I want to take you on a journey into writing. This journey will involve an intersection of using games to write in a hopefully new way. Or at least, a way I haven’t seen anyone use before.
I have a collection of phrases I tend to use. I can never remember them all, funnily enough, and some might stay unused for weeks. I haven’t yet been accused of reducing life to cliches, but it’ll happen one day, I guess. But the phrase I particularly want to reference today is “I have too many irons in the fire”.
For those roughly my age and younger, this elderly phrase dates from before electric irons were a thing. Instead, ironing clothes required a heavy piece of iron with a handle that was heated on the (wood-burning) stove. The phrase itself, though, means that I have too many half-finished projects on the go. Which has always been true for me.
But it’s coming up to November (again) and that meant NaNoWriMo (again). And for various complicated reasons, I want to try to do this (again). I’ve never managed to finish fifty thousand words and it’s been several years since I tried. So I’ve decided to throw my hat in the ring again and charge at it.
So I have to re-arrange which irons of mine are warming in the fire. Some will just have to get cold for a month.
Learning new skills usually require learning things in the right order. It’s kind of pointless learning how to differentiate a mathematical equation if you don’t know algebra. It’s fruitless to learn how to form a subjunctive clause in a new language if you don’t know how simple verbs work.
It happens when you learn how stories work, too.
I had a revelation about stories the other day. I haven’t been doing much writing in the last year. A big part of that is that I’ve simply been living (I live on my own, well, with my cat), but another important reason is that I’ve been a bit frustrated at my inability to put a story together. There’s a reason this blog is called “Just Add Story”, after all.
Back to my revelation. I read a couple of webcomics on a nearly daily basis. One of them is Schlock Mercenary, a science-fiction action comedy set a few hundred years in the future. And the current point in the current story arc could best be described as “things go horribly wrong“. Up until this point, the toughs were doing something fairly tame. No-one was getting shot at, for instance. They were retrieving artifacts for some grumpy scientists and trying to appease a local alien race whose world they’re, well, plundering. Except these aliens have just now out-smarted the heros and have begun causing them a certain amount of chaos.
This happens fairly regularly in this webcomic. A large part of the reason is that the main characters running the show are not the sharpest crayons in the box – a fact frequently mentioned, but rarely successfully mitigated against. Thus we have all the things to Make A Good Story Happen.
How have I not noticed this before? Well, I have, but I wasn’t ready to learn it. What happens is the writer goes “what’s the worst thing that could happen?” – and then proceeds to do pretty much exactly this. It’s not a new concept. I’ve seen it mentioned a few times by writers and readers on my Twitter feed in the last month. But now I was ready to learn it.
My current novel has languished for a long time. Some of the reason is time – but that’s actually no excuse because I often do find time to do what I want to do. So why was I not interested in writing? Because it was getting boring.
That’s when I had my revelation. The protagonist in my writing has lost his farm, his village and his livelihood. He’s been thrown into (and out of) a city he doesn’t know and doesn’t understand. Now he’s following someone else who he doesn’t know well and who also doesn’t know what’s going on. However, he has his pregnant wife with him. She’s important to the larger story because she’s pregnant – but that isn’t so important right now. In fact, it’s kind of getting in the way. Meanwhile, our hero doesn’t have a direction in the story – he’s flailing around with nothing to do. And that’s makes for a story that isn’t going anywhere.
I’m guessing that experienced writers will probably say at this point: take the wife off him. And that’s the key. Do that and now he has something to do (get her back) vnd has to canvass help from a range of new acquaintances to figure out how to do it.
Basically, why would I give the hero a wife if I’m not going to take her off him?
Fantasy settings commonly have a magic system of some sort. It is often well-thought out and organised and more-or-less reliable. I’ve heard of authors writing themselves a “bible” about how it is supposed to work so that they don’t make mistakes.
Most of the magic in Harry Potter is reliable and repeatable, for example. Harry’s trademark Expelliarmus always fires. Fred and George’s joke candies always work. Yet the need to practice and perfect it is mentioned a lot of the time (it is a school, remember). And we also see the edges of an organised study of what magic can do. A major section of The Ministry Of Magic is for research, after all. And Dumbledore frequently talks about what they don’t know magic can do when talking to Harry about Voldemort.
The magic in most Dungeon and Dragons settings is reliable, too. I think this is because the settings inherit a game system because players use magic very frequently, either explicitly (like if they’re a wizard) or implicitly (a weapon or even a skill). Adding a reliability check to all magic in DnD would slow things down a lot. In the novels, it is common for a master thief to have an arsenal of magic objects, and they almost always function as designed.
There are sometimes multiple magic systems. Lyndon Hardy did this with his novel The Master Of Five Magics. Each is separate and a major piece of the world economy is built around them. In fact, a major industry is built around training for each magic. The whole story is about someone who sets about being trained in all of them, which is unheard of. With so many magic systems, Hardy created a structure for them all, and rules for each of them. He did this so well that with his sequel, The Secret Of The Sixth Magic, he could create a meta-magic system that describes how they could be changed. Both novels have been praised for creating such an organised description of magic.
The magic in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is more than a bit organised, too. The wizards of Unseen University are a lot more like scientists than practitioners of nefarious arts. In the later novels, we have everyday devices powered by magical means: cameras and personal organisers are the visible two Pratchett has fun with. Each have a tiny demon running things inside them and they are mass-market products. This magical-being approach is even lampshaded right in the first novel when Rincewind is given Twoflower’s camera to operate. He knows that there are certain chemicals that react to light and he begins wondering how to get from there to a functioning camera. At that point, the tiny demon inside Twoflower’s camera opens the access hatch for the first time to tell him that he’s run out of pink paint.
Pratchett even lampshades this in the large with four whole books that he co-authored with two scientist friends, beginning with The Science Of Discworld. These use the fictive construct of the wizards and their world to explore the sciences of our own world. And I mean “sciences” in a very broad sense of the word. Early excursions look at nuclear physics and cosmology, but later ones look at social sciences like narrative history, and how belief shapes our thinking.
This takes us back to where magic exists in our own history. And that is usually spirituality and religious practice. I know enough about both to recognise that neither are treated very much like science, though.
Praying to a deity is common in both the real world and in fantasy settings. In most fantasy settings, it is often like a magic spell: you say the right words and the deity automatically grants the supernatural effect you’re seeking. Except when they don’t because the plot requires it. And this also doesn’t work in the real world, either. It would be news all around the world if a Catholic Cardinal in the Vatican could reliably and repeatedly summon a fireball by prayer.
One of the allures of fantasy novels is, of course, reading the characters doing the impossible. Particularly in an analogue of our own world. This is one reason the Harry Potter novels are so popular. Who wouldn’t want to be able to wield magic with a simple stick of wood in their home or workplace? Except if lots of other people have one, too. And Hogwarts does teach a lot of offensive magic.
There are some fantasy worlds where magic is rare. I built one for a gaming campaign, yet only one player really grasped what that meant for playing. It was at least three sessions before they had access to magical healing, for instance. Settings where prayers (usually) don’t do anything, yet those who pray think they do are also rare. The Dragonlance novels had a period where that was the case. This was because the gods had deserted the world for a period of time, and people were calling to new gods that did not actually exist.
So how reliable is the magic in your fantasy worlds?
I am, by-and-large, not an early adopter of technology. By which I mean, I am not the sort of person to go after the “Latest And Greatest” just because. Sometimes I’ll be on the leading edge, but it will be for some idea I love, know exactly how I want to use, and intend to stay faithful to it for years. Which doesn’t always pan out the way I envisage. (MiniDisc is a good example – great tech, but the execution was bumbling and the industry moved on before Sony really sorted themselves out. Which some would argue they never really did.)
But it is why I never bought a Kindle years ago. Why I don’t now is a different reason. But I do have a Sony T1, which I find just barely useable. Mostly because it’s just a little bit too slow.
The ebook landscape has erupted in the last few years something amazing. It has also been part of the story of why so many bookstores have vanished, including the collapse of one of Australia’s biggest book chains. Buying on the Internet has helped in both ways. When you know exactly what book you, going to a website is much faster than finding a bookstore that might have it at best, or having one being able to order it in at worst. Buying ebooks this way, where as soon as the purchase is complete, you can download the file then and there, was a red-hot obvious next step.
Despite pressure from basically the rest of the industry, Amazon still will not put ePub support into their Kindle ebook readers. Amazon doesn’t seem to like the rest of the ebook industry existing because they are strongly rumoured to want to be the only place all books, physical or not, are bought and sold. You’ll never hear them say this, of course. But it goes quite a long way to explain the whole Kindle ecosystem they built. Their ebook reader is not a standalone device: it is tightly integrated with the Amazon ebook delivery mechanism. They spent a lot of time and money making it stupidly easy to purchase Kindle-format ebooks from them.
Would that someone else had copied that and figured out how to do it better. Apple could, as they also excel at creating an integrated ecosystem. But they didn’t want to become a publisher. Sony could have, too, but they have a bad habit of dithering around until they can successfully hit their own foot. MiniDisc again. However, it’s obvious they actually know how to do it, because they’ve been pretty successful at it with their Playstation Network.
As it happens, I genuinely prefer a physical book, often referred to as “dead tree” edition. But ebooks aren’t going away and there are just enough that I want to read that my T1 was recently exhumed from the shelf it was gathering dust on and recharged for adding new material to.
But is it the best choice? I often have my Surface Pro with me nowadays. And people have been reading on iPads and Android tablets for years. Should I go looking for a good ebook reader for my Surface Pro? The one in Calibre is not bad, but it is quirky. Or should I go looking for another e-ink device?