Saturday, April 22, 2017

We are one, but we are many

We live in an interesting time, don't we? The 21st Century is a time of rapid unending change. Most of this we can call progress and then shake hands and say "Aren't we doing well? Aren't we so much more enlightened than those who came before us?" Isn't that nice?

But a lot of it is just change. Is the wide availability of a smart phone progress? Sure, you can make that argument. Is the wide availability of the 8th generation of Samsung Smart Phones, now slightly larger, slightly more waterproof and slightly faster, progress? I guess by the strict definition it is, or is it just fashion? And does fashion progress or does it just change?

Regardless, I'm not interested in talking about smart phones. My point is that not all change is necessarily progress. Sometimes change is just change, not good, not bad, just different.

Media, publishing and distribution is changing. Everywhere around us, the main stream is embracing genre fiction and, in particular, sci-fi and fantasy are big money and broadly accepted by our culture. Comics aren't just for children, any more. And how about TV? There's a booming industry. For over a decade, seeminly trapped in a stasis of reality TV and talent shows, suddenly TV is high quality entertainment, telling stories that the big screen never could.

Is any of this progress? Does this better humanity? Probably not in any big way. Mostly it's just change, I think. But not the kind of change I want to talk about.

You know what I love? Robin Hoob: Men In Tights, the Mel Brooks Robin Hood parody film. Actually, I'm a big fan of parody, in general. Flying High? (Airplane, for you yanks) An amazing film. Weird Al? Can't get enough.

There was a glut of parody films for a while, movies like Meet The Spartans and the Scary Movie franchise. It seemed like we had a new one every six months. Alas, they all kind of sucked... A lot. Since then, it's been quiet on the parody front, hasn't it?

Or has it?

You know what else I love? YouTube. If you think the world of parody is quiet or dying, take a look at YouTube and rest assured parody is thriving. Parody music and parody films are in no short supply and they are as varied as the stars. Even Weird Al has lamented that, through the studio system, he cannot keep pace with parody artists on YouTube.

Change. That's what it is. That's what we're seeing in media.

I'm not a film maker or a musician, but I am a writer and the world of publishing is changing. The Internet has given new vigor to the community of independent publishers. More authors than ever are becoming their own publishers as well as writers, using the internet the distribute digital and print books in every genre and in every style. It's a change happening now and happening fast.

But that's still not what I want to talk about. We know the change is happening. Pointing at it like it's a new thing, now, is redundant. "Keep up, Carl. This is old news!"

No, I don't want to talk about writers and publishers and change and the internet and indies and traditional publishing houses and literary agents. At least, I don't want to talk about it on this basic level of mere acknowledgement.

I want to talk about people. Mostly I want to talk about writers, writers who often believe, rightly or wrongly, that they have the biggest stake in the game and that all this change has the biggest impact on them. If you're in the know, as it were, if you're part of the industry and community of writing and publishing, you may have noticed something odd, something a little weird, something that's actually kind of concerning.

I have.

I've noticed that some people, especially authors on either side of the taditional/indie line talk about all this change like it's a war or a bloody revolt, upheaving society at its foundations. Really? Is that how we want to view this change? Is that what this is? Are indies freedom fighters struggling to liberate books from oppressive gate keepers? Are the traditional publishers maintaining order and ensuring quality for the betterment of society, keeping back the wave of poor writing even in the face of a smear campaign by bitter rejected authors? Is this the change we're seeing?

I don't think so, and it concerns me that some people do. Don't get me wrong, there is change in the air. There's change in all facets of life here in the 21st century... But it's not a huge change. As it happens, there have always been authors who publish independently. Before there was Kindle, indie authors used personal websites, before the internet, authors sold their books by hand, paying for printing then carrying them about in boxes to local markets. The size of the pie for indie publishers has perhaps gotten bigger, but it's not like they had no pie before.

And what does this mean for the traditional houses? Well maybe it'll hit them in their back pocket, maybe it'll shrink their bottom line. Maybe it won't. Maybe the book market will struggle against the same external rivals it always has: Radio, cinema, television, sport. I don't have the data, I'm not an economist, and I'm not psychic.

But I'll still make a prediction.

I predict the big publishers and the small press are not going anywhere. I predict the ones that are big enough to weather the storm will survive and the ones who are flexible enough to bend with the wind will survive and the others? Well, they were probably always living on borrowed time. Sorry. Capitalism is a Darwinist bitch.

Things are changing, but probably not as much as you think. There also isn't a war over the soul of publishing and literature going on. Traditional and indie publishers have co-existed since the birth of the industry. As it happens, there is room for both, and both can even thrive.

Indie authors aren't the worst writers, rejected by every publishing house and literary agent on the planet, bringing about the death of literature as we know it with their storm of unedited, thinly veiled fan fiction. I should know, I'm a reasonably well reviewed indie author.

Publishing houses aren't run by fu manchu with the sole purpose of exploiting the struggling sensitive artists, squeezing every cent out of them that they can before tossing the scraps to wolves to make space for the next generation of suckers begging for validation. I should know, I've been traditionally published and I'll gladly go back for more.

The world just isn't that simple.

But one thing is for sure: Everybody, be they agent, editor, author, cover artist, marketer, or what-have-you, we're just trying to get books (in whatever shape they take) into the hands of readers. We'd really like to make some money from it, too. You know, so we can keep eating and being alive long enough to make another book.

And as soon as we smash capitalism, I'll be glad to give up the money part.

Until then, there's no war. We're all in this together and that means the very best road forward for us all is the one paved by cooperation and respect.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Why I Don't Write pt 1

I've said it before and I will continue to say it into the future.

Writer's block doesn't exist.

Writer's block is a myth, a lie, a comforting fabrication. We writers like to discuss writer's block as though it's a disease - it strikes anybody, amateur and professional alike, at any time, in any place and we seek cures for it. How can we overcome writer's block and start writing? Or perhaps we just have to wait it out, like the common cold, until we can start work again. Just hope we don't end up like those poor souls who suffer writer's block for months, even years, on end.

Except none of it's true. There is no writer's block. It is, at best, a shared delusion and, at worst, an excuse to be lazy.

But I've said all this before. So let's say something different.

I don't get writer's block but sometimes I stop writing for long periods of time. There's plenty of reasons and I'm going to talk about a few of them, starting with the least worthy of reasons.

Television.

Fun fact: I stopped watching TV for a long time. Around the time Nickelodeon stopped making surreal, creative and interesting cartoons like Invader Zim, The Angry Beavers, and Kablam (except for Spongebob. Spongebob is still going and is the bomb) and began making sit-coms about pre-teens, TV lost its appeal to me. The nice thing about watching movies is that they can be consumed in 3 hours, tops, and then you're free to do other things. Movies are enjoyable bite sized entertainment for a relaxing afternoon.

But then something unusual happened. DC Comics decided to change its business model. It launched the New 52 line of crap comics, began planning a whole shared cinematic universe of awful movies and focused all its effort and quality on TV shows. They began by taking my favourite super hero, The Green Arrow, and giving him a hot new TV series that is in every way amazeballs (amazeballs is the industry term.)

I suddenly had a very good reason to watch TV again and while one TV show might be only 40 minutes, unlike movies, they just keep making more and soon you're watching 14 hours just to get to the end of the story.

I don't think anyone is upset that TV suddenly became good again, this decade, and there's now dozens of high quality serial dramas around and whether you like fantasy, sci-fi, politics, history, there's something for everyone on the idiot box.

And services like Netflix make it easier than ever to watch it all at once. It's easy as pie to lose a whole day binging on your favourite TV show about really sad cute guys with daddy issues trying to save the world.

Writing is work. It's fun work and I enjoy it, but it's also work and it can be hard and you can spend all day writing something, look over and say "Well that was crap" and feel defeated and then you find out The Flash is almost as great as Arrow and now you need to catch up on that.

So sometimes I don't feel like writing, I don't even want to write, I just want to watch more Arrow. Then I might run out of Arrow, sit down to write and I can't focus on writing because at the back of my mind I'm still thrilling over the season finale and I know that Legends of Tomorrow is probably just as great and I should give that a chance, too.

And that can sure feel like writer's block. That can feel like I can't write when, really, I don't want to write, I want to watch move TV and, folks, there's a lot of TV to watch.

Kevin Smith called this Writer's Laze and his poison of choice was Dora The Explorer.

Fortunately, TV is a pretty easy addiction to break. Even if you're not interested in breaking it, even if you still want to watch every new season of Supernatural (and why wouldn't you?) it's generally pretty easy to get away from a TV.

Want to write without the temptation of great serial drama to pull you away? Take your writing tools of choice - laptop, pen and paper, stone and chisel - and go to a park, a library, a cafe and get to work. I've done a lot of writing, some of my best writing, at my local library where the wifi is so slow even checking dictionairy.com is a pain and I'd rather write now and look up words later. It's not just an environment lacking easy distracting, it's an environment made for quiet work. It's also cheaper than a library.

I said that a crippling addiction to superhero TV shows is a poor reason not to write, but it's an honest reason. I have no doubt that many cases of Writer's Block are similarly a simple case of "I'd rather do this other fun thing today."

Not all of them, of course. There are far more sympathetic reasons writing might be difficult for you. They're still not this mystical unstoppable writer's block, but they are what we'll talk about next time...

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Being Inclusive At The Game Table

This weekend I was part of an event called Extreme Game Mastery Masterclass, run by my local gaming society: Ministry of Game. The focus was on making table top role-playing games a welcoming, inviting and fun environment for all players. I gave a talk on making games inclusive of diverse identities both in game fiction and in interactions at the table. My talk was well received and so I've decided to post a transcript here on the blog for anybody else interested.

A lot of this I have said around here before but, as always, it's important and worth repeating. Unfortunately I cannot reproduce the slides I used during my talk but you should manage fine without them. They were largely illustrative and following the talk doesn't depend on seeing them.

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Introduction
(Slide 1) I’m going to be talking about Identity Inclusiveness in the game fiction and at the game table. Our identity is defined by many facets ranging from our gender and sexuality to our culture or subculture, our religion and even our health and hobbies. I’m going to focus on a few specific identities or aspects of identity: gender, ethnicity and mental health, but that’s just small selection of the ideas that I’m talking about when I use the word identity.

There’s no denying that certain identities receive greater inclusion or representation in our culture than others.

(Slide 2) If you’re straight, white, and male, you have the privilege of seeing your identity represented in all walks of life and particularly as heroes and as leaders in politics, business, arts and academics. We see this all across the media and fiction we consume. And you might be wondering why that matters. It’s just fiction, right? Nobody takes it that seriously. Well, let me give you some examples that I think most of us can relate to.

(Slide 3, 4, 5) All these examples are representations of nerds and they present our subculture as a joke. That idea of the nerd as a joke has been so persistent in our culture that you can probably think of more characters without much difficulty. It’s been so common in fiction for years that it has taken hold in our cultural psyche and people actually believe that stereotype. Nerds are a joke. They’re awkward losers that you laugh at. And if you’ve ever had a conversation with somebody who watches The Big Bang Theory and isn’t a nerd, and they say something like “Oh, you play Dungeons and Dragons? So you’re just like Sheldon? Bazinga!” then congratulations, you know what it’s like to be stereotyped.

Now, that representation is insulting, but imagine if instead of a joke, nerds were represented as criminals, as violent, as stupid, as weak, or as not even existing. That’s the space in our fiction that some identities exist in, and just like the nerd as a joke, those ideas take hold in the cultural psyche.

(Slide 6) Here’s a more serious example. This is Two-Face, one of many villains in fiction portrayed as having a mental illness. Writers have given Two-Face Schizophrenia, Dissociative Identity Disorder and Bipolar as reasons for his villainous behaviour. This idea of mental illness equating to violent behaviour is also common in our culture. We see it not only in fiction, but we see it in news media. Frequently, when some big violent crime is committed, like a mass shooting, commentators like to label the criminal as being mentally ill.

Just this week a story came up on my Facebook feed about a Chinese American woman and a Latin American man being accosted, verbally abused, and assaulted by a white man in a New York restaurant. The woman telling the story, who was a victim in the story, described the assaulter as a Trump supporter. One of the first comments on this story claimed that the event had nothing to do with politics at all and that the assaulter was clearly mentally ill.

The truth is, people with mental illness are not necessarily prone to violence. The truth is, people with mental illness are more likely to be a victim of violence than to perpetrate it. And yet, because of this portrayal in media, because when mentally ill people are included, they’re included as dangerous and violent and unpredictable, people genuinely believe that mental illness is the source of violent crime.
Hopefully these examples have made it clear to you why representation matters and why it must be diverse and respectful. This is why fiction matters.

The Game Fiction
(Slide 7) Now that we’ve established that fiction matters, I’d like to talk about how you can run your game to be more inclusive by better representing people in your game.

Earlier this year I heard a story. Somebody was invited to play in a Deadlands campaign. Deadlands, if you don’t know it, is a weird west setting: 1870s, American frontier, monsters, magic, mad science, all the good stuff. Lots of fun. But in this particular game, the GM decided that all the Native American people would be...

(Slide 8) Orks from Warhammer 40k. It would be one thing if the GM decided to just mix genres and worlds and say 40k orks are now in Deadlands, but this GM replaced a nation of people with orks. I can’t tell you what this GM was thinking, but I can tell you why this is a problem. Either we have an uncomfortable likening of the Native Americans plains tribes to orks, or we have an entire nation and ethnicity of people, real people, and multiple cultures that were seen as so inconsequential to the world that they could be removed without hesitation and with minimal change to the world.
This is bad representation.

You can bet that if a player came to that game looking to make friends and have some fun, and they were Native American, that was part of their identity, they wouldn’t have stayed in the game long. By excluding people from your game world, you exclude them in the real world.

When we run or play in a game, we are creating a fictional world just like a movie or a book and, just like other types of fiction, the fiction of our games matters.  When we create fiction, when we create these worlds and tell these stories, we create a reflection of our world. The principles and ideas on which we base our games are principles and ideas with real life consequences. What we say about the people in the fiction is what we say about the people in the real world. So when we remove certain people from out fictional world, we’re saying they’re unimportant to the real world. I don’t think any of us intend to say that and I don’t think any of us want to say that. Certainly we, we being Ministry of Game, as an organisation, don’t want to say that.

Fortunately, it’s really easy to not say that. Being inclusive of diverse identities isn’t that hard.

(Slide 9) They key is to make your fiction inclusive. Think about what types of people, what identities are most represented in your game and mix it up. We all have defaults. We all see certain types of people more in the world and we internalise them as the majority and those are the people who show up in our fiction as the majority. Think about who your default majorities are, then add in more ethnicities, more sexualities, more genders. No matter what game you’re playing, you can do this. The next step is to look at your new array of diverse characters and make sure you haven’t used any stereotypes.

Then, once you’ve done all that, do it again. Up the diversity again. If all you’ve done is added one black character or one transgender character to your cast, you haven’t really done much for diversity. Your job isn’t to go down a list and check off one of each minority. That’s a token effort creating token characters and I guarantee you, we can all do better than that.

I already mentioned stereotypes but it’s important so I’ll say it again. Don’t use stereotypes. Whether insulting or complementary, stereotypes need to be avoided. Whether it’s “women can’t drive” or “Japanese people are so polite” a stereotype is still poor representation and that’s not going to make your game more inclusive.

 (Slide 10) This is the author John Green. On his YouTube channel, he has repeatedly encouraged his fans to “Imagine others complexly.” This isn’t hard. We imagine complex characters all the time. We create unique individuals with unique identities, backstories, motivations and lives all the time. We’re gamers. That’s just what we do. So do that. We shouldn’t have any difficulty avoiding stereotypes. All you have to do is imagine others complexly. Then you’ll have a rainbow of interesting characters with diverse and unique identities to scatter across your fiction. If you take just one thing from what I’ve said today, take this: Fill your game with diverse, complex characters.

Now, when I’ve said this in the past, I have inevitably got the same question: “How can I possibly tell the stories or portray the lives of people from vastly different walks of life to me? How can I do justice to the experience of being a different ethnicity, or from a different culture, or having a different sexuality?” You might be wondering the same thing. Fortunately, that’s easy to answer. If you can pretend to be a 400-year-old elven wizard without being a 400-year-old elven wizard, you can pretend to be transgender person. You can even make a 400-year-old transgender elven wizard. Do what you’re already doing, and add diversity to that. Don’t get hung up on the idea that you have to tell true to life dramas about minorities.

(Slide 11) Because as good as 12 Years A Slave was, not every story with an ethnically diverse cast needs to be about race relations. Not every story about a minority needs to be about the oppression of minorities. Representation can mean having the same heroes and villains sword fighting over the fate of the world but with more diversity. It’s actually not a big change to make. There’s no reason you can’t be James Bond and be a woman, for example, and leave it at that. There’s no reason you can’t be John McClane and Chinese, doing all the awesome things that John McClane does. In fact, this can be the best and easiest way to be inclusive with your game fiction. People want their unique identities acknowledged, but they don’t necessarily want you to make a big deal about doing it.
That’s not to say you can’t run a game about oppression and race relations and the life experience of being a minority, but you don’t have to.

Identity at the table
(Slide 12) So if you can make your fictional world more diverse in a respectful way, as I’ve described, you’ll have already taken a big step towards making the game, as a whole, more inclusive and more welcoming to players. That’s good because if you aren’t currently playing in a game with somebody of a traditionally under-represented or poorly-represented identity, you almost certainly will one day. If you’re not sure, next time you’re playing or running a game, check and see if there’s any women in the group. You can usually spot them. If so, you have a member of a traditionally under-represented identity in your game already. But while you might be able to pick out a woman playing in your game, or somebody from an ethnic minority, you may not know that you’re playing with somebody who is homosexual or somebody who is Islamic. Identity is invisible. So no matter what the situation is in your gaming group now, or what you think the situation is in your gaming group now, there’s no reason to not start thinking about being inclusive now.

Even just making an effort, a real effort – not a token effort – to say through the fiction “I see you, I acknowledge you exist in this world” can go a long way.

But of course you want to be respectful about it, you don’t want to upset anybody and that can make it awkward when you’re trying to make your game world diverse and your game inclusive but now one of those people you want to include is looking at you…

(Slide 13) and you’re wondering whether it’s black or African American, what’s the correct pronoun for a transgender person, am I bordering a little too close to a stereotype? And your anxieties are justified. Nobody wants to upset their follow players and friends, or say the wrong thing. Fortunately, nobody wants you do that either, and if you’re unsure how to proceed or how to address somebody, you can always ask. People will help you to understand them if you genuinely want to. They want you to understand them. So let them lead you. Be respectful and empathetic. Just talk to them, ask them what they’re comfortable with, learn about them, build a relationship with them. That’s what we’re all about at Ministry of Game. Building relationships.

And don’t let your anxieties trick you into thinking “Hold on, one of the players in this game is Korean. I better not have Korean characters in this game or play a Korean character in case that offends them. I don’t want to come off as doing a racist impression or misappropriating their culture.” It turns out, and I say this from personal experience, people generally appreciate you making an effort to understand them and acknowledge their identity in fiction, and gaming can be a perfect way to do that, so long as you’re being sensitive and respectful and imagining them and your characters as complex and not stereotypes. Or, at the very least, they won’t care unless you’re being offensive.
This is especially true if you’re a player playing outside your identity. I strongly encourage you to do so, at least occasionally, but to be aware that you have a responsibility to be respectful and intelligent about how you do so.

Now, GMs, in addition to doing things right yourself, as the GM, to make your game inclusive of diverse identities, you’ll also have the task of managing your players’ behaviours and stopping them from undoing all your hard work to make an inclusive game.

That might mean you have a player who is overtly racist and wants to play an offensive stereotype or insists the game world match their world view, and all the Aboriginal people in your urban fantasy game must be represented as some negative and offensive stereotype. On the other hand, it might also be somebody who just doesn’t know better. It might be a player who tries to seduce every female NPC in the game and makes objectifying comments, in character or out, about women. Every time you ask them where their character is, they say “I’m at the tavern getting drunk and if there’s any girls there, I want to do them.” And they’ll be doing this without thinking they’re doing anything wrong. That kind of player will drive people out of your game just as fast as an overt bigot no matter how respectful and inclusive you’re being, especially if you don’t say something.

Because not saying something is an implicit consent for them to continue with the excluding behaviour.

Remember, even if it’s just something they’re doing in character, the principles and ideas that come up in the game are real principles and ideas. They have a real impact on real people, especially your players.

As GM, you need to be aware of these behaviours, both overt and subtle, and watch how it’s affecting the other players in the game. Then, you need to stop it before somebody really puts their foot in their mouth, somebody gets upset and suddenly your gaming group is a lot smaller and a lot more uncomfortable to be in. Hopefully a few quiet words to somebody will be enough. Thankfully, most people don’t want to be offensive or exclusive or upset others.

And if you decide to talk to them in private about their behaviour, it’s also super important that you speak to anybody they’ve potentially offended in the group, just to let them know you did notice, you don’t approve and you did take action. That will remind them that you run an inclusive game for everybody.

Other times, though, people will know they’re a bigot and they just won’t care. They don’t care they’re being offensive because, as far as they’re concerned, they’re right and everybody else is wrong. Ministry of Game’s policy of inclusiveness extends to them, too. We don’t want to turn people away. It doesn’t, however, extend to their beliefs.

All people are welcome, but not all ideas are.

If someone is deliberately being overtly offensive, they need to be taken aside and told that: They are welcome, but their behaviour and those ideas are not. If they’re going to stay, if they’re going to be part of the game and the group, their unhelpful opinions on other people need to be packed up for the night. No arguments.

Hopefully you’ve listened to all this and you’ve been thinking “That doesn’t sound hard at all” because it’s actually not that hard. Being inclusive of diverse identities means being aware of them and acknowledging them with respect and sensitivity in your game fiction and in your interactions with them as people at a game table.

Last Minute Thoughts
(Slide 14) Before I finish, I want to go back a bit to when I was talking about 12 Years A Slave and the idea of running a game that deliberately explores complex themes like race and oppression and so on. Those themes aren’t necessary for having a game with diverse characters, but it’s possible to run that game. In fact, in many ways, RPGs are a great environment for exploring those themes and trying out an identity and a life experience different to your own. If that’s what you want to do, as long as you can do it with respect, sensitivity and intelligence, I say go for it.

But also be aware it can be very confronting. Some games that have been designed for these kinds of intense and dramatic stories use a mechanic called The X Card. It is what it says on the box. It’s a piece of paper or card with a big X on it, placed in the centre of the table and any time the game goes in a direction that makes somebody uncomfortable, that person can hold up the card and the game rewinds and you have a more family friendly do-over of the scene. They don’t have to explain why they’re uncomfortable if they don’t want to, you just accept it and you move on. It may happen, it may not but this very simple mechanic is great for making sure everybody at the game table feels respected and making people feel respected is key to inclusivity. It really is brilliant.

Another thing I want to mention: In any game, be it a serious and mature game like I was just talking about or a pulp space adventure or a period detective game or dungeon crawl – they all can include characters who are bigoted. Racist characters are a thing and being inclusive and respectful of diverse identities doesn’t mean your villains can’t be bigots. It doesn’t mean the game world is, in fictional terms, is always inclusive and always friendly. What’s important is you make it clear in the game that their views are not something you outside the game approve of and that you counter balance their bigotry with diverse characters that clash with that idea and disprove it.

It also doesn’t mean that if you introduce, say, an Islamic character, that you must find the worst stereotype applicable and make every Islamic character the opposite of that. That’s just creating a new stereotype. That’s not really diversity. Remember, make all your characters complex people. Even if the players never see the inner complexity, they must believe it’s there. They must know they’re different to others, even to those with similar identities in the fiction. Being inclusive should inform your behaviour and your game and it should encourage you to be more creative, not less. Ideally, being inclusive won’t ever feel like you’re placing creative limits on yourself.
Before I finish, I want to share one more story with you. This story made its rounds on the internet shortly after Guardians of the Galaxy came out. In case you have any doubt about the importance of representation, just listen to this.

“I took my little brother, who falls on the autism spectrum, to see Guardians of the Galaxy and after this scene…
(Slide 15) …he lit up like a Christmas tree and screamed “He’s like me! He can’t do metaphors!” And for the rest of the film, my brother stared at Drax in a state of rapture. So for the last six days I have heard my brother repeatedly quote all of the Drax’ lines from the movie verbatim … and tell everyone he knows that people with autism can be superheroes.”

I don’t think Drax was deliberately written as an autistic character, but that one similarity, that one point of connection, allowed an autistic person to identify with a hero and it positively impacted their entire world view. That’s the difference just one character can make to a member of a traditionally under represented group.

Imagine the difference it would make if everybody, whatever their identity, had hundreds of such characters they could relate to.

(Slide 16) That’s the end of my part. I hope you’ve found it helpful and clear. I believe we’re going to have morning tea in a minute, but before that, does anybody have any questions? I will hopefully have answers.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Carl's Favourite Horror Films

In celebration of Halloween (a little late, I know) I am posting a second blog! It's my second-favourite time of year and a celebration of all things spooky, scary, spoopy, ghostly and the perfect time to sit in the dark and watching horror movies.

And because I like talking about movies, I'm going to talk about my five favourite horror movies! In no particular order:

1. Halloween
I remember seeing the VHS box for Halloween in video stores, as a child, and being entranced by it. The razor sharp knife held in a bulging fist like a weapon, the image repeated, blurred and coloured into a jack-o-lantern face with angry eyes and a jagged edge like monsterous teeth. It's an evocative image. I wondered for years what kind of movie sat locked inside this box. Surely it must be the scariest movie ever made.

After years of wondering, I became old enough and brave enough to rent the film and find out. Of course it isn't the scariest film ever, but it is frightening and it's a well made film. Although not the first slasher film, it was the earliest success and inspired all the slasher films to follow. It's also the movie that inspired my love of slasher films and horror more broadly.


2. The Thing
John Carpenter has the distinction of being the only film maker appearing twice in my top five horror movies. The Thing may be his best work. It inspires a sense of dread and paranoia like no other film, playing on the darkness and isolation of the antarctic landscape. The Thing also has enough gore and body horror to satisfy horror fans seeking more blood-soaked horror. The claymation looks a little dated by today's special effects but, in a way, it adds to the bizarre and alien nature of the creature haunting the poor humans. Despite its special effects, the movie holds up extremely well even after all these years and if the monster itself doesn't frighten you, the atmosphere, tone and the uncomfortable final moments are sure to chill you.

3. Ring
Ring was my introduction to Japanese horror films. It is a film with very few overt scares but the entire film is soaked with dread and terror and ever building anxiety. The idea of a haunted video tape (although, like the claymation in The Thing, it certainly dates the film) is unique, to say the least, and it speaks highly of the film that it can take something so ordinary as watching a video tape and make it so frightening. The climax of the film, the big reveal and the only appearance of the ghostly Sadako will either scare you silly or just look silly, depending on your tolerance for scares. When I first saw it, it gave me some serious chills and kept me awake hours into the night. These days it's not so effective, but that's fine, because the tension through the rest of the film is more than enough to keep you on the edge of your seat and chomping at your finger nails.

4. Aliens
Aliens is a film that needs no introduction. It is as much an action movie as a horror movie and is a landmark in cinema history for both genres. The eponymous alien monsters are a terrifying sight to behold and have become a pop-culture icon. But what makes Aliens such an effective and frightening horror film is that, at first glance, our human characters seem to have all the advantage. They're prepared for an encounter, they're armed and trained and dangerous. They've got all the guns and all the tech. But hubris is a bitch. And no matter how good their training, how big their guns, how smart their choices, how ready these colonial marines think they are, the aliens are seemingly unstopable. Horror movies are all the more frightening when your main characters make intelligent decisions and are still helpless against the dangers facing them. Aliens is a great example of this.

5. The Conjuring
If you like horror movies and you haven't seen The Conjuring, you are living your life wrong. I've seen a lot of horror movies. I've seen the good, the bad, the ugly, the uncomfortable, the amazing, the cheap, the disappointing. I've seen every kind of horror movie. After a while, you start to get numb. You start to think you've seen it all and nothing scares you anymore. The Conjuring is one of two films (the other being [REC]) that has come and kicked me right in the complacency and scared the crap out of me. It is a masterpiece. No other film I've seen creates the same atmosphere of ceaseless and terrifying oppression like The Conjuring. If there's a film that recreates the horror of a haunted house, it's The Conjuring.

And unlike so many haunted house films, it tells its story through a cast of likable and sympathetic characters. Too many haunted house movies feature a short-tempered, doubting husband yelling at his kids for telling lies and abandoning his wife to the ghosts because he's the only rational, sensible person in the world. The Conjuring avoids these tropes entirely.

Similarly, it avoids reliance on jump scares and fake outs and similar cheap shocks. When the ghosts appear in The Conjuring, they come like a spider creeping towards your paralysed hand. You know they're coming, you see them coming and there's nothing you can do about it. The film doesn't need fake outs because once the horror begins, it only lets up to allow tender moments between the characters. Then, when it's time to be scary, it goes all in.

The Conjuring uses every tool in the film maker's tool box to make you uncomfortable and afraid. It combines a great script with great actors, and presents the terror through carefully crafted lighting and photography, accompanied by a minimalist discordant sound track and the occasional ghostly whisper. Even as the film builds to an exciting and action filled climax, the horror never lets up.

Zombies Aren't Scary

Zombies aren't scary. The more we see zombies getting chainsawed, shotgunned, run over and decapitated, the more zombies become a laughable cannon fodder for action movies and video games.

But zombies have never been especially scary. Sure they're hungry for flesh and brains and will come in hordes to break through windows and smash down doors and tear you limb from limb but, when you think about it, zombies are slow moving and stupid and we non-zombie people have tanks and tall places. Any zombie threat would be easily and quickly put down by a dedicated millitary operation.

Zombies aren't scary.

But people are fucking terrifying. That's why, in any zombie movie, the real horror is the collapse of society and the descent of humanity into barbarism. In the film 28 Days Later, the addition of running zombies doesn't add much. They can still be knocked on their arse by a well swung shopping bag full of chocolate. But Christopher Eccelston and his band of rapey soldier boys is horrifying. That's the real tension. That's the scary stuff, right there.

The best zombie stories have always used zombies as a means to explore the darkness of humanity. They are a framing device for the drama that arises when people are desperate and isolated and afraid. But zombies, on their own, aren't scary.

You all know this story. A family moves into a new house. It's an old house but a nice house. It's a bit of a fixer-upper and it's a bit isolated, sitting on the edge of town, but it was cheap. It's perfect for a husband, a wife, their kid(s) and their dog. After all they've been through, after whatever vague turmoil has ravaged their life and drove them to move into a new home, this new start is exactly what they need.

But you all know this story. The house is already occupied. It's haunted. It's haunted and the resident ghosts don't want company. They create horrific visions of death and mayhem, they manifest as rotting corpses, eviscerated bodies, recreating the final horrible moments of their life. The ghosts are compelled torture the family physically and psychologically. They can't pack up and leave, now. All their life's savings were sunk into this home.

And, you know, who actually believes in ghosts?

You all know this story. It's a cliche. Family, new house, ghosts, dead dog at the end of Act 1.

There's an obvious reason that all haunted house stories begin with the family moving into the house. If they didn't just move in, they'd already be having this ghost problem. Either they've just arrived at the house or we're joining the story half way through. It's practically a narrative requirement.

But what if I told you the haunted house story is a metaphor? What if I told you the ghosts aren't really ghosts?

The ghosts represent the anxiety of being alone in a strange place. Moving house is a huge upheaval of one's life and when you're trying to settle into a new place, any number of things can go wrong. You might have bought a house practically falling apart, there might be limited professional opportunities in the area, the town might hate outsiders, the church might be fall of extremist hate mongers, the supermarket might not carry cocoa pops. A family must establish new routines and new boundaries as the change in environment forces their relationships to adapt. All of this anxiety is reduced into a spectral haunting that plagues the family while they're trying to adjust to this new life. The house is on an old stretch of dirt road outside town because the family, being new to the community, are alone in the community. They have no friends, no family, no social network at all they can call on for help. They are literally and figuratively isolated. Just a group of equally anxious and exhausted people trying to make life work.

Stop me if you've heard this one. A group of teenagers are picked off one by one by a murderer in a mask.

What? You know this already?

Of course you do. Scream spelled this out for us over a decade ago. The teenagers have sex and do drugs and they die. The killer is a punishment for breaking the rules, for acting against society's expectations, for being different to their conservative parent's generation.

But now we expect kids to have sex and do drugs. We call it normal. That's why the slasher film died out.

Okay, but let me say that Scream really didn't take it far enough and because of that, it missed the mark just a little.

Let's look at Friday The 13th, a nigh perfect slasher film. A group of teenagers, isolated from the world of adults, having sex, smoking in bed, being reckless and hormonal and irresponsible. They are stalked by Jason Vorhees and killed one by one. They are punished for their behaviour.

Well, that's not all true. It's Jason's mother killing them. She's killing them to avenge her son's death. Poor Jason died in the lake, drowning while the camp counselors were off having pre-marital sex instead of watching the children. It's not so much cosmic justice as it is revenge. But, still, that's splitting hairs. They're being punished. But it's important to note that the punishment is actually really specific. It wasn't just that the teenagers were having pre-marital sex, it's that their doing so resulted in Jason's death.

If we extend out from Friday the 13th, even beyond Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street to some lesser known slasher films like Valentine and Prom Night, and even the bigger hit that was I Know What You Did Last Summer, we see that the whole sex and drugs are punished by death theory begins to fall apart. Nobody is going to argue Prom Night isn't a slasher film. Likewise for Valentine. But neither include much in the way of sex and drugs. Valentine isn't even about teenagers.

But there is still a common theme between them and Friday the 13th. The main characters, the killer's victims, are being punished. Whether it's for bullying or accidental murder or a whole host of other crimes and social wrong-doings, the characters are guilty and they would go unpunished for their crimes if not for a masked killer.

In essense, a slasher film is a warning. Sometimes it does only go as far as pre-marital sex and drugs. In the earliest slasher film, Black Christmas, it's a warning against the debauchery and sin of being in a sorority, of abusing the freedom of early adulthood. "Behave yourself," says the slasher film. "Do as society expects, obey your elders, live a life of virtue. If you don't, your sins will be punished with death." It's an idea as old as humanity.

Slasher films are super conservative, when you think about it.

Good horror is not about monsters and masked killers. Good horror uses these spooks and creeps to say something about humanity. Michael Myers, the villain of the Halloween franchise, has been in 9 movies and has always played second fiddle in his own franchise. Michael Myers isn't interesting. He's not a character, he's a force of nature. Horror movies are never about the monster, they're about the people. They're about people dealing with adversity and anxiety and whether or not their humanity can weather the storm of terror around them.

And when Michael Myers is the main character of his film? That film sucks.

Sorry, Rob Zombie.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Jack Chick In Memoriam

I play role-playing games. Dungeons and Dragons is, as the young people say, my joint.

I'm also a Christian. Never made a secret of that. I own a number of bibles and display them shamelessly on my bookshelves (right above the collected works of Lovecraft.)

I don't now or have ever seen a conflict of interest in being a gamer and a Christian. I'm not alone. One of my weekly gaming groups plays at a church as part of a church ministry. Not everyone shares my opinion.

Being both a gamer and a Christian and the kind of person who spends a lot of time on the internet, it was inevitable that I would encounter Jack Chick and his Chick Tracts. I remember the first time I read Dark Dungeons and how it made me laugh. I recognise, though, that I have been fortunate. I've never been a part of a church or Christian community that saw role playing games as works of evil or short cuts to hell. Others were not so lucky. Other gamers have suffered varying abuses at the hands of Christians, convinced they must hate role-playing games and actively work to rid the world of their corruption. This was and is a real thing. Jack Chick must share some of the blame for that.

Jack Chick's work was, largely, a work of fear and hate. His comics are inflammatory and paranoid and bigoted. They're also camp as a row of tents. They're the Leave It To Beaver of fire and brim stone sermons. It can be hard to believe they're not parody or satire.

Jack Chick is dead.

It started coming up over my Facebook news feed this morning and as the day goes on, the news articles are multiplying.

This filled me with concern.

Many of my friends are gamers. Hell, at this stage of my life, the majority of people I know well and in passing are gamers. Some of those have had genuinely bad experiences with Christians who fear role-playing games. Some have absorbed, through our sub-culture, a second hand trauma and have turned that into a resentment towards Christianity at large. Jack Chick makes a convenient target for that resentment. From the moment I saw the first article on his death, I had no doubt in my mind that soon the cheers and celebrations would be coming. "Jack Chick is dead? Huzzah!" they'd say. "I hope he's in hell!" they'll cry. "It's about time. Let him rot!" Yes, sir. The cheers would be coming.

And they did.

But not in the volume I expected.

Instead, something else happened.

People started sharing their favourite Chick Tracts. People started celebrating his work as the unintentionally hilarious insane ravings that they are. Nobody had much to say about Jack Chick himself, but they had a lot of good memories of reading Chick Tracts and laughing and sharing it with their friends so they could laugh. Their celebrations began to send others to Jack Chick's website and collections of his work, wondering what all the fuss was about and those new comers began to laugh.

And I can't tell you how happy this has made me.

No matter what Jack Chick said, no matter how crazy his comics, no matter how hurtful his words, Jack Chick was a man with friends and family and a life. His death will create real grief for real people. We should respect that. We should not celebrate a man's death.

But after witnessing the response to his death, I'm beginning to think that perhaps there is something to celebrate about Jack Chick's life. No matter how hard Jack Chick tried to spread fear and intolerance but no matter how many cultures and beliefs he painted as evil, as literally demonic, no matter how hard he tried to make us as bigoted as he was, Jack Chick ultimately did something wonderful.

Jack Chick made us laugh. More than that, he made us laugh together. And laughter and fellowship is great at stripping hate of all its power.

So I encourage everybody to laugh at Chick Tracts. Laugh at them because they are absurd and camp and insane.

If Jack Chick's work can bring joy to our lives and bring people together to share that joy, then he leaves behind a better legacy than he ever could have hoped.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

What I Learned Writing Pilgrimage

Over three years ago, I wrote this blog entry about what I learned writing Sorceress' Blood. I had intended to write a similar blog entry after finishing Pilgrimage but for some reason I never did. Well, it's time to fix that. So here we go!

This is what I learned writing my second book, Pilgrimage.

1. Planning makes everything better

I knew where I wanted Pilgrimage to begin. I knew where I wanted Pilgrimage to end. I knew what I wanted the themes of Pilgrimage to be, I knew what the world would be (because it's the same world as Sorceress' Blood) and who the characters would be. This was enough for me to begin writing. A couple of chapters in, I grabbed my hand-dandy notebook and wrote myself some notes to outline the next few chapters. Every time I finished a couple of chapters, I'd go back to my notebook and do the same. This meant I knew not only where the story was ultimately going, but where it was going next. Very little of my writing time went towards staring at the screen thinking "what happens now?" because I had done that work before hand. This was invaluable in making my writing time productive. I have been a committed planner ever since.

2. No, really, planning makes EVERYTHING better

Pilgrimage is a strong story, I think, because of its themes. The themes of friendship, grief and redemption are core to the novel. Without exploring those themes, it would be a far less interesting story. Those themes were always in my mind. Before the first words were on the page I had planned what themes I wanted the story to explore, how characters would relate to those themes and what the novel would say, if anything, about those themes by the time it finished or if it would leave them open to reader's decision and interpretation. There were no accidents in finished product. I said what I wanted to say, how I wanted to say it, and it has made Pilgrimage a more satisfying and memorable book for both me the author and the reader.

3. Sometimes you edit with a scalpel, sometimes with a butcher's knife

A lot of editing is a matter of fine tuning. Reworking a sentence, choosing a better word, cutting out your adverbs and your passive voice and your excessive copulas. You edit to trim the fat and make everything look and sound pretty and get your point across with maximum clarity. It's a task that requires precision. Except when it doesn't. Sometimes you don't need to trim the fat, you need to lop off a limb, behead the body, carve out the heart and lungs and dump it all in the fire. During the editing phase of Pilgrimage, I removed a number of chapters and re-wrote them from scratch. I took big chunks of those chapters and inserted them into later chapters, rewriting them to fit seamlessly. One section of the journey appeared significantly later in early drafts, but I cut it out and shoved it back in earlier on in the story. These were massive changes affecting not just large sections of text but the entire story as a result. It meant a lot of work. Everything that got chopped and sliced and shifted needed delicate stitching around it to make sure the flow of the narrative wasn't broken. But those changes improved the story. These big changes were still easier than writing the complete first draft, though. Don't be afraid to make big changes in editing. Even though the hardest part is done, don't think you can slack off.

4. Stay in school, kids

Pilgrimage is a journey. The journey is kind of like Baby's First Literary Device. It's simple stuff. Journeys are popular because they're simple. They're easy to write, easy to dissect, and they make for great extended metaphors. Every story includes some kind of journey. A character's personal arc is almost always a psychological journey for them. Linking that personal psychological journey to some kind of physical journey is first grade writer stuff. But I can only tell you this, I could only write Pilgrimage the way I did, because I learned it. I studied it. I had it all spelled out to me and I was shown examples upon examples upon examples. All this happened to me in my second last year of high school. It turns out, all that stuff we learned in English class is actually really important if you want to write. I'm glad I paid attention. I'm also glad I had an excellent teacher (to whom Pilgrimage is dedicated) who fostered in me a passion for literature and a desire to understand it. I've said before that if you want to be a writer, you forfeit the right to read for fun. Reading is now study. Understanding books is necessary to writing books.

 5. When you're stuck, look at your conflict and theme

Raymond Chandler famously said "If in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun." It's one of my favourite pieces of story telling advice. It means that if you're stuck, make something exciting happen. Add some conflict and drama and mystery. But if you're brain is working, you might be asking "But who is this man with the gun and why is he here?" The way I see it, you've got two options. Firstly, this man with his gun could be the beginning of a new mysterious subplot. That gives you an interesting new direction to take and something for your characters to do right now. But obviously you can't add in a whole new subplot every time you're scratching your head for ideas. So I say, option two, tie the man with the gun into your primary conflict or your themes. Every story has a protagonist and an antagonist working against each other. This man with the gun (who is probably not a literal man with a gun) represents the agenda of your antagonist. It's a new obstacle the character must over-come to keep ahead of the antagonist and if the protagonist fails, the antagonist moves ahead, putting more pressure on the protagonist. Alternatively, the man with the gun might not represent the antagonist but instead represents the theme of your story. How your character interacts with this man with a gun, how he triumphs or fails, what that means to your character, can all deepen the story's exploration of its theme. So if you're struggling to think of ways to move the narrative forward and keep reader interest, look at your theme and main conflict for ways to introduce new conflict.