Posts Tagged ‘writing’

My God, it’s full of stories

More good news. The contract has now been signed for The Sugar House and Other Stories, a collection of my short stories about Sasha Witchblood. Everyone calls Baba Yaga “grandmother,” but for Sasha, that’s actually the case. She travels through European forests that never were, raising hell in one dark fairy tale and then another.1 The stories are heavily inspired by German and Russian folklore, with more than a little Robert E. Howard and Roy Thomas in the mix.

I’ll hype the collection a bit more in the future. Today, I just wanted to share the news that it’s been contracted and that the story is with the editor. The publisher will be Flames Rising Press.

Flames Rising also recently published Slices of Fate, a collection of fiction by my good friend Eddy Webb. I haven’t read the entire collection yet, but the pieces I have read are gems. Keep an eye out for more of Eddy’s work in the Far West anthology, coming next year from Adamant.

  1. Is there really any point in saying “dark” fairy tale? Does anyone write any other kind these days?

The Danger Net

Acrobats, they get safety nets. So that, in the event that they can’t do the thing that they do, acrobatics, they don’t fall to a painful death.

Writers, we have the opposite. We have danger nets. In the event that we can’t do the thing that we do, writing, we’ve got a nice tight mesh of rusty nails and exasperated editors to fall on.

You’re a professional acrobat, you want that safety net, but sometimes you’ve got to work without it. To impress people, mostly. I’m a commercial writer. I want that danger net, because if the danger net’s there then I know I will not fail. The nails, the editor, the lack of a paycheck. They’re waiting for me. They’re comforting.

Scary to take that jump without a net.

Canon, Setting, and Transmedia

Canon, it’s been observed, is what people argue is true about stories that aren’t. Continuity, similarly, is what’s supposedly consistent in worlds that aren’t.

Metaplot is what you call either one when you want to start a fight.

I’m faintly offended by the idea of canon in roleplaying games. RPGs are by their nature varying and modular. Trying to lock them down to a consistent set of facts is disrespectful to players and painful for everybody.

I’ve been told that a consistent body of facts is essential to establishing a property across multiple media. That if you don’t keep on top of it, and you don’t start early, you lose what’s identifiable about your setting.

That’s only true, I think, if you’re telling a single story across multiple media. And when you’re selling a setting, rather than one story, I’ve thought for some time that it makes sense to reinvent that setting for each medium.

For example, if I’m writing a Green Lantern novel, I have opportunities and limitations that just aren’t present in the Green Lantern comic. I can develop the world in ways that just don’t make sense in comics — complicated aliens, the psychology of power ring use, and so on. And those ideas would often be clumsy and overly detailed if they were ported back to the comics.

Still, as we move towards transmedia-native properties, I’m changing my mind again. Transmedia narrative involves more inherent cross-promotion than “simple” adaptation. Where adaptation is about following a core story or core concept across media, transmedia’s in large part about following the details. It matters that a tweet reflects a detail on a physical asset.

Why am I thinking about transmedia storytelling, anyway? Well, because it’s the way my jobs have been going for several years. When we started the story initiative for EVE, we wanted people to follow information from the chronicles to the news feeds to in-client artifacts. Rather than telling versions of the core story of EVE1 in each medium, we wanted to build one narrative across four or five media.

There were high points and low points to that process. The launch event for The Empyrean Age expansion and novel was extremely effective, despite a few hiccups. We later brought the same techniques together to do an immersive event around Fanfest 2008, using news articles in real time to lead up to a trailer showing a battle between the Amarr and the Gallente. That story had visible effects in-game2, and was reflected in online short stories around the same time. It also quietly resolved a plot thread that we’d left dangling for years.

We were telling a relatively small and simple story, but it worked. People at Fanfest were checking for updates during the show. RP arguments broke out on the forums.

Part of why it worked is that the EVE setting is transmedia native. From the very beginning, EVE stories have been told through pictures of the week, short stories, live events, news feeds, and a host of other channels. In the last few years, we’ve added novels. Since the EVE setting evolved in multiple media, it has strengths rooted in each one.

That’s a happy place to be. Although coordinating multiple channels is a huge effort, it’s paid off. Our consistent body of facts3 has been the backbone for a lot of the cool stories we’ve told.

How should settings be customized to individual media? Does live content have a lasting impact on your perception of a setting? Why do you like complex continuities, and why do you hate them?

  1. Pirates vs. Truckers vs. Day Traders
  2. A starship graveyard. Everyone loves Wolf 359.
  3.  Admittedly, it hasn’t always been consistent.

Your quest is not your story

Good morning, MMO designers. Nice day, isn’t it? Well, I hope it is where you are. I’m in Atlanta, where we have “southern charm,” a concept best summed up as “the curse the swamp-witch put on us for choosing to build here.” Or, perhaps, these summers are the ghosts of Sherman’s fires.

Anyhow, it’s great to have you all here and I’d like to talk to you about something important, vital, beautiful even.

The story your player experiences when they play your game.

I realize you’ve got an opening cutscene, and a heavily-scripted tutorial sequence that’s almost like a real game. But in a couple of minutes, you’re going to let those players out into your world1 and they’re going to be experiencing a very different story.

Ah, but you’ve got quests to handle that, right? And voice acting, and instances, and…

…no. No, I’m afraid that’s not going to be the story the player experiences.2 From here on in, they’re experiencing their own story, and it’s going to flit in and out of contact with the ones you’ve prepared.

A minimal quest narrative might go like this:

  1. “Those hobos are creating a nuisance outside of city hall. Kill 10 of them and bring me their bindles.”
  2. “You did a good job killing those hobos, son. But now the hobo king is angry, and you must travel to his instance in the Poor District to defeat him.”
  3. “Those hobos won’t be much trouble without their king. But my friend over in Frostysmooth is having trouble with veterans demanding their benefits. Can you head over and help him?”

However, the typical player won’t experience that narrative directly. He’ll come into the zone to help a guildie get his bindles, get plot point #1, run into a Drunken Fratass spawn and spend a while grinding Alpha Betas, gain a level, alt-tab away to check the message boards, go to the auction house for a better Beat Stick, go farm the hobos, hang out in local chat for a while looking for a group to take down the king for #2.

In most single player games, an individual questI’ve said before.

What I didn’t treat back then is that players don’t experience those units in order. They zigzag through content chunks and through other gameplay systems (trading, open PvE, PvP, etc).

The ramifications for content writing are significant. Each segment of a quest must be self-contained not only on as an objective, but also as a narrative. The player must be able to come back to part 2 days or weeks after completing part 1. Even within parts, they need to be able to quickly get back up to speed on mechanical expectations and narrative context.

The impact on narrative design is even wider. The game’s story cannot be carried entirely by elements that players will walk away from and will only probably come back to. The real story they experience is a product of many systems and many content chunks.

That means that not only does your content have to be able to get players in and out and up to speed effectively, but your other gameplay systems have to carry your game’s story.

If players have to spend hours in the auction house, then a big part of your game’s story is the auction house. That means the auction system should have some narrative gloss, and that other narrative elements should acknowledge and leverage it.

Some elements of EVE are really good at this. The centrality of the player market, for example, is tied in to the setting fiction. If I remember right, we actually put the market window in a storyline trailer.

There’s a lot of room to do better, though. And the first step is to admit that traditional narrative structures don’t quite fit the MMO space. The second is to find narrative structures that do.

I’ll be looking at that soon. But first, we’re going to have to consider what “multiplayer” really means.

Next: Solo doesn’t mean single player

  1. Which, by the way, is now theirs.
  2. And neither is that business with gods and the 15,000 years and the EPIC WAR.
  3. Or mission objective, or however you break it down.

Space Magic

SFX has Terry Pratchett commenting on Doctor Who.

Pratchett says he wishes he could hate the show, because it’s not science fiction and it discards Chekhov’s rifle. Unsurprising, really: the Doctor doesn’t much like guns.

Pratchett elevates said rifle to a Law of Narrative, which I’m not sure it really is. For all his objection to deus ex machina, it’s a founding technique of literature, and hardly unusual. And anyone who follows the man behind Who, Steve Moffat, knows that he’s an absolute master of that supposed law. Coupling‘s core mechanics were desire, shame, and Chekhov’s rifle.

His predecessor, Russell T. Davies, is also pretty able to plant props in advance.

So on Doctor Who, why don’t they?

Because it’s beside the point, I think. Modern Doctor Who is entirely about the characters and the spectacle and how the characters react to the spectacle. When I sit down to watch the show, I’m not looking to find out how Amy Pond came to be attached to cracks in the universe. I’m watching for that scene where she chases the Doctor around her bedroom.

I’m not there to find out what rules the Doctor will manipulate to stop the plague of gas mask zombies… I’m there to see his reaction when, for just one episode, everyone lives.

The narrative structure of Doctor Who is all about those reactions and interactions along the way. It’s kind of like going on an actual trip, where the point isn’t whether or not you mentioned sunscreen to Mom but how she reacts when you find yourself in Egypt without it.

By the way, this is one reason I basically don’t write Doctor Who fanfic. As a writer, my brain always wants to go back in time and set everything up just right for the events to come. I have to keep myself from building too many rules into my worlds, because I already have a terrible tendency to put things into little quantifiable boxes.1

I’m grateful, honestly, that somebody’s making TV that’s not about that.

_____

  1. I don’t know if roleplaying has helped or hurt in this regard. Ron Edwards would probably say it’s White Wolf baggage, and he might be right. On the other hand, roleplaying’s taught me a lot about screwing around with my plans retroactively.

How crime novelists don’t get women

All Tomorrow's Bodies

"All Tomorrow's Bodies," EVE Online illustration

(This post is not about my personal problems. At least, not anymore than normal.)

What I write for work is basically crime fiction. If you look at the places I’ve been given free reign with the Vampire property, you’ll see that my influences are movies like Go, Brick, and The Godfather.

At one point early in my career, Will Hindmarch told me to “Be Fucking Mamet.” Which I interpreted as “American Buffalo.”1 When I developed the EVE: EXILED storytelling game, my characters were criminals whose trust, and lack thereof, was a key mechanical force in the game.2

Daeva: Kiss of the Succubus

Daeva: Kiss of the Succubus

All of that’s by way of saying that for, basically, a supernatural romance author, I have a long background with crime. I also have a long background with writing about women. You can’t write a book called Kiss of the Succubus and not.

Which was why I was interested in seeing best-selling thriller writer Christopher Rice write “Why Crime Novelists Don’t Get Women.”

Really, it’s more of a “how crime novelists don’t get women.” Rice outlines four archetypes he’s really tired of. I thought I’d share my own impressions of them.

The Cop’s Wife Who Just Doesn’t Get It

You know, the ultimate cop’s wife is Mrs. Columbo. She’s clearly a real presence in his mind, but you never see her.3 If you didn’t actually watch any Columbo movies, you’d get the impression that she represents the silent female.

But she doesn’t. Mrs. Columbo is a real character… a meta-character, actually, because she’s a character Columbo tells stories about. The relationship between Columbo and Mrs. Columbo is an important part of the narrative even though we only see one side of it, via an unreliable narrator.

I like to imagine, by the way, that if the Mrs. Columbo franchise had taken off, we’d have seen dueling narratives between Kate, talking about “Mr. Columbo,” and her husband, and, as viewers, had to guess where the truth lay between them.

The Babe Assassin

Elektra: Assassin

Yes, White Wolf has like three of her

By all rights, I should love this character. Put simple, I love it when pretty girls do violence. It’s because of trauma in my youth. The problem with the babe assassin4 is that she’s generally written as if she’s some sort of exotic animal the writer only read about in a 19th century children’s book.

She has no weight, no texture, no smell. Her clothing says nothing about her. If she’s hurt physically, it’s in a way few of us can relate to, like a gunshot wound. As Rice points out, she usually has epic sexual trauma in her past, but it’s rarely relayed convincingly.

Violence is, I believe, traumatic. I’ve been the victim of it and it’s no fun at all. Inflicting it is something I frequently have to write about and so have researched in some detail. The problem with the babe assassin is that violence doesn’t affect her. She doesn’t have the right traumas or the right callouses.

Let’s be clear, here, I’m not talking about realism, exactly, I’m talking about continuity. There’s no way that a person puts a man’s hand in a garbage disposal, eats dinner at a five-star restaurant two hours later, and doesn’t have some kind of internal life worth writing about going on.

The babe assassin has the same problem with her actions and her breasts: they both lack gravity.

The Ice Queen Bureaucrat

Servalan, with androids

Oh, Servalan. You warped me.

Bureaucrats in crime stories are horribly mistreated. They’re either hard-assed yet compassionate, which is at least a personality, or they’re Vulcans. Rice is talking about the Vulcan type. Pressed shirts, pencil skirts, need every “i” dotted and every “t” crossed. Usually, about as close as they get to a personality is that they have “something to prove,” usually that they can do that something “as well as any man.”

Say what you will about the babe assassin, but she rarely quotes “Annie Get Your Gun.” The problem with the ice queen bureaucrat is that it’s usually impossible to imagine how she does her job as well as any man, because she lacks any of the abilities of the people under her command and any of the personal charm or team spirit you actually need to advance as a bureaucrat.

She should at least be plausible as an example of The Peter Principle, but she isn’t.

The best example of a positive spin on this character is Jacqueline Pearce’s Servalan from Blake’s 7, and she’s from entirely the wrong genre. Servalan’s icy and bureaucratic, yes, but you can see how it works for her as a management style. She actually does pretty well managing Travis and the other egos under her command, while maintaining political relationships appropriate to her position.

The Lesbian Cop

Maggie Sawyer

Maggie Sawyer

Well… uh… Maggie Sawyer. That’s all I really got here. Sawyer is a recurring character in the Superman comics. John Byrne may be John Byrne crazy, but it’s interesting that he created two of the least offensive homosexual characters in comics. While the Batman franchise has half a dozen interesting police characters, Superman‘s only got one and a half.

None of my favorite books have lady cops who are overtly lesbian in the way that gentleman cops are overtly straight. Which is part of Rice’s point, I think, but it also leaves me with relatively little to talk about.

The most notable thing I remember about lesbians from a crime novel is that ones in The Black Dahlia are kinda like vampires.5

Others

Pauley Perrette as Abbey from NCIS

The shy hyper-specialist, pictured here for Chuck Wendig

Rice misses a few of my “favorites,” though I’m sure that’s more his word limit kicking in than a lack of insight. A few more to avoid or carefully reconsider:

Dashiell Hammet made the secretary kind of mandatory, to the point that it’s become a multi-gendered archetype. At the risk of short-changing a rich character, Archie Goodwin is Nero Wolfe’s secretary, and perhaps with all the slash that implies.

The kind prostitute is related to the hooker with a heart of gold, the main difference being that she probably doesn’t want to sleep with the lead. (Possible she will, anyway.) She’ll listen to your troubles, but she’s got her own problems here on the streets. She acts mysteriously like the social worker, another archetype. Yeah, she’ll call you if she hears anything. (Which she will.)

The shy hyper-specialist would rather be down in the lab than out on a date, which is good, because she’s the best at what she does and what she does usually involves fragments of human tissue or psyche that the rest of us would rather see intact. Nonetheless, her attractiveness will be noted in passing.

Of all of these, she’s the most likely to get her own series of books.

_____

  1. Which, if you notice, is also “The Pardoner’s Tale” and Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
  2. Hjalti Danielsson, who was the project’s muse, wrote a very good piece based on the EVE RPG before its cancellation.
  3. Except in her own movie, the only evidence that Columbo isn’t entirely making her up.
  4. Or her roleplaying sister, the Lesbian Stripper Ninja.
  5. The movie makes this more overt, and for all its flaws, actually has a lot to offer vampire storytelling.

Dudes of Legend: How to Be Fucking Awesome

I tread fairly light on my day job here. There are a lot of reasons… mostly, I don’t want to focus as much on the business side of gaming here. I want to talk theory1 and love and mad ideas.

Dudes of Legend changes that. Because this is a product that’s entirely made out of our love and mad ideas. Or possibly our love and bad ideas.

Dudes of Legend: How to be Fucking Awesome

Dudes of Legend: How to be Fucking Awesome

Back when White Wolf did our Monday Meetings2, we had this running joke. See, we had a product that was really hard to name, and Mike Chaney suggested we call it “Dudes of Legend.” Afterwards, he suggested that name for every untitled book.

When we were talking about what to do for April Fools, somebody cracked the joke again. And then somebody said “Mike Chaney’s World of Darkness.” And that brought back reminiscing about Mike’s previous joke product, Street Fighter: Contenders, and how derangedly awesome that was.3

And we were all like, “yeah, people4 totally played the World of Darkness like that, too. Why the hell don’t we ever do anything for them?”

Eddy’s a voice of both sanity and silliness, so he put his foot down. He was all “Okay, I’ll do your book of robots, strippers, and bears, but I’m going to do it proper. With a real author, and, like, real rules.”

Eddy had to present it to management. Even with our management 5, that must have been awkward.6

So Eddy took the project to Chuck “Beardmonger” Wendig, who’s pretty much the definitive World of Darkness writer. And his conditions were stuff like “it has to reference Parker Lewis” and “you guys are comping the pterodactyls.” But we could tell he was digging it.

And then this… thing… showed up. This lunatic rant of a sourcebook that’s everything we always wanted to say but never had the words. Like a Lady Gaga video of a World of Darkness supplement. Like, a supplement you could probably stat every Lady Gaga video with. Not to mention Ziggy Stardust. And Dar the Beastmaster. And then they could meet your vampires and play house.

My involvement in this one was very light, but it’s perhaps the biggest “fuck yeah” of my tenure at White Wolf. It says something about all of us who picked up this dark little game in the nineties and stared deep into our own souls and then rocked the hell out.

If you want to know who the current generation of people working the World of Darkness are, there is no finer $0.697 you can spend.

____

  1. Oh, Jesus, did I say theory? Are you going to abandon me now?
  2. We replaced them with daily “standups,” if our business processes really interest you. In which case, SCRUM! SCRUM FOR THE SCRUM GOD!
  3. Shut up. It was.
  4. Us
  5. Aaron “The Voss Man” Voss and Rich “Admiral Kirk” Thomas
  6. Or maybe they were just glad we weren’t going to send back perfectly good art with notes that said “not enough wang” like last year.
  7. 88 Icelandic Krona

Kiss of the Succubus

An extraordinarily cute picture of Kiss of the Succubus and one of its fans.

Dixie Cyanide with Kiss of the Succubus, photo by Megan Walker

Dixie Cyanide with Kiss of the Succubus, photo by Megan Walker

Fuckin’ Ruthie

David Mamet explains what you must do in every scene:

SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES OF EVERY SCENE THESE THREE QUESTIONS.

1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF [THEY] DON’T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?

And reminds you that it doesn’t come easily:

THIS MEANS ALL THE “LITTLE” EXPOSITIONAL SCENES OF TWO PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD. THIS BUSHWAH (AND WE ALL TEND TO WRITE IT ON THE FIRST DRAFT) IS LESS THAN USELESS, SHOULD IT FINALLY, GOD FORBID, GET FILMED.

IF THE SCENE BORES YOU WHEN YOU READ IT, REST ASSURED IT WILL … BORE THE AUDIENCE, AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO BE BACK IN THE BREADLINE.

Along with Chuck Wendig’s post on structure, this is required reading, writer friends.