What writers can learn from fantasy RPG’s

Back in the early 1980s I used to do role-playing games. It began with the old classic, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons™, which came with hardback rule books, dice and long evenings with friends where everything was defined by random die roll:

Dungeon Master: You enter a room and [rattle of dice] find a wardrobe.
Player: My character opens the wardrobe and [rattle of dice] steps in. Are there fur coats?
Dungeon Master: [rattle of dice] The wardrobe is a shape shifted Gob Monster. Make a saving throw.
Player: [rattle of dice] Failed.
Dungeon Master: You’ve been swallowed and are about to pass through the [rattle of dice] duodenum.
Player: My character says [rattle of dice] “Aaaargh”.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to re-draw and digitise. Similarity to the coast of Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, is entirely coincidental. Honestly, officer.

However, our little group balked at the way the whole was framed around hack-and-sorcery stereotypes, into which had been droozled elements of Tolkien. Then there was the way characters were ‘aligned’ to a nine-space cliche morality grid. Even as young twenty-somethings, we knew human reality was a tad more complex:

Player: My character backstabs the Elf and steals the magic dingus.
Dungeon Master: You can’t do that, you’re Lawful Good.
Player: Haven’t you heard of the law of the jungle...and it’s good for me.

We shortly ditched the game and swung into creating our own, which was very different and built around telling the story of characters in a fantasy world, largely via what amounted to improvised theatre between the players – collaborative creativity. Character names varied from the German slang for ashtrays to a brand name of analog synthesisers. Place names commemorated 1980s synth-pop bands and motorcycle part makers. The rest came from Bored of the Rings

The panel of one of my analog synths... dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable.

This brand of analog synth became a character name. I own the synth pictured here…but it wasn’t my character. Anybody care to guess the name?

As you can guess, if it was silly, it usually happened. A lot got written down. And therein is the lesson. It was good practise. The rules and scenarios demanded creativity, and an ability to write in ways others could follow. Afterwards, we got down to writing down the adventures. None of it is publishable – or readable outside the playing group, now scattered. (The guy that developed the map and game with me, these days, is an indie film-maker in the UK, for instance.)

I last played our RPG©®™ nearly 30 years ago. We’d come to the end of the world scenario, and our characters had gone through their development arcs. We deliberately ended it with a final adventure that wrapped up the characters. The end. It was fun at the time, but I don’t miss it. What counts – now – is the way it created writing experience. Part of the million word journey from unconscious incompetence to making writing part of your soul.

Did you play AD&D™ or its variants? Did you write down those adventures? Or is there something else you’ve done that has captured your imagination and got you writing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


And now, some shameless self promotion: Where that million word apprenticeship led me:

It’s also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Nook is coming soon.

You can still buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

Do you have a writing group…like Tolkien?

Most writers, I realised the other day, hang out with writing groups. Or at least other writers.

Inside the Eagle and Child. Photo: A. Wright.

Inside the ‘Eagle and Child’. (Wright family photo)

J R R Tolkien, for instance, was part of a group called the ‘Inklings’, who met in a local Oxford pub – the Eagle and Child, known locally as the ‘Bird and Baby’Every Tuesday from 1939 until 1962 they’d go there to drink beer, swap stories – and read their tales to each other.

Imagine that – C. S. Lewis, Roger Lancelyn Green, Owen Barfield or maybe Lord David Cecil were the very first people in the world to experience The Lord of the Rings  – and they heard much of it in Tolkien’s own voice, as he sat there reading them the manuscript.

Tolkien himself was one of the first to hear passages from Lewis’s Narnia series. How awesome is that? Two of the greatest fantasy writers in the twentieth century, hanging out in the same pub and reading each other’s stories.

My key-ring from the Raffles Writers Bar. Complete with the original wrapping (yes, I am a writing nerd).

My souvenir key-ring from Raffles. Complete with the original wrapping.

During the early twentieth century other writers congregated in Raffles hotel, Singapore, to the point where there’s a Writers Bar, which (in its original location in the lobby) was frequented by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and W. Somerset Maugham. Its denizens were usually well lubricated with gin, tonic and Singapore Sling, invented around 1910 by Ngiam Tong Boom in the Long Bar on the opposite corner of the building.  Alas, this literary enclave came to a sharp end with the Second World War. But the spirit lingers. Did I say ‘spirit’? I did, didn’t I.

I made the pilgrimage to the Writers Bar in 2001, sans the cocktail.

Established writers usually veer into shop talk – the scale of the latest advances or gossip about editorial changes at Publisher X. I know that’s how my chats with other writers go, when I catch up with them. Which, unfortunately, isn’t often. I know plenty of writers and publishers, and it’s always good to have a yarn. But it’s hard to find time to get together.

Besides which, a lot of what I write is history – which, here in New Zealand,  is owned by viciously hostile in-crowds. Someone once described the behaviours of the military history crowd, particularly, as akin to circling piranhas.

Instead I hang out mostly with mathematicians and science types. And talk about my original interest, which isn’t history… it’s physics.

Do you have a writing group? How often do you meet?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, geekery, science and more. Watch this space.

Creating your own literary ‘ear worm’ – like Tolkien and Rowling

Ever had a song stuck in your head – usually, the catchy riff or chorus the composer deliberately engineered for the purpose? They’re called ear-worms.

Weta's 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington.

Weta’s 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington, December 2012.

It’s apparently been discovered that the way to kill them – for a third of us anyway – is to listen to Thomas Arne’s eighteenth century ditty God Save The Queen.

Truth be told, I’m not sure that dislodging mental wheelspin with something horrible is a discovery. Back in the 1970s, for instance, Kiwi gentlemen knew that if they became transfixed by posters of the latest glamour pin-up de jour (Farrah Fawcett or, given that New Zealand was still 98.5% British back then, Caroline Munro), all they had to do for instant antidote was glance at a picture of our Prime Minister of the day, Robert Muldoon.

For writers the problem is the exact reverse. We have to figure out how to create a literary earworm – a concept or idea that keys so deeply into popular psyche that it sticks. I hesitate to call it a ‘book worm’. It’s one of the keys to sales.

To my mind the guy who did it – in spades – was J R R Tolkien. Not intentionally. What he was consciously doing with his Middle Earth mythos was creating a new mythology for Britain. And for a long time, nobody noticed – he couldn’t get the Silmarillion published, and Rayner Unwin was dubious about the viability of The Lord Of The Rings. A judgement borne out by dismal early sales figures.

But then something happened. In 1965 – after nearly a decade of bobbing along in mediocre-sales-land – it took off. The break-through came with a guerilla edition produced via copyright loopholes in the US. Tolkien hastened to get an authorised ‘second edition’ pushed into the market. That sold like hotcakes.

But even the pirate edition wouldn’t have taken off if it hadn’t keyed into what society wanted, just then.

Tolkien’s rusticated Hobbit society – and his faerie imagery with Tom Bombadil – harked to ‘Merrie England‘ and, to some extent, the arts-and-crafts movement of the nineteenth century. But by chance it also keyed directly into the values of 1960s counter-culture, which drew from similar inspiration. Mix that with epic-scale setting, the huge operatic scenario of good and evil – imagery that ran to the heart of western culture – and he had a winner.

The Lord of the Rings, in short, became a literary ‘ear-worm’. J K Rowling did much the same thing – using, in this case, classic ‘magic’, blended with much the same epic-scale themes – with Harry Potter.

So that’s how it’s done. The problem is that in both cases, luck played a role. But, as I’ve said before, that’s always part of the calculation.

Have you ever read something that stuck in your mind – that impressed you hugely? And have you ever read a book that’s left you stone cold – the ‘anti-earworm’ of literature?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing and publishing tips, science, history and other stuff. Watch this space.

If you think of Jackson’s ‘Hobbit’ as a fan-fic video game it makes more sense

I finally caught up with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Part two of the trilogy – and don’t we know it. The film ended – splat – in the middle of what was structurally the build-up to the dramatic finale.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian’.

It also confirmed what I pretty much understood from watching the first instalment, The Hobbit: Leaving Bag End and Getting As Far as the Front Gate. Once upon a time I read a wonderful book by J. R. R. Tolkien. A few scenes in these movies bear passing resemblance to one or two passages in the book, but I think we have to accept that this movie trilogy isn’t really Tolkien’s wonderful kids’ tale.

To me this instalment – particularly – came across as a cross between high-budget fan fiction and a shoot-em-up video game, with plenty of set-piece chase sequences and puzzle-solvers, melodramatic cliff-hangers in lieu of real tension and cliched game-style characters (I’m talking about you, Tauriel). But it had little in the way of tight plot, characterisation or true dramatic tension.

Possibly Smaug. Possibly not.

Possibly Smaug. Possibly not.

Judged on its own merits – and accepted as the middle third of a nine or ten hour story – The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug was OK. It’s very much in line with current trends, like X-men and other SFX spectaculars. But I know Jackson’s capable of better than this. He did a stunning job on The Lord Of The Rings. Wonderfully scripted, structured and paced.

What happened? I fear the market happened. The Lord of the Rings was over a decade ago. The big studios don’t seem to be taking major risks these days – it’s why multi-parters and franchises rule. It’s why movies appeal more to the video-game set now than they ever have in the past.

In the wider scheme of things, Jackson’s version of The Hobbit pretty much nails current market expectation. I fully expect to see a vid-game involving [spoilers!] a helter-skelter barrel chase while overcoming obstacles, pulling levers and dodging orc arrows; or a scuffle through Erebor jumping between platforms and moving conveyor belts, pulling levers and so forth in order to flood the bad guy with molten gold.

To me that tells us a lot about ourselves, about how society has changed, about how our expectations have been moulded. And Tolkien’s ouvre, I think, deserves more than this.

Your thoughts? Have you seen this part of the trilogy yet? What did you think?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More art deco holiday snaps, regular posts resume next week. Watch this space.

Guess which real-world place is most like Mordor…

Last week a British meteorologist at the University of Bristol published a weather analysis of Middle Earth. Tres cool.

Here’s a link to the paper: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2013/10013-english.pdf

According to the report, the weather in The Shire was much the same as that of Lincolnshire – which is pretty much what Tolkien was envisaging. It’s also like Belarus, but that may be coincidence. The place in New Zealand where the weather is closest to The Shire is north of Dunedin. Curiously – though the report didn’t mention it – there’s an area there called Middlemarch, which sounds suitably Tolkienish.

Not really Mordor - this is a photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, near Westport in the South Island of New Zealand.

Not really Gorgoroth – this is a photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, near Westport in the South Island of New Zealand.

When it comes to Mordor, the real-world place I immediately think of is the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, which I visited earlier this year. Tolkien’s explicit imagery was First World War trenches and Birmingham factories. But that isn’t where the British meteorologist found Mordor weather. Oh no. turns out the places most like Mordor, weather-wise, are New South Wales, western Texas and Los Angeles. (That said, Tolkien also made clear that the gloom around Mordor was made by Sauron.)

It was spring when I took this picture of a railway station in Soest, Netherlands.

Ok, so it wasn’t raining when I took this picture in Soest, Netherlands…but it was overcast.

What struck me about the report was how close Tolkien got to what we’d expect from a scientific perspective, if his land was real. There is a reason for this – Tolkien was basing his world on Europe. The Shire was approximately where Britain lies; Gondor and Mordor in North Italy. The weather he described followed, especially the constant rain around Trollshaws in The Hobbit, a place geographically congruent to Soest, Netherlands.

All of which is pretty neat. And it goes to show that there is often a lot more in the creations of fantasy writers than they perhaps imagine when they come up with the concept.

What do you think of Middle Earth weather?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: More writing tips, more science, more humour and more Tolkien stuff. Not that I’m a fan. Well, I am really.

Write it now: the perils of the deus ex machina

If you think Sharknado was bad, as in ‘deliberately-so-bad-it’s-good’, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

'That's no moon'. Wait - yes it is. It's Mimas, orbiting Saturn.

‘”That’s no moon”. “Wait – yes it is. It’s Mimas, orbiting Saturn.” “Quick- switch on the INTEROSITER!”

Before Baywatch, before Knight Rider, there was… Star Crash. Spaghetti sci-fi made in Italy 22 milliseconds after Star Wars, directed by Luigi Cozzi and featuring The Hoff. I saw it on first release and again recently. It has a certain cult status, and is ‘good’ in that atrociously awful way. As it was Italian, it oozed visual style and had some wonderful nods to Ray Harryhausen. But the spaceship models had been put together from kit parts, including the sprue. The story didn’t hang together at all. The script was hilarious, and the soundtrack was dubbed from English into…er… English, sometimes without proper lip synch.

It also shared the major plot problem with Star Wars. The deus ex machina.

In Star Wars, the Death Star, via a very stupid design flaw, could be blown up by a single shot. (‘I’m going to turn off the targeting computer’. ‘No, Luke, no. Turn ON your targeting computer. It’s designed to hit small targets. That’s what it’s there for.’)

In Star Crash, one character had super-powers, never hinted at until needed to get the Good Guys out of a scrape.  And again…and again…

Still, even the best authors succumb – look at Tolkien, for whom eagles repeatedly  rescued everybody at the last moment. especially in The Lord of the Rings where to be consistent with what had happened to that point, Frodo and Sam should have died after fulfilling the quest. I suspect Tolkien’s decision to repeatedly portray a defiance of death, whatever it took, flowed from his Western Front experience – after all, the whole Mordor sequence reflected that aspect of his life. However, it led to such obvious questions as why nobody asked the eagles to fly Frodo to Mordor in the first place. Much easier.

Setting that aside, the deus ex machina happens mostly when the author paints their characters into a situation that’s impossible to escape from. Either intentionally or through ‘seat of the pants’ free-flow creation.

The Hemingway answer is ‘OK, then they die’. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything if I point to the last pages of Farewell To Arms.

But that doesn’t happen in deus ex machina stories.

The problem is that deus ex machina reduces the story to melodrama, killing suspension of disbelief stone dead. Why? Because deus ex machina moments don’t happen in the real world unless you’re deliberately funny.

What’s the answer? Planning. Sketching out plot and story; and if you must have your characters end up in an impossible position – well, it’s going to be on the last page, isn’t it. The trick is to ensure the plot is structured to that end – that it completes the arc, dramatically and in terms of character. As Hemingway, indeed, always did.

Hemingway. Tolkien. spaghetti sci-fi… Did I just post something linking them all? I did…didn’t I.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: Finishing up the NaNo tip series, more writing hints, and fun stuff about Interositers – watch this space.

Drawing your readers with pace and character

It seems to me that the most important thing about a story is the least visible – the structure. A well-written story should draw the reader along invisibly – pulling them into the tale without obvious device or technique.

Of course, it IS done through device and technique – just not overtly. One of the ways this is done is through proper pacing; a rise and fall of tension, in systematic waves, building finally to an explosive denouement that resolves the diverse plot threads of the tale. This means putting the major excitement at the end – and avoiding the temptation to build up to it via a succession of melodramatic ‘Perils of Penelope’.

Probably Bert and Tom, I think. Two of the three 'life size' trolls. Cool.

Bert and Tom from ‘The Hobbit’. Spotted by me in central Wellington rather than Trollshaws. Cool.

The trick is to build the story through the way characters systematically react to events – to show how their character develops as a consequence of the narrative experiences. One of my favourite stories, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, is a model of how to do it – partly because Tolkien takes Bilbo on the classic ‘hero journey’ of self-discovery. The major battle, at the very end, resolves all the loose ends of the narrative plot and simultaneously completes Bilbo’s character evolution. From the narrative sense, the return journey to Hobbiton can be dealt with in just a few pages even though it’s as long as the journey out, because it’s not important to the key story.

A less experienced writer might be tempted to narrate the return journey as well – and, indeed, Tolkien did in an early casting of the plot, envisaging the Battle of Five Armies near the Misty Mountains as Bilbo returned with the treasure. But it would have been a less compelling story, structurally – and he then decided to go with the more integrated tale we know and love.

Another of my favourites is Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Every ‘road trip’ Kerouac’s hero (and alter-ego) Sal Paradise takes is a further step towards resolving why Paradise has to be on the road at all – his quest for self-discovery, all at helter-skelter pace, building to the final journey in which all the experiences he was seeking come together in a final outburst of hedonism.

Both these books – and, of course, many other classics we know and love – offer models of how it’s done. Lessons we can draw from today.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Write it now, part 30: Middle Earth on a plate?

I’ve mentioned before that the art of writing focuses on what to avoid – not what to add.

Take food, for which we need go no further than J R R Tolkien. This week, the Roxy– a wonderful art deco cinema, literally just down the road from Peter Jackson’s studios in Miramar, Wellington – got into Hobbit mode for the annual ‘Wellington on a plate’ food festival.

The Roxy cinema, Miramar, Wellington - restored to fabulous 1930s art deco condition by Peter Jackson. A photo I took in 2011.

The Roxy cinema, Miramar, Wellington – restored to fabulous 1930s art deco condition by Peter Jackson. A photo I took in 2011.

The cinema’s restaurant, Coco at the Roxy, is providing Lord Of The Rings themed meals – which is pretty cool idea. Though I don’t think I’d be a fan of their genuine sixteenth century starters such as ‘faggots’,  a legitimate sixteenth century delicacy made of offal with a delicate covering of stomach fat. Mind you, how would a sixteenth century peasant view the fast foods we gorge on? I bet they’d find them too sweet (including the savouries) and way too salty.

The Roxy menu was a modern interpretation. Which is fair enough, because with a few exceptions, Tolkien was a bit vague about food. And that was a good thing. Let me explain.

Although Tolkien portrayed Middle Earth tech as High Medieval (creating the default fantasy tech for the genre), Hobbit society was a deliberate take on 1890s Midlands village life. He did this consciously, one of the many elaborate jokes he wove into his mythos. Their food reflected it; in The Hobbit, Bilbo’s cuisine is specifically English middle class, including the afternoon tea cake selection.

Tolkien went wider with the other peoples – but not much. Dwarves ate Cram on the road. Apart from lembas, Elvish food was conceptually ‘higher taste’ and largely nonspecific. He described various meals, but roast meats, vegetables, mead, breads and other pre-industrial fare was implicit rather than explicit, most of the time.

All was duly lampooned by Messrs Beard and Kenney in Bored Of The Rings, whose Boggies were uncontrollable gluttons who ate anything they would wrist-wrestle down their well-muscled  throats (anything, that is that they weren’t stashing in their coin purses ‘for later’). When the Boggies got going on the road, eventually, their menus were laugh-out-loud funny.

As always, Tolkien got it right; he did not have to describe all the food in every detail – it was more powerful to omit descriptions. Instead, and with the elves particularly, he usually gave us the idea of the food – what it meant to those experiencing it.  By painting other aspects of the elves in full detail, he was able to provoke our imaginations into filling the food gap via skilful use of image and concept – not literal description.

A brilliant technique; but, of course, that’s Tolkien for you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: more writing tips, publishing news, general geekery and more. Watch this space.

A glimpse of The Hobbit on its last day

I flew out of Wellington late last week and – as the aircraft climbed into a flawless sky – caught a glimpse of Peter Jackson’s studios, with outdoor green screen, then of The Hobbit set perched atop Mount Crawford.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

I just HAD to do the fanboy thing in the entrance to 2012′s Hobbit Artisan Market, central Wellington.’.

Shooting was wrapping up that day on the last pick-ups for the third movie. Ending, for Jackson, a fourteen year odyssey into J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantastic world that began in October 1999 with the first shooting day on The Lord Of The Rings.

In the process he planted Wellington, New Zealand, firmly on the movie-making map. Today we’ve got major Hollywood blockbusters under way in the capital – and top directors like James Cameron in residence.

It got me thinking. I was introduced to The Hobbit aged 8. It’s a timeless story. I re-read it recently, before I saw the movie – and it’s still got it. My nephew, now aged 8, is a fan and just loves watching the movies. It’s a story for all ages.

A story that, truth be told, Tolkien wrote not for the world, but for his own kids. And in creating something personal, something immediate for those he knew, he created something profoundly iconic – something that speaks to people of all ages, that spans the generations. In a way, it is a product of its time; his writing is firmly 1930s in many respects. But we don’t care.

That makes me wonder. Who do writers write for –  and how far do they get when writing for a specific audience, as opposed to a general one? What counts – commercial product or author satisfaction?

I have my own thoughts on the answers, and I’m sure you do too. I’d love to hear from you – let’s talk.

Copyright © Matthew Wight 2013

Not so smug about Smaug

Warner Brothers released the first clips of Smaug the Dragon this week, six months ahead of The Hobbit, Part 2: Desolation of Smaug.

‘You are?’ the stranger asked politely. ‘Why, I am Bioquxqwehr, a Gchqetuzgchzghghughwy from the city of  Cigghguhqchchgh in the land of Aqghpowiqghghghpoewqgch.’ ‘A land,’ the stranger observed ‘where the commonest cause of death is choking on one’s own tongue?’ ‘Why yes,’ said Bioquxqwehr. ‘How in all the name of Pwqhexghxghxghchchghxiud did you guess that?’

‘I say, George old boy, off for a spot of dragon hunting, eh what?’ ‘I should jolly well think so.’ “By Jove, bit of a ripping wheeze, that!’

The creature is the whole rationale of The Hobbit and, I suppose, focus of the next two movies in the nine-hour epic adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s modest childrens’ tale.

We know what Smaug looked like because Tolkien carefully drew him – my copy of The Hobbit has the author’s own illustration on the cover, in fact. A classic dragon, a creature St. George would have been proud to defeat in single combat – and deliberately done that way by Tolkien, for good reason.

Does the dragon look like that in the movie? Noooo.


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I’m a huge Peter Jackson fan. I’m a huge Tolkien fan. And the imagery we have in our heads as we read a story will always differ between people

But Tolkien was pretty specific about the look of his dragon

Question: should film-makers follow the author’s vision – or is it adding something to have a new look to Smaug? Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013