Me — My Love for Brainstorming

So, even with my conspicuously missing spark of inspiration, and my consequential lack of fiction writing, there is quite a lot of aspects to stories I do enjoy, which is why I’m so confident I’ll find my career somewhere in this giant field. I’m pretty good at editing when I’m really doubling down on it, and I’d say I have a pretty solid grasp on story structure.

What’s weird is that as much as I dislike outlining stories I plan on writing, I love outlining and brainstorming stories. A friend and I have been working on the plot to a story for a few months (totaling to about two and a half real discussions), and the outline is coming together very well.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, listen to an episode of Rocket Jump’s podcast Story Break. For those of you that don’t want to take the time to do that, I’d describe it very simply as taking a simple idea and fleshing it out into a story, randomly spitballing until you get that spark of “Oh, that’s cool”, and then writing that down and spitballing again until you find something that thematically ties in to what you’ve already got. You repeat this process over and over and by the time you’re done you should have a full story plot complete with strong themes, recurring symbols, and dynamic characters. Or at least it looks like you do on paper. Then you write the first draft and it turns out to be crap.

But that part’s an altogether different story. Right now I’m just talking about being in the headspace of brainstorming. The mental office in which you have no clutter, no restrictions, no rules, no anything. You just have a blank piece of paper and a giant bowl of primordial essence with which you can create this masterpiece. Plus, since it’s all just in your head, it’s automatically perfect. Converting concept to product is never as simple as fun. At least, not for me. When I’m creating something new I don’t want to spend time thinking anything other than what’s cool and shooting for that.

And you know, the funny thing about writing blog posts like this is that you sometimes discover things about yourself. I often tell people that creativity is the ability to justify things under constraints, and that it’s pretty much just a muscle that you need to train (you know, just like literally everything in life). But writing about this now has me realizing that the thing I love most about creating something new is the lack of restrictions other than the ones I impose on myself.

With most larger concepts I start with the one idea I like and then throw in the opposite of it. “The Cool” and “The But”, as I’ve begun to call them. (Maybe I should do a dedicated post on finding the Cool and the But sometime in the near future.) Once I have those two things, I spend the rest of the time marrying them in a way that looks like they were meant to be together from the start, and often I’ll find some neat things along the way.

So, I don’t know if there’s any occupation that is literally just brainstorming, be it plots, scripts, worlds, whatever, but if there is, I could totally see myself doing that all day every day for a living.

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.

D&D — Different Campaign Settings

One thing that a lot of people fail to realize about Dungeons & Dragons is how malleable it really is. It goes far beyond “pick your race and class”. Lots of dungeon masters not only have a story for their group to experience, but they also have a veritable ‘genre’ that can be attributed to that game.

Now, the common term for what I’m referring to is the “campaign setting”, but it’s misleading. (That or I misunderstand what that term actually means, which is a possibility.) What I’m talking about is the gameplay focus for the game. What is the party doing session to session?

The type of D&D I grew up with is heavily focused on combat. In this setting, your character doesn’t matter. Every three hour session will probably have a combat, and the game is all about getting better loot, gaining experience, and fighting bigger monsters. This sort of campaign is, I dare say, the easiest to run.

But the thing is, everybody has a different ‘style’ of D&D they enjoy most. I know lots of people that only care about optimizing their combat and sitting down at a table to fight the monster of the day. While that’s all well and good, I care a lot more about story-telling.

The campaign that I run is far more story driven. After nearly a year, the party is almost Level 4. (For comparison, in the recent campaign I do not DM for, we hit Level 2 after the first real session.) I try to make it as realistic as possible, with ‘side quests’ sprouting every where. The party has a main objective, but its hundreds of miles away and will take a long time to get there. Do we rush there with as much haste as possible, or do we help these people that need it? As a side note, my particular campaign has a lot of mystery thrown in. Often, more questions are asked than answered, and there are several story threads that never reach their conclusion, because that’s not really how life works. There are certainly pros and cons to that, but I’ll get into that another time.

Another campaign setting I’m excited to run in the future is what I call the “Guild Home”. In this setting, the players set up a guild very early on, and the entire campaign is focused on raising the guild’s renown, building a reputation, and ‘upgrading’ the guild hall. It’s therefore very centralized and while it will naturally have story tied into it, there won’t be a main antagonist trying to end the world.

There are countless ways to run D&D campaigns. The most common is possible the “one-shot”, which starts and ends after one session. But many others are short-lived. In my experience, campaigns that last longer than a few months are in the minority.

The key thing is that D&D can be whatever you want it to be. You can have a campaign set in a dystopian sci-fi future full of the common fantasy races of elves, dwarves, and orcs. (I’ve done that!) You can have a campaign where the party is a bunch of wizards trying to take over the world. Maybe the setting is a zombie apocalypse set in Middle-earth, and the party has to kill literally everything in their path.

Dungeons & Dragons can be anything. It’s my firm belief that if somebody plays it and doesn’t enjoy themselves, it was a problem with expectations not meeting up to reality, which can almost always be fixed. I honestly believe that basically everyone can have fun with this game if the circumstances are right. It just requires the dungeon master being vocal to the players about what kind of campaign they plan on having. A good DM can accommodate any player, but everybody needs to make their expectations and needs known in order to let that happen.

 

Learning! — Fantasy Name Generators

So this post is sort of a cross between my typical ‘Learning!’ posts and a ‘Review’ post, but I thought it worked better here because it will serve it’s purpose better as a tool for learning rather than a subject of scrutiny.

Today I’m going to talk about a website: fantasynamegenerators.com. It is a resource for a lot of things. First and foremost is that it gives you random names for various purposes. If you can’t think of a name for a character in your book, this works well. It isn’t simple “generate thirty common fantasy names” situation, either. It has very specific generators for every situation.

Let me clarify a little bit. Let’s say you can’t think of a name for an elf character. Does the site have an elf name generator? Of course. It also has a name generator for dark elves and half elves, too. Three different generators for elves is nothing to sneeze at, but this site goes deeper. Blood Elf and Night Elf name generators from World of Warcraft, Elf and Half-elf for Dungeons & Dragons, Elf and Half-elf for Pathfinder, all the Warhammer elf races, generators for Lord of the Rings AND Lord of the Rings Online, as well as Magic: The Gathering, The Witcher, The Inheritance Cycle, Dragon Age, as well as a name generator for Harry Potter house elves. You want an elf name? Well, you’ll need to be more specific because there are nineteen different elf name generators on this site. Are some of them duplicate generators? It’s entirely possible, but even if there are lots of duplicates there is still more than enough variety to keep a creative person flowing with inspiration.

This site works for everything. All of the naming conventions for whatever fanfiction you want to write are all given to you, because a good chunk of the name generators on the site are from pop culture. But even if you’re working on a unique world of your own design, this site helps a good deal.

Whenever I’m trying to develop names for cities in my Dungeons & Dragons campaign, or in any of my fantasy worlds in my fiction writing, I use this site. Not every generator works for my purposes, but at least one works every time. If anything, I just need to do some digging to find it.

Do I always use names from this generator? No, of course not. In fact, I wouldn’t even say I often grab names from it even when I am actively using it. Instead, I use the generators for inspiration, or insight into the naming conventions of whatever it is I’m looking for. Remember, it’s all about the creative spark. This sort of site isn’t meant to tie you down into any sort of rules. Quite the opposite. If it gives you a name you like, if it only started with a ‘P’ instead of an ‘F’, then it’s a success, because guess what: it is entirely in your power to change it. It would be silly to keep looking until the site gave you the perfect name. Instead, use the generators as foundations that you can throw your own color onto. That way the site is still pulling the brunt of the effort and allowing you to add the flair and the finesse. When I use this site, I often splice the names it gives me together, or sometimes the names I see spark an idea for an original one, in which case I have only the website to thank for pushing my own creativity along.

But maybe I haven’t convinced you of how useful this is as both a worldbuilder’s tool and a writer’s resource. This website also gives instructions in its spare time. It can give you description generators. It has society descriptions, armor descriptions, backstory descriptions, planet descriptions, you name it. If your town is too boring to interest a reader or your D&D party, pull up the town description to help add some flavor!

But wait, there’s even more. Recently, Emily, the website’s creator, recently launched a second site, called rollforfantasy.com. This site is geared more towards worldbuilding and roleplay than it is towards writing, but I still find it very versatile. Not only does it have guides for how to handle certain situations or how to build a stronger campaign for you and your friends, but it also has specific tools to augment the experience for you. It has puzzles you can implement into your game and free music you can use to set the tone of each session.

And you know what my favorite thing about all this is? It’s not the ingenuity or the vast amount of knowledge there is to gain with these sites. It’s the fact that they are constantly updated on a weekly basis. Not only that, but she responds to e-mails within days. She’s so active on these sites, and really, it’s a resource I couldn’t do without these days.

Any person working in any creative field (even as a hobby) could gain a lot using these sites. I highly recommend checking them out, because if you’re anything like me, you’ll exhaust yourself clicking all the links well before you think you’ve learned enough to solve all of your creative problems.

Learning! — Beginners are Unoriginal

A big problem that beginning writers (and other content creators) have is that they struggle with the concept of being original. Obviously, it’s really hard to come up with things that are original. There are so many things out there it almost goes without saying that anything you try will have been done before.

But what many aspiring writers don’t realize is that this doesn’t really matter. One of my first blog posts was about how originality is a myth, but really the core concept of being unique boils down to three things.

The first is that the single most important thing for a writer to do is to read and write. It doesn’t matter much what you read and write, in fact. You could spend your days reading magazines and writing a blog (self burn) and it still counts for author brownie points. They may not teach you as much as reading and writing novels, but practice is practice. Don’t waste your time not writing because you’re worried about the words not being poetic or unique. That’s not what matters.

In fact, this leads me to my second point, and that is that originality is far from unattainable. The only thing that isn’t original, in fact, is straight up plagiarism. If I told you to sit down and spend the next few weeks writing The Lord of the Rings from memory, filling in all the gaps with plausible plot points, it would end up being pretty different. I’d bet that if you changed all the names, the only thing that would bear much resemblance to Lord of the Rings would be the plot structure . Certainly the words wouldn’t be the same. Tolkien is practically old enough to be considered literature, for crying out loud. All things considered, I’d wager an experienced writer that took me up on this bet would be able to publish if those gaps they guessed at were compelling enough. (This activity would probably be an excruciatingly painful and unfulfilling exercise, though. Would not recommend.)

My third point is that it is perfectly acceptable for an aspiring writer to be intentionally unoriginal. Fanfictions are good writing practice, because the story structure is all yours. It’s a good crutch because you don’t have to invent new characters, but it still teaches you a lot. At the same time, writing a story about a group of kids that discover a new world will teach you about pacing and description regardless of how much you base its characters or events off Narnia. I would actually consider this sort of thing a great idea if you want to hone a specific skill. If you want to know how to put sentences and paragraphs together before you start stitching personalities into characters, fanfiction is a great place to start. If you like to build characters, don’t be ashamed of copying the plot-line of your favorite book.

Here’s the takeaway, really. This goes for everything, not just originality.

An aspiring writer can do no wrong as long as they are both reading and writing.

Life — “Hand versus Eye”

Recently I’ve been bogged down with the fact that I’ve been watching and reading so many masterpieces, it’s been hard to think about how I could possibly compare. Now, I realize that every artist experiences this, so I know it’ll wash off in time, I just hope it goes sooner than later. Watching the film adaptation of Count of Monte Cristo and (unconsciously) comparing Lisa Stenton to the Dresden Files has left me seeing how far I really have to go before I can ever be on any comparable level. I’m making a deliberate effort to steer away from a Dresden Files vibe, but everything I make distinctly different feels like a downgrade rather than a different artistic choice. Maybe this means I’m turning at the wrong junctions.

Through all of this,the concept of “Hand versus Eye” comes to mind. Yesterday, my brothers and I were talking about the inevitable difference between what your hand can create and what they eyes can perceive. I can draw, but I can’t come close to the level of detail Michelangelo could achieve. I can write, but I can’t forge a work of art others in my craft can. If my hand was slightly better than my eye’s ability to perceive greatness, I would never have to deal with this discrepancy.

This all derives from the mind’s drive to compare and find patterns. We like frames of reference, and sometimes all of the easily accessible frames of reference are all way better than you. I imagine learning to pitch a baseball is tough because you want to be in the Major League, so you have to think about how you just can’t throw a 90mph fastball yet. You don’t want to compare yourself to the rest of your team, who is on the same level as you, because they aren’t people you aspire to be.

I could easily browse websites full of awful writing to boost my morale. I know how much better I am than any high-schooler trying their hand at writing their first fanfiction. That was me once upon a time, after all, and I can see how far I’ve come.

And in the end, that’s all that should really matter. “The only person you should compare yourself to is you. Your mission is to become better today than you were yesterday.” A quote whose only credit I could find is to John Maxwell. This is a much safer comparison, really. You can’t compare yourself to people you aren’t. If they’re in the field you want to break into, you may be inclined to think that the comparison is one of pure volume of skill alone, but it isn’t. You’re comparing the volumes of two different liquids, with different densities and properties and everything. There is no fair comparison there.

You’re only going to get disheartened if you keep letting your eye see things way above your hand’s level. Don’t let yourself dwell on who you aren’t. Just look back and make sure you’re happy that you aren’t who you used to be. If you’re an artist, just draw something better today. It doesn’t have to be “Starry Night”, or “The Last Supper”. As long as you can see improvement from the day before, and the month before that, and so on, then you’re on the right track.

Learning! — Different Story Ideas

As a writer, I’m constantly looking for new ideas and new ways to implement things into stories I may be working on or looking to tell in the future. Whenever I have a cool idea I don’t want to forget, I write it down (otherwise I will forget it. Don’t believe your brain if it tells you otherwise.) But when I’m writing these down, I have to consider the fact that there are several different kinds of ideas.

Simply put, some ideas are larger than others. Now before you say “Yeah, obviously”, let me explain exactly what that means. Let me give you a few different ideas to show you what I mean. One of the current ideas rolling in my brain right now is a time-based magic with a society knitted closely around it. They deal with sands, and hourglasses, calendars, day and moon cycles are very important to them. This is a big idea. It’s a major focus of the entire society, so whatever book or story they are in will have this as the main thing the audience will be looking at. I also have the idea of different colors of sands yielding different effects. This is a smaller idea. I can’t easily base a whole book around the idea of different sands holding different powers. It can be a large plot point, sure, but it’s not enough to be the main focus of the story.

But I recently had another idea of a character or race/religion/whatever of people with their entire arm always bandaged because society believes it is cursed. (This isn’t necessarily in the same universe, but it can be.) This has the potential of being both a large or small idea. If the main character of a book is one of these people, it’s probably a major plot point. Maybe they are trying to dispel the curse, for example. But if it is a more minor character (even an important one), it doesn’t need to be tied to the main plot at all.

You’ll also get weird ideas. Like “everybody in this story talks in rhyme except for the protagonist” which I think is a hilarious premise for a story. This can’t be spun into a book, though. This idea is a gimmick, and you can’t stretch gimmicks out that far. This idea would best be suited for a short story (or maybe a chapter of some sort of adventure novel).

There is a point to this, I promise. Whenever I’m looking at the plot arcs in my stories, I have to look at my ideas and think about how big they really are. Generally, this means thinking about how large scale the consequences of this idea is going to be. Having an entire society based around time is undeniably going to be large-scale since an entire people is involved. Different color sands could be large scale and impact lots of people depending on how available certain kinds of sands are, or what different effects they have. For ideas like that I can also think about their relationship with the economy. Even the bandaged people are relevant to that point. Are they shunned by society? Where do they live if they are? What is the ratio of bandaged to normal people? Things like this are critical to the story because the story you are telling will be very different if there are only bandaged people versus them being a minority in a group of more ‘normal’ citizens.

So if you have an idea you like but aren’t sure how to implement it, think about how big the idea really is. Generally it can be hard to fit two huge ideas into the same story, but smaller ideas can often find their place neatly around one large idea.