Monday, December 29, 2014

A firm handshake to 2014 as I show it the door

Well, here we are again.  The end of the year.  As usual, I want to review what I did, and what I thought I would do.  This is usually a painful process.

If I were to simply tally up my goals (10), and compare to my successes in meeting those goals (2), I would look like a loser.  So I'm not going to do that.

Instead, I'm going to justify my lack of progress on a case-by-case basis, on the theory that this will make me look better.  So far, I have no evidence this theory is correct, but here goes:

Novel Writing
Planned: 1  Achieved: 0
In fairness, I'm about three-fourths of the way through Book Three of Queen of Cinders, and I had a good reason to stop writing (see Painting, below).  But with two days to go in the year, I can't see myself pumping out 100 pages or so.  Given that, this goal was a big fat FAIL.  Still, I plan on whacking out the remainder fairly quickly next year (see my Goals post early next year for further pro-procrastination rhetoric).

Planned:  1  Achieved:  0
Considering that the stories for the Gallery Hunters Anthology are all completed, this is a mysterious one.  I need to finish all of the stuff that is going to go around them however, such as maps, and illustrations.  That's all well and good, but time's ticking on these, as they were published fairly recently, and the iron is still hot.  I need to get cracking on getting the anthology out the door, and a lot of that is reconsidering the planned animated trailer.   But I'm stubborn about my projects, so this is unlikely to die (see below for more attempts at justifying my stubbornness).

Self Promotion
Planned: 1 Achieved: 0
This is the trailer I was referring to above.  My initial push to learn all the different software I'd need, and do concept work, was largely derailed, but I think I can do a better job of getting others on board, if I make a real go of it.  Next year, this will be a far larger priority for me.  Teamwork, that's the new key to getting this one done.  After all, there are specialists who do this stuff all the time, right?  Right!  Calling all specialists!

Agent Hunt
Achieved:  No
Literary Agents heard exactly nothing from me this year.  What can I say?  I hope to do better in 2015, but it's a lot of work, and was a lower priority.  I'm not too broken up about this one, but its an important step on a long road, so I should change my thinking, here.

Planned: 5 cover paintings  Achieved: 4
My Goals 2014 post said 6, but my planner only had 5 covers listed as goals, so I only fell one painting short.  Given my switch to new software (and my current reconsideration of that switch), this wasn't bad output.  I need to up my game, here, though, in 2015, and not allow myself to backslide.

The big story for 2014, though, was how few hours I actually put toward my goals.  Considering how hectic my year turned out to be, I shouldn't surprise me that I only put in about five hundred hours toward my plans.  A lot by some standards, given that this is all in addition to taking care pf the kiddoes and related things, but still, only about half of what I'd planned.

So, next year I'm going to be looking hard at where I'm spending my time when not working toward my goals, and not just when I am working toward them.  What the heck am I doing?  How to do this is a question I'm thinking about.  I don't want to turn into a neurotic freak, after all.  Unless it would make me more productive, in which case, bring on the neuroses!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Emergent Narratives: Why I Wait So Long To Edit, -or- My Toast Looks Like Jesus

Years ago, Matt, a friend of mine, and I would play lots of games, and in them we'd have adventures far beyond what was actually present in the rules. One game that stands out in my memory was The Arkham Horror, a game based on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. In this game, the players became investigators in the small fictional town of Arkham, which was the focus for an transdimensional invasion by forces beyond human comprehension.

Still, being intrepid truth-seekers, we'd load up on shotguns and amulets and kick multi-dimensional ass across Arkham and various alternate realities. Matt and I would weave all sorts of imaginary elements into the gameplay, occasionally making less-than-ideal play decisions because we were more interested in narrative coherence.

Sooner or later, we'd reach a sort of nexus, and either forge on to victory, or enter a state of play we came to call Escape From Arkham. The wheels had truly come off, and, battered and half-crazed with what we'd seen, our characters would attempt to reach the train station and take the last train out as reality crumbled behind them.

The lesson, for me, was that it doesn't take very much for a story to emerge. The game was not structured in any narrative way. The phases of the tale were strictly in our heads, including the moment when we looked around, shrugged our imaginary shoulders, and grabbed our train tickets.

For me, this happens for almost every game I play. My daughter also sees things this way. When we play board games, she's always narrating the details of the story. She does this is more situation-driven games (like Survive!), but also for abstracts like checkers and chess. The elements of story are all there: character (the pieces), setting (the board), and conflict. Given these simple ingredients, story spontaneously arises.

As writers, we need to keep in mind how little a story actually takes to exist. Story, and narrative, are hardwired into us like all other pattern-finding capabilities of the brain. Perhaps the greatest impact is created by a story that holds back, allowing the readers to fill in the missing pieces. The readers become invested, literally stuck into the story, their mind a fundamental component of the tale.

But this cuts both ways, as writers are also enmeshed in the pattern, and can imagine they see things that simply are not present in the writing. That's why I wait a year to reread my novel manuscripts. Any sooner, and I see what I saw when I wrote the book, not what is there on the page. I want to see what a new reader sees, not simply review what I remember. Does this slow my output? Not really, since I just write more during this time. But even if it did, it's the only way I know of to escape the fabric of the narrative, and see it as cloth.

Because stories don't have an escape hatch, no matter how damaged their reality becomes.  Writers need to grab their amulets and get off that train.  But not too soon.  Never too soon.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Five Stars released!

A few weeks ago, now, the Five Stars anthology was released by Rampant Loon Press.  This is a collection of, yes, five stories that the editorial powers-that-be thought summed up the entire mission statement of Stupefying Stories, and thus need to be highlighted.

Oh, and looky here!  Is that First Impressions leading the charge to glory?

Yes.  Yes it is.  Woot!

Oh, and that's a handsome cover, too.  Classy, understated, and... my god, is that a loon?

Yes.  Yes it is.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Sports, games, and simulation: Quiddich Professional League enters Alpha testing

I'm still alpha-testing my new boardgame, Quiddich: Professional League, which is part of my game series based on the writings of J.K. Rowling.  Since this is part of a series, I felt it needed to keep at a complexity level close to the others.  This, as it turned out, was a naive hope.  Quiddich is just too nuanced, and needed more rules than I usually like to model it.

In the Harry Potter series, Quiddich is described in a number of places as being "very complex".  Given the rules, however, it seems, while multi-faceted, to be simply layers of simplicity stacked atop each other.  Given my love of designing abstract strategy games, this should have alerted me to the trouble ahead.

Known as emergent complexity, this is the idea that very complex results are often the result of a few simple rules systems interacting with each other.  Complex and numerous rules, on the other hand, usually have the habit of constraining complexity.  Using more and more rules to control the situation is the sign of weak design, in an abstract strategy game.  Go is the gold standard for simple rules and emergent complexity.

Rowling's statement about the complexity of Quiddich proves true.

For a game like this, basically a simulation of a physical sport, I needed to model the movements and actions of fourteen players in four different roles, as well as the attributes and actions of four different balls.  All moving in three dimensions, all at the same time.  Each turn.

Keep it simple, I told myself, over and over.  For instance, I wanted to keep it pure strategy by not using dice for action resolution.  But that left me with the problem of players selecting from numerous possible actions by calculating the success of each and choosing only successful options.  Talk about paralysis!  The game threatened to get bogged down before I ever tested it.  The solution:  ignorance.

Not knowing a predetermined outcome is as good as randomness, so I hid a lot of the information from the opponent on cubes.  You can see your information, but the other team cannot.  Now there was no way to know if you'd succeed or not until you declared your action.  You'd have to correctly predict your opponent's intentions, a gauge how much they wanted something to happen.

The 3D nature of flying players and balls I abstracted away, and I kept the field very few spaces, to force players into tight proximity.  But the complexity of modelling a sport dogged me.  Every element was modeled with the fewest rules I could manage and still perform its function.

Throwing a ball is a good example.  There are two main types of throw in the game of Quiddich: throws form one player to another (a Pass), and throws through the golden hoops that score your team ten points (a Shot on Goal).  It seems nit-picky, but it's essential to allow blocking and interceptions, as well as defending the rings by the Keeper.  Oh, and then there are penalty shots.  How do you manage strategy when there is only one shooter and one defender?  Both players automatically have highest priority, so how can it be made strategic?

Taken together, this network of simple parts transforms into something else entirely.  And that says nothing of the technical task of writing the rules to make this comprehensible to others.  As prose, the rules are about fifteen pages long.  Gak!  I'm hoping when I do a full-art version, they'll boil down a lot.

Modeling a sport has really brought home how complex the rules of the average sport are.  The reason sports are, from a game-designer's point of view, inelegant, is that there are just so many rules.  But dealing with the real world in real time means you have to institute all sorts of controls.  Even in the wizarding world, the game was sometimes hard to watch and understand without magical assistance, and I can only imagine how a Referee could do their job.

I wanted to allow basically every interaction that was shown in the book's Quiddich matches, and I believe I have done a good job of it, now that I've been alpha-testing for a week or so.  The four types of players are all very useful, and each of the four balls in the game works completely differently.  But, now that I have a working model of Quiddich, the true complexity of the shifting tactics has really come home for me.  I wonder if J.K. Rowling realized how well her imaginary sport actually plays out, because, if my game is any sort of good simulation, the sport of Quiddich is a hugely deep, and very impressive piece of game design.  I wonder what other games she might have designed, and just doesn't talk about much.

 But I can't wait to start beta-testing, as offloading half the work onto another brain would be such a relief!

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Downward Spiral

There comes a point in every story where the end begins.  The threads have all been woven or cut, and those remaining must be tied off.  For completed work, this is the final buildup toward the climax.  For short stories, this is the end of the initial setup.  Short stories begin poised to end.

I call this moment of no return the Downward Spiral.

There's simply no turning back.  And if you have all your ducks in a row, that's just fine.  You can ride the wave to the end.  But sometimes, maybe often times, the tug of the downward spiral brings a twinge of apprehension.  The rapidly approaching future is still unclear.  Sometimes just hazy, and sometimes fully obscured, a fog of half-formed approaches to getting what you need done, or, worse yet, not being certain what needs to be done at all.

I used to revel in this uncertainty, and perhaps I still do.  I love having to think on my feet, like the characters themselves.  But with some projects, this approach simply won't work.  Whether because you've jumped your outline or never had one, the vortex of the downward spiral might make you want to pause, and get your thoughts in order before you go on.  The larger the project, the more likely this sort of late-stage planning is necessary.

My current trilogy, Queen of Cinders, is a perfect example of this.

Book One was a textbook outlined project, that I followed relatively unchanged from beginning to end.  Book Two, however, derailed the outline I had prepared for it.  My expanded understanding of the characters, and the pacing that had developed, demanded events happen first at different times, and then in different ways, than I'd foreseen.  The ending was far more satisfactory than I'd pre-imagined it.

With this in mind, I began Book Three with an entirely different approach.  Rather than outline, I'd plan just a few scenes ahead.  This trilogy has many points of view, and I used a simple spreadsheet to give each character a column.  If I thought of things that needed to happen further into the future, I'd simply write it in a cell far down their column.  Sometimes I'd switch which character presented an event, based on whose take on the events I wanted to highlight.

All three of these books are in two parts each.  Now, part one of book three is coming rapidly to a close, and will be finished in a few days, leaving the final half of the final book.  Everything I want to do has to happen in an ever-shrinking future.  The ability to forward-cast interesting hooks, or events I wanted to include, is coming to a close.  A more structured outline suddenly needs to return.  Full circle?  Maybe.

This last book is going to be about four hundred pages, so I've got only two hundred pages to work with.  And that feeling of visiting a place for the last time will be growing as I write, as it sometimes does for me during the downward spiral.  Of course, as the author, I can do more drafts, and thus revisit places, but editing is different than creation.  Barring the sort of disastrous mishap that would require major rewriting, editing is a far cry from forming the initial draft.

So the downward spiral is a good thing, signalling that I'm nearly done in the process of completing a new manuscript.  The story is almost finished, rough edges and all.  But there's pressure there, to do what needs to be done in the story, and make it look easy while it happens.  It's a special time that makes many authors feel like slow-motion athletes, swimming an ever-tightening route, until the tale is told.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Identity Confusion

Today we've got guest musings from Dean C. Rich, the maestro of The Write Time blog.  Besides being the man who scored the most sought-after blog name, he also the author of Seven Silver Swords, a project he has been polishing to a mirror finish for some time now (nudge, nudge...).  Look upon his works, ye mighty, and feel just a wee bit inspired. 

Characters. Basic item for any story. Fundamental. There are many memorable characters throughout literature. 

Creating a character for a story isn’t always easy. Movies have all sorts of characters, just look at the closing credits: 1st cop. Lady with a purse. Guy with beard. 

Someone to take up space on film. Not hard. 

However, words on paper are precious. Crafting a character may seem easy on the surface. The author takes time to learn about what the character likes, dislikes, looks like, etc. Once the character is set loose in the story, they take on a life of their own. Very seldom does the character do what the author intends.

To create a character the author puts a little bit of themselves into the character. One must write about what one knows. 

To a point.

Conflict is the point of any story. Characters have conflicts. I know when I’ve written things I’ve had to do research, but my characters have done things I would never do. 

There are so many topics to write on, so many stories, and so many different conflicts. I’ve read some stories about serial killers. I know the writer isn’t a serial killer, but the character is. What the characters do in the story isn’t a part of the writer. Sometimes writers have to do difficult things to make the story work.

I know I’ve several characters I identify with, I’d like to be like that character. My character reflects what I want to be. Then there are the darker characters with flaws and issues that I have worked hard not to have. Yet I must reflect those items in the story.

One thing that works for my writing is to read my words aloud. Read the dialogue. Action; where I can – act it out. It becomes real. So when the characters are contrary to my personal character: Identity Confusion.

Like an actor who plays the dark parts, contrary to themselves, decompression is needed to return to their balance. 

When have you experienced Identity Confusion? How did you deal with it? Were you successful?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Recurring Themes

To get 2014 started in style, we have a guest post by the mighty Joyce Alton, the creator and overlord of the Yesternight's Voyage blog.  Go there, and marvel!

Aaron asked a couple of simple but poignant questions:
     Looking at your work as a whole, do you see any recurring themes or imagery?
     What does that suggest to you about yourself?

So I pulled up my story idea list, the finished, the half-completed, and the ones waiting to be done, approximately 150 altogether. What I think I liked best about this topic was the self-analysis it involved, because my best ideas have come from my subconscious while I sleep. And I wondered what my recurring themes were.  I had three pop out at me:

1 – Travel and how settings affect people. Common places and settings that really stretched my imagination. I’ve had an abiding love for geography and while I may not have traveled the world, I’ve sent other people places and done the research. I find cultures and languages fascinating. One thing that relaxes me and helps me brainstorm is to draw a map. I’m always considering how my setting will play into the plot or even the overall mood of what I’m writing.

Along with natural setting, architecture and engineering fascinate and inspire me. It’s easy for me to brainstorm places and I never have anyone ask me to work more on this aspect of my writing. Usually, I have to cull description. What does this say about me? Part of me wishes I could travel. I wish I had the time to learn several languages, learn first-hand about other cultures. I love being transported when I read a story and I want to do the same thing for others when I write.

2 – Overcoming personal handicaps, particularly ones characters put on themselves: inhibitions, moral or ethical crossroads, fears, grudges, perception, the ability to choose, action vs. inaction. I love a good internal conflict. I also believe that oftenest in life our enemy is ourselves. Reaching the point of recognizing when we have an issue, choosing to ignore it or change it, the consequences, the tests and mistakes, and hopefully the point of overcoming have contributed to every story I’ve written.

I tend to be a self-doubter, a perfectionist. I’m constantly analyzing myself, my motives, and stressing over my weaknesses. I admire people who overcome, whether it’s kicking a bad habit, someone who chooses the harder road because it’s the right way to go, or the person who develops restraint despite its unpopularity and the extra persecution others think they can then heap on that person. I think I have at least one person who’s good at restraint in each of my stories.

3 – This last one is the biggest recurring theme and I’m dividing it into three parts:

Human relationships:
a) Family. Family’s a big deal to me and the people I’m related to had the most powerful impact on my life. Whether those influences were positive or negative, they are the ones I remember best, the ones which helped to shape me as a person. Recognizing that, there is a theme of family in my stories. Whether it’s a large family dealing with their largeness, a broken family, someone finding or creating a new family, or someone running away from family—every story has this element in it.

b) The side kick. The person without superpowers or position. I’ve written many stories where my point of view character or even protagonist is in actuality the side kick to someone else. These characters are strengtheners; the ones who help the more powerful characters achieve their goals. In real life we tout the
superstars, the famous, the person who took an idea and made it work, the people who are most obvious. We usually overlook the many other people who made that fame, that idea, that opportunity happen or work out. We don’t read their stories, we don’t know their names, we don’t know of their inner struggles. I’m fascinated by these not so obvious heroes and heroines and I write about them.

c) Another must are the good quirky relationships involving someone who isn’t really classified as a people person. Call it an Anti-Popular Person Successful Relationship, I suppose. This one gets a bit more personal and I have the most experience with. They say to write what you know, and I know about these kinds of relationships. You know, the person you’ve never spoken to but partially admire, partially are afraid of or think you’ll loathe? The person who isn’t necessarily a loner, but they aren’t always the center of attention. The person with their own sense of humor and who looks at life differently than most people. It’s easier to go on avoiding that person or shunning them. But here’s the secret, if you connect with someone like that, you really connect. They aren’t here-and-then-gone-again friends. And they draw you into their ideas, their perspective, their world.

So thank you, Aaron, for this opportunity to analyze my writing and myself into the bargain. I definitely learned a few new things. I’d love to read about what other writers discover when they ask themselves the same questions. What are your recurring themes and what do they say about you?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Welcome, toddler 2014!

Wow, baby new year is already potty-trained, and I'm still reeling from New Year's Eve celebrations.  Well, this year is going to be a mixed bag of writing, editing, and publishing.  I've re-jiggered my goals for this year to be more in line with the amount of time I actually spend doing stuff in a year.  Somehow, I only work on my own stuff about 300 hours a year, which is only half the time I technically have.  But rest has to come from somewhere, so I'm not going to beat myself up about it.

That said, here's a goal list for this year:

1 novel completed
This will be Queen of Cinders, Volume Three, and finish off the trilogy.

The Gallery Hunters, Volume III
This anthology will compile the stories of Gloren and Yr Neh published by Black Gate Magazine, as well as a number of new tales.  It will serve as a test-bed for self-publishing.  Airbags and sick bags in stock?

I'm working on a small animated short to go along with The Gallery Hunters release.  Yes, I love animation and cinematography.  And yes, it does take a long tine.

Agent Hunt
I can't give up the traditional route, now that things have changed so much since my last efforts at representation.  Since I used to do much the same thing in a different industry, I understand that getting an agent is far from the goal, but merely a first step.  that will help with the rejections involved with the process.  I've got enough work in the pipe to keep any success or failure of any one of them from being a game-ender.

6 Covers
I need to get cracking on marketing my art.  This is something I've avoided long enough.  But marketing isn't my thing, so I'm going to be groping, here.  But I've got a few projects already under way, so we'll see how this goes.

And that's it, mostly.  Pretty modest.  And modest is my middle name.