“Good” Versus “Great”: A Matter of Nuance

I’m increasingly of the mind that, when discussing the quality of a work, it’s the little things that actually push it from “good” to “great” (and before that, maybe even from “decent” to “good”).  I think back to my favorite movies or games, and it’s the ones that really pay attention to detail that stand the test of time.

Morrowind is good because of it’s gorgeous graphics and interesting questline.  It’s great because of the little adventures here and there, the side stories, the personalities of the people who have nothing to do with the focus, and the little details, hints, and callbacks scattered throughout.

Going from “good” to “great” might actually be a bigger challenge than making something “good” (and that might even apply to going from “okay” to “good”).  It’s not about creating likable characters: that’s a far easier task than creating deeply nuanced characters.

And that’s my biggest challenge as a writer.  I can form a sentence.  I can occasionally deliver a decent metaphor or a solid line of prose.  The story fits the structure, the pacing is acceptable, the characters are likable enough or dislikable enough–and all of this was after the first draft or two, more than two years ago.

I certainly had a book two years ago, and it was not the worst thing an avid reader would ever read.  Since then, it’s become a grind to work out all the little kinks, to try to tweak everything to bump it up to the next level.

But increasingly, as I read, watch, and game with a keener eye, I think the payoff for that time and attention to detail is real.


Living the Fantasy through Morrowind

My fascination with fantasy was never limited to just novels, but nothing could ever match the immersion of a good book–until 2002.  No, I’m not talking about the brilliant Lord of the Rings films, as great as they are.  I’m talking about the video game The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind.

Gaming is the only passion I have that predates reading, and the both dovetail into that favored genre, fantasy.  Role playing games like Dragon Warrior (née Quest), Final Fantasy IV, and Final Fantasy Legend II were immersive and exciting, but it wasn’t until I got my hands on a copy of Morrowind for the Xbox that I felt truly a part of a fantasy world.

Morrowind was the first time I can ever recall being a part of a fantasy world, not just a traveler following behind the Pevensies in Narnia, or a divine hand manipulating Cecil and Rydia from afar.  After creating a character–customizing their looks, their species, even their abilities and talents–Morrowind thrust me into a beautiful, three-dimensional fantasy world, and then… let go of my hand completely.

No novels, or even the RPGs from before, had ever let me create myself, and then let me decide how to handle the fictional world in front of me.  Morrowind does require you to do anything.  The entire world is open, immediately, and you can cross the entire island, dotted with dozens of towns and hundreds of camps, caves, shrines, travelers, hidden treasures, dungeons, ancient ruins, cemeteries, and farms, with a myriad of factions, foes, friends, monsters, and wildlife between any two locations (with more to come from the two additional expansions that were released).

All the same, the world has laws, both natural and man-made.  Magic comes in limited supply, and the early going for a new adventurer is incredibly difficult and dangerous.  The world is not yours to mold and smash like sandcastles: the laws of physics apply, and steel will still sunder flesh and bone.  You could kill an innocent bystander, but the guards and townsfolk would not take the offense lightly.  Games like Grand Theft Auto allow for relatively easy massacres which betray just how dull and lifeless their worlds actually are, populated by cookie-cutter human-shapes that squish and are replaced shortly afterward, with few repercussions.  Should you succeed in wiping out a town in Morrowind, gone are numerous personalities, quests, adventures, and treasures, and in turn, permanent enemies may be made–a massive, realistic penalty for what would ultimately amount to a few baubles and a pittance of gold.

No, Morrowind‘s Vvardenfell province is a living, breathing world, with the true freedom that can only come with the existence of genuine consequences and life that has real value.  It is a real fantasy world that welcomes you to be a part of it, with all the quirks and idiosyncrasies that define you.

You can follow the main quest of good versus evil, but the little goods–and evils–are all over the place.  There are hundreds of quests unrelated to the main plot line, with numerous people who need your help, from poor farmers to goddesses, from the good to the bad to the shady.  There is no shaggy wizard telling you to hurry up or slow down: you can wander the streets of the gorgeous, multi-tiered holy city of Vivec for as long as you like, or you can charge ahead with reckless abandon.

To the very end, you’re never forced into becoming “the Chosen One”, “the Ring Bearer”, or “the Dragonborn”; you still decide who you are.  Imagine Shannara’s Allanon halting everything so that Shea can help the poor guy hiding in waist-deep water who’s pants were stolen.  Making it worth reading or watching within the scope of the wider adventure might not be impossible, but it would certainly be a challenge.  Yet, Morrowind gives you that choice, and it’s as entertaining and fulfilling as it could be in real life.

That’s why Morrowind was such a transformative experience, and its successors can continue to be so for future generations: only in the video game medium can you come so close to truly being a part of the fantasy.

Revising is Miserable, Learning is Great

With my “Wednesday” goal passed without a champagne cork flying across Twitter, I’m not letting any secrets out when I note I’m still not quite done revising.  I’m painfully close to having a work done that I feel ready to put on Amazon, and yet, I’m so far from it.

In 2014, I finished a complete first draft of my first novel.  Within a year, I had finished the first draft of a second, significantly better novel.

And then things dragged to a crawl.  My first draft of my first book was an incredible learning experience, but it needs so much work that it’s almost worth starting with a blank page.  My second book, on the other hand, is entirely salvageable.  But man, is salvaging time-consuming and difficult!

I’m a big gamer, and I feel like what makes the difference between a “good” game and a “great” game is often a matter of nuance–and I can’t help but feel that applies to books as well.  Presently, the story is coherent, is writing isn’t the most bland I’ve seen, the structure suffices, the characters grow and change, the major plotholes are smoothed over.  All the same, the story could use a little more tweaking, the prose could be a lot better, the pacing isn’t perfect, the characters could use a little more nuance and a little more growth, and there are still things that could use some explanations and/or retooling.

Combined with knowledge gained from reading other authors and studying books on the craft, it’s a teachable moment: the more you understand your character arcs, story structure, and how to put together a sentence, the better it all comes together the first or second time through.

I’m a far better writer than I was in 2014, but I’m suddenly aware of how much more there actually is to learn.  It makes me think of the classic game Morrowind: when you level up, it’s quick to point out there’s still a ways to go.  There’s quite a bit of wisdom in the pithy quotes of those old level-up screens!