General

Witches & Warriors: An Anthology

Witches and WarriorsI’m delighted to announce that the Witches & Warriors anthology, in which I have a short story, is now available in both paperback and e-book format!

This anthology of sci-fi and fantasy short stories benefits the Sirens Conference, an annual gathering dedicated to the diverse, remarkable women of fantasy literature: authors, readers, editors, bloggers, librarians, and more. Last year was my first time going, and it was such a dazzlingly wonderful experience. I cannot wait for this year’s gathering, coming up in less than two weeks! Each year, Sirens makes scholarships available to provide registrations across three groups of people: fans of color/non-white fans, those submitting exemplary programming proposals, and those with financial hardships. I’m utterly delighted to have contributed to one of the projects that will support those scholarships!

My contribution, “The Price”, is a small secondworld fantasy featuring a village witch and a devil-may-care warrior. It’s about what you want, and what you’ll do to get it. It’s about how to decide what shape your life will take. It’s about sacrifice, and where you draw the line between giving and giving too much. And it’s about the lingering pain, when the one you love decides something else is more important.

I’m rather proud of it, and I hope that you’ll give it a read, and support Sirens in the process.

General

“New friends and stranger companies”: My #Sirens16 Adventure

It’s taken me a few days to process the Sirens Conference. For those that don’t know, Sirens is a small conference focused entirely on women (and non-binary folk and queer culture) in fantasy and science fiction. Basically, it’s a sanctuary for the marginalized in this genre. The attendance is overwhelmingly female/non-binary — I think I counted three or four dudes there, and they were, awesomely, there to listen and learn and connect, not to mansplain or talk over or patronize. This year’s theme was Love and Relationships. I had wanted to attend last year but couldn’t make it, and I was delighted to be able to this year. It was an absolutely amazing experience, start to finish.

20161021_001801000_iosThe whole conference is such a celebration. Of women, of magic, of writing, of fantasy. The conversations were scintillating. From a roundtable on how our anxieties can either cripple or motivate us to a workshop on herbal magic to a panel on the role of love in fantasy novels to a keynote on imaginary friends and how writers never really outgrow them, every session I attended was just delightful and led to great discussion. Over the coming weeks, I expect I’ll be churning out quite a few posts based on those conversations. The chance to discuss writing-related matters that are so very important to me with others who are there, in the trenches, wrestling with their manuscripts and figuring out how to promote themselves and how to engage in the world’s wider conversations, was just so valuable. It’s an opportunity I rarely get outside the virtual confines of Twitter.

There was also a delightful yet natural emphasis on diversity, particularly racial, sexual, gender, and neurodivergent. I’ve been consciously trying to expand my reading along these lines, and I came home armed with a reading list that should certainly see me through 2017! Someone on the conference hashtag noted that a panel discussion about representations of love did not include a single straight white person on it. Every panel I attended was itself diverse, not because it was about diversity, but because the conference promotes the natural diversity of our world.

What made it so special, though? Was the feeling of community. It took me no time at all to feel right at home. Everyone I encountered was eager to say hello. At the opening reception, I got waved over to join a table simply because “You looked like the new kid in the cafeteria” — but by the next afternoon, I immediately had a new friend to sit with in any room I entered. These women are incredible: brilliant, funny, warm, snarky, sharp, and so talented. And I encountered no snobbery or stratification based on publication status — readers and bloggers entered conversations with fanficcers, casual writers, aspiring authors, and published authors alike. Everyone’s opinion got to be a thread in a gorgeous tapestry.

Best of all, I felt seen and heard. The whole experience was so wonderfully validating. Everyone there wanted to share with each other — share stories, share experience, share a plate of chips and salsa, share in a rousing rendition of Hamilton‘s “The Battle of Yorktown” at the end of the Ball of Enchantment. For a few days, I could be utterly myself, without artifice, and that was not only accepted, but cheered. It was a feeling I didn’t know had been missing until it was suddenly there.

I am so, so delighted that I can now consider myself a Siren. What a brilliant group to have connected with. I’ve got a reading list a mile long, and half of it consists of books and short stories written by new friends. And next year, I sure hope my fellow Sirens will be able to see A Flame Arises on this shelf:

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General, Uncategorized

“The selfsame name, but one of better nature.” – On evaluation, discovery, and improvement

I opined about this a bit on Twitter earlier today, and it remained on my mind enough that I want to expand on it a bit here.

I go through a process, periodically, of evaluating myself. I call it “having a Come-to-Proserpina moment” — although it might even better be called a come-to-Ma’at moment, because it’s about weighing and evaluating how my actions speak for me. To focus those thoughts, I try to answer these questions:

  1. What adjectives do I want to use to describe myself?
  2. What adjectives would I like other people to use to describe me?
  3. Do my actions currently lead to those qualities?
  4. How do I need to change or redirect my actions to lead to those qualities?

It’s about being the person I want to be. How close am I to that goal, to that image I’d like to have of myself?

maat-sarcophagus.jpgThe evaluation is not an easy thing to do. Or, perhaps, not an easy thing to do well and honestly. An unscrupulous person, with little self-awareness, could easily say, “Yes, of course; what I do fits exactly the kind of person I want to be, and anyone who disagrees just doesn’t see me clearly”. Doing it well and helpfully, though, means taking your own ego to task. It means not assuming that your actions are correct just because you’re the one taking them. You have to be a little brutal and quite relentless. Your brain tries to squirm out of it, tries to shape excuses out of reasons. It’s like editing, a little, in a way — you have to pin down what isn’t working and be ruthless about it. And in doing so, you learn to cut away what isn’t helpful, what detracts from your strengths, and how to reshape the rest to better reflect the story you want to tell.

Every time I do this, I emerge stronger, more whole, more like that ideal version of myself. However discomfiting the process, the result is so empowering. It means that I can then feel more confident about my assessments and actions being correct — not just because I’ve made them, but because I’ve really questioned myself, the world around me, and my place in it. It’s important to ask those questions, even if the answer is yes, because that gives me a grounding and a sort of renewed dedication to myself. If I can say, honestly, that yes, my actions reflect the sort of person I want to be, then I can feel assured in going forth unafraid of what anyone else might say in spite or jealousy.

It’s not about not having flaws. The gods know I have those. Sometimes they’re inextricably linked to my virtues — my temper comes from the same place as my passion, for example. My stubbornness and my loyalty have similar roots. I will never eradicate the one without sacrificing the other, and I determined years ago that I was not willing to grey myself out in that way. But it does mean that I need to act in a way that supports my virtues more than my vices. It also certainly doesn’t mean I never backslide, never fail to live up to my ideals of myself. That’s why it’s important to keep evaluating.

I call it come-to-Proserpina or come-to-Ma’at because it’s a process of thinking of what those ladies would say of me, were I called to stand before them now. How do my actions represent me? What do they say that my tongue might not? If my heart were to be weighed against Ma’at’s feather, how would it balance?

In contemplating this for myself recently, I’ve realized that my main female protagonist is ending up doing this in her life. I didn’t set out with that intention, but that’s sort of what multiple rounds of edits are coming around to. She looks at her life, realizes it isn’t what her heart wants, and realizes that, if she wants things to change, she has to be the agent of that change. She can’t wait for the world to re-arrange itself for her.

Bits of Fun

Sisters, sisters…

So this has been on my mind for a while, but the recent #Ham4Austen meme, courtesy of @Drunk_Austen, has revived my desire to chatter about it.

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Kindly ignore my tragic misspelling of Bennett; I stand by this statement anyway.

As the deal announcement for my forthcoming novel stated, the backbone of the story belongs largely to three sisters: the Vitelliae — who are, in the creativity of Roman naming conventions, Aula Vitellia Prima (called Aula), Aula Vitellia Secunda (called Latona), and Aula Vitellia Prima (called Alhena). As I’ve discussed before, my inspiration for them came from a painting, but I think it’s slightly more than coincidence that much of the novel has been written and revised while I’ve had not just thematically-appropriate HBO’s Rome and the BBC classic I, Claudius running in the background (I am nearly incapable of working in silence), but also Downton Abbey, the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, and the Hamilton soundtrack. Their relationships, with each other and with those outside the family, drive the story.

I wasn’t consciously adopting a pattern as I wrote, but nearly everyone who’s read the book thus far has commented on how the Vitelliae make them think of the Bennetts, the Crawleys, or the Schuylers. Sarah once asked me if it were intentional, and our notes back and forth are littered with references to Hamilton (not only because of the sisters — but a lot because of them). But it got me thinking just what the similarities and dissimilarities are, because my girls don’t align neatly to any of the characters they are, as a group, compared to.13516359_520496718154978_8947441272109785272_n

Pert, vivacious Aula Prima has the most in common, strangely, with Lydia Bennett — if Lydia Bennett had Angelica Schuyler’s political sense. She loves a good time, has a fondness for military men, and flirts with abandon — but unlike Lydia, she strives to keep her family out of scandal. Knowledgeable and adept, she hides a cunning mind and clever wit behind lively green eyes, pink cheeks, and bouncing auburn curls. In “a world in which [her] only job is to marry rich,” she turns her political ambitions towards her father and brother.

Editor!Sarah and I have a joke of referring to Alhena as “And Peggy”, but there’s really much more to her than that. She probably has the most in common with Mary Bennett, and maybe a little with Edith, though I think she’s a bit softer than either. She’s a more minor character than Aula and Latona, but she has a lot of room to grow and develop, but at the onset, she’s bookish, and almost painfully shy outside of her own family (with, you’ll learn, good reason).

And then my dear Latona, middle sister and primary protagonist. She’d get along sparklingly a dinner party with Mary and Sybille Crawley, Angelica Schuyler, and both Elizas Bennett and Hamilton, but I don’t know how much she has in common with any of them. She’s a slightly different type. None of the Misses I mention start with as much tragedy in their backgrounds as Latona. She feels Angelica’s frustration and ambition, shares Mary Crawley’s sense of responsibility and Sybille’s social justice, would appreciate Eliza Bennett’s wit, Eliza Hamilton’s yearning for a peaceful and prosperous domestic life… but she also suffers a repression that’s personal, not just societal, and it’s colored her deeply.

So what has made early readers feel such resonance with these sisterly sets? Something in the structure itself, I suspect. A sister is different than a friend. Friends, you can choose (and the Vitelliae have those as well, as I consciously did not want to create a world where women had no social connection outside their families). But sisters, you’re given.

I am a woman with a sister, myself. Just the one, so a smaller set than the families I’ve discussed above, and we’re about six years apart. I would take a bullet for her, but our relationship hasn’t always been easy. That age gap is a bit weird — too far apart to be real allies as children, too close not to feel competitive. When I was in my most troubled years, she was still in grade school; when she was in hers, I was off at college. I often had an older sibling’s exasperation with being expected to be responsible and set a good example, not retaliate when provoked, and irritation with what she got away with that I hadn’t or couldn’t (parental leniency with younger siblings being a well-noted tradition — at least among oldest children!). I suspect that she often felt held to a high standard because of me, that I was something she was expected to live up to. We were both probably a little right and a little wrong. We get along much better as adults, but it’s because we’ve both learned to be more thoughtful, less antagonistic, more empathetic. We’ve learned about each other, not just what we like but how we work, rather than just assuming a genetic bond would either function or not. (To our mother’s total lack of surprise, we often find that our strife has been caused by our similarities, not our differences).

I hope that particular aspect of sororal relations comes across in my writing in a genuine way. It’s one of the things I really adore about the Crawley sisters. While the Bennetts certainly don’t see eye-to-eye, there’s never any real strife among them. Even when Lydia disgraces the family, she shrugs it off with almost no consequences, and everyone else sort of rolls their eyes, and life moves on. Everyone seems far more concerned about how Lydia’s actions reflect on them than about Lydia’s well-being. Lizzy never gives Lydia the dressing-down she had coming, nor do the other sisters air their grievances. ClawJQdUoAAz3lQSaintly Jane never shows impatience or irritation with her siblings. Mary never explodes with frustration at the mockery she endures. The closest we get to real sororal trouble are the sniping between Lydia and Mary, and then the jealousy that Kitty feels over Lydia’s popularity and invitation to go to Brighton — but those are only side notes, the background chatter of the novel. The disconnect between Lizzy and her younger siblings is more glanced at than explored. The reader is meant to dismiss them as silly and pointless (one of the things I like better about the 2005 movie is that you see more soulfulness out of Mary Bennett), and thus not to feel much sympathy for them.

On the other hand, Mary and Edith spend a lot of time at each others’ throats, snarking and subverting and outright sabotaging. But when their tempers aren’t up, they know that they do love each other — and that one day, they will be all each other has left. “Sisters have secrets,” Mary says, at the end of the series, and she’s right — and those secrets are rarely tidy and cute. Their relationship is far less sanitized than that of the Bennetts, and far more real. The Vitelliae aren’t quite so contentious, but they don’t always understand each other. Their personalities are different, and there’s quite an age gap between the elder two and the youngest. They’ll make decisions the others don’t agree with. They’ll be unintentionally hurtful. They’ll worry and scare each other. An older sister accustomed to being in charge may seem bossy. A much-sheltered youngest may struggle to have her maturity recognized. And a troubled middle daughter may feel misunderstood and like she has nowhere to turn, even among people who love her.

I don’t know everything that will happen to them. Their relationships have grown more complex in Book 1’s revisions, and I expect those discoveries will continue. I just know I’m looking forward to the journey — and I hope you are, too!

Images and Artwork, Research

The Charms of Cartography

I love maps. I don’t know why, but cartography fascinates me. I find maps so beautiful. I particularly love historical maps — either maps that are, themselves, old, or just maps of earlier versions of our world. I’ve got a delightful book of maps of the Middle Ages, which shows changes to all of the inhabited continents from the 7th through 15th centuries. This year, I’ve even got a calendar of historical maps (June’s feature is a 1647 map of Iceland). The Game of Thrones opening credits utterly delight me. My favorite part of playing Civilization is typically exploring the map, figuring out where all the other civs are, locating the resources, and figuring out the best trade routes. In the fifth grade, when we were instructed to invent a state and make a map of it, I got marked down a few points for going utterly overboard and filling in damn near every available space on the poor little salt-dough construction with some item of interest.

I mention all of this because, when you’re writing a fantasy historical epic, having maps is rather crucial to keeping one’s head in place and places in one’s head.

I was bemoaning to my gentleman the difficulty in finding a decent map of late Republic Rome that I could mark up for my own purposes. Pretty well everything available is from much later on — Hadrian-era, sometimes, but often even later, 4th century. It makes sense — the archaeology is more reliable from that period, since things got knocked down and built on top of each other. But, though my story is an AU, it’s an AU based on the mid-first-century BCE, so using a map from so many centuries later would be an awful lot for me to have to un-see and work around, to recover what the city would’ve been like before all those baths and basilicas and palaces that the emperors built.

So, my gentleman asked me if there were any maps close to what I did like, and yes — my favorites have always been those in Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series. Those books are meticulously researched, and even though the maps have some question marks on them (This was the… Temple of Feronia? Or Juno Curitis? Pompey’s house was… probably here?), when it comes to the overall shape of the city, they’re wonderfully detailed. The books also include a map of the *whole* city, not just the famous bit around the Forum.

They’re also, y’know, only the size of a trade paperback page, so while a good reference, it’s not something I can really scribble on to add in the things I need. I want to keep track of who’s on which hill, how far between them, who can oversee the river from their house and who’s got a view of the aqueduct. I added or moved some temples, but — damn, where did I put them? I’d made my own map of the entire Mediterranean with the provinces , but the minutiae of the city itself was just too overwhelming a project to consider starting from scratch.

So, hearing this lament, what did my beau do? Scanned those pages in and had them printed up as full-size posters!

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I’m so thoroughly delighted and grateful that he went to the time and effort! Now I’ve got a Wall of Rome to draw my Aven all over! (It’s underneath the map of Roman Spain given to me by my BFF last Christmas). Twelve square feet of fun.

I won’t start marking it up properly til I’ve finished this round of revisions, but I’ve begun by plotting out the epicenter of the story:

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General

Attention to Detail, or, Cass is an obsessive freak

So I’m almost done with this round of revisions. I’m at the point where I’m doing the penultimate read-through, which will hopefully make sure I catch any continuity errors created by my changes thus far and that I fill in any major omissions from the points raised by the editorial letter. Then the final read-through before sending things back to Sarah will be on hard copy, which is the best way for me to catch the tiny typo-like things. (Or places where I “pull a Cass” — leaving a sentence unfinished because I got distracted partway through writing it).

This round has involved a lot of filling in the edges of my worldbuilding. Sarah had a lot of questions about the world of Aven, about the political and religious systems, the economy, social classes, etc. The social history, really, the demographics and dynamics at play. These are things that I have swirling about in my head when I’m writing, but I hadn’t really pinned them down in specifics yet — because I hadn’t had to in the same way I’d had to be specific about, say, geography. It’s the sort of stuff I love — and the sort of stuff I actually sort of fear writing down, because too much of it can turn an otherwise sensible chapter into an encyclopedia entry. (I say this as someone who read the encyclopedia for fun as a child, so it doesn’t always occur to me that other people might not find that sort of chapter interesting. It’s something I have to check myself on — or be checked on by others).

But sometimes I just plain need that encyclopedia entry, at least for my own head. In order to find the places where I can drop a casual reference, hint at a larger world, I need to take it out of the blurry background noise of my brain and shape it into something concrete. And frequently, I find I need to do that sort of brainstorming by hand.

Thing is, once I get started, it’s a little hard to stop. Sometimes, that means I end up with notebooks stuffed with lists and diagrams. Sometimes, it means I end up with a 13X300 spreadsheet detailing every single magically-gifted citizen of a fictional incarnation of the city of Rome.

Just, y’know. Hypothetically.

So, as a quick update and a teaser, I thought I’d share what a few of those world-building documents have looked like over the past couple of weeks. Plus, a chance for y’all to see just how bad my handwriting is.

General

#AmEditing – Some more!

I am thoroughly delighted to have a second editorial letter in my hot little hands, chock-full of things for me to attack in the manuscript.

No, I really mean that. This letter is fantastic. The first one was great, but much more open-ended. Sarah and I were still getting to know each other, and she didn’t yet know what my style of taking notes is. This time, a lot of the notes are a lot more specific – but without being directorial. I have a lot of suggestions, a lot of either-ors, a lot of open possibilities. As soon as I read the letter through, I was excited to dive back into the manuscript.

See, the last time, I had to spend about a month just re-familiarizing myself with the story. I’d not looked at it while we were on sub, and things got fuzzy. Yes, even with something I’d spent so much time with — in some ways, that was the problem. This thing’s been through a lot of drafts and revisions, so some of the trouble was remembering, “Huh. Did that scene stay or did it go?” Or even just, “When does that happen? Before or after that other thing?”

This time, though, it’s only been a couple of weeks since I finished the edits. And I didn’t put it fully away in that time — I’ve been brainstorming titles, starting to adjust my outline for Book 2, continuing to mull over characters and plotlines, all of which means that I’ve still had my head in the story. So when I have specific notes — bring X out in this character, address Y in the worldbuilding — I have a much stronger and immediate sense of where to go to attack them.

How do I keep track of all of that? Well, here’s a screenshot — with pertinent narrative blurred out — of what Scrivener looks like for me right now.

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This is another big hurrah for Scrivener — it makes keeping all of this straight so easy. So what you’ve got on the right hand side are the editorial notes. The bits I’ve highlighted in green are the specific points of attack — more the nitty-gritty than the big picture of Sarah’s thoughts. The orange highlighted bits, also in all caps, are my notes to myself. A lot of them say things like, “Yes, I should definitely find a place for that.” Others are more specific ideas triggered by Sarah’s suggestions — how to implement the spark she’s set.

So then I can move over to the left, to the binder and the corkboard, and I can start tagging different chapters and scenes with the different kinds of attention they need. I tend to attack one chunk of notes at a time — so, in this case, based on my notes, I’ll resolve as much related to my main protagonist, the lovely Vitellia Latona, as I can first, then I’ll move on to the secondary characters — her sisters, her father, the antagonists, and so forth. A lot of the world-building stuff can get folded in to that (because it should all be character- and story-based, not info-dumping), so I’ll be able to check some things off the list as I go, but then at the end, I’ll make more passes to see what I haven’t worked in yet.

I’ll also be taking some time to revisit my research and to consult my thaumaturgical adviser. Sarah’s brought up some considerations regarding law and society, and I need to re-immerse myself in some of the Roman reality before I can decide exactly how I’m twisting it for the Aventan AU. Then, my dearest friend has a nigh-unparalleled brain for magical matters, so when I hit a sticky point in defining the rules of my own system, I tend to bounce ideas back and forth with him until I can get it sorted out. Nothing in writing happens in isolation, and whether I get the assist from a book, a website, or a treasured friend’s voice, it all helps me to think about my world more critically and creatively.

I’ve set myself the goal of getting this set of revisions done by the start of March — not least because March and April get stupid-busy for me at the day job, and also because February, as a month, tends to depress me, so I’m looking forward to having this to energize me through grey and dreary days. It’s so exciting to have the opportunity to make this story stronger under thoughtful guidance!

General

Where World-Building Starts

Kate Elliott is writing an excellent series of World-Building Wednesdays, and today’s post, The Flowering of an Image, focuses on the germination of a world — what kernel it is that turns into a place in which stories can live.

Elliott says that her world-building most often begins with an image which then spurs the characters and the story. The two things then grow together, the world informing the characters and plot as much as the characters and plot define the world. That symbiosis is something I discover in my own writing as well. Something I decide about the world will trigger an event, and some need the characters have will make me flesh out a bit of the world.

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Tintagel Island, Cornwall (2006) – Which I visited on account of it being the place where King Arthur’s story started, according to legend

Sometimes, though, I can fall a bit into a world-building pit. It’s not so much in the need to outline or write out an encyclopedia — though in some cases I’d happily do so — but I end up exploring the world by letting characters wander through it. Interesting to me, but not something that really advances the narrative. Part of editing is finding ways to inject the details of the world into the action. I do keep lists, though, of important facts. For Aven it’s been a lot of geographical concerns — what do different provinces produce, what sort of people live on which of the Seven Hills, and so forth — and a lot about the magic. I also have some historical notes about where my AU diverges from the reality of Roman history.

For me, though, the story tends to begin not with an image, but with a statement — sometimes of narrative, but far more often, of dialogue or introspection. An image will often follow, but I tend to hear a character’s voice before I clearly see them or the world around them. The words they want to use, the cadence, the rhetoric, those are the things that start to spin a character for me.

So, I thought it might be fun to trawl through a few of my projects — both those still in-progress, those set aside and perhaps to be revived someday — and see if I could find and identify those starting phrases. Wonderfully, I managed to unearth a document of scraps that I started back in 2009. Some of those scraps turned into larger stories. Some have been finished, and some haven’t — and one of them is on is way to publication! But it provided me with some good examples of what seeds I start with:

  • “Oh, you are such a poor liar. You haven’t the talent for it, so you may as well not try. Come now.” She pouted, quite prettily. “I’m your sister. Who can you tell, if not me?”
  • “I could no more leave this city than leave you, Mari,” he said. “To do one would be to do the other, and to do either…” He shook his head. “Unthinkable.”
  • “How many times did you fling yourself into danger without a second goddamn thought?”
  • “He does love me,” she commented, more to herself than to Kara.
    “In his way,” Kara supplied.
    “Not even that,” Arhena said, twisting a few golden strands around her finger. “I think he really does. He’s just… not one to show it in the usual fashion.”
  • “That girl’s kept her heart locked up a good long while now. I think it might finally be ready for some fresh air.”
  • “And you, Highness, are the daughter of a desert witch masquerading as a princess. But I’ve never held that against you.”
  • It wasn’t, after all, a nice thing to hear about yourself, to know that you’d gone from a well-mannered, perfectly-coiffed debutante to being little better than a mad dog in want of a leash.
  • ‘That’s the trouble with putting down roots,’ she thought. Her fingers itched as she stepped over towards where the mare was tethered and unwound the reins from the fence. ‘They do make it harder to fly…’

I’m realizing, looking at all of those, how many of them are moments of great passion — so many of my stories, no matter the genre, do feature a romance between two strong, stubborn people — or how many of them are the lead heroine wrestling with herself in some way.

There are worse places, I think, to start a story.

General

Critical Hit: What Writers Can Learn from RPGs

IMG_2974Last year, I got back into dice gaming. I’d played a very little as a teenager — it was pretty hard to be a geek in the late 90s without getting roped into at least one table session — but most of my RPG experience was text-based, during the heyday of LiveJournal (yes, I’m that old) or in AOL chatrooms (yes, I’m also that old). I’m not allowed to play MMOs, because I know myself, and my life would quickly become The Guild. But a friend and coworker pitched the new Star Wars: Edge of the Empire game to me, and it sounded so super-exciting that I decided to give it a whirl. I’m so very glad I did. We’ve been playing for over a year now, through several plot arcs and all sorts of ridiculous escapades. It’s my Monday night escape. I often complain that I have three careers and no social life, but this? This is a real hobby, and it can be just pure joy and relaxation for me, a time to play and to enjoy hanging out with some awesome people.

And yet, I still can’t leave my working brain behind entirely. The game is so narrative that of course I end up thinking about storytelling.

Last December, Jim Hines took over Chuck Wendig’s blog to talk about turning your D&D campaign into a terrible novel (and it’s a good giggle of a post). I have no doubt that there are people who really do this, though, and who then proceed to query agents and editors, all starry-eyed innocence, failing to understand that what made a good game does not necessarily make a good novel. I also think, though, that while straight-up transcribing your sessions is a seriously bad idea, there are still lessons that a writer can take away from RPGs.

The trick is to think like the game-master, not like a player.

Keep ’em on their toes: This relates to the “but then” rule I’ve talked about before. And honestly, it’s something I can have trouble with, pacing-wise. Never let the characters get too comfortable, and never let them go too long without an exciting incident of some kind. Give characters the chance to develop through action, not through pontification. Throw unexpected obstacles into the mix. If they make a solid plan to achieve their goals, change the given circumstances so that they can’t follow through as expected. In our game, I don’t think our plans ever stay the same for more than a few minutes at a time. The same should be true for characters in novels.

CQCEd-4WoAAEUAeLet your characters surprise you: Our group is not the standard hack-and-slash coalition of fighters. We are… creative problem-solvers, is probably the best way to put it, and we’ll try just about anything before having to resort to violence. This occasionally leads to some truly bizarre sequences of events. As an example, early on in our campaign, one of the characters just straight-up decided to steal a plesiosaur-type creature and try to escape on it. This was not something our GM had anticipated. Another character once tried slowing down our opponents by setting off the foam-based fire suppression system on them (it worked). This was also not something our GM had anticipated. We once ended up at a dance party with abolitionist senators. The GM had definitely not anticipated having to tell us to “roll for dance moves”. The reason he’s a good GM is because he can let us do crazy things and then steer everything back on track — and that’s the job of a good writer, too.

Let them make bad choices. Bad choices are interesting. Bad choices lead to conflict, chaos, mayhem, struggles, strife. Recently, while in the middle of close-quarters combat, one of our party members decided to set off an explosive quarrel in the middle of the room. Not only did it spectacularly fail to do significant damage to our opponents, it damn near killed two of us. But it made things interesting — the party members still conscious suddenly had a much bigger problem on their hands, as they had to protect and extricate the wounded while still dealing with the attackers. The same thing goes for writing fiction — if a character charges in where she should, ignores the little voice in her head warning her away from danger, trusts someone he shouldn’t, then we get to see not only the conflict that creates but also how the characters deal with the subsequent fallout. Does she mistrust her judgment in the future? Does he have to make amends with someone? What does she learn? What ground does he have to make up? Bad choices can up the ante in exciting ways.

If grinding is boring for you, it’s boring for everyone: Your mileage may vary by genre on this one, as more military-focused books will spend more time in the blood, and so might different sorts of RPG groups. For me, though — and this comes from a background on the stage as much as anything else — a fight has to be a means to an end. It has to tell its own story and it has to advance something. A good GM balances the action sequences with plot development, because just churning through repetitive action after repetitive action can get real dull real fast. And the same goes with writing. You can only slam so many fight sequences together before the reader gets fatigue, and the reader also needs to care about the outcome of the fight. What’s resting on it? Who’s in danger and why do we want them to survive? What skill is the hero calling upon, and is she good enough with it to come out on top?

Have a diverse cast. I’m the only human character in our current group, which is pretty great. We’ve also got three female organics, one male organic, and one male-identifying droid. And our GM is great about making sure that the NPCs we encounter are evenly balanced — whether they’re Imperial officers, mechanics, senators, thugs, guards, food vendors, whatever — they’re a variety of species and genders. The universe is a wide and wonderful place, and storytellers owe it to themselves and their readers to showcase that.

Have a balanced cast. Our group features an abnormally agile big-game-hunting droid, an impulsive and mildly neurotic bodyguard, a debt-laden trader with a nearly palpable sense of self-preservation, a mechanic whose primary motivation is friendship, and an exiled politician who lives by wits and charm (yours truly). It’s a seriously weird group to have thrown together — but that’s awesome. Our skill sets complement each others’ really well. Not all books have to worry about ensemble casts, but for those that do, making sure the characters . Some of that can be done through archetypes — making sure you have enough different folk to serve different needs — but it’s about balancing personalities, too. Not every character can be the gruff and world-weary type, and not every character can be the effervescent optimist. It’s way more interesting to read about those types bouncing off of each other. The NPCs we encounter, engineered by the GM, reflect that as well. Some of our allies get along much better with some party members than others; some of our enemies are rubbed the wrong way more by some than others. We also encounter situations that play to our varying abilities — you can’t fight your way out of every situation, and you can’t talk or charm your way out of every situation, either. Keeping that balance keeps the story interesting for us players — and doing the same thing in a book will help appeal to a variety of readers.

CPduoBGUYAAJtTAMake XP matter. We’ve been playing our game for a long time. We have an absurd number of experience points, and we’ve all used them a little differently — some have piled them into improving our dice pools for certain skills, some have acquired additional talent trees and special abilities, and some have kept a balance between those two choices. But the better we get, the more the GM has to keep in mind regarding the challenges we encounter. It can’t be too easy for us. He has to work harder to give us situations we can’t squirrel out of too quickly — because the point isn’t to “win” by besting the NPCs, it’s to invest ourselves in a good story! In fiction, the stakes have to get higher as the story goes on. A character should have the opportunity to grow, learn new things, get better — but then the villains and challenges have to get harder, to match. If the hero gets better at a skill, then there has to be a twist the next time he encounters a challenge calling upon it. You can’t face impossible odds at the beginning, and the final conflict can’t be a foregone conclusion.

Enjoy it. Like I said at the top, I commit time each week to the game because it’s fun, and I know our GM dedicates a lot more time to planning and scheming for us for the same reason. Building worlds, scripting situations, carving out the time, that’s all a lot of work, but we’re all in it because we like doing it. Writing’s hard work, and that’s the damn truth. But it should also be something you love, even when it’s tough. If you’re not having fun with the words, with the characters, with the situations, then what will there be for the reader to fall in love with?

So! How about y’all? Any other roleplayer-writers out there with thoughts on how the two types of narrative can speak to each other?

General

Paleontology of Plotting, Part 2

A confession: I am not very good at drafts.

writerevisewriteagainI never have been — not when it came to essays for school and not when it comes to fiction. It’s partly because I don’t write sequentially. I tend to write the start, the end, and a couple of major points in the middle, then play connect-the-dots. That lends itself to a lot of adjustment-on-the-go. Part of why I like Nano months so much is that it cuts down on that — but, at the same time, just going for the word count can also mean generating scenes that don’t end up fitting into the overall narrative.

And believe me, I know the drawbacks to working this way. It’s easy to get caught in a loop, and there certainly does come a point where you have to decide the thing is complete so you can step back, read it all the way through, and evaluate more holistically. But for my personal process, a certain amount of re-writing as I go is how I excavate — how I tell myself the story.

This is where I’m at on one of my projects right now. Probably 75% of the way through a first draft, I’ve realized there are some elements that aren’t useful. Common wisdom would say to leave them be for now, until I’ve finished the full draft, but so far that hasn’t been working for me. (Plus, not ditching the bits that aren’t working prevents me from having an accurate conception of my overall word count). I’m at connect-the-dots point anyway, where I’m finding the little things that need to chain the major scenes together, so for the way my brain works, it’s just as easy to trim and adjust while I’m in the middle of that process. Trying to work around the things I know I want to get rid of or change would mean a lot of wasted energy.

To continue my paleontology metaphor, in this case it’s a bit like there were a bunch of other bones tangled up with the frame I’ve been trying to unearth. Some characters have proved extraneous and need to be cut or else merged into others. Some scenes were total false starts. I’m not trying to fix all the nitty-gritty details right now — I’m not trying to do a full revision in the middle of still writing by any means — but clearing away the debris will help me to better shape the components that actually need to be there as I push through to getting a complete manuscript done.