Tag Archives: imagination

Gods Playing Dice

Writing and RPGs

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The classic edition of Traveller, Game Designer’s Workshop, 1977

As a young man back in the spiked, crimped velveteen 80s I spent many an happy hour enjoying sessions of role-playing games (now suddenly fashionable). These undoubtedly nurtured my writerly imagination for it is through them I caught the bug for storytelling and creating detailed scenarios. The three systems that enthralled me the most were the classic version of Dungeon & Dragons, Call of Cthulu (based upon the works of HP Lovecraft) and Traveller – through them I experienced the immersive delights of Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction. It is the latter that is particularly on my radar at the moment, for my SF novel, Black Box, is ready for launch (being published through the crowdfunding platform, Unbound). Although the novel has been consciously informed by a lifetime of reading and watching SF, by Climate Change, and by research into space exploration and artificial intelligence at the University of Leicester where I’m currently completing my PhD, looking back I realise that those lively sessions with fellow schoolmates (in particular Garrie Fletcher, who has gone onto to become a wordsmith too) really nurtured the ‘SF brain’ part of me. With its stylish series of black manuals, and hard edge, Traveller was always the coolest of the RPGs, the Fonz of the whole Happy Days bunch. Each session, usually held around ‘Budgie’s house’, another schoolmate from Mereway, felt like being inside an episode of one of our favourite TV shows – Blake’s 7, Dr Who, Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica (this was pre-Firefly days and that show in particular captures the maverick freebooting attitude of the game – a motley crew taking on some dodgy mission for a fistful of credits, normally running the gauntlet of the Imperium, space pirates and hostiles). The main benefit of these games was, of course, the social angle – lifesaving for a bunch of awkward nerds (speaking personally): the sessions were some of the most enjoyable spent as a teenager – hearty laughter, shared creativity, and heart-pumping excitement. But in hindsight, as someone who has made writing the heart of their career, I see other spinoffs that have a direct benefit to novelists: immersiveness (far more visceral than any virtual reality); multilinearity (complex branching narratives effected by one’s choices); storytelling (how to engage and sustain an audience, create narrative traction, suspense and tension); characterisation (designing vivid characters, improvising dialogue); the importance of setting (almost a character in its own right – certainly spaceships can be); and fictionality (the giddy freedom of making stuff up, spinning a yarn, and weaving worlds out of thin air). These have all become of primary importance in my novel-writing. Of course novels seem, on the surface, less multi-cursory and multi-player – they are a direct interface between author and reader (although they can be shared by millions) – but in the composition of them, the malleability of the plot, the behaviour of the characters, and the volatility of the structure, makes it feel like being in a ‘session’ as DM,  player-characters, and non-player characters – a schizophrenic’s paradise. Aspects of your personality talk back at you: shock, astound and devastate – and you risk coming across as a complete loon, bursting out laughing or crying out in frustration at a screen. Anything can happen in the white void of the blank page. The lonely long-haul of writing a novel may lack the sociability of a RPG (except in the camaraderie with fellow writers and, if you’re lucky, readers), but in compensation one has complete creative control (eventually, if the wild beast of the book can be tamed sufficiently). It can bring out the emperor-god-being in you, the tyrannical deity that plucky characters loved to frustrate. As with the best DMs, who run a game ‘dice-light’, biasing the flow of storytelling over a punctilious compliance with the rules, the best writers always allow their characters to have a lucky break now and then, and to steal the show over a mechanical fulfilment of plot. And writers weaned on RPGs will always remember who the narrative is ultimately for – not the ‘god behind the screen’ but the reader-participant.

Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 30 April

Black Box has been adapted into an audio drama by the amazing podcast team at Alternative Stories. The first three pilot episodes are due to be launched 20th November, 27th November, & 4th December. FFI: https://alternativestories.com/

The Characters are in Charge

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One day a tall red-head with striking eyes and a steel string guitar walked into my head. Her name was Janey McEttrick and she demanded to have her story told. She lived in an airstream trailer in the backcountry near Asheville, North Carolina. She was of Scottish descent (on her mother’s side) and had inherited more than just the red hair from her Celtic ancestors. The gleam in her eye suggested she knew more than her hedonistic ‘trailer-trash’ lifestyle suggested – far more.

When a character barges into your imagination like this you know you have no choice but to listen, to take notes, to do what you’re told. They are a gift. If a character is rebellious, subverting your carefully structured plot and all the nice plans you’ve laid out for them, then you know they have a pulse. It has been said that a novel is a war between characters versus plot. In that tension the narrative is forged. Too much of either and you’ll either end up with a rambling, indulgent mess – a series of character studies in search of a story;  or a soul-less checklist of plot-points populated with flat characters.

But I have often found that characters appear first and generate story. If they have a strong line of desire, hampered by doubts, fears and other attendant demons, then you can pretty much set them off and see where they take you. The parameters of your story world are usually limited by what you’re interested in, can be bothered to research, to ‘fill in’. The further away from that locus of interest, the hazier it becomes. The edges of that world are often unconvincingly blurry. Your writer’s imagination is unable to render it in sufficient detail. The character runs into a blank wall.

So, your protagonist – the one that gatecrashed your head (it’s normally them I find who are the culprits, rather than the minor characters) needs to meet other characters, to come alive, to be challenged, tempted, tormented, helped and harried. If you have a ‘mouthpiece’ characters that represents your world-view, then you need others who diametrically oppose and challenge that paradigm; you need foils; you need allies and enemies. Your protagonist needs friends, perhaps a lover or companion, and some kind of family. Suddenly your novel is starting to look crowded. Your lovely writer’s mansion has been squatted by a colourful rabble , who throw parties at all hours, graffiti the walls, and do unspeakable things with your objet d’art and upholstery. At some point you will have to put your foot down and put your house in order. The ‘creative’ mess will need tidying up, but it’s often only from that fecund chaos that the good stuff emerges. Too much control too soon can be fatal. Writers who impose martial law on their imagination – making characters toe the line – will create arid scenes empty of organic warmth. A little bit of anarchy is good for a story, if you want it to surprise and delight you. And if it doesn’t surprise and delight you, it’s unlikely to do that for the reader.

Where these characters come from is often a mysterious process – some kind of alchemy perhaps between people you know, people you wish you knew or had known, parts of yourself, the wunderkammer of your memories, your subconscious, your higher self, shadow, ancestors – even ones you’re not aware of… smushed with books, movies, music, art, places, people-watching, day-dreams and fantasies. Unless you’re doing a Creative Writing course of some kind, you normally don’t have to do an autopsy. All that matters is they live and breathe, that they speak and act, feel and think in accordance with their character – that’s the prime directive for any novelist. Yes, you can play God – but once you’ve created your world, don’t be a Jehovah. Let your characters get on with their lives. You have to let them make mistakes, fuck up, get themselves up the spout or bumped off. They need to learn in the school of hard knocks you’ve created for them – even if at times you wish you could give them a message, a helpful hint. But even if you do, most would ignore it or notice it. It is enough of a miracle that they exist at all. And we pass by signs and wonders every day.

 

The Knowing by Kevan Manwaring is published as an e-book on 20th March. If you would like to reserve a copy or review it, please get in touch.

The Birth of Dragons

Tonight sees the launch of my latest book, Desiring Dragons: creativity, imagination and the writer’s quest, published by Compass Books. I’m hosting a Story Supper Special – with a dragon-flavoured theme (‘scaly tales, serpentines poems and wyrm songs’). It should be fun!

The book is based upon my 13 years of teaching creative writing (10 with the Open University); and arose out of a course I ran on ‘Writing for the Imagination’ at the University of Bath back in 2005. Since I wrote the first draft in 2006, it has taken a while to see the light of day – but I believe in ‘staying the distance’, and the book explores strategies for what I call long-distance writing. As in the fable of the tortoise and the hare, it’s the tortoise who wins in the end!

Here’s a recent review from poet Lorna Smither’s Peneverdant blog

Book Review: Desiring Dragons by Kevan Manwaring

desiring-dragons-compass-books-front-cover Kevan Manwaring is a writer, teacher and storyteller living in Stroud. His publications include seminal works on Bardism, a series of mythic realist novels and collections of Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire folk tales. Desiring Dragons: Fantasy and the Writer’s Quest is unique because in contrast to the plethora of ‘how to’ guides it forms a study of the creative process, examining why we write, the act of writing and its benefits to writer and reader.

The first part, ‘Desiring Dragons’ focuses on the theory of writing fantasy. Kevan says the mistake most beginner writers make is copying other writers without understanding the nature of fantasy or the act of creation. He defines fantasy as ‘the means by which we imagine and enter other worlds,’ and discloses its roots in storytelling as a shamanic tradition. The other worlds of fantasy are presented as sources of imaginative possibilities which can provide alternative perspectives on this world. By seeing this world in a different way we perceive new choices and ways of bringing about change.

I found this to be a powerful argument as all too often fantasy and imagination are equated with unreality and seen as lacking in value. By showing that fantasy fulfils the needs of individuals and society Kevan demonstrates its worth. I think this will be a great source of encouragement to other writers, particularly those doubting the value of their work because they have been told fantasy is a form of escapism or disengagement from society.

The second part, ‘The Writer’s Quest’ covers the practicalities of writing fantasy. In a striking display of originality Kevan uses Beowulf as a ‘mythic template’ for exploring the processes of creativity. Grendel’s assailment of Heorot is seen as a metaphor for the writer being haunted by the demons that drive them to write. The lake symbolizes potential and plunging into its waters the point of no return. The message of the dragon’s lair is that a writer shouldn’t sit on the gold of their word hoard because it contains the life force itself, which demands to be passed on.

What I liked most about this part is that it is enthused with Kevan’s personal experience of the exhilarating yet often nightmarish process of writing a novel. I think any writer would recognise these processes and find relief and encouragement in not being alone.

Each chapter is followed by a series of ‘questings’ prompting the writer to examine their creative processes from a different angle. ‘Summoning the Hero’ explores ways of seeing oneself as a writer. ‘The Bloody Limb’ suggests ways of looking at a first draft. ‘Needful Digressions’ calls the writer to consider whether they are harping on like the scolds do about Finnsburgh. I think these exercises will be effective as rather than telling writers what to do they call for reflection on work, creative processes and motivations.

The final part, ‘The Dragon’s Hoard’ is a collection of essays covering an eclectic range of topics ranging from mythic literacy to cultivating a daily writing practice, which is easy to dip in and out of. An essay which currently resonates with me is ‘Writing Magical Fiction.’ Here Kevan suggests good writing in this genre is rooted in experience of real magic- in the Awen (inspiration), forming living relationships with one’s muses, practicing an existing magical system and connecting with the landscape and changing seasons.

As a poet I found this book immensely valuable because rather than just examining the ‘how’ of writing it examines the ‘why’. Any form of writing is a gruelling task. Whilst the ‘how’ provides the tools, ultimately it’s the ‘why’ – our innermost desires and motivations that see us through to the end. Desiring Dragons provides ways of accessing and understanding them. Therefore I would recommend it highly to writers of all genres.

The Fascination of the Worm

Dracophilia...  My latest book - due from Compass Books soon!

Dracophilia…
My latest book – due from Compass Books soon!

Even today (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them, who yet have been caught by the fascination of the worm.’ JRR Tolkien6

 

Twentieth Century Professor of English and novelist J.R.R. Tolkien, who perhaps more than any other single author has brought alive worlds of Fantasy in his vast Middle Earth sequence of stories, as a child ‘desired dragons with a profound desire’:

 

Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in my neighbourhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril.’7

 

If we read this as a yearning for Fantasy, (that is, the experience of such, as opposed to the genre – although we will dignify both with the capital in the hope that one will encourage the other) then I do not think he is alone in this, as the huge popularity of Fantasy in books, films and computer games prove. There seems to be an endless appetite for it: The Lord of the Rings, Dr Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, TheTwilight Saga, Avengers Assemble, and no doubt more ‘franchises’ await to hit the big or little screen. Despite a distinctive post-9/11 trend for ‘real life stories’, gritty realism, and tales of hard luck and ‘winning through adversity’ (spawning shelves of ‘misery lit’; or ‘trauma memoir’) the world, it seems, is hungry for Story, especially of the fantastical kind.

Why is it so many seem to ‘desire dragons’, as Tolkien did? What purpose, if any, is there to Fantasy? Is it just make-believe for grown ups, or does it serve a more profound function? This brief excursion into Fantasyland endeavours to explore, if not answer, these questions, and perhaps the very act of asking questions – curiosity, or the quest for knowledge – is at the root of all this ultimately. The desire to know has led humankind from the cave to the moon. Wishing to know what lay over the next hill, and the next, beyond the borders of the familiar, over the sea, over the horizon – following the journey of the sun, our constant companion of consciousness, throughout the day, into the unconscious of night – this has driven humanity on, and fuelled most of its fantasies. The unknown provides a vacuum for the subconscious, for the Shadow, the Id, the other. We populate the night with our own.

And we probe the shadows with a thrill of fear and a desire to know.

Tolkien, in a witty reply to a letter in The Observer (16 January, 1938) signed by someone calling themselves ‘Habit’, requesting more background about ‘the name and inception of the intriguing hero of his book’, (The Hobbit, published 21 September1937) responded thus:

 

Sir, – I need no persuasion: I am as susceptible as a dragon to flattery, and would gladly show off my diamond waistcoat, and even discuss its sources, since the Habit (more inquisitive than the Hobbit) has not only professed to admire it, but has also asked where I got it from. But would not that be unfair to the research students? To save them trouble is to rob them of any excuse for existing.’8

 

Despite Tolkien’s claiming not to ‘remember anything about the name and inception of the hero’, he gave a typically conscientious and erudite reply. His letters show the fathomless quality of his learning (his scholar’s mind akin to the Mines of Moria) and provide a plethora of portals to explore – enough for a lifetime, and thus he has not robbed research students of their existence, but thrown a gauntlet down to ‘curious Hobbits’, who are intrigued by the mysterious origins of such wonders, in what smithies were they forged, and whether the alchemical secrets of the wordsmiths trade can be gleaned, used, and passed on.

I must disclose my own interest in this realm of the imagination – with my five-volume epic, The Windsmith Elegy9, I could be categorised as an author of Fantasy, although I prefer the term ‘Mythic Reality’ (for that is how it feels to me – more of which we will discuss later). As a writer of ‘Fantastical Fiction’ (as it once used to called) the genre, as a whole, holds an obvious appeal to me, but more so the mysterious impulse that drives us to write and read it, and beyond that, the act of creation itself.

The central thesis I would like to forward here is that the roots of Fantasy go deeper than sometimes the genre suggest – that there is more to it than mere ‘Sword and Sorcery’, and the endless rehashing of Tolkienesque tropes. What if Fantasy is not merely a form of escapism (although that in itself is not ‘wrong’), but a way of exploring imaginative possibilities?

In the purest expression of Fantasy, something more fundamental is at work. Could Imagination serve as a gateway to other realms, other possibilities – a kind of ‘Quantum TV’ – with different bandwidths showing glimpses of ‘that which does not exist, but could’, and sometimes does, in our imagination?

Many beginner writers who attempt to write Fantasy do not seem to understand the genre. They copy the shadows on the cave wall; without having a full gnosis of what drives their creation (as someone who has taught and assessed creative writing since 2003 I can wearily attest to this – although I am occasionally astounded by what my students produce). There is often a gulf between idea and execution, which is frustrating. It feels as though I am receiving a poor signal from a distant land.

The craft provides the Transatlantic cable, but I do not wish to lay it down here – many others have done that. Rather than simply provide a list of techniques, I believe it would be more useful (and better for the writer) to explore the ‘biology’ of Fantasy, and our motives for writing it.

  • Where does the impulse to write Fantasy come from?
  • What takes place in the act of writing, i.e. the creative process – specifically in the creation of works of Fantasy?
  • What benefits are there, if any, for the writer, as well as the reader?

And so I begin this essay with these questions in mind – and a sense of unknowing.

A quester, armed with his question, is a good place to start.

 

Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring, 2013

[Extract from Desiring Dragons: Fantasy and the Writer’s Quest, published by Compass Books – contact them and order an advance copy now]