Guest Post by Will Hindmarch: Inspiration

Will Hindmarch is a freelance writer, game designer, and narrative designer. He co-founded Gameplaywright Press, assistant directs the Shared Worlds writing camp, and is a producer of Story Club South Side in Chicago.

Here’s the task they before me: Run a casual D&D game over one lunch break per week. A mere 60-70 minutes of play per week with a cast of more than ten player characters rotating in and out? Teach the new edition of the game and a world to explore in that limited time? Make an experience that’s coherent and compelling even for players who might take a few weeks off between sessions?

Sounds like a fun challenge!

The game is set in a fantastical city that was under quarantine for a strange disease. But sometime during its period of isolation … everyone inside the city disappeared. As a result, there are just two humans left in the world: a barbarian and a paladin, both of them PCs.

What makes this one difficult—and I’m a little surprised by this—isn’t crafting a compelling a world for casual and intermittent players; I’ve done that lots. It isn’t managing the dramaturgy for ten PCs; I’ve done that before. It isn’t even conveying the world through brief bits of text to minimize the game’s footprint on the lives of the players; that’s an inspiring challenge. No, it turns out the trick is juggling my own inspirations.

This is something I struggle with sometimes. I pretty carefully control what sort of inputs I take in—what shows I watch and when, what books I read and when, what games I play and when—not only to manage my time, but to influence what influences me. When I was writing my story about the white deer, for PleasureTown, for example, I put together an atmospheric playlist and read some Walt Whitman to get me in the right sort of place. (I also mined a bunch of details from my own childhood.)

When I’m writing about the faux-Elizabethan political intrigue in the City on the Saturnine for my stealth-adventure RPG, called Dark, I try to take in a diverse array of material but I also worry about sparking ideas that I won’t be able to work on for months. If I can’t put space-alien horrors into my fantastical Renaissance, I try not to consume much about space aliens.

Or I tried.

Too many great stories, too many glittering inspirations, move in my peripheral vision, all the time! How can I watch True Detective or Automata when they’ll make me want to work on projects that aren’t scheduled until later in the year? I don’t want good ideas being misspent on the wrong projects!

That right there is where I am a moron. As if creating something good diminishes some other thing that is good. What is that?

For me, at least, the truth is that inspiration and action are all about the collision of ideas in unexpected intersections. Withholding a good idea—”saving” it—is so often folly. Ideas aren’t worth much. Work has value. The writing has value. The application and implementation of an idea—that’s what’s valuable.

If I apply some influential idea to a project and it doesn’t stick, I’ve still got the idea.

If I apply an influential idea to a project and it doesn’t do everything I wanted, but it does something, that’s a kind of progress on the project, and I’ve still got the idea.

If I apply an influential idea to a project and it changes the project, that’s either an enrichment or an option to keep or reject—which is my job as the writer. And I’ve still got the idea.

Ideas aren’t currency. They aren’t electricity. They’re knowledge. They’re like lessons. We don’t spend a lesson to act on it. That’s why lessons are precious.

Ideas get conjured at the crossroads of information, where two notions collide and inspire, throwing light and shadows on the nearby buildings, and in the aftermath … there’s no wreckage. The notions survive and their fusion creates a new idea. That’s the whole point! This is a creative process … not a destructive one.

I’ve always kept notebooks. Lots of notebooks. Each major project gets its own book and certain themes of potential projects—games, novels, scripts—get notebooks, too. That’s where ideas live.

To my surprise, what sparked my realization and reminded me how to manage the influences on my own imagination, was taking an hour off to play some Destiny. The grand, enthusiastic melange of epic fantasy and sci-fi in the Destiny universe  reminded me that my job isn’t to recreate any one genre by following customs and redecorating a well-trod space, but to make the thing I’m making as good as it can be.

Destiny’s little doses of lore—either in the Grimoire or in the text of bounties and quests and items—combine to convey a robust and wonderfully strange world. We’re still early in the life of Destiny’s story, I’m sure, yet those bite-sized doses of fictional data fascinate me. (Destiny depicts a world that I am this close to writing fanfic for—something about the way dust drifts through the city beneath the Traveler, the glint of metal on the lunar surface, the hints of everyday heroism—so write me, Bungie, if you want great fiction set in the Destiny galaxy.)

In my case, my goal is to make each 60-minute D&D session an exciting episode of play. That comes first.  And that means the players and their characters are the priority. I knew all that … but I’d also sort of forgotten it, you know? My desire to impress these players got in the way of how much I love to inspire them.

Guest Post by Ryan Wheaton: Dear Samantha

Ryan Wheaton is a writer. He wrote the following bit of flash fiction, for example. He likes Twitter and sirwheaton.com.

Samantha, you were in the garden again today. I watched you from the window. It rains most days, today wasn’t an exception, but it was only a light drizzle and you had that ridiculous sun hat on. Who knew sun hats could do more than offer shade.

I try not to dwell on it. I try not to think about it anymore. But you still smile at me, smears of dirt on your cheeks. And that smile, it only reminds me how much I miss you. How desperately I wish you were here—or even gone entirely. That smile isn’t yours. This one, though. The picture on the sill. If only I had let you stay there, as you were. Frozen in that moment, content in your garden, happy as daisies.

I’d only been on the Ethics Board for a year. At the time, the world’s leading surgeons and scientists gathered to attempt an impossible feat. Technology had far surpassed practiced implications. Abhorrent, vulgar violence trampled our court systems behind the guise of mental disease. Once potent minds toppled like redwoods. They’d lie to rot while doctors poured water and sunlight through IVs hoping to bring them upright again. Glorified gardeners shameless pruning over-ripened vegetables.

The Board partnered with a dozen private developers in search of a fix. Within the sterilized bunkers of bioengineering corporations, pharmaceutical firms, immunological task force factories, dwelt answers. We plucked the worst cases from their beds and brought them in. Poking, prodding, drilling; we treated them like what they were: animals that didn’t have the faculties to resist or even squeal.

We’d lived together so happily in some nowhere town where street lights turned on one by one as the sun set. Kids hid and hollered, skinned their knees, fell from trees, and smiled. You taught elementary school, just 12 kids at a time. Almost all of them lived on our street. Our life was picket-fenced. So secure, so perfect. But, when the Board took me up, without a sideways glance, you left it all.

I was never much for remembering the days. It must’ve been a couple years after the move. I’d been coming home later and later, and one night the house was dark, your car was gone.

You’d been in an accident. The hospital took you through surgery, hours and hours of cutting and clamping and sewing. You were so broken. Pale as the starched sheets. Quiet. So, so quiet and still.

I spent hours, days tearing through files, cases, notes, documents. Each moment struck like a hammer, minutes driven into my memory likes nails. There’d been someone. A vendor? Scientist? Some greasy-haired executive. It was months ago, a passing meet up at a conference or a hotel bar. I’d been alone when he gave me his card. I remember his hand was so cold, stiff like leather. He rambled about some biosensor, transducer, or isolated analyte. His number, his card, it was somewhere here. And I found it.

In a fevered sweat, I called.

It hadn’t rung once before a voice answered. “Hello. Is this—” he paused. “Ah, yes, mister, excuse me, Doctor Howard, wasn’t it?”

“Ye—yes,” I fumbled, my tongue thick. “Yes, it is. We met some time ago. We spoke of—”

“Of course, of course! Dr. Howard, please. You talk as if we’d met in passing. My, you were almost an entire ream to the wind. Hell of a day you’d had. Pulled … how many plugs was it? God himself would have knelt to Jameson without a second thought.”

He paused.

“Who—I’m sorry, I—,” I labored for words, some kind of response.

“My apologies, though, a bit brash considering the circumstances. You’ve changed your mind then? I doubt any of your colleagues would agree, but empathize, certainly yes. They’re not monsters,” he laughed. A wet, hoarse bellow. “Again, so, so sorry. But, yes, the implant, hmm,” his inflection inviting.

“Y—yes. What … does it, can it do. Once more, I only vaguely recall,” I lied. It was was like a sleeper recalling the shade of black inside his eyelids.

“A biosensor, Dr. Howard. Well, of sorts. It’s a capacitor, biosensor, and microprocessor all in one. If I might boast a moment, it’s truly delightful,” he squeaked. “My associates and I have isolated the, I guess you might call it, flavor of electrical analyte that … oh my! Dr. Howard, you sly hound. You’ve let my tongue wriggle all about, my cheeks are absolutely aflame. Shame on you,” he giggled impishly. “Trade secrets come floundering like salmon over the falls. You’re some kind of wizard, doctor.”

“I’m, of course, yes. I was just unsure of … well, there’s been an accident. My wife—” I’d spent years working atop the summit of medical brilliance. Some of the world’s greatest minds that had saved countless lives, bore the weight of impossible decisions with resounding strength and conviction. But, not once, had we glimpsed a solution. We’d set out to research and develop our understanding of utilized technologies so we might advance outdated principles of ethics and conduct. After which we could further the development of solutions. But we’d failed. Failed so perfectly that none of us had ever noticed when it’d happened or what we’d become. We sat like supreme judges in a high tower.

“Dr. Howard? Hello? Blast this cordless phone. It’s more magic than function. Hello? Hello, Dr. Howard can you hear me,” he hollered.

“Yes! So sorry. My wife has been in an accident and is—”

“I’m fully aware of the situation Dr. Howard. We only need your approval to move forward,” he said.

“Approval? I don’t understand.”

“Well, we can’t very well proceed with such things in the light of day, in a manner of speaking. With your approval, your wife will awaken tomorrow, credit given to whomever poked and prodded at her. You know, the ones that spoke of waiting and praying, perhaps even hoping. All that nonsense,” he muttered.

“Yes. Please. Whatever has to be done. I’ll pay whatever amount, whatever I have is yours.”

“Doctor Howard! I am astonished. Money? Such trivialities! We do this for science! For humanity! We only request that you never speak of our little conversation here to anyone ever,” he said.

“I understand.”

“Oh, and before we part here, just a few minor dots and crosses. Your wife has been brain dead for some time. The device will work, of this I can assure you. But it will take some time for your wife to regain, well, herself,” he said. “Now, please declare clearly, ‘I approve of the aforementioned discussed herewithin.”

“I approve of the aforementioned discussed herewithin,” I declared.

You awoke the next morning. Confused and unable to speak. You’d retained motor function, which was even more of a miracle. The doctors kept you for a more days to run scans and tests, but you woke so suddenly, the life took some time to come back.

The day I wheeled you out of the hospital, the day you wobbled like a newborn deer up the driveway and into our home, I was beyond thankful, happy, elated. It wasn’t until weeks later that I began to see the changes. The differences.

I cry for you every night and miss you every day. I’m sick with regret for not spending every moment with you. Angry that I chose my job, chose to uproot us from a life we could’ve had. But, as I watch her out in your garden, trimming your roses, pulling your weeds, smiling at me with your mouth, I’m disgusted. I hate myself for trying to bring you back to me. And I’m sure of it now, that God exists. Because I see the Devil reflected in her eyes every night.

Guest Post by Stephen Toulouse: Sometimes the Words Hide

This is a guest post by Stephen “Stepto” Toulouse. Stepto has worked for HBO, is the former banhammer at Xbox, and knows a thing or two about online communities and computer safety. He is an author, comedian, and leader of The Steptos.

He made a comedy album you can get on Bandcamp (cheapest option), iTunes or Amazon and wrote a book called A Microsoft Life. He blogs at Stepto.com.

Sometimes the words hide.

At first, I didn’t know what I was looking at. In my lower field of vision was dark blue, in the upper third a soft taupe. In the middle, in my near field, a round spot of black surrounded by tan, with a beautiful ring of light brown inside of it. Something pink, and I could hear breathing? Wait. I had just been in a shuttle hadn’t I? Atmo was out along with gravity and I was struggling to orient myself in freefall to get to a control panel. Was that the breathing?What was I looking at?

Those wisps of sleep-thought dissipated instantly, wiped into my brain’s incinerator with one swipe of a dog’s tongue across my face. My dog, Basil Hayden. It was morning, he was at the side of the bed expectantly looking at me. Important dog things needed doing with my supervision, and I dared be slow to wake, and ponderous.

The dream clung at me somewhat, staying with me even as with each waking moment it became more ephemeral and shifty. I was in trouble? Was it in space or an airplane? I could remember feelings even as the details left. I went through my morning routine twisting over it.

There were words there, I kept thinking, there was a story there. Just the thing I needed to break through some fog I had been having around tying up a variety of writing.

We all get writer’s block in some form. Sometimes nothing comes. Sometimes writer’s block can take the form of lots of things get put on paper but none good or satisfying.

Sometimes the words hide.

Every writer has their way of dealing with it. You can play their game and go looking for those words. You can sit on the couch, watch a film and refuse to give into their demands to be found so that they  come crawling back to you. You can bribe them, be stern with them, even attempt a “no strings attached” hang out with them. But they will, in the end, do as they please.

Our terror is that they are gone forever. Like an insomniac who fears they will never sleep again we push that fear back, knowing that adrenaline will only make the problem worse.

My words had been hiding lately, that morning when I got up. I’m more of a “I refuse to play your game” type of writer and am content to wait in panicked patience for them to shuffle back. When they came back I dutifully stopped what I was doing and gathered them around me.

“Don’t hide again!” I said. “I need you!”

“We won’t.” they replied, “until next time.”

Guest Post by Will Hindmarch: Written Word, Spoken Word

Writer, designer, and producer Will Hindmarch (@wordwill) wrote about games and storytelling for Jeff VanderMeer‘s marvelous writing guide,  Wonderbook.

Almost twenty years ago, while I was in high school, I hosted a community radio show called The Difference Engine. I played a strange mix of genres and spoken-word tracks that amused me. Weezer’s original blue album was new, back then, and I played it alongside current mega-hits by NIN,  local Chicago bands like The Drovers, jazz classics from Louis Armstrong, and the occasional monologue excerpt by Henry Rollins or whoever, hand-bleeped in real time by me to keep us from getting nasty mail.

As a community-radio DJ and a community-theater actor/director/techie, I’d had some light vocal training, which served me well while I was alone in the booth with the mic, producing my own show. All the joys of having a soapbox and a mixtape, an audience and a mic, with none of the eyeballs or lenses staring back. Good stuff.

This past month, when I set out to produce and record the audiobook for my new poetry collection—Pregrets—all those memories, all that training fell away like a floor. I was here and they were over there, across a chasm of time, rusty from the sweat I’d left on them and the care I hadn’t taken to maintain them. As I sat, trying to edit the audio I’d recorded at home of me reading my own poems, I discovered something: I’d forgotten how to pace, how to pause, how to breathe—but not how to spot all those errors and recognize the genuine lousiness of my recordings.

Yikes.

Inside the sound of my own voice, reading my own words, is a terrible dread that rots the pillars of the pier and drops me in the saltwater.

All of it’s exacerbated by the dreaded art of comparison—of weighing my work against others. While recording my poems, I studied readings by Billy Collins, by Mary Robinette Kowal, by Henry Rollins, and discouraged myself right the hell out.

Reading my own work felt like it was sucking the life—the many different possible readings—right out of some poems. Pregrets is all about how the line breaks mislead, revise, question, and doubt. My readings felt like they put the kibosh on all that, saying “This is how this poem’s supposed to be read.” Which is, pardon me, bullshit in this case.

In contrast, I think back to the lovely, atmospheric podcast series called PleasureTown (on SoundCloud, too), and the first time I heard the story I wrote for the ninth episode of its first season.

Inside the sound of strangers’ voices, reading my own words, resides a peculiar magic. They imbued those words with so much, enriched them, opening them up for lots of wonderful characterization — and interpretation. Voices and words, like winds and kites. Words can lift up and be lifted, all at once … if you handle them right.

So I’m going to get past it, work through it, finish that audiobook (for the sake of the two people who want it made), not so much in spite of it being difficult … but because it’s difficult. I want to be good at this, better than I was back when, and see what I can make next with what I learn.

Onward.

(PleasureTown is a transmedia collection of short tales and linked characters set in a sordid town of hedonist-philosophers in the early 20th century. Season 2 of the podcast launches May 6th with 12 new episodes produced by my friends, Keith Ecker and Erin Kahoa. Even now, new minisodes are rolling out, written by fans and podcasters from Reading Out Loud.)

Guest Post by Will Hindmarch: Guess the Guest Posters Who Guest-Post by Being Guests and Posting

This guest post comes to us from writer and designer Will Hindmarch, co-founder of Gameplaywright Press and author of RPGs, fictions, and other things.

At about three o’clock this morning, I was walking home from an event highlighting D&D and beers, where I DM’d a table of nine players through a short session of D&D new 5th edition. In orbs of light, clinging to street lamps and glowing in the gloom, I saw snow falling on an angle in the wind. Most of the neighborhood was under an inch or so of snow and it flicked off the toes of my boots as I walked, but I passed a monk shoveling paths on a local sidewalk. By the time I woke up later this morning, tree branches balanced three or four inches of snow on their tops.

So I’m pretty far removed from any Caribbean cruise, right now.

But! I’m in good company, because although we don’t have a literal boatload of nerderati here, we have a global information network in reach, which I hear the JoCo Cruise somehow lacks. So I can google pics of boats, play JoCo’s music on my computer, and—best of all—sneak onto WWdN to keep us all distracted (I won’t go so far as to say entertained) until the One True Wil Wheaton returns.

Good news for you: it’s not just me! Three other weird cohorts are around this week to share guest posts with us and, title of this post be damned, you don’t have to guess who they are…

  • Stephen “Stepto” Toulouse writes fiction and non-fiction, excels at games, and is funnier than I am by a factor of ten.  He has a URL named after him.
  • Shane Nickerson is a producer, writer, and actor who is funnier than I am by an order of magnitude. We have the same birthday, Shane and I, but he’s better at it than I am. This URL was named in his honor.
  • Ryan Wheaton is a writer we all know for some of the best, funniest tweets to appear via @wilw, which makes him an approximate fuck-ton funnier than myself.

Some of are Wil(l)s, some of us are Wheatons, but we are none of us Wil Wheatons. Still, this week, we’re going to try hard to make Wil Wheaton proud. When we fail at that, we’re going to try hard to make Wil Wheaton laugh.

Either way, we’re in it together now, so let’s do this.

I’m on a boat!

Well, not at the moment. At the moment, it’s dark and I’m sleepy and I’m at my desk drinking coffee while I try to wake up.

BUT!

I’m going on the Jonathan Coulton Cruise for a week, so I’ve invited my very favorite guest bloggers to come back and do their thing while I’m gone. Please be nice to them, and each other.

the writer’s dilemma

Last night, I slept as deeply and undisturbed as I have in months. I woke up this morning much later than I’d planned, my body heavy, and unwilling to move on its own. Seamus slept against my hip, Marlowe was curled up next to me, her little face resting against my head.

I took my time waking up, and coaxed myself out of bed.

The wood floors of my house felt cool beneath my feet as I made my way into my kitchen and made the first of what will be many cups of coffee — not because I need coffee, but because I’ve figured out a way to make cold brew coffee that gives me the most delicious cup of coffee I’ve ever had.

Through the living room, I paused to kiss Anne good morning. I walked down the hallway into my office, sat down in front of my computer, and began my day.

I read emails, checked the morning news, glanced at Twitter, moderated comments here and at Radio Free Burrito.

Then I looked at a blank composition window, unsure where to begin. I looked into myself, tried to find something that needed to be recounted, a story that needed to be told, an amusing event over the last few days that was clamoring to be translated from memory and experience into narrative.

I found a single thing, but it’s actually too personal and painful to share. That one thing, though, once identified, starts to feel like a bug bite, demanding to be scratched and then itching more, asserting itself more, the more I scratched it. Though it is, in relation to everything else in my world, very small, it became the biggest thing, the only thing, pushing out everything else

And yet, I can’t.

So I begin typing, putting together images and moments from when I woke until when I began assembling them into words.

And when I get to that point where the thing asserts itself again, it holds me and will not let me pass.

And so I write it, but I don’t press publish. I put it away, in a document that is just for me, and I write this instead.

The War of the Worlds Rehearsal

In a few hours, I’m heading to the theatre for the final rehearsal for tonight’s performance of The War of the Worlds, as part of the 2015 Sci-Fi Fest.

I have the great honor and privilege of playing Orson Welles as Professor Pierson. It’s a bit of a dream come true for me, because I’ve been listening to the infamous 1939 broadcast of War of the Worlds since I got my very first cassette player in the late 70s. I can recite most of it from memory, but for tonight’s performance, it was important to me that I didn’t just mimic Welles’ performance. I need to make the character my own, and to do that, I’ve been reading and performing the scenes just like I would to prepare for any other character I was creating.

I thought it would be interesting to share some of my rehearsal process, so I recorded myself yesterday, and put the recording on my Soundcloud.

It’s about ten minutes long, and I think some of you may find it interesting, and maybe even entertaining. You can listen to it there, or push play here:

50,000 Monkeys at 50,000 Typewriters Can't Be Wrong

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