity because of K’s ministry; this is a trip for young clergy and their spouses. Some of my favorite people are going and we could be going to spend two weeks on the Jersey Shore (place or TV show) and I wouldn’t mind. But we’re going to Israel.

We’ve been given books to read and maps to study and mark up before we go. For me, it is a fascinating and tedious process–I see mentions of peoples or places or cultures from the ancient past and go on hours-long rabbit trails that conclude with me writing prodigious notes to myself on the backs of maps that have little to do with the main point of study. Did you know that there’s a good chance that the near-mythical “Hanging Gardens of Bablyon” were actually constructed by Sennacharib in Ninevah? The same Sennacharib mentioned in the Book of Kings as carrying off people from the Kingdom of Israel and nearly destroying the Kingdom of Judah?

None of that time is wasted, though I imagine it’s going to annoy the hell out of K as I offer (unsolicited) trivia throughout our trip. This course of study has made me feel like I’m in grad school again and–being the perpetual student–I’m loving it. Even moreso, it’s directed my thoughts in some ways that I believe will profoundly effect both my theological work and my fiction writing. Many of the things below will likely see their own posts and soon, but here’s some of what I’ve been brought to ponder lately:

Studying maps and geography has been eye-opening in terms of Biblical (and historical understanding). There are so many things that become clearer about both the broader historical context and the context of passages in the Bible when you understand (however abstractly at the current juncture) the “lay of the land.” The locations and movements of the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Arameans, the Edomites and the Moabites and all the other ancient cultures of the Levant sheds light the context of the Israelite people as they journey from polytheism to henotheism to monotheism (and back-and-forth quite a bit). The strategic importance of the Levant on the world stage and the many times it has changed hands over the millennia is just fascinating. There is much to be said about all this (much of it already written by experts in books, so who am I to spend lots of words on it?), but suffice to say that I have studied history extensively and am only now starting to see lots of things come into clarity now that I am locating events and peoples on the map relative to one another. Even some idea of motives become clear when you put things together. All in all, I’m actually a little disappointed that, in all of my historical studies, none of my classes spent a whole lot of time (if any at all) using the geography of the time and place to place events in context.

Of course, all of this study of geography makes me think of Avar Narn. This, coupled with the fact that I’ve recently spent some time looking through Tolkien’s old maps and drawings and their evolution has me going back to the layout and maps of my own fantasy world. I have posted some previous maps of parts of Avar Narn on this site, but I am afraid to say (but not really) that they will soon be obsolete and superseded as I replace them with a more thorough effort at consistently mapping the world (or at least the continent where most of my stories will be set) in line with its history, cultures, and languages. I am beginning to very much envy Martin’s choice to name everything in Westeros in English. In breaks from the map work for my impending journey, I’ve re-sketched the continent, placed it longitudinally and latitudinally, worked out air and sea currents (as best I know how) and, correspondingly, the various climate zones of the space.

Because of some changes in the history of Avar Narn which have occurred both in direct rewriting of that history and from ideas better explored (or created) in the first Avar Narn novel (still very much in progress, of course), there will be further changes to the locations of some of the nations and peoples as shown on the previous maps. Alongside that, I’ll be doing some renaming of locations to tie them in better with the linguistic work I’ve done for the setting. There will definitely be more posts about all of this in the future.

Back to the theology side, where I’ve also been thinking a lot about historicity in theology. This has been something of a journey and a struggle for me. Intellectually–as I’ve communicated through the blog before–I don’t believe that concern with historicity is the most fruitful or meaningful of concerns in understanding our faith. I believe that the text of scripture is divinely inspired–but also filled with human agency and not to be taken literally–but that it’s just not that important to know whether the Exodus actually happened as written (there’s no corroborating evidence that it did). What is important is what the story of the Exodus tells us about our God and the evolving Israelite understanding of God as a macrocosm of the way in which the individual gradually struggles with an understanding of the divine.

At the same time, I cannot deny that the historical context of the Biblical writings is illuminating in its interpretation. And in addition, I find that archeological and historical research can help us understand the human motives in the Bible and perhaps filter some of that from the divinely inspired aspects. For instance, there’s very little evidence to support that the conquering of Canaan as told in Joshua occurred; the gradual occupation of the land by the Israelites as told in Judges seems far more likely.

I’m fine with this; it doesn’t bother me that the Bible may not be historically accurate on all fronts–it’s not meant to be a history (well, maybe Joshua and Judges are somewhat) and has a different purpose for us that should not be confused with absolute historicity. In the same way, Genesis is not intended to be a science manual for the creation of all things.

What I’m struggling with is how emotionally bound to questions of historicity I find myself (in spite of myself). There’s a pang of upset in my stomach when I find that an event as told in the Bible is probably not actually how something happened.

I believe in the historicity of Jesus, but I’d be a Christian even if I didn’t–I believe that the story of Jesus tells us Truth about the nature of our Creator, Sustainer and Savior that is unfettered by our existential reference points. So why do I find myself caring so much about the answers to historicity? Especially when it’s clear that–in broad strokes at least–the Old Testament narrative about the Jews’ evolving relationship with God is borne out by the historical record. I think that this is a matter of wanting things to simple, clear and absolute. And this from someone who finds great wonder in the complexity, ambiguity and mystery of existence! Perhaps that’s what it comes down to–a minor crisis of identity. And that makes me wonder whether all obsessions with the historicity of Biblical events spawns from that very human concern.

In general, I think that the Christian testimony–as an unfairly broad generalization–would be perceived as more reasonable (which I believe it inherently is) if we were able to communicate our faith in a way that incorporates questions of historicity without being dominated by them. Many a man has gone in search of Noah’s Ark (with many claims to have found it), but even an indisputable confirmation of its existence would not tell us much about who God is that the Bible doesn’t tell us already.

I’m sure you’ll hear more about that as I post (to the extent that I’m able) from Israel, where the question will, in some part, be a constant concern of mine (if not all of us traveling together). Stay tuned for more on all fronts.

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!

Wilderlands

The blog has been dormant for a few weeks, and for that I apologize.

I’ve been working on plotting the first part of the novel I’m working on ahead of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I’ve been challenged by a good friend and talented writer to see who can get to 50,000 words faster during the event. I’ve never participated before; she’s successfully completed the challenge eight years running.

So, I’ve been diligently working my outline and characters in the hopes that this will allow for smooth writing with a minimum of writer’s block. I haven’t written anything that will be in the novel yet (that would be unfair), but I am trying to detail scenes with specificity and to get faults in the plot out of the way from the outset.

This, I hope, explains the lack of posting on the blog. A few things have come up that I’d like to write about, but everything is likely on hold until the end of November. Once I’m done with the competition, I’ll go on to plotting the rest of the novel and return to writing blog posts more regularly.

I’m (very) tentatively calling the novel Wilderlands

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.

Novel Planning: Sketching Characters

In a recent post, I mentioned that I’m working on outlining two novels, currently. I thought I’d share a bit about my process so that it can be borrowed by others for those who find something useful in my ramblings.

As a minor aside, I’m using Scrivener for the majority of my serious planning and Outliner Pro (on IPad) for my rougher outlining. I regularly carry at least one moleskine journal with me for ideas, and I’ve been toying with the idea of supplementing with mindmap software. More on resources and tools at another time.

Right now, I want to focus on my process for character design. Once I get the inspiration for the core idea of a character, I want to let it germinate for a while, half-formed, sponging up an additional agglutinate of ideas until I’m ready to start carving off the unnecessary or nonsensical–I’m become a big believer that you can spare a lot of heartache and writer’s block by first being creative without judgment to generate ideas and then critically and mercilessly organizing, revising and cutting. At this stage, though, I’m still looking for big ideas and not too concerned about the details.

The next step I take–mostly out of impatience–is to write something with the character in it. Doesn’t necessarily have to be great writing or something that’s directly usable later, but putting a character into a scene and seeing what they do, at least for an intuitive thinker like me, seems to go a long way to developing the character. I often find quirks, habits, and personality aspects while doing this if nothing else, but you’re also likely to create more ideas that contribute to the character’s background, appearance and motivations as well. For me, this project often turns into a work of it’s own–“The Siege of Uthcaire” started as way to sketch out the character of Tirasi–she and some of her companions while be a part of the ensemble cast I’m working with in one of my in-development novels.

I’m a very visual person, so after I’ve let my imagination run wild and unchecked for a while, I like to find one or more pictures that represent as much of the character as possible–or at least significant aspects. Writing coaches and what not will often tell you to cast your characters with movie stars or people you know to make it easier to describe them. I guess I’m doing this in reverse–I envision what the character looks like, find someone that captures that look and then use that to discover additional details about the character’s appearance. Let’s use Tirasi as an example again: her folder in my Scrivener file has a small collection of collected pictures in it. Foremost is a photo of Charlize Theron from Fury Road, not because I’ve “cast” her as Charlize Theron, but because the image I’ve used conveys a lot to me about the feel of the character–the martial cropped haircut, the anger and violence of which she’s capable, the dust and scrapes of adventure. Next to this photo are several pictures of female fantasy warriors (all in proper armor without “boob plates” mind you–I’m proud of that!).

(As an aside, collecting inspirational photographs for writing projects is a great way to procrastinate, or to at least do something remotely helpful to your writing while watching Netflix. As a further aside, Google searches and Pinterest are fine for collecting your personal “concept art,” but you can’t beat DeviantArt.com for the sheer talent and variety of artwork in any genre or medium.)

Of course, if you have the skill, you can always draw, paint, sketch, digitally produce or whatever your own inspirational works for your stories. Bonus points if you can, and damn am I jealous.

With some pictures to look to to fight back against writer’s block, now it’s time to do the heavy lifting. Now I go to write about the character, as much description as possible. I tend to write in paragraph form, but there’s no reason you can’t use bullet points, phrases, sentence fragments, questions and single words–this exercise is for your eyes only (or maybe to sell in a “making of” book once you’re famous).

While collecting my ideas about the character, I start with five general categories: History; Personality; Quirks and Mannerisms; Relationships and Goals, Desires and Motivations. In Scrivener, each subject has its own file, but this is just my personal preference. Additional categories may crop up as necessary–particularly if you need to include more in-depth write-ups for specific events in the character’s life, ideas for events in the current story you’re building with them or other notes you want to stand out or be quickly available to you.

I’m finding a helpful dialectic between outlining the story (I’m still working in broad strokes, mind you) and building character backgrounds–sometimes the plot determines that I have a need for a specific type of character; others I have a character idea that pushes the plot in a different direction. The downside to be aware of working from both angles is that you’ll occasionally have to go back and make adjustments to both plot and characters to accommodate new developments. I find this an easier way to go about building the novel–when I get stuck on one aspect, I jump to the other. As important, working from both angles bakes in plausibility and complexity from an early stage.

Some authors assert that you should be intimately familiar with all of your characters before you start to outline. I’m still very much the amateur, but I prefer to take some advice from the Apocalypse World roleplaying game–“Look at every character through crosshairs.” I think I’ll be fine to have my characters more or less set in their identities before I start the actual writing, but I prefer to maintain a little more flexibility until I’m more sure exactly where I’m coming from and where I’m going in the arc of the story. I’m enough of a time-waster as it is; the last thing I want is to become intimately familiar with a character I later decide would never walk into this story in the first place. Not the end of the world if that happens, I suppose: there’ll always be more stories, and recycling is good for the planet.

Anyway, that’s my current process from a high level: (1) Create a character concept; (2) write a sketch or story with the character; (3) find some visual influences; (4) develop character notes; (5) put the character in a plot and write.