Writer Pro Tip #1: Why Ask, “Why?”

I have a 21 month old son. As I’m sure every parent brags, he’s a total genius. He speaks two languages, can count, and has a huge vocabulary. For all his intellectual prowess, however, he hasn’t yet learned the meaning of the word, ‘why.’ My understanding from other harried parents is that this stage usually kicks in about three years old, and that it’s tedious to endure. But I can’t wait until my kid starts asking ‘why’ questions because I love answering them and I’ve already started getting my answers locked and loaded for the future. For now, though, when I confront him with a ‘why’ question of my own, such as, “Why are you throwing all of your toys over the balcony?” or “Why do you insist on pouring your milk on the dog?” the only response I receive is a blank, doe-eyed stare.

Interestingly enough, I occasionally also seem to get this response from writers.

First, let me say that I’ve had the distinctive honor of working with several writers, all more talented and accomplished than myself. My own role has been to provide creative guidance in story development.  I’m the coach, the writer is the quarterback. I can’t throw the ball, but I can tell when someone’s form is incorrect. (For a guy who doesn’t know jack shit about sports, I sure use a lot of sports analogies.) So this isn’t a critique on any writer that I’ve worked with (in case any of you are actually reading this) but rather, an observation about writers in general, and I’ll humbly include myself among them as it’s through my own mistakes that I’ve come to learn the importance of the word, ‘why’.

For the past several months, a great deal of my time and a great deal of my sacrificed sleep has gone into story development for some really amazing fiction projects, both inside and outside of Privateer Press. Most recently, I’ve had the opportunity to delve into the past of WARMACHINE’s famously infamous, Allister Caine, gunmage-warcaster extraordinaire. Working on this project has been a considerable team effort. My good friend, the talented Miles Holmes, has run point as the author of this tale that will feature in next year’s product lineup from Privateer Press. Helming our operation is the ever patient, always calculating Director of Publications, Scott Taylor. My own role has been that of creative director, which in this case has included story-plotting, character development and general guidance for handling the setting, as well as frequently acting as a liaison to our continuity and in-house writing staff of Jason Soles and Doug Seacat to make sure we’re keeping our facts straight. Five people have been involved in this project for weeks and not a single word of the actual story has even been written yet. Oh, words have been written. We’ve generated pages of them. Dozens and dozens of multi-page emails in multiple threads, an 18 page story outline that Miles has revised daily, and we’ve thrown in a few conference calls on top of it all. But it’s all just been preparation for Miles to go weapons-free and start blasting away at this fantastic tale. So much work for one story! “Why”, you ask? Well that’s the operative question, isn’t it.

The definitive Caine, by the world famous Andrea Uderzo.

Allister Caine is a central character to the WARMACHINE mythos. Despite his frequent appearances in the ongoing saga of the setting, and despite being the most popular two-gun slinging rogue in the Iron Kingdoms, the public knows very little about him. His history has been alluded to in vague references, deliberately left mysterious until the day we had the time to tell his harrowing tale of dark dealings and intrigue. At the point we decided that time had come, those involved (myself included) thought it would be a relatively simple matter. The beats of Caine’s background were well established; he was a street criminal, turned military man who relapsed to his old ways before mysteriously being restored to his military career. Internally, as the creators of this setting, we thought we knew Caine intimately, that this work of fiction would be a matter of merely connecting the dots…until we started asking, “Why?” Why did Caine join the military? Why did Caine murder a man in cold blood? Why did Caine return to lives he abandoned, twice? And that’s when the real work began.

‘Why’ is the great dismantler. It unravels the fabric of a story as quickly as the word can be spoken. Sufficiently answering the question of ‘why’ necessitates carefully orchestrated logic during the creation process, and failure to ask ‘why’ is the tungsten carbide drill that produces plot holes in any piece of writing, no matter how cleverly the words may be strung together. ‘Why’ is the the concrete foundation of a character’s motivations. And ‘why’ is the gossamer thread that suspends our disbelief.

Who hasn’t yelled aloud at the film screen, “Why is she going back in there?!!” This and every unbelievable story moment from, “Why did the the stupid space biologist touch that slimy space cobra?” to “Why would you build a flying aircraft carrier with only four lift turbines?” is the result of a writer (or someone in a creative position guiding the story) not asking, “Why?” or mistakenly believing that we the audience, wouldn’t.

Human beings have an instinctive desire to consume stories. But we also crave knowledge, and knowledge wants understanding, and understanding requires explanation. And if there’s one other thing human beings love to do, it’s criticize. We love calling bullshit on something. So when that explanation doesn’t measure up to everyday common sense and the way we all intuitively understand the world and the people in it, we all want to be the first to appear brilliant and clever by exposing the flaw in the design. The lesson here for writers is that as much as people crave a good story, they seem to be much more interested in pointing out its mistakes and tearing it down, and the only universal defense for this is to constantly, continually, and without fail, ask yourself as you’re writing, “Why?”

Sometimes it can feel like you’re chasing your tail. Each ‘why’ answered reveals a new question, sometimes forking the path and multiplying the number of questions that must be answered. Uncommitted or inexperienced writers forget to ask in the first place, or believe that the reader or viewer won’t notice the unanswered question or won’t be interested in following a string of logic down that rabbit hole only to find the unanswered dead end. But the clever writer, the experienced writer, and the writer who has an ounce of pride in the project he puts his name on, will embrace the ‘why’ and chase it through every layer it reveals, diving deeper and deeper into the plot and characters until every branch of every thread has reached its terminus and no more ‘whys’ remain.

If someone is going to do something other people would find irrational, you’ve got to seed the reason why ahead of time or we’re jarred right out of the story. If a plot twists and turns, you have to properly connect those dots and explain why, or the tale will leave us behind in disbelief.

The rule, then: always ask “Why?”, and then ask it again. Because even if you don’t, your audience will, and we are unforgiving bastards.

The origin story of Allister Caine has been a monumental exercise in asking, “Why?” There’s a decade of history to this setting and a decade’s worth of people who are intimately familiar with its every detail. Caine has been a cornerstone of the setting since almost the beginning, and his existence is embedded in the building blocks of the world itself. We’re threading the needle, weaving a story through not only an established history but a well known set of ‘rules’ that must be adhered to faithfully, lest the story ring untrue. In discovering WHO Caine is and HOW he came to be, we have endeavored to leave no WHY unturned. Fortunately, I’m working with a crack team of professionals who understand the value of ‘why’ and are committed to making sure we’ve anticipated them all so that this character and his thrilling story can be brought to life as authentically as possible.

And if we’ve done our job well, we can all avoid that blank, doe-eyed stare that my toddler gives me when I ask him, “Why do you keep hitting me with your plastic toy rake?” (Don’t worry, I’m sure there’s a good reason. He’s a genius.)

 

 

Stryker 3 — Work in Progress

I promised a progress update on the Stryker 3 concept art this week. I haven’t gotten that far with the actual art; much of the time spent on this so far has been thought and conversation.

The conversations are probably the more interesting subjects at this point. The original brief more or less called for Epic Stryker on a horse, with potentially heavier armor. While we had a draft of the new rules in development, fortunately it hadn’t gone into play testing so there was some room to brainstorm with Jason Soles about what we might do differently with Cygnar’s poster child.

Warm up jams, playing with ideas. And the ugliest sketch of Stryker’s mug you’ve ever seen.

I derived a lot of inspiration from the landslide of comments to my original post about this concept. Something I was keen on was evolving Stryker’s armor and weapons somehow, and I thought it was time to get back to Stryker’s roots — before he was a warcaster. So after some back and forth with Jason, we decided on Quicksilver 3 — now enhanced with Stormglaive technology. I mean, come on, isn’t it about time that the leader of the Storm Division started slinging some lighting bolts around? To that end, I took a little out of Quicksilver’s haft since Stryker will be swinging this one-handed from the saddle, and I added the signature coils from the Stormglaive to give the Lord Commander his most formidable weapon yet.

Rough block in of shapes for Stryker’s armor, plus QUICKSILVER MKIII!

The rest is really rough so far, working out new shapes and details in his armor. You might notice some similarities to Nemo’s epic armor styling. This is intentional. I figure Nemo has the kinks worked out in this whole storm-chamber powered armor now, and some of the aspects he perfected in his own suit would help stabilize Stryker’s [misappropriated] prototype armor. I’m also adding some weight to it; this will be the bulkiest Stryker yet, with heavy torso armor and some extra plating on his arms and legs, taking advantage of the fact that his mobility is taken care of by the mount. Since Stryker will finally be up on the high horse everyone has always accused him of, he’s ditched the duster. His silhouette loses something for me without the long coat, but I’m hoping once he’s in the saddle, it won’t be missed.

No real work done yet on the horse. I’ve got some ideas on where I’m going, but I need to go back to Jason with some new thoughts and I promised not to bug him anymore this week while he’s jamming on the next IKRPG book. Stay tuned for a horse update in the next couple of weeks. This whole project is supposed to be done by the end of the month, but I think I’m going to be begging Ed Bourelle for a deadline extension. (Here’s your notice, Ed!)

(As always, please post links, but not the pics! Thanks!)

ADDENDUM

It’s seems not everyone is a fan…

Suck it, Norm! This one’s for you, brother. :-)

 

 

The Glamorous Life

If you’re a regular diner on this little word salad I’m tossing here, you might have noticed some gaps in my updating schedule and that posts seem to be less frequent and creeping closer to the end of the week. A couple of hefty convention trips definitely contributed to the lag, but more than anything, I’ve just been plain busy. (I also find that I’m either very inspired to write a blog, or it’s a struggle to come up with something remotely interesting to say that even passably fills this space, as today’s entry is glorious testament to.)

I know there are those of you that think I while away my days, drifting through azure Caribbean seas on a plush yacht playing WARMACHINE while I drink 25 year old scotch through a straw.( Okay, none of you really believe that, but I would love to prove you right if you did.) As it happens, that’s as much a fantasy as is a steam-powered robot with a magical brain. The reality is that I’m pretty much glued to my computer in my cluttered little office (tastefully decorated in the finest action figures, import robots, and video game collectibles one can find, of course!) unless I happen to taking a meeting somewhere in Los Angeles, which generally results in a driving-to-meeting ratio of one hour of driving for every fifteen minutes of meeting.

So when I’m not stuck in traffic or daydreaming about my fantasy office on the S.S. Privateer, here’s a list of the different kinds of things that occupy my professional time. On any given day, I’ll shift gears every few minutes, and a normal day will comprise anywhere from 10-30 instances of the following activities:

• Art Reviews and Approvals — All concept artwork and much of Privateer’s finished illustration work is sent to me in various stages from initial thumbnail designs to final image. I offer commentary, direction, and do the occasion draw-over or sketch to help keep thinks consistent to our vision and quality standards.

Here’s what passes for a quick sketch when I’m trying to communicate an idea. This was done while working with Privateer Art Director, Mike Vaillancourt to hammer out the composition for the next IK RPG cover. (Really, I’m just searching for an image to decorate this blog with!)

• Reviewing Licensing Contracts — When we license our brands for products we don’t create, or license products into other territories for localization (translation to the local language), I have to wade through the contracts. Not my forte.

• Reviewing Distribution Contracts — Same as above, but all about getting the games into new parts of the world.

• Sculpting Reviews and Approvals — Like the art approvals, I’ll get images of sculpts in different stages  and have an opportunity to provide feedback.

• Story Editing — I get pretty involved with our fiction and like to be present for initial story-forming discussions and then final review on the longer tales. Recently, I’ve been up to my ears editing and guiding fiction creation for Privateer’s settings. If you like to read, we’re going to do our best to burn your eyes out next year (you know, in a good way.) Note: I’m not a proof reader or copy editor, I’m just about story — hence all the spelling and grammar mistakes present here.

• Marketing — it’s a broad topic encompassing a lot of different tasks. Privateer has a whole department for this and I do my best to work closely with them on the many different projects we do. Privateer’s approach to marketing isn’t so much about ‘selling’ as it is awareness building and support of our games. Daily tasks include press releases, web content and website evolution, convention planning, promotion planning, ad copy review, organized play planning — the list goes on. My involvement here is primarily at the inception of new initiatives and then at various checkpoints along the way. But there’s a river of material constantly flowing through my inbox as it’s a big, eclectic department doing so many important things.

• Game Design Review — Oh yeah, once in a while I actually do something related to making games! I used to design them, but these days it’s more about offering creative guidance and adding my voice to the feedback we give throughout our development process.

• Naming — Everything in our settings has a name, whether it’s the next WARMACHINE warcaster or a genetically engineered alien hybrid in LEVEL 7. We take great pains to come up with interesting, flavorful, memorable names. Just yesterday, we wrapped up a four way email thread spanning three days and about 30 individual messages to do determine the right name for a previously undisclosed Khadoran intelligence agency that will be appearing for the first time in a significant piece of fiction next year. All that for one name.

Another quickie done to communicate a pose for an upcoming war beast figure.

• Writing — I do a bit of my own writing as well. These days, I mostly write screenplays that will only ever be read by a select few, but once in a while I drop some words into published work at Privateer as well.

• Film Development — As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m developing a number of different projects. This could spawn a whole new list of tasks, but it primarily involves a lot of writing and art production and liaising with producers about the projects.

• Video Conferences & Conference Calls — Several times a week, I can be found as a choppy, pixelated image with stuttering sound on a small computer screen in the conference room of Privateer’s HQ in Bellevue, WA. When we don’t want to brave Skype, we’ll talk the old fashioned way on a phone. I do a fair amount of non-Privateer conference calling as well.

• Meetings — The live kind! As mentioned above, these generally involve copious driving. I do a lot of pitch meetings, the occasional development meeting, and sometimes really fun meetings like my field trips to WhiteMoon Dreams to look in on video game development.

• Vide Game Development — It’s an ongoing process and someday it will hopefully turn into ‘Video Game Playing’.

• Film Production — My current favorite pastime is being on a set directing. I don’t get to do this nearly enough, but I’m working on that. Not sure how I’m going to fit more into this schedule, though!

• Film Post Production — I have a love/hate relationship with this part of film making. It’s awesome to see the magic come together, but it’s also the pass/fail part of the process where you find out if you’ve made the right decisions along the way. It’s also long and often tedious due to a lot of waiting for things to get done.

• Concept Illustration — Occasionally, I actually bang out a piece of concept art for Privateer or for some film project I’m developing. I keep trying to hang up this hat, but every time I walk away, they pull me back in…

• Executive Management — The least glamorous of my day to day existence is actually contributing to the ongoing management of Privateer Press. It can involve anything from writing new company policy to coordinating physical facilities where we work. None of it has anything to do with making up new monsters or drawing robots, so for me, this is the price I pay to be able to do all the fun stuff the rest of the time.

• Blogging — This and other social media content generation! It seems to take up more and more of my time these days, but that’s because I’m enjoying it so much. Working remotely can be somewhat isolating, and the social media gives me a chance to connect with people I wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to speak with. I can find friendly voices online at just about any hour of the day now!

So that’s a pretty good cross section of what my day-to-day looks like. As you can see, it’s not all gaming and cocktail parties (do those things even go together?). But the truth is I really enjoy about 99% of what I do, even the more challenging tasks. Every day is different and I’m never, ever bored. Wouldn’t mind a little more time to play games, but as I’m fond of saying, no rest for the wicked…