Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category


“I write like…”

February 8, 2011

Thanks to the wonders of procrastination and social networks, I came across this site. You paste in text of something you have written, and via the wonders of statistical analysis it purports to be able to tell you which famous writer you resemble.

So, of course, I had to give it a try.

First thing: Chapter One of the children’s novel. Which currently defies any attempts at giving it a title.

Result: JRR Tolkien.

This one wasn’t a surprise. In hindsight, the work so far on that novel reads very much like someone trying to write like an amalgan of Tolkien, Gaiman, and Pratchett. Which, in all honesty, it was. I’m pretty proud of some of the parts of that work, but many parts don’t sound like me, but rather like authors I like.

But then… I put in the story from this post. And got JK Rowling.

The story from this post got me David Foster Wallace. The only work of his I’ve read is this. Which I read earlier today, by sheer coincidence.

Other writings produced Cory Doctorow, Ursula K. LeGuin and Oscar Wilde.

This leads me back to the first point – that I didn’t have a “writers voice” of my own yet. The fact that I’m getting such varied results probably suggests that this is true. Or that the technology on the site is rubbish, but I’m trying to draw a positive here.  It’s hard to get from under the influence of writers you’ve loved for years – of course you want to sound as good as they do. I think I’m getting closer to writing like me, rather than like writers I admire.

And having said that, I plugged the last two stories I wrote into the site. And, oddly enough, got the only match so far.

Both “A Town Called  Never” and “The Magician’s Goldfish” – written for my niece, with the intention of them being read to her and by her when she’s quite young –  came back with:

I write like
J. D. Salinger

I Write Like by Mémoires, journal software. Analyze your writing!



When the Story’s Not Just Yours: RPG’s as a Storytelling Medium

November 24, 2010

“Roleplaying Games” might have been of those unfortunate bits of nomenclature that has directed people’s attention to certain features of a thing rather than others and shaped the perception and development of them ever since. It’s  the “Game” bit that skews how you see it. Because of their classification as a game, people often end up focusing on questions of statistics, dice, and rules systems as the primary attributes of RPGs. Even the most story focused groups can get bogged down in the minutia of rules systems.

I enjoy playing around with the maths of the games rules quite a bit myself, but it has a downside. Rules jargon distracts from narrative language and limits players’ thinking in relation to what their characters can or should do in a given situation.

As time goes by, I’ve come to think that an RPG is less a game, and more a medium through which group of people can tell a story.

Taken as a narrative medium rather than a game, an RPG has several features that make it appealing. The basic structure of an RPG session is this: Players narrate the actions of their characters, using a combination of third person speaking and “in character” dialogue. The protagonists are controlled by the Players (usually 4-6) while everybody else’s actions are dictated by the Game Master (or Storyteller, or Director, or Dungeon Master- the appellations vary but the role remains the same. GM is the “generic” one, so I’m sticking with that despite the “Game” part). The GM also has the task of writing the outline of the plot, setting the scenes and managing the action.

In many ways, the RPG medium (RPGM) resembles Improvised Drama. (RPGs also quite closely resemble oral storytelling – a small group gathered about a table (you could do it around a fire, but landlords frown on that sort of thing in the living room.), listening as a story is woven – except that once again, everyone is participating in the storytelling.) The GM presents a setting, a supporting cast, villains, and a situation, and the Players (as their characters) act against that backdrop. The target audience for the GMs story elements are the players. And just to make things more interesting, the target audience are in direct control of the actions of the protagonists. This creates a unique tension between the GM as a storyteller and the players are the characters driving said story. For an RPGM story to work, all these elements must be in synch.

And therein lies the challenge for everyone involved in telling the story. There are somewhere between 4 and 8 egos involved, and everyone wants their piece of the storytelling pie. And one of those egos is given more power than the others – The GM crafts the wider plot, plays several characters, and is responsible for managing the storytelling as a whole. And great power… well, you either get corruption or responsibility, and usually a little of both. This is one of the subtle effects that the “game” part ends up having on the storytelling aspect – The GM is usually the final arbiter of the rules of the game, which gives him even greater power, and creates a culture in which a GM’s “no” must mean “no” for the game to continue to run smoothly from a rules standpoint. This culture of “the GM’s word is law” leads us to the first place where RPG’s fail to make use of the medium to tell the best possible stories.

Anyone who’s played in a number of RPGs has seen or heard of it – when the GM sits in tells his story to the players, who participate in its creation only nominally. The GM stacks the situation very heavily in favour of driving the players down a particular path, and often uses Deus Ex Machina-esque events to prevent the players from deviating from that. In its worst incarnation, the GM-dictatorship story happens with the player characters as mere spectators to the GMs characters, who he has cast as the story’s protagonists. Oral storytelling could do with getting more respect than it does, but that’s not what you come to an RPG table to do.

The wider gaming culture supports the idea that each game “belongs” to the GM running it, and this is a poor assumption that hamstrings the unique attributes of the medium. However, there’s a good reason that you put the overarching story in the hands of one person – it allows the players to experience the twists and turns that make for good drama. Since the players present are the only target audience, it would be a terrible shame to deny them that.

And so the tension between storyteller and protagonists remains. To tell a story successfully, this is a tension that has to be carefully managed, but that can also be harnessed – The GM is part of the audience too, so he gets his drama from the unscripted actions of the Player Characters.

Ultimately, the draw of RPGs as storytelling is this co-operative element. It adds something no other medium can quite equal. Of course, many other artistic endeavours involve co-operation. Scriptwriters co-operate with actors to fine tune a characters dialogue, writers co-operate on a single story, but RPGs take this to a higher level, and further, the improvised nature lends the whole process a unique fluidity. One of the draws that theatre has for me (as a member of the audience) is that you “had to be there.” Each performance, and certainly each production, is unique, and you will never again get the chance to see its’ like. Even if they recorded the plays and released them on DVD six months later, it wouldn’t capture it. The presence of the rest of the audience and being in the actual physical space of the theatre are vital parts of the art. The same goes for RPGs – the specific circumstances in which the story is produced are as much a part of it as the words spoken. RPG’s are the ultimate in “you had to be there.” It’s why it’s difficult to articulate to those who haven’t been in an RPG why we enjoy them so much. It’s why when old groups get together they inevitably end up enjoying recounting the stories with others who experienced it. Simply retelling the story seems weak and limp beside our experience of the story as it was created.

On reflection, there is one reason more than any other that I’ve chosen to (re)open the blog with this post. I love to tell stories, but other concerns tend to get in the way of me telling them to completion. I have plenty of stories started in a folder on my laptop, and scribbled in notepads, but I’m not great at getting them done. RPGs are the medium through which I manage to complete stories. The social aspect of the hobby has a lot to do with that –  a little bit of social pressure to show up to the weekly game or finish a convention game goes a long way to getting shit done. But there’s more to it than simply social pressure. Collaborating with others is a joy. Your own ideas multiply on contact with those of others, and together you produce something that couldn’t have happened with only one mind. I finish writing games because I know that at the end of it, the idea we’ve released into the wild will have taken on a form I could not possibly have predicted or achieved alone.


Difficult Language

June 2, 2009

Inspired by this post:

I’m currently in the process of trying to write a childrens’ novel. A small group of people trusted to be brutal, honest, and absolutely glowing in their unmitigated praise have been allowed to read the draft so far. One comment has emerged more than once that has set me to thinking – “Isn’t some of the language a bit complicated for a young audience?”

This question goes hand in hand with another often asked question – “What age group are you writing for?” It’s a question I can’t really answer. Apart from the fact that I know it’s aimed at children, I have no idea. I’m just trying to tell a children’s story as best I can, without worrying too specifically about age group – I feel that would impose unnatural restraints on my language.

One of the reasons for this is the fact that “age group” is a pretty poor way to judge an individual child’s reading ability. I read above, below, and horizontally left in relation to my chronological age. At least, I did so in terms of attempts to age band the books I read. It’s an experience shared by most people I know who would classify themselves as “readers.” While my training in statistics makes me wary of drawing from a sample as small and biased as “people I know,” it seems like an intuitively correct assertion that most people who read a lot as children are not often constrained by age banding, except for the giant steel band dividing “childrens’” and “adults” stories. (Not “adult” stories. No snickering at the back) And many children make their way over that barrier as young teenagers, depending on parental attitudes and propensity to censor. This, I think, makes it veyr difficult to judge what “age group” a childrens story is for.

Now, you might argue that children who are prolific readers are a deviation from the norm – certainly, a majority of primary school aged children (5-12) that I have encountered in classrooms do not read for pleasure as a matter of habit. They read few books, if any. But given that we’re talking about writing to a target audience (Surely the aim of age banding is to help books find their target audience. Unless you take the view that it is more motivated by issues of censorship) then my target audience is the minority of “readers” – The very people who seem to flagrantly ignore age banding and just read what they like.

So I should just try and write a story that any reader would like to read. But what if my language is indeed too difficult in parts, and I drive away those who would like the story but will struggle with some of the language? That is not an argument I accept – If storytelling is a form of play, a way to exercise the mind and improve cognitive skills as many psychologists believe, then it ought to be challenging. There should be words you don’t know. Finding out the meanings of new words should be a source of pleasure, part of the mental exercise – You wouldn’t enjoy playing sports if it was always easy, so why should childrens’ literature be any different?  Reading is supposed to expand the vocabulary, and it can only do that if some amount of the language is outside the readers’ current comfort zone.

Further to that argument, I find a great deal of childrens’ stories (in any medium) tend to underestimate their audience. It’s why avid readers tend to abandon their “age band” in looking for good stories to consume. I believe the majority of children who enjoy reading can handle fancier language than we give them credit for. We should write for them in words that are as beautiful as we can manage. Children deserve gorgeous language, not coddling simplicity. I would like to think that any story I write, for children or adults, lets them appreciate the beauty, quirkiness, and general wonder of the written word. I don’t know yet if my ability are up to it, but I’m sure their ability to appreciate it if I pull it off is there in spades.


… Is a four letter word.

May 27, 2009

So I went looking for a challenge on Monday morning. Then Monday day happened, and then Tuesday day, and suddenly I’m two days behind the blogging schedule I set myself only a week ago. Not an inspiring start. There’s plenty of perfectly valid sounding excuses I could make, but really I’m sure many people manage with more distractions than I had. Catching up and keeping up is now a priority for the rest of the week.

Anyway, back to the challenge. The first suggestion I spotted was from Angpang on Twitter –

“no four letter words (not just rude, but literally not any with four letters).”

This seemed intruiging, so I decided to go for it.

It was very, very hard. Diabolically so. The piece I produced is barely a few hundred words, and each sentence was a struggle. I made a list of all of the four letter words that popped into my head as “right” for the sentence but I had to work without. Here’s the list:

More, must, name, even, love, hurt, pain, from, scab, sure, tell, barb, name, pain, like, time, when, hour, will.

The worst offenders – will and like. Will because it made the future very difficult to speak about. Like because I love similes. On that level, it did make me aware of how often I turn to simile as a descriptive tool. Crutch, or indicator of personal style? Not sure right now, but I’ll look harder at my own simile use in future because of it. That was also problematic, as was then.

When looking for a theme for the piece, I thought about the nature of the challenge. It was about not being able to say certain things, so I got the idea of something unspeakable as the psychological driving force for the short monologue. Maybe you can guess what it is (I decided not to say it, even in a non four letter word form). I also looked at the numerological significance of four. I found that 4 represents body (3 represents soul, 4+3= 7 which forms the sacred hebdomad). And that the fourth sephiroth in Qabbalah is Chesod – Love, Mercy and Forgiveness. So I decided to have the protagonist neglect the thing that 4 represents like I was eschewing four letter words. Maybe a bit of a stretch, but it was fun to look for a story to emerge out of a challenge that had no seed of a tale in it inherently.

And to the point – The short short story

I cannot say it. To say it would be to grant it power, and it’s already taken it’s due and extra besides.

The wound happened because something was ripped out. It was beneath the flesh, something hooked in it, or an organ, it was difficult to be certain. The damage it has inflicted is not easily healed. All wounds are not healed passively, by waiting and hoping. You protect the wound, to let it stitch itself together again. So I never speak it again.

Silence is not enough to abjure against further wounding. It requires further magic. Symbols carved on the flesh. Crude symbols, no-one else would see the power of them. In the release, in the bloodletting. Get the bad blood out to let the healing process begin.

I cannot speak it, but my brain continues to bellow it. So I imbibe the potions and the powders, and enjoy the silence. Or, at least, the drowning out by louder voices of the one inside. Nutrition and sleep weren’t neccesary parts of the process. Especially sleep, because in sleep you can see the thing you cannot say, and desire to see it on waking. Cannot allow it to be spoken, thought, or dreamt.

Getting better requires a bottom. An ultimate despair. I’m not there yet. So I can keep digging and cutting and imbibing, knowing it is not neccesary to begin healing yet. The wound is not clean, because it continues to be spoken by others, dreamt, or bellowed by internal monologue. Every utterance of it is a fly feeding on the blood and pus. Until I exterminate every one, I cannot let the wound be stitched together. Malignance would remain. SoI abjure, through potion, powder, symbols in the flesh.

One day the wound has to become clean,and be closed. But for now, I cannot speak it.




Weirding Language

May 12, 2009

I like to play with words and sentence structure. I like verbing. I like making up words, and I like reading words that didn’t exist before the author wrote them. Vermincious Knids still scare me, and it’s all because of the way it rolls off the tongue. And then stretches itself into letters which spell threatening messages and try to use glass elevators to circumvent their problem with re-entry.

When you make up words, you’ll be met with OED-bashers who’ll tell you that “That’s not a real word” (or “That’s not grammatically correct,” or “that’s mispelled,” depending on the particular weirding of language that’s afoot. Two answers tend to occur to me at such times.

“Great authors break the rules all the time”


“Language is generative”

The first is only really half relevant. Just because someone else did it doesn’t mean you can get away with it. It’d be pretty arrogant for me to equate myself with any great authors at this particular juncture. That said, breaking various rules of writing is something I started doing as soon as I’d internalised those same rules. While a lot of authors don’t make up words, a great number break grammatical rules, like starting sentences with conjunctions. (And while I’m on the topic, I’m really curious as to who decided that adverbs were weak… what makes a whole class of words inherently weaker than the rest?)

But it’s the second answer that I tend to go with. Language is generative. As a psychologist, language is one of my major research interests. Language is a behaviour unique to humans. While all animals have some form of communication, language is uniquely flexible in the way that it can be used to construct novel locutions, metaphors, analogy, and hypotheticals. The reason that humans have acheived dominance on this planet isn’t the opposable thumb. If it were, then we’d have far more competition from simians. It’s our ability to share knowledge, stories, and thoughts, and even more than that, our ability to construct new knowledge, stories, and thoughts and communicate those.

Language is in a constant state of flux. English is the best language to write in because it stole all the best bits for other languages. (Aside: I heard about a book which lists great words which we don’t have in English, does anyone know what its called? I would very much like to steal some) Doing new things with words is a natural part of languages natural progression.

In 1984, George Orwell introduced the concept of Newspeak. For the few who haven’t read it, Newspeak is a version of English which seeks to cull all the unneccesary words and reduce the lexicon to the bare minimum neccesary for interpersonal communication and party propaganda. The agenda here was to reduce the vocabulary of the proletariat to reduce their capacity for thought. I believe the converse to be true – increasing the range of words available to you can only increase your capacity for thought. (Though I do love the word “doubleplusungood”) It gives you tools with a finer edge, better able to describe the subtleties of experience. Checking the growth of the language by preventing the generation of new words in the name of linguistic purity isn’t quite introducing Newspeak, but not moving forward is only slightly better than moving backwards.

From Newspeak to txtspk. Txtspk, with its relative lack of vowels and love of using numbers in the place of letters, is much reviled. It has been heralded as the death of the English language (and I’m sure non English speakers have come up with their own version.) Despite my adoration for neologisms, I think the language of text messages falls into the realm of accidentally embracing newspeak. There’s modifying language in the pursuit of an aesthetically pleasing sentence and then there’s mangling it because you’re too lazy to type a full word. Twitter has a harsh character limit, and all the people I follow manage to avoid resorting to vowel removal the majority of the time. That said, I’m always open to the idea that the bizzare ideosychrosies of any communication medium can produce words that work. There may be diamonds in the rough. The best bits of language can come from adverse conditions and arbitrary restrictions.

Embrace the weirding of language. Put your favourite verbings, neologisms, and strange archaic words that have fallen out of use in the comments, or tweet them to me at