Month: September 2013

October is NaNoPreMo

the NaNoWriMo logo

NaNoWriMo is only a month away so it’s time to think about readying for the literary frenzy. I’m going to be posting here throughout October about my preparation for writing in November, but I wanted to start by talking about what NaNoWriMo means to me and why this might be my last one.

I’ve said it before, but NaNoWriMo got me writing again. I used to write fiction when I lived in Nottingham, but the move I made in the early 90s to the south east of England completely killed my writing. I tried picking it back up again a couple of times over the years, but it was not until 2004’s NaNoWriMo that I started writing with any kind of consistency again. And I got to actually finish stories, which had been a problem for me. That will always make me indebted to NaNoWriMo.

Part of my preparation for the event is to buy a T shirt, and to donate some money: I have and wear all of the T shirts for the years I have participated, and making a donation gives me the halo on the NaNoWriMo web site while also coincidentally helping to keep the organisation going.

This year will be my tenth effort, and I fully intend to win for the tenth time. The literary frenzy is hugely productive for me – I often write more words in a month than I do in the rest of the year – but it’s also disruptive. December can easily be a howling waste of wordless exhaustion.

Which brings me to why this might be my last one.

NaNoWriMo got me writing, but my focus over the last year has been to establish a regular writing practice. NaNoWriMo introduces new energy, but at the cost of disrupt regular writing after the event. That’s expensive.

The other problem is one of novelty. I’ve got two live novels in preparation at the moment (although I will readily concede that I don’t know what to do with one of them), and I feel like I need to write something new for November. That militates against keeping going on the existing work, and although this speaks more to my lack of discipline than a problem with the event per se (I’ve worked on existing manuscripts before – I don’t have an issue with being a NaNoRebel) there is still strong peer pressure to generate a fresh story.

And so, as much as I love NaNoWriMo, this might be the last year that I participate in full.
That means I want to make it a good one.

My October posts are going to cover different aspects of the preparation that I am going to make to write the new work. There will be a post each Monday on a topic, as follows:

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this year? How are you getting ready for it?

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A New Dawn: storytelling variations

dice-and-chipI am still running A New Dawn, the superhumans game I started with my roleplaying group in June. It’s just restarted after a couple of months’ hiatus, and I wanted to talk about a couple of novel elements in the most recent session.

Presenting A Prologue

“Show don’t tell” is some of the most repeated advice for writers. It captures the balance to be struck between exposition and demonstration: telling the reader what is happening, or showing the reader what the effect is.

The parallel in roleplaying is the choice between narration and playing it out. The narration can be player-guided or not, but if you have story happening which is not on stage then that’s narration – it doesn’t engage the players as much because they’re not as invested in the outcome, but it also moves the story on a lot faster. Roleplaying everything out takes a long time.

The way the story has developed in A New Dawn led to an interesting situation. One of the PCs had separated himself from the group and gone off investigating on his own – without telling anyone where he was going. Sanity being a fragile thing, this PC entered into a mental twilight upon exposure to unexpected horrors.

So we had a character captured by the bad guys, and no one in-game knowing where he was.

Playing out the scene didn’t seem very likely since insane characters are hard to play, and there wasn’t really a lot that the PC could actually do: he was physically out-matched, and his captors were… well, let’s just say unsympathetic.

On the other hand, resolving the situation just through narration seemed unsatisfactory. Something more engaging was required.

The approach I took was to use narration, but narration in which the captured character’s player could participate: I wrote a short scripted episode, with me playing the bad guys and the player reading his own character’s words. The scene faded to black, and the story picked up when the group next met.

I’ve used this scripted scene approach before, of course, with the Animal Agents stories I’ve been running for my kids. This was a different situation, but at least allowed the story to move on (or accrete more mystery…) without taking an hour of solo roleplaying to resolve.

A Chance To Be Heroes

A pretty common structure in roleplaying games (and TV shows) is Monster of the Week – the PCs get something to fight to resolve the situation.

The setting we’re playing is not quite as straightforward as that: the bad guys hide in the shadows, and they have already learned the lesson that direct confrontation between them and the PCs tend to end badly.

The PCs had agreed to a meeting in downtown Portland (yes, the game is set in Portland – I am that lazy) and it seemed that giving the PCs a chance to demonstrate their heroism would be useful.

In the game, Pioneer Courthouse Square was hosting the Beach In The City* event when the PCs were there. The square was crowded. The PCs met at Starbucks and tried to sort through what they knew. The PC who had been captured had been released but his memory interfered with, so he at least was interested in finding out what exactly had happened.

That was when the beach event display systems were hijacked to display a disturbing and threatening piece of computer animation. Once that had run its course, a billboard started to fall, followed by radio aerials and other high structures which would severely damage anyone they happened to land on.

The PCs swung into action, looking in vain for an opponent to chastise for this outrage, but none could be found – because there wasn’t one. The structures were all set to drop using carefully placed explosives and remote detonators. All the PCs could do was to mitigate the collapse, and shepherd the crowd from the square – a task which the group accomplished handily.

But there was no villain on-scene – no one to thump. This idea of protecting the populace from something which cannot be stopped is something that turns up in superhero comics and science fiction quite regularly but it’s not something I’ve played through very often. I thought it was an interesting way to have the characters act, and for me it was also a nice change to not have to think tactically in a combat situation.

Are there any unusual narrative techniques you’ve used in your games?

[*] modelled on a real event where there are mounds of sand sculpted into various elaborate dioramas. It’s pretty cool.

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Ride what you know

the author after a Bridge Pedal ride

the author after a Bridge Pedal ride

I’ve talked before about how running informs my writing practice, but I haven’t really talked about cycling.

I was a cyclist before I was a runner.

I rode around a lot when I was a kid, having some kind of bike from about the age of seven until my early teens – I was sad when the old Raleigh Commando was finally too small for me, but it really was far too small when I stopped riding it.

I didn’t start riding again until I started work after university, when I didn’t want to spend money on a car (I would have had to pass my driving test too) and found the busses to be inconvenient for reaching all the places I wanted to get to. I cycled a lot then, for those four years or so before I finally got a car – riding in all weathers and all distances, on the flat and (my favourite) up hills.

I’m doing both cycling and running at the moment, and the two feed each other – the cycling is low impact exercise that allows me to heal some of the joint damage while also reminding me what it’s really like to push the cardio limit, while running is much more self-regulating exercise which gives me more aerobic workout in a shorter period of time.

Despite having been a regular runner for more than ten years, I still think of myself very much as a cyclist who runs.

This is relevant to my writing practice because of the interplay between different types of writing. I’ve made observations about how writing and running roleplaying games takes time away from writing fiction, but my roleplaying activities inform my fiction writing. I get to try out narrative ideas with a much shorter feedback loop than I get for my fiction (large chunks of which have never had an audience beyond the first reader, my wonderful and patient wife).

At the same time, my fiction writing informs my roleplaying because I approach roleplaying as another storytelling vehicle rather than as a strategy game – one of the reasons I am impatient with excessively technical or detailed systems, not to mention lengthy combats.

Behind both of these is all of the programming I have done – I’ve been programming consistently since my mid-teens (coincidentally, about the same time the old bike stopped being usable for me) and the process of taking a problem, describing its desired end point, and then breaking down the steps needed to reach it from the start conditions is basically how I approach the construction of narrative of all types. And building stories has strengthened my skills at building complex software systems, also – not the specific technical aspects of course, but the understanding of interaction between components and conditions.

You may have a strength in one area of your writing, but doing more than one thing will probably enhance your skills in all of them.

With that in mind, I am thinking I might have to have a go at some short stories – a form I’ve never had an affinity for – or some other types of writing, just to see how to construct those.

How do different aspects of your writing interact? What new thing will you try next?

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2013 Goals Post: Mabon edition

Over this last period I feel like I’ve made progress on many of my writing goals, except the ones where I actually write fiction. I am frustrated about this, but at the same time there has been an awful lot of things going on so I am trying to be forgiving.

That sounds an awful lot like what I wrote last time, which is a matter for concern. I’ll be looking at this again soon, I think, in light of the time tracking results.

But how have I done on my original goals?

1. Finish Bluehammer

Last action: fix the outline.

No work on this recently.

  1. typo/consistency edit
  2. improve outline
  3. make the text match the outline
  4. hone the text
  5. make submission materials

Next action: fix the outline.

This still feels like the most significant work I have in the pipeline and there are still ideas I want to pursue, but I won’t be doing any more work on this before next year.

2. Execute the Song plan

Last action: finalise the outline.

Outline still incomplete. The outline is still two acts ahead of the writing.

Last action: rewrite.

I’ve finished the draft for the first act so the word count for the draft stands at a bit more than 26k, but I have been taking a break from writing this to work on other projects.

My hope was to finish this draft by the end of September. That has not happened.

  1. To outline what I have
  2. To expand the outline of the first half into a complete story
  3. To work on that outline until the story is good.
  4. To plug in text I can use from Song 2011 – this is no longer a meaningful goal since I need to rewrite everything.
  5. To rewrite to match the outline.
  6. Make submission materials – synopsis, pitch, hook, and all of that.

Next action: complete the outline.

Once the writing exhausts the outlined plot, I’ll do more outlining.

Next action: rewrite.

I will continue this in October, but it probably won’t be the only thing I am working on. I will be very pleased if I reach the end of the second act.

3. Submit one novel.

Last action: finish a novel

Song still seems the most plausible here, but let’s see what happens with NaNoWriMo this year also.

Last action: to find some markets

No work on this in the last few weeks, and probably none to be had until December.

4. Start looking for an agent.

Last action: research agents who represent science fiction.

I have done some work on this, collecting contact details for a number of relevant representatives. I’ve also learned that I really need to have an actual book in my hand before I can realistically start to query.

Next action: construct query tracking system.

5. Establish a daily writing practice.

Last action: reconsider how to tracking writing tasks for big slabs of work.

This has not been much of an issue, since the large task I alluded to last time was the rewrite of Song act one and that’s done. The other Song acts are smaller.

Still, I’ve been working on marking down tasks as more tightly focussed. The goal is to have a task take no more than three days of work, but that’s harder to manage with fragmented work time.

Next action: break down tasks into two day chunks.

Last action: keep writing.

I have been writing, but not enough on the fiction projects.

September itself has introduced another difficulty – cycling to work.

Riding to work is in principle a good way for me to get some exercise while still having lunch time free for writing – it was the basis for how I kept exercising during NaNo 2008, for example*. However, I’ve been finding it hard to carve out time during the day for writing and so losing the time on the bus that I had for writing has been disruptive. On top of that the five o’clock hour has not been nearly as productive as I had hoped since a lot of what I am trying to work on is meta-creative – inventing a plot rather than writing to an outline – and I am just not awake enough to do that justice first thing in the morning.

But I feel a lot better for biking every day.

What I need to figure out is firstly how to make time during the day to write, and secondly what exactly it is that I want to be writing so that I can prioritise my use of that time better.

Next action: make time during the day to write

Next action: define writing priorities

A New Dawn

Last action: prep for next run of sessions

I noted that I had lots of ideas for what to do, although bridging from where the characters were at the end of the last session to where they need to be to engage those ideas is not as easy as I had hoped.

Still, we had a successful session on Friday (the 20th) and we’re set on the way to the next bit (of which more in another post). Just need to keep the kettle boiling on this one.

Next action: run next story arc to completion

Last action: write kid supers material.

Well, the kids weren’t interested in playing superheroes any more, but we’ve played a couple of sessions of the Animal Agents game which we’ve switched over to instead. Keep going with that, and try to keep it surprising.

Next action: write more animal agents scenarios.

Blog

Last action: plan blog posts for reversion to full schedule.

Obviously, the blog relaunched with the full posting schedule and, so far, I have kept to that. However, writing blog posts has dominated the time I’ve had for writing so the options at this point are to increase writing time or trim the blog schedule again.

Next action: determine continuing posting schedule.

NaNoWriMo

And now November looms. This will be my tenth National Novel Writing Month, and I really have to write something new – using the time for redraft doesn’t seem right at all this year.

Next action: plan NaNoWriMo writing

Overall

The end of summer and beginnings of autumn have not been as productive as I Had hoped. It’s just hard to juggle everything.

Hmm, there might be a blog post in that.

[*] which was also the year I lost my job half way through the month, which completely holed my enthusiasm. It was a bad time.

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Losing track, and gaining it again

stop it with the time-wasting

stop it with the time-wasting

I’ve been tracking my time since my last post, and I have a few results to report.

General Lessons

Firstly, I’ve learned that it’s still useful even if it’s not complete.

When I started tracking, I was being quite punctilious about it – but this is a tedious thing to do, so the precision lasted about a week. It’s also rather difficult to continue frequent updates when I am working on the same task for a long time – quarter hourly entries for hour after hour saying “licensing UI” aren’t very illuminating.

Secondly, if you miss a few updates, make notes on what you’ve been working on without times and then get back on the horse.

The fact that writing down the same task over and over is dull sometimes militates against writing down anything at all. Then I skip updates that actually matter, and… well. In this respect, tracking time is a bit like an exercise programme – if you miss a day, you don’t just throw up your hands and give up the exercise plan. There are always bumps in the road, and the main thing is getting back on the road.

Thirdly, just tracking time keeps me on task. Having that level of accountability helps me stay focussed on the work I am supposed to be doing.

Specific Results

My intention was to perform some data entry and classification, but I haven’t done that yet. This stuff is a pain to get into a form that is analysable: spreadsheets are a good data entry form, but the data can’t be analysed usefully in the sheet. It’s a database problem really, but I don’t want to spend time on designing a database schema and application to present that information – this is useful rather than critical, so that time would be wasted. The most likely analysis tool after that is a Lisp session, but again not worth spending huge amounts of time on.

So, the results so far are based on visual inspection and a few notes taken in situ rather than rigorous analysis.

  1. the six hour daily load I use for work planning is about right. The heuristic used in Agile methods is that you only really get six hours of work done in an eight hour day, and that seems accurate.
  2. the two hour daily load I use for writing planning is hopelessly optimistic. I’m not writing for two hours a day – indeed I’m often not spending even an hour on the work.
  3. the biggest non-task time suck is social media. This is no surprise, really.
  4. when I am writing, I am not writing really. This is the baldest result: what time I am spending on my writing practice is spent on this blog and roleplaying games rather than fiction.

What’s Next

I’m going to keep tracking. For now I will stick to paper since, as I noted in the first piece, having a physical token is a useful reminder for me, although I am going to look for a tool to run on my phone (Android 2.2, if anyone has any specific recommendations).

I’m going to trim the social usage. Staying on task has already helped with that but winnowing out the RSS feed content would help further.

Still, figuring out how to use my time to do more actual writing is something I am going to have to do because the current situation is not tenable.

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A gent, see?

a really good agent

a really good agent

Agency means many things: having protagonists that make things happen rather than reacting all the time; being James Bond; doing things on your behalf…

Which is really what finding an agent is all about – finding someone who will manage a lot of the market search and (hopefully) negotiation which, well, can be troubling and error-prone for a new author.

Why Do I Want An Agent?

Two reasons: time and knowledge.

Self-publishing (or, as Chuck Wendig has it, being an author-publisher) is always an option, but being an effective publisher takes an enormous amount of time. I have been tremendously impressed by Laura Stanfill’s results with Forest Avenue Press, but she puts huge effort and energy into that work, and I can’t do that – not on top of a full time job, doing the writing itself, and spending time with my family. The days of posting a slab of text on Amazon and expecting meaningful sales without performing as a publisher are gone (if they were ever really here).

In other words, I need to follow something closer to a traditional publication path just because of the time required otherwise.

As for knowledge… publication involves contracts, and submissions, and networking. I am starting from a very low place in all of those areas. This is of course knowledge that I could acquire (in part, anyway – I would always want to hire a lawyer to review a contract) but see remarks about time above. And would I ever be as effective at those parts of the publication process as a good agent? That seems unlikely.

So I will need a literary agent, just because they will likely be aware of opportunities that I would miss and have experience of the process that I lack.

Why Now?

It’s actually too soon for me to be querying agents.

The most important piece of advice that I have seen relating to contacting agents for fiction representation is that the book needs to be written first, and I don’t have a complete book.

However, I also want to establish the process before I actually start diving in – I like to have my list of things to do. There are a lot of choices out there and I would like to work through those a bit so that I can dig in quickly once I am ready.

How?

This is the bit that I am still working on. I am using two primary resources at the moment:

  • AgentQuery.com – a searchable database of agents
  • QueryTracker – searchable agent database, plus facilities to track which agents you have queried.

Right now I am collecting names, contact details, and query specifics. Those go in a spreadsheet.

Once i have something to query with, I will pick half a dozen agents and send queries in the necessary format to each of them.

When I get rejections back, I will mark that agent off (for this project, anyway) and send out a new query to the next name.

Now to finish the book.

How about you? Do you have an agent? Have you looked?

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One year on

Today is the first anniversary of Identity Function. Here, have a picture of a mountain.

Mount Adams with a storm coming

Mount Adams with a storm coming

I’ve certainly enjoyed this first year, and the blog has certainly served its original purpose of keeping my fingers moving when I might otherwise have sunk into the mire of unproductive surfing. Deadlines will do that.

Thank you to you, my readers, for letting me borrow your attention every other day and for providing entertaining and useful commentary. I’m always impressed by any internet community which remains civil, and you are an impressive bunch.

If you have any particular subject you would like me to write about here, or a question you have about my approach to writing, feel free to put a note in the comments. Email will also probably work, but spam filters in the email stream sometimes block legitimate correspondence.

Thank you again.

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Roleplaying with kids, part three: The Game

the OWCA agents in their special transportation

the OWCA agents in their special transportation

This is the third post about roleplaying with kids. Last time I talked about the system we are using, while this time I want to talk about the game itself – not so much what happened, but the kind of story and how it was presented.

The Plot

I said before that there was plenty of room to explore other animal agents and evil planners in the O.W.C.A. universe, although I did not know when I wrote that post that there were already some canonical stories that did just that. There are apparently several Agent P’s also: a panda, for example.

Still, what we came up with was a local chapter of O.W.C.A. which is protecting Town (a small city which looks remarkably like Portland but, er, isn’t) from the depredations of The Red Mask.

As with Phineas and Ferb, the animal agents operate in the context of the human world. Obviously in the Disney show Phineas and Ferb are the primary story whereas in this game the agents are the main feature, but I wanted to give a human context all the same.

So, the stories will always start in some way associated with the Town Zoo. The main human character is a keeper at the zoo, and he has a domineering boss. The keeper is married to a television production person, and they have a son. They all live close to the zoo.

The animal agents themselves are a python who is an exhibit in the Town Zoo, a scorpion kept as a pet by the keeper’s son, and a raccoon who scavenges in the bins around the zoo.

The kinds of plots I’ve come up with so far have been of the “The Red Mask seeks to control some resource in order to execute some evil plan” variety, although I will be drawing inspiration from other incompetent-world-domination stories such as Pinky and the Brain.

In the first story, the Red Mask’s plan was to control all the marshmallows in order to extract money from campers who want to make s’mores.

The Play

Once the agent characters were completed, I gave the boys some scripts to read from: the animal agents cannot talk, so the narrative framing was done with a short play featuring the human cast. In this we learned that the keeper worked with TV companies to supply animals, and that there was a show being filmed that day, a new programme called The Red Mask, which the keeper’s wife had been working on.

We talked through the filming where the python was a bit player: this television Red Mask was planning to terrorise the world by controlling all the snakes.

Then the animal agents were called away to their briefing room where Major Çedilla told them of a strange case which needed investigating: all the marshmallows in the tri-county area were being bought up. Marshmallow factories were running at full capacity, but someone was still buying all of them.

So, we had a puzzle: who was buying all the marshmallows? This is where we really started the game, with the boys coming up with ideas on where to go to find out who was buying the marshmallows. The rest of the game was about following the agents’ investigation, and foiling the plot (pythons, it transpires, are quite effective at destroying pipes by crushing them).

Once the real Red Mask was defeated (and left covered in marshmallow goo – they also stole his car as part of the getaway) the characters returned to the set of the television Red Mask and learned that the show’s Red Mask was defeated by marshmallow good also – the snake control was chocolate-based and was neutralised by marshmallows – and so the whole narrative was tied together.

Lessons

  • Keep It Short. This was a two hour session (as opposed to a three or four hour session in an adult game) which is at the limit of what our younger boy can deal with. I kept things varied, giving an exit to a scene after a quarter of an hour. Still, children express their inattention in a number of ways and watching for that is important.
  • Make It Fun. If it’s fun, they will engage. For the kids, keep it silly, or at least unexpected.
  • Listen to the Players. Kids are imaginative – let them use those imaginations to take the game in unexpected directions.

These are in lessons I am trying to apply to my grown up game practice too.

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Stealing Cthulhu – A Brilliant Book

“Good artists borrow, great artists steal.”

– Pablo Picasso, T S Eliot, perhaps even Steve Jobs

stealing-cthulhuStealing Cthulhu by Graham Walmsley is a roleplaying book for GMs or, more precisely given the context, Keepers: those who write and run Cthulhu Mythos roleplaying scenarios.

The central thesis of the book is that if you want to run Lovecraftian horror, you should go back to Lovecraft. The more general point is that if you want to evoke the atmosphere and feeling of a particular work, you should return to the source material and use the settings and narrative structures from that work.

For gamers (especially Mythos gamers), this book is a terrific resource. Walmsley analyses the recurring themes and narrative devices of the Lovecraft canon, describing methods to vary these recurring themes in ways consistent with the original material.

For writers, it’s a lesson not only in how to borrow ideas from other authors (albeit at the risk of pastiche), but also a general discussion on how to iterate across a setting to manufacture plot and instil a coherent sense of place.

Much of the material is specific to gaming. The sections on converting Lovecraft’s protagonists into investigators, for example, may be of only vicarious interest to someone approaching this book solely for writing ideas, but even those parts should be of some value since they help with shifting perspectives on a character. There is a substantial section in the latter half of the book which analyses some Mythos monsters, those from Lovecraft and other writers, for their original context and their potential in other contexts. Consider an underwater Mi-Go colony, for example, mining the sea bed for newly formed volcanic minerals. Or a Deep One city in a deep mountain lake.

Overall it is a brilliant and engaging roam through the catacomb of Mythos horror gaming. Highly recommended.

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What To Write For NaNoWriMo

pen-and-journalNational Novel Writing Month is seven weeks away.

The traditional approach to NaNoWriMo is to go in with nothing, but I tend not to have success like that – I find that I am most productive if I have a plot, and an outline – even if that’s just chapter summaries.

I’ve been in this position before. In 2004 I had several ideas, but I was unsure of which one I should work on. What I did was to follow a competitive process:

  1. write down a one sentence summary of the idea
  2. for each idea, write a short treatment in a notebook, one page or perhaps more, but keeping it tight rather than starting to write the story.
  3. leave them alone for a few days
  4. read the story treatments back and see which one appeals most

When I did this in 2004, the winner was clear: The Flamecrown of Kissiltur, the epic science fiction trilogy of which Bluehammer is the first volume. This year I have several ideas again, one of which is to just drive on with the Song rewrite, but I really want to work on something new this year just to refresh my creative instincts.

And if none of those appeal after I read back the treatments, then maybe it’s time to dive in without any prep after all.

How do you choose what to write next?

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