Guest Post Re-Post Week!

Visiting family, so no new blog this week. Instead, enjoy this post I wrote for my dear friend Ellar Cooper.

A Cute Picture of My Dog (and some words about writing life)

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How “Twitch Plays Pokemon” is Twitching Narrative

Last week I discovered the captivating madness that is “Twitch Plays Pokemon.” For those who don’t know, it’s a massive multiplayer version of Pokemon Red. I don’t mean multiple people controlling different characters. I mean thousands of people controlling one character at the same time via chatbox inputs.

Like I said, captivating madness.

Obviously, this results in some issues. A 20-ish second lag means that your inputs won’t affect the action right away, so the character spends hours walking back and forth across a room, making useless decisions in battle, and generally making snail-like progress.

From the minute I saw it I had two thoughts. The first was, “This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” The second, because I am a writer, was, “I bet there’s a story here.”

For the most part, single-player video games like Pokemon Red was originally, have very fixed narratives. The way the player moves through the narrative might not always be linear or the same every time, but the story never changes. A boy is sent on a quest to find and train Pokemon, he battles some gym leaders and bad guys on the way, and eventually becomes a Pokemon Master (yes? I’m too lazy to confirm it on Wikipedia).

When you play it as it’s intended, you might capture different Pokemon, do things in a slightly different order, but the narrative isn’t really going to change, at least not significantly.

But Twitch Plays Pokemon has managed to change the narrative. Thousands of people are collectively making decisions for one character, and the result isn’t just that Red is traveling back and forth across the screen a maddening number of times (though that does happen). An entire religion has quickly popped up in the ten days since the game started, for one thing, and I’d argue it’s more than just an elaborate collection of memes, since it’s also ingrained itself into the chat and commentary narrative. The players either see themselves as part of a Borg-like collective, or as the lone hero trying to save Red from a band of trolls (or as trolls themselves). It’s the same software we used when the game first came out 18 years ago. Except for the necessary changes to get the game on the computer and make all Pokemon findable, it’s the same exact game. The player still has to meet the same goals in order to progress through the game and win. But somehow, it’s an entirely different story.

Writers have long been warned that the way we tell stories is changing, and I can’t help but think that this is one of those ways. When a player inputs a command into the chatbox, they’re doing more than just trying to make something happen, whether good or bad. They’re helping to re-write something long-established. Sure, we’ve done plenty of that already, with fanfiction and adaptations. But this is different. It’s not just because it’s a video game. Designers create mods all the time that can alter the narrative of a game.

But this isn’t a new level or new code, and it’s not like the players can accomplish their goals any differently than they did before. There’s just more people trying accomplish the same goals as before. You don’t need to understand the way the game works to get involved, or even to be successful. You just need to type in a box. And the move you make will affect more than just you. It affects the decisions and thoughts of thousands of people. It could create a whole new branch of mythology, and it WILL become part of the larger arc that the game is writing. When you play it by yourself, you’re not altering the arc. When you play Twitch Plays Pokemon, you are.

I think we can learn a lot from social experiments like Twitch Plays Pokemon, about the power and potentially destructive nature of teamwork, about how malleable stories really are, even well-established ones. And I think we’ll learn a lot more as the game progresses.

Or “progresses,” as it were.

Are the worlds you create really yours? Jean-Luc Picard has the answer!

Most of you probably have pretty sensible, self-improvement based New Year’s Resolutions. Like to keep your house clean. Or to eat healthier. Or to learn a new skill.

Mine’s to watch all of Star Trek. All the TV episodes. All the movies. That’s about 30 years of television crammed into one year, and I’m pretty excited.


Shh. Let’s not think about that.

 

I’m a huge movie and TV trivia buff, so while I watch, I also look up the production history and other interesting facts about the episodes on Memory Alpha, a comprehensive Star Trek wiki. One thing that gets brought up a fair amount is Gene Roddenberry’s fierce protection of the world he created, and the way he wanted it to be.

Star Trek, at least from the parts of it I’ve gotten to see so far, is one of those rare stories that successfully portrays a real utopia. You don’t get to see that very much. Generally, what we think of as utopias in fiction are actually clever disguises of dystopias. But there’s a reason for that: utopias don’t really lend themselves to conflicts, and the only way you can make a perfect society interesting is when something corrupts it from the outside. The ship’s computer, for example, could not be shown malfunctioning or operating imperfectly in any way, unless an outside source corrupted it. The show was also notoriously episodic. In other words, everything had to return to normal the next week, and every episode had to tie up its loose ends.

While reading the production info on the episodes produced while Roddenberry was alive, I’m noticing quite a few writers left the show or almost left because they couldn’t convince him to budge on things that would conflict with his vision of the world. Episodes had to be re-written or scrapped altogether. A main character whose actions might be seen as villainous would be replaced by a throwaway guest character so as not to upset the balance of the perfect crew. Instead of a conspiracy to overthrow the Federation from within, the corruption actually came from a malevolent parasitic species taking over their bodies.

Writers hear the phrase, “kill your darlings” all the time. And to me, it doesn’t just relate to killing characters or lines. It’s also about being willing to let a little darkness creep into your world. I don’t think that Roddenberry’s choices were bad. But I can also understand the frustration of a writer trying his or her best to write an interesting script, and being shot down because Roddenberry had a specific vision, and he didn’t want to entertain anything that might conflict with that vision. But I also understand the anger among fans that after his death, more and more stories were produced that conflicted with the rules he’d created.

So, now to the question of the day: Are the worlds you create really yours? Once Roddenberry successfully created and produced Star Trek, did he have the right to total control of his creation? I’m not asking if the studios he worked with had the right to take his control away. I’m asking if, as a creator, he had a personal responsibility to let go of his love affair with the Enterprise and the Federation. What would have happened if he had? Would we have gotten a better creation, or worse?

I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know that in my own writing, I wouldn’t be able to create successful stories if I didn’t let go. If I didn’t let my characters be irreparably damaged. In TNG, Picard is taken over by the Borg. He’s quickly rescued and returned to normal, of course, but one of the writers had to argue with Roddenberry that things could not simply go back to normal the next week, that at least one more episode had to show Picard damaged and still dealing with the incident. If Roddenberry hadn’t been willing to move and do what was best for the character, to let him grow and heal rather than force everything to go back to normal the next week, would that had been better?

So the question isn’t, do the worlds you create belong to an outside force that would commercialize it and destroy your vision. The question is, do those worlds belong to you, or to the characters and forces that have to live there?

One Cannot Live on Stakes Alone

I’m very good at puns.

So, stakes. Stakes are yet another thing involved in novel writing that are VERY VERY IMPORTANT. Stakes are usually the thing you discover you need after you’ve spent countless months on a draft and maybe you don’t quite understand what they are or why you need them, all you know is that you do and at this point, the list of things you need to do for your novel has gotten longer than a grocery list for a family of ten and you are just about ready to throw your laptop across the room.

No? That’s just me? Alright, then.

To tell you the truth, it took me longer than I’d like to admit to really “get” stakes, to really understand what they are and why they’re so important. But once I did, I fell in love. I fell in love so much that “What are the stakes?” is the first thing I ask myself when I read a book, and I’m not happy unless I can answer it. I fell in love so much that I developed theories about stakes. Theories that are probably not revolutionary to anyone but me, but that make me feel smart for the brief window of time that I don’t go on the Internet and figure out everyone already knew this, so where the heck was I when the rest of humanity was figuring it out and simultaneously losing the need for tails?

Well, now I know. You need stakes. And more than that, you need obstacles. Stakes and obstacles are the literary equivalent of “between a rock and a hard place.” That’s where you want your character to be. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t. And if you only have one, you have a problem.

Stakes are what is lost if your protagonist doesn’t succeed. Obstacles are the blocks on your protagonist’s path to success. I picture these on a scale.

You want to keep that scale balanced. In other words, what might be lost if the protagonist doesn’t succeed has to be equally as frightening as the obstacles in front of them. They don’t have to be the same, but they have to be balanced.

Think about the movie Jaws. Focusing on Chief Brody, what does he want? He wants to kill the shark. What are the obstacles in his path? The shark is big and deadly and could kill him pretty easily. What are the stakes? If he doesn’t kill the shark, more people in the town he’s in charge of keeping safe will die.

jaws_swims_behind_chief_brody
And yet, he’s the picture of calm.

 

Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. They’re not exactly the same. His personal life is only at risk in terms of the obstacles (he doesn’t intend to go in the water himself otherwise), but they are equally scary. Not to say your stakes and obstacles need to be terrifying, but they should be on par with each other.

Now imagine that one of those things was taken away, or made lesser. Imagine that instead of the shark killing people if Brody does NOT act, it’ll probably just swim away or stop eating people. In other words, the obstacles are heavy, but the stakes are light.

Why would you want Brody to risk his life in that scenario? Even if the shark is dangerous, if there was no evidence that it would continue to harm people if he didn’t act, if we were only suspicious that it would or if there was the probability that it would eventually stop, we’d have no reason to cheer him on. No matter how compelling the shark-hunting scenes, we’d constantly be yelling at the screen and telling him to go home.

Now imagine what would happen if we took away the obstacles, giving way more weight to the stakes.

If we do that, the threat to the townspeople is very real, but Brody and the others don’t have much to do to kill the shark. Just harpoon it a few times, or throw some poisoned fish in the river, or figure out that oxygen tank trick way earlier and with less fanfare.

602px-Jaws-Garand-5
Boy, I’m sure glad this went exactly the way we planned it and nobody in the hunting party died.

 

That’s a surefire recipe for bo-o-o-ring.

Take a look at most novels and movies and you’ll see a similar formula. The stakes and the obstacles are both on the same level, so you’re both fearful of what will happen if the protagonist succeeds, and what will happen if they don’t. It keeps you invested in the book. Writers don’t do this because everyone does and they’re just going with the crowd. They do it because it’s how we keep the reader or viewer invested. It’s how we keep them caring.

So, what are YOUR stakes? What are your obstacles? Are they sufficient enough to keep the reader turning the pages? Will they lie awake at night, worrying about what will happen, or will they either be screaming at your protagonist to go home and make some tea or feeling cheated because the stakes were high but the path to the goal was paved with rainbows and lollipops?

Making the reader care about your character: In praise of a light touch (and video games)

Your reader needs to care about your character. Period. The end.

They don’t need to necessarily like your character, or think they’re a good person, but they need to care. They need to have some reason they’re going to follow this character on their journey. Usually writers achieve this through undeserved misfortune. We see a character suffering when they did nothing to earn it, and we instantly feel sorry for them.

But undeserved misfortune, while an excellent start, isn’t enough. We don’t want to just feel sorry for the character. As the novel goes on, we want to connect with them. And for that, I’m in favor of the little moments. Those points that remind us how human and vulnerable they are (even if they’re not technically human). I like a light touch, subtle moments that draw me in.

When I think of moments like this, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t a novel, though there are many that do this quite well. It’s actually a video game, Bioshock Infinite. I’m not an avid gamer, but Infinite is one of the best games I’ve ever seen or played. And I love it because of the characters. That’s not something you hear a lot. Generally, when a person is picking out a game, their question isn’t, “Does it have well-developed characters?” but rather, “Are there cool powers, and how efficient are those powers at making things dead?”

And granted, Infinite has cool powers and violence in spades. But I love it because the story is amazing and the characters are unbelievably real, even though their circumstances are outlandish. There’s a scene from the game that I particularly love, a scene that, while not particularly important, shows both characters in a moment of vulnerability, of being utterly and completely human.

Before I show you the scene, I’ll recap what happens before that, if you haven’t played the game. It’s from fairly early on. The main character, and the one you control, is Booker DeWitt, a private investigator who’s been sent to the mysterious floating city of Columbia to kidnap a girl, Elizabeth, the other main character. His clients are unknown to us, but Booker owes them a lot of money, and if he brings them Elizabeth his debts will be nullified. He finds that Elizabeth’s been held in a tower most of her life, and convinces her to go with him under the guise of rescuing her. Almost right away, though, he cares for her as more than a means to an end, given that in addition to being trapped in a tower, she’s been experimented on in obviously disturbing ways.

The two of them try to leave the city, but the city’s president and “prophet,” Comstock, won’t let that happen. He’s somehow predicted Booker’s arrival in Columbia by telling his citizens that a “false shepherd” will come to lead the city’s savior, Elizabeth, astray. Booker’s “false shepherd” persona is portrayed in advertisements around the city as an outlandishly evil figure, either depicted as a sinister amorphous blob or a figure in a black hooded cloak, while Elizabeth is portrayed as completely innocent, usually a small lamb. It’s obvious what Comstock and his citizens think Booker’s relationship to Elizabeth will be when he arrives: he’ll either seduce her with false promises or be outright menacing and threatening to her. But neither is what ends up happening.

Onto the clip. This takes place a few in-game hours after you’ve rescued Elizabeth.

For those of you with the inability to watch it: While Elizabeth and Booker are trapped in a malfunctioning elevator, Elizabeth freaks out because a bee has gotten in. Booker tells her to kill it, but Elizabeth protests, saying that it will sting her. She decides instead to use her special power to get rid of it, but it doesn’t quite go as planned, and they almost get attacked.

What happens in this short scene isn’t particularly noteworthy in terms of story development. We learn that Elizabeth has mysterious powers, but we already sort of knew that. But it’s pretty damn important in terms of character development.

My favorite moment though, is just one word. When Booker, exasperated that she won’t kill the bee, just says, “Elizabeth!” I love everything about it. I love how despite the fact that you never see Booker’s face or the way he holds himself, you know exactly what he looks like and how he stands when he says it. He’s probably slumped over. He’s tired. He’s frustrated. I love the sense of familiarity, how we can tell that he cares about Elizabeth even though they’ve only known each other for a few hours. I love how it swiftly eliminates Booker’s image as the “false shepherd,” making him more than just a generic evil man in a black cloak, but it also makes it clear he’s no knight in shining armor. We get all that from just one word.

The scene in general is so great. It shows us that despite his streetwise skills, Booker is capable of real fear and vulnerability. And it shows up so much about Elizabeth, how though she’s probably not evil, she’s far from an innocent lamb; she has an unbelievable power, but she doesn’t know why and she can’t understand the consequences of using it until it’s too late. But still, in this scene, I fall for her as a character. She knows very well they’re about to face enemies way more powerful and scary than a simple bee, but in that moment, she can’t hide her fear and overreaction. And how many of us can relate to that? This scene is where I most connect to both of them, because it’s quiet and allows them room to breathe as characters, to grow for the brief moment they’re not facing an onslaught of enemies.

Undeserved misfortune is great (from a writing perspective). Elizabeth, obviously, has plenty. Booker’s an asshole with sometimes bad intentions, but it’s made clear that something terrible happened to him that caused him to go into debt. But neither of those things would make me care throughout the story if I didn’t also have moments like this. Moments where I get to see them interacting and being ridiculously human. We know our characters can’t be exactly like real people, but they need to be pretty close. Booker and Elizabeth know that they’re about to face things way worse than the bee. But just like a lot of real people would, when faced with a tiny yet difficult problem, they can still overreact. They can still make us fall in love with them even though they’re capable of doing awful and dangerous things, sometimes with no regard for the consequences.

So, what can we do as writers to insert these moments in our writing? How can we make our characters more than sufferers of their own fate? How can we make the reader love them when they’re at their worst? And how can we make them human?

We Interrupt this writing session to let you know…that I’m writing

Okay, I admit it. I’m a bad writer. Or I have been, lately. My afternoons (aka my writing time) have been mostly filled for the last few weeks with revising my manuscript, working on my query and synopsis, submitting, and some days, things that have embarrassingly little to do with writing. But not with real, raw writing. I know I can be forgiven for that. At least, I hope I can. But today I thought, “I need to write again,” but I needed a break from my current project. I have another one that’s been tugging at me, but I didn’t know where to start. I generally don’t do much pre-writing; my style just doesn’t work that way. But for this project, it seemed necessary to play. To feel around in my characters and let them do things not related to the plot for a little bit until I’m ready to ruin their lives, er, I mean, tell their story.

So I opened a Word doc, and wrote one paragraph.

And I experienced what can only be described as what coffee drinkers feel when they have their first shot of espresso for the day. Probably. I don’t drink coffee. But you know what I’m talking about. The kind of excitement that’s so wonderful you just have to tell someone. You just want to jump on the couch Tom Cruise-style and scream, “I’m writing again!” You’re getting your hands dirty with words and it feels so amazing.

That, I think, is what being a writer is all about. Getting through the days where the thought of writing fills you with dread until you finally hit that day where just writing a few sentences makes you want to take out an ad in the paper to let people know.

Even if you’re not writing today, I hope you’re doing something that makes you breathe happy!

YOU Should be Reading

I feel like the importance of reading if you want to be a writer can’t be over-emphasized. I feel like as much as we hear it on our writing journeys, we could always hear it one more time. So this is my contribution battle cry to any skeptical writers out there: you need to be reading.

I mentioned it in an earlier post, but I wanted to devote a whole post to it, because I’ve met an alarming number of people who want to be writers but don’t want to be readers.

In college, I had the opportunity to attend a panel of writers that included Stephen King. He had edited a collection of short stories and the other panelists were writers whose work appeared in the collection. They were all wonderful, but for the most part the other writers were younger and had thus far shorter careers than King. At one point an audience member asked if the panel had any advice for aspiring writers. The other panelists gave lengthy, heartfelt answers, but King leaned forward into the microphone and said, very quickly, “Read a lot and write a lot.”

It must have seemed pretty callous compared to the other answers, but it was my favorite. I don’t remember what the other panelists said, but I remember not only what he said, but how he said it. I could tell he was both expecting and dreading that question. I could tell he’d been asked it countless times before. And I could tell that he was used to people not believing him when he said it was god advice.

I think it was the best piece of advice I heard that night. Maybe the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard in terms of writing. But I’m constantly meeting people who don’t believe me, particularly the part about reading. The writing part seems sound enough, but the reading…they’re not so sure. I can understand their skepticism. I’m just a twentysomething with very little published writing and no published novels to my name. If they’re not going to believe Stephen King, why should they believe me?

Most of the time, their objections have to do with time. They barely have time to write; why should they take time away from THAT to read? Another objection I’ve heard is, “I write BECAUSE I don’t like what’s out there. I want to do it better!” And worst of all, I’ve had people just come out and tell me that even though they want to write, they just plain don’t enjoy reading.

All of these are excuses, and none of them are particularly good excuses. If you have time to write, you can (and should) devote some of that time to reading, yes, even if it takes time away from your writing. If you don’t like what’s out there, and you’re not willing to read, chances are you’re not going to actually do it better, and very few successful writers have made a career out of “showing up” the literary world. And as for the last one, I’ll get to that soon.

But first, why is reading necessary? Reading makes you a better person. It’s an opportunity to hone your craft by carefully looking at how other authors have built worlds, created compelling characters, used beautiful language, and all the things that YOU need to do as a writer. It humbles you. It teaches you. There are a million good reasons to read. There is exactly one reason to not read: because you don’t know how. And if you’re reading this, you do, so consider yourself lucky and go pick up a book.

So, how much should you read? I’ve been asked this before. There’s no straight formula, but if you ask that with apprehension, then however much you think is enough is probably not. I read about 50 pages a day, and I wish I could read more. Which brings me to my next, and potentially controversial point… (you’ve been warned)

I don’t think you always need to love writing in order to be a writer. I know plenty of writers who hate writing sometimes. Writing can be a constant wrestling match with the page, and it’s not unusual to have days where you don’t enjoy it. If writing is something you’re meant to do, you’ll probably feel the pull and desire again soon.

But I don’t believe you can be a writer if you don’t love reading, if you don’t look forward to cracking open a book and getting lost in the pages. I’m not saying you need to want to read everything, nor do you need to love or even finish every book you pick up. I’ve read plenty of books that I hated, and there are many genres you’ll probably never catch me reading. But I think you have to want to read despite that. You have to hope, every time you open a book, that this time, you’re going to read something amazing.

And this is probably going to be the most harsh fact of all, but if someone tells me they’re a writer and when I ask about books they like to read, they tell me they don’t read, I don’t think of them as a writer. I’ll still like them as a person. I’ll still want to hang out with them and be their friend. I’m not going to be nasty or lecture them or even respond to it or bring it up again. But in my brain, in the part where everyone I know is separated into the “writer” group and “not writer” group, they’ll be in the “not writer” group. I believe it that strongly. You can be a reader and not be a writer, but you can’t be a writer and not be a reader.

Every rule has exceptions, except for this one. There is no author, living or dead, who has been an exception, who has been able to write brilliantly without reading (or in the days before reading, sharing stories and absorbing them). You are not an exception either, and to be honest, if you were, if you could write wonderful prose or poetry but you never had to crack open a book to do so, I’d feel sorry for you. Because I can’t imagine a life without reading.

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