Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Railroad, Sandbox

Between the messy process of writing the current book and figuring out exactly what the plot is as I go, and various gaming situations, I've been thinking a lot about the railroad vs. the sandbox.

A game has a "railroad" plot if there's only one correct way to finish it - if you need to put all the elements together in the correct order in order to win. Most videogames are of this variety, because it's so well-suited to the way computer programs behave. The more choices a player has, the complicated the program has to be, and in any program there's an upper limit to the choices that can be allowed. The pleasure of these videogames is at least partly the pleasure of learning and implementing the optimal set of choices. It's almost like formal dancing - without the full-body movement, and I'm not sure how well the soundtracks of these games are synched to the rhythms of the winning strategy.

A "sandbox" game, however, is much more free-form and player-controlled. You have a game map of some sort (visual, mental, whatever) and you can go anywhere within it and find something interesting and fun to do, with the potential of leading you to a scenario in which you count yourself as winning. Non-computer based roleplaying games are the ultimate in sandbox games, because the players and game master are cooperatively developing a plot peculiarly suited to themselves, limited only by the resourcefulness of the players and the flexibility of the DM. For my money, a sandbox game is the most fun you can have, full of surprises, improvisation, teamwork, and self-expression.

They are also a lot of work for the GM, who can't tell whether the players are going to turn left or right and needs to know what they see in either direction. Once you hit a time of your life when your free time and energy are limited - when you're old enough for the need to sleep to kick in, when you're supposed to be holding down jobs and raising kids and maintaining your household and watching your health, when your creativity needs to be channeled into outlets that will provide economic benefits - it is difficult to find time to build up a world and create appropriate challenges from scratch, or even to expand one that's already in existence.

Which is why tabletop RPGs produce modules, in which people have been hired by the game company to do that work for you, and all the GM has to do (theoretically) is guide the players through the module and adjudicate the combats; or (in reality) is to tweak the module to suit his group's preferences, strengths, and weaknesses.

The trouble with modules is, that it's a lot easier (especially for younger creators raised on videogames and formula fiction) to write a railroad module than a sandbox one. And if you happen to get one written by someone who has only ever played with players very different from yours, it can be as much work to adapt it as it would have been to homebrew an adventure, yourself. My own gaming group is currently in the middle of a very railroady indeed module, which assumes a batch of players with a radically different playstyle from us, and we're both consistently poorer in resources than the module expects us to be, and consistently better at using them than the module writers anticipate, so that they did not provide enough information to allow the GM to improvise easily. (Our playsessions at the moment are sprinkled with such cries as: "Who traps his own bedroom?" "How is building a tentacle monster supposed to bring his wife back?" "Pickled garlic?" and "That's what it says, guys, I don't know." On the plus side, we managed to rescue the mad scientist and get him to provide us with the specs on which the tentacle monster was built, without fighting the tentacle monster; the GM predicts that, with this information, it will take us three game rounds to take out a monster that, had we encountered it unprepared, could probably have killed us all.) The event that has most engaged us emotionally as characters is a random encounter which has had consequences, so that at least some of the characters are now fully prepared to jump the rails and take off into territory the GM would have to make up as he goes. And if he had the time and energy to do that we wouldn't be running through this stupid module in the first place.

Books (and movies, and TV shows), on the face of it, have to have railroad plots. After all, the reader starts on Page 1 and reads till the end. She has freedom to interpret the plot, characters, and themes, but she can't change the pace at which information is released to her, or directly interrogate the text for clarification, and she's pretty much at the mercy of the author. This is true whether the story is a formula mystery or an avant-garde experiment - the author controls the presentation, and the amount of leeway the reader has in modifying the presentation is limited, in most cases, to skimming, skipping ahead to read the last paragraph, going back to check something from earlier ("Wait, wasn't the person who found the body walking a dog?"), and mentally turning the elements of the story around and around trying to anticipate the next development, the solution, or the third-act turn. A reader cannot make Dorothy settle down to live among the Munchkins, or overthrow the Wizard and attempt to rule Oz...

Except in fanfic, of course. Fanfic makes the universe of media into a giant sandbox.

And a book, or movie, or TV show, really should feel like a sandbox, don't you think?

It should contain surprises. It should feel as though the characters have complete free will, that they can turn left or right and deal with different consequences based upon that choice. They should be able to make bad choices based on insufficient information or character flaws, and learn from those choices, and make better choices later. Nothing is more discouraging than the moment when you realize that a character is about to make a bad choice, even though he should know by now it's a bad choice, not because of some driving personal imperative but because if he doesn't the plot won't wind up where it needs to be; because the set piece won't play out properly; because this is the only way to blow up the lost city at the end and lost cities always blow up, it's a rule. The game of predicting dialog and plot points is a dreary game, which I only ever play, to keep myself sane, when trapped in the vicinity of one of those shows.

I don't read books like this. I put them down, and reach for another one.

I damn sure don't want to write a book like that.

I don't think I have a conclusion, here. It's just on my mind.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: General Thoughts for Spring

So, zombies are a thing lately (I don't know why; it never has made sense to me, but trends don't have to). Where's the zombie Easter story? It's a natural, isn't it - the dead rising and all that?

And why is Easter not more of a story holiday, anyhow? Easter stories don't have nearly the cultural footprint that Christmas ones do; and yet they're similar in a lot of ways. Both are about renewal - the return of the sun at solstice, the coming of spring. Both support huge commercial industries and amazingly tacky, color-coordinated decor, though Easter isn't quite as relentlessly consumerist. (Yet.) Both are Christian holy days onto which are grafted semi-pagan pop cultural icons. Both are huge days for church attendance by people who don't normally go. Both have parallels in other religions. Both are part of the one big overarching holy story, about the cycle of life and death.

The plot has a lot of relevance even when you strip out the Christian symbolism, and it's all very dramatic. Christmas is the beginning, Good Friday is the climax, and Easter is the happy ending.

Beginnings are easy. We all have dozens of beginnings in our file cabinets. Beginnings don't take you anywhere if you don't press on. We need the climax. We want our happy endings.

So where are the stories in which Easter/spring are explicitly tied to, say recovery from grief or catastrophe? Ordinary poor couples with ordinary babies are routinely made to stand in for the holy family in Christmas stories (especially on TV). If we re-enact the birth constantly, why do we not re-enact the death and resurrection? People don't literally come back from the dead, but - people come back from the brink of death, and from symbolic deaths; people work through the stages of grief and come out of mourning; relationships and careers and nations die and are reborn, transformed, every day.

Where's the divorce Easter story?

Where's the attempted suicide returning to the land of the living, slow agonizing step by slow agonizing step, into a hard-won happiness as fragile as an egg or a flower?

Where's the transplant patient coming to terms with the fact that if someone else, someone at least as worthy and loved, had not died, he would not be living to be wheeled into church on Easter morning?

What happens to all those poor TV babies born when their parents get stranded in December - are they well-fed and cared-for in April? Do they grow up groaning under and rebelling against the symbolic weight of their births?

What about the arc of poor Judas, who chose the villain's path, repented, despaired, and didn't stick things out till the happy ending? It has always seemed to me that if we don't parse out Judas's arc, we miss the part most relevant to most people's daily lives.

Christmas is meaningless without Good Friday. Good Friday, without Easter, is too bitter to bear. And the only way to get to Easter is to grit your teeth and get through Good Friday.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Discovery Trunk

So The University of Iowa has an archeological tumbler, and it also has a “Discovery Trunk” program which sends trunks full of educational materials to schools that request them, which it promotes on its tumbler, which I follow. And today they highlight the one about what Iowa was like 13,000 years ago and guess whose book is in there? Along with probiscidean teeth and atlatl darts and flint tools and oh my.

These trunks are loaners, but I doubt they only have one of each kind, so maybe this use will even translate into money at some point, though I’m not holding my breath about that.

So even if I never sell another book, this is a thing that happened.

Since I spent most of the morning with my head in my hands in front of a screen, eventually completing a single page, and begin to suspect that, though I'm writing a story I can write, I'm trying to do it in a way that I can't, this was well-timed.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Old School

I'm gonna have to go longhand. I've tried and tried and I cannot sort out this plot problem in type. I need illegible scribbles, a notebook, and curling up in a chair.

I wonder if anyone understands the neuroscience behind this? It's not as if I can't think while typing - I do it all the time. It's a certain kind of thinking I can't do without a pen in my hand.

And yeah, it sorta does have to be a pen...

Monday, April 14, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Beyond Biracial

So, yesterday was weird in various ways too tedious to relate, and tomorrow is Tax Day so be sure to get your estimated payment in, and the garage sale opens off schedule but that's the breaks, what're we gonna put out for sale today? Wait, there was a news story yesterday - ah, yes, here we go: Neanderthals and humans definitely interbred, and the offspring were not mules, because we're still carrying their DNA, it's absolutely positively true this time, we're sure this time.

One thing this means is, that Neanderthals were a race of humans, not a species; or, more biologically accurately, I suppose, homo sapiens and Neanderthals were both subspecies. Which is like a race except that it has an actual biological meaning, unlike "race," which is a categorization fiction which people take far too seriously and turn into a social reality to justify doing terrible things to each other.

And you're way ahead of me, picturing the ways this can be used to write allegories and satires and fables projecting modern racial prejudice into the past and tell stories about racial tension while not having to deal with any race that isn't white, and isn't that a relief? (Pulls self back from precipice of a rant.)

But let's stop a minute and really think about it. If humans and Neanderthals interbred sufficiently often that 20% of of the modern human genome is descended from Neanderthals, then that implies either a large area of overlap geographically and socially - perhaps (since there weren't any towns yet) mixed clans, or Neanderthal/cishuman networks - or a few Neanderthal/cishuman couples with large, successful families.

So, if we ask ourselves my favorite story generation question - what would really happen? - we do not necessarily come up with anything that looks like the familiar outcast/socially marginalized/fighting for justice miscegenation narrative.

Maybe the populations we would call Neanderthal and human would not recognize themselves as distinct in any significant way?

Maybe Neanderthal/human marriages were deliberate sociopolitical arrangements intended to create a caste of special people - shamans, perhaps; long-distance traders; mediators between populations, assumed to be able to bridge differences by carrying the representative features of each?

Maybe certain clans of humans specialized in long-distance trading and casually bred with all the populations within their trading territories?

Maybe the intermarriage occurred in areas where both Neanderthals and modern humans were so thin on the ground that they were beginning to suffer the effects of inbreeding, and the hybrid vigor of the bispecies children revitalized both groups, or made a third, distinct group that outcompeted both sets of their cousins?

Ultimately, the stories we modern humans tell must, if they are to achieve any currency in the marketplace of the mind, relate to Us, to modern humans and the ways we interact with the world and ourselves. But this doesn't have to mean projecting our bitterest problems all the way into our prehistory. Because how productive is that? Doesn't that confirm these things as inevitable, condemn us to resigning ourselves to the Way Things Are because if they've been around since the beginning we can't possibly hope to solve them now?

It can mean projecting different ways of organizing our world so as to reimagine them without our bitterest problems? To do an end run around them? To imagine different human possibilities, and sets of problems?

To free ourselves up to recategorize ourselves, and get down to the real universals?

This is all airy-fairy theme stuff, I'm afraid. But anybody who knuckles down and does the research, consciously unlatching the well-worn paths of thought as they learn more and more and more about Ice Age Europe and the world where two human subspecies came together, and made babies, will, I think, find plenty of specifics to work with to make a new, rich world.

Because reality is like that, and will expand your fiction (rather than limiting it) if you let it.

Friday, April 11, 2014


It is always a good idea to go to industry conventions when they occur near you. So, as usual, I went to the Texas Library Association's convention, on an Exhibits-only pass.

I met friends, I couldn't buy enough books, I saw all the exhibits, I ate trail mix because there's never food I can eat at these things, I did not have enough money to buy the books I wanted to, and my feet hurt all the way up to my lower back.

Hardly anybody had catalogs at their booths this year. They must all be online.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Graphic Novels of the Ancients

So for various reasons I couldn't get my act together this morning and then we had to go to the game and I came home feeling crappy (and not just because the stupid module we're running drains our characters' stats every time we turn around, though that did not help; seriously, if you ever play Carrion Crown, make sure you get a fully-loaded Wand of Restoration before going to visit Schloss Caradoc), and I was thinking maybe I would blow off the garage sale today.

And then I saw character sketches for the Epic of Gilgamesh on my tumblr dash.

And now I want to read that comic, and also graphic novels of all the undeservedly obscure mythic epics that are awesome but nobody reads. And you know what else would make great comics? Coyote and Rabbit stories. Monster Killer. The Song of Roland. Reynard the Fox. The Kalevala. Eric Shanower already did the Iliad, so don't bother going there.

I mean, why go to me for ideas when there's a whole world of myth and folklore out there, most of it untapped? And all of it highly visual.