My career in writing for the internet started in the spring of 2003 when I became the writer/webmaster for Ledgermain Comics alongside my best friend (whom some of you will recognize as Pele from the forums). Ledgermain ran for three years with moderate success that saw us invited to Marscon and caused my paths to cross with such future heavyweights in the industry as Rich Burlew and Rob Balder.
Possibly because of the misspelled name, Ledgermain didn’t last forever (though to this day we still talk about bringing it back because it was a blast to work on) and I soon became stuck with webhosting and no content. I tried my hand at my own comic, Pointy Bits, but soon gave up due to lack of artistic talent and a lack of willingness to do a sprite comic.
I hold out slim hope that some of you reading this today were actually with us way, way, way back then and stuck with me as I turned the site first into a repository for my World of Ere campaign setting and then into a clearinghouse for the bits and pieces of fiction I was writing on the side.
Anyway, in 2007 (was it really so long ago?) I knuckled down and started regularly posting The Descendants. In case your watch, cellphone and monolithic clock are all broken, this is being posted in early 2013, so I’ve been at this whole internet word-ape thing for a decade now.
And over that decade, not only have I been writing over two million words, but I’ve been watching a cultural revolution happen here on the venerable series of tubes. Like never before, it’s possible to observe entertainment from all angles. These days it isn’t enough to watch a show or read a book; we can read
- Goddammit, it’s stuck on ‘vernal equinox’ again!
And over that decade, not only have I been writing over two million words, but I’ve been watching a cultural revolution happen here on the venerable series of tubes. Like never before, it’s possible to observe entertainment from all angles. These days it isn’t enough to watch a show or read a book; we can read the producer’s blog and see step by step how the show comes together, or follow the author on twitter to watch those first glimmers of an idea come into being all the way to their personal first edits. On the other side, we can also watch twitter to see viewer reactions in real time, then drop in on the forums to see and hear every cut as the fans dissect their favorite media.
I find the entire thing fascinating. Being a nerd myself, I’ve been in a ton of online discussions myself, obsessively dug through the blogs of people involved in my favorite media and yes, even written some fanfiction.
This post is about just that: my observations and epiphanies in the course of being both a creator and a consumer on the advancing edge of an entertainment sea change. So sit back, relax, and hear me out as I discuss these things I’ve learned.
Creation Looks Much, Much Easier Than It Is
“No duh, Vaal”, I hear you saying through the microphones I secretly installed in your house as part of my ‘marketing research’ program.
It sounds academic, doesn’t it? Creating new entertainment is hard damn work. We know that. It takes most writers the better part of a year to conceive, write, polish and publish a novel it takes us a week to blaze through.
And television? Please. Leverage, a show I shill pretty often on this blog manages to turn out an episode in seven days of shooting and by the producers’ ow admission, that’s insanely fast. Normally it’s ten days—to produce forty-four minutes plus commercials of entertainment.
Movies are worse, taking months on million dollar budgets just to come out with ninety minutes.
So what’s the revelation? Where that time is spent.
Right now as I’m writing this, I have Descendants: LA #20 open in another OpenOffice.org window. It’s been open since six this evening and I’m only on page three of five. You know what’s got me stuck? It isn’t some action-packed set-piece, or complex discussion.
No, I’m stuck on coming up with a secluded place for Our Heroes to talk in private. This isn’t just an issue of where (there are plenty of places I created around Mayfield for this purpose); there’s research that needs to go into if that kind of place and the accompanying trappings would even exist in a city like LA, if it’s reasonable for the heroes to think they won’t be seen there, etc.
It isn’t the big, exciting stuff that takes up most of the time when you’re writing, it’s the minutia. Names are some of the most fun things to come up with, but they can be a pain when you’re naming a product of business because there are concerns about using the names of real things and making them sound convincing as that kind of item.
The same thing goes for set dressing and costumes. Actually making sure a hotel room has all the bells and whistles expected for one of that quality is actually a huge time-sink for me as well as designing the layout of scenes that take place in places you’ve never been to. For example, the second half of Liedecker Institute: Generations Aflame takes place at a Colorado ski resort. Having never been there, I downloaded a dozen brochures for similar resorts to create and authentic experience.
Costumes are a killer too. Everything has a specific name and just misidentifying one thing can throw a character’s entire look off. Unsurprisingly, I need to make use of online resources to know anything about women’s clothing.
I still don’t know what the hell to call those shoulder pieces.
And why go to all that trouble?
Audiences Know Your Work Better Than You Do
And they like it that way.
When I said I’ve watched viewers dissect shows, I wasn’t kidding. Especially in this day and age of closed mystery Myth Arcs like Lost, Fringe, or Heroes, that actively encourage the reader to break down every line of dialogue for clues, or comedies that include tons of freeze-frame jokes like Futurama or The Simpsons, that reward people for analyzing every 1/24th of a second of footage, modern audiences are primed to gorge on every tiny detail and read into them.
Because of this, even innocuous items and instances are subject to scrutiny and memory for the reader. Every one-off bit, every throw-away line: they all go into someone’s head—and stay there. Forever. And there they wait for the writer, who just added them as filler or to move the scene, to come along and contradict it.
In another article, I mentioned how audiences appreciate it when an author they like does something clever. This is the landmine waiting to screw that up. The second you forget these little bits and later contradict them, you will be called out on them and it will make you look a lot less clever.
It has happened to me. You can search the comments or the forums to find them; it’s not that hard. And I wear each and every one of those instances as a badge of honor instead of the pall of a shameful mistake. The fact is, I encouraged it from the very start by making it a trademark of mine to call back and unbury some truly ancient Chekhov’s Guns like Jay Willis back in Descendants #3, or the green dude from Descendants #10.
If people are going back and rereading stuff with an analytical eye, or coming into the series on a friend’s recommendation based on that sort of thing, and they become more intimately familiar with the story than I am, that means I’m doing my job in creating something they are engaged enough by and care enough about to do that.
And I do it too. It’s been almost a year since I bought new comics, but I would put money down that I know more details about the New X-men: Academy X characters than the whoever is writing Wolverine and the X-men now (if there is a God of Comics, Christos Gage is still on the book though). And don’t get me started on Spider-Man.
This is both more an less justified in comics because there is a high turn-over of writers and the original creator might be five or even twenty iterations distant from the work. But at the same time, given that mainstream superhero comic books are contracted fan fiction, you would expect the writer to be more knowledgeable about the characters they’ve been handed than the creators. Unfortunately, you don’t have to be an actual fan to write contract fanfiction, as famously happened when Kyle and Yost took over New X-men and killed off 80% of the cast because they didn’t know what to do with them.
Pictured: a character way more interesting than Cyclops.
And even if they are a fan, that doesn’t mean the story they’ll tell is the story that was in the creators’ head because…
Headcanon is a Thing
It seems so simple, right? A writer has an idea in their head and they put it on a page. Then you take that page and put it into your head. Now you’ve got the writer’s idea in your head, right?
It isn’t even just your intentional interpretation of what the creators of the work presented to you. Instead, it’s a combination of what you were trying to get out of it, plus what you subconsciously wanted, plus your interpretations of all the useless, ostensibly meaningless stuff we just talked about up there, PLUS the things you straight up decided to believe are true without evidence.
Welcome to the land of headcanon, population everyone.
The popular definition of headcanon is just that last part; the part where nothing contradicts an idea, so you decide that it’s true because you like it better that way. I only just recently came into contact with the idea during the Mass Effect 3 ending fiasco where someone on a forum I frequent came up with the headcanon that the idiotic ending (which I’ve even posted about here) was the result of the main character, Shepard being taken over by the main villains.
My personal definition expands on that because the literal ‘canon’ in each person’s head is effected by more than just conscious decisions. If you want proof, look no further than the shipping phenomenon.
Yes, many ships are based purely on ‘I want to see these characters together’, but if you read the arguments or even shipping fanfiction, you’ll quickly find that many of the people supporting a given ship do so based on their interpretation of what’s actually there in the work. What the writer saw as platonic or sibling relationship moments are seen as romantic; antagonism is seen as belligerent sexual tension, and every interaction between those characters is strip mined for ‘proof’ that the characters are good together.
Villains are often the beneficiaries of this in the form of what TVTropes called Draco In Leather Pants, wherein fans will invent a web of justifications to mitigate the flaws in a character they find too cool, attractive, or fun to treat as a proper villain.
There’s actually an entire category on the site call Unexpected Audience Reaction that deals with it, but the takeaway of this is that every one of us has a personal canon for our favorite media that they carry around with them that colors how they approach it.
This, in my opinion, is different from death of the author, which is the excuse lit classes invent for their continued existence and a concept I’m not a fan of.
“Who wants to read some random bullshit into this one?”
Right about now would be a good time to man up about an episode I had revolving around this that I’m not proud of:
As you may or may not know, there is a TVTropes page for The Descendants (It’s recently been brought to my attention that there is one for Rune Breaker too). For those of you not familiar with works pages there, anyone who is a member of the site can fill in said page with tropes that a given work shows examples of. The Descendants page had been around and we were even discussing it on the forums when someone added a trope called ‘EagleLand‘.
For those of you who don’t want to follow the link, Eagleland is a two part trope: one for the hyper-patriotic portrayal of America as the uber-best country in the world and everyone else can go screw themselves, and another for America as the cesspit of the planet, a place where science and basic human decency have been traded in for deep fried whipped cream and also chicken fried bibles (Read: the ‘Real America’ Tea Party types think is the only good part).
The entry added to the Descendants page was type 1, citing Amerocentrism in the early series. I’ll cop to that: the first two volumes are very much centered squarely on Mayfield. I disagree that the series is all that rah-rah patriotic though. What bugged me though was a line that said that China in the series was ‘even more communist’, and that every Chinese person seen in the series up to that point was a criminal or illegal.
At the time, I really took it personally. Seeing as the series is my baby, it made me feel like I was being called a racist. Also, it just wasn’t accurate: Patricia Masters and Li Bao Kong (Barn Owl) are both Chinese and neither immigrants, nor criminals. Also, even taking the earlier point about the audience knowing more than me into account, I seriously doubt I stated China was communist in The Descendants, because I don’t find them all the ‘communist-y right now. While the government of China still rolls with the state controlled everything deal, but they’ve very clearly embraced the absolute worst parts of capitalism.
Anyway, I lost my cool over the whole thing and said a number of pretty harsh things until some other fan edited the entry, presumably to shut me the hell up.
Today, I wish I handled this differently. People take what’s given to them and make of it what they will. It isn’t a reflection on me that someone got something less than pleasant like that out of my work anymore than it’s Weiss and Hickman’s faults that I probably came up with an entirely incorrect interpretation of their novel Bones of the Dragon while writing my review of it on Goodreads.
A much nicer version of this would be people’s reaction to Kareem. People love him. If there is one character I get more requests about, it’s him. The thing is, I’m pretty sure people don’t love him for the reason I love him.
I love Kareem because he’s a voice of reason within a cast of very intense characters. Juniper is adorable but a bit loopy, Cyn is the definition of genki, Warrick is a dork, Melissa is bitter, but (in the words of the late, great Douglas Adams) Kareem is just this guy, you know? Writing Kareem is a palate cleanser of sorts; allowing me to write from a calmer, less heavily skewed viewpoint.
There is almost zero chance that that’s what everyone sees in him, but that’s fine. Kareem is a great character and he really does deserve the love.
It’d be really cool to hear from you, the reader on this subject, by the way. I’ll have a thread on the forum by the time this goes live, asking you who your favorite characters are and why. Hearing from you is very important to me because…
People Like Being Included
There’s a discussion going on on a forum I frequent about female protagonists in videogames. As it is wont to do, the topic eventually turned to that old saw that males have a hard time identifying with female characters. I call bullshit on this and, to a lesser extent, to the ‘girls need role models‘ concept as it applies to stuff like videogames and other entertainment. Gamers, I feel get underestimated—we care a lot more about story and gameplay than we do about the gender of the person we’re using as an avatar of destruction.
It might not look like it going through my roster of characters, but I rarely give much thought to the diversity of my casts. The only character whose race was really important to me initially was Kareem because I wanted to make sure to have a Middle Eastern hero to take a stand against the incredible geyser of racism against Middle Easterners at the time. He’s specifically Iranian because someone I cared for very much is Iranian and had to endure a LOT of abuse in the years following 9/11. Kareem is my show of solidarity to them and to other victims of the current iteration of socially acceptable racism.
That said, I’m a big fan of just how big and varied humanity and all our cultures are. My brain is stuffed with legends, lore and mythos from all over the world that I really think would be fun to explore in stories. That’s why the Astral Plane borrows its symbolism from Hindu, Shinto and Buddhist mythology, why I went with the original Jewish mythos of the Golem for the recent story, ‘Emet’, and why instead of Hercules or Thor, the Super Gods of the DU are Anansi and Coyote.
It never really occurred to me that these are mythologies that tend not to get a lot of pop cultural play, but it’s been a learning experience as people responded to it. There’s something special about seeing someone take an interest in one’s cultural heritage, and I’ve heard loud and clear just how happy is makes some of my readers.
By extension, that makes me happy. It means we’re sharing something. Not just between myself and the readers whose cultures I’ve touched on, but the rest of you as well. Now the rest of you have had a taste of something that maybe you haven’t really been exposed to much elsewhere and it will encourage you to look further into it.
This article is about the things I’ve learned, and this blog is (usually) dedicate to revealing and discussing lessons learned from all over in terms of writing and such. I leave you now with the single most important lesson I’ve learned and one I hope you’ll take to heart:
The world is big and varied and completely amazing. Just recently, someone invented the cut-sealing gel you see in science fiction. When I started Descendants, palmtop computers and tablets were failed technologies and today, most people reading this have a smartphone and tablet. I just read an article about how ‘zombie powder’ is both real an terrifying. There are new things to learn about this world every single day—so go out and put some of it in your brain right now.
Um… not literally.
One last note before I go: I’m almost finished editing the second Descendants book: ‘Vs. Project Tome’. Keep an eye on the forum and the news post this coming week to find out how to win a copy of the ebook before it even goes on sale!
You can respond to this post in the comments section or the forum. Or you can talk to Vaal directly by tweeting @ParadoxOmni on Twitter. You can also support him by checking out his books on Amazon.