Saturday, December 18, 2010

It Stands For Death & Dismemberment

Now, I've written a few stories in my time. A few of them even have endings. A few of those actually have decent endings. Something I've never written, however, is a story for a game.
I've always been curious about Dungeons and Dragons, but I've always been turned off by the amount of stat comparisons, difficulty checks, dice rolls and general other nonsense that has to happen in order to have fun. I'm much more interested in the narrative part of the game; it's a video game where almost anything can happen! It's much more of a sandbox than regular games, because you're playing with someone's interpretation of the game rules, not with a computer whose rules are set in stone.
Because of this interest, and because of some new friends who are alright with the idea, I endeavored to create something that I call Dungeons and Dragons Ultra Light, loosely using the naming conventions of fonts, whose weights are measured in degrees from Bold to Ultra Light. That's right, now I'm at least two kinds of geek.

Like the kind of guy who makes a steampunk 20-sided die.

Essentially my game (playfully referred to as D&D Ultra) is the poor man's version of the regular game: There are no game boards, stat sheets, miniatures, and there's only one type of die. The ol' 20-sided, or d20 as it's known to players.
I sketched out some basic rules that made the game play more like an old Lucas Arts adventure game than D&D. It made me realize that the only thing that sets my D&D Ultra apart from, say, Monkey Island or Full Throttle (apart from their games having significantly better writing) is the random dice rolls. In Full Throttle, if you want to open a locked door, you'd click “open” and he'd say, “I need a key for that.” In my game, if you want to open a locked door, I might have you roll the die to pick the lock or use a spell to open it. This is actually what I wanted, because my interest with D&D has always been more with the social interaction than the combat. The dice rolls help keep things interesting.

Rolling dice in this game would only slow down the awesome.

Here's where we get to the portion of the blog that actually talks about writing. When I set out to make a game for my group to play, the first thing I did was search around for a usable pre-made campaign that I could use. Unfortunately the ones I found used a format I wasn't familiar with, and the adventures were far too in depth for some of the people in my group. Although I knew nothing about D&D, let alone writing a campaign, I decided to dive in headfirst and write my own anyway. During one sleepless night, I wrote out the first four areas of the campaign in my head. The next day I sat down and committed my ideas to paper (well, to a word processor) and added enough extra stuff to finish the story. It's very simple, really. As an actual story it wouldn't hold up at all. Frankly I just wanted to make a few interesting areas for my friends to run around in.
Once we actually played it, I learned what I did right and wrong. I previously knew I couldn't anticipate every action the group wanted to take. I naively assumed the group would loosely follow the path I gave them. I had a few interactions and descriptions on paper that I could read off, but 90% of the time I was making things up on the fly, which was immensely fun, but it would have been nice to have something to reference.

For instance, in the first area you have a few people you can talk to: The bartender, the barmaid, an old soldier and a really drunk guy. (It already sounds a little like Monkey Island, huh?) You can talk to all of them, but I had only written responses to one question for each character, and naturally those were the questions nobody asked. I also discovered that my group almost consistently either wanted to flirt with everyone or simply murder them. I was almost prepared; I had written in difficulty rolls for Flirting, Threatening and Bluffing. However, I didn't anticipate the murderous nature of my friends, which in itself is a little frightening.

It turns out that it takes many, many pages of text to be fully prepared for the group's choices. I found a free D&D campaign off the company's website and now I better understand what it says. If you flip to the back there are tons of little paragraphs detailing what happens when a player touches X thing or threatens X person. It's a little bit like programming a video game, except it requires no programming, just a lots writing.
It's a great writing challenge, and yet I find myself wanting to write many, many more adventures.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Nightmare at 20,000 Degrees

I was recently very ill and I ran a high fiver. Having a fever makes my brain do funny things. I was burning so hot that I let my brothers watch a movie on my computer while I tried to sleep; I knew that I wasn't going to be sleeping anyway; the past has taught me this. Instead I elected to roll over and let my fever burn while I listened to the movie. It wasn't very good; it was about Harrison Ford as a lawyer trying to prove that he didn't murder one of his coworkers. There were no car chases, explosions or anything else interesting. Now, I'm not one to object to courtroom drama (get it? Object? I'm so clever), but this wasn't even the good, Perry Mason kind. However the movie did let my brain interpret the characters and lines into a sort of home-made mashup of itself. It's literally the only way to make the movie interesting.
Once the movie ended and everyone went to bed, I took a hearty dose of Nyquil and twitchingly slipped into some unpleasant non-REM sleep. My brain became stuck in this one awful dream. It's going to be hard to describe because there's nothing like it.
Essentially, I was meeting these people who I think were Italian. However, they didn't speak Italian (or maybe they did), because this language was based around a black, endless supply of cubes arranged almost exactly the way you see below.

Amazingly, Google Image search already had an image of my dream on file.
The only difference between my dream and the picture was that it was like a cube planet made of black cubes. Naturally, the planet was a cube instead of a sphere. I need you to understand how exhaustingly massive it was. Whenever the Fever-Italians would speak, it was like somebody would grab my by my brain stem and yank me down a nonsensical path through the cubes. Each word would take me to a different place on this complicated, black cube. The cube would twist, turn buckle, warp and deform with every new word. I think I was trying to learn the language, but it was simply impossible. The more they talked, the more the city of cubes twisted in seemingly random motion. I couldn't see a pattern to any of it.
It was a tangled nightmare, and it kinda felt the way this looks.

I dreamt this from when I went to sleep around midnight until 6:30 in the morning, when I got up use the bathroom. As I shakily returned and slid into bed, I noticed that my fever had gone down significantly, perhaps completely. The covers were much colder than they had been only moments before. As I pulled my two blankets around myself, I thought, “oh please, not more of that awful Italian language dream.” I was actually terrified that I would have to go back, which I had been subjected to for hours, unable to escape.

It was quite relaxing having an orderly mind.

Fortunately, I didn't have it for the rest of the night. I sat in bed, staring at the ceiling, hoping that I'd be able to go to sleep. Apparently I managed it quite well, because the next time I awoke it was 12:00 in the afternoon. I still felt horrible, though. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

English is Crazy

After an entire semester spent struggling through Spanish, I've come to appreciate my native language much more. Spanish, like English, has its own set of rules to follow. There are exceptions, modifications and just plain weird things about the language that we, as English speakers, don't use. If I were better at Spanish, here's where I would whip out a few direct examples of what I'm thinking of. But I'm not good at Spanish.

Is it offensive that they used shades of brown to denote "Spanishness?"

As I learned the broad strokes of Spanish, it made me start to question English's oddities. Like, why do we say, “way to go?” What does that phrase even mean? I see the word “way,” which means a style or method, but I just get confused when it's placed with “to go.” Are we saying that someone did something just the right way? Perhaps it's a reduction of “that's the right way to go,” suggesting that someone did something good. Who's the guy who decided to reduce this phrase into a meaningless hunk of words, huh!?
I can't prove it, but I suspect this book had a lot to do with it.

Here are some more phrases that could very well confuse and infuriate someone who is trying to become more proficient with the language:
Break a leg
Keep your eyes peeled
Look sharp
By and large
The apple of my eye

What is up with our English? And lets not forget words with bizarre alternate meanings that relate to things that seem completely arbitrary.
Cold (Refers to low temperature OR viral infection)
My mother kept telling me that if I didn't wear a coat out in the cold, I'd catch a cold.
Rose (A type of flower OR “to go up”)
The rose rose from its humble beginnings in the dirt.
Brood (To ponder moodily OR “offspring”)
Charlie's brood were known to brood.
Blubber (Mammalian fat OR “to utter while sobbing”)
Teresa usually began to blubber when the subject of whale blubber came up.
Tender (Sore OR gentleness OR “to present for acceptance”)
Bill tenderly tendered his resignation, which was difficult because his arm was still tender.
Count (A European nobleman OR “to recite numbers”) (Sesame Street has known about this for years.)
The Count would count the tiles on his ceiling when he couldn't sleep.
Season (A specific annual time division and “enhance the flavor of food")
During the winter season, Mark noticed that Sarah would season her cooking more heavily.
Coast (Seashore OR “move aimlessly”)
While riding my bicycle, I coast down the hill by the coast.
Polish (To make something shiny by cleaning OR someone or something from Poland)
My Mom made us polish the Polish furniture.

Oh well, since it's the only language I have, I guess I'll just have to keep using it.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Style Stuck

Here's an entry that's as much for me as anybody else.

If you've been writing a while, you probably have a style you like to write in. Whether that be an emulation of romance novels (“Her eyes burned with passion”) or you exclusively write nonfiction (“The American Civil War was a time when...”), you'll find that you've settled into a style that's comfortable for you. Even if you try to break away from it, it's going to creep back into your work, like how your slouch creeps in while you're trying to stand up straight for a prolonged period of time.

...Which is really difficult for some people.

I noticed that I was style stuck when, of all things, I was watching Cinemassacre's video detailing his trip to Sleepy Hollow, NY. He begins by reading a passage from the actual Sleepy Hollow book, which was one of the most beautifully written things I've recently heard. The particular passage reads,

“Not far from this village, perhaps about two miles, there is a little valley or rather lap of the land among high hills, which is one of the quietest places in the whole world. A small brook glides through it, with just murmur enough to lull one to repose; and the occasional whistle of a quail of tapping of a woodpecker is almost the only sound that ever breaks in upon the uniform tranquility.”

I already know that some of my readers will be all too happy to tell me about all kinds of books with beautiful writing, and if they do so, I encourage them to hunt for it in Google Books and mention some page numbers.

Now, this isn't something that I can just analyze and explain why it's pretty. It's like describing a painting; the most I can do is list some subjective reasons I had for liking it. In lieu of a detailed explanation, here are some things that jump out at me.

Washington Irving was going to great lengths to describe what he thought of as an idyllic place, and so he uses language that reflects the relaxation he (probably) felt when he was there. He uses somewhat uncommon words for things, like saying a brook “glides” through the valley, and that it “murmurs.” If I had been trying to write something like that, my subtlety would have been much more hammer-like.

A river flows through the valley. The soft sound of rushing water is all you can hear over the woodpeckers.”

It doesn't sound relaxing at all! Of course this is a tongue-in-cheek example of my own writing, because I'm sure I could write something relaxing if I really tried, but Washington Irving makes the whole paragraph feel effortless, as if he wrote it in one dip of his pen with a single, flowing movement of his hand. He didn't even have to think about why he loves Sleepy Hollow.

"I had you fooled. I really hated it there. I'm just that good."

How can I use this to improve my writing? I'll stick with my usual advice and say, it helps writers (especially me) to read as many books as possible, by as wide a variety of authors as possible, as much as possible. I haven't read anything in a while, which might explain this whole “no blog” situation I've been stuck in. As always, it also helps if you like what you're writing about. It's even better if you love it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

I'm No Superman (Thank Goodness)

So you've finally gotten out of the habit of inserting yourself into your stories. You've moved forward as a writer. However, your characters still feel a little flat. This could be due to several factors, but the one I'm addressing today is Superman.

Here we see what it would look like if Perry Mason threw on the costume.

Don't get confused and think that I'm saying that Superman is a boring or shallow character. On the contrary, he's pretty interesting (but not as much as Batman). I'm just using him as an example of a character-type. To avoid confusion, I'll refer to this type of character as the Invincible.
Now, lets define what I think of as the Invincible in terms of his traits and actions.
• He doesn't have any weaknesses. Nothing can defeat or harm him in any way. The Invincible doesn't even have that debilitating emotional weakness (i.e. a girlfriend) to be used against him, unlike a certain Clark Kent.
• He's already the best at what he does, and he does everything. Not only that, he does it perfectly on the first try, and without even practicing beforehand.
• He knows he's the Invincible, and so he doesn't have to fear anyone or anything.
• He actually shows the other characters just how weak they are by simply going about his day.
Every character needs a weakness. Even Superman, in all of his almost godlike power, has that one weakness.

Without that weakness, the comics, nay, the series would end on the first page. “Superman crashed on Earth, rose to power and fought petty criminals forever and ever and ever. Nobody could stop him. The End.” I suppose he could also end up like Doctor Manhattan from the Watchmen. I'm not recommending that you see the movie, (actually I recommend staying as far away from it as possible,) but essentially Dr. Manhattan is Superman without any weaknesses. In fact, he's so powerful that he is incredibly depressed and detached from the world because there isn't a thing in the universe he can't do. He's too powerful for his own good. It's depressing (just like that whole stupid movie).
Strengths and weaknesses define characters. It's very difficult to have a character without both. If they have only strengths, they're Dr. Manhattan; if they're all weakness, they're Woody Allen. Both extremes have their own sets of problems, so let me explain by using a good middle-road character. Lets take Neville Longbottom from Harry Potter. The kid is a mess. He's neurotic and he never wins at anything. For most of the series, he's a quivering bundle of nerves. He's used for both comedy and tragedy, but as a character he's about 90% weakness. As the series goes on, we see Neville actually getting a little bolder and doing a little better. By book five, we find that with a little encouragement, this heretofore pathetic character is actually quite good at defense against the Dark Arts. His continuing rise to bravery is one of the best parts of the whole series. If Neville had been a tanned, buff Invincible at the start of the series, he'd be the worst part of it. We'd think, “of course Neville could win at Quidditch. He never loses.” Offhand, I admit that I can't remember if Neville ever actually played Quidditch. Someone comment and tell me if he did.

And while you're at it, tell me how this happened.

What makes the Invincible so detrimental to a story is the fact that he doesn't seem to grow as a character, and that makes him boring. Growth is everything. Readers (and watchers of television and movies) expect to see a character, and usually their relationships go from point A to B to Z by the end of the program. If the character is the same at the end of the story as he was at the beginning, he seems flat. This is one of the reasons people didn't like Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, because Alice stays basically the same throughout, except for the very end where she tells that ugly suitor where to stick it. It was a pretty minor journey. I'd say it was a point A to B progression because she didn't go very far.
Look at Lord of the Rings: The characters at the end of the story are quite different from how they began it. It's point A to Z, easily, or perhaps point A to something that comes after Z. Think of how boring it would have been if Aragorn could have single-handedly taken on all of the armies of Mordor!
Another example of an interesting character progression is Guy Montag from Fahrenheit 451. In the beginning of the book, Guy is actually one of the bad guys, or at least he's working for them. He even enjoys burning books. By the end of the book, Guy's opinion on almost everything is changed. A to Z again!
The reason audiences want to see a flawed character succeed is because flawed people are what people can relate to. Having a perfect character isn't relatable and it isn't interesting. Don't do it. In fact, you have my recommendation to screw up your character as much as possible, as long as you promise to fix them up (a little) by the end.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Your Lazy Brain

Your brain has its own nefarious purposes. It likes to waste time doing dumb things. I should know; mine spent all weekend in front of the computer managing nothing but the muscles it takes to kill Germany in Civilization.

For most people, their brain is attached to them; they don't seem to leave home without it. This is unfortunate because most people's brains don't have that person's best interests at heart. No, these crafty brains settle into a comfortable non-thinking state that keeps the population from doing several things, one of which is critical thinking.

Now, if you're anything like me, you're outraged by your brain's enslavement of your body. “I'm not going to stand for this,” you might be saying. Don't say it too loud: Brains hear everything.

But William!” you begin, “how will I ever escape the tyranny of my own lazy brain?”

Fortunately there are many things you can do to keep your brain under your thumb (metaphorically). You see, brains aren't nefarious by themselves; they're kind of like dogs; they're really quite friendly as long as you feed them, but as soon as they start starving, BAM! You're eaten. The problem these days is that people have gotten into the habit of not feeding their brains (and in some cases their bodies too.) You see, while America has continued to get fatter and more rotten (myself included), their brains have followed that exact diet (myself included again).

Fortunately, because you and I are both writers, our brains are already miles ahead! You've always known you were more cunning and sly than everyone else, and that's exactly why. But lets not rest on our laurels!

If you're starting to wonder if I'm ever going to get to the writing tip, you're almost in luck. You see, there are several things writers can do to keep their brains full and happy (but nevertheless ungrateful): Writing (of course.) But not just any old writing.

In fact, some writing might actually make your brain unhealthy after writing it.

Particularly I find that finding new and exciting ways to approach a story, or ways to combine things into one, are quite fun. New words are fun to make up. Although I'll probably never use them, I find myself specifically identifying interesting words or even phrases as names or titles for some yet-uncreated character for a future story. For instance, when I was waiting (and waiting and waiting) for my car to get smogged, I got to watch a documentary on the Blue Angels (looped literally three times). I learned that there is such a job as Flight Surgeon for these Angels, and even more interesting, it has nothing to do with medicine. This got me thinking, “what other conventional words could be used in unconventional titles?” I came up with a few like Water Conductor and Thought Soldier. My brains likes me when I do these things, mostly because it's less of a brain exercise and more of an imagination lap (in the sense of physical exercise), and I've already written a blog about this.

Now, people would have you believe that the best way to keep your brain active is to do daily arithmetic and reading. While some of these people have this thing called science on their side, I like to think that there are ways to stretch your mind without having to invest in a Nintendo DS or have an education.

What I'm getting at is critical thinking. My favorite way to improve my critical thinking is by reading really horrible stories. Where can you find such stories? Everywhere, including Hollywood. Even terrible movies and television shows can help you start thinking about the who and why of a character or situation. This kind of critique has become uncommon in the minds of most people, which is why so many people's opinions usually boil down to “liked it” or “hated it.” It's not that they're dumb, it's just that they're out of the habit of really thinking about why things are good (or terrible).

Yes it's terrible, but why, exactly?

To really improve, you need to learn how to take a story apart and examine its parts. Just like how a good mechanic would know how to take apart a faulty engine to find and fix the problem, a writer should know how to examine the parts of a story that have fallen flat, or sometimes more importantly, where the story succeeded. This is why there are some stories that were good overall, but upon rereading it, you discover lots of nagging little things that diminish the story. Or conversely, a story which has excellent parts but is overall quite poor.

Here's where I'd like to say, “I once wrote terrible stories, but once I learned what to avoid, I never wrote a bad thing again!” But I'd be lying. Every writer occasionally writes something that turns out weak; even the highly-paid professionals. The key to good writing isn't learning to never make mistakes, but learning how to recognize and repair mistakes once you've made them.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

More Like a Brain Hurricane

Every story has to start somewhere. Maybe you've had the idea for your story all your life. Maybe you've lived long enough to see your idea thought up by someone else and put into a Hollywood motion picture.

But lets say you're sitting at the computer (or writing desk, if you're old fashioned) staring at a blank screen (or paper). You've got nothing in your head that can make a good story (or in my case, a good blog) and you're frustrated.

Fortunately for me, I like to plan ahead. Whenever I have an idea that I think might be worth writing about, I find the nearest scrap of paper and scrawl it down. I also have a more permanent method of idea storage in a word document on my computer. The ideas can be as vague as a phrase like, “you are truly a painter with words,” or something
as intricate as a two-page breakdown detailing the seven different ways the world might end, and why, and how this would change things. If you don't have a magical word document of ideas for yourself, I suggest you start one immediately. If you don't have a computer, I recommend getting one of those cheap black and white notebooks from the dollar store and keeping it somewhere secret; somewhere safe.

Coming up with story ideas is always fun, even if all you have to work with is something basic like a phrase. For this next example, I want you read each phrase and briefly imagine a few vague story ideas relating them. Don't read them all at once or your imagination won't be able to keep up. Pay attention to the capitalization: Does it make it a proper name? A title? A business? A location?

One-Way Mirror
The man who cheated at everything
Miss Pelt
The Carnival Canal
Lucky starts

If your imagination is functioning with any kind of efficiency, hopefully it was able to picture a few things that you weren't thinking about before reading this blog.
Don't feel discouraged if you can't come up with any interesting-sounding words or phrases on your own. In fact, it means you'll have to use a different means of coming up with stories: What If.
Yes, I'm taking this idea from Steven King, but it's a pretty good method.

"You stole my method? That'll be $5,000, please."

Essentially, any basic idea for a story can be broken down to a What If question.

What if your Dad was with the bad guys?
What if you could climb into your own dreams?
What if reality was just part of a computer construct?

If you were paying attention, you'll notice that I just gave the basic ideas for Star Wars, Inception and the Matrix. Of course, there's more to those movies than those basic ideas, but you can understand (perhaps) where the ideas began.

Interestingly, you can do the same backward trace with crappy movies to see how uncreative the people behind it were.

What if two stoner guys can't find their car? (Dude Where's My Car)
What if some teenagers have a bunch of sex? (A whole bunch of movies, but I'm thinking American Pie)

And boy, people can usually tell if the movie is gonna be garbage (see above) or something good. Even movies like SAW (which I haven't seen, but I kinda feel like I have), are at least a little more original than their slashy-violent counterparts.
What if a crazy murderer kills a bunch of people? (Friday the 13th, Nightmare of Elm Street, Scream)
What if a murderer traps people in situations where they either have to maim themselves, maim/kill someone else, or die? (SAWs I, II, III, IV and V.)

Now that you understand how you can trace a big, finished idea back to its root, you should also be able to see how you can begin an idea with the same kind of seed.

Ideas can come from anywhere. For instance, to enable cheats in Grand Theft Auto 4, you have to dial specific phone numbers on your cell phone. After you do, cars, motorcycles, boats, or helicopters literally appear in front of you, even if the appearance is detrimental to the traffic you're standing in. I thought, "What if someone really could dial a special phone number and get anything he wants?"

Essentially he's cheating on his own life. When you cheat in the game (depending on the cheat,) it will limit your ability to earn certain achievements, and it lists you as a “cheater” in the menus. Mild drawbacks to be sure, but they're enough to make sure you never save your game after cheating. Since there are drawbacks to cheating, there would have to be some kind of penalty in the story, too. At this point, I break down further question-options and list any similarities to something that already exists in pop culture, or further details that interest me.

What if he goes blind after 100 “cheats?” It means he'd be very sparing with his cheats, if he used them at all. (Or he'd just stop on cheat #99.)
What if someone dies whenever he cheats? (Seems kinda like the movie The Box)
What if the things he gets from cheating just vanish after a certain amount of time like Leprechaun gold? Imagine having your helicopter vanish into thin air while you're a mile in the air!

I had another What If idea after watching huge amounts of Star Trek; I've always thought that the transporters in the show seemed problematic. Sure, in the future anything's possible, but I'm not certain that they're safe.

What if whenever someone used the transporter, they died? Their atoms reconstruct on the other side, but the person as we knew them is dead. The person on the other side is such an exact clone that they don't even realize they died, at least not until they try to go through again. There would be no way to test this kind of thing. Everyone enlisted in Starfleet could have been killed long ago, replaced by unwitting clones of themselves, sans souls.

"This planet is so nice, I could have died and gone to heaven!"

Now, I'm not too anxious to write any kind of Star Trek fan fiction, but I thought the idea was interesting, and now I can't stop thinking about it whenever I watch someone get beamed up.

Now that you'd gotten to spend a few minutes with me during my creative process, hopefully you'll be more creative.

(Please don't sue me, Mr. King!)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Guest Writing and Romance

Due to a combination of factors, I've failed to make time to update. However, my amazing
sister (sometimes known as Netraptor) has kindly volunteered to write something for today. She is addressing an issue that I've yet to mention: Romance.
Thank you, Kess!

One genre that young writers tend to try writing, and usually suck at, is romance.
Every movie and book and story these days has some kind of romance in it, whether it's boy meets girl or girl falls for vampire. Swashbuckling movies like Pirates of the Caribbean or Lord of the Rings had romantic entanglements among the characters.
But new writers sit down with their posse of new characters, and eventually, couples will form. This can be a little troubling if you've never been in an actual romantic relationship and have no idea what it's like. And yet you've set up two characters to fall for each other. You need to write it. How do you go about it?

It's not as hard as you think. Just take a good hard look at your characters' personalities. If your characters are as developed as they should be by this point, they will have quirky personalities. Is the guy shy and introverted? Is the girl a social butterfly? If they are friends, just start constructing scenarios.
And make them funny. Real-life romance is fraught with peril and pain, and yet is hugely entertaining for onlookers. The guy embarrasses himself trying to ask her on a date. She misinterprets what he's asking and thinks he's mad at her. He locks himself in his room in anguish, and she can't understand why he's acting so weird.
Keep your characters in character, and think through all the awkward, silly things they might do as they get interested in each other. It helps if they have known each other for a while, or been friends, because you have an established relationship to work with.
I'll say it again: keep your characters in character. Young writers tend to hiccup on the characterization when it comes to romance. Their characters' personalities disappear and they become the writer just acting out whatever they want to happen.

Like George Lucas did that one time.

But your characters are not necessarily you. They are different people. They don't think the same way you do or react the same way. If you have already spent story space establishing this, don't throw all that away! Sit down and figure out how they would react to things given their personality, not yours.

The first romance I ever tried to write was a problem-fractured relationship between two characters who liked each other, but fought constantly.

At that time I had never been in a romantic relationship, but I studied them in books. Particularly the relationship between the main characters in the first couple of
Mitford books by Jan Karon. Their romance was so very real. No fluff, no nonsense, just the clash of personalities and loads of misunderstandings, often with painful or hilarious results. I made careful note of how it was written, then set out to write the courtship of my two characters.

I still think fondly of those two characters and the nightmare I put them through. Awful stuff to live, but wonderfully entertaining to read, everything from near-death experiences to way too many engagement rings.
But you don't have to hook up all your characters. If you are writing a one-shot story, it's enough to have them be friends, and imply at the end that they will probably get married later on.

Examples of good relationships and bad relationships are all around us. Everybody has friends who are dating, or breaking up, or some stage between the two. If you have had dating experiences, plug some of that emotion into your characters. Let your characters act real, because when you write honestly, your reader will know. And they will identify with your characters.

As soon as you have a reader empathizing with your characters, you have them hooked.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The 3D People and Their Magical 2D World

If you're half as nerdy as me, you might have tried to write stories that take place inside your favorite video games. If you're really nerdy then the games in question are probably really obscure, and if that's the case then this probably isn't the blog for you.

I'm not talking about old video games like Pitfall or Pac Man (cough), but rather more recent games (circa 1990 at least). At first glance, a video game with a good story or good universe can be quite appealing to write about. If you remember games like Decent, Commander Keen, King's Quest, Space Quest and Cosmic Cosmo, then you're old enough to appreciate the tender deliciousness of games that helped stimulate the imagination of my childish mind.

Ur, childish because I was a child when those games came out. Literally childish.

You have to remember that most of those old games didn't have much in the way of story except maybe a screen or two of poorly-written narrative set in some grainy 16-bit font.

Even if I could have read the story, which I couldn't, I would have found a rather thin excuse to have the player collect the Red Key Card or kill snails or defeat Mordak. Well, King's Quest actually had a pretty good story. There was actually a pretty good reason to defeat Mordak.


As a young player of these games, I was interested in making the characters from the games have additional adventures. I wasn't trying to make an expanded universe or add impressive self-inserts of myself; I guess I just wanted new levels. I could kind of reach that goal via writing. It always turned out awful, but thad whad Id ecpect frm a chlid hoo culdn't spelle very well.

Fast forward to Christmas 2004 when my family finally got DSL and I got a new game for Christmas called World of Warcraft. You know where this is going.

Long story short, I played the heck out of the game, and eventually tried my hand at writing inside the universe. It's not the worst thing in the world; I'm definitely not the first person to try this kind of thing. After all, Warcraft has enough story to fill several hundred books and enough fans to fill a convention center.

Like at Blizzcon.

For anyone who has tried to write a story inside the universe created by a video game, there are a few things to know:

  1. The designers make gameplay decisions based on how fun they are, not on how accurate they are to real life.

  2. The world is sized to make it fast to walk from place to place, not to make it as big as a real planet.

  3. Everything is streamlined.

For a person trying to write a story inside the game, they're going to encounter these weird hurdles in their storytelling process. If I were just starting out writing a story, lets say it's in Warcraft and I set it in Stormwind, I'm not picturing a real city when I write; I'm picturing the city from the game, which is laughably small compared to a real city. There's no infrastructure. There's no economy; heck, there aren't even people living there.

Now let me just clarify: I don't want people saying, “you just like getting bogged down in the minute details of stupid crap like this, William! It's not relevant to the story!”

I'm not trying to say that you're supposed to add all of the boring things that I've just mentioned, but when you're picturing Stormwind, again, you're picturing the one in the game. If you want to write a more authentic story, you have to imagine a real medieval city, though one that contains magic and stuff. Lets make an illustration.

Lets say that I'm writing a story that's taking place inside a universe that I'm making up. It's completely my own. When I tell you that there's a huge city in the story called Whirlgate, the capital of the Highland nation of Men. It's built on top of a mountain and its buildings scatter down the cliffs, which have been quarried. As they descend the mountain, the buildings become smaller and smaller; the downtown area near the top gives way to residential hovels made of white stone toward the bottom. To keep the wind down, there is a massive twenty foot wall surrounding the entire city. It zigzags up and down the cliff in a strange, random-looking layout.

If your imagination is working properly (and if my writing isn't garbage), then hopefully you pictured something that might exist in the real world. Maybe it looked a little bit like something from Lord of the Rings, but still, it was real. When I say Stormwind you're going to be picturing that location in the game. Static. Polygonal. Video game. This is why I always prefer to make something up from scratch instead of fanficking myself into the corner.

To complicate matters, if your audience is also familiar with the game, they're going to picture the video game version of the city, no matter how flowery and descriptive your language is. This kind of thing happened to me when I read Howl's Moving Castle after seeing the animated feature; I couldn't NOT see the characters as Japanese animation in my head.

Though the movie is still fantastic.

I guess the point of all this is that I don't recommend writing stories inside games. I'm not saying to never do it; you might find you're quite good at it and that I'm full of hot air. If anything, it'll be a helpful learning experience that you can put toward your further writing successes.

(Also, since I didn't have anything Wednesday, I'm posting Friday's blog a few hours early as a sort of "please forgive me" bonus!)

Monday, August 30, 2010


No lesson today, just a reposting of something I've written before!

Seldom surrendering to sumptuous sensory sensations such as smell and sight, the seven sirens sailed southward, seeking to serve as the sheik's assistants. Subsequently, the sirens were seen by a sailor who succeeded in seizing their ship. He slaughtered the sirens and sold the ship's scraps for sixty-seven strips of silver, which he swiftly spent to secure a stable for his stallion, Stanley.

Stanley and the sailor spent their Saturdays stealing sugar from the supermarket. Sadly, they were seen by a security guard and a sailor who was on shore leave. Subsequently, the sailor was sentenced to several psychological sessions with a psychiatrist.

She said, “sir, surely you've seen the seriousness of your situation,”

“You shouldn't see me as a statistic,” said the incarcerated sailor, sighing. The psychiatrist shifted in her seat.

“Still,” she said, skimming her schedule, “it's simpler if we shoot Stanley.”

In the stables, Stanley the stallion shot shifty glances toward the street. It seemed simple, escaping, but such an exercise struck him as stupid.

“Screw it,” he said, starting to stampede. He shattered the stockade and sprinted into the street, striking several pedestrians.

Startled, Sarah Sitwell, senior assistant software supervisor, spilled cinnamon spiced coffee on her shirt, softly scalding her supple skin.

“Shoot,” she shouted, shaking herself and scanning the surrounding shunpike to see if anyone had seen her. It seemed she was safe. After a few short seconds, security soldiers arrived and shot Stanley until his body surrendered his spirit, which swerved off into the stratosphere.

“How sad,” said Sarah, slinging her shoulder bag over herself. She stalked into the sunset, sullen.

Some of you might have seen this before on my other, forgotten livejournal, but I thought it was funny, and I didn't have anything for Monday!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Modus Ponens

Oh, school; messing up my blog 'skedge, making me get up early. On the bright side, it gives me the option of posting something I've written in the past, and my writing folder is chock flippin' full of things that would otherwise never be seen by another pair of human eyes. I'll tell you what this was gonna be about at the end of this post.

Roger Einhaus parted the blinds and looked down the street. There weren't any signs of life in the neighborhood, nor had there been for several days. The postage stamp-sized front lawns of the houses were unkept and overgrown. Some of the houses still had automated sprinklers that came on in the morning or evening, but most of the others had been turned off weeks before. In fact, there were only two lawns that were green, the rest were prickly shades of brown. Roger had never been in an abandoned neighborhood like this. There weren't even any cars passing through. The last one he'd seen had gone down the street about a week before; a black SUV, clearly loaded with a family's earthly possessions. Even though it had only been visible for a few seconds, Roger had been able to see blankets, clothes, luggage, a computer, a television and at least three children stuffed into the back of the SUV, pressed uncomfortably against the windows. There was even more luggage and half a dozen shipping boxes strapped to the top of the car with cotton rope. The family didn't see Roger inside his fortress, sitting in a darkened room with the blinds drawn. There wasn't a hint that anybody lived there except for the slightly parted blinds from which Roger peered.
It was times like these that he wished for a dog. At least he could have someone to ease the tension that he felt. At the very least it might keep his mind off the news reports, which Roger just couldn't bring himself to turn off. Every hour seemed to bring more alarming reports of outbreaks in major cities. The news anchor's nonchalance had long left him; the smug smile and calm expression had been replaced with those of alarm and rigidity. Even his usually calming tone had started to crack, either from worry or dehydration. That reminded Roger that he needed to be drinking water.
He let the blinds fall back into place with a metallic click and stepped into the kitchen. There was a glass on the counter that Roger had been using for the past few days. It probably wasn't very sanitary, and now was no time to be letting germs roam free. He washed the glass in the sink, scrubbed a little dish soap into it, washed it out and set it down. He stared down into the sink for a long while. He thought a little bit about a lot of things. He didn't have enough food to last more than two weeks. At that thought, he looked up at his cupboards. There was enough canned food bulging over the edges that a casual observer might think Roger was crazy, like those people who were so worried about Y2K.
He was probably going to contract that new flu that was going around, anyway. That was all he needed; first a death sentence cancer diagnosis, then the weaponized flu. He filled the glass and took a deep drink. His throat was dry and the water didn't make it feel any better. He felt feverous. It was probably just cabin fever; he hadn't set foot outside for the better part of a month, and spending that time in a cramped apartment filled with dread and fear. Maybe it was time to raid someone's house. He was frightened as he realized he had been thinking about it for days. It wasn't that he was hurting for supplies, but it never hurt to be prepared. Just like the Boy Scouts, Roger thought. He knew that most families probably would have taken as much of their canned goods as they could carry, but the more perishable food was probably left behind. That's what he was counting on.
Reluctantly, he stepped over to the blinds and looked out again. It seemed like all he did was stare out at the dead neighborhood. He let the blinds fall closed again. He pulled open a kitchen drawer and removed earplugs and an old dust mask that had once been used to hunt for moldy insulation in his landlord's attic. It was odd, now that he thought of it, to have a tenant repair something for the landlord. He tisted the earplugs in his fingers and inserted them into his ears, then he shook the dust out of the mask and pressed it to his face. He reluctantly stepped over to the front door and fastened the straps behind his head. With ceremonial slowness, he unlocked the door. It was a moment before he could pull it open. He took a deep breath.
The door stuck a little as he pulled it open, letting in a dusty breeze that was hotter than the inside of his apartment. All he could smell was his own breath inside the mask. He wondered if the flu could get into a person through their eyes.
He turned and looked down the street. Some people had left their cars in their driveways, probably the families who owned multiple cars. He had seen people syphoning the gas from one car and putting it into the other. Luckily the rioting that had apparently happened in some other neighborhoods hadn't been a problem here; although almost everyone was in a panic, people hadn't resorted to breaking windows. Everyone had left in a fairly orderly fashion. The amount of noise the night everyone left had been outrageous. From the hours of eight O'clock to around three AM people had packed their families and possessions and hit the highway in hopes of finding safety with relatives that lived out of state. Either that or the nearest military base, but Roger already knew that the military wasn't going to help anyone.
He crossed the street toward the Richardson house. They had been good people, the Richardsons. Unfortunately they had locked their front door. Maybe they believed they were coming back. Roger searched around for that obvious rock that usually held a hide-a-key. People just didn't seem to realize that the hide-a-key had never been a secret, since everybody seemed to have one. There was a rock in the flowerbed that didn't remotely look like it belonged. Roger lifted the rock and found that the Richardsons had taken the key with them. Who the hell would have the presence of mind to remember that kind of thing? Most people were too scared to even speak coherently, let alone collect all of their spare house keys. He decided to try the next house.
It was peaceful, walking in a neighborhood with nobody around. It was like being on a movie set, or a model neighborhood. Lots of doll houses that were never meant to be lived in. However, it was hard to be relaxed when the sky was that awful orange-brown shade. Why was there so much dirt in the air? It was like someone was dropping dirt from the clouds. The evening sun was a deadened point of orange brightness in the swirling atmosphere. It might have been Roger's imagination but it seemed like the dirt made everything a lot quieter. Then again, there weren't any people around to make noise anyway.
The neighbors hadn't locked their door. Roger felt a little ashamed as he entered the house. He didn't remember the name of the family who lived here. He closed the door behind him softly. He didn't like the idea of someone coming in behind him.
“I know nobody's around,” said Roger, “I just don't want to take the chance if I'm wrong.” He spoke aloud. His voice was a little jarring. He realized it had been a while since he had spoken at all. The only human voice he heard anymore was that of the news anchorman. He fervently hoped the house was empty.
There was a little coat rack in the foyer. A single jacket remained, a small pink one that probably belonged to a little girl. Why wouldn't they take that with them?
Roger crossed the living room, which looked like a tornado had swept through. He entered the kitchen. Like the rest of the house, it was a mess. It looked like they had just raked everything out of the pantry without paying much attention. The refrigerator was swinging open. Various food items were strewn on the floor. Not only had these people left in a hurry, it was clear they weren't planning a return trip.
There wasn't much left in the refrigerator except some leftover Chinese food that smelled like it had gone bad long before the family had left, and a box of baking soda that had probably come free when they had bought the house. Roger sighed into his mask. He decided to check the rest of the house, maybe he could get a hold of some blankets or something.
The back wall of the house was one solid window running from floor to ceiling. It wasn't the kind of thing a contractor would put in standard; the people must have put it in themselves. Roger glanced out the window. It was a shame the backyard was so pathetic-looking. It didn't look like the grass had ever been taken care of. He noticed a dog lying dead in the middle of the lawn. He looked away.
After ten minutes of scouring the house, Roger left with a garbage bag containing a few boxes of powdered milk and some sheets from the master bed. He felt guilty for stealing, but part of him rationalized that he would be needing it more than anyone else in the neighborhood. He stuffed as much as he could into a kitchen garbage bag and slung it over his shoulder. After leaving the loot back at his house, he went to another home.

This was the early stages of (one of the) zombie stories I was trying to write about a year ago (2009ish). I thought it might be interesting to have a crotchety old man with cancer as one of the only people on earth who is immune to the Zombie-flu. He shares more than a passing similarity to a certain teacher I had once. I had another, earlier part of the story that gets into his backstory a little more, but I figured that the audience had already figured out that he was a jerk.
What I learned from this:
1) I don't like writing jerk characters.
2) I don't like writing post-apoc stories as much as I like playing them in games or watching them in movies.
3) Some stories will never be finished, and that's probably a good thing.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ending the World (Guest-Written by a Supervillain)

Oh my, just writing the title down makes me excited.

There are many, many different ways the world could end. Because we're more creative than the average person, we supervillains also happen to be a great deal more deranged. This means that we're quite good when it's time to come up with creative and exciting ways to make the world go kablooey. To list only a few, the world could end via:



Black hole

Magic explosion





Planetary collision

Any number of problems relating to the Sun

Not enough pollution







Ancient artifacts (see above)

Bad luck

Underground creatures

Aboveground creatures

Gods (angry, happy, lazy, etc.)




...I hate that last one.

As you can see, there is no shortage of ways to dispose of a planet and all of its annoying inhabitants. It doesn't even have to be hard. During the creative process, writers and supervillains alike can plan on either starting or finishing the story with such an event. It could be like that movie 2012 where things blow up all throughout the movie, or like The Day After Tomorrow where everything happens toward the beginning and just kind of ramps up. It could also be like Ladder 49 where the firefighter dies at the end. Oh no, did I spoil that for you?

I'm so painfully wicked.

Technically I don't think that killing off a firefighter (portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix no less) counts as an evil plan. It doesn't take a mastermind to see that killing off one character is small beans compared to the main course of the evening, and that is cracking a planet in half, or in thirds, or other wonderfully evil fractions.

Sometimes it's not even the “event” that you're trying to write about. Some movies and books actually take place a long time after the world has ended. As you might imagine, it's referred to as post-apocalyptic, which is kind of a misnomer because the actual apocalypse from the Bible is kind of a one-off. Nobody walks away from that one.


I guess it's not really a (capital) Apocalypse you want; it's more like an unpocalypse. Or an apocalypse lite. Like the beer. I mean, what's the point of killing everyone if there's nobody around to notice? Sure, the reveling by the person who pulled it off would be wonderful for a while, but without civilians to look sadly toward the burned-out husks of buildings, what's the point?

That's not to say I wouldn't mind a good reveling.

The real trick is leaving enough main characters alive long enough to give the audience a (false) hope that he'll give this miserable story a redeeming ending. You would think that after the freaking apocalypse the guy's story would end, but it never seems to. If you're too cowardly to actually blow up your universe, I suppose you could just threaten to do it a bunch of times throughout the main character's journey. He'll probably try to stop it, and he'll probably win, but at least you kept the tension on him.

Still, when it's time to make like The Matrix and make the world an awful place to live, you might as well do it right. That's actually a good example of what a story can look like when the bad guys kind of win. As long as you ignore the second and third movies and all of that strange Matrix Online story stuff they threw (up) into the lore.


Someone should really try writing more stories from the perspective of the quote unquote bad guys. That's right, even though I'm writing, I still used air quotes as if I were actually talking. Into your brain.



The Supervillain