Character Work: Digging Deep

A story without a good character is nothing. It is nigh-unreadable. It is uninteresting and it will not leave an impression on its audience. A lot of the other rules of fiction writing are negotiable (especially in flash or micro fiction, but that’s another thing entirely), but without people that we want to see either succeed or suffer, a story isn’t worth reading.

One of the tools that I have found to be the most helpful when it comes to character work is actually tabletop role playing. It’s a mix of character writing, combat tactics, creative problem solving, and improv acting. My Novel in Six group recently did a one shot game with original characters in the system Don’t Rest Your Head, in order to challenge ourselves to get in a character’s headspace.

There is something about being forced to think like this character in real time that creates a kind of intimacy with them that doesn’t exist when writing and re-writing. The spontaneity breaks down walls of reservation and over-thinking; it forces you to make a gut check and just go with your instinct. And now you’ve reacted, you’ve said something, and you’re committed to an organic, evolving character.

I’ve been playing in a weekly Dungeons and Dragons game since mid-April 2017 with the same character, meaning I’ve spent well over 200 hours living inside of her head. That’s no small feat! Recently, another player retired his character (my elf’s best friend in-game) and introduced a new one. Between games, I took a week to reflect on how this would affect my elf, a loner who’d only recently opened her heart up to new companions Since then, I’ve sent her into a rather self-destructive spiral of poor life choices.

A popular D&D stream recently had a beloved character die, and I think it shook the fan community up pretty badly. For me, though, I think it set me free; I’ve decided to push my elf to a breaking point, where she can go out in a blaze of glory, protecting her friends. I’ve even got a back up character fairly well planned out and discussed with my Dungeon Master. I think I’m ready to finish up her character arc in the near future. It’s been great to spend time with her, but it’s about time to move on.

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Hey Big Spender

I’ve been saving my coins and in a jar for the past few months. Skimping and scraping change together, in addition to cutting out basically everything fun or indulgent in my life, I’ve managed to save up the money for a developmental editor to take a stab at my manuscript.

And stab she should! That’s why I’m spending a good bit of money on a professional stranger to take Wilder Blood to task. I’ve had friends and cohorts from Columbia Writers beta read an earlier draft and it got high praise, but when I queried it all over, I got no results. So, clearly, it can and should be improved.

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I want her to thrash it, to rip it apart, to take no prisoners when giving me feedback. I believe in this project enough to drop big bucks on it, but I’m too close to it to know how to fix the problems that I see in it.

It’s time for a professional, who is not worried about my feelings, to rip my manuscript a new one. I’ll be sending it off around Labor Day and then trying not to panic to death for a few months while she works. I’ll be plugging away at some short fiction in the meantime, and seeing if I can’t get a few more sales under my belt while I wait.

Wish me luck!

Put in the Work

Let me open this thing up by saying that I firmly believe that talent is a very real thing and that some people do have a good deal more of it than others.

But talent alone is not enough. Like in sports, like in music, like in art, writing takes dedicated, consistent practice in order to succeed. Being born with some kind of gift is a great jumping off point, yes, but even the most talented artist isn’t going to get too far without applying themselves regularly.

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I say this as kid who tested with a high IQ, who was put in gifted classes in school, who was always praised for being smart. You want to know the secret about being smart? It is something you are and not something that you do. Can you study? Can you read? Can you learn? Yes. But that’s different from hitting some kind of genetic lottery from birth.

I honestly think we do people a disservice for praising them for what they are rather than what they do. For being pretty, or smart, or tall, or having a good speaking voice. These are overwhelmingly things we are born with, and praising people for these gifts can create in them a need for external validation based on a lucky break – not on work.

As a smart kid, I coasted by in school, rarely applying myself. Through high school and most of college, I put in minimal effort and still got excellent grades. There were a few subjects where I had to really put in the work, and I floundered in those because I had never really learned how to learn. But I was smart! Everyone had always told me so! And so I grew quickly frustrated with music and math and assumed that they were nigh impossible topics for me.

Anyway all this to say, praise people for their work, not their talents.

And you there, artist: put in the time and effort. It’s hard and it’s not necessarily fun and it takes practice and you’re not going to nail it every time. Do it anyway. Do it for you because you deserve your best efforts.

Birthday Wishes

It’s my father’s birthday tomorrow and I’m planning on visiting him in Philadelphia this weekend, assuming my neck injury from a recent car accident doesn’t prevent me from making that drive. He’s always done his best to offer me encouragement and support throughout my lifetime.

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Happy birthday, dad. I love you.

Audiobooks Are a Blessing

I am ashamed to say that I’m not reading for fun lately. I haven’t just sat down with a book in months. A lot of this is because my down time is currently spent rewriting my manuscript or reading slush for Clarkesworld. That doesn’t leave a lot of opportunities to just quietly enjoy a book. I last read part of Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness in January, but that’s not exactly light reading, and I simply haven’t kept up with it.

That “quiet” part of book enjoyment is, I realize, probably overrated because I just remembered how I can solve my reading problem: audiobooks! My commute to work is about 45 minutes each way, which I hate (but which is really the only part of my job that I could do without, so I’m grateful for that much), but which gives me ample listening time four days a week (I work from home on Thursdays). Now, currently, I tend to listen to actual play podcasts of tabletop role playing games (The Adventure Zone, Campaign, One Shot) while driving, but I could spend some of my drives each week listening to a book instead.

One of the women in my weekly D&D game kindly sent me an audible book: Jim Butcher’s Fool Moon, after my group talked a little about the Dresden Files and I admitted I’d only ever read the first title in the series. How thoughtful! Now, it’s time to kick start reading for pleasure again, which is something my overworked self could surely use.

What books are you reading lately? Do you prefer audiobooks? Hardcover/trades? Ebooks/kindle?

Happy reading, everyone!

Gatekeepers Part 2

Last week, I was talking a little but about the phenomenon of Gatekeeping in the nerd community and took a little time to break down what that means and where it tends to come from. The long and short of it is that it is generally insecure white men who act as Gatekeepers, clinging to some illusion of power and insisting that they’re keeping their hobby pure and free from meddlesome outsiders.

Come on. That just sounds gross, doesn’t it?

This concept of what Gatekeeping means in nerd culture can wrap around to the newfound popularity of tabletop role playing games, in large part thanks to streams and podcasts like Critical Role, The Adventure Zone, One Shot, and Campaign. There is a terrible fear in the Gatekeeper that now so many Others will show interest in The Thing that the creators will go and change The Thing to appease these newcomers, who the Gatekeeper thinks are not “real fans.” They think these Others will show up and ruin The Thing that the Gatekeeper loves.

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There were a lot of complaints about Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition because a lot of the play was streamlined to make it more accessible to new players. I cannot possibly understand how this is, in any way, a bad thing. Just because more people now enjoy The Thing, it doesn’t suddenly delete The Thing from existence or erase the Gatekeeper’s memories of enjoying it in the past. In this case, the Gatekeeper can go play with 4th Edition and battle maps and can get over himself.

The Gatekeeper fears the Other, often the SJW (Social Justice Warrior, a pejorative term for feminists who seek diversification and inclusiveness in many spaces where traditionally there hasn’t been any), and that she will show up in his hobby and, through her influence, “ruin The Thing.” In fact, many believe that SJWs are out there pretending to like The Thing just to ruin it for others.

Here’s the thing: this SJW does not exist. She is not gunning for the Gatekeeper’s Thing. She is not out to ruin it. She wants to enjoy it as well, though perhaps the things she would enjoy about it might be different.

Gatekeepers, a word: if you genuinely believe that more people liking or engaging with your The Thing is bad, if you think a bigger group having fun is somehow making the world a worse place, you are the problem. There is no wrong way to enjoy The Thing and no one is “ruining” your hobby. I’ve heard horror stories of gaming groups mercilessly torturing their Other players (lying to them, having their RPG characters raped or killed, making inappropriate remarks or “jokes” until they are driven from the groups). If you don’t want to play with certain people, just don’t. Do your thing at your table and don’t try to, in turn, ruin someone else’s experience. Yes, “ruin.” Gatekeepers can do it, too.

No one gets to decide who is allowed to enjoy The Thing. It’s out in the world for everyone. So get off your high horse and go enjoy The Thing, okay?

Wil Wheaton is right: don’t be a dick.