Showing posts with label writing process. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing process. Show all posts

Robots in 1901 Japan?

Izanami's Choice comes out in three days. So for the next 72 hours or so, this is me:

Interviews and reviews are trickling in, with more due to appear around the release date. Seattle Weekly loved it, calling it "a ferocious little genre blender in book form: part Hammett novel, part Kurosawa Samurai epic, part Blade Runner, and entirely obsessed with keeping the reader’s eyes moving from one page to the next."

Nerds on Earth said, "Heine does a great job of building a world replete with rules and history and uses both to construct a mystery with an awful lot of intrigue and surprise."

I'm not even kidding! They actually said those things!

On release day, I'll be giving away two signed copies of the book. There may be other giveaways going on around that time too, so watch this space for more info. (Watching Twitter space or Facebook space will also get you what you want). UPDATE: Oh, look! Here's one of them now: a chance at a 30-page critique.

So in Izanami's Choice, Japan has functioning robots and machine intelligence as early as the 19th century. I was recently asked how the heck that's even possible. After all, in our 1901 computers didn't exist then, and things like simple radio technology were still very primitive.

First of all, it should be noted that Japan has had actual automata as early as the 17th century. Karakuri puppets are relatively simplistic  compared to the creations in Izanami's Choice, but it shows the idea of Japanese robots is very old -- much older than the timeline of my novella.

As for machine intelligence, well that's where science fiction comes in. It's primarily a combination of two what-ifs:
  1. What if Charles Babbage had successfully completed his difference engine and analytical engine designs? (This is essentially the same what-if behind The Difference Engine by Gibson and Sterling).
  2. What if evolutionary programming were discovered around the same time?
The latter would require a variety of factors, like Babbage chatting with Charles Darwin and coming away with programmatic ideas, and 19th-century logicians figuring out how to codify reasoning as mathematic deduction -- not probable, but plausible.

Evolutionary programming is the idea of pitting competing parameters or programs against each other to achieve a certain goal (like getting a computer to handle facial recognition). Those parameters that perform best are then modified further and tested against each other again. This process is repeated until you have a programmatic solution to otherwise difficult problems.

The key idea behind Izanami's Choice, then, is that this method was used with the analytical engines to rapidly improve the design of the engine's programs and even the engine itself. The engine was improved to the point where it could evaluate the results automatically, and then it was improved further to where it could revise the programs itself as well. When that loop was closed, the engine would become capable of revising and improving upon itself at a rapid rate -- a robotic singularity.

Of course the novella doesn't have a big old infodump like this in it, but I do love talking about world-building!

What I've been doing since 1999

On Friday, the Torment team released the first Alpha Systems Test, a look at the opening scene of the game and its most essential systems (conversation, mostly).

Shortly after I tweeted that out, some folks wondered what I've been doing, game design-wise, since 1999 (other folks wondered what happened in 1999 which, you know, that's fair).

Here's a very brief look at what happened since:
  • 1999 -- Planescape: Torment was released to high critical acclaim (and low sales).
  • 2000 -- I got married and left my awesome-but-crunch-timey game dev job for what I commonly refer to as my Office Space job.
  • While I was at work (sometimes literally), I designed D&D campaigns and board games, drew crappy comic strips, wrote stories, and programmed games based on those stories.
  • 2003 -- I decided I wanted to actually finish something I started, so I put my other projects aside (fourth question down) and focused on writing a novel.
  • 2005 -- My wife and I moved to Thailand. I kept writing, but I could no longer pay attention to the game industry (among other things) as much as I used to.
  • 2006 -- We took in our first child, and over the next several years would increase our family to include ten children, both foster and natural. Meanwhile, I kept designing RPGs and board games (that never got played outside my house).
  • 2008 -- I sent my first novel to agents (and also started this blog).
  • 2010 -- I wrote a story that somebody actually paid me for.
  • 2011 -- I got an agent and began the search for a publisher (that search is still ongoing, though we've updated the novel it is going on for).
  • 2012 -- I started working for inXile and "researched" what the game industry had been up to since I left (read: I played games again and wrote them off for tax purposes).
  • 2013-2015 -- I wrote hundreds of thousands of words for game dialogue and systems design. I also wrote a novella, a Pathfinder story, and a number of other things I hope you'll get to read some day.

So there you go. That's what I've been doing instead of (or in addition to) designing games for the last 15 years. Hopefully that also explains why my tastes in games tend to skew oldschool.

Q: Which is harder, game writing with a team or solo-writing novels?

I actually got this question on Twitter, but I thought it deserved more than 140 characters. Although if you're into the tl/dr version then here you go.

So which is harder? Writing a game or a novel? Writing solo or on a team?

Game vs. Novel
First, you should know that I've never written for a non-Torment game, and Torment has lots (and lots and lots) of words. It's entirely possible there are games for which writing is a piece of cake. I wouldn't know what that's like.

What's difficult about game writing is the lack of control. In a novel, the characters do exactly what I tell them to (my characters do, anyway). But in a game, the player can do anything he wants (within the rules of the game). So a character I intended to be major might die before he gets a single line, and the writing has to handle both options equally well. So a dialogue that would be 150 words in a novel becomes an enormous branching, interlocking tree.

Novel writing has its own challenges, of course. For one thing, it's more than just dialogue. A lot more. A Torment game has more descriptive prose than most, but it still doesn't come close to what you need in a novel. The novelist has to let the reader into the protagonist's head, to feel what she's feeling. In a game, that's done for you -- the player's already in their own head -- but in a novel, that connection is a lot of work.

(As an example of how much work... By far, the biggest critique note on my Ninjas novel was, "Not enough description and emotion." It took me two months to revise that critique away, increasing the size of the novel by more than ten percent -- 10,000 new words almost exclusively adding description and emotion!)

Solo vs. Team
The best part of working on a team is that I don't have to write all the words. Torment has several writers working part- and full-time, so most mornings I wake up to finished conversations that I never wrote. It's like having an infestation of word fairies!

The hard part of working on a team is trying to agree on everything. We have strict conventions and pipelines to get everything to an equivalent level of quality with minimum fuss. When I'm in a writing role, I need to follow those conventions and get the approval of (usually) at least two other leads.

Even in my role as a lead, there are sometimes disagreements on how we should handle certain things -- anything from what the jargon of a town should be to the voice of a player companion to whether we should use one dash or two in place of an em-dash. Fortunately, we have a pretty great team, with a high level of professionalism and a low ego average, so even difficult decisions are rarely Difficult.

And really, the decision-making as a team is a lot of the fun. When I'm writing a novel, I have to make my own decisions, second guess myself, and be my harshest critic. My novel has no awesome story meetings with people I enjoy and respect (it's just me). And it is really, really hard to be objective about anything you make yourself.

Which do I like better? I like them both. A LOT. Honestly, if I had to choose only one of them, I'd probably rebel and just keep trying to do everything.

Oh wait, that's what I'm doing.


Got a question? Ask me anything.

Q: What's your favorite part of the writing process?

Trevor asks:
What's your favorite part of the writing process?

My favorite part is the part where I make money, followed closely by the part where people tell me how awesome my writing is.

Is that... is that not what you meant?

So, in terms of actually creating the story, I prefer planning, by far. I'm a notorious, obsessive, ridiculously detailed planner (which is perhaps why I make a decent game design lead). I like to outline my stories down to each chapter's beats and cliffhangers, if I can.

I'm also a big fan of revision, but only after I get critiques and after I've recovered from the bone chilling soul-death that comes with them.

Not a fan of the soul-death.

Or drafting. I hate drafting. In fact, given a choice between drafting and soul-death, I'd take soul-death every time. At least it means I'm staring at a finished story instead of that unholy blinking cursor of oblivion, mocking me while it sits there and does nothing...

You know, it's a wonder I like writing at all.


Got a question? Ask me anything!

Q: How do you have time for everything?

Trevor asks a very pertinent question:
How do you have time for everything? 
Seriously, I see that you have 10 kids, work remotely on an anticipated game, and write, among other daily challenges I'm sure. Was there ever a point when you wanted to let go of any of these passions? Do you ever worry that you can't devote enough time to each of them?
Do I ever worry I can't devote enough time to everything? Constantly. How do I make sure that doesn't happen?

I have no idea.

Well, that's not strictly true. I have some idea of how I pull this off, but I'm so notoriously bad at everything below that it's a miracle I get anything done. For what it's worth, here are the things that help me run my life:
  • Priorities. My family comes first, then paying work (98% of which is Torment), then my own writing projects (i.e. those that are currently unpaid but will hopefully be paid later), then boring things like fixing stuff around the house and watching Fast and Furious 7. When one priority threatens the happiness of another, they get cut off in reverse priority order... which is why nothing ever gets fixed around here.
  • Knowing my limits. I'm pretty terrible at this one usually, but occasionally I will have bursts of genius, like when I signed on to Torment with a 25-30 hour/week commitment instead of fulltime (although that usually turns into 30-35, and even more during crunches, but commitments! Yay!).
  • Schedules. This is easier when the kids are in school (which they're not now, oi). I try to do Torment work from 7-12 in the morning, then lunch, then write for 1-2 hours, then pick up kids from school, then spend time with kids, then usually more Torment work, then spend time with my wife, then pass out. And somewhere in there I get on Twitter and play chess. No, I don't know how that works either.
  • Very little TV. We don't have Netflix or Hulu out here, and we try very hard not to pirate anything. That leaves Crunchyroll, Legend of Korra DVDs, and our collection of Friends episodes. (We actually have more than that, but we rarely get to watch anything as it airs, making Twitter a constant spoilerfest).

Have I ever wanted to let go of something? Yes and no. I certainly enjoy the financial freedom InXile has given me (especially when we needed it most), but part of me thinks I'd be okay with having time to focus on just my writing and family again. (Then the other part of me starts shouting, "Hey, remember how hardly anybody paid us for our own writing?!").

Giving up writing is also an option, but I don't know if I could give it up completely. I've been writing my own stories in some form since I was seven. For now, I'm content to just take it slow.

Obviously my family is not on the table. They're what I do everything else for.

I've already given up a lot of things to make this work: blogging regularly, keeping up with Naruto, any kind of serious board game design, most movies and computer games that I can't enjoy with my kids... These are costs I'm willing to pay in exchange for creating cool things and raising awesome children.

And if my other commitments become too much, I'll cut those too. Until then, I'll just keep trying to live three dreams at once (four, if you count sleep... which I do).


Got a question? Ask me anything!

I am not a great writer

(LINK WARNING: The YouTube links in this post are kinda bloody -- accurate metaphors, but bloody.)

Last week I got critiques back on two of my novels. They were great critiques. I mean really great, like editor-from-Tor great. (Don't get excited. They were not from an editor at Tor, nor any other Big 5 publisher; I'm still very much in submission hell.) And this super-editor critique, that I'm extremely grateful for and will probably owe my future career to, well... it totally and utterly crushed my soul.

For two days straight, I was the authorial version of John McClane's feet. I knew I could write in theory -- I mean, people have said so before and even paid me for doing so -- but I couldn't make myself believe it. I didn't feel right reviewing other people's stories or even Torment docs. I felt like I knew nothing about telling a story or stringing words together.

Then I had a revelation, and I want to share it with you because I know all too well how common the soul-crushing critique is. The revelation is this:

I am not a great writer.

But damn can I revise.

Twisting it that way changes everything. If I think I can write, but then I get this critique that rips through my novel like a chain blade through a clan of ninjas, then surely I know nothing. I'm a pretender, a wannabe, and I will never get it right.

But if I consider myself a reviser, then a critique like that is expected -- desired even. It's just more ammunition to do what I'm really good at. Everything I write is going to get critiqued that hard, so it's a damn good thing that I can revise anything.

Don't get me wrong, the critique still hurts, and it's going to take a lot of work for me be happy with it again, but thinking of it that way gave me back the motivation I needed to tackle it. This is something I can do.

Great Artists Steal

Thomas Hennessey says:
I've always figured the best way to be a good writer is to be a great reader first. Is the same true of game design? Have you come across a game that made you think, woah that's cool, I gotta use that somehow.

I think that's absolutely true, of game design, of writing, of any kind of art.

Because you have to know what's out there. More than anything else, people enjoy novelty. You can't be novel if you don't know what others have already done.

(I guess if you're not selling anything -- you're just making "art for art's sake" -- this is less important. But personally, I don't even understand what the heck "art's sake" is. I make art because I want people to enjoy it (and if they pay me on top of that, enabling me to make more art, well awesome).)

Because consuming and copying art is how you learn to be a better artist. This sounds contradictory to the first, but it's a secret I learned much later than I wish I had: IT IS OKAY TO COPY GREAT ART.

Because this is how you learn. Because there's nothing truly original anyway. And because what makes something original is not that you thought of something nobody's ever thought of before (you didn't), but it's how you execute that idea with your own personal spin and style.

(Note that it's not okay to copy great art exactly and then claim it's your own. That's plagiarism. That's not what I'm talking about.)

I'm talking about copying things you love, figuring out how they work, mixing them with other things and with your own style to create something that's new, something that's yours. It's a secret because we are told that copying others is not creative, but the truth is that -- unless you're ridiculously lucky -- you can't make something good if you don't know what good is.

(To answer the last question, I have most certainly seen things in games that make me want to include them. All the time, in fact. Here's a recent example.)


Have a question? Ask me anything.

AMA: 7 Quick Answers

The lovely Authoress asks:
Why aren't you writing a novel right now?   :)

Brian Fargo (my boss's boss) has been quoted as saying that we have generated 800 pages of design documents, and I'm personally responsible for about 150,000 words of those documents. (That's an excuse, I know. I am writing a novel, but much more slowly than before.)

Sandra asks:
What will you look for in an intern? What are some basic skills the intern must have? What kind of attitude should s/he have if they want to apply at a company? (Given that, ofcourse, the company you work for, accepts interns)

I, personally, do not look for interns. There are more than enough people in my house who require me to teach them everything I know for next to no pay, such that I don't need any more. I don't know if inXile takes interns, but I'm sure you can find out.

The even lovelier Cindy Heine asks:
What's the next gift you're going to give your wife? 

Either something from the States, something from an airport, or a hug. Maybe all three.

Ali Martinez asks:
Are you guys going to make the [Torment] combat system like Planescape/Baldur with the pausable real-time mode?. Because right now there are WAY too many "turn based combat games" like Banner Saga , Blackguards , ShadowRun, Wasteland, Divinity Original Sin ETC. And I really think that many people want that old school RPG complex combat system, so it would be great if you guys go with the real time paused system :) 

Torment's combat will be turn-based, which we've talked about (and there were "many people" on both sides of that decision).

(Also, real-time w/ pause = old school? Am I that old?).

Hiver asks:
How come the Changing God doesnt get that his discarded shells are continuing to live? He seems as a rather smart guy and he makes them himself. - Does every shell survive or just some? How come?

I can't answer too much without spoiling, but he does get it (at some point).

David asks:
Can I play T:ToN without having to learn the massive lore beforehand? Can I as a layman play the game and learn about the world and rules through playing the game rather than having to study beforehand?
I ask because whenever I see an interview or an update, I've got the strong sense I'm missing a vast amount of knowledge.

I backed both Project Eternity and Torment Tides of Numenera, but my attention had been focused mostly on following Project Eternity. I now have this idea that starting T:ToN I might be well out of my depth. I hope not, because so far, I like everything I've read. And as a fairly critical person, that's rare.

You will absolutely be able to play Torment without knowing anything beforehand. If you come in having read every post and novella, you'll notice cool things here and there, but we are explicitly assuming the player has no background knowledge coming in.

Hugo Chavez asks:
You're pretty cool. What's your shtick?

Clean living, Jesus, and a barrel of children who won't let my head get big for even a second.

Got a question? Ask me anything.

"You must keep writing, because you are a writer."

You know those writers who say, "I really need to get back into writing," and then two weeks later they're still saying that? Guess who's become one of them.

Well, not that guy. Me. I'm one of them.

You may be familiar with some of my reasons. Drafting is my least favorite part of the process, and with two unpaid novels in the hopper, and a yes-paid job, my motivation for doing the sucky part has been sapped.

And you know what? My reasons are good reasons. I'm doing creative work for my dream job and excelling at it, and I've got novels on the submission train. My priorities are right where they should be. This is what 99.9% of my friends tell me when I bring up the fact that I've written an average of 1,000 words/month lately.

They're absolutely right. Everything's cool. I don't have to write.

But there was that 0.1%, that one friend (I have exactly 1,000 friends; prove I don't), who had to go and say something different that stabbed me right in the gut because it was exactly what I needed to hear. The wonderful and not-at-all maniacal Authoress grabbed me by the shoulders and said, "You must keep writing, because you are a writer."

Ow! OwowowowowieowieOWow.

It's absolutely true that when push comes to shove, the paid job wins (actually the family wins, but they get on a timeout when they shove me, so . . .). But I've been tackling every single day like my job was in crunch time. I am a game designer. But I'm also a writer. If I can't figure out a way to do both, then . . .

Well, I just have to figure out a way to do both.

I know it can be done. I know because I find time to tweet, read, play chess online, and even draw. I don't have to write a lot (see the aforementioned priorities), but if I can't find time to squeeze out even 250 words in a day? That qualifies as pathetic.

Well, pathetic for me. You make your own goals.

What are your goals? How's your writing going?

Status of the Update

For those of you who don't read every single one of my Facebook posts (it's cool; even my wife doesn't read them), here's a quick rundown of what's going on and where.

I sent Ninjas off to my agent. You probably know this. She's still reading it, but I'm naively hoping she likes it and wants to start submitting like really, really soon. Cuz getting published (and paid) would be rad.

I went to California. I spoke at my church, had meals with a quarter bazillion people, played and occasionally acquired new games, and then spent a week at inXile HQ where...

I got promoted to Torment's Design Lead. That does not mean I'm in charge of the whole thing (thank God; Colin's still Creative Lead (making sure the story, characters, writing, etc. are awesome) and Kevin's still the Project Lead (making sure the game actually gets done)). It does mean I'm in charge of the game's rules, systems, interfaces, and other designy tidbits. It's pretty much the same stuff I was doing before, except with higher expectations and less ability to blame others when things go wrong. Should be fun.

I watched like 8 movies/shows on the plane trip back. And I have determined that Disney's The Lone Ranger is stupid. BBC's Sherlock, however, is intelligently awesome.

I got home. Wherein I've played a bunch of games with the boys, given out cheap American candy, seen Catching Fire with the wife, and done very little work (except the work of getting over jet lag, which is ongoing).

Tomorrow I plan to play Wasteland 2, write >= 500 words (I've lowered my standards, for reasons), and entertain a 3-year-old tyrant. Among other things.

What have you been up to?

Coming Up with a Book Title

I am preparing, finally, to send Post-Apoc Ninjas to my agent. "Post-Apoc Ninjas" is the title I use for it online, short for Post-Apocalyptic, Dragon-Riding Ninjas (with Mechs!). While that title is perfectly descriptive of what's in the book, it isn't quite the right tone for the novel.

I have another working title for the novel, which is The Con of War. It's meant to be a play on Sun Tzu's The Ancient Art of War, but (a) I don't think it really comes across and (b) it's just not cool enough. The thing is, I usually just go with whatever title comes to me. Turns out that doesn't always work (shocker!).

So instead I came up with a process (super shocker!).

STEP #1: What does a winner look like?
I thought about what the above titles were lacking in, and what I thought a good title should do. I came up with four general categories. Note that these were just my categories. You may have your own (you should probably look at titles you particularly like or something; I was too lazy):
  1. Tone and Feel: A measure of how well the title hints at what is to come. For my novel, this meant as many of the following as possible: an Asian feel, ninjas, dragons, mechs, post-apocalyptic setting, con game, and war.
  2. Multiple Meanings: A measure of how many ways the title can be interpreted (the more, the better), and the relevance of those interpretations to the novel.
  3. Use in the Novel: A measure of whether the title is a phrase from the prose itself and how relevant that phrase is to the novel's theme(s). Is it an important phrase? Repeated? Does it have special meaning, or is it a throwaway term?
  4. Overall Coolness: A measure of how cool the title might sound to someone who knows absolutely nothing about the story.
STEP #2: Enter the contestants.
Brainstorm. Just make up titles out of whatever. Scan or all-out read the novel looking for metaphors, themes, and cool turns of phrase. Write them all down. I ended up with twenty entrants (including the two contenders above). It helped that I was reading through the novel for a final revision and writing down anything that sounded remotely title-worthy.

STEP #3: Battle Royale. Fight!
Stick them in a table (or an Excel sheet, or Post-Its, whatever floats you) and judge them. Come up with a scale for your categories (I rated all categories from 1 to 3, because I don't need or like a lot of granularity).  Try to be objective. Try to judge them without comparing one to another. Hire someone to clean up the blood and teeth afterwards.

STEP #4: Semi-Finals.
Now that all of your contestants have been judged, determine your criteria for moving on. It might be an objective look at the totals across categories. Maybe you require that one of the categories have a certain score. Maybe you give a special pass to ones you like. Copy only the winners of the Battle Royale to a new place, so you can see them against each other, without the losers cluttering them up.

My criteria was at least 8 out of a possible 12 across the categories (although a couple of 7's passed because I liked how they were used in the novel). It cut the field down from 20 to 12, which wasn't much, but when I sorted them by total, I realized that the only ones I really liked were the ones that achieved 9 and up. These three titles became my Semi-Final winners.

STEP #5: Championship.
The next thing I did kinda surprised me. Instead of choosing a winner from among the three (although I did have a favorite at this point). I looked at all three and tried to make them better.

In my case, I realized most of them were a little shy of the Tone and Feel I wanted. I clarified to myself what that feel was (mostly kung-fu), looked up a bunch of related titles (mostly kung-fu movies), and figured out what made those titles sound like they were related (basically became a human kung-fu movie title generator: Way of the Master's Deadly Dragon Fist!).

It was pretty fun.

STEP #6 (Optional): Poll Your Audience.
Because I'm nothing if not shameless (and also I think by this point most of you want to know what my finalists were). Yes, I am serious. No, I won't necessarily use the most-voted as the title. Yes, you may vote whether or not you've read the novel. (If you're reading this from e-mail or a feed reader, you'll have to click through to see the poll):

Feel free to expand upon your vote, say how stupid these are, or even suggest other titles in the comments.

Loving What You Write

I've had a hard time writing lately. Oh don't worry, there's still a novel on sub, and another novel ready to go after that one. This page is still up to date (wait, is it up to date? . . . Yes, now it's up to date).

What's been hard is writing something new. Part of that has been RPG crafting systems and dialogue design (who knew two full-time jobs would be so much work, am I right?). Part of it is in that first paragraph: I'm on sub, have another ready to go, and my brain is saying, "Why are you writing more?"

BUT I've figured out something that makes it hard to write no matter how many jobs or kids I have: I'm bored of the book.

It sucks, I know, but it has two very easy fixes:
  1. Find what you love about the book (you did love something, right?) and do that.
  2. If all you're left with is things you don't love, fix them until you do.
For me, that played out in a few ways.

I read ahead in my outline until I hit a scene I was excited about. Once I remembered the cool thing I was working toward, it gave me motivation and ideas for how to get there. SO much better than thinking, "Okay, now I have to write a scene where he goes to school again . . ."

(Obviously if you're Zuko-ing it, you won't have an outline, but you have notes, right? Ideas? You can at least think ahead even if you can't read ahead).

World-building. You may know I love me some world-building. A lot of times when I'm bored it's because the world is boring. So I fix that and add something cool. Like mechs or displacer beasts.

I made up some slang. This is part of world-building, but it's become such a fundamental part of my process (and it was such a fundamental part of me getting unstuck today) that it deserves its own paragraph. I HEART SLANG. I came up with six new words and a system unique to this world for just a couple of pages (which, for you math-minded, means that about 1% of the words on those pages are completely made up).

If those don't work for you, then maybe it's the characters, maybe you need to know what they want or fear. Maybe you need to talk to yourself about the story a while, or maybe you just need to get out.

The important thing is that if you're bored with the story, your readers probably will be too. Find what you love and fill the story with that.

What I've Been Doing Instead of Blogging

I hate having only First Impact posts go up, but I am trying to make money at this writing thing, so. Anyway, here are some of the things I've been doing in the last few weeks instead of blogging.

Designing an alignment system. Basically codifying all of human experience and emotion into little boxes so we can tell the player things like, "You're Lawful Good." (Note: We're not using Lawful Good.) FUN LEVEL: High.

Thinking about what makes RPG combat interesting. There is quite a lot of debate in the hardcore CRPG world about whether combat should be turn-based or not. Part of my job has been to think about this a lot. FUN LEVEL: Medium (only because I'd rather get into specifics, but I can't yet).

Writing design docs. Fact: if we don't document it, it gets forgotten. FUN LEVEL: Tedious (but like our producer told me and Colin the other day, we don't get to do the fun stuff until we actually have money to do it).

(Anyway, tedious is a relative term. The most boring game design task is way cooler than anything I did for my Office Space job. I just want to think up cool stuff all day and have someone else write it down for me, is all.)

Writing Kickstarter copy. You'd be surprised how much work goes into a major crowd-funding campaign. I mean, look at a typical big-budget Kickstarter. Someone has to write all that stuff. FUN LEVEL: Tedious.

Planning Kickstarter videos. FUN LEVEL: High (until they start talking about my video update, then Abject Terror).

Iterating. I get an e-mail asking what I think of a design doc. I critique said design doc. What do I think of the latest concept art? Review and reply with my thoughts. Music? Videos? Someone's possible response to a forum question? Review and respond. Oh, and also respond to all the critiques of my stuff. FUN LEVEL: Surprisingly High.

Waiting on Air Pirates. Submissions, man. FUN LEVEL: Zero.

Revising Post-Apoc Ninjas. FUN LEVEL: Really slow.

Playing chess online. Our producer, Kevin, saw this drawing and said he might challenge me sometime. I can't let him win. FUN LEVEL: High.

Playing games with the kids. We raise gamers. I can't imagine why. FUN LEVEL: High until their attention spans wear out (so about five minutes).

Fending off tiny tyrants. This one, in particular. She gets mad at me when I work. Or cook. Or read. Or do anything except give her 110% of my attention. FUN LEVEL: I don't like it when she screams at me.

Driving. Yeah. I'm basically a soccer dad. FUN LEVEL: Usually High (this is where I come up with ideas).

So... what are you all up to?

Making Up Fantasy Languages

It's impossible (perhaps illegal, and certainly blasphemous) to talk about fantasy languages without mentioning the Godfather of Fantasy Language: Mr. John Tolkien. The guy invented languages for fun since he was thirteen years old. He wrote the most epic novel of all time just so he had a place to use those languages.

If that's you, read no further. You're fine.

Most of us, however, did not specialize in graduate-level English philology. So most of us don't really understand how language evolves or what it takes to create an artificial language that has the feel and depth of a real one. That's why a lot of amateur fantasy languages sound silly or made-up.

So how do you create a language that FEELS real, without spending years determining morphology, grammar, and syntax? I'll show you what I do. It's the same thing I do with most world-building: steal from real life, then obscure my sources.

Let's take the phrase "thank you." It's a common phrase, often borrowed between languages (e.g. the Japanese say "sankyu" as borrowed English; in California we say "gracias" as borrowed Spanish, etc).

STEAL FROM REAL LIFE. First I need a source -- some existing, real-world language I can base my fantasy language on. I want it to be somewhat obscure, and I want to show you how you can do this without even knowing the source language (which means no Thai), so I'll pick Malay.

There's lots of ways to find foreign words in a chosen language. If I wanted to be accurate, I'd use 2-3 sites to verify, but I'm making up a language, so Google Translate it is. It translates "thank you" as "terima kasih."

Now that's pretty cool on its own. It's pretty, easy to read, and sounds totally foreign. But despite the odds, somebody who speaks Malay will probably read my novel at some point. That's why we obscure the source. Two ways I do that: (1) alter the letters/sounds/word order of the existing phrase and (2) mix it with some other language.

OBSCURE YOUR SOURCES. For my second source language, I'll pick something from the same family in the hopes it will make my made-up language sound more real. A little Wikipediage tells me Malay is an Austronesian language, and lists the major languages of that branch. I'll use Filipino (just because it's also in Google Translate) and get "salamat."

Then I mish-mash for prettiness and obfuscation. Salamat + terima = salima or salama or, slightly more obscure, sarama. For kasih, I already used the "sala" part of salamat, so I'll take mat + kasih = matak. "Sarama matak." But that feels a bit long for a thank you phrase, so I'll shorten it to "Sarama tak."

And there you go. It was a little work, but a lot less work than it took Tolkien to invent Quenya. If I'm really serious about this fantasy culture/language, I'll keep a glossary of the phrases I make up in my notes, along with a note of what the source languages are (so I can repeat the process to create more phrases that sound like they could be from the same language) and links to the translation sites I used.

If the glossary gets big enough, I might (because I am a bit of a language geek) start converting the phrases into their constituent parts: individual words, verbs, maybe even conjugations. But that's breaching into Tolkien territory where I said I wouldn't go.

Anyway, now you know my secret. Go forth and make cool-sounding languages.

(remixed from an older post)

The Problem With Self-Imposed Deadlines

The trilemma above is a universal for any project. And I've realized this is exactly why my self-imposed deadlines almost never work. I mean, I'll set them, but then I'll get stuck on something, or a problem will appear that I didn't foresee. And once my deadline is broken, replacing it just feels . . . fake.

My self-imposed deadlines don't work because, in the querying and submission stages, the choice above is made for me:

CHEAP, because nobody's paying me. (The only way it could be cheaper is if I paid for the privilege to write which, really, yuck).

GOOD, because if it's not my best stuff, then nobody will ever pay me.

In a way, it's kind of nice. I don't have to choose! I can take all the time I need to make it right, and it's okay.

Under real deadlines, now, I'm a pro. But that's usually because somebody gave them to me. With money. And an implicit declaration of which of these three is least important to them.

I can do that.

How about you? Do self-imposed deadlines work for you?

When You Open Your MS for the 1,000,000th Time and You LOATHE It

Thank you for indulging my forced vacation last week. I actually didn't mean to time it with Thanksgiving (I often forget about American holidays out here), but sometimes things just work out, don't they?

So. You sit down to write. You open the Word doc that you've opened a million times before, see the chapter heading or title page and . . . you hate it. You hate that chapter title, that opening paragraph, that scene that you've revised twenty billion times.

This happened to me a little while ago. I've been revising Post-Apoc Ninjas for like ever, and I was so frigging sick of seeing this screen every morning:

Single-spaced, 10-point font, baby. That's how I roll.

But hey, writing's hard, right? We just gotta deal with it and move on.

But this was affecting my mood (and my predilection toward distraction) every single day. It was making a hard thing harder. So with the help of some basic psychology, I fixed it. Now I see these instead:

Emo Billy, but lots cooler.
Alternate view: a map prettier than any I could ever draw.
I found pictures related to my story, pictures that got me excited about it, and pasted them all over the first page. Now I don't have to see any text until I'm ready (and with the Document Map, I don't have to see the opening text at all, if I don't want to).

So that's your tip for today: When you open your manuscript for the millionth time and you LOATHE it, drop some awesome pictures on the first page to remind you why you still love it.

What about you? When you hate your manuscript and don't want to see it ever again, what do you do about it?

State of the Writing

It's been a long time since I've given you guys anything like a regular status update. I mean, there's my Works In Progress tab, but (a) who reads that? And (b) that only covers things with names.

So here's where things stand.

AIR PIRATES (being the novel that got me my beloved agent) is on submission. I've gotten some very pleasant-sounding feedback, but you know. When I have an announcement here, you'll hear it.

POST-APOC NINJAS (being the novel I talked about last month) is being revised. Of course the novel I drafted the fastest would take the longest to revise, but at least it's moving.

EVANGELION-ISH is a sci-fi novel I'm going to write after the Ninjas are revised (and the Pirates, if necessary). It has an outline. The two people who have read that are excited, so I guess that's a good thing.

SECRET FANTASY PROJECT is something I can't talk about yet. But it's cool. Unfortunately it's also back-burner, which means I'm spending as much energy trying not to think about it as I am actually working on other things.

TOP SECRET PROJECT, the nature of which I cannot even tell you. But rest assured it's awesome and exciting, and with luck I'll be able to talk about it in a couple of months.

This is on top of getting kids to school, making them food, and sometimes sleeping. I don't know how I got so many projects all of a sudden, but at least it increases the odds you'll get to read one of them eventually. Though it does mean a lot of drawing and remix posts. Sorry :-/

(And to answer the question "How do you do all that?": awesome wife + very poor single-tasking*).

So what are you up to?

* Being the more accurate term for "multi-tasking."

Getting Unstuck

I've been working on revisions for Post-Apoc Ninjas, and it's been taking way too long. I once again have questioned whether I really should be writing, whether I deserve an agent, whether Air Pirates is some kind of one-hit wonder. I keep thinking if Air Pirates doesn't make it, Ninjas will be my next shot. Which means it has to be not just as good as Air Pirates, but better. And it's not.

But that's totally unfair. Of course it's not better. I've been working on Air Pirates for 4 years. It's been through dozens of beta readers and two or three major revisions. Post-Apoc Ninjas has only been through one very rushed draft.

But that didn't help me get unstuck. Here are some of the things that did, eventually, get me through it:
Pen and illustrations
courtesy of K. Marie Criddle
  • Read books on writing.
  • Think about the story 24 hours a day.
  • Create a dozen text files full of brainstorming and trying to work things out, with titles like "Random Revision Thoughts," "More Revision Planning (Invasion-Focused III)," and "Revision, Take Whatever" (You think I'm joking?).
  • Write plot points on index cards and shuffle them for no reason.
  • Use Awesome Pen of Power.
  • Make ridiculous, masochistic Twitter bets.
  • Make even more ridiculous punishments.
  • Take really long drives alone, like say: drive your daughter to her mountain village 2 hours away.*

I did finally get unstuck, and though all of these things helped (especially putting off reading BEHEMOTH), the only way I got through it was to never give up.

Who knew?

How do you get yourself unstuck?

* For the purposes of this post, driving "alone" and "with a teenager" are the same thing.