Inspiration

I spent Labor Day weekend at my parents’ house out in the country. Saturday night we noticed the sky lighting up off in the distance, so I went outside to check it out. The storm was still quite a ways off – there was no rain, the wind was just starting to pick up, and the storm clouds were high up in the sky.

You couldn’t see the actual lightning, and the thunder was just a quiet rumbling off in the distance, but you could feel the storm in the air. I walked out into the yard, just soaking it in. There was a row of trees between me and the storm, and whenever the lightning flared you could see their silhouettes. It was kind of eerie.

I pulled out my cell phone, thinking I would record a video clip to share on social media (because that’s what we do nowadays, isn’t it?). But I quickly realized two things:

  1. A cell phone video could never truly capture the moment.
  2. I would be wasting an incredible experience if I tried to observe it all through the stupid little screen of my phone.

So I put my cell phone away — my friends would just have to miss out.

As the storm got closer, the sky above me would light up in brief, flickering flashes, almost like a strobe light. And every now and then you would get an especially bright flash, almost blinding even. I would say that it made the sky as bright as day, but that wouldn’t truly be an accurate description. Because for as bright as some of those flashes were, it was not the yellow light that you associate with the sun. No, this was very much a blue-white light that you would not see in the daytime.

I don’t know how long I stood there enjoying the light show, but it was quite a while. And it was amazing. I kind of understood what motivated people to become storm chasers. It also made me appreciate one of the joys of being a writer — because this was one of those moments that I would love to capture in my writing.

Of course, my words probably aren’t much better than my little cell phone video would have been, and it still remains a moment that truly needs to be experienced, but for me, it’s one of those moments that inspires me, that makes me want to continue improving my craft, until I can truly recreate moments like that, so that readers can almost feel like they were there.

When the first droplets of rain started to fall, I finally forced myself to go back inside — which was probably a good thing, because five minutes later it was pouring rain out. So I sat down at the kitchen table with my parents, and we all had a cup of tea while watching the storm rage outside. Then it was time to call it a night. But before I went to bed I knew I needed to get the experience written down, while the memories and the emotions were still fresh.

And that is my story of inspiration from the holiday weekend.

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Time to refocus

Been giving it a lot of thought over the last week or so, and sadly I feel it’s time to shutter the blog for awhile. It’s not that I don’t enjoy writing it, or that I’ve run out of ideas. The problem is that in focusing on putting out a solid blog entry every week, it’s starting to more and more feel like a distraction/time suck from my actual story writing.

The simple truth of the matter is my writing routine still hasn’t truly recovered from the move/job change. And now that I’ve been in my new place for almost 4 months, it is beyond time to knuckle down and really focus on my writing if I want to have any hope of ever finishing a novel, much less reaching the point where I’m ready to publish something. Because what’s the point of maintaining an author platform if you’re not making a real effort to be an actual author?

I may publish things from time to time to the blog, and at some point I’d really like to revamp the website, adding a front page and links and such things. I briefly considered shifting to more of a personal diary style of blog, with just quick little daily updates versus the weekly full articles, but ultimately I figure I can just as easily use Facebook/Twitter/Google+ for those sorts of updates.

So as much as it pains me to do so, it’s time to close the doors on this thing. And hell, based on the serious lack of non-spam comments and email list sign-ups, it’s safe to assume that nobody was really engaging with the damned thing anyways, so it’s likely not a great loss to the blogosphere. So for now, vaya con dios.

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The Joy and Fun of the Shared Fictional Universe

With Ant-Man coming out today, the time seemed right to make the Marvel Cinematic Universe the inspiration for a blog post. Because I have to say, I am a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – which is somewhat ironic, because I’m not really much of a fan of Marvel Comics any more (I’ve been much more of a DC Comics guy for a very long time now – if only their movies were better!). But even more than the individual movies and TV shows, I am a huge fan of the concept of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The idea of all these separate films and shows, each with their own main characters and their own creative teams, but all coexisting within the same fictional universe, is pretty damned cool.

But the MCU is far from the only shared fictional universe out there, and that’s really what I wanted to cover in this week’s blog post – specifically those shared universes found within the context of novels and/or short story collections. Because I believe that novels and shorts stories can be fantastic media for a shared universe, even more so than movies & TV – and certainly more so than comic books, which sadly suffer from the sheer number of comics that are published each and every month.

Easily one of, if not the most famous of all the fictional shared universes would have to be the Star Wars Expanded Universe – or Star Wars Legends, as Disney has chosen to rebrand it. While I have read very little of these works (as I must confess I’m not a huge Star Wars fan), the scope of it is incredibly impressive. It features books, comics, roleplaying and video games, and more. And from what I have read online, it has also done a very good job of maintaining a consistent continuity, which is a significant achievement considering the amount of material it includes.

Around the same time the earliest Star Wars novels were being published, another fictional shared universe came into being, one of my personal favorites – Thieves’ World. What started as a series of short story anthologies would eventually add novels, comics, and roleplaying games as well. One of the distinct differences between Thieves’ World and Star Wars is that instead of a single author’s universe being expanded on by numerous unconnected other writers, with the informal understanding that new stories would not contradict previously established continuity (as was the case with Star Wars), Thieves’ World started out as an intentionally designed shared world.

Writer Robert Asprin was at a convention, and during a discussion with a couple of other writers, he voiced one of his main complaints about writing epic fantasy – that despite how many incredible, well-crafted, already known fantasy worlds were out there, every new writer was expected to develop their own, brand new world from scratch. He further suggested that wouldn’t it be great if all of our favorite fantasy characters shared one world, and could pop in and out of each other’s stories.

And thus was the idea for Thieves’ World born. Asprin contacted several other writers, and together they created the map, history, government, religion, and other details for the city of Sanctuary. Then each writer would produce a character write-up for their main character. This would be shared with all the other writers. Each writer was allowed to feature the other writers’ characters in their own stories, the only caveat being they were not allowed to kill off or seriously alter another author’s character.

This idea of planned cooperation was a big part of what I loved about the series. Having characters show up in each other’s stories gives them a cohesiveness, a true feel of all taking place in the same world, that just makes them that much more fun to read. And ultimately I think this works best in a short story anthology format. The amount of time it takes to write a novel means that by the time you’re finished, you have no idea what another author might have done with their characters in their own novel. For example, in the first Thieves’ World collection, one author’s story features a cameo of another author’s character – but this character was killed off by his author during his own story. This was easily dealt with, however, by the editor simply making certain the story with his minor appearance came before the story where he was killed off. In larger, more complex works, this kind of issue becomes more problematic.

Going back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you run into a similar concern when it comes to tying your properties together/using each other’s characters/plotlines. The MCU currently features a series of movies, 2 shows on ABC, and a series of shows to be released on Netflix. The problem you run into is that not every fan of the movies is necessarily watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., or has a Netflix account (or has a Netflix account and for some inexplicable reason hasn’t watched Daredevil yet). How do you decide when and where to tie the various properties together without risking confusing those fans who aren’t watching all of the properties?

Personally I have no sympathy for anyone not watching everything Marvel-related, and would love to see a Daredevil cameo on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., or Agent May make an appearance in the next Captain America movie. But I also understand Marvel’s position – from a business point of view you have to accept that not all your movie fans are watching the TV shows, which means there are limits to how much and in what ways the movies can reference the TV shows. The same holds true between the ABC shows and the Netflix shows. But imagine how many cool things they could do if this wasn’t a concern.

This is where a short story shared universe becomes ideal. As an editor, you can fairly safely assume that anyone reading one story in an anthology will likely read them all, which gives your writers the freedom to have as much or as little interactivity between their stories as they see fit. In some cases there may need to be contact between writers to ensure a solid continuity, but this becomes much easier in the context of short story writing because of the much faster turnaround time for a short story versus a novel (or a television show or movie).

So what do you think, dear readers? What is your favorite shared fictional universe? And would you want to write a story set in such a universe, given the opportunity? Sound off in the comments!

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A Great Story Is Just Like A Great Rock Song!

I was driving home from work the other day, rocking out to a great song and going over story ideas in my head (I’ve found that driving is a perfect time to brainstorm ideas), and it occurred to me how much the song I was listening to was like a great story. It then occurred to me that this could make an interesting topic for a blog post, and so here we are.

 

It all starts with the hook.

If you break down the elements of a great rock song, you’ll see many of the same elements that are required to tell a compelling story. It starts with a great hook. Many of my favorite songs start with a great intro that immediately pulls you into the song. My mind may be wandering so that I’m barely aware of what’s playing, but when that great song kicks off, I’m immediately listening, my attention now on the music.

A good story needs the same thing. Now I’ve read a number of articles that talk about the importance of the opening paragraph, even the opening sentence. And sure, if you’ve got a killer opening line for your story, fantastic. But I don’t believe that the hook has to happen that immediately. I can’t think of a single story that I stopped reading because I wasn’t completely caught up in the story by the end of the first paragraph.

With that being said, reader patience levels vary, so the sooner you hook them into the story, the better. The best way to do this (at least, from all the advice I’ve read on the subject) is to open your story with action. Start right in the middle of a scene, guns blazing and fists flying. You want to get the reader excited about what’s going on, then you can worry about explaining the who, where, when, and why of what’s going on.

How you do this is naturally going to vary widely between genres, and indeed from story to story. Your average romance, for example, isn’t likely to start with literal “guns blazing” (at least I wouldn’t think so, but I fully admit to having never attempted to write romance). But whatever your style of story, you need to find an opening that your readers will find exciting, that will immediately engage them in your narrative.

 

Make a powerful emotional connection

Most songs that I really love are ones that I connect with on an emotional level – the song can make me happy, sad, angry (depending on my mood at the time), as long as the song ignites my emotions – the more intensely the better. This is one of the reasons I love rock music – there is an emotional intensity, a raw power to a kick ass rock song that you just don’t get with a lot of other styles of music (even if you can’t dance to it).

I believe it was in one of Randy Ingermanson’s e-zine articles that I first read that all successful stories cause the reader to have a powerful emotional response. And I believe this to be true. The emotions involved may vary based on the genre of story, but to really enjoy a story you need to connect with it on an emotional level. It should have characters that we love (or love to hate), and a plot that excites, or scares, or amuses – or maybe all of the above.

 

You gotta love a great guitar riff

One of the common elements I’ve noticed with songs that stay in my head throughout the day, songs that I can listen to on repeat over and over again, is a great guitar riff that recurs throughout the song. Or it has a great baseline that plays through the song. This is often what keeps my attention on the song while I’m listening to it, and is what keeps the song stuck in my head after I’m done listening to it.

Great fiction also has riffs running through it. In comedy it’s the running gag. In a murder mystery (or good slasher film) it’s that steadily rising body count. In romance it’s the will they/won’t they back-and-forth before the couple finally find happiness in the end. Whatever the genre, every story has those beats. When done right, they’re one of the things that keep you engaged in the story. Of course, done wrong and they quickly become the reason you quit reading.

 

A strong finish makes you want to hear it again

When I get done listening to a great rock song, the first thing I want to down is listen to it again. If it’s one I really love, I can listen to it over and over on repeat. A great story should be the same way – you can read it over and over again and enjoy it just as much every time. I might not start re-reading a story immediately after finishing it (because let’s be honest, a story has much more of a time commitment to it than a song does), but I will go back to it again and again over time. The ending to your story should be like the triumphant final note of a great rock song – your reader feels that happy sense of closure that this journey you’ve taken them on has come to a satisfying end, which makes them want to enjoy the experience all over again.

What do you think, dear reader? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Why You Should Be On Scribophile

Posting a day early this week due to the 4th of July holiday weekend here in the States. For this week’s post I wanted to give a shout out to the one site that has probably done more than any other to help improve my writing. And that is the critiquing website Scribophile. I am sure there are many other critiquing sites out there, but this is the one I tried, and I couldn’t be happier. So if you’re not on Scribophile yet, what are you waiting for?

 

Initial Impressions

I was initially hesitant to sign up for Scribophile, not so much because I was concerned about people critiquing my work, but because I was nervous about critiquing other people’s work. And to ensure that everyone is doing their fair share, Scribophile requires that you critique other people’s work before you can get your own work critiqued. This is done through a “karma” system. You earn karma by writing critiques, which you can then spend to post your own work for others to critique.

I got off to a slow start on the site, again because I was a little nervous/uncertain about critiquing other people’s work. I mean, I’m still working to get confident with my own writing, so what possible input could I have on someone else’s? But the site has some solid documentation on the critiquing process and how to give a good critique. And once I read through my first story to critique, I realized that I did have valid input I could make about their story. As I’ve done more critiques, I’ve become more comfortable doing them, and more confident that I’m helping other writers to improve their craft (which is a great feeling, by the way).

More and more I really like Scribophile’s karma system. It eliminates those people who would simply post all of their own work for critique, without bothering to critique anyone else’s work, which I think makes for a more vibrant, active site. And realizing you’re helping other writers improve can be a very rewarding experience. I also think you can learn from critiquing others’ work just as you can learn from having your own works critiqued.

 

Nothing But Positive Experiences

The things I’ve learned about my writing from the critiques I’ve received has been astounding. Sometimes it’s very simple suggestions/observations that can have a huge impact on your writing quality – for example, I learned that I had a very bad habit of using parentheses in my writing. This may be okay for a blog post or a newsletter, or other more casual writing, but as I learned, in the context of fiction it weakens your writing, and should absolutely be avoided. This was a bad habit I’d had for years without really realizing I was doing it, much less realizing it was a problem. But once it was pointed out to me, I went through my current stories and rewrote every sentence that had parentheses. And the improvement to my prose was noticeable.

As I’ve cleaned up/improved on the little, obvious weak areas of my writing, I have been able to move on the bigger, more complex areas of improvement. For me this includes a tendency to tell instead of show (that gravest of all writing sins). And the critiques I’ve gotten on Scribophile have really helped to show exactly where and how much I’m doing these things.

The main key that makes a critiquing site (or any good critiquing group you may be a part of) more useful than a writing course or book is that it is directly tied to your writing. A book can inform you to show don’t tell, to avoid adverbs or passive voice, to be wary of dialogue tags, or any of the many other valid suggestions that fill up books on writing. But what these books can’t do is tell you exactly where in your prose you’re making these mistakes, or offer suggestions on how to fix/improve them. Books can also instruct you on such concepts as character development or story structure, but they can’t tell you which of these areas your story is weak or strong in. A good critique can do all that.

I don’t know about other critique sites/groups, but with Scribophile I have had nothing but positive experiences with the critiques of my work. Everyone is very respectful, and very much there to help your writing improve. Even the harshest criticisms I have received have all been written to help me find the weak areas of my writing and make them stronger. I haven’t always agreed with everything every critique has said, but it always at least gives me something to think about.

 

Why Wouldn’t You Join?

I’ve known a few writers who were very resistant to the idea of joining a critiquing group, and it always makes me shake my head. I get that some people have a harder time dealing with criticism than others, even constructive criticism. I also know there are people out there who aren’t really looking for constructive criticism, they’re looking for validation. They want someone to tell them their writing is good, to make them feel better about themselves as writers.

To that first group, I say this – if you plan to publish, you’re going to face criticism of your work, whether you like it or not. And not only are the people on Scribophile going to be a lot more polite/respectful/constructive in their criticism than the average Amazon reviewer, but you’re receiving that criticism at a much more important phase of your writing, namely before it gets published. So your best bet is to suck it up and start accepting that criticism early in the process, so you can make your writing as strong as it can be before you go to publish.

To that second group, all I can say is get over yourself. If you just want someone to tell you what a good job you did (whether what you’ve written is good or not), then let your mom read it. I’m sure she’ll be more than happy to give you a feel-good response. But if you want to get serious as a writer (and especially if you dream of someday being a published author), then you need to accept that not every response to your writing is going to be positive, and that no matter how good you are, you can always get better. And most importantly, you need to accept that criticism of your work isn’t criticism of you, and that constructive criticism isn’t meant to tear you down, it’s meant to show you where you have room to improve. Reading a critical response to your writing from an unbiased third party is a great way to find those weak areas so that you can improve on them.

 

So if you’re a writer, and you’re not on Scribophile, I ask again, what are you waiting for? Please feel free to share your own Scribophile experience in the comments. Or if you use a different critiquing site, please share it! I’d love to know about other good sites out there.

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The 3 Types of Writer Resource Blogs

As I started to get serious with my writing, I spent more and more time online looking for resources to help me improve my craft, and to learn more about the complex process of becoming successful as a published author. Along the way I discovered numerous websites devoted to these subjects, and quite a few of them were blogs. Initially I jumped on any blog I came across – adding it to my favorites, signing up for their mailing list if they had one, and checking back frequently for new posts.

But as time went on, I naturally discovered that not all blogs are created equal. And it’s not just a matter of quality. The other key factor I noticed was the motivation behind the blog. Ultimately I decided that writer resource blogs fall into three broad categories – the well-meaning amateur, the professional blogger, and the true writers’ resource. The blogs in the final category are the ones most worth seeking out, but sadly they also seem to be the least common.

For this week’s blog post I wanted to discuss these three different categories. Please keep in mind that this strictly my own take on the blogosphere, and you are welcome to disagree with me. Also, because I get a little bit critical (especially with the first two categories), I’m not going to site any example blogs. I’m sure anyone reading this has likely spent enough time on other blogs to have their own examples – and their own opinions on this topic – and there are way too many blogs out there for me to pick on just the random few I’ve come across.

So here are my descriptions of the three general categories of writer resource blogs as I see them:

The Well-Meaning Amateur

Firstly, let me just state for the record that this is the category that I firmly put my own blog in. Because while I’d like to think that someone will gain some insight or enjoyment from reading my ramblings, I am all too aware that I am far from an expert. But that being said, I have also never presented my blog as offering advice or expert insight. It is simply a record of the writing process as I’ve experienced it. And hopefully anyone reading my blog doesn’t take it for more than that.

The problem I often run into with other blogs in this category, is that the blogger either doesn’t realize this is the category they’re in, or they choose to write the posts as if they were an expert, despite the fact that they’re really not. And I honestly don’t care how many novels you’ve published or how successful your writing career has been so far – that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the person to go to when it comes to helping other people move forward on their own writing journey. I’ve known plenty of people successful in their field who had no real talent for instructing/enlightening others.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against this sort of blog (it would be awfully hypocritical of me if I did, since I’m in this category too). I’ve read many well-written, interesting posts from these types of blogs. At the same time, however, I’ve also read posts that were on an interesting topic, but ultimately the blogger doesn’t say anything worthwhile that hasn’t already been said before. Or they’ll skim the surface of the topic, but not really delve deep into it, likely because they don’t have the knowledge/experience to be able to really delve into the topic.

So while I can enjoy these blogs (certainly more so than the next category), and would never discourage writers from following – or writing – this sort of blog, I have learned that once I identify a blog as belonging to this category, I adjust my expectations accordingly. They also get lowered on my priority list over those blogs that I feel give more expert advice.

The Professional Blogger

These are the blogs I have the most problem with – the ones where the blogger generates an income, or even worse, makes their living, from their blog. And the problem I have is that even if they provide worthwhile content, it always goes hand-in-hand with them trying to sell you something. And because they ultimately want to sell you their content (or their affiliate’s content that they get a referral fee on), they’re never going to really give you information you can fully utilize. Instead, they’re going to tease you with the high points of a useful article, then tell to buy their book to learn more.

The even more annoying trend that I’ve seen of late are the free webinars. “Sign up for a free webinar to learn all about <subject>!” (and I’ve seen these for a variety of topics). But then you sit through the webinar, and it’s 45 minutes going over the high points of the topic and telling you why the topic is important to you as a writer, and why you really need to know more about it. Then, of course, comes the sales pitch, and you spend the last 15 minutes of the webinar hearing about the special sale they’re having on their book that covers this very topic (or even worse, the course they want to charge you hundreds of dollars to attend that covers the topic).

Okay, I admit that it is very possible that what they’re selling is worth every penny they’re charging for it, but my budget is tight as it is without dropping money into books and courses that may or may not help to improve my writing skills or help me successfully publish my book (or market it, or develop my author website, or build my email list, or any of the many, many other areas that writers eventually needs to delve into when they reach that stage where they have a completed novel in their hands).

More importantly, like many people out there, I don’t like to be sold to. If I’d wanted to spend money to learn more about a topic, odds are I would have explored paid courses or gone to Amazon to look for books to buy on the topic. The reason I’m perusing blogs instead is that I’m looking for advice, insight, and information to help me along that isn’t going to cost me money. And when you setup a blog that promotes itself as being all about helping authors, but is really just about you trying to sell your advice/products – or those of your affiliates – I start to feel like I was looking for a library and somehow wandered onto a used car lot instead.

More and more I’m moving away from these sorts of blogs, because even when they do provide worthwhile information, or have free blog posts that truly do have value, there’s always that “buy my book” addendum attached to the end, which sours the experience for me. I get it – your blog and the products on it are how you earn your living. More power to you on that front. And for those readers who are okay with buying your books and paying for your courses, more power to them as well. I sincerely hope they get their money’s worth, and are able to improve whatever area it is your book/course covers. But that’s just not what I’m looking for when I go to a writing blog.

The True Writers’ Resource

These blogs are the gold standard. They are the blogs that combine the two key things that us aspiring writers are looking for. Firstly, a blogger with enough expertise/experience in the area they write about to truly be helpful, with in-depth, insightful blog posts worth reading (and sharing with other writers). And secondly, a blogger who isn’t using their blog as a primary source of income. Instead, their blog is a way for them to help other writers by providing them with insight and guidance about aspects of the writing/publishing/promoting process that the blogger has been through and has experience with.

One of the common traits I’ve noticed for this sort of blog is that the blogger is very often first and foremost a fiction writer. This means their income comes from their fiction, and not from their blog. Sure, there’s going to be links to their novels on their blog (as well there should be). But because these are not directly related to the advice they are offering, and they’re not trying to make money off their advice, there is no reason for them to restrict that advice, or only offer you a taste of it, in the hopes you’ll pay them for more. And the better ones make you aware of their fiction works without having to blatant “buy my book” feel when it comes to those works.

One day I would love for my blog to reach this level. If I gain enough skill/experience with my craft, or somehow manage to successfully publish a book or two and learn more of the ins and outs of making a book successful, I would love to share my experiences and my lessons learned with other writers. And not in the hopes of making money off my blog or selling a resource guide or how-to book, but simply so I can give back to the writing community in the same way that other authors have helped me. If along the way I convince a few of my blog readers to buy my novels, all the better, but I can’t imagine that being the only reason for maintaining my blog.

 

And so ends my rant for the week. What do you think? Can you see blogs that you follow fitting into one of the above categories? Am I being unfair in my assessments? Are there other categories that I hadn’t thought of? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

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Aaaaand we’re back!

At long last I’ve finally found the time/motivation to write a new blog post. Going to keep this one short, sweet, and to the point (need to ease myself back into the process). It took a few months to get settled back into a routine after taking a new job in a new city (and dealing with a few other random personal issues that I won’t go into here), but I think I’m finally ready to refocus on my writing.

I haven’t worked seriously on my novel in entirely too long, but hope to change that going forward from today. I’ve managed to get a little writing in here and there – most specifically a short story about Vikings for a little mini-competition on my writing forum (Mythic Scribes, for anyone who’s interested). But now I think it really is time to get back to tackling my novel.

More and more I’ve realized that I’m not nearly as far along in the development of my craft as I need to be, so I’ve re-evaluated my dreams of publication. Instead of thinking about future publication, I’ve decided first and foremost I just need to focus on finishing the damned thing. There’s no point in putting a bunch of thought/effort into building my author platform and developing a publishing strategy if I can’t even finish a single full first draft. So for now that is my sole goal – finish a rough draft, regardless of how rough it is. Even if it’s horrid enough I completely scrap it afterwards (although hopefully it won’t come to that), at least I can say I finished it.

As I do that I do plan to continue working on the blog, hopefully going back to my weekly updates. Mostly I think I will continue to chart the progress of my novel, discussing any insights I might have about the process as I move forward. I’ve also got a couple of other random writing-related articles I’d like to develop at some point. And who knows, I may even publish the occasional short story, just to keep things interesting.

Well, that’s probably about it for now. No point rambling on too long, especially since I’m mostly just writing this one for myself, to get back in the habit of blog writing.

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Quick Update

Looks like it has been precisely one month since my last post, so I figured at least a quick update on things was in order. Life has been more than a little crazy this past month. On the plus side, I found a new day job, so I’m no longer worried about being unemployed (and no longer need to spend most of my free time job hunting). On the down side, my new job is in a different city, so all of the time I’d been spending job hunting shifted into house hunting and packing. Finding a place didn’t take too long (thank goodness!) so now I’m all about packing up my life into boxes. It will likely be several more weeks before I’m settled back into a routine enough to start writing regular blog posts, but with any luck by this time next month I can start getting that back on track.

On the subject of writing, I’ve still managed to find a little time here and there to work on my stories. One of the biggest motivators I’ve had in this regard is stumbling across a short story competition in a speculative fiction literary magazine. So I dusted off one of my short stories and have been reworking/editing it to try and get it hopefully publication worthy. Of course, trying to do this with everything else that’s been going on has been more than a little bit of a challenge, and with the submission deadline being this Sunday, the story isn’t completely where I want it to be. But I’m going to try and make it as polished as I can and then get it submitted. Wish me luck!

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Roleplaying Games and Writing

Got a little side-tracked from my regular writing this week – but at least I’m writing. I am writing something a little different, however. It all started when I was sorting through some old papers last weekend, and I came across a roleplaying game adventure I had started writing years ago, based on Alice in Wonderland. Dusting it off and reading through it, I felt inspired to give it a solid rewrite, and update the mechanics to the roleplaying game I am currently playing – 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons.

So now I’m writing a D&D version of Alice in Wonderland. And while it’s not exactly original material by any means (and it sadly isn’t doing anything to help me make forward progress on my novel), it is a very fun creative endeavor. And it gave me my inspiration for this week’s blog post – the usefulness of roleplaying for fiction writers. This is a subject I’ve seen covered by other writers in the past, but as someone who’s been playing roleplaying games on and off for a good 30 years now, I decided I’d throw my two cents into the mix.

A little background first. It all started when I was 12. And interestingly enough it is one of those childhood memories that sticks with me, even now. My father, my brother, and I had gone into a hobby/game shop, and my brother and I were looking at all the lead miniatures. We decided to buy some to paint, because they were cool-looking fantasy monsters. It was our dad who noticed that they were labeled “Dungeons & Dragons miniatures” and that apparently there was a game they were meant to be used with.

Our dad didn’t think it made much sense to buy the miniatures if you didn’t have the game they went with, so he went ahead and bought the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set for us as well. And just like that I was introduced to the wonderful world of roleplaying. And while my love of painting miniatures didn’t last more than a few years, my love of roleplaying games only continued to grow, and is still a passion to this day. I’ve played numerous different roleplaying games over the years, with a variety of genres, themes, and game mechanics, but they all have one common unifying element, and it’s what makes them so worthwhile for writers – they’re all about storytelling.

As a writer and an avid reader, nothing engages me more than a good story. And this love of story extends to the games I play. While there are times when the whole kill the monsters, get the treasure, rinse and repeat style of roleplaying can be fun (just like there’s mindless fun to be had with your average first-person shooter video game), this only holds my attention for so long. What truly engages me is being involved in a good story, especially when I able to contribute to that story.

Regardless of the particular game, and regardless of whether you are a player or a game master, a good roleplaying game session should be about taking part in an interactive story. And what better source of inspiration and boost to creativity can a writer ask for? Not only do you get the opportunity to flex your own creative muscles, but you can gain ideas and inspiration from the other players in your group as well.

Now what you take away from the experience will differ depending on your role. The players, for example, are mostly focused on characters – mainly your own, naturally, but you never know when another player will create a character or do something in a game session that inspires your own writing. As mentioned in previous blog posts, the main character of my current story series was inspired by the character I play in Dungeons & Dragons.

While the players aren’t the ones creating the adventure (that’s the game master’s job), that doesn’t mean that as a player you can’t take inspiration from events or encounters that happen during gameplay. That being said, there is one thing to keep in mind – as you aren’t the creator of the adventure, you need to be careful how many specific details you pull into your own work, especially if your game master is using a premade adventure (as whoever wrote the adventure is going to have copyright on everything in the adventure). But that doesn’t mean you can’t use aspects of the adventure for inspiration.

Now if you’re the game master, roleplaying games offer a different opportunity, in that they give you a ready set of alpha readers that you can use to test out your story ideas. Whether it’s a new villain or secondary character you want to test out, or separate little events from your story that you throw in here and there, or even running your players through the complete narrative of your novel, you have a chance to get initial feedback on your ideas before you spend too much time and effort developing them.

Not only does this give you a chance to work out some of the kinks, to find the things that don’t work (and the things that work really well), but you never know when your players will take your ideas and run with them in a direction that you hadn’t thought of. I actually have a perfect example of this from the first adventure I ran through with my current D&D group.

Our quest had been to recover a mystical stone and return it to the Queen. We recovered the stone and were headed back to the palace with it. However, one of the players decided he had a different idea. The player in question was getting ready to leave for college, so this was going to be his last adventure with the group, and he wanted to make his exit memorable. So what did you do? Right in the middle of our final battle, his thief character secretly steals the gem from our paladin, and right after the battle he runs off with it (along with all of our party’s gold).

Needless to say, this was not even remotely what the game master had in mind. We were supposed to take the gem back and receive our reward from the Queen, simple and straight-forward. But the way the adventure concluded ended up being way more fun, and way more memorable, than what the game master had originally intended. In fact, the ending went over so well, and was so often talked about by the group, that the game master actually kept the player’s thief character in the game, using him as an antagonist who occasionally showed up to harass the rest of us in one way or another.

It’s this impromptu interactivity of different people that truly makes roleplaying games as much fun as they are, and it’s this same interactivity that makes them a wealth of inspiration for an open-minded writer. Not only do you get to explore and develop your own ideas, but you are constantly exposed to the ideas and creativity of the rest of the group. And with that final thought, I bring this week’s blog post to a close. Happy gaming!

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Teasing the Humans

In an effort to get myself back into a writing frame of mind, I dusted off one of my old short stories, polished it up a bit, and present it for you reading enjoyment:

Teasing the Humans

by Ryan Crown

The dragon glided along the air currents, only occasionally giving his wings a lazy flap. It was such a lovely day, not a cloud in the sky. The sun felt warm against his dark green scales. Days like this it was good to be a dragon.

Below him he could see the river. The humans had a name for it – humans had this strange need to name everything, something the dragon simply could not fathom. The dragon couldn’t be bothered to remember what they called it. Eventually the river would reach the lake. On the shores of the lake was a human fishing village.

The dragon caught a down draft that let him drop almost to the ground, and he skimmed across the surface of the river, picking up as much speed as he could, sending up a spray of water on both sides of his long, lean form. The contrast between the cool water splashing against his stomach and the warm sun on his back felt highly invigorating. It put him in the mood for mischief.

“What should I do to occupy myself on this fine day?” the dragon wondered aloud, frightening the local wildlife. As they did not speak dragon, all they heard was a terrifying roaring. “I know. It’s been ever so long since I visited the fishing village. I’ll bet they missed me!”

The dragon couldn’t help but smile at this. He hated to admit it, but he took an inordinate amount of pleasure from teasing the humans. They were just so frightfully serious about everything. Any time he’d wander past they’d start screaming and shouting and running around in a panic, and shooting their tiny little arrows at him, most of which never came anywhere near him. The rare one that actually found its mark would simply bounce off, so he never could quite figure out why they bothered.

Their reactions hadn’t ever made much sense to the dragon. Oh sure, he’d kill the occasional sheep or goat, but a dragon’s got to eat, same as anyone else. It wasn’t like he’d ever killed one of the villagers, and the one house he’d destroyed had been purely by accident. Surely they couldn’t hold that against him forever, could they?

Yes, the more he thought about it, the more he knew today would be a good day to tease the humans. He beat his wings faster, lifting up away from the surface of the water and into the air. He darted through the cross breezes, twirling and spinning, just enjoying the thrill of flight, feeling the power in his wings as they propelled him through the air.

Maybe that was why humans were always so serious. They were perpetually stuck on the ground, plodding along on their little legs. If only they could experience the joys of flight, the freedom of soaring above the clouds, maybe then they’d be happy and carefree, like he was. Of course, knowing how humans were, even if he did try to show one of them how joyous it was, they’d likely as not just start kicking and screaming. That’s just how those silly humans were.

Before long he could see the lake, and next to it the human village, nestled at the mouth of the river. He gave a loud, joyous roar as he dive bombed out of the sky. He’d dropped to treetop level just as he reached the outskirts of the village, and he skimmed just a few feet over the tops of the highest buildings as he made his first pass.

As expected, the humans immediate reaction was to panic, pointing up in the air and screaming, and rushing into their houses to hide. The dragon sailed over the village, then banked hard and circled back around to give it another pass. And look, there were the guardsmen with their little bows and arrows, right on cue! Maybe if he slowed down a couple of them might even hit him.

The dragon just couldn’t resist. He circled around and stopped himself over the middle of the village, just casually beating his wings, hovering above the village marketplace.

“Come on, men, here’s your chance,” he roared joyously. “Shoot the dragon, win a prize!”

And shoot they did, firing arrow after arrow up into the sky at him. Several of them even managed to hit him, the arrows bouncing harmlessly off his chest. If only they spoke dragon, he could tell them just how much fun he was having. He made another circle of the village, then winged away. Yes, that had indeed been a wonderful idea – it really was the little joys that made life worth living.

He floated along on the breeze, headed towards the mountains. Now that he’d had his fun, he was starting to feel a bit peckish. A nice tasty deer would just hit the spot. He scanned the forest, his senses focused as he searched for his lunch. He noticed a strange smell, and not a pleasant one. What was it? He inhaled deeply, and could just make it out. Ugh, goblins! Nothing quite so smelly as goblins. And nasty tasting – the dragon had only made that mistake once.

Curious to see what sort of mischief the vermin were up to, he veered off his course, heading towards the smell. And in no time at all, he found them. It was a large band, several dozen at least. They were just entering the corn fields outside the fishing village. The dragon passed high overhead, not wanting them to see him – not yet, at any rate. There they were, weapons in hand as they marched forward, yammering to each other in goblin.

The goblins were marching straight towards the village. And their numbers were great enough that if they caught the humans by surprise it would be a slaughter. Well, the dragon wasn’t having any of that! The humans were much too fun to have around to let them be slaughtered by a bunch of obnoxious, smelly goblins. Something would simply have to be done.

The dragon dropped from the sky, his wings pressed up against his body, roaring down towards the goblin formation. He pulled up several yards from the ground, unleashing a stream of dragon fire as he tore through their ranks. He grabbed a pair of them in his claws as he turned skywards, crushing their feeble bodies, then dropping them as he banked in the air and came around for another fiery pass.

Two bursts of dragon fire through their ranks was enough for the goblins – they scattered, fleeing towards the hills. The dragon smiled. A job well done. Not that the humans would appreciate it. More than likely they’d be too upset about their corn fields to pay any attention to the dead goblins. Okay, yes, his flames may have set their corn fields on fire, but he was sure they could save most of them. They were next to a lake, after all, so it wasn’t like they didn’t have ample access to water.

The dragon flew past the edge of the village as he returned to his search for lunch. He could hear the humans down below, screaming about the fire and the horrible menace that the dragon was. No appreciation at all. But that was to be expected from humans. Not that the dragon minded. For all their faults, the world simply wouldn’t be as much fun without them!

 

Copyright 2015 Ryan Crown
All Rights Reserved
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