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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

One of the things I do when I have a minute to spare, but can’t do much but think, say, while waiting at a traffic light, is to ponder a fictional setting that I’ve been puttering around with for years.  I think about pieces of that world, characters in it, historical events, magical mechanics, whatever seems most interesting at the moment.  I’ve written some of it down, and I’ve structured some of it into a series of stories I’d like to tell, and a lot of art I’d like to do.

Sometimes I find it helpful to share my creative process, if only because it forces me to think about it, and possibly refine it.  If you all can get something out of my meanderings, hey, that’s a bonus.

This time, I want to write about Geistflies.

Geistflies

These little guys, to be precise, or at least, a fictional variant:

Fireflies

(Photos by Tsuneaki Hiramatsu)

Fireflies (or lightning bugs, as some call them) are mostly harmless, but have a certain visual charm on dark nights where their lights show up.  As with so many other weird phenomena, they are ripe for fictional explanations.  We know today that fireflies glow thanks to chemical reactions, but a less informed populace might invent other reasons for the glow.  Sometimes these reasons are based in evidence and observation, sometimes they are pure whimsy.  Often, there’s a bit of both involved, especially if location is important and patterns show up.

And as is so often the case, reality can be weirder than fiction anyway.  Take, for example, the weird story of the “Angel’s Glow” from the U.S. Civil War.  Some Civil War soldiers had wounds that glowed in the dark.  Weird, crazy stuff.  That article is just outlining a theory still, but a reasonable one.  And yet, to a delirious soldier in the field, would bioluminescent hitchhiker bacteria be the first thought?

Anyway, I designed that Geistfly Swarm card for some friends a couple years back (which actually is why I started digging into card design, which led to the Tinker Decks and Tinker Dice).  I just used a photo from a quick online search and ran with it to mock up graphic design concepts.  The text is really just official looking gibberish I made up so it looked like a card from an actual game, and I did the rest of the graphic design, experimenting with visuals.  The title of the card, “Geistfly Swarm” was just part of this creative tinkering… but it’s a name that has stuck in my mind since then.  It was just an experiment with making an interesting sounding name, sort of like my mild fascination with alliteration, but there’s something interesting happening there.

One, it rolls off the tongue well, with a pair of vowel sounds that echo each other in the two syllables.  There’s a lyrical quality to the term.  This lyricism can inform the genesis of the term, culturally speaking, and how it’s applied in society in the novel setting.  Perhaps the whimsy involved means that it’s largely used as a children’s story term.  Perhaps, though, like the Grimm Brothers stories, there’s a dark secret at its heart, and it’s been candy coated by the pretty sounds over the years.

Two, it’s a mishmash of two languages, German and English.  What sort of culture would use such a mix?  Would anyone try to be more grammatically correct and call them “ghostflies”?  What effect would that have?

Three, what if there are two species involved?  Regular fireflies, where the term is used much as we would today, and then the geistflies?  What would differentiate the species?  Color?  Behavior?  Location?  Mechanics?

…and so I decided that geistflies are an offshoot of normal fireflies.  They live in my world that has magic, sometimes wild and powerful, sometimes regimented and almost baked down to a science.  This particular bug, the geistfly, doesn’t light up for the same reasons as the firefly.  No, these geistflies react to magic and light up purely as a matter of physiology and its reaction and proximity to magic.

That relatively simple idea sparks a new series of questions, then:

Can they be used as detectors?  Do they have different reactions to different “flavors” of magic?  Where do they live?  Can they be domesticated?  What is their life cycle, and are they only sensitive to magic when they are adults?  Do they feed on magic?  How do they interact with magic users or “spells”?

Where does their energy come from to light up?  

That one spawns even more questions, like “if they tap into the surrounding magic, how would that affect their behavior?” or “if lighting up drains their own energy, would that mean they avoid magic instinctively purely as a survival mechanism?”, and answers to those would modify the answers to other questions, like using them as detectors.

Or maybe this one:  Why are they called geistflies?  Have they been linked to ghosts?  Are they most prevalent around battlefields, creepy old buildings or graveyards?  They aren’t exactly pyreflies, but maybe there are echoes in there somewhere?

I haven’t decided on answers to all of these, and really, it’s possible to dive down the rabbit hole and chase a lot of different aspects of these questions and their implications.  To me, that’s one of the great parts of creative writing and worldbuilding.  I love asking and answering those questions, and finding out how different ideas play off of each other.

This is also why I love games, where some of that incredible potential can be given to players, making for all sorts of interesting effects.

I’ll work geistflies into the stories somehow.  Even little things like this, the details that aren’t the spine of adventure, but rather the spice, are sometimes extremely useful and even important.

P.S. I just ran into this today:

http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2014/01/bioluminescent-beach-maldives/

There’s a lot you can pull from real life weirdness for fictional worldbuilding.

bio-beach2

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I’m an animator.  I’m a writer.  I’m an artist.  I’m a math and science geek.  I’m a gamer and a game designer.  I do a lot of creative things, and always wish I could do more.  My interests are varied and my skillset rather “MacGyverish”, and I work at a fairly small company, so I don’t really focus on animation, but it’s what I earned my college degree in.  En route, I took many classes that required many papers to be written, and a handful of creative writing courses.  Much of what I ran into there was either dry and boring or trippy hippy artsy fartsy nonsense, but it was at least good practice.

So… this NaNoWriMo thing.  I’ve known about it for years, but I’m always too busy.  This year, I’m actually even more busy than I’ve ever been.  Still, I have a lot of novel ideas rattling around in my skull, and some of them really need to escape and see if they can’t spread their wings a little.  I’m sort of not really committing to anything, but I’m going to spend a bit of time writing a novel skeleton, if not a novel itself.  The thing is, there’s an interesting effect that I’ve noticed in my own writing that correlates really well to my animation.  I think that the animator’s Illusion of Life can apply to writing as well.

There’s a difference between “straight ahead” animation and “frame to frame” animation, or keyframe animation.  I’ve done traditional hand animation and computer animation.  I specialize in the latter, but enjoy both.  In both, straight ahead animation tends to produce a more lively, chaotic sort of feel, where the characters and action builds on itself and inertia carries the day.  Keyframe animation is much better when certain story beats or timing points need to be honored, and it’s especially useful for things like walk cycles and other sort of motions that game development uses (I presently work in games, though I’d love to animate for feature films).  Keyframing is also one of the major things that computer animation can leverage, since the computer can calculate the interim frames between keys, instead of needing an army of inbetweeners, as hand-drawn animation needs.  There’s still artistry in making the bezier-like animation curves carry weight and timing well, since computer interpolation is pretty dry and mathematical, so it’s not really a magic “Animate Awesome” button, but computer animation uses keyframing very frequently, simply because it’s good at it.  (And looking at those curves should give you an idea of how knowing math and physics are important to animation.)

Anyway, I’ve been thinking in similar terms for the novels I’d like to write.  There are “story beats” that I’d like to hit, character moments I’ve written mentally that I’d like to work in, and other assorted vignettes that I’ve worked more on than others.  It’s a sort of mental tapestry of ideas, themes, events and moments that I’d like to commit to paper.  It’s not so much a bullet-pointed outline as it is a sketch.  A sort of “concept art” for the story I’d like to write, a rough mental image that can be built into something stronger.  I’ve tightened the art a bit here and there, and left some other pieces loose so that they can be reworked as the whole thing comes into focus.

Interestingly, there’s a bit of what I wrote about here going on, too, where certain bits and bobs of detail can intimate other details, and ultimately, there really is a lot I can leave up to the reader.  It’s very much like a painting, in a way, where the novel has to carry enough detail and interest to let the reader fill in the gaps.  The interesting thing is that I think this applies in the creative process, too, where I hit the high points, the key frames, if you will, of my story, and then go back and fill in the gaps as necessary, but find ways to leave other gaps open for the reader.

As I’ve been writing this, then, in bits and pieces over the years, I do parts, the vignettes, in “straight ahead writing”, but I use those vignettes, those “fixed points in time“, as key frames to hang the larger story on.  It’s a relatively fluid approach, not unlike working from a sketch to a fully realized painting.  Like figure drawing, It’s important to nail down a good sketch, understanding the skeletal structure, musculature, physics and such, before going on to finish a piece.  Some elements can be done in a relatively straightforward manner, and other things might need to be left in the air, and in many ways, the whole piece gets attention over time, instead of just drawing a head, polishing it to a shine, then doing shoulders and so on.  More than once, I’ve seen students do that sort of thing in figure drawing sessions, and then they are surprised when they run out of room at the bottom of the paper for the legs of the model.  The piece really works best when considered as a whole from the outset, even if some of the process winds up being really straightforward, like rendering a face or a hand.

I know, it’s a bit of a stretch, writing about how visual art creative principles inform my writing, and all without using much in the way of visuals to underscore the idea (though the links I’ve included have good visuals).  Still, I thought it might prove useful to try to illustrate how these principles of creativity can bleed between disciplines, and how learning in one sphere can enhance another.  I’ve long believed that, like the basic physiology of neurons, creativity and intelligence grow as you start making connections between individual building blocks of your palette.  If you want to have a rich imagination, you really should be inquisitive and explore.  Learn as much as you can.  Find things that allow you to reframe an idea in a way that you haven’t looked at it before, and it will help you understand what you’re looking at.  Look for the connections and look for the different perspectives.

And then commit it to paper.  I sketch most often with a ballpoint pen.  It forces me to either roll with the mistakes or do it right in the first place.  It’s an emboldening process, ultimately, even though mistakes are inevitable.  Funny how often that’s true.

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Dice can be useful to randomize letters, say, when you’re making a cipher, or trying to write fantasy or science fiction proper names.  Ojmwrgm, the pirate, for example.

D20 Alphabet

Unless you’re trying for something like Drizzt.  Or any other name requiring a Q, U, V, X, Y or Z.  This is just a 20-sided die, after all.  (Though they keep the C, K and S, when they could have left out the C as redundant.  English is weird.)

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It looks like Professor Beej‘s Birthright novel’s Kickstarter project has reached its funding goal.  Of course, while there’s momentum, the good Professor has extended a new mini-goal to pay for some more sweet cover art.

If you haven’t investigated Birthright yet, it’s a perfect time to do so.  Professor Beej wrote this article on it a while back, and he has other commentary over at his site.

For what it’s worth, I chipped in on the Kickstarter, but even before that, Beej let me read a bit of his earlier draft for the book.  While I didn’t have much time to read it, I was left itching for more.  It’s interesting, well written, and is curiously founded on a conceptual conceit distilled directly from games.  I’m really looking forward to the final book and whatever else Beej winds up doing with his pocket universe(s).

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A little while back, Syl mused about how World of Warcraft has changed her in an article thisaway.  Others chimed in like Victor, over here, and Rakuno over here.  I figured I’d jump in, since I haven’t done enough navel-gazing lately.  To dig into what MMOs have done to me, I need to go back to the 90s, before I did anything with them.

I work in the game industry.  I play games.  A lot of different games.  MMOs are just a small slice of my game library and vocabulary (though they tend to consume a disproportionate amount of time), but they have had some significant effects on me over the last 6 years or so.

My background is primarily in RPG games and tactical games.  I’ve played RTS, FPS, driving, fighting, puzzle, and other games, but most of my gaming time before MMOs was with epic RPGs like Final Fantasies, Chrono Trigger, Star Ocean 2 and the like.  Back in… 2002? or so, I remember seeing an advertisement in a magazine for the upcoming World of Warcraft.  It wasn’t the first online game I’d heard of (Sierra’s The Realm gets that honor, I think, and I was aware of Ultima Online), but it looked really good, and I liked the Warcraft IP, having spent many fun hours with Warcraft and Warcraft 2.  That was the draw, really, the ability to prowl through the jungles at ground level as a single character, rather than the third person nonentity I was in the Warcraft RTS games.  In short, I was captivated by the idea of exploring the WORLD of Warcraft.

Of course, the blasted thing is an online game, and the only place I had internet access was at school or work.  Those were the only places I had a computer capable of then-modern gaming as well.  Yes, I spent a lot of time with classics like Master of Magic, Master of Orion 1&2, X-Com (the old, good one), Privateer and the like well past their heyday.  I’ve always been a late adopter of games, really.  It’s better on the wallet.  Anyway, while WoW looked appealing, there was no way I was going to be able to play it, so I ever-so-slightly wistfully pushed it aside and ignored it.

In the meantime, I graduated from college in 2003, then got a full-time job that let me buy a then-powerful laptop that I fully intended to play games with.  I still didn’t have an internet connection (and to this day, I still think the darn things are too expensive), but I had a computer that could finally play Morrowind.  I was hooked, finally happy to be wandering through a fantasy world that was so much more interesting to me than my FPS experience in Wolfenstein (the old one) and Doom (also the old one).  I got lost along the shores outside of the starting town, died a few times, and then downloaded a few hacks.  I found I wasn’t all that interested in playing the right way, I just wanted to putter around in a fantasy world.  Imagine that.

It was while I was working in that first post-graduation job that I ran into someone actually playing that World of Warcraft thing.  He played during lunch, mining, mostly.  I watched him maneuver his zombie-ish guy around some barren-looking canyons, mining some sort of rocky nodes.  I think, looking back, that it was maybe in Thousand Needles, one of my favorite locations in the game before the Shattering.  He showed me around a little, noting that his “real” character was an Orc Shaman.  He offered me a ten-day buddy key to try out the game, and I graciously accepted.

I still didn’t have an internet connection.

So, I installed it on my office computer and played a little during lunch like he did.  Yes, we played games at work.  We were working in the game industry, and every one of us were gamers.  One guy played Magic the Gathering Online for lunch, and sometimes we all played the actual card game for lunch.  And it was good.  The bosses didn’t play games as much as we did, but they didn’t mind us playing, even with company assets like the computers and internet connection, so long as we got all our hours in and got our work done.

Anyway, I had ten days to play, only during lunch, only at work.  It was little more than a taste of the game, really.  I fired up a Tauren Shaman and puttered around.  I learned what the WoW notion of quests were, and I followed some breadcrumbs around the hill to a small Tauren town, then made my way up the road to Thunder Bluff, still my favorite capital city in the game.  I learned Skinning and Leatherworking, charmed with the ability to make my own gear.  It felt like my Tauren was a self-sufficient adventurer in a larger world.  It was good.

The game’s reality lurked in the wings, though.  I wanted some more backpack space since I kept winding up with lots of junk I picked up off of the critters I killed, but I couldn’t buy anything from the auction house and vendor bags were too expensive.  I figured I’d use Leatherworking to make some kodo hide bags, since there were kodos just downhill.  Silly me, I figured it should be easy.  Just go kill and skin a few kodos (they are huge, and should have plenty of leather apiece) and then stitch together a bag or four.

…the last three days of my trial were spent trying to make those stupid bags.  I had to skin several dozen critters to qualify for skinning kodos.  I had to kill dozens of kodos just to get one scrap of kodo leather.  I needed six such pieces to make one bag.  I stuck with it because it was my “endgame” goal for the time I had.  I never actually did finish even a single bag.

It was stupid.

That, in a microcosm, is the WoW experience, I think.  Fascination with the world and its potential, ownership of your own little avatar in that world, seeing new sights and new monsters… then running face first into the soul-crushing time sinks that the game uses to suck people into that next sweet month of subscription money.  I learned enough about the game to know I still loved the idea of the World of Warcraft, but that the game itself got in the way.  Even if I had internet access at home at that time, I still wouldn’t have bothered with the game because of the absurd subscription business plan… and to be honest, I did want to keep playing, but I was already getting burned out a bit, just because of the stupid grindy pacing of the crafting system.  It was probably good that I didn’t keep going at that point, since I was still on the edge of still liking the game for what it could be, and could go on pretending that it was exactly what I hoped it was.

Soon after that, I found Puzzle Pirates, and it was like I had found a home I never knew I was missing, and I didn’t have to pay a sub for it.  It’s still my MMO home.  I was hooked there by the gameplay, not so much the sense of the world, though I did love “memming” the ocean solo, still scratching that Explorer itch.  It helped that I was pretty good at the game (skill is more important there than time investment), and that I got my own ship without reaching some arbitrary “endgame”.  I didn’t much mind that I was missing out on the WoW craze.  I had something that fit me better, and really, it still does, seven years later.  In fact, last night I finally won my first Swordfighting tournament.  Sometimes it’s the small goals that make the most fun.  It is also the only MMO that my wife has played with me for more than a half hour.  She gave Guild Wars a good try, but it just didn’t stick.

It wasn’t until… 2008 or so, when the ten-day passes were obsolete and anyone could just sign up for a ten day trial, that I tried the game again.  I played another ten day trial, this time with my home desktop and internet connection (albeit a cheap one, which made the game laggy… which didn’t help).  The game still looked nice, and it was fun to make a new character, hoping for good times.  This time I did a little more research on the game and fired up a Druid.  I’ve loved Druids ever since.  I have a soft spot for Hunters and Shaman still, but I’m a Druid player at heart.  I had fun, learned Bear form, messed around a bit shifting between forms as necessary… then my time ran out.  I still mostly liked the game, but still wasn’t going to pay to keep playing.  I was mad enough that I had to pay $50/month for the internet connection.

The wider world of MMO gaming had been opened to me, though.  I tried a bunch, from Dungeons and Dragons Online to Guild Wars to Lord of the Rings Online to Atlantica Online to Star Trek Online to Allods Online to Wizard 101 to Neosteam to Free Realms to City of Heroes to DC Universe Online to my latest experiment, Pirates of the Burning Sea, and others in between that I’m not remembering at the moment.  I (quickly) grew tired of the DIKU grind, always chasing levels and loot.  I decided that playing with others can sometimes be OK, but that I’m still a soloist at heart.  I studied game design, business models and the game industry.  I found some MMO blogs as I studied the silly things and their communities, and eventually started a blog of my own.  This is why this blog still has a backbone of MMO analysis, but it’s not devoted to any one game or even stuck solely on games at all.  I came to this blogging world because of MMOs.

I may not be a MMO groupie, but I still find value in the sociality involved with the games and blogging in general.

So that’s what MMOs have done for me.  They have introduced me to bloggers I consider friends, they have increased my knowledge of the game industry and game design, and given me well over 6000 screenshots that I can use for inspiration (I’m an artist, after all).  My knowledge of games, my chosen career, has been enhanced by the wider world of the internet and how games work in that shared social space, whether or not they are designed for it.

My life is richer, not necessarily for having played MMOs, but for what they have led me to.

…but I still hate subscriptions.

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I’ve written about this before, notably in these two articles…

Merely Magical

Thinking Magic

…and Professor Beej’s article last time reinforced some of my thoughts on rules and their function.  I think rules are important to creativity.  You can’t think outside the box until you know where the box is.  If nothing else, thinking about how things work leads to story hooks, like trying to figure out what happens when death breaks, as I did in my Death Unhinged article.  I’m firmly in the camp of “magic should have rules”.

Still, I wanted to add a couple more links to articles that I’ve seen lately on magic and the rules behind its use in fiction.

First, there’s this ranty gem from N. K. Jemison, titled “But, but, but — WHY does magic have to make sense?“.  I boil it down to “magic isn’t science, so why play by science’s logic and rules?”  This is one school of thought, appealing to some, but not really all that interesting to me.  I consider it to have a fatal flaw:  it’s way too easy for authors to metamagic themselves out of writing errors by just handwaving away their solutions by saying “but, but, but, it’s MAGIC“.  In this style of magic fiction, magic is a tool the author uses to write the story.

In the sort of fiction I prefer, magic is a tool that the characters use to solve their problems within the story.  Brandon Sanderson has a great article up thisaway on this, ultimately boiling things down to his “first law” thusly:

Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

This is a critical difference, I think, albeit perhaps a subtle one.  Magic can and should let weird things happen in stories.  That’s sort of the point of fiction, exploring “what if” questions that come with powers that we as readers don’t naturally have or situations we’d not normally encounter.  Magic fuels a lot of those crazy circumstances.  Still, for me, magic should feel like it’s part of the world it inhabits, even if it’s a weird part.  The effects that magic has on a world need to flow from how magic works, or else the world risks being completely arbitrary, with no sense of consequence for actions.  When cause and effect are decoupled, there is little learning that characters can do, and little that they can do to enact their agency and make choices.

If magic doesn’t lend itself to comprehension, it serves little purpose in the story but to impose the capricious will of a mad deity, whether that’s the author or something in-universe.  There’s certainly a place for that in the body of fiction on the whole, but I find it makes for unsatisfying storytelling, since it’s often all too easy to see the author’s hand in events, the chicanery behind the curtain, as it were.  That, or the story is so random that it doesn’t satisfy my desire to see characters grow instead of just live through a story, marking time by hitting the plot points.

One of the examples I often point to is, of all things, a comic book.  I imagine myself as an author on Marvel’s X-Men comics, specifically, looking for things for Iceman or Magneto to do.  Iceman is apparently an “Omega level” mutant, with incredible, nearly god-like powers.  Magneto isn’t quite at that point, but his power to magnetically manipulate metals can have a lot of curious uses.  I’ve seen authors have him slow the flow of blood to a character’s brain by controlling the metal in red blood cells, thereby making that character pass out.  It’s a remarkably subtle use of magnetism, and a reminder that as ubiquitous as metals are, Magneto can and should be able to do a great many different things, all from one simple, core power.  Iceman, on the other hand, far from his humble beginnings as a goofy guy who wore a self-made suit of snow and threw snowballs, has wide ranging powers that let him affect material at the subatomic level, which has an even wider range of applications.  Authors exploring what he can do keep coming up with new tricks for his mutant powers, like being able to use a body of water as an extension of himself to travel far distances nearly instantaneously, or his “organic ice” form that can be broken and reformed at will, effectively making him immortal since his consciousness and control aren’t linked to any particular given assembly of material.

These characters function according to known scientific rules, yet wind up doing things that are more or less “magical” simply by being something that most mortals can’t do.  The storytelling potential is still huge, but because of the built in limits, the characters are grounded in plausibility.  That goes a long way to selling the “what if” in my mind, simply because I can actually place myself in the character’s position and try to see how they might solve problems.  That empathy is a big part of why I like fictional characters, and is important for keeping me engaged in the story.

If, on the other hand, characters just function like pawns in an author’s storycrafting, going where they need to and doing what the story plot demands, I’m far less satisfied in the story.  To be fair, magic isn’t the only way this is a problem.  Stories that only function if the characters are complete idiots are also pretty annoying.  Still, if magic is the glue that keeps characters working like good little cogs in a story, they come across less as characters, and more like, well… tools.  This isn’t always going to be the case when magic is capricious and/or arbitrary, but it’s far easier for an author with rule-free magic to just pull what they need from their bag of tricks, plausible or no.  This “Deux ex Machina” solution to narrative problems is generally unsatisfying, denying characters the chance to carry the day because of their choices, determination or other assorted heroic stuff.

Case study:  the backlash against the ending of Mass Effect 3, where Stuff Just Happened (that link is a really great video review, by the way) in the narrative at the last minute to make the prebaked Dramatic endings work.  Yeah, it’s not just magic that has this problem.

This all underlines the core problem I have with rule-free magic.  It’s a useful tool for authors to wiggle out of awkward writing, a cheap solution to a situation that doesn’t make sense.  The narrative becomes less about the characters and the world, more about how things work out to where the author wants them to be.  That sort of story can work, sure, it’s just not the sort of story that I like all that much.  Naturally, this means I have to be careful to keep my fiction writing from slipping into territory where I’m using characters as tools, not letting characters use the tools within their world.  This shouldn’t be too hard, as seeing how characters work in a world is fun both when writing and reading… but still, though I’m ultimately in control of my own fictional worlds, I want to let characters exercise their agency as much as possible, and for consequences to flow logically from their choices.  I know, anthropomorphising them that way is kind of silly, but, well, that’s what I do when I get creative.  I suspect other authors do as well.

Speaking of other authors, though, this fellow thinks that rules are useful, too:  Erik Robert Nelson’s Does Magic Need Rules? (spoiler:  he answers in the affirmative)

Thusly and thenceforthly, for those characters to have agency, there need to be clear choices to be made and consequences for those choices.  This requires rules for comprehension for how the choices and the consequences correlate.  Meaningful choices cannot be made in completely capricious settings with no comprehensional cohesion.  As we see with language itself, rules facilitate understanding.  That doesn’t mean rules can’t be broken, but if there are no rules and Stuff Just Happens, figgledy barglesnipe verbiage into# abnarwt bthppp!

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Professor Beej, a professor, a Beej, a writer, a gamer, and an all-round good guy, is writing a series of novels that I’m really looking forward to, starting with Birthright.  He has a Kickstarter page up and running, which he describes over at his place at this link, and he’s been making the blogging rounds writing about his writing, like this post over at Syp’s Bio Break and this one over at Ferrel’s Epic Slant.  He has graciously offered a great post on writing for me to share here, which is just the sort of background analysis of the production process that I love.  So without further ado, Professor Beej, class is in session!

Three Rules of Worldbuilding and Design

When you’re a kid, and you think about authors and writers and how they get to tell stories and make stuff up it sounds awesome. Because that’s their job. To make stuff up.

Then, when you’re an adult, and you think about authors and writers and how they get paid to make stuff up, it sounds even awesomer. Because, come on. They’re getting paid to make stuff up. And you think to yourself, I can do that.

So you sit down to write your novel, to make stuff up. And you do. You have rocketships and dragons and wizards and bugbears, but not one single, eency-teency thing you’ve written down makes a bit of sense.

Because you made stuff up. You made it up good. You just didn’t make it up well.

You see, there’s something you didn’t think about when you were fantasizing about how awesome making stuff up for a living could be: fictional worlds, even science-fictional and fantastical worlds, have to be governed by rules. And you have to be the one to enforce those rules.

Kind of sucks the fun right out of it, doesn’t it?

It shouldn’t. It’s a bit of work, sure, but I came up with 3 guidelines that helped keep my characters, technology, and narrative on track when I was working on The Technomage Archive (my upcoming trilogy that starts with the novel Birthright).

They worked for me, so I think they will for you, too.

1. Write in Limitations from the Start

Alan Scott’s Green Lantern ring couldn’t affect anything made out of wood, and Hal Jordan’s was baffled by the color yellow  In Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, magic only works by characters burning flakes of metal in their stomachs–no more metal, no more magic. In Dungeons and Dragons, wizard spells are often one-offs and have to be relearned for each new use.

By having magic or technology be intrinsically fallible, you can avoid Superman or Luke Skywalker syndrome. Kryptonite is cool and all, but when Supes can grab an entire continent made of the stuff and fly it into outer-space, that limit ain’t so limiting. And Luke Skywalker…well, you tell me where the glass-ceiling is when size matters not.

In Birthright, the technomages get their power from nanotechnology. The really powerful technomages have had their blood replaced by nanites, while newbies have to wear a thin sleeve of nanites like a second-skin. What this distinction did for me as an author was rein in the power-levels between various characters so that their interactions and conflicts actually meant something.

Where one character might be able to Conjure wings and fly himself or herself out of trouble, the newbies in the sleeves simply don’t have enough nanomachines to do the job. They can try, but they can’t succeed because the rules of the universe forbid it.

2. Find a sweet spot between technobabble, pseudoscience, and good-old-fashioned analogies

Birthright is a difficult project to describe because I try to blend multiple genres into the conventions that make up the narrative. There’s a fantasy plot in a science-fiction world–kind of like how Firefly is a western in space. As awesome as that is, it also presents a number of problems in terms of marketing and comprehension.

Namely, will fantasy fans know what I’m talking about when I mention hyperspace? Will science-fiction fans rage if I simplify this theory to make it fit in my universe?

With that in mind, I had to make a compromise. I wanted Birthright to read like a story, not a mathematical proof (I’m looking at you, Ringworld), but at the same time, I didn’t want to be accused of “teching the tech” with scads of meaningless technobabble. So every bit of technology and “magic” within The Technomage Archive is based on some kind of real science–proven or theoretical. Whether it’s nanotechnology, pocket universes, or even hyperspace, the world of the novel is based on science.

Note the key phrase there. “Based on science.” Like fan-favorite movies and made-for-TV crime dramas, I’ve taken the science and boiled it down to its consummate parts. Because damn it, Jim, I’m an English teacher, not a scientist.

And neither are you (unless you are a scientist, in which case, I’m sorry for making hasty generalizations). I had to find that sweet spot between verisimilitude and narrative accessibility.

For instance, when one character is trying to explain hyperspace travel to a group of disoriented and frightened technomage recruits, he can’t very well start throwing around PhD-level jargon. He breaks it down into a rudimentary analogy so the recruits–and the readers–can understand.

Here’s an excerpt of that scene:

“Right now, we are traveling through hyperspace—“

“What are you talking about?” asked another voice from the crowd.  “Hyperspace?  Did you just make that up?”

Roman was nonplussed.  He was used to that kind of disrespect during these initial moments.  This was a lot to take in, so he forgave the kids a little rudeness.  “No,” he said. “I didn’t.  Hyperspace is pretty easy to understand.  Think about it like this.  Have you ever rubbed your hands together and felt heat build up, that burning sensation?”

The student said, “Well, yeah.”

“Well, it’s friction doing that.  Now, have you ever rubbed your hands together with something between them?  Like some water, jelly, anything like that?”

“I guess.”

“Does it make it easier to rub your hands together?  Does it stop the burning and make you not blister?”

“I guess.”

“Well, think of that jelly, water, or whatever, as hyperspace.  If we were to move through normal space, we’d be slowed down by what you can basically think of as friction.  There’s a limiting force to how fast we can go without destroying ourselves, kind of like that burning when you run your hands together too fast.  However, if we coat ourselves in jelly, so to speak, we can move far more quickly and far more smoothly to where we’re going without burning ourselves up from too much friction.  Does that make sense?”

“So we’re in a spaceship that’s covered in jelly?” the student asked.

“It’s not a perfect metaphor,” Roman said.

“It’s a stupid metaphor.”

3. Screw it.

Just make sure that you keep some perspective. Worldbuilding can be frustrating and thankless. But you’re the one in control. You make the rules, and by that same logic, you get to decide when to break them. Just make sure that whether you are making the rules or breaking them, there is consistency and logic in what you do. Your readers will thank you.

At the end of the day, when you’re irritated that your characters aren’t playing nice with each other and the story doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, just remember that people are giving you money to make stuff up.

And that’s pretty freaking awesome.

B.J. Keeton is currently running a Kickstarter campaign for Birthright, the first book in The Technomage Archive series. He is is a writer, blogger, and teacher. When he isn’t trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he writes science fiction, watches an obscene amount of genre television, and is always on the lookout for new ways to integrate pop culture into the classroom. B.J. lives in a small town in Tennessee with his wife and a neighborhood of stray cats, and he blogs about pop culture, geek media, and awesomeness atwww.professorbeej.com.

 

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Rowan’s post today of some cool word art done by Lilpeanut reminded me of Wordle, a curious Java-based word art toy.  It strikes me that Wordle is not just a fun little toy, but also a potentially useful diagnostic tool for analyzing your blogging.

Specifically, I looked at this, a Wordle cloud of my then-current RSS feed before this post.  Noting that word size is determined by how often that word is used, it looks like I use the word “something” perhaps overmuch, and “just” just a few more times than might be necessary.

Tish Tosh Tesh Wordle

This isn’t to say that a perfect even distribution of words is ideal or necessary, but I look at it like I look at my “artist’s crutch”.  When I’m in a drawing rut, I tend to just grab the same old familiar tools (in my case a ballpoint pen and a sketchbook) and start doodling the same old things (the old standbys; familiar monster faces, figure drawing poses, whatever).  It’s an artistic crutch that I fall back on instead of pushing myself into new territory that might expand my skillset and mental palette.

Most creative types do this.  We don’t usually write, draw, paint or whatever at full creativity all the time.  We find stuff we’re good at and fall back on it when we’re at a low ebb in our creativity.  You can see this in fine art (Frank Frazetta), literature (Isaac Asimov), movies (Tim Burton), TV (Joss Whedon) or any artist’s body of work, to some degree or another.  It’s nice to be consistently good at something, but it’s also important to keep learning.

Blogging is a creative endeavor (some more creative than others), so it’s good to shake up the formula or habits once in a while (like this silly post of mine answering a challenge from Big Bear Butt).  It keeps you sharp, and keeps readers from being bored.

At least, that’s the hope.  Sometimes there’s a fine line between “creative” and “dumb parlor trick” or “incoherent”.

Anyway, food for thought.  I like to provide that, at least.

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I’ve been spoiled by hyperlinks.

They have changed the way I research and the way I write.  I’ve spoken many times to different people, noting that education is fostered by the human brain making connections between disparate data.  That was sort of the “Sherlock Holmes” schtick, pulling arcane data from pockets of his memory to make connections nobody else did, thereby properly fitting together the puzzle in front of him.  We learn more when we make connections.  (Incidentally, that’s true socially, which is why this blogging thing has value beyond just blathering.)  It’s even biological.  Neurons function by making connections, that’s how the brain functions and how memory works.

Once upon a time, back in junior high and high school, I wrote a lot of papers.  I learned how to write to a specific length instead of write what the topic needed, how to use bigger and more words when smaller or fewer would do, how to use paragraphs and carriage returns to get a little extra length, and as Calvin notes, that  the purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning, and inhibit clarity. With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog! To this day, I’m sure it could be argued that I am rather more… verbose… than needs be, and that I parse things a little differently than most, but I do blame this more on the vast amount of reading I’ve done than the excruciating amount of writing for assignments that I’ve done.  By the time I was writing for my college Technical Writing class, I was actually cutting back on what I wrote so I didn’t go over the required length by 25% or more.  Of course, being a Technical Writing class, it was still about obscuring data and sounding educated, rather than educating the reader.  We certainly can’t have those uneducated people actually understanding what we college educated folk do.

Ahemhemhem.   Tangential diatribe aside, noting that sarcasm and tone don’t always carry over the interweb tubes, I’d note that blogging and writing in general are all about communication.  If you’re writing to show you’re smarter than the reader, well… that’s communication, but it’s pretty rude.  I know, I know, it’s just how textbooks work, but that doesn’t mean it’s right or even useful.

Anyway, back to linking (tangents are part of the concept of linking, incidentally; they are one way to pull in relevant information and expand your knowledge base), I’ve done a LOT of writing, and most of the time, I needed to cite my references.  Usually that was done with footnotes or endnotes.  I’ve fallen headlong into habits of citing my references, parenthetical asides and running tangents.  I’d like to think that’s good practice (the citations, at least), but it really can get a wee bit messy sometimes with all the superscripts or subscripts.  These days, though, I don’t use those, I just put in a hyperlink where it’s relevant.

If anything, this actually cuts down on my parenthetical asides.  I just plow on through my topic at hand, plugging in links where I’d previously have needed to explain something for a paragraph or so.  I can just trust that what I write makes sense on its own to anyone sufficiently well versed in the topic, and those who aren’t have a handy dandy link there to go catch up with.  It’s a sort of conversational shorthand, a way to appeal to a wider audience without breaking the flow of the text, and without indulging in full blown pedant mode, explaining everything in excruciating, formal detail.  This actually makes teaching in person harder… I get into a habit of assuming my audience knows what I’m talking about, and when they clearly don’t, I don’t have the time in real time to tell them to go read a link, I have to go back and explain things.  I’ve mentioned before that the persistent, asynchronous nature of blogs is a good thing, right?  I could explain everything, as I am very familiar with teaching methods, the scientific method and realllly tedious term papers, but I’ve found that writing is much more entertaining and flows better when I’m not stuck in “explain everything” mode.

Links are a crucial reflection of my thought process.  Perhaps that means I’m unfocused, but it really is my experience that chasing tangents and making those intellectual connections is the backbone of how I manage information and retain it for future use.  I loathe memorization, as a rote series of data points with no context is little more than GIGO, just data to regurgitate for a test somewhere.  It’s only by placing data in context with other information that I begin to care about it and retain it.  To this day, the only thing I remember of history before high school is memorizing the U.S. presidents and their dates of service.  I don’t remember the list, I remember how much I hated memorization.  (This song would have made it so much more fun.)  It was only in high school that teachers finally started putting the pieces together and teaching context, and boom, suddenly history was fascinating.  It all started making sense because of the links between disparate bits of data.  We chased down implications and unintended consequences, we looked at political ripples, we chased down echoes, sometimes hundreds of years later.  That’s all awesome stuff, but it gets lost in the memorization shuffle.  As kids, we were ever learning (and forgetting) data, never learning wisdom.

So, while links on the internet can and often are merely traffic-inducing plugs, for better or worse (as Wilhelm humorously notes), I think they are a great reflection of how the human mind works.  I also have to wonder on occasion if this whole ADHD craze is unfortunate sometimes.  I think it’s healthy to flit between topics and chase down implications and connections.  The trick may be to pull it all together in the end, but if we’re not mentally flitting about a bit, we’re not going to see the bigger picture.  My fourth grade teacher taught us how to “brainstorm” and see where our associative processes took us.  In retrospect, that was a very valuable lesson to learn at a relatively young age.

In a way, the “blogosphere” functions like a sort of shared brain.  Ideas can spark between writers, each bringing a different viewpoint to the process.  Links between blogs and references are like the connections between neurons, and since blogs are more or less persistent, once those links are forged, there’s a good chance that at least some of us learned something, and perhaps most importantly, that someone can come to it later and also learn.  Perhaps we can think of it as the wetware Skynet or something.

So, if you’re new to blogging, use those links!  Leverage the hivemind, jack your voice into the conversation.  When you’re reading someone else’s blog, chase some of the links sometimes, and see what’s out there to learn.  Learn how to read fast and think faster, making those links in your own brain.

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All this New Blogger Initiative stuff has reminded me of one of the common pithy bits of supposed “wisdom” that I’ve heard since junior high, when “inspirational” speakers try to tell us good little empty-headed starry-eyed students what to do with our lives and careers.  Perhaps you’ve heard this one before?

Find a job doing what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.

It’s my experience that this is not only shallow and semantic, but the philosophy is actively bad for long term health.

There are a few aspects to this:

  • Turning a love or hobby into a job is effectively ceding control of that interest to those who write the checks.  Whether you’re working for The Man as a cog in a machine, or The Herd as an entrepreneurial wizard, you’re still tying your love to money.  That always changes things.  And, as the EASpouse storm made more aware, and this story of Free Radical underlines (hattip to Anjin), passion is easily exploited by unsavory management, canny to optimize assets and maximize revenue.
  • Jobs and work are usually crucial to staying alive; paying the bills, food and shelter, that sort of thing.  Money is almost always a necessity for mere survival, and work is usually how you get it.  That’s healthy, as I reckon it, because I think work itself is a good principle, but the last thing you should want to do with an interest you love is make it something you must do, rather than something you want to do.  It then crosses the threshold into an imposition on your time and energy, rather than something you approach at your leisure.  It controls you, rather than you controlling it.
  • One of the best ways to lose interest in something is to see how other people screw it up.  Hobbyists and wage slaves both have to deal with people at some level, but again, when money is involved, you’re letting someone else have inordinate say in your interest.  No longer are they just a passive voice that can be debated or ignored.  No, customers and corporate controllers cannot be ignored, and when you don’t agree, sticking to your guns can have a real monetary impact.  Maybe that’s a tradeoff worth making sometimes, but it inevitably changes the tenor of how you approach your work.

I’d argue that this applies to your motivation to blogging as well.  To be sure, you can start a blog with the intention of making it a revenue stream, but then it’s a job.  That’s OK, but it’s different from just blogging for the sheer love of communication and shared ideas.

I don’t do what I do here for money.  I work a day job doing something else (I’m an artist at Wahoo/NinjaBee studios), and write here as occasion permits.  Sure, I’ll do some side projects that will occasionally net me a little spending money, like some of my Shapeways or Zazzle/CafePress merchandise, and I’d certainly be pleased to make some money with some of my game designs someday, but that’s just icing on the cake.  I designed Alpha Hex for a contest, and have been refining it in fits and spurts ever since.  I designed Zomblobs! because I wanted to play it and maybe even see others play it.  I’m writing a series of novels because I want the story told.  In other words, I follow a maxim something like this:

Find a job you’d be happy doing, so you can pay for the things you really want to be doing.

Initially, I wanted to work in movies.  I grew up on Disney animation (and I’m introducing my children to DuckTales), lots of drawing and tons and tons of reading.  Animation is what my BFA degree was geared for, and I did very well in the program.  Maybe I will yet work in film someday, but I know what goes on in that particular sausage factory, and I’m OK with not being a part of it, though I’ll toy with the idea of making my own movies sometimes.  I also wanted to get a Ph.D. in Astrophysics, simply for the sheer love I have for the science, but I took a hard look at the politically charged career paths there and decided I’d maintain the love as an indie and try to pass it on to my children, rather than get burned out by the pragmatic concerns of a career in the sciences, rather than just working on science because it interests me.

I think this is partially what drives indie game developers, at least at some level.  Making games for the sheer love of making games has a tendency to produce some great stuff.  I’d hold up Minecraft as an obvious example, but there are plenty of others.  The Rampant Coyote is my touchpoint for getting a bead on good indie games, though the Humble Bundle and Indie Royale are good to check now and then.

That’s not to say that projects like Psychochild’s Storybricks are somehow lessened by monetary concerns, or devoid of passion.  No, it just means that Storybricks, for all its indie pedigree and passion, is still being worked on as a commercial product.  Psychochild and his intrepid coworkers are working at making the tech interesting and useful, not noodling around in a garage somewhere for the sheer joy of tinkering.  I stress that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this, in fact, it’s the wellspring of human progress, the backbone of capitalism.  Working on something with the aim of making money with it can be an honorable pursuit.  This whole Kickstarter thing even taps into the market in new ways, letting customers echo their support of passionate developers instead of waiting for the AAA venture capital machine to churn out homogenized focus-group approved games.  (And yes, I’ve pledged support for Storybricks; it really looks like a sweet project.)  There’s plenty of love out there on commercial projects, and I suspect that the vast majority of them start as labors of love.

It’s just not the same thing as working on something because you love the work, the thing or both.  Money changes the priorities somewhere along the line, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes gross, sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better.  (Money changes how we handle things as consumers, too.  It’s not just a producer thing.)

I’ve told my wife on occasion that even if I were independently wealthy, living off of a mine of oil or something in my back yard, I’d still be working hard, just on different things.  I’d push the design of Zomblobs! even more, and develop its sister game that I’ve had rattling around in my mind.  I’d make a steampunk fabrication lab behind the house.  (Probably not by the oil well, though.)  I’d write and illustrate more books.  As it is, I’m doing those things when I can, in small ways, but if I didn’t have to work for a living, I’d simply have more time for the things I love to do.  I’d still love to work and produce things I consider valuable, it would just have a different tenor to the process.  If money could be made with the fruits of my labor, hey, that’s a bonus, but it wouldn’t be the reason for working.  I’d be working because I value what I’d be doing and what I’d be producing.

Maybe it’s all in my head, but I’ll tell you this:  when I am compelled by circumstance to do something, it is a task that I may well grow to resent, no matter how much I might like it initially.  When I choose to do something, to act on my own rather than be acted upon, my love for the task is not ground away as I go, but rather, it grows.

Those times when I don’t feel like posting on this blog, I don’t.  It starts to feel like an obligation sometimes, whether I’m feeling pressure to post something so I can keep people coming (I do want to share my game designs, after all), or when I feel like I want to comment on some topic of the month but can’t work up the right words, or some other circumstance where I’m not writing but I feel like I should be… those are times when blogging feels like a job, not something I do because it’s fun.  It’s much harder to write at that point.  I’m not of a mind that you have to push through it and post anyway.  If you do that, you’re treating it like it’s a job, and again, it inevitably colors your attitude.  Sure, there still might be something good in those posts, but they have a different feel to them, and in my experience, they aren’t as strong or as interesting.

There’s definitely something to be said for liking your job.  I like mine, and I’m happy with what I produce.  Working at a job you don’t like gets old fast.  That aside, I’m firmly of the mind that hobbies and labors of love need to be spontaneous and self-directed, or else they change into something else.  That something else might be good as well, but it’s different.  There is great value in doing something simply for the sake of doing it.  Like a schoolchild needs recess and time to just be free, adults need time to be away from imposition and obligation.

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