Tag Archives: Writing

Tricks, Traps, and Puzzles in RPG’s and Stories.

I used to Gamemaster a lot for … well, not necessarily AD&D, but my own system based on that game. It was lots of fun. I especially enjoyed designing clever tricks, traps, and puzzles. This has carried over into my writing, as well. Many of my books and stories have some kind of puzzle in them. In RPG games (like AD&D) puzzles are an integral part of the game. I mean, after a while, even the most bloodthirsty person will tire from the endless hack and slash of your basic dungeon crawl. Tricks and traps add a special degree of unexpected flair to your basic gaming session. They force the players to think—and usually require them to put the thief in the party to work; though the best ones require input from the whole group. There are loads of pretty standard tricks and traps to choose from: poisoned needles, trap doors, poison gas, etc…. The best, though, are the ones you design yourself to really challenge the players. Probably the most difficult to pull off in a gaming session are riddles. This is because it’s all too easy to write a poor riddle (I know … I’ve done it). Basically, you write something that seems crystal clear to you at the time of writing, but when it comes time to spring it on the players, either they come up with two or more equally valid answers which you didn’t think of, or the riddle is too opaque and vague, and they just can’t solve it. In the case of riddles and RPG games, it’s usually best to go with actually published riddles, something some company somewhere wrote down, researched, and developed, supposedly with the help of experts, or something. The above is true of other puzzles you might feel inclined to include in your game. Some puzzles, like riddles, may just be too difficult for the players to figure out. That happened to me once, with one of my favorite puzzles of all time: an invisible maze. I won’t go into the details of the puzzle—I believe I have elsewhere—but I will just hold it up for the lesson it taught me. A puzzle/riddle in an RPG is useless if it is unsolvable.

This is NOT true in writing. No, when you are writing a story, you, the author, are the one who determines what the purpose of the puzzle is in the context of the story. You can use your basic tricks and traps from the RPG setting—the poisoned needle or the trap door, or what-have-you—or you can design your own. In such a case, almost anything goes because, generally speaking, the puzzle will be solved by the characters in the story because you are the writer and you are in complete control. There is no risk of, say, a riddle being unsolved because it’s too opaque, because you know what the answer is and you can just write it in—unless, of course, you want the riddle to remain unsolved, but that I would probably counsel against lest you irritate your readers. Regardless, you should still make the effort to design good riddles (and avoid the published ones for copyright reasons) but that is because they are a reflection of your skill as an author and not because you may inadvertently stump the characters. Puzzles in writing serve a similar purpose to what they serve in an RPG—they provide a break from action and just give the reader something to wrestle with. There is one more point to make about puzzles in writing: distance. Generally speaking, the puzzle shouldn’t be solved the sentence after it is presented to the reader; otherwise, they won’t have a chance to think about it and be impressed with its cleverness. The presentation of the riddle must be separated by a certain amount of distance from its solution in the story. The characters must struggle with it for a certain length of time, otherwise, the reader will not struggle with it—and what’s the fun of that? Give it a few pages, at least, so that the reader has a chance to ruminate about it for a while.

Anyway, those are some of my thoughts on tricks, traps, and puzzles in both RPG settings and writing. Enjoy!

On Writers’ Groups

A few months back (in March, I think), I joined a Writers’ Group. A few weeks ago, it basically disbanded. It counts as the fourth such group I’ve ever joined. Anyhoo, I figured I would comment on what I’ve learned from such endeavors. Or, at least, give my opinions.

In my view, smaller is better. I say a maximum of five people is preferred. This latest one usually included about eight or so, at the meetings, and perhaps as many as fifteen in the group in total. And, of course, everyone wanted to expand and get more people. Not me. I didn’t mention it to anybody, but I wanted fewer.

There are several benefits of working with only a few people instead of a lot. First off, it is much easier to digest the comments of four other people instead of fourteen. Secondly, you will also have a better chance of getting your work looked at in a reasonable amount of time. In this last group, two people would submit their work on any given week, and the next week we would discuss it. That worked pretty well for a while, like when it was eight people, because then you would only have to wait a month to get more feedback as you cycled through again. Unfortunately, though, as the group got bigger, the time between your submissions grew. And I, for one, join writers’ groups primarily to get feedback, not give. I give in exchange for that, but my primary interest is still getting. Call me selfish, if you like, but I think that is the primary goal. Thirdly, the feedback you do get is usually much more in depth. With a large number of people, it just seems likely to degenerate into little more than proofreading. You simply don’t have time to get fourteen different commentaries on a ten page short story, unless you spend like five hours at each meeting… but who wants to do that?

I also think it is a good idea to focus on a single genre like speculative fiction, or fantasy, or what-have-you. Just keep it in one genre if you can. For myself, it would be fantasy. In this last group, we had poetry, sci-fi, fantasy, memoir, romance, and I’m sure a few more. It’s all very interesting, but I don’t really know how to comment on any of those except fantasy, and maybe sci-fi. Don’t get me wrong. You do learn things reading different genres, but I think you get the most bang for your buck from a genre-focused group.

So, to sum up, my ideal group would consist of five people, all involved in fantasy. We would meet every other week and we would focus on two people out of the group at a time.

Don’t know what else to say on that topic, so I’ll close it here.

Again, An Author Update

Well, it’s late September, 2016. Time for another author update, because I’ve got nothing better to do. I’m still editing my novel, The Citadel, and making progress. I’ve also finally decided to go ahead with my plans for my novella, Prism. I’ve read it over several times and I finally think it is ready to go. I have a Cover Reveal for Prism coming up on November 16th for which I will give more information later on. I still haven’t heard anything about my short story, but that’s okay; it takes time to get these things reviewed. When you’re a writer, any project will require quite a bit of time spent waiting for a reply after submission. Well, at least, most of the time. There have been places that have gotten back to me within a week, but those are usually rejections anyway.

My writers’ club is now defunct, which, I suppose, is bad news, but in my opinion, it was getting a little too large and unwieldy anyway. Everyone else wanted to increase the size of the group, and I think I would have preferred a smaller group. But it served its purpose; it boosted my confidence in my writing: all the people there—each one a writer—liked my stuff and none of them was a relative or friend who could be biased.

Anyhoo, that’s all I wanted to say.

I’ve Got It: My Next Novel Will Feature …

This might be a bad idea from a politically correct point-of-view; I might make myself into a pariah by posting this. But I’m not politically correct. If the truth be told, I can’t stand the whole movement. I get it: if there’s a man standing next to me in a dress, that’s no cause to beat him senseless or publicly ridicule him. But I still think it’s a little weird. And I think I’m within my rights to raise an eyebrow. Sorry.

 

I find it amusing as I hop from ezine to ezine and peruse the wish lists of the respective editors. A whole bunch of them are looking for LGBTQ (or whatever) literature and all sorts of variants on that theme. Basically, the characters in our stories are getting stranger and stranger, more and more removed from “normal” (if there is such a thing–the PC movement denies that there is; I’m not so sure). I suppose that’s natural as a perfectly “normal” character would probably be boring. But it seems to me that it is possible to get lost in the weeds of details, striving to make your character so unique it becomes its own bizarre amalgamation of traits and randomness; a string of characteristics that mock the whole notion of character.

 

So, in light of the vast PC wisdom, and the muse that inspires me, my next novel will feature …

a cis-gendered Hispanic male albino lesbian with a penchant for Cheerios and heavy metal music. His love interest, of course, will be a trans-gendered female weightlifting Sumo wrestler from Alpha Centauri with seven fingers on her right hand and an extra row of teeth; she suffers from psoriasis.

 

I should apologize for that. Maybe I can make it good by claiming they are both hobgoblins. Am I allowed to tease hobgoblins? Or are they off-limits, too?

 

The Art of Writing: Brainstorming

So, you want to write your next big novel or short story. The first step (at least it is for me) is to brainstorm your story. Jot down all you can about your story. Start with the characters: the people around which the story revolves. Who is the main character? What characteristics define them? What are their goals? Is there a love interest? Do the same for him or her. Flesh them out. Once you have your characters straight, you can work on the plot of the story. What’s the conflict? What drives the tension? What is the story arc? Every story must have a beginning, middle, and end. Differentiate between such things here while you’re brainstorming. Don’t get upset if it’s still a little muddled, or even if you have more than one exclusive storyline in mind. You’ll straighten it out by the time you’re done. Brainstorming, as we were all taught in school, is just about stirring the pot of ideas. Write down everything you can think of. Every little detail. It doesn’t matter how small, nor does it even matter if it contradicts something you’ve already written down. Just get ideas on paper.

 

When are you done? Well, it depends on the length of the work in question. If it’s just a short story, you’re probably done when you have delineated the main characters and fleshed out the plotline. Then, you can start writing. If it’s a novel, you have to do the same type of work, but the details can be a little less clear. Many novelists change things or add things halfway through their work. Don’t feel boxed in because you’ve already brainstormed a path for your novel. Leave yourself some flexibility; it’s all part of the creative process.

 

Once you are done brainstorming your ideas, the next step is to outline your story. Of course, all of this is moot if you are a “pantser.” That is, a writer that writes by the seat of their pants. They kind of brainstorm as they go along. I used to be like that, but no more. Now I plot things out. Must be my old age, I guess. 🙂

 

The Trials and Tribulations of an Indie Author

Methinks I’m going to vent a little, today. Perhaps it is not good form to spout angry vitriol at the ‘Net and all it offers. And perhaps it’s not good form to point out your own weakness—or maybe the whininess of such makes one look bad, but I’m finding the life of an Indie Author a bit tough to take of late. I enjoy the writing. I enjoy the editing. All the parts of the writing process are cool for me. I even enjoy developing new concepts for my book covers—although that’s not my forte and I hire someone to do the final cover. My big problem is that I’m just not making any money.

 

Yes, my chosen career is actually a money sink. I keep pouring more and more in, and getting pennies in return.

 

Part of my problem is that I have the business sense of a stone. I have no clue what to do about marketing. None. Whatsoever. I’ve posted interviews on-line at various sites. I’ve done virtual blog tours. I’ve bought advertisements on various ebook newsletters and similar sites. But no one wants to buy my books. I write well enough; I usually earn four or five stars on Amazon, and rarely fewer than three on Goodreads. I just don’t know what the problem is. My dashboard on Smashwords indicates that people just don’t want to pay money for an ebook—even when it’s consistently earned five stars. I have a number of sample downloads for all of my books, but very few actual paid downloads. Perhaps I’m not supposed to share that because it shows weakness. But it’s the truth. And I feel obligated to warn other potential Indie authors. If they wish to go into this business, they should go in with their eyes wide open.

 

Furthermore, if you want to be an Indie author, you should know that just being a good writer is not good enough. You need to have some business skills, not to mention a certain degree of Tech savviness. Like I said above, my business skills are sorely lacking. I never studied business in college and I’m having to learn the ropes the hard way. As far as Tech is concerned, I’m reasonably comfortable on-line; I just don’t like spending my whole day hunting through various web sites or visiting Social sites. I would much rather be writing. Or editing. Or brainstorming. Or what-have-you.

 

Then there is the whole Amazon factor. It is my belief that Amazon is going to put all the Indie writers out of business or force them into slavery. I don’t know much about business, but I do know that I can’t compete with Amazon when they offer all the books you want for a $3 monthly fee. Which is what they are doing. No one wants to pay for books anymore. Amazon is conditioning the consumer to expect free books. I gave Drasmyr away for free. And I may even give a Novella or two away for free. But that’s it. Every book I write represents a substantial investment of both time and money: for my novels, close to two years and a painful amount of money.

 

It’s enough to make me pull out my own hair in frustration.

 

Next week: my cat, Confucius, will reply!

Fantasy Literature: World Building and Limits

The world is an awfully big place. It really is. Seven continents, thousands of languages, and an endless variety of cultures. There’s really only one dominate species on the planet (us humans), but we have thousands of years of written history. The goal of world building in a fantasy literature environment is to provide a background to the story that is as believable as the real-life background that our very real world provides to the stories and events that take place here. However, trying to be as complete and exhausting in detail as the real world is impossible and ill-advised. One can only work within certain limits, within which you, as the author, have free reign. You can develop a world with but one continent or just a vast collection of islands, with one language and culture, or many, and so on. What I’ve found in my own writing, though, is that there is an upper limit to the number of facets that can be adequately described. As a rule, the writer does a certain amount of world building, but only uses about 10% of that material for his/her book. That may seem like a waste, but it really isn’t. Although you only use 10% of your world building materially directly in your book, the other 90% does influence the work: It provides the context for that slice of material that you do use. You will draw on this other 90% in subtle, yet important, ways. A conflict between two religions can be spelt out in detail in your world resources and because you know the why’s and wherefore’s of this conflict, you can incorporate touches of it in a striking, realistic manner that does not overwhelm the reader with unnecessary details, nor pull her out of the story as she is reading.

 

The important thing to remember when using the material in the book is, as my title suggests, limits. The human mind can only handle so many details at once (there’s a reason phone numbers are only seven digits long—barring area codes). I think a good number range is 3-5 for any particular aspect of world building. You can, if you wish, develop thirteen different cultures on your world (in fact, to be realistic, there should probably be many, many more), but I think you would be ill-advised to use more than five in a particular novel, or say, seven, if it is a very long series like “The Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson. For a single stand-alone book, in fact, I would recommend limiting yourself to three. That lets you develop each one fully without overwhelming the reader. Remember, it is far easier for an author who has written, re-written, edited, and re-edited the same work several times to keep all the details straight than it is for a single reader who only reads the book once. The goal is to strike the appropriate balance, producing a world rich in detail, but not overwhelmingly complex and confusing. The same can be said for religions, races, creatures, or what-have-you. A smaller number of well-developed world building aspects will probably serve you far better than a hodgepodge of everything under the sun.

Race, Fantasy Literature, and Political Correctness (part I)

I will say from the get-go that I am not a fan of political correctness; it seems far too close to 1984’s Newspeak to me; at the very least, it is eerily similar. When I wrote my novel, Drasmyr (about 18 years ago, now), I pretty much paid little attention to variations in the human race and while writing, pretty much imagined all my characters as white (I’m white); however, I never went out of my way to specify human races in the novel, so, it would require little effort on the reader’s part to imagine the characters as black, or oriental, or what-have-you. The only thing that might jar would be the names. That said, as the author, I imagined the characters as white. So, let’s just assume they are.

 

Is that a weakness in the book? I’m sure some people think so. Personally, I think it is much ado about nothing.  To me, the way to overcome racism is to be colorblind. It simply doesn’t matter that all the characters are white. By the same token, a black author should have no problem writing a book featuring all black characters. Or I could write a book featuring all black characters if I wanted to; either way, taken by itself, a book featuring human characters who are all of the same race should be acceptable, particularly since it is not necessarily true that—especially in earlier times—the human races were mixed equally around the globe. I mean, really, the reason racism starts, is because a homogenous population encounters someone who looks “different.” That presupposes that the population was homogenous in the first place. So, why can’t you write a story that takes place in that homogenous population before they encountered peoples of different races? A story set in ancient Japan would probably be strange if it featured American Indians, unless it incorporated a very specific justification for such, would it not?

 

Still, the politically correct forces are what they are. But they do lead to some strange, if not downright silly, results. A friend of mine actually pointed the following out to me: in the movie “Thor,” from a couple years back, Thor (played by Chris Hemsworth) is accompanied by a small group of companions. All of them come from Asgard, the home of the Asgardian “gods”—you know, Odin, Loki … them guys. His companions are, conveniently, a mix of different races representative of the peoples of the various places of Earth. Yet, as my friend pointed out, Thor and Odin were NORSE gods. The gods of every culture on the planet have always, according to the legends, pretty much been of the same race as the people who worshipped them—just bigger, stronger, and immortal (or they were human-animal hybrids). That kind of poses a difficulty for the movie “Thor”: if Thor had black and Asian companions, why didn’t the Norsemen worship them and have corresponding legends about them? Maybe that’s a trivial flaw—and I’m sure you could get by it with some mental gymnastics—but it does show how adherence to politically correct tenets can cause difficulties with plots and stories that might be better served if such tenets were ignored. In the case of Thor, political correctness might have been better served if, again as my friend suggested, the major Earth characters in the movie were of mixed races—which they weren’t.

 

Anyway, this leads to my next point: as a writer, I don’t like being “told” I have to include such and such a character in my story or the story is flawed or I’m a racist. I prefer to write characters that fit the story, and sometimes, an all white, or all black cast might be called for. That said, Drasmyr was written with only white characters in mind only because I never made a conscious effort to do otherwise. It was not intended as a slight to blacks or Asians or anyone else. All that being said, I will tip my hat to political correctness to a certain extent and include a black snake priestess in the next book. But only because I think she is really cool … and that’s the real reason to include a character, any character, in your novel.

Literature: On The Nature Of Writing (Part II)

Last time I wrote, I listed a large number of writing types and a few means of looking at each type. From the large list, I selected the following types: philosophical essays, novels, and short stories (and poems); and I claimed that of the many different ways of looking at a piece of writing, the ones I was interested in included: as a means of self-expression, as a means of communication, and aesthetically. Today, I’m going to combine both thoughts, and evaluate each type of writing in accordance with the ways of looking at it. And maybe add one or two thoughts to top it off.

 

I wrote tons of philosophical essays in college. And I can tell you most emphatically that philosophical writing is all about communication. I guess there is some self-expression involved, and, I suppose, aesthetic writing is always a plus, but the primary duty of the philosopher is to communicate, clearly and cogently, some thought worth telling. That’s why it’s so difficult to read. Seriously. It’s a paradox, but not really. Natural language is so vague, that philosophy involves going through various literary contortions to precisely delineate the exact meaning the writer wants to express and none other. It’s that ‘none other’ bit that is problematic. Oh yes, and there is Logic involved. Lots and lots of logic. Philosophers are basically the inspiration for Star Trek’s Vulcans.

 

At the other extreme, I think, is poetry. That seems to be largely a work of self-expression, greatly concerned with aesthetics almost above all else. It does communicate thoughts, but it is as much emotional thinking as it is analytical. It is something that you either ‘get it’ as it comes across, or you are hopelessly lost. But, like I said, my experience in poetry is limited, so I could be totally wrong.

 

Novels and short stories, though, are kind of a hybrid. They involve both self-expression and communication. Pretty language has a place, dressing the work up as an art form, but it is useless if it does not communicate some thought relatively clearly. Like poetry, the thought need not be purely rational (unlike philosophy—irrational philosophy is like a computer spewing out illegitimate code); it can be emotional, or humorous, or what-have-you. But it must be communicated clearly enough that the average reader will get the point without too much difficulty.

 

Regardless of which type of writing engaged in, many of the best examples involve some kind of social commentary, be it a critique of the current political structures or what-have-you. But that isn’t an absolute necessity. I enjoy stories that are just stories all the time.

 

I do have one final thought concerning the distinction between philosophy and literature (in whatever form). Literature consists largely of opinion (admittedly opinion that is defended or critiqued to varying levels and degrees, but it is, all the same, just opinion). Philosophy is concerned with knowledge. Which is one of the reasons it makes virtually no progress. I took four years of philosophy, and what do I know with absolute 100% certainty beyond a shadow of a doubt? Not much: I know I am not omniscient. That’s one thing. And I know 2+2=4. It’s a small kernel of truth, but it is truth nonetheless.

 

Take that Mr. Relativist! (Yes, I have this horrible fixation on murdering the hideous relativistic beast that is slowly eating our society alive!)

 

Bwu-ha ha ha!

Very Inspiring Blog Awards

A couple weeks ago I was nominated for the Very Inspiring Blog Award by Sophie E. Tallis at Sophie E. Tallis (Thank you very much!). This is like the third or fourth time I’ve been nominated for this award. I haven’t gotten around to posting this notice since then, so I’ll do it today. I was going to go the full distance and nominate fifteen other bloggers (as the rules require), but that is just way too many. I’ve already nominated all the bloggers I follow in the past, so I tried to pick some new ones, but I only came up with six. Anyway, here goes:

Inspiring

The Rules of the Award are as follows:

  1. Display the award logo on your blog.
  2. Link back to the person who nominated you.
  3. State 7 things about yourself.
  4. Nominate 15 bloggers for this award and link to them.
  5. Notify those bloggers of the nomination and the award’s requirements.

First, seven things about myself:

1. I own a cat named Confucius.

2. I have a black belt in the martial arts (though, I am seriously out of shape).

3. My favorite color used to be green (it is now black).

4. My favorite number (as a kid) used to be 2100 (and that’s pronounced twenty-one hundred, not two thousand one hundred).

5. My favorite monster as a kid was Godzilla.

6. At one point in my life, I wanted to be a Ninja (didn’t think too hard about the assassination bit).

7. I was a philosophy/math major in college.

15 blogs is way too many; as I said, but I’m only going to nominate six. So, in no particular order I give you:

1. http://margueritemorris.wordpress.com/ A vampire blog. Gotta love it.

2. http://dlsummers.wordpress.com/ A fantasy blog.

3. http://jezstrider.wordpress.com/ A freelance writer.

4. http://ajmotia.wordpress.com/ A blog with a few dragons in it.

5. http://thedarkglobe.wordpress.com/legends-undying-the-beginning/ A multi-artist site dedicated to showcasing the work of various artists.

6. http://branwenreads.wordpress.com/ A new book review site.