Monday, December 31, 2007

Burning Books

I really have to give props to my friend Luke Crane. He designs roleplaying games - the kind you play with pencils, paper, and dice. Luke's most famous game is The Burning Wheel. He's also written Burning Empires, which has a lot in common with BW, but is it own game. I've written short fiction for both, but that's not why I like them.

The great thing about Luke's games is that they are constructed around a single ideal; produce an engaging and interesting story. Playing BW or BE, you wind up feeling really connected to your character, because in the process of character creation, you have given him/her a history, motivations, and even mannerisms. This is in contrast to the RPGs I grew up with; Dungeons & Dragons being the main one. In the RPGs I grew up with, all of the character stuff beyond pure statistics was all in your head. Burning Wheel not only provides all that information, it actually encourages you to play to it. Played well, BW can produce intense, emotional stories that grip you as a participant, and its a hell of a good time.

So, aside from pimping an awesome product, what does this have to do with writing the humungous?

Well, I was working on some character bios the other day. I like to have a lot of information and backstory - even if it doesn't all get used, it helps me form a picture of the character in my head, helps the dialogue flow, gives me a handle on how characters interact.

As I'm writing these bios, I realize that this is pretty much like making up a BW character. Of course, I'm not sticking to a rulebook or anthing like that, but the actual process is pretty similar. It inspired me to crack open the ol' BW books and have a look.

In terms of process, there's not all that much difference between making a character for a game and making one for a novel. It may be that I just have a heavy RPG background, so thats just my approach, but I find that it works really well. There's some differences to be sure. In a novel, the character's success and failure, skill and prowess is not determined by dice, but by my whim, so stats are pretty irrelevant. However, all the rest, the BITs, as Luke terms them (Beliefs, Instincts and Traits... he's very clever), are pretty much all you could ever want to know about a given character when paired up with a personal history.

I don't think BITs are exactly a revolutionary in the process of fiction writing - they're essentially a different way of expressing something that you learn in Creative Writing 101... the basics of building a character. However, I think they're easy to understand and reference, and a great way to organize the information about the character in question. So, in true writerly fashion, I'm stealing Luke's idea and using it for my own purposes. Sorry Luke. You really should have seen this one coming... ;)

In any case, it will make things easier when work begins on the obligatory RPG supplement.

I know, I know, getting ahead of myself. Back to writing.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Fuck You, Brain.

So, my 7 year old nephew is hugely into star wars. For his birthday, we got him this crazy huge popup book about star wars. It's the biggest, most intricate popup book I've ever seen. He loved it.

So anyway, we're looking through this monstrosity and we come to the page about the Rancor. Apparently, it hails from the planet Dathomir. This is, I'm sure an insignificant fact to pretty much everyone in the universe, George Lucas included. It matters to me because its the name of a major location in my book, and now I have to think of a new one.

It's really a minor annoyance, but I have to wonder how many of the other names I've come up with exist somewhere else. I really have no recollection of reading the word "Dathomir" anywhere, ever. It's entirely possible, probable even, that I came across it sometime, because I was a pretty big star wars fan back before the prequels came out. I read alot of star wars stuff, like RPG sourcebooks and shitty novels and stuff like that, so I probably did read it somewhere, file it away in the back of my mind, and promptly forget all about it. Thank you, subconscious.

Well, at least it happened in the glorious age of the word processor, where I can just "replace all" instead of going through a manuscript with a fine toothed comb. I'm also glad it happened at a point where I don't even have an actual manuscript to go through.

Probably he most annoying part of writing fantasy and science fiction is that you have to think of names for everything. Everything. You can base them around real places and things, or mythological ones, or just string syllables together till it sounds right. Unless of course, you're a linguist or something. But I'm not, and I dont have time to learn, really. It's tough to get a name that sounds even remotely cool, and even tougher to have a group of names that is internally consistent enough to sound like part of the same language. I guess that's why a lot of authors just add apostrophes to everything until they have names like Xy'tha'lo'b'ta.

So, I guess I'll think up a name, even if its just a placeholder. Maybe I can get away with just changing a couple of letters. Dathongir. Drathomir. I dunno. Anyway, back to the grind. And fuck George Lucas.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Novels are fucking huge. Even short ones. I really don't know how long mine is going to turn out to be, but I realize that no matter what, it helps to be able to keep track of where I am, and keep in mind where I'm going.

The first step of that for me is to create two documents; an outline, and a plot bible. Outlines are really helpful to me... I like to have everything laid out in front of me, so I can write with the big picture in mind. It also helps because if I get bored or blocked writing one section, I can jump ahead and write another. The one danger with that is messing up the internal continuity... I may wind up writing something in the earlier section that contradicts or invalidates something that comes after. In that case, it's a matter of reconciling the two, which isn't always easy. That's where the plot bible comes in.

I got the idea from hearing about a similar thing that exists on big, episodic TV shows, like Star Trek, or BSG (I think I first heard the term in reference to Babylon 5). The idea was that with so many episodes written by so many writers, there was a big chance that they would either violate the established logic and rules of the fictional universe, or so something with a character that was completely out of context and unprecidented. So the series creators write a big book of do's and don'ts, and the writers use it as a guide.

In that milieu, it's sort of a leash, but for me, its a valuable tool. Since my book is a fantasy book, I have to do a fair amount of worldbuilding... and even though I am focusing on this world right now, there are always other imagined worlds sneaking around my subconscious, popping up and bleeding together, cross pollinating, etc. This is all well and good at this stage, but as things progress, certain things need to be nailed down, and they need to stay that way, for the world to be consistent and believable. Same with the characters. They need biographies, they need history, or else they will just come across as talking heads. That all goes in the bible.

Some of the things I've put in the bible are:

- the source of magic, why it works and what's wrong when it doesn't.

- the creation of the world, and the saga of the creators and their descendants

- the major forces at work in the world - everything from gods to governments to crime syndicates. Not all of these will be focused on... some may not even be mentioned, but they are a resource nonetheless.

- the main character's history, and why he is the subject of the narrative

...and lots of other stuff, but that's pretty much the idea.

As far as outlining goes, it's pretty standard. I start by dividing the story into three acts, then divide those into three scenes to cover the major plot points, and add in interstitial scenes as I need or want them.

Well, that's my first step, and I'm itching to get started... here we go!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Torturing my Babies

I used to think that having a great idea for a story was pretty much the be-all, end-all necessity for producing good writing. It seems to be so on the surface - you have a great idea, you write it out and expand it, and bingo, you're Hemmingway.

However, over the years, I've come to realize that it's not really about having the idea. It's about torturing it. It's about attacking it and belittling it, and forcing it to defend itself. It seems a little weird to be talking about ideas as if they were people, and stranger still about waterboarding them, but for me, at least, its really true. It's said that great drama comes from conflict, and I have to say that my best stories have come out of when I am in conflict with my ideas.

It all starts with the notion that everything has already been done. All the stories I want to tell have already been told, by better and worse writers than I am. Even if I actually write the story, it will be nothing but a footnote... a wart on Tolkein's or Asimov's literary big toe. No! my idea cries... I'm different! I'm good! People will enjoy me!

No you're not, I say. You're the same old shit. You're not? OK, prove it.

And thats where we get going. A good idea can defend itself. Can continue to intrigue me even when I subject it to my most withering self-doubt and cynicism. If I get through that stage, I know I have something I want to work with. If the idea cant defend itself, then I know it would have been shit in the end anyway.

It happens again at various points throughout the process. "Magic can't work that way in this world. It's stupid."

"OK, then how about this way?"

and so on and so forth, until I come to a point where I have no more criticisms or barbs to throw at my precious little baby.

Sooner or later, the story is done, and then its time for other people to torture my baby... which is somehow infinitely harder to watch and accept. Still, its necessary, and it often helps just as much.

I'm not saying that I think of my ideas as seperate personas, or that I think of them as coming from some other place... just that taking the role of a merciless interrogator and judge has helped my writing immensely. Its hard - it means throwing out things that at first blush, seemed like genius... but in the end turned out to be crap.

I think that the world is indeed merciless. Publishers, editors, readers, have no reason whatsoever to cut me any magic pants. If I send a story out unprepared, its going to get savaged, torn apart. It all comes down to who is doing the tearing... them or me. It's easier to do it myself. Less embarrassing. Hurts less when a flaw is exposed. It's just easier. They're my babies, after all.

The Humungous! The Lord Humungous! The Warrior of the Wasteland! The Ayatollah of Rock and Rolla!

The humungous is my nemesis. The humungous crowds my mind, keeping me up at night with the sound of roaring engines and gunfire. Day and night he hounds me, circling my little camp, shouting at me. Come out. He says. Come out. No sleep, no rest until you come out and face me. The Humungous is my book. And he wants me to write him.

I created this blog as a journal of the creative process of writing my book. It's a fantasy novel, and while I've completed one draft, I have since thrown it out, because I feel like its utter shit. So, I'm starting over, and will do my best to document the process here. I'm probably not be going to post too many specifics about plot and setting, etc., this is more of a way to track progress and muse about things that come up during the process of writing. Enjoy!