Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Setting Choices

A couple of days ago a guy on the BuffyRPG list posted a question about which setting to choose for his new series.  I asked what he wanted to do with the series and his answer was pretty open-ended, so I wrote the following as I got to thinking about the strengths of different genres.


Ok.  It sounds like you're at the early stages of there's lots of places you could go.  I've found from everything I've read and from personal experience that the theme is the best starting place for any fiction that I'm writing.  You could wait to see what your players want, but if they end up wanting something that doesn't jazz you, you might lose interest or find that writing the episodes becomes a chore.  After you know what theme you want, and a setting choice results from that, then I agree that you should run that setting by your players.  If you pick the Wild West but your players recoil from cowboy hats as from a bad smell then the deal is off.

So how do you pick a theme?  There's a ton of advice out there, but I like George Orwell's.  Write about what makes you angry.  I got pissed off at marketers who target children and teenagers after watching a documentary about the subject, and that resulted in the first season of my Buffy series (  

Once you've got a theme you want to explore, you can chose the best setting for that job.  Note that you can do pretty much anything in any setting, but some make that job easier than others, just as tapping a nail into a wall to hang a picture frame is easier with a hammer than a 10-pound maul.

Westerns involve small groups of people living far from established authority in less than hospitable landscapes.  If you picked the theme of Individualism and the struggle to maintain it, then the Western will give you lots of latitude (the amoral rich rancher wants to grab some good folks’ land and the Law is too far away to care, or the Law in the form of the government wants to stretch its meddling tentacles into folks’ business).  Same goes for the theme of struggling with Nature (the rains have come to the normally dry town of Hardscrabble and the flash flooding is threatening to wash damn near everything away).  

Sci-fi as a setting offers lots of strengths, but I'll argue that the greatest is the ability to disguise issues, or defamiliarize them, which allows the audience to see an issue with fresh eyes without societal biases getting in the way.  Think back to the 1969 ST:TOS episode "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," where the two aliens who were black on one side and white on the other fought.  That episode made people think about race relations from a fresh perspective.

Horror deals with themes of fear, despair and alienation very well, so if you were going to do something crazy — like make a TV show about how High School is a special kind of hell, for example — then a modern horror setting would be a good fit.

Form follows function, and the choice of your setting should grow from your goals.    

Hector's Experimental Treatment

Last night I drove the one hundred miles to Dartmouth to visit Hector while he’s receiving the experimental treatment for his cancer.  During the drive I kept hoping that he’d have gained weight, but when I got there he greeted me as gaunt as ever.  After he let me into his room at the Marriot Residence Inn, a small suite with a tiny kitchenette and carpet that made you wonder who the hell designs the patterns for carpets, he sat down on the couch with frail movements, like someone decades older.  “I’ve been staring at these pills for over an hour,” he said.  Two small pink pills lay on a napkin on the coffee table.  He explained that they were pain killers, and that the doctors told him that all the stories about them being highly addictive weren’t true.  He didn’t like taking them, though, and usually waited too long before downing them.  His doctors had spoken to him about that.

I tried my best during the visit to play Upbeat Chris.  “Hey, man, you hungry?  It’s on me.  What can I get you?”  I haven’t been around many sick people, so I wondered what attitude to project, what would lift his spirits.  I kept reminding myself to undercut it.  Nobody likes Obnoxiously Upbeat Guy.  Maybe Upbeat Chris helped.  I don’t know.  At least I was able to get his laptop online, which he was happy about.

We talked about writing, mostly.  I’d brought him three books on writing, a couple by Nancy Kress and another with writing exercises.  He said he was happy with the books because they’re broken up into short chapters, which is his speed these days.  One of his friends, a guy named Joe Hill, just got his first collection of shorts published.  Hector loves them.  I told him about my correspondence with James Patrick Kelly and it turns out they’ve met.  Jim did a book signing at Jumpgate.  Hector said that signing was truly memorable, first off because it’s the only one that nobody showed up for, but also because James Patrick Kelly handled it like a consummate pro, still doing a reading as if the room was packed.  I thought back to how I didn’t run the episode of the Buffy RPG for the Halloween Bash because no one had signed up.  Yet another moment I wished for keys to a time machine.  Seeing him there like that, the last thing I wanted to imagine was that I’d disappointed him.  

After we ate the take-out we chatted for a while about the store and his plans for it, and after four hours he needed to take some more pills and get some rest.  As I was leaving I pressed him to email me when he got home and set up a regular time each week for me to visit.  I hope it works out.    

Sunday, November 20, 2005


I’ve picked up one of my early stories, a piece of flash fiction that I’m working on lengthening.  It’s a pretty simple story, so I’m concerned that it’ll be too short, but I’m usually concerned about that but wind up cutting because it’s too long.  Hopefully that’ll happen this time.

I was listening to New Hampshire Public Radio a few days ago and heard an interview with James Patrick Kelly, a Hugo winner and Nebula-nominated SF author who lives here in Nottingham.  I checked out his site and send him an email inviting him for dinner and he replied and asked me to call him.  I don’t think I’ve read any of his work, but I found one of his stories in one of my collections so I’m excited to read it, and to meet him.

Thursday, November 17, 2005


I had a terrible dream last night, one of those that draws your attention during the quiet moments of the day, and you find yourself trying to busy yourself to avoid it.  I dreamt that I couldn’t get out of bed — no, not because I was crushed beneath the weight of my gargantuan Alienware laptop — just because I was depressed.  Lots of unfortunate people suffer from clinical depression and face a struggle to rise each day, but, for all my anxiety troubles, I never have, and the paralysis I felt was creepifying.  Not the half-awake paralysis that results in night terrors; I wasn’t scared, just profoundly heartsick.

And I think I know what struck this scene in my mind.  Weeks ago I set out to write regularly, preferably every day, and that’s worked out like a windshield wiper on a duck’s ass.  I tried writing each morning but that conflicted with exercise (lots of heart disease in my family, so can’t skimp on the working out), so I tried lunchtime but that’s during the middle of work and work is too important to muck up with other stuff, and I tried late at night and found myself too sleepy.  So, here’s another idea.  I write in the morning because this recent experimentation has proven to me that I’m most creative in the morning, but instead of trying to write every morning, I go for the days that I don’t work out.  After all, it ain’t so much the quantity as the quality that I’m ultimately interested in.  

And if you, gentle reader, have any further ideas on what can help me to get my write on, please drop me a line.  Hell, if you exist please drop me a line … the “imagine you actually have an audience” trick don’t work so good no more.