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.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Amazing Straight-White-Man!

I've talked a lot about writing minority and marginalised groups. I've stressed the importance of fiction and why we need diverse representation. I'll continue to talk about it a lot in the future.

And yet, you might say, "Carl, who are you to talk about this like an expert? What do you know about the needs and wants of a group you're not a part of and whose life experience will be totally different to your own?"

That's a fair question. I'd go so far as to say it's a good question. I've asked myself that question a lot and I'll no doubt ask myself that question again. But every time I ask that question, I come up with the same answer.

You've probably heard people talk about privilege plenty in recent memory. I may have mentioned it myself. I have a lot of privilege. Being a straight white male in the first world, I lucked into all kinds of privilege that make my life relatively easy. I'd like to stress that point that I lucked into my privilege. I didn't earn it, I didn't work for it, I didn't ask for it. I was born lucky.

It would be wrong of me to have that privilege, which I did nothing to earn, and do nothing of value with it. It is a great power I hold and with great power comes great responsibility. I am Straight-White-Man, fighting for truth, social justice and the politically correct way!

Now you might say, "What are you talking about? What power? What privilege? Not every straight white dude is successful politician or a corporate ceo or a respected academic."  You might be a straight white dude who feels like you don't have a whole lot of privilege and say "None of my gender, sexuality or skin colour has made me successful. There's plenty of straight white men living in poverty and killing themselves and having a hard time."

You're right. You are 100% correct. But the privilege that comes from being a straight white dude does not look like the privilege that comes from being born rich like Carlton Banks. If you, my fellow straight white men, are asking what possible Great Power(tm) you've received by virtue of your birth, then answer me this question.

When is the last time somebody threatened to rape you for having an opinion?

I'd bet money it hasn't happened.

But that's a reality for women.

When is the last time you told somebody what you do for a living and they said "No, really, what do you do?"

That probably hasn't happened either.

But in less than a month, I've seen two news stories about women of colour being treated as liars when they claimed to be an architect and a doctor.

When is the last time somebody called you an abomination and that God hates you or that civilisation is collapsing because of you?

I've never heard that.

But for homosexuals everywhere, that's what they hear. And don't try and shrug that off and say "Oh that's an extreme minority saying that" because that bullshit doesn't matter. It's being said. The LGBTQ+ community is hearing that. It doesn't matter if one person is saying it or a million, that it's being said at all is a problem faced by real people.

Straight-White-Man's privilege, his super power, is that society rarely tries to silence them. I can talk about feminism without being threatened with murder and rape. I can tell people I'm an author without people saying "No, really, what do you do?" I can have relationships, get married and nobody will tell me I'm a pedophile waiting to happen.

So because of that privilege, because I am safe to speak my mind, because society listens to what I say and respects me by default, and because I did nothing to earn my super powered mantle of Straight-White-Man, I have a responsibility to use that privilege and my voice to speak out for and in defense of others.

Because (and say it with me now) with great power comes great responsibility.

Caveat
Before we finish, it's super important for me to mention that part of that responsibility is also shutting the hell up. When I say "speak for" I don't mean "speak over." I will never be able to fully describe the experiences and needs of the people I am not, I can only lend the legitimacy of my privilege to it and say what people wouldn't listen to if they said it. But when people from minority and marginalised groups are speaking for themselves, show your full support but don't try and take the spot light off them.

And in all things, to borrow a phrase, don't forget to be awesome.

(Also: Check out my friend's new blog Disabled Brown Female for thoughts on the world from somebody with a very different experience of the world)

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Because I'm A Dentist

I'm tired. Knackered. Absolutely exhausted.

This weekend gone was Sydcon, a role-playing game convention held every October in Sydney. I attended as I always do and had a great time, as I always do.

And now I'm tired. Post-convention fatigue. I want to lay on my couch and watch Supernatural for endless hours and drink tea and recover.

But I'm at my computer. I'm writing. I'm working. I'm making the words happen.

They're not good words. I've had to rewrite paragraphs five times not just because they're bad but because they don't make sense. I've stared at an empty page for long periods of time, then typed a word, then went back to staring. I've been distracted by every stray thought, every fond memory of a YouTube video I suddenly feel I'd like to rewatch and every second song just demands I stop work and I listen to it.

It's been a lot like pulling teeth. My teeth. With copper wire tired to two legged donkey. It's painful and I'm progressing in any hurry.

But I'm still writing.

I don't mind that it's no good. I don't mind that I'll need to rewrite this even more, that I'll basically need to do a new draft of everything I've written so far. I can do that. As a writer, I have infinite retries to get it right.

What's important is I'm doing it.

This isn't writer's block (because writer's block doesn't exist.)

I'm just tired.

I just suck.

But I'm still writing.

I will write better tomorrow, or the day after that, or the day after that. But if I didn't write today, I almost certainly wouldn't tomorrow. If I just kept delaying until I had the ideal circumstances, I'd hardly ever write and then I'd hardly ever improve and then I'd hardly ever get anything done and I wouldn't have written books and I wouldn't be a professional word wizard.

So even though it's painful, even though I'll need to do it all again, even though I'd rather just collapse on my couch and bury myself in Netflix, I'm going to keep writing. It's just what you do.

Don't let a bad day stop you. Don't let sucking stop you. Don't let fatigue stop you. Writing time is precious and if you have it, use it.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go pull some more teeth.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

What Keeps Me Going

I've been thinking, all morning, about what keeps me going. Why do I keep coming back to my computer to write stories? Why do I keep coming up with ideas and then putting them down in print? Why do I write books? Why do I write this blog?

I believe it was J.A Konrath who said "If you can quit, quit."

Writing and telling a story is easy. Doing it well is another matter. Being a professional author entails even more challenge. If I could have quit, I probably would have long ago. But I didn't. Because I can't.

But why?

Passion

I was eight years old when I wrote what I call my first short story and decided that I wanted to keep doing it forever. That was the moment I decided I wanted to be an author. Nearly twenty years later, I'm still working on it, still improving, still writing, still telling stories. I have always had a passion for story but, perhaps also, I've had an obsession. Writing is like an addiction. If I don't do it, I have withdrawals.

But eventually you always come down from a high. Writing can be like pulling teeth and sometimes a whole lot of hard work just makes crap. Sometimes hard work makes good art but nobody cares and you feel like you've just been shouting into the void.

Dreams come and go. Addictions can be broken. Sometimes writing isn't fun and yet I keep writing even when I can't really tell you why. Eight year old me decided to do a lot of dumb stuff I abandoned, like recruiting homeless people into an armed militia to fight crime.

Motivation

I've made it no secret that I became an author to entertain others. My success is measured in the joy I bring to people's lives through fiction. I write pulpy genre fiction because, in my experience, it is the kind of fiction that is the most fun and I want everybody who comes into contact with my writing to have fun, myself included.

But doing something for other people is a path fraught with peril. You can't please everybody. Seeking validation from other people is a dangerous way to build your self-worth because it's unreliable. Sometimes people aren't going to like you or the things you do and if you're depending on their approval to keep you going, it can be crushing.

But even if, like me, you care very little about people who don't like your work and love the people who do like your work, if all I ever wanted to accomplish was bring a few smiles into the world then I could stand on the street and give away my work for free. I could put all my books and short stories here on my blog and say "Go nuts! Read what you want! Tell me if you like it!" Or, hell, I could just share them with friends and family. I don't feel a need to make the whole world happy with my writing, just the people I can.

Defiance

Everybody has dreams and aspirations and they change. If all I wanted was to make people happy, I could probably find more efficient means than writing books for professional publication and selling them through book stores.

But it has been twenty years and I haven't given up. I just keep on going and, after consideration, I think the reason is very simple.

Because the world keeps telling me I can't.

I have long harboured resentment towards authority. I resist control and limitation and expectation wherever possible.

Every day I wake up and the culture I'm in says "Play it safe. Get a real job. Buy a house. Have children. Play the game. Drink the kool-aid. Abandon your dreams."

Every day I wake up and the voice of doubt and anxiety and fear in my mind says "Nobody wants to read your book. If you were going to succeed, you'd have done it by now. It's never going to change. One day you'll be old and regret that you gambled your whole life on a few books nobody wanted."

Every day I wake up and I sit down and I write. I write because I've come this far and I'm not backing down now. I write because I've got a chip on my shoulder, a fire in my belly and every word of every story that somebody reads is another way I take tell the universe to piss off and claim control of my life.

That's why, when everything else is not enough, I still write. Passion smoulders and flares over time, motivations are weak and malleable but I am forever a fool driven by grim determination to live my life my way.

Self-Reflection

A new self-awareness does not magically make me a better writer. But it does make life a little clearer. My own thoughts are no longer a mystery hidden deep in my subconscious. Now when I sit down to write and I wonder why in the world I'm still going, I can answer that question.

Then I can get on with the task at hand.

Self-reflection is something I will always encourage. Right now, I encourage you to reflect on why you write. Discover what it as, at the deepest level, that keeps you hitting the keys, making the words and telling the stories when the act seems to defy all reason.

Then pat yourself on the back for achieving a deeper understanding of yourself.

And then get back to work, slacker.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Culture, You Damn Dirty White

Just a reminder that Summer's End is about to go up in price across all platforms so if you haven't bought a copy yet, do it now!

I'd intended to blog about the experience and lessons of writing Summer's End but then author Lionel Shriver gave a speech at the Brisbane Writer's Festival about how she doesn't like the idea of cultural appropriation and the damn lefties and their political correctness are trying to ruin fiction. She then laments that even though she's apparently not allowed to ever write anything but a memoir ever again, she's supposed to write diverse characters and fill her books with a check list of sexualities and ethnicities and damn it, damn it, damn it, being a writer is so hard, right now.

Let me preface this by admitting I'm not familiar with Lionel Shriver's work. Never read any and I'm not rushing out to find some now.

At the heart of Shriver's rant is the idea that writers should be able to write about characters and from the perspective of characters from different walks of life than the author. And that's true. I'm on board with that. Not so long ago I wrote here on this blog about why not only should authors be allowed to, authors should be encouraged to write about diverse characters. But around that point, Shriver criticises the whole idea of Cultural Appropriation in what amounts to a standard "Political correctness gone mad" tirade, as though this meme isn't so tired and weak it can't be put to death by fourteen year-olds on Tumblr.

So I'm not going to pretend the issue of cultural appropriation is easy or simple. I'm not going to pretend there aren't self-appointed culture police out there making sure the local sushi restaurant is a white free zone. But when you point at one extreme of a cultural movement and say "Look at all these bastards ruining the world," then you're just proving that you don't want to engage intelligently with the discourse. You want to stomp your feet and pout and scream at straw men until nanny comes and gives you ice cream to make it all better.

But cultural appropriation isn't about censorship, it's not about putting people in boxes, it's not about restricting who can eat sushi or drink tequila or wear a kimono. This is an issue of respect.

Cultural Appropriation is defined in the book "Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law (Rutgers Series: The Public Life of the Arts)" by Susan Scafidi as
Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission.
And that's a good a definition as any. But the word has a negative connotation and, on the surface, is taking a cultural artifact, expression or knowledge so bad? I for one quite like cooking Italian food for dinner. Am I culturally appropriating food from Italian culture? Well, yeah. Is that, in itself, bad? Nah, I think we can safely say that's fine.

So where do we draw the line? How do we tell what's bad cultural appropriation and what's okay?

When a fashion designer dresses a model in a mock Native American feather head dress, faux buck skin bikini and beading, then walks them down the runway and says "Check this out, cultural fetishisation is hot this season!" then the designer is not being respectful. It turns out, those feathered head dress - or war bonnets - are kind of a big deal in some Native American cultures and not just any chump can gallivant about in eagle feathers. War bonnets are important cultural artifacts rich in history and symbolism and national identity. War bonnets are not fashion accessories and if you treat them as such, or as a costume, then you're being insensitive.

You're being a jerk.

Don't be a jerk.

A few years ago I went to Hong Kong. While there I picked up a jacket and a couple of shirts in a market that took a lot of their design from traditional Chinese fashion. Mandarin collar, frog buttons, embroidered dragon design. Very Chinese. You may be aware that I am not Chinese. Like, not at all. Not even a bit. So what makes me so special?

Well, there's a few reasons. Firstly, the items in question were just fashion. They're just clothes. There's a history to those clothes but that history is far less culturally involved than a Native American war bonnet. Even the inclusion of a dragon design is safe. Dragons have been a part of art and fashion in China for a long time. This is not an "Emperor's only dragon, peasants need not apply." It's the kind of dragon you put on the back of your mirror, or on a wall hanging, or on your bowl. It's cool. Secondly, there's an implied permission granted to me by the nature of the sale. I'm in Hong Kong, buying from a local vendor, in a market and the whole context is basically "Here, white man. Here is some kitsch that you can wear and nobody will be offended. This is for cultural tourists like yourself." Thirdly, independent of that context, I know enough about China to say with confidence that I'm not crossing a line. Chinese history and culture is something I have a great interest in and passion for and I can safely say that I'm not going to upset anyone by wearing this shirt.

Finally, at the time I was working in a job with a number of Chinese colleagues and that had a lot of connections to the Chinese-Australian community in my area. If I had been crossing any boundaries and being a jerk, they would have called me on it. But my genuine interest, knowledge and respect towards Chinese culture was always appreciated by my co-workers and they liked that I was willing to share in a celebration of their heritage but always as an outsider and never pretending to be anything more.

I was not being a jerk.

And that's what this comes down to. Don't be a jerk. Culture is not just an abstract idea, culture is a people. When you take a cultural artifact and use it, wear it, eat it, remember that your actions necessarily impact on real people. Are you going to offend those people? Are you showing both interest and respect in them? If you're not, then stop whatever you're doing. If you're not sure, maybe play it safe and stop until you can find out.

We live in an increasingly global and connected world and I consider it a great fortune that I get to live in a part of the world where hundreds of cultures are meeting and mixing all around me. And not once have I ever met a person from another culture who was offended at the idea that I might like to know more about their heritage and share in some of their cultural practice and knowledge. People want their culture to be seen and shared and appreciated and all they ask is that you don't be a jerk. That's not a huge ask.

Now, what about authors. I've already covered this but I'll go over it again really quick. Basically: Same rules apply.

Authors need to write more diversity, they need to represent more people and their cultures and their life experience. We have plenty of books by straight white guys about straight white guys. But before you tell a story about another culture, in another culture or using another culture, stop and consider how respectful you're being. Have you got your facts straight? Are your characters stereotypes? Is the one black character in your novel full of white characters used in such a way to casually evoke slavery imagery? If so, maybe don't do that. That's offensive. At least have another black American character in there.

So back to that original question, how do we know what's okay and what's bad cultural appropriation?

Just don't be a jerk. It's not hard.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Summer's End Available Now

If you were one of those amazing human beings who pre-ordered Summer's End, then you'll already have your copy of the Summer's End e-book. For everybody else, Summer's End is available now!

Jonathan King is an aging Seattle private detective looking for a little rest and relaxation in the country. He wasn't looking for love, but on his first night in the small farming town of Madison he meets Summer Bell, the first woman to make Jonathan's heart beat in an age. But the next morning, Summer is found dead in her home. 

An outsider and the last person seen with Summer alive, Jonathan is the prime suspect. Jonathan knows he can prove his innocence, but can he triumph over fear and corruption while dodging a hot headed deputy sheriff and a hard line FBI agent? With nothing but his cunning and the shirt on his back, time is running out for Jonathan to bring Summer's killer to justice and clear his name.


Summer's End is a detective novella and, if I do say so myself, an excellent story. It's available now (links below) and it's even at a discounted price for the rest of the week, so get it now!

Buy on KindleNookApple devices, Kobo and from Smashwords.

Read it.

Enjoy it.

See you next time.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Do Something Different

I write novels. Novelist is one of the titles I like to wear. Novels are what most people want to read in the modern world and I am happy to supply them because I like to write novels.

I write short stories. Not many people read short stories. I think it's a form that is of interest to writers and few other people. But I like reading short stories and I like writing short stories, so I do.

I write comics. It has been a while since I wrote a comic script, but I've written a number of them in the past. It's a skill I have and I like to think I do a good job of it.

I don't often but have written scripts for radio and I have written the occasional script for stage. They were not very good but they were fun and educational and I can say I wrote them.

I occasionally write poetry. I'm definitely not a great poet but I'm particularly fond of tanka and haiku and will, if I'm in the mood, write a poem to pass the time. I never call myself a poet but I do sometimes write poetry.

What do you write? I'm going to bet you write short stories and novels and maybe you sometimes write poetry just because, like me. But have you ever considered writing a script for a television show? No? Why not?

Some time ago now I said "A story is a story is a story" and that you can learn how to tell a story from all kinds of media, not just books. I still say that. If you're a novel writer, you should also study how movies and TV shows tell stories because it's highly educational. The same is true about writing in other formats.

Writing a comic book is a lot different to writing a novel. Firstly, your audience is divided. The comic book reader is part of your audience, you write to engage and entertain them but much of what you write will be invisible to them. You also write for an artist (who might also be you) and in this way your writing must be instructive. The writer must have a sense of what to draw in order to give clarity to the words, but not be so instructive as to constrain them. The artist is the expert and you must write with enough wriggle room for them to do their job well. You and the artist are in a symbiotic relationship and you have to remember that when writing a comic script.

Comics also have a lot less words and if you write with a mind to having all the words of prose in a comic book then you're probably going to write a bad comic. Comics are a visual medium and the pictures must do a lot of leg work to convey place, time, thought, emotion and action. Most or all of the words that will appear in a comic are dialogue and so you must know how to write good dialogue. Because a panel has limited space, it must also be efficient dialogue.

I've been told I write good dialogue. If this is true (and I think it is, even if I do say so myself) then I credit that largely to having written comic books. That said, I can also think of one or two areas where my writing is weaker which is probably a result of writing comics. Oh well.

But you can see how writing a comic is a very different beast compared to writing prose. And yet, it made me a better writer.

This is why I encourage you--

No, this is why I am telling you to write something different. Experiment, go outside your comfort zone, try something different. Write a comic or a movie or a radio drama or some poetry or, if you are a screen writer, write a novel or a short story.

And when I say write, I don't mean slap together a quick piece out of left over alphabet soup and hazy memory of the plot to last night's Law and Order. Take it seriously. Put some time and effort into it.

Learn to do it properly.

Read about the needs of writing in your new format, find a guide book, find an expert, study examples of good writing in your format, study examples of bad writing in your format. You know, all that crap you did when you were learning to write for the first time. Treat yourself as that clueless, wide eyed newbie with big dreams.

And when you write it and you suck at it, go back and edit. This is serious business. You're educating yourself here and you will get out of it what you put in.

Then, when you can honestly say you completed a project or two to the best of your new found ability, go back to what you usually do and see how those skills carry over. Not all of them will, but some of them will. Maybe writing poetry improves the rhythm of your prose, maybe it improves the emotional impact of your writing over all. Maybe writing a script helps you to set a scene better and makes your dialogue more efficient. You won't know until you try.

But you've got to try.

Doctors go to medical conferences to learn the latest theory and practice. Scientists read journals to keep up to date on discoveries and research in their field. Like doctors and scientists, you're a professional. This is one way you can undergo professional development and make yourself a better writer.

Don't stagnate.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Summer's End Preview

The release of Summer's End is still a couple of weeks away, but because I think you're just so damned great, I'm going to give you a preview of what's coming!

You can hop on over to my Figment page and read the beginning of Summer's End right now. Click the cover to go see it!


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Pre-Order Summer's End Now! Right now!

Time for an exciting announcement!

My new book, Summer's End is available for pre-order right now!

Summer's End is a detective novella. Writing a detective story is something I have wanted to do for years and has always been a difficult task for me. But I finally managed it and it will be coming to an e-reader type device near your face very soon!

I'll now take questions from the audience.

Can I buy this right now?
Yes you can! But you can't read it yet. Summer's End is currently available for pre-order and will be officially released on September 5. That's the first Monday in September and is approximately two weeks away.

Why pre-order?
Because they're fashionable? No, really, the reason is mostly technical. Right now you can pre-order Summer's End from Amazon and from Smashwords (links at the bottom) and it will be available from other ebook stores progressively.

You called it a novella. What's a novella?
A novella is a short novel. Summer's End is about 20,000 words, which is too big to be called a short story but is only about a quarter or less the length of your average novel. It's comparable in length to something like Animal Farm. It's an underrated story telling format that I personally adore. 

How much does it cost?
Right now, Summer's End will cost you $0.99. It will remain that price for about a week after release, then the price will go up. Right now it's super low because I'm a nice guy who wants you to give you a discount just for being awesome and reading my blog. Get in early!

What's it about?
Jonathan King is an aging Seattle private detective looking for a little rest and relaxation in the country. He wasn't looking for love, but on his first night in the small farming town of Madison he meets Summer Bell, the first woman to make Jonathan's heart beat in an age. But the next morning, Summer is found dead in her home. 

An outsider and the last person seen with Summer alive, Jonathan is the prime suspect. Jonathan knows he can prove his innocence, but can he triumph over fear and corruption while dodging a hot headed deputy sheriff and a hard line FBI agent? With nothing but his cunning and the shirt on his back, time is running out for Jonathan to bring Summer's killer to justice and clear his name.

Where can I get it?
AmazonKoboApple or Smashwords. More stores to follow.

What's next?
If you click the Amazon link (and hey, why not pre-order while you're there?) you will no doubt notice that Summer's End is labeled as book 1 of the "Jonathan King mysteries." I already have two more novellas written to follow this one. They both need a lot of polish but I'm not done writing mysteries, just yet! I'm also not done with fantasy! In short, keep watching this space!

Saturday, August 20, 2016

But What About The Poor Unrepresented Majority

This is a quick follow-up to my last blog.

Last week we talked about representation, the importance of fiction and what sort of world we, as creators, want to present to the world. I've written about this a few times in recent memory, about people with special needs, about the spectrum of gender and people of diverse ethnic backgrounds. This stuff is important to me and it should be important to you.

But something that is raised whenever I board this train of thought is, well, what about real world demographics? What about actual population statistics. Say that I'm writing a story set in Australia, in the area I live, which I mentioned is mostly white, with a large number of people from Chinese descent, as well as Korean and Indian but very few people of African descent or South American descent represented in the local population. Shouldn't the story set in this area have a cast that represents that ethnic makeup of the population? Shouldn't my cast be mostly white and maybe a couple of Chinese characters? Isn't it conceivable that my story wouldn't include the full diverseity of the area?

What about people with mental illness? Special needs? Diverse gender and sexuality? What if my story is about lawyers? Most lawyers are men, so isn't it being realistic to have a cast mostly made up of men?

In a perfect world, we wouldn't have to have this conversation. In a perfect world, the great diversity of humanity in our world would be equally represented in the heroes of our fiction. The only reason we have to make a fuss and a focused effort to write better female (for example) characters in leading roles is because there is a historical absence of such characters. There's a lot of catching up to do. The women of the world deserve a representation they're not getting.

And not every story needs to be a rainbow of representation. Not every story needs to tick off a list of characters: Black, White, East Asian, Homosexual, Transgender, Woman in the cast. In fact, when you try do that, you often end up with token characters and that isn't as helpful as you might think. You might argue it's better than nothing, but we can do better than tokens and we should.

When we talk about better representation and more diversity, we're talking about across a larger body of work. If you want the main character of this story to be a straight white dude, cool, fine, there are straight white dudes in the world and nobody is asking them to be deprived of representation. But if you have written ten stories and each one has a straight white dude as a main character and a supporting cast mostly made up of other straight white dudes and maybe some straight white women from time to time, then there's a problem. You're not challenging your default thinking and you're creating worlds in which people are excluded.

And finally, reality is no reason to under-represent people. We're writing fiction. Anything is possible. Your world, your story, the characters - and anything speculative and beyond the normal like laser guns and werewolves - don't exist in reality. It's not the (fiction) writer's job to paint a realistic portrait of the world.

Like I always say: Truth should never get in the way of a good story.

Addendum:
So after I uploaded this blog, a good friend of mine asked me "What right do I have, as a straight while male, to try and tell the stories of people of colour or women?"

It is an excellent question. The short answer is that you don't have a right, you have a responsibility. I said that. But that short answer doesn't rally address the issue in question.

All of us, as creators, even the women and people of colour amongst us, have a responsibility to represent diversity in fiction. However, we also have a responsibility to be sensitive and respectful. Sometimes that is going to mean not writing from the perspective of a character you can't represent. I have no idea what it's like to be homosexual, growing up in the bible belt of America and I would not feel comfortable writing about that life experience. That is just too far outside my experience for me to approach the topic with the necessary sensitivity. Even though I am writing about an under-represented person, I'd be doing more harm than good.

But it's also possible to over-think it. You don't need to write a minority character in which their being a minority is the point of the story. There's room for that on the bookshelf, but there's room for so much more. Think about this: If you took the character of John McClane from Die Hard and made him Chinese-American but otherwise kept the movie and the character exactly the same, would Die Hard lose anything? Hell no. Would you need to add something more Chinese American about the character to justify the racial choice? Of course not, that's stupid. John McClane doesn't make a point of bringing up his Scottish ancestry through the film, he just kicks arse and takes names.

In my opinion, this is the simplest and maybe the best way to write diversity for most authors. Tell the same stories you love to tell, but diversify your characters.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Rethinking Your Natural Defaults

Fiction matters. Media matters.

There was some controversy recently about Matt Damon appearing as the hero in a film set in China during the Song dynasty. That's around the 10th century, a time when there was a historically notable absence of white Americans in China. Now there's a big conversation to be had about a film set in China about Chinese things having a white American hero. It's not a simple thing and it's a conversation that needs to be had.

And anybody who says "Relax, it's just a movie, it's not like it matters" is full of shit.

Full.

Of.

Shit.

I'm not here to talk about The Great Wall or the racial controversy around it.

I want to talk about some writing I was doing recently. Actually, it was world building. I was writing up some notes for a role-playing game. Setting details, plot hooks, important and interesting NPCs. Exciting stuff to you, I'm sure. I had grouped my important NPCs by categories like Business, Politics, Law Enforcement, Crime and so on. Within those categories, I wrote some notes on all the important people within the world. As I was working, I began to notice something a little off about my notes. I scrolled through all my important NPCs that I'd written up so far - organised crime bosses, police commissioner, two mayors, a business tycoon. After skimming over what I'd read, I noticed the problem.

All my important people were men.

All of them.

And with only a couple of exceptions, they had very white sounding names. The exceptions were a couple of characters of Chinese.

This happens a lot, regardless of whether I'm working on a role-playing game, a short story, a novel or whatever else. I have default modes of thinking that guide my creative endeavours. You don't need to be a genius to figure out where these come from, either. I live in a part of the world that is overwhelmingly white and if you live in this area and you're not white, you're statistically likely to be of Chinese descent.

This ethnic mix is my day to day reality. This is the world I see when I go outside.

But I also default to male and that's a little weirder. The world I see is not 90% male. I don't walk down the street and see a noticeable absence of women around me. And yet, male is my default. If I'm thinking up a character, I will automatically write them as male. Is it because I'm male? Does that tip the scales?

Let's go back to my game notes. I was writing about important non-player characters. These were the movers and shakers, the people with influence, the people who matter in my fictional world. They were 100% male. Not let's compare that to my day to day reality, the world that I see whenever I open my eyes, go outside, turn on the TV, listen to music. It should come as no surprise to you that I see a lot of men. Business leaders, political leaders, sports stars, popular musicians*, even criminals who make the news are largely male.** The people who shape the world are men. That's a pretty weird dissonance between population and power.

Well, yeah, obvious, right? Everybody knows that.

Right. So let's go back to fiction. Like I said before, fiction matters. We consume fiction in all kinds of media for a variety of reasons but there's always an element of escapism. Fiction offers us something we can't experience in our life. That might be adventure and excitement, it might be drama and romance, it might be sorrow. Whatever the case, we're stepping out of our life and into another life in another place to gain some form of fulfillment.

Now imagine that when you look around the world and see all the important and special people are, I don't know, foxes. Red foxes. You're not a red fox and maybe you can never be a red fox and, even if you could, you don't want to be a red fox. Now imagine that when you read a book or watch a movie, all the best characters are red foxes. Heroes and villains and even most of the supporting cast are all red foxes. You might get it into your head that unless you're a red fox, you can't be special or important. This is why fiction matters.

Yes, okay, we get that. This is nothing new. Hell, this isn't even new for me. I wrote about the importance of representation ages ago. Why are we here?

Well we've talked about the world, and my role-playing game notes. We've talked about why we consume fiction, why fiction is important and we've talked about red foxes. Now let's talk about you.

Just like me, you're going to have default ways of thinking. There's a good chance that your defaults are similar to or the same as mine. When you're being creative, those default ways of thinking are going to shape how you create. Your fictional world will automatically reflect your defaults. That wouldn't be a surprise. It is a problem, though.

It's not your fault, of course. It's the world around you and the life you live that shapes your defaults. You don't get to choose them. But you're still responsible for them. In fact, you're responsible for a lot. Fiction is important, remember? If you create fiction, then you're creating something important. You're taking on a responsibility, here. You've got to be aware of what you're saying with your fiction without actually saying it.

Are you reinforcing an inequality? Are you shutting people out? Are you creating a world where certain people don't exist and aren't welcome to exist?

You might not be. You might be. Maybe you don't know. If you don't know, then it's probably time you took a moment to stop and think about your defaults and, if those defaults aren't living up to your responsibility as a creator of fiction, start changing them.***

Fiction matters.



*Fun fact about me: I love glam metal. Take a look at the glam metal page on Wikipedia and count how many glam metal bands it talks about that are all men vs the ones that are all female. After you've done that, go listen to a Vixen album. Not to prove a point or anything, just because Vixen is awesome.

**Do you know where women do turn up in media? As victims, as wives to important men, as reporters talking to and about men, as co-stars, supporting cast and love interests to me.

***I'm happy to say that my game notes - which are a work in progress - now have a much better mix of gender and ethnicity. Also werewolves because werewolves, like Vixen, are awesome.

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Anatomy of The Action Scene

I was going to call this post "Five Tips To Write Action Scenes That Will Melt Your Face... And You Won't Believe What Happens Next! What He Does Is So Perfect"but then I remembered I am not the scum of the earth. So no listacles and no clickbait titles here. Just some good old fashioned advice on something near and dear to my heart.

Writing action scenes.

So, I present to you a list of important ideas to keep in mind writing an action scene. You'll never guess number five!

1. Characters

No brainer right? You have to have some characters. Quite often this is a protagonist and an antagonist. Could be your main character and a main villain, or your main character and some villainous henchmen. But, hey, it could be two of your protagonists duking it out over something. But the characters in an action scene might also be a collapsing building, cars on a busy street or your protagonists demon possessed left hand.

You dirty bastards. Give him back his hand!

A character in an action scene is any force that is active, has some independence and is a danger to other characters. If an evil wizard and a stalwart hero are fighting and the wizard casts a spell to bring down huge slabs of stone from the temple ceiling to crush the hero, the ceiling isn't independent. It is being used by the evil wizard. It's a weapon. Is the temple old and the hero's pet zebra has set C4 around its foundations and not its collapsing around everybody? Then it's independent. It isn't aiming at anybody, it's just coming down everywhere and on everyone. It's active in the scene and a threat. The falling temple is a character.

When it comes to using characters in an action scene, there's two things you need to do. Firstly, give them a name. Especially if you've got Zack McHeroPants, the stalwart hero of your story, fighting nameless, throw away gangsters wielding blackjacks. Writing Zack McHeroPants kicks the "gangster in his nads" three times is going to get confusing and dull. So even for throw away goons like these, give them names. They don't have to be actual names. In fact, I'd say it's better if the name is some brief descriptor of that character. Maybe Zack McHeroPants looks at them and they're described as one rotund gangster, one gangster thin as a twig and the other with a nose like a pig's arse. Zack McHero might even remark with a laugh "Okay, so it's Fatso, Twiggy and Pig-Face. Bring it on. I'll beat you all with one eye tied behind my back and my laser gun in my mouth." Or he might not. Either way, you can now refer to Fatso, Twiggy and Pig-Face through the scene and the readers will know who you mean and where everybody is. Also, you've just made it that little bit more vivid for the audience. Go you!

Finally, remember that everybody moves differently. A fighter trained in Muay Thai is not going to fight the same way as somebody trained in Krav Maga, or somebody trained in Ying Jow Pai. A body builder and a couch potato and an Olympic sprinter have different body types and in the heat of the moment, they will move in ways most comfortable and natural to them. By creating a consistent and vivid sense of how a character moves in an action scene, how he faces a physical opposition of some kind, you develop that character further in the reader's mind. This way, an action beat isn't just about page turning, edge of the seat excitement, it says something about the character.

2. Terrain

Sometimes the terrain will be a character, as I said. Sometimes, however, it won't. But that doesn't mean it isn't there and you can't use it. Don't treat you action scenes as though they're happening in an empty white box between a bunch of naked people. While the characters fight, run, climb, shoot, tango, aggressively throw down their poker cards and swig their whiskey, there are things around them, there are doors and tables and walls and chairs and whiskey bottles.

As a very basic example, let's pretend that Zack McHeroPants is asleep in his bed and five red suited ninjas break into his house. Red is the best camouflage, of course, and it helps to distinguish them from the turquoise ninjas he fought in chapter 325. Ooo, too bands of ninjas after Zack McHeroPants? The plot thickens!

Now obviously Zack McHeroPants is going to win. He is faster, stronger, better looking and sleeps in black stealth pyjamas. Now Zack McHeroPants, on hearing the ninjas break in, could stand up and go one by one through the ninjas and punch them in the throat and then go back to sleep. Efficient, but not the most exciting. Or he could wait beside the kitchen door, wait for a ninja to step through, then use his leather belt to grab the ninja around the neck, then kick his legs out so he can't stand and choke the ninja into submission. A silent take down! The next ninja comes through swinging his sword and Zack McHero Pants dodges out of the way behind a chair. Of course! Ninjas are powerless against chairs! While that ninja struggles to overcome the chair, another bursts into the room and throws some shuriken. Zack McHeroPants leaps over his table and upturns it to shield him from the shurkien. Then he uses his Super-Blazing-Phoenix-Kick to slide the upturned table across the room and slam the shurkien ninja into the wall, sandwiched between it and the table. That's two down and one stuck behind a chair, but still two more somewhere. Zack McHeroPants knows that if he fights for too long, he won't be able to make it to the Waffle House by breakfast and without bacon, his heart will stop. (That's right, WITHOUT bacon, Zack McHeroPants has a heart attack and dies. Amazing!) Zack McHeroPants isn't sure where the others are hiding, though, so he grabs the chair stuck ninja by his neck and his crotch, thrusts him high into the air and throws him through the kitchen window. This sets off the alarm and immediately police sirens can be heard in the distance. The police never respond faster than when local legend Zack McHeroPants needs help! Plus, he can now escape through the window and rush to the waffle house for his life saving bacon treatment.

Using the environment to hide, to protect, to attack makes your action scene more interesting and, again, gives the reader a better image of where the characters are and what they're doing.

3. Stakes

A basic action scene will be something like this. Party A wants a thing, Party B wants to keep the thing from Party A. This thing is what is at stake. Now Party A might be the Cult of Mr Whippy, Party B might be Zack McHeroPants and the thing might be Zack's life. Simple. But problematically, this results in a pretty binary result. Either Zack lives or dies. Now binary sometimes works and more often than not you can still use a binary result like that to progress things. Is the story about Zack McHeroPant's escape from the afterlife back to Earth to stop the Cult of Mr Whippy? The the villains winning in this fight and Zack McHeroPants dying is a failure, but it works. Or perhaps this is the first time we've seen the Cult of Mr Whippy. Zack wins and lives but this new knowledge of dangerous ice cream zealots pushes the plot forward. Exposition, new goals, new threats, new mystery.

But what if Zack only thinks they're after his life?  What if what they really want is his pet zebras's third tooth from the right? What if the zebra's tooth is the key to the Fountain Of Youth? While Zack fights to save his life, one Mr Whippy cultist sneaks around him, sedates his zebra and steals its tooth. Zack still wins the fight but he was fighting for the wrong thing and now the cult has the zebra tooth!

Zack's life sure is weird.

Every group in an action scene or (or any scene with conflict, which is the vast majority of scenes) has a goal which is in opposition to one or all other groups in the scene. By making those goals unclear to the POV character (and thus the reader,) by making those goals multitude, by making them farther reaching than that scene and by giving those goals more than one outcome, you open your scene up to more interesting and variable resolutions. What if the cultists got the wrong tooth but nobody knew? What if they couldn't get the tooth out and took the whole zebra? These answers to the scene have potential drama and twists further down the line that you can and should exploit.

4. Escalation

Finally, escalation. Escalation comes in two forms.

First is an escalation of stakes. Why does the Cult of My Whippy want the zebra tooth? To open the gates to the Fountain of Youth so their leader can drink it and become immortal and begin his conquest of all ice cream across the world, soft serve or otherwise. But Zack doesn't know that. When the cult attacks him, the stakes are his life. It sounds big but, honestly, Zack McHeroPants is fighting for his life every other hour. Plus, we know he's usually fine. For this kind of story, the drama is on the low end of the scale. But once the cult takes his zebra buddy so they can extract his tooth, in the following action scenes he is fighting for the life of his best friend in the whole world. Stakes escalated! As we get closer to the story's climax, Zack fights to keep the Fountain of Youth out of the hands of evil. Then, finally, in the ultimate battle of good and evil, Zack McHeroPants fights an immortal cult leader for the very soul of the world's ice cream supply.

This is an escalation of the stakes. It happens with each significant turning point in the story. It creates excitement and gives the reader a growing and changing investment in each action beat. It remains interesting to read when there is more to fight for.

Finally, there's escalation of the action itself. If your story begins with a few guys brawling in a bar, it had damn well better end with a big fiery explosion! The scope of the action should not stay where it is. It should build.

Zack's first fight against the Mr Whippy cultists in his home escalates to a car chase in the next scene, and then to a dog fight above a lake full of crocodiles, and then to a fight against the biggest and meanest cultist of them all, while surrounded by watching cultists ready to pounce the moment things go badly for the big mean friend, then to fighting a dragon, then to fighting a crocodile on the back of a dragon while it flies over a lake full of the biggest meanest cultists and finally, at the end, Zack McHeroPants must fight the biggest meanest half-cultist half-crocodile leader of the cult who has achieved immortality and is using his evil magic to bring down the underwater temple in which they're fighting while his zebra friend uses C4 to destroy the dragon because it will arrive any second now with an army of red ninjas and Zack is armed only with his leather belt which means his pants are falling down, plus if doesn't eat bacon in 3.25 seconds he will have a heart attack and all the world's ice cream will be lost!

Wow.

WOW.

That is some fucking escalation right there!

Now, as a caveat, escalating action can have peaks and valleys. In fact, in a full length novel or series, it has to. Escalation that is always going up is hard to sustain as a writer and can be hard to comprehend as a reader. It risks getting farcical. So escalate and escalate until you reach a big scene, an important turning point in the plot, then let it fall again. Take a break from the action, have some low key scenes and then begin to build again with your next action scene. This time peak a little higher, then drop. Do this until you reach the story's climax when you have the highest peak.

And that, my friends, is what you need to know about writing an action scene.

Take care.

See you next time.

I need to go lie down after that...