We've started to get feedback

I'm finding getting feedback on the Red Markets Quickstart guide is just as exciting as any time I've gotten a critique on Scribophile. We're already at eight responses, just two weeks after sending out the first wave of packets, so I thought I'd walk through some of the feedback and my thoughts on it.

My impression, looking through the responses, is that this feedback comes from five different gaming groups. Of the eight responses, the first four

  • came in at different times
  • all played the Papers, Please job
  • three said they were playing with their regular groups in person (in different locations than each other)
  • the fourth was playing with their regular group remotely

The second set of four responses are all from the same group, I think, because:

  • they all played the same job (The Same Old Grind)
  • they all played remotely
  • NOT with their regular group
  • and oh yeah, they all filled out the survey at the same time

So far, 75% of the players have been from the US which isn't notable except that I'm slightly surprised it wasn't 100%. Hello Norwegian and Filipino Red Markets players!! 
5 out of 8 played in their sessions and three folks GMed which is a decent ratio from my perspective. Nobody had ever played (or GMed) before which meant we are reaching our intended audience. I'm slightly sad that the job I wrote (The Same Old Grind) has been used by fewer groups (assuming my assumptions are correct) than the Papers, Please job. But it's hard to argue with a mall job in a zombie apocalypse. Either way, everyone has seemed to enjoy their gaming sessions. Well, except for one person.

One person did not like Negotiations at all. Which, to be fair, can be it's own little mini-game. And is the section we're getting the most feedback of "please clarify this." But they didn't feel like it builds the setting, enhances the play experience, or ties in with the survival/resource management style or zombie genre of the rest of the game. But, you know, the genre is Economic Horror so either we did a bad job of selling the game to this person or this isn't the game for them. Which is going to happen! I'm sad they either didn't enjoy or didn't understand how to flesh out the home base through scams in Negotiations. But. It's one person out of eight. And we absolutely do need to clarify the Negotiations section. It's been the trickiest part of Red Markets to explain and to learn. For Caleb too, not just us. 

On the other side of things, we did ask folks for their favorite part of their session. We're gamers guys, of course we want to hear about that crazy thing that happened during the game. So, before the play test, everyone we'd played a session with was already familiar with the setting. This meant that one of the Legs we'd put in to illustrate a particular danger in setting (fast zombies essentially), every player had gone 'oh shit, Vector' and shot them before they could get up and be scary. It made for some tense times at the table if players missed their shot, but. Slightly disappointing for us as GMs.

The first GM to give us feedback managed to get the Vector up and running at their players. :D Based on their feedback, that part of game play does work as intended on new players: "the stress shown by the players was palpable and made for a very tense, frantic fight." And then of course two of their players rolled complications of zombie bites.

Life is good. 

So, generally happy players, direction for us on specific things we mentioned but didn't explain, and a whole bunch of people going 'Negotiations are confusing and this didn't really explain it!' Plenty of direction for us to work with, even if we never get another survey response.

Dani & Jak-Jak : Critique

One of the goals I had for writing the Dani & Jak-Jak vignette (or at least a goal I set once I started writing) was to keep the language to a 5th grader's voice. I tend to write like I speak, which means a 30-something reader's vocabulary and sentence structure. So long, clause heavy sentences broken up by the occasional sentence fragment and frequent subject elisions. Also, lots of interesting spelling — thank goodness for spell checker and internet dictionaries. They're not all the best writing habits, but I'm at least aware of my habits. 

So, an eleven year old. Every time I reached for an adjective, I tried to find a shorter, boarder version of the same concept. I decided to try for shorter, more declarative sentences. That... worked better the longer I wrote. That it happens with first drafts for me, I get further into (or plain-old find) the actual voice for the piece as I go. Second drafts are for making the voice consistent through out.

And then, after I finished the first draft, I asked Partner to read through it for spelling bloopers and whatnot. I'd already decided to do this post walking through the first draft and mentioned that. So... I got a critique from him instead. 


(1)Long sentence and I'm having trouble picturing this. Laura here in red - I agree with this and need to break it up. Although I am totally keeping the 11 year old insults.
(2)Wants more transition. Yes
(3)Sentence fragment. I think that's a style thing and partially about how I hear Dani speaking, but I need to think about it more
(4)Was the house locked? How did she get in? What color is the porch? What does Dani think about it? Does Daddy keep it in good repair? Does Mommy care about the bushes? Yup, need to add more description here
(5)Fragment see (3)
(6)Why is this negative? How does Dani feel about lima beans?see (4)
(7)Evocative fragment. :D :D
(8)Go through the process of an 11 year old making toast. Where is the bread? Does she use a toaster or a toaster oven? Does she like butter or jam or both or neither? What color is the toast? What color is the butter? How does it taste?
(9)Describe the box. How does it loom in Dani's mind? Was it plain before? Does Aunt Fran use decorations? Or is she very practical? What does Dani remember about the Christmas presents you mentioned earlier? I should also contrast the box with the bag/present inside, especially if the box is very plain and the bag very decorated.
(10)Maybe - walk through Dani planning her naughty deed more. Where does Daddy keep the supplies?
(12)Is the bench high for her to climb up on? Does she remember it being difficult to climb into her spot? Is it a hard bench? How does she feel about sitting at this spot and doing her homework? Is the bench hard or padded?for 8-12: yeah, I definitely need to describe more
(13)Don't forget - BIG emotions.
(14)Great-aunt Fran's appelation has changed a few times. Was that on purpose? Does Dani keep forgetting the right thing to call her? Does she actually know her very well? Who's aunt is she? Mom's father's sister or Dad's mother's sister? Does Dani know or does she have trouble remembering?Yeah, I need to figure that out and make it much more consistant... Aunt Fran it is, with one digression to indicate that Aunt Fran is a great-aunt.
(15)Describe Liz, Tigger, and or the last time she stole the plushie from Dani's room. Yup, I need to do this.

(I think by this point poor Partner has given up on noting all the places I NEED MORE DESCRIPTION...)

Danielle waved to the bus driver as he closed the school bus doors and pulled away from the curb. Squaring her shoulders, Dani shifted her backpack to settle again and started trudging down the sidewalk towards home. (1)Halfway to the end of the block, the blob of gum that booger-faced doodie-head boy from three rows back had thrown at her finally pulled some of her hair out of her ponytail enough that she could start trying to pull the gum out. It was stuck, tangled up pretty tight in her wavy red hair. It wasn't fair. Nobody bothered her on the bus when Liz was there too, and Liz she was two whole years (2)younger. Dani was focusing so much on the gum she almost tripped over the box on her front porch. (3)Got it out through.

(4)Dani flicked the gum off into the bushes by the porch, then scooped up the box and headed inside. Looked like Aunt Francesca (well, great-aunt really) had reused an Amazon box again. It was probably Liz’s ninth birthday present. (5)A week early this year. Last year, the Christmas presents hadn’t shown up until January.

Dani locked the front door behind her, ditched her shoes and backpack by the door, and headed into the kitchen. Mom and Dad weren't home yet to tell her not to eat any toast, that she'd wreck her appetite for dinner. Toast was better than dinner anyway. Besides, it was Mom’s night to cook — rubbery chicken and mushy veggies. If she was real unlucky, (6)it'd be lima beans. Besides, Dani was really hungry. She'd been grabbing a snack after school, when Dad came home, AND eating all of dinner all week. Mom hadn't even noticed yet. (7)Stupid growth spurt.

(8)Dani eyed the box where she'd dropped it on the counter and nibbled on her toast. She really wanted to know what was in there. Aunt Fran sent neat stuff. But she should really be a good girl. This was Liz’s present. Gulping down the last bite, Dani walked over to the counter and staredlooked over the (9)box again. Huh.

Huh.(10)If she got some packing tape, she could tape it back up. The addresses wouldn't be damaged. And Aunt Fran had clearly taped it up other times before.

Dani bit her lip. She should really be a good girl. Mom and Dad let her stay home instead of going to those stupid after-school activities. She really should be good…

Dani grabbed the tape and a pair of scissors out of (11)Dad’s craft table and ran back to the kitchen. Grabbing Liz's presentAunt Fran's box, she moved everything to the kitchen table and climbed into her usual spot on the (12)wall bench seat. Carefully slicing open the box tape revealed a blue gift bag, with black tissue paper peeking out of the top, laid on its side. Ignoring the card attached to the bag, Dani stood it up, looked inside, and felt her heart melt.

Aunt Fran had gotten Liz a stuffed puppy. It was purple and soft and had floppy ears long enough to trip over. Its paws were the size of Dani’s fists and the stuffed tail was curled around and under its butt as it sat. The collar was fuzzy and black and had a circle hanging off the front that said ‘Jak-Jak.’ His muzzle was shaped like a mastiff's and he had a dopey, goofy, happy grin. (13)Dani had never wanted anything so much in her life.

Dani wanted to cry. It wasn't fair. Liz didn't even like dogs, she liked Disney. Dani loved dogs and Mom and Dad wouldn't let her get one. And now (14)Aunty Fran had given Liz a stuffed puppy, not her.

Grabbing the scissors and Jak-Jak, Dani dashed off, first back to Dad’s crafting bench to return the scissors, then to her room. Depositing Jak-Jak on her bed, Dani scrubbed at the tears in her eyes with the heel of her palm. She hated being this moody. Everything alwayswas felt too big, and she ached, and her feet wouldn’t go where she put them; it was embarrassing. Stupid growth spurt. Dani scooped up her Tigger plushie and tried to brush off … well, everything. Turning him over in her hands, Dani bit her lip again. It was a fair trade… (15)Liz loved Tigger, she was always stealing him from Dani’s room.

Dani dashed back to the kitchen and tried to gently stuff Tigger in the gift bag. Once he was more or less hidden in the bag, Dani laid the bag back in the box and taped it back up. Sloppily like Aunt Fran always did. Then off to hide the box in Mom and Dad’s closet with the rest of the gifts for Liz’s party next week. In the same place they’d hidden Dani’s gifts two months ago. And the Christmas presents before that. They really needed to find a better hiding place.

Dani walked back to her room. She had maybe another half hour to play with Jak-Jak before Dad and Liz would be home. She'd have to hide him in her backpack. Or Liz would definitely find him next time she snuck into Dani's room. The little sneak was thorough.

Dani stopped just inside her doorway,. She startedshocked and maybe a little panic-y. Jak-Jak wasn't on the bed wherewhat she'd left him. And he hadn'thasn't fallen ontointo the floor. Where could he have gone? Dani felt tears coming back into her eyes.

A deep, reverberating, yet oddly high-pitched yip came from Dani’s left, from behind the open door. Right before a large something crashed into Dani and she hit the floor, with whatever it was on top of her.

Dani looked up at very large, purple-furred muzzle a couple inches in-front of her nose. The rest of the doggy head it was attached to was huge, bigger than Dani, bigger than her bed! As she started to get real scared though, all of the doggy started shrinking down. The huge feet, the enormous floppy ears, the barrel chest wider than Daddy, everything shrunk until the doggy was the size of a full grown mastiff. But still obviously puppy shaped. Dani erupted in giggles as its floppy, slobbery tongue gave her puppy kisses and its tail wagged furiously. Ticklish!

Dani reached up and vigorously scratched behind the ears, before rolling the puppy over to wrestle. There wasn’t a collar or tag anymore, but the fur was exactly the same color as the stuffed puppy had been. This one was much more muscular than a stuffed animal could look, but the feet were the same shape, the ears the same floppy length, and the expression was just as goofily happy. The puppy rolled over from where he and Dani were wrestle-petting and dropped its head and front paws dropped into a bouncy the universal puppy bow.

“Play?!” yipped Jak-Jak.

First, a big thank you to Partner — I love having someone who will critique my short-stories in house. Our conversations at every stage of writing so far have helped me improve my writing. Second, man, converting insertions and commentary from Google Docs to display on here is time-consuming. Writers: Google Docs work well for critiques and revisions (although only one at a time). The tool you want is to share a document and then your critiquer alters their editing mode (upper right corner of the tool bar) to 'Suggesting'. Or in the menu go to View -> Mode and select 'Suggesting'. So useful.

Third, yes, I still need to add all the description to my work. So that's something to keep working on. Or to retreat back to noir for a piece, let my ear drums heal from the cries of 'MORE DESCRIPTION!' You know, six of one, half dozen of the other. ;)

Now I understand why folks like co-writing

One of the projects I have going(? it's on the back burner? something something) is a novelization of a scenario from Roleplaying Public Radio (I'd prefer not to say which one precisely until there is a release date - in a lot of ways, it's not going to feel real until then). And the other day I got to have a sit down with the author of the scenario (Caleb) for his reaction to my current draft.

First, you know, YAY! I really respect Caleb as an author and a GM, I know how much work he's got going on with his own projects and day job, and he still took the time to look over my stuff. So that's cool.

Second, thank gods there's somebody around who can draw my laconic ass out. The man writes "book length response" emails, which let me tell you, are the most useful critiques I've ever gotten. I mean yeah, it helps that he knows the backstory I didn't manage to include, having written it in the first place. And having an MFA in creative writing can't hurt.

But damn these suggestions will tighten up the plot and give at least two, probably three characters a lot more depth.

"[But I want this to be your story,] not a story with my exact suggested changes," he says.

Maybe if you didn't suggest a way out of a minor plot hole, cut a link out of the coincidence chain, fix a player being psychotic/sociopathically stupid, gave another character more to do than trail their boss like a good enforcer, fixed who got a core clue so it makes sense in character, and made it more noir, then? ;D

So I'm all sorts of excited to work on this project again. Just as soon as I prep for running an Eclipse Phase scenario at GenCon, finish editing the parts of Red Markets currently on my plate, get back from GenCon, pack up our apartment, AND move. You know, just got those things to take care of first.

This is when I wish I was better at juggling multiple writing projects at once.

There's a certain satisfaction to finishing a critique

A couple weeks ago I was in the middle of critiquing a 90K story for a group on Scribophile dedicated to getting entire novels critiqued. Because that's a huge time commitment and it takes some organization and reciprocity to get done. I don't having anything ready for them to read but I figured I had some time and should continue to be a member in good standing for when I do have a novella or novel. Because there is nothing I want to do less than critique a novel while I'm in full revision mode for my own stuff. 

So, 90K words (about 35 chapters, as Scribophile breaks things into chapters) in the modern fantasy genre. Magic, world building, other species, all sorts of good stuff.

I got through 15 chapters, having told the author that as a reader, I would have stopped after chapter ten. It was like slamming my head against a wall of my personal pet peeves and piques in writing.

With much trepidation, I contacted the group leader, saying I just couldn't do this. That trying to force myself through this particular story would mean that I would blow the group's deadline by weeks. I was worried because I felt like I was being a pain in the butt – the previous time I'd critiqued for this group, I'd had to contact the same group leader and say that I was going to miss the deadline. That the book I was critiquing that time had so many issues that I could only force myself to critique a chapter a day, or so. (Look, a story where the main character is female and the surrounding characters consist of two women and one dude should really pass the Bechdel-Wallace test before chapter twenty [if then], okay?) Two times stepping up to the plate and both times I have to go to the group leader and say I can't do this. Blerg. I mean, at least I said 'what can I do to fulfill my obligations to the group?' 

But the group leader was really awesome. Totally happy to let me switch to a different (shorter) story and work on the latest deadline (today actually), not the original May 16th one.

I think I should let them pick what I'll critique from now on. When I choose, I get a sequel. Either an offensive portrayal of women or an aggressively mediocre, the emotions/motivations aren't making sense sequel.

When group leader chooses, I get a 45K word fun, intriguing world-building, adventure story in the style of a boy's adventure from the 19th or early 20th century.

Which is not to say I was great about holding to my self-calculated minimum of 2 chapters a day, in order to make the deadline. But I buckled down this weekend and spent most of Saturday and all of Sunday morning alternating between critiquing two chapters in a go and playing some 2048 to clear my mind.

I am so happy to have finished. Including the two chapters posted on Friday that I didn't know about until late Sunday morning! It's not quite the same feeling as putting the last word down on a first draft. But there is definitely that element of 'whee! I finished a project!' to it. The satisfaction of (hopefully) helping someone make their writing better. Of checking something off the mental to-do list. Of having fulfilled my word. I've kinda got a thing about following through on my word.

One of the nice/frustrating (nicely frustrating?) things about this particular story was occasionally I'd read through a chapter and think it was excellent as is, nothing to say critique-wise. I always found enough suggestions I could make to give it another polish on a second read-through, but dang if that wasn't the best problem to have.

So! Go, give this story a read through – the author deserves your time:

The Boy who Fell Sideways

Pet Peeves in Writing and Critiquing

When I'm copy editing, I know that I've got a couple things I am going to hunt for – namely making sure all the Oxford commas are in place (I know, I know, that's a style choice, not grammar) and using em-dashes instead of hyphens where appropriate.

When it comes to critiquing (on Scribophile) / developmental editing, I find that there are a couple of things that can really push my buttons – jaw dropped, plaintive cries, muttering 'why? just... no. why?', expansive, angry gestures at the screen, occasionally putting my head down on the table to just stop looking at the screen, etc.. Buttons. Pushed. What can I say? Acting out my emotions makes me feel better.

This time it was a combination of the idiot ball with something that didn't make sense emotionally in a combat scene. Now one person's idiot ball is another person's 'that character is already characterized as incompetent'. And reasonable people can disagree on whether something was stupid to do. 

But argh!! Secondary characters don't switch off and stand in the background while your main character has a physical fight with secondary character's relative. Especially a relative they've been shown on screen to have a relationship with. The secondary character should be doing something – scream at either combatant, wade in on one side or the other, something.

Look. Characters who have been stated to be competent enough to survive 30 years of being actively hunted by a big bad, 1) don't physically knock out characters they aren't trying to kill by hitting them over the head with a lamp, 2) do not fail to restrain knocked-out characters in any way (handcuff, rope, something) when they want to talk to them later, and 3) walk into another room with no line of sight on the knocked out character in order to perform research for hours on end. It's just bad tactics... Look, I've got no military training, no police work training, and no medical training (not even a recent first aid course) and I can tell you that
1) clonking someone over the head can produce a concussion, concussions can cause you to throw up, and if you're unconscious while vomiting, unless you're in the recovery position, you can asphyxiate on your own vomit; and,
2) you cannot predict how long someone will be unconscious for, so if you really want them to remain in place, restraints are necessary. Otherwise they could quietly come-to and sneak out. Especially if you CLOSE THE DOOR in between you and them.

It really didn't help that the main character had been established as working for a quasi-military police agency for a period before the book opened either.

The important take-away though for me is this – have a plan to spot these type of things before I ever send a first draft off to critiquers. Whatever my plan, I will miss plot holes and somethings will just not work emotionally for some critiquers or beta readers. BUT I really want to minimize those problems.

So, what's my plan? Well, first I am a planner (not a seat-of-the-pantsing-it writer), so during the outlining phase I should note places I know I'm not very knowledgable in and build a research points list. Second, do the research. I don't think I can emphasize that point enough for myself. Third, once I've got a first draft, I need to set it aside for a little bit and then reread it for anything I can spot. Fourth, I need to read it out loud (preferably to my partner, but his plants will do).

Honestly, that's sounding a lot like a general editing plan. So maybe this is more an 'add looking specifically for X issue during editing' issue than a separate plan for dealing with idiot balls. That's actually a relief – it's easier to add things to the 'things to look for' list than adding steps to my editing process.


Things to Look for While Editing

  1. Misspellings
  2. Lack of dialogue tags / Unattributed dialogue
  3. Parenthetical asides
  4. Go-to words
    1. So
    2. Actually
  5. Idiot balls / Player Character Logic
    1. Is this something a reasonably competent person could realize they should NOT do, while not pressured for time?
    2. Is the character pressured for time?
    3. Is the character generally competent in the area under question?
  6. Emotional black holes – do people have feelings / reactions to the world around them at all times (even if it doesn't noticeably show up on screen right that second, it may affect later scenes, so I should know how they feel).

This list will grow, of this I am certain.

[Rant] - the first of what I am sure will be a recurring theme

My project has moved to the back burner for a bit while a couple partners I have in this focus on somethings in their lives, so I figured I have extra time to devote to critiquing on Scribophile and to continue to be a member in good standing of one of the critiquing groups I signed up for. I'm being a bit coy about which group and who I'm critiquing because, well, I'm going to be ranting. And it's not really about this particular individual or their story.


I don't need a block of text as one character looks over another and describes them from head to toe. But an adjective somewhere would help! Tall, short, smooth voiced, lithe, curvy, something. Especially if your opening chapter, my introduction to these characters, is a fight scene. Trying to picture the blocking of combat when characters are nothing but blank outlines is frustrating. Especially when the environment has no more description than 'forest'. Okay, I mean that helps, but what kind of forest? Old growth and therefore lots of room to move around? Densely packed with lots of tripping hazards? Bamboo? Unrecognizable alien planet?

Look, description is my weak point in my writing, this I know. You want reasonably snappy, snarky dialogue that reveals characterization through word choice and implication, I'm your writer. It's a bit of a challenge remembering to add enough description of body language and dialogue tags – I'm still working on adding more/enough after my first two passes, a beta read, rewrite, and in-line critiques, to say nothing of adequately describing the surrounding environment. So I really don't have any room to be throwing stones.

But Jesus Christ, this was beyond anything I've ever failed to add into my own work. It was the description equivalent of reading pages and pages of talking heads dialogue with no dialogue tags.

Critiquing is good for the soul. There is always something to learn, either as a reminder of things to pay attention to in your own writing or as an example of good writing.