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.
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.
When I teach my expository writing students to do research, I usually tell them something along the lines of this:
Do not enter a research project with preconceived notions of what you will know when you are done. The point of doing research is to learn. It is your duty to read widely and get as full a picture of what you are studying in order to formulate an opinion about that topic. Your thesis (your argued point) comes after the research is done, not before.
This, I think, is good advice for scholarly research of all stripes. Don’t go in with preconceived ideas. Keep an open mind. Read deeply and widely.
Then, when I write novels, I don’t do anything of the kind.
I hasten to note that I’m not writing historical fiction, here – I’m writing speculative fiction. Scifi, fantasy, time travel – stuff like that. Everything I’m writing is, on some level, verifiably false. I’m making shit up all the time. So, the extent that I’m interested at all in actual facts – whether historical or scientific – is somewhat limited. That limit is the very low bar that is suspended disbelief.
Basically, if I can fudge some actual aspect of history without knocking the audience out of the story by violating their suspension of disbelief, then I can totally get away with it. Because, sure, they didn’t have potatoes in medieval Europe. But they also didn’t have magic or elves or gnomes. And this also isn’t medieval Europe. So what’s it matter, anyway? They’ve got potatoes in their stew – deal with it.
Now, of course, some audiences are going to be more sensitive towards this stuff than others and, furthermore, certain kinds of stories are going to require you to meet a higher standard of suspension of disbelief than others. For instance, I’m currently writing a time travel novel and, since it involves my character traveling back to actual places and times in actual Earth’s history, I have had to do a variety of research to make those places seem authentic. I’ve done research on 18th century American currency, military honors of the Roman Empire, card games played in Port Royal Jamaica in 1670, and who the Lakers were playing on December 8th, 1976 (the Pacers – the Lakers lost).
This research, though, takes a different form than what I would call actual academic research. I don’t need my answers to be correct, exactly – I just need them to be plausible. Furthermore, when I’m doing research like this, it’s to establish a very specific effect in a very specific scene that often happens only once in the whole book. I do some research online for a little while and, if I can’t find an answer that looks suitable, I change the scene so that I no longer need that specific answer anymore. I’m not going to sit down and read a whole book on the urban development of South Boston in the 1950s just so two paragraphs in the novel are 100% accurate, nor am I about to subscribe to a special research service or trek to some distant library just to know what color Ben Franklin preferred to wear when out about town. It just isn’t that important, ultimately.
So, in other words, I do research for books like this in the exact wrong way – the way I tell my students not to. I go in with a preconceived goal in mind (“I need a cool card game for my protagonist to play against pirates”), I do the barest minimum of responsible research (YAAAAY Wikipedia!), and I glean just enough information to make it look like I know what I’m talking about without, you know, actually knowing what I’m talking about.
I am bringing this up mostly because, in the last few weeks I’ve asked some people some relatively minor historical questions and received, well, rather extensive details that, while appreciated, aren’t really necessary. This has been from friends of mine who are academics and librarians and historians for whom I have the greatest respect, and therefore I kinda feel bad telling them “well…actually…I really don’t care what the answer is anymore. I’ve changed my mind.” Because I’m not really an academic or a librarian or a historian. I’m a showman. All writers are, ultimately. And while we might enjoy doing research about this or that, the research is not the end we seek. We’re telling a story. And story always, always comes first.
You will be rejected if you write.
Yes, even if it’s brilliant.
Yes, even if you know the editor and are the bestest friends.
Yes, even if you work really hard.
Yes, even if you have published before.
You will be rejected if you do anything.
Apply to school.
Ask someone out.
Apply for a loan.
Try to get a job.
Are a scientist…
…a parent, a teacher…
You will get rejected even if you get back up again, over and over and over, until your bones hurt and your heart feels hollow and you doubt your very soul.
You will be rejected now. And in the future. You will realize that scraps of hope you have clung to are just so much flotsam marking the place of past rejections you refused to see.
It will hurt. Perhaps less and less after time, but still some new rejection can be sharp enough to draw blood.
So maybe you can quit, you think. Escape the rejection.
But it’s still there. Always there. You can’t quit the world, and the world is made of the word No.
But not just No,
there is Yes, too. Atop the mountainous rubble of No, the towers of Yes stand.
I’m in the middle of reading The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French. I’ll hold off on a full review right now, as I’m not quite halfway through the book, but there is one thing that I keep noticing: the book is averaging a naked woman every chapter.
Now, I’m not offended by this inherently. I like a naked woman as much as the next guy, I suppose. But these naked women…these are not love scenes we’re getting here. This is just pure sex, edging towards the pornographic. The women are described as sexual objects for the purpose of arousal. To be fair to French, he does the exact same thing to the male characters, too – lingering on descriptions of their muscular backs, their strong arms, and the rough dimensions of their penises.
French is not alone here. This kind of writing is fairly common in fantasy as a genre and in literature as a whole, and the purpose of this post is not to call out French as doing something wrong specifically so much as it is for me to wonder aloud why it’s being done at all.
Because, I kinda feel like those scenes – the graphic, sexually charged descriptive passages about breasts and buttocks and genitals – are totally superfluous to the story. Here I am, in the middle of a intrigue laden plot in a harsh land full of half-orcs and we have, suddenly and for no reason, a naked elf maiden hanging from the ceiling or the main character fondling some muscular half-orc female’s boobs. These moments are clearly intended to arouse but…like…why?
I dunno. Maybe I’m getting old or something.
I remember being sixteen or so and reading The Far Kingdoms by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch. The opening scene had the main character – the dashing, fit, and charismatic Amalric – having sex with an incredibly gorgeous woman. This scene was described in deliberate detail and, as an adolescent in the pre-internet era, it was possibly the most erotic thing I’d ever experienced. I confess to reading that specific passage over and over again. But it had nothing to do with the story and in no way advanced or improved the scene beyond giving a teenager an erection.
And, like, what the fuck is going on with that, anyway? Why do that? I’m picking up this novel for a solid adventure story – I want excitement and danger and mystery and, yes, even romance. But I’m not looking to be aroused. In fact, it’s damned distracting when a novel is trying to turn me on in the midst of what is otherwise a tense and gritty tale of survival and gore. Maybe I’m alone here, but those are totally different channels for me. I’m so concerned about man-eating centaurs showing up or giant oozes dissolving the protagonists that time spent lingering on the curve of some female character’s ass is, like, really weird.
This is not to say that sex scenes – even graphic sex scenes – don’t have their place in this genre (or any genre). I’m not even going to sit here and tell you that sex scenes should be restricted to those who are in love. What I am saying is that a sex scene needs to serve the plot somehow – it needs to be important and consequential or even just thematically related. In Neuromancer, Molly is clearly sexualized, but Gibson is making a deliberate point with that sexualization – she is a woman trying to reclaim her agency. When she has sex with Case (and yeah, that’s a pretty graphic sex scene), she is firmly in control, telling Case exactly what to do and not to do. He is powerless to resist her, physically or otherwise. That scene, and how Molly is presented in it, is immediately relevant to the characters’ relationship, to the plot, and to the broader themes Gibson is exploring. So, in other words, it works.
In general, the same rules that make a fight scene work apply to the sex scene. Random, gratuitous violence that fails to advance the plot or affect the main character is boring. The reader is not invested in the battle and vaguely wondering why and, in the worst cases, ends up skimming ahead a bit. The stakes are not clear and the relevance is not established. Same goes for sex: if two characters are screwing for no reason other than to describe how their genitals are currently in use and how much they enjoy that, then the reader is going to feel like we just took a little side trip into some weird little fantasy inside the fantasy we were already reading.
And this doesn’t even touch upon the whole male gaze/patriarchal thing we have going on, too, that is driving and underpinning the whole affair. That is arguably even more problematic and is in large part responsible for this kind of thing much of the time anyway. But that’s both a huge issue and somewhat parallel to what I’m saying here – I’ll save it for a post for another day.
In general, my point is this: go ahead and write boobs and penises! Just make sure the boobs and penises are on topic, writers!
I’m good at starting short stories. Really good, I’d say. I have snappy first paragraphs, cool set-ups, neat ideas and then…
Then they tend to stall.
I never seem to know where these damned stories are going. So what if there’s a T-rex loose in the mall? Who gives a crap, anyway, and isn’t that just going to wind up being the same as the plot of the latest Jurrasic Park movie? After that occurs to me, I get disenchanted and then stop because, well, I don’t want to be derivative. I want to be original.
Maybe I’m expecting too much out of myself in the first draft. I want the story to be brilliant. I want it to sell to the best markets and get all the praise from (whoever) and win all the awards and make me the guy who is known for writing brilliant, well-selling, praiseworthy, award winning stories. And, of course, that’s a huuge amount of pressure.
But that can’t be it, because I try to do the same thing with novels and I have no problem diving into writing a novel. I just sit my ass in my chair and start churning out words, day by day, bit by bit, until a draft is done. Even revision in novels seems easier – there are so many moving parts, so many modular pieces, that altering it seems almost intuitive. Well, at least compared to short stories.
The source of all this whining is that I just finished a novel draft and now it’s an opportunity to write some more short fiction and get it out the door before the semester begins and all my writing time pretty much vanishes. I mean, how long can it take to write a 4000-6000 word story, right? I cover that in about two days while writing novels – no sweat!
I sit down, crack the knuckles (not really – just a metaphor) and start typing and I get about 500-1000 words in and…
I feel like I should be able to write a draft of 2 short stories per week. The reality is that a single one takes me weeks, sometimes months, sometimes goddamned years to see through.
Right now I have seven or eight stories with openings and no middle or end. I’m stalled on all of them. I’d call it writer’s block, but I don’t really believe in writer’s block. It’s not that I don’t have ideas, it’s that I just don’t think any of my ideas are any good. I find them boring. I don’t want to write boring stories.
I guess that’s what people mean when they say “writer’s block.” I should just put my head down and power through. That’s what I do in novels. Why is it any different for short work?
Well, it’s short – there’s no time to waste, no room to spare. I can’t dick around for twenty pages and then go back and cut it out. Well, no wait – I can dick around for twenty pages and then cut it out, but I don’t want to. I want short fiction to be a faster process than the longer stuff. I want to churn out stories every week. But writing short fiction is work every bit as much as writing long fiction is – more, if you ask me. People ask how long it took to build Notre Dame Cathedral, but do they ever ask how long it took to perfect the wheel? Sure, it’s smaller. But smaller doesn’t mean easier.
So, I’m going to go back and read the start of a bunch of stories now, see if any new ideas have developed. See if I can get these things through to the end.
Don’t hold your breath.
The release date of Book 4 of The Saga of the Redeemed, The Far Far Better Thing, has been pushed back to November 20th. Though a copy of the text has been on my editor’s desk since March, he’s swamped with work, it seems, and I’m pushed back in the queue. We thank you for your patience.
Every once in a while, somebody I know (a fellow writer, usually), points out that I should belong to Codex. Codex is a professional writer’s forum and, to be a member, you need to have sold some amount of pro work (don’t ask me how much). It is a networking site, a place to find critique groups, and often has postings by editors and such advertising various themed anthologies and so on. In other words, it would be a really great idea to belong to Codex.
I do not belong to Codex.
I honestly can’t adequately explain why not. I don’t really consider myself shy and I’m not any more socially awkward than anyone else. And yet I’m reluctant to join a community. Indeed, I am regularly reluctant to join communities of any kind. I had to have my arm twisted to join social media. My wife signed me up for Facebook without my knowledge and then just handed me my profile and said “here, your friends miss you.” If there was a club or an organization in school I was a member of, I never really felt like I was part of it. At the jobs I have held, I’ve done my best to remain a competent employee who is, nevertheless, not really central to the office culture or society. It’s a weird and probably destructive habit. I feel as though it alienates people, and why shouldn’t it? I am deliberately alienating myself from them.
When I was 8 years old, my elementary school had a chamber orchestra for little kids. They trotted out the violin, the viola, and the cello. Everybody chose either the violin or the cello; I chose the viola. Why? Because everybody else didn’t pick it. When they could make my glasses prescription into contact lenses and everybody I knew was getting them, I didn’t – I stuck with glasses and stubbornly so. I don’t like shirts with sports team logos on them. I don’t own a single piece of clothing or paraphernalia with the logo of my college or graduate school on it. Just about my entire work history has been a story of how I could earn money without having to wear a uniform or work in a team or have to deal with coworkers.
Now, as an adult, I see this whole loner thing be nonsensical and immature. I like people, and I like making friends. I care about my job and I do my best to be helpful whenever tasked to work as part of a group. Indeed, the idea that I can somehow exist apart and away from everybody else is arrant nonsense. Where would I be without my beta readers? Without the feedback from my editors and my agent? Without the support of my family? Nowhere. Nobody does this alone. Hell, nobody does much of anything alone. It’s a myth.
The myth of the loner is, I think, probably tied up in the ridiculous notions of masculinity that get imbued into us as kids. Men are strong. Men don’t need anybody. Men can solve their own problems. I read stories of the lone knight slaying the dragon or the lone hero challenging the gods and took all that to heart. If you work hard enough, I thought, you won’t need anybody. You’ll be free.
So there I was, at Readercon this past weekend. It was a good con, by all accounts – my panels were all great and I met a lot of interesting people – but I still felt this discomfort. I was sitting there, talking with Ellen Datlow on a Saturday night about our respective allergies, and I thought to myself “I don’t belong here. This is their community. I don’t have a community, remember?”
Of all the arrogant, idiotic thoughts to have. I am – and should be – a part of the science fiction and fantasy writing community. Why the hell am I going to all these cons if I don’t want that to be the case? I am not different. I am not some kind of weird loner, living on the outskirts. These people have thrown open their doors and I ought to walk right in and start shaking hands, not lurk in the shadows and listen to the music from a distance.
So I’m writing this now as an entreaty to those out there who are like me: those who have long felt that they have no people and that there is no group large enough to hold them or shaped to fit them. That’s bullshit. That’s self-aggrandizing hornswaggle. Your people are out there. Hell, they are inviting you in right now. Being a writer doesn’t mean you have to be alone all the time. Get out of your basement, meet people, make friends.
Dare to fit in.