January 11

Next update January 18 2014

First update of 2014 and I’m already a day late.

Fortunately, that wasn’t one of my resolutions. But I am going to make some changes to the nature of this blog. Previously, I was mostly using it to let people know about updates to my professional career: book releases, convention appearances, etc. Every so often I’d throw in some personal stuff. I’m still going to do that (with maybe a little more focus on my personal stuff, because I find myself endlessly interesting), but I’ve also decided to add something new. And I’m going to try and post weekly instead of a couple times each month, because I need to build my BRAND as an author.

Based on the e-mails I get, lots and lots of people are interested in writing. Some folks want to start their own career in games or novels, some people are looking for tips or guidance and some people are just curious as to how it all works. If I’ve learned anything about being a successful (sellout) writer, it’s give the people what they want!

Some of this information will be similar to what is on my FAQ page, but with more details (and maybe a little less snark… or maybe not.) This isn’t going to be a guide of how to get a job in the games industry or how to sell your first novel or even how to write better – it’s just me blathering on about some stuff I’ve seen and learned in my career. These posts will probably be disorganized and randomly jump around, because this is a blog and not a peer-reviewed academic paper. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. (But still buy my books, m’kay?)

Everyone on board? Then let’s begin. Logical place to start: how did I get to be a writer of games and novels? First off, I’ve always been a writer. As long as I can remember, I’ve been making stories. I don’t know where I get my ideas – they just come to me. Sometimes I’ll be watching or reading something, and it inspires me with an idea in the same vein. Sometimes I’ll hear a news story that I think is cool. Sometimes an experience in my life, or even a conversation with my friends, will trigger an idea. I keep these ideas in a folder on my computer (backed up to the cloud in case of disaster). Some are one or two sentences. Some are paragraphs. Some are full outlines, or early and unfinished versions of short stories.

Most of these ideas will never grow into a full blown book, movie, game or even short story. But whenever I’m ready to start a new project I go through them and read them. This triggers even more ideas, which add to the list. And as I work on a specific project, I will get new ideas popping up. Some get incorporated into what I’m working on at the time if they fit and work well. But usually the idea has nothing to do with what I’m actually working on at the moment, so it goes into the list, too.

Hmm… off topic already. Okay, minor course correction. How did I go from a kid with ideas to a successful writer? It wasn’t easy, and it took a long, long time. I still remember my first short story (because my mom used to have a copy). I was in 3rd grade and I wrote a story about the Devil-Vampire rising from his grave on the night of a full moon that was also Friday the 13th. And, somehow, was also Halloween. (Hey, give me a break… I was 8!) The Devil-Vampire goes to suck the blood of some victim, only to be thwarted by the arrival of Scrappy Doo, who kicks the Devil-Vampire back into his coffin. The End.

Admittedly, it’s not brilliant. But it illustrates a fundamental principal most beginning writers will have to deal with. Your early work will almost always be terrible and derivative. We don’t just become storytellers spontaneously: we are inspired by books, TV, movies and other sources all around us. Clearly I was just getting into my horror phase and exiting my Saturday morning cartoon phase around this time in my life; you can plainly see the influence of both in my debut work. We don’t create in a vacuum, and it’s okay to acknowledge and even embrace those stories and works that inspire us, especially when we are starting out.

Some artists despise the idea that their work is derivative in any way, and they aggressively push out into strange or unfamiliar territory in an attempt to be original and shatter the paradigm. Here’s a tip – DON’T DO THAT! First, it’s impossible – no matter how original you think something is, it’s probably been done somewhere before. And no matter how hard you try to distance yourself from the creative influences in your past, their presence will still be felt – even if it’s in contrast to the completely opposite thing you are doing.

I’m not saying writers should all be plagiaristic hacks. (Insert Shia Labeouf joke here to keep this topical and make sure it ages terribly.) But recognize what actually makes a work stand out. More often than not, the real genius is in the details. The way you take a familiar character or plot and build on it or alter it or subvert it to surprise or interest readers is what will make your work memorable. What is YOUR version of the classic tale?

Mass Effect had many obvious influences: Star Trek, Star Wars, Blade Runner, Serenity, Alien and Aliens just to name a few. If we threw out every idea that felt similar to something that had been done in sci-fi before we wouldn’t have had anything left. Instead, we embraced the themes, tones and ideas we liked then put our own mark on them… just as I did with the Devil-Vampire story I wrote in third grade. The only difference is, the BioWare team did it significantly better.

I also think it’s important to realize that style and presentation go a long way. My favorite authors are my favorites not because every story they come up with is brilliantly original. I like them just as much because of the flow of their words, the rhythms of their sentences and they way the introduce a story and let it unfold.

I’m a big fan of Tarantino films because of their “feel”. Watch five random minutes of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction or Django Unchained and it’s pretty obvious they were written by the same guy. Like him or not, you can’t deny Tarantino has found and embraced his “voice”.  Sometimes I hear people complaining that Tarantino isn’t original – his movies are usually a mashed up retelling of Hong Kong martial arts films, old-school westerns and 70’s exploitation movies films. But guess what? Even if you’re familiar with Tarantino’s influences the way he combines them is distinctive. To me, that’s what makes a good artist. You don’t have to do something that’s never been done before (because everything has been done). Just put enough of your own mark on it to make it feel uniquely YOURS.

Okay, over a thousand words and I’m still stuck in grade school with my first ever crappy story. To be fair, I did warn you this would be a ramble-tastic exercise. Hopefully you got something interesting from this so far. I’m going to end this entry and I’ll pick up next week with more random thoughts that are just barely connected to writing as my epic journey to fame continues through to high school and beyond. Hope you enjoyed it enough to come back.