The Gut, the second novel from Brad Dunne, hit #1 on the Amazon.ca in the ‘Noir Mysteries and Thrillers’ category at 9:54PM Newfoundland Standard time on August 21, 2020, peaking at #481 on the overall Amazon.ca charts.
Engen Books would like to congratulate Dunne on this achievement, and thank his fans and peers who helps make this possible.
Hideo Kojima, the creative force behind the Metal Gear Solid series and, most recently, Death Stranding, is one the gaming industry’s great auteurs. With each entry in the MGS series, he pushed the envelope with regards to how a video game can tell a story. In this blog post I’m going to talk about some strategies writers can learn from Kojima and MGS.
There’s a lot to say about MGS and the many themes and ideas Kojima manages to touch on. Stuff like post-humanism, censorship, war, individualism, and gaming itself, which barely scratching the surface. What I want to discuss in this post is the series’ tone. Kojima manages to cast a wide net with his storytelling because he’s a master of layering concepts.
When Metal Gear Solid starts, it feels like you’re playing a Tom Clancy-style techno thriller, which was very popular at the time. (However, MGS is more stealth-focused than, say, Rainbow Six, etc.) There’s a high emphasis on verisimilitude. Playing as Solid Snake, the game’s protagonist, you must sneak around enemies and use various tools and weapons. As the story develops, you learn about a conspiracy to develop nuclear weapons, post-Cold War tensions. Yadda yadda yadda. So far, pretty conventional.
Then things start to get weird. You encounter a cyborg ninja who may be a long dead former comrade. And then you battle Psycho Mantis, a master of telekinesis and telepathy. The boss fight is pretty legendary in gaming. In a fourth wall-breaking maneuver, you have to change your controller’s ports so Mantis can’t anticipate your moves. I, and most others, had never seen such a post-modern design in a video game before.
It gets wackier from there. There’s a conspiracy about cloning, a sniper battle involving wolves, a Gatling gun-wielding shaman. It’s pretty awesome. I highly recommend playing it or at least watching a playthrough.
What sets MGS apart from its peers is how Kojima manages to bring in melodramatic anime influences couched in a realist setting. This is what I mean by layering. MGS probably would’ve been modestly successful by just being a military stealth game. What elevates it into becoming a classic is how Kojima brings in these other influences. What amazes me is how seamlessly Kojima transitions from one style to another. Then, by opening up the story to these different influences, Kojima is able to explore more ideas and themes.
I first learned about the concept of layering from Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert (yes, I know). He talks about when he first created the cartoon he recognized that he was a good, but not great, artist; he knew a fair bit about business, having worked in an office; and he had a pretty good sense of humour. He wasn’t great at any one of these things in particular, but when he layered them he was able to achieve great success.
Layering can therefore be a powerful tool for writers, especially for those who don’t want to write purely in one genre or style. It’s also a great way to combine genres in new and unexpected ways. In his Stanford commencement speech, Steve Jobs famously said “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” That’s why I find Kojima so inspiring. He shows that you can connect the dots, no matter how disparate they seem.
It’s the fortieth anniversary of the release of Alien. In its honour, I’d like to try and breakdown why it’s arguably the most effective horror movie ever movie. Much like how the xenomorph has different evolutionary forms, so too does horror
Much like the last episode of Lost, it couldn’t absolve all the sins of the final season(s), but the episode in itself was satisfying. In my last post, I was critical of the last two seasons of Game of Thrones, arguing that the writers were prioritizing spectacle over storytelling. And now, looking back over how it all went down, it’s really perplexing to me that they didn’t use all this time to better set the ground for Dany’s heel turn.
In a post that’s gone viral, Daniel Silvermint suggests that the series has moved away from the “pantser” ethos of GRRM towards the “plotter” approach of showrunners D&D. Silvermint does a great breakdown of what these terms mean, so I suggest reading it, but I’ll do a brief summary for you: “plotters” are writers who list out the major plot points of a story before they start fleshing it out; whereas “pantsers” discover the story as they write it, they fly by the seat of their pants. Tolkien is often referred to as the ultimate plotter because he designed the maps, languages, and lore of Middle Earth before writing LOTR. Conversely, GRRM is the ultimate pantser because he claims that he loses interest in a story once he learns the ending. Continue reading Plotters vs Pantsers: Prior Planning Prevents Proper Piss-offs→
Another episode of Game of Thrones and another cry of indignation from fans. This seems to have become the norm with this season, the cracks having started to form in the one previous. Coincidentally, these are the seasons where the showrunners have truly had to go on without source material; season six was still dealing with the consequences of five/Dance with Dragons. And while I think they’ve done an excellent job adapting Martin’s book–I’d argue the show has mostly been superior to the books–they are now exposed. A series that was once full of clever and unexpected upheavals of tropes has now become a well-crafted but conventional spectacle. Continue reading Dracarys! Spectacle vs Storytelling→
One of the great challenges writers face is creating a compelling conflict between their protagonist and antagonist. Too often the hero and villain exist within in their own respective vacuums. The hero saves the day because that’s their job while the villain twirls their moustache and exists as the hero’s make-work project.
I think a truly great hero/villain dichotomy is when the antagonist is a foil to the protagonist. That’s when the comparison goes deeper than their goals; their character traits are similar but differ in some striking ways. Moreover, by creating a strong contrast between your hero and villain, you can develop the themes of your story.
To illustrate this point I want to talk about the characters Cloud and Sephiroth from Final Fantasy 7. I chose FF7 because I want to show that this principle transcends media. And also because that game kicks ass and Sephiroth is the ultimate badass. FF7’s story is pretty bananas, but I’ll do my best to streamline and focus on the salient points.
One of the most confounding pieces of writing advice that gets thrown around haphazardly is “write what you know.” On the surface it makes sense: draw from personal experience so that your familiarity with the material lends a sense of authenticity and verisimilitude. However, when you think about it a little, it would seem to preclude a vast amount of possible stories. If you’re supposed to “write what you know” then how are you supposed to write fantasy, sci-fi, or even historical fiction. Moreover, many of those genre writers seem to do just fine without having personally experienced their own settings; Tolkien never set foot in Middle Earth.
In a recent post, I talked about flow and the effort it takes to achieve it. Today, I want to talk more about that, specifically about making your writing space “sacred” and creating a “closed-loop system,” particularly with regards to distractions, vis a vis your phone.
In that post about flow, I discussed the pomodoro technique, which helps me focus. To quickly recap, I work for twenty-five minutes then take a five minute break. The problem is that I was using my phone to do this, and during my five minute breaks I’d usually check social media or any messages. Seems harmless enough, right? I’d briefly check my phone for a few minutes then set it aside and work, and then repeat.
This January I was commissioned to write two short articles. It had been awhile since I did the freelance thing, and these pieces were outside the niche that I’d been carving for myself recently, but I said yes because it was an opportunity to make some quick money after Christmas. Also, the publisher has always been a pleasure to work with. And, I mean, it’s pretty hard for a writer to turn down a paying gig. However, I soon realized that taking on these sorts of projects was holding back my career. I was chasing the quick nickel instead of the long dollar.
When I first started my writing career back in 2013, I didn’t understand the value of specialization (among many other things). My passion had always been to write novels, ever since I was little kid, but I didn’t have a voice, didn’t know where to start. So I decided to follow the path laid by many other writers before me that I’d admired: journalism. I did a six-month internship at The Walrus magazine then embarked on a brief freelancing career.
I was interested in a lot of different things and figured it was all just writing. I chased after every possible pitch. I wrote articles about food banks, homelessness, women in the Canadian film industry, Newfoundland traditions, food, and immigration. I said yes to any opportunity.
This taught me two important lessons: 1) in order to be a great writer, or anything really, you have to focus on one very specific thing, and 2) to do that, you have to say “No” a lot.
In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown shows very simply the power of focusing on one thing vs several things. You can try to do ten things to the first degree, or you can do one thing to the tenth degree. Doing the former means you’ll spread yourself thin and only really nibble around the edges. The latter means you’ll end up actually mastering your chosen field.
There was no way I could write about immigration one week, food the next, and somehow find time to write novels in the meantime without my work suffering.
This begs the question: How do I find my niche? It’s easier said than done. Some people know from the start what they want to do. For example, you may have always wanted to be a sportswriter and every step you took from high school was in that direction. On the other hand, like me, you may have a lot of interests and can’t decide. In that case, I’d suggest doing a lot of things until you find your niche. After writing enough things that I wasn’t interested in, I managed to deduce what I was interested in.
Once you’ve reached this point, you’re ready for step number two: Saying No.
Focusing on one thing means that you’re gonna have to say no to things that don’t contribute to your long term goals. And you’re going to have to say no a lot. Like a lot, a lot. What’s more, as you gain success and notoriety in your niche, more opportunities will come your way. You’re gonna need to parse which ones are right for you.
This is difficult for two reasons. 1) Turning down opportunities feels wrong. Like you’re being lazy and unappreciative. This requires discipline and focus. And 2) Knowing the right time to say no requires sound judgement.
Warren Buffett, who is worth an estimated $82 billion, says that the thing that separates successful people is that they say no to a lot of opportunities. Buffett owes approximately %90 of his wealth to just ten investment stocks. Therefore, there is a tonne of value to be found by drilling narrowly and deeply.
Or, consider Stephen King. After Carrie, he had to a choice to publish either Salem’s Lot, which would cement him as a horror writer, or Roadwork, which was more literary. King wasn’t afraid of specializing so he went with the former. I think that’s worked out pretty well for him.
So, whenever an opportunity comes your way, you have to ask, “Does this contribute to my long term goals? Am I chasing the quick nickel or the long dollar?”
That was the mistake I made when I said yes to those commissions at the start of the year. It wasn’t a bad opportunity, just not the right one for me. I don’t want to sound ungrateful or snobby, like it’s beneath. It just didn’t fit in with my long term goals. I was chasing the quick nickel.
Engen Books is proud to announce that Brad Dunne, author of the 2018 novel After Dark Vapours, will be setting the stage as only a person of his immense talent can, by writing the foreword to the 2019 anthology collection Dystopia from the Rock.
Brad Dunne is a freelance writer and editor from St. John’s, Newfoundland. He began his writing career as an intern at The Walrus magazine and has published journalism and essays in publications such as Maisonneuve, The Canadian Encyclopedia, and Herizons. His short fiction has been featured in In/Words, Acta Victoriana, and The Cuffer Anthology. His debut novel, After Dark Vapours, was released in October 2018 to great critical response, mixing literary sensibilities with genre storytelling.
Twenty-Five other authors will be joining Brad Dunne, David Rimmington, Heather Nolan, Gareth Mitton, Shannon Green and Ali House for the 2019 Dystopia on the Rock collection! We still have award-winning and prolific authors in the genre to announce! Who will join them? Stay tuned and Never Look Back!