Story — Counting the Days

Day 25.

They make eye contact. She smiles. He pulls out an earbud and leans over. “Do you have a pen I could borrow?”

She shuffles through her bag and hands him one with the same smile. He returns it and thanks her.

Day 26.

“Hey, sorry to ask again. Could I borrow another pen?” he asks, pulling out an earbud.

“Sure,” she says. “No problem.”

Day 30.

They wave to each other when he walks in. She hands him a pen with a knowing smile, and he takes it.

Day 38.

She hands him his pen. He takes it with a smile. She gestures towards her ears, and he takes his earbuds out. “What are you listening to?” she asks.

Singin’ in the Rain showtunes.”

“Really? Can I hear?”

He scoots his seat closer and gives her an earbud. They sit together in silence for a moment as they listen.

Day 50.

She hands him his pen, he hands her half of his earbuds. They listen for a while.

“Have you seen Endgame?” he asks.

“I’m not really much of a moviegoer,” she winces.

“Oh, got it. No problem.”

More silence.

Day 62.

She is sitting in his seat when he gets there. “Somebody was in mine when I got here,” she explains, handing him his pen. He takes it and shrugs.

He hands her an earbud, and she puts it in her ear, but frowns. She takes it back out. “You gave me the wrong ear, let’s swap.”

“We can’t.”

“Why?”

He shrugs, avoiding her gaze. “The right earbud is busted, it doesn’t play anymore.”

Day 68.

“You know,” she starts, holding out the pen. “You can keep it. You obviously need it more than I do.”

“Well, I actually have a confession,” he replies. He takes out a pen of his own. He scribbles a quick note and hands it to her.

She blushes. “Tonight?”

“If you’re free.”

She was.

Day 77.

He walks in, and she hands him a box. He takes his earbuds out.

“Happy birthday!” she says.

“It’s not my birthday,” he replies, taking it.

“But it was. And it will be again.”

He opens it. It’s a new pair of earbuds.

Day 82.

They sit together for a while. She takes the last sip of her cup and frowns.

He looks up. “I have coffee at my place, you know. And it’s free.”

She considers it.

“I also have movies. Those are free too.”

“I do like free,” she says.

“I thought you might.”

They leave.

The same Day 82. Before or after the first.

They make eye contact as he walks in. A curt smile and a subtle nod. He sits down next to her. The only free seat. They sit next to each other for a while but have not met. He thinks about saying something. About asking for a pen. But just as he plans to execute, she packs her things and leaves.

He sits there, pretending to be working, but gets nothing done. Next time, he thinks. Next time will be different.

Me — Where to Go After the First Draft?

As you may or may not know, I’m putting together my second short story anthology, which will be collected stories from three established universes as well as several standalone shorts. I’ve been bringing a few of these into my writer’s group, and depending on the story, I’m getting lots of varying types of feedback. What I mean by that is, I’ve heard everything from “this is perfect, don’t change a word” to “it’s a solid concept, but it needs a lot more polishing before it’s ready” (which is a nice way of saying it’s terrible).

When you’re getting lots of feedback that wildly contradicts one another, it can be difficult to know what you should think. It’s easy to agree with the person who loves it and simply move on to the next story, but it can also be soul-wrenching to hear that somebody doesn’t like the thing you’ve worked so hard putting together. It might even be enough to make you want to throw it in the garbage and start over completely.

And maybe that’s what the story needs, but I’m of the opinion that you should never destroy your work. Instead of deleting the file where you keep your first draft, if you must start over from scratch, why not simply make a new file titled “second draft”?

That being said, how are you supposed to know when a story needs to be rewritten completely, or if it simply needs some edits?

As with virtually any writing advice you receive, what comes next is going to be hearsay, so take it with a grain of salt.

In my experience, when I go to my writer’s group I will already know if a story needs to be rewritten from scratch, but it all depends on what I’m trying to do with that piece versus what it actually does.

For example, I wrote a short story in my Spear Gate universe that was essentially written for the atmosphere and the scene. I fell in love with the crazy weird locale the story was set in, so I wanted to make it about the locale. This meant thorough descriptions and a narrative style that matches the mood of the setting. But what ended up being written was a story about a mom with a robot butler worried about her son, and the mom happened to live in a weird place with odd descriptions. The difference is the focus of the story. Instead of writing about Neda and how anxious she was that the sun was setting and her son was supposed to be home by now, I should have written about the cold steel of the walkway she sat on, and the warm cup of coffee doing little to stave off the chilly breeze.

This is a flaw that edits would not fix. Or rather they could, but the wording would have been altered so drastically that it would become a ship of Theseus. If you have to change every sentence, is it really the same old story? In this case, it’s clearly better to simply rewrite it. So I did, and as you might imagine, I think it works much better than it did.

If, however, the story is accomplishing your basic goals, whether it is an interesting character, or a cool plot twist, etc., then more than likely the only thing you’ll need to change is how well the story accomplishes those goals. Maybe the plot twist could be better if it was more subtly foreshadowed, or the interesting character needs a longer interaction to really shine. In this case, you don’t have to tear the whole scaffolding apart, you just need to go back and reinforce what’s already there.

Now this is a huge topic, so I might discuss it more thoroughly later, but the main point here is that you’re the author, so you’re the deciding factor on what the story needs. Don’t let somebody tell you your story sucks if your character simply needs clearer motivations. But if they have good points and you agree that your character simply isn’t interesting enough to be the protagonist, maybe a rewrite is in order. Just think about what you’re trying to accomplish with your story and look at how critical the flaws are, and woven into the story those flaws happen to be.

D&D Dialogues 6: Taldarrin of the Twiceborn, Pt. 1

This is the story of Taldarrin of the Twiceborn, an elf druid from a small druid circle, and my current character in our weekly campaign. (For the record, this campaign has met weekly pretty consistently for three months, so I think it’s almost our longest stretch of a single storyline in a long time!) This story is the beginning of the most intense roleplay I’ve ever had in a session of D&D (which I will be honest, is not covered in this post), and I think it’s made Taldarrin the best player-character I’ve ever had. I’ll tell the story based on the information the rest of the party had and when they acquired it.

Taldarrin is a simple man. For a good while in the party’s adventures, he’s been kindhearted and protective. He genuinely tries to seek the most reasonable solution in things, and in general I would say he does a good job. He knows death is a natural part of life, and has no qualms with killing if the person or thing is harming or threatening the livelihood of others. When he got involved with multiple coups/rebellions, he did so with discretion and realism, approaching the problem that would get the least amount of people hurt.

Throughout the party’s journeys, he’s also been very upfront with his goals. He is searching for his daughter, who was kidnapped by a group of malicious druids called the Nightcrawlers. She left their druid circle about eight years ago, and he departed soon after in search of her. He’s traveled halfway across the world in search of her, but there has been no sign. On the way, the party finds a teenager dabbling in necromancy, and Taldarrin makes a point of him returning home and trying to convince him that a quiet life with his parents is a noble pursuit. It doesn’t work too well, but it’s here that the party begins to see his true colors. He doesn’t really care what the kid wants for his life, he wants his parents to know he is safe, and for them to raise him better so that he doesn’t want to leave.

Weeks go by, and the party defeats a supposed god-king and battles with one of the party member’s evil mentors. They uncover an ancient petrified forest that used to be a druid circle. Taldarrin is fascinated, but they don’t tarry long, for they have places to be. This is where we get to the most recent two sessions of the campaign.

The next stop is a metal city called Arx, famous for its wizard’s college. Elaine, the party’s cleric who studied there, has clues that further her own goals, and wants to find out if the answers she seeks can be found there.

Upon arriving at the gates, however, the giant metal automatons halt Taldarrin, Cael, and Mike. The party finds out that the city does not allow druids inside its walls. And also apparently Mike is evil, unbeknownst to all of us (including Mike). Accepting this, the party decides to seek out the nearby druids who are giving the city trouble. Taldarrin thinks that he might be able to get the two groups to meet and discuss things peacefully.

They find the druids, who let them in because the party has druids among their ranks. Arx has been deforesting the region for some time, and the druids have been destroying the offending automatons, raising tensions between the two factions. At this point, Taldarrin’s plan is to set up a meeting with the ruler of the city as well as Jog, the local archdruid, and get them to find a compromise while he himself communes with nature to try to speed up the regrowth of the forest.

All of this is sort of thrown out the window when he sees Rinn, his daughter, living among the druids here. She has her hair cut short, she’s very toned, and her eyes show the golden luster of a lycanthrope.

 

I’ll be honest. The following conversation and ensuing roleplay was a day I had both been looking forward to and dreading since I made this character. My friend’s campaign leans more towards combat and action rather than conversation and roleplay, and our campaigns often run into long unrelated tangents or silly shenanigans (though the actual canon of our stories tends to be pretty level for typical fantasy stories), so asking him to roleplay a serious conversation between an estranged father and daughter was treading into uncharted territory.

What happened next will shock you!

Clickbait aside, turns out I had nothing to fear. He did a great job and played the character and conversation exactly as I imagined it to go. Tune in next time for what will basically end up being a specific retelling of what happened in our most recent session.

(Fun fact, this art is literally the miniature I use for Taldarrin! I just found this picture online and it matches the mini’s features exactly, though I have no idea what the origins are for either.)

D&D — Dungeons & Dragons as Escapism

I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons for a while now. Technically, at least eight years, but I’ve only been serious about the hobby for the last two or so. I would attribute two things to this. The first is Critical Role, which I think is self-explanatory. If you play D&D you probably know what that is. The second was a surprising amount of interest when I offhandedly commented the possibility of running a campaign with my improv friends. Those two things put together suddenly made D&D a much bigger part of my life, and it wasn’t until then that I realized the untapped potential the game had for me.

Before I got serious, D&D was a hobby; an incredibly complex board game in which you made your character and then cast the spells you picked out on the monsters the DM picked out. But then I realized that it didn’t have to be simply a video game. It could be a stage. It isn’t just about numbers and statistics and jokes. It could be a place to become somebody new and then behave as they do. You work in a headspace not your own in a world so different from the one you live. It isn’t the natural 1s or 20s that interest me anymore, it’s the choices the players make at the table because of a world we all created together.

I had a dream recently where I ran down a steep hill and turned into a bird, gaining speed as I swooped down and feeling the air press against my wings as I soared upwards and over everything else. I have never flown in any of my dreams. The closest I’ve gotten was jumping like The Hulk or being thrown from point A to B. But the feeling of flying was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and I am under no illusions: it is because my current D&D character is a druid that can shapeshift.

I don’t play to win anymore. In fact, the concept of “winning” D&D seems silly to me. Even if you and your friends are playing through a story that has a definitive beginning and ending, you can’t really “win” in the same way you don’t “win” when watching your favorite movie. It’s just an experience.

So nowadays, when I make decisions in this imaginary world, I don’t think “what is the optimal play”. I don’t even think “what is the optimal play given the information my character has”. Instead, I think “what would Taldarrin do in this circumstance?” For me, I get the most out of the experience by making the situation as believable as possible.

For example, at level 2, Circle of the Moon druids are basically the most powerful class in the game. Among other things, they can turn into a brown bear, which could probably fight off 3 other level 2 characters at the same time. Taldarrin has only ever turned into a brown bear once, and this was for intimidation, not power. He used to turn into a giant spider a lot, but every time he has, he’s rolled very poorly. So canonically, Taldarrin simply does not understand how to accommodate for all those eyes and legs, and thus doesn’t turn into that anymore. I think that makes for much better story telling than “when we fight I always turn into a bear, and if I roll badly it’s just a bad day. I’ll turn into a bear tomorrow”.

I don’t begrudge other playstyles. D&D is amazingly versatile, and any way anyone likes to play is certainly valid. I’m merely stating that I got a lot more out of it when I moved it from “video game” to “acting” in my head. I think all of us like being somebody else every once in a while, and Dungeons & Dragons is a great way to do that.

Review — Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Okay, as always with a review of a recent thing, I’ll write the spoiler free version first, then the spoiler-not free version after that. There will be a clear dileneation, don’t worry. Before I get to even the actual review though, I have a confession. I never saw the 2015 Jurassic World. These movies being what they are, though, I didn’t expect to really need that much context, and I was right. It’s not like jumping into Two Towers having never seen/read Fellowship of the Ring.

Alright: actual review. Overall conclusion is that its plot is sort of a mess, and I think a lot of things could have been handled better. For what it is, though, it does its job. It has all the suspense and action you would come to expect from the series, and I think it makes a fine addition to the series. I think it goes without saying that Jurassic Park is still by far the best one, but it often isn’t fair to compare movie sequels to their predecessors. For a lot of reasons, they simply can’t live up to the expectation.

My major gripe with the movie is actually the trailer that I saw. Now, I hate watching movie trailers, and this is the biggest reason. The movie that I expected to see from that trailer is not the movie that this was, and I’ll go into more detail on that later (with spoilers). It’s worth noting that I did not watch the “Final” Trailer until writing this now, and it does a much better job showcasing the basic plot without misdirection. That said, for that to be my biggest issue is probably a compliment.

Another thing that I wasn’t a huge fan of was the final 20 minutes. I feel like it could have been much bigger and better, but I would be willing to concede that that’s probably controversial, and I can see the merits to the version they went with. More on that later, too.

Overall, I think it was okay. The actors did a fine job, there were (as you’d expect), some awesome camera shots, and the action was approachable. I think the character motivations were often very shaky, though, and I felt a lot of the plot twists were uninspired. Solid movie, you get what you paid for, but I feel it could have been great. (Also, super bonus points for not making basically no romantic subplot whatsoever. I don’t know what happened between them in the previous movie, but I’m glad romance doesn’t get in the way of the plot here.)

And now: Spoilers!


Alright, my four issues with the movie.

  1. The trailer I saw was all about escaping the island and whatnot. I was led to believe the film would take place on the island, and the climax would be the volcano blowing up. Instead, everyone was off the island in half an hour and the rest of the movie was about the politics of trafficking dinosaurs. I mean… what? Sure, the plot made sense, but you’re going to put the actual exploding volcano practically in the exposition? Yeah, okay.
  2. We’re (literally) told that the Indoraptor is the smartest and most deadly creature to ever walk the Earth. And then when it (of course) escapes, it’s just a big, fast thing with claws and teeth. How is that any different? You tell us it’s smart, show us it’s smart. The smartest thing it does is figure out how to open a door that was made of glass to begin with. I guess you could argue that it breaking the elevator was smart, but that looked like an accident to me, when it should have totally been intentional. You also tell us it can smell things a mile away, but can’t pinpoint people hiding behind a thing ten feet away? It’s supposed to be scary because it’s smarter and stronger than other dinosaurs, and then… it really isn’t. (I also don’t get why they needed Blue alive. They already made the dinosaur before the trafficking thing happened, what was Blue even for other than to help the good guys?)
  3. Okay, I know this is stupid, but the tech guy. Franklin? His character was dumb. Why would a “germaphobe” let’s call him go to an island infested with creatures that want to eat him? The only character motivation we’re given as to why he’s there is a throwaway line about how his dad made him come. I mean, no. His character was funny and all, but nothing about his existence made sense for the plot.
  4. The ending is stupid. Why does Jeff Goldblum have a speech about dinosaurs being out in the wild when there’s like a dozen escaped dinosaurs? The amount of threat they pose to the public is laughable, and realistically, the worst damage they could do is in the form of disrupting the ecosystem through bacteria. They would all be tracked down and (probably) killed within a week. That’s not a setup for a sequel and I’m mad that the movie tried to tell me it was.

P.S. I think it’s interesting that literally nobody but the audience knows that the grandpa was murdered. Everybody knows he’s dead, sure, but the only guy that knew, the murderer, also died. Inconsequential, I know. Plus, he would 100% have died in the chain of events that took place in that house anyway, but I think it’s a thought worth considering.

D&D — Preparation for a New Campaign

A couple friends of mine and I are going to be starting our next campaign of Dungeons & Dragons soon, which means new characters, new worlds, and new adventures. Creating characters is probably one of my favorite parts of D&D just because I love the process, so I thought I’d talk a little bit about that. It’s worth noting, though, that our dungeon master wanted us to make all of our characters in a vacuum,  so if we end up with five healers, so be it. But I mean, that would never happen…

That said, I won’t be giving you all my character’s backstory and whatnot here. I plan on starting a journal for him on the blog anyway, so I want at least some of his personality and tale to come up over time.

We’ll just name my character now for the purposes of reading and writing: his name is Taldarrin.

So, as always, I start with a seed of “Oh, that’s neat.” This time around, it was my character’s quest. Taldarrin’s quest is to find his daughter. It stems from the fact that most adventurers tend to be pretty young, and parents are usually completely out of the picture (often via murder), so I wanted to put a twist on that and have my character be a parent.

From there I tend to think of how to turn that idea on its head by adding something opposite to it, or as I’ve never called it until now, “the but”. My favorite example is when I wanted to make a lawful evil character, so I made him a bard. Ex: “This guy is deceitful and antisocial, but he plays happy tunes for strangers”. This circumstance was a little bit more tricky, simply because it was so open-ended. I went with “He’s searching for his daughter, but she doesn’t need/want him.”

At this point I usually have to spend the rest of my resources (defining race/class/gender) justifying how those two clashing ideas work, but for Taldarrin I was still left with a pretty empty bowl. So I just picked Druid, because I’ve never played one and they seem fun. Like every other class I haven’t played.

The implications of this are pretty interesting to me. In most typical campaign settings, druids form nomadic tribes that generally stay put most of their lives. It isn’t common for people to just leave, and that wouldn’t be an interesting motivation for his daughter, anyway. So I needed a way for his daughter to leave, which would naturally inform Taldarrin’s own reasons for pursuing her.

The rest of the backstory will more than likely come in time, but there’s a few more steps we haven’t got to.

At this point, I generally come up with the name and voice I use for my character. In short, I would describe Taldarrin as your typical lawful good paladin, only he’s an elven druid instead. I often use personality to figure out both of these things, and I came with something I feel is a contradiction: any voice I’ve come up with seems to be too deep for an elf! I’m still working on this, actually, but the vibe I’m going for is “wizened and pleasant protector”.

After all that, I usually write a short story in their perspective just to nail everything down, and then it’s off to roll some stats.

Welcome to the roster, Taldarrin.

Me — “Who is your Mary Sue?”

You probably hear all the time about how budding writers fall into the trap of writing a Mary Sue as the main character of their story, or at least some prevalent character. If you haven’t heard that, maybe you’re accidentally doing it.

For those of you that don’t know, a Mary Sue is basically a character that is perfect in every way. They have no flaws to speak of, they’re super attractive, smart, talented, you know, everything.  They follow the “Rule of Cool” to its extreme, forgetting realism and ending up with a boring character. Good characters have flaws they have to face, after all, so a character without flaws is generally pretty boring.

But it got me thinking: We must all have a Mary Sue floating around in our head somewhere, right? Even if we’re cognizant of the fact that we can’t put an amazing being of perfection in our story and retain a compelling tale, we still like to fantasize about those perfect characters, right? (I actually don’t know if everyone does this, but I certainly do, so bear with me.)

I then came up with a thought experiment for myself. If I could make a character, or even several characters, without worrying about anything, what characters would I make? If I didn’t have to worry about making the characters too powerful, too cliche, too edgy, too anything, what would those characters look like?

Well, stay tuned for that, because I’m still working on their abilities and personalities. As you could probably expect from an epic fantasy writer such as myself, they’re all fantasy-based people with demi-god level power. Something interesting that I’ve noticed, though, is that I’m instinctively considering backstory and flaws. It’s difficult to curb that instinct, because giving somebody the title “The Corrupted Flame” implies backstory, but I am intentionally avoiding giving them flaws and backstories unless that is part of the “Mary Sue” I attach to them. It defeats the whole point to give characters flaws to make them more well-rounded, because the whole exercise is imagining these people in their most awesome form.

I’m struggling a bit because I have about 4 different archetypes of “Mary Sue”, but they come in slightly different species. One of them is the archetypal paladin, white armor with gold accents, harnessing the power of the Light to strike down his foes and defend his realm. Another is a vengeful angel sent down to incur the wrath of her god. These Mary Sues, I’ve found, are actually the same character, just different flavors.

It’s a strange balance to strike—imagining the identities of these characters without thinking too hard about it. After all, it should be intuitive. What is the coolest thing you can imagine?

And then, I realized something. What if fantasy book series are just about your protagonist’s journey to earning their “Mary Sue” status? I mean, think about how powerful characters like Rand Al’Thor from The Wheel of Time, Tavi from Codex Alera, or Kaladin from The Stormlight Archive get the more you read. If a character arc is about overcoming their flaws, they are, by necessity, becoming more perfect. So I bet you could pretty easily begin a book series with the end “Mary Sue” in mind, making the perfect hero, and then working backwards and imagining how your protagonist gets from Point A to Point Z.