Saturday, June 30, 2018

Finding the Entry Point (Tabletop RPG novel writing)

Finding the starting point in a novel is like finding the entry point in a dungeon. The scene is a door, chapters are fortresses, and books are comparable to national borders.

Lately, I've been reading about Dungeons and Dragons through the rulebooks for version 3.5. I'm on my fourth one. I've also been watching Critical Role on Geek and Sundry's channel (an awesome show, by the way). Using what I've read and watched has helped me write my latest novel because of how similar writing a novel is to playing a tapletop RPG.  I was struggling for several days recently because of my inability to find the starting point for the next part of the adventure.



Specifically, it happened when I was revising the 13th chapter of Journey to Chaos book 5 (ttentatively called, "The Highest Power"). This is the second draft. My heroes need to get into this highly secure place for a rescue mission, but the place is the HQ for an elf who is very rich, very old, and highly values the security of this place. How do they get in?

1. Do they use stealth, and finds a means to hide themselves from the many security devices?

2. Do they go the sudden and direct approach, and hope that they can punch through the many layers of security fast enough to avoid being pinned down by this guy's personal army?

3. Is it possible to negotiate with him? He is, after all, a guy who likes making deals, and they have a few things he'd be interested in.


As players around a game table might debate this, so do the characters. Except all these characters are me, and the debate is in my head, or on my computer's word processor. It's hard to draw a line between those two sometimes....

I could have used several pages of one character proposing an idea only to get it shot down. I.E.
--> "We could try X"
--> "No, that wouldn't work because of Y"
-->  "Well then we could try A"
--> "His B would make that impossible."
I also considered writing a scene of them scoping the place out and testing areas, but then I immediately shot that idea down as well with "the elf has thought of that too".

I needed up going with "none of the above". The way into this highly secure facility was actually already written. I put it into the manuscript half a dozen chapters ago for a different reason entirely. I never thought it would be mentioned again. Yet, once I realized that it could be useful again, it was like "ding!" I love it when that happens. That is Organic Growth in Writing (which is another blog post topic).

Questions like is "the door locked" or  "is the corridor booby-trapped" are comparable to choices like "how does this scene advance" or "who should say this particular line of dialogue that is necessary for plot advancement". It is helpful if the questions align, such as "the rogue checks for locked doors because that's their skill set" or "the elf ranger should check for traps because of their keen senses." but it is also useful in other situations.

If your detective doesn't have a certain department of knowledge for a particular case, how does he find it? Does he have a friend, does he do research, or do one of the suspects or witnesses have the necessary knowledge? Maybe this is how the Odd Couple/They Fight Crime plot line starts.

The same line of dialogue spoken by a romance heroine's father has a different connotation than if it was by her best friend. If they are both in the scene and either one could say it, which one? Perhaps the line of dialogue that you think is necessary to move discussion towards a needed subject is too artificial and you need to overhaul the entire thing. This happened to me in the same chapter as the planning stage for the rescue mission that I mentioned three paragraphs ago, and I had to overhaul the entire thing. You could say that I arrived at a false door and so I had to look for the genuine entry point.

As I write this, I am walking down a passage towards the completion of chapter 15.


Brian Wilkerson is a freelance book reviewer, writing advice blogger and independent novelist. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).


Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Critical Role is Awesome

This post is going to be about the web series "Critical Role" and how awesome I think it is. That's basically it but more specifically, it is going to be about how remarkable I think Critical Role is for being so awesome.

For those who don't know, Critical Role is a bunch of voice-actors playing Dungeons and Dragons, 5th edition. It is a live-streaming web series, which means it is nothing more than that. There is no Deep Immersion Gaming interface, there are no post-production effects, nor is there even any script writing (other than what Matt Mercer has done as any game master would do). It is literally nothing more than watching other people play a game. Yet it is really exciting.

It is rare that I come across a show or a book that makes me this excited. I recall watching a hot-blooded super robot anime (Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann) that occasionally did the trick, but Critical Role is an every episode thing. The one I watched several nights ago (episode 7 of season 1: Throne Room) was so thrilling I couldn't fall asleep for over an hour. What is so fun about this? There are several reasons, and the first of which is Matt Mercer.

He is an absolutely fantastic dungeon master. Someone else made a Youtube video about this, and I agree with all of their points (I'm gonna link to it here). Personally, as an author, I admire his skill with location description and characterization of NPCs. You can see him shift in and out of character seamlessly and he makes all of them distinct, which is major for the life of the story. If this were a radio show, you would be hard pressed to guess that Clarota and Lady Kima had the same actor. As for descriptions, there is a fine mix of function and flavor, which is something that I struggle with in my own work.

The second reason is the players themselves. Being voice-actors, they are obviously skilled at talking and acting in character. This adds to the realness of the world and immersion for the viewer. Equally important, if not more importantly, they are fans of this game and enjoy playing. When they successfully execute a plan, I want to cheer with them. The stealth sequences are tense. These are not look-cool-and-sneaky sequences; they are if-they-spot-us-we-are-going-to-die sequences. In particular, Sam Riegel (Scanlan the genome bard) makes catchy parodies of songs and the others either laugh at him or join in. Their fun is infectious.


The third reason I think this show is fun and exciting is its script-less nature. These things are broadcast live and decided by die rolls. In the Kraighammer arc, Matt says "these games have consequences" when the party fails miserably at persuading a potentially helpful character. Like the player characters in any other tabletop game, it's possible for them to go totally off the rails if they want.

There are other reasons, but I'm going to stop there. Matt Mercer the skilled and talent dungeon master, the players who are clearly having fun, and the script-less nature of the story; just three reasons why Critical Role is awesome.
A fourth reason could be how helpful it can be to authors.


By the way, Critical Role regularly promotes this charity, 826LA. It is about fostering the writing skills of skills and teenagers in Los Angeles. This includes creative writing, like the kind that goes into D&D campaigns, and also into writing fantasy novels like my Journey to Chaos series. I like supporting that kind of thing.

Brian Wilkerson is a freelance book reviewer, writing advice blogger and independent novelist. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Answering Review Request: Curses of Scale

Stephen Reeves asked me to read his novel "Curses of Scale". It is a fantasy novel and the basic gist of it is this druid trying to save his wife from a dragon but it is more complicated than that....a lot more complicated, and I'm not simply talking about the plot. I will examine Plot, Character, and Polish, and then assign a grade.

PLOT

As the story begins In Media Res (sort of), Calem, a druid, has just acquired the final ingredient he needs to complete the spell that will save his wife,  Nina.

It is an exciting opening. He is being pursued by the henchmen of the guy he stole from, dodging them and killing them with a mixture of magic and metal weapons. It is this opening that convinced me to accept the review request. It is after this point, where Calem casts the spell that will save Nina, that things get confusing.

You see, the narrative is split between three view points, Calem, Nina, and Nina's grandfather, Marny. They alternate chapters but not every chapter switches perspective. The reader has to figure it out each time. This is the first of the confusing points.

The second point is the abstract nature of the narration. It suggests what is happening more than directly stating it. The out-of-universe reasons for this are in POLISH. Right here are the in-universe reasons.

1. Calem has occasional magical hallucinations, and/or extremely vivid flashbacks that overwrite parts of his narration. He also spends time looking through the eyes of his cat familiar, which obviously has a different viewpoint than a human mind.

2. Nina spends some time in the Eldritch Location known as the Fairhome (that is, home of the Fair Folk) which is influenced by imaginations, and hers is very strong so it is very weird when she is there. She is also constantly narrating backstories for the places she sees or the story she's writing, and the distinction between what is going on around her and what is in her head is not always clear.

3. Marny is apparently going senile, and spends as much time on Memory Lane as he does on solid roads. His wife dies off-screen and neither he nor anyone he interacts with recognizes this. I didn't realize it for dozens of pages because he keeps seeing her. Like many things about the narration, I had to infer it long before it was stated.

The third point of confusion is the style of the narration, which is also in POLISH. The fourth point is a minor point. Nina's grandfather calls her "Squirrel" but this is not immediately apparent. It is left to the reader to realize that Squirrel is actually Nina. The fifth point is that this Nina is not the same Nina that married Calem but a younger version that hasn't even met him yet. Even Calem has to figure this out on his own, because the only person who is aware of everything that is going on is Oberon, a fairy who spends 85% or so of his dialogue on non-sequiturs.

In the background of this story, there is trouble with the local empire. Apparently, it is disintegrating, or being conquered, or something. I couldn't figure it out because only Marny talks about it, and he doesn't seem to care.

Personally, I felt it was a slough to read this book. It is confusing. It is slow-paced. The triple-part narration breaks up everyone's progress and makes the book feel longer than it is. Making all of this worse is that none of these events are relevant to the initial plot. Oberon is basically waiting for the crucial moment where Nina was cursed so he can make sure it doesn't happen while Nina and Marny are working on something entirely different from Calem.

The ending is both closed and open-ended. Like the rest of the story, it is weird that way. I like it.  I consider it a good ending.
 
CHARACTERS


Calem is an interesting guy because he is a flip of an archetype. At the start, he appears to be the classical action hero risking his life on a mystic quest for the sake of his beloved wife. Then he becomes more unhinged and possessive and ruthless with the implication that he may have always been that way. Declaration of Protection and Yandere merge with this guy.


Nina is an aspiring bard. She wants to travel to a college and become a professional. She is a Plucky Girl and a Guile Heroine, but she is also really na├»ve. Her romantic ideal of the bard's life is a subject of frustration and scorn to her world weary grandfather. Not helping her case is that she is also spacey, drifting off into her own fictional worlds so thoroughly that it is not immediately apparent that she has drifted into a literal alternate world. At that point, she is torn between using it as an opportunity to run-away to bard college or run just as fast back to her grandfather.

Marny, Nina's grandfather, is the ranking officer of a military post that may or may not still be active for an empire that may or may not still exist. I recall him calling his garrison a collection of scarecrows.  He is old, grouchy and cynical. I get a general feeling of "burned out" and him waiting to die. Looking after Nina/Squirrel is all he lives for these days.

The cause of all this trouble, the dragon, receives no characterization beyond "maybe it is looking for a new lair". As far as I can tell, it exists solely to start everyone's subplots and then appear at the end of the story for the climax.

POLISH

The narration is written in present tense, rather than past tense. This is a little jarring but not bad. It is easy to get used to it. What I dislike is the deliberate refusal to use conventional grammar.

There are sentences fragments everywhere. Seriously, they are on every single page. It has the effect of isolating phrases and emphasizing certain words. I feel this is meant to evoke a sense of flowing, and add an ethereal feel to the narration in support of the three viewpoint characters. In other words, Painting the Fourth Wall.


It is a creative technique, and not one that I have seen before (at least, not since reading experimental modernism in college) but I can certainly see how it can be confusing. Personally, I felt it was better to skim it for the "feel" of the section rather than to learn exactly what was happening, which felt increasingly like bailing water with a sieve.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Curses of Scale" a B
 


This has been a free review request. The author asked for an honest review, so I provided one.

Click here for my previous book review (a request like this): Poisoned Princess

Brian Wilkerson is a freelance book reviewer, writing advice blogger and independent novelist. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).