For my money, one of the greatest tragedies in modern American storytelling was the complete failure of the Star Wars prequels to tell any kind of compelling story. They were pretty, they were fun, but they ultimately lacked pathos or human emotion, no matter how hard the actors tried to sell it.
The thing that kills me about it was that it had all the necessary pieces to make it work. They cast a brilliant Obi Wan (Ewan McGregor remains the finest part of that series by far), had a nigh-unlimited budget, had the goodwill of millions of fans, and had the perfect set-up: a good man becomes Darth Vader, the nightmarish villain. Even the Clone Wars – at that point a totally blank slate – were rich with possibility. Then they made Anakin a little kid (?), wasted a whole movie on Naboo, channeled an extremely stalker-y vibe into Episode II, confused the hell out of everyone with the Clone army, and then had Ani go from “whiny brat” to “child murderer” in about fifteen minutes. Oh, right, and then the entire Star Wars universe can’t seem to handle a complex birth and Padme dies of nonsense causes. But it could have been so good!
But it wasn’t. It just totally wasn’t. You can disagree with me, sure – whatever – but my critique stands. I’ve watched those movies a lot by now, and I say with complete confidence that they were Not Good and definitely worse than any other Star Wars movies made before or since.
You know why?
The first reason should be obvious: I am not a child. I understand that sometimes life is disappointing and Hollywood doubly-so and I just change the channel to something I like better. This is called being an adult.
The second and arguably more important reason is that I think it is essential that writers, directors, actors, producers, artists, and all creators across the full spectrum of entertainment and literature be allowed to tell the stories they want to tell, no matter what the audience thinks of them. Now, does this mean that I want garbage like The Sopranos finale? No, of course not. Does this mean I don’t think people have a right to complain about bad storytelling? No, absolutely not – complain away! But what I don’t think the audience has a right to do is demand the artist change what they did.
No, absolutely not. Don’t even ask.
Because the work that the artist/artists created is not yours. I’m going to repeat that:
THE WORK THAT THE ARTIST OR ARTISTS CREATE IS NOT YOURS!
They made it, not you. If you don’t like it, that’s fine – feel free to complain, feel free to boycott. But you can’t force them to tell the story you want them to, no matter how much theirs sucks. You sure as hell can’t go around threatening them or their livelihood because the fictional story they presented wasn’t what you wanted it to be. That’s completely insane.
Do you know what happens when storytellers tell the stories that everybody expects them to tell? Boredom. Repetition. Basically 75-80% of everything that comes out of Hollywood (or in book publishing, for that matter). The job of the artist is to try and give the audience something they didn’t realize they wanted. This is hard. It involves taking risks, working without a net, flying by the seat of your pants, etc.. Sometimes (often?) it doesn’t work. Better artists than you or I have failed in landing franchises half as impressive as Game of Thrones. If we ever want it to work, we need to let them try, though, without living in mortal terror of what the “fans” will do to them.
Now, maybe you’re right. Maybe you could tell a better story than that in your sleep. Hell, I encourage you to try. Go ahead – show them how it’s done.
But you’re going to have to get your own story.
Welcome, brave adventurers! Do not be afraid – I am not your enemy, only a guide. You have journeyed far and suffered much to attain the summit of this, the Mountain of Prophesy. Here lies the Ultimate Treasure for one of you to claim. But be warned! The Treasure is not for the meek nor the idle; it asks of you a terrible price. One of you must sacrifice yourself willingly for the good of others by leaping from the top of this cliff, falling to your death. Only then will your companions be gifted with the Ultimate Treasure and your quest will be at an end.
Of course – and please bear with me here – there are a few provisos and rules to go over, just so we’re clear on what’s being asked here. I know, I know – this is supposed to be your climatic moment, I understand, but I’ve been here a few aeons and I think we’ll all be happier if I dispel any gray area before we begin. In my experience, everyone will be happier in the end.
Look, I feel what I’m asking is pretty clear, too – one of you needs to jump to your death right there and then you get the treasure. Pretty clear. But, just in case you were hoping for some kind of technicality, here, let me be explicit: there is no scenario that ends with you getting the Treasure and also all of you walking away alive. No resurrection. No creating a clone of yourself and getting the clone to jump off the mountain (oh, and by the way, everybody who’s tried that has really regretted it, believe me. Total shitshow, that plan).
And jumping off the mountain presumes you will die by hitting those jagged rocks way down there. No jumping, levitating halfway down, and then arguing that we’re all mortal or some nonsense and that you’ll totally die someday. Same thing goes for those of you so tough you hit the rocks down there and you’re fine – you’ve got to die.
I’m really very sorry, but these are the rules. I didn’t even make these rules, so threatening me won’t make any difference. This is some immutable, Laws of Creation-type shit. I just work here, and I’m not even technically alive, so getting me to jump off for you guys won’t work either.
Oh, and no psychic bullshit! No hypnotizing your friends into jumping off in your place or finding some poor hapless villager and charming them so that they’ll do anything for you and getting them to commit suicide. Consent, assholes – learn the word.
And yeah, it’s got to be one of you guys who climbed the mountain. You can’t teleport in your aging grandma who has two weeks to live and talk her into it. This is supposed to be an ordeal, people. There is a price to be paid. Don’t be dicks.
Look, there’s no point in getting mad at me – it wasn’t my idea to take on this quest to defeat the Ultimate Evil. I’m not the jerk here. C’mon – you were just talking about throwing your grandma off a damned cliff, you little shit.
Hey, nobody’s saying anybody needs to jump – you can go walk yourself down the mountain, for all I care. Live a happy life somewhere. I don’t give a shit, honestly I don’t. I don’t get paid on commission or something. It’s just no jump means no Treasure. Them’s the breaks.
You know what – fine! Leave. Oh stop with all the whining. Oh – oh really? You went there, huh? You think I haven’t heard all this before? Fuck off, you self-entitled little piss-ants. Beat it! Go on now – get. I got better shit to do than listen to this abuse – me, who later on has to climb his old bones down the whole damned mountain and clean your dead ass off those rocks. Fucking exhausting, is what that is. Not jumping is doing me a favor, honestly.
Ye fickle gods, some people.
Maybe I should just post this on a sign or something.
Hey! Those of you in the Boston area tonight (May 9th, 2019), come by Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge. I’ll be there between 7pm and 9pm, signing books and chatting with fans. See you there!
Hi, folks! I have survived the end of yet another grueling semester and come out the other side with news! I, as in my very person, will be signing copies of The Far Far Better Thing at Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, MA from 7pm to 9pm! I’ll do a reading, too, and probably sign anything you shove at me, so please come down and say hello!
If you’ve never been to Pandemonium, it is one of my favorite bookstores in the Boston area, catering specifically to science fiction and fantasy books and with a vast, vast selection of board games, role-playing games, and models and miniatures, to boot. They are great people down there and I’m delighted that they’re having me back.
So, mark your calendars! One week from today – Thursday, May 9th, 7-9pm. I’m really, really hoping for a good crowd, so bring friends! The event is free! It’s easily T-accessible (Central Square off the Red Line)!
See you all there!
Behold, it is I, Vrokthar, Scourge of the Northern Wastes! I have once more emerged from my winter feasting, the stores of my longhouse long since depleted, and the meatier of my servants devoured. I look upon thy lands with a hunger that may be sated only by the screams of the cowardly, and soon will my ravaging hordes ride forth in battle.
First, though, I caught up on thy many professional sporting events, wherein you weakling fools pretend to be warriors for a limited period of time while maneuvering various spheres past various posts and, for some reason, slaughter no one and leave their weapons behind. Of this I have proclaimed my displeasure before, and it is not Vrokthar’s mighty purpose to repeat himself. No. There are other things that must be declared the farce that they are.
What is going on with post-game “entertainment?”
At first, Vrokthar assumed this would be an hour-long victory celebration, where we would watch the victors divide the spoils of their conquests, make merry with one another, and heap insults upon vanquished foe all while boasting that still greater victories were to come. This would be a worthy use of time, as few enjoy a good boast more than Vrokthar the Unspeakably Mighty and Crusher of Mountains. Ask any of my thanes, and they will tell thee that my hall is thick with the smoke of roasted meat and the roars of drunken warriors, describing their feats.
But this…this “post-game” nonsense was nothing of the kind. It was merely prattling bards asking idiotic questions of blank eyed athletes: “How did you think you did today?” and “What are you going to do to win next time?”
And their answers? Drivel! Garbage! Useless swill! “We worked real hard” these imbeciles relate, as though a man sweating from physical exertion to the point where he seems to have been greased like a pig has just enjoyed a leisurely stroll. “We went out there and we gave it our all and it was close, but we won.” OBVIOUSLY, you half-drunk donkey! We just witnessed this thing! Is this all you have to give us? Is this the extent of your insight?
Mayhap we should make these faux-warriors excuses – they are not employed to be great speakers, but great workers of deeds. Leave it, then, to the bards of your indolent society to make them seem mighty. And yet, AND YET, these puttering, puerile sycophants add even less to the meager boasts of their pathetic champions! “Did you see the way he moved his feet,” says one, as though being in motion and moving one’s feet could be exclusive states. “I mean, the reason these guys keep winning is they keep putting it in the goal.” OBVIOUSLY, YOU INCOHERENT SWINE, AS SUCH IS THE OBJECTIVE OF THE GAME!
What has become of the vigor of your people, wetlanders? How can it be that here, even in the midst of what passes for glory among your kind, can you be such wretched wastes of time and space and energy? Were Vorkthar to win one of these so-called “playoffs,” you would not find him shyly mincing words in the room-of-small-closets. NO! Vrokthar would be drinking deeply from the helm of his defeated foe! He would steal from the vanquished their livery and cast it down before the fawning masses. “BEHOLD,” sayeth he, “THE FATE OF THOSE WHO FACE VROKTHAR IN BATTLE IS FORETOLD!” Then there would be urination and the speaking of mighty oaths. I would swear to those present that upon the next meeting, I should slay their captain in open combat in center ice and, when the referees came to detain me in the Box of Ignominy, they too would be slain. And then the goals I would score would mount unto the heavens, so numerous would they be! The Scorekeeper would expire from exhaustion, and him too I would skin and mount upon my wall, so that ever afterward, when Vrokthar stood upon the field of contest, the other teams would weep and gnash their teeth and Vrokthar would be given ten goals as an offering to sate his eternal, volcanic rage, lest it melt the ice itself and the whole game be for naught.
Even now, as I speak these words, there are those among you who grow angry. “This cannot be said,” you say. “It is wrong, it is impolite, it is inaccurate.” Fools, I say! This is the point of boasting! Laugh in the face of thy foes, weaklings! Scoff at their warriors, scorn their pride – drive them to madness with your mighty speech. And if you were to lose (which obviously would happen often, because you are as a whole are an impotent and incompetent species), what of it? You would be shamed, and rightfully so, for those who are vanquished should be ashamed of themselves. And then you may plot vengeance! See, wetlander imbeciles? The fun never ends!
Methinks your post-game sports foolishness would be greatly improved by Vrokthar’s reforms. Nay, it is certain to be so. Go and see that these changes are done, or face my inestimable wrath.
So I hath spoken!
Hey, any of you nerds going to PAX East this year? If so, I think you should know that I and a select group of alpha nerds (Bobby Smithney, John Perich, John Serpico, and Samantha LeVangie) – authors, improvisors, directors, and teachers – will be heading up a panel on Roleplaying in the Now – how to use Improv skills in tabletop RPGs.
Have you ever wanted to break out of the monotony of killing things and taking their stuff? Have you ever wished there was a way to give your players more autonomy in a game without it driving you up the wall? Well, Improvisation in Roleplaying: How to Run a Game in the Now is the panel for you! A panel of experts (including me) who collectively have over 90 YEARS of tabletop gaming experience are going to tell you all about it. Oh, and here’s the kicker: PAX East (as of this posting) isn’t sold out for Thursday yet, so you can still go! There’s time!
So be there, or be a rhombus!
A friend of mine was recently looking for advice on how to run a Dungeons and Dragons game, as he had never done it before. He had put together a pretty straightforward and workable adventure to get everybody started – everybody winds up in this town to join some mercenary company, has to figure out how to get over the walls of said town, then they meet in an inn, and then there’s a bar fight.
Now, while this is perfectly serviceable, I feel that it sort of misses a really important aspect of storytelling that is directly relevant and essential to a really great tabletop gaming experience, as well, which is motivation.
Basically, all storytelling involves two basic building blocks: Motive and Obstacle. The character wants or is seeking something (Motive) and there is something that prevents them from immediately achieving that aim (Obstacle). Without the motive, there is nothing driving the character to overcome any obstacles (whether they are internal or external). Without obstacles, the character just immediately fulfills their motive and no real story occurs. What makes a story interesting is how motive and obstacle feed into one another and basically drive the story forward.
I would argue, also, that these elements transcend genre or even historical and cultural concerns. Even in so-called “conflictless” stories (such as the Japanese Kishotenketsu structure), this still exists. There is always something lacking/missing from the character, even if extremely subtle (a man is making dinner, preparing for his relatives – this is a motive for making dinner). There is always something that is going to stand in the way of the immediate realization of that goal (the man has to go to the store to buy more fish). All that changes is the nature of these two elements and their relationships to one another. In the stereotypical Campbellian Hero’s Journey (gestures vaguely at the whole MCU), the main character has an irresistible call to adventure of some kind and then must overcome a series of escalating obstacles culminating in a grand ordeal and, once victorious, returns to the world they once knew with gained wisdom and power. Even outside of that structure, though, Motive and Obstacle have to be present.
In a gaming setting, assuming your game is narrative focused, these two elements still need to be there for it to all work. What is most commonly forgotten is motive – a player makes an Elven Wizard, her identity is…Elven Wizard…and her character’s goals are to cast spells and be an elf. Naturally, this isn’t enough and this is also why the whole “we all meet in a tavern” thing is so cliche – the characters meet in a tavern because they have literally no other reason to meet or interact. The obstacles, meanwhile, are assumed – the players are going to band together, go to that dungeon, kill what they find, and collect the loot. This is fine, I guess, if all you’re involved in is a basic resource-management exercise. But assuming you’re not, it is clearly lacking…well, story.
It doesn’t take much, though, to give the game a story. All you need to do as a GM (or as a player) is to ask the players a few questions. Suggestions might include:
- What happened to you the last time you were in that dungeon?
- What have the goblins of that dungeon stolen from you and why it is important?
- What do you need the money from this quest for? Why is it important?
By establishing some basic motivations, the players suddenly have a vested interest in overcoming the obstacle before them. The story is no longer contrived. Furthermore, if your players buy into the motivations they’ve established for themselves (and hopefully they have!), the obstacles suddenly become more engaging. Saying “you can’t jump across this pit” is fine, but saying “you can’t jump across this pit, but you hear your baby girl crying your name from the other side” is a million times better!
All of this goes for writing, too, of course. If a character doesn’t have a clear motivation for doing what they’re doing, the audience isn’t going to buy in on their struggle. This is a common problem with in medias res beginnings – we don’t know why the character is in this car chase, so it’s hard to care. But if it’s managed well, we are instantly engaged and love every second of it. Then, as the motivations solidify or change into larger and more complex ones and the obstacles likewise follow suit, you’ve got the audience/players on a wild ride they don’t want to end.
The Far Far Better Thing, Book 4 in The Saga of the Redeemed, is available in e-book!
I’ve been interviewed about the series in a few places, too.
Go to MyLifeMyBooksMyEscape to hear all about the series as a whole and why you might like to read it.
If you want to know more about my inspiration and underlying intentions for the book, check out my interview here on Beauty-in-Ruins!
And for those of you waiting for the paperback version, it comes out next Tuesday (3/19), which is a mere 6 days away!
In Short Fiction News…
I’m happy to report I’ve sold re-print rights for my novelette “The Masochist’s Assistant” (which you might remember from the July/August 2017 issue of F&SF) to PodCastle, which means there’s going to be an audio version of the story! Very exciting news!
I’m going to be at PAXEast on Thursday, March 28th on a panel dealing with how to use Improv in your tabletop RPG game – I, along with a number of other performers, writers, and incredible gamers with whom I have shared a table on many a game night will talk GM-ing, gaming, plotting, planning, and everything in between. This is an excellent panel and I highly recommend it. I hope to see some of you there!
I just submitted a novel to my agent (a time travel caper) and I’m right now looking into what novel I’m going to write this summer (currently undecided), but of course I’m still writing short stories and novels and submitting things and pressing on. Ever forward – that’s the business! If there is any more news, you folks will be the first to hear about it!
Thanks for all your support, and we’ll talk soon!
This is it! The Far Far Better Thing, Book 4 of The Saga of the Redeemed, is available today from all e-book retailers! In other words, the fantasy series that I imagined and started writing almost ten years ago has finally culminated in this epic work!
Auston Habershaw’s epic fantasy series, The Saga of the Redeemed, which began with The Oldest Trick, comes to a powerful conclusion in The Far Far Better Thing.
War has come to Eretheria.
With Tyvian Reldamar feigning his death, the forces that still carry his banner are left to fight a vicious battle against the warlord Banric Sahand and the noble houses that flock to his side.
Led by Myreon and Artus, this band of freedom fighters and angry rebels is faced with an enemy the likes of which they’ve never faced before: one who will do anything, no matter how brutal, to secure victory.
Having had his fill of death, Tyvian tries to run away from the war fought in his name, but it just isn’t that simple. With his mother held prisoner, Artus and Myreon in grave danger, and Xahlven pulling the strings in the background, the ring drags Tyvian to return and set things right.
But how can one man fix a world this broken? And what will be left behind when the smoke clears? No one can say for sure.
Least of all Tyvian.
I’ll have more to say about this at another time, when I can gather my thoughts, but I’d like to at this point offer a massive, heartfelt thank you to those fans of mine who have stuck with Tyvian through all his trials and tribulations – you are the absolute best, and this absolutely would not have been possible without you.
I’d also like to thank my wonderful beta readers – Katie, Brandon, and Jason – for keeping me sane and pointed in the right direction.
And, of course, my agent Joshua and editor David, also without whom there would be no book.
Now get out there and get reading!
Boskone is upon us! New England’s longest running science fiction and fantasy convention hits the Westin Waterfront Hotel this weekend in my home town, Boston! Not only will I be there, but many, many really interesting writers, editors, agents, artists, fans, and more! If you’re in the area, you really should swing by – it’s a really good con. For those already coming, I hope I’ll see you there! Also, check out my mini-interview here, on Boskone’s blog!
Here’s my schedule:
Editing Your Manuscript for Submission
Format: Discussion Group
15 Feb 2019, Friday 17:00 – 17:50, Griffin (Westin)
Join our panel of editors and agents for a discussion on what they look for in a submission. Is submitting to an agent different from submitting to an editor? Are they seeking the same or different things on first reads? Do you submit a precis, a chapter or chapters, the whole manuscript, or other material and, if so, to whom and when? How do you prepare your novel for submission? What are some tips and tricks on how to cut, embellish, or shape a manuscript?
Joshua Bilmes (JABberwocky Literary Agency) (M), Auston Habershaw (M)
The Trouble with Time Travel
15 Feb 2019, Friday 19:00 – 19:50, Harbor II (Westin)
Let’s consider the difficulties of time travel in the ever-changing multiverse. Can we change the past or not? What other interesting difficulties might real time travel present to real time travelers?
Ellen Asher, Kenneth Rogers Jr. (Lost Imaginations), Auston Habershaw, William Hayashi (M), Clarence Young (Zig Zag Claybourne)
Reading by Auston Habershaw
16 Feb 2019, Saturday 14:30 – 14:55, Independence (Westin)
Breaking Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth
17 Feb 2019, Sunday 10:00 – 10:50, Marina 4 (Westin)
Mythographer Joseph Campbell’s formula of the “hero’s journey” — an oh-so-familiar sequence of questing, crises, victory, and return — may not provide the only way to construct a story. But can narratives that don’t use this structure reach us as deeply? Is the hero’s journey applicable also to non-Western storytelling? Our panelists discuss Campbell’s “monomyth,” and whether and how to deviate from it. (For helpful graphics and resources, see http://www.sfcenter.ku.edu/Workshop-stuff/Joseph-Campbell-Hero-Journey.htm)
Auston Habershaw (M), John Clute, Teresa Nielsen Hayden (Tor Books), F. Brett Cox (Norwich University), Faye Ringel
Gimme That Old-Time Space Adventure
17 Feb 2019, Sunday 13:00 – 13:50, Harbor II (Westin)
The subgenre has been around a long time — but people still love a good space adventure story. Why? What are the greatest space sagas of the past, and what are the new classics of the field? How are they similar or different from each other? Do the new ones still have that good old goshwow sensawunda?
Brendan DuBois, John P. Murphy (M), MR Richardson (Room 10 Publishing), Auston Habershaw, Dan Moren
There you have it! See you all there!
It occurs to me that I don’t quite spend enough time (read: hardly any) hawking my own wares, so this is just me reminding you all that the fourth book in my fantasy series, The Saga of the Redeemed, releases in e-book on March 5th (available everywhere fine e-books are sold). Books 1-3 are available via e-book or paperback from any online bookseller and in select bookstores.
I’m proud of these books. As my first published novels and (soon) my first completed series, I think they are good work. They’re fun, they’re exciting, there’s twists and turns. It’s a redemption tale, but a slow one – no sudden magical epiphanies making a bad guy good, no easy outs. There’s swordplay and magic, poison and sorcery, and even a big dog/human lady who eats people and has cute puppies she’s trying to protect. If you like fantasy, you’ll dig these books as likely as not. Go and buy them.
I guess part of the reason I don’t hawk my wares as frequently as maybe I should is because I don’t feel like it makes much difference if I do or don’t. I can sell a few books this way – maybe, optimistically speaking, in the hundreds (and that is being very, VERY optimistic) – but this little platform and my tiny voice doesn’t get me very far. I do interviews, I write blog posts, you can find me on social media, and I publish short fiction fairly regularly in a variety of pro markets. Of all of those efforts, short fiction by far gives me the best return, and that isn’t saying a whole awful lot.
I don’t say this to complain, by the way. The market is what it is. I’ve seen the size of the boulder I’m supposed to shift and I know that I can’t shift it myself, no matter how I hustle. So I chip away here and there; I make friends, I write more stories, I publish on this blog. I hope more people like what I write and tell there friends (for serious now: TELL YOUR FRIENDS), but I’m one little droplet in a large ocean. Growing steadily, I hope, but trying to remain realistic for all that.
Maybe I should do more readings. Maybe I should visit more bookstores. Maybe I should do workshops at libraries. But guys, I’ve got a day job (which I need) and three kids and a marriage and so on and so forth – I only have so much time. Some guy on the internet recently was implying that a real writer quits their job and devotes themselves to their writing. And sure, yeah, in a perfect world I’d do just that. In the world we live in, though, it just strikes me as a uniquely privileged kind of madness. Want to make it for the long haul? Be honest with yourself. Be realistic. And keep working.
My book comes out March 5th. There is maybe just enough time for you to read the first three before it drops.