Relativity

I love maps.

If a novel includes maps, you’d better believe I will be flipping back to them frequently to compare locations. The same thing happens in games; the relationships between locations and the projected travel time from one point to another allow for a better sense of scale.  I think it comes from growing up in an older part of the US, where older towns are roughly a day’s easy walk apart — in fact, towns being located further apart than that are a feature that you’ll only see in places which were settled around the time that trains and motorised vehicles were becoming common. It’s interesting how advancing technology has changed the landscape, not only in how humans develop it, but in how we view the world.

It is really difficult to create a map.

Roman map of the world c.43AD. Rome, clearly is the centre of the civilised world, and must therefore be central on the map.

In 43 AD, Rome clearly is the centre of the civilised world, and must therefore be central on the map.

Consider what early maps looked like. They were… well, imprecise, by our standards. With satellite imaging and computerised measurements, we literally have mapmaking down to a science. Early mapmakers had to make do with eyeballing it using compasses and early surveying gear. There’s a vast and rather colourful variety in early maps, including a few which postulated the world as an inverted doughnut, and a few Roman maps where the philosophers making them were absolutely certain that nothing could possibly exist north of a certain latitude and drew Britain with Scotland squeezed in as a thin strip running across the very upper edge of the map area.

So if you think that’s silly, consider how difficult it is to create a game or story map from nothing but your own imagination. There may not be any accuracy required, but sometimes the creative leeway can get the better of itself.

There are two ways to create fictional maps. The first is to completely build the world before writing the story; the second is to write the story and build the map as you go along. There are pros and cons to each approach, which depend entirely on your creative style and how your brain works; mine happens to be a bit circuitous in processing information, so I find building the map as I write to be easier.

When creating a location, it isn’t enough to say it’s a certain distance from other locations in a given direction; if that were the limit of things, you’d end up with a place without character, nothing that sets it apart from any other area. In games and films, this can be done visually with a simple palette and texture change, but for a properly memorable experience, a little more effort needs to be put in. Every location needs character — character being everything from the local environment, the weather, its remoteness, the size of the local population, local customs and social structure, and the type of construction that might be locally common. Regardless of whether you’re creating for a game, a script or a novel, these factors need to be taken into account. For example, if it’s meant to be snowing at that point in the story, your location could be in an extreme northerly or southerly latitude, up a mountain, set during an ice age, or simply be in a region that experiences periodic winters; or if your setting is in a fairly barren area, buildings are more likely to be of stone or mud-brick than wood. I find it helps to set the computer down for a bit and try to visualise the location; this helps a written description to not sound like someone reading a weather forecast.

Apologies to Tolkien, but there's a lot of suspension of belief happening here. source

Apologies to Tolkien, but there’s a lot of suspension of belief happening here.
source

If you’re particularly detail-oriented, knowing basic earth science both helps and complicates things. If the overall climate currents flow from west to east — as they do on Earth — putting a range of high hills or mountains will cause the west side to be more prone to rainfall than the east side — warm air on the ground meets cooler high-altitude air and generates more precipitation on the windward side. This, of course, is highly generalised, as air currents shift continuously, but it’s well known that Glasgow gets notably more rain than Edinburgh, despite the two cities being less than 50 miles apart and at the same latitude, due to the series of hills in between them. Sometimes there’s a bit of fudging involved — the local climate is thus due to [insert MacGuffin here] — but it’s important to bear in mind that if the climate in a static location is altered, it will subsequently affect the surrounding area outside the MacGuffin’s influence. I can’t help but look at Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth and wonder how the mountains raised by Morgoth affect the climate around the rest of the continent.

Sometimes, it’s no fun to be detail-oriented. One aspect that always trips me up in some games and novels is travel times. My average unencumbered walking speed is between three and four miles an hour, and I’m in reasonably good shape; in a scenario where laden and armoured characters are on foot on a paved road, a day’s journey of 30 miles is about the plausible limit — that’s taking into account an average 12 hours of daylight, regular pauses for rest and food, fair weather, unhindered passage, and the characters being in good physical condition and accustomed to their load. Obviously you can’t precisely emulate this in a game — it would be the dullest game in existence and the player retention would be abysmal. So the maps are smaller and relative distances reduced. Some games blur the time passage issue by speeding up day and night cycles when you have open-world systems; others simply calculate out time passage between one point and another when the world map is restricted to designated locations.

Starting with the map has a variety of positive points to recommend it: there’s no need to worry about the described land features not matching the map or not flowing well together, it’s easy to provide distance estimates whilst writing, there’s no need to rewrite earlier secondary scenes once you realise that they don’t fit right with a primary scene’s location.

Sometimes, the creator clearly wanted a fascinating and unique land structure — starting with a few pre-set factors, the map was drawn up and then the story was fitted into it. Unfortunately the descriptions of travel time and environment don’t always match the map; for my part, this often results in headaches as I try to visualise the layout before giving up.

Why am I writing about this? Because I was looking over my initial draft for this one novel, and if the story matched the map as it appears in my head, it’ll never work. Fortunately I’m in the middle of reworking the novel, but the map still needs to change.

Dammit.

Remap

I’ve mentioned before that the novel I’m currently working on is the first for which I’ve had a full plot outline developed before I even started writing.

This is where I admit that I’ve had to re-outline the story, one year after I made the first outline.

It’s not as bad as you might think. Through writing — the process of which is more comparable to a jigsaw puzzle than a journey — I’ve found points in the original concept which were weak and needed to be restructured in order to prevent the whole thing from collapsing.

I’m sorry, the metaphor has gone from puzzle to 3-D structure. And I suppose that’s a good thing, because a good story should have depth.

In the last two weeks, I’ve discovered that two characters needed their roles to be swapped entirely, which has changed parts of the ending. Each of them has come out the stronger for it — words like “agency” and “responsibility” and “independence” factor in a lot, which is common when you’re dealing with teenagers. The changes to the ending have made things a smidge more complex, but not in a negative way — everything can be explained without the use of handwavium, at least. Handwavium can be annoying if it’s too obvious.

The antagonist’s backstory needed a restructure because it was slipping into a particular cliché which has been badly overused in other media and which I have always been distinctly uncomfortable with. Improving this also happened during the past fortnight, and as a result their motivations and reasoning have cemented more clearly, and also had a serious knock-on effect on the ending. Whoops.

This has had the unfortunate consequence of changing the map. It’s like when you set up for a road trip: you think you know the route and then shortly after leaving the house you get Facebook notes and Twitter pings from people who would just LOVE to meet up with you for coffee when you’re in the area — and being “in the area” might be as vague as being within 100 miles. I’ve literally taken the existing text and gone through it in reverse, reducing each part to a series of plot points from end to beginning, and then filled in the gaps between them so I know which remaining puzzle pieces belong where. The old outline has been deleted entirely because it no longer applies.

I’m really not certain how often this happens to other writers. Despite having had a dream job where I got paid to be creative, I still feel novitiate at times. I’ve been letting the text develop on its own, rather than forcing it to conform to the original, six-year-old concept because that original concept sucked (well, maybe not that bad, but it could be framed as juvenile and under-developed, as well as being a product of my lack of experience with life at the time). What I have now is better than what I thought it would be a year ago, and I really hope that, a year from now, it’s even better.

Hell, it’d be nice to have it finished and maybe even released into the wild in another year. I’d be cool with that.

It’s tough to be a creative type — you really are your own worst critic. Others can look at your work and think, “Well, it’s not how I’d have done it, but it’s pretty good!” and in the mean-time you’ll be picking it apart because it’s not precisely what you wanted it to be. This part and that part can always be changed just so, but in the end, you have to save it off and admit that any more fussing will be counter-productive, even if it’s not perfect.

I got annoyed a few weeks ago when I started considering making a serious change to a character. Their role had already been under major editing a few times, and I was content with where it had ended up… except that I wasn’t, and kept finding bits that bothered me. Allowing the change to happen improved things, but it also led directly to the change I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago where I completely swapped two characters and their roles within the story.

If you’ve ever made too many attempts to draw something, eventually the eraser wears away the paper quality and ruins the potential for drawing anything; writing is similar, in that if you spend too much time worrying over something, it can get muddied and indistinct. But again, if something is too precious to not be permitted to change in order to make the entire story better, it’s not worth keeping in the first place. I have this approach to pretty much all of life, these days, which is why I’m a-okay with pre-furnished apartments — it makes moving on easier when you’re not loaded down with baggage.

It’s really just a matter of figuring out what’s worth carrying with you, and what’s worth leaving behind.

Playing at Deities, part 2: Maps

When I was taking Creative Writing classes in high school, one of the toughest parts for me at the time was separating my own work from others’.

I read a lot, and I actually read much more when I was growing up in the ’90s, since my dad had a strong antipathy towards video games and VCRs (he’s mellowed considerably since then, particularly as the games my younger brother and I play haven’t turned out to be the mind-rotting brain-sugar dad feared they were; the both of us being in the industry certainly had a strong influence, as well). And I read EVERYTHING, including some of the more atrocious fantasy and sci-fi pulp novels. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I started getting picky about literature.

One of the down-sides of reading so much while you’re trying to write creatively is that your brain can trip over someone else’s prose, and the risk of getting lost in another writer’s forest is fairly high when you’re only just finding your own footing. A lot of what I wrote for that CW class was heavily influenced by the books I was reading at the time: while the names were changed and the plots were different, the world structure was very similar. You could have called it fan-fiction and not been too far off the mark.

Some might suggest this indicates a lack of creativity; personally I feel it indicates a lack of personal experience, and certainly an undeveloped understanding of the world. It was easier to use a pre-established structure created by someone else; the few times I attempted to build my own world, it resembled a stage setting: flat scenery pieces painted on plywood. If you looked at it from the wrong angle, you’d see the props on the back of everything and the stage-hands tilting the lights around.

It took me a long time to work out building depth in the world; and after that, it took me a long time to figure out how to express it properly. As one of my teachers was fond of saying, “Show, don’t tell.” It may make the OCD beast happy to run off on a tangent for a few pages explaining social structures, but the majority of readers don’t like that; it’s better to express society and culture though character interactions.

A key part of developing depth is to make the world feel lived-in; the reader needs to have the impression that the characters had lives before the story started, and that their lives will continue after it ends. The story itself is an eight-hour workday, with events occurring after-hours which are relayed the next morning in anecdotes during a coffee break. Made-up location and character names are great, but unless there’s thought put into those names’ history, they’re only a collection of random syllables mashed together; some writers seem to specialise in the unpronounceable as a way of indicating that the local language isn’t actually English. I used to do that, and while I’ll readily admit it’s still a temptation, I’m more apt to go back and reconsider things later after more of the world has been explored in the development process.

It feels… I won’t say “lazy”, but more like I’m not really working when I take a step back and build spreadsheets and reference lists for a few days. My WIP draft starts with a list of every character and a brief description of them so I don’t have to swap to the actual character development document in the middle of flow. I often work on my tablet instead of a computer — in fact, I get more done that way at the table or on the sofa with a cup of tea or coffee to hand than I do sitting at a desk — and changing Google Drive documents mid-stream can shred The Zone in a way tabbing to the top and back won’t.

The character design document itself is pages long; there are thirteen different specifications for each of them, from physical appearance to personality, which of the other characters they’re likely to cooperate with, and a brief summary of their background. Then there’s the world design which is actually six separate documents detailing social structures, technological developments, language and linguistic notes, world timeline, story timeline, and the world itself.

All of this took — collectively — months to build. And I felt like I wasn’t really writing while I was doing it, but it was also seriously important if I wanted to continue with the writing itself.

As tempting as it is to play in someone else’s sandbox — to let another writer do all the hard work before you start enacting your own tales — it can be painfully obvious from the outside that the foundations were created by someone else. It’s different when one is in a media industry where the creator gives you the blueprints to work within, but when writing for oneself it isn’t an ideal approach.

I got discouraged a while ago, when I realised this. I must have been in my early twenties, I know it was after I moved to Edinburgh for university. I complained to a professional writer I often met in the pub that it seemed like everything had already been done, and done to death at that, and how was I supposed to create anything uniquely mine? There’s only so many ways you can recombine 26 letters, after all. Charlie, by the way, is one of the more inspiring friends an aspiring writer can have, and while I don’t remember what his precise words were, it definitely ran along the lines of telling me I wasn’t thinking outside the box enough.

At first I was a bit offended, but he was totally right. Nobody ever had a memorable adventure by sticking to safe territory. I’d been inspired by D&D and Shadowrun, Star Trek and Star Wars (shush, you can like both and retain some sanity), McCaffrey and Gibson, Brust and Bull and Shetterly. You can find hints of them all over my early work, and — amusingly — it wasn’t until I started blogging about EVE Online from in-character and creative perspectives that I really began to take steps out on my own.

It’s that vague ruleset I described earlier which made me bolder, perhaps: as much of a bad rap as fan-fiction has, it shouldn’t be sold short as a medium through which writers learn to improve themselves. Baby steps, baby steps. It’s a very rare case where a person simply sits down, touches pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, and produces a world of their own without having first followed someone else’s maps and learned from the experience.

Exclamation Mask

I was going to follow up last week’s post with Part 2, but Real Life rudely interrupted my weekend and Saturday was a write-off for writing. I make no apologies: family is a bit more important than a blog post.

I recently read a blog post during the course of which it was mentioned that women shouldn’t feel the need to apologise for using exclamation points or emoticons in their typing. It was more of a side-comment and not really related to the meat of the post, but that line stuck in my head. Some studies have indicated that women use emotes and exclamation marks more than men, but why would anyone ever apologise for using them?

Emoticons are something I use frequently in casual text-based conversations. As someone with a number of friends who have varying levels of ASD (that’s austism spectrum disorders; in a nutshell, these involve difficulties with social communication) I know that conversational tone does not translate well in text. My own dry and somewhat deadpan humour particularly doesn’t project well, and so I tack “lol” and “;D” onto the ends of sentences so that people can recognise a joke (this creates problems when people interpret the emote as the actual sarcastic content, which is why I’m considering the adoption of “sarcastrophe” punctuation marks, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). As far as I’m concerned, emotes are for clarity of tone and mood, and it doesn’t seem — to me — to be particularly related to the fact that I happen to be female; many guys I know make extensive use of a variety of emotes as often as I do.

Now… exclamation points? That’s a different matter.

Use of exclamation points denotes cheerfulness or excitement beyond merely being pleased — note the difference in tone between “that was great.” and “that was great!”. This punctuation mark has a somewhat unfair reputation of overuse by the excessively silly (eg, “No way!!! Omg!!!”) and many people view its use as unprofessional. It’s also a tool that I’ve used to good effect in my professional interactions, because it is a highly nuanced tool for self-effacement.

My first full-time job was heavily customer-oriented: I was a cashier at one of the big Native American casinos in Connecticut. I was also too young to gamble, but it was legal for me to work in a gambling establishment. I quickly learned what the customers at such places expect to see from the employees: being behind a layer of bullet-proof glass and a countertop is like being one of those old fortune-telling robot machines. The customer expects to put a credit card in and get a pile of fibreglass chips in exchange, whilst the robot behind the glass smiles a painted smile and exchanges uninterested pleasantries.

Sod that. I’m serious: there’s nothing more painful than spending ten hours a day, five days a week, giving a smile you don’t feel to people who can tell just by the sound of your voice that you are bored, uninterested, and don’t really care about them. And yanno what, I do care about the customers. They may not always be worth the effort, but I do like people, and when I say, “have a nice day!” I actually hope it does brighten someone’s day.

One good thing bout a smile is that, even if it starts out fake, it does actually have a psychological effect on your mood. Gotta love it. So in that service industry, you coach yourself. You spend the hike from the clock-in desk to your day’s assignment running a mantra of, “I love my job, I love helping people, this is actually fun,” through your head, and it’s amazing how many people can convince themselves that they enjoy doing a job they actually despise, if they just change perspective a little. So by the time you get to the desk, run a count on your drawer, and take over for the outgoing shift, that smile is as real as a sunny day, even when the back of your head is chanting, “fml, man”. And more than that, a smile affects the tone of your voice; you can even hear when someone’s smiling over the phone.

“Hey! How’s it going?! Having fun today?!” Oh, interrobang, you lovely utility. Pop it on the end of your sentences and you sound almost disgustingly cheerful. Customers appreciate it, and the smile adds to the impression that, even if you don’t know this person and won’t remember their face after you go home for the night, you really do care about their experience at your place of employment. In its essence, the addition of an exclamation point to your query turns it from merely polite to subservient: the customer you are addressing has suddenly become the most important person in your world, and if there is anything you can do for them within the purview of your position, you will do your damnedest to get it done.

I’m not saying subservience is necessarily a good thing, but the illusion of it is a vital aspect of customer service.

Compare that to my more recent CS routine. In text-based customer support, the exclamation point brings an authority figure (the CS rep) down to the same social level as the customer. You’re still the judge and jury (and sometimes executioner in more extreme cases), but providing the illusion that, hey, you’re just another guy on the end of the line and you really do care about the customer’s problems goes a long way towards a good relationship with the person you’re attempting to assist. Phrasing and word choice have a lot to do with it, as well, but that first exclamation point tacked on at the end of an initial greeting immediately dispels the dispassionate nature of black and white text. The CS rep is still the authority, but through the use of a simple ASCII character they have swept that authority under a layer of compassion, extending a warm handshake instead of a sleepy-eyed expression of disinterest.

It’s a deception in the name of good interpersonal relations, and something of a willing (albeit temporary) personal sacrifice — just as a good customer service employee can honestly apologise and admit it openly if they’ve made an error, they can dispense with a little personal dignity for the sake of getting the job done. It’s not even limited to customer support: you see this in government employees and dignitaries all the time. While they may be of equal or even higher social standing to the person they’re addressing, they can put it aside for a moment in order to connect as people. It doesn’t require a lot of bowing or simpering; just a warm smile and a simple exclamation point in greeting.

And I’ve never been one to apologise for adding a smile onto my sentences ^_^

Playing at Deities, part 1

I had a different post on world-building ready to go last Monday, took a read through it before posting and realised that anyone whose brain isn’t affected by ADHD (hello!) would probably see it as a pile of gibberish and roundabout logic. (The fun part about having ADHD: abstract reasoning makes analysis of multiple factors easy. The un-fun part of having ADHD: rote memorisation doesn’t happen because we’re too involved in finding the why and how of event chains. This is how I nearly failed History but passed Human Geography at uni.) So I’ve pulled it back a level and split the topic into parts that will hopefully be more comprehensible.

I tend to go a bit in-depth when working out world backgrounds, and it’s occasionally a challenge to set the bar on how far “too far” is. I used to be heavily involved in the roleplaying scene in EVE Online (not so much now, although I will still RP on occasion), and that game’s loosely-defined world makes a great playground for mental exercises in civilisation development theory (the possibilities are literally endless, even discounted hypotheticals are useable), although it’s an extreme challenge to realise the idea that Person A and Person B from Planet X will likely not have the same cultural experience if they come from different towns when other players insist that culture is uniform across a multi-system empire. There’s a perpetual rift of disagreement between those who see vagueness as a creative licence and those who see vagueness as a brick wall beyond which nothing can exist.

In this day of digital, where I do all my writing on a tablet and artwork in Photoshop, I still prefer to start off on a piece of paper. There’s a flexibility and comfortable blankness to it in which literally anything is possible, which a computer just can’t replace.  If I could draw what’s in my head in three dimensions in the air, it would be even better. I’m in total envy of Tony Stark’s holographic computer interface in the Iron Man films.

The down-side of creativity is that we always start with the things we know and our personal experiences. This isn’t always because we particularly want to: the introduction of too much alien information can drive away a potential audience. A lot of science fiction and even fantasy takes place on worlds which are not Earth in the slightest, however the cultures represented have a lot of basis in Earth-cultural history and the method of expressing time passage is often closely related to the current Gregorian calendar and clock.

In fact, let’s start with that. How much of the way we tell time is dependent on philosophy?

Quite a lot, actually. Philosophers were the original mathematicians and astronomers; their purpose was to understand the world around them. It’s no coincidence that in our mathematics a circle has 360 degrees, while our year has 365 days; the magic factors everything is based on are 4 and 6 (ie: four seasons, twelve months, 24 hours, you get the idea). If you grew up on a world with a longer or shorter year, a different moon cycle (or no moons), and a longer or shorter day, your mathematics will have a significantly different basis. The fantasy world I’m working with right now has a year which breaks down into factors of 7 and 13, rather than 4 and 6; it has a marked effect on everything related to time. And let’s not even get into the naming conventions; if your planet never had a Caesar, you’ll have no idea why 31 days in the middle of summer are called July. Or August, for that matter.

As a result, writers skew things a lot so that the differences aren’t too jarring for a less-abstract audience. Weeks may still have 7 days, years may still have twelve 30-day months and recognisable seasons. Anachronism stew is as old as art, and is likewise used as a vehicle to increase contemporary audience comprehension and empathy. And it works because, despite knowing that the subject may be as foreign a setting as you can get (frequently backed up with maps of the world at the start of the book), we still expect certain things from given settings. It’s possible to go more extreme in visual mediums such as film, comics and games, where creators don’t have to rely on the audience’s brains being able to visualise the differences, but creators will still limit themselves consciously. That’s not to say that using familiarity-based anachronisms can’t work well. Warhammer 40K makes fantastic use of them, and Raymond E Feist’s Riftwar Cycle jogs easily between fantasy and sci-fi. It really is all in the delivery and the underlying foundation.

I like pushing limits, although I’m detail-oriented to the point of obsession (helloooo ADHD, again); I’ve had to train myself to take a step back. It’s similar to working in digital art programs: when the whole picture is viewed, nobody’s going to notice the detail-work in the corner you had to zoom in to 600% for, and it might even make that part of the image worse than if you’d left it out entirely. While it may be fun and engaging for the writer to spend pages of detail on how a certain piece of technology works, it might leave the reader flipping ahead in the book to get back to the story; the material is better left in the appendices than in the middle of the story.

I’ve seen an infographic online of an iceberg equating to the writing process, building 90% of the world and then hiding it from the reader. After all my trials and errors in the past, I can confirm that the iceberg analogy is accurate. It’s one of those notorious situations where if you put the effort in, nobody will notice it, but if you don’t, then its lack of presence is obvious. There’s a certain amount of grief in knowing that a significant chunk of your hard work will go unrecognised; it’s one of the reasons prequels and sequels happen.

Or you can sit on the internet and blog about it, and maybe someone will actually read it and understand that what you were really doing all those afternoons spent browsing wikipedia was, in fact, productive.

>_>

The Writers’ Think Tank

I’ve been writing stories since I was able to pick up a pencil and form letters on paper correctly, a skill I acquired at the age of three. Spelling came later, but I was already reading on my own, and I distinctly remember when I was five folding and stapling together several pieces of paper and writing a story. It was ridiculously cartoonish, violent in the manner of 1980s Saturday morning serials, with a hefty dose of Mr. Rogers’ optimism, fully illustrated with stick figures, and took me two weeks to fill all sixteen pages.

It was terrible, of course, but everyone starts somewhere. It’s been a hard slog through the intervening 26 years, with high points including a heavily clichéd attempt at a sci-fi novel in 8th grade, equally clichéd attempt at a fantasy novel in 10th grade Creative Writing, an inspired further adventure of Beowulf fighting a demonic goat for a 12th grade English course on anti-heroes, aborted attempts at urban fantasy and eventually a couple pieces of EVE Online fanfic which got published in the EVE-related magazine E-ON (they’re reprinted in the Fiction section here).

Those early starts and stops are embarrassing to look back on, but they were formative. I know this because my memory hasn’t lost them (my memory is tenacious about holding onto personally relevant information but only releasing trivia when it’s time to sit exams). That clichéd urban fantasy novel has been fixed, is no longer clichéd, and is waiting patiently in outline form to be written. Bits of the old urban fantasy build and parts of that crappy high fantasy attempt have been reincarnated in my current project. My work is a patchwork of personal history and absorbed lessons. As one of my incredibly enlightened teachers said, you have to learn what NOT to do first before you can break the rules and expect to get away with it.

I had starry-eyed optimism about my work when I was a teenager; there was never a hope for the utter dreck I wrote back then — I’m not being negative, it really was that bad, and I had no discipline towards writing. It’s the discipline that’s changed things for me: on the one hand, I’m impatient and want to get my ideas on paper NOW, but I’ve learnt that if I just start writing, the pacing will stagger, the plot will suffer, the characters will be two-dimensional, and you could probably attribute something on every single line to a page on TV Tropes (click at your own risk — that site is worse than Wikipedia for keeping people up til 4am).

So I challenge myself continuously while I’m writing. The first challenge, obviously, is to have the bloody outline. It’s dangerous to go wandering into the woods without a map and compass, after all, and every unwritten novel is entirely uncharted territory. I also have a few exercises that I do in relation to writing fiction; they’re intended to help me be a better writer, or at least a more conscious one.

The first exercise occurs frequently during the writing process: read it like it was written by someone else. It’s not easy to spot holes and inconsistencies when you’re looking through a microscope: you don’t see the surface in its entirety, so taking a step back and forcing myself to temporarily forget something was made by myself is a useful tactic. Editing usually happens as a result, sometimes involving reshuffling of events or the inclusion or removal of characters. In my opinion, this is an exercise every writer should be doing.

The second exercise is less vital, but one of personal importance. As a feminist, I like to keep characters balanced, and I abhore the “strong female character” (Sophia McDougall expresses the sentiment well here). I stumbled across this TED Talk video a bit ago, and it made me seriously re-think my approach when it came to character treatment. So now I will on occasion meditate on the story and swap the characters’ genders. All of them. The way I see it, if a character absolutely HAS to be male or female, there’s something wrong with the story. This has actually led me to some enlightening moments regarding societal double-standards for behaviour (I’ll save that for another time when I feel like prodding the hornet’s nest). It’s also caused dramatic changes in some characters’ personalities, and caused me to drop several plot devices entirely.

I read a writer’s blog post recently — I really wish I could remember whose it was, it was quite good — which expressed the importance of perspective. In a story which gets into only one character’s head, this option may not be available. But if you’re building an omni perspective, where any character’s thoughts and feelings are focused on at any time, perspective is something which can make or break an important event. The blog I read suggested that the best perspective was that of the character most affected by the event. Emotional involvement is much more immersive than an eyewitness point of view, and I will often consider which other characters could be used in the same scene. I have one event in particular which has changed perspectives three times; it may change again in the future.

Which leads me to a big one: abandoning precepts.

Every writer has a set of rules they follow, whether consciously or unconsciously. Sometimes it’s an actual style list that’s decided upon at the time the outline is made. Things like whether to use first-person or third (or even second, if you’re utterly mad), whether the story will be told in a linear fashion or if flashback scenes will be used. I cannot stress this enough: if a personal style rule is interfering with the story, the rule needs to be dropped. Rules, as they say, were made to be broken if they are no longer applicable or relevant. It may be an easy change; it might be painful and as world-shattering as a change in religious beliefs. I recently had to suck it up and adapt my aversion to dream sequences — I passionately despise dream sequences, but it was necessary to set that aside for the good of the story.

For the good of the story, every action must have an equal and opposite reaction. Books are not action flicks — flashy combat and explosions are to be used only as necessary, since the job of filling seats was over and done with when the book was brought home. Logic is what keeps a setting and characters grounded in their reality. Every fictional setting has a set of rules for physics, biology, society and technology. If the world is metal-poor, the entire army will not be kitted out in plate-steel. If your wizard is casting a fireball in space, there needs to be something keeping the fire burning which is explained by more than “because magic”. Logic makes the world and characters three-dimensional; even the most nameless of background characters needs to have a reason for being there and a reason for their reaction. A friend recommended this book to me a while ago, and it is packed with tips for developing characters and situations (and where to limit things). Whilst the book is specifically geared towards game characters and development, the advice is applicable to any creative writing.

So my final exercise is to apply logic. Meditating on a given situation and thinking of different ways it could be resolved often leads to surprising — and far more satisfying — results. I wrote a story ages ago which was splashy and had a high body count. People liked the concept, but said the story was uninteresting. Well, that’s no good! I re-considered the entire thing; the final result had a very low body count and a more sympathetic main character, and was much better received by the people who read it.

Hmm, I’ve gone on a bit longer than I’d intended to. The process of writing is a massive learning experience for me. I’ve reached the stage where I feel I’m a strong enough writer to be competitive (not “good enough”. There’s never any such thing as “good enough”, only “almost, but“). That doesn’t mean that I won’t keep challenging myself; if anything, it means I’ll likely create more exercises for myself, to make sure I don’t slack off.

To NaNoWriMo or Not

It isn’t widely known, beyond a small circle of my friends and a writers’ group I drift in and out of on Farcebook (not a typo), but I have actually been attempting to write a novel. I won’t go into details about the story itself — as I tend not to in order to avoid boring the disinterested.

The process of writing, however, is another matter, and one I find fascinating. I love reading journals now-famous authors have maintained and letters they have written to friends in their own creative circles; for modern media, I love things like the production videos Peter Jackson has been releasing about The Hobbit — not for the sneak peeks at upcoming material, but for the little insights into all the effort that goes into the creation of something. I’ve actually been maintaining my own journal regarding progress, although I doubt it will ever see the light of day. It’s mostly so I can appreciate how far I’ve come, like looking back on a trail through the woods and wondering why I never saw that waterfall from the start.

It’s a confusing process, writing — you have to get into another person’s headspace, sometimes uncomfortably so. My own tendency to try to see things from others’ perspective (even if I don’t sympathise with the view) helps a lot. I’ve written characters I don’t particularly like, and sometimes invading their headspace can put me off, but the end result is better for it.

I started this particular novel years ago; if I recall correctly, the initial idea formed during a discussion in the pub when I was living in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2006. I miss that pub — full of wonderfully geeky goths, a well-supplied jukebox, and bartenders who take their craft seriously. It’s where I met Charles Stross and he and his wife taught me how to drink whisky, although that’s another story for another time.

It was supposed to be a comedy, a fairly dark one, but still a comedy. That was before I learned that I’m terrible at writing comedy. I got a couple of chapters into it, discovered I had no idea where the story was going, and dropped it.

I do that with more frequency than I like, but it’s typically for the best: put a story concept on a shelf (or hard disk, rather) for an indeterminate time because I recognise that I don’t at that time have the skill to make it work. The good ideas never seem to fade, and they’ll recur every so often, until eventually I figure out how to build a plot around them.

That’s pretty much what happened with this one — it wasn’t until late 2012, maybe early 2013, when I was living in a miserable unheated house in Atlanta, Georgia, hashing out a completely different story concept in a spiral-bound mini-notepad whilst huddled under a blanket in front of an electric space-heater with my cat on my lap, that I suddenly figured out how to make this particular novel work. It was still full of holes, but I had more of a clue as to the route.

It became the first writing project I’ve ever planned out. They try to drill that stuff into you in school, but I always felt I worked better in stream-of-consciousness mode. Unfortunately, the end results were that I’d hit the wordcount limit at the halfway point and turn in a pared-down unfocused muddle that didn’t really have an ending so much as a lemming-leap off a cliff. The curse of having ADHD, planning doesn’t come so naturally, which is why we often get accused of never finishing things.

But this time I had it — major plot beats, an idea of timespan, and something approaching an understanding of pacing. On paper. Hjalti asked me once if I realised how batshit I sounded — in this modern age — when I said I had written thousands of words on paper. He’s right, but I tend to work better on the move — riding a bus or in a car, on a train or plane, sitting in a cafe or eating lunch somewhere other than home, and it wasn’t til I sorted out the tablet the company gave each of us for Christmas that I discovered the joy of not having to take a text home and re-type it into the PC, possibly  the most tedious part of the writing process.

Armed with this awesome new technology, I moved to Reykjavik, Iceland, and almost instantly got hung up on another plot hole. I was just considering other story concepts to work on when I discovered that one of them, with a bit of tweaking, fit perfectly into that gaping plot hole. I was overjoyed, brimming with excitement, at which point I remembered that not everyone wants to hear all about the fantasy world in your head.

Le sigh.

We’re 800 words in, here. What’s this got to do with National Novel-Writing Month?

I’m always torn. Every year, November rolls around, and I consider whether it defies the spirit of the game to use a pre-existing idea or a project which is already underway. I’ve never taken part, not once.

This year, however…

I’ve been feeling quite chuffed and happy with the novel I’m working on. Or I was, until I realised I had all of 16,000 words, slapped together like puzzle pieces which you know the locations of, but have yet to find the bits to connect them together. Sixteen k isn’t a lot, particularly for something that’s taken the better part of a year already.

So fuck it. The goal for NaNoWriMo is to hit 50,000 words by the end of the month (a little over 1,600 a day). And I’m currently out of a job, maintaining standard office hours for my hunt so that I don’t burn out. But I can write 2,000 words every evening. It’d be a pinch, and it would cut into not-so-valuable gaming time, but I can manage, I think. If nothing else, I’ll end up 50,000 words richer (although possibly badly in need of an editor!)

Better get moving, then. I’m already 8,000 words behind!

Soap Operas and Stereotypes [DA2]

I ran across yet another article about how people objected to the romantic interactions that occur in Dragon Age 2. The Straight Male Gamer complains there’s not enough content for his demographic; the Gay Male Gamer complains about the portrayal of a bisexual (yes, he’s bi, not gay; go play Dragon Age: Awakening, it’s mentioned in there) character.

To those who have complained, I say this, as a Bi Female Gamer: try playing the game with a female Hawke. Anders comes on to you no matter who your character is, and his response upon rejection is the same; Isabela comes on to your character regardless of their gender, as well. “Oh, but that’s the stereotype of a gay man! Perpetually horny and unable to accept rejection by a straight male!” Not every LGB person is an uncontrolled hornball. Most straight folk will look at you like you’ve come from another planet if you suggest that they don’t like sex as much as the next guy or girl.

And how do you feel when your crush rebuffs your honest advances? Embarrassed, ashamed, maybe a little upset? In a game where a party character makes the first move, a bit of a drop in their estimation of you upon rejection is wholly understandable.

It’s tough to write believable, human characters, particularly for a game, where the writer has minimal control over how the player chooses to interact with the NPCs. Despite my feelings that DA2 skimped on a lot and failed to meet its potential, one thing it does have is very good writing, and the characters are portrayed well. They have depth, fragility, strength, and their own motivations that don’t always coincide with Hawke’s. What a relief to not have deadweight shop-mannequins to drag around!

It genuinely amuses me to see the (Bigoted) Straight Male Gamer contingent complaining about a topic that the Female Gamer contingent recognises is SO tired that it’s not even worth mentioning anymore. How many women gamers have complained about Isabela’s design and portrayal? But now the tables are turned: instead of a woman gamer with a female character being approached by busty, lusty female characters designed to appeal to the Straight Male audience — I’m looking at you, Mass Effect — it’s the guy’s turn for their male characters to be hit on by a lusty male companion. Heaven forbid!

The gender ratio of gamers these days is an estimated 40/60 female to male split. I’ll assume trans gamers go on the record as the gender they identify as for surveys like that. Let’s assume that 10-20% of the male player-base falls somewhere on the pansexual spectrum. By marketing and designing solely to the majority (the Straight Male Gamer), companies can easily be neglecting 50-60% of their potential player-base; the women and LGB gamers will be passed over in favour of that 40-50% of Straight Male Gamers who have already been marketed to for decades.

Here’s a suggestion: let’s stop with the social divisions. In this day and age, if you want to market a game to as many people as possible, you can’t think in terms of Male or Female, Straight or Bi or Gay. This is one place where I feel DA2 really hit it spot-on: all your available romances are bisexual — that is, it doesn’t matter to them what gender Hawke is, they will respond to you the same. Nearly every character in the game responds to you the same way regardless of Hawke’s gender (with the exception of a few particularly drunken and/or horny individuals). And the portrayal of your player character is perfect: not overly feminine or masculine, you’re simply a person. It’s the ultimate freedom of choice which enables the player to make what they want of who their character is.

David Gaider was, I feel, in the right in his assertion they they couldn’t just write the game for only Straight Male Gamers.

Suppose we change things up a bit. Let’s say there’s ONLY ONE demographic to please: the sort of game-player of a given age who is interested in a certain topic. Dragon Age caters to adults who enjoy a solid hack’n’slash fantasy epic where they get to play the hero. When you’re trying to build that vital core of dedicated fans, are you going to care what their gender or sexual orientation are?

Stop the bias: create games for PEOPLE.

Cross-posted from SweetLittleBadGirl