Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Writing Wednesdays (?): Beginnings Are Hard

It's ironic, considering what this post is about, that I have:

a) been procrastinating about writing it and:

b) have rewritten it eight times already.

The earlier versions of this post were unnecessarily ornate, featuring yours truly in typical, long-winded tale-spinning (and over-hyphenating) mode.  It was adequate writing, but it was writing in a burying the lede sort of way.  That's why I chopped everything back to the bare bones and am trying again for this, the ninth and, hopefully, final attempt.


I have a lot of ideas.  They bang around in my head like pinballs on a hot streak and clutter up my brain.  Some of the ideas are free-floating flashes:  Animal people birthed from a giant egg, a elderly master swordsman who can't die, a world where creative energy is gradually fading away to nothing. That kind of thing.  These ideas are fast and smooth.  They don't stick to anything and they don't grow.

Other ideas are slower and stickier.  As they bounce around in my head, they link up with other ideas.  Hey!  This character and this setting go together like peanut butter and chocolate.  Heey!!  That guy that I thought was just a random person sitting on a stoop actually used to work for the evil galactic mega corporation.  Heey!!!  What if the character is able to get her hands on the sedative from earlier in the book to knock out the bad guy at the climax?

Sometimes, either the slower, stickier ideas accrete into a large enough narrative mass to become a story, or one of the free-floating ideas is bouncing around so ferociously that I need to write about it before it tears my brain apart.

The logical thing, when presented with either of these two scenarios, is to sit down at the magic computer box and write the ideas out of my head.  In certain, very rare circumstances, that works out just fine.  In most other circumstances, however, I find that the harsh, white glow from my computer screen is the antiseptic that kills the slurry of bacteria that is my creative juices.

Aside #1:  Ew.
Aside #2:  Get one of those tinted screen things.

The other big reason the momentum dies whenever I sit down to try and write is because of something that was drummed into my head when I was a wee lad.  Perhaps you've heard some variation of this thing.  If you haven't, it goes like this:

"There is a windowless room deep within the labyrinthine corridors of every publishing house. It is lit by a naked bulb, whose sickly yellow light illuminates the wan and emaciated face of an intern.  The intern's desk is hemmed in on all sides by teetering stacks of manuscripts stuffed into manila envelopes and coated with dust.  Also, the desk probably wobbles.

"The intern repeats the same process all day every day, opening an envelope and reading the pages that it contains.  If the intern is not grabbed by the first few paragraphs of a particular manuscript--nay, if they are not grabbed by the very first sentence of a manuscript--they push the brick of unread pages into a chute that opens out onto the incinerator, where the words--and the writer's dreams--are consigned to flame."

Because of that, there is a tremendous pressure for me to write the perfect first line.  Otherwise the story is no good.  Otherwise I can't progress.  Otherwise I'm wasting the reader's time and my time and the time of a hypothetical intern that I made up out of whole cloth, who probably has a computer and reads email attachments and just, I don't know, deletes them if they're not up to snuff.

This is a mindset that I am gradually (but slowly) transitioning out of.  It helps that I have written more things in the past five years than I have in the entire rest of my misbegotten existence.  This means that, for the first time, I have actual personal and practical experience to draw upon.  What that experience has taught me is this:

Waiting until I have the perfect opening before I write something is pointless, because, in 100% of cases, I have gone back and edited my stories so that the original opening sections are either changed beyond all recognition or no longer exist.

Remember what I said about ideas sticking together to make a coherent narrative?  If my story is alive and moving forward with any kind of momentum, that process continues happening as I continue writing.  A random throwaway character (or so I thought!) joins the hero and becomes a prominent member of the party.  Background details that I created just for color turn out to be Chekov's Guns that my subconscious has loaded and left laying about for me to fire.  An idea in the shower causes me to pull a sudden 180, turning the person that I thought was going to be the main villain into the hero's best friend.

I never really know what a given story is going to look like until I'm almost at the end, even if it's a story that I have scripted out ahead of time.  Once I reach the end, I realize, when I go back and look at the beginning, that the beginning is wrong.  I had different ideas then.  I was young and naive and not aware of all the twists and turns that my characters and I would face.  There were, inevitably, some things in the beginning that didn't pay off because the story concept evolved, or there were places where I needed to expand on the new things I wrote later that actually did pay off.

And that's when I close my eyes, hold my breath, and mash the delete key until whole paragraphs go away.

Then I start over, using all of my new knowledge and foresight to create a beginning that will serve as the opening for the actual book I wrote.  And yeah, I try and write it in such a way that it grips the heart of my poor, benighted, hypothetical intern; because I do have to sell this story at some point, after all.

The short and the (very) long of it is this:  I (or you) can wait for the perfect beginning, but it's a waste of time.  All I'm doing is postponing the important part of writing, which is actually getting the words on the page.  So I should just not worry about it and write.  Once I write a draft and figure out what the story actually is, then I can go back and sculpt it into that perfect assortment of sentences.

A little preachy, but there you go.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Velour Thursdays: Velour and Go-Go Boots, Season One

I have an exciting announcement to make!

I am starting to gather together a really great group of writers and gamers for the purposes of making the first supplemental product for Velour and Go-Go Boots.  What is this product you ask?  Why, I'm more than happy tell you, Hypothetical Internet Denizen!  It's a little something I like to call:

Velour and Go-Go Boots:  Season One

The First Year of an X-Year Journey
Where X is the Number of Seasons We'll Have Written Right Before We Burn Out

Since the second draft of Velour and Go-Go Boots, the game's adventures have been referred to as Episodes (in keeping with the fact that 99% of my inspiration came from a very popular TV show).  Words, as any writer knows, have power, and the moment I named the adventures Episodes was the moment I started to think that maybe we could rename other things.  Like, instead of a Campaign of linked Adventures, I could have a Season of linked Episodes.

While this was an entertaining idea, the amount of work that needed to bring it to fruition was too much for just one person, especially when that one person has a lot of other projects to work on and also chronic attention issues. Luckily, some close friends of mine in "the industry" expressed an interest in sharing brainstorming and writing duties with me. It is through their generous donations of both their talent and time that I am able to get this project off the ground.

The tentatively-named Season One comprises fifteen Velour and Go-Go Boots episodes.  Some of them will be standalones (referred to in gamer parlance as "one-shots"); some will be linked  (in which characters or themes from a an episode will appear in a future episode); and some will make up a multi-part arc that spans the season.  At present, the arc stretches across 5-6 episodes and culminates in the dramatic season finale.

What are the benefits of doing something like this, you ask?  Well, consider that this supplement will:

Expand on the tidbits given out in the main book and give players and GMs more detailed worlds to explore and species and cultures with which to interact.

Allow a diverse stable of skilled writers will create a much richer and more deeply textured environment than would be beyond the capabilities of one person writing alone (and by "one person writing alone," I mean me, Geoff Bottone).
Give new GMs and players a complete campaign that can be played through to a satisfying resolution with a minimum of prep work on their part.
Let GMs who want to tell their own stories fit their own episodes into Season One.  Did you like the Delshz ambassador from S1:E5 and want to explore their background some more?  That's great!  Just write up S1:E5a and you're good to go! 

The Writers (and Their Incomplete Writing Credits)

Joe Blomquist:  Superhuman, Smallville, Marvel Heroic, RDI Appetizer

Bob Dunham:  Lexicon LARP, The CHANGE BOMB LARP, V&GGB 

Dave Kalis:  RDI Guide to Inns and Taverns 

Jonathan Lavallee:  Gaesa, Cybergeneration, Critical!: Go Westerly, Suitors
So that is the project as it stands right now.  Work will, of course, continue on the main rulebook, since Season One cannot be played without it.  In the meantime, my slowly-growing stable of writers and I will be hard at work brainstorming and crafting a solid product to expand upon the Velour and Go-Go Boots line.

That's all I can report for now, but watch this space.  There'll be more coming in the weeks and months ahead!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Velour Thursdays: El Capitan, Part One

Last time, I talked about one of the rules sections that's giving me stress.

This time, I'm going to talk about the other one.  Issues with this section of the rules are still ongoing, largely because they are complex, take up a not insignificant portion of the game, and have a rather substantial impact on how the players interact with one another.

That's right, I'm talking about the captain, but before I talk about that, I first have to tell you about Occupations.

Occupations are kind of like character classes in other role-playing games, in that they put you in a pigeonhole that is your role aboard ship.  If your Occupation is Medical, you're saving lives in the Med Bay.  If your Occupation is Helm, you're flying the ship.  If your Occupation is Security, you are dying horribly doing security things!  Mechanically, all your Occupation does is give you a bonus die to roll anytime you're in a situation where it would reasonably come into play; all you have to do is justify it with the GM.

In the original version of the game, one of the Occupations was Command.  Command had to do with inspiring and leading others, so you'd get a bonus die any time that happened.  On a re-read, I felt like that wasn't going to be enough of a boost for Command, so I started to do the thing that I dread doing as a designer, in which I make eight things that are more or less exactly the same, except for the one which is different and has special powers.

Version 1.01 of Command went a little something like this:  You had belonged another Occupation prior to the start of the game (Engineering, Systems, etc.), but had been recently promoted to officer rank.  This gives you two Occupations (Command and your original one) and you have an officer rank and you can give people your Drama Points and any time you directly order someone to do something, they get a bonus die because they don't want to let you down.

A little kludge-y as far as rules go, but it worked well enough. At least, it did on paper.

Unfortunately, one of the things one quickly learns when designing games is that the wonderful things you scribble down on paper usually fall apart and explode the moment you try to implement them at the table.  Version 1.01 of the Command rules wasn't quite that bad (to strain the descriptor, it merely melted badly and leaned over to one side), but there was still quite a bit wrong with it.

It turns out that I had forgotten to take player dynamics into account when designing the Command rules.  In an ideal group, people with the Command Occupation were leaders, but were also supportive of one another and of the people under their command.  Things worked like a well-oiled machine.

In non-ideal groups, the presence of the Command Occupation caused several related things:

  • Some players who had Command expected to be obeyed and got kind of obnoxious about it  At least one player made everyone else at the table list off their ranks so that they knew who they could order around.
  • Some players with quieter personalities either waited patiently to be told what to do or got forced to do all kinds of things that they didn't necessarily want to do.  Since Space Patrol is a quasi-military organization, there was social and game pressure to keep them from disobeying.
  • Even with players who were more relaxed, games eventually resembled a style game described in the examples of play in First Edition D&D, in which one player (known as the Caller) was in charge of telling the DM what the other players were doing. History has shown us that this was a playstyle that didn't work for D&D, and it certainly doesn't work in a game that was ostensibly going to be about (among other things) individualism, exploration, and diversity of thought.

As much as I wanted to find a way to emulate the command structure of the show, it wasn't worth it if that meant that some of the players felt that they had to be the obedient servants of the other half of the players.  I wondered if it might be better if I got rid of the Command Occupation altogether and put the captaincy in the hands of a GM-controlled NPC.

That didn't quite work out either.  I'll discuss that, as well as continued revisions to the captain's rules, next tiiiime!