Wrestling with words

I am still writing about wrestling, and if that bores you then I imagine you stopped reading like ten words ago. So all that’s left are the rest of you, so eager to read about men in tights slapping each other that you’d come here to my humble little bespoke word servery. But there are way more places you can read about wrestling – in these things called books.

Yes, I have read far more books on wrestling than one might think, and tonight I come to make some recommendations for you.

First, let’s talk about autobiographies of wrestlers. There are dozens and dozens and dozens of autobiographies of wrestlers. They’re pretty much all terrible – and, since they’re mostly all written by the same small cabal of ghostwriters, pretty much all terrible in the same way. They give stories of coming from humble beginnings and overcoming adversity, vent a few frustrations with WWE management – but not so many as to damage the wrestler’s livelihood – and rival wrestlers, share some hilarious anecdotes and say that the best is yet to come. Rinse, lather, repeat. The worst I ever read being Goldberg’s, because he ran out of stories halfway through and the rest of the book was about football.

(I will admit that The Rock’s book has some interesting stuff about growing up in a Hawaiian wrestling family, and I kinda want to read William Regal’s autobio because, come on, William Regal… but other than that, they’re usually terrible.)

That said, there are three autobios that are really worth checking out, all for different reasons.

218496First is Mick Foley’s Have a Nice Day, which maps pretty closely to the formula above but is told with a distinct voice – Foley turned down the offer of a ghost and wrote the whole thing himself. It turned out that Foley’s image – a bearded, husky everyman with a weird sense of humour and a sentimental streak – was pretty much exactly who he was, and that he also had a decent ability to write genuine, engaging prose that didn’t aim too high and thus hit its mark. Have a Nice Day is readable, fun, remarkably bloody – Foley was the Hardcore Legend, after all – and paints a picture of late 90s WWE that is sanitised but not to the point of flavourlessness. Foley wrote two further autobios, with predictable diminishing returns, and there’s absolutely no reason to ever try reading his novel, but Have a Nice Day is worth checking out.

quackenbush_bookAt around the same time Foley wrote his book, indie wrestler Mike Quackenbush wrote his own memoir, Headquarters, which is fascinating because it follows the same arc as all the other bios – until Quackenbush realises that he’s not going to make it to the same happy ending as all the big name wrestlers. Instead, his career has plateaued, his injuries are becoming more serious and his dreams are fading away. That sounds maudlin, but Headquarters is that rarest of things, a story of failure that doesn’t descend into self-pity; Quackenbush writes with good humour and nerdy flourish, and makes you feel sympathy for him rather than pity. Headquarters was self-pubbed and is difficult to find, but if you can dig it up it’s a really interesting read. And I’m keen to read the sequel, Secret Identity, and see how he turned his career around into founding and managing the popular, family- and nerd-friendly Chikara promotion.

51AAFAYA6BL

Finally, there’s an autobio that seems written out of spite rather than self-aggrandisement – Pure Dynamite, the story of Tom Billington, aka The Dynamite Kid. Billington was one of the most skilled and ferocious wrestlers to ever come out of Britain, hugely influential in the 70s and 80s and a top draw in Japan. He was also arrogant, belligerent, petty and just plain mean – and he doesn’t back away from admitting to any of that in his book. He doesn’t apologise for it, but he doesn’t try to absolve himself either; he’s content to show himself, warts and all, and he’s too old and bitter to care about what anyone thinks of him now. As prose, Pure Dynamite is pretty lacklustre; as a peek at the 70s/80s wrestling industry, and into the head of a star who burned bright and then out, it’s fascinating. And damned hard to find nowadays, but so it goes.

51nWdhCkSNL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Moving on from 15-year old autobiographies to newer material, I recently read and really enjoyed David Shoemaker’s The Squared Circle, which I know I mentioned a few posts ago. Shoemaker’s book is a modified collection of some of his ‘Dead Wrestler of the Week’ columns in Deadspin; he uses these stories to underline the events, changes and overaching themes of 20th-century wrestling. He’s a very skilled and clever writer – sometimes a little too clever, and too fond of quoting Barthes, but I like that kind of thing -and there’s genuine affection, scholarship and sadness in his stories of Owen Hart, Andre the Giant and Brian Pillman. I got pretty damn sad at the end when he talked about Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Speaking of Andre the Giant, there’s a graphic novel about his life that’s apparently pretty good; I have to get round to reading it sometime.)

And finally, I couldn’t discuss books about wrestling without covering the glory that is Big Apple Takedown, a novel in which the NSA recruit six WWE wrestlers to fight terrorism as undercover secret agents.

I shit you not.

December 2001: Vince McMahon steps out of a snowy night into a diner in upstate New York for a meeting with old friend Phil Thomson, now a highly placed government official. Thomson has a strange proposition: creating a new covert black-ops group using the Superstars of World Wrestling Entertainment.

675941March 2006: The Superstars have been handed their latest assignment — take down a commercial-grade methyl-amphetamine plant that is bankrolling terrorist activities in Europe. Their mission seems simple and straightforward, until a member of their team is taken prisoner. Now all that they’ve worked so hard for is in jeopardy, and one of their own might be killed…

Note how the cover has bosoms. Not sure why they don’t get mentioned in the blurb.

Obviously I am not saying you should read this; merely marvel that such a thing exists. If you’re curious enough to want to experience its deathless prose and poorly described action sequences, try listening to the I Don’t Even Own a Television podcast, which discusses it at hilarious length.

The best thing? This makes me happy that my YA wrestling-dream-warriors-versus-oni novel won’t be the weirdest thing written in the powerslam oeuvre.

More on that another time. Once John Cena takes out that meth plant.

 

A brief interlude

Quick update:

I went back to full-time work today after three months of freelancing and drinking at noon.

It’s going to require some adjustment.

And I’m tired now.

So in lieu of a proper post, please read Peter Ball’s fantastic essay on how the art of wrestling ‘booking’ (choreographing matches and deciding winners) provides incredibly relevant tools for writing. It’s way better than any of my recent blatherings.

And with that, I’m gonna have a sandwich, hug the dog, watch some grappling and hit the hay.

All the wide world round

(Pardon the downtime between posts; I’ve been working on a proofreading job with a tight deadline.)

So yeah, professional wrestling. We’ve established that I love like it a lot; now how best to express that love like? Watching wrestling on TV/the internet is the obvious answer, and I’ve been doing just that lately. Watching live shows is fun too, and there’s a lucha libre and burlesque show happening next week (oh, Melbourne) that I want to catch. Doing it myself… well, no, because I’m old and my knees dislocate if you look at them hard.

But there’s one other way to experience wrestling, in a way, and that’s by pretending to be a wrestler. Which brings us to the World Wide Wrestling roleplaying game.

download

I wrote a while back about the Powered by the Apocalypse family of RPGs, and World Wide Wrestling (or WWW) is one of the most interesting of that suite. I’ve just started running a short campaign, which is turning out to be very silly; it’s all aliens, werewolves and time travellers brawling in a cursed RSL. Gameplay writeups are on Obsidian Portal, with GMing notes on my gaming Tumblr, Save vs Facemelt, if that sort of thing interests you.

But this isn’t a gaming blog, it’s a writing blog. So if we’re primarily interested in action storytelling, what kind of thought fodder does WWW provide?

Understand your tools

As with other PtbA games, WWW provides the GM with a set of agendas to keep in mind throughout play, principles to refer to when developing scenes and moves to make that keep gameplay moving. These are the core tools for the GM, and the GM is meant to use only these tools (although WWW is more forgiving on this than some related games), because they’re designed to produce a satisfying game for all players.

I won’t go on about these things in detail (I did that last time), but WWW‘s suite of gameplay tools are very strong because they clearly and effectively emphasise the nature of professional wrestling stories, conflicts and shows. But even then, they’re unlikely to do that if you just pick moves at random, or apply principles without considering why they say what they do. You need to look at wrestling, look at the tool, consider the connection and understand why it’s valuable to ‘make the world seem constructed but frail’, or how sticking a microphone in a wrestler’s face opens opportunities to demonstrate character.

WWW doesn’t set a terribly high bar for understanding, and it explains what it can, but it makes it clear that you need to do a little conceptual work to get the most of your tools, just as you do in the larger world of writing and story creation.

Embrace your genre

I’ve seen a few wrestling RPGs over the years, and almost all of them focused heavily or exclusively on the kayfabe side of things – you played a wrestler, your opponents were other wrestlers, and the mechanics existed to explore matches in blow-by-blow detail. But that’s only part of the wrestling genre, and that focus excludes a lot of what gives in-ring action flavour and meaning.

WWW is broader than this; it embraces the metatextual tension between the reality and the fiction of wrestling, and uses both worlds as a setting for play. As I said to my players, it’s a game where you spend 50% of your time in the ring as The Rock, 40% of it backstage as The Rock, and 10% of it as Dwayne Johnson organising cross-promotion efforts between the wrestling promotion and the film studio for your new movie.

Most genres aren’t neat, simple things; they’re tracts of conceptual space with fuzzy borders and idiosyncratic corners. A lot of stories land in one part of that space and try to maintain control over the local narrative environment, and there’s nothing wrong with that (other than being a fairly iffy metaphor). But there’s also fun in embracing the other aspects, taking in the less straightforward ideas and exploring the tension between seemingly incompatible genre concepts, just as WWW does with reality vs kayfabe.

Remember your audience

Roleplaying is usually a private affair, experienced only by the half-dozen or so folks at the table. (Yeah, I know ‘actual play’ videos and podcasts have become a thing, but I’m not counting those because I don’t like ’em.) WWW asks players to bend that assumption and act as if their characters are trying to entertain a viewing audience – one that loves in-ring action, watches backstage interactions and enjoys the metatext of breaking kayfabe. Every part of play is aimed at that audience – especially matches, which operate by narrating interesting, engaging sequences rather than rolling dice to see if you manage to hit with your five-star frogsplash.

Writing is also an act aimed at an audience, whether a large body of readers or just the author his/herself. It’s a creative act that functions by communicating ideas to an audience, and the audience has to read the text to understand what’s going on. That seems obvious, but it’s easy to forget that readers still need a little exposition or explanation here and there to provide context, or that they won’t be able to fully understand a scene because they don’t have your knowledge of backstory.

WWW reminds me that I have to play to an audience when I write, even if I don’t necessarily know who that audience will be; it also reminds me that maybe I should try to work that out, and what that audience might want, before I finish the story.

Is it silly to hold a game about grappling and smacktalk up like it’s On Writing? Well, a bit. But you gather your rosebuds where you may, and I think the mark of a strong game – or film, or book, or interpretive dance sequence – is that it makes you think about your own work, even if just for a minute or two.

Anyway, World Wide Wrestling is pretty fun. I’m running the next session of my game in a few hours; let’s see if El Gastro can solve The Mystery of the Haunted RSL while also dropping some piledrivers onto Ned Kelly.

Also in this blog instalment, GENERAL LIFE UPDATE

I have a new day job! Next week I return to the world of educational publishing, which seems to be my eternal niche now, and start making textbooks again. I’m looking forward to it; three months of freelancing, dogwalking and not-doing-enough-novel-writing was plenty, thank you.

What will this do to my writing output and blogging schedule?

Well, it can hardly make it worse, can it?

Laying down the smack

So I want to talk about professional wrestling for a few weeks.

If that immediately turns you off, it’s okay to tap out and come back another time.

Wrestling. Yeah.

When I was in my early 30s I freakin’ loved pro wrestling. I caught the bug from a friend who’d been into it his whole life, and before long I too was invested in the world of spandex, piledrivers and shit-talkin’ promos. I was also dating a girl who loved it, so we’d watch WWE shows and PPVs, go to local indie shows, hang out with wrestlers and – this next part is very important – get very, very drunk in the process.

It was a pretty sweet time.

It’s a time that culminated for me, just before I moved from Brisbane to Melbourne, with Wrestlemania XX – a night when my two favourite wrestlers, Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit, overcame all the odds to win the two championship belts. The pay-per-view ended with them in the ring together, hugging and holding up their belts in triumph, confetti raining down around them. It’s a moment that gave me so much joy.

A couple of years later, both men were dead – Guerrero of a heart attack, Benoit killing himself after murdering his wife and son – and all the joy was gone out of wrestling for me. I was done with it.

…and yet.

About a year ago, wrestling started pinging my radar again. Lucha Underground is cool, people said. Chikara have intricate comicbook storytelling, they said. WWE’s NXT spinoff have brought back the joy, and wrestlers aren’t suddenly dying the way they used to, they said.

I resisted the urge to dive back into the ring for a long time. But then I started getting some ideas about a YA urban fantasy story centred around pro wrestling, and I had a poke around the internet for things to cement those ideas together, and I watched some matches… and the hooks were back in.

I marked out. Again.

So what did I love about pro wrestling, and what am I rediscovering now?

Athletic performance

No, it’s not ‘real’ fighting, but wrestling is absolutely real action, in the same way that you see action in martial arts and superhero movies, gymnastic performances and dope dance numbers. It’s practised and (to a limited extent) choreographed, but that doesn’t stop it from being exciting and entertaining (and more fun than real fighting, which is mostly just sad and horrible).

I’m particularly enthralled by the smaller, faster performers who jump off ropes, hit crazy spots and generally have a ‘flip-dee-doo’ style (phrasing stolen from the hosts of the excellent How2Wrestling podcast). I could watch cruiserweights, high flyers and luchadors go at it all day – especially if ever now and then you bring in a big muscle dude or a skilled technical wrestler in to change things up and show another dimension to the dance.

Yeah. It’s a dance. And dancing is fun as hell.

Telling stories with action

Almost all of my storytelling focus these days is on action – not just on writing engaging fight scenes, but using those fight scenes to demonstrate character, progress plot threads and develop the tone of the overall story. And the start of that focus was watching wrestling and looking at how they used fights to communicate plot and character.

A typical wrestling match isn’t just ‘two guys fight’, although that happens sometimes. What makes a match engaging is stakes and conflict – making the fight about something and giving the fighters a personal reason to win. Even the simplest feud sets two wrestlers against each other, usually over matters of ‘dignity, family or money’ (according to wrestling wisdom), and then that conflicts builds and becomes more personal through fights, confrontations and occasional promos. Plotlines may be simple or intricate, but they’re always immediate – and they find resolution through physical action. And all of that translates one-to-one into prose writing.

Wrestling is also a masterclass in demonstrating character through action – in what people do and how they do it. If a heel cuts promos about his courage, then runs away from danger in the ring, you immediately understand that he’s both a coward and a liar. If a face is outnumbered and overwhelmed by enemies, but refuses the offer of help in the ring, preferring to fight – and maybe lose – on his own terms, then the audience knows more about his character than any interview or vignette could tell them. Character is what you do – that’s one core principle of wrestling. The other is even simpler – everything that matters happens in the ring. Again, this plugs directly into writing engaging action.

Also, sometimes an alien superhero fights a dragon.

Metatextuality

OMG WHAT A WANKER

Look, I know that’s a ridiculous thing to say, but it’s true – the very first thing that attracted me to wrestling was the strange tension between performer and character, and the plotlines that mixed real-world and fictional (‘kayfabe’) realities. Wrestling is a world where there is an actor called Dwayne Johnson, and there is an athlete called The Rock, and they are two different men except on those occasions when they are the same dude and sometimes they are both and neither at the same time and everyone agrees to accept this and pretend it isn’t weird. AND I LOVE THAT.

Wresting is a world where the fictional and the real grind together, informing and shaping each other and generating story from that grind, and from Day One I found that completely fascinating. And I’m not alone; Roland Barthes wrote about the metatextuality and symbolic density of wrestling – yes Roland Barthes the father of semiotics he loved wrestling and I HAVE (most of) AN ENGLISH DEGREE SO GET STUFFED – back in the 1950s and he was FRENCH so you know it was very clever.

That’s why I love wrestling. Simple-but-effective storytelling; complex-yet-straightforward commercial metatextuality; fit people in short shorts doing crazy stunts.

What’s not to love?

So please, join me over the next few weeks as I explore the new world of WRESTLE 2016 and try to make storytelling fodder from it.

Come on, it’ll be fun. There’ll be suplexes.

Post-stocktake audit

Hey folks!

So last update was a bit downbeat, even if I tried to look on the positive at the end. (I’m a regular Pollyanna like that.)

Things haven’t substantially changed since then, but my mood is better and I’m even more inclined to accentuate the positive. So on that note, and because I can’t think of anything too substantial to talk about this week, let’s talk about some Things What Are Pretty Good.

Freelance work

I’m getting a fair bit of it! And people have actually started paying their invoices this week, which is awfully nice.

I also worked last Saturday at the election, spending the day issuing declaration ballots at a local polling centre. That was kind of fun and interesting for a large part of the day – you get to chat to people and get a feel for their character when you’re asking them where they live and finding their voting papers. Once the polls closed and we had to spend almost seven freakin’ hours reconciling paperwork, counting votes and sorting the gigantic Senate ballots into messy piles (above the line, below the line, informal, drawings of penises and angry screeds)… that part was less fun. And very tiring, which is why I didn’t post anything last weekend.

I have stories I could share about that experience, but I think I’m legally prohibited from doing so publicly. If you see me in person, buy me a beer and I’ll explain to you how awful democracy is, and why it took a week to work out a government.

Writing work

Still not a huge amount of progress on this lately, since overlapping freelance gigs have taken up a lot of my headspace, and I gotta make that cheddar somehow. Still, I’ve been working on tweaking the dialogue in Raven’s Blood to make it a little less archaic for some of the characters. I was trying to invoke a bit of Elizabethan manner and idiosyncrasy in the characters’ speech patterns (especially swearing), but on reflection it’s more important to keep dialogue accessible and immediate, at least for the viewpoint characters. (Plus it lets me show immediate contrasts between them and more mannered, formal characters.)

Once I do the dialogue revision, the next thing is to get this book in the hands of a few agents and go the hard sell on the series. I’ve been researching appropriate agents for this kind of work, and I’m pulling together a query letter and book/series pitches into a package. Soon I’ll be releasing it into the wild – or at least emailing the names in my spreadsheet.

Yeah, I got a spreadsheet. That’s how you know I’m serious.

Books

I’m still trying to improve my reading practice and schedule reading time; some days I’m better at it than others.

Right now I’m most of the way through The Squared Circle, David Shoemaker’s history of professional wrestling in the 20th century. Specifically, looking at that history through stories of dead wrestlers. That sounds grim, and it is terribly sad in places, but Shoemaker’s writing is both intelligent and compassionate; he uses the stories of the dead to show how they shaped (and still shape) the land of the living.

There are also piledrivers.

I’ve also been reading Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook, a really fascinating writing guide that focuses more on inspiring and shaping imagination than it does on rules of grammar, plot construction or time management. (Although those are in there too.) Beautifully illustrated, engaging written and at times appallingly irritating, I don’t agree with everything in it but I want to keep reading it. Sadly it’s back at the library now, but I’m going to overcome my cheapskate impulses once I get another freelance cheque and buy it (along with Vandermeer’s more prosaic Booklife, which is about effective practice) for some sustained deep reading.

Music

I just keep listening to Grimes’ Art Angels over and over again.

You know how it is.

Games

I’m about to start running a short game of the World Wide Wrestling RPG, as I continue falling back into the world of pro wrestling I left a decade ago. However, this game is set in a haunted RSL, with wrestlers that include a werewolf, a glitter-addicted alien and a puppy summoner, so I think it will be less tragic than mid-00s WWE.

I’ve also been playing a bit of Pillars of Eternity, a CRPG that I’ve been wanting to play for a while and that was finally on sale. It’s a modern game in its own setting that reuses the style (and most of the systems) of old D&D CRPGs like Baldur’s Gate. It’s an interesting one, and there’s a lot to like in its plotting and development; it’s a great lesson in how to draw multiple stories, characters and situations out of a tight set of consistent themes and motifs. It’s also a great lesson in how execution can undercut mood, and how catering to the whims of 70 000 Kickstarter patrons can damage both story and gameplay.

Hmm. Might write more about it when I finish. Probably in a few months.

MY POKEMANS LET ME SHOW YOU THEM

IMG_1798

Um, I mean… the local wildlife is kinda weird in this suburb.

So anyhoo, that’s what I’m up to.

Check back soon and see whether I have anything interesting to say.

It’s gotta happen eventually.

Stocktake

2016.

Christ.

It’s been a bit horrible so far, hasn’t it?

Bowie died; Prince died; a whole lot of innocent people died in Brussels, Orlando, Manus, the Middle East and everywhere else that innocent people try to live in peace. The UK voted to smash European unity, along with the careers, relationships and lives of millions of people around the world. Next week’s election doesn’t promise much joy no matter who wins, and there’s still a possibility that Trump will become US president.

Some days it seems like the world keeps getting crueler, darker and colder (while also heating up), and there’s so little any of us can do about it.

…not a very jolly way to start a blog post, but it’s been on my mind a lot.

As for my 2016, it’s not anything comparable to all of that. My problems are the smallest potatoes you can imagine compared to the real, society-shaking and life-threatening issues other people face.

But with the mid-point of 2016 just days away, I still have to say that this year hasn’t been so great.

You may remember that I quit my day job a couple of months ago, which was working as a publisher in the education industry. That was the culmination of about a year of just not enjoying my work, for reasons I’m not going to get into, and of getting more stressed and unhappy with things as time went on. I reached a point where the only way to fix the problem was to cut it open like the Gordian Knot and walk away. And I stand by that.

But the ramifications of that situation – and that solution – are still affecting me.

I ended last year by saying that I wanted – that I needed – to become more professional in my writing practice, to treat writing as a job rather than a hobby.

So far, I have failed in that.

Instead, I’ve treated writing as a delicate flower of creativity that can only blossom when conditions are 100% perfect. Work getting me down? Too stressed to write! Work non-existent? Too stressed (and lunchtime-drunk) to write! Work coming in from freelance sources? Too busy to write!

End result? Nothing gets done. Nothing gets written, nothing gets finished; no opportunities are opened up and followed. (Well, maybe not no opportunities, but my follow through is still lacking.) I keep tinkering around the edges of Raven’s Blood, I’ve made minimal progress on Raven’s Bones and I’ve yet to think seriously about writing a third and final Obituarist novella.

It’s like there’s this gap between where I am and where I need to be, and even though I know the conditions on both sides of the gap, what would bridge the gap and what needs to be done to build that bridge… I just can’t build it. I can’t summon up the focus, motivation and energy to do what I know needs to be done to get me to where I want to go. And I can’t work out why, and it’s frustrating the hell out of me.

Self-sabotage is the worst kind of sabotage.

And yet, I’m honestly not here just to whinge; I think a lot of things are looking positive.

(I have to believe that; I’m not wired to accept my own negativity. It makes life complex. But mostly cheerful.)

Yes, I have a problem; yes, I’m standing on one side of a broken bridge. But the bridge can be fixed, the problem solved; the fact that I have been failing doesn’t mean that I have to keep failing. I’m the only thing in the way of my own professionalism, after all, and I can change. I’ve been trying a lot of time/effort management tools and techniques, from journalling to scheduling to yelling at myself for being crap. None of them have worked as well as I wanted them to yet, but they may still pay off – or I might find something new that does the trick, so long as I keep looking. Freelance work is going to keep taking up writing time/energy as long as we have rent to pay, but I can work on mitigating the loss, and planning effectively for when I go back to full-time work.

The bridge can be repaired. A new one can be built. Fuck it, I can just learn to jump real far.

As for missed opportunities… I spent a lot of time over the last few months in discussion with a publisher about the Ghost Raven series. While they eventually decided not to proceed with it, the process of pitching, discussing, re-visioning and revising the project was incredibly useful and worthwhile for me. It made me see ways I can improve the book(s), helped me get a better grip on the YA market and genre, and opened up new publishing contacts that might be interested in seeing future ideas and pitches from me.

It also helped me realise that approaching individual publishers myself isn’t the best use of my time or efforts, which need to feed back into the actual writing. So I’m switching focus towards finding an agent who can do that for me, and do it better; I’ve spoken to a few author-peeps about how they did that, and I’m working on a query package and a list of appropriate people to contact.

I’ve fiddle-faffed around for six months. I admit that. But I still have six months left.

To recap, then:

First half of the year: I didn’t get much done.

Second half of the year: Same goals, different methods. They may not work either. But I’m still going to give ’em a try. If only to stop 2016 from sinking its venomous fangs all the way into my spine.

Yes, I will wear this if I have to.

I will also try writing more, and better.

We’ll see which tactic works best.

Activate all agents

Hi folks,

Sorry for taking a few weeks between drinks – things got away from me, and then last week’s awfulness with the Orlando shootings made me feel that no-one needed to hear me blather about unimportant things for a while.

But I’m back on board, I’ve got some space between freelance tasks, and it’s time to talk more about the fascinating topic of character agency.

63bda13db350d2ebcb7008fdeba398af0dfaa75780e176b1f8319ed9240dca07

The question of how to emphasise agency – how to write specifically for agency – is on my mind a lot right now as I re-examine the Raven’s Blood MS and continue working (more slowly than I would like) on Raven’s Bones. Both these books focus on a single protagonist, Kember Arrowsmith, and are meant to be driven by her actions. But there are also times when Kember isn’t the most powerful or active character in a scene or chapter, and I’ve been thinking about how to deal with that – how to make sure she still has agency and that her decisions matter even when her actions aren’t pivotal.

Here’s what I’ve come up with (and some RB examples), framed as a response to some of the agency-diminishing traps I suggested last time.

Explore consequences

Whenever the character acts, show the consequences of that action. If the reader feels that a decision or action changed the status quo of the story, or had an impact on the plot, then they immediately feel that the character matters. Not every action has to change everything forever – minor consequences can still be engaging, especially if they’re emotional consequences for characters – but some actions should really shake things up.

In Blood, pretty much everything Kember does has a direct effect on the situation – sometimes making things better, sometimes worse, but almost never inconsequential. She starts fights, provokes gods, angers allies and hurts enemies (and friends); she also does less impactful stuff, but I gloss over a lot of that to keep the focus where it matters. In Bones, I’m trying to keep that same approach, but I have to adjust the set of appropriate consequences to fit (and change) the new status quo in that book.

Let plot emerge from character decisions

Writers throw around terms like plot-driven or character-driven quickly and easily, but everyone has a different idea of what they mean and how they differ. I’m a bit leary of such labels, but I think it’s fair to say that some stories revolve around things happening to characters, and others around characters causing things to happen. The latter are the stories that emphasise agency – where actions start chains of consequences, and the story is following one or more chains to the branching end.

The way I tried to make this happen in Blood is simple – I didn’t plot that far ahead. I had a beginning, a vague idea of an ending, and as I wrote each scene, I tried to make the next one emerge fairly organically from the characters’ actions. Sometimes that worked, something it didn’t, and sometimes I had to revise both my ending and how I could get there. With Bones I’m working from an outline, so the plot is already more pinned down than last time; I still don’t know if that’s going to work for me.

maxresdefault

Give characters the information they need

The reasons mysteries are fun isn’t because the detective doesn’t know who did it – it’s because they find out who did it and then use that information. Similarly, decisions aren’t interesting if they’re made from ignorance; they’re interesting when characters know something about the possible outcomes and then make a choice. If your characters don’t know what’s going on, make the story about finding out, at least for a while, then about following through on that information.

There are a couple of mysteries in Blood, but Kember solves the biggest one by the end of the first act. That was very deliberate – I wanted the story to revolve around her dealing with that knowledge, rather than about her pursuing it. Bones also has some mysteries, but solving those will take longer; what I need to work on is making sure the search for answers is engaging and leads to interesting consequences, rather than just jumping through hoops.

Reveal and modify setting through character action

In quantum physics, the observer effect means that observing a system also acts upon a system – that is, watching something changes it. (Look at me, I’m dumbing down complex philosophical concepts for the masses!) I think good storytelling should do the same thing – that when a character observes the setting, they should change the setting. Again, that can be minor or major, but every time a character interacts with the setting they should leave a mark – revealing it to the reader, then reshaping it through their actions so that it’s different than it was just a page before.

Observer-Effect
Like this, but less crazy

This is probably the technique I’ve been best at with the Ghost Raven project so far. Blood is full of scenes where Kember explores elements of Crosswater (my fantasy city), then causes them to explode/catch fire/be the scene of a pitched battle through her actions and decisions. I plan to do the same with Bones, but maybe alter the balance a bit; spend some time showing how she’s affected the greater setting, with less focus on individual elements.

That’s all I have in my head tonight. Last time I also wrote about preferencing tone over agency, and I think that’s something that can be addressed, but I can’t quite work out the how/why of it yet. Maybe later.

…hmm. This post was a bit dull, wasn’t it? It’s good for me to work out my ideas, but I don’t know if that’s useful for anyone else.

Maybe next post will be more interesting, as we move from the topic of character agency to discussing why 2016 has been rubbish. So rubbish for so many of us.

Why agency gets forgotten

Last week I talked about character agency – that is, characters actively making decisions that propel the narrative – with an example of a story that does that well and a couple that don’t, one of them my own gaming efforts.

But how do stories like those latter ones happen? It’s not like authors/scriptwriters/GMs think ‘man, I’m all fired up to create a story in which the protagonists don’t get to make any meaningful choices that affect the narrative’!

Well, maybe Zack Snyder. I’d believe anything of that guy.

Thinking it over this week, I came up with a few reasons why agency might get overlooked or forgotten in a story – hell, they’re reasons why I’ve done that overlooking in the past. (And things I need to look out for while writing Raven’s Bones at the moment.) Let me know if any of these sound familiar, as a writer, reader or viewer.

Not enough information

‘Agency’ is more than just acting, it’s about making choices between options. Run away or fight back. Lady or Tiger. Shit or get off the pot. And often, just like in the real world, those decisions aren’t based on a full understanding of all possibilities, because time is short and data is missing and important people are currently on fire.

All of that is fine. But there’s an information threshold that decisions have to meet in order to be genuine, to be more than just surrendering to random chance. Come in below that point, and the character may as well just flip a coin. This is kind of realistic – it happens to us regular folks all the time – but it’s frustrating and disengaging in real life, and it’s more so in fiction.

We can’t get excited by reading about someone blindfolded in a maze and stumbling randomly about. we get excited when the character peeks through the blindfold, or works out a way to navigate, or changes the rules of the game. We want characters to make a real decision, and that means that character knowing (or at least suspecting) what will happen when they do it.

Decisions that don’t matter

If decisions drive stories, it’s because the consequences of those decisions determine the outcomes of stories. A meaningful decision disrupts the flow of events, for good or ill, and the story has to take that change on board. And not just the right decisions – bad decisions are as important to character agency as good ones, maybe more so. A story where the reader worries that the characters have decided to do the wrong thing is one where the reader is invested in what’s happening, and that’s a winner.

But it’s too damn easy to write a story that spends lots of time exploring or demonstrating a character but not let them really do anything to change outcomes. The character gets lots of spotlight time and they do a bunch of things, but those actions don’t have consequences that alter the way things are moving – it’s choices about what clothes to wear or which gun to shoot, rather than where to wear those clothes or who to shoot at.

Sometimes this happens in stories where the author loves the character too much to ever let them risk bad outcomes, so they go for no outcome instead. Sometimes it’s about mistaking small decisions for ‘relateable’ decisions, an effort to keep the character grounded but instead just rooting them in place. It also happens A HELL OF A LOT in video games, where player decisions tend to be cosmetic or incidental, while the meaningful decisions get made by the ‘character’ (ie the game designers) during cut scenes.

Too much plot

And why are those decisions taken out of player hands in games? Because the game has a plot in which the next event has to happen, and then the event after that, and that, and that. (Not all video games, obviously, but a lot of them.) You can’t screw up that workshopped plot, and waste all those expensive-to-produce graphics, by letting the player decide not to follow the trail all the way to the end.

It’s easy to rag on games (I just did it!), but any narrative can get overwhelmed by plot, and by the desire to explore and go through with the great set of events, twists and payoffs that you’ve come up with. Plot’s important, and you need to move from A to B to C to Q, and the audience wants that. But if plot happens to characters, rather than something that they make happen, they’re more like a witness or catalyst rather than an active participant. Characters become passive or helpless, following the plot rather than creating it – which makes them seem ineffectual, even if the text says they’re not, and makes it hard for the audience to engage with or identify with them.

Too much setting

The parallel to spending all your time pushing the plot onto the characters is when you spend all your time showcasing the setting of your story or world. And again, I get it. You have all this information you want to share! You have a detailed setting bible and a timeline of the world! You’ve got to show this to the reader somehow, and it’s much better to let the character explore and appreciate the world around them than to just dump a bunch of exposition in the readers’ laps!

All of this is true, and yeah, showcasing the setting is important, especially in stories that take place in totally fictional worlds. It helps make the setting seem real, and many readers want that experience of exploration and glimpsing wonders. But once that setting is displayed, the character needs to do something in or with it, or else what was the point? If the story would have taken the same course whether the protagonist was exploring the Purple Centipede Swamps or exploring a plain white room, then neither the setting or the character’s engagement with it matters.

Give your setting the space it needs – and then let the character take hold of it and effect it. That jolts way more engagement from 99% of readers than ten pages of loving descriptions of giant arthropod mating rituals.

(And if you’re in that 1% – hey, you be you.)

Too much tone

This one’s a bit tricky to unpack, but… horror is a genre that’s all about helplessness, right? So it makes sense that characters are helpless and can’t change things. War stories are all about being part of something bigger than you, so emphasising a character’s lack of impact reinforces the theme. And an exciting chase story isn’t going to work if the characters are always stopping and deliberating on what to do – it’d totally ruin the pacing and feel!

All of these things are true, and this might be the biggest thing that gets between storytellers and character agency. It’s why I stumbled so badly with my DRYH game – it’s a game about horror, weirdness and hallucinatory paranoia, and having characters in control of situations would diminish that.

But there’s a big excluded middle between ‘powerless to effect things’ and ‘tone-destroying competence’, and too many writers (myself included) push things to the wrong end in trying to maintain the feel we want for stories. Instead, we should be looking at ways in characters can be active within the tonal confines of the story – how to present them with decisions that reinforce the desired themes and style, rather than damage them.

How to do that?

Well, I’ve got some ideas, but I’m already 1200 words into this diatribe, so I’ll carry this over for one more week.

Stay excited. And leave comments if you have any thoughts.

Please. Go on.

MAKE A POWERFUL DECISION

YES EVEN IF IT’S BAD

Not-so-secret agency

In addition to slowly writing novels and taking on swathes of freelance work, I like running roleplaying games, which I think everyone who reads this blog knows by now.

Well, this week I ran a really shaky gaming session, one that wasn’t much fun for either the players or myself. The game was a weird horror RPG called Don’t Rest Your Head, and it wasn’t to blame – it’s a very neat game that you should totally check out. But the session I read was kind of a failure, and after several days of introspection and self-flagellation, I think I’ve worked out why- it’s all about character agency.

(If you’re curious about the game, by the way, you can read summaries of this and other games on my Obsidian Portal page, and my navel-gazing thoughts about GMing on my gaming Tumblr, Save vs Facemelt. Go on, live a little. Leave a comment, even. It’s so lonely over there.)

dryh

‘Agency’ is one of those terms that writers bandy about, and better bloggers than myself have worked on defining it. But from my point of view, it’s about whether characters – more importantly, protagonists – make meaningful decisions that impact the narrative. That is, do the characters’ decisions (and decision-making processes) matter?

When characters have agency, their decisions drive the story – but more importantly, they make those decisions deliberately, with some degree of understanding of possible consequences and a willingness to accept those consequences if necessary. When characters don’t have agency, they’re propelled through the plot by external events or circumstances – and when they do make decisions, those decisions aren’t any more meaningful than random chance.

Let me put it this way: If a character has to choose between two doors, one with a lady and one with a tiger, with absolutely no information to draw upon about which is better, that’s not agency; that’s no different to a coin toss. If the character has spent time uncovering the secret of the doors, or practised the mysterious arts of tiger-taming, or shoots the door controller and leaves the TV studio, then that character has agency; that character has a chance to drive the plot, rather than being driven around by it.

Actually, you know what? I have better examples, courtesy of the two big-budget, ensemble-cast superhero movies I saw this month, Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse, because they portray both ends of the agency spectrum.

(No specific plot spoilers here, I promise – but if you haven’t seen these movies yet, and want to, you might want to stop here and come back next week.)

_1448432823

Civil War is fundamentally a movie about character choices, and the consequences of those choices. The two main protagonists (Captain America and Iron Man, because Cap doesn’t get to headine his own movie for some reason) are faced with situations where they have to decide what they think is right and appropriate – and after thought, discussion and a modicum of punching, they make their choices and they live with the consequences, where ‘consequences’ = ‘pretty much the entire movie’. And they’re not alone in this; almost all of the other eleventy-dozen heroes in the movie pick a side, and we get to see why they make the decision that they do. (Not so much with Ant-Man, but Bobby Newport just does what he’s told.) It’s a film with a very strong foundation in character agency.

xmenapocalypse

Apocalypse, on the other hand, is a film where the plot pushes on characters until they go where the plot needs them to be and do what the plot needs them to do. Many of them are just stuck in place, waiting to be acted upon, or make decisions about action in which there are no real choices or alternatives – it’s all ‘I have to do this or we’ll all get killed’ or ‘sure, I’ll join Team Evil and then not have any further dialogue’. Only a very small number of characters get any real moments of agency, points where the audience gets to see them actively make a decision or change their arc – and those are primarily the characters who headlined the previous films (Magneto and Mystique), or Big Bad Guy Apocalypse. It’s a film with very thin levels of character agency; it has lots of interesting characters that act out of dramatic necessity rather than something that feels real.

Now, I’m not trying to say that one of these films is good and one is bad.

Okay, I am saying that X-Men: Apocalypse isn’t very good, but let’s move past that.

What I’m saying is that agency is complicated, and that a narrative with lots of colour, movement, story, characters and skin-tight body stockings can still be lacking in agency – and that that can make a big difference on two narratives that, on the surface, seems pretty similar in genre/tone/mood/explosion level. And that that difference can be enough to make a story work or fall apart.

I have more thoughts on this. Many, many more thoughts.

So let’s leave it there and come back next week.

Confessions of a lapsed bibliophile

At some point in the last few years, I forgot how to read.

Let me rephrase that. I forgot how to read books. (I still vaguely remember how words work.)

When I was younger, books were everything in my life, the only thing that mattered. In my twenties I still read voraciously, picking up a book whenever I had downtime between work and a social life. In my thirties I read a lot, but there were other things on my plate now – jobs that demanded more attention, relationships that required additional effort, this internet thing that was full of words that also needed reading, and that was the same as reading books, except that it wasn’t. The ties began to weaken.

59614224

In my forties I spent more time working and writing, less and less time reading – but there was still a good hour or more I could devote to books every day, usually during the morning bus ride to work. Until the job changed, the commute changed, my mental energy levels changed. Reading became inconvenient, taxing, awkward to fit into my schedule. There were podcasts and mobile games and social media micro-interactions as alternatives, little things I could squirt into my day to fill up the spaces like packing foam, and they were a lot easier to manage than complicated things like books that demanded concentration and remembering plots and using the part of my brain that appreciated good prose.

And now here I am, with lots of free time, and I’ve still barely glanced at any of the unread books on my shelves, desk and Kindle. Instead I write, I do housework, I walk the dog… and I potter about. I check the same websites every hour or so, I flick through RPG sourcebooks, I poke half-heartedly at a dozen things that don’t matter and then I do it all again. Sitting down with a book never makes it onto the agenda.

(A quick Google search reveals that I’m not alone; lots of people have written about losing the reading habit. It seems like a very common modern problem. Yet that comes as very little comfort.)

Frankly, I’m tired of being a reader that doesn’t read. And I’m horrified by the thought of being a writer that doesn’t read.

I want this to change.

So how to fix this, other than just strapping a Kindle to my face like some kind of homemade Oculus Rift?

As I said last week, I’ve been focusing on structuring my time more effectively – blocking out hours that are just for writing, or watering the yard, or getting drunk while watching Eurovision (oh my god we almost won how crazy and glorious is that?). That’s still a work in progress; it’s harder than I would like to keep to that schedule, or to stay focused on what I’m supposed to do in that block of time. (I need to schedule things in mid-sized blocks of 90 minutes each, rather than half-hour snippets or three hour icebergs of effort.) But it’s helping, and it’s a habit-shaping engine I want to keep using.

So I’m literally putting ‘read a book’ into my daily schedule, with start and end times – again, aiming for 90-minute intervals where that’s all I do. (Ninety minutes is apparently how long a typical sleep cycle goes for, which probably means it’s a good ultradian rhythm for other tasks because, um, because magic.) Tomorrow, for instance, I’ve put down a block in the morning, to do straight after watering the yard, but before I head off to a lunch date. (Not sure what I’m going to read just yet, but I have plenty of options.) Once I get back, the afternoon is scheduled for writing, but I’ll see if I can include another reading block in the evening. It’ll take some fine-tuning, but I’ll fiddle with it, as well as shoring up some habit-enforcing infrastructure (a stack of books within reach of my work desk, going out to read while leaving my tablet full of game distractions at home, and so on).

Will this make reading a chore, another task I have to tick off my to-do list rather than something I actually enjoy? Maybe, but I doubt it. There are plenty of things I enjoy that I have to schedule and organise – I’m a roleplayer, after all, and 90% of my hobby is sending scheduling emails – and that just means that they actually happen, rather than something I just wish would happen by magic.

At age 45, I’m slowly, finally realising that magic is in short supply – even the magic of reading. And it tend to occur only after you do all the work of setting up the trick yourself.

This is some Wizard of Oz shit right here, lemme tell you.

Plus, here’s a bonus – it’s easier to read with a dog in your lap than to write with one. Especially a dog that likes to plant his face on the keyboard.

IMG_1754

I’ll let you know how it works out.

And whether Ernie gets addicted to the smell of paper.