Late-Posting Ear Infection Blues

The title says it, really.

I’ve got several things to share, notably: I just read Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston, I’m currently reading Three Ordinary Girls by Tim Brady, and on Tuesday I just put together the rough layout of my second World Seed (pre-art).

But I’ve got an ear infection, and the antibiotics I’ve been given are wreaking havoc on my guts and my energy level. And since today was far busier than I’d expected, here I am writing about this at 10pm.

I’m going to be out of the loop for a bit, but I’ll probably have posts for you about those two books at some point in the near future. And if you play RPGs and want ideas for scenarios, or want kits that will teach you ways to make any cool idea into your own scenario, check out Whimsy’s Throne on Patreon.

Rewrites, Dying, and Seeing Beauty

I wrote a scene in my Protectors setting soon after New Years, one that resonated really strongly with me. It felt good. It was obviously either the emotional climax of a story, or one of two emotional climaxes. That scene just as obviously needed more material to support it. It was, in some ways, like finding out that I’d built the middle of a bridge’s span and still needed to build the rest.

As I wrote the rest of the story, I discovered that—to remain honest to the characters and story—I either needed to write something that felt depressing and which I didn’t want, or I had to find a very different way of reaching the conclusion I’d hoped for. My first attempts at this didn’t go well. I tried forcing the conclusion I’d hoped for, and it felt dishonest, jammed into place. Then I mapped out what would happen in the depressing version, and just felt sad.

So, rewrites. Rewrites and talking with my mom (and crit group) about my narrative struggles.

My crit group agreed that I probably had to write out both versions and see what happened. They also noted that writing the depressing version might be more in keeping with the setting. My mom, on the other hand, offered up some observations from a book she’d read recently about mortality and the experience of approaching death and dying (Advice for Future Corpses (And Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying, by Sallie Tisdale).

A little context: my mom has done a lot of work with the elderly (and is now reaching elderly herself). When I was a kid she did a good deal of work with patients in hospice—palliative end-of-life care. Her second husband, my stepfather, was a good deal older than she was, and the two of them met because they were both working in hospice. They read many books together, especially about philosophy, meditation, and the experience of growing old and dying. My stepfather died last fall. What I’m trying to say is, it’s hardly new for my mom to share something from her readings about mortality.

If you’ve read any of my stories in my Protectors setting, you’ll understand what I mean when I say those stories are rarely about growing old but often about the experience of encroaching death. My mom’s contribution was pretty on point.

The bit she mentioned was an experience which is sometimes shared by those who are dying, one she said my stepfather had spoken of: the heightening of one’s appreciation for the everyday, and for beauty in the everyday world. Not that the world is itself different, but that—in the process of dying, faced with imminent death—the world’s vibrancy and glory are more evident, more accessible.

And that felt like the missing key.

Thinking on it now, this feels like part of the gratitude and joy, or the quiet meditation on beauty, which I see in some Buddhist meditative tradition. And that experience of beauty, gratitude, and joy was the second step I needed to follow the first emotional climax. The transformative nature of those feelings, the fundamental shift from despair and depression to wonder and awe, is at the heart of the emotional shift I needed.

I still have to write it and make it stick, of course. I’m part way through that. I’ve got to put together another few scenes, replace a few others with new ones, and then print it up and see whether it makes any sense. I don’t expect it to work on the first (second?) attempt, but maybe it will at least look a bit more like a finished bridge… something I can work with.

Thanks Mom.

Lupin, and knowing the course of the arc

I’ve been enjoying Lupin (on Netflix) a great deal. My partner and I have been watching it together. But as we finished episode three, something started bothering me—not really a problem with the show, but instead a disconnect between, on the one hand, the trajectory of the show’s tonal arc and narrative resolution, and on the other, the number of episodes available.

I could see that there were only five episodes so far. I know that Netflix posts all episodes at once, which meant that those five episodes were all that exists (for now). But the change in the show’s tone from the end of episode one to the end of episode three, and the narrative arcs that remain to be wrapped up at the end of episode three, don’t line up with five episodes being the sum total of the show.

Unless the show is a downer, or ends with many elements of the denouement implied rather than being explicitly laid out. But neither of those possibilities match my genre expectations or the precedent the show has already set for itself.

For Lupin, there’s an easy answer: the first five episodes are the first half of the season (thanks internet), and more episodes are supposed to come out sometime in the summer of 2021. Now I know that I’m going to be treated to a cliffhanger when I hit the end of episode five, and I shouldn’t expect everything to wrap up neatly, or even to offer resolution on any front. That’s fine by me, even if I do wish I could have all the story right now.

On the topic of arcs…

I wrote a scene around two months ago, something that came to me while I experimented with some other story beats. But the scene was the emotional turning point of a larger story, without any other material to support it. The scene alone made me cry, but I couldn’t figure out what else I needed to add for the rest of the story.

It was a bit like magically building the middle of a bridge first: I could see it hang there in the air, and it was beautiful, but I wasn’t sure how the hell I was supposed to connect it to anything else. I had this sense that the moment I tied any other scenes into it, tried to support it from earlier or later in the story, the middle would come crashing down… unless the rest of the piece was perfectly aligned. This was not conducive to writing more.

Last Friday, I finally pieced together a first draft outline. This week I’ve churned out some excellent bad first draft material. I know what I need in order to fill out the rest of the story. Except…

As I’ve made progress, I’ve realized: that scene, which feels like the emotional climax of the story, doesn’t need anything after it in the story for it to feel impactful. Everything I write after that scene in some way waters down that climax—unless I can find new ways to build the climax and denouement into each other. Maybe more troublingly, the course I choose for the story’s conclusion after that climax changes the story’s tone and themes completely. There are (at least) two extremely different options before me, and I’m stuck on indecision.

It like I’ve looked at the center span of the bridge that I made, hanging magically in the air, and suddenly discovered that the bridge doesn’t have to come down where I thought. The emotional and narrative arcs could arrive in more than one place (this is normal) but I can’t decide which destination feels more right (this is less normal). I can’t decide which is more honest to the characters, the story, the setting, or the genre. I can’t tell whether my inclinations towards the different possible destinations come from past grief and depression, from my artistic sensibilities, or what.

I’ve mapped out one version, and I’m going to write it. But with the conflict I feel about it, I have to try at least one other ending. And because I’m still making the story, it’s a bit like reaching episode three of a five episode set and having to choose whether that’s it, or whether there are another five episodes coming.

Which story is better?

How can I know?

We’ll find out.

Update, 1/27/21

This week has not gone according to plan. Last week didn’t quite either, but this week has been worse.

Suffice to say, the writing isn’t happening as intended. As desired.

However, I’ve finally read a few books again. I somehow went through a rather bad dry spell for the past several months. Maybe more like the last year. I guess I’m not actually surprised.

But reading these books has been reinvigorating, exciting, inspiring. It’s like I spent long enough drawing down my reserves of enthusiasm that the wells ran dry, and these books are filling me back up again. They’re not all exactly what I’m looking for, or fine literature per se, but they’ve all reminded me of what I love about fiction. Reading them has been wonderful.

I’ll probably write about the books here another week, when I’m not driving my partner to their grandfather’s (tiny, outdoor, socially distant) funeral.

Life ends, life continues. C’est la vie.

And as my mom pointed out, maybe this will be good fuel for more writing to come.

Novelizations Panel Schedule, Arisia 2021

Come hear me (and other people) talk about Movie Novelizations!

1pm EST, Saturday Jan. 16th, this coming weekend.

I’m only on the one panel this year. This is a far lighter load than I had last year, when I was on seven panels and modded four of them—one of those by surprise (the Harassment one).

Part of me is a little sad about doing less this year. I really do enjoy being on and moderating panels, for all that I was worn out by it last year. But another part of me is fine with it; I have a weekend that I can use to do other life-things. I won’t come out of this weekend feeling run down from running around constantly and talking non-stop for hours on end.

And yet.

I enjoy nerding out about a hodge-podge of topics, and I enjoy listening to other people speak knowledgeably about their areas of expertise, and I *really* enjoy shepherding panels through their explorations. I’ve made some good friends, people I value reconnecting with, over the years that I’ve been at Arisia. I’ll miss seeing and talking with them this year. I’ll miss being on panels with them.

There were fewer panels offered this year that called to me, fewer panels for which I thought “oh that one fits me to a T” or “I could really add something there.” I don’t think that lack is beyond normal variation, especially given the trying circumstances for any convention this year. And I don’t mean that there aren’t good panels on offer, merely that there weren’t as many that felt correct for me.

If you’d like to hear about movie novelizations, or the struggles involved in translating any given story across media, come check out this panel on Saturday. I hope you’ll see me there.

Movie Novelizations at Arisia 2021

I’ve had a writing break. I’m still on break, as it were, at least for another day or two. Working at home so much even before the pandemic means that I’m used to the struggle of easing myself back into my work schedule. Doesn’t make it easier. Reading about people’s struggles adjusting to working at home last March and April was vindicating, and offered guilty nourishment for my schadenfreude.

This year I will be attending Arisia virtually, and will only be on one panel. Organizing Arisia for 2021 seems like a particularly difficult and thankless task, so I am glad that a) someone else is doing it, and b) they’re still doing their best to run a convention despite COVID-19. After working digital LARP camps this summer, I really didn’t want to be on more than one or two panels in a weekend, so this is perfect for me.

The panel I’m on this year will focus on movie novelizations. I hope to include some exploration of other translations of story across media (from pure-text to text with illustration, animation, or live action… and vice versa). I’m fascinated by the ways in which stories (and the story-telling arts) change as the medium shifts, and the ways that story elements become more or less accessible for audiences across different media.

I don’t think that any particular narrative tricks are *impossible* to translate from one medium to another, but they’re certainly not all equally easy to alter.

Take, for example, the ability to convey internal emotional state. A story told purely via text can be first person, granting the reader direct access to the character’s emotional and physical state. In live action form, on a screen, that character’s emotional state is only accessible through the viewer’s interpretation of the actor… with as much (or more) variation in interpretation due to a viewer’s personal response to an actor.

Or perhaps I should compare the ease with which text can dilate and contract time, glossing over the details of a battle in a few sweeping sentences (Lloyd Alexander does this neatly a number of times in his Chronicles of Prydain series) while giving tight focus to an emotional conversation. Live action film can do these things, but I think the audience’s perception of time (and how time works on the screen) is different than the assumptions of a reader. Meanwhile, film can convey a myriad of elements in one shot, encompassing more details (and background clues) in a single frame than is feasible by text; Knives Out is a glowing example of this.

All of which is to say, I’m very excited to nerd out about this with other similarly excited people. I think there’s a lot of good material to explore.

I’ll post more details about when this panel will be when I know more myself.

Musing on Emotional Arcs

Quick bookkeeping: I’ll be away next Thursday, and likely won’t post here. I’m not traveling. But I am planning to spend more time on video calls with family in other time zones, and generally taking a break. I hope you’re all staying safe.

When it comes to making progress in my writing, I frequently feel as though I’m swimming against a tether, trying to pull a ship on the strength of my strokes alone. The only reassurance I have comes from comparing my older pieces to more recent ones, comparing what I missed then to what I possess now.

The biggest change I’ve noticed, over the course of about seven years, is a heightened appreciation for the emotional content of a story; feelings are fun to play with, especially pathos.

For a long time I focused myopically on the tension and climax of a physical plot: threat, danger, difficult circumstances, and the struggle to prevail despite insurmountable challenges. I had trained for that. Running RPGs for my friends prepared me well for creating fun obstacles and leaving my players overwhelmed… but just barely able to pull through and win the day.

When I spoke with fellow students in my MFA program, and when I read their work, it was clear that this was a place others struggled. I heard friends lament their “inability” to write conflict, tension, and danger, or bemoan the difficulty they found in forcing their characters through awful challenges.

To be clear, none of them were unable to write those things, they just weren’t used to doing it.

Meanwhile, I’d look at my characters and wonder what kind of people they were. My friends were writing believable people, tying them into evocative emotional relationships, and most of my characters felt like blanks. Running RPGs, I’d gotten used to setting up all the other pieces and then letting my players fill their characters’ interior worlds. Writing characters, grappling with their internal worlds and emotional experiences, I fumbled over and over again.

Everything felt like playing with cardboard cutouts. Characters did not “speak to me” or take life of their own on the page, except in little promising glimmers.

This isn’t some marvelous tale of miraculous change. My swimming metaphor above, struggling against a massive sea anchor, still feels true. But I have made progress. However it may feel, I am not stuck in place.

I’m not sure whether I’m glad that I started with more familiarity in active conflict and physical plots. But as someone who loves genre fiction and RPGs, I can’t say that I’m surprised. My “YA” reading as a twelve and thirteen year old was almost entirely 1970s & 80s genre fiction, or more recent work from those authors—largely books I’d hesitate to recommend to any young teen these days. There were a few standouts, but I suspect that I wasn’t in the right place to learn about writing characters’ internal lives or a good emotional arc when I was reading most of those books.

More recently, I have been blessed by a number of extremely good novels in the past decade, books which have helped me considerably in writing the internal emotional struggles of my characters. N.K. Jemisin, Ann Leckie, Lois McMaster Bujold, Seth Dickinson, John Scalzi, Katherine Addison, and Nnedi Okorafor all helped a great deal.

All of which is to say, I’ve been having much more fun writing emotional arcs of late, especially when I can tie them neatly into the grueling difficulties characters face in the physical plot. It’s good stuff.

Star Trek, Discovery, Idealism

Star Trek has been a part of my life since I was tiny. I grew up on The Next Generation, watching it curled up on the couch with my older sibs. While I remember the death of Tasha Yar, I don’t remember Riker without a beard (I see the impossibility there, presumably my brain edits out most of the worse stuff).

I was, arguably, too young for the show. I know it wasn’t geared towards toddlers. Some of my earliest nightmares grew out of Star Trek episodes. Those did not stop me from watching.

Of course, the same can be said for watching my sibs play Doom. Maybe toddler-Henry’s judgement just wasn’t that good. Toddler-Henry almost certainly valued spending time with sibs more than not having nightmares. That’s still true.

All of which is to say, Star Trek has a special place in my heart. Moreover, at a formative age Star Trek fed me an underlying idealism that serves as the keystone for good Star Trek stories. If you’ve watched enough older Trek you know what I’m talking about. When it isn’t there, the Star Trek-ness of the story just falls apart.

That idealism isn’t always well-written. But I admire it all the same. With it, generations of Star Trek have tried to do something that much of the rest of its contemporary narrative milieu dismissed as naive, or uninteresting, or hopelessly unrealistic. Unlike those other stories, well-written Star Trek refuels me.

All of which brings me around to Star Trek: Discovery. I’m working my way through it, bit by bit, but as much as I’m having fun seeing science fiction in the Star Trek universe it still doesn’t feel quite like Trek. This won’t surprise anyone who’s familiar with both Discovery and older Trek. Discovery’s first (and second, so far) season are dramatic and often exciting, and they have more character growth and development than I remember from TOS or TNG, but… they don’t hold the Trek idealism that I love. There are glimpses of it, moments when that idealism comes through, but it’s mostly hidden behind their larger threatening story arcs.

The most Star Trek thing I’ve seen in them so far have been Captain Pike and Number One, part of why I’m so excited for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.

I have heard good things about Discovery’s third season, however. I’ve heard that it feels more full of the old idealism. I could really use that right now. So I’m still plugging away, doing my best to appreciate the science fiction show wearing Star Trek’s skin, and looking forward to it growing into something more hopeful and idealistic.

untitled, 10/22/20

My thesis dealt with political speech by the President of the United States (POTUS). My original topic was ‘enemies,’ and how they were constructed by the POTUS in political speech. I ultimately had to change and narrow my topic to the use of the word ‘government’ by the POTUS in the State of the Union address, because I didn’t have a clear enough consistent and comparable body of data.

I wish Trump hadn’t changed that so much.

No other POTUS has so relied on creating and using “us vs them” relationships in their speech. It’s like he doesn’t know how *not* to. Like he doesn’t know how to say anything without bringing “us vs them” into it.

It’s infuriating.

I hope that our political speech can change. I hope that we can spend more time building each other up instead of driving wedges between us.

I don’t expect that any time soon. Seems likely we have more trouble to get through first.

Flexibility in RPGs’ platforms

One of the biggest things I’ve gained through years (decades) of playing roleplaying games is the flexibility to play them in a variety of contexts, via a variety of means. If I had only just started playing RPGs recently, and were I stuck playing them entirely online without the experience of playing them in-person, I am not sure I’d be nearly as committed to them. Nor would I feel capable in them, like I had any reason to believe in my own ability to play and enjoy roleplaying games across the internet.

The biggest impact on my comfort playing RPGs online came from a truly goofy game I played over AIM and some other IM clients, using a home-brewed system to play a dino-loving sorcerer in an alternate history Rome. Yes, I made the “dinosaurcerer” pun repeatedly. It was an incredibly fun game, despite being a clunky system with no verbal interaction and lots and lots of typing.

I loved that game. And it taught me that—with the right group of friends and some good turn-taking dynamics—I could make wonderful fun happen in truly bizarre contexts. We played at a time when video calls were just new, demanding, and unusual enough that we didn’t bother trying to make a multi-person call work. We were absolutely better off for it. We were patient with one another (or at least that’s how I remember it), and we worked together.

If I hadn’t played that game then, I wouldn’t be so comfortable running games for kids over Discord now.

So here’s to practice, and expanding our comfort zones, and finding new ways to explore the things we love together.