Randomness

I’m playing through Fallout New Vegas again. I’ve played it start to finish 2 or 3 times before. One certainly might ask if it’s so good of a game that it warrants playing yet again. I think so, obviously.

One of the biggest reasons for starting it again, I suppose, is that since I first played it there’s been 4 addition content downloads (DLC’s). Now, I have bought them all and played them all, from the creepy and challenging Dead Man’s Hand to the rather by-the-numbers Honest Hearts to the very unusual and only occasionally funny Old World Blues to the refreshingly sniper-oriented Lonesome Road. But, having played through them once, I think there’s room to play through them again, try to pick up some of the achievements I missed, et cetera.

The other reason is that there’s something compelling about mastering something. I mean, you can load up a new game and learn it and have fun playing it – but it’s a real investment of time and effort to be able to master a new game. So for me, being I suppose a rather boring person, I sometimes find that it’s more fun to play an old game yet again and thrill in being an absolute master of the game rather than try to get good at a new one.

For instance, one thing about New Vegas that’s pretty fun is that the game has two systems of “morality” – karma and reputation. So karma is an inherent measure of how ‘good’ or ‘evil’ you’ve been acting. In some ways it’s a flawed system because it’s just a numerical system that accumulates or decrements karma ‘points’, which means that you could, for example, do a bunch of minor goods things to accumulate a lot of karma and then do something horrendous like blow up a school-house full of people and you might still be considered ‘good’ because your karma points are still positive. So it’s a bit flawed, and also kind of irrelevant – karma basically has no impact on the game of any consequence at all.

The other system is reputation. I kind of like the way they did this, because reputation is established by groups in the game – so you may do a bunch of good deeds in Primm and be idolized there, while people in Novac have never heard of you, so that’s realistic to my mind. The nice thing about reputation is that in general it is only impacted by thing people know about. Meaning that if you were to steal a bunch of stuff, as long as no one caught you your reputation wouldn’t suffer. This even goes for killing people – as long as you do it with some stealth your reputation shouldn’t suffer. I’ve actually had situations where I was idolized by a group even though I’d basically massacred them – depopulating entire towns and so forth. It’s a little morbid I suppose, but kind of a hoot. I especially enjoy using a silenced sniper rifle to wipe out entire towns and then stroll in to loot the bodies later, while everyone left smiles and is perfectly polite to me.

 

An Epic Concert

The Pearl Jam concert on Friday night was pretty great. I was my fifth PJ show, but not the best I’ve been to. If I was to rate them, I would say the best was San Diego in ’09, then Vancouver in ’03, then Friday’s show, then Edmonton ’05, and then Portland ’98. That San Diego show a couple of years back was just amazing. And you know what makes a Pearl Jam show so great? It’s not the band at all really, it’s the crowd. When the crowd is into the show, singing along, having fun, and making a lot of noise, the band just feeds off of that and something really amazing happens.

That’s what happened at the San Diego show. During “Black” the crowd wouldn’t let the song end; we all kept on clapping in rhythm and singing (“do-do dee do do-do-do”) well after the band finished playing. After it was over, Eddie says, “thanks very much for that, I think you’re part of the band now.” Of course, that was in San Diego, which is where several of the band members are either from originally or grew up there. Eddie himself lived in San Diego for about 20 years, so it was almost like a home-town show.

When you go to a Vancouver show, it’s almost like you’re in Seattle in a way. Vancouver is only a couple of hours drive from Seattle, so it’s the nearest Canadian city to Pearl Jam’s stomping grounds, which makes the show special in a way. You can tell at a Vancouver show that the band feels like they’re playing to a group of friends rather than an arena with 15,000 people in it. When it comes to Edmonton, though… well, Edmonton is Edmonton. I love Edmonton. It’s a decent, mid-sized, industrial city where the people work hard for their money and, generally, are respectable, law-abiding folk. There are exceptions, of course.

But in Canada you need to understand that we have this thing called the CRTC – Canadian Radio Television Council I think it stands for. I’m not sure of everything the CRTC does, but I know that one thing they do is enforce a rule that 30% of all content must be Canadian on radio and television. So when you listen to the radio, 3 out of every 10 songs have to be “Canadian” songs: the exact definition of a “Canadian” song I’m not sure of – something to do with a Canadian artist or producer or something like that. So when you listen exclusively to Canadian radio, you’re forced to listen to a lot of Tom Cochrane, Our Lady Peace, Rush, Mathew Good, BTO, Tragically Hip, and so on. Now, don’t yell anything at me, I know that there is some good music in there. Neil Young is Canadian, after all, and he’s put out some stellar music. But here’s the thing, if you listen to Canadian radio you’ll hear about 20 Our Lady Peace songs for every one Pearl Jam song, just because non-Canadian music is rationed. So what are the odds on Canadian radio you’ll hear a Pearl Jam song that is a really good song but not a top-40 hit song? Slim. When you do hear Pearl Jam on the radio it’s “Jeremy”, “Even Flow”, “Alive”, “Black”, “Daughter”, or “Better Man”. EXCLUSIVELY. You won’t hear any others played except on unbelievably, exceedingly rare occasions.

If you’re a real Pearl Jam fan, the odds are that you’re probably a little bored of those songs. So on the one hand you’d like to hear something different, and on the other hand you’re sad that people who aren’t fans don’t get a chance to hear something different. I actually put a list together of what my dream Pearl Jam concert would be. Like, if there was a contest and the winner got to create a set list for a Pearl Jam concert, what set list I’d put together. Can you imagine how cool that would be? At any rate, none of the above-mentioned songs made it into the set list.

 

Scratching Out Some Words

The air was noticeably cooler now that the sun was setting. There was a time of day, somewhere between rush hour and the full dark after sunset that the alley below Steve’s condo was completely hidden in shadows. It didn’t last though; as soon as the sun set the street lights would come on, and even though there weren’t as many lights in the alley, there were enough to see by. Most evenings Steve would stand on his balcony, sometimes with a glass of wine or more often a bottle of beer and sometimes with nothing. He didn’t have a view that you could call that; his condo had been an office tower up until the mid-60s and then it had been nothing for a few decades until a developer saw the opportunity and turned it into trendy condos. Cramped with banging pipes and tiny balconies, but trendy. In every direction the horizon was invisible behind the grey bulk of concrete towers, but looking straight up Steve could see the sky, and looking straight down he could see the alley, which is what he looked at most nights.

Tonight he didn’t have a drink, and there didn’t promise to be much going on in the alley, which wasn’t unusual. It was just as well; guests would be arriving soon and over staying their welcome later, so there wasn’t likely to be much time spent staring at an alley.

An aluminum clank made Steve glance downwards. To his right the alley turned out of sight around the far side of the building. To his left the mouth of the alley was visible where a street separated Steve’s alley from the one in the next block over. A homeless man, Steve assumed he was homeless, was checking the trash cans near the street. When he finished checking those, there were several more plus a few large dumpsters almost directly under Steve’s balcony that he would be checking. Steve knew the habits of homeless people pretty well, a side effect of living downtown and spending any time on a balcony over an alley.

The homeless man might have been black or latino; from seven floors up it was difficult to be sure. He was wearing a misshapen blue jacket that looked like it was once a puffy sort of down-filled winter jacket that had the stuffing pulled and stretched around until it formed a landscape of asymmetrical lumps connected with thinning blue polyester. Under that Steve could see layers of plaid shirts over blue jeans, everything a few sizes too large. The man had one full garbage bag over his shoulder, the shapes inside obviously cans and bottles. He was also carrying a second partly full garbage bag, holding it open as he sifted through the cans.

Steve’s doorbell rung, and someone knocked on the door almost at the same time.

 

Choosing My Own Adventure

It might be worth noting that the world of role-playing games is littered with one-liner adventure ideas. I think the Dungeon Master’s Guide even has a list of 100 adventure ideas right inside it. Although that might have been the prior addition. Still, I think there’s an important difference between that sort of list and what I’m trying to accomplish here.

An adventure, or let me say a worthwhile adventure, is more than just a seed of an idea, like “someone kidnapped Farmer Johnson’s prize pig” that’s been expanded upon until it’s 5,000 words long. I mean, that might work, and maybe the average player wouldn’t take umbrage with that as long as the adventure is fun. But, I’d like to think that adventures can be a little more than that. Not only can they mean more, in the sense that there’s a cohesive underlying theme to the adventure, but that it’s possible for an adventure to go beyond what RPG adventures have been doing for the last 35 years or so. To expand a little bit on that idea, this isn’t necessarily a crusade to bring D&D adventures to a new plane of meaning and relevance, this is basically self-interest. It seems to me that with the intensity of competition to write D&D adventures, this is the sort of angle that could bring my adventures out above the crowd. Rather than the theme being little more than, “I think I’ll write something about goblins…” it could be something a little more resonant like “this adventure is going to explore the concept of justification of violence in the context of advancing the cause of goodness, and whether or not that makes goodness a relative concept.” So, that’s not earthshaking, but it could be neat.

Of course, that theme needs to be dressed-up with a lot of D&D and fantasy trappings, so it could very well end up being an adventure about goblins, but hopefully one that has a bit more depth to it than the typical adventure. It makes me wonder if that would go over well in the pitch. The “pitch” is basically a few hundred word synopsis of your proposal to WoTC; so you would typically write a bit about the villain, what the source of the conflict is, that sort of thing. It would be interesting to know how many proposals they’ve received saying things like, “this adventure is intended to create a scenario where the player characters question the difference between justice and revenge, and most choose one over the other.”

Something else I’ve been thinking about is writing adventures specifically for children. I have some younger relatives who I think would have fun playing D&D, so possibly that’s what spurred this line of thought. But I don’t think it’s such a bad idea; in fact, I don’t recall ever seeing a Dungeon adventure written specifically for a younger audience. The one possibility would be to write an adventure from the perspective of it being used by a younger Dungeon Master, but I think that would mostly involve a lot of “helping hand” type of verbiage getting a new DM used to the rules. I’m thinking more of adventures meant to be run by older DMs but played by younger players.  I can think of a few concepts important to this: (a) it would need to be fairly short, as younger people have limited attention spans; (b) it would need to have the violence toned-down; (c) it would need to hit the highlights of any good adventure, but almost in fast-forward: the PCs get to feel powerful, defeat a villain, solve a puzzle, gain a reward, explore a cool location… all of these things in probably 2 hours or less.

I’ll have to keep that one in mind. I might not know enough about children to actually write that, but I think it would be a neat Dungeon article anyway.

 

 

I Admit It

Yes, for the observant amongst you will have noticed this, I didn’t blog yesterday. Is ‘blog’ even a verb? Alright, I didn’t “write in my blog” yesterday. And I’m okay with that. In fact, I think I’m a little happy about it. I think that when I started this blog my intention was to write every day without exception, but really – that was doomed to failure, wasn’t it? If I go on holiday I’m not spending my vacation searching for an Internet node so I can tack tack away on my blog when I should be out… doing whatever is fun at wherever I’m on holidays. So the point is, I didn’t blog yesterday and indeed if I have other commitments it is almost certain I will find days to not blog in the future.

One idea I’ve had for a while in relation to starting a side-career as a professional writer is to write D&D adventures. I still think it might be an alright idea, frankly. Wizards of the Coast has a couple of monthly periodicals – Dungeon magazine and Dragon magazine – that have fairly open rules for writers to submit content. Generally the content is along the lines of adventures for Dungeon magazine or articles for either magazine. So you could write an article about trolls or write an adventure, or something along those lines, and have it published. The pay is pretty low – I think you get 4 or 5 hundred bucks – but it’s the experience that counts, to my mind.

The only real obstacle is that writing this stuff is actually pretty tough. What makes it a challenge is that you can’t just make up whatever you want and go with it, you have to stick to 4e rules and a laundry list of parameters they specify for the content in their magazine. Which makes sense; the magazines are fairly content-specific and writers need to stay within certain boundaries. You wouldn’t write an article about your favourite video game and submit it to Cosmopolitan magazine, right? So the point is that in order to write this stuff one needs to read and play a lot of D&D so one is familiar enough with the game and the current and past content to be able to meaningfully add to it. I mean, there are a lot of D&D adventures out there; and not just stuff published by WoTC, but stuff published by other companies for D&D specifically as well as “generic” fantasy adventures people have published over the years. It is a long, long list of adventures, and submitting something new like, “defeat the goblins menacing the town” is just not going to impress anyone.

One other problem is that the competition is pretty fierce. I once came up with what I thought was an attractive proposal. The basic idea of the adventure was this: deep within the Shadowdark (that’s the Underdark but in the Shadowfell, so it’s a pretty creepy place) a laboratory has been constructed by agents of the Far Realms. Within this laboratory is a vast battlefield where captured angels and demons are compelled to fight endless battles while vile intelligences of the Far Realm observe the conflict and gather data, for purposes unknown. The player characters are lured to the laboratory and cast into the conflict, forced to survive as they are caught in between the two rival armies of the Astral Sea and the Abyss. The basic idea was that these Far Realms guys are gathering data on the Dawn War vicariously by effectively restaging some of the key conflicts, all with the purpose of reigniting that conflict to aid their conquest of the multiverse. The PCs are brought in because the intervention of heroes is inevitable in the minds of the Far Realm guys, so part of the experiment is to see what the “heroes” will do. The PCs must then find a way to escape the battlefield and take the fight to these Far Realms villains, hopefully to uncover the plot and defeat it.

I thought it was a compelling adventure, both because it was just kind of cool and took place in the Shadowdark, and because it had the PCs fighting demons, angles, and abominations all in one brief adventure. Steve Winter himself, who’s an editor there, wrote me back and said they had too much Far Realms stuff on the go to accept any more. So I thought that was decent of him. And I guess that’s the other problem with writing for D&D – lots of people want to do it. Really, everyone who’s a DM has the same problem – they’re all creative people who desperately want to find a profitable outlet for their creativity. So what could be more natural than writing for D&D magazines? So anyway, it’s actually pretty tough, but I enjoy it and I think I may put together some more proposals and see if any get saluted. You know what, I think in a future blog I’ll brainstorm some proposal ideas.

 

Shotgun Approach

I’m going to see Pearl Jam tonight for the fifth time. Being in general a staunch opponent of emotion, I would never admit to being excited about anything, but I suppose I can say that I am looking forward to the show – enough so that I’m finding my thoughts a little too scattered to develop a cohesive blog post.

So I’m going to shotgun out some theme ideas, most of which, or possibly all of which, will be crap. My intention isn’t to develop these into story outlines, at least not in this post, but rather to generate a bunch of theme “seeds” I can build on later. For this exercise I think I’ll have a one-word theme followed by a rough (very rough) idea on how I’d like to explore the theme. (Oh, I’m starting with “theme 2” because theme 1 was in my last post).

Theme 2 – redemption: emotion is a disease that creates only transitory and insubstantial good but significant tangible long-term bad.

Theme 3 – love: the only real solution to the world’s problems is for humans to stop breeding entirely.

Theme 4 – justice: the difference between justice and revenge is often imperceptible.

Theme 5 – change: fear of change has become one of the most powerful forces in society.

Theme 6 – morality: it’s destructive that most people champion morality but scorn lawfulness.

Theme 7 – faith: the atheist may scorn faith, but even if it’s misplaced it can be a powerful force.

I think that’s a reasonable start. These are all seeds of course. I’m sure when I read this again in a day or two I’ll probably be a bit confused for some of these ideas, how I was planning on joining that theme with that concept of exploring it. It doesn’t matter much, the underlying concept is what’s important here.

There’s no point writing something that’s already been written. But I’d like to think the human experience or the human condition is rich and varied enough that there will always be new ways to explore old themes. That’s what these experiments with theme are all about. A theme like ‘love’ has been explored in countless formats by countless artists. So it’s done to death, right? Nothing more to be said? I don’t think so. I think that everyone’s experience with love is a little different, and that with a little effort it’s possible to find something new to say about it. And the really great thing about it is that love is such a universal concept that you’re bound to find an audience who cares enough about the theme to stick with the story.

 

 

Things to Consider…

Returning to earlier contemplations on writing and the process thereof, I had been spending quite a bit of time on the first step or two in my multi-step approach to writing. I’m not sure that this is a bad thing, but I’m finding it difficult to expand much on the steps beyond those first one or two. I think part of the problem is that since I’ve never actually gone through those other steps, it’s hard for me to write knowledgeably about them.

Again, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. I think the process of laying a solid foundation for a story is extremely important, and that’s really what you’re doing by developing a theme; you’re creating a structure on which the setting, characters, and plot will all be attached to. So I thought I’d spend some more time on those first few steps, this time coming up with some of the themes I’d like to explore, and just seeing where the keyboard takes me as I consider them.

Theme 1: Nihilism. I’m thinking that nihilism is an interesting basis for a theme, because in my experience most people are not nihilistic. Most people seem to attach a lot of meaning to things. Isn’t it true that people describe childbirth as a miracle? Why? What the hell is so miraculous about that? A) there are 7 billion miracles on the planet right now and B) I think medical science has explained the process pretty accurately, so why is something that prosaic and common-place considered a miracle? It amazes me. Here’s another – a plane crashes and one person survives. That is always called a miracle. “Thank God for saving this person from that horrible crash! It’s a miracle!” Okay, what about the 299 people who died? They didn’t deserve a miracle? Wouldn’t it have been a miracle if the fucking plane hadn’t crashed in the first place? No? God was too busy to stop the damn plane from crashing but He had time to step in with the miracle to save 1/3 of a percent of the passengers? What a bunch of horseshit.

So anyway, I thought there might be enough in there to start building a theme. You can always go back to the earlier discussion on originality of course. Some people could read this and easily say, “oh, dude, there are books about nihilism already.” Which is true, but I think it’s very important to remember that there’s nothing wrong with revisiting a them others have already worked on – the goal is to find a new way to explore the theme by contrasting or combining other themes in new ways. Believe me, by the time Shakespeare was finished there weren’t any more themes out there to uncover – now writers work in the shadows of the giants eking out a living by uncovering the few nooks and crannies of the human experience that haven’t already been written about to death. I’m thinking I might read Slaughterhouse Five. My understanding is that it’s one of the earlier nihilistic works, and I think it might be a good starting point.

At this point in the writing process, you would take your basic theme and start to play around with it. Nihilism might be a good idea for a theme, but it’s just a seed. Now we need to plant it and see if we can grow something fresh and worth writing about. So let’s think about this. What is nihilism? It’s basically the belief that there are no higher purposes, powers, or agendas. In essence, that there is no meaning in a spiritual or, I don’t know, COSMIC sense to anything. One thought is that to explore the concept you’d want to create two characters: one is a spiritual person, not necessarily a priest or anything overly ham-fisted like that, maybe a Tai Chi instructor or someone who’s really into organic food and yoga; your other character is an atheist and a nihilist. No, actually I’m thinking that you don’t do that because the plot would end up being a conflict between them, which would be a little obvious and uninteresting. It might be better to have the character start off as a very spiritual type, and over the course of the plot, he transforms into an atheist and nihilist.

So here’s where things get interesting. That doesn’t sound like the foundation for a novel, but it could be an interesting short story. So the plot needs to introduce our spiritual friend and give us some insight into his belief system. Then we need a few events that could unhinge his beliefs, and the story wraps up with something symbolic about his transformation to a nihilist.

Here’s a rough outline. Our protagonist is Steve; he’s a college drop-out living in a downtown loft condo in a converted 30s or 40s office building. Steve works at LuLu Lemon, or however you spell the name of that company. He also teaches yoga at the YMCA and Tai Chi and meditation at the local community centre. Steve in general is a well-liked, decent guy. The plot of the story is that Steve is throwing a party; more of a get-together actually for friends at his condo that grows a bit into a party for maybe a dozen people. Before people start arriving, Steve is on his balcony. His condo is on the 7th or 8th floor, and his view is basically just the sides and backs of the buildings around his. But he does have a good view of the alley behind his building, and sometimes he likes to stand on his balcony and watch people walk by, and to take guesses as to who they are and what life has in store for them. Today Steve is watching an old homeless man searching garbage cans along the alley. As people arrive and the party starts, Steve occasionally goes out to the balcony to watch this old guy. At some point, a group of young men approach the homeless man and start to harass him. For some reason Steve doesn’t do anything about it but watch, and gradually others at the party start to watch as well. The confrontation grows until these men actually beat the homeless man savagely and light him on fire. Still the people at the party do nothing, and eventually even start to use the experience as a sort of entertainment, taking bets on how long the man will live and so forth. The story ends with the party winding down, and Steve… I’m not sure, doing something to symbolize a change in his outlook. Like quitting as a yoga instructor or pouring his organic yoghurt down the drain – something like that.

So there are a lot of holes in that, but as a rough beginning outline I don’t think it’s half bad. The party-goers would round out the cast of characters and they could provide a number of perspectives on the themes being explored. I could even have one of the attackers then show up at the party, not knowing that the other guests knew what he had just done. In order for the story to have a real emotional impact it would be critical to build up Steve as a sympathetic character and make it believable that he doesn’t immediately call the police when he sees that attack taking place. But it could possibly work, or it could possibly be a confusing, unbelievable, jumbled mess of a story that just plain sucks. That’s the risk in writing, I suppose.

 

 

Costing Systems

In my opinion, product costing in a manufacturing environment is important for a few reasons:

  • It allows the company to properly price its products
  • It helps a company understand what products drive profits (up or down)
  • It allows for benchmarking of production goals and the resulting variance analysis

And probably a bunch of other things, but I’m getting bored with listing them. I think a lot of people who don’t work in manufacturing probably don’t realize the importance of manufacturing variances and the analysis thereof. Manufacturing variances do two important things, to my mind: they allow for the accurate reflection of gross profitability, and they point to the effectiveness and efficiency of operations.

From an “Accounting 101” viewpoint, that’s probably all you need to know. What I struggle with, though, is that in the real world it’s all about information. What do we know, what don’t we know. The specific costs of a product are typically divided up into “buckets” depending on the specific costing system used. In a standard costing system you would have raw materials, labour, and overheads. In an activity based costing system you would have raw materials, and then labour and overheads would be combined and separated into a bunch of activity centre costs specific to the operation.

And that’s where the problems tend to start. If you have a simple manufacturing operation where you only make one thing, it’s easy to attribute costs to it. But as manufacturing operations become more complex, tracing costs to specific products becomes quite difficult. Consider an assembly line with 10 workers on it. On this line, three products are made simultaneously from the same materials. Each worker at any given time can be making any or all of the three products, but one product is very exacting and takes a long time, one product is somewhat difficult, and the other product is quick and easy. So at the end of the day you have 80 hours worked, let’s say at $20/hr so that’s $1,600 in labour costs. Now, how are you going to divide that cost among the three products? It would be easy to say you could come up with some sort of pro-ration, but what if the total amount produced in limited by the customer order size, so you can’t work backwards from total production?

I guess the real answer is that you’d do some testing to decide how long it should take to do the work and cost the product accordingly, and the variance would be the difference between actual and budgeted labour cost. So then you end up with the variance problem. At the end of the week, let’s say you spend $9k instead of the budgeted $8k. So that’s an unfavourable $1k labour variance; easy to calculate, but how do you explain it? What portion of that variance is due to which of the three products? Maybe the workers are generally inefficient and the variance results equally from all the products… or maybe one of those products is being made a lot slower than budget for some reason.

Activity based costing tends to assume that costs can be allocated to work centres on a fairly consistent basis. For example, the labour and overhead needed to run a machine is, say, $150 per hour. So to cost the product you determine how long it spends on that machine. If it spends 15 minutes, you have a cost of $37.50. It sounds simple enough, but when you have many different products moving through that work centre, what is the mechanism to assign variance to those products? Maybe there isn’t one. I’ll need to do some research on this.

To Continue with that Theme…

I realize I’m starting to get a little scattered in my writing about the process or writing. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because I think it illustrates one of the main points I’ve been making, which is that it’s important (for me, I’m always saying these things in relation to myself, even when I write in the second person) to make an outline and try to stick to it. For these blog posts, there’s no outline, there’s no plan, it’s just stream-of-consciousness writing.

So allow me to try to make a bit of an outline here before I continue rambling about the writing process. Here is a rough outline of the process in its entirety:

  1. Develop a theme
  2. Begin to outline the story by developing variations on the theme
  3. Develop characters
  4. Develop a setting
  5. Enlarge the outline by assigning characters and places to the theme variations
  6. Add major plot elements to the outline
  7. Add minor plot elements to the outline
  8. Repeat steps 1 to 7 several times
  9. Start writing the actual prose to turn the outline into a story
  10. Review and revise
  11. Edit and add
  12. Repeat steps 10-11 several times
  13. Find someone to buy the story

And that’s pretty much it. I jumped ahead yesterday and went into some detail about step 1 and a little bit about step 2, but that’s alright – going forward I’ll try to stick with this outline more or less. Having said that, it should be pointed out that this is my outline of the writing process, and although it makes sense to me it likely won’t make sense to a lot of people. There is the school of thought that a story is written by sitting down and typing out “Chapter One…” and proceeding to create a great story. Which is fine, but it doesn’t work for me, and I think it opens the door to a lot of revising and editing because unless the story is very short, you’ll end up writing yourself into a few dead ends by doing that.

My friends at Wikipedia say that theme is a subject, topic, recurring idea, or motif, which I think many would agree is a great place to start writing. Something very important about good writing is this, and I’m paraphrasing Neil Gaiman here: there is room for a written word to mean more than it literally means. Most of the best stories, in fact I think I’ll say that all of the best stories, exist on several levels. Even a story that seems like a bit of a throwaway action fantasy romp like Star Wars still has more meaning than is literally presented to you on-screen. Is Star Wars about the Rebellion’s efforts to overthrow the Galactic Empire? Sure it is. But it’s also about friendship and trust and temptation and redemption and all sorts of other things. I think a great theme statement for Star Wars would be that it’s a story about growing beyond oneself into the realization that life is best lived for others instead of selfishly. The author builds that theme by creating a story of a man tempted by power, who falls so heavily into the temptation of wielding power for his own sake that he destroys everything he should have cared about. In the end, he finds redemption by finally turning away from and destroying the dark influences he contended with.

It’s a great story, isn’t it? And interestingly, once you examine the story in terms of its theme rather than its specific characters, setting, or plot, you find that it sounds like other stories you’ve read or watched. I mean, isn’t Star Wars very much like The Lord of the Rings? I think the stories are almost identical actually; at least, once you strip away the trappings and look instead at the themes being explored and how those themes are developed.

Deconstructing the themes of books or movies is a fun way to work backwards through my writing process outline and see how others have constructed their stories, and how the character, setting, and plot elements have been developed to make the story work. In further blog posts I’ll continue to expand on the outline above.

 

 

Outlines

Since I started thinking about trying my hand at writing in a more serious and committed fashion, I’ve been thinking about my approach to writing. I don’t know when I became such a mechanical, mathematical person (perhaps somewhere along the way as I became a professional accountant), but in any event I’ve decided that my writing methodology relies quite heavily on outlines and well-defined processes rather than just sort of organically throwing myself into some kind of creative mode. What follows is the process of writing, from my own perspective.

The starting point for a work of fiction is its theme. Theme is huge, because without the theme the work has no relevance or meaning. In a sense, you could start off by asking why creative writing exists at all. The obvious answer is entertainment. You could also talk about the potential for creative writing to teach a lesson or illustrate a viewpoint, but at the end of the day if the work isn’t entertaining no one will want to read it. Now, if you’re writing for 4th graders you could probably write something with no theme at all, just sighing princesses for the girls and lots of laser beams for the boys and they’d be perfectly happy. But, 4th graders don’t typically get to choose their own reading materials, they’re selected by the school board. The school board is going to want something with some educational and intellectual value, and anyone older than the 4th grader is going to want that too, so you may as well write something with some substance to it.

To select a theme, it’s important to choose something based on a few important criteria. First, the theme should be interesting to you as a writer: if you aren’t interested in writing about the theme you likely won’t be able to motivate yourself to finish what you’ve started. Next, the theme should be something universal: the larger the audience the better, so choose something that matters to everyone. (Why do you think so many books are about love? It matters to almost everyone). The theme you choose should also be something original; now, I could write for quite a while on the concept of originality, but let’s just say that you won’t be able to be completely original just because there has already been such a vast amount written – at some point someone likely wrote something similar. However, you can find originality by making combinations of existing concepts to create something that feels new. Twilight is a huge example of this: vampire stories? Totally been done. Teen romance? Hello, Sweet Valley High; but combining them together into a new supernatural horror / teen romance genre? Wow – recipe for success.

In many ways writing has become like cooking. If you’re a chef, you aren’t likely to find many new ingredients. Basically everything that can be eaten by human beings has been discovered and cooked with already. The creativity in cooking comes not from finding original new ingredients, but by developing new recipes that combine different ingredients and different preparation styles in ways that haven’t been done before. So too with writing – don’t obsess over finding a completely new theme or concept that has never been written about before; it isn’t likely to happen. But, go ahead and play with themes to find new combinations and approaches that breathe fresh life into stale, done-to-death concepts.

Where was I? Oh yes, criteria for selecting a theme. So we have interesting to you as a writer, universality, and originality. I think that about covers it. Possibly one more thing you could say about selecting a theme is that it should be done with the length of the work in mind. For example, if you’re writing a relatively short short story, then you won’t have time to explore an extremely complex theme in a way that makes sense, so pick something simpler. On the other hand, writing a full-length novel likely requires that you select a theme that has many facets or subtleties to it, so you can invent characters and plots that wind their way through the various aspects of your theme.

Which all brings us to the next concepts of the writing process, to be covered in future posts.