Friday, August 31, 2012

The D and D School for Aspiring Authors

An elderly, one-armed dwarf asks, “Will you help hunt down the blood-thirsty allosaurus that took my arm?”
            “Yes,” I say. 
Wouldn’t you?

As a parent there are those moments when you wonder if you should feel proud that your child is following in your footsteps or horrified that you’ve created a monster. My recent moment like this occurred last weekend, when my son asked, “Dad, can you help me create a dungeon adventure?”
Yeah, you heard right, a dungeon, as in Dungeons & Dragons®.
As a kid in my household it is easy to find out about D&D, especially if you wander into my den (aka, The Fortress of Solitude). Even though I haven’t done much role-playing in years all the DM and players guides, the multi-colored/multi-sided dice and scads of metal figures (enough to give you lead poisoning if you hang out long enough, according to some of my friends) are all there waiting, tempting.
I agreed to help my son come up with his adventure, as long as I could do other things while he worked. As he rolled dice, drew maps and selected monsters I was reminded how once upon a time D&D was one of the first places that I (a teen who liked to write) got to experiment with elements of story and character to entertain others and myself.
In some ways I see role-playing games as a kind of school for aspiring writers.
·      If you are a dungeon-master, it’s up to the DM to create a world—the setting and backstory
·      If you are a player running a character, you have to decide on their strengths, weaknesses, what they look like, wear and carry—characterization
·      The characters end up being heroes (or villains) who hopefully have goals and obstacles to overcome—motivation and conflict
·      To be satisfying a gaming adventure, like any other story, needs to have a “triggering event” (in this case a dwarf offering adventure), a beginning, middle, ending and a “climax” (the point in the adventure when the dinosaur was found and tried to eat our group). In other words, structure.
·      Hopefully there are also some twists and surprises along the way, as well as character growth. One surprise in our adventure: We learned the person hiring our group was my dwarf-cleric’s grandfather.
So when my son’s adventure was ready, we talked his mom into playing too, and the three of us spent an afternoon exploring a broad countryside killing monsters and dinosaurs—which I’m sure for any 9-year old is really the appeal of the game.
            Overall, my son did great running the adventure. His story was fast moving and entertaining and he didn’t get flustered by difficult players (that would be me). As we played there were a few moments I had to remind my son that he, as the game master, didn’t get to decide what my characters did—just like in a good story where the author shouldn’t be too heavy-handed making the characters do things that don’t fit the character. The DM also had to remind me to stop on a few occasions, where I tried to fit things into his world that didn’t belong. When cooking velociraptor flambĂ© over an open fire I was corrected that I had only a clay pot—not the aluminum pan my fighter/chef wanted to pull from his backpack.
            It was fun for me to see my son using his great imagination, reading, using mathematic tables, rolling dice to add things up, when the distractions of TV, the Internet and video games are all easier and so readily available. Does he want to be a writer when he grows up? That remains to be seen. But, for the time being he is having fun playing with the tools of writing whether he knows it or not.
            My proudest moment: When our group went to find the one armed dwarf who had hired us to get our reward, we found our gold, but the one armed man was missing—leaving only a few clues to where we’d find him next—a cliffhanger my son had included, and a lead-in to a future adventure. (What we authors would call the sequel, or maybe book 2 in a trilogy, maybe.)
            So did we kill the marauding allosaurus? Yes, but we were much worse for the wear after the fight, all hanging on the verge of death.
A word of advice: When using a dwarf covered in rotten meat as bait to lure a dinosaur into your trap, first verify how fast an allosaurus can run.

Wishing you adventures in dungeons deep,


Side note: In the book Thirty Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D Retrospective) there are stories by some interesting people about how role playing influenced them: Stephen Colbert, Vin Diesel, and Wil Wheaton. One interview in it I really enjoyed was that of author, Laurel K. Hamilton.  In this book she talks about her writing role-playing adventures and how it influenced her skills as a writer. She says:
“It was interesting to watch people go through something I had created. It showed flaws I hadn’t seen; it showed pitfalls and things that worked. That was very interesting, to allow live people to go through part of my made-up world.
It was also very enlightening…. So having real people going through an imaginary world probably did have an influence on me and made me more open to listening to my imaginary characters as well.”

34 things I thought while watching The Expendables 2

I took a vacation this week. One of the things I did was see the movie, The Expendables 2. Here is my 34-point review. #spoiler alert#
  1.  Oooooo. Explosions. 
  2. Wait? Did the heroes just flip their jeep? 
  3. Are they all crushed? 
  4. Nope. Apparently not. 
  5. If gratuitous violence has a name, it’s The Expendables 2 
  6. Oh Jesus. The blood! The blood! 
  7. The Expendables must have a teleporter. Sylvester Stallone was just in the jungle. Blink. Now he’s piloting the plane. 
  8. Hey, I think that’s Frank Stallone’s new song. OK. It’s over. 
  9. Why don’t they just prop open the safe door? They’re going to crush the new girl. 
  10. The new guy on the team might as well be wearing a red ensign’s shirt. 
  11. There is something very wrong with Jean-Claude Van Damme’s eyes. 
  12. That was their plan? What was plan B? 
  13. They’re going to get the new guy killed. 
  14. The new guy’s dead. Who saw that coming?
  15. The thing in the safe was a blueprint? 
  16. Chuck Norris should really stop dying his hair. 
  17. Haa! Chuck Norris telling a Chuck Norris joke! 
  18.  Women can’t shoot. Ha! (Sorry to laugh, but this is what the movie wants me to believe). Except for hot Asian chicks. They can shoot. They can also beat someone senseless with a tree branch. Although, why is she beating someone with a tree branch when clearly she has a gun or two? 
  19. And the award for best fight scene with a thurible goes to: Jason Statham.
  20. My drunken, one word summary of The Expendables 2: Thurible 
(Sounds like “terrible” slurred. Get it? Come on, work with me here.) 
  21. Ravens on skulls are cool. Fountain pens with skulls are cool. Cycles with skulls are cool. What about a toilet with skulls? A raccoon skin cap with a skull embroidered on it? A skull drawn on a skull upon a skull? 
  22. I should get a skull tattoo. 
  23. Arnold!!! 
  24. But I wanted the village women to be piloting the crazy drilling machine to rescue their men. They can’t shoot; maybe they’d be good at heavy machinery? 
  25. This is good caramel corn. 
  26. Why is it spelled “caramel” and not carmel? 
  27. A Smart car chase scene in the airport. Yes! Brilliant. 
  28. Wait. They’re having a shootout in a crowded airport? What about all the innocent bystanders?
  29. Machine gunfire = cool. What? Did they just shoot a coffee barista? Did they just shoot a newspaper vendor? A baby? Chuck Norris? They prob’ly all had it coming. 
  30. Why did they swap out Jet Li for Nan Yu (aka the hot Asian chick) early in the film? Is Jet Li not hot enough? Is his acting too good? 
  31. “Do you know how to carve a turkey?” WTF does that line mean? 
  32. Why are all the surviving cast members reciting the Vachel Lindsay poem, The Congo? 
  33. Am I the only person in the audience who knows this poem? 
  34. What no gag reel?

Friday, August 17, 2012

In Which Shawn Merges Onto the Self Publishing Highway

Note: This post originally appeared on my personal blog Writing and Whatnot.


My book is done! Woot!

But I've been here before and here too.

I'd like to say, this time I'm really done, but now I'm older and wiser (ha!) and I know there's more work ahead. Have I taken this thing far as I can by myself? Yes, unless one of the few people who I've lined up to read this says, "Hey this part blows." I'd fix that but otherwise, yep, I'm done.

So what's next?

What I'm not doing: querying agents.

I want creative freedom, fair compensation for my efforts, and full control of my intellectual property rights. Agents work with traditional publishers and traditional publishers won't give me any of those things.

What I will do: self publish

But not this kind of self publishing:
[David] has no interest in self-publishing and worries that the flood of substandard self-published books is creating a backlash. "You have to be dedicated to the craft of writing," he said. "I don't think doing straight e-books answers that. You don't get better. There isn't an editor, an agent or a line editor to go through the books with a very fine-tooth comb to massage it into something that is of high quality. Instead, you have people who think the first draft of whatever they put down is good stuff."
That's David Housewright in a recent Star Tribune article. I understand his point of view, it's point of view that he shares with many, but I do not believe that self publishing and producing a quality product are mutually exclusive. Plenty of authors have already demonstrated that self published works can be of high quality and not only do I plan on doing the same, but I plan on doing it entirely though ebooks. Will I have a Print On Demand option somewhere down the line? Probably, but that's getting ahead of myself.

First, I have to write the best book I can. That involves hiring a story editor and then making revisions. It also involves hiring a copy editor and making more revisions. Finally, there's the book cover designer. No revisions there - whew!

So as you can see, there's no part of what comes next that is going to be easy or expedient. Or cheap. I have a lot of hard work left.

I think this puts it best:
When I suggest that self-publishing a book is too easy, I mean it in the sense that descending a mountain by jumping off is too easy.
That's Clark G. Vanderpool in a post titled CAUTION – Self-Publishing Is Too Easy, which I have pulled from Porter Anderson's Writing on the Ether. Clark goes on to say:
It can be accomplished with minimal effort, little or no assistance, and very short-term planning, but too often the too easy can lead to disaster.
Unfortunately, some authors who consider self-publishing seem ready to take the swan dive rather than endure a controlled descent.
That is what David was talking about. More from Clark:
I began my analogy at the top of the mountain…Now, in the rarefied atmosphere of accomplishment, he or she (our author) searches for the fastest way to disseminate this newly written creation to the population below. A relatively small percentage of authors will be able to descend in the harness of a publisher’s parachute. The thing about parachutes is that they require a commitment preceded by a leap of faith and followed by a lack of control.
And with no publisher’s parachute?
And that is what I was talking about. As well as this:
For the rest of us who do not wish to remain on the summit like a solitary Oracle awaiting the sincere reader to scale the heights in search of our wise words, there is always self-publishing–an increasingly accessible option. But the ease of access carries with it the temptation to ignore the process. Those who succeed through self-publishing do so, more often than not, by careful steps and with the help of a guide who has been over the ground before.
If an author will invest as much effort in getting down the mountain as in reaching the summit, self-publishing can be a rewarding path.
So wish me luck, friends. I'm about to go where no Scribblerati agent has gone before. I'm going to jump off the mountain, but I'm going to do it the right way. The hard way.

I'll keep you posted.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Done by summer's end...?

I started my second attempt at a novel back in January.

Well, that's not totally true. I wrote the first chapter of what would become my second attempt at novel a year or so ago.

Wait... no.

Farther back, I guess I first tried to make it a short story, maybe two years ago, but it was too big and clunky and just wouldn't fit. It burst at the short story's seams. It wouldn't fit and yet still say all the things I wanted it to say.

Which was, to say the least, a bit frustrating and problematic... at least, at first.

So I took the short story and I churned out a first chapter, just to try it out and see if it could walk around a bit. I tested it out, first among the venerable bastards of the Scribblerati and then in David Oppegaard's nascent Loft class.

It seemed to do all right. It could walk. In fact, it did better than all right. It didn't just walk, it ran. I'm pretty sure I've talked about this project on here before. At the very least I talked about what the book was generally concerned with, right?


So anyway, in January--new year, starting out fresh and all that--I sat down and started working on it in earnest. Tentatively working-titled as Monsters, I wanted to finish it by summer's end. It wasn't easy. Well, ok, sometimes it was easy. Sometimes the prose flowed like a mighty river. Sometimes the hum of the screen was so loud while I was staring at a blank page, it just about drove me insane. But now, 13 chapters in and on the other side of a short but wicked bout of writer's block, now 68,000 odd words along, I figure there's only four chapters and just under a month left.

For those of you keeping score, that's a chapter a week.

I think I can do it. I do. I think I can do it and here's why. Stepping into the project, I only had one goal: Done by summer's end. But I should clarify, I mean first draft done. It doesn't have to be pretty. It doesn't have to be good. It doesn't even have to be all that coherent. It just has to be done.

First draft done.

By summer's end.

One chapter a week.

Yeesch. I'm pretty sure I can do it.


But here's the other trick... You ready for this? It doesn't matter if I get done by summer's end. See that? It doesn't matter. It's just an arbitrary goal. It's one I think I'll pull off, or at least, near enough to make no difference, but in the end, whether I make it or not...

No big whoop. The only thing that matters is finishing.

First draft done.


Then, my plan is to set the humped and wretched beast aside for a few weeks, probably the whole of September, and then take it and the responses I have already received from the Scribblerati, sit down, and get started on the second draft.

Which is the reason I'm doing this blog here today. The second draft. This is where I will fix it. This is where I will smooth things out, make them a little more clear, make them fit better, make them better serve the story. This is where I will determine the story, to be honest. I'm sure I will lose characters, I'm sure I will combine some as well. I'll move some to the forefront and some to the background. I will cut scenes and I will add others. The first draft just provides the frame work, the shape, the big block of stone. The second draft is all about the shaping, the chiseling off of the unnecessary bits, of turning that big block of stone into a beautiful statue... or at least, a statue.

And here's the little guiding light. Here is something to see by in that word-crammed darkness, a map to guide my way, to guide your way in your own work. It is filled with things to think about and things to remember. Print it out. Tack it to you wall. Learn it, love it, live it.

It's Pixar's 22 rules of storytelling.

That's a bunch of basic true-isms there, kids. Think what you will of Pixar (although as a hint... The correct way to think of them is that they're awesome. Don't think so? You're wrong.), regardless of how you may feel about them and their films, as a writer, it's important to know that this list is right. It's a good tool. Sure, y'know, maybe don't worry about it so much at first, but later... like I said, in the second draft? Keep it close, because the path through the second draft can be darker and meaner and more discouraging than the last time, so it's good to have a map.

Keep writing,
Good luck,