Sunday, September 29, 2013

All I Really Need to Know About Fiction, I Learned From "The Order of the Stick"

So today is the tenth anniversary of a webcomic called The Order of the Stick.

It was in the news last year when its creator, Rich Burlew, launched a Kickstarter campaign to reprint OotS books that went on to raise $1.25 million - yeah, that's million with an M - through crowdfunding alone.

That is as it should be.

It's easy for me to say that, because it's easily my favorite comic (web- or otherwise), and one of my favorite stories.   Certainly the only one for which I've woken in the middle of the night and checked for updates.

This is the webcomic wallpaper equivalent of "Ode on a Grecian Urn":
forever wilt ye be oblivious to the monsters, and they be one second away from stomping you flat.
But if I were to distill my unrelenting enthusiasm down into something coherent and halfway meaningful, I would say this:

1.  I love what Burlew's success says about us as an audience.  You know, it's easy to get bitter and cynical when a terrible movie makes eleventy-billion dollars, or when your favorite show gets cancelled after like, an episode, or when Twilight of the Vampire Spankings outsells the Bible.  It is so nice to be reminded (and Burlew is certainly not the first to do it) that there is still room in the world for intricate, thoughtful, entertaining, first-rate fiction, and that we don't have to wait for it to be handed to us from the exalted offices of New York and L.A. - that we-the-people can hoist our favorite fictioneers up on our shoulders and reward them with success all on our own. 

2.  I love what Burlew's success says about him as a creator.  Yeah, he made a million bucks off of Kickstarter - but before that, he was working for nine years on his own initiative.  And maybe that is easier to do when you're posting weekly pages of a webcomic - getting feedback on the spot from your readership - than it is when you are slaving away for months at a time on a novel or some other massive Frankenproject, feeling trapped in the sweaty dark pit of your lightless word-hole as you sink into despair and wonder if you'll ever finish, or whether anyone will care when you do.  But I have no doubt in my mind that he started with the right question - not "how can I make a million bucks and be famous?" (because a webcomic is NOBODY'S answer to that one), but "how can I tell a really fun awesomecool story?"

3.  I love what The Order of the Stick has taught me as a storyteller.  I'm not kidding.  If you look on the ingredients label for One Night in Sixes, you will find that it is at least 18% OotS.  Which might sound weird, given that one is a fantasy Western steeped in blood and history, and the other is a comic about DnD stick figures.  But man, those little sticks have seeped into my porous wrinkled head-sponge like nothing else.  There in two brightly-colored dimensions is proof positive -

--that you can tell a story bigger than any single character's narrative arc

--that a complex story with multiple main characters is not doomed to bog down or burn out

--that "funny" and "epic" are not mutually exclusive

--that epic fantasy can be momentous and significant without disappearing up its own asshole

--that worldbuilding, setup, and backstory can and should be just as entertaining as the rest of the story

--that blood and sex and eye-candy are optional, but characters worth caring about are not

--that good and evil are not fixed, static alignments - no matter what the Player's Handbook says.

I could go on, but if there's one other thing that The Order of the Stick is good for, it's reminding me that a head full of story is only worth as much as your ability to sit down and keep knocking out the pages. 

Anyway: happy birthday, little sticks.  Thank you for lighting up my life.  And good luck with those velociraptors.

--But if we don't have noses, how do I smell?
--Like cheetos, you diminutive wastrel.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Midnight Brain Drippings: the Good, the Bad, and the Angry

Not going to lie, you guys: I am seriously overclocked these days.  Really want to do another GrammatiCats post, but it may be a bit before I get that far.

But I was rebellious and hedonistic enough to go to workshop last night, and to the traditional IHOP foray following, and we ended up having an especially savory conversation.  It was a swirling syrup-drizzled vortex of big expensive TV shows and giant sprawling book series and the frustrations of aspiring writerdom at large. Here for posterity and my own future reference:

On Big Fat Fiction:

1.  There seems to be a trend nowadays toward deeply flawed / unlikeable characters (Mad Men*, Game of Thrones, et al.)  "Idiots being mean to each other."

*I've only seen 1 1/2 seasons of Mad Men, and don't know how true this is.  But I remember being deeply impressed at how the writers managed to craft a suspenseful, dramatic, multi-layered story when so many traditional staples of TV drama - drugs, murder, violence, explosions, et al - have been taken off the table.

2.  A steady diet of "good guy vs. bad guy" stories can get tiresome, especially when you already know that the good guy is going to win.

3.  Many writers seem to have shaken out of the above mold by writing "bad guy vs. bad guy" stories - or less simplistically, an ensemble cast of morally gray characters at odds with each other.  Strange that "good guy vs. good guy" seems not to be terribly much in fashion.  (Premier hallmark example: The Wire. This is my favorite kind of story, and what I've tried to accomplish with Sixes.)

4.  A Song of Ice and Fire blew my mind when I first read it, because it was such a departure from the Big Fat Fantasy I'd read up until then - giant multi-thousand-page epic-quest monomyths where everybody's an archetype and Joseph Campbell spoiled the ending 60 years ago.  But see #2.

5.  But amazing groundbreaking fiction stops being amazing when it goes on long enough to establish its own constant trends.  If there's a likable character in ASoIaF on the verge of accomplishing something valuable and important, you can lay down your last dollar on it ending in a horrific botch.  It's still plenty interesting to watch the dominoes fall, but there's no longer the suspense of wondering whether they will or not.

And from a separate branch of the conversation,

On the Frustrations of Writing:

6.  So many aspiring writers getting frustrated when they've been so careful to play by the rules, and yet get nowhere.  (Passing similar to what I've heard when guys' well-intentioned efforts to meet women are continually rebuffed.  "I did everything you said you wanted - why don't you like me?")  Very hard to avoid this feeling when the people telling you "no" won't tell you straight what you're doing wrong so you can fix it.

7.  #6 above makes rich ground for unscrupulous people to sell ridiculous prescriptions to the desperate and frustrated.  Even well-meaning folks can unwittingly become bad prophets this way.

8.  Possibly part of the problem is writers asking the wrong question - wondering "how can I get published and make hella money and have my book in all the stores" instead of "how can I become a super bad-ass awesome writer?"  Too much emphasis on the nouns and adjectives - book deal, famous, published, author, signings - instead of on the verb, the activity of writing, as a worthy end in itself.

9.  But in fairness, it's hard not to get one's righteous rageface on when Twilight and 50 Shades sell beaucoup millions while violating all or most of the rules of good fiction that we keep raking each other over the coals about.  Readers can catapult a book to fame on the strength of "cuz I liked it."  Writers have no such luxury.

And separately from everything else,

10. "Red Hulk" is a stupid name for a comic book character.  Full stop.

Anyway, back soon with something more coherent.  For similar, better-curated pearls of wisdom from my posse, visit DFWWW in the meantime.  Our milkshake brings ALL the word-addicts to the yard.

This looks like a job for Bipolar Bear!  But I just can't seem to get out of bed...

Sunday, September 8, 2013

DC Comics and the Case of the Deathless Media Franchise

It's been a big week for comic book drama.

The greatest tidal wave of Internet outrage has come from DC's new contest - and while asking artists to draw Harley Quinn naked and suicidal is definitely not the worst item on the company's social sensitivity rap sheet, it's really not helping.  (Next up: Batman sobbing helplessly as he masturbates to a Leave It to Beaver rerun!  Ha-HAAaaaaa!)

The second wave of the PR shit-nami has come as DC vetoed Batwoman's marriage to her long-term partner - while being careful to articulate that they are not objecting to lesbian superhero marriage, but superhero marriage across the board.  (And yes, dear reader: even Aquaman.)

Which brings us, rather retroactively, to A Lee Martinez's latest post.  He calls it Continuing Drama vs. The Dreaded Third Act, and opens with this:
One of the reason I enjoy writing standalone novels is that it allows me to tell stories that have a beginning, middle, and an end.  Series fiction is, almost universally, stuck in the second act by its very nature.
ACT ONE: Peter Parker gets bit by a radioactive spider, gains superpowers, learns a lesson on personal responsibility.
ACT TWO: Spider-Man struggles to fight crime and redeem himself in his own eyes and the eyes of the city he defends.
ACT THREE: Spider-Man learns to balance his obligations as both a superhero and an ordinary man, gets married, has some kids, stops being such a sadsack.
Yes, it’s that Act Three that’s the problem.  It NEVER happens.  It was never intended to happen.  Spider-Man is stuck in that second act, and he will never actually get out of it.
(I highly recommend clicking over to read the whole thing - it's a humdinger of a thesis.)

For all the publicity it's garnering at the moment, DC's weird, regressive Peter-Panning just shines a brighter spotlight on an issue that's been endemic to franchise fiction pretty much since the get-go: namely, that you've set up a system that pits your brand against your story - and the brand wins every time.

Would it be interesting to see Spider-Man get his Act Three?  It certainly was back when they called it The Incredibles.

But if we actually let Spider-Man grow and change as a character, we'd eventually run out of Spider-Man stories to tell - and Happily Ever After does not sell comic books, action figures, or kids' underoos.

So we have to keep the machine going.  Superman and James Bond and Dr. Who have been so calcified by time and money that their adventures will never, ever end - we'll just keep swapping out their puppeteers as needed.  And the more closely a supporting character orbits that fixed heroic center of their universe, the less they will be allowed to change.  (Killing off Squid-Boy?  No problem.  But Jean Grey just can't stay dead.)

That is the part that sticks in my craw.  When you know going into the story that the good guy can't achieve final victory OR die trying - that the Earth will not get blown up, or stay blown up if it does - that any substantial growth the hero has to do already happened back in his origin story - it feels like... well, kind of like how my good buddy Ike probably feels when he bumps up against the aquarium wall.  You know, like the story should be moving you forward into consequences, costs, changes, fallout -  but there's something artificial holding you back.  (Or in the case of mainstream comics' chronic retconjuration, letting you move forward and then teleporting you back.)

It's like some kind of invisible force field...!
And to be clear: I don't mean to dog on deathless franchises, or snipe at the people who enjoy them.  But I think it's interesting that we advocates of progressive nerd-dom get so vexed about these things - about DC's misogyny and militant super-bachelorhood, and the eternally white male Doctor, and all that mess I ranted about in Skyfall - when for the whole life of the franchise, we've basically been paying its creators not to change.

Not that we shouldn't ask for our favorite series to become more progressive, more inclusive.

Just that if they seem to be terminally stuck in the 1960s, it's because that's where they came from... and if they seem to be hell-bent on staying there, we might ought to quit spending so much energy ranting and begging and shaming them to move forward, and start putting our love and money into series that already have.

I hear Image Comics is lovely this time of year.

He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


I went to my first WorldCon this weekend.

Hit up an open coffee event with the relentlessly awesome Stina Leicht.  Scoped out the dealer's room.  Hung out with my DFWWW posse in all sorts of permutations and exotic locations.  Skadged ham sandwiches and cheesy poofs from the con suite.  Got autographs.  Went to about fifteen panels, an author reading, three room parties, and at least a couple of not-really-an-event late-night lobby congregations.  Stayed up past 1 AM, twice, having amazing conversations with people who'd been complete strangers only that morning.  Attended the Hugos.  (Didn't get to the dances or the masquerade or any of the stroll-with-the-stars events, but that's okay.)  Met about 538 fabulous new people, most of whom I still desperately need to email/friend/follow.

In short, I had an AMAZING time.  The best single word I can think to describe it is "generous".  Like really.  Everywhere I went, there seemed to be plenty of everything: plenty of space, plenty of food (there wasn't even a donation jar in the con suite!), plenty of things to do, not only on the program but just spontaneously and for the hell of it.  Plenty of folks ready to welcome you into whatever was happening.  I didn't once have to wait in line (except for the autograph sessions, natch), and although a couple of the panels were standing room only, I didn't see anyone turned away from anything.

And except for my one brief turn as a Solaris panelist and a couple of exceptional dinner dates, none of that had anything to do with my status as a freshly-anointed initiate of the SFF literati.  That was just the nature of the thing.

Anyway, I'm home as of this afternoon, and already the glow is fading.  In seeking to extend the post-con buzz, I've started reading about The Problems With WorldCon, which can't be ignored.  For many reasons, it's skewing dishearteningly old, white, and wealthy - I've noticed that about the writers' conferences I've attended as well - and it's hard to fully enjoy something like that once you start thinking about all the people who aren't there, and why.

But before I surrender to rationality, and while I'm still new and fresh on this whole con-circuit thing, I want to write it here for posterity: this was without question the best convention I've ever attended - really, one of the best times of my whole life - and I feel so, so fortunate to have had the time, health, and money that made this experience possible.  I understand now why there are charities who raise money for fans who wouldn't otherwise get to go to these things, and absolutely must start throwing my weight behind them.

In the meantime, I have about 538 fresh ideas on how to survive between now and WorldCon 2014, and a vast, faintly menacing number of tasks to complete in the meantime.

Challenge accepted.

And may I just say, 'yee', and indeed, 'haw'.