Into the blue again after the money’s gone

I’m pretty sure I know where I met Vasili. He was the second of our characters that I met, but the first that I felt like I connected with.

As the ship was clearing the docks, a lone figure was futilely sprinting towards them. In one hand he held his pants and belt, the other he waved frantically trying to garner attention. On the bridge he was clearly visible.

“Who was he?” Archamae asked idly. She wasn’t know (sic) for socializing amongst the crew much.

“Mikhailovich.” Sephara said at the starboard windows, staring at the desperate crewman slowly being swallowed up by darkness.

“Well, you did say midnight.” Archamae smirked, slamming the accelerator forward several notches. The [Requiem] Dawn responded by lurching forward with impressive speed.

“That I did.” The first mate caught the pilots (sic) eye and they shared a knowing smile.

Mike would be angry if I didn’t immediately communicate that:

  1. This is not from our Skysail books, but from Mike’s work prior, telling instead of the adventures of the crew of the Requiem Dawn.
  2. This is from 2010, so at time of writing, was written eight years ago. Which is basically an eternity ago in terms of life as well as how much better we are at writing.
  3. This is unpublished, unedited, and wasn’t supposed to ever see the light of day.

In the parlance of the role-playing forum from which he originated, this ‘Mikhailovich’ was an NPC, a non-playable character. He was someone who Mike created in order to be thrown away. He was disposable. He was a punchline. He was the kind of person who would be left behind.

To equal out the embarrassment, here’s something I (Josh) wrote, way back when:

You’re free of your worthless, pitiful son, father, Vasili Mikhailovich thought to himself, looking out over a (sic) weak beginnings of a muddled sunrise. Your burden laid to rest.

The fifth son of the petty noble-baron Anton Mikhailovich. And as Anton would put it, the “fifth-most diluted.” The preceding sons received the titles, the inheritance, the law, the church… to Vasili was bequeathed contempt, blame for his mother killed in childbirth for an unexpected son, and the constant threat of banishment from his father’s house.

I should clarify:

  1. This is from a short story I (Josh) wrote, detailing the backstory, the arrival on the airship Requiem Dawn, the apprenticeship under ‘Gregor the Boatswain’, and the abrupt departure of a moody young noble named ‘Vasili Mikhailovich’. The short story paralleled the original role-play forum thread, and filled in what was left unwritten with the crewman they left behind.
  2. This is from 2011, so, seven years ago. I can’t stress enough how long ago that is. A kind of long ago that should be measured in geologic time.
  3. I spent, like, a lot of time writing this short story. Let’s estimate at least 8 to 10 hours on the first draft, and maybe a dozen hours of editing in years after. And I still found that a weak beginnings typo. Ooof.

Such choice, lean cuts of meat these two excerpts are! Just look at them. Energetic, muscular, and glistening. Such artifacts of another, more alien time. It’s like drilling a core sample to find out how things were back then, how we wrote, how good we thought we were, and how little carbon dioxide was still in the atmosphere.

Both Mike and I were pretty excited about these things early on. But now they are just part of the fossil record. These were written prior to us penning a single word of the Skysail novels. Since then, we have made 16,000 changes. We have written and rewritten hundreds of thousands of words. The Vasili we met back in 2010-2011 is still around. As our protagonist, he survives every new layer of sediment that accretes on our saga. But he has managed to surprise us as we have gotten to know him better.

At this point, I should be clear about something: Vasili is not a real person.

I know this. Mike knows this. Neither of us have met someone named Vasili Mikhailovich. We also have not manifested someone named Vasili Mikhailovich into being through our sheer writing prowess. No. Vasili Mikhailovich is a work of fiction. And you may say that to describe the act of character creation and development as ‘meeting’ the character is two parts whimsy and three parts cheese. And I would probably agree with you. I’ve heard this from other authors, and scoffed. Oh, how I scoffed.

But frankly, at this point, I don’t have a better way of describing it.

I wanted to write a blog entry about our process of character creation. And so I started looking back into the process of how we actually created some of our characters.

And it is messy. And it is protracted. And, to be honest, it probably shouldn’t be called a ‘process.’ A process implies a start, an end, an input, and an output. No, our character creation journey hasn’t been those things. It’s been something a whole lot weirder.

I hope that this article does a good job of documenting that journey. I’ll start by talking about Vasili, Gert, and Deirdre. Then I’ll let Mike take the microphone on Archamae, Henner, and Hash. We still haven’t decided who is going to talk about Captain Mied, Jonas Semmler, or Judge Gestalt. But we’ll get there. We’ll get there.

Vasili Mikhailovich

The excerpts above show where we first came across Vasili: helpless, abandoned, growing smaller and smaller in the rear-view of an escaping airship. But from there, we had to develop someone who would be our focal point and mouthpiece for an entire saga.

In one of the earliest jam sessions, we had the note Vasili as "the greenhorn". In our ‘Characters’ listing, he is listed as, Vasili Mikhailovich as The Boy. In fact, all of our characters started out as ‘The Boy’, ‘The Father’, ‘The Captain’, ‘The Doctor’, etc. They were less characters, and more archetypal outlines that we needed to shade and color in.

So, to begin with, Vasili had his youth. His inexperience. And that was about it. From there, to evoke the proper 1:5 ratio of wonder and misery that is youth growing into adulthood, developing Vasili was the process of visiting upon Mike and I’s insecurities growing up as awkward teens living at the edge of the world. We had plenty to pick from.

For example, I grew up in the same town that my father had grown up in. I also work in the same industry that he worked / works in. This meant that for every single trip to Costco as a kid, and for every job interview later, someone knew me as “Kenny’s boy.” It wasn’t all that terrible, but there was a certain expectation. A certain inescapability. Particularly when you’re a weird kid who hasn’t figured out what a conversation is.

Mike’s father was in the military. He trained soldiers in Arctic warfare. If I recall correctly, he has summited Denali (the tallest mountain in North America) multiple times, and attempted more than that. Mike’s kids don’t call his dad ‘grandpa.’ They call him ‘Major.’

Don’t get me wrong, we both had pretty great relationships with our fathers. But what we wanted to convey with Vasili was our feeling in growing up, finding your place in the world, and being measured against the generation that came before. And we felt that Vasili’s relationship with his father was the best handle to turn.

Our first cut at Vasili was essentially an angsty, shitty teenager that ran away from home to chase the truth of his father’s legend. But as we got to know him (I’m sorry), and our world filled in around him, we found ourselves giving him more of our own traits (and not just the insecurities). Vasili likes math, and reading, and paperwork. Where his father enjoyed sword fights, airship battles, and generic swashbuckling, Vasili isn’t so sure. He is “lanky, all limbs,” uncoordinated, and pretty bad at most everything.

Vasili does, however, excel in one area. As we were developing Volume 1, we found that Vasili had a taste for the theatrical. He grew up playing characters in his village’s Tellings (the great stories passed on from generation to generation to remember the deeds of one’s ancestors). And for all of his insecurity, and the fears of not measuring up to his father, he felt at home on the Telling stage.

Vasili is a natural storyteller. He is a dreamer. He is an awkward theater kid, seeking desperately for his community. And he is trapped in our dark airship fantasy novel.

Gert Karnaugh

Originally, Gert was ‘Gregor, the Boatswain’ in the same Vasili Mikhailovich short story I mention above. An old deckhand, his hands were succumbing to arthritis, and he was nearing the end of his career on an airship. With Vasili assigned to Gregor, he served as the stern-but-supportive father figure that Vasili never had. He mentored the young noble Vasili in the ways of being a deckhand before falling in a battle with orcs.

That characterization isn’t far from what we see today for Gert, but he took a bit of a detour along the way.

Prior to outlining, or really any plot planning whatsoever, I took it upon myself to write what was called an ‘Intro.’ The record shows that I have done this a few times. It is a weakness of mine.

In this ‘Intro,’ a character named Karn (maybe short for Karnaugh?), a senior hand on the Requiem Dawn, has to visit the coroner’s office to identify a body.

“Yeah, that’s him,” Karn said to the coroner, covering his mouth and nose with his sleeve. On the stone slab before him was the ship’s diviner, an arrow through his throat, dead at least a day. Not Karn’s first corpse, but death was never kind to the senses.

“And what is your… relation… to the deceased?” the coroner asked, a suspicious weight to his words. Karn considered the possible confusion at an old sailor asking after a well-dressed nameless body. He imagined it wasn’t the first time enterprising individuals tried to lay claim on a corpse’s belongings before the next of kin showed.

“I’m his superior, ship-side. He was our navigator on the Requiem Dawn.”

“I see… and you are assuming responsibility for his affairs?”

“That is correct… unless, what… is there a fee?”

We had this ‘Karn’ as a sort of tired but dutiful crewman. Someone the captain relied upon, and occasionally confided in. Has a sense of humor, but also a mouth that got him into trouble as he voiced his opinion. Think Long John Silver, but with both legs. And instead of a parrot, it’s a mustache.

(Note: While I knew about Treasure Island for some time, I had never really known that it was anything more than “that one famous pirate book I never finished.” My only experience with Treasure Island is its 2002 adaption, Treasure Planet, which I had somehow never seen until I was in my 30’s. My apologies if the comparison is rough.)

Somehow, eventually, the prototypical ‘Karn’ turned into ‘Gert Karnaugh.’ Taking on the role of mentor, supervisor, and Long John Silver-type character for Vasili, his development consisted of amalgamating the older male figures that Mike and I grew up with. And then making him lovable, flawed, and terrifying, like some of the older male figures that Mike and I grew up with.

As I said above, my dad had and has no shortage of friends. As I grew up, he would have me (and my sister, when she wanted to go) on hunting, fishing, and snowmachine / snowmobile trips with his friends. While some trips were family affairs, some were just the guys. Usually, a “guy’s trip” just meant a lot of drinking and food. But often, it meant a heavy emphasis on shooting guns, blowing things up, and telling stories about what things were like before they had kids. When they were my age.

As a young man, trying to understand what it means to be a man, having more data points was, of course, invaluable. It didn’t mean that they were great data points. But, you know, data is data.

I heard stories about climbing out of your car window, going over the roof, and coming back in the other side (all at highway speed). I heard stories about knocking your front teeth out trying to ride your sled behind a school bus. I heard about ex-wives. About their kids, and how well or not so well they were doing compared to me. About cool cars, motorcycles, and boats they used to have. About getting in fights at school, or at home. I heard them speak about their own fathers. I heard them speak about politics, the military, and how things were different back then. During the war. After. How you used to be able to bike across town and be gone all day and nobody would worry. How to never start a fight, but to always be the one to finish it.

When I described some of these stories / people to Mike, he knew exactly the type of person I was talking about. And that is where we found Gert.

Gert is a man who used to be younger. Where his peers skated by on luck and charm, Gert has worked long, fought hard, and earned his place on the ship. But the skies are no longer what they used to be. Where the bunks used to be filled with those like Gert, now they sit vacant. He remembers their stories, but maybe a handful of their names. He’s too old to be seeking out trouble anymore. But there is a violence to Gert that Vasili fears, something that bristles whenever Gert’s eyes pass over Vasili. Gert’s stories don’t speak of his patience, or his diplomacy, or his candor. They’re about how a lot of people got hurt, and Gert survived.

Also, Gert likes dancing. Really, really likes dancing.

Deirdre Vara

There is a weird note from us, written in April 2013:

Physicker (female):

With the mage, they are two sides of the same coin… in terms of how magitek has evolved over the last X years. There are different organizations that represent magicite, and how it is used… Poisoning, application, withholding of information… societal aspects.. East vs West medicine. Both valid in different ways.

Ooof. So. A couple of things:

  • Early on, Cauderon was called the ‘mage.’ This hearkens to our fantasy roots, but we’ve since walked away from using ‘mage.’ Cauderon, and the people like him, are called ‘odeum tolerant’ in polite company, and ‘dusters’ otherwise.
  • For a lot of years while developing Skysail, we called the magical technology in our world ‘magitek.’ This was a placeholder, borrowed directly from the Final Fantasy games that used the same term. We now call it ‘oderics’ and ‘odeum,’ with the hope that we avoid any copyright infringement.
  • A ‘physicker’ is one who is trained and educated on the ‘body physick’, what we would have called ‘natural philsophy’ in our own history.

At that point, the job of the doctor (the ‘physicker’, which we later changed to ‘physiker’, for no good reason other than I thought it looked cooler), was all that Deirdre had to define her character. That, and the doctor, as a result of her exposure to odeum, had suffered some degree of neurological damage. She was supposed to be (according to early jam sessions):

  • Weird. Unpredictable.
  • Crazy, but what kind of crazy?
  • crazy-pills personality
  • Her brain does not turn off
  • Free associating edge of those amped up on stimulants

So she was supposed to be crazy. If I recall, we were thinking somewhere between the Mad Hatter and an eccentric frontier doctor. (Sidebar: there is also a note that says, Is [she Mike's wife?] which is funny for a lot of reasons).

We’ve always had the idea that the oderics in our world had long-lasting effects on the people who worked around and with them. ‘Dusters’ like Cauderon, being able to breathe and tolerate the odeum, and so making them able to work in engine rooms and mines, experience detrimental effects over time. It made sense that someone who studied and worked with odeum on a daily basis may be affected as well.

But as we started to get beyond what Deirdre did, and onto who she was, we started to find problems. We wanted to have positive, independent women in Vasili’s life that could teach/direct/ignore him the same as anyone else. And Vasili would, for certain, be interested in odeum (the substance) and oderics (the phenomena). But without someone reliable to learn from, and without somebody on Vasili’s side, that he could trust, Deirdre’s ‘condition’ became pretty unwieldy.

Plus, too, Cauderon is scrambled enough for the two of them.

So we walked Deirdre back to one of her earlier iterations (from July 2012, a year prior). There was (yet) another pre-novel short story that I wrote, this time about Vasili seeking out employment with a woman named Letha, the Organ Tuner.

“W-what…” Vasili took a breath, “What is this place?”

“This place?” Letha looked at him quizzically. “The sign on the front says, ‘Organs’, does it not?”

“But all I see are pipes,” said Vasili hesitantly.

“Pipes for organs. Organs. Not…” she paused briefly in contemplation, “Not organs like the bits inside you, organs, like the kind that make music.”

Vasili’s naivete finally caught up with him with an embarassed, “Oh.” He looked at the floor.

Letha looked upward at nothing for a moment, then met Vasili again, “Am I to understand, my young friend, that you walked into a place that said ‘organs’ on the front, thinking that they would indeed be selling organs? Or even buying them?”

“Well, no…”

“But you were curious enough to enter, no matter, eh?”

Vasili was silent.

“And what if indeed I had a heart over here, a liver over there. I suppose I’d have to categorize, organize by animal, freshness, whether it was medicinal, or could be use (sic) in some alchemical…” Letha’s eyes began to light up a bit, “And what if— What if there was a mystery shelf? Yes! Maybe the customers could guess what it was, where it came from…”

The woman then fell into fits of laughter, only returning to talk with Vasili once she was wiping the tears from her eyes, “Then was that what you expected to see when you came in? Letha’s Organ Emporium, the best in meat… that you can’t eat!”

We borrowed Letha’s sense of humor, her analytical mind, and her technical prowess, and gave it to Deirdre. She has a wry wit. She is well-trained and talented. She is diligent, hard working, and compassionate to her fellow shipmates. Which makes her being on the Apotheosis Break all the more puzzling. She belongs at the University, studying oderics with the brightest of minds. Instead, she has been doing tedious assays on her uncle’s shard hunting airship for the last three years. Why remains a mystery for later books, but her advice to Vasili is “[Y]ou need to decide, Micky, before we get to the next port, whether all this is worth it. And in the meantime, keep your mouth shut. And listen.”

I have to admit, Deirdre’s character building has been a struggle. It would take me a long, long time to recover them, but believe me when I say that there are thousands upon thousands of words of dialog that have churned between Vasili and Deirdre. Words written and rewritten and much of them eventually cut because we were trying to find Deirdre’s voice. The process for finding Deirdre has been closer to trial and error than any intentional, concerted effort.

Much of that error has come from our own shortcomings. We wanted to make her more compelling than Physicker, and parenthetically, (female). We wanted to give her an identity more than just her job and her gender. But, somewhat embarrassingly, a lot of the early notes label her as Love interest. Thankfully, we recanted. As much of a fourteen-year-old boy as Vasili is, and for as many terrible airship romance novels he has read, his mother taught him better. For as much as they have a rocky start, I’m looking forward to writing their friendship.

Looking back, it’s hard to point at any particular thing we did in coming up with these characters. If you’re reading this, hoping to steal the plans for some immediate character creation device, you’re probably in the wrong place. If anything, in unearthing old jam sessions, the old notes, just tells me that every character’s forging was a little bit different. And that maybe our only real tool for whittling them down into a proper shape was trying to write with them, and seeing what works.

Alright. We should get back to actual work. On the actual book. So we can actually finish. I’m tagging out. Mike, your turn.

Craft Singles

It’s been more than a year since we published The Apotheosis Break (published October 2016).

We’re sorry? We guess? We get asked a lot: When is the second volume coming out? That’s probably not uncommon of people who publish something with ‘Book 1’ or ‘Volume 1’ or ‘Saga’ in the title. We have hoisted our every petard.

Our coy, infuriating answer for 2017 was, “Coming in 2017!” People laughed, and nodded like they got a satisfactory answer, and went about their business.

Now it is 2018. Now we say, “Coming in 2018!” They laugh less. They do not nod. They insist, “Yeah, but when?” The eyes in the room turn toward us. We shrug. They go about their business, but glance back occasionally. Their disappointment is apparent.

We have been working. We have been working a lot. But that is mostly irrelevant to someone who has just finished the first book and wants more. They wonder if we’re ever going to answer the questions they have. They wonder if all the time they invested into the first book was worth it. They are asking if they should put that mental real estate back into the market where it could be put to better use: those continuing education credits, that dissertation, that critical thesis, that new season of Black Mirror.

We have done a lot of work. I mean, a lot. Giterary records the number of seconds that you spend inputting keystrokes. For Volume 2 alone, we are at 196 keystroke-hours. Based on Mike and I’s folk heuristics about how this translates into clock-hours, we estimate at least ten clock-hours for every keystroke-hour. So, we are estimating almost 2,000 hours between us for writing and editing. For perspective, the American 40-hour full-time work week, after 52 weeks in a year, weighs in at 2,080 hours. So that’s like working a full time job that we jigsawed into dwindling free nights, busy weekends, and ever-shortening holidays.

To clarify, that’s around 2,000 hours since February 2014 (when we started outlining and writing on Volume 2 in earnest). There are 1,440 commits (discrete changes to a chapter) between February 2014 and October 2016 when we published Volume 1 (and started editing on Volume 2). Since then, we have another 1,459 commits. That means, in theory, we’ve put as much work in our first draft as we have in editing it since then.

The editing, however, is without the gleeful exuberance of pure creation. And with it comes the continual reminder of your fallibilities as a writer, as a human being, and as a thinking machine. We might have around the same number of commits, but editing feels like it takes ten times as long.

Surely, we are doing it wrong, and surely there are resources out there. Say you go looking. You’ll find that there is a wealth of information for people wanting to start out with the writing their novels. Their mantra is Just write!, shouted with upraised fist. The purpose of the mantra is to get people to start, to worry less about the task ahead, and worry more about getting something down. The hope is to build up enough momentum that once you need to edit, the sheer inexcusably large mass of your manuscript has enough inertia to carry you through.

If you again go looking, there is comparatively little is out there for the end game. Lots of questions come up: “I’ve got my manuscript. Now what?” But there isn’t a mantra for editing. There is only work, and pain, and then one day you wake up and you hit ‘Publish’ on your book and you don’t know how you got there. All you know is that the last page of Volume 1 reads, “The story continues in Volume 2.” And the work you have signed yourself up for is immense.

With every new edit, we see Volume 2 getting closer to being publishable, and hopefully farther away from succumbing to sophomore slump.

Closer, but maybe not close. If Volume 2 were a video game, we wouldn’t be fighting the final boss, but we would certainly be in the final world. We could see the final castle on the map, flitting from place to place. We know there are some seriously bullshit water and moving screen levels in between us and victory, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.

As such, I’d like to use this blog post to document some of the stuff we do as part of our (hopefully final) editing passes. The following are some specific things we do to get from draft to draft. May they be a light for you in dark places. Especially those ghost levels where you can only see a little bit around you and you keep having to guess which door is the right one.

Thing 1: Say it in a stupid voice

I really love Star Trek. It’s silly at times. It’s bad at times. But I think for the moments when it’s good, really good, make up for everything else.

But it is truly difficult to get through some of Star Trek. And usually, the only thing that gets you through is the acting. Patrick Stewart saved innumerable bad lines by being able to out-act poor scripts. And while that can’t save you from an episode where your characters awkwardly battle on an alien jungle gym with a weird boxing glove with nails sticking out of it, it goes a long way.

Mike and I, however, will not have the incomparable Sir Patrick Stewart to read our book. In all likelihood, we probably won’t ever have someone read our stuff out loud other than ourselves, much less a professional actor. But that’s not of concern at the moment. That’s a problem for a future Josh and Mike.

I (Josh) keep Star Trek in mind when reading through. I say to myself, “What if it’s not Patrick Stewart reading the line? What if it’s someone else that is less bound by the conformity of perfection?”

The test is this: if I have a line that I am fond of, I put it through the “silly voice test.” This is where I read it in a silly accent, aloud, for the world to hear.

If the line stands up, and still feels like how it should feel when spoken like a Swedish Chef, then it’s a good line. If you have to imagine it being read by a knighted Shakespearean actor for it to be good, then it still needs work.

Thing 1 Summary: Read your important, power lines in a silly voice.

Thing 2: Every Change Can Be A Breaking Change

This is more of a practice than an editing pass, but it’s critical to editing nonetheless. Hear me out.

Our Giterary tool has a feature to be able to show the word-by-word differences between each update. The chapter text is displayed, but with removed words being marked in red, and added words being marked in blue.

This ‘diff’ display has two uses.

First, it lets us communicate our changes to the other, displaying quickly and succinctly show what was changed. This saves an incredible amount of time, making it so we don’t have to read the whole chapter over again and try to figure out the changes by ourselves.

The second use is a little more subtle, but equally important: We review the diffs as soon as we make the changes.

Why? That seems redundant, right?

A little, yes. But it’s important to review for a few reasons.

Consider that you’re making a pass for passive langauge. You find a few egregious examples. You change the wording. But as you’re typing, you reuse a portion of the sentence, because who needs to do all that typing.

Perhaps you made the conversion perfectly. Perhaps that sentence you reused rather than retyped was a perfect match. But maybe not. Maybe your tenses don’t match anymore, or you’ve got a plural mismatch. Your spellchecker might catch it. But it shouldn’t be something you inherently trust.

The thing to keep in mind is that just because you’re editing doesn’t mean that you aren’t still making mistakes. If you review your own diffs, and do so as you make them, you are likelier to catch a problem that you introduced.

This sounds tedious, I’m sure. But consider what the problem looks like at scale. We are looking at around 160,000 words for Volume 2. It already takes us a few weeks for each editing pass we do. We have to find ways to both reduce the number of problems in the book, but also not re-introduce problems with the fixes. We find that the best time to catch follow-on errors is right after they are made, while the part of the text is still fresh in your mind.

It takes work. But it’s less than leaving everything until the next pass, where you’ll just glide on past that part because you know you “already fixed it.”

Thing 2 Summary: Review your changes when you are making edits to make sure you aren’t making the problem worse.

Thing 3: Accidentally hit ‘R’

Mike is currently addicted to a game called PUBG. Before that, it was TagPro. Maybe he still plays TagPro, I’m not sure. All I know is that I haven’t heard shit about TagPro for a while. I don’t play the PUBG. I don’t really understand everything that is going on. But it seems important somehow. He has sent me links to a lot of gameplay videos.

Why I bring this up is because TagPro had a fun customization that some users would implement. It was called ‘honking’. Being a simple browser game, the game’s internals were exposed to tinkering. And some people would overwrite the keyboard handling routine to do something special when a player pressed both the up and down keys at the same time. That ‘something special’ was play a sound file of a honking car.

For it to work, both players would need the ‘honk’ customization to be applied to their web browser. The player customizations would listen for other players to indicate that they were pressing up and down at the same time, and honk. So, if many people had the customization, you would hear people honking themselves, with a response of other people honking.

It was silly and fun. I liked that idea a lot. So I did what I tend to do to all users of software I write: I torture them.

I customized Mike’s editor in Giterary to ‘honk’ whenever he accidentally hit the up and down keys at the same time. Well. Step back a bit. I actually customized it so that it would honk every time he hit the space bar. But then he asked to have it removed, so I reduced it to only honk when you pressed up and down at the same time.

From then on, whenever we were jamming, and he would navigate around our shared text editor, accidentally hit the right buttons, and I would hear a little car horn emanate from his computer. I would snigger a little bit. And then we would carry on.

Listen, honestly? All that above: I just like that story. I could do all sorts of backflips to try and relate it to our editing tool here, but at the end of the day, I think it’s funny.

We have a feature in Giterary called ‘random paragraph’. It… does what it says on the tin. If you hit ‘R’, it brings up a random paragraph from what you are reading. The paragraph is highlighted, and put into a separate modal window. The rest of the screen is faded, and all that remains is this randomly chosen paragraph. It is truly an oversight that I do not have Giterary also emit a small honk sound. I’ll get on that. See? I did bring it back.

Anyway. What pops up in the randomizer tends to be surprising.

This sounds odd, but consider this as another problem of words at scale. At some point, you will have written more than you can remember. And at some point during your editing passes, it all just starts to flow together. You know the parts that you like. You know the parts that you’re only so-so on. And you, being a fallible human, are inconsistent with the amount of attention you give to every paragraph.

The random paragraph feature removes the human element. It shows you a paragraph outside of its place, not preceding or following anything. And with your focus just on that paragraph, you can ask the question: “Does this stand on its own?”

It might. It might not. But we find that looking at a piece of writing apart from everything else tends to show things that were hidden before.

Thing 3 Summary: Take a random snippet of your writing. See if you like it. If not, mark it for fixing. If so, find another random snippet to fix.

Thing 4: Search and Destroy

We have a relatively new feature, called ‘searchgrid’. It’s something that the folks down at R&D cooked up.

I was noticing that Mike was doing “search passes.” Essentially, he would pick problem words or phrases that tend to indicate weak langauge or bad style. For instance, finding all of the times a character says, “The point is…” and replacing it with something better. Or finding all the instances of “suppose”, and just not using them.

Both Mike and I have our crutch words. We both have favorite words. They each have their time and their place, but it is not ‘all times’ and ‘all places’.

At some point during our editing passes, you will start finding these repetitions. Keep them in a list. Don’t forget them. Because as much as we like to think that we’ve become better writers over the years, we still have bad habits.

If I (Josh) am writing, and if something needs to be slowly diminished, I will have it erode. And if Mike wants many things attached to one thing, you may rest assured that is going to be festooned.

We acknowledge this. Mike is allowed one (1) festooned per novel. Whenever you see it, just know how much went into it surviving until the final draft.

Our current trouble words / phrases are as follows:

  • suppose
  • noticed
  • saw
  • heard
  • festoon
  • myriad
  • facade
  • could not help
  • the point is
  • the point being
  • turned
  • parade of
  • littered
  • realized
  • wonder
  • the boy
  • scurried

Thing 4 Summary: Learn your go-to words. Find them. And destroy them.

Thing 5: The Things You Can’t Just Search For

One of Mike and I’s favorite fantasy series is the Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss. We’re not really shy about it. A lot of our inspiration comes from it. It’s part of the Triangle of Things That Bore Skysail:

  1. Name of the Wind
  2. Firefly
  3. Final Fantasy 6

Aside from the great storytelling, worldbuilding, and magic system, I (Josh) like KKC for how it expertly pulls off a complex framing narrative. For example, at any point, there are one of two stories being told: the protagonist Kvothe in a tavern telling his autobiography to the Chronicler, and the transcription of Kvothe’s autobiography telling of Kvothe’s storied past.

That makes it sort of an epistolary novel, and sort of not. It switches between the autobiography and the meta-story frequently, and sometimes one part of the story informs the other (meta-story characters occasionally pull us out of the autobiography to ask questions, clarify plot points, or just to switch things up a bit).

But what’s great about KKC is that you are never confused about who is talking. You are either: outside of the autobiography, in and around the tavern, or you are inside the story, spoken from the mouth of Kvothe. The novels are polished such that there is nothing but clarity when it comes to the speaker.

Writing for Skysail, I realize now that the kind of clarified narrative framing that is effortless and seamless in KKC is hard as shit.

Skysail’s narrative voice is somewhere between third person subjective and third person objective. The voice of the narrator is impassive and neutral, except where informed by the protagonist’s thoughts and insights. We hear and see other characters and their actions, but Vasili is the only person who we get to know what he’s thinking (styled by italics to differentiate it from the rest of the text).

We do this for a bunch of stylistic and plot reasons that probably warrant a blog entry themselves. But even without having a story within a story like KKC, this, too, is hard as shit.

Why? Let me show you. Take the following original snippet:

When he blinked awake in darkness, brief disorientation was followed by frustration. He had gone to bed with having eaten pickles for dinner and nothing more. Now, his lips had cracked and fissured in his sleep, while his head throbbed.

We changed it to the following:

When he blinked awake in darkness, brief disorientation was followed by frustration. He had gone to bed with having eaten pickles for dinner and nothing more. His lips had cracked and fissured in his sleep, while his head throbbed.

Not a big difference, right? I mean, the ‘now’ signifies a time progression between the previous sentence in the next while at the same time bridging the two sentences together. It anchors the reader a little, giving them a little less mental overhead on how to treat the time progression.

It sounds pretty reasonable. It might even sound better. But we removed the ‘now’. Why?

It comes down to who is saying ‘now’. The word ‘now’ implies an external reference point, an external perspective for which the ‘now’ can be evaluated. The ‘now’ belongs to somebody. It’s the ‘now’ for whoever is talking.

Which causes you to ask, “If someone just said ‘now’, then who exactly is talking?”

The easy answer is: ‘The authors. The authors are talking. Duh. Why is this section going on forever? See, this is the reason why blogs have died. If I had known the estimated read time for this thing, I would never have started. Fuck it. I’m going to scroll to the next bold heading.’

The hard answer is, well, a little bit harder.

For Skysail, our story is about the adventures of Vasili Mikhailovich. From the outside, it has the veneer of a plucky adventure with airships and cats and feeling the wind on your face. But upon further inspection it’s about disappointment, and how it feels growing up in an indifferent universe.

As with everything in writing, we can’t just outright say that. As much as we’d like to, it’d be pretty lazy. The real magic trick is to make you feel it without saying it. And there’s where our narrative voice comes in.

We arrived at third person subjective/objective because it is, by default, indifferent. The narrative voice is neutral, and does not weigh in on events unless a character does so. There is no authorial commentary from Mike or I, or from a disembodied voice. There is no speaker outside the characters who are speaking. There is just the story. The Telling.

Which is why we can’t use ‘now’ in our narrative voice. Or ‘this’. Or ‘that’. Or ‘this’. Because each implies that there is someone speaking that has a ‘now’ or a ‘then’, or has a ‘this’ or ‘that’. And if someone is asking who that someone is, then Mike and I aren’t doing a job of making you feel.

Back to my problem of words at scale. Imagine that you have to tell a story. And you have all of the dialog in your story, spoken between your characters. Now imagine the rest of it. Of that, you have to ask, “Who is talking?”

For Skysail, that answer always has to be, “Nobody.” And if it is, “Somebody,” even just a little bit, you have to find some way to rewrite it.

That’s a hell of an editing pass. And something you can’t solve using a search grid.

Thing 5 Summary: To unlock New Game+, try to write without using the words ‘now’, ‘then’, ‘this’, or ‘that’ in your narrative.

Sidenote: Mike recently told me that he is trying to get his wife to play Final Fantasy 6. While I’m interested in seeing what she thinks, I am fearful that the result will be that she will discover, as I have discovered, that 90% of everything Mike has ever said or done is inspired in some way by that game. The other 10% is Final Fantasy 9.

Thing 6: Call Me Writerly One More Time

You may be familiar with Godwin’s Law.

Basically, it says that the longer an argument goes on, the more likely it is that someone will bring up Hitler. Whether it’s Twitter threads, email chains, or familial Facebook comments, as time progresses, the probability increases that someone will bring up a comparison to Adolf Hitler, the Nazis, or the Holocaust.

Unless you are historians arguing over the sociopolitics of fascism in Europe during the 1940’s, the point at which Hitler is brought up is usually the point where the argument is over. Everyone can go home. Nobody won, and no further argument can be had.

In our arguments over Skysail, neither Mike or I have called each other Hitler, or compared our writing or editing methods to Nazism. Yet. I mean, yes, there has been some strong language with regards to our worldbuilding, and the use of the word ‘scurried’, but nobody has fallen victim Godwin’s Law.

But at risk of violating the law, I won’t say that being called ‘writerly’ is as bad as being called Hitler. But it sure is unpleasant.

What does ‘writerly’ mean? Between Mike and I, it could mean a few things:

  1. You’ve used words that are either over the top, too ornate, too flowery for the situation.
  2. Or, writing whose style calls attention to itself more than what it is styling.
  3. Or, you’ve used words that writers tend to use.

We’re well familiar with #1 and #2. That trying-too-hard, purple language is as punishing to the reader as it is to the writer. We know it to be the mark of early writers. Because we have looked back into our own __Notes.txt documents from yesteryear, and we have seen what it means to be early writers.

The use in #3, though, has been new experience. Used in the feedback from one of our beta readers, we learned that there are certain words, certain turns of phrase that are ‘known’ to be used by writers. Good writers, bad writers, it doesn’t matter. It’s the kind of writing that says, “Look here. I am indeed a writer.” And it’s the kind of writing that other writers can spot from a mile away, even when it’s good, and especially when it’s bad.

As someone who writes, I like to think I put a lot of work into my writing. I like to think everything I write is to the best of my ability. And I have a pretty good idea when my writing is not up to my standards. I delight in finding a word, a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph that is exactly what it needs to be.

But now something can be writerly. Now (goddamnit), we are no longer considering whether our writing is just something we would want to read, but whether something is too ornate, too stylistic, to the point that anything that is the least bit stylized feels like someone is pressing their lips together, giving a disapproving “Mm mm mm.” And now everything is in question.

Between Mike and I, writerly is our implementation of Godwin’s law. We’ve both used it when justifying edits or critiques. A “further erode” is replaced because it “feels writerly.” Questions about using the noun or adjective form of ‘myriad’ end with “[It’s] Writerly either way. :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

We try to find a good balance. We feel that writing should be consumable, and as simple as it needs to be. We want to make art, but not to be too ‘art-y’. Neither of us considers our work to be literary fiction. But we do like to use good words sometimes. Useful words. Exact words. Precise words.

In addition to working on Volume 2, we are planning on issuing a new edition of Volume 1. It is mostly to fix typos that we’ve come across since publishing, but also to clean up things that we know were artifacts of our younger writing selves. And boy are those some hard edits, knowing that all of those writerly things have been out in the world for over a year.

Thing 6 Summary: Have someone point out to you where you’ve got some writerly bits in your manuscript. It doesn’t matter where. Then create a fearless moral inventory of your shortcomings, and start again at the beginning.

Thing 7: Don’t Edit As You Read

Our last thing, and I should get back to editing.

Your draft will not be perfect. It will probably have things that you aren’t 100% happy with. Things that you got to say what you want, and what the story needs, but you still feel like there may have been a better way. For our work, our sincere hope is that either a) people don’t notice the things we’re unhappy with, or b) people don’t care about them.

The trick is knowing when to stop. Because there is a point where you will need to stop. To move on. To get things out the door. Because, in the same way that you will always be introducing mistakes whether you are writing a first draft or editing a second draft, you may not be able to produce the perfect solution to every problem, and your next solution might just make it worse.

So, how do you know when to stop?

For me (Josh), it is where you can read through a chapter and not have to stop and fix something immediately. That is: I put Giterary into ‘Readable’ mode (where the editor and navigation options are disabled), and I just read. Print out your chapter if you have to. Go sit in a place that doesn’t have Internet. And just read.

If you can get through the chapter without getting up, saying, “This just won’t do,” then you’ve reached a good stopping point.

I think Microsoft Word and others have ‘reader’ modes, too. But I don’t often hear of people using them during the editing process. I see the application open to the editing screen, and fingers poised over home rows, ready to make the next change. And if you are short on time, sure. The Just write! mantra has the pal Just Edit!, and Just Read! sounds like a waste of time. Why not just make the fixes right there?

But for some edits, or the avoidance of an edit, you need to keep reading. To know why something was left there. To know why it was important to use that word first and the other word second. To see how pacing remained consistent between paragraphs, or dialogue was reordered to explain or to give some psychic distance.

It may take forever. But your work is more than the sum of its parts. And it’s important to consume it as such. Because otherwise you won’t see the same things that your readers see.

Thing 7 Summary: Don’t forget that your readers will just be reading. Be sure to read your work in the same way that they will be reading it (not in front of an editor).

Sometimes I feel bad when I do these craft articles. The time I spend writing these is the time I could be spending doing the craft.

But some days you don’t feel particularly inspired. And for all the effort you can put into something, you don’t feel like your heart is into it. It’s the middle of February in Alaska. It’s getting a little bit lighter, but it’s still very cold. And all that I want to do is eat and play Human Resource Machine.

So, if this happens to you, feel comfortable enough to switch gears, even if just for a few thousand words. When you come back, you will have learned something, and be able to see your problem anew.

Vol 2 Cover Art

It’s been a while! While we have been working deep in the word mines, Mike commissioned our Volume 2 cover art:

I (Josh) think it looks great. We have Gustaf Ekelund to thank for bringing to life one of our scenes from Skysail, Volume 2: The Gestalt Job.

As of this writing, Volume 2 is weighing in at roughly twice the length of Vol. 2. This means: twice as much to read through, twice as much to edit, and exponentially more times that Mike has requested that I split a chapter into two.

It feels like we’re close. Much like we said in 2017, we hope to deliver you Volume 2 in 2018. Or, you know… *soon*.

Until then… we’ll get back to those mines.


Writing Somebody Else’s Play

Earlier this summer I went to the Last Frontier Theater Conference in Valdez, Alaska.

It was pretty alright. And by pretty alright, I mean that it was probably nothing short of stunning for anyone new to the state. As an Alaskan kid, I’m sort of spoiled. I’m used to quaint towns nestled beneath breathtaking mountain vistas. I was born and raised under the towering majesty of nature in all directions. I sort of don’t see it anymore. Sort of like how you can’t smell your own deodorant after you’ve been wearing it for a while.

The conference has been going on in Alaska for decades. I was vaguely aware of it through some of my friends who do theater, but otherwise I had never been. This year, however, my girlfriend’s play was accepted to the conference to have a reading. She asked if I would be her armcandy while she attended. Being that I enjoy theater, and more generally, getting out and doing stuff in Alaska during the summer, I graciously accepted.

We had planned out how to get to Valdez (a short, 6+ hour drive). We had (mostly) planned on where we would stay (the conference-goers could take advantage of the vacant campus housing for dirt-cheap, dorm-style accomodations). But otherwise, I didn’t do any research on the nature of the conference before arriving.

I don’t know what I assumed would be going on. I’ve been to the Penny Arcade Expo, which is so massive and has so many things going on that there’s simply no way to see it all (or really even see a portion of what you really want). I’ve also been to work conferences where they are highly regimented and scheduled down to the nearest 15 minutes, and your itinerary is submitted and approved six months in advance.

I didn’t expect it would be a writer’s conference. I mean, had I bothered to read anything on their website I might have been a little more enlightened. They proudly list out all of the famous playwrights that have attended in past years. On top of that, their schedule had a number of writing-related workshops (in addition to those for acting, directing, and a new word I learned: ‘dramaturgy’). But maybe the most damning is that my girlfriend is a writer, and they asked her to the conference for a thing she wrote.

I guess I just assumed it would be all actors, doing, you know… ‘acting stuff’. Talking loud, emoting, and memorizing lines, like they do. And there was plenty of that. But as far as being a conference geared toward writers, I must have been too busy pretending to ignore our bold Alaskan splendor to pick up on the obvious hints.

(Aside: Go sometime, if you can. It’s stupid cheap, as far as conferences go. Like, I’m not even kidding. We spent half of the time making the joke that the conference had to be a drug front. You get a free bag, free coffee, free food… Oh, and each evening there was a featured artist / performance, which anybody could attend for free. Anybody. Even people who weren’t conference-goers. Drug front, I say.)

To be clear, I’m not writing this just to brag about living in the last frontier (well, the frontier you reach just before space). Or that I got to spend a week eating near-free lunches and drinking near-free coffee and carrying around my actually-free tote bag while correctly pronouncing the word ‘dramaturg’ so they would not suspect I was not one of them. Instead, I’m writing about something interesting that I observed among the writers at the conference.

The conference hosted play readings, which they called ‘Play Lab.’ For these readings, they would have a handful of professional actors from the Alaskan acting community and abroad read through the scripts. Actors would stand at podiums and ‘act’ through the scripts in front of them. While not a full production of the play (minimal costumes, no sets), it was a great way to preview a script, as well as give an opportunity for the actors to add their own art to the roles they were assigned to read.

The plays would be read. The audience would applaud. The actors would quietly close their scripts and find seats in the audience. But nobody would leave, like you would expect after seeing a play.

Instead, three professional playwrights, elected by the conference management, would stand up. They would make their way to the front and take a seat on the edge of the stage. They would introduce themselves, then turn to a lone individual in the crowd, and reveal that person to be the playwright.

I found this to be bizarre the first time I saw it. I mean, again, I should have known that this was how things would happen. After hearing 90 minutes of somebody’s hard-fought work it felt weird to have this person suddenly outed in front of a crowd. Like the triumvirate of judges was saying, “Look! This is them! This is the person you should hold responsible!”

But instead, people just clapped. And then the three playwrights would start to give insightful critiques. Then they would solicit feedback from the audience. It turns out that, to nobody’s surprise but my own, that a lot of thoughtful comments and suggestions would come from an audience full of people who are also playwrights.

I observed a few rules for these feedback sessions:

  • Playwrights would quietly take notes on the feedback they were getting. Notes would be recorded with a thankful nod, but the playwrights would be reminded that they were under no obligation to respond to the feedback.
  • Most feedback given to the playwrights was positive. When it was not positive, it was not given in an accusatory or punishing way (“That did not resonate with me as much as I wanted” or “I felt like I needed more” or “We want to hear more about this” or “Expand on that”).
  • Members of the audience were encouraged to give impressions and reactions, but to never provide suggestions on how to fix something. Or, more specifically, they were repeatedly told “not to write the other person’s play.”

When I first sat through one of these feedback sessions, it felt strange. Partly, because of the immediate responses that the authors were getting from their work. Partly, because the person was in the same room as those giving the feedback. And the rest was because, according to their rules, Mike and I’s own feedback process would be anaethema to them.

  • When we get together to jam, usually there is an issue or two that we need to hash out that can’t / shouldn’t be done over text or instant message.

    The usual way that we work through something is to read through the section in question, sometimes aloud, then see about explaining and defending it. Often, the problem shakes out in the reading itself (“Oh, wow, yeah, that doesn’t sound like what I wanted” or “I meant it like this, but I see where you would read it like that”).

    But it’s never the case that one of us just sits idly by, taking notes. I mean, sure, we take notes, but at the very least, we are expected to respond. We are each the other’s most immediate and critical combination of beta reader and editor. One of us can’t just say, “Oh. I’m sorry you feel that way, but that was just an artistic choice.” With equal responsibility with the project, we are beholden to the other’s criticism.

  • Mike and I’s feedback to each other isn’t all positive. I’m not even sure it’s anywhere near a 50-50 split. A good example is our commit comments (the notes that Giterary requires us to enter each time we make a change to a file).

    For instance, I had touched up a section, changing a reference to an overheard shouted insult. I thought that the reference to the insult should be, I don’t know, indirect, as I wasn’t sure that the main character would know that something was an insult if the main character didn’t speak the language being shouted.

    The next day, Mike reverted the change, responding in the commit comments with If you've ever walked into a South Texas junior high, you'll know which Spanish words are the insults.

    In response, I went back and corrected a new typo that appeared as a result of Mike’s reversion. My commit comment just said: o_0 (my usual emoticon to represent incredulity).

    Mike responded with a :|.

  • We always give each other suggestions on how to fix things. Always, always, always. From the way we conduct our discussions (“I imagined it was instead like this…” or “Would it be better if were like this?”), to the way we simply correct each other’s work as we see the changes happen, we have no hesitation in presenting or even implementing a solution along with the problem that we are pointing out.

    Part of the reason for this is the nature of our project. Being co-authors, and equally responsible for our combined output, both of us are writing, and both of our names are on the cover. It’s on both of us to make something, so it would be unfair for one person to just bring up the problems and the other person to solve them.

    Another reason is efficiency. Our process is already molasses-slow. With two authors, we have twice as many bottle-necks, twice as many periods of writer’s block, and twice as many life events to get in the way of writing. Add to that our added need to communicate and collaborate on almost every aspect of the story, and we’re 50cc karts running in the 150cc Grand Prix. If we only presented problems, and we said, “Oh, I have some ideas, but because this is your part, I’ll just let you figure it out on your own,” we would never finish anything. Mike and I make it a point to always offer solutions to the problems, even if they aren’t very good ones, because often even the bad suggestions can inspire good solutions.

So, given Mike and I’s methods of collaboration, seeing playwrights go through their feedback process was pretty weird.

I will acknowledge that this was a public forum for feedback, and not collaboration. The other playwrights weren’t there to collaborate on the plays that were being read, only to react to them. Which is an important distinction. The playwright community seems to be very particular about intellectual property rights. Based on what I understood from my (very) brief look into the playwrighting industry, individual and complete ownership over rights to a work is the best assurance that you will be paid for your work, and more importantly, be able to live off of your work.

I can certainly see why the Last Frontier Theater Conference had their rules in place. I can see why they don’t encourage playwrights to immediately respond to feedback, for the same reason you don’t feed the trolls on the Internet. Plus, thoughtfully nodding along makes you at least look like a professional, even if you want to scream at the person. I can also see why they try to cultivate a positive atmosphere with the feedback, giving largely positive criticism, or if not, at least pointing to where something was off.

I’m a little torn on the “don’t write the other person’s play” portion.

Sure, I probably wouldn’t take kindly to some rando who shows up and starts giving me suggestions on how we should write our novel. It hasn’t happened often, but when it has, it’s been a sort of awkward endeavor. The conversation usually starts with, “Have you thought about X?” And I respond with, “Yes, we’ve got X. Lots of X. In fact, we have an entire chapter dedicated to X. Actually, funny story, we had to rewrite a huge part of Volume Y just because we wanted to have more of X…” By that time, the person has reconsidered, and has moved on to ask, “Then have you considered Z?”

Honestly, I’m just happy that they’re interested. I mean… Their questions tend to imply that they didn’t read the book. But I’ll take what I can get.

Where it gets less fun and more biting is if the other person is an author (or a playright) as well. Given that new context, where you’re both writers, and both creative, both imaginative, and, in theory, both professionals, the question could take on a new tone. If another author suggests that something be done with your novel, your play, or really anything you do, it could imply that they think that you haven’t already thought about it first. That you must have overlooked something. Or that your idea is less great, and theirs is… well, worth it enough to make mention, otherwise you might never come up with it on your own, you poor thing. (In emoji: o_0)

Then again, that person might just be sharing in their experience at hearing your idea. “When you said this, it made me think of this!” or “Oh, this reminds me so much of that! I love that!” As an author, I spend a signficant amount of time when I’m writing trying to put my head into somebody else’s, and try to read like I’m in somebody else’s head. I have to imagine other authors spend just as much time in somebody else’s head. If I can provide a shortcut, or just a little bit of insight into what went on in my head when I read something, I’d rather the author know about it. Best case: it was the intended effect, and shouldn’t be touched at all. Worst case: it wasn’t the intended effect, and maybe could be touched up a bit. (Translation: :|)

I think what I’m trying to draw arrows to are the differences between critique and collaboration. Or more specifically, collaborative critique (getting feedback from an audience after a show), and critical collaboration (working with a co-author to figure out what is wrong with a scene).

In both, an artist solicits feedback from an audience. In both, artists ask an audience to experience their art, and to walk around for a while in their universe of novel construction. And in both, the audience agrees to walk around in a weird world for a while, and report back on the findings of their expedition.

But the critiques I saw after at the readings at the conference had an attitude I didn’t like. The attitude that said, or at least implied, that “I might know a way to fix this. But I’m not going to tell you.” The same infuriating attitude your teachers had when they made you show your work on a test.

It wasn’t that those giving the feedback were being disrespectful. In fact, they were withholding their ideas out of respect for the author. And if they did not, the up-front triumvirate would remind those in the audience to be respectful in this way, and to kindly avoid writing the person’s play for them. Everyone seemed to respect the process and the author’s ability to address the issues. Moreover, the author was discouraged from responding, so as to not make them feel like they had to immediately defend their artistic choices.

But there is still something being withheld. A room full of writers and creative people can’t help but see or hear a story be told and wonder at its construction. There isn’t a book I read, or a show or movie I watch where I’m not curious as to why something was written that way, or if I could write it better. Again, I have to imagine it the same for other writers.

What I think bothers me about this method is withholding the opportunity to learn from how another person does their craft. To learn how they think, or how they approach a problem.

In computer programming, we get to (have to) do this all the time when we read other people’s code. We learn how it ticks, and by proxy, we learn how the other person thinks. Sometimes, yes, it’s a dark path descending into the mines of madness. But other times, you get to learn something new. Something interesting. Something that you may never have uncovered by yourself.

(Note: there is an entire philosophy within the software industry based on the idea that software should be free, and open, and developed collaboratively. It’s called ‘open source’ software. I am a huge proponent, and am probably heavily biased towards this type of collaboration :))

I should probably qualify: not all ideas are winners. Point of fact: very, very few of my own ideas are winners. But a room full of professional writers? I don’t know. I have to imagine that it doesn’t hurt your chances. And, too, sometimes even hearing an obviously bad idea from another person is better than having to convince yourself that your own idea is bad. It helps with the self-esteem, anyway.

I don’t know how unique of a working relationship Mike and I have. But seeing how playwrights do it made me glad that we’ve arrived at this strange equilibrium. Otherwise, we would just be critiquing each other’s work without taking ownership in helping the other get better at writing. Which is a pretty lonely, ineffective arrangement.

My problem comes, now, in dealing with writers other than Mike. He and I can riff on something, brainstorm an idea, and put together a scene like improvisers might do on stage (albeit much, much more slowly). The idea of who came up with what is secondary to what we arrive at in the end. But that does not appear to be everyone’s mindset. Not everyone is a collaborator. Some people write alone, and all they want from your feedback is to know if something worked, or not.

I can see how just offering my honest critique is valuable, and sometimes preferable. I don’t always like it when people try to suggest something or write something into Skysail (unasked). It really is awkward to field the “Your story should have a Z, why doesn’t it have a Z?” conversations, particularly when they come from people who should know better. And when I provide feedback, I really try not to be that guy (unless asked).

But given that constant running thread in the back of my mind, thinking about things, through things, and coming up with new things, I can’t help but feel like I’m withholding something if I don’t share. I’m much, much less concerned with who owns the idea, and more interested in seeing cool stuff get made.

I want the person I’m giving feedback to know that I visited their world. That I walked around for a while, and saw the cool stuff they had put there. I want to tell them how it made me feel, and if I liked the things that I saw. If it was a good world to visit, I want them to know that. If it was a great world, I want them to know that I would return. That I would want to see more, and even make my own part of their world.

Anyway. Visit Valdez, everybody.