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Archive for July, 2010

A Beginner’s Guide to Writing for Games

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on July 31, 2010

Meet Leanne C Taylor, games writer and lecturer on interactive narrative.

This is Part One of a two part piece on writing for computer games. The second part will be posted on Tuesday.

A beginner’s guide to writing for games

Writing for computer games is my preferred way of making a living.  There, I said it.  I teach, to improve computer game stories when I’m eventually brought onto a project, because cultivating future co-workers with a strong understanding of story is always a good first step.  I don’t have the patience to write novels, nor the interest in writing screenplays.  What I do have an interest in, is working in a team, and in allowing someone else to take my ideas and run with them to new and wonderful places.  This is why I love computer games.

Working on a game, you have to liaise with the game and level designers, to understand the mission structure and overall story outline.  You may also have to work with the modellers, animators, texture artists and programmers if you want to request specific features – once those features have made it from the bottom to the top of the ‘things we’d like to include’ list.  Because, really, that’s what writing is in games : something we’d like to include.

Pre-production Cycle

Let me start at the beginning.  Many games come from a simple idea.  That simple idea can be “What story are we following?” or it could be “This mechanic I created is really fun – how can we use it?”  Neither of these is the wrong way to start a game.  There are no wrong ways to begin.  What’s important is that the game has begun the pre-production cycle.  You’re on your way.

This is when all the planning takes place.  Ideally, the designers and writers would be working together at this stage to flesh out the main story arc, so level environments are easier to pin down, e.g. if someone wants to make an ice planet, how does it fit into the grand scheme of things?  Should it be level 2 or level 16?  How does it fit with the player’s motivation?

This is an important element to remember about writing for games : motivation is not just about the characters within the story.  You have to motivate the player, too.  Ideally, game mechanics being fun and level design drawing the player onward, they should want to continue anyway, but putting what they’re doing into perspective is the writer’s job.  Making them want to kill person X instead of person Y, or making them feel bad (or good!) for having to choose, are all tasks of the writer.  This means you have an invisible character, one that always needs motivating.  How you do that is something I’ll get to in a moment.

Production Cycle

After the pre-production cycle comes the production cycle (surprise!), when the game actually starts to take shape.  The coders, animators, designers et al will be working their butts off to make a playable prototype – essentially a very simple version of the game that’s usually made up of white boxes moving around inside another white box.  Unsurprisingly, this is called ‘white-boxing’.  Meanwhile, the writer may be working away with the designers to plan out the cinematics – the small movies that play during important moments of the game – and come up with ideas for the main missions.

Toward the end of the production cycle – usually about one to one and a half years of solid work – is where the writer comes back in.  Some companies have writers on-staff who stick with one game through the game’s entire lifecycle.  Smaller companies simply can’t afford the expense, which is why some games writers credit themselves as ‘Writer/Designer’ or, as in my case, only work freelance.  The last 3-6 months of the game are crucial in terms of adding dialogue and sorting out mission motivations.  If the main cinematics have been outsourced, they’re usually done by now, and set in stone, so it’s the writer’s job to make the cinematics make sense in context with the game.

Yes, you read that right.  In the year or so since writing the cinematics and agreeing on the overall storyline, many things will have changed.  The mechanics of what the player does, the level order, or even the entire tone of the game itself could have undergone a massive overhaul.  That’s fine.  As an example, one of the projects I worked on had a complete script, from start to end.  It was in the final draft stages and, I thought, almost a wrap.  Then the production schedule took a hit, and half of the levels had to be cut.  This meant that I now had to take my complete story, truncate it, move pieces around, try to salvage my favourite parts, and make something new and just as exciting from the pieces of the old that had already been finalised.  I didn’t mind.  It was a challenge, and it certainly wasn’t anyone’s fault.  90% of writing is rewriting, and nowhere is that more true than in writing for games.

Tuesday: Dialogue in Games and Game Experience

For more of Leanne see her blog.

See her Game Design Aspect of the Month Article in the ‘ International Game Developer’s Association Perspectives Newsletter’ Page 9.

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Posted in Writing for Computer Games | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

More Thoughts on Steampunk and Alternate History

Posted by richardharland on July 29, 2010

I promised more writing tips on steampunk and/or Alternate History. Perhaps these are tips, perhaps just ramblings.

I’ll decorate them with some steampunk-style USB memory sticks, mostly available for purchase on the net. I used to show the image of one particular steampunk memory stick in talks – I thought it was so cool. Now I’ve discovered there are dozens of ’em!

STEAMPUNK AS FANTASY

How you think of steampunk depends on the ancestry you give it, I suspect. If you think of it as a sub-genre of science fiction, you’ll think of it as serious technological speculation, only focused towards the past instead of the future. Gibson and Sterling’s The Diffeerence Engine is serious in that way, and yes, it would make a difference (sorry!) if they got their historical facts wrong.

I think the recent surge in steampunk descends more from fantasy. Writers who’ve grown sick and tired of medieval-type scenarios have opened up another realm of the imagination, inventing cities rather than greenwoods, steam-age technologies rather than dragons and magic. That’s what I love and celebrate – a new territory for imagination.

(And wasn’t Tolkien part-way there before us? What about his industrial scenarios as created by Saruman, and to some extent Sauron? We should never forget that his dragons and Orcsare actually the product of breeding programs carried out by Morgoth in the Pits of Utumno. It was Tolkien’s followers who narrowed the canon and cut down on the possibilities.)

WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

Moving from a medieval-type setting to a 19th century-type setting has many consequences. It’s a step away from simplicity and top-down hierarchy. A 19th century version of society is not only urban but political. Not political in the petty way of contemporary politics (like the poll-driven Australian Federal election currently under way) – I can’t find much inspiration in that.. But the politics of major social movements, revolutions and mass upheavals, yes, that is stirring and dramatic.

ALTERNATE HISTORY

Steampunk and Alternate History are a natural fit. I think of Steampunk as a special kind of appeal – the appeal of fantastical old-fashioned technology, developed in ways that real history never got around to. I think of Alternate History as a way of placing that world in relation to our world, the reader’s world.

True, a steampunk world can just be another type of otherworld, and some are. But that’s a little harder to arrange than with a medieval-type world. After all, fairly primitive societies could easily develop similarly, whatever their origins – how could you fail to invent clubs or swords or some kind of tunic?  It’s much less obvious that anyone had to develop flintlock pistols or broughams or tailcoats. That’s starting to look more like one particular history, our history – and if you want to incorporate such elements along with your fantasy inventions, a handy rationale is to suppose that fictional history was the same as real history up to a point – then diverted along a separate track.

POD

Short for Point of Divergence … that is, the first point at which something in your history veers off from real history, leading to ever-increasing difference. The way I see it, there are two approaches. One is to create a steampunk world just because it looks good, just for the sheer delight of imagination – and then tie it on to real history as a secondary move. That’s what I did with Worldshaker – I was part-way through writing the first draft before I came up with Napoleon’s tunnel under the English Channel as my POD. It’s much the same if you think up a POD early, but never allow it to dominate your imaginative creation.

The other approach is to start with a POD, and speculate seriously about what might have happened as a result. This produces Alternate History in the vein for which Harry Turtledove has become famous. It’s got just as much claim to the title, but it isn’t steampunk.

On the subject of PODs, please can we have some more interesting and unusual ones? Hitler won WWII, Napoleon defeated Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, the Spanish Armada landed and conquered Britain – these PODs have produced great Alternate History from early practitioners in the genre, but surely we don’t have to wear them out. There are so many points where the world could have taken a different turn – no need to fall into standard formulae at this early stage!

THE ERA OF STEAMPUNK

The word ‘steampunk’ suggests the Age of Steam, which fits okay. But surely it’s only a pointer, not a hard-and-fast definition. I think any imaginary world based on any phase of the old Industrial Age deserves the title. Starting from the Industrial Revolution in, what, the 1770s? But even before that – what about Jay Lake’s Mainspring? That’s old-fashioned technology from before the Age of Steam, but it has the right feel, the authentic steampunky appeal. I don’t see the value of multiplying sub-genres with terms like Clockpunk.

As for an end-point – even more vague. Certainly, the Edwardian Era has to be included, even though that allows for petrol engines, electrical power and even early plastics. Perhaps what matters is more the old-fashioned feel than the literal fact of when something was invented. Bakelite, for example. In general, I’d say plastics don’t belong in a steampunk world, and bakelite wasn’t taken up in a big way until after WWI. Yet I can envisage that particular kind of plastic in a steampunk world precisely because it was displaced and consigned to the junk-bin of history. It’s out-of-date-ness makes it usable.

What about valve radios? Now we’re really pushing it. I’d let them in, so long as the world they’re let into has plenty of brass and copper and more old-fashioned-y stuff.

Posted in Creativity, Genre Writing, Research, Steampunk, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Podcasts for Writers

Posted by tansyrr on July 29, 2010

My last post was about writing books – and I realised as I composed that post that while I don’t hunt down books about writing anymore, a big part of the reason why is because of all the amazing resources available on the internet. Why buy a book when, for instance, you can check out Richard Harland’s Writing Tips, or follow the blogs of such interesting writers as Elizabeth Bear, Cherie Priest or Jeff VanderMeer?

The really cool thing about learning about writing through social media is that there is a much more diverse array of advice and demonstrated learning. We formed ROR in the first place because there were so few writing development resources for you once you actually got published – the majority of workshops and how-to texts are targeted at beginners. But now you can learn about every facet of being a writer by reading blogs of those who got there ahead of you, participating in online workshops or forums, etc.

My favourite thing right now is podcasts. I’ve gone nutty over them since I got my first iPod of my own at Christmas. It’s like having cool radio programmes about things you ACTUALLY care about, constantly available, to make housework, exercise and driving suddenly far more enjoyable. And of course there are lots and lots of podcasts about writing, publishing, and the spec fic world.

Will Write for Wine features two romance/paranormal authors, Lani/Lucy and Sam/CJ, who have a lovely friendship and rapport. Each episode features them getting tipsy and talking about their craft. It’s informative, sweet and at times utterly hilarious. You will not regret it at all!

Adventures in SciFi Publishing
is a brilliant podcast which features interviews and book reviews – it has been in decline and retreat over the last year but there are so many marvellous back-episodes to catch up on, and it has been announced that it will be coming back with a vengeance in a month or two. Excellent news!

I haven’t checked this one out myself yet, but Mur Lafferty’s I Should Be Writing is also very well regarded, and the latest ep has an interview with Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell.

The Dragon Page: Cover to Cover and The Agony Column both feature many interviews with writers, and chat about issues concerning writers. Both podcasts can be valuable resources and have some genuinely interesting episodes, as well as some patchier/more dull ones. I dip into these depending on topic/featured writer rather than considering them a must-listen.

I love podcasts so much, I started one myself! Galactic Suburbia is a chat podcast featuring myself, Alisa Krasnostein and Random Alex, discussing the current SF publishing scene, writing, reading, and so on from an Australian (and, you know, female) perspective. Recent pet subjects have included The New Self-Publishing and SF/Romance.

This is just scratching the surface. If anyone has other writing-related podcasts to recommend, please do so in the comments!

Posted in Australian Spec Fic Scene, Publishing Industry, Writing Craft | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Kylie Chan talks about Sustaining Plots

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on July 26, 2010

Kylie has kindly offered a Giveaway of her latest book ‘Hell to Heaven’ for one lucky reader of this blog.(See the question at the bottom of this post).

When I originally started the Dark Heavens series I had a basic plot line for three books – the main character, Xuan Wu’s departure, return, and then a big final confrontation.

When the first book, ‘White Tiger’, had already hit three hundred thousand words and he wasn’t even close to departing, I realized that it would take me slightly longer to produce the story than I expected.  I think it’s basically because I talk too much, and the story ran away with me.

So the original single novel of a departure turned into three: ‘White Tiger, Red Phoenix, Blue Dragon’, and the single novel of a return became three as well: ‘Earth to Hell, Hell to Heaven, Heaven to Wudang’.  I’m currently working on the third book of the second series, ‘Heaven to Wudang’, which in my head is book six of nine and I refer to as ‘Book Six’ most of the time anyway.

Each novel follows the standard writing format of buildup – climax – resolution, with a similar energy happening across all three of the novels as well.  So the end of book three, ‘Blue Dragon’, has an absolutely massive climax and conflict, and a resolution that is satisfying but still leaves a few questions unanswered – and a couple of main characters gone.  Then I’ve started with book four – Earth to Hell – and built the tension up again.

I keep the world building consistent by writing myself copious notes and reminders in a little folder.  Each list of ‘remember this, include this, tie this thread up’ is about a page, and I delete them as I deal with them, then add to them as I go back through my own writing.  I continually re-read the stuff that’s gone before, keep my timelines very straight in my head (that’s a three-page excel spreadsheet, month-by-month starting November 2001 which is when the story begins) and make sure that I never leave a plot thread hanging.

I also keep a list of the chapters and an overview of the plot running in my notes, and mark the action/characterization/slow/fast sections so that I can keep the balance.  For ‘Hell to Heaven’ I actually added a list of ‘who’s dead when’ so I didn’t have dead people popping up before they were supposed to!  I was asked about this in a seminar recently – ‘Leo’s dead, how can he be back?’ and I was delighted to be able to use a Joss Whedon quote – ‘he got better’.

‘Earth to Hell’, book four, starts eight years after the end of ‘Blue Dragon’.  This is me skipping the boring bits, and being held to my own plotting.  In ‘White Tiger’, the first book, I state that the minimum time it will take for Xuan Wu to return is ten years.  I don’t want to write eight years of ‘they waited for him to come back’ so I skip to the interesting part, just before he’s due to return.  This of course means that a main character who is six years old at the end of ‘Blue Dragon’ is now fifteen – a major leap in her characterization – but fortunately the readers haven’t complained at all.

I do have an over-reaching arc for the whole series, from the original three novels I plotted way back when the first was being written.  Despite the description I’ve given above of copious notes, however, I don’t do much in the way of plotting – it’s generally wind the characters up, let them go, and write down what happens to them.  I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer with a very general idea of where things are going – but I’m very definite about where the end is.  I know exactly where this story is headed and have written the end of book nine, which doesn’t have a name yet.

I did an unusually large amount of plotting for ‘Hell to Heaven’ – it was six lines of text.  And in the end I didn’t follow it exactly.  So most of the plot is in my head, I only have trouble keeping up with it once it’s on the paper!

I have made changes to the premise of the series as I’ve gone along.  The basic points, however, of what people ‘really are’ (fans plaintively ask me ‘what is Emma?’ and I refuse to answer) are exactly the way they are since I first started – very badly – writing the beginning of ‘White Tiger’.  I think this is what makes the series so popular; I know exactly where I’m going and the readers are happy to go along for the ride, confident that I’ll tie up all the threads and reveal everything they want to know when we reach the end of the ride.  And when we get there, I have no idea what I’ll do next!

The Giveaway question is: Who is your favourite Dark Heavens Character?

Leave your answer in the comments. This competition will be over until Sunday 31st July, when we will announce the winner.

Posted in Australian Spec Fic Scene, Book Giveaway, Creativity, Genre Writing, Visiting Writer, World Buildng, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , , , | 12 Comments »

Characterisation through View Point, revealed by Action

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on July 24, 2010

Something that Richard said in his post during the week got me thinking about characterisation.

‘I find I’m creating characters in pairs or multiples or contexts – they only exist when they start bouncing off one another, or bouncing off their contact with a particular setting or turn of events. Sometimes the character comes before the setting or turn of events,  and sometimes vice versa – but never a character on his/her own, not any more.’

This is so true. I found myself showing the movie The Princess Bride to my class the other day and when it came to the fight scenes, I said, Now watch closely. The reason these scenes are gripping is because the people stay in character while they fight.

When Westly (the man in black) fights each of the three men who have been sent to kidnap the princess, each fight is different, each requires a different skill and he wins in a different way.

Inigo believes himself to be such a skilled swordsman he has to fight left-handed, or there is no fun in it for him. When he swaps to his right hand and they continue, the man in black smiles. Why? Because he is not left-handed either.

The giant doesn’t think it is very sportsman like to hide behind a boulder and throw rocks. When the man in black knocks the giant out, he says, I do not envy you the headache you will have when you wake. Sleep well and dream of large women.

When the man in black comes up against the Sicilian, he defeats him using his wits. And even in his last battle with the Prince, Westley plays on the Prince’s cowardice to defeat him.

You can only write these kind of scenes if you know your characters well enough for them to stay in character while they are fighting. How the  characters behave when they interact comes down to the sort of people they are, which is Richard’s point, about characters bouncing off each other.

Action reveals character.

Here is a link to Richard’s tips for Creating Characters in Groups. For his whole section on characterisation see this link. Here’s Holly Lisle’s article on How to Create a Character. She talks about starting with a dramatic need.

Another movie which I show the kids to help explain characterisation is Blade Runner.

There’s a scene right at the end of the movie where the last replicant (android) talks about his past and comes to terms with his imminent death. He’s just saved the detective from falling off the roof. Now he sits there in the rain and talks of the things that he has seen, which will all die with him.

Lost like tears in rain.

This powerful line wasn’t in the original script. The actor came up with it, which is an achievement considering English was not Rutger Hauer’s first language.

In this case you have an actor who knew his character so well, that he knew what the character would say.

This is what the writer should be aiming for. The writer needs to become so immersed in the character that they see the world through that character’s Point of View.

I wasn’t using PoV in the traditional sense, as in how to switch from one PoV to another in a scene, but more in the sense of filtering the world and its events through the character’s perception.

A child character might blame themselves when their parents fight because they’ve been naughty.

A character who is inherently distrustful will see ulterior motives where there are none and a character who is honest, will fail to see the dishonesty in others. Sometimes a ‘good’ trait can be a failing in the right circumstance.

So there are you are – Characterisation through View Point, the evidence is in the action or reaction of your character/s.

What are your favourite movies for characterisation?

Posted in Characterisation, Point of View, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Nearly There

Posted by trentjamieson on July 22, 2010

I’ve been somewhat lax here of late, mainly because I haven’t been lax in writing the third Death Works Book – it’s become my morning afternoon and evening these last few weeks, which is fun because I love watching my characters in crisis mode, but it does tend to make me a bit absent minded. I start missing bus stops, I never finish sentences, the lawn looks dreadful, and I go to the shops to buy milk and end up buying everything but – seriously, I once came back with an iron and a feather doona, but no dinner (Diana never lets me forget this). I also forget to blog.

No great lack, there’s been some wonderful posts below, and some real insight into people’s writing processes – I always like to have a sticky beak into how other writers do things. But still, I have an itch to ramble a bit, just a teensy bit.

The sun’s shining outside, birds are singing and the path into the scrub near our house is looking very inviting, but I’ve a book to finish. There’s three or four movies I’d like to see, but I’ve got a book to finish. There’s a teetering pile of novels by my bed, but, you get the idea.

Sometimes writing a book is just about sitting down, putting one word down after another after another (or, as is often the case, cutting words out) until you are done. Everything else, everything that is built upon it, cannot exist without that act.

Which is why I’m stepping back away from this blog now, until next thursday, because I’ve got a book to finish.

Posted in Australian Spec Fic Scene, Characterisation, Creativity, Genre Writing, Nourish the Writer, Publishing Industry, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Running dry?

Posted by richardharland on July 21, 2010

Hi! This doesn’t relate to anything – except a discussion elsewhere, on whether you eventually get to a stage in writing where creation becomes more difficult because you’ve used up all your best settings, your best story ideas, your best characters. Does new inspiration become harder after you’ve written 10 – or 20 – or 30 books?

It makes sense to me – but I’m happy to say that only because I wasted so much of my potential writing life with writer’s block. I reckon I’ve got enough creative ideas stored up to last for a decade or more yet. (Worldshaker is a new world for readers, but it was actually imagined ages ago.)

Also, since the blockage came unblocked, I’ve jumped around promiscuously from sub-genre to sub-genre and one kind of world to another – which is a very good way to avoid creative exhaustion, like crop rotation! But it’s a bad way to sell books, because readers never get to associate your name with a particular type of book – you’ll always disappoint some fans if your latest story isn’t the kind they expect. Now I’m planning to ‘settle down’ and mine the steampunk vein for a while, which, luckily, is where my imagination is most at home.

There’s another reason I think I can stay with the same world for a while – I’ve become more interested in characters than world creation. (Is this a sign of growing old?) I remember thinking a few books ago that I was starting to run out of character possibilities, but I seem to have got a second wind. I’ve just been planning a third steampunk novel, first book of a second duology, and I’m very pleased with the new characters I’m developing for it. I swear they pop into my head more readily than they ever used to, and I think I know why.

The fact is I don’t really create characters any more – I create interactions. I sort of said this in my writing tips (at http://www.writingtips.com.au, in the section on ‘creating characters in groups’) – now I’m finding it coming even more true than I realised when I said it. I find I’m creating characters in pairs or multiples or contexts – they only exist when they start bouncing off one another, or bouncing off their contact with a particular setting or turn of events. Sometimes the character comes before the setting or turn of events,  and sometimes vice versa – but never a character on his/her own, not any more.

Well, it works for me. It’s given me a whole new interest and excitement over characters!

Cheers

Richard

Posted in Australian Spec Fic Scene, Characterisation, Creativity, Genre Writing, Nourish the Writer, Publishing Industry, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Books For Writers

Posted by tansyrr on July 20, 2010

In my teens, otherwise known as ‘the first decade of producing manuscripts’ I read my way through piles and piles of writing magazines, hungry to absorb anything that anyone could tell me about technique, exercises to hone my craft, and the long road to publication.

In my twenties, post-publication, I rejected the stacks of magazines that I saw mostly as harbours for vanity press advertising, and began to learn from my peers instead. I joined and formed critique groups. A fortunate set of circumstances set me teaching creative writing, which I did for most of a decade.

In my thirties, with a few new and exciting book sales under my belt, I took the excuse of a shakeup at my workplace and my impending second child to walk away from teaching creative writing. I felt trapped in my old course format, and didn’t have the time to spare to create something new and dynamic. I was also starting to feel that it was not healthy for me to be spending so much time teaching Writing 101, surrounding myself by such a basic level of writing guidelines and advice, just at the point where I needed to be stretching my own writing craft. I needed to spread my wings and allow myself to smash the rules and expectations of writing, rather than being constrained by them.

I’m now more excited by books about writers, rather than about how to write – not because I think I know it all, but because I know now that the journey is half the fun. The same goes for blogs – I love reading about the practical side of writing, about writers bashing out 10,000 words in a day while sitting in their pyjamas and eating nothing but chocolate covered marshmallows. Looking back, I think I learned more from Piers Anthony’s author notes than I ever did from my stacks of Writer’s Digest.

Having said all that, there are several books about writing which are treasured parts of my library, and always will be:

The Writing Book, by Kate Grenville
The cleverness of this book is that it deals with a technique per chapter, and then illustrates that technique with samples from a variety of books which the writer loves, and then follows up with practical exercises that you can do. The aim of the book is for you to end up with a pile of exercises that you can then turn into a story or novel, and Kate takes you through that process. I adored this as a teenager and went through the book several times, despite the fact that the literary sensibilities of the author meant that the work she referred to was utterly alien to me. I never got a single usable story out of the process, but oh boy it was fun trying.

Sometimes the Magic Works, by Terry Brooks
This is my favourite book by Terry Brooks. I never read his Shannara books, and I read his Magic Kingdom books devotedly since not actually being that fond of them. This one, though, is a marvellous mixture of authorial life anecdotes and writerly advice. It’s a series of bitesize essays, which makes it very dip-in-able.

Storyteller, by Kate Wilhelm
This one also has a lot of personality and personal history in it, and aims to give advice on writing based on lessons learned from 27 years of Clarion Writers’ Workshops. It’s one of the only two writing books I have ever bought a second copy of in order to gift to a friend. Storyteller is full of genre history and gentle humour, and is available from Small Beer Press.

These last two are reference books more than ‘how to’…

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynne Jones

The only writing book I ever loved by an author whose fiction I also knew well and loved! Also probably the funniest reference book ever. I’ve gifted this one too – more than once, actually – and it’s one of the very few books I would say every fantasy author MUST read. It highlights the worst and most amusing of fantasy cliches, so you know what to avoid – or at least interrogate seriously before using. The sad thing is, it’s 25 years old (there’s an anniversary edition!) and it’s still entirely useful and relevant.

Writing the Other, by Nisi Shawl & Cynthia Ward
This slender volume is a marvellous tool for writers. Based on a workshop these two authors have run together, it discusses the issues involved in writing diverse characters, and how to approach it with sensitivity and authenticity. It’s not entirely a ‘How to Avoid Racefail’ but it’s a great start in that direction, and would be a useful addition to the library of any writer.

Posted in Characterisation, Creativity, Genre Writing, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

The Allure of Steampunk

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on July 19, 2010

Richard has has just come back from his UK and US tour to promote his YA steampunk book, Worldshaker. There is something very alluring about steampunk. It takes us back to an Antique Future.
For Richard’s definiton and discussion of steampunk see here.

Before I ever knew the term steampunk existed, I loved Sir Arthur Connan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books. There’s Dickens works which are still being made into movies. And my favourite would have to be the satirist Saki. I discovered him in my early twenties and loved his dry wit. My favourite story of his is ‘Sredni Vashtar’, a very dark tale indeed. And then there is ‘The Open Window’ which must be a classic of horror stories. Then there’s Jules Verne, Mary Shelley, Mark Twain and HG Wells, only none of these writers were deliberately writing steampunk.

For movies that are deliberately steampunk think Wild Wild West, Steamboy, The Prestige and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Those should give you enough visuals.

For a list of modern authors who could be termed steampunk see here. I would add Mervyn Peake, I think his Gormenghast trilogy is very steampunk in its setting and characters.

The steampunk subgenre has gone from strength to strength in recent years. Here is an article on ‘The Victoria Steam Exposition … a celebration of a growing subculture called steampunk — which unites Victorian era esthetics and futuristic inventions with modern literature and fashion.’

There is even a Steampunk Magazine. So if you are into steampunk and you can’t get enough of it, this is the place to go.

So what is it about steampunk that draws people in?

Is it the quaint machinery? See some examples here.
Is it the repressed sexuality of Victorian England, combined with those corsets and garters? See some of the costumes here and here.
Is it because readers are tired of dystopic futures and want something whimsical and fun?
Are readers tired of epic fantasies set in medieval-lite worlds?

We can look back on the Victorian era, conveniently forgetting the oppression and injustices. Enough time has passed for the fusty old Aunts, who never married because they couldn’t marry below their station, to die off. We can look back and enjoy a time when science was brave and exciting and the world looked like it was going to get better every year. When the world still contained mysteries and wonders. And a tennis player could be so incensed by the lack of skill at the Olympics that he could jump the net, pick a racquet and win a gold medal.

I realised some of my stories have a steampunk feel before I even knew the genre existed. I had a story in Machinations (published by CSFG) about a Sherlock Holmes type character and his assistant and a quaint but instricate machine.

And I’m finishing up with a delightful image, the steampunk Dalek!

Now, has the steampunk genre snuck up on you like it did for me?

Posted in Creativity, Genre Writing, Steampunk, World Buildng, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , , | 10 Comments »

Themes in Writing

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on July 17, 2010

The difference between Plot and Theme.

The plot is what happens in the book, the theme is the underlying idea/s being explored in the book.

If you are anything like me, you will find yourself coming back to explore certain themes because they are hard wired into your psyche.

In Dickens’ books there is the underlying theme of social injustice. In Joanna Russ’s books there is an underlying theme of gender.

Are you aware of your theme as you are writing? I often discover the theme after I’ve finished the book. Then I go back and use my awareness of the theme to make scenes more powerful. (Without hitting the reader over the head with the theme).

Holly Lisle (once again) has excellent article on themes on her web site. Here is a list of common themes occurring in writing.

Over at the KRK blog I’ve done a post about how writers tell lies (stories) to reveal inner truths (the human condition). These are the themes writers explore.

Before trying to find the theme of the stories and books you are currently writing, take the time to think about themes in a larger sense. Write a list of your ten favourite books and movies. Now what is the theme of each one? Are these themes related? Is there a pattern to the type of book/movie that draws you in?

Now that you’ve analysed why those books and movies drew you and you are aware of their themes, think about the books and stories that you have written over the years. Every story and book requires an emotional investment from you.  What were the themes that you explored? Can you see a pattern?

Are the themes you write about different from the themes you find yourself drawn to in movies and books?

Now that you are more aware of theme, take a look at your most recent short story. Now that you know your theme, you can use this insight to make the ending more powerful by layering subtext into the narrative.

And, just for fun:

Here is an extensive  list of themes, setting and devices found in Steampunk.

And here is a podcast with Alan Baxter talking about Supernatural themes.

Theme – a powerful tool.

Posted in Nourish the Writer, Writing Craft | Tagged: , | 6 Comments »