System Fluency and Writing

A friend used a term the other day that got me thinking: system fluency. They used it in the context of tabletop RPGs, but I think it really applies to pretty much anything. You can be fluent in a second (or third, or more) language. We learn fluency in the system of our workplaces, in the terms and jargons of our fields of work. Fluency in navigating the systems of where we live, everything from the public transit systems of a city to the rhythms of rural areas (and everything in between). Even the most ad-hoc, thrown together, internally inconsistent set of things we do, well, it may not be an organized system, but we still gain fluency in using it.

Assuming we use it consistently enough to say we're getting practice, any rate.

Which, if I may awkwardly pivot to writing, is part of the reason (I think) writers are encouraged to write every day. We don't just need to develop the habit of making the time to write. Or finding the words when we're uninspired. Or getting out of the latest corner we wrote ourselves into.

We need to develop the system fluency of grammar. Of the rhythms of our own writing.

We spend years learning fluency in speaking our native tongues. Writing means we need to learn a new, if related, rhythm, of how words and sentences sound when read instead of spoken. I know this is where a lot of my bad habits in writing come from. I write like I talk, which means I drop pronouns, write complex sentences with lots of parenthetical clauses followed up by short fragmentary sentences. Like this. Also I skip description. Obviously that thing we're talking is right in front of us, why would I need to describe that thing you can see. ::sighs:: I'm working on that, I promise.

I'm working on it because, in the words of Lois McMaster Bujold, the reward for a job well done is usually a harder job. Because gaining writing fluency means we spend less time trying to get that one sentence right and instead, in the same amount of time, write two. Or three, or four. But, because we've gained that fluency, we see all the inadequacies of the first sentence. And by gods if the goal posts for 'good writing' haven't moved farther down the field, then honestly I don't think you've met very many writers (or other creative types — seen this happening with artists of all stripes too).

On Trello

As promised, I tried out Trello for organizing what I need to do next to The Dangers of Fraternization (the current writing project) and have some thoughts to share with y'all.

I'm just not sure how much use I'm going to get out of Trello for my personal projects that I couldn't get out of my to-do list (I use Wunderlist, btw). I definitely see the utility for collaborative projects — it's been useful coordinating between Partner, myself, and Tom, the guy we're working on pulling together a Red Markets pick-up-and-play convention packet. We can leave ideas we know we need to happen up on the board and folks can grab tasks as they have time. But that's not really relevant when it's just me on a project.

I used labels? It's nice to have color markers for quick visual reference whether a task is organizational or writing or editing. I guess that could be good if I have a variety of tasks and have more energy for dealing with one over the others that day. But that's not really how I work on projects... I tend to do all the organizational work. Then build a skeleton of scenes based off the outline I built (in the previous step). Then do the writing. Then the editing. Then... Point! Point being that I work more iteratively and less with multiple types of tasks to do.

The checklist feature in Trello matches up with the subtasks feature of Wunderlist. Neither lets me assign a due date to the checklist item/subtask, so there's no gain in features there (that is something I like to have). I suppose I could accomplish that by converting each checklist item to a card (Trello has a button for that) and assigning a due date to the card. Which defeats the purpose of using a checklist in the first place?

Comments on a card seem more useful when multiple folks are on the project, otherwise I might as well just call them notes to myself.

I think the real thing Trello provides that Wunderlist does is visual organization. Moving cards around on a board between lists is dang useful for some folks, just not my thing. I am primarily a visual organizer, but visual in that I want to see the task written down, not that I want a cork board of index cards I can move around to organize my thoughts.

Don't get me wrong, Trello is a good product — heck, writing this post reminded me to suggest using it to the Technical Difficulties crew. I just don't find it useful for how I think about my non-collaborative project. If you're one of the folks who likes the cork board of index cards of ideas or more visual organization than a to-do list or stuff like that, I'd recommend Trello. It's really robust, with good features, that's free for personal use. I'll just be sticking to Wunderlist for solo writing projects and expanding into Trello for collaborative projects, of all varieties. Gods help me if/when Partner and I need to go house hunting...

Gaming Miscellania

As I write this, Partner is almost entirely non-communicative because they're reading the latest publication in our favorite role-playing system: X-Risks in the Eclipse Phase universe. Judging by the in-drawn breaths and mutters of 'oh gods...' I'm betting my characters are in for a horrifying, mind-flay of a time in Partner's next EP game. This makes me so happy!

Speaking of things to shred characters' sanity, I had to miss last week's Call of Cthulhu game since I came down sick with a throat bug last week. Medium defined entirely by talking + sore throat => not fun times. So I'll be joining in the scenario halfway through this week. Benefits of being part of a podcast: I'll be able to listen to what happened last week before playing. It'll be a new experience, to hear what the guys sound like to our listeners.

Also, our Red Markets campaign will finish posting in the next couple of weeks (wow, our first campaign posted in full...) so we recently did some scheduling of what'll post next. A couple one-shots to take us through the end of July and then the Monster Hearts game goes up. Scheduling what's next in the queue episode-wise means we also have to think about what goes up on the blog half of the site, and well. Monster Hearts inspired some fiction writing from the players. Does it count as fan fiction if its in a story you're already creating in a different media? (i'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.)

<pause for discussion/argument with Partner over fan fiction and gender politics>
Me: "You said you didn't care which how I referred to you on the blog!"
Partner: "I meant it's your creative endeavor and you should do what you want!"
Me: "I took that to mean you didn't want to be identifiable through the blog! That's why I've been using gender neutral pronouns. What I WANT is to portray you how YOU want to be portrayed!" ::wanders off muttering to self::

::sticks head back in door:: Me: "Which pronouns do you want?!"
Partner: "Male please."
::wanders away again muttering about 'was that so hard?'::

Any rate, I've already post the first piece I did back in April, although I have done a second draft. That one has incorporated the very useful critiques folks on Scribophile did for me, so the version that'll go up on Technical Difficulties should be a bit better. 

One of the other players, Greg, and I got together to collaborate on a piece with both our characters back in April or May. Our characters worked together a lot in the campaign and I ended up with an idea about their shared backstory. But I didn't want to dictate Greg's character to him, not even by writing the story and then asking him to go over it for characterization. So I pitched that I'd write up the intro to a scene, and then we'd hop on Google Documents at the same time – he'd write JJ's reactions to the set up, I'd add Catrin's, and we'd build up a story that way. It was fun, so much so that we got together again this week to write another one – this time from JJ's POV. As methods go, it produces a slightly dialogue heavy first draft, but that's what second drafts are for. :D

I think that went all right

Not unexpectedly, last weekend's gaming session did not wrap up the plot – part two (of two, hopefully) is this Saturday.

And yes, I did steal shamelessly from Gibson's story Burning Chrome, just not as I expected to. I honestly thought I'd be snagging plot elements and instead used some of the setting places as starting points for my own plot elements. So the shameless stealing (homages...) were for the names of a couple characters and one place. Considering that Partner is the only one who's already read Burning Chrome though, I'm pretty sure I haven't given the other players any undue hints or accidental bum steers, which is a good thing. Now if I could just keep Partner from snickering in the background of the recording...

I'm finding that, when it comes to gaming, I'm much more of a pantser/improvisor than I expected. In this case, I came up with a basic setting and inciting action to get things started and after that... just went with off of what my players did. There were two options I could see them going in and, while I didn't have anything exactly planned for either, I had ideas on what could happen. But nothing set. Which might explain why I cut the session when the second major NPC showed up on screen but before they could speak – I've got to figure out what they'll open the dialogue with.

That said, I like running pre-made one-shots. I've felt like I know what I'm doing more and I've certainly been better about including more description... which might be an artifact of the different systems those games have happened in. All the pre-made one-shot's I've run have been in Eclipse Phase which has a very rich and deep setting description. This one was in a system which, as we've learned, wants the players and GM to collaborate together before hand to build aspects to the world and how it feels. But, yeah, either way, I need/want to work on improving my descriptions, both for gaming and in my writing.

Next week, thoughts on how my game finished and on the system we used in detail.

Getting ready to run a game

We’re going to be recording some play tests of new RPG systems for the next couple of sessions over at Technical Difficulties and I’m on tap as the GM next session. New, successfully kickstarted, Powered-by-the-Apocalypse cyberpunk system - the cyberpunk is why I’m the GM, this being more my wheelhouse than anyone else’s. So we finalized our recording schedule last session, namely last Saturday. Which gives me one week to read a new system and come up with a scenario... Okay. I got this. I swear.

First thought: Gibson. Shamelessly steal plot from Gibson. Try Burning Chrome. Short stories will be faster to reread and it’s only going to be a 2 or 3 hour session. Novel plot will take longer.

Second thought: Does this system have a quickstart guide? Yes, they do? Glory be, that should make life easier.

::starts reading::

Third thought: ... SHUT UP EDITOR BRAIN!

So yeah, apparently I can’t read this system without wanting to edit all the things. To do both developmental and copy editing. I'm gonna claim that since I sat down to read it as part of a play test, my mind was already in editing/critique mode about the rules. Yes, I know editing is not the same thing as looking at rules with a critical eye. I know this. Really. But… yeah, sticking with my story here.

I'm not saying I think this is a bad system. I know the fundamentals of how the rules work are going to be solid, I've used this engine before (Monster Hearts uses the Powered by the Apocalypse engine too). The experience mechanics look interesting and certainly focus the game in a particular direction. It's just...

Cyberpunk systems are crunchy systems, you know? The tech is important to creating the feel of cyberpunk and maybe it's that I've just never tried a more narrative cyberpunk system before, but I'm having trouble seeing how a collection of tags to describe equipment is going to create that lived-in technology feel.

Rather my job as the GM isn't it?

Wish me luck folks. This is going to be the first scenario I've come up with from start to finish, run in a new system, created in less than a week. Deadlines impose creativity!

I'll just keep telling myself that...

Keeping track of story ideas

I've mentioned my poor memory skills on the blog before. Plus, I really prefer to work on one writing project from beginning (outlining) to end (final draft/POD file creation, depending on the project). So, no surprise, I have a method for keeping track of the random story ideas I have while at work.

First there's the slim moleskin notebook I carry in my bag. It's not just story ideas in there though, I take notes during writer's panels at conventions, on using the print-on-demand machine at my local library, while listening to the Writing Excuses podcast, interesting things from non-writing podcasts, good quotes from actual play gaming podcasts (I listen to a lot of podcasts at work okay?), and have, on occasion, hand written a scene from a current project (I was really frustrated with work that day). Every few months, I try to read through the whole notebook again, to refresh my memory.

More recently, I created a new list in my to-do app on my phone (I use Wunderlist), titled 'Story Ideas'. I initially populated it by going through that notebook and adding an item for everything I'd labeled 'story idea', thinking it'd be good to have it all centralized. The full list currently sits at 15 items long, one of which is the collection of writing prompts I think I should free-write off of one of these days. One of those items is definitely a novel, conceived as such from the start and so firmly in my mind that I noted it with one word (the main character's nickname, actually). The rest are between two or three words, with notes if necessary. But I think most of them will be short stories, which surprises the heck out of me – I thought my natural writing length was novellas. Up until I started writing short stories off the latest RPG campaign I'm playing.

So dear readers, what should I write next?

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.

... BEHOLD THE LIST:

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.

But freaking hells, YOUR CHARACTERS NEED DESCRIPTION. 

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.

[/Rant]