Thursday, 8 August 2019

In Memoriam: Gustavo Cuadrado

I lost a friend this week.

It’s weird how hard it hit me. We were colleagues really, and distant ones at that, but in this solitary line of work you form unlikely bonds with people you might not ordinarily have met. And so it was with Gustavo Cuadrado.

I first met Gus maybe four years ago in Madrid, but we’d been working together on and off before that. He was the designer of the Batman Miniature Game, before I ever even came on board with Knight Models, and he was my principle contact with the company. We always found it funny that his spoken English wasn’t great, and my Spanish was terrible, and we both found it easier to email each other than talk face-to-face. That’s language barriers for you. But when I flew out to meet the Knight Models team for the first time, we hit it off. It didn’t matter that sometimes we talked at cross purposes, or I said something stupid while trying to order food at a restaurant, or he completely misunderstood me when I tried to explain an idea for Line of Sight rules. When the fluent English speakers had gone home, it was Gus who came out for drinks with me at a local bar or at the hotel so that I didn’t feel lonely in a strange land. Sounds daft maybe, but it mattered to me.

The other weird thing was that he was a fan of mine. This is a client who’d already risen from freelance designer himself to a senior role at Knight Models. He helped run things in the studio, and between us Jose (the owner of Knight), Gus and me would thrash out all sorts of ideas for new releases and crazy games. I think some of those games might never see the light of day, because they were very much Gus’ babies, and that’s such a crying shame because man, they were out-of-this-world ideas, full of ambition and love for the hobby. But this is a guy who’s about the same age as me, and he was already doing great work in the industry. He stopped being a fan and became a peer. We’d bounce ideas off each other, correct each other’s mistakes. He knew his stuff.

Gus had real integrity, and humility. He wasn’t in this for any kind of fame or glory. He was in it for the love. He didn’t care if his name was in a book or not. When we worked on Harry Potter in the early days, I flew over to help with a bunch of promo videos. He was behind the camera feeding me lines while I sat there in a wizard’s robe doing interviews and playing games (getting all the rules wrong). He designed the game, but he wanted me to be ‘the face’ of it, maybe because he didn’t think his English was up to it, but really because he didn’t care for the spotlight – he literally only cared that people played his games and had a good time doing so.

Just over a year ago, I went back to Spain to talk about future freelance projects. In a quiet moment, Gus took me aside and told me the news, that he’d been diagnosed with cancer and was about to start his treatment the very next day. He was practical and pragmatic in his outlook, as he always was about everything. He was due to get married and go on honeymoon just one month later. Talk about timing. The wedding went ahead as planned. Gus’s wife is a treasure – that’s love, right? I can’t imagine what she must be going through if someone like me, a British guy who only met Gus four times, is literally crying at the loss.

One year. That’s all it took to go from diagnosis, to chemotherapy, to realising the treatment wasn’t working.

He got in touch with me a fortnight ago to tell me he was dying. He’d come off the treatment so he could stop feeling sick, and maybe just have some peace in his final weeks. And all he wanted to do was talk about games. He was fascinated by my latest rules. He was reading new rulebooks on his sickbed instead of novels or magazines. He was absolutely dedicated to the hobby industry right to the end.

Less than two weeks later, I get a message from Knight Models with the worst possible news, asking if I could write an obituary for social media. It’s not because I knew him the best, or loved him the most, but because I’m their words guy now that Gus is gone. That hit hard. I shed a few tears and then had to write some words on behalf of all these guys who were his friends, who’d known him for years, and worked with him every day.

My thoughts are with those guys right now, because they have to carry on, and do so with the legacy that Gus left behind. When you play BMG or DCUMG in particular, you can really see Gustavo’s own design style and ethos, because he threw himself into his work with real passion. Now the torch is passed on, and it’s our job to continue what Gus started. I find it weird to talk about that – distilling this tragedy into ‘the job’. But at the same time he was completely devoted to this crazy industry, and the best way we have to keep his memory alive is to keep his games alive.

Right now it feels raw, and I don’t even know where to start. So I think I’m just going to step away, and think about Gustavo, the man, not the games designer. About what a great dude he was, and how he was taken way too soon.

Adios amigo mio, te envío un fuerte abrazo y mis pensamientos estan con tus seres queridos.

Gustavo on the far left; our first meeting. Rest in peace, buddy.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Answer the Call to Arms!


For the last year or so I’ve been hard at work with the guys at Modiphius Entertainment on a very special project, and it’s been hellish trying to keep it a secret! Well, I no longer have to, as today we’ve finally announced my latest tabletop miniatures game – The Elder Scrolls: Call to Arms.

You can read the official press release here.

My relationship with the Elder Scrolls goes back a long way. I’ve played every version of the game since Daggerfall, and I count Skyrim in my top three games of all time (right up there with System Shock 2 and Paradroid, if you’re interested). I did a bit of work on Fallout: Wasteland Warfare with Modiphius, focusing more on planning and rules feedback rather than design, and when they told me they had the TES licence I basically harassed poor Chris Birch (owner of Modiphius) until he gave me the lead designer gig.

What you have here is a classic skirmish game, marrying all the elements of customisable group-building and dynamic actions that (hopefully) you’ve come to expect from my games, with the strong sense of narrative and progression that Modiphius pride themselves on. There’s even a solo and co-op mode!

Lots more details and reveals to come in the next few weeks. But for now, feats your eyes on the Dragonborn, and prepare to write your fate in the Elder Scrolls!

Friday, 17 May 2019

Planner or Pantser?

Fresh off the back of a successful workshop session on Planning Your Novel at Derby Quad, I thought it’d be useful to turn it into a blog post, as part of my occasional series on the writing process. This particular session was great fun, taking the form of a Q&A with the estimable Alex Davis. The workshop wasn’t just about typical writing advice, but specifically about the methods I’ve devised to aid my planning, with the overall theme of: everyone’s different! Find a method that works to you even if it seems weird…

Q.  Were you always an author who planned your stories, or did you ever try the ‘pantster’ approach of just getting stuck in?
A. I was a total pantser, and still am a bit. My first novel had the briefest imaginable outline, although I was 100% set on the mid-point and the ending – it took a lot of working out to get there. It also took me 2 years to complete…

The reasons I started taking planning more seriously were (a) I began writing on a contract, and therefore had a deadline to hit, and (b) I started adding more crime/mystery elements, which really needed more structured planning.

Q.  What difference did you notice to your process when you had a more solid plan for the book?
Although I still prefer writing the book sequentially, having a detail plan means that if I get stuck on a section, I can skip ahead to another bit, because I know at least roughly what needs to happen in any given scene. It doesn’t make me a better writer or anything, but it does make me more productive when I can just get on with stuff and not spend ages procrastinating, or trying to remember why I wrote that random scene, etc.

Q.  What is the very earliest stage of your planning process?
A. Premise – or concept, then premise, but the two are basically intertwined. From the premise comes the question ‘is there a story there?’ If yes, I flesh it out into at least a paragraph, and write some character notes, then bounce that idea off someone – usually my agent. Usually I just know if the book will work or not, but If he thinks it’s got legs, I can start work on it properly with confidence. All of this is usually handwritten. I write things down all the time in notepads, and sometimes when I read those notes back some ideas leap out and take on a life of their own.

This leads to brainstorming, which usually takes the form of a mind-map on a big flipchart page (or several! The mind-map for Iscariot Sanction spilled off the flipchart and ended up being transferred to a roll of wallpaper…)

Q. How does your planning process tend to progress? What steps do you always take before you start writing?
A. I’ve found a groove finally, which I’ve used on my last three books. This goes:

  • Premise
  •  Elevator Pitch – or, the story in a nutshell.
  •  Flipchart 1: Mind Map. (See my earlier blog on flipchart planning!)
  •  Flipchart 2: The plot. Every scene gets a thought bubble, and these get linked with arrows and character notes, and scribbled out and changed several times until only my dog can understand it. From this is born:
  • Synopsis (usually 2 pages) and character notes (usually a short paragraph each)
  • Long synopsis with full chapter breakdown (not for dissemination). Some writers like to plot a ‘beat sheet’ first, but personally I find that a bit too formulaic – like, ‘this character moment has to occur exactly 75% through the novel’ etc. Gets used in screenwriting a lot.

If any sections are particularly tricky, like a whodunit where you have to track every character’s movements simultaneously, I do a third flipchart, which is the detail map of one or more chapters. Some more technologically minded folk use a spreadsheet for this.

I then set up a fresh manuscript – my favourite part. It’s like sleeping in clean sheets… Into this I paste each chapter header onto a different page. I bullet point these sections, adding detail if necessary – which characters are present? Whose POV is it? What clue do they need to find to get to the next chapter? How do they find that clue?

I start writing under the chapter descriptions, crossing off each point as I cover it. As I write, any additions I make (usually lots), or things I change or delete, get added into those chapter descriptions, so that when I start the chapter, it’s the most up-to-date version of the plan. If I do decide to change anything during writing, I go back and add comments to myself to change it in editing. I NEVER tinker with earlier chapters until editing begins – always forward, never backwards.

Q. Some people find that planning and plotting in detail can take the ‘fun’ out of the writing – do you ever feel that?
A. I can understand that, and it can be the case. For me, planning a story is working out what story you’re going to tell. The first draft is then telling that story to yourself. The second draft is finding the best way to share it with the reader.

The problem is, if you put too much detail into the plan, so there’s nothing left to work out as you write, you sort of tell yourself spoilers, and it can make you lose enthusiasm for the work. Once a story is on paper and out of your head, your brain starts looking for new shiny ideas instead. This is probably why GRRM hasn’t – and perhaps won’t – finish A Song of Ice and Fire. He’s sat down with the TV execs and gone through his story in detail. He’s told the story in full, and now he’s lost forward momentum on the actual hard graft of writing the thing. That’s where a good work ethic comes in, because some days you just need to grind out those words!

Q. Does the plan ever change as you go along, or do you tend to deviate much?
A. Every damn time. And that’s a good thing. I saw a thing on social media recently that put the different types of ‘planner’ into a D&D alignment chart. I am a ‘lawful pantser’, which I suppose means that, no matter how meticulous the plan, I always leave myself enough rope to hang myself.

Q. What do you do if the story does suddenly starts going in another direction from the plan?
A. This happens a lot, and you have to have honest conversations with yourself. If this really a ‘better’ idea, or just a ‘new’ idea that’s turned your head. If it’s genuinely better, then maybe look ahead to the next big milestone and work out the butterfly effect: if you change this thing here, can you still pull the story back on track, or do you have to alter everything? If it’s the latter, then maybe you aren’t telling the same story any more, and that can be a real problem, especially if you’ve sold the book and the editor is expecting one thing but you want to deliver another.

My rule of thumb is to look at the ‘beat sheet’ – even if you don’t strictly follow the formula, every story supposedly has 15-18 traditional beats, and it’s worth knowing what those beats are in your own story. If a change ends up altering 5 or 6 of those beats, that’s a huge change to the synopsis, and it might be a good idea to really stop and think before diving in.

Q. What advice would you give to an author who’d never tried to plan anything out before in detail?
A. Don’t feel like you have to. I think if I wrote a less complex book, I’d do less planning – the level of my chapter breakdown method for Destiny’s Call, for example (YA fantasy) was about a quarter as detailed as The Red Tower (Sherlock Holmes pastiche). Do what works for you. I wrote my first published book with barely anything except some incoherent notes in a pad. The second book had a synopsis but not much more. It’s doable, you just might find you’re not as efficient without a plan.

Q. Do you tend to think in terms of three-act structure when you are planning?
I really prefer the four-act structure. The Lazarus Gate is the most obvious example, where the mid-point of the book is really the point where everything changes. The hero has to come to terms with this new situation before they can find a solution. I think I always start with three acts when I’m writing that initial synopsis, but it always comes back to four… The main difference is that after the mid-point twist, you don’t just continue the rising tension, but have to come up with a whole new set of obstacles because the twists was such a game-changer.

Q. Does the plan help where it comes to things like writing synopses and ‘pitches’?
A. I always start with those things, because for me the plan has to be born from the pitch, which has to be born from the premise. BUT there’s a hidden second stage of pitching if you’re selling a completed manuscript (rather than selling on spec).

The pitch and synopsis that I bounce off my agent usually gives rise to lots of ideas, which then go into a plan. Sometimes the synopsis will change a few times as a result.
When the book is finished, there will almost certainly be differences between the manuscript and the pitch. So, I retro-fit the pitch and short synopsis to accurately reflect the content.
This is where the chapter breakdown really comes into its own – because I’ve updated the chapter plan as I’ve gone along, I can simply condense each chapter into a sentence or two, making it as pithy and exciting as possible, and BOOM: instant synopsis that’s fit for the publisher’s eyes!

Q. Do you feel like you can change the plan once the publisher has agreed it with you?
A. If they’ve specifically signed off on a detail plan – often the case with licensed fiction – then any changes to plan really should be run by the editor first. Normally though, a publisher will sign off on a synopsis that doesn’t include every little detail, so there’s some freedom. If you go really off-piste, like kill the protagonist when the plan said they were going to ride off into the sunset happily, or you decide they wake up and it’s all a dream, the editor will probably have something to say. They’re paying for it, after all – they should know broadly what their money is buying.

That’s it – hopefully you find some useful bits in there. Remember, this is just my own planning journey and everyone is different!