Two Reminders for Writing Genre Fiction

An editor friend of mine was at a writing conference not too long ago, and he came back with a horror story about genre fiction (no, not a horror genre story.) There’s two basic reminders for writing genre fiction that good writers follow.

Know the Tropes

If you’re going to write genre fiction, you have to know the tropes. If it’s a hardboiled detective story, you need a detective, usually a gruff one. If it’s space opera, it better be set in space. Romance? There better be a romantic relationship front and center.

Now, understand that this doesn’t mean you’ve got to spend a lot of time researching every possible thing that needs to be there. Some of this comes with practice, some from having good beta readers (or editors). Some can even come from natural talent. If you’re the type of author that tends to skimp on research, maybe do a little more than you normally would. If you’re the type that immerses yourself into the research so deeply that you could probably write a doctoral thesis about the genre, maybe stop short of that.

The point is that you have to hit the proverbial target. You’ve got to nail enough of the tropes down that a reader can say without thinking too hard, “Yep, this is a <insert whatever genre> because it has <insert trope here>”

Subvert the Tropes

Now, the fun part. You know the tropes, now you have to subvert them. You heard me: change something; invert something. That detective in your hardboiled tale? It’s a woman. Space opera? Yeah, but it’s underwater.

I won’t lie to you. Deciding which of the tropes (and how many) to subvert is even harder than knowing them. It’s okay; I believe in you. If you’re just starting out, pick just one trope to change. You’d be surprised how much bang for your buck you can get from subverting just one.

Which one? What’s the one thing that annoys you about the genre? That military sci-fi that always seems to have a white male dudebro protagonist? What if he’s not a decorated war hero? Maybe he’s scared shitless and pukes before every battle, but that’s part of what makes him an effective leader.

What would bring you the most joy to change? Maybe you’ve always wanted to tell a stroy about a romantic comedy where the two potential lovers are androids. Or an alien and a human. Or it’s actually a love quadrangle.

Subverting tropes is where you as a writer get to separate yourself as a genre author. It’s an opportunity to be different, to put your unique spin on things. Take advantage of it; have fun with it! You are doing this (writing genre fiction) because you want to, right?

Readers Don’t Care If It’s Cliché as Long as It’s Done Well

Surprise! It’s a third rule! (We editors are sneaky like this, sometimes.)

Clichés are familiar; they’re comfortable. Used properly, they’re like signposts for a reader, taking them from unfamiliar territory onto home turf before casting them back into the unknown. As long as you do it well, they (mostly) won’t mind.

Ever read a horror story where you could see the ending coming but you didn’t care because how the story got there was so good? That’s you not caring about cliché. Murder mysteries where the butler did it? Still effective, if done well (possibly by leading the reader towards the butler as the killer and then away before turning back in the third act for the final reveal).

What are you doing still reading this post? Get out there and write!

Barbie the Astronaut: What My Mom Taught Me about Feminism

Yesterday, I mentioned my mom. I thought I’d take the opportunity to tell an anecdote about my first positive exposure to feminism.

My mother was an intelligent, talented insurance adjuster. She worked for years as one, and by the time her depression caused her to quit her job, she had done all kinds of insurance. She could appraise auto damage, damage to homes, and more. I didn’t realize how amazing that was at the time. She was paid far less than the men who worked alongside her (some of which didn’t have the same level of training that she had). And unfortunately, she was also a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace.

But that’s not the story I want to tell today. Today’s story involves Barbie and astronauts. Yes, you heard me correctly. As I recall, a commercial came on television advertising “Astronaut Barbie.” I remember saying something about how stupid that was. My mother was less than amused. She very quickly re-educated me on how Barbie could be an astronaut, and she was very upset with me for demeaning a woman’s intelligence.

Had I been older (a quick Google search tells me I was probably between 10 and 14 at the time this happened), I could have had a discussion about how ditzy Barbie had been depicted thus far in my young life. But I didn’t have the rhetorical skills for that. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. I needed the lesson. Badly. Women could be astronauts, just as surely as they could be wives or mothers. Or insurance adjusters.

I don’t think my mother would have self-identified as a feminist, but she was SO a feminist. I’m pretty sure she couldn’t have told me the difference between first-wave and third-wave feminism, and I know intersectionality wasn’t a widespread term back then. Even so, that lesson from her echoes in my mind even now. It’s a legacy that I’m seeking to pass on to my daughter (and my son, for that matter).

I’m not sure I ever got to tell her how much I appreciate that lesson, so…

Thank you, mom. You started me on the path to feminism, and that legacy will live on.

Death, Emotions, and Miscellany

I’ve got a dear friend, John Adamus, and one of his favorite sayings is “put your guts on the page.” I like to push back on this saying because it makes me uncomfortable (and because I like to give John a hard time).

Why does it make me uncomfortable? Because emotions are a tough topic for me. I don’t mean that I don’t know how I’m feeling. I do, partly due to years of help from my wife on how to process emotions. I also don’t mean that I can’t talk about my emotions. I can. It’s not always easy because so often, human emotions come in bundles, and our language (for all of its strengths) isn’t always the best at communicating them.

Emotions are a tough topic because I don’t feel them strongly. We’ve got a running gag in my house that I’m a robot, and I don’t disabuse people of that impression. I have strong opinions, but those opinions aren’t backed by intense emotions, just intense thoughts.

Dear reader, you might be wondering why I’m even bothering to talk about emotions. If you didn’t know, my mother died a little over a week ago. My mother and I had a complicated relationship that stemmed from quite a lot of things (some of which I may blog about later, if my thoughts coalesce into coherence). I’m not feeling a lot of strong emotions about it, and how I feel about that fact is something that changes from day to day. I have emotions, but the overriding emotion is one of relief.

Relief that my emotional landscape is now simplified. Relief that she’s not suffering anymore. Relief that my relationship with her now can’t get worse. Relief that her death has actually brought her closer to me than I would have thought possible.

Bad days mean that I feel guilty for all of the above. Good days mean that I accept this fact and am able to not beat myself up for it. In between are days where I don’t think about it at all.

Even now, I find myself questioning the wisdom of writing this blogpost. Questioning the wisdom of posting it instead of leaving it in draft status.

But it’s probably long past time I put some guts on the page.

Two Types of Conversations

Today I want to talk about types of conversations. Specifically, I want to talk about the difference between external and internal conversations.

External conversations are conversations that you’re comfortable with anyone jumping in on. Shooting the breeze at the office. Talking with strangers at a party. External conversations typically don’t have a lot of emotional investment to them; they’re not likely to drain you (if that’s a thing for you, which is it for many).

Internal conversations are ones that are meant for a more intimate group. A group with shared experiences, or with shared beliefs, or with a high degree of trust among its members. That discussion about systemic racism that you as a PoC have with other PoC. That theological conversation you have with other Christians about Arminianism versus Calvinism.

So, you’re probably thinking, yeah, I have external conversations and internal conversations all the time. What’s the big deal?

The big deal is that social media makes knowing the difference difficult. One way of looking at a social media conversation—one that I’ve used myself—is that of a person’s front porch. When I tweet or post a status to FB or G+, I’m standing on my front porch talking. This makes it difficult to tell sometimes if I’m desiring an external conversation or an internal one. I know I’ve made the mistake of wading into internal conversations before, and I’m sure I’ll continue to.

Knowing when it’s okay to jump into a conversation is a skill, though. One that can be cultivated. To take one of my examples above, if you identify as white, take a minute and think about whether the people you’re seeing discuss racism are having an internal discussion or not.

If they are? Maybe just listen to what they’re saying without chiming in. The same goes for issues of gender identity, sexual orientation, theology (of any religion or non-religion), dietary choices, etc. If it’s a topic that you know people have strong opposing opinions on, or that require a lot of background information to have a meaningful discussion about, think about whether to add your voice to the conversation or not.

It’ll be hard sometimes, but hey, you want to be a responsible internet citizen, right?

Don’t Waste Your Afterlife

A long, long time ago, I pitched an idea to Evil Hat’s Don’t Hack This Game. It was my first professional game design work, but the project languished for a long time before ultimately being cancelled. I took the last draft (which thankfully had been through several editing passes) and cleaned it up. Here it is in all its glory.

Don’t Waste Your Afterlife (PDF)



For background, read this post first:

That article went up yesterday, and it’s prompted some discussions online. Some positive, some less so. It provoked some thoughts for me, and I decided to blog about it. The question of whether game designers should be thinking about gamers with disabilities is an easy one for me. Yes, they (we) should.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about identity. Ms. Henry has been disabled all her life. It is a part of her identity that people without a disability may have a hard time understanding. For many people, gender and attraction are part of their identity in a way that many of us don’t understand (for societal reasons, because we don’t think—or have to think—about it, etc.).

I’ll use an example that I’ve used before (I think) but is germane to the discussion.

I’m an engineer. I don’t mean my profession is that of an engineer (although that’s true). I don’t mean that I’m a licensed engineer (taken the P.E.). I mean engineer is part of my identity. It’s the way I think; it’s the way I approach situations. It’s the way I solve problems. You can’t pare that out of me without me ceasing to be me.

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. I consider this thing that you may not understand part of my identity. Don’t misunderstand me: it’s NOT the same as someone’s disability, gender, or attraction. It’s just an example that I hope is useful. Assuming you get that, it shouldn’t be hard to see that some people might not want to “fix” something that’s fundamentally not broken.

Another thing that you should keep in mind: a group of people with a thing in common are not always identical in their thoughts on a topic. We see this all the time for any number of communities or groups: not all Christians agree on a thing, not all feminists agree on a thing, not all women agree on a thing, not all people of color agree on a thing, not all atheists agree on a thing. Do I need to go on?

One final point. Be very careful when ascribing motives to a person. Don’t assume that you know why they feel a certain way. Don’t assume that you know everything that they consider part of their identity. When they say that something is a part of their identity, listen to what they say, even if you don’t understand it.

Try and keep this in mind as you interact with people on a daily basis. Be kind to each other. If you’ve got questions, you know where to find me.


Out of Spoons

Last post, I tossed out a half-formed idea. This is a continuation of that. It’s shaping up into a microgame I’m going to call Out of Spoons.

[Edited post to include attribution for Spoon Theory in the text itself. Thanks to Elsa for the gentle reminder! -Forgetful Editor]

Out of Spoons*

Out of Spoons is a game about managing the reserves of energy each of us has each day. It’s about understanding that not everyone has limits; some are just lower than others. There’s no GM here, you’re all players. Each of us is responsible for your character’s actions and reactions.

You’ll define a relationship with two other players. Make sure that no one is left out in the cold. You’re all here to play the game. Relationships need not be two-sided, either. Just because someone is your friend, it doesn’t mean you consider them a friend.

Each of you has three resources: physical, mental, and emotional. The game represents a week, with one or more scenes each day. At the start of each day, roll one six-sided die for each resource; these are your starting pools.

Whoever is youngest starts play each in-game day. Choose one of the other players and decide on a scene. The scene should be something that involves an interpersonal conflict or dilemma that is likely to drain one or more of your resources. For example, you might declare that the scene is a breakfast with family during the holiday season, able to drain you mentally and emotionally.

Decide how difficult this scene is going to be for your character in terms of each resource. The other player involved in the scene should do the same. Note that the difficulties need not be the same for each character.

  • Easy: 1
  • Moderate: 2
  • Difficult: 3

Once the stakes are set, you may decide to avoid the situation. In this case, choose one of the resources and narrate how that helps you avoid (for physical, you literally get up and walk out of the room). Decrement that pool by the difficulty and end the scene. Play moves to the right.

When you run out of any of the resources, you’re done for the day. Narrate how your character spends what energy they have left (doesn’t talk to anyone for the rest of the day, goes to bed and sleeps, etc.).

* The name comes from Spoon Theory, created by Christine Miserandino, and you can read about it at the following link:

I’d love to hear any feedback, especially if you get the itch to try out a session of it.


Random Game Design Thought: PME

Here’s something that I’ve been kicking around in my head for a little bit. It’s not fully formed, but I need to get it down on paper, so it’s not an open loop.

Imagine you’ve got three resources: physical, mental, and emotional. You’ve got only a certain amount of each of them, and running out is BAD. You can be physically tired, mentally exhausted, or emotionally drained.

I’m pondering what else to do with this. You start each day with a certain amount (possibly determined randomly), and each thing you need to do that day costs you. It seems like the way Five Fires does resolution is a natural fit here. You roll 3 dice and decide which resource you’d like that die to apply to. The GM / another player (I haven’t given much thought to that yet) rolls 3 dice, and we compare results.

I’d probably want to allow a bit of borrowing from the next day’s resources (a la spoon theory), but I’d want to limit it.

So that’s what I’ve got so far. It’s obviously unpolished, but I think it’s got potential. What do you think? (Note: this is me asking for feedback, Tim.

The Quick and the Dead FAE, Part 2

First off, huge thanks to Quinn Murphy for giving me the next round of changes to my FAE hack for the Quick and the Dead. His input directly led to what you see here. It should play pretty quickly, assuming a small number of players and rounds. Let me know what you think, especially if you’re a brave soul that likes to alpha-test stuff.

The Quick and the Dead FAE (v2)


Quick and Dirty: The Quick and the Dead FAE

Quinn Murphy’s been doing a take on Sleepy Hollow FAE, and it inspired me to do this. It’s quick, it’s dirty, and it’s not something I’ve put a lot of thought into.

One of the movies that I really like that I don’t think gets much respect is the Quick and the Dead. It’s a fun movie that I’ve watched several times now. After playtesting The Dark Road at Metatopia, I wanted to watch it again.

I thought it might be fun to stat up the main characters using FAE. I decided not to alter the approaches, but I did add a drive/motivation. Each of the characters in the movie has a drive, and I wanted to highlight that. Let me know what you think.

FAE The Quick and the Dead