Author Archives: aahabershaw

On Vonnegut and the (Post)Modern Condition

If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be a homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts.

~Kurt Vonnegut

I confess I don’t know much what to make of Kurt Vonnegut. I first picked up a novel of his – Slaughterhouse Five – in high school. I didn’t get very far in it, mostly because I couldn’t quite get a fix on what I was supposed to think about what was going on. It all seemed a jumble to me, and weirdly empty of…of something. I read Cat’s Cradle in college and felt much the same way. “What the hell is with this guy?” I thought. I was surrounded by people who worshiped him – said he was funny, poignant, the best American author of the modern era. I just didn’t get it.

Pictured: Great Author I Don’t Get

Fast-foward to this past week, where I finally sat myself down and read Slaughterhouse Five all the way through. It is a brilliant work, no doubt – age and experience and the state of being a writer has taught me to notice good fiction even if I don’t care for it – but I still don’t know quite what to make of it all. I did not dislike the book, but I also cannot say with any truth that I liked it. I am left in a kind of artistic limbo.

The word that most strikes me when I read Vonnegut is “empty.” Not that nothing happens, but that no motives, no reasons are allowed to attach to the events. People just are the way they are. Things happen because they do. So it goes.

This is a derivation of postmodern thought, clearly. Vonnegut is quite adept at pointing out the absurdity of the human condition, and expounding upon how that absurdity is compounded by the human race’s fervent desire to prove that it isn’t absurd at all, but instead invested with deep meaning. He is by no means the only author to do this, nor do I dislike those other authors necessarily, so it isn’t Vonnegut’s philosophical grounding that alienates me from his work. Indeed, I find it really fascinating how he can be so aggressively post-modern without being bitter or angry or horrified.

But then, part of me I guess wants him to be bitter and angry and horrified. I don’t, in the end, find his dark brand of humor funny because I guess I care too much to laugh. I find myself flailing around in his books for something to hold on to and it just isn’t there. There’s nothing – it’s all absurd, it’s all nonsense. And there’s Vonnegut, evidently kicking back and relaxing despite all this. Just shrugging, saying “So it goes,” as though the tragedies he just described don’t matter.

And I guess he’s right – they don’t, not in any cosmic sense – but to me, I feel they ought to. Each time a bomb goes off because some ridiculous asshole decides to blow himself up for his imaginary, absurd vision of the divine (or his bitter hatred of his mother or because he’s a closeted homosexual and can’t handle it or because of no reason at all), I am of two minds. The first is horrified, angry, and craving justice. My heart weeps for the victims – innocent girls, this time – and I want very much to do something. But then there’s that second mind, that dark, postmodern one: 22 dead people, in the end, don’t really matter much. If 120,000 people could die on one day in Dresden and the world kept turning, no amount of stupid little kitchen-made bombs made by bitter, angry men will make much difference. In the Second World War an average of about 27,000 people died each day. And yet the world is still here, making the same damned mistakes, giving power to the same damned monsters, and spouting the same damned bullshit. Same with any other war. We don’t learn.

I gotta say, I hate the part of my brain that thinks this way. It’s defeatist, even if it does seem to be right. And maybe that’s my problem with Vonnegut, too – he might be right, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

The Cheap Joke

In editing my latest manuscript, my agent, though overall very positive about the book, had this to say (I will paraphrase):

This book is fun, but perhaps too much fun. You are telling jokes at the expense of plot – cut some of it back. Don’t go for the cheap line.

Now, first off, if you’ve read any of the Saga of the Redeemed, you know that I enjoy banter. It works its way into a lot of my writing, honestly. I want the reader to have fun. I want them to laugh, I want them to be on the edge of their seat, I want them to cry sometimes – I want the entire emotional smorgasbord to be in there.

But mostly I want them to laugh.

This is one of the reasons I loved Guardians of the Galaxy and, indeed, why I think the MCU has been beating the pants off of the rather wretched DC Universe on the big screen of late. The Marvel movies are fun, even the deadly serious ones. There’s Cap, getting his face punched in, and he just rolls his shoulders, puts up his dukes, and say “I can do this all day.” There’s Loki, presiding over the destruction of New York, and in comes Hulk: “Puny god.”

Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 do this to a level far, far greater than their fellows, though. I loved it in Guardians 1, but in 2, seeing it as I did quick on the heels of my agent’s commentary, made me wonder: do we need all these quips? All this banter? Like (mild spoilers) when Yondu comes down saying “I’m Mary Poppins, y’all!” it was funny, yeah. But was it needed?

How much is too much?

Like most things in writing, I think there aren’t precisely hard and fast rules so much as a kind of spectrum we’re seeking to describe. On the one hand is a story where a bunch of adventurers sit in space-dock (or what have you) and spend the entire time playing practical jokes on each other. Long on fun, and maybe even on character, but nothing really happens – no plot. At the other end, we’ve got a joyless, tightly-paced thrill ride of nothing but stern looks and, perhaps, the occasional grimace or maniacal laugh (some of the Bourne movies come to mind). You read/watch those and you want to yell “loosen up, you clowns!”

Finding precisely where the line is requires a keen understanding, I think, of how your book is coming across to your target audience. This is famously difficult to determine, of course, since how an author views his or her own work and how the audience encounters it are often totally different things. What you find funny falls flat with them, and what they latch on to are things you never imagined being important. This is why writing is as much an art form as it is a craft – we are assembling something in a black box of sorts, and while we have a good idea of what’s going to come out the other end and present itself to readers, we can never been 100% sure.

In the end, I think my agent is right about that last book. Perhaps a bit too much banter, perhaps a bit too much going for the cheap joke. I took out a lot of the extraneous stuff and left in the things that built character or illuminated personal conflict. Looking back on it, as much as I enjoyed GotG 2, I think they probably could have done the same and wound up with a movie that was less of a mess. I mean, again, I liked it, but a little too much of that movie wasn’t so much plot, as it was this:

Tip: Don’t let your book be this guy.

 

 

Story Sale! (and brief writing update)

Hey, friends! I’m here to announce that my story “Lord of the Cul-de-sac” (which originally featured in Galaxy’s Edge last year) has just been sold to Digital Fiction’s Hic Sunt Dracones anthology. It’s been a little while since my last short fiction sale (back in the fall, I think it was) so this is especially welcome news. I’ll keep you all updated on when it publishes.

On that note, my short story “The Masochist’s Assistant” is set to be published in the July/August issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I’m especially excited about that one, as I think it is some of my finest work to date and is going to be in a major market like F&SF. For you Tyvian fans, it is a story also set in Alandar (Tyvian’s world) though, as usual with my short fiction, a different corner of it.

And on that note, some of you might be wondering a few things about this here blog:

Thing the First: Why haven’t you been posting as much, Habershaw?
Thing the Second: Is there ever going to be any more Saga of the Redeemed?

Well, the answer to those two things is related. I’ve been working feverishly on a few novel projects for the last 6-8 months or so which has cut into my blog-time. As of this writing, ink has fallen on contracts of various descriptions, but I have not, as yet, been given leave to openly discuss said contracts. When I do, you folks will be the first to know. Suffice to say I am very excited about them, very grateful to have the excellent agent that I do, and am almost certain when I say we haven’t seen the last of that scoundrel, Tyvian Reldamar.

Now then, back to outlining!

Outlining: A Pantser’s Lament

When I teach my college freshmen to write academic essays, I always tell them to start with a loose outline of what they’re going to do. Break it down paragraph by paragraph, I say, and make sure it will make sense before you start. This is, I believe, good advice. Too bad I rarely take it myself. Well, to be fair, I also don’t tend to write academic prose; I have an easier time outlining those kinds of things, as it happens, than I do outlining say, a story or a novel. But still, I’d rather eat tacks than outline sometimes. I’m winging this blog post as we speak, for instance.

It isn’t that I don’t see the utility of outlining – I very much do. I just don’t like doing it. When I started out writing novels (and, like many novelists, I have written way more novels than I’ve actually published), I started out by trying to outline the book first. Weirdly, I found it really difficult to make any headway if I did this. Something about making the outline robbed me of the motivation to actually write the book. I may have spouted some nonsense about outlining “robbing the book of its magic” or something, but what it comes down to is this: it is more fun to write a book without an outline. You get to preserve your sense of wonder at your own book. Like the readers, you are along for a ride which has an ending you can only guess at. This is called “pantsing.” As in, “by the seat of your pants.” Just sitting down at a computer with the barest sense of an idea and then writing it. Just going. You become the Lewis and Clarke of your own work; you are pathfinding the Oregon Trail to the promised land of “perfect novel.”

The problem is there are significant drawbacks.

Your plot has failed. Please try again.

For one thing, much like the Oregon Trail, there is very little guarantee that you will actually make it to the end. Your book might crash and burn halfway through and then you look back and realize “oh, crap – I’ve got to rewrite that whole thing!” So you go back and rewrite it, this time resolved to take lefts where you took rights. Except that doesn’t work, either. Next thing you know, you’ve rewritten the entire book a thousand times and have had a miserable time of it. There is no magic, there. It’s nothing but thick forests, craggy mountains, and snake bites.

Now, with an outline, you can (theoretically) circumvent many of those hazards before they crop up. You can look into the future and ask yourself “will this actually sustain a whole novel, or am I writing a novella?” You plan and you re-plan and you re-plan again. Granted, you are rewriting things just as often as the pants method, but outlines take a lot less time to rewrite.

But what about the magic? What about those glorious little surprises that can creep into your plot? Don’t outlines kill those things? How are you going to get your butt in that chair if you already know how everything is going to go? I can’t understate the obstacle that creates. As much as I know making a detailed outline is a wise activity, so much of me just wants to dive right in, you know? I want to be inspired by my own work!

These, though, strike me sometimes as the wishes and complaints of a child. I hate magical discussions of the artistic process. I don’t believe in the “muse” and I don’t accept writer’s block as anything other than fear of making mistakes. By that metric, I know that the so-called “magic” of pantsing a novel is just me being lazy. Outlines are work, whereas drafts are fun. But these days I have deadlines and very limited writing time. I can’t spend 2-3 years entirely rewriting the same novel five times. You know what kills the magic? Draft seven. That kills it dead, believe me.

Pictured: Me, pantsing yet another book.

So, for this next novel, I’m rolling my sleeves up, biting the bullet, and outlining the damned thing before I start. You know what should keep my butt in my chair? The idea that I’m a goddamned professional, that’s what. The fact that I’ve got 9 months to write a polished novel and four of those months will be taken up by my day job, and so I need to write this thing in one. It’s time to grow up, be responsible, and make a plan before I wander off in the wilderness and crash and burn yet another 100,000 word draft.

Or so I tell myself now.

As I write a blog post to procrastinate from outlining.

(sigh)

 

The “What the Fuss is About” Read

My reading list is about a million miles long and never seems to be getting any shorter. When I finish a book, I often find myself at a loss for what to read next – there’s just so many things I could pick. Obviously, I should stay up to date in my chosen genre of fantasy and scifi, but have you seen how many fantasy and scifi books are released on a monthly basis? Good god. Then, of course, there’s the reading I do to research the classes I’m going to teach – studies in American Modernism, for instance, and other literary movements. I’ve got to do that reading, or I can’t reasonably teach the things I claim to know about (and honestly this reading takes up most of my reading time). Then there’s research for my writing, which often takes the form of history or philosophy (and I just simply don’t read enough of that). Then there’s the simple caveat that one should always seek to read broadly – outside the regular genres one is usually accustomed to – and so I find myself putting books of essays, poetry, plays, and other stuff on my reading list, just as a lark.

So, when the time comes to read another book…I’m sometimes at a loss. Accordingly, I’ve created a new rule: one new book, and one old one. I will read a current novel, published in the last few years. Then I’ll go back and read a book I missed – a classic, often. But sometimes it’s a book that I keep hearing about, over and over again. I keep getting the question “have you read (insert title)? No? You have to!”

They always say it that way, too: I have to. I must. It is a requirement of my existence. I cannot define myself as a reader, let alone a writer or professor, if I do not read this book. Frequently these are books I would not pick up on my own. Sometimes they are books in which I have absolutely no interest. It doesn’t seem to matter. I must read them.

As a rule, any book suggested to me this way I will take me, on average, 10 years to get around to reading. While not a conscious act of spite, it is the result of a kind of subconscious revulsion at doing what everybody else is doing at any given time. I hate being part of the crowd. In the end, though, frequently my curiosity gets the better of me and, if I have no better ideas of what to read next, I dig up that dusty old list of “must-reads,” immediately skip over Infinite Jest (screw you all – not reading that. Not ever.) and pick up some blockbuster from ages gone. I call this the “What the Fuss is About” Read. At this exact moment, I have finally gotten around to reading Gaiman’s American Gods.

Okay, okay – it’s got a TV show, so I suppose I should catch up.

I am, of course, well aware of Neil Gaiman’s work. I read the Sandman comics (or some of them, anyway) in the mid-late 90s and thought them very clever and off-beat. I liked them. But then I moved on from Gaiman onto other authors and, next thing I knew, people were scolding me for not having read his magnum opus. Of course, they all had different opinions of which book his magnum opus was, but more often than not it was American Gods.

I’m enjoying the book. It is within the wheelhouse of my favorite genres anyway and Gaiman is an excellent author. I don’t quite understand how this book (or Gaiman’s work in general) is quite as celebrated as it is. I suppose that is essentially the problem with reading a book that has this much hype associated with it: the odds of it failing to live up to whatever magical expectations have come to surround it are large. When I read them, then, and they don’t live up  to whatever it was I was expecting, I spend half of my time reading the book trying to figure out what other people saw in it. This is almost impossible to do and can be very distracting.

Such considerations are sort of inevitable for an author though, right? I picked up American Gods for the same reason I picked up The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Night Circus and Scalzi’s Old Man’s War: word of mouth. All authors know that is the most powerful sales force in the world, and all authors want to know how to cultivate it. As far as I’m aware, no author actually knows. So, there we all are, reading Dan Brown and going “really? This?” We start dissecting it in our brains, like an alien on an autopsy table. What makes it tick? Where was the magic sauce? Why don’t I get it? Sure, it’s good, but…that good?

Then, of course, there are those moments where the book lives up to the hype. Neuromancer did that for me. You know what else? The Grapes of Wrath. Tim Powers. Neal Stephenson. Those books – those books are magic. And, of course, they make you feel a little terrible about yourself as an author because you know you’ll never write anything quite that amazing and isn’t that disappointing.

I guess it all makes me wonder why I do it. Why do I read books that don’t strictly interest me just because they were (or are) popular? Because I need to learn. I need to look around at the reading world and try to understand it. If I don’t, what kind of writer am I? In the end, I read these books because, well…I kinda have to.

The Union of Stars: The Thraad

And now it comes time to discuss our own species – the Thraad. If it has taken long for me to reach this topic, it is not without reason. We Thraad understand that to know oneself, you must first understand others. If this seems counter-intuitive, give it time. You are young yet.

Physiology

Thraador

We are an evolutionary descendant of gastropods, though we are a significantly more complex organism than most common snails or slugs. We have a functioning circulatory system, for instance, and a six-chambered heart. Over the aeons, we have lost the ability to grow thick shells (artificial shells are worn instead, as clothing). Our locomotion is still by means of our single, muscular foot and made easier by the secretion of waste slime to reduce friction. We have two eyes on muscular stalks that can rotate and can even look in two directions at once without distress. Beneath our chins are four tentacles we use for the manipulation of objects, both fine and coarse. We are omnivorous and are hatched from eggs.

By the standards of other species in the Union, we are foul-smelling, slow, and ugly. But they know well enough not to underestimate us. Our home planet, Thraador, is very large by the standards of the Union and we evolved in an environment of extreme gravitational forces. Though we usually stand no more than 150 cm from foot to shell, we are the tallest and largest creatures on our world, which is flat, wet, and hot. Bipeds and quadrapeds never evolved on our world, as standing upright requires too much strength and affords too few advantages. When a fall of a few meters is fatal, walking on two or even four feet is risky. We Thraad are steady on our foot – we seldom falter and we never fall (remember this always, as it speaks not just to our physiology, but to our culture and heritage as well). Furthermore, thanks to the intense environment of our home, we are extremely strong by the standards of the other species. Though slow, we are unstoppable. Though ugly, we have wisdom.

Culture

We Thraad are a more unified people than most. Long ago we cast off petty nationalistic rivalries or affiliations of House or Cartel. Introspective by nature, we seek consensus in all things. Perhaps thanks to the harsh environment of our homeworld, we are disinclined to take action unless absolutely needed and not until it has been deeply considered. We are not flighty or given to impulse.

Our government is decentralized and simplistic: a council of elders of no specific size meets to decide things and, should the deliberations be wise, the people follow. This sounds chaotic to other species, but they do not understand our temperament. Wisdom is wisdom, no matter who speaks it. If the elders are wise, and history shows that they are, then they will speak well and we would do well to take their counsel. We are not a species of rebels or petty criminals. In the rare instance that one of our number is committed to folly, they are simply ostracized and cast out of the community. It is that simple.

This, of course, has its disadvantages. Though scientifically curious and always willing to learn, our society changes slowly and our capacity to react to calamity is limited. This makes other species think of us as harmless “armchair academics.” But our anger is no less bright than others. Our weapons, though perhaps not as flashy as those of the Dryth, are no less deadly. History is filled with the plague-ridden corpses of those who underestimated us.

We do not maintain distinct family units, even though we are a sexually reproducing species. Eggs are hatched centrally in any given community. The care of young ones is the equal responsibility of all – hence my speaking to you now. It may be that some of you are my biological children, but we Thraad make no distinctions between such things. If you are young and a Thraad, you are my offspring, to be treated the same as any other. If female, you will one day make periodic visits to the hatchery to lay. If male, you will make periodic visits to fertilize. That is all.

There is a sense among us, I feel, that we are cheated by our nature. Some of us look out from our flat world to gaze with envy upon the doings of the other Great Races – the romance of the Lhassa, the passion of the Dryth, and so on. But, in the end, all Thraad return to Thraador. After some years adventuring in the light gravity of the outside world, we long to return to our swampy homes. We are sensible like that.

History

Thraad civilization began some 16,000 sidereal years in the past. There is too much to know to sum up in this precis, but suffice to say that we took our time developing our cultures, our technologies, and our knowledge. There were wars, yes, but they were primarily waged by proxy: animals and plants and microbes we had trained or engineered to pursue our interests in one way or another. We are, of course, famed for being the masters of what is called “ecological warfare.” It is a slow way to defeat one’s enemies, yes, but quite effective in the long run.

We sought the stars, as all species do in time, but not because of the damage we had done to our environment (like the Lhassa) or because of our desire for conquest (the Dryth). Rather, we left our planet to learn. To explore. The history of our species is one of slow, gradual exploration – the meticulous building of a body of knowledge. We are a curious people.

Of course, our steps into the stars were not without problems. We warred with other species and lost. We discovered that our technologies and our habits were too slow to compete with the likes of the Dryth and Lhassa and Lorca. By luck, we “met” Skennite, and found in it a kindred spirit. The period of our history known as “the Hastening” began – we discovered the secrets of slipdrive, we expanded our influence. When again war came, we were ready. Our biological and chemical weapons were terrifyingly effective, our well-planned strategies invincible. We made the galaxy tremble. Of course, we are not a warrior people in the manner of the Dryth and we are not so numerous or prolific as the Lhassa, and we in time lost again. But we had secured ourselves a place as one of the Great Races, a privilege we continue to enjoy.

We joined the Union gladly, happy to escape the endless wars that ravaged the stars. Now our role is as diplomats, scientists, and merchants, not warriors. We are happier this way. Let the Lhassa and the Dryth and the others struggle in violence and pain for their pieces of the universe. We Thraad shall stand by, patiently, for the opportunity to squeeze ourselves into somewhere essential, just as we always have.

Unsolicited Writer Advice Here, Bought and Sold!

Writing advice from successful authors can be a unique form of psychic torture. Let me share with you my own personal hell demon:

I’M TRYING, DAMMIT!

Oh, God, this one drives me crazy. The reason it drives me crazy is because I think he’s right but, by the same token, I live a life that prevents me from reading even a quarter as much as I’d like to. I would estimate I read about 10-15 books a year for my own pleasure. All of this happens during the summer. The rest of my life is spent re-reading texts I’m going to be teaching for the fall and spring semesters (approximately 20 books) and then reading all the student papers I need to grade (which works out to about 4800 pages a year, give or take a few hundred–call that another 10-15 books). So, you know, I do actually read the equivalent of 40-50 books a year, but only 25% of those are ones I actually get to pick. Therefore, I go around feeling as though I’m not able to do the thing I evidently need to do in order to be a writer.

But, of course, I am a writer – a published author with book deals and short story pubs and one award under my belt – so clearly I’m doing okay on some level.

There are literally hundreds of pieces of advice like this floating through the ether. Join a writer’s group and you’ll hear all of them. “You must write every day!” and “Write what you know!” and “Finish everything you start!” and so on and so forth. Listen to them long enough, and you’ll get it into your head that the only way to be a successful writer is to already be a successful author who can do nothing but author things all day long and, on top of that, have no real life outside of the written word (oh, wait, but that violates that rule about “lived experience is the only way to write with authenticity.”).

There is a lot of truth to a lot of these things – they can and do work for a lot of authors. None of them, though, is set in stone. To quote Hemingway:

We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.

That, right there, is probably the best bit of writing advice anybody can give you beyond “put your butt in the chair and write.” All of us – every damned one of us – is kinda making this up as we go along. Nobody has it figured out. One of the weirdest things I’m learning as I go is that every single novel is difficult and easy in completely unique ways compared to all my previous novels. Now, does that mean it’s true for you? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Who the hell knows?

The point here is that listening to too much good-intentioned advice is a good way to scare the hell out of yourself before you’ve even gotten started. Take the recent Twitter discussion among many authors I follow regarding how old you can or should be to begin writing. The consensus is that, ultimately, you can become a writer at any age – there is no aging-out in storytelling. And then we’ve got Chuck Wendig pointing out that he published his first novel at 36 (Hey! Me too!) and now has published 20 novels.

In only 4 years.

Pictured: Me

Wait…wait…20 books in 4 years? I’ve only published two in two years! Holy shit, how much of my time have I been wasting? What is wrong with me? WHY CAN’T I ALSO DO THAT?

Okay, okay…cool it down. It’s all right. It’s not a race. It’s not even a competition. Keep your eyes on your own paper, Habershaw. Work your own problem. Wendig’s pace is not your pace. That’s not how this works.

And, ultimately, that’s my main point here. There are no rules on how to do this thing. There is no time limit, no required pace, no set reading list. You have to sit down and write, yeah, but how and when and where and how often are something you need to negotiate with yourself. That also doesn’t mean you should be so arrogant as to assume you know it all already and will discount any advice that comes your way – listen, take notes, absorb. But then, in the end, it is you doing the writing, and only you can solve that problem. And, given the drive, you will solve it.

Rhythm: The Enemy of Story

Zzzzz…

This is going to be partly a writing post, partly a gaming post, and partly a literary post. I don’t outline these things, so who the hell knows what’s going to happen next. Let’ start with… (throws dart) literature. Okay, so the past few years I’ve themed my Lit Survey class around the Hero’s Journey (mostly Campbell’s Monomyth, etc.). Inevitably, we start talking about superhero movies in the class, as superhero tales are the ones most recognizably Campbellian in form. While I do like these movies (overall), after reading hundreds and hundreds of pages of student work on Calls to Adventure, Crossing the Threshold, the Normal World Vs the Special World and so on and so forth, I tend to get bored with the whole thing.

Now, as it happens, it’s rather difficult to escape the basic rhythms of this story form, particularly if you intend to tell a story involving a protagonist intended to be even vaguely heroic – this stuff is deeply ingrained in our collective unconscious and our ideas of story. Inevitably we wind up following some variation of this path – both in our reading, our own writing, and even at the RPG table.

The challenge, though, is to resist the urge to paint by the numbers – follow the journey, step by step, like a kind of roadmap. While you can tell some very competent tales that way, you also fall into being predictable. Spend enough time with this structure, and things cease to amaze you, which is, frankly, a terrible loss.

Of course, totally diverging from this format has its own problems – the story becomes unsatisfying or strange to the point where you no longer connect with it. Kafka, for all his brilliance, isn’t telling stories that delight and engage so much as confuse and confound. This has its place and its own appeal, naturally, and I’m not suggesting the avant garde, post-modern, or abstract tale is a worthless endeavor. It’s that if you want to tell a heroic story but you also want to make it new, you need to find variations of the monomyth that are poorly traveled. There are many ways to do this, of course – shake up who your hero is, shake up the setting, shake up the stakes, and resist hitting the steps of the story “cleanly.” If you want a master class in how this is done, watch any given Cohen Brothers film – they are regularly, consistently unusual and amazing, even though, in broad terms, they are (usually) telling the story of a central character who is yanked from their normal world, sent through an ordeal, who then returns to the normal world somehow changed and enlightened. They just do it in the messiest, most bizarre way possible.

Oh great, more piles of gold…

In tabletop RPGs, there are dangers in rhythm, as well. The standard form is this: Players receive a call to adventure, they delve into the dungeon and slay monsters, and they are rewarded with treasure. In D&D in particular, this is what we sign up for, right? But there is only so long this can happen before the game gets old. Too many gaming sessions can be described as “role-play, role-play, kill little thing, argue, big battle, treasure.” I fall into this routine myself. There are plenty of games out there that don’t lend themselves to this, sure, but plenty more that do, I’d argue. Even in those games that don’t do this, the danger of routine still looms large, it’s just that the routine changes.

I say routine and rhythm is “dangerous” because it risks, to my mind, what is ultimately fatal to a book or game alike: becoming boring and predictable. Nobody wants that. Nobody wants things to go smoothly and perfectly all the time (even when they say they do) because it kills the excitement of the unknown. For gaming, as with storytelling, this requires you to consciously seek variations on a theme. Break the mold. Have the dungeon be empty, but have it lead players on some different, deeper quest. Have the monster be absent – it’s back at the village, killing and eating all those people your players are sworn to protect. Never forget the narrative fun that can be had with a cursed item (note: not for making players look stupid, but for giving them benefits that have extreme costs. Yes, that’s a +5 sword. No, you can’t ever sheathe it or wipe off the blood. Enjoy visiting the orphanage.). Have the players be wildly overmatched to the point where they need to flee the dungeon (and make it back through all the deathtraps backwards). Have the adventure involve no dungeon AT ALL. Have the players save the town from a flash flood. Drop them in a desert with no food or water and watch them scrabble to survive. Make one of them king for  a day.

The point here is that, as important as the forms and rituals of our storytelling world are to making our stories satisfy, we also need to remember that variety is the spice of life. Break the mold. Change the dance. Improvise.

Good luck!

Tolkien in a Time of Strife

Last week, whilst snowed in with the kids for a day, I decided to introduce them to Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. We watched Fellowship, which is about as much as one can ask of a 7 year old and a 4 year old in one day. They liked it and were very engaged in the battle scenes and loved Galadriel and Arwen, especially. I liked it more.

Ohmygod, cut away! Fade out! WHY ARE WE STILL WATCHING THIS? AHHHHHH!

It’s always been my favorite of the three films. It’s the one I think deserved all the Oscars, not the bloated 3rd Act with all the incessant monologues and that damned ship that we watched sail away for, like, ten minutes or something. The Fellowship of the Ring really conveys the full strength of the novels in miniature, and does so with artistry rather than with brute SFX force. I’m not here, though, to debate the films’ comparable merits. I’m here to tell you how the movie affected me this last time in a way it hadn’t before.

Our society – by which I mean the United States – has taken a pretty sharp left turn into dark, disturbing, and destructive territory (yeah, yeah – there’s some politics here. Feel free to tune out.). Times are uncertain. People are uneasy, the world stands on edge. A dark power has arisen, one seeking to devour all that the free peoples have built over the ages. One that sows lies and deceit with every breath. One that values wealth and power above all other concerns – a Dark Lord.

And so here we are. The analogy is pretty clear, and it’s notable that Tolkien wrote these books with this loose analogy in mind. The One Ring was always the symbol of greed and domination, of deceit and lies. It is the Machine – the modern world Tolkien saw as antithetical to everything he loved. Everything green and quiet and simple and good. It doesn’t take a lot of prodding to slip the Trump administration, with its desire to obliterate the EPA and its oil tycoon Secretary of State, neatly into place. We can even see the conservative wing of our government, sitting there in their studies, hugging a book, whilst some disembodied voice whispers “BUILD ME AN ARMY WORTHY OF MAR-A-LAGO.”

As in Middle Earth, the human race (the “Race of Men”) is rolling over before the might of the Ring. As Galadriel says:

And nine, nine rings were gifted to the race of Men, who above all else desire power.

…but the hearts of men are easily corrupted. And the ring of power has a will of its own.

Saruman’s betrayal: Fake News! Sad!

Enter Boromir, who may as well be wearing a Make Gondor Great Again hat, pissed off at the elves for not doing enough to save his people, pissed off at Aragorn for shirking his duty, pissed off that they have this super-weapon ring that might turn the tide and they’re just gonna throw it away.
So the guy is a hand’s breadth from betraying Frodo, stealing the Ring, and ruining them all. But, for all this, he is not a bad guy. He’s just a human being, trying to get by in a world he doesn’t fully understand, observing it through unavoidable filter of his own experience. One can (and I have) written essays on understanding Boromir’s motives – he is the symbol for humanity more than any other in the trilogy. But, of course, he’s still dead wrong. He still seeks to betray.

Here’s the thing, though: he realizes he was wrong. He redeems himself, fighting to defend his friends and dying in the attempt. There – right there – is the cause for hope. The hope that he himself could not see even as Galadriel told him of it. He cannot see it because he is blinded by his own struggles and lashing out at what he thinks are their cause. But he’s wrong.

Boromir joins a long list of hopeless people giving in to darkness for the lack of hope. Saruman is a great example, as is Theoden before Gandalf’s intervention. Even Smeagol/Gollum falls on this spectrum – a being so poisoned by his own greed that he loses all sense of self. There is no hope beyond which the Ring might provide him – that Sauron might provide him. But, of course, Sauron has no intention of doing so. As Gandalf says:

There is only one lord of the ring, Saruman – only one. And He does not share power.

So, okay – what are we to do in the face of all this? We feel powerless to affect the destinies of nations, of peoples, of the world. We, like Frodo, wish it had never happened to us. We are angry with the ones whose fear has brought us to this pass – Frodo wishes Bilbo had killed Gollum when he had the chance. Again, though, Gandalf demurs:

Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them. Frodo? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.

We are left, then, with two pieces of wisdom, one from Gandalf and one from Galadriel, to guide us. On the one hand, Gandalf tells us that all people who live in such times wished they were not so, but we cannot make such choices. All we can do is decide what to do with the time that is given us. And then, Galadriel:

Even the smallest person can change the course of history.

I take great comfort in those words. I must – we all must – endeavor to maintain hope in the face of despair and loss. We must seek to be unafraid before that which is fearsome and terrible to behold. Small though we are, we must believe. Because if we give in to fear and lose our hope, if we (to paraphrase Aragorn) sever all bonds of fellowship, then the Dark Lord will have won.

The Horrible Ordeal of Prince Adam’s Servants

As Disney is releasing a live-action version of Beauty and the Beast this weekend, I felt it pertinent to revisit this post from a while back. I’m curious to see how (and if) the new movie addresses this.

Auston Habershaw

Now comes the time where I once again journey deep into the land of Disney and discuss how ultimately screwed up it all is. Today’s topic: the servants in Beauty and the Beast.

THEY HAVE NO FEET, PEOPLE! AHHHH! THEY HAVE NO FEET, PEOPLE! AHHHH!

Have we ever paused for a moment to contemplate how utterly horrific their transformations are? I mean, sure, going from stuck-up boy prince to giant beast monster is bad for the self-esteem, but what the hell happens to you when you are (1) not guilty of any crime against any enchantress and (2) sentenced to ten years as a sentient teapot.

Holy shit, people. Think about it. TEN YEARS.

Ten years between the last time Mrs. Potts could hug her own kids and that hug on the balcony.

Ten years of Lumiere constantly, consistently burning away. How does he get a new face in a new candle? Does he even remember what…

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