Archive for February, 2010

Dead Reign: Dark Places

Friday, February 26th, 2010

I am, as mentioned, a gamer, and one of the genres I love most are roleplaying games. I also love horror, making me a big fan of horror games, which pretty much puts Palladium’s Dead Reign right in my wheelbox. It’s a zombie apocalypse RPG that focuses on exactly what I want a zombie apocalypse game to focus on: the world is falling apart, everyone is trying to kill you, and you’re running out of pretty much everything. It’s bleak, and desperate, and I love it.

The first sourcebook for the game, called Civilization Gone, really didn’t do anything for me, as it felt small and incomplete, like it was all the ideas that weren’t good enough to get in the main book. That made me sad, because the game is so cool, and when the second sourcebook showed up–called Dark Places–I was not very enthusiastic. As it turns, though, Dark Places is totally awesome.

Civilization Gone added a few new zombie types, but nothing that really felt right to me; they were goofy things like smart zombies that were visibly indistinguishable from humans (which kind of ruins the whole point) and mundane things that I’m pretty sure I didn’t need, such as zombies who are slightly bigger than normal. Dark Places, on the other hand, really takes the concept to new places, creating new zombie types that we should all be embarrassed we didn’t think of before. How about zombies who are completely infested with bugs or maggots, which is not only believable but gives them a meaningfully different appearance and skillset. Very nice.

The other thing Dark Places focuses on are ways to travel through the zompocalyptic world, describing what it’s like in the sewers, and along railroad tracks, and so on. Overall the book was very fun and useful, and I recommend it for all your zombie RPG needs.

One thing I’ve always wanted to do, and which my friend Janci actually did because she’s awesome, is run a zombie apocalypse RPG in which the characters play themselves, in their own town, trying to survive. I think that would be awesome.

Knowing when to fold ’em

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

I’m in the middle of a book right now, happily writing away, getting (on average) 2000 to 2500 words a day, and all is well. And then yesterday I realized it was 4:00 already, and I need to get my son from karate at 5:00, and I still only had about 300 ords. That’s a very good time to sit down and analyze what’s going on.

Almost every writer in the world will tell you something different about writer’s block: some say it doesn’t exist, or that it’s just an excuse, or that it’s a sign of a lazy writer; others say that it’s real and there’s not much you can do about it. I’m of the opinion that when you can’t think of anything to write, or you hate everything you write, or you just flat-out can’t write at all, it’s a sign that there’s a problem you need to identify and solve. There are real factors that can impede your writing, and telling people they’re lazy is not going to help them solve the problem. So, what was the problem for me?

I looked first at my physical situation: I wasn’t hungry, I wasn’t tired, I wasn’t cold. Many times when I can’t focus on writing I’ll realize that my body just wants a snack, so I get something to eat or drink and my body shuts up and I can get back to writing. That wasn’t the case yesterday, so I loved on: I wasn’t bored with my story, and I was in fact very interested in what was going on–it was the first section of a big, tent-pole sequence in the book, and I’d been building up to it for a while, and I was excited to finally write it. Was that the problem? Was I expecting too much? Possibly, I needed more information.

I looked at my outline, which said simply “The executives talk to the reporter.” While I also outline my books, chapter by chapter and often section by section, I very often leave the outline notes vague like this, because it lets me stay spontaneous while I write. Characters can say things I didn’t plan, and events can happen in new ways, if I keep things loose and write a lot of my book off-the-cuff. I write in order, so I already knew how we got to this point in the story, and where the characters were, and what they wanted. In the chapter I’d just finished, the executives had talked about why they wanted to meet the reporter and what they wanted to say to her. So I knew what to write, and it should have been easy enough to flesh it out, but every time I tried I’d either delete it all or find myself surfing the net without realizing I was doing it.

If I can’t find any problems with the scene itself, the next thing I look at is the outline. I think about what the book needs, and which parts of it I’m excited about, and in this instance I realized something interesting: I was excited about, and had cool ideas for, every scene in that sequence except the one I was currently working on. Every other sequence had cool moments, or funny moments, or something I could sink my teeth into, but that one scene with the executives and the reporter was just…filler. Worse than filler, actually, it was set-up, and it was a retread of set-up I’d already done in the previous chapter. I knew what they wanted to say to her, and I’d have chances in later chapters to show the results of their meeting, so the meeting itself was redundant. When I really got down and studied it, that scene didn’t need to exist at all.

So I tossed it out. I deleted it from my outline, moved on to the next scene, and wrote about 1000 words in the half-hour that remained. The book continues to excite me, and I’m progressing at a good pace, and my writer’s block was overcome. I just wish I’d had the sense to see it for what it was and solve the problem earlier in the day.

I Am Not a Serial Killer: The Boardgame

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

I have come to accept that no one will ever make a game based on my books. They just don’t lend themselves to it, in any genre, although I suppose a How to Host a Murder set in the Clayton mortuary could be interesting. This saddens me, because I am a raging game geek, the kind who answers questions like “what do you want for Christmas?” with “here’s the relatively small list of games I don’t own yet.” I play everything, from board games to card games to roleplaying games to tabletop wargames, and everything in between (and yes, there’s a lot in between). I especially love licensed games, when they’re done well, because it’s so much fun to take the characters and setting I love from a book or movie or TV show and either re-creating or completely re-envisioning my favorite scenes.

Obviously my books wouldn’t really work for that (“You rolled a critical hit a with the clock radio! Now roll damage.”), so why am I even bringing it up? Because George R. R. Martin just announced an absolutely awesome-looking boardgame, made by one of the premiere game companies in the world, based on an updated version of an incredibly popular wargame system. It has modular terrain, tons of sculpted figures, and a card-based combat system reflecting not just Martin’s world but the wide cast of individual heroes and villains from his novels. And I’m the kind of person who literally salivates just typing that sentence. What’s more, it’s not just a game but a line of games, with several expansions planned. That is nine whole colors of awesome, and as much I can’t wait to play it, I’m also incredibly jealous. Why must I write in such a non-game-able genre?

In reality, of course, I love my books and wouldn’t trade them for anything, no matter how game-able it might be; I write them because I love them, and I’m grateful for the chance. But I’m telling you now, just so you’ll know when the time comes: if I ever write a fantasy novel, it will be–in part–a bald-faced bid to start licensing it for games.

I’m pure geek, right down to the bone.

Media Dan Has Consumed, Part 2

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

It’s been a while since Part 1, but I hope to make these more common going forward. I will be ably assisted in that, at least in the immediate future, by Turner Classic Movies, which is running through a huge list of non-stop Oscar winners and nominees between now and March 3. I’m taking advantage of my shiny new DVR to catch a lot of older movies I haven’t seen, and the first is:

I honestly don’t know how I managed to not see Network before. It’s actually one of the record-holders for acting Oscars–one of only two movies to win at least three, and it would have won have won all four if they’d put Peter Finch and William Holden on separate ballots, instead of pitting them against each other. The basic story is…well, there is no basic story, it’s a multi-threaded, behind-the-scenes look at cutthroat broadcasting, and the acting and the writing are superb. I’ve never seen a movie that made me want to memorize this many speeches.

The fascinating thing about the movie is that it was obviously intended as satire, and in 1976 it may well have played as satire, but seen today it’s almost frighteningly real. A longtime news anchor has a nervous breakdown on the air, threatening to kill himself, and instead of taking him off and getting him a therapist they throw him onto a new, sensational show where he just rants and rages about whatever his increasingly-broken mind wants to say, until finally his brain throws a rod and he collapses onstage to thunderous applause. By the second half of the movie he’s barely even treated as human; he’s just a pet wacko whose handlers shuffle him on and off stage and reprimand him when he does something wrong.

As fascinating as he is to watch, the real heart of the movie is Faye Dunaway, who one character calls “TV personified.” She doesn’t care about people or things or right or wrong, she only manipulates them to produce good ratings: on air and in real life, with the people around her. She melds the main story with its goofy subplot, about a group of communist radicals who sell footage of their crimes to a weekly TV show. One of my favorite parts was when the communist go-between who arranges the sales fights desperately to keep her cut of the profits, subtly showing (without making a point of it) that in the face of such incredible wealth, and such intense greed, even a freedom fighter will sell her principles for cash.

What it all comes back to, though, is the dialogue. Almost every sentence crackles with energy, and while a lot of that credit goes to the actors, a ton of it must go to the writer, Paddy Chayefsky, for writing some flat-out awesome words. It helps that so much of the movie is made up of speeches, but even the chaotic multi-person stuff, like the groups in the sound booth racing to deal with a problem, are pitch-perfect. Highly recommended.

The Way of the Wolf
Don’t worry, I also read books occasionally. My big find this week was The Way of the Wolf, by E.E. Knight, recommended to me by the fine folks at Elitist Book Reviews (it’s an older book, so they don’t have a review of it; they recommended it to me IN PERSON). It’s a fantasy/horror kind of thing, set on Earth about one generation after it gets taken over by creepy vampiric monsters. The main character is a freedom fighter living in the wilds of the former US, and follows his fairly episodic training and first few missions. The writing was brisk and effective, the monsters were suitably scary, and the hero is awesomely heroic. What really impressed me was the world–Knight goes to great lengths to describe how the world looks and feels under the post-apocalyptic sway of alien vampires, and every detail rang horribly, beautifully true. There’s eight-something books in the series, and counting, and I’m really looking forward to reading the rest. Again, highly recommended.

How to Build a Story (Now on Video!)

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

Dear everyone: you can stop bugging me now.

The Story Structure presentation I gave at LTUE last week was a huge hit, and people have been asking for the powerpoint file ever since. At long last, here it is! And that’s great, but thanks to my awesome friend Stephen Nelson, I’m excited to be able to offer something even better: the complete presentation on video. We’re using youtube to host it, so it’s in five pieces, but he did a really great job of putting them together and I’m really pleased with the way it turned out. He even went so far as to cut in the powerpoint slides here and there throughout the presentation, which is awesome, but I suspect you’ll want to have the video open in one window and the powerpoint open in another to really get a good look at everything.

Watching this presentation, you will learn a number of very important things:
1) I am losing a lot of hair.
2) I apparently have my hand in my pocket ALL THE TIME.
3) Story Structure is easy and awesome.
That last point is probably the more important of the three.

Stephen also recorded and edited and posted another presentation from LTUE, called “How to Write a Story that Rocks.” This was a two-hour class taught by John Brown and Larry Correia, and if you’ve read their books you know that they’re both five-star experts on stories that rock. If you like my presentation, give theirs a shot.

The Story Structure Powerpoint

The Story Structure Presentation Video

LTUE Con Report

Saturday, February 20th, 2010

LTUE (also known as Life, the Universe, and Everything) is a science fiction and fantasy symposium held every year at BYU. It’s also turning into one of the best “aspiring writer” cons out there, which is even more amazing since it’s completely free. This is my report.

Wednesday, Feb 10:
This was the night before LTUE, technically, but it counts because I spent it with the delightful writing group Inking Cap, who took my wife and I out for sushi. We talked about writing, and writing groups, and I tried my best to be helpful, and they were nice enough to pretend that I was.

Thursday, Feb 11:
The first day of the convention I had only one panel, Mormons and Horror, which was pretty interesting. If you’re not Mormon I don’t think this article will make any sense to you, but if you are it’s a neat little discussion on why Mormons are so quick to embrace fantasy (especially compared to a lot of other Christian religions) and so reticent to accept horror.

My favorite story from Thursday came while talking to Larry Correia, the totally awesome guy who wrote Monster Hunter International, out now from Baen. We were chatting in the hall when my friend Nick walked up and said “Hey Dan, I forgot to tell you that I finally saw Isolation.” Isolation is an indie horror movie from Ireland about mutant calves who terrorize a farm–I know that description makes it sound ridiculous, but it’s awesome, with a focus on suspense and ambience that’s extremely rare in today’s horror films. It’s an incredibly rare, unknown film, but Nick sought it out because it’s the first film made by Billy O’Brien, the director who’s optioned I Am Not a Serial Killer. So anyway, no one’s every heard of the movie, so I was all set to answer the inevitable “what’s that?” questions from the group in the hall, when out of the blue Larry’s eyes got wide and he said “Isolation? Is that the killer cow movie?”

I nodded, amazed. “You’ve heard of it?”

“Of course I’ve heard of it–I’m a diehard horror movie buff, and that’s one of the best I’ve ever seen.”

At this point the fanboy geekout began in earnest. “That’s who’s doing my book!” I said. “Isn’t he awesome?”

“He’d be perfect for your book!” cried Larry. “The tone and the tension and everything he does would be a perfect fit!” I’ll spare you the rest of the geeky details, but the point is this: people who know their horror movies know that Billy O’Brien is The Man. I’m meeting him next month in Brighton to talk more about the movie, and I’m very excited.

Thursday night was another dinner, this time a Goodbye party for Stacy Whitman, a YA super-editor who’s leaving us for New York. I don’t know how much of her new job is public info, but suffice it to say that she’s on a meteoric rise in the publishing world.

Friday, Feb 12:
Friday was my big day: I had a solo presentation at noon, and three panels in the evening. The panels went great, but the big success was the presentation, which was practically standing-room-only; there were so many people there we actually had some sitting behind the screen, where they couldn’t even see, just because there was no room anywhere else. That was a lot of pressure, but everyone seemed to like it, and I could barely escape the room afterward for all the people asking if they could get a copy of the presentation. I think next time I’ll need handouts or something.

The presentation itself was a greatly-expanded version of my Story Structure system, based on a system I found in the Star Trek RPG Narrator’s Guide. For all of you who’ve been waiting for it, yes, I promise I will post it here soon, and I’m also pleased to report that the awesome Stephen Nelson is working AS WE SPEAK on a video version, which will be on youtube any day now, and which I will link to the second it’s available.

My favorite panel of the day was Abnormal Psychology, which was a lot of fun and very informative.

Saturday, Feb 13:
Happy birthday, Dad! Sorry I didn’t call you–I was at a conference!

On Saturday I had another panel, a reading, and the biggest Writing Excuses recording session in the history of the world. I’m not exaggerating when I say we had easily more than 300 people there. A lot of that was probably due to our special guest, James Dashner, author of the YA mega-hit The Maze Runner. We spent the first half of the session telling the story behind the podcast, and how we got started and how we’re organized and all sorts of Behind the Scenes info that we thought would be interesting. I don’t know how much of that info we actually shared, though, because it degenerated pretty quickly into a 3-man stand-up act where Dashner could barely get a word in edgewise. The crowd seemed to love it, and we had a ton of energy in the room when we finally recorded our two episodes (in which we actually let Dashner speak). It was a lot of fun, though it ran over by about 15 minutes (making me late to my own reading). Next time we do a local con we’re going to ask for two hours.

All in all, this year’s LTUE was the best organized, and the best attended, I have ever been to. Kudos to the staff and the gophers and everyone who made it possible. I can’t wait for next year.

I Am Not a Serial Killer launches in the US!

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

There will be a launch party somewhere in Salt Lake City. More info coming.

Mr. Monster debuts in the UK!

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

Mr. Monster is the second book in the John Cleaver series. If you liked I Am Not a Serial Killer, you’ll love this one even more.

Dan’s Trip to Europe

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

I’ll be flying to Europe for two full weeks, there to attend the Leipzig Book Fair, the World Horror Convention in Brighton, England, and a bunch of signings and readings for Mr. Monster.

World Horror Convention

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

The Royal Albion Hotel in Brighton, England. This is a fantastic convention, and I’m very excited to be attending it in England for the first time ever. I have several panels and a reading, and my publisher’s putting together a big push for my second book, Mr. Monster, so it should be a blast.