Wednesday, August 24, 2011

You and Your Cliches

There are few things that can turn me into a spitting, vitriolic were-Editrix as fast as the inclusion of hackneyed, overused stock phrases and useless filler words. Please, people, stop using these immediately. They don’t make your stuff sound better. They don’t offer any meaning. They don’t even add any interesting linguistic flair. They just make you sound lazy and unoriginal. (Worse yet, sometimes they demonstrate that you don’t actually know the meaning of the words you’re using. Ouch.)

Likewise, if your prose sounds vaguely like something a Shakespeare-, Dickens-, or Joyce-themed garage band would sing, stop it. Just stop it. Did you just write “They die knowing that what they do is what must be done”? Please smack yourself upside the head for me.

Here is a helpful starter list of things you should forget you know how to type:
  1. “slings and arrows”
  2. “mortal coil”
  3. [any other reference to Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy]
  4. “really” “actually” “truly” - It's ok. I believe you already. You don't have to convince me.
  5. “extremely” “absolutely” “very”- Meaningless intensifiers don’t add anything. Use more vivid adjectives if you’re feeling like your prose is lackluster. Invest in a thesaurus.
  6. “imminent demise”
  7. “be it” instead of “whether it’s” - (As in “Be it sleek or fuzzy, no one likes a dirty bathmat.") Nobody talks like this. You sound like an idiot.
  8. “orbs” instead of “eyes” - This is not fanfiction, people. (Likewise “locks” or “tresses” instead of “hair.”)
  9. “beyond a shadow of a doubt”
  10. “lick [his] wounds” - Unless he’s a werewolf or something who is literally licking his wounds, this is just trite.
  11. “brooks no refusal” - In general, if you never use the verb outside of that phrase, you should probably avoid using that phrase.
  12. “home turf”
  13. “nigh”
  14. “it’s clear that” “obviously” “evidently” - If it’s obvious, I’m sure you’ll illustrate that shortly. Don’t tell me what I can discern for myself.
  15. “bolt upright” - See this post from Language Log.
There’s certainly more, but this is a good starting point. Try the Cliche Finder if you’re concerned that you’re using a given phrase for no good reason.

I’m not saying that all cliches or stock phrases are inherently bad. They can help add flavor to dialogue, especially, and can serve as a shortcut to mood-setting. To set yourself apart from the seventeen gazillion other writers out there, however, it’s better to craft your own mood using your own words.
As a side note, much of the material for this post came from one of my earliest editing projects, which was also the most racist, poorly-written piece of crap I’ve ever read. Next week I’ll post some tips (inspired by the manuscript!) on how not to be an ethnocentric butthead in your game writing.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

On femininity - Followup to previous post

Rackin frackin comment system won't let me post a followup to the original post and it's already long, so I'm going to just post anew.

Nicholas Tulach (@imnotjesus) was kind enough to talk about this post on his own blog over at

He asked specifically about how my muscular, non-flirty cleric of Kord could still be feminine. For me, her femininity was expressed in two ways: 1) she was a nurturer, and 2) she was strong and muscular but still womanly (think Beth Phoenix). In many ways she was a reflection of my own stocky peasant build and my tendency to be a girlie girl in ways that have nothing to do with sexuality.

I was playing in another D&D game at the same time, and my character for that campaign was a slightly androgynous, openly bisexual (omnisexual?) half-elf bard with a steady girlfriend (also in the party, and played by another female gamer). She was casually sexual in almost any situation, non-monogamous, and really over the top -- think Jack Harkness played by Cate Blanchett, but with a lute. Because her sexual identity and activity was so much a part of her character, I wanted my cleric to be a break from that.

As I said in the footnotes on the post, I recognize that my default conceptions of femininity are pretty traditionalist, though that's not the extent of my understanding of what it is to be feminine. Like most gamers who like to roleplay, I use little bits of my own personality in the characters I build to portray. Because I strongly prefer to play female characters, that means they tend to get some kind of reflection of my ideas on what it is to be a woman, and how I see my own femininity.

I do think it's problematic that he assumed "muscular" means "not shaped like a woman," but it's a commonly held idea. Gabrielle Reece could probably snap me in half, but can (and has) posed for cheesecake-y photos. The aforementioned pro wrestler Beth Phoenix could easily handle a double-axe but still comes across as extremely feminine, even when she's not participating in storylines centered around men or sexuality. There are certainly more examples - many female Olympians are absolutely ripped and still undeniably women (check out some of the weightlifters!). The blogger over at Go Make Me a Sandwich ( has a LOT to say on how women are portrayed in games and how the industry defaults to a very narrow subset of "feminine" body types. Go check it out - she's far better at addressing that issue than I am.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Editing for Awareness - Feminist Edition

This year’s Gencon was record-breaking, bringing in almost 37,000 people. From my not very scientific observations, however, the percentage of attendees that were women was... not very high. As a woman concentrating on the professional side of Gencon, I definitely felt like a bit of an outsider at the con. (And I’m not the only one. That said, I did meet some amazing women in the industry1 who deserve to be acknowledged.)

This, combined with some conversations I had both during and after the con, made me think about how my feminist identity2 informs my work. I am a feminist. I’m also a gamer. I grew up with board games and video games as a ubiquitous part of my social life. I came to RPGs through LARP and eventually found my way to tabletop games. I love games, I love being a gamer, and I want to make games better so more women will want to be gamers.

Therefore, one of the things I try to do as part of my editing work is to look at any characters or situations with real-world corollaries as objectively as possible, and try to suggest changes that could make the text more appealing (and, often, less offensive). At the top of my hit list are female characters.

So what does this mean? What am I looking for?

I’m looking for female characters that aren’t clich├ęs, aren’t there just to serve as cues for sexah art pieces, and aren’t Manic Pixie Dream Girls or borderline Mary Sues either. (Hermione Granger, I’m looking at you.3) I’m looking for depictions of female characters that don’t assume that sex = gender = heteronormativity.

To get a sense of what I mean, look at the Bechdel Test. Comic creator Alison Bechdel depicted a test that gauges the richness of the female characters in a given film. To pass, a movie must:

1) have at least two named female characters, who
2) talk to each other about
3) something other than a man.

Most action movies that we draw from in gaming fail miserably. Saturday night at Gencon I spent some quality time watching “Predators.” It was a highly enjoyable giggle. It was also a crap film for women (a crap film in general, really). Some of my absolutely favorite movies fail this test. Many “chick flicks” even fail this test. As the original comic points out, the original “Alien” passes it -- and it’s no coincidence that Ripley is one of the canonical “awesome” female characters in sci-fi. Pretty much every Joss Whedon production passes with flying colors. Many episodes/serials of my beloved Doctor Who do not.

Obviously in a game setting, you’re going to have minimal dialogue, and the characters are going to be focused on the goals of the game, but that doesn’t mean this test can’t serve a purpose for your work. For me, that means that female characters need to be more nuanced and more creatively designed. You should imagine, that if, say, your two female vampires were to meet, they might have some common ground other than vampirism and female genitalia.

If you have three female character writeups in your game, and one of them is a virginal princess type, one of them is an evil (and possibly lascivious) queen, and one of them is a sexless, mysterious, and wise crone-type, we have a problem. Not because any of those are bad, but because you can do better. We can all do better. What if the crone were actually a bit of a lech? What if the evil queen were also a doting mother? You can bring out their femininity4 without smooshing them into societal archetypes that are constructed to appeal to heterosexual males. Which is why I don’t suggest that the virginal princess be transformed into someone who’s secretly a hormonal lust monster ... OR a closet lesbian.

Gender is more than sex, and more than sexual orientation. I once played a female cleric of Kord in a D&D campaign. She was, I like to think, very feminine -- but she was also a bruiser with blacksmith’s muscles and a double-axe who wasn’t particularly interested in flirting or sex, because she had better things to do with her time. She wasn’t asexual, she just had other priorities -- but she was unquestionably female.

When you reduce female characters to broad stereotypes, it makes me think you don’t know -- or care to know -- much about people unlike yourself. (I say “unlike yourself” because the vast majority of writers I’ve edited in the industry are male.5)

Clearly, I’m also not one to insist that all characters could just as easily be male or female. I think a female character is stronger6 -- meaning more compelling -- if her gender identity is an important and acknowledged part of who she7 is. I’ve always found the gender-restricted character classes of Diablo way cooler than the “we’re totally all equal, check out my tiny, boobular Gnome tank” equity of World of Warcraft.

Gender and the portrayal of women in pop culture is a huge issue (there’s even an entire magazine about it!) and no one post can hope to cover the entire issue. But I’m a woman, I’m a gamer, and I’m in the industry, so I’m going to continue to work in a way that I feel is right and try to make the products I work on better in every way I can. This is one of them.

1) They’re out there! They’re doing great work! They’re writing, and editing, and creating art, and talking about games, and other cool stuff! Particular love goes to the even-better-named-than-I Filamena and fellow librarian Carol from All Games Considered, for being so nice to me at the con.

2) Yes, I am a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. Yes, I am a vocal feminist. No, I don’t think this makes me a stick-in-the-mud political-correctness-obsessed pinhead. (You may think so. Feel free to start an argument with me.) 

3) I love Hermione, but she should be bad at more stuff. So should Harry, for that matter - never forget that HP is a fantasy series about the popular kids. 

4) I have my own, fairly traditional, occasionally problematic understanding of what “femininity” can mean. This does not mean I am a VICTIM OF THE PHALLOCRACY OMG. But I thought I’d own up to it.

5) That said, one of the most sexist bullshit manuscripts I ever worked on was written by a woman. I was just as vicious to her text as I would be to anyone else’s; just because she’s a woman doesn’t make it not sexist.

6) The rather awesome Chuck Wendig asked the question of “what makes a strong female character” on Google+ while I was brainstorming this post. I think it was quite rude of him not to read my mind and realize I was going to talk about this, but whatever. Go read the answers his followers posted - they’re thought-provoking and worth your time:

7) Fascinating stuff going on in Guild Wars 2 development of the androgynous Sylvari. Ree Soesbee's posted some wonderful things on her blog about lore and gender, and the community's doing a lot of talking about gender and sex. Go read up.

8) I realize there's no footnote 8. But I also wanted to give you this link on sexism in Magic the Gathering tournaments, because it's really interesting stuff:

Monday, August 8, 2011

Gencon Post-mortem

I'm back from Gencon, sleep-deprived, a bit dirty, and absolutely thrilled I managed this trip at the last minute.

Thank you to the many, many, many people I met in the industry who were kind enough to listen to my editing pitch (and give me a cheap thrill when I realized how many of them HATE indexing). Thank you to Eddy Webb for being my professional sherpa (business sherpa?) and Russell Bailey for his hospitality.

Highlights of my convention NOT directly related to editing work:
  • Finally meeting Adam Jury in person after ... six years?
  • Finally meeting Rich Thomas after working with him on V20, which SEEMS like it took six years.
  • My late-night chat with Jim Lowder about everything from InDesign to religion in the gaming world to the joys of the Wisconsin Dells
  • Getting to play Changeling-flavored "my character my character my character" with the delightful Carol Darnell from All Games Considered
  • Seeing old friends and getting sucked back into Vampire LARP
  • Playing Hit a Dude. My brother and I already have plans to incorporate this into every family holiday.
  • Learning what 5:00 is from the excellent* film "Predators"
  • Picking up De Profundis from Cubicle 7 yesterday. I was resistant, but couldn't pass up "epistolary roleplaying." I'm so, so glad I did, even if I bitched at Eddy for making me spend more money. I'm so enchanted by it, I already have 25 (scribbly, sprawling) pages of notes on my Dark Ages: Fae crossover game using its framework.
  • Hendrick's gin & tonics in the hotel bar
If I met you at Gencon and got your card, I'll be in touch this week. I've got new "hire me" and "what I've already done in the industry" pages up today for your edification and entertainment.

Thank you to everyone and I'll see you next year!

*Predators is actually a pretty terrible movie. But it does have Adrien Brody in it.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Reference Shelf - Online Resources

In my earlier post on reference books, I concentrated on physical sources. These days, however, it’s both impractical and rather silly to only use hardcopy books to do your work. I use a wide variety of sources on any given project (brought to me by the magical power of Google), but these are a few that I use pretty much every time:

Wikipedia ( - Yes, I use Wikipedia — and so should you. Obviously it’s got its faults, but it’s the best place for a quick fact-check or to find a list of sources to start further research. (In a later post I’ll provide a quick-and-dirty guide to telling whether or not your Wikipedia page or other website is worth paying any attention to.)

Etymology Online ( - The etymology dictionary online, which uses data from the Oxford English Dictionary and other reputable print sources, is the first place I go when I’m unsure about word usage. Sometimes game and fiction writers use terms that are anachronistic for their settings, and seeing the history of a given word can help clean up those kinds of messes.

Google Fight ( - I use the entertainingly-illustrated Google Fight when I’m not sure about phrase usage, or when I think my way of saying something is more commonly used than my writer’s. I’ll put the phrase as written (using quotation marks, of course) in one box, and my alternative version in the other, and see which has more hits. It’s not as reliable as using a standard corpus (see Language Log for a good example of this), but it does help.

CIA World Factbook ( - Yes, I was a Model UN nerd; why do you ask? Great, reliable (unless you’re a conspiracy theorist) basic facts about the US and other countries around the world.

Perseus Project ( - An online, indexed and glossed corpus of texts from the ancient world. Enormously helpful for usage guides to counteract Gamer Latin (and its misshapen, stillborn cousin, Gamer Greek).

Google - Obviously Google is invaluable as a search engine, but I use its built-in non-search features almost as much: define, currency conversion, measurement conversion, etc. A list of search features is available here:

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I hope to see some of you at Gencon! I’ll be there Saturday and Sunday on the convention floor, shilling my services and pimping out Vampire: the Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition! (My index was 30+ pages in Word. You’ll love it.)