Five For Writing – P.D. Cacek

A winner of the Bram Stoker and World Fantasy awards, P.D. Cacek is a superb, versatile author who just happens to keep a mannequin named Sebastian by her desk at all times. (More on him below). I have known her for well over twenty years, ever since she agreed to write a short fiction piece for me back in the White Wolf days, and she doesn’t hold that against me. Witty, wise and wonderful, here’s Five For Writing with P.D. Cacek.

(Just cover your ears when you get to the last question. Trust me.)

1-Werewolves or vampires? Which do you prefer and why?

Hmmm…hard choice, but I think I prefer werewolves over vampires…and that’s not because my grandfather was from the Carpathian region of Romania and sounded like Bela Lugosi, or that I’m allergic to garlic and have a tendency to burn in the sun. It’s not. Really.

Vampires are fine, but they tend to be a bit more arrogant about themselves and their needs, seeming to delight in the hunt and flaunting their total disregard for their formal corporal selves (unless I’ve written them*). Okay, so you’ve lived centuries…get over yourselves. I feel werewolves, even though they are monsters, still retain more of their “humanness” for the simple reason that not only are as much a victim of their curse as the poor (slow) souls they hunt, but are doomed to live with the knowledge of what they have become. They have no power to
fight the transformation that turns them into ferocious, ravening beast (again, unless I’m writing   them**).
And the fact that I sometimes get a little twitchy around the time of the full moon and love my steaks so rare they might be could be considered bleeding has nothing to do with my answer. Really.
[* NIGHT PRAYERS, NIGHT PLAYERS. ** CANYONS. Yes, they’re plugs…sue me.]

2-You bounce back and forth between Colorado and Pennsylvania. Which is more conducive to horror writing?

Although I do the majority of my “keyboarding” in Pennsylvania where my desktop computer is, I have been known to grab a pen (!) and legal pad (!!) and write longhand (!!!) in Colorado. It doesn’t matter where I am when inspiration strikes, and I’ve used both states as backdrops. [Stand by for another plug] I set SECOND CHANGES in both CO and PA, (CA for SECOND LIVES) and while bunny-sitting in the small mountain town of Nederland, Colorado (Home of Frozen Dead Guy Days) used it—modified for creativity’s sake—as the setting for my current work in progress.

3-You’re an experienced first reader for a publisher. What is it like being the editor’s first line of defense?

Sometimes it’s very, very hard.

I know all too well what it’s like to put your heart, soul, and, on occasion, spleen into a novel which, after countless hours spent polishing it, reworking it and suffering the critiques from readers who may or may not “understand” what you’re trying to do, you send it to a publisher only to have it rejected. It’s the worst feeling in the world and I think about that each and every time I read a submission.

In a perfect world, each manuscript I read would be a masterpiece…but this is not a perfect world and all too often the hopeful author’s hopes and skill are not equally matched. I was once of the opinion that “anyone can write” and as far as it goes, that part is true: anyone can put words down on paper or screen. The question then becomes should they? Sometimes the answer is very obvious and then it’s my job to take the hit, so to speak. But there are also times when gems appear and I get to forward it with a “YES! READ THIS!”

And those make it all worthwhile.

4-Your upcoming novel has a unique premise. Where did it come from?

[This plug was requested, so shush!]

My upcoming novel from Flame Tree Press is about the relationship between a man and his world-famous photographer mother…and their relationship with a small mannequin named SEBASTIAN.

First, a little bit of personal background of yours truly: I don’t like dolls. Never did, although, beings a female child, I was given a number of them from baby dolls to those high fashion icons with oversized…endowments.

And while I don’t suffer from automatonophobia, I’m not overly found of mannequins. Always thought they’re just a little too creepy, especially the molded plastic, faceless kind.

Another personal bit of info is that I love what I call “vulching,” which, in my case, is to swoop in like a vulture on a “Going Out Of Business” sales in search of bargains. Usually I come away with a few things, so when I saw that the JC Pennys in the King of Prussia mall was going out of business, I swooped.

The “bones” had been picked pretty well clean by the time I got there, but I wandered around a bit and found a few things. While standing in line I noticed a herd, flock, assemblage of mannequins along one wall behind an EVERYTHING MUST GO/60-75% OFF sign. All of the mannequins were adult-sized (made of molded while plastic, faceless but with enough gender features to distinguish male from female)…with one minor, and very small exception. It was near the middle of the flock/herd, half hidden behind the legs of those in front of it…about the size of a two-year old, faceless, child.

I didn’t think anything of it until the cashier rang up my purchases and asked if there was anything…at which point I asked if the little mannequin was for sale and how much it cost. It was and cost me a whopping $36.00.
So I bought it and the moment I picked it up, not only did the whole novel popped into my head: beginning, middle, and end, but also his name: Sebastian.

Sebastian stands next to my desk as I write this, dressed for the season. What? You want I should have a naked mannequin in my office? I’ll have you know that Sebastian has a full wardrobe, plus a couple Halloween costumes. My hope is to one day do a SEBASTIAN calendar which means he needs those outfits, right? Right.

5-You’ve notably given public performances as a banshee at a festival in Pennsylvania. How do you get that job?

By accident.

A bunch of us were whooping it up at the World Fantasy Convention in Minneapolis (back in 2002) where I shared the stage with Neil Gaiman and others, to perform a script in hand radio play of Gene Wolfe’s “The Tree Is My Hat.” My character was Mary, who, as it turns out, gets eaten by a shark god.

Our first read-thru went well but when I got to the point where Mary gets eaten, the stage direction said scream. Now, I’d never screamed professionally before this, but I thought ‘how hard can it be?’ As it turned out, not hard at all. So I screamed. I mean I screamed as was befitting a woman being eaten by a shark god. Method acting. I honestly didn’t realize how loud (and long) my scream was until the doors at the opposite end of the massive room burst open and two hotel security guards raced in.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Gene Wolfe seemed pleased with the show and only a few people left the play rubbing their ears. I did offer to teach Neil’s daughter the scream but he politely refused on her behalf.

If you’re ever in Phoenixville, PA, the second weekend in July, head over to The Colonial Theater for BLOBFEST and hear for yourself.

And there you have it, folks – P.D. Cacek, author, reader, and banshee. Many thanks to her for taking the time to answer some unusual questions!

Next week, strap in for Five For Writing with Todd Keisling, author of Devil’s Creek!

Five For Writing – Jay Posey

Jay Posey is a veteran of the video game industry with credits on titles as diverse as Ghost Recon Future Soldier and Star Trek: Bridge Crew. He’s also a multitalented gentleman, and has published seven novels, including the Duskwalker Trilogy and most recently, Every Star A Song. He and I have worked together for many years, and I am pleased to say that he is still talking to me after all this time. And like his character, Jay is hyper competent at anything he sets his mind to. Now hear what he has to say in Five For Writing:

1-You tend to write in series instead of standalone books. What’s the appeal of a series to you?

Hmm, besides the comfort of knowing I’ll get paid for more than one book? I think the main draw of writing a series for me comes from how it gives me time and space to reveal world and character details in a way that feels organic.

I often have a complicated knot of ideas that I’m trying to untangle and explore in my books, and I don’t necessarily know where any of it is going to take me. There’s always a temptation to firehose my readers with information that isn’t necessarily relevant to the immediate story but that my brain really wants to get out on the page so it can stop thinking about it.

My first series (Legends of the Duskwalker) is probably a good example; the main character Three has some unusual traits that make him unique among everyone else he interacts with, but it isn’t really until the third book that it becomes clear why he is the way he is. I kept trying to find a place to explain it all in that first book. There just wasn’t space. It wasn’t relevant to the story that was unfolding, and the amount of context that readers would have needed for it to make sense was just too much to fit in as an information dump. But after a couple of books’ worth of exploring the state of the Duskwalker world, I felt like readers had lived in it long enough that the third book could reveal that background in a natural way that was integral to the story instead of an “As you know, Bob, Three is special because …” kind of thing.

Knowing that I don’t have to rush into anything is helpful, though it has occasionally bitten me too. I left some loose ends in my Outriders series that I still haven’t had the chance to tie up (yet). (Which is probably why about 98% of email I get from readers is of the “When is the third Outriders book coming out?” variety.)

2-You dramatically expanded the scope of your writing for your last two novels. What led to that?

Mostly a direct challenge from my agent, the esteemed Sam Morgan. After the Outriders books, when we were discussing what to tackle next, he said he’d really like to see what I could do on a more epic scale. My first two series were focused on small groups of people, so when Sam said “how about more epic”, I went from “small group with personal stakes” to “galaxy spanning empire with the fate of the human race in the balance”. It was quite a challenge for me and really stretched me creatively, but I’m really glad that Sam pushed me to give it a shot.

3-Your debut novel, THREE, fused elements of westerns, horror, cyberpunk and post-apocalyptic fiction. How did you arrive at that combination?

I had been working on a different novel off and on for a few years and was having trouble making any headway. At some point, I finally realized it was because I wasn’t a good enough writer at that point to accomplish what I wanted to with it, so I decided I’d just pick another idea and make it a goal to finish it, without really worrying about whether or not anyone else would ever want to read it.

So I think the weird combination of elements grew out of the fact that I was writing THREE for myself first and foremost, and I just decided to build a world where I could include all the things that I thought were cool. I remember thinking about George Lucas and Star Wars: A New Hope, and how watching that movie, you can see his love of Westerns, samurai movies, hot rods, and WW2 dogfights all happily co-existing together. I think I just figured if I wanted to write a book about a cyber ninja gunslinger trying to help a dying woman and her child cross a wasteland filled with bad people and scary critters who only come out at night, there wasn’t anything stopping me.

4-The defining trait of many of your characters is utter competence. What’s the appeal of writing
about characters like that?

I’m secretly envious of competent people. Life must be so much easier for folks who have some idea of what’s going on!

There are a couple of things in particular that appeal to me about writing hypercompetent characters. First, I think it’s interesting to explore the humanity that exists even in people that seem so different from the rest of us. I’m pretty sure my background in writing for Tom Clancy video games has had a hand in that. I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to sit down and talk with a lot of combat veterans from the special operations community, and it’s really impacted how I view members of our armed forces who serve in those elite groups. I used to imagine that they were all just a different kind of human from the rest of us, more like superheroes I guess. The fact is that they’re just people too. So that’s always been interesting to me to explore.

Secondly, I think it also has something to do with the kinds of scenarios I can put those characters into, and still have it seem plausible that they can find their way out. I feel like I can barely navigate a grocery store successfully these days, so it’s fun for me to be able to drop these characters into extremely challenging circumstances and know that they can handle it.

5-What’s the book you’ve always wanted to write that you haven’t written yet?

Probably that very first novel that I worked on for so long that has still never seen the light of day. It’s a fantasy setting, but not unlike the Duskwalker series in combining many different elements that I just find interesting personally. With seven novels under my belt now, I feel like it might be about time to circle back around to it and see if I’m ready to tackle it or not.

Five For Writing – Gary Astleford

Gary Astleford has an entry on Wookieepedia, which automatically makes him cooler than I am. He’s also an experienced video game scribe, with experience on titles like Warhammer: Age of Reckoning and Wildstar, as well as the wildly successful Rainbow Six: Siege. Currently a Senior Narrative Designer at my home base of Red Storm Entertainment, he is currently working his mighty wordcraft on The Division: Heartland. Without further ado, I give you Five For Writing with the thoughtful and talented Gary Astleford.

1-What about game writing appeals to you?

As a long-time tabletop game master, I’ve always loved world building and telling interactive stories.

2-What do you think are the main differences between TTRPG and video game writing?

Tabletop RPGs have a dynamic edge that computer and video games lack. There’s always a chance for TTRPG players to do the unexpected, so a certain amount of flexibility is required to ensure that things run smoothly. Though printed adventures are often written with a central storyline in mind, it’s not uncommon to provide game masters with alternatives and suggestions for when things go off the rails.

Conversely, the stories told in video games are limited by available tools and game systems. They tend to be linear, scripted, and on rails to a large degree. While improvements have been made developing procedural content, as well as branching dialogue and storylines, we’ve still got some distance to go before we can emulate the dynamism of an imaginative human storyteller.

3-What were the challenges in writing for Rainbow Six: Siege, a game that doesn’t necessarily have a traditional narrative structure?

In Siege, the narrative elements are by necessity presented outside of the core game. Siege’s stories incorporate the game’s extensive and evolving cast of characters amidst a narrative backdrop delivered in an episodic fashion. Certain in-game features, such as special events, use a more traditional approach to delivering in-game narrative. However, more dramatic stories and interactions between characters are conveyed via other types of media—CGI and anime videos, comics, online articles, etc.
These various narrative assets are quite focused and specific. One challenge in creating them is to stay on-message, as there is rarely room to write in the proverbial margins. Another concern involves the scope and cost of the assets (which can be tremendous) and ensuring they are as polished as they can be right out of the gate. In this process, Narrative is only one of a number of key stakeholders involved in the creative process. Consensus and agreement across disciplines during production is vital.

4-What says good game writing to you?

I value internal consistency in game writing, as well as due consideration of the player’s agency and their role in and effect on the story. Players should absolutely feel as if their actions in the game make a difference. Providing tangible results for those actions is an important part of my own creative philosophy. While I don’t feel it’s necessary for all player actions or accomplishments to be broadcast or rewarded, there’s definitely a sweet spot I aspire to.
Beyond that, content should be internally consistent—any surprises or plot twists must make sense within the framework provided by the game’s narrative.

5-What are the next steps that need to be taken in improving game writing?

As creators I believe it’s our responsibility to usher in new perspectives rather than cling to those we’re
familiar with and accustomed to. While strides have been made in increasing diversity in games, we still
have a long way to go. Representation, both within our industry as well as within the content we create,
matters a great deal. There are voices we haven’t heard yet and they have their own stories to tell. The
inclusion of these voices can only improve the narrative tapestry of the games we make.

 

Many thanks to Gary for taking the time to sit down and answer the questions! Next week, tune in for five questions with science fiction novelist and all-around excellent guy Jay Posey!

Five For Writing – Justin Achilli

Justin Achilli and I go way back. Like, to the mid 90s at White Wolf way back. It was a pleasure to work with him then, and it’s been a pleasure to work with him in his time at Red Storm. He’s one of the sharpest game designers I know, as well as an excellent writer and editor, and a thoughtful, eloquent advocate for games. Here he is now, the man who more than anyone embodies Vampire: The Masquerade – Justin Achilli.

 

1-You’ve been involved with Vampire: The Masquerade for over two decades. How has it changed in that time, and how has your approach to it changed?

For the longest time, Vampire (and all of the World of Darkness games) were made by a company that was a physical book publisher first and foremost. It needed to print and sell books to survive, so a lot of what went into the games served that end: Print stuff with a perceived value and sell that. We were writing and developing sequential periodicals as much as we were writing and developing games. Things like “metaplot” and “canon” emerged less from an intentional continuity and brand-building, and more from survival instinct.

Now, though, the company that owns the World of Darkness (Paradox Interactive), isn’t a physical book publisher at all. So my work on Vampire and other titles is refocused on building a sandbox in which people can tell their own stories rather than printing some-thousand words of plot advancements.

2-You’ve worked in both tabletop and video games. What did you carry over from one to the other?

Overall the thing that I find most important is to respect the player’s time. Audiences have a huge amount of options in terms of entertainment, so I think it’s important to realize what your game offers, whether it’s a TTRPG or a video game or whatever, and deliver on that promise.

I had been working on MMOs a while back and it used to bother me how a lot of MMO marketing was “you can be anything you can imagine in this enormous living world!” but their gameplay was built around three or four very distinct classes or roles and combat quests. That always seemed really disingenuous to me. Better to have a very limited scope and help the player tell the best story they can within that scope than to try to tick every box and deliver adequately on only a few of them. Pendragon is an amazing TTRPG, and characters are comparatively very limited in what they are: Arthurian-era, mostly knights. And look at, say, Stardew Valley — it doesn’t have one tenth of the feature list of, say, Star Citizen, but it’s made millions of people very happy by letting them tell a very distinct kind of story, and it doesn’t pretend to do anything else.

I think that’s the most important part. Let the player tell the story and live the fantasy you’ve promised to them. Games development is project management, so your resources should be scaled and devoted to fulfilling your promise.

Not a sexy answer, I suppose, but a good one, I think.

3-What do you feel is unique about game narrative, and have we been reaching its full potential?

The big difference between games and “one-way” media is the interactivity. In a game, the narrative is helping the player tell the story, so if the story relegates the player to making insignificant choices, it’s telling them that they don’t matter, that what the story “is really about” can happen without them. That does a disservice to the player, who’s playing to see the outcomes of their actions, to make choices and learn what those choices effected.

I don’t think we’re at the point of realizing the full potential there, and I think we’re still a distance away. Look at how long writing as a craft has existed, or creating visual art, or making music. Compared to those media, video games are in their infancy, and they’re a unique blend of all of those things and then some. Some of what’s limiting us is technical or technological — we can’t yet have an AI “game master” that’s as versatile as a human one, and we can’t ship an infinitude of digital assets to visualize or realize what a human game master can describe. But some of our limitation, too, is commercial, in that it’s really expensive to make games and the people funding them want to recoup their costs, so the expenses of risk-taking are much more controlled than in, say, an individual’s effort to tell the story that they’re burning to tell.

4-How do you think game design should be used to tell stories?

I think of game design as the “toolbox” the player has. A game effectively proposes a problem or a series of problems, and the design defines the parameters by which the player can attempt to solve those problems. So there are really two stories to every game (and sometimes they overlap very closely): the story of the player playing the game, and the story events that contextualize the game itself. The player’s story, and the world story that includes the character the player is portraying.

I think this is the part where I’m supposed to bring up the “does Tetris have a story?” exercise 😉

But seriously, I like the definition of a game as a series of interesting choices. “What happens when I do this?” is the source of myriad stories. They don’t all have to be epics or infinite. Some stories happen in a moment’s time.

5-Do you prefer open-ended or linear game narratives, and why?

As a personal preference, I enjoy open-ended narratives, because they make me feel more like I’m in charge of my own destiny. Especially when I’m able to create my own character, I feel like setting my own goals and realizing them is part of that open-endedness.

Which isn’t to diminish linear game narratives, of course, and I’ve worked on many of these. In complement to the above, when I’m playing a specific, named character, I tend to appreciate linear narrative smore, because I buy into the story that this is that character’s story and I’m helping realize it, as the player.

In the end, it has a lot to do with the promise that’s being made to me, especially in game worlds that are part of franchises. In a Star Trek game, I want to boldly go! But I also accept that I’m probably going to end up in conflict with the Klingons at some point. “Linear” doesn’t have to mean the player is resistant to being directed toward an outcome. If it’s part of what you buy into when you undertake the narrative, it’s reasonable to have some expectations.

 

Huge thanks to Justin for taking the time to sit down and answer these. You can find his wit and wisdom on Twitter, and in the continuing output of World of Darkness books.

Tune in next week for another interview!

 

Five For Writing – Thomas R. Clark

Author, podcaster and gamer, Thomas R. Clark is a man of many talents. In addition to published works like The God Provides, he anchors the metal-and-horror podcast Necrocasticon. So let’s throw the goat and let Thomas answer in his own words

1-Heavy metal and horror. What’s the connection?

My two favorite niche genres of entertainment. And they are niche, no matter how rabid and vocal the fan bases are for both. They are linked through iconography and themes, mostly.One can’t think of Iron Maiden without also seeing their zombified mascot, Eddie. Many metal bands use imagery typically associated with horror – Type O Negative, for example, or Ghost and their Satanic pope character Papa Emeritus – hell, even Black Sabbath’s name comes from a Boris Karloff film. Not to mention one of my favorite horror novels, The Scream from Skipp & Spector, which is a perfect blend of this.

2-What was the experience of writing your first novel like?

Do you mean the one I just wrote? Or the two I wrote between 2015 and 2018 that will never see the light of day cos they are/were nothing but a collection of scenes and awful? Well, wait, that isn’t all true. I’ve cannibalized and re-written portions from both into other pieces. For example, the opening chapter to Whirlwind was slightly modified into the short story “Chirp” you can find in my debut collection, A Book of Light and Shadow. The protagonist of the same book, a private detective named Dianne Brighton, was reimagined as the protagonist of my WIP, The Witch of November. I write slowly, and writing a full length novel is an arduous task for me. My longest piece of published fiction to date is The God Provides, but that is technically a collection of four novelettes. The Death List, my longest narrative piece in print, is just under 40K. Now, the one I just completed, Summerhome, is my first full length commercial novel, no disrespect to F. Scott Fitzgerald. I found the process with this to much easier than I thought it would be, as I was taking what I’ve learned with my prior pieces and applied it to this. I’m in the midst of a rewrite before going to my editor.

3-What have you learned from the process?

I learned your first book will be awful, and likely your second book, too.But they need to be awful. I’ve learned writing books is a lonely trade, and the legends of writers having substance abuse issues are no joke. It’s easy to tip a bottle or light up a smoke when you are alone as much as a writer is.

4-What’s the most metal thing you’ve ever written?

Thus far, it’s Bella’s Boys. The Death List is pretty metal, too, but Bella’s Boys is so much more than a cosmic horror novella. It has meta-layers, making it everything that is metal and Rock-n-roll. For example, the chapters indicating the date, time and snowfall totals – those represent the time signatures of a song on an album. The book is an album in print, with each chapter being a new track, or song in presented in narrative prose.

5-How does your podcasting relate to your writing?

I went to college for broadcasting and journalism, so the podcasting is a natural extension of that. Podcasting, ironically, has led me to my writing career, though. I’m glad I’m doing this now, and not thirty years ago. I imagine the ME of that era wouldn’t have been very popular with the community as a whole, due to my immaturity and rampant, out of control ADHD. I’ve only learned to manage over the last decade – and much of this is a result of the structures I’ve had to build in my life to produce quality creative content. I worked in sales for 25 years nad never achieved the amount of understanding for my trade as I have with writing fiction.

Sometime around 2008 or 2009, my buddies and I started a fan podcast of a regional professional wrestling promotion. Interviews I did during this time period assisted me in landing a podcasting and journalism gig at an online entertainment news site similar to Ain’t It Cool News, called This Is Infamous. During this time period, a peer with a small press printed a series of comedy-genre pieces I wrote over the years. My coverage of horror films and the horror based fiction I wrote landed me in the HWA, which I joined to find mentoring. During this time, I started the Necrocasticon Podcast, after leaving This Is Infamous. Eventually, I was given a mentoring spot with Monica S. Kuebler at Rue Morgue Magazine, which led to me covering Scares That Care for the magazine. And there, after meeting many of the creatives who inspired me, like Brian Keene and Tom Monteleone, I discovered I wanted to write fiction. So podcasting has had a drastic impact on my fiction, without it, I don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing today.

Many thanks to Thomas for bringing the thunder to this week’s post. You can find him online at his website, or on Twitter. And check out the Necrocasticon if you get a chance!

Next week is a special treat for me, as I bring you an interview with my long-time coworker and friend, the man who is Vampire: The Masquerade, Justin Achilli. See you then!

Five For Writing – Professor Christopher McGlothlin

Do you know what a ghost show is? If you don’t (or even if you do), you’re in for a treat, as today’s interview is with the head honcho of Ghost Show Press, Professor Christopher McGlothlin. The mind behind the recent book of essays Transgressive Horror: Reflections on Scare Films that Broke the Rules (which, full confession, contains my take on Curse of the Demon), he’s just getting revved up. Here, then, is his Five For Writing!

1-What’s a Ghost Show, and why did you name your press after it?
Ghost shows were “A Special Weird Attraction!” that came to your local drive-in movie theatre, promising “Monsters Abduct Girls From Their Seats,” “Man Buried Alive for a Week Dug Up at Showtime,” “The Beatles Spiritually Materialize,” and a “Triple Horror Movie Shock Show!” Anyone who wouldn’t buy a ticket to that is made of sterner stuff than I.
What paying customers actually got was carnies in rubber masks carrying off planted female accomplices, cheap stage magic tricks, and decaying 16mm prints of decades-old Poverty Row films. It was a total con, but the willing marks got what they really came for: a wild burst of pure fun and imagination that filled their world with more wonder than they knew.
That tradition is rich in my rural Virginia blood, and when it came time to launch my publishing venture, I realized ghost shows are the perfect metaphor for what I want to do. Ghost Show Press is just me and super-talented folks I vibe with writing books for everyone who still wants that same pure fun and imagination. Although we won’t put on monster masks and bury anyone alive. Probably.
2-Why did you pick the subject of transgressive films to be your meat and potatoes for Ghost Show Press?
I have always wanted to write about how cinema doesn’t have to be objectively good to be worthy of discussion — just innovative and interesting. The Everyone’s Gone to the Movies essay collection series was born from that. There are many, many published works telling you why Psycho (1960) is a classic film. Myself, I prefer to get into how The Wizard of Gore (1970) and Audition (1999) are like nothing else you’ll ever see — and why people should see them.

3-What inspired the first book in the series, Transgressive Horror?
I’d been thinking of doing a book like TH all by myself since back when I was a much younger, energetic fellow, but life and other paid work kept getting in the way. Then in the fall of 2020, my dear friend James Lowder (the legendary writer and editor) casually mentioned he had an unpublished essay on Witchfinder General (1968) in his files. That’s when the cartoon lightbulb went off, and I realized I could finally do TH by leveling up to publisher & editor, writing only as much as I cared to, and asking other creators (first-time writers and veteran scribes) to join in. And thus did TH arise from the slab, ready to run amok in the world.

4-Are there any films you wish had made the book that didn’t?
I’m a fan of pioneering director Stephanie Rothman, and always want to boost the signal on her work (like now!); the underrated The Velvet Vampire (1971) in particular. I offered TVV to every writer who asked for suggestions, and nearly wrote about it myself, to no avail.
Given the genre, we’re fairly obligated to do Transgressive Horror 2 at some point, and will hopefully get to TVV in the sequel.

5-What’s next?

On April 27, 2022, Ghost Show Press launches its Kickstarter for Vol. 2 in the Everyone’s Gone to the Movies series, Subversive Sci-Fi: Reflections on Futuristic Films That Broke the Rules. We’re very blessed to have nearly the whole team back from Vol. 1, as well as some fabulous new additions.

Not sure of the exact date, but at some point my farewell to tabletop gaming industry will be released: The History of Sentinel Comics, the true story of everyone’s favorite imaginary publisher. It’s co-written with the amazing Darren Watts, and published by the greater folks at Greater Than Games. Darren is supremely gifted, and with GTG I was never treated better as a freelance writer. It’s a funny, obsessively detailed, and affectionate ode to everyone who loves comic books, and the best possible way to bid adieu to my time in tabletop games.

Big thanks to the Professor for answering these questions, and best of luck with the sci-fi book and beyond! Tun e in next week, when I’ll be talking to Splatterpunk Award nominee Thomas Clark. See you then!

Five For Writing – Lauren Stone

This week’s Five For Writing is a day late, for which I apologize, but I promise you it’s worth the wait. Today’s guest is Lauren Stone, narrative lead on the Division franchise and doer of All The Things story-related for Ubisoft. Her credits are diverse enough to include both Rainbow Six: Siege and Eagle Flight. I had the privilege of working with Lauren on The Division 2 and she is smart, fast, funny, and sharp. But enough of me talking about her; here she is in her own words.

1-What says good game writing to you?

Good game writing to me is narrative that supports, enhances and elevates the experience. Anything that helps support and build the world, the mechanics and the player experience is good game writing to me. Whether that is a piece of UI Text that gleans clarity or a cinematic
that makes you cry.

2-How do you keep a story like The Division’s going years after release?

By focusing on character. Though we may be almost 6 years past the original release of Division 1 we haven’t even spent a full year in the world in terms of the story’s timeline. We have really only made it to late-August in the currently released content and October in the new novel that is coming out in February 2022. The majority of our story is told in the past and through flashbacks in the form of audio collectibles and active missions. It’s been 6 years for us but only 10 months for our characters.
As we explore new regions, we meet new people and all of those people have rich histories and backstories that made them who they are and how they react to the situation at this point. We get the privilege of learning more about established characters by meeting people we’ve never met before and getting their perspective on the state of the world and what our characters have represented to them based on how they have been treated by agents of the Division or individual interactions with our established characters. We will be learning more about many of our established characters in future content releases over the next year and I’m excited to see how the community responds to the new information they get about these people they think they already know. The funny thing about people is we are always much more complicated than expected and unless you directly ask someone why  they do a thing and they answer honestly, you can never truly understand someone’s motivations or reasons for behaving the way they do. As long as people are complex and your  characters are built like real people, you will never run out of potential stories you can tell about them.

3-You help coordinate novels based on Ubisoft IP. What makes a good transmedia novel in your
opinion?

One that respects the source material but explores different types of stories that work better for the medium. We get to be more internal in a novel. We get to focus on motivation and character in a way that you can’t really explore in the game without it feeling cheesy or like the writer is trying too hard to be clever. My favorite things about transmedia is that it allows you to engage in the world in ways that are suited to the medium. What works for film does not always work for a novel or an audiodrama, what is perfect in a comic doesn’t always translate to the game. If your world is rich you can make a piece of art in any medium. My weird dream that will never happen because I am a musical theater kid would be to make a Division Musical with Lin Manuel Miranda, my original dream before getting involved with transmedia was to have him get into a booth and just freestyle rap about the state of the world and be an NPC in a safehouse near Broadway. That Lin was just a person who survived and tried to keep making art. This is my weird fantasy that will never happen, but, eh, weirder fantasies have become reality and sometimes throwing things out into the universe can result in the world echoing back, “yes please, I want to have that.”

4-How do you instill narrative in a game like Rainbow Six: Siege, that doesn’t have the sort of
structure that generally allows for narrative development.

The same way I approach all narrative design. I look at the constraints as opportunities. All we have is barks, which means all we have is character. We have ambient audio to build the map, we tell a fixed story in the map. We use the art to build the world. We use the textures and marketing to ground the characters. Multiplayer live games in general are not built to tell a single player narrative experience. That is not the goal. A lot of the stories in games that are traditionally elevated as being amazing are really screenplays with combat beats. The richest and most complex stories are in games that are much more complicated than that. But I think people still expect the game to fit in a screenplay format, especially for award shows. We need to retrain people on what qualifies as story. It’s not just the cinematics. Especially when you can hold A to skip. It’s the content you engage with regardless of how expensive or long you engage with it. The small moments are the things that people remember. The weird lines and characters or a stunning piece of art. A moment that is real and evocative and makes you feel something and helps you better understand the world is a great piece of story, even a piece of graffiti that lets you know the True Sons are here, get ready, can be a wonderful and necessary story that helps the player engage more fully with the world.

5-What are you looking forward to seeing in game writing as we go forward?

I’m looking forward to people respecting barks. Respecting the Menus and HUD. Respecting each other’s work. I’m looking forward to the future where we realize everything matters and everything is worth focus, attention, energy and consideration. Every person in your world from the studio to the characters is deserving of having their humanity and contributions seen, celebrated and respected. I’m looking forward to people realizing that game narrative is a viable option to tell story, to build a career, to create stability and art. I’m looking forward to more people learning how to use the constraints as opportunities.

Thanks so much to Lauren for her time and thoughtful answers, and check out her work on the ongoing saga of The Division.

Next week things are going to get a little crazy – I’m interviewing…an editor.

Five For Writing – Jesse Scoble

Jesse Scoble has the singular misfortune of being a good friend of mine. A Chief Narrative Designer at TenCent, he’s done stints at Ubisoft (HyperScape, Assassins’ Creed: Odyssey, Far Cry 5 and others) Wizard101, Webkinz and more. He has contributed to Beyond the Wall; The Bones; co-edited two short-story anthologies in the  Silver Age Sentinels TTRPG setting; and co-edited James Hsu’s Humans of MagicA resident of Montreal, he wants you all to know he makes a mean mojito.

And so without any further delay, I give you the multitalented Jesse Scoble:

1-What’s it like putting together a narrative for a game like HyperScape that is by definition non-linear?

I see you want to start with a softball question. So. Coming to HyperScape (Ubisoft’s near-future, dystopian battle royale), we believed what would differentiate us from an already crowded field would be to have a strong story. Some games have virtually no story, or maybe they have a framing story (say a modern warzone) but have no real sense of character, while some have incredibly rich characters (Apex Legends, Overwatch) but relatively thin plot. We wanted to have all of that.

We needed to create a new world – and elected to set it about 30 years in the future, in 2054, which wasn’t necessarily realistic in terms of the virtual world – the eponymous HyperScape – and then come up with an overarching storyline that would drive the world forward. Much of that centered on the company that created the HyperScape, a global megacorporation called Primsa Dimensions, and the creators of the company, genius inventor Mathieu Eiffel and his savvy business partner, Dr. Ivy Tan. The machinations of Prisma Dimensions would be the engine that drove the story.

In terms of the “framing story” – and what I mean by that is essentially a narrative explanation for the battle royale concept – we chose to embrace the battle royale game concept directly, and define it as an extreme sport in the virtual world of the HyperScape. In the dystopia of 2054, it was the most popular way to gain fame and fortune. The characters would fight and kill to try to get ahead, but as it was just a virtual game, then there was no problem seeing someone “die” or for various characters to fight each other even though they were friends or on the same side outside the game.

Finally – and perhaps most importantly – we wanted the characters to have depth and flavor, and to have strong ties to the world of 2054. We wanted to have a large and ever-expanding roster that would let us create characters from all sorts of different backgrounds and walks-of-life, and we’d show how these characters evolved from season-to-season as the plot of the story moved forward.

Another core challenge was that, unlike a AAA console action/adventure game (say Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry or Spider-Man or Witcher or whatever), players would only get tiny snippets of the story. There wouldn’t be traditional quests and we’d have very few cinematics. We had to be smart in figuring out how to relay the story in a way that would be comprehensible to those who only lightly skimmed the surface but would have strong connections for those who wanted to dig deeper into the lore.

Our team also had a robust transmedia approach (can I still say “transmedia” in 2021? Whatever.): we had a deal with Dark Horse to create a HyperScape digital comic; we also worked with a great 3rd party company to create a couple of short animations, our “HyperScape Stories” that spotlighted characters like Ace and Basilisk; and of course we had our internal team building season trailers, in-game cinematics (such as the End of Season 1 event), and so forth. 

Finally, the narrative and art team worked closely to create a dozen collectible “memory shards” that would be revealed over the course of the season. Each one had a piece of micro-fiction and an awesome piece of custom art, like a comic splash page or wallpaper screen. These really told the crux of the season’s story, allowing us to get into characters’ heads, feel the flavor of the world, and also conveyed the big moving pieces of the plot.

This meant a LOT of planning: how much info could we write into a character’s bio in the store? What would be consistent and change between different skins? What bio info would change from season-to-season? When was a character/skin going to be released DURING a season? What order would the memory shards be released? Could we do environmental storytelling on the game map that would link to the fiction? Where would the trailers or short movies come out? How do we tell an engaging story in the comic that links to everything else, but also feels self-contained? 

And – as you well know – in video games everything is always at a risk of moving. Things get delayed. A feature won’t work. Marketing throws you a curveball. 

In the end, we made mistakes. Lots of mistakes. But we also succeeded to hit many of our goals, and learned a tremendous amount in the doing.

2-You have an extensive track record in tabletop RPGs. Ever thought about going back and doing more TTRPG work?

Yes, but no. It was extensive at one time, but I’ve been playing in the video game playground for three-quarters of my career now, so it feels like I haven’t done much in that space for ages. Hell, I worked on the first Game of Thrones RPG that was so long ago it was BEFORE season 1 of the HBO show.

TTRPGs are fun, but a helluva lot of work, in terms of research and organization and presentation. It’s hard enough putting together a halfway decent game for my local group, let alone something that’s publishable quality.

I’ve gone back to the well a few times in the past semi-recent years. I was a consultant on the short-lived Marvel Heroic RPG (from Margaret Weis Productions), with some luminaries in the industry, and that was a treat. I was invited to contribute to two different projects – one was a setting for Robin Laws’ DramaSystem called Narcocorrido; and then I revisited some of that material “through a neon lens” for Mark Richardson’s neocyberpunk RPG, Headspace (Carteles Unidos, in the Dystopian Dreams supplement), both of which were obviously inspired by my time living in Austin, TX. I’ve also contributed a few essays here and there, and co-edited a series of interviews with top-tier Magic players for a good friend.

These days, due to limited time and focus, I need to be really intrigued by a project to carve out the time for it. It either has to be a project where I have a lot of creative freedom and some degree of ownership, or something that is just so cool I can’t say no. That said, I have yet to actually do anything official for Dungeons & Dragons or Warhammer 40K, two IPs that I’d happily make the time to delve into (just throwing that out there in case the universe is listening).

Oh, and I have a brilliant idea for how to make an RPG out of HADES, the superb rogue-like from Supergiant games, in case anyone knows anyone over there.

3-What’s the most challenging aspect of game writing for you?

All of it? I realize that’s a useless answer. 

I think it’s trying to impart the “perfect picture” in my head to paper, and then have the rest of the team understand it. It’s so elegant and clear in my mind’s eye (well, hardly ever that, but it’s certainly better than whatever I end up scrawling on the page), and there’s so much of a gap that is created between the act of putting pen to paper, and then again between the person reading it and implementing the ideas. And this gap widens when dealing with challenges of language and distance.

At their worst, when gameplay and art and recording limitations are all dragging you down it can feel like the death of a thousand cuts. But the corollary is that when it all somehow hangs together – when the gameplay supports the narrative (and vice versa) and the art is glorious and the voice acting adds that je ne sais quoi nuance, it can create a magical experience for the player. And I live for that.

4-What’s your favorite part of the job when it comes to game writing?

Seeing these fifty(thousand) different moving parts that like-as-not won’t fit properly together or work well together or might not even work at all somehow come together miraculously and gel. It’s seeing those scribbles on the screen become real and extant, in a way that makes people engage and act. It’s creating both the big moments and the small moments, and when it works it makes people feel something. That’s the heart of it.

In particular, hearing/watching actors take the words on paper and breathe life into them is a kind of magic.

Perhaps most importantly, it’s getting to work with some incredibly smart, bright, funny, kind, talented and clever people.

5-You’re working on your first novel. How has that experience been different from game writing?

What do they say? “Writing is the easiest thing… you just stare at the blank page until your forehead bleeds.”

It’s… hard. I look back at random Facebook memories and realize how bloody long I’ve been on this road, and there’s no real end in sight (I keep thinking I see light ahead, but I’m pretty sure it’s just an oncoming train.)

First, because I can’t do anything simply, I decided for my first real attempt at a novel to co-write it with a close friend. And that’s been great. Also hard as sin. But having two heads to process ideas, encourage and cajole when the other side just doesn’t want to pick up a pen, bringing far more ideas and experiences than a single person – it’s like working with a teensy-tiny team. (Well, not “like.”) 

(And we have a third friend who has been the alpha reader for all of our ideas throughout this long and twisty process. Having a ‘built-in’ story-editor, of sorts, has been a godsend.)

But it’s hard. It was a big idea (for me, at least), and structurally complicated, and cutting edge – several and more years ago when we first thought about it. And the future doesn’t hold back. The realities of online culture, and such like, keep moving and evolving in ways I wouldn’t have considered. It’s not dated – yet – but if I don’t hurry up and finish it, it soon will be. 

It’s also very lonely, despite having two friends involved so closely. And it’s hard to know what the right paths are for the characters, at times, to get to where I want to get. 

It’s taught me a lot about organizing my work and ideas, outlining and structuring a story, and developing character voices. Not all of which I’ve mastered yet, despite professionally writing for too many years now. And, as mentioned, a whole lot of time has passed since we first conceived of this story. I like the characters too much to want to abandon them, but it’s hard to say how and when I’ll finish this story satisfactorily, even if just for a limited audience.

A huge thank you to Jesse for his thoughtful and engaging answers. Tune in next week when I’ll have another writer in the hot seat!

Five For Writing – Alex Bledsoe

Alex Bledsoe’s Tufa novels are some of the finest modern fantasy out there. If you haven’t read them, they’re a treat and you owe it to yourself to pick them up. He also was part of the collective that wrote for Transgressive Horror: Reflections on Scare Films that Broke the Rules, which is where our paths crossed. He was kind enough to sit down for five questions about the Tufa novels, vampires in Memphis, and why all horror movies are transgressive. Without further ado, I give you Five For Writing with Alex Bledsoe.

 

1-What’s the appeal of transgressive horror films for you?

All good horror films should be transgressive in some sense; it’s in their nature. The point of horror is to expose the viewer to images and ideas they would never encounter elsewhere, and to show the embodiment of those images and ideas as realistically as possible. The German cinemagoers lucky enough to see Nosferatu on its first release would have considered the vampire as a transgressive figure, a visual representation of something that broke so many social rules. 

Really, a non-transgressive horror film can’t be very horrifying, like the endless PG-13 teen “horror” films released since the turn of the century. I’ve always thought all horror films should be rated R, because even if it’s *not* overtly violent, that threat should hang over everything. A PG-13 rating is a comfort blanket, and even if some of them can be quite good, they’re never truly horrifying.

2-What impact does your home base in the Smokies have on your writing?

Technically I’m from the other end of the state, close to Memphis, but my dad’s family is from the Smokies, and I’ve visited there many times. I’ve used the South as the setting for both of my past horror novels, as well as my upcoming one; although I’ve lived other places (I’ve been in Wisconsin for the past 18 years), the south is the one I most deeply understand. I think that’s why I keep returning to it as a setting; I don’t feel qualified to write about anywhere else, unless it’s a total fantasy setting.

3-You’ve got a series of vampire novels set in Memphis. What inspired you to turn vampires loose there?

It’s a city I know, or rather used to know, pretty well; my novels are set in the mid-70s. Plus it’s not over-used in horror fiction like, say, New Orleans. Memphis has a unique history, and since the novels deal with racism as well as vampires, it seemed like an ideal place to set it. I chose the year 1975 because it was before the publication of Interview with the Vampire, and thus was still the era when vampires were scary.  

4-Your Eddie LaCrosse series is fantasy noir. Why mix those two genres?

I wanted a way into a fantasy story that allowed a greater identification with the characters than I was seeing in the fantasy I read: too many unpronounceable names, too much emphasis on world building, not enough emphasis on character. I thought that the works of writers like Chandler, Parker, and Vachss did a great job of also taking you into worlds (a.k.a., crime) you might never visit, but they did it with an immediacy I wanted to claim. Plus that tone made it more fun to write. 

5-The Tufa novels feel deeply personal. Where did they come from, and will we see more of them?

They grew out of stories I heard from my dad, about a strange group of people who lived in the Appalachian Mountains. The part that intrigued me was the idea that these people were already here when the first European settlers arrived. That was the starting point, but of course I made up my own group so I could give them a magical backstory.

I felt six books was enough to say what I wanted, and anything past that I’d be restating things. But who knows? If I get a new idea, and there’s a publisher interested in it, it could happen.

Many thanks to Alex for his time and for gently correcting my mistake about his home base – that’s what I get for reading an author bio too quickly. You can find him online at his website, and on Twitter.
Next week I ring in the new year with an interview with game writer Jesse Scoble! Until then, have a happy New Year!

Five For Writing – Maurice Broaddus

If you don’t know who Maurice Broaddus is, you haven’t been paying attention. An award-winning writer and Afrofuturist, he is as prolific as he is acclaimed. Equally adept at horror, fantasy and science fiction, he is the author of the upcoming Sweep of Stars. And now, it is my pleasure to give you Five For Writing with Maurice Broaddus:

1-How exactly does one pimp an airship?

I got one word for you: spinners.

It’s all about massive spinners.

2-What role do you see yourself playing in the Afrofuturism movement going forward?

I’m just happy to be a part of the conversation. Right now, I’m all about the intersection of the art being the vision casting and the community putting those visions into practice. And then that practice creating new art and vision.

3-You started in horror as “The Sinister Minister” and have gradually transitioned to science fiction. What led to the change, and are you ever going back to horror?

Therapy.

I realized that I was using horror to process my anger. Anger at all the evil in the world, the history of brutality against my people, all of the oppressive systems. Science fiction became me giving myself permission and room to dream about possibilities. So I was writing from a different mental and spiritual place (future hope).

That said, I have two horror stories coming out this soon, one in Weird Tales Magazine and the other in Classic Monsters Unleashed. Turns out, there’s still room for me to be angry about stuff.

4-Religion is a strong theme in your life. How do you see it affecting your fiction?

Basically, I believe we’re in a Story, written by an Author, who is wooing us to connect with Him.  It’s a tale of people, who were created (in God’s image), meant for great things (to join in with that Author in a mission to redeem the world), who sometimes encounter things which interfere with their journey:  sometimes themselves, sometimes others, and sometimes An Other.

Faith is never easy and I tend to have more questions than answers.  I think that’s the most critical part of anyone’s spiritual journey, walking that line of tension between holding on during times of doubt and questioning.  I think one of the best ways to explore that tension is in story. (The Bible does it too:  the Book of Job was probably the first book written and it’s all about faith, doubt, and frustrated questions.  And the first postapocalyptic story I encountered.)

I like to think that I write from a place of faith in practice. I was volunteering at a homeless teen ministry called Outreach Inc. That became the inspiration for my first novel trilogy, The Knights of Breton Court, a retelling of the King Arthur mythos through the eyes of homeless teens in Indianapolis. I guess you could say that in some ways, I’m working out my own spiritual journey in front of my readers. And sharing my nightmares.

5-You do a lot of community outreach. How is your writing bound up in that?

For a long time I struggled with the notion that “I’m only a writer, what can I do?” and, if I’m completely honest, used it as an excuse to do nothing. Art lifts community. Story creates identity. If we don’t control our own narratives, others certainly will. Our communities are more self-sufficient, more capable, than the dominant narrative wants to portray. Through art, through writing, we can catalog the positive things happening in our neighborhoods, we can make the invisible visible, and be the change we want to see. Through art, we resist.

These days, I am the Kheprw Institute’s resident Afrofuturist. Basically, think of it as strategic foresight planning through an Afrofuturist lens; visioning rooted in black history and culture to create a vivid picture of what the world could look like. Afrofuturism is the marriage of my faith, my social practice, and my writing. To me it looks like dreaming alongside community, highlighting my neighbors and their work (through a magical lens, for example, Ache of Home. The dreaming impacts the work, the work impacts the writing, the writing impacts the dreaming, and so it goes. I can’t wait to see what folks think of my next novel, Sweep of Stars, because these days, I’m dreaming of the stars.

Huge thanks to Maurice for taking the time to answer the questions! You can find him online at his website.

Wishing a very happy holiday season to all and sundry, whatever you celebrate. I’ll be back next week with another interview, and things will keep rolling into the new year!