On Roleplaying, GMing, And Cultural References

As a GM, I’m not sure whether my pop culture references are a strength or not.

References make things more vivid for me – if I say, “You shoot, but he slides under your bullets Matrix-style, trenchcoat flapping,” then to me that’s a great visual shorthand that lets players know what’s happening.  Likewise, if I tell my players, “This robot talks like the Iron Giant” or “It’s a vast and curved space station, like the one from 2001: A Space Odyssey,” then that provides a lot of info. So I do that a lot.

The issue is, if my players don’t get the reference, then the whole image dissolves – making it a risky technique.  As they’re not likely to tell me they didn’t get it in the heat of things, leaving them out in the cold.

So I have to ponder how to do that.  Because on one level, a good pop culture reference can tell you exactly what mood I’m trying to go for – saying, “He totally Jackie Chans out from under your punches, flipping across the table and then kicking it in your direction” lets the players know that this is a fast-paced kung-fu fight.  But maybe I’m overusing it, and not allowing my own game to breathe in the process, giving players an impression that’s more pastiche than essential creation.

And certainly if I’m going to do it, I need to provide alternate explanations, because “This robot talks like the Iron Giant” is pretty bad description in isolation.  There’s no context for the culturally-bereft (though honestly, I’m not sure I’d want to play with someone who hadn’t seen The Iron Giant).  If I said, “This robot talks deep and metallic, like the Iron Giant,” then that’d be better – but when I’m GMing and trying to juggle so many things at once, I tend to shorthand.

I’m unsure whether it’s a weakness or a strength, or how to leverage that.

How Do You, As A Reader, Read The Prologue To A Book?

I had an interesting discussion about prologues yesterday.

Some folks seemed to feel very strongly that readers universally skip (or skim to the point of skipping) a prologue.  Which isn’t actually a bad approach, since as Raymond Arnold accurately pointed out, “The opening prologue either gives backstory, or shows teaser scene of who the Big Bad is without introducing why our character cares about them.”  (For more info on why authors do this, check out Dan Wells’ thoughts on The Ice Monster Prologue.)  And the anti-prologue people were vociferous in insisting that most folks flat-out ignored the prologue, and maaaaybe went back to read it later when they got better context.

Whereas I’m of the opinion that most people read straight through.  I believe this because I was shocked to discover that most people read anthologies straight through, in order.  (I’m a “read my favorite authors, then read the shortest stories, then read the ones with the interesting titles, then read the rest” kinda guy.)  So the idea that people are skipping the prologue in a book intended to be read sequentially seems crazy to me…

…but what do I know?

Well, what I know is that for purposes of being a better writer, agents and book companies do read the prologue first, and you’ll get your ass rejected if it’s not good, so you’d better treat your prologue like it’s the first thing people will read, or they won’t ever get the chance to read it.  (Unless you self-publish, of course.)

But leaving all thoughts of manuscript salability aside, when you are presented with a prologue, what do you do as a reader?  I personally read lightly – it’s foolish to get attached to anyone in a prologue, to the point where I’m considering titling the prologue to my new book “Don’t Worry, Dude Dies At The End Of The Chapter” – but I do read it.  And if I’m skimming through books at the bookstore, if the prologue’s uninteresting, I won’t get to the first official chapter.

Yet that’s me.  I could be mapping my preferences onto the world at large.

How do you read prologues?

Twenty Novels, Twenty Opening Chapters: Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker

Today’s attempt to analyze what makes for a compelling opening chapter is a classic of the steampunk genre – one where gas-crazed zombies chase desperate scavengers through the underground of a collapsed alt-history Seattle.

And yet the story opens in a vastly different, and dare I say audacious, way.

For I have theorized that a good opening chapter will will not just introduce you to the main character at some point in the first three paragraphs, it will actually tell you what that character’s emotional dilemma is.  You’ll not just know who they are quickly, but be rooted in whatever it is they’re trying to do.

And yet Cherie Priest, wisely, said “Fuck you and your silly theories, Ferrett,” and went a different route.

Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest (Feel free to download the sample to your Kindle, if you’d like to play along.)

Opening Sentence: “Unpaved, uneven trails pretended to be roads; they tied the nation’s coasts together like laces holding a boot, binding it with crossed strings and crossed fingers.”

When Do We Find Out What Motivates Our Protagonist? …we don’t. 

The protagonist doesn’t show up at all until Chapter One.

In fact, there’s no protagonist at all in this introduction.

(A side note: Some may complain that the “intro” isn’t “the first chapter.”  But it is the first thing we read, and if it’s a bad intro or prologue or foreword, we will never actually get to the so-called start of your book.  So for analytical purposes, I’m sticking with my definition: this is the opening chapter, even if it’s not the first chapter.)

What Cherie starts out with is, essentially, a nonfiction summary of her alternate history.  Here’s why people were incentivized to build big fucking steampunk mining-drills just before the Civil War,  here’s why they tried the drill in Seattle, here’s the disaster that occurred when the drill went awry and destroyed downtown Seattle, and here’s the mysterious gas that seeped up from the ground after the nefarious Dr. Blue and his Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine bored a hole straight to Hell.

Now, one of the cardinal rules of worldbuilding is that you do not infodump.  You string the reader along, giving them only what they need to know just before they know it,  because a big clunky chunk of “Here’s how my technology works” is going to stand in front of your plot and characters and bore the crap out of people.  It’s considered kind of amateurish to just go, “All right, here’s what happened” and blather on for a thousand words to get your backstory across.

And Cherie pokes that rule right in the face.

She’s doing the audacious bit of telling a story without a hero – there’s no one person we’re following here.  And that’s hard to pull off, but she does it with lots of clever and visually dazzling phrasings to keep you going, such as:

In California, there were nuggets the size of walnuts lying on the ground – or so it was said, and truth travels slowly when rumors have wings of gold.

And, discussing the disappointing hauls the miners found:

Gold came out of the ground in dust so fine that the men who mined it could’ve inhaled it.

And:

On the afternoon of January 2, 1863, something appalling burst out of the basement and tore a trail of havoc from the house on Denny Hill to the central business district, and then back home again.

Cherie gets away with it because she’s continually creating interesting images to grab and pull you along, which keeps us interested until we get to the devastation about 750 words in – and frankly, if a rogue steampowered drill collapsing downtown Seattle isn’t enough to keep your attention, I don’t know what will.  Yes, it’s a block of infodump that’s unrelated to the emotional struggles of the characters who will be introduced shortly, but it’s a really interesting block of infodump, and so we read without complaint.  It slides by on pure, compacted prose.

And it breaks the so-called rules, but also breaks them for a damn good reason.  Because honestly?  Trying to quietly intersperse this complex alt-history and chronicle of events while introducing characters you actually cared about?  Would be hell.  You’d have to keep ping-ponging back between character development and “Oh, here’s what you need to know about Seattle and its zombie-creating gas pockets now,” and I don’t think you could do both effectively in parallel.

Yet what I really have to applaud is the way Cherie quietly transplants another genre into fiction.  Because this opener is not, actually, fiction.  What it is is straight-up RPG Supplement material – this could have been cut-and-copied from some parallel universe’s reference sourcebook for THE CLOCKWORK CENTURY’S GUIDEBOOK: SEATTLE.  And Cherie melding the world of roleplaying games and science fiction so effortlessly, remolding them together without a care in the world, is quietly genius.

Yeah, in the next chapter we meet crazy Dr. Blue’s poor abandoned wife and son, and the son runs off, and damn if the wife doesn’t have to chase him all over Seattle.  And that’s compelling, too.  But the start is a different kind of technique, and a welcome reminder that really, in fiction, there’s no one way to make a sandwich.

Past analyses:

Why Jaime’s [REDACTED] In Game Of Thrones Is So Goddamned Troublesome

WARNING: This post is rife with Game of Thrones spoilers.  You now have three presses of my “Return” key to get the heck out.

 

 

And now you have three presses of my “Return” key as a trigger warning:

 

 

Let’s begin, shall we?

So if you haven’t read the books, last night was the first time that Game of Thrones the show diverged really radically from Game of Thrones the books.  And it did so with a rape.

In the books, Jaime did, in fact, fuck his sister next to the corpse of their dead son – but it was mostly consensual, as witness from the book’s actual words:

“Hurry,” she was whispering now, “quickly, quickly, now, do it now, do me now. Jaime Jaime Jaime.” Her hands helped guide him. “Yes,” Cersei said as he thrust, “My brother, sweet brother, yes, like that, yes, I have you, you’re home now, you’re home now, you’re home.” She kissed his ear and stroked his short bristly hair. Jaime lost himself in her flesh.

In the series, that got turned into a rape.

Now, as I noted in my initial reaction, that rape is pretty goddamned boring – a cliched choice.  I’ve seen a lot of rape in films and books.  You know what I hadn’t seen? Two people, so caught up in an incestuous love affair gone sour, that they try to reconnect by fucking willingly in the room with their dead son.

“But wait!” you say.  “The show changed timelines!  Instead of this being the first time Jaime’s seen Cersei, it’s after three weeks of rejection!”  But as was noted in this Facebook comment:

A character who condemned the repeated abuse of Rhaella Targaryen, prevented the rape of Brienne, and has a man executed for raping Pia – rewritten in the show as a rapist? Yeaaah, nope.

The reason people I’m pissed off about this (in addition to the director’s clueless comments about how that scene was somehow not a rape) is because of what this rape quietly says about men.

Because you have Jaime – who is not a good man, mind you, though he seems slowly to be struggling towards some measure of goodness in the books – who has been violently against rape in every instance he’s seen it.  In a very real sense, his objection to the raping of Brienne – someone who he doesn’t even particularly like – leads directly to him getting his hand cut off.  He’s more complex than just badness.

And in the series, Jaime gets frustrated, so… it’s rapin’ time.

What the show has done is to say, “Ya know, you frustrate and tease a guy, and he’s gonna rape the shit out of you.  Only way that won’t happen is if he’s a really good and weak-willed guy, like Tyrion, and even then he’ll probably be tempted.”  What Game of Thrones is implying is that the default mode of behavior for men is rape, and unless we heavily shackle those impulses that every man naturally feels, then rape?  Gonna happen.

It’s implying in a very real sense that the only difference between a good man and a bad man is that the good man restrains his continual, gnawing urges to rape – and to that, I say, fuck that.  I don’t like what that says about me as a guy, and I don’t like what it says to guys who do feel that urge in that it tells them, “What you’re feeling?  It’s what we all go through, bro.  I’d fuck a bitch if I could, but I hold it back!”

No.  I don’t.  And so I really don’t like complex characters being reduced to “Let’s rape.”  Because that is a change, and they’ve done this before – with Daenarys and Khal Drogo.  In the book, the sex was as consensual as it could get between a fifteen-year-old girl and the war tyrant she’d been sold to, with him asking for permission and her showing him her wetness and desire.  In the series, he fucked her into the ground while she cried.

Again.  In the series, it’s what dudes do.  If we could get away with it, we would, unless we’re very nice people or kept as restrained as the Night’s Watch.  And they’re purposely slurring characterization to get that result, which is a huge change from the original books – which have a lot of rape and violence and anti-women stuff in them, but they also have nuanced characterization where some men are rapists and others – even really, really bad men – are just not interested in sex that way.

What Game of Thrones is doing is perpetrating a really catastrophically shitty message, adding something that wasn’t there, and I think that’s what people are reacting to whether they’ve articulated it or not: that sense that yeah, any guy would rape you if there weren’t consequences.

And no.  We wouldn’t.

It’s that simple: we wouldn’t.

“Shouldn’t It Be About The Work?”: On White Dudes Getting Award Nominations

Brad R. Torgersen had this to say about my discussion of the Hugos the other day:

In an ideal world nobody would care about the ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation of the person on the ballot in a given category — they’d care about the story that was written.

I agree.  But it’s not an ideal world…. And so we do care.  And yet I suspect Brad’s comment was far more along the lines of “Why must we make such a fuss about whites and women and minorities, when we should all just concentrate on the work?  Why not just let the works speak for themselves?”

The issue is that when we let the works speak for themselves, we wind up with the Gemmell Awards: 70,000 votes (several orders of magnitudes greater than the Hugos), and every single nominee for Best Novel is a White Dude.  Every best debut novel is a dude, most of them white.

And here’s why I think white dudes shouldn’t make up the majority of award lists: because I’m a programmer, and I do a lot of database queries in my day job.

How’s that work?  Well, I work with half a million Magic: the Gathering cards we sell, put into hundreds of thousands of decks that we also track, and one of the things I’m tasked to do most frequently is, “Run this report.”  In other words, “Find the best-selling cards, find the most popular decks, find our most popular authors.”

In other words, I am paid to ascertain, via data analysis, what the best is.

Admittedly, I have it easier: I have objective criteria to look at, such as “Find me the product that sold the most units on shipped orders between this and that date.”  Still, some of the retrievals get pretty hairy as we start adding in more clauses to narrow the data down, until eventually I’ve got maybe ten or twenty sets of criterion that I’m searching by.  It gets complicated.

And when the query is all structured, I check the data it’s returned.  Just as a sanity check.  And here’s the thing pretty much every programmer can tell you:

If I query for our bestselling cards, and every one of the top sellers I’ve found is a “white creature,” that’s a sign I’ve probably fucked up my query.

Real data is messy.  So the first thing I check for when running reports is a little messiness.  Because if I’ve run a report and the results are very clean and even and uniform when I didn’t ask them to be, then chances are good that my query is wrong.  I likely haven’t actually asked for “the best-selling card,” I have instead accidentally introduced an error that somehow narrowed the query to “show me the the best-selling cards that are white and a creature.”

Now, sometimes data aligns, and it turns out that thanks to a run on cards, this suspicious data is correct.  But as a programmer, if you don’t double-check that too-neat list to verify the data, you’re a terrible fucking programmer.

Likewise, with the Gemmell awards, I ask: with all of the vibrant new voices in fantasy out there, putting out work by the score, with hundreds of novels published annually on this topic, what’s the likelihood that only white dudes turn out to be really awesome at this?  I’ll grant you, there’s a chance that maybe white men have a very special connection with fantasy – such a natural bond, in fact, that out of the twenty-one nominees over the past four years, only two have been women.  Maybe there’s something about writing good fantasy that only white guys can really do it.

Or, if we’re looking at this data with a programmer’s cynical eye, maybe there’s some sort of accidental bias introduced to this equation, where white guys are disproportionately rewarded in the field of fantasy, and in that case it’s not about the books, it’s actually about some subtle query error that’s funnelling our results in the wrong direction.

None of this is to say that the Gemmell Award nominees are bad books.  I’ve read some of ‘em.  I liked ‘em.  They’re definitely worth picking up.  But if we’re asking, “What’s the best novel in fantasy?” and for four years running the answer has been, “A book a white guy wrote,” then either you’re arguing that white guys are somehow just better at writing fantasy than anyone else, or you’re wondering if that data is somehow skewed.

I think it’s skewed.  That doesn’t mean that I think the Gemmell Award nominees are bad writers, or that these books aren’t good – but I do wonder what’s going on with that data that tells us that either women aren’t very good at writing fantasy, or women are not getting rewarded for their fantasy-meanderings.  And if the answer is that women aren’t getting rewarded, then it could be a ton of subtle biases introduced into the query, all the way from agent-queries to marketing to covers to reviewer biases to fandom biases, all of which cascade into one quietly skewed set of answers.

Tell me that question’s not worth exploring.

The Problem With The Hugo Awards….

….is the same problem that every other awards program faces.  Namely, that there’s no good way to run an awards system.

Is there some sort of criteria for entry, a barrier to pass before you can vote on the award?  Well, your awards will become inbred and cliquish, representing a skewed version of fandom.

Is there no criteria for entry, and anyone can vote?  Well, then you’ll have awards that invariably reward the most popular books anyway, never providing surprising choices because the best-known books will get the most votes.

Is there some sort of criteria for entry?  Well, the people on the inside will generally come to know each other, being a small group, and logrolling galore will happen, where people get votes by promising theirs.  Small movements can create disproportionate reactions, generating ballots with weird choices that no sane person would have chosen.

Is there no criteria for entry?  Well, then ballot-stuffing will occur, and accusations of fakery will emerge, and the awards will be tainted as people feel the system can be gamed.

Is there some sort of criteria for entry?  Well, the jurors of the award may be skewed, narrow-minded old men, and you can have lily-white male ballots consisting entirely of unconscious prejudice.

Is there no criteria for entry?  Well, given years of White Dude being the default perceived mode of author, the massive numbers of voters won’t be aware of other, less-popular writers, and you can have lily-white male ballots consisting entirely of institutionalized prejudice.

Look, folks: the problem with setting up any award system, no matter what, is that the system can be gamed.  Because it is a system.  And there’s plenty of incentive for people to find edge cases in the rules and exploit them.  You can complain about the Hugos, or the Nebulas, but do yourself a favor and Google the Oscars, or the Emmys, or the Tonys, or the Grammys, or anything else and you’ll find thousands of people griping about how the awards are botched and unfair and here’s how to fix them….

…and they’ll never get fixed.

Even if by some wonderment we somehow managed to create a perfect balloting system (hint: we won’t), even then “What we like today” is a far shot from “What classic literature is.” It takes time for us to see what sticks, to separate today’s pleasure from tomorrow’s magnificence.  Look over the classic lists in any category from thirty years ago and you’ll find #1 smash hits that nobody remembers, and widely-acknowledged masterpieces that went overlooked.

An awards showcase does not actually represent the best books/movies/songs/shows of any given year.  What it represents is a cultivated taste: When I watch an Oscar-winning “Best Picture” movie, I know I’m not going to be seeing a whacky comedy or an edgy horror movie.  The Oscars represent a certain style of moviemaking, one that says, “If you make a movie sorta like this, and it’s good, we’ll nominate it.”  It’s not “ZOMG THIS IS THE BEST EVER,” but rather “ZOMG THIS IS WHAT WE REALLY LIKE,” and that’s a subtle but serious distinction.

The Oscars, and the Hugos, and the Nebulas, all pretend to be The Arbiter Of Absolute Quality because hey, that’s what gets people interested.  But like every awards showcase, they’re actually The Arbiter Of What These Folks Like.

And that’s fine.  In many case, those folks have fine taste.  They’re almost always good books of a sort.

And let us be honest: part of the reason awards are so hooky is because they’re unpredictable.  If you didn’t have the inevitable breakouts of GOD HOW DID THIS CRAP GET NOMINATED and JESUS THIS FINE THING GOT ROBBED and WHOAH WHO EXPECTED THAT TO WIN, then I suspect awards would be of far less interest to people.  It’s a horse race, where anyone can break a leg just before the finish line, and that provides that gambling-like happiness to our monkey brain center.  We keep tuning in because it’s unpredictably predictable.

To sum up: The Hugos are broken.  They have always been broken.  They will always be broken.  Just like every other award.

On The Myth Of “Being Inoffensive”

Yesterday, I wrote about how it takes some training to learn to shrug off insults, and said this:

“Speak carefully. Try to be kind. And don’t be a dick unless it’s your last choice.”

To which one commenter replied:

“Rather than attempt to tailor speech to be inoffensive (which is a neverending race to the bottom), we should be equipping people with the tools to handle a world where people disagree with them.”

I’m sorry – when did I say inoffensive? Christ, I offend people all the time.

I wrote “Dear Daughter: I Hope You Have Some Fucking Awesome Sex,” which was read by millions. It offended tons of conservatives, took parents off-guard, shocked hundreds of religious groups.

Did I set out to not offend them? No.

I wrote All Women And Never Men: A Rant On A Polyamory I Dislike, about the one-penis policy and how it’s usually (though not invariably, I hesitate to add) sexism and selfishness wrapped into a package that a lot of women ultimately come to regret. I still get angry letters on that one.

I wrote Can I Buy You A Coffee? and its follow-up essay, which talked about how colossally rude it is to hit on women and then pretend you were just trying to do them a favor. Pissed off a lot of guys on that one. Men’s Rights Advocates aren’t too fond of me, either.

And look through my archives! I’ve said lots of things that have deeply offended my liberal buddies, my conservative buddies, my religious buddies, my atheist pals. You’ll find thousands of comments from people who not just disagreed, but were actively enraged at what I had to say.

And you know what?

I chose to offend them.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve written tons of essays where I fucked up and said something inadvertently offensive, mainly because I didn’t understand transgender issues, or kink-related issues, or some subtle form of politics. And I’ve written lots more essays where I meant to say, “Hey, I’m in favor of this” and wrote it so badly that I appeared to be me criticizing that, and that’s my piss-poor words rising up to rightfully bite me.

But with each of my better essays, I thought carefully: Who will this offend? And I quickly devised a list of the sorts of people who I thought this would piss off…

…and I was okay with it.

If some conservative father who never wants his daughter to have sex gets pissed off, then I’ve accepted that as a cost of doing business. If some douchey pick-up artist takes offense when I tell him how he’s manipulating women, sorry, but it’s what I believe.

If some couple who’ve been perfectly happy in their one-penis policy is mad because they’re different from all of those other OPP people, well, I feel a little bad, but I couldn’t figure out a way to get ‘em out of the line of fire.

If I use the phrase “Girl Drink Drunk” to discuss my love of flavored vodka, I’ll undoubtedly annoy a couple of my feminist friends who don’t like the genderification of drinks – and, more importantly, don’t love classic Kids in the Hall sketches the way I do. But I pondered that, weighed their annoyance as comparatively light versus my amusement at the term, and chose to offend a little.

But note in each of those cases: I’m usually aware of what I’m doing, and making a conscious choice. (And if enough of my friends really get bent out of shape about the Girl Drink Drunk bit, then maybe I recalculate the equation. Maybe I don’t. Times change.)

So no. I’m not trying to erase all offense from the universe. I’m trying to say that I make decisions, weighing my free speech versus how upset someone’s going to get versus how legitimate I feel their offense is, and making a judgment call. In others, I say things more nicely to cushion the blow.  In some cases, I don’t say things because I think it’d hurt people’s feelings for no good reason.

(NOTE: You may not be able to avoid hurting people’s feelings when you’re speaking the truth as you see it.  But when you start hoping to hurt people’s feelings as part of an essay? That’s when you’ve become a dick.)

And there are times I just go off on those I’ve decided I don’t give a rat’s ass about.  Point is, I offend all the fucking time. It’s impossible to do comedy without offending. It’s impossible to make legitimate changes without offending.

I just try to offend as part of a greater plan, is all.