49212

Forty nine thousand, two hundred and twelve.

 

That is the number of words I wrote over the course of the last 100 days of 2015. It falls far short of the less numerically specific yet far more useful metric of “finish the first draft of this novel” but even so I consider it an accomplishment. I am in the midst of writing a novel that is going pretty well, with a unique voice and not-too-tired interpretation of the epic fantasy hero’s journey sub genre. I am not in it to overturn any tropes, but rather use them to create something entertaining. It is equal parts A Wizard of Earthsea and Gamma World — which is good because when I am not writing things that find the weird space between super-heroics and horror, that combination is right in my wheelhouse. It is called “Elger and the Moon” and in the relatively near future I will be able to tell you more about it.

 

If I have not pontificated before on the virtues of the post apocalyptic genre, I will soon, along with epic fantasy, Star Wars, and the aforementioned super heroes. In general, I will be doing a lot more pontificating in 2016 than I did in 2015, though probably not as much as I did in 2014. I have sort of allowed this blog to slip to the back burner. part of it is spending creative energy of the novel, but part of it is over-relying on my personal Facebook page as a place to spout off about my opinions on whether Tolkien’s or Anderson’s elves are better (clearly the answer is the latter) and what makes Fallout 4  bother better and worse than Fallout 3 (which i will get to once I actually finish Fallout 4). I realized that such energy is better used as a vehicle for this blog, which will ultimately exist as a vehicle for people to getting to know me (creatively speaking) so they can know whether to spend money on the creative things I produce. Facebook is great because it offers instant gratification, but it is both insular and ephemeral. I like talking about the creative process and geeky things and this is as good a place as any to do it, and better than some.

 

So, if somewhere down the line you clicked the right icon to make this blog appear in your feed or on your wall or whatever when a new post came along, expect to see more of those that you have in quite a while. Thanks for doing that, by the way. I’ll try and make my posts worthy of that vote of confidence.

 

 

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Stories That Are Also Stories

First, some apologetic housekeeping: I promised you all a review of The Dreams of Ruin, the apocalyptic high level OSR science-fantasy adventure supplement by my friend Geoff Grabowski, and I’ll have it soon (probably over the weekend). Between finals (yes, this old man is back in school), responsibilities as a youth baseball coach, and actual paying writing, I have been very behind on the blog. I’d have liked to make the review *this* post but truth be told this is one of my meandering thought posts, while the DoR review deserves much more thought. Thanks for your patience.

Mad Max: Fury Road is amazeballs. Go see it, immediately, even if Douchey McDoucherstein tells you not to because it might injure your manhood.  I won’t belabor either of those points — how awesome the film is, or how stupid Mens Rights Activists are — but instead want to touch on something that came up in internet forum discussion regarding the movie:

 

To keep a long story short, some folks were trying to square the precise timeline of the Mad Max films, from the original through The Road Warrior, Thunderdome and Fury Road. Two issues were giving certain forumites the fits: Tom Hardy’s relative youth compared to Mel Gibson in the role of Max, and the apparent deepening the chaos and tribalism of the milieu. In combination, these elements created an issue for some, namely that how can Max, who was a cop before the Fall, be so young in a world that has obviously been tribal long enough for the Warboys and Imperator Furiosa to grow up in Immortan Joe’s clutches? Some theories were tossed around, from Max’s home actually existing after the Fall but in a state of relative order at the time of Mad Max, too Max having been mutated by radiation to be immortal. There is even a fan theory floating around suggesting that max is in fact… well, I’ll let you go check it out if you want. it’s interesting and plausible, but not especially likely, I don’t think. Note: it’s also spoilery.

 

I prefer a different theory, that I consider to be both elegant and have big implications not just for Mad Max but a number of other franchises as well:

 

Max is, in essence, an Arthurian Myth, a composite hero from the “dark ages” immediately following the Fall. The films do not recount events that actually occurred in the setting, but rather they represent myth told around the campfires by the elders of the tribes coming out of that Dark Age into a new era of civilization. The films are narrated by survivors who witnessed the events as children or youths, likely the oldest members of the tribe. Who would be left alive to counter the claim that they were there? Maybe they were, but maybe the “true” events happened generation before even those elders. Like Arthurian myths, the stories told in the Mad Max films follow a distinct pattern: Max stumbles into the plight of the people; he is resistant to help but eventually concedes; he fights and not only helps defeat the bad guys but delivers the tribe to safety; he rides off into the sunset, never to be seen again. Tales like these would serve as the foundational stories of the tribes as they emerged out of the darkness and made the transition to actual civilization. And if the Mad Max films serve as stories for those tribes, it explains Max’s “action movie” endurance and skill, and if these stories spread from tribe to tribe over time, it explains why some of the tales seem to occur very shortly after the fall and others, like Fury Road, deep in the dark age when tyrants like Immortan Joe can have fathered a whole generation of mutant child soldiers.

 

Of course, the above is all fan wankery intended to explain away the very real world impact of creator George Miller’s changing views, the differences in budgets and special effects capabilities, and the fact of recasting Max after so long. Even so, it is suggestive of an aspect of storytelling we do no often see and I think has legs, creatively speaking: some stories — that is, narratives that we produce on paper or on the screen — are themselves stories in the worlds of those stories. Certainly it is an idea that has been used before intentionally, mostly as a way to embrace the unreliable narrator, but I am suggesting that is works as both an intentional narrative tool and as a way for fans and future writers to engage wroks, especially franchises.

 

As an example, consider the Prequel Trilogy for Star Wars. Ignoring whatever flaws one may consider those films to have as actual entertainment, they definitely change the nature the universe of the original Star Wars films. This can be explained as casting the Original Trilogy as a sort of post-apocalyptic setting, where everything gets square and textured (compared to the Prequels’ glossy appearance), but I think there is a better explanation: the Prequel Trilogy is actually the story that Obi Wan tells Luke on Degobah (as a ghost) to keep Luke focused on the mission to kill Vader. After Vader outs himself as Anakin, Luke had a crisis of faith  and Obi Wan knew that he needed to hear a story that both jived with what Vader told him but also maintained the narrative that Obi Wan, Yoda and the Rebellion had already sold. It explains why someone so vile as to murder “younglings” could “still have good in him” — in other words, Anakin never murdered the younglings (the Emperor likely did) and Luke could sense that, which allowed him to draw out the last vestiges of good in Vader. Many of the other aspects of the Prequels were likely fabricated or embellished by Obi Wan as well, because at the time Luke was still a hot headed youth who needed to hear those kinds of stories. By the start of Jedi, Luke had grown beyond the need for those “childish things” and was beginning to doubt what he had been told by both Obi Wan and Yoda. Luke may have never learned the truth, but the reality of the lies dawn on him when he visits Yoda for the last time.

 

Again, more fan wankery, but you see my point. Some stories work very well as stories within stories and actually make the properties better. It is a narrative tool we, as writers, can use intentionally and one that we, as fans, can play with to help us get more out of our favorite franchises.

Plot to Prose Ratio

Or, “Tell Me The Goddamn Story, already!”

 

Over the last week, I had the good fortune of going on a relaxing vacation with lots of time to read. I picked up a half dozen paperbacks to take with me, including Glen Cook’s The Silver Spike, Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane and a few others. On the recommendation of a friend, I started with The Silver Spike. I won’t review it here other than to say, hot damn I loved it and will be looking for more Black Company books in the near future.

 

When I finished The Silver Spike, I picked up Dragonsbane next. From the outset, I found myself having difficulty getting into it. I thought perhaps it was too big of a shift in tone from the bloody, gritty Spike, so I put it down in favor of trying Lord Foul’s Bane. I knew by geek-culture osmosis that LFB was a more cynical novel with an unlikable protagonist, so I thought it might be a better fit right off Spike. Although the tone was, as I suspected, closer to what I wanted, I was still having trouble getting really immersed in the story the same way that I had fallen into Spike. After 100 pages or so (I can be a slow learner sometimes) it struck me: neither Dragonsbane or LFB was Telling Me The Goddamn Story, at least not at the pace I wanted.

 

In other words, the Plot to Prose Ratio was way off.

 

Let me start by saying, emphatically, that the Plot to Prose Ratio (PPR) is entirely subjective. Not only does every individual person have their own preference, but any individual’s preference changes from story to story as well. That said, I also think it is universal: every reader has a PPR they prefer, even if they don’t consciously recognize it. I did not, until I was presented with back to back stark examples of works with very different PPRs.

 

The Silver Spike is a fast paced crime novel that happens to be set against a high fantasy weird fiction sword and sorcery backdrop. Relative to the actions of the characters, very little word count is given over to meticulous description and historical exposition. That is not to say Spike lacks for world building; it doesn’t. But that world building is secondary to the struggles of the characters and serves the needs of the author more than it serves the desires of the reader. That is, the complex and strange world that Cook has created is the vehicle for the story, not the other way around. In this way, the PPR of The Silver Spike is heavily weighted toward Plot. Most every word on the page moves the story forward.

 

Lord Foul’s Bane by contrast (which I will use as a counter example, since I put Dragonsbane down too early to make a fair assessment) leans more heavily toward the Prose side of the PPR. Donaldson spends a lot of words on immersive description, world building and the internal life of his anti-hero Thomas Covenant. So much so, in fact, that even a hundred and a half pages in to the novel very little has actually occurred. A trek across a wooded valley occupies thousands of words in LFB, where in Spike a sequence of similar narrative importance might have consumed a mere paragraph. In instances like these, I find myself distracted from the story in wondering how much longer before the next actual thing that matters happens.

 

Again, one’s Plot to Prose Ration preference is subjective. Some readers adore words and have a robust tolerance for long passages that enhance immersion or delve deep into character or setting. Obviously, me preferences lean the other direction, toward the flow of the narrative and the development of characters through action rather than description. I want to the author it to Tell Me The Goddamn Story.

 

None of this is to suggest that I do not appreciate well crafted prose. Rather, well crafted prose, for me, should also move the plot forward. My favorite example of this is The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. I cannot think of a more beautifully crafted novel as far as the prose itself is concerned. Beagle has a give for description and narrative device that is sadly all too uncommon. At the same time, he never wastes that talent on unnecessary padding. Each wonderful paragraph serves the larger story and not only embellishes his world and characters but propels the reader ever forward in the narrative. J. R. R. Tolkien writes similarly in The Hobbit but leans more heavily toward prose for prose sake in The Lord of the Rings.

 

When I wander into the book store (an increasingly rare occurrence, granted) and I see shelves sagging under the weight of Big Fat Fantasy series, I find myself recoiling. Having found both Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time and George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire too concerned with Prose and not concerned enough with Plot, I tend to shy away from long series of thick novels. That is too bad, because I am sure there are plenty of series in which the individual books are fast paced, plot heavy narratives (as I discovered with The Silver Spike and previously found with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.)

Superman vs Cthulhu: Super Heroes and Cosmic Horror

 

A new project has me thinking about how Super Heroes and Cosmic Horror interact with one another. At first blush, these two genres would seem to be mutually exclusive.

Super Heroes are ultimately symbols of optimism. Their stories are generally about normal people who, when granted powers far greater than those of their peers, seek to bring justice and peace rather than bring war or ruin. Some modern interpretations disagree, of course, but these kinds of deconstructionist views act as the exceptions that prove the rule: you would not have an Authority, for example, without Superman and Batman engaged in the neverending battles and crusades.

On the other side of the genre coin, you have the kind of existential horror exemplified by the work of H.P. Lovecraft and his many collaborators and imitators. Here, heroism is, at best, a naive notion that is quickly dispelled by despair and madness. In cosmic horror, there is no justice or peace, and even war and ruin don’t matter, for the real terror comes not from the amorphous things living just outside of our vision, but from the unfeeling and uncaring universe. Everything is sliding toward entropy and nothingness. Even the monsters are doomed. It is the ultimate expression of pessimism and nihilism.

So how do we bring these two genres together? And, more importantly, why? What can we hope to create from mixing these reagents, and how do we avoid blowing ourselves up in the process?

Is that a deep one?

 

Comic book super heroes and undulating weird horrors have cross paths many time before, of course. super heroes emerged out of the same primordial pre-pulp fiction as did Lovecraft’s work, who was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Algernon Blackwood. The violent, criminal yet essentially “good” masked heroes of the pulp era gave rise to the earliest Super Heroes (the Man of Steel owed much to the Man of Bronze, and Bat-Man was heavily inspired by The Shadow). The pulps were waning just as comics started to rise, but many of the young men (and a few women) creating those early costumed heroes had cut their genre teeth on pulp magazines like Weird Tales. Characters like Dr Fate and The Specter appeared very early on and considered great cosmic powers and elements of horror in their stories.

Super hero stories have always mined horror for villains and plots, embracing whatever monstrosities sit atop the cultural consciousness. Vampires and werewolves have always been popular, usually inspired by the Universal movie versions of those creatures, and there are a number of Frankenstein’s monster analogs and even outright uses. Zombies, the current favorite of pop culture horror, are everywhere and have devoured both the Marvel and DC universes within the last few years. And there are many comics and heroes that site squarely in a place of horror, from Marvel’s Blade and Morbius the Living Vampire to Todd MacFarlane’s Spawn to DC’s Swamp Things and more recently Justice League Dark.

From the Official Dark Horse Hellboy website.

One book in particular, though, really embraces the Lovecraftian side of horror (mixed with just everything else as well). Mike Mignola’s Hellboy — the titular character is a demon, but also a super hero — is a horror comic that does super heroics, or a super hero comic that does horror. In either case, it represents probably the most perfect marriage between the genres, and Mignola’s evocative art and tight scripting do not hurt. However, as good as Hellboy is at mixing these oil-and-water genres, in doing so it pulls the Hellboy character out of the lofty clouds of primary colors, capes and cowls and grounds him with the guns and the ever-present gritty cape analogue of the trench coat. So while we can use Hellboy as a way to start thinking about Super Heroes versus Cosmic Horror, it is just a point of beginning (but a damn entertaining one).

 

You don’t get much Super Hero vs Cosmic Horror than Starro

 

What would Superman do in the face of Cthulhu? How would Batman react upon discovering the Shadow Over Innsmouth? Could Captain America maintain his sanity when confronted by vast uncaring cosmos via the Color Out of Space?

Although the trappings vary, all super heroes essentially punch things for justice: they use direct intervention against enemies that can be beaten, captured and otherwise negated. In short, super heroes can win. By definition, the terrors of cosmic horror cannot be beaten — their victory is inevitable and the only succor against that knowledge is to retreat into madness. This seems at first to be an insurmountable problem in marrying the genres.

What I think allows the super hero to continue to not only exist but to operate and even succeed after a fashion in the context of cosmic horror is their inherent optimism. Super heroes fact insurmountable odds daily — or at least monthly. A meteor rocketing toward the Earth, a virus transforming people into mindless drones, an army of hyper intelligent gorillas invading from two universes over, these are all familiar threats to the super hero, and they all threaten the very existence of mankind. Yet, the super hero soldiers on and preservers.

The only difference between those typical comic book threats and the threat posed by cosmic horror is that the latter cannot be overcome. But that is knowledge reserved for the audience. As far as the super hero is concerned, that elder thing spreadings its dark influence throughout the world and threatening to wake is just another villain to be defeated. That heroic optimism provides the hero with not only the will to face these eldritch horrors, but also at least a modicum of protection against the mind rending, soul shattering truths at the heart of cosmic horror: that we are insignificant in the fact of the enormity of time and space and that we are no more than insects to the vast and incalculable minds of the monstrosities that exist in the dark between the stars.

Moreover, even for the hero that has accepted the inevitability of the ultimate end, the true motivation of most super heroes remains: protect the innocent. In this case, it means saving potential sacrifices from cultists who would hasten the rise of the elder thing, destroying the weird alien creatures that wander aimlessly into our reality, and, occasionally, push back the timeline of that waking just a little longer. It may also mean something else, often outside the usual purview of the super hero: protecting people by hiding the truth from them, sparing them the madness that invariably comes with recognizing the futility of it all.

As different as the genres seem, I think the combination of super heroes and cosmic horror provides a lot of potentially compelling stories, without needing to tarnish or deconstruct the heroes or water down the existential threat of the cosmic horror.

 

Some thoughts on rejection.

First of all — sorry for the delay of the promised Magical Monday and Wicked Wednesday entries using the random method i outlines last time. I got hung up on the impending announcement of the 32 Round 1 winners of Paizo’s RPG Superstar 2015 contest. I decided to enter this year and was wringing my hands over it. When I did not pass the round, i got hit with the rejection blues, which prompted this post about rejection and my response to it.

 

I would like to say I am a thick skinned writer, happy to wallpaper my den with rejection letters until I finally sell that story. The truth is I am not. Every rejection letter hurts and takes an axe to my confidence. I have been writing stories  in one form or another literally since I learned to write, and before that I was telling those stories. It is something I feel I am good at. It comes naturally and I derive a kind of pleasure from it that is unlike any other I know. When i sit back after having immersed myself in a piece of prose for hours, I feel somehow elevated, exalted even. And because I am an extrovert and an exhibitionist, I want to not only share those things with other people, I want to receive praise for them. In other words, I want people to read what I write, love it and tell me so.

 

But because I place so high a premium on that approval I set myself up for disappointment and even pain when I present my work to be judged. I used to want to go the self publishing route (made easy these days with Kindles and the like) in order to bypass the “gatekeepers.” “Why should I get a form letter rejection,” i asked myself and anyone within earshot, “just because the slush reader had a fight with his wife that morning?” The reality is, though, that I toyed with self publishing as a way to avoid rejection at the hands of an editor. Rejection without any context or explanation, such as those form letters, is even worse because my imagination (the same thing that got me into this mess in the first place) runs wild with the worst possible explanations for my failure.

 

With the RPG Superstar contest, it was an especially difficult rejection because the one kind of writing I have done professionally is writing for role-playing games. I honestly expected to do well, if not take the whole thing, because I know games and gaming and gamers. Or, at least, I thought I did until about 5 PM EST last night when my name was not on the “winners” list. Rejection always undermines my confidence in my writing ability, but this struck even deeper into my identity. What if I was not just a bad writer, but a bad gamer as well?

 

Intellectually, I get it: even if what I wrote was my best work (and it really wasn’t; I threw it together relatively quickly close to deadline) there were hundreds if not thousands of entries. More to the point, rejection happens. My brain gets that. But my guts and my heart hate that fact and it makes me feel like deleting every manuscript I have and never stringing more than three words together on paper ever again. Usually, it is weeks or even months before I try again after I get two or three stories rejected. And, of course, it is exacerbated when I read some terribly written tripe that some editor bought and published or I see that Moan For Bigfoot made its author thousands of dollars.

 

Then I remember that the difference between those shit authors finding some success and me, well, not is not based on talent, it is based on perseverance. Bigfoot lady (or fellow) wrote that crap and stood behind it and put it out there. What’s more, she (or he) was not accepted by thousands but rejected by the millions that did not buy it — but found success anyway, despite all that rejection. Those other authors, those ones that could not build a plot with a set of Legos, they sold that story or novel because they stuck with it. Maybe they sent that story to one hundred editors until they caught one off guard and under deadline. Maybe they sent one hundred stories to that one editor who finally bought one out of compassion. In either case, perseverance sold that story.

 

So, catharsis complete, it is time to get back to work.

 

Oh, and here is my “losing” RPG Superstar 2015 entry in all its failure-y glory:

 

[b]Armor, Living Sand[/b]

 

Aura faint transmutation; CL 9th; Weight 40 lbs.; Price 20,000 gp

 

DESCRIPTION

When first encountered, this strange “armor” appears as nothing more than a ball of sparkling, wet sand the size of a child’s ball. When touched by a sentient creature it shudders as if alive and if one of its command words (see below) is uttered, it  stretches and flows to cover the creature’s torso and limbs.

 

The “sand” is actually a colony of infinitesimal animated objects. They move freely or lock into place, depending on their need, so that the whole mass or portions can be supple or rigid. In this way, the Living Sand Armor is able to emulate light, medium or heavy armor.

 

Each armor type of which the living sand can take form requires a separate command word. Speaking the command is a standard action and in no case can the armor change form more than one per round. In each of its forms, the armor has the following statistics:

 

Light Armor: Armor Bonus+5, Max Dex +4, Check Penalty -1

Medium Armor: Armor Bonus +7, Max Dex+3, Check Penalty -3

Heavy Armor: Armor Bonus+10, Max Dex +1, Check Penalty -5

The wearer’s speed is affected as normal for armor of the given type.

 

There is a mild psionic component to the living sand, causing the armor to take on a style and shape unique to the wearer. The material originated in Numeria but has long since spread throughout the Inner Sea.

 

Living Sand Armor is particularly sought after by barbarians and rangers.

 

CONSTRUCTION REQUIREMENTS

Craft Magic Arms and Armor, Craft Construct, animate object Cost 10,000 gp

 

Little Stories

For some months, I have been having trouble with Writer’s Block, especially when trying to write fiction. But here’s the thing: as soon as I decided to refocus this blog on 5th Edition D&D, I have written over 8,000 words — I know, that is not a lot compared to many of you, but compared to the 0,000 I was writing before, it sure is. A small portion of that has been my Guardians of the Galaxy review, but the majority has been writing game related articles. At first I was surprised,a nd then I was concerned: am I incapable of writing fiction? Have I exhausted my ability to create stories? Don’t get me wrong: I love game writing. I cut my professional writing teeth on game writing, for White Wolf Publishing’s Exalted and for Sword & Sorcery Studios’ Gamma World d20. But real life intervened and it has been a very long time since I have done any professional game writing. And, if I am being honest, I do not foresee a career in writing game material at $.04 per word.

 

Then, something occurred to me: the little articles I have been writing here for D&D 5E are stories. More specifically, they are made up of many little stories. I am not a game designer — they do math and play test things and generally make games work correctly. I am a game writer — I come up with some wacky stuff that makes for a fun experience around a table with a bunch of your friends. When I write about Fantastic Fountains, Vicious Monster Variants, or Pommel Stones of Power, what I am really doing to creating a handful of small stories in each of those articles and asking you, the reader and game player, to jump into that story. I could limit my Vicious Variants to a couple of sentences adjusting the monsters’ game statistics — after all, the stated goal is simply to provide more utility from those creatures while awaiting the arrival of the official D&D 5E Monster Manual — but instead each one gets a couple hundred words. Why? Because tabletop role playing games like D&D are themselves stories, series of linked tales that comprise one grand epic (which may or may not end with the “heroes” in the stomach of a hungry troll).

 

Realizing this has been helpful. I know that I am not stuck in the ghetto of game writing instead of writing actual stories. I am writing stories, and it is a short step from here back into the world of prose fiction. And, just as importantly, there’s nothing wrong with being here in the first place: game writing isn’t a lesser form, and even if the pay isn’t as good, well, no one is paying for my fiction at this point either. ;)

 

Thanks for reading, and if you are enjoying what I do, don’t forget to Share and Like.

Flash Fiction: Prose Songs

I am not especially a music fan. That is not to say I don’t enjoy music — I do — but I don’t invest the kind of mind space in it I do, say, comic books, movies or gaming. I do listen to music, but usually just as background noise at work or while I write. As often as not, the music I am listening to is associated with one of the things I do care about, in the form of scores to films and games I enjoy. There are a couple of other genres I enjoy as well: 90s alt rock and grunge, tied mostly to the fact that I was in my late teens and twenties during that time, and Blues and Celtic music (usually traditional songs by modern bands). Then there are the occasional pop, rock or other genre songs that just seem to fit (Of Monsters And Men’s “Dirty Paws” is a big one for me right now) or bands that are the only one in their genre that I like (Caravan Palace is great, but I have yet to hear another electro-swing band I like).

 

So what does any of this have to do with writing? Just today, as I was working at my desk, listening to Pandora, trying to concentrate on an excel spreadsheet but really thinking about this story I just cannot seem to get right, and the aforementioned “Dirty Paws” came on. For some reason, today was the day I realized why I liked that song so much, and why both Blues and Celtic are compelling to me: it tells a story. This is likely to sound obvious and maybe even a little stupid, but I had never really deeply considered my own tastes in music since, as I stated, music is generally not a big deal for me. But with that small realization, I not only started thinking about all the songs (as well as musicals, from The Little Mermaid to The Little Shop of Horrors) I really like, but also the very idea of story and how it speaks to me. Into this jumble of thoughts on music and narrative crept one other question that is nearly always floating around in the back of my writer-brain: why flash fiction?

 

I love flash fiction, both writing it and reading it. There is something about the brief, yet complete narrative that exemplifies the form. There is a lot of bad flash fiction — most of it not bad because it is poorly written, but because it usually represents a piece of a story or a vignette, rather than a whole story (and I include plenty of my own in that category) — but the good is really, really good. And it was in the convergence of these apparently disparate subjects, music and flash fiction, that the answer came: a good flash story is the same as a strong ballad or narrative song. They are both a form of story that takes just a few minutes to consume, but can be experience over and over to find the nuance and little details or just to *feel* its impact again.

 

I don’t know anything about songwriting, so I will not presume to make comparisons other than to guess there is some degree of similarity, but I can say that a good flash fiction story is very difficult to write. For all its brevity, crafting it is a painstaking process. Trained by Big Fat Fantasies and Unending Series and Bloated Literary Darlings, as writers we tend to use far too many words. That is not to say that there is not something wonderful in beautifully crafted, dense prose or a complex web of characters and subplots, but core narratives, the hearts of stories, can usually be distilled down to simple, powerful statements. Look no further than micro fiction like Six Word stories (when I first started my twitter feed, it was all #sixwordscifi) for proof. But getting those narratives trimmed down to size while preserving both artful wordsmithing and meaningful characterization and plotting is a uniquely difficult, sometimes apparently impossible, process.

 

Not every story can be told as flash fiction, just as sometimes a complete album or score is necessary to tell the story through music. But more often than not, I think, a work can be powerful and entertaining and, most of all, satisfying in a mere three to five minutes.

Futility

There is a tyranny in knowledge, an oppressive regime of awareness. If ignorance is bliss, then knowing is Hell.

 

For perhaps a month now, I have suffered from Writer’s Block — why did I capitalize “Writer’s Block” I wonder? Is it a Named Thing, an Entity in itself, rather than a state of my own being? — of a depth and intensity I cannot recall having previously suffered. This is not to say that I have never suffered from it before; I have many times stared at a blank page or screen, or sat re-reading the last paragraph I wrote in a story over and over trying to force the next words to come. But at least then I managed to bring myself to the table (or desk, as it were) and lay my fingers upon the keyboard before uncertainty, fear, inattention of simple laziness stopped me. This past month, I have not even managed that. I have gone well past my usual  procrastination — using exercise or video games or whatever to push off opening up Google Docs — and moved into active avoidance, fearful skulking as if being hunted, like my Muse had been transformed into a hungry beast.

 

I realized that the Writer’s Block had taken control yesterday when, between rounds of Blizzard’s new, highly addictive card game Hearthstone, I actually did the dishes, folded the laundry and cleaned up the dog shit just to have something to do besides going downstairs and writing. Upon realizing this, I was forced to ask myself, “Why?” What was so terrible that I could not even bring myself to simply re-read, let alone revise, a story I have been sitting on for ages? It is not as if I am not thinking about stories and writing and game design and all the other things I usually think about while running or driving or reading (I often have difficulty focusing on a well written piece because it will inspire my own imagination and thought processes; oh, the irony).

 

It hit me while I was procrastinating via the Internet (if some malevolent force wanted life and progress to come to a grinding halt so it could conquer us all, it could have designed no more perfectly insidious a weapon than the World Wide Web). I was reading something linked from SF Signal about writing and selling and publishing, when it all came crashing into my mind at once: the many thousands of books selling single digit copies on Amazon, the millions of blogs and websites (just like this one) with one or two hits per post, the ridiculous success of some very few apparently randomly selected works. For a while now I have been reading blogs and magazines and columns by writers and editors and publishers (self and otherwise) and it all distills to a singular fact: in this noise, whatever words I have, however valid or entertaining or unique, I am but a whisper in the din of a hurricane.

 

Futility. That is the knowledge I gained, and it crushes me.

 

Story versus Prose

I have been doing a lot of self reflection on my own writing and writing preferences lately, mostly in attempting to understand why I have so much difficulty. Among a number of other things, I have started to understand that, at least for me, there is a fundamental conflict between Story and Prose. Or, rather, the two vie for my time, energy and attention in the writing process itself, and the casualty is usually a completed work.

I am a disciple of Story, first and foremost. What happens — both what actually happens, and what is happening, if you get my meaning of the difference — is the point. No matter what else you are trying to accomplish with the story — to titillate, to inform, to inspire — you cannot accomplish it without the story itself. By story, I mean the arc of the tale, the beginning(s), middle(s) and end(s). Big Fat Fantasy of literary micro-fiction, the core is the same, like how a fish’s skeleton and a human’s are fundamentally alike. That is not to say that all stories are fundamentally the same, but rather that all stories must have Story to be more than mere ideas or descriptions.

That said, I also love the craft of writing, the Prose. It simply feels good to manipulate the formless ephemera of words into a real thing. A well crafted sentence is a jewel unto itself, and a well written story is a crown. It takes time and care and, most of all, experience to produce such art. It can be a frustrating process, discarding one imperfect word, phrase or sentence after another until the perfect one appears. And when it does not, the hard choice must be made between stopping everything or leaving something lesser in place and going on.

I was not fully aware of the conflict between Story and Prose, though the unnamed idea of it was often a cloud in my mind, until relatively recently when I finally read The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. The Last Unicorn is one of my favorite stories. I first saw the animated film as a child and have watched it innumerable times throughout my life. I knew the film so well, in fact, that I never bothered to read the novel. I cannot say for certain why this is; The Last Unicorn is hardly the only adaptation I was exposed to before the original material, but still I read The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, for example. Perhaps I knew that those adaptations were incomplete or inaccurate, since Tolkien’s work inspires a kind of fandom beagle’s does not and therefore I was more fully aware of the Good Professor’s works in a way I was not familiar with Beagle’s. Or perhaps it was simply that the film was so satisfying to me, I could not imagine what value the novel might have — or worse, I feared that I would love the film better (an unforgivable crime for a young, budding writer).  Whatever the cause, I only finally read the novel The Last Unicorn mere months ago. Upon doing so, I hated myself for waiting so terribly long.

Beagle’s Prose, his mastery of the language, is nothing short of amazing, rivaling the likes of Hemingway in my opinion. I found in reading The Last Unicorn that I experienced it in an entirely new way, even though the story was nearly identical to that of the film. Contrast this with The Lord of the Rings, which I am currently re-reading: Tolkien also has a mastery over his use of language (though in a very different way than Beagle), but since so much of my reading attention is directed at how different Peter Jackson’s adaptations were, I feel almost as if I am less able to enjoy the Prose because of the differences in Story.

 

Once I read The Last Unicorn and became consciously aware of the distinction in my mind between Prose and Story, I began to look at my own writing in a different way. Specifically, I started to look at why I was having such trouble finishing some stories, or producing a good version of some stories. What I began to realize is that in some cases I had a Story I wanted to tell, but was trying to tell it with a kind of Prose that does not come naturally to me, or was not a natural fit for the Story. The sort of Modernist writing style, where we describe all the actions and emotions of the character has become the expected, even demanded, form of Prose for our written fiction. This is a relatively new development, though. From ancient epics to folkloric tales to all the other media we consume, most storytelling we do is focused on the characters and events, the Story itself. One could write a 5000 word short story version of Hansel and Gretel, for example, but would it be “better” by any measure than the shorter form used to tell the events of the tale to children before bedtime? Prose is art and can be beautiful for its own sake, but it can also weigh down the Story, obscuring it under layers of unnecessary detail. I realized that in many cases, I was trying to tell a piece of folklore or talk about a series of things that happened in this imaginary place to these imaginary people, but was not, in fact, trying to “write a story” in the conventional sense.

 

The questions arises, then: is there a market for such fiction? In a world dominated by Modernist, Prose-centric preferences, is there a place for Story-telling? I worried that the answer was “no” until I realized something very important: the world of non-fiction, from magazine features to biographies, looks very much like this. When we are telling stories about what were or are or might be, involving real people, we almost invariably focus on Story rather than Prose. (This, of course, does not mean there is not a place for strong writing and a good turn of phrase.) And I realized, then, that there is no reason why that form of storytelling can’t be applied to fiction as well, and that there is sure to be a market for it in the same way that there is a market for non-fiction in that form.

Immediate Gratification: The Joy of Improvisational Creation

I spent the weekend at Total Confusion 28 where, in addition to general merrymaking and running a Mutant Future duology called Out of the Fridge/Into the Freezer (I will post about that some day soon), I engaged in my third annual attempt to take the (regional) crown of Iron GM. For those not in the know (and too riveted to click the provided link) Iron GM is to tabletop role-playing games (primarily Dungeons and Dragons 3.5) what Iron Chef is to cooking: given a limited amount of time and a collection of disparate, secret-until-it’s-go-time ingredients, you are tasked with creating a convention scenario (you’ll note that the very idea of Iron GM  breaks a lot of those rules) on the spot for real live gamers instead of a panel of professional judges.

 

The whole concept of Iron GM appeals to me. Much of my writing is performed similarly: when I feel the need to create but I can’t muster up any good ideas, I solicit my friends to throw random story elements (settings, protagonists, challenges and so on) at me and then I force myself to write with those elements, finishing a story of between 1000 and 2000 words in an hour or two. The result is always a little rough around the edges, but more often than not, I find that I usually really like at least the concept of the story, if not the particulars of the prose or pacing (two elements that I believe require real polish to get right). Iron GM scratches a similar itch for me, but with one spectacular addition: an audience. Sure, a flash fiction as previously described can garner some atta-boys and “Likes” from friends, but the people at the table in Iron GM are strangers by requirement — at least at the time of the game; some of those players turn out to be lifelong friends.

 

Gamermastering a tabletop role-playing game is one of the most rewarding, if ephemeral, creative undertakings I know. It comes in second to writing simply, I think, because the written word lives on after the act of creation and may even see a much larger than originally intended audience. It might even live forever (for varying definitions of “forever”; even Gilgamesh hasn’t been around forever, since we’re still going on). Bust, as stated, it beats writing on the “immediate gratification” metric, since it requires a group of people to appreciate it (these people happen to be co-authors in this undertaking, of course, but that discussion is beyond the scope of this post). Many game masters meticulously craft worlds, study rule books and prepare adventures before they actually sit down behind the screen and begin play. I have done that on occasion, but I have always preferred running by the seat of my pants. I prefer a relatively “light” rules set, one that is easy to bend to my will without getting bogged down in fiddly bits (which, of course, makes D&D 3.5 a terrible choice, thereby making it a brilliant choice for competition). That is not to say I don’t like rules. I think they are essential to provide a structure where the players feel like they have agency in the game and a way to measure how “fair” the game is. Having to look rules up in the middle of play brings everything grinding to a halt, so fewer rules with consistent implementation serve my purposes better.

 

This is in no small part due to a very important and, frankly, fun aspect of improvisational GMing: the players define the game as much as I. There’s an adage among game masters, paraphrased from improvisational theater: say, “Yes, but…” Players who have a toolset in their hands (i.e. the rules as they relate to their character) and a clear sense of agency (based on the choices you put before them, either implicit or explicit) enhance any game, especially an improvisational one since, well, I might not even know where I am going with this thing. Granted, this is slightly less true during the Iron GM competition, if only because there is a time limit and part of the grading is based on whether the adventure was completed to satisfaction. Two years in a row now, time has run out for me in the boss fight finale.

 

There is a dark side to the immediate gratification I get from improvisational creation, especially the flash writing that I described above. For me, the act of completion, of seeing a story through to its end, is the real joy. To have created such a thing fills me we a sense of accomplishment. But also as I stated above, the real work is in the polish, the cleaning up of the inevitable failures of such a speedy creation: inconsistencies of plot and character, clumsy prose, ideas only hinted at that need fleshing out, and so on. That stuff is hard and, if you’ll forgive the metaphor, I’ve already rolled over, smoked a cigarette and am ready to go to sleep. I have countless (I mean I have never counted them, out of fear of disappointing myself) first draft short stories desperately in need of revision that I have never gone back to simply because they are, emotionally for me anyway, “done.”