Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Secrets of Creating Characters in Written Fiction (Part 18)


Coherence is a term that I use to assess a character. A good character has a high level of coherence. Coherence requires that a character be predictable, understandable, and reasonable. Incoherence is when a character acts is not predictable, understandable, or reasonable within our understanding of the character.

A cashier who rings up Joe’s groceries and the waitress who delivers Joe’s milk are coherent characters. They act according to their jobs. As a reader, you know what a waitress and a cashier do. You predict their behavior. You can even predict their motivations and what would distress them, such as demanding customers or the need to buy baby a new pair of shoes.

Your primary characters should be reasonably predictable, understandable, and reasonable. Your overly-excitable character should get overly-excited at times, the dry witted should have dry banter, and the street smart cop should show his street smarts. The limit here is that your lead characters should be finitely predictable, understandable, and reasonable. Sometimes he is going to order a different drink, react in a different way, or choose a different option because of where he or she is in the story.

Strive for coherence. This quality greatly aids the illusion of character depth. Once these known traits exist, your audience will fill in the rest of the details from their own imagination. You can even leave these traits out and the reader will fill them in.

Most importantly, a coherent character is a re-creatable character. As you write your character, that character will be involved in scene after scene, and you need to be able to capture their personality every time. The person recreating the character is you every time that you write.

An incoherent character gets torn apart by your readers. Their inherent instability and unpredictability pushes the reader away from the story. They can’t get to know and like someone who acts in a way that makes no apparent sense from scene to scene. An incoherent character provides no engagement for the reader. Every surprise is a surprise in the most literal sense as the writer picks reactions for the character that make no sense to the reader.

In the end, coherence is just an illusion. There is no real person, after all. In its simplicity, coherence is how well you maintain that illusion.

Stumpers vs. Commencement Speakers

I've been catching up on Kristine Katherin Rusch's Business Rusch blog, all in an effort to up my own publishing game. In there, on one of the posts, she talks about One Book Authors vs. Career Authors, and although she tries hard to get the distinction between the two, and does mostly succeed, I think there's something missing in her comparisons.

Why does she miss this? Mostly because she's been a professional writer so long that she can't imagine herself into a state of ignorance. I see this with people in all careers. What is so painfully obvious to the expert is that you don't get what they know, even the simple stuff. Why don't you get it? Because simple to the expert isn't simple to the non-expert. I run into this all the time as I explain computers to folks. They don't know computer technology like I do, and long ago, I stopped expecting them to. I've done computers 24/7 for decades. Nobody is going to touch that.

I would place the difference between authors that KKR mentions as Stumpers vs. Commencement speakers. I choose that because you, the listener, and immediately lead to the difference between these two types of speaker and get the difference without any prompting. What's the difference? Your expectations. The audience expects something different from a stump speaker vs. a commencement speaker.

A one book author, or fine author, or slow author, or careful author, they are the commencement speakers of the writing world. They are the one, talking inspiring to the many, bringing sense and occasion and civilization to the moment. They stand before you as examples of success, and they speak to you with those examples. Quite literally, you look up to the commencement speaker. Not surprisingly, such authors go on to be speakers after they stop publishing.

Stump speakers are the guys who come into town, gather a crowd, give their speech, then head onto the next town where they give another speech. Their job isn't to gather your approval or your attention, their job is talk at you and make sure that you understand what they have to say. Nobody is expecting the world's most important occasion. Stumpers are the career writers. Their job is to pump out words, go to the next book, then pump out more works. There's no ceremony here. There's no band, no reverence, and no hero worship.

Now, there's no reason that a stump speaker can't be a commencement speaker and vice-versa, but a commencement speaker is an occasional position, while a stump speaker actually takes a great deal more training and fortitude. That seems counter-intuitive, but if you count up the hours, those stump speakers put in far more time talking than any commencement speaker ever will.

Once you know that, the difference become very clear. A commencement speaker must spend a great deal of time writing a unique speech for every occasion, hopefully thoughtful and beautiful. Because these speeches are so far between, each is an occasion. Each requires attention and diligence. This speech won't be heard by some people, this person will be heard by many people. The importance of giving a good speech is vital. The stumper, meanwhile is only talking to smaller crowds and can afford a flop or two as long as, on balance, they get people listening to them. They can't afford to spend time labouring over a speech.

In short, the difference isn't the writer, it's their place in the ecosystem. When you put a stumper at a commencement speech, that seems wrong at that person seems wrong. If you take a commencement speaker and make them stump, that somehow seems degrading and mean. You see the same exact phenomena with fine writers vs. pulp writers, or one book authors vs. careerist.

Many writers aim for the commencement speech podium, and nothing that you say will dissuade them because their place is up there at the podium. That's their win. This is a deep cultural aim. Not only is it their aim, but it is the game that most writer wanna-be's know, just like most people know about commencement speeches. However, most people don't know how to be stumpers, and most writers don't know how to be careerist because we just don't know how to play those games. We need educating to understand those games. That's why all new careerist go through the same learning curve. What is obvious to the experienced careerist is non-obvious to the new careerist. As the new careerist builds experience and learns the context, the system becomes obvious to them as well, and simple, forgetting there was a time when they didn't understand the system before them.

So here I am, learning how to play this careerist game. I still have lots to learn. I won't ever be done, but soon I will no longer be able to imagine myself as ignorant any more. "Just write," I'll say, when really what I mean is, "This game plays differently than you think. You can learn to play the career writer game, it's not hard, but you do need to pay attention, learn the good moves from the bad, and pay attention to those details that matter in the game. And like all games, you will lose and you will win, but there's always another hand and new tactics, so you can't just rest on your laurels and assume that your winning strategy will always remain winning."

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Ivory RPG - Project Members

Characters in an Ivory RPG aren't exactly like the character in other role-playing games. Whether you portray a different person from yourself or not is absolutely irrelevant. This is because an exploration and logistics style game demands great thoughts and innovations from the players more than acting and dice rolling. The very fact that players bring along facets of themselves into the game is a bonus, not a failure.

A character is more of a project member than a character.  Their role in the project will be a bigger determinant on their character than their personality. As so much of the game is player driven and player depended, the actual skills of the player stand in for the skills of the project member in a way that most RPGs strive to keep separate. There is nothing virtualized in Ivory. Either the players plan, discover it, achieve it, or write it -- or they don't.

For example, let's say you run a steampunk game where the players needs to design and build an operable steam-powered device using 19th century methods. At that point, you only need a thin layer of character portrayal as the actual challenge of the game will demand everything that the players can bring to the table. They will need to do the actual research on the industrial capacity of Victorian England. One may play an inventor, another a factory owner, and another a financier. These roles will be sufficient drivers as the players design the device.

Note that an Ivory game is not very virtualizable. That means that you can throw some dice and your character's in-game skills solve the problem. That might sound good from the outside, but if your character's job is to design a budget, rolling dice doesn't actually produce a budget. An in-game representation of a budget, which is an inventory item written down on a piece of paper, does not replace an actual working budget.

Post 1: Ivory RPG

Monday, April 28, 2014

European Sword vs. Katana (or Knight vs Samurai)

I am now going to compare a sword a European sword against a katana. Who would win and why?

Yeah, I know, I'm pissing on the electric fence here. That's the fun of the game, isn't it?

Before I compare, let me go through a few scenarios.

Let's compare a master swordsman with another master swordsman. Who would win at that skill level? That's anybody's guess. These guys are masters at their craft. They earned this title through years of practice. At that level. you should't be able to guess. Neither of the men in the fight are pushovers. You learn nothing general from this scenario other than which master swordsman could beat the other.

Let's compare novice swordsman against novice swordsman. Who would win at this skill level? That's anybody's guess. These are two very inexperienced swordsmen making mistakes as they fight. You can draw no conclusions where novices are involved.

This leaves us with comparing average swordsmen to average swordsmen. Anyone who mentions as "master" after this point volunteers to be ridiculed. We compare average to average as this will produce a the most reliable comparison. Neither warrior will be acting stupid, and neither warrior will be acting extraordinary. These will just be two well trained humans fighting.

I will begin by comparing a Charlemagne era man-at-arms (800 CE) vs. a Japanese warrior from the height of Japanese swordsmanship. Who would win? My bet is up in the air. The European has a shield, and in case you don't know, shields are awesome and save your life. In addition, the European wears chain armor, which would be excellent against the slashing attacks of the katana. Meanwhile, I think that the Japanese armor of this period is generally superior to the European armor. All in all, I have to call this a wash.

Could the Japanese swordsman have cut through the chain? I doubt it. If that had been true, then the Europeans would have used slashing weapons more often. Instead, they stuck to the straight sword, which indicated that the straight sword was more useful. It's not like they didn't know about the curved weapons from out east since Charlemagne fought and defeated Moors in Spain. In fact, given Charlemagne's general success in war, you must conclude that the weapons and armors of that age were reasonably effective.

The second reason that I doubt that Japanese swordsmen cut through chain is that the Japanese used chain armor. If it wasn't effective, why did they wear it? That sort of armor is quite expensive, so the expense must be worth the effort. In other words, chain must have been effective against the katana because the Japanese clearly thought so, and if Japanese chain is effective against the katana, then European chain must have been effective as well.

Past the 800's, the balance of power shifts towards the Europeans. As their chain became increasingly effective, the Europeans abandoned slashing weapons, opting instead for increasingly large and pointy weapons. If we trust their trial and error, then we must conclude that the most effective weapons against this increasingly good armor were a variety of brutal weapons, none of which looked like a katana.

By the time that you reach the full chain mail body suit, circa 1100, the average European warrior would be far more likely to defeat the average Japanese warrior simply because he could make more mistakes and not die for those mistakes. By the introduction of the tin-can knight, the katana no longer resembled a threat. The average European warrior had the tools and the training to handle tin-can warriors, while the average Japanese swordsman did not. In short, the finest swords slashing swords in the world were outclassed by the finest armor in the world. Defeating this armor too both specialized weapons and specialized training. Note that there is nothing special about this training. Given time, the Japanese could have adapted their own fighting styles to serve the same purpose.

The Japanese knew that western armor was the best armor. If they could get a hold of pieces to wear, they did, because they weren't stupid. This stuff outclassed everybody. If there's anything to learn, it's that anyone who faces death at the hands of an enemy likes the best armor that they can afford.

Note that I am not saying that the Japanese warriors or the European warriors were better or worse. What I am saying is that advancing armor technology gave the Europeans an increasingly wide edge over the Japanese. This advantage came from the fact that this armor was highly effective. Western armor simply outclassed the threat of the Japanese arsenal.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Secrets of Creating Characters in Written Fiction (Part 17)

The Unsaid

Many things about a character, a setting, and a relationship are unsaid. These are things that everyone understand are there, but either don’t see them any more because they are so normal or are things that they have learned to not say. Yet these unsaid things provide pressures and distortions to relationships. When unsaid things are missing, then relationships start seeming too pat.

For example, a Jim Crow era book may never talk about racism, yet you will see signs of that racism all the time. To have a Jim Crow era book without that racism would be strange. You would not get the correct tensions, even if the book was about something other than Jim Crow tensions. The unsaid will affect the way that the white homeowner speaks to his black gardener, and the way that the black gardener speaks to the white house owner.

A character has filters over their eyes. They all have things that they are blind to and things that stand out to them. These filters are part of the unsaid.

It’s not just racism that is unsaid. Two sisters may be mad at each other, and you see it in their dialog, but neither talks about why they are mad. Perhaps its mentioned somewhere, and the grievance is legitimate, but for most of the book, the grievance becomes the unsaid, an invisible force acting within and among the characters.

Sexual tension all lies in the unsaid. You see two people who are mad about one another, but they just don’t act on it. There is a gulf between them. The character never acknowledge this tension, because to touch that would acknowledge the tension and disarm it.

All you need to do as a writer is to determine a few things unsaid about a character. They don’t have to be important or even critical, but they do have to be things that push against a character.

Unrequested Critique: Macbeth

When I adapted Macbeth into a novella, Macbeth the Usurper, I frequently found myself swearing at Shakespeare. Damn, that man needed an editor. I should really have written this post a few months back when all these details were fresh in my head. In the meantime,  here's what I remember.

Macbeth seems to genuinely not know that he's the most likely next king, yet gets upset when he won't be the next king.

The sequence works something like this:

  • Macbeth is closely related to The King.
  • Macbeth is the king's best general.
  • Macbeth is a shoe-in for being elected King next.
  • Macbeth is surprised when the witches suggest that he could be king.
  • Macbeth states strongly how he is not seeking the throne.
  • Malcolm, the King's son, is promoted to a higher standing.
  • Macbeth gets upset that there's now someone else in line for the throne ahead of him.

So let me get this straight. Macbeth isn't aware that he's next in the for the throne? Macbeth is surprised that he could be the next king? I doubt those assertions in the strongest term. Macbeth must have known his strong standing to be the next king, because that is why he gets pissed off when The King advances his own son before Macbeth.

Then we have Ross delivering a message to Macbeth that he's been given a new title, and relates the news how the old thane was a traitor. That wouldn't be bad if we hadn't seen Ross in the previous scene speaking to The King, and The King never said anything about a traitor. Ross just magically acquired information by showing up. I presumed that he used osmosis.

Bill, get thee to an editor.

Then we have Lady Macbeth who is so present early in the play, then disappears, only to be axed offs screen. Really? You show some other lady getting offed by Macbeth's soldiers, but you don't even bother with Lady Macbeth? Here death is just a shout-out? I am disappointed.

Then there are the witches, and they don't really do anything in the play at all. Macbeth is well on the road to screwing everything up all on his own. The witches don't really provide any help at all. They tell him that he could be king, which he should have already known, and told him the best place to hole up against an army, which happened to a fortress perfect for holing up against an army. Brilliant, eh?

Then there's the whole Banquo fiasco. Macbeth decides to assassinate Banquo despite the fact that Banquo was his first supporter in overthrowing the current king. Naturally, when one gets a supporter, one murders him quickly, right? Am I right? Politically, it's a good move as he eliminates the only general who might be able to oppose him, but that reasoning is never followed up on. No, he was just paranoid that Banquo might find out that Macbeth had done the very sort of thing that Banquo had urged him to do.

And those are just the problems that I remember. So, if someone out there decides to novelize a Shakespeare novel, then writer beware. I'm stupid enough to do this twice, but if you decide to be that stupid, that's on your own head.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Ivory RPG - Example: Fantasy Expedition

When it comes to expeditions, the fantasy expedition has all other expedition beat in terms of popularity and word count. There are entire games wrapped around exploring dungeons, mapping them, detailed survival, and even kingdom building.

Explore, kill, loot, repeat.

I have no ill will with this sort of game. My only issue with them is that the presence of combat, along with its huge focus, inherently distracts the players from the exploration elements. Yet, we cannot speak about expedition without confronting such games and such experiences.

With the introduction of magic, what is possible in any expedition changes. The very nature of optimal must change as well. Where knowledge was a mystery before, now you can speak with the dead and get answers. Where places were far away before, teleportation can bridge the vast distances. Where food was a limiting factor, now you can magically create food. And those are just a few of the possible interactions of magic with the environment.

The supreme example of a fantasy expedition that focuses on exploration over combat is Gary's Gygax's Tomb of Horrors. I recall being disappointed in this module in my youth, as it hardly had anything to fight. Yet, it stands as one of the great modules because it set up a situation then left everything to the players to solve in any manner that they pleased. There are stories of players who raised the hill off the top of the tomb, tunneled, and did any sort of wonderfully tangential thinking to avoid the lethality of this tomb. Quite simply, the module was not player vs. anything, it was about putting players into a sandbox and letting them go. If the players accept the sandbox mentality, then this module became manageable. The rules proved less important than how the players approached the problems before them.

One of the great benefits from an exploration game is that it doesn't matter how cool your characters are or what their special powers might be. In many ways, those story and power elements detract from the exploration game. They are suboptimal. Those seeking power raid tombs to gain XP and seize treasure, but those who enjoy exploration enjoy gaining an understanding. The power way can be counted and assessed. You know how much XP is awarded and how much gold. For the explorer, answering the question, "What's there?" is the reward.

A tried and true approach to a fantasy exploration game has two main thrusts: discovery and management. The discovery phase centers around finding out what is out there and documenting that knowledge. The management part consists of building a castle and holding territory. This is the basis of the classic kingdom building game. You can split the game into pieces, such as just exploration or just construction, or into smaller parts of a kingdom, such as a tower or a temple, but the drivers remain consistent. It is up to the players to set the agenda, overcome emergent challenges, and determine their own win criteria.

A similar genre is the quest centered game, but this similarity is misleading. A quest centered game focuses on finding an object/persona/idea, which usually takes a great deal of running around the countryside. Although the quest has many superficial similarities to an exploration game, such as research and logistics, the quest itself acts as a driver for a series of stories, which is not what Ivory is about. A quest is really just a framework to hang stories from. Exploration for knowledge and self-appointed logistical goals do not figure prominently in such a genre. If you can eliminate all the logistics and discovery and still have a genre, such as the quest genre, then you don't have a true exploration game.

The fun part about an fantasy exploration game is that you can be as wacky as you want to be. The problem with a fantasy game is that the changes in sandbox physics produces unexpected results which may not suit the original vision of the game.

Post 1: Ivory RPG

Monday, April 21, 2014

Unrequested Critique: Rio 2

I want to congratulate the writers of Rio 2 for doing such a fabulous job writing such a terrible script. The problem with the script had nothing to do with the writers and everything to do with the directors, producers, and other studio suits who threw a slew of garbage into the film and then expected the writers to actually write a film containing all said garbage. That they pulled this much of a comprehensible script out of their asses shows their metal.

That much said, Rio 2 is an object lesson on how to not write a story.

Let's begin with the forced plot. I don't mean to say that the plot consisted of square pegs smashed into round holes, I mean to say that there were no holes to smash the shapes through in the first place. Every single character was forced into the story. Normally you expect that some characters will feel forced into a story, but in this case, even the title characters felt forced in except Dad, who already lived where everyone else was going.

As best as I can tell, some suit said, "The film happens deep in the Amazon," so the entire former cast had to pull up its city roots and move to a different location that wasn't Rio at all. They even got the dog there. (Mind you, getting the dog there was a good running gag, but really people, you didn't need the gag.)

We also had the textbook definition of too many plot lines:
  • Blue & Jewel
  • The Kids
  • Nigel's revenge
  • The poisoned frog's longing for Nigel
  • Tulio and Linda
  • Loggers
  • The handsome rival
  • Blue & Dad
  • Casting the Carnival show
  • Territory Rivalry
This film felt ADHD by the time that you reached the end.

Was this film fixable? Of course it was. Start cutting plot lines and expanding the plot lines that work better.
  • Here's what I would cut:
  • The Kids
  • The Hip-Hop birds and the casting of Carnival
  • Nigel
  • The Loggers
I would concentrate on the Blue & Dad & Rival, and the inherent tension caused by Blue's attachment to Linda. For that to happen, we would have to write an actual comedy with an actual story line rather than have a film filled with funny moments that is billed as a comedy.

* Linda and Tulio find the Blue Macaws
* Linda and Tulio release Blue and Jewel into the wild
* Jewel is welcomed home while Blue does badly fitting in
* An old rival to Blue shows up
* The blue macaws are in territorial rivalry with the red macaws
* Keep the brilliant soccer game
* Blue returns to Linda, a failure.
* Hand-wavy bit here
* Happy ending

Really, folks, the plot is very simple. It's a city boy in the country style comedy. It's a know staple. There are years worth of such film to mine for plot ideas.

New Boy -> Awkwardness -> Defensiveness -> Tries to fit in -> Blows It -> Gives Up -> Plot Twist -> New boy proves himself -> Final musical number

That's the plot that the writers used. Sneaky bastards. They got that past the suits. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Secrets of Creating Characters in Written Fiction (Part 16)

Their Own Emotional Life

Humans are creature of emotion. They react to their own worldview. They feel things and do things for wholly irrational reasons, but not without sense. It is this very emotional broadcasts that says, “I am a person” and pulls in the reader. Without this emotional life, major characters feel flat.

Ask yourself, “What is a character’s emotional response to the situation?” I don’t care who you are or how long you've been writing, this is always a good question to ask. Taking that step back and asking that question delivers results.

As a writer, you can’t humanly track everything while you write in perfect detail, nor can you follow every implication of a situation, so taking some time to look at the emotions that you missed is a very good practice. When you do, you realize that you've left something out of the a character. More importantly, you've left a human element out of the character. Human elements are what readers respond to.

For example, a criminal is stealing jewels around the city. A police detective gets assigned to a case. What should the thief feel? Perhaps superiority as he thinks his crimes perfect, but as the detective closes in, he begins feeling threatened. How does he react to the pressure of the detective closing in on him? Is he hard boiled? Does he have bad dreams to deal with his justifiable fears? Does he lose his sharp thinking? Where does he fray around the edges? That’s where the story is.

What's more, people are not mono-emotional. They are not one emotion that shows at a time. Humans are a sack of spaghetti when it comes to emotion. They have little twists and turns piled on top of other twists and turns. Using the example above, the criminal may be scared, but he may also be angry at the same time, and desperate as well. That's three emotions that run into each other as he's making his decisions. That's some good internal conflict.

Some genres don't have much emotion. Traditional super-heroes have very flat emotional range. They are actioners rather than characters. They wear their costumes and act according to their designated roles. They fight the villains and all is good with the world. Even many of the more complex Marvel heroes still only have one emotion that gets explored as they go.

Other genres wallow in emotion, such as romance. If there's no emotion in a romance, you've got a total and complete failure.

Science fiction and fantasy often have flatter characters for a variety of reasons. Mostly, I think it's because these stories descend from those stories starring the level headed white male who rises to lead. Where there was emotion, the stories were about angry white males who rise to lead. There wasn't much room for character nuance there, nor did the audience necessarily want that nuance. With the rise of more female oriented fantasy and sci-fi, we now see the rise of characters with a deeper and more nuanced internal conflicts, presumably less interesting to the young male audience. I think that this is a great topic for research, so somebody out there should definitely write on this and show me that I'm wrong.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Unrequested Critiques (assorted)

Who's puppy shall I kick today? More stuff being advertised on the author forums. I don't want friends anyway.

With Fingers Gray and Cold

E.W. Pierce

I really like the title of this book. Very evocative.

The blurb says:
In the frozen lands beyond the edge of civilization, charlatan Marten the Magnificent swindles villagers of their valuables in exchange for superstitious charms. But when faced with a true monster, Marten is forced to rely on his own useless trinkets, or risk losing his life.
That's dull for a blurb, but mostly doesn't scare me away.

The sample? Dull. We're really looking at a short story here, as the work is 30 Amazon pages long.

The simple criticism is this: if you are going to write a 30 page story, it's got to grab me in the first few paragraphs. You don't have time to dick around. I can already hear the response. "But I've got to..." Yes, and you STILL have to grab the reader in the first few paragraphs.

Sarya's Song

Kyra Halland

The blurb says:
In a world where music is magic, composers and singers weave powerful spells with melodies, harmonies, and voices. Sarya dyr-Rusac has risen from her destitute childhood to become a talented, respected Arranger of musical magic rituals. Then a wedding ritual she wrote goes horribly wrong.  
While in self-imposed exile for her failure, amidst a growing number of disasters which the musical Service has been unable to control, Sarya hears music on the wind - music that no one else can hear, music that suggests that there are forces at work in the world unaffected by the practice of musical magic. In search of answers, she returns to the Service, where she has to face the mistakes she made in the past and her complicated relationship with the gloriously talented (and obnoxiously perfect - or is it perfectly obnoxious?) Adan Muari. 
Then a nameless man begins to appear in her dreams - a beautiful man in chains, who begs her to sing him free. Is he too dangerous and powerful to deal with, a threat to the man who loves her and to their world, or is he the key to solving the mysteries that threaten to tear the world apart? 
 Dark romantic fantasy for adults and older teens.
The cover is a fairly romance-esque cover.

This is #6 or so for the author. (I didn't really count. The review doesn't count unless I count.) Anyway, no puppies to kick here. She's got a really good patter that kicks in immediately. Hell, she even accomplishes a peppy plot dump to get the reader going. Peppy plot dumps? That's a good trick to have.

The cover agrees with her blurb, hooking the correct audience. The blurb needs work. It really needs the same pep as her text. I wish Kyra many sales.

Everliving Kings

J.D. Ravynsmoon

And the blurb says:

Nottinghamshire England 1191 A.D.
William Brewer, High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, had been plotting and panning his careful but brilliant political coup for almost four years now. He was so close to getting that drunkard fool of a Prince, John, to just hand him the title of Regent he could almost taste it. Now however, he has returned home to Nottingham Castle, to find a four thousand year old Risen corpse in his dungeon and Lord Rathbone, the most powerful man in the country outside of the Royal family, is the one who dropped her off.  
What’s worse, the Risen turns out to be Anya First, the Queen of the vampires; and she doesn’t plan on being held captive for long.  
Thinking on his feet, Brewer managed to arrange a deal with the undead, that just may get him the crown of England, but for that to succeed he will need some help and a whole lot of Luck. First he will need to get Prince John to help him, then place his trust in the vampire Queen and finally outsmart one of the few things on earth even more dangerous than the Risen herself…her Father.  
The plans are made, the traps are ready, the French mercenaries and the Prince are on the way to Nottingham and now, to top it all off, the Sheriff must deal with another dangerous foe; the ‘wolfshead’ Robin Hood and his shape-shifting band of outlaws and Irish werewolves! 
With unstable loyalties and secret motives abound, no one is harmless. Fur and fangs are sure to fly when ancient adversaries and political foes square off for the battle to control medieval England.
This is so trope laden that I'll buy the author a Guiness if I ever meet her. Whether that is purposeful or not, I don' t know.

The cover is a chick in chainmail, and it covers her body. It's never bad to put a pretty face on the cover. It is definitely a self-made cover. There's some basic typography issues in the titling.

Basically, this is a vampire vs. werewolves novel, and shamelessly so. My only critique to the writer is to turn up the blurb to 11 and shamelessly wallow in your wonderful trope. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Ivory RGP - Archeological Expedition

If there's anything that screams expedition and logistics, it's digging dead kings out of the sand in Egypt. Be you an archeologist or a tomb robber, the issues are very similar. We can do this many different ways and have fun.

The Year: Right Now

The scenario is this: using Google maps, locate interesting places that look like unidentified ruins. Then, confirm those discoveries with ground teams. Describe the discovery. You'll need to present the scientific committee with a plan and an approximate budget to do the actual survey, along with all the necessary diplomatic requirements.

That first part, using Google Earth, is something for modern day explorers. The second part happens during whatever is happening in Egypt right now, so keeping up with Egypt becomes a must. The fun part is that you don't know what will happen, so real life can throw you curveballs.

The fun here is that the players all get to keep an eye on Egypt as they try to figure things out, but otherwise, all modernity is fair game.

The Year: 1910

Reviewing the notes of previous explorers, Professor English believes that that there are tombs somewhere west of Luxor. Get him a best and worst case budget scenario so that he knows how much to ask for. The expedition will need to take photographs, survey the area, and return with examples of ancient material for inspection.

This scenario will require research from the players, as the world of 1910 (England) was deceptively similar to today, while Egypt was still in the middle ages. While many antiquities laws did not exist back then, these areas were not without laws and regulation, and the thought of Egyptian gold made people do stupid and greedy things.

The Year: 1000 BCE

You are tomb robbers living in the ruins of the great Egyptian civilization. Somewhere in those hills are gold, but if you find it, the government is sure to put you to death. Your job is to locate a tomb, breach it, and loot it, while not getting caught or found out by the neighbors.

This scenario isn't a true archeological expedition, but it's fun.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Unrequested Critique: A Long Forgotten Song

It's time to kick the puppy belonging to C.J. Brightley, and her new book, Things Unseen: A Long Forgotten Song. Let's hear what she has to say for herself:
History student Aria Forsyth's studies lead her to dangerous questions about the Empire's origins. A mysterious man named Owen, impervious to the winter cold, further unravels the safety of the world she thought she knew. At first, Aria believes Owen is human. He says he's not. What if they're both wrong?  
A moment's compassion draws her into a conflict between human and inhuman, natural and supernatural, and she begins to discover the secrets of the Empire, the Fae, and what it means to be human.
That blurb confuses me. I get cognitive dissonance because the book cover is modern while the blurb reads like stock fantasy. Zowie. I can't stand in harsh judgement, though, as my own blurb sucketh pond scum. Writing a good blurb seems to be a mysterious skill that require admission into secret societies that like to wear fezzes and make up strange handshakes. Personally, I am convinced that there's only one good blurb writer in the world, and she writes everything from a beach in Sri Lanka while drinking mimosas.

The good news is that C.J. writes with her usual straightforward style. She maintains her clear writing through the entire work. You wont feel cheated for plopping down your money and you can count on a reasonable bucket of entertainment, and really, who needs much more excuse than that to read a book?

What's not apparent, and this is a small handkerchief sized FYI, is that this is a story with Christian elements and a Christian focus. I'm not knocking that. That's just a fact that you ought to know before plunking your money down. If that's your thing, then come on down.

As for critical advice, I would say that C.J. is pressing at the limits of her present skills. This is her fourth book and she's clearly comfortable with her craft, and that's where I have an issue. Comfortable is a very bad place for an author to be. True, she did break some boundaries by hopping genres with this book, but that's not the kind of comfortable that I'm talking about.

C.J. is bump up against that wall that separates good from excellent. A few select writers (and I have no idea who they are) just hop the wall and keep on going, while the rest of us (pretty much all living writers) have to work at climbing over that damned wall of excellence and find those things, those many little things, that let us inch our way over it. One part is identifying skills that we don't have or that are overly weak and developing them. However, some skills just aren't obvious needs until you've cranked out a few books. They're invisible until you go looking for them. The other necessary task is going back over the skills that you are sure about and pushing them even further.

One resource that I always love to point out are the Battlestar Galactica podcasts by Ron Moore. (I don't know if they are still available.) You get four season's worth of plot pacing analysis, story changes, and editing decisions as examples of how a professional works. All his examples translate well to writing. How do you achieve a cohesive story, tension, and emotion, and what compromises do you make to get your desired result? Pay for the boxed set if you need to as that podcasts makes up the commentary track. A class will easily cost more and provide less material.

So, from my high horse, I proclaim that C.J. needs to raise her own bar of excellence high enough that she doesn't know how to reach it. If she does, she will.

* Sorry that no puppies were kicked in this critique. I did make some ugly faces at them. I promise, next time I'll try harder.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Secrets of Creating Characters in Written Fiction (Part 15)

Their Own Worldview

So, what exactly does your character want? What is your character for and against? What’s on their to-do list for today? What catches their eye?

Characters have their own world view. They gather information valuable to them and act on that information. Based on the quality of that information, they make choices. In most situations, that information will be either inaccurate or incomplete, and the character is still stuck with making a choice and living with it. Not only do the have a choice, but their rationale for the given choice tells us a great deal about the character.

  • Jack decided to slay the local giant because that sounded heroic.
  • Jack decided to slay the local giant to impress his mother.
  • Jack decided to slay the local giant because a talking chicken told him to.

In many ways, “because” is far more important that the objective. It’s the “because” that is interesting, not the goal. Because includes the worldview of the character. By having their own points of view, your characters will naturally differentiate in their decision making. Any change in your character’s point of view should result in matching change to their actions and styles.

It’s this very worldview which gives a character a life beyond the page. This is the part of a character that wants to do something that you never thought. These worldviews fight with your preconceived notions of the character, because if you follow their logic, you wind up somewhere different than you thought about going because you, as an author, don’t have time to think of all the implications behind your characters when you create them. Over time, as you think about their point of view, your character’s internal logic will point to something that you had not considered before, but which would be perfectly valid for the character.

How do you make this worldview? The simplest way is to just know what the character considers important. Warp all other decisions about those items of importance. Someone who loves spending money and living the high life will react very different from someone who wants to accumulate money. Once I say it, all those differences and implications become immediately obvious. Both people may both want to get money with the same degree of passion, but their worldview determines how they act on that passion. Different risks and different rewards yield different decision chains.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Unrequested Critique: The Fury of the Fae

Today, I am critiquing The Fury of the Fae, by Burnie Morris, which task is only enjoyable because my inner critic likes to kick puppies and make kittens cry. I don't feel any shame in this, as this book would make puppies and kittens cry as well. As far as I am concerned, he started it.

This is the book's blurb.
Prehistoric fantasy: a tale of love, passion, betrayal, horror, salvation and revenge.
The Fae: a supremely advanced form of mankind, viewed as almost magical or divine by ordinary men. They have extraordinary powers of healing, teleportation, and radiating 'fire' from the eyes. They have fantastic strength, durability and virility. They are immortal – but not invincible. 
They are fugitives from a dying world, have established a small colony on the planet Omega in order to help the primitive race of mankind which is attempting to flourish there (the Morts). They have ingratiated themselves by defeating the evil Gobl – an alien species which formerly threatened the supremacy of the Morts. 
Now there is peace on Omega, for a while...
Some books scream "don't buy me," and this one does an admiral job of it. Bookmark this as an example of what not to do. With my first look at the cover, I knew that there wasn't a good experience waiting for me, and I was correct. The cover depicts a winged boy, some rough letters, and a lightning bolt, all drawn in such a way as to demonstrate an absolute ignorance of the rule of thirds, let alone the rules that govern good taste, beauty, and selling books. In most cases, ugly covers do not sell books.

The novel opens with a list of vocabulary terms that nobody will read. I certainly didn't bother. This was followed with not one, but two prologues. (One prologue doesn't call itself that, but it's a prologue.) I skimmed over those as they were very short. There was nothing in them that required their existence, being that this sort of information is easy to work into a book. The book then begins in great, vague, wishy-washy description which works to delay the pain.

I'll get to the meat of this vivisection quickly. The author fails to entertain the reader. This is no venial sin. This is the sort of thing that gives you a bad name, and if you know the bartender, free drinks with the hope that you'll never be sober enough to write again. Entertaining the audience is the first lesson that any writer should learn from Shakespeare. Entertaining the audience is what pays the bills.

How to explain this to the writer?

I can see some chain smoking, martini drinking, has-been agent sitting down in some New York lounge watching women take their clothes off. Some wanna-be writer hands him a manuscript and he looks it over, partly because he's a sucker for wanna-be's, but mostly because he's had two martinis and he's feeling real happy.

"Kid," he'd say, no matter whether that writer is a kid or not, "When I look at a manuscript, I ask myself one question: which publisher would buy this book? If the answer is nobody, I hand it back. It's that simple. I've looked at this book. Nobody is going to buy this. That's not a knock against you, it's a knock against the book. Go home and write me a book that I can sell and I'll sell it. It's that simple."

That's our lesson for today. Don't show some no-name agent your manuscript in a titty bar. He's not going to read a word of it.

Ivory RPG - Using an Existing RPG System

Sometimes it's just easiest to take an existing game system and adapt it to what you need. That could certainly work with Ivory, where the planning stage can be mated with a different game system for the implementation stage. There are advantages and hazards to this this method. I'll discuss what, in my opinion, are the most important implications.

The largest hazard with choosing an existing RPG is that the system can distract the players. The system tells you what is important, and the players can easily end up designing a character that has no relationship with the logistical and exploratory part of Ivory. Alternately, because Ivory is so specialized, the needs of Ivory can distort the existing RPG into a mockery of itself as so many pieces of it go unused.

For example, if I were to implement Ivory with GURPS, it would warp GURPS. Since ST, DX, and HT matter little in Ivory, a winning character design would be to put all points into IN and into IN based skills. Someone may buy huge levels of wealth. The players will naturally expect to get benefits from these points that they've purchased, but there's little benefit to them as Ivory is about the players designing and solving their own problems, not about rolling dice to simulate solving those problems. Thus, strangely enough, GURPS would not work well at all despite its "universal" design.

Alternately, you could choose old style D&D, and because that game has so few rules, and isn't really malleable. Most of its rules don't actually intersect the Ivory parts of the game, which makes that simplistic and stiff system works better with Ivory. The players can't distort their characters into perfection. In addition, the lower-levels of that game are so randomly deadly that the players would still tend to avoid combat. This should come as no surprise to those who know that old game system because old style D&D worked similarly to an Ivory based system, where the players were left to their own devices to solve their logistical and exploration problems as they saw fit. There was no rolling dice to solve those problems. The early DM's relied upon the same principles as Ivory, which is that most problems were emergent and didn't need rules. You find this attitude demonstrated in the game's extensive price lists, worker pay list, and the informative chapters on building castles and kingdom building.

D&D 3.0/3.5/Pathfinder would work okay at best, but generally not be a good match for Ivory. This system puts the players into the wrong state of mind. Character development is significant. The cognitive overhead needed for understanding the system has become so large that players will have their attention pulled away. They will want their skills to apply. There are also too many opportunities to roll dice or cast spells to solve problems. That argues for a poor fit.

D&D 4 would be a poor choice. I quite like the game system, but the focus of the system is too far away from the focus of exploration and logistics. I rather suspect that D&D Next will share 4e's problem.

What other game systems might work? I don't know. I am, by no means, well versed in modern gaming. My best guess is that simpler game systems will work better than complex ones. In my guesstimation, what makes a good game system for Ivory is a lack of rules revolving around logistics and exploration, good price lists to base decisions upon, enough realism for the players to imagine the scenario, and low cognitive overhead.

Post 1: Ivory RPG

Monday, April 7, 2014

Ivory RPG - Gamification

Every game needs rules, but you can't write rules if you don't know what you want.

Most of Ivory's rules are emergent. No rules need to be written. Budgets need to get made, food needs to be bought, and miles need to get walked. These are all well-understood real world tasks that need few to no rules to use in the game. Other rules emerge from requirements and decisions. If men are to be hired, they need to be fed and paid. If an object must be moved, a means to move that object must decided upon.

Rules themselves serve two purposes:
  • To focus players' attention on what the game is about.
  • Discourage focus on what the game isn't about.
To that end, I will begin with some basic rules.


Every participant in a combat rolls a d6. Add up the numbers for each side. The side with the largest number wins. The side that loses retreats. If you are unable to retreat, you are captured. Count helping animals (horses, dogs, small bears) as people, but grant dangerous creatures or machines (lions, kodiak bears, dragons, tanks) extra d6's based on your best estimate of their lethality.

Participants also use their combat roll to determine their fate. If the roll was 4-6, the participant suffers no misfortune. If the participant rolls a 3, the participant is lightly wounded. If the participant rolled a 2, the participant suffers a significant wound. If the participant rolls a 1, the participant was killed in the fight.

This rule serves two functions. First, the rule tells you how to run a combat. The second and more important function of this rule is that it makes combat so unappealing that reasonable players will avoid combat. (There are always players that don't want to avoid combat, or otherwise muck with the system at all cost, and those players should choose to play in a different type of game.) A third function of this rule is to be short, which tells players that combat is not particularly important to the game.

If you choose a real RPG game system to simulate combat, then combat may be a more interesting option, but will also hold a more significant status within the game.


Pick a year. Look up the weather for that day for a location similar to your expedition's. This adds an unpredictability that is steeped in realism.


Use the Gregorian calendar.


Use the financial system of your appropriate era. If you don't know the money system, leave it to your players to research. Money works like it always does. More is better, but if you have too much, somebody else will try and take it from you. Buyer beware.

Most expeditions have budgets. It is up to the expedition to spend its budget wisely or to resolve money limitations if necessary.


If modern, use the prices from a catalog of the appropriate era. If possible, use the prices of the era that you have chosen. Leave it to the players to research actual prices.


An understanding of the technology of your game is crucial to planning. Each technology brings its own implied rules set into the game. Horses need to be grazed and get injured, while cars can travel fast but don't do well off road. Embrace the implications of your technology.

This subject is so interesting that I'll write more on it later.


The expedition must meet some sort of schedule that is either laid down by the sponsor or created by the group.


The end of every expedition is a result. Expedition exist to produce a result. That result should be well defined at the beginning of the expedition. Failure to produce that result should include some sort of penalty.


The Expedition is the basic unit of exploring. This group of people organizes itself to achieve its goals.


Every expedition needs a team. It is up to the team to organize itself and solve its own problems.

Ivory RPG - A Hypothetical Pure Exploration RPG

Friday, April 4, 2014

Definitions of Success

I've been reading through Katherine Rusch's book on freelancing and hit the section on success, and that's gotten me thinking.

So, what do I call success? That is, what am I defining as writing success right now? Or how did I define it in the past for my writing.

Here are a number of successes that I've had in the past:
  • Completed a novel.
  • Complete novel worth reading twice
  • Created paper version of novel.
  • Created epub version of novel.
  • Sold one copy of a novel.
  • Received royalty payment. ($12)
  • Getting Amazon selling rank below #100,000
Here are some successes that I am aiming for now:
  • Write sellable short story.
  • Sell sellable short story.
  • Break even.
  • Receive a review on Amazon.
  • Receive stars on Amazon.
  • Create audiobook of novels.
  • Sell more than 10 copies of a work.
  • Sell 50 copies of a single work. This is the average number of sales for a paper based self-published publication.
  • Sell a novel.
  • Increase my writer blog viewership by any amount.
  • Increase my writer blog viewership by a steady amount.
  • Invited as guest to a con.
Here is my dream:
  • Write a timeless classic.
You'll note that I tend to have goals close to the future, and most of my goals are in my own control, but not all. You have to wonder, don't I want more than that? Sure, I do, and I call those things dreams because they are pie-in-the-sky stuff. That doesn't mean that these dreams aren't achievable, but it does mean that I don't currently know the path to them. For the items on my short list, I either know the path to them or I am actively involved in learning that path.

"Write a timeless classic" is the dream that directly drives every iteration of my writing. Everything that I write makes a tilt at that windmill. That is an ambition that I work towards every word and every chapter. What makes a timeless classic is skill and luck. I can't provide luck but I can certainly increase me skill.

My 20 year success story has me retiring from my current work, then writing to supplement my income. My practical goal is to build my business into something that can provide for me after the end of my first profession. Five years into this 20 year plan, and I have no effective income.

What's holding me back right now? Ignorance. I don't understand the business well enough. I don't understand short stories well enough. I don't understand contracts well enough. In almost every direction, I see my own ignorance, which means that I've been learning.

Ignorance of the market holds me back. If I write a short story, who do I send it do? How do I decide this? If I want an agent, how do I actually find one? Even this "first steps" leave me feeling a bit panicked.

Fear holds me back as well. I can get over fear and I will. I do fear rejection, but another fear is of losing control of a good work. It's fear of success, because success leads me into a newer and even more unknown world that leaves me feeling a little panicky. Its fear of opportunity cost.

All these things are surmountable. Given time, I will surmount them all, and they will be replaced with more goals to surmount. Writers with 30 years of experience have things to learn and goal to surmount, so having these challenges before me is no issue.

I would lie if I didn't tell you, I want it all right now without any more work. Just give it to me. I think that everyone is like that. We all want the maximum reward for what we feel is our maximum hard work.

What I don't control is the market itself. I can write a fantabulous book that folks don't want to read. I adore All The King's Men, but how many readers of fantasy would share that love with me? Some, I'm sure, but very few. That doesn't make Robert Penn Warren's book bad. In fact, it's so good that it won awards, but not fantasy awards.

What I don't control is timing. Would On The Road be a success if published today, or was it just the right product at the right time? Fashions change.

In many ways, we writers are part of a natural ecosystem where writers are going in every direction at once, each trying to find our niche and the most energy. That ecosystem isn't static, just as the weather is not static. Some areas of the ecosystem find great success while other areas languish. The writers have not change, but fashion, culture, and history have. I am part of that ecosystem, and fashion might turn my way, or it may turn away. I may follow the market, following the lucre, or I may write what I love, because I don't like the lucrative markets.

That is to say that there are factors beyond my control, but how I respond to those factors is in my control. For now I am staying in the "write what I want" category because I just don't see finishing anything that I don't like. I also have my creative style, and like it or not, it doesn't play genre well. I've tried. I have to trust that it leads me somewhere good, but I'll be damned if it doesn't vex me as much as reward me most days.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Stiff Text

As I began this latest novel, I found that my voice had stiffed back into my earlier voice, the one that I had written the earlier Endhaven novels with. I had just spent several major projects writing in other voices in order to expand and out fill out my voice, yet I went straight back to the stiffer voice and I did not like that.

In the middle of last week, I said to myself, "F* it." I then had my main character curse and stopped giving a damn whether it sounded like a fantasy novel or not or it had any particular tone. That broke me out of the stiffness. I had this subconscious idea of what a novel sounded like, and I knew that my editor would question the tone. Until I stopped caring, that care froze my energy and my verve.

I have no illusion that I have the correct tone for the work. I think I both need to loosen it up more in some ways and tighten it up in others. What I really needed to remind myself was that this was a first draft and I can go crazy on it in any way that I please. I'll sort out everything else later.

And I will sort it out.

Secrets of Creating Characters in Written Fiction (Part 14)

Situational Roles

Outside of personality and character, there are other roles that need to be filled within a story. I call these situational roles. In these roles, the surrounding characters cause and exacerbate the social situations in the story. It is the presence of these roles that keeps a story from being a linear stroll from beginning to end.

Here are some common roles that need to be filled.

The person who we identify with.

  • Information dumper.
  • Causer of tension.
  • Reliever of tension.
  • Misdirector (wrong, liar, miscommunication, etc.)
  • Generous ally.
  • Demanding ally.
  • Demanding neutral party.

These roles exist in the story to be the forces that shape the story, creating tensions and complexities where there may be none, or to relieve tensions or complexity when the story needs to move along.

These roles aren't exclusive. Many characters take on two or more of these roles.

For example, our protagonist’s mom tells our protagonist about her grandmother’s death and the necessary funeral logistics (information dumper), and also informs the main character that she needs to skip some important occasion (causer of tension). Later on, the protagonists’s brother tells her the wrong time for the funeral (misdirector), making it look like there won’t be any conflict between events. When she eventually finds out that she’s wrong and needs to resolve the situation, her brother (demanding ally) will run interference for a favor.

Don’t confuse these roles for personalities. Situation roles are about character influences on the story. Personalities are about how the character goes about her life. Even the shyest, meekest persona can be a demanding ally when that one important day rolls around and you owe her a zillion favors. The friend is still shy, but her situational role is that of a demanding ally. “I can’t go up and talk to him alone. You’ve got to help me!”

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Ivory RPG - Implementation

The first victim in any battle is the plan, and I don't see why that wouldn't apply to exploration just as much as war. After all, the whole idea of exploration is find out what's there, which means that you don't know what's there, which means that you made guesses, and some guesses are necessarily wrong.

Why are guesses wrong?
  • There's something that you didn't expect.
  • There's something that you did expect but wasn't there, but still took resources.
  • Something took longer/shorter than you expected.
  • Something proved harder/easier than you expected.
  • Critical resources were missing or unavailable.
  • A change, such as political instability, war, famine, unexpected weather, etc.
  • Your information was wrong.
  • You just made a bad decision.
  • You forgot to make a decision.
  • You did not identify that you needed to make a plan.
  • Poor communication
  • Misunderstandings
  • Clerical Errors
  • Serindipity
As you can see, there's lots that can go wrong even without getting particularly inventive. That's why leaders lead expeditions. When the rubber meets the road, new decisions will need to get made, for better or worse. In most cases, those decisions call fallout further down the line and require more decisions to work around, and all of that while you have many people need to know what they can do.

As a general principal, simply by having a sufficiently large number of decision points laid before the expedition, we can guarantee that human error will create problems. If there is no human error, there is weather and other uncontrollable circumstances.

In other words, you're going to have to change your plans at the point where you can least afford to change your plans. If the definition of a game is "a series of interesting decisions," then accounting for all the variables certainly counts as a series of interesting decisions, and that's exactly what you want in a game.

As Ivory is open ended, any solution by the players counts as fair. If the players want to hire a group of adventurers to scout their way to the intended destination, then that solution is as fair as any other. Likewise, as series of smaller or more focused teams may work as well. One team could be dropping off supplies while the other teams achieve other goals. This two-team approach increase the chance of error, but also introduces huge flexibility.

In the end, every expedition expects the unknown to happen and play for that as much as possible.

Post 1: Ivory RPG