Online RPGs And The Art Of Juggling Multiple Storylines
A long time ago… back in the 1970s and early 1980s… kids were watching stories unfold in a galaxy far, far away. And those stories led to adventures played out in school yards with broom handles clashing over concrete battlegrounds, with mobs of kids running from imaginary stormtroopers yelling out with melodramatic warnings that the Imperials were coming. For writers Ben Langdon and Renee Scattergood, even though they were playing on different continents with different gangs, the stories of George Lucas influenced the way they looked at the world and its possibilities. This is their (continued) conversation.
PART TWO OF TWO
Ben Langdon: Have you ever had characters that just haven’t fit in your story? Even though you really liked them, and they might have been amazing, they just didn’t fit into the story?
Renee Scattergood: No, I've never really had that happen. When I begin a story, I come up with the protagonists and antagonists first. Then I add characters as I develop the story. I only add them if it becomes necessary for the story to have a new character to fill a specific role.
BL: I love characters, so they just pop up all the time. In my drafting process I realised that I had too many and had to merge some together. It probably comes from my background in playing in online roleplaying games – pbems (play by email) which, for me, were all the rage about ten years ago.
RS: I played in a simulation roleplaying game that we did through email too. Basically, it was just an ongoing story that we kept adding to, but we each had our own character. I played Han and Leia's daughter, Jaina, as an adult.
BL: Star Wars again! My first experience with pbems was in a Star Trek one called Starhawk. I seriously had no in-depth knowledge of the Star Trek universe but I knew how to create interesting (angst-ridden!) characters so I worked my way in easily. Later I got into superhero games, specifically the Global Guardians but eventually worked with a few friends to form our own pbem universe called Uberworld. It’s still out there – www.uber-world.comMy favourite game was Dawnstars which was set in Venice, Italy. It was great fun and I’m still friends with a lot of the other writers from that time. It also allowed me to try out different superhero tropes and storylines, some of which made it into my novel.
RS: I think the main skill I built from playing in those games, was showing and not telling. When I was in college, one of our assignments was to write a short story using all of our senses. That stuck with me and I applied it in my writing for the roleplaying game. It gave me a lot of practice, but I think I still need a lot more. It's probably still one of the weak points in my writing.
BL: I ran the Dawnstars game, so I learnt how to craft a good villain, or a relatable villain. I knew that I wanted to give the antagonists ‘reasons’ for what they did, even if that was just acting out of anger or frustration. How’d you go about crafting the villain for Shadow Stalker?
RS: Drevin wasn't hard. I knew I wanted someone who wasn't simply evil. I wanted someone who was completely deranged and psychotic. The harder part was figuring out how to make someone deranged and psychotic, but I think I pulled it off fairly well.
BL: Brilliant. My antagonist is the same - deranged. It’s in his name: The Mad Russian – Dan’s grandfather. I wanted him to be this old man who is desperate to hold on to his glory days and who is fiercely loyal to his family line. Even though he is mad and evil, astute readers can see the motivation for his actions, and perhaps even feel sorry for him. Dan is keenly aware of the love his grandfather has for him while also seeing how the relationship was very damaging and controlling as he grew up. My favourite scene is when the grandfather is trying to convince Dan to join the family business but it’s like they’re speaking different languages – the 17-year-old can’t understand the old man and vice versa. I’m proud of that scene, and the shock in the old man when Dan betrays him.
RS: I don't know if I want to say I'm proud of those deranged scenes. In a way, it kinda scares me that something like that could come from my imagination. I've got a somewhat twisted mind sometimes, and I get a freakish kind of pleasure from torturing my characters (something I discovered when I played in that roleplaying game online).
BL: I think I tend to torture my hero more than my villain. I feel a bit conflicted about writing happy-ever-after endings.
RS: I don't think an ending has to be happy, but it has to have closure. It can't leave the readers wondering what the hell happened. It's hard to have a happy ending after tons of tragedy, but you can resolve things in a way that the characters are finally done with their struggles and will have a potentially happy, or at the very least a peaceful future to look forward to.
BL: I rewrote the ending to The Miranda Contract so many times. I knew it was part of a larger story, but I also wanted it to be self-contained, so readers could walk away from it feeling satisfied.
RS: Well, when I write short stories, I generally leave them open in case I want to turn the idea into a series of novels or something. As far as my serials and novels. I work out the whole story from beginning to end during the planning process then write all the books at once. I do this so that I can release the books in the series close together instead of the readers having to wait several months or a year for the next book. My readers prefer getting a new book in a series every three months, so I plan for that. As far as my serials, I leave each episode off on a cliff-hanger, but again, I write the whole season (20 episodes) first. Then I will release each episode every two weeks, with bundles in between for those who prefer longer reads.
BL: I am impressed – maybe in awe – with your writing schedule. How do you do that, keep going like a writing juggernaut?
RS: My writing process is very different from other authors. It's a twenty step process that takes me from the most basic planning: I develop the characters; use their motivations, goals and personality traits to come up with events; put those events into order; develop the events to create scenes; fill in the holes of the scenes; break the story into separate books and chapters; write the screenplay as an outline; edit the screenplay; write the first draft for each book; edit each book; and come up with titles. Each job is broken down into smaller jobs that take anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes each. And I work on each of my projects every day. Right now, I have twelve projects that I'm working on.
BL: I’ve got three! And that does my head in sometimes.
RS: If I didn’t have the step by step process, I couldn’t do it. I realise this makes the writing process longer in the short term, but in a couple of years from now, I'll have a steady stream of serial episodes and bundles, short stories, novellas and novels being published regularly. My goal is to get to a point to where I'm releasing something new every month.
Besides having lots to publish, the reason I write like this is that I have ADHD and therefore a very short attention span. Breaking the jobs up like this actually helps me write faster in the long run. Otherwise, I can sit here for hours and get a few paragraphs written. I've gotten more accomplished in the last few months working like this than I did last year altogether.
BL: I tried NaNoWriMo a few times early on to get me into the habit or writing on a daily basis. It’s definitely a worthwhile experience for new writers. It really breaks down a novel into do-able chunks, like 1300 words a day over the month.
RS: I don't do the big NaNoWriMo in November. My writing process wouldn't allow me to write 50k words in one month since I'm working on multiple projects and some are still in the planning stages. I might get half that if I'm lucky. However, I do participate in Camp NaNo in April and July because they allow you to set your own goal.
BL: I think your multiple project approach is working. You’ve really embraced the new era of book publishing and I can see the benefits of serialisation, like tuning in to your favourite TV show (or binging it once it’s all released!). Do you think serialising fiction is catching on?
RS: I think it's different for everyone. For me, it was originally a way of delving into the self-publishing world by dipping my toe in first to test the waters so to speak. I was scared about the reception I'd get, so I started small. Over time, even though I'm working on my first series of novels now, I have found that some of my readers prefer shorter works, while some prefer longer. Releasing the individual episodes satisfies those who prefer the shorter works while bundling the serials and writing the novels will satisfy those who prefer longer works.
BL: I write in the same superhero universe even if the stories are set in different places or time periods. That way I can write short stories, novels and even screenplays that have the same branding, I’d say. My fans can feel a sense of familiarity, like with cameos, but new readers can just pick anything up and enjoy it for a standalone story.
RS: The other benefit of serialisation is that it allows you to publish more often. I've read that for an indie author to be successful, they need to publish something new at least every 2 to 3 months. Writing a combination of serials, short stories, novellas, and novels allows this while also satisfying the preferences of different readers.
BL: Speaking of readers… How would you describe your readers? Can you see a pattern?
RS: I really have a wide variety of readers that range from their teen years to 60+. I don't seem to attract any particular demographic. I've had a lot of people tell me that they don't normally read fantasy, but my story really changed that for them. I think it has to do with the fact that it's not your typical fantasy.
BL: I’ve sold a lot of ebooks through Amazon in the States more-so than paperbacks but it’s the ones who buy the paperbacks who seem to be the most passionate and curious about the characters. I love signing the books at author events and chatting about what the characters did (and didn’t do). There’s something amazing about engaging with some other person who has lived inside your book and wants to keep the experience going. I’ve done signings at independent bookshops, schools and as part of conventions such as ComicCon and The Hero Round Table. It’s always a bit of a surprise when people come up to me and say they liked one of my books. I’ve found it hard to take the praise or even to really understand that people have spent hours inside my stories. It’s humbling and amazing at the same time.
RS: I’ve never been to a live event. I live in a rural city. We don’t have stuff like that out here and it would be super expensive to get into Brisbane for one. Even if I had the money, I’m not sure my health would allow a trip like that at this point. I’d love to go to one some time though.
BL: Speaking of time, I think our time here is up! Thanks for having a chat about writing and inspiration – and ewoks! For everyone reading this, check out the books we’ve been talking about below. If you’ve got questions from anything we’ve brought up in this conversation, please add a comment below or go to our webpages and send an email. We seriously would love to hear from you - yes, you, out there behind the screen!
Thanks for reading along with us.
Renee Scattergood, author of the dark fantasy serial, Shadow Stalker, lives in Australia with her husband and daughter. She loves reading, watching movies with her family, and watching YouTube videos with her daughter. Visit her site for a free copy of Shadow Stalker Part 1 (Episodes 1 – 6): http://reneescattergood.com
Shadow Stalker: Auren longs to prove her independence, but when she disobeys her foster-father, her forbidden excursion turns into a nightmare. The Galvadi have invaded and their emperor wants her dead. Only she can stop him and save her people, but can she overcome her fears and live up to the task?
Ben Langdon is the author of superhero YA fiction, including The Miranda Contractand The Adventures of Charlie Conti, published by Kalamity Press. He lives in Geelong, Victoria with his three heroes-in-training and enjoys teaching at the local high school when he isn’t trying to write about superheroes and angry gods.
A blog about reading, writing and the superhero life.