Vaal: Secret Origins
Okay, so a reader requested this on the blog thread on the forum. I actually have no idea what compelled him to ask because I’m pretty much the most boring bastard on earth, but I am all about reader appreciation, so here goes.
The original question was what originally got me into writing and now you’ll get the full story.
I can’t be sure, but I’m pretty sure most writers got their starts in high school when they discovered they were good at creative writing assignments or later in life once they realize they’re not happy doing other things and discover writing. Me? I was born into stories.
A bit of background: both of my parents are mixed race, predominantly black, leaving me a third generation mulatto cocktail with some hints of Native American and Chinese for flavor. Even in the vaunted years of the 1980’s life was not particularly fair to black kids and it stored up a bonus bitch slap for mixed kids. As a general rule, being mixed means that everybody gets to be racist against you. It’s like being Blade, only you get everyone’s weaknesses and none of their strengths (especially if you’re really, really light skinned like me and you have to fight to convince people you count as ‘black’ for aide purposes and such).
My mother knew this well, so from a very young age, her mission was to turn me into some kind of academic supersoldier. The most important part of this training regimen for my soft, malleable brain meat was telling stories. Telling not reading. This is an important distinction.
Of course, she read to me too. I had the primo stuff: Bernstein Bears and, of course: Golden Books. I’m talking Tawny, Scrawny Lion, bro. There were like a million of them and even to this day, they are one of my Pillars of Childhood. But I don’t think the fact that I knew how to read well before starting school is what got me into writing.
For that, return to the telling of stories. My mom’s a creative lady. She recently discovered fanfiction and though she has yet to pen anything, she’s actually got her own weird concepts in mind for Descendants. For example, she ships Morganna and Liedecker. She also insists that Isp and Osp should have a little sister. And while those will never, ever come to fruition on my watch, you know which of her crazy ideas did? Beer Money. Yup, one of the best received Descendants stories ever came from my mom wondering why villains never used the Power of Friendship.
So she knows her way around a trope and a yarn. Which goes a long way toward explaining how the most enduring and beloved stories she told me were based on a doughnut box.
See, as children do, I became pretty enchanted with the cute bear on that box and my mom jumped on that like a the internet on someone who likes a different kind of music (can someone explain to me why we’re supposed to hate dub-step, Lady Gaga and Nickelback?) with a story about Beebo, a little bear that had adventures in a cute little fantasy land that was a third Hundred Acre Wood, a third The Shire and a third Gummi Bears.
For years, bedtime meant I got a choice between a story from a book (Except Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve was always a story from this big book of Christmas stories we had). Over time, I almost never chose the book unless it was a new book. And here is where the magic came in: over time, mom would start to ask me what choices Beebo should make, or what kind of story she should tell about Beebo that night.
Once I was confident with having a hand in the story, she’d purposefully bait me with bad endings or Beebo making terrible decisions so I’d cut in and make changes myself. Eventually, the choice every night was if mom told the story or I did. Then I would just want to tell stories and I’d put on little plays for my parents or relatives when I felt like it. Weirdly enough, a lot of these amounted to Dino Riders fanfiction where I added in dinosaurs I’d learned about that were more awesome than the ones in the show (Iguanadons are awesome to a five year old because they’re always giving a thumbs up).
And that’s where it started. Especially for a kid, telling stories is amazingly empowering. When you’re a kid and even as you get older, there’s a feeling of helplessness there. Fate is going to keep moving in the direction is wants, no matter what you do. The right choices help, but sooner or later, the unforeseen and the actions of others always have the power to put us right back in sway. But when you’re telling a story, performing an act of creation, you are in control and no one but you can decide the outcome. It’s a very nice feeling to have both as a child and as an adult.
But let’s not forget the reading part. Reading is vital for a writer. Without being able to take in new stories and styles and parsing them into techniques and tropes, you will have no tools at your command when it comes down to filling those pages no matter how good an idea you have. In fact, Stephen King has said: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
Reading was, as I said, a part of the bedtime ritual at my house, but also free time as well. Again, mom made sure of it. I was allowed to watch (and tape) cartoons and TV shows all I wanted, and I got videos for special occasions, but whenever the school had a book fair, that’s when I got spoiled for entertainment. I would bring the little Scholastic catalog for the book-fair home and mom and I would go over what I wanted to buy the first day and she’d send me to school with more money than most of the rest of my class combined to stock up, mostly on stuff advertised on my class’s weekly Reading Rainbow viewings.
Lavar Burton did more for my brain than most teachers.
Then at the end, she’d come with me and we’d buy stuff she thought I’d like and we’d get it cheap because the fair was over. I was sick one year and she drove over there and bought my books for me.
As school wore on, my appetite for books increased and I started getting into the Great Illustrated Classics series that they sold near the toy section of Roses. For those of you not wanting to follow the link, GIC series of books like The Curious Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that were abridged and had their language updated so young readers could follow along with the story. By the time I was seven, I was spending a lot of time with these.
Despite having been telling stories, I didn’t start writing stories until middle school when I was around elven or twelve. The catalyst for this was boredom: I had a lot of notes-heavy classes and I hated taking notes. Unfortunately, despite me doing well in class, the teachers wanted to see me taking notes, so I started bringing a spare composition notebook to write in.
That first story was The Angel Awakens, and was unfathomably terrible: the Tale of a young man who receives a set of magic amulets (I loved the word ‘amulet’ thanks to Dino Riders) from a mysterious source and then stupidly gives the clearly evil one to his love interest, swiftly getting her possessed by an evil entity called Angel.
It was draw and discard for a few years after that. From ‘Angel’, I moved to a sci-fi ‘aliens infiltrate the planet’ story called True Human Race and a fantasy guile hero tale called Honor Among Thieves. By the time high school arrived, I was set on the predecessor of The Descendants: Chaos and Darkness. That story had roots all the way back to the Beebo days, as Beebo was eventually supplanted by a badass starship crew (who were suspiciously similar to the Dino Riders) who then eventually gained powers (suspiciously similar to the X-men).
The problem was that while I knew who to tell a story and I certainly knew how to get ideas on paper, I had no style. My writing was very much ‘and then this happened, then this’ style. There wasn’t much emotion in it and I didn’t know how and why to employ tropes. Things just happened and kept happening.
I stopped writing for a bit in college. I just didn’t have time. There was hanging out to do and dating and my freshman year coincided with the arrivals of Grand Theft Auto III, Final Fantasy X, and the original Halo. There wasn’t time to do anything like write when the videogame renaissance was happening just up the hall.
But once again, I found a light. In the late fall, I was introduced to DnD. Being a nerd, I of course loved roleplaying and it was an amazing experience to play and develop characters. But the most important part in terms of my writing was bitching about the rules.
I’ll get into this in another blog about my approach to fantasy, but I had some issues with DnD 3rd edition as it was written. Why did firearms suck and why were those sucky firearms so rare in the world? Why did alignment work in such a pig-stupid way? What what this Vancian Magic bullshit and why did it make zero narrative sense? And where the hell were the goblin PCs? I was an Magic: the Gathering player at the time and this was important.
The veterans I was playing with politely told me to shut my stinking word-hole and that once I knew the game, I could DM and then I could house rule anything I wanted. To them I said:
And spent the Christmas break devouring DnD books so I could DM their faces off with guns and goblins and no alignment. I would shot them—show them all! Mua-ha—mua-ha-ha-ha! ~ahem~. It was in the course of learning to be a DM that I discovered worldbuilding, describing cinematic action, and constructing NPC personalities.
Being a DM and playing in roleplaying games showed me how to get into the mode where you’re writing to keep the audience engaged. When you’re sitting at the table with three to five other people, you can tell when the way you’re describing things is putting them to sleep. You can also see the looks of concern or satisfaction on their faces when you narrate a badass monster demonstrating how intractable it is, or that same monster’s death throes. And you can tell which characterizations are working because the party talks about and comes back to them (or takes them with).
I think a lot of writer/DM’s squander this excellent training by using the game to test out their story idea. This is a terrible plan, because roleplaying is collaborative storytelling and if you’re just trying to tell your story, either it’s going to be ‘ruined’ by the players or you’re going to bore your players because they can’t make things happen.
What one should be getting out of this is technique and flexibility. I touched on this in the forum discussion on Rune Breaker, but my players were a bunch of outliers (one in particular) who, when given a choice of left or right would choose ‘up’ or ‘Thursday’ and make it work. I had to become master of the Xanatos Gambit just to keep a game running more than an hour at a time.
In the same way, sometimes the characters, with their goals and histories will end up making the direction you intended ring hollow. Many will try to force it, or abandon the whole thing, but thanks to the trial by fire my players gave me, I’m always thinking of fallback positions.
Besides reading everything, I believe that roleplaying is the best exercise I get as a writer. As of this posting, I’m playing in tow online games and running the one on the forums while planning to run another.
And I think that brings me back to The Descendants. I’m pretty sure you know the story there: Mild mannered geek, Landon Porter, upset at the end of Marvel’s House of M and the entirety of Civil War pours all of his rage and pain into a crucible of words. Molding it into the likeness of his beloved Bronze Age and ‘The Animated Series’ imaginings of comics he grew up with, he brings forth a new comic book universe, hampered only by his lack of ability to draw… or edit.
One more little detail as to how I ended up writing a webserial is this: I can’t draw. Back in college, I discovered webcomics and wanted in on it, but couldn’t draw to save my life. Luckily, I was able to partner with my best friend (then Nyx, now Pele; she was also the player in the solo game that eventually became Rune Breaker) to create Ledgermain Comics. But, of course, college ended and real life encroached, putting the project on hiatus (we still talk about bringing it back. And by still, I mean we’ve talked about it in 2013).
You probably never heard of Ledgermain, but we were pretty well connected back in the day. Barb from Fragile Gravity got us invited as speakers at Marscon, I hung out with and talked merchandising ideas with Rob Balder on more than one occasion, and I got to see Rich Burlew’s Order of the Stick way back when he was just posting them for kicks on the Nifty Message boards. I was actually one of those who suggested he set up a site and ours was the very first webcomic to link it.
So when I started writing my little love letter to good comics, I just sort of stayed online. If you’re a very, very old fan, you’ll remember a time when The Descendants was hosted under ledgermaincomics.com (now defunct).
Which brings us to the here and now. I’ve been writing in one form or another for almost twenty years. I’m still chasing that rainbow where something I created hits it big and gains some meaning in the world, but that’s not what makes me sit here week after week plugging away.
There are a lot of reasons why. Part of it is that I’m not really sure I’m wired like everyone else. I think other people can literally think about ‘nothing’ when they’re bored. They can sit there in line or wait for the movie to start and think about how bored they are or something. Me? I shunt into weird flights of fancy about shows or movies I wish were real to things I wish would happen in real life. I can play a whole episode in my brain given time enough and if I didn’t have an outlet for them, they’d just pile up in there.
It’s also therapy in many ways. Being able to write a world where things happen the way they would if the world was right and just and sane helps a lot, especially with someone who listens to the news all the time like me and hears baldfaced insanity all the time.
And, to be perfectly honest, it’s an excuse. I’m a curious guy who loves science and learning, but I’m pretty much only good at knowing those facts, not applying them. Writing speculative fiction lets me put those facts to good use and justifies my endless quest to learn all the odd things that come up in my works (yes, even fantasy).
That’s about it. I’m honestly shocked I managed to get four pages written on myself. Oh well, you asked and I provided. That’s how it works. If you want to see me talk about other subjects, just post on the forum and I’ll see if I can’t make it happen.
Next week, unless I get another request, we’ll dive into Standard Fantasy; the problems I have with it and things I’d like to see done there. Until then my friends.
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