World building month: Video Games as Writing Tools

August 21, 2008 at 6:40 pm (assorted miscellany, fiction, Inspiration, motivations, writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

I spend a lot of time playing video games, and have since I was fairly young; we used to play a lot of Super Breakout on the Atari 2600, and I loved the Hitchhiker’s Infocom game. Nowadays I spend most of my time with World of Warcraft, with occasional breaks for Oblivion and whichever DS puzzle game strikes my fancy. (Professor Layton and the Curious Village is, by the way, far too much fun. Go buy it.)

For me at least, WoW isn’t much of a creative inspiration. The lore is spread too thin, and most of the time I get no real sense that it’s actually relevant to what I’m doing. There are certainly a lot of places to go and find out what the story is, but it isn’t really necessary to progress in the game itself. Natania at the Aldersgate Cycle wrote up a post about how WoW almost ate her novel, and I noted in the comments that I have more or less the opposite reaction. WoW has just an enormous world with huge potential for storytelling, but it really disappoints in that particular area. I play to spend time with friends, and to raid, so for me it’s more of a social time sink and a way to do some teamwork as well as get those competitive urges out. If anything, spending time trying to find lore in WoW makes me want to log out and write something, because the game itself seems very much like a cardboard stage set. Nothing you do ever actually effects a change in the world (except for a few one-time events Blizzard throws in).

So. If WoW doesn’t tempt me away from writing, what does? Well, Oblivion, sometimes. If they put the social aspects of WoW into Oblivion, I would never stand up from my computer chair probably ever again, for the rest of my life. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened, and probably won’t. I hope. Oblivion is essentially entirely open-ended; the player can go wherever, whenever, and the world is interesting enough that spending a few hours exploring is actually fun. You can interact with any object, explore any ruin, go for a swim, steal a horse, pick herbs, whatever strikes your fancy. And the NPCs actually move, and go to the taverns, and they talk to each other! And what they say changes based on things the player has done! OK, so most of the time it’s not very original dialogue, but at least you don’t get the impression that these people are glued to the floor and can’t speak the same language as the guy ten feet away. And the graphics are, at least for me, just stunning. It’s a well-fleshed-out world, and I find it very easy to lose track of time. It’s easy to become that character on the screen.

Dangerous? Maybe. But there are some really cool redeeming features for a writer, at least a writer who enjoys the same sorts of fantasy worlds I like. First, the character creation screen is incredibly detailed; you can adjust parts of the facial anatomy you never knew had a name. It’s reasonably easy (with addons, on which more anon) to shape a character who fits an image in your head — say, that of your hero or heroine, or your villain, or what have you. I am not the world’s most visual person, so it can be hard for me to nail down an appearance without trying to draw it, and the character creation alone has helped me a lot. A whole lot, because I can’t draw well at all.

So let’s say you have this heroine, who matches with your vision for her appearance, and that’s great. If you want her to be, say, a hunter who never goes into a town and lives on wild plants and maybe stealing from some farmer’s field, you can do that in the existing world pretty easily. But if you start to accept and finish quests, you’re definitely putting your character into a world created by Bethesda, and it can be easy to just roll with that and forget why you started playing this time. So. This is where the construction set comes in. You can do almost anything with it, even raze every building that’s in the game and replace all the NPCs with cows, if that’s what you want. I have no idea how long that would take; probably a very long time. However, it’s pretty easy, once you learn how to use the tools, to find a corner of the world without much going on and to build whatever you’d like. Ruins, a town, a cave, a lake, some picnic table in the middle of nowhere, a wooded glade, etc. You can draw your own textures and items and import them into the builder, but I’m not that proficient with Photoshop and anyway, the story I’m working on now has a similar visual aesthetic. I just use the existing bits and pieces and slap ’em together like Legos until it looks right. You can add NPCs, give them scripts to use and paths to walk and schedules to follow. You can add monsters who will attack your character. To my mind, this is an absolutely unmatched world editor for fantasy writing. Because once you’ve created your landscape, you can take your playable character and go see what it feels like to be her. You walk the roads, you arrange the furniture in your house, you do whatever you want. It’s cool.

There are also ready-made addons that can make character faces look more realistic, or slow the passing of game time, add buildings, change NPC dialogue, and more. A lot of these are worth looking into if you’re playing just to play, and some of them are even useful for world building, especially the ones that add hairstyles, eye colors, and other things so you can make your character better match your idea.

For me, Oblivion is a great way to have some fun with my story, and to try out ideas for my worlds and see if they feel viable. You might think so, too. If you try it just be careful not to get addicted — and video game addiction? That’s a whole other topic for another time. I know folks also use games like the Sims to build things, but I find the style too cartoonish for my tastes, and you’re far more limited in what you can do and which styles you can use. It might work for you, though. Have a go!

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World Building Month: More on mythology

August 15, 2008 at 8:38 pm (fiction, Inspiration, Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

It may become apparent as I continue to post about world building that religion is a fascinating subject for me. I am especially fascinated by mythologies of various cultures, and just reading ancient stories is sometimes enough to generate hundreds of novels’ worth of ideas, I think. Norse mythology has a special draw, I think, and I’m obviously not the only one who feels that way; Tolkien based the elves we see in the Lord of the Rings books on Norse Light-elves (Ljósálfar). He had dark elves (Svartálfar), too. And nearly anyone who’s played an RPG or read Tolkien’s books or even seen the movies based on them knows about dwarves, who are generally pretty well the opposite of elves. Dwarves, of course, live underground, and build things with stone, and make lots of things involving metal and forges. Troggs, night elves, Ragnarok, world trees, Norse mythology’s got it all. Even Gandalf — an elf with a wand.

All of this borrowing from Norse mythology makes me feel a little better about my realization today. Of course I realize “there’s nothing new under heaven” and truly original ideas are, well, rare, but I kind of thought my world was shaping up as a nice combination of ideas. Then I looked up some information about timekeeping (in Asgil, it’s always light, so solar days make no sense), and being easily distracted got to reading about Norse gods. I realized how many of the ideas I have for this story ultimately derive from these stories. But I’m not alone, and it’s not bad company to keep.

It’s my opinion that the seemingly universal appeal of these old stories tells us something about the human condition. And while there have been many flat-out copies of both the myths and, of course, Tolkien’s work, there are also plenty of authors who have taken themes and ideas and put them together in new and interesting ways. It feels like we’re just continuing a tradition, really; changing things a little, and writing the result down for the entertainment and edification of others. In many cases the original stories are pretty light on details, which leaves them wide open to interpretation. And since I’m not writing as someone who believes the mythology to be true, I can pick and choose what I adopt from many cultures. The diversity of belief amongst humans is amazing, but so are the similarities. The parallels from one region to another make it easy to see when we’ve all imagined something similar to explain almost any given idea.

It seems that many times fantasy is dismissed as a sort of throw-away genre, but really, we’ve been telling these stories for thousands of years; I doubt they’re likely to vanish anytime soon. Sometimes it’s not a bad idea to look at the world through different eyes and try to explain things through magic and crazy gods acting up rather than through the scientific method. Then again, things like quantum mechanics sound pretty zany, too. Naturally, others have covered that ground, and I don’t think I could say it better than Arthur C. Clarke did:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

We fantasy writers have centuries of work to build on. Exploring old ideas with new knowledge is a lot of fun, no two ways about it. I’d like to express my thoughts on this more eloquently, but I’ve got some elves waiting for me to figure out what time it is on Asgildir.

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World Building Month: Creating a creation myth

August 13, 2008 at 12:00 am (fiction, Inspiration, writing) (, )

I have to say, worldbuilding is both exhilarating fun and exhausting head-against-a-wall moments. There are times when I’m absolutely in love with the world I’m creating, and just to create a sense of balance, there are also times when I think it’s an irredeemable pile of, well, stuff you don’t want to step in.

One of my favorite parts so far has been coming up with a creation myth, something on which I can base the beliefs of the world’s inhabitants. It just kind of came to me as I was trying to work on the language, so I wrote it down, and even upon rereading I think it’s kind of cool. It’s really just a re-imagined version of evolution, sort of how I think it might be described by people who believed it had happened but didn’t have the science to provide them with answers about why. And it’s opened up this whole realm of ideas for me. I want to write the stories of the world’s mythology, and actually map out the progress of belief and religion for the Asgil (the folks who live on this world). I’ve always been a sucker for mythology, so this probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, but it did anyway.

So now I’m kind of at this point where I want to know what happens after the part I wrote, only — and this is the kicker — I have to decide, and write it. I’m not reading someone else’s story. I’m making this up as I go along. And sure, I’ve figured out some of the structure for this culture, but not enough of to know where this part of it needs to go. And I’m torn. Do I continue to work on this tiny aspect, which I find really awesome? In my dreams I tell myself that a collected mythology and survey of religion on a fantasy world would be interesting to readers. But in reality, I know that only the most hardcore fans of a series are into that sort of thing. It’s enough for them to know that the framework is there; they don’t need to see the nuts and bolts.

So I’m left to decide how much time I should spend on this particular grain of sand, and right now, I don’t know. I think I’ll keep running with it until the ideas stop, writing enough about the creatures and terrain and people to know what might become the material of a sacred story later. It may not be the most productive use of my time, but it sure is a hell of a lot of fun.

This post is a part of World Building Month — you can go see what other writers are building, too.

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Words and music

August 12, 2008 at 1:23 pm (Inspiration, writing) (, , )

As I was going through my RSS feeds today, I found two posts that address writing and music. The first, at FWJ, was an icebreaker question; the original poster, whose identity is still a secret, said that music was a distraction when trying to write. Another commenter agreed, and so did I. Then I wandered over to the Aldersgate Cycle, where Natania made a post about music and worldbuilding. She said something that helped me to understand why I can’t write while listening to an existing song (although her point, I think, is pretty much the opposite of mine):

Every book has its own song. You can’t always hear it, but it’s there. Sure, it isn’t the kind of song that you can play on your iPod, but any story has its own melodies and harmonies, moments of dissonance, and at last, resolve.

When I listen to music, it tends to take over my brain. The images that flit through my mind are tied to the tunes and words of the song’s artist. Anything I imagine belongs to the world that artist created, and to the story they’ve already told. I think it would be false to claim that nothing I’ve ever written has been inspired by a song, but the inspirations, I think, are filed away somewhere and detached from their original context. If I listen to a song while I’m actively trying to write, I feel that what I’m telling is the song’s story and not my own. The worlds I create are not devoid of music. It’s just that their music is theirs alone.

I think some of this might be related to the fact that I feel very passionate about music and like to give myself over to it, both as a loss of self and as a way to explore my emotions. I’ve played the baritone, the flute, and the violin, and the act of playing was always somehow a way to let go of my usual thoughts, which almost always occur as words. I enjoy listening to music when I draw, because it’s easier for me to translate the sounds to images, and I don’t break my reverie by trying to find names for ideas.

I’m still not sure I’ve managed to put my finger on why I can’t write to music, but I think I’m starting to get there, anyway.

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Go Go Speedwriter

August 12, 2008 at 1:14 pm (editing, Inspiration, motivations, writing) (, , , , )

Some path in my wanderings around the web led me to an article on writing a novel in 30 days. I could have written the first part of this article; so many of my papers in high school and college were night-before extravaganzas. I guess I’ve always been lucky that what comes out of my head is generally coherent and interesting without much editing, because like Catherynne, I always got As on these. I never met a deadline I didn’t like, and in fact I trained myself to need a deadline; it got to the point where I couldn’t even start writing a paper until twelve hours before it was due. Eventually I learned to create artificial deadlines for myself and to actually believe they were real, which was key. Now I actually have time to revise and reflect, and my writing is better for it. I remember the first professor who actually told me she knew I didn’t revise. I wondered how she figured it out, but now that I know how to go back in and tighten up my writing, I realize it was pretty obvious. Craige Roberts, if you read this, thank you; your comment was the kick in the pants I needed.

I still tend to write the first draft in one huge, linear brain dump, because that’s just how I work. For nonfiction, the order it comes out in is generally pretty good. When I’m writing fiction, though, these plot bunnies just start running on to the scene. Rather than follow them, I usually make a note about them in a separate document and work them in when they fit.

One great thing about actually revising my work is that I don’t edit as much as I go, now. I have a lot more freedom to run with ideas that my inner critic says are silly; if they don’t work, well, I’ll take them out later. But sometimes they do work. I still have to fight with my mind sometimes, though. It still has days of believing the first draft has to be perfect. These are the days when I feel the dread of writers’ block the most. If I get really stuck, though, I visit a forum or a generator to grab a quick story idea — something I don’t register as Real Work — and just let the ideas come out. These are throwaway scribblings, and usually they do just end up in the trash, but they remind me that the first try isn’t the only try, and I can allow myself to stutter and stumble knowing that eventually my voice will again be sure and strong and steady.

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Writing days are here again

August 12, 2008 at 11:23 am (fiction, Inspiration, motivations, nonfiction, writing)

I’ve always loved writing. There’s just something amazing about playing with language, shaping it into the form you want. The first thing I remember writing was a Christmas poem in first or second grade; I showed it to my teacher, and off it went to the ditto machine to be included with the holiday curriculum for our elementary school. When the first thing you show someone else gets published, it provides a lot of encouragement to continue writing. If the only copy I have weren’t at my parents’ house, I’d include it here so you could laugh a little.

In second grade, one project for art class was to write and illustrate a book. I decided to make a Haunted Mansion (oh no!) and created cutouts of the characters so they could be moved through the illustrated scenes in the story. At the time, I had no doubt that this was the most fascinating story ever told. The teacher loved it. More approval, more motivation to invent stories. I dictated a lot of them to a Sears tape recorder, and usually made my mom listen to them — repeatedly. I was especially proud of a story about hares and hairs, as I recall, though the details now elude me. I was full of ideas, and confident that these ideas would be just as fascinating to everyone else as they were to me.

Of course, then I got older. By the time I hit high school I was writing horribly pretentious stuff, most of it bad, because I started trying to impress other people. There was a lot of bad poetry in there; if the term had been around at the time, I probably would’ve called myself emo. None of my stories had a happy ending, and all of the prose was, well, affected. I was never really happy with any of the fiction I wrote during this phase of indulgence in Oh I’m So Writerly and Depressed. I began to enjoy writing critical essays and research papers, and so my writing focus changed for a while. I cranked out plenty of papers, both for school assignments and for personal enjoyment. And so the world of nonfiction revealed itself to me.

For years, I mostly stuck to writing about things that were real. Then one day I woke up with a story in my head, and a need to get it out on paper. Unfortunately it turned out not to be a very interesting story, and after 60 pages I abandoned it. Still, it made me think again about creating my own worlds, and setting characters in the worlds to see what they might do. Several things happened in my personal life around this time, and much of what I wrote was intensely personal and never meant to see the light of day. I took another break from writing fiction, mainly because I didn’t want to deal with the thoughts that came with probing my brain for ideas. I still wrote a lot of nonfiction; the drive to set things down never left me.

Then, last year, my mom passed away suddenly. It sounds horribly cliched, but this really made me consider the brevity of the time we’re given here. I realized I’d been stomping all over my creativity, trying to box it up so I didn’t have to think uncomfortable things. I decided the time had come to unpack those boxes, and I started writing stories again. I need to write these stories; it’s no longer so much an issue of wanting to or not.

I still love writing articles and essays, but I’m thrilled that I can now write from my imagination again. In many ways, I’m more patient than I ever have been, and that allows me to flesh out stories instead of charging ahead with tissue-thin plots and uninteresting characters. These are my stories, and I’m stickin’ to ’em.

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