Research, Role-Playing, and Running Out of Time: NaNoWriMo 2016

It’s November, which means it’s NaNoWriMo season again. I’ll be just as busy as I was last year, which means I’m having some doubts about my ability to finish, but the month is still young. Having done a series of posts tracking my progress last November, I’m probably not going to subject you to something similar this year. However, I’ll probably still have a lot to talk about in terms of writing because I’m not actually writing a novel this month.

If you read my 24-hour blog post (you brave soul), you probably saw that I was working on a campaign setting for the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons despite the fact that I’m in the midst of playing my very first campaign, which will continue for at least another year. Thankfully, I’m only writing a single story arc and not the entire campaign. But still, how did that happen?

The idea was proposed by one of our college buddies, who got into the game a little before we did and is an avid listener of the podcast The Adventure Zone. Inspired by the podcast, he thought it would be fun if we wrote and played our own campaign in that style. My husband contributed the idea that our group of four could each take a stab at being the Dungeon Master, and this eventually morphed into the more concrete plan of each of us writing the story arc that we would run the other three through.

We also established somewhere in there that my portion of the campaign will be up first. While I don’t have a start date, I figured I would have to get this thing done sooner rather than later. So here I am.

At the time of writing this post, I haven’t actually penned a word of it yet. I have my looseleaf notebook filled with scratches of worldbuilding, research, and ideas, but as far as actually typing it up or doing any more substantial writing, I haven’t done anything yet. What I’ve done is a lot of research and overthinking.

I’ve talked before about my relationship with D&D as a writer in the form of building a character without a world. Now, I’m building a world for outside protagonists that are going to come in. It requires a lot of thinking to construct a world that’s more likely than not going to explode when it touches the player characters. That, and I haven’t done much high fantasy worldbuilding: even my most magical or sci-fi worlds are grounded enough in present-day reality that I don’t need to build from the ground up. Here are some of the things I’ve been worried about in my attempts to balance writing with planning a game.

  1. Railroading

The bane of players everywhere, railroading is the phenomenon of the game master forcing players down a linear, predetermined path in defiance of the inherently collaborative nature of RPG games. As a writer, I need to be cautious about doing that: I don’t write choose your own adventures, after all, and I’m reluctant to let go of ideas. While I’ll need all of the ideas I can get to achieve the 50,000 words required for a NaNoWriMo victory, I have to wonder how many ideas are too many, both in a practical narrative sense and in a railroading sense.

  1. Starting, ending, and the overall plot.

There will be a lot of cooperating with people on this (literal and figurative) adventure, both as player characters and as DMs. While I don’t need to worry too much about how to start my adventure (which will probably happen in the form of “You all meet in a bar”—sure, it’s a cliché, but it works for our purposes), ending it is going to be a challenge: I’ll need to wrap up my story arc, decide when it’s reached an appropriate dénouement, and not only switch out and properly set up the next person’s story but come up with justifications for one player character to leave and get replaced by my player character.

There also may or may not be an overarching plot to the entire universe. This might not get developed until after I wrap up NaNoWriMo. If it exists, I’ll have to wind pieces of it into my story arc, but it’s possible that, as a person that holds a quarter of the entire story, I’ll have to be the one to introduce it.

  1. Mechanics.

One of the people in our group has never played the game before, so I’m sure part of my story will involve organically teaching things like combat, skill checks, and other role-playing staples. On my end, this will involve making sure that I have these details locked down: I’m playing the game now and I feel like I have most everything, but I’ve never had to teach it before.

I’ll also need to crunch some numbers to make sure that my encounters are challenging without turning the players into carbon-based smears on the floor of a dungeon somewhere and that the rewards make sense. While I love lycanthropes thematically and really want to play with them, the wererats we recently encountered in our main campaign made me realize that they are not easy to deal with. That group was a large team of fourth-level characters, and the one I’m about to play with will not only have fewer people but be weaker. I probably won’t focus on the particulars of how to fix that during NaNoWriMo itself, but I’ll need to have an idea of what I’m doing so that I’m not totally clueless when I go back into it.

Speaking of lycanthropes, my researching didn’t lead me to anything substantial about fifth-edition combat rules for player characters infected with lycanthropy. I’m throwing together new rules just in case someone happens to stick their hand in a werewolf’s mouth, and I only just learned the existing rules. The things I do for love.

  1. Locations and environments

Part of the reason I prefer writing things grounded in reality is so that I don’t have to make maps. Geography is not one of my strong suits, I barely have a concept of distances and how long they take to traverse, and I have honestly gotten hopelessly lost in an area 10 minutes from my apartment and needed to be rescued by some very nice neighbors. If I ever encounter you alone and I hurry by you, it’s not as much that I’m scared of you as it is that I’m scared of having to provide directions.

Luckily, I don’t think this group is going to be a bunch of sticklers about geography. I used this method for making my overarching map, which is great if you need to make fantasy maps. Now I need to decide on how the immediate adventuring areas are organized and figure out how to paint beautiful pictures about them with my words.

  1. Myth and folklore

In looking for advice on writing D&D campaigns, there was always the tip to have some backstory, but leave out the specifics or anything beginning with the words “Thousands of years ago”. Have your factions, but don’t give them or their higher-ups names and detailed backgrounds unless that’s specifically and relevantly going to come up in the story. My particular campaign seems to be steeped pretty heavily in folklore that’s been interpreted in different ways by different people, so that’s something I’ll need to consider more than I have before. It’s not something I’m used to as someone whose fantasy is urban in nature (and often relies on existing mythologies), but it’s a thing I’m thinking about now.

  1. Towns

One of the surprises about brainstorming for this is that there are so many things in medieval villages. Granted, my urban setting isn’t a village as much as it is a resort town for the world’s wealthiest rulers, but they’re similar enough that I feel like I can get away with it. Like I mentioned above, I’ll need to actually make a map of this place, come up with the businesses and other areas (housing, that whole sketchy business going on underground, etc.), and know what they look like.

When I first started brainstorming, I decided that the population was similar to that of a few northern Michigan locations I know fairly well: Mackinac Island, which has a population of near 500 year-round, and Glen Arbor, which has around 800 people in it during the high tourist season. Both of these figures fit in with the population information that I could find for medieval villages, which were typically home to between 50 and 300 people but could claim as many as 1,000. Also given my experience with those areas, I kind of figured I would have a few inns at various price points at which the characters can eat, drink, and sleep; all of the summer homes of the wealthy, along with some housing for employees and barracks for security personnel; a bathhouse; some sort of temple or chapel; docks, because it’s a beach town; and a marketplace with a few shops or vendors that sell art and luxury items.

Even though I like that part of the game, this group doesn’t want to deal with rationing food or supplies, so any restaurants are going to be cosmetic and I probably won’t have much of a need for stores that sell arrows. However, I did see in my researching a lot of things that I wouldn’t have thought of: stables, blacksmiths and furriers, aqueducts and cisterns, lighthouses, armor and weapon stores, a town hall (which you think would have been one of the first things that I thought of), and clothiers. I also got an idea of what kinds of things might be considered luxury goods: things like tapestries, candles, wine and beer, spices, paintings, sculptures, and books (some of which were illuminated). Granted, in fantasy villages some of these things might be a little different (the presence of magic in any world would solve a number of issues that typically plagued medieval towns), but it was enlightening to know what kinds of things to consider when I crafted this world for these people.

I still need to stock those shops.

  1. People and politics

I don’t need to populate every square foot of my campaign with characters that have names and backstories. I know that much for sure, and I’m relieved that’s the case. But this also isn’t going to be a place where the player characters just kind of crash in between adventures: major characters and plot points are going to be here. I need to think of the character traits of a few major characters who will either help or hinder them.

I also need to know how the way the town runs could affect the player characters. Would they take kindly to some of the game’s fantasy races more than others? Are they welcoming of, hostile toward, or indifferent to adventurers, and would this change if they do things around town, throw enough money around, or really screw something up? Are these people that the characters would even want to help, and why? What do they know about that forest to the east that they’re really reluctant to go near even during broad daylight and armed to the teeth? And this isn’t even counting that forest and what’s going on over there….

 

So that’s what I’m up to for the next month in between everything else I have to do. We’ll see how this goes.

Are you doing anything creative this November?

45 Intriguing Things in My Search History

As much as I love my writing buddies, the bulk of my real-world friends have nothing to do with the writing or publishing industries at all. The overwhelming majority of them are, believe it or not, in the sciences somewhere, with musicians coming in a very close second and other creative professions (theater performance, stage and set design, visual arts, etc.) after that, not including any overlaps.

One thing that I’ve noticed scientists and artists have in common is the propensity to joke about their online search histories. With the knowledge base required for the scientists, this goes without saying, and artists can get their inspiration from some of the strangest or most disturbing places. On top of that, these two types of people seem equally likely to look something up out of curiosity, even if they’ll never use that piece of information ever again. They just like knowing things, and it’s something I can connect with as a writer who otherwise might not have much in common with them.

Unless you have a particular specialization or concentration, writers in my experience are “jack of all trades, master of none” types. We can all write, but otherwise we might not have much of a specialty, especially if we’re just starting out and haven’t found our niche. To make up for this, we tend to be phenomenal researchers and collectors of knowledge and information. I don’t believe much in the “write what you know” adage that so often gets tossed my way, but I do believe that if you’re going to write something and you don’t know about it in any detail, you need to learn.

This is something that’s become particularly true for me since I started getting more freelance writing jobs. While nothing that I research for those jobs is entertaining in the “you’re probably on a watch list” kind of way, I’m still learning and researching a lot of things that would never have crossed my mind otherwise (and confusing ad algorithms to no end, I’m sure). This even game up at a game night, where one of our scientist buddies observed that I must have a really extensive knowledge base. So, against my better judgment, I went back into my search history and decided to take an honest look at what kinds of things I’ve taken the time to learn for my art. The results were… interesting.

For your amusement, intrigue, and possible terror, here are some of the better entries in my search engine history, with minimal context (because complete context would take the fun out of it). In the interest of not sharing who I’m doing freelance work for, every result here was researched for a piece of fiction that I at least got to the planning stage of.

  1. Baby name meanings. You know you write fiction if this is in your search history. Because the internet also knows that I’m a young married woman, this means that the only ads I get on my social media profiles are for baby things.
  2. Flash point of isopropyl alcohol.
  3. Kitchen sink repair. I don’t think you know how many different kinds of wrenches exist, you guys.
  4. Airfare (Chicago, Illinois to Portland, Maine).
  5. The combination of “slaughterhouse,” “common carotid artery,” and “jugular vein.” I counted these as one list item because they’re so similar and I researched them all right in a row.
  6. Turing test. This actually came up in the same project as the above combination of words. It was for a class. My professor loved it.
  7. Sword types.
  8. Sepsis. Making up diseases like it’s my job.
  9. Enhanced interrogation techniques. That was an awfully polite way for me to put it.
  10. Spin kicks. I was trying to see if they were possible or even effective in combat or self-defense. Hint: They’re possible, but there are better things you could be doing in a situation where your life depends on it.
  11. Metals of antiquity.
  12. Lead diacetate. Specifically, what kind of applications or uses it has and where it would be possible to obtain some.
  13. Latin word list. This is my go-to list whenever I need to find a Latin word to corrupt into something magical-sounding.
  14. Greek words by first letter. Similar reasons to the above.
  15. Gender dysphoria. I was in the early stages of writing a transman protagonist and was doing some preliminary research before I really got into the story or started asking actual transmen about their experiences. It’s some of the most valuable research I think I’ve done, if not in a writing sense then in a “being a better and more empathetic person” sense.
  16. Chest binder. Exact same reasons as the above.
  17. Color vision in dogs. I’ve actually been able to come back to this one a couple of times. Allegedly they get yellow, blue, and gray.
  18. Effects of being drugged. I’ve been under anesthesia several times, so I sort of have a concept of this. However, that was in a safe, controlled environment, which this particular character was not in.
  19. Photographing translucent objects/translucent objects on camera.
  20. Disarm a gunman/attacker.
  21. Restraining orders.
  22. Crossbows.
  23. Drywall material.
  24. Homeland Security Advisory System (Code Red/Red Alert). For adapting into a fictional but similar advisory system.
  25. Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse/Biblical Horsemen. These guys have come back a couple of times in a few different forms.
  26. Archangels. They come with the Horsemen as a set, usually.
  27. Studio apartment layout (250 square feet). Just to get some ideas of how one character’s home would be set up.
  28. Sci-fi force field sound effect. You know the noise. I was trying to listen to it or figure out what makes it so I could describe it. It’s surprisingly difficult to find Foley work for a specific sound, though.
  29. Uneven bars.
  30. Abusive relationships. The psychology and behavior patterns, more specifically.
  31. Gem cuts/shapes/jewelry settings. This comes up more than you think it would.
  32. Disability. In the sense of “What would it take for an American to get disability benefits?”
  33. Wisconsin topography.
  34. Popping a dislocated shoulder into place. It’s possible if you have a trusted friend to help you, but leave it to the professionals unless you can’t get medical attention within a day.
  35. Cults/new religious movements.
  36. Tarot. Before I learned how to read cards, I looked up everything I could about them: spreads, individual cards, various interpretations, etc. Eventually I broke down and bought a deck, but I still use online resources if I need a bit of extra help.
  37. 103-degree fever in adults. This is considered a high-grade fever. Get medical attention, like, now.
  38. Stages of death.
  39. Painted buntings.
  40. Decay. I wanted some image references.
  41. Historical lycanthropy. I’ve talked about this previously.
  42. Closed head injuries.
  43. Congenital illnesses/disorders.
  44. Fantasy maps/map-making.
  45. Hostas.

I learned a couple of things from this exercise. One, that my search history is way more eclectic than it is questionable; and two, that a lot of what I look up doesn’t end up being used in nearly as much detail as I thought it would. Some of these terms ended up sprinkled in dialogue to establish a character as an expert in a particular field, but some ended up not being used at all.

Have you ever looked up anything that might raise a few eyebrows? Share your favorites in the comments!

24-Hour Blog

First things first: I’m sorry about neglecting you guys. I have some very loyal readers, and I haven’t been good about updates. The reason why that is, though, is good. I’ve been getting a lot of freelance work lately (and getting paid for it!), so things like the blog and especially my manuscript have taken a back seat to work that has more concrete deadlines and dollar amounts attached. It doesn’t mean that I couldn’t budget my time a little better, but I’m working on balancing everything.

So what do I do about that? Experiment.

If you’ve never heard of the phenomenon of 24-Hour Comics Day, you can follow the link for a more in-depth explanation. Briefly, though, it’s something like the NaNoWriMo of graphic storytelling: individual comic creators spend 24 hours on a 24-page comic, and there’s no prize other than the satisfaction of having created original content (but if you finish, there’s an opportunity for inclusion in Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum’s national archive). This year, it took place on October 1st. There are artists like Katie Tiedrich of Awkward Zombie that use the opportunity to make a journal comic of the 24-hour period, which is where today’s post came from.

I’d been thinking about doing something like this since 2015’s 24-Hour Comics Day. I wouldn’t create a comic, because while I can draw, I can’t draw well enough that people would enjoy looking at what I create. Instead, I thought I would take a similar challenge in the form of a blog post documenting a 24-hour day.

My reason for doing this was threefold:

  1. To create content for myself and shake up the blog a bit;
  2. To see if I could make my daily life sound interesting enough to be an engaging read;
  3. To really look at where I could make more time in my schedule to devote to my own writing projects.

The result is probably the longest post you will ever see on this blog, so buckle up. You’re about to learn way more about my life than you ever needed to.

I chose to document yesterday’s events. Part of this was because the time crunch of documenting and then polishing a blog post by this afternoon would keep me from censoring or editing my daily routine too heavily: there are going to be some edits and omissions in the interest of being, well, interesting, but I still have to work with what I scribbled in my phone’s notepad application. The other part of it was because yesterday was an atypical day in my life that I figured would be slightly more interesting than just reading about how I sat down at a computer and wrote for eight hours. I know the goal was for me to make anything interesting, but there’s only so much you can do to describe the relationship between a writer, keyboard, and monitor.

All of that said, here’s my crack at a “24-hour blog.” In all, an interesting experience and experiment, but not one I’ll repeat anytime soon.

Continue reading

This Post Does Not Contain Spoilers

No, really, it doesn’t. If it did, there would have been a warning.

If you’ve been following me for any length of time, you know that I try to be careful about spoilers. I provide what I hope is enough advance notice if I’m going to be talking about a story’s plot in detail so that readers who don’t want to know about it ahead of time can exercise appropriate caution. The reverse is also true: I try to reassure people when I don’t discuss spoilers so that they can read freely. It’s just the polite thing to do and something that nearly all fandoms and forums agree on: don’t spoil if you can help it, but if you can’t avoid it, at least tag it as such.

Personally, though? I don’t have a problem with spoilers. In fact, there are times when I will actively seek them out.

It depends on the case, of course. If I’m a late arrival to a series and need to get up to speed, I’ll watch or read it while supplementing my experience with spoilers. If it’s something like Doctor Who or a comic book with upwards of 50 years of publication history, I’ll consult a wiki. If I’ve started something and don’t like it enough to finish it but still want to know how it ends, I’ll look up the ending to give myself some closure. If it’s not something I would watch or read but am kind of curious about—I can’t stomach horror movies, for instance, but the stuff horror writers come up with fascinates me to no end—I’ll read about it. If I’m on the fence about picking something up, I’ll read reviews, which by their very nature can spoil the plot. If it’s a video game and have no idea how to proceed in the storyline, you bet I’m going to look it up. The rest of the time, there probably isn’t even a reason: I just felt like it.

About the only time I won’t go looking for spoilers is if it’s something I’m deeply invested in. Even then, I don’t take any real precautions against finding out what happens. This is the age of the internet: if you want to avoid hearing about something, you need to go really, really far out of your way.

This attitude toward spoilers seems to make me something of an anomaly. A lot of my friends will completely abstain from social media if they watch a popular show and didn’t get a chance to watch the latest episode. I’ve witnessed people block or unfriend others on Facebook for revealing plot details, even if it’s a day or two after an episode airs or is an adaptation of something else (Game of Thrones in particular seems to do this to people). I’ve tried to discuss the plots of my manuscripts with others only for them to tell me not to tell them until after they’re published and they’ve read them. I’m even married to one of these people: my husband will avert his eyes from teaser trailers and merchandise in stores and leave the room while literally reciting the entire Gettysburg Address if I’m so much as summarizing a plot in case something gets spoiled.

It’s not just individual people, either. The people who watched the first season of Stranger Things when it aired are all extremely careful to avoid talking about it. Even some creators ask that you don’t spoil their work: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 adaptation of Psycho famously changed the face of the film industry with its “no late admissions” policy. Critics were not given their own screenings, audiences were advised after the film’s conclusion not to give away the ending, and Hitchcock allegedly bought every copy of the book that he could to avoid audiences learning about the plot before setting foot in a theater.

In any case, the reasoning for the fierce protection of plot elements always seems to be that knowing something ahead of time will “ruin” the entire story or experience. And really, it can be kind of exhilarating to go into an experience and not know what’s going to happen next. Novelty isn’t an experience that I get very often, as I’m almost always late to the party when it comes to the latest thing everyone’s watching (I’m better about keeping up with what people are reading), and I see the appeal.

Maybe this is another one of those things that can be explained away with “I’m a writer,” but my reason for liking spoilers comes down to appreciating the craft of storytelling. Mysteries are fun, but so is dramatic irony: knowing what’s coming means you can details together that you might not have noticed otherwise and truly appreciate the work that went into putting the narrative together. Knowing the source material before diving into an adaptation means that you know what’s going to happen and can examine the changes and whether or not they work. I’m someone that will watch or read the same thing many times over not just because I love certain stories or creators, but because I can find all of the little things that I never noticed or appreciated before. This is part of the reason why psychologists found out that spoilers enhance the enjoyment of a story.

I’ve been asked before if I would be ok if someone only flipped to the back of my book to learn how it ended, revealed the major plot twists, looked at spoilers before even buying the book, or otherwise spoiled the plot in a major way for themselves or someone else. For one thing, as long as the internet still exists by the time I publish a book (and I’m fairly confident that it will), it’s inevitable that someone will do that, so it’s not even a matter of “if.” And for another thing, as long as someone bought and enjoyed the book, I don’t particularly care how they do it.

All I really hope is that people are nice and polite about spoilers if they use them and don’t force them on people who don’t want them. Seriously, I think I’ve watched friendships end over Game of Thrones spoilers. Don’t be that person.

So writers and non-writers alike: what’s your take on spoilers? Is a surprise worth protecting or is a twist even better the second time around?

Hype, Buzz, and Preorders

 

I suppose you could call my husband a gamer, if more of a casual one. He doesn’t take part in huge communities or conventions or anything like that, but did some time as a lower-tier competitive Magic: The Gathering player back in college with his social circle. Now, he has a few nights a week dedicated to playing Xbox 360 games with some college buddies (who were also his Magic buddies), and he also collects board games the way I collect books (which is to say that even though we research and make purchases thoughtfully for the most part, there are still probably way too many on our shelves).

Games are something he’s passionate about: he enjoys the artistry, details, and work that go into them. Whenever he finishes a console game, he watches the credits in their entirety rather than skipping them as a way of appreciating all of the people that worked on the thing he just enjoyed. He’s not much of a reader these days (but will always read whatever work of mine I shove in front of him) mostly because he prefers the narrative offered in both console and tabletop games: rather than having a story told to him, he likes being immersed in one, being able to build an experience, and in some cases having a group of people sharing the exact same experience with him. I think it’s great that he likes these things so much, even if I’m not into them to nearly the same extent.

Where we disagree, though, is in the importance of preordering upcoming media you’re excited about. I’m very much a “Please Preorder!” person, where he’s adamantly “Never Preorder!”

We couldn’t be coming from more different places with our philosophies on this. I come from the idea of preorders as a creator and book lover, and he comes from the idea as a consumer and game lover. At this stage in my career, I can’t help but think of the business side of things and getting your money’s worth from your work, but he’s thinking of the end product and how much he’ll enjoy it. I don’t think that either approach is wrong, but until I discussed this with him I didn’t quite see or think about why our respective industries would be different.

As a writer, I come from a place of concern for the future of my career and the careers of writers I like. There’s a lot of reading available out there about this (and if I were to link to every possible article, we’d be here until the next time I posted), but traditionally-published authors especially live and die by preorders of their books. Preorders are the best way for a publishing house to tell how many people are actually interested in a given book or author, with social media coming in behind: more preorders mean more promotion, distribution, sales, and book deals. Even if I end up preordering a novel and not enjoying it, I at least know that I’ve supported a real person and maybe contributed to keeping their career alive.

In my limited reading about how preorders work with games, it’s not that much different with the exception that there’s less information available about the product itself. This is probably because there simply is more to a game than a novel in a technical sense. With a novel, you have the story as the primary feature, with things like the author themselves, writing style, ebook vs. paper, and cover art as other selling points: with a game, you not only have the story, but the way it looks, what console it’s on, which company made it, the voice acting, whether it has bugs, and its control schemes, among other things. In short, with a game, there’s more that can go wrong but less to go off of with promotion. With a novel, you can release a chapter as a teaser and feel pretty safe in assuming that the rest of your experience is going to be the same: with a game, you’re probably relying on video of someone playing it, possibly in beta, without getting the actual experience you would get with the finished product.

When you know you can’t give your audience the actual experience of what your product offers, you have to go about your marketing a bit differently. After some thinking, I decided that the distinction between the two relies on the difference between the phenomena of “hype” and “buzz.” While books and games use both in their promotion, I feel that each industry weighs one more heavily than the other, and that this difference causes very different opinions on preordering. This is how I (and I suspect a lot of other people) distinguish the two:

  • Hype is promotion from the top going down. A thing that is hyped is not available to consumers or reviewers just yet, and the creator is trying to generate a huge amount of interest to encourage people to run out and preorder or buy the thing. Hype seems to be much more visually-oriented (image and video-heavy) and relies less on the quality of the content and more on how awesome the experience could be and what you might miss out on if you don’t order it as soon as possible. In my experience, games rely much more on hype, with a lot of game companies paying for promotions on websites, setting up social media accounts for their product, debuting a product at conventions and conferences, and creating very cinematic game trailers. With regard to books, this is probably going to be more the realm of famous authors who can bank on their name or have the publishing house resources dedicated to heavier marketing and promotion
  • Buzz is promotion in and around the bottom with no input from the top. A thing that is buzzed about might get some attention or promotion from bigger people in the industry, and while a creator hopes that buzz will drive orders it’s first and foremost ordinary people taking part in a massive conversation about something they’re excited for or about with the potential for future sales as a distant second. Something with buzz has drifted down into the public sphere prior to its release in one way or another, likely through reviewers. Buzz isn’t something that a creator can buy or invest money in: it involves releasing something into the world and waiting for it to catch fire. The publishing industry, with its lower marketing budgets of late, relies more on buzz for the bulk of its authors: Goodreads, review blogs, and social media accounts not connected to an author or publishing house are places for book buzz. Games and gamers seem to rely on social media and forums dedicated to a particular company, genre, or game to get their buzz.

These two are not mutually exclusive: under the right circumstances, hype can generate buzz, and you can certainly have both involved in the promotion of a single product. But when considering the differences between types of media, I think that this is an important one to consider. There are some experiences you just can’t have unless the finished product is in your hands, though, and that’s where hype comes in. Hype might not be inherently bad, but I suspect it’s the reason that people like my husband have stopped trusting in game preorders.

As for me, though, I still believe in preorders because books are different. Literally the best thing you can do for an author is preorder their novel: the second-best thing is to let everyone know that the book is available and share the “buy” link as much as you can. When I publish something (sorry, those of you that got this far waiting for an announcement that I had a novel coming out), I’m probably going to be downright irritating about trying to hype it for the sake of preorders. You, as a reader, have the power to create buzz: why not use it to support something (or someone) you love?

Do you preorder anything? How do you decide what to preorder and what to wait on?

You’ve Got that Fanfic Feeling

 

Like a lot of children of the Nineties (and adults of the Nineties, really), I recently bought and read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Before I go any further, I feel that it’s fair to warn you that I can’t actually write this post without discussing major plot elements from the play. While I’ve tried to keep this to a minimum, if you are spoiler-averse and have yet to start or finish it, I suggest stopping right here.

This isn’t going to be a review of Cursed Child because, honestly, I can’t say anything about it that hasn’t already been said. Unlike what seems to be a lot of people, though, I did kind of like it. Even though they can be done really badly, I’m actually a fan of time travel and alternate universe tropes just because I’m fascinated by the idea of what could have been. I haven’t seen very much fiction that explores what happens to the Chosen One after what they were chosen for is done: that can’t be an easy emotional journey, and I was glad to finally see someone’s take on it. What also seems to go unexplored in fantasy fiction is the Chosen One’s family life beyond “It’s not you, it’s my enemies” or “I have a girl waiting for me when I get home”: the arguably more mundane problem of a father and son struggling to forge a connection, when framed by magic, feels just as fantastic as trying to fight against a great evil. This, and the fact that the themes of love and friendship conquering all that made up so much of the novels were revisited (if possibly a bit overshadowed by the magic at times) helped this installment feel a bit more like the novels I loved.

Again, to say that I liked the story would be true. The thing is that I only liked it as a story. As a continuation of the Harry Potter series, though, I’m sad to say that I didn’t care for it, despite its (and my) best efforts. This is the point where I start to agree with the other people who have done more thorough reviews.

Despite having a lot of practice reading scripts, having a Harry Potter story in play form is a strange reading experience. While I’ve been told that seeing it staged makes it feel more like the books and movies, I’m not confident that it’s an experience that will substitute for Rowling’s prose (which is to be expected, because while she contributed to the story and gave it her seal of approval, she did not write it, at least not alone). There were moments of the plot that, if memory serves, contradict with the canon of the novels. And I share the assessment of a lot of readers that it has a very “fanfiction” kind of feeling.

So what do we all mean by that? Based on my exploration of the reviews, the reason that Cursed Child feels like fanfiction comes down to five things, not including the fact that the final story was not (completely) written by the original writer:

  1. The time travel/alternate universe plot device, which is an extremely common fanfiction trope. On a related note, the use and apparent alteration of the device that made this time travel possible, as well as the “type” of time travel that took place—in this case, a change from stable time loops to “The Butterfly Effect.”
  2. The characters from the series are rendered two-dimensional versions of themselves, if not complete alterations, even in the “true” universe/timeline. In fanfiction, this serves to make the original characters fall into line with a non-canonical plot or to make way for original characters if it’s not the mark of an inexperienced writer.
  3. A lot of the plot points were either glossed over or extremely contrived in order to allow us to get to the “good parts,” where part of the fun of the original was seeing the worldbuilding, preparation, and rules in action. In fanfiction, this is more because the source material already explained things and the fic is focused on exploring the new storyline instead.
  4. It continued a story that already had a clean resolution, even if it wasn’t a resolution you cared for. So much fanfiction involves either creating an epilogue because the original series ended prematurely or the writer just wants to explore some more or altering the ending to fit with what they had in mind.
  5. Signs of pandering to the audience instead of moving the story forward. In the case of Cursed Child, this took the form of quoting lines from the books and movies verbatim as well as literally reliving pivotal moments in the series.

Is comparing a published manuscript to fanfiction a little harsh? Perhaps. But with these points in mind, I considered another series that I felt got the fanfiction treatment in the form of a film.

I’m a casual anime fan, and one of my favorite series to date is Puella Magi Madoka Magica. A few years ago, the series got a sequel movie in the form of Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie: Rebellion, and as soon as it came to Michigan theaters around the time of its U.S. debut I was there. Skeptical, because I thought the original series wrapped up so well, but there. Incidentally, this is another place where I feel that a spoiler warning is fair, especially because this series is only twelve episodes (or two compilation movies) and one sequel movie long: talking about literally any part of the plot will spoil something.

Broadly, the original series was Faust, but with magical girls and from the perspective of Margaret/Gretchen rather than Faust. It was a deconstruction of magical girl tropes, especially when it came to the power of love, friendship, and optimism. In a normal magical girl show, these would win the fight against evil; in this series, they all either outright killed or psychologically broke someone beyond repair (which in this case means transforming into an eldritch abomination that then goes on to kill people). It even used time travel tropes: one of the lead characters used her time-based magic to relive the same month countless times in an effort to keep the title character from becoming a magical girl and instead makes the situation even worse with each passing recursion. At the end of the series, bolstered by all of the karmic energy from these recursions, the title character uses her contract, wish, and inner power to change the magical girl system, becoming a veritable goddess in the process. In a bittersweet ending, although she gets what she wants (namely a sense of purpose and the ability to help people) and creates a better world, she is, due to the nature of the thing she’s become, separated from the girl who gave up literally everything to fight for her. It was a beautiful series with a beautiful ending that, while it might not have been the perfect outcome for the characters, was perfect for the series as a whole.

But, as tends to happen with a story that becomes popular, there needed to be a sequel for the money-making potential. So Rebellion was born. I was careful to avoid having the plot spoiled for me, but this is the movie that made me decide that reading spoilers before you go see something might be a prudent idea if you don’t want to be confused or angry.

The experience threw me for a loop. The first twenty minutes embodied the magical girl tropes that the series worked so hard to mercilessly rip apart and put back together. It took common elements from fanfiction, up to and including heavily implied romantic feelings where before there was merely subtext, and presented them as fact.  The traits that made the characters dark or tragic were played for humor, and some of their personalities were changed, making even the hardened cynics naïve everygirls. The goddess is an ordinary magical girl again and has no memory of being anything else. One of the most pivotal and terrifying (and fan-favorite) monsters from the main series appears as a magical girl and is inserted directly into the main cast with few, if any, questions asked. You’d think that the revelation that the world isn’t real would be a relief, but it wasn’t. The nature of what was really going on (that the time-traveler from the series turned into a monster because of her grief and sucked everyone else into her fake world without realizing it) was explained by the antagonist in an exposition dump of a monologue and resolved in an admittedly really awesome fight scene. The movie ends with the time-traveler, who has gone completely and even understandably nuts at this point, ripping the goddess out of the sky with her bare hands, stealing her powers to turn into what she calls a “demon”, and reshaping the world and wiping memories until she can finally protect her. None of this is given an explanation except “love,” which is presented in this movie as being totally different from the love that a lot of the characters, including her, sacrificed their souls to earn or protect.

The movie was very divisive among the fandom: you either loved it or you hated it. I tend to fall in line more with the latter, but concede that the film is gorgeously animated and that I loved seeing the characters again. So while Cursed Child on the whole seems to be less “love it or hate it” and more “I wanted to like it, but it just didn’t do it for me,” the phenomenon of sequels that feel like fanfic is totally real, and to date I’ve been burned twice. What can I say? When a series earns my love, I’m loyal to the end, even if there are some missteps along the way.

If a series is over and had a chance to come to a proper end, I would rather that it stay done than try to force itself to continue. As a creator, I wouldn’t want to stretch a story to its limits, and I would want to explore other ideas. As an audience member, I would rather have my fond memories than more of a series that runs a high risk of overstaying its welcome. Unfortunately, this can’t work in today’s media culture. So many movies that are out right now are cinematic universes, adaptations, sequels, and remakes: it’s easier and safer to bank on the built-in audiences that come with those stories, so why wouldn’t you produce more of the same thing? But in being safe and giving audiences what we think they want, we run the risk of creating something that isn’t as good in the name of keeping a good thing going.

Have you ever gotten that fanfic feeling from a sequel, Harry Potter or otherwise? Would you rather your favorite series completely end or stay alive, even if that means it can’t be the same?

Writing Dreams

The search for jobs or projects that pay money continued last week, but nothing came of that particular search. Well, nothing financially, but I did get kind of an interesting question in one of the interviews:

“So what’s your dream?”

It doesn’t sound like too far “out there” of a question, and the job I was applying for was in a creative place that would care about that kind of thing. The thing is that, especially in the context of job interviews, the question is always framed as something more along the lines of “Where do you see yourself in five years?” or “What are your goals?”: things that are concrete, measurable, and can feasibly reflect someone’s ambition and dedication. The idea of dreaming doesn’t even cross my mind when I prepare for job interviews because those are two separate parts of my mind, and jobs, in my experience, value results more than dreams. Nights and weekends are for dreams.

So, as much of a dreamer as I am, I didn’t actually have a satisfying answer to “So what’s your dream?” prepared. I fumbled through my normal self-deprecating but lighthearted line of being “one of those clichés that wants to write the next Great American Novel” and talked for what I’m sure was too long after that. My particular brand of humor works fairly well when I’m with friends, but it’s kind of hit-or-miss when it comes to strangers. This time around, it was a miss.

But the question did get me thinking about whatever my dreams might be a little more specifically. Again, in job interviews, the idea of my writing only comes up in that I do it and I would like to do it more, but not a whole lot beyond that. Even when I see other writers talk about dreams, it tends to be along the lines of “I want to make stories” and, to a lesser extent, “I want to make money writing.” Both are worthy goals, certainly, but I don’t think either of those sound bites reflects what I want out of my journey as a creator. At least, not completely.

So let me bare my soul for you guys once again and talk about five of the things that I mean when I say that writing—or, more accurately, being an author—is my dream.

 

  1. Making some money doing it (but not necessarily getting rich).

I’ve noticed a lot of writers online emphatically point out that “I’m writing for the right reasons,” where the “right reasons” are defined as the love of craft rather than the money. I absolutely understand where they’re coming from: I’m under no illusions that I’m going to live on, let alone get rich from, any writing-related income. That’s why I’m looking for a day job.

The thing is that if it really was just about the craft, I would be posting chapters of my novels on the blog and letting people read them for free. One, I’m not going to do that because I haven’t run anything through a professional editor, and two and more importantly, the income will, in my mind, add a sense of legitimacy to what I do. I’ve pondered my own need for validation before, and it’s a theme that’s going to come up a lot in this post as well.  I can write all I want, but I don’t know that I’ll feel like an author unless I’m compensated for my work. As much as I love what I do, I don’t think, for me, that surviving on love alone is realistic.

This isn’t the case with everyone. Some people write and offer their work for free, and I think that’s awesome if that’s what feels right for you. The thing is that, for now at least, I’m not one of them. Above all else, though, no author should feel defensive about their reason for writing: as long as you have quality work, love what you created, care about your audience, and aren’t just trying to cash in on a trend, whatever motivation you have is probably the right one for you.

 

  1. A traditional publishing deal and agent representation, if possible.

Remember how I mentioned my need for validation? That’s almost entirely what this is based on. That, and while such a thing is unlikely with the amount of competition that’s out there, I would die happy if I saw my name on a bookstore shelf, which isn’t something that happens with the vast majority of self-published authors.

The thing about this is that it’s monstrously difficult to get a traditional book deal, and even then that’s only the beginning of a career as a traditional author. I’m lucky to be a writer in a time when there are so many options for getting published available to me, and I’ve done a lot of research on all of them. And, again, you do whatever’s right for you, but for now, I see myself as an author that wants and even needs a more traditional arrangement. I’m not married to the idea, though, and if the time comes that I decide to give up on this pursuit I will consider self-publishing instead. That time, however, is not now: I’ve only submitted one manuscript so far, and the one I’m working on right now is shaping up to be significantly better and might have a better shot. I’ll keep you posted.

 

  1. Fans with a healthy level of interest in what I’m doing.

Fame isn’t something I want. I’m too introverted to deal with that. If I become a “famous” writer, I’d rather be the kind of famous where I have a few thousand devoted and positive fans that I could comfortably interact with. I wouldn’t know what to do with hundreds of thousands, let alone millions, of people. I don’t even remember what those numbers look like half the time. I’m sure I’d find something worthwhile to do with my platform in the unlikely event that I become a worldwide phenomenon, but as it stands now, that idea doesn’t appeal to me.

Once you get millions of fans, then you start getting the unhealthily-obsessed personalities. I’m fine if you share photos of my cat or know where I’ve eaten lunch recently, and in the event that I do tours or events I’d love to have people there. As soon as people start stalking me in the real world or tattoo my face over their face, I’m done.

But respectful and positive engagement with genuine fans? Sign me up. I’d welcome casual Twitter chats with people, fun posts on my Facebook page, or mail from fans. Having events following publication would be wonderful. Fan art would be enthusiastically embraced (unless it’s fanfiction—I’ll support your creativity, but will not read any fanfiction of my own work). Heck, I’d even think that someone getting a tattoo of or inspired by something I wrote was pretty awesome: someone on my personal Facebook profile got some Neil Gaiman ink a while back, and the idea of words I wrote resonating so strongly with someone that they put them on their body permanently was sort of mind-blowing.

Just not my face. Please don’t get a tattoo of my face. There are better faces out there, and that’s just weird.

 

  1. Cool moments with strangers.

This is sort of related to the previous item on the list (and the next item ties in as well, but more on that in a few paragraphs). Like I said, I don’t want to be famous enough that I get pounced on when I try to get groceries. I don’t think the bulk of authors have this problem to the same degree that actors and other celebrities do, but being immediately recognized by strangers on the street without any other context would be intensely uncomfortable for me.

That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t enjoy meeting people who liked what I did and maybe even wanted to meet me. I would love to have a book signing, speaking engagement, or similar event. Even chance run-ins would be great: if I see you reading a book of mine in public, I would absolutely feel the temptation to ask if you were enjoying it so far and tell you that it was neat to see you reading it. I probably wouldn’t because I’m shy and I know people don’t like to be interrupted when they read, even if it’s the author of the book doing the interrupting. I just want to bond with nice people over books and geek out about stuff I write. With any luck, those people will feel the same way.

 

  1. Saving or inspiring someone.

Art is a powerful thing. It brings beauty and clarity to a world that, especially lately, needs it desperately. It gets people talking and engaged with more art and with each other. It empowers people with voices and platforms that they might not otherwise have. Above all else, though, is that art can heal and inspire.

I haven’t had much personal experience with this, but I’ve heard many, many stories about people who credit a song, a book, a movie, or a show with pulling them from the darkest depths of depression. There are stories about people who try to be as brave and strong as their favorite character, especially one that they see reflects them in the sense of race, ethnicity, disability, or some other trait. It doesn’t even have to be something profound or abstract: I quietly thank Christopher Moore for his wit every time I pick up one of his books in gratitude for keeping me laughing in the face of medical tests and hospitals.

Art can also inspire more art. Fanfiction and fan art, like I mentioned before, are pieces created purely for the joy of creating and because the artists enjoyed a particular story. Any adaptation is an exercise in inspiration: when it comes to film and television, we’re talking about a massive team of people who are coming together to share a story that they all like with a new audience. A story or creator might also inspire a future author:  K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series was, without a doubt, the catalyst for my personal writing ambitions.

Everything I’ve mentioned before was nice. But this will probably feel like the biggest reward. If someone tells me that my words pulled them out of a dark place or that they want to tell stories because they love what I do, then I’ll be sure that I’ve done my job. After all, while money, fans, and seeing my name in print are all part of my ideal future as a writer, you can’t be an author without speaking to your audience, and it’ll be nice to know that they heard me and liked what I had to say.

 

I leave you with this: so what’s your dream?