Category Archives: fiction

WARNING: This Update Includes Oceans, Podcasts and Soviets

Got a few updates here, a few personal and one big recommendation.

First, old business:

I wrote a piece for Mission Blue about what world leaders accomplished at The Economist World Ocean Summit.  You might not’ve heard about that because, you know, celebrities are getting divorced and stuff, but last month several governments sent representatives to meet in a Davos-like conference on how to fix the enormous damage we’re doing to the ocean (aka the thing that keeps all of us alive).

I also published a Critical Intel on how Tom Clancy used tabletop wargames to research Red Storm Rising.  That’ll be interesting to you author-types or anyone who’s fascinated by the Cold War with Russia.

Heh, sorry, the last Cold War with Russia.

Now for new business:

If you’re someone who writes words in exchange for government currency – or want to be one – check out THE FREELANCE GAME, a new podcast about freelance game journalism.  Hosts Nathan Meunier and Andrew Hayward are both veterans of the ink-for-money trade and dispense advice in a tone I can only describe as “water cooler casual.” The show’s helpful without being dictatorial – it’s emphasized early that every freelancer follows their own path – and provides pleasant shop talk in a profession that can occasionally feel isolating.  Discussions tend toward the frank and humorous, without the bombastic personality jousts so common in gaming podcasts. I’ve listened to one episode so far but there are three out now (including one with IGN editor Mitch Dyer).  Check it out.


The Hidden Power of EPIC FAIL

I came across a couple pieces this week that synched up nicely, clarifying a point that’s been bouncing around my skull for awhile.

Item One: an episode of Extra Credits titled “Fail Faster,” about the power of doing and correcting rather than trying to build a perfect foundation.  EC’s actually a show about game design, but this episode’s broadly applicable to any creative endeavor.

Item Two: an editorial from New York Times Magazine called “Be Wrong as Fast as You Can,” detailing the author’s experience as a failed writer – and his ultimate realization that failure is a natural and powerful part of the creative process.

Though by no means a summary of the full article, here’s a great pull quote:

I recently saw a Charlie Rose interview with John Lasseter, a founder of Pixar, about the creative process behind his movies. Pixar’s in-house theory is: Be wrong as fast as you can. Mistakes are an inevitable part of the creative process, so get right down to it and start making them. Even great ideas are wrecked on the road to fruition and then have to be painstakingly reconstructed. “Every Pixar film was the worst motion picture ever made at one time or another,” Lasseter said. “People don’t believe that, but it’s true. But we don’t give up on the films.”

Both of these hit on a point I’ve been revisiting lately: that while it’s important to outline and develop ideas, you can’t get bogged down in thinking about a story rather than writing it.  It’s a common trap writers fall into – even professional ones – and it’s often driven by the fear that we won’t do our story justice, that we’ll get it wrong and make mistakes.  That it won’t be as good as something else already out there.

Fun story: In the early drafts of Frozen, Elsa was a straight-up villain like Hans Christian Andersen’s original Snow Queen.

Yeah, not so great. The movie was fun, but didn’t have much heart. Then Robert Lopez and Krisen-Anderson Lopez wrote “Let it Go,” and the team thought, Hey, maybe Elsa’s a tragic figure.  So they had an interesting villain and a show-stopper, but something was still missing.  That is, until an early read-through of the script spat up so much chemistry between Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell that the team thought, Check it – what if these two are sisters and the story’s about family dynamics.

BOOM. Hit movie.

As Extra Credits says, every great game course-corrected for success.  To scatologize John Lasseter’s classy quote, every Pixar film was, at one point, a giant turd.

Popular wisdom states that you can’t polish a turd, but that phrase ignores something more important – poop makes excellent fertilizer.  In the same way, bad ideas aren’t worthless or hopeless if you take the time and patience to grow a good idea from their nutrients.

But to do that, you have to have some crap to work with.

So go forth and fail today.  Make crap – a giant mountain of it – then use that fertilizer to grow a tree, a field an entire orchard of tasty fruit.  All you need is time and patience.

And shoveling.  Crap requires a lot of shoveling.


Writer-Sense: Being Your Story’s Peter Parker

The Gut.  The Bullshit Detector.  The Internal Editor.  Everyone’s got a name for it.

I’m a geek who grew up on Spider-Man cartoons, so I like to call it my writer-sense.  As in, My writer-sense is going crazy!  

Your writer-sense is the dashboard indicator that tells you something’s wrong.  A plot point doesn’t work. A character needs to be cut.  Your book is too long, or your article doesn’t have enough supporting evidence.  The writer-sense is one of your most important skills, and you ignore it at your own peril.

But we do ignore it – a lot.  Out of laziness.  Out of over-fondness for our own writing.  Out of fear that changing this or that element will gut our story. But the most common reason I ignore my writer-sense is that I don’t totally trust it.  Writers – even “successful” ones, whatever that means – tend to walk around with a big lump of self-doubt caught in their throat.  Their writer-sense is like a malfunctioning gland, producing way too much self-suspicion than is necessary.  It stops serving as an Internal Affairs auditor keeping everyone honest, and becomes a micro-managing boss.

As a solution, writers generally tune their writer-sense out for the first draft.  Like a movie crew on a short schedule, they just keep shooting and if anything’s wrong – well, screw it, just fix it in post-production.  Character motivation not ringing true?  Fix it in post.  Gun in a desk drawer never mentioned before?  Fix it in post.  Burt Salamander’s ploy for infiltrating the Central Iguana Agency is stupid and contrived?  WHATEVER, JUST SHOOT THAT SCENE IT AND FIX IT IN POST.

None of this is really a problem, except when you get too used to tuning out that writer-sense, and this attitude carries into the second, third – or God help you – even the final draft.  Join any writer’s group and you’ll hear all the excuses for it: “My internal bullshit detector’s broken,” is a common one, as is  “I hate everything I write,” but the old down-home classic is always, “I never know when my writing’s good.”

Let me put this to rest: yes, you do know when your writing’s good.  Your writer-sense told you during editing, but you didn’t want to listen.  You left all that nasty stuff in there just in case it passed the sniff-test, either because you were too attached or couldn’t be bothered to do the work.  Don’t do that to your readers.  Don’t reveal all that gross, behind-the-curtain messiness.

You just had a beautiful story-baby, don’t show everyone the afterbirth and claim it’s part of your child.

I recently critiqued a friend’s novel.  It was quite good overall, but had some small issues with character dynamics and world-building.  Nothing drastic or major, just tweaks and spot rewrites.  When I emailed him my critique sheet, he replied that he was already aware of many issues I pointed out, but was glad I’d confirmed that they were a problem.  I can’t fault him for that, since it’s the same with me.  I know that when he finishes critiquing my novel, I’m already going to know half the things he’s going to say.

The middle sags.  Your secondary character’s motivation isn’t clear.  There are too many scenes where characters wax expositive.  The romantic sub-plot deserves a trip to the guillotine.  I know all these things, but I haven’t acted on them.  My writer-sense was going crazy, but I wanted a second opinion. In the meantime I’ve let these elements sit like prisoners on death row, hoping for a reprieve that’ll never come.  Better to act and be done with it – but I didn’t.

Because the truth is, rewriting can be a hard and painful process.  A second draft feels like re-setting bones.  To heal the story, you have to break it first, then put it back together with pins and plates.  If you don’t, the plot heals crooked and warped, and each successive draft covers the injury with scar tissue, making it more difficult to fix.

With this book, I didn’t trust my writer-sense.  I let fear take the wheel and tell me my writer-sense might be wrong, that I might cut something oh-so-valuable that I’d never recapture again.  That’s crap, by the way – if you’re smart about it and save your drafts, you can salvage anything that you find yourself missing too much.  But here’s the kicker: once it’s gone, you probably won’t miss it anyway.

Listen to your writer-sense.  Let it tell you something’s wrong.

Don’t make excuses.  Don’t hand your readers half-finished work. Fix your story today so it doesn’t limp through life.

Break your story’s legs so it stands tall and straight.

 

 

 

 

 


People of the Internet: I Have Returned

MacArthur

 

It’s 2014, and as promised, I’m back in business!

After a two-month sabbatical, Critical Intel returned last week with an article about how Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, evokes a time period through game mechanics.

And in case you missed it, I also penned a humor piece for Slate a few weeks ago called, “NORAD’s Fighter Escort for Santa: Another Example of Wasteful Government Spending.” I was particularly proud of this one, since I’ve always admired Slate‘s Future Tense blog.

In other news, I just returned from 17 days in Thailand and Cambodia, where I collected writing material between exploring temple ruins and dodging riot cops–so expect to see some Southeast Asia-flavored content here and in CI soon. (If you’re wondering, Southeast Asia-flavored means spicy.)

Thanks for hanging with me through the sabbatical, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciated the messages of support I received during the short hiatus. Here’s to a new year and new possibilities.

2014 is going to be a good one, I can feel it.


Hey Pro Writers: Stop Bagging on NaNoWriMo

I’ve seen a lot of hate over National Novel Writing Month lately, some of it coming from my pro writer friends.

This confuses me.

Not because I don’t understand their reasoning – yeah, NaNoWriMo can sometimes be a little annoying to the paycheck and/or royalties writer.  Suddenly everyone’s talking about the novel they probably won’t finish, swapping advice they won’t follow themselves, and we all just know that after November they’ll stop being writers until the next NaNo.

Okay, I get it.  We do this all year for pay and it’s a little tiresome to see our friends trumpet how they wrote for a whole month.  And it’s true that the whole “word count over quality” thing seems wrong – even insulting – to those of us who have to keep our writing top-notch to put food on the table.  To some writers, NaNo must feel like a little league  team touring the Yankees dugout, touching all the bats and asking annoying questions during the game.

But my point is: So What?

I’m gonna let you in on a little secret.  My wife is a teacher.  Most of our friends are teachers too.  As a result, I hear a lot of teacher talk.  Like, a whole metric crapload of teacher talk.  Enough that my wife and I talk about needing to make friends that aren’t teachers, since the unrelenting school chatter drives me nuts.  And you know what all those teachers keep saying?  That kids have sucky written communication skills.

That’s right – most kids lag behind on writing, especially boys.  Since moving to Hong Kong, I’ve had no less than four teachers ask me to talk to their class.   Some want me to pass around my notebooks, showing students that the daily journaling and note-taking has a real world application.  Others want me to talk about video game journalism so the kids know that they can write about what excites them.  Mostly teachers just want me to get them to put pen to paper in some – really any – context.  As any writer knows, the only way to get better at writing is to do it more.

And that’s what raises my eyebrows when the pros sneer at NaNoWriMo.  Will most of these novels get published?  Hell no, most will end up as unfinished first drafts.  (And let’s be honest, pro writers do that too – I could build a fort out of my abandoned manuscripts.)  But that’s beside the point.  NaNoWriMo might not vault participants to stardom, but it does encourage people to write – and therefore learn – in a fun environment.  It’s voluntary education, a time when over 200,000 people choose to become a wordsmith rather than watching videos of cats falling off furniture.  And that’s pretty great.

Look, we’re entering a digital age where written text – whether in emails, blogs or tweets – is an important medium for communication.  Despite that, according to a recent study* only one in four American eighth and 12th graders displayed well-developed writing skills.

With that kind of achievement gap, why stomp all over a free event that encourages people to practice their craft?  What are we worried about, that someone might – I don’t know – take pride in their work and associate it with joy instead of schoolroom drudgery?  NaNo participants aren’t enemies to the English language.  Hell, the fact that they at least try to jot down 50,000 words a month proves that they care enough to give it a whirl.

And that’s just it – these people aren’t apathetic non-wordy types, NaNo participants generally write because they like to read.  After all, it only stands to reason that the people self-selecting themselves for this process have an interest in fiction and want to become more involved with it.  And hey, writers like to read, so maybe after playing in the word processor for a month, NaNo participants will get the urge to read more books.  Writing tends boost your appetite for reading, after all.

And really, my pro writer comrades – are more readers ever a bad thing?

So let’s take NaNo for what it is: A worldwide writing exercise where people have fun while improving their language skills.  Sure your Twitter account may get a little cluttered with NaNo Non-News, but hey, at least people are having fun, engaging with the craft and learning something – and I think that’s worth it.

 

*Note that the essays were first drafts – the kids didn’t have time to edit.  Also the Daily Mail let a typo slip by in the third paragraph, which is pretty hilarious in context.


8 Things That Are Not Writing

1.     TALKING ABOUT WRITING IS NOT WRITING

2.     READING BLOGS ABOUT WRITING IS NOT WRITING

3.     DISCUSSING WRITING ON TWITTER IS NOT WRITING

4.     THINKING ABOUT YOUR ARTICLE/NOVEL/EPIC FANTASY MASTERPIECE IS NOT WRITING

5.     MAKING PLANS ABOUT HOW MUCH WRITING YOU’RE GOING TO DO THIS WEEK IS NOT WRITING

6.     DEFENDING THE LEGITIMACY OF YOUR GENRE OR MEDIUM IS NOT WRITING

7.     RESEARCH, WHILE NOBLE AND NECESSARY, IS NOT WRITING

8.     MAKING A LIST OF “THINGS THAT ARE NOT WRITING” IS NOT WRITING

WRITING IS WHEN YOU PUT NEW WORDS DOWN ON THE PAGE, NOT WHEN YOU THINK, TALK, OR BLOG ABOUT IT.

THE NEXT TIME YOU’RE TEMPTED TO DO ANY OF THE ABOVE, ASK YOURSELF HOW MANY WORDS YOU’VE WRITTEN TODAY.

YOU COULD PROBABLY WRITE MORE.


You Don’t Want To Eat Lovecraft’s Birthday Cake

How does one talk about Howard Phillips Lovecraft?

You can judge him by his fans.  Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, John Carpenter and Guillermo Del Toro have all cited Lovecraft as a formative influence.  You can see him in the Arkham Asylum of the Batman comics and the album covers of MetallicaBlack Sabbath, and Iron Maiden.  Borges dedicated a short story to him.  Joyce Carol Oates wrote the introduction to a collection of his stories.  The Library of America published a volume of his stories.  Each week, thousands of gamers roll dice in his honor.

You can likewise judge him by his prejudices and his contradictions.  Lovecraft fetishized historical places and speech, yet found astrophysics fascinating.  He was racially bigoted toward minority groups, yet yearned for the immigrants he saw to assimilate to American culture.  (An older, more extreme version of the “Why Can’t My Waiter Speak Good English?”/”Immigrants Are Stealing Our Jobs!” crowd we see today.)  Though his thoughts and stories were profoundly steeped in antisemitism, he married a Ukrainian Jew and had multiple Jewish friends.  Truly, one of the tragedies of Lovecraft’s life was that, for a man who rose above so many literary conventions, his everyday philosophy remained mired in old-fashioned racism that poisoned his friendships and hobbled his fiction.  One wonders what Lovecraft could’ve accomplished had his “cosmic” view of humanity extended to the foreigners and minorities he so maligned.

Still, we must take Lovecraft as he was, not as we would like him to be.  Though many of his stories are problematic and some even repulsive to modern readers, any historian will tell you that a figure can be historically significant and worthy of study despite being an enormous dirtbag.

For me, the real lesson of H.P. Lovecraft is that writers have to dig deep.  Yes, Lovecraft’s greatest addition to the literary canon was the Mythos – the notion that vastly powerful interstellar beings are always a hair’s breadth from destroying us – but that’s not what made his stories scary.  What make Lovecraft sing is that every horror, every fear, every clawing unnamable thing he put on the page originated deep within his psyche.

When Lovecraft was three, his father had a psychotic break while on a business trip.  He died five years later in a psychiatric hospital… so Lovecraft wrote about madness and asylums.

Lovecraft thought he was ugly, a view his mother seemed to instill in him when he was young… so Lovecraft created The Outsider and the abhuman faces of “The Innsmouth Look.”

Lovecraft had intense dreams where he stayed lucid… so he wrote about Randolph Carter in the Dreamlands.

A lifelong fear of the sea – and a visceral reaction to seafood – made Lovecraft write about tentacled monsters and human-fish hybrids.

He had overwhelming feelings of family obligation and legacy, which gave us Arthur Jermyn, The Rats in the Walls, and The Shadow Over Innsmouth.

Lovecraft felt small, and powerless, and isolated – so he imagined a universe where all of humanity was the same, whether they knew it or not.

The reason Lovecraft frightens us isn’t because of his cosmic monstrosities, the titanic inhuman behemoths of which he was so proud.  Actually, it’s the small, human concerns that frighten us.  It is the fear that our lives are meaningless, that our bodies will be corrupted, that we are being manipulated or worse, that the house we live in or the person residing next door conceal a sinister past.  In Lovecraft’s world, we are always living with our backs to the cliff with our heels just over the precipice.  We are never as safe – or as sane – as we think.

These are all things that H.P. Lovecraft feared.  Through his writing he managed to pass on his terrors, his helplessness, his flat-out dysfunction onto his readers.  Connections like that are the hallmark of a good writer.

Many academics talk about how Lovecraft’s stories are divorced from emotion and humanity, with paper-thin protagonists serving as detached narrators.

That’s not the case at all.  Lovecraft is all over the pages of his work.  He’s there in the crawling dread of insanity, the gnawing feeling of something outside mankind’s vision, the revolting rubberiness of a sea god, and the intricate impossibility of the Dreamlands.  These things are the humanity in his work, and the emotion too.   They’re a conduit straight to a human mind buckled by dread and constrained emotion.  The protagonist in Lovecraft stories is – sometimes literally but always figuratively – Lovecraft himself.

HPL put himself all in, and you should too.

So, in honor of that massively-head-screwed genius:  Write.  Squeeze your soul.  Hold it above the page and ring it out like a dish sponge.

Write about things that scare you.