WWW: Outlining with Fiasco

In case you think I only watch Ze Frank and Vlogbrothers videos on YouTube, I also watch Geek and Sundry. Especially Wil Wheaton’s show TableTop, in which he gathers together his famous friends and they play table top games for the amusement of the home audience. This show is why I now own a copy of Small World. It’s also how I learned of a game called Fiasco, a GM-less role playing game published by Bully Pulpit Games. They put the game up in three parts, following the three major portions of Fiasco game play. The whole thing is roughly 95 minutes long. If you don’t have that time, and only want to watch the portion relevant to this post, that would be the set-up.

For those who don’t have the time for even the set-up video, a quick rundown. Fiasco is an RPG about characters with ambitions and no control. The story is generated not by a GM, but through a series of playsets and a pool of D6s, which provide some randomized chaos. During the Set-Up, each player establishes a relationship with the player to the left or right, which could be familial, business, or criminal. These relationships are spiced up with various needs for motivation, objects that the plot will revolve around, and locations where the story takes place.

In the end, it’s as much an exercise in multi-person collaborative story telling than it is a classic RPG.

I bring up Fiasco not as an advertisement for the game (though you can buy it here) but because it’s to be the focus of my next experiment in writing. Sometimes I like to try something new to shake up my process, see if it works. In the Fiasco Companion (buy it here) there’s a short interview near the back with writers using the game as part of their creative process, including one who used it to plot his Nanowrimo novel. Thoroughly intrigued, I’ve started building a playset that will form the basis for my next project, currently called “Untitled of the Fourth Planet.” I’m still in the process of building the playset, which is enjoyably difficult. I’ve started with the Locations table, where everything needs to be evocative. For example, here’s just one sixth of the Locations table from the playset used in the TableTop episode:

  • Clubs:
  1. Third-rate discotheque with a first-rate crowd
  2. All along on a crowded dance floor
  3. Inside Studio 54
  4. On the light-up dance floor of Medallions
  5. Last night of a club called Glamorous
  6. On the balcony at The Nyx, overlooking the dance floor

Evocative. They’re not plots in and of themselves, but they’re specific enough to get the creative juices flowing. It’s interesting that the exercise involves coming up with 35 that I probably won’t use to get to the one that I will. I started with locations not because they’re the most important aspect of the set-up, but because they’re most closely tied to world building and that’s typically where I like to start things.

I suspect, and the interview in the book bears it out, that the set-up will be the only part I actually play through to create my starting point. The game is great as a game, but…it’s a game. It’s designed for players to take turns, which doesn’t necessarily work in a story. It’ll be interesting because there is a certain amount of chaos in the set-up process, and I’ve had both positive and negative experiences with creating stories from prompts outside of my control.

If people are interested, I’ll do another post on this next week or the week after about how well this worked for outlining. If people really like, I can also post the playset once I’m done creating it. It’s all an experiment, trying to approach a story from a different direction. It could crash and burn entirely, but I’m hoping for at least some success.

Video Saturday – Advice to Writers – Ze Frank’s Invocation for Beginners

Those of you who frequent the blog may be aware of author DL Thurston’s  previous post on Ze Frank (Motivating Creativity and Motivating Creatively).  For those of you who don’t know who Ze Frank is let me illuminate, aw heck, let me just borrow from Wikipedia –

Ze Frank is an online performance artist, composer, humorist, and public speaker. In 2001, Frank created an online birthday invitation and sent it to seventeen of his closest friends. Forwarded wildly, the invitation soon generated millions of hits and over 100 gigabytes of daily web traffic to Frank’s personal Web site. The site grew to include interactive group projects, short films, animations, and video games, many Flash-based, including children’s educational videos featuring handy tips such as “Don’t vacuum your face”.

On March 17, 2006, Frank launched the daily video program the show with zefrank. The format of the program combined commentary on media and current events with viewer contributions and activities. Each tightly edited three-to-five-minute episode combined Daily Show-style commentary on world events with songs, observations, and occasional games or challenges for his viewers to participate in. Thousands of photos, videos and music files were contributed by the audience. The show appeared each weekday until its final episode on March 17, 2007, exactly one year after its start. 

On February 27, 2012, Ze Frank announced that he was going to do a thrice-weekly show, that will be “same same but different” from The Show. Similar to his other projects, Frank’s new venture will be a collaboration between him and his audience. The show debuted on April 9, 2012 with an episode titled “An Invocation for Beginnings“.

All I can say, is that it is ridiculously awesome and if, after watching this, you don’t want to get up, and get out there, and do something…well, you have no soul.  ;)

WWW: Synesthesia

I said something on Twitter yesterday that I stand by, even as it makes me uncomfortable:  “I hope it isn’t belittling the condition to say so, but I’ve always thought it would be fascinating to have that for one day.”

“That” is Synesthesia, a very real mental condition in which the wiring for the various senses gets crossed or confused, and people experience the wrong sorts of sensations for the wrong sort of stimulus.  Which means that shapes may have flavors or sounds may have colors.  Most commonly it results in letters or numbers being associated with specific colors within the mind.  What amazes me about this is the agreement between synesthetes about these letter-color combinations, almost like there’s something very clear that I’m just not getting.

I’m getting uncomfortable again, as though the previous statement makes this sound like something to be jealous of.  Let me stress, I find the condition fascinating not enviable.  Largely because it’s one of those ways where a brain can work so much differently from my own.  On the positive end of the spectrum I’ve seen it described as akin to perfect pitch (which is, from my understanding, a mixed blessing in and of itself) and on the negative end compared to color blindness.  I can’t say where the truth is, I don’t know where it lies.  I do know that some sufferers are just that, suffering.  Which is why I feel so uncomfortable standing behind that statement.

I really do wish I could know what it was like.  Just for one day.

See, as writers, we’re required to create a certain amount of Synesthesia in our work.  We need to be able to convey any amount of sensory experiences in simple words, nearly akin to turning any and all taste, smell, hearing, or touch into a visual experience.  And that’s the part of my writing where I struggle the most.  My beta readers, including the other contributors to this blog, call it my white box syndrome.  I’ll have characters having an interesting interaction in an entirely undefined space.  An empty room, an empty field, a formless void of nothingness.

For the time being, I’m getting around this by cheating.  I’m coauthoring a novel right now with my wife who has every bit of skill I lack in conveying senses of place in a few well chosen words.  I can’t always cheat like that, though, because I can’t force her to tie her entire writing career to me.  So I’ve been doing what I can to learn better use of sensory input.  I played around with a short story where I made a character incapable of seeing, trying to force the use of other senses.  But it still just didn’t quite work.  It’s going to come down to practice, practice, practice.

I’m not sure why I think Synesthesia would help, I really don’t.  But experiencing sensual input differently, having another way to process it through the brain for just a little while.  It certainly couldn’t hurt.

WWW: Non-Fiction 2

A few months back I wrote a meandering post about non-fiction that can be more fantastical than fiction.  Yesterday Day made a post about what we read as writers, and I mentioned I’ve been on a non-fiction kick as late.  The two have been forming together in my head, and more and more I’m considering the idea of how to approach a genre fiction novel from a non-fiction perspective.

The books I’ve read of late, tales of archeological discoveries, theories about crashed UFOs, a biography of a famous stage magician, the history of an island over run by the white man and turned into a state, all of them suggest stories that are larger and more detailed than all but a select few fiction novels on the market.  And part of that is our awareness of the outside world, our understanding that while these things were going on there were events taking place all over the earth, most of which were unconnected, but some that ended up tying directly into the stories.  The history of Area 51 is informed by the entire reality of the Cold War, even those bits that don’t directly involve aerial reconnaissance.  The golden age of magic grew out of an industrial revolution that rewarded cleverness and engineering knowledge, as well as a reconnection with the occult that spread through society.  These things are real.

When we read fiction, we can be too often aware that what we are reading is not real.  It’s the job of the author to immerse us in the world.  This is where I envy the series tie-in novel writers, because they do have a wider world that the reading audience is aware of.  Everyone else?  It’s time for some world building.  And it’s  fine line to walk between presenting too much information and not enough.  Everything that the non-fiction writer has taken care of for them.  We know Earth.  We know a lot of its history, its wars, its religions, its people, its climates.  We can be told a character is “Christian” and know what they believe, and why.  The history of their faith, the major tenants, it’s all part of the collective understanding.  But when I tell you that an alien is a “Murxisalist,” what the hell is that?  It’s then a requirement to explain what that means, how that affects their decision making processes, and potentially what the alternatives are and the differences.

So where does that get us to the idea of a fictional novel written in the style of non-fiction?  It makes us aware that there are shortcuts that any non-fiction author can use in the presentation of a story that aren’t necessarily open to the fiction writer.  Or, that it at least requires an intentional choice of not explaining things that the fictional readers of the non-fiction book (if that statement makes sense) would already know.  They would know what a Murxisalist is, and when the character then chooses to throw a fish at someone, they understand that’s a direct representation of their faith.  The question then is how many readers would feel left behind and confused, and how many would enjoy the little details that aren’t supposed to make immediate sense to them.

It would take a deft hand.  Details can still be sewn in, implied, slowly revealed.  But that slow reveal means early actions and motives might be left unexplained until far later in the book.

I’m still considering writing this kind of novel in the future, and even have a new focus in mind, but it’s a daunting challenge to be certain.

All I got was this lousy hurricane…

So, I went to New Orleans…it was a research trip of a sort, a revitalization trip of sorts, an I NEED A DRINK AND A TATTOO sort of trip.

And the only thing that worked out were the drink and tattoo.  But it is an amazing tattoo.

I wish I could say that my characters were chattering away in the back of my head, telling me where they would go-what they would do-who they would talk with, but they were silent.  It was just me down there.  The aspiring author looking around for things to tuck away for later use.

The smell of stale beer, plastered across everything and following me back to my hotel room.  The uneven pavement rolling up to meet me even when I’m sober.  The dark doorways that unroll a welcome mat of air conditioning.  The barkers that look through me like I am not there, only to point their laser-like focus toward the man behind me.

Still, that is now…I want to see it as it will be in my story.

Abandonded, dangerous, full of ghosts.

But it already is.  I look from the deadened eyes of the drunk; to the desperate, mostly-nude girl hanging from the window and I see all the ghosts I need to see.  And instead of giving me inspiration…they fill me with sadness.  It is a sadness which drives me to pick up my pen, and keeps me in my room most of my time there.  And still I feel like I’ve captured nothing of the city I love so much.

And I begin to wonder if that is not the plight of the author?

To always want to present these twinkling jewels of experience to our readers only to be, once finished, left with roughly polished stone.

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WWW: In and Out

What?  No, this isn’t me finally making a post about writing erotica.  Rather, this evolves out of a question asked by a Twitter friend and proprietor of the Humpday Challenge, Tracey Hansen:

That got me thinking about trends in literature and keeping track of what has come “in” or what has gone “out.”  Which first requires me to admit I don’t really track what goes in and out all that closely.  I know Steampunk is in right now, but that’s just because it’s hard to avoid, and I enjoy dabbling in it.  Zombies are in, because zombies tend to be in during any downturn in the economy.  But I never knew dystopian had come in, and I didn’t know it had gone back out again.


Because largely I don’t care.  And I would posit that’s not a bad attitude to have towards writing.

This will be a long analogy, but stick with me.  I think of things going in and out the same way I think about movie genre fandom.  Being a fan of a certain genre of movies means that a person can appreciate the good that comes out within that genre, but I think it more means that someone has a higher tolerance for the mediocre and bad within that genre.  Not being a fan of a certain genre conversely means that a movie within the genre has to be that much better.  I consider myself a science fiction fan.  As such I’m willing to endure a lot more bad science fiction than a lot of people.  Example: I loved League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  Alright, maybe that doesn’t so much mean I’m a science fiction fan as I have bad taste.  But on the flip side I’m not a big western fan, which means it takes a movie like the True Grit remake to get me to really sit down and enjoy the hell out of a western.

Things coming in and going out?  That’s the market in general become a fan of something.  Note: I didn’t say readers.  I said the market.  They’re two slightly different creatures, but the market is the attempt to respond to readers by tracking what they’re buying.  It can also over adjust if something extremely popular comes out, and try to ride that wave.

So.  When the market is a fan of dystopian stories, there’s going to be more magazines willing to pick the stories up, more anthologies dedicated to them, and more non-dedicated anthologies willing to consider them to be up on what’s “in.”  What that means is more opportunities and potential a lower clearance bar.  In a way it’s a supply and demand situation.  When people start getting burned out, anthologies start specifically saying “please god no” on certain ideas, but the demand never entirely goes away for one reason and one reason alone.

There’s always a demand for well told stories.  And there’s always a demand for interesting ideas.

And that’s the thesis I’m shooting for.  That’s why I don’t pay attention to what’s coming in or what’s going out, because I want to tell the stories that I want to tell.    Does it mean that I occasionally have a hard time finding markets for stories?  Yes.  But there are always going to be markets out there that are willing to take what is good, what is different, and what is well told.  And that’s what I’m striving for as a writer: good, different, and well told stories.  I suspect a lot of us are.  Do I always hit that mark?  Perhaps not.

Now, does that mean submit anything everywhere?  No.  If someone doesn’t want dystopian, they don’t want dystopian.  Don’t be the person who says “well, but mine is so good they’ll bend the rules,” because you don’t want to get that name for yourself with editors.  When submitting it’s always about what the publication wants, but there will be places where that story will fit, even if the general concepts aren’t as hip as they were a year ago.  They just require a little more digging.

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