Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Angels, Psychos, and Little Girls With Bombs

I thought I'd write about more video games.

When I was first offered this opportunity to guest-blog (thanks guys!) and write how games influenced my own writing, I figured I'd tell stories about how my first foray into world-building was in my cramped basement trying to recreate the map from Ultima IV with a pencil and graph paper. And yes, I just used the words Ultima IV, pencil, and graph paper in a single sentence. I'm a little old.

Now sure, that influence has extended throughout my extended life, so much so that my new novel, The Skids, (BLATANT PLUG: COMING OCTOBER 2016! I HAVE NO SHAME!) borrows so heavily from Tron that by halfway through the book you'll expect to see Recognizers coming around every corner. And sure, Tron's a movie, but let's face it: it's a video game.

Yep, I thought I'd be writing about Ultima, or Tron, or Final Fantasy, or Doom, Tomb Raider, Fallout, Burnout, KOTOR, Mass Effect, Fallout again, Tomb Raider again…look, it's a long list. And while I have stolen from—I mean, been influenced by—all of those games and many more, just about all the things I wanted to write about, including the world-building mentioned above, could be summed up in one line of dialogue:

"I just bought a pony made of diamonds. Cause, you'know, I'm rich. I'm thinking of calling him butt-stallion."

So instead of talking about Oblivion or Super Mario Kart or Vagrant Story—seriously, long is the list—I've come to celebrate one simple game: Borderlands 2.

I have a confession: I never finish video games. I finished Final Fantasy VII…I think. I finished the first Knights of the Old Republic. Recently, because it was short and the story was great, I finished the relaunch of Tomb Raider. That's it. Three games in a gaming life long enough have included graph paper.

Plus one more.

Because I finished Borderlands 2. Then I played it again with a different character. Then I played it half-way with all of the characters (I could probably walk to Sanctuary blindfolded). Then back to my fav, Gaige, with whom I played all the DLCs. Then True Vault Hunter mode. Then Ultimate Vault Hunter. Then…look, my very extended point is I played the bullymog out of that game.

All the things I love about BL2, things that I try to bring into my own writing, can be seen in that line of dialogue above, uttered early in the game by the villain, Handsome Jack. Although technically it’s an amalgamation of two lines of dialogue, but hey, I cheated. Here’s to console commands!

First and foremost: the line is just funny. The first time I heard it, I laughed out loud and thought: yeah, I think I'm going to like this. Sometimes the genres I tend to write in the most—science fiction and fantasy—can be a bit…uptight about comedy. Or even humour in general. Thank god for horror.

I honestly believe you can’t have great comedy without drama or great drama without comedy. When I watch Zach Galifianakis, I laugh because his pain is real. On the flipside, I once bailed on watching the TV show 24 because I couldn’t believe not one character cracked: “Man, this day is the worst, I say we go for tacos."

Hamlet is funny, people. Actually, Hamlet is hilarious. And that, to me, is great writing. You can be laughing one sentence and crying the next. Borderlands 2 nails that.
I laughed constantly throughout BL2, but even as Jack would zing me from space—more about that later—he'd turn around and commit some horrible atrocity. If you look past the laughter, there are moments when Borderlands gets crazy dark.

My favourite character, by far, is Tiny Tina. I don't think I'm alone in that among people who've played. But while Tina made me giggle almost the entire time I spent with her, if you peel back the fa├žade and actually take a good hard look at her—where she is, how she was orphaned, what her motivations are—then her story is unbelievably sad. And the end of the DLC in which she makes all the other main characters relive the game as a Dungeons & Dragons session was so beautiful I cried. And not a little. Big, gob-smacking tears.

God bless you, Tiny Tina.

The other thing I like about Handsome Jack’s taunts is they’re all rock-solid dialogue. I love good dialogue and take pride in trying to write it myself. From Jack’s smarmy yet at times cold-as-crap drawl to Mr. Torgue’s over the top bluster, BL2 has great dialogue everywhere. By the way—Mr. Torgue? Imagine the former wrestling great Randy the Macho Man Savage souped up out of his gourd as a politically-correct gun runner. "NOTHING IS MORE BADASS THAN TREATING A WOMAN WITH RESPECT!!!!!!!"

Yeah, sign me up.

The voices flow out of the broad characters—Clap-Trap’s clap-trap prattle, Moxi’s sexy twang, Patricia Tannis’ sociopathic paranoia—but more importantly, the dialogue is just as strong in its down-to-earth characters that drive the story: Roland, Lilith, and Angel. BL2 is a wild, crazy world, but the dialogue feels real, and so I believe in this world.

And that world is wild and crazy, which brings me to the final thing I love about Jack’s taunt, BL2, and heck, video games in general: If it’s fun, screw logic, let’s do it. The genre of science fiction, particularly SF novels, can get a little obsessive about the laws of physics sometimes. Most times. Okay, almost always a lot. Now I get it, gravity works, nothing can move faster than the speed of light, you can’t curve a bullet, etc. But, you know what? I’m not smart enough to write 2001 or any more appropriately modern reference, and curving a bullet is an awesome idea. So is carrying around three thousand pounds of guns, jumping fifty feet, jumping even higher if you use a grenade to jump (WHAT?!?), suspending people in mid-air, summoning a robot from the ether, and randomly finding loot in boxes and chests that are, you know, just spread all around the world. And yes, I know other games created many of these things—I think Quake did the grenade trick first—but I love how BL2 incorporates all these absurd things and more.

Including having the antagonist taunt you from space on his own little personal—what is that, Skype? Now the idea of the antagonist taunting the hero has appeared in multiple mediums and certainly gets used in gaming a lot—the cake is a lie—but when you think about it, WTF? It doesn’t matter where my character is; Handsome Jack has exactly the right thing to say at exactly the right moment. But if he knows where I am all the time, why doesn’t he just blow me up from space: that would make sense, right? For that matter, how does he even do it? His taunts are clean and clear every time. Who’s his wireless provider? I can’t even get a clear signal from my router half the time and I live in a bachelor apartment the size of a pony. There are so many things about that idea that don’t make sense if you think about it too much.

But who cares? It’s awesome when the villain does it. I liked it so much that I put it in The Skids (COMING SOON, #NOSHAME!!!) Because even if there is a small part of me that wonders if it makes sense, what we get in return is great. We get opportunities for humour, character development, and most importantly, we create tension, an awareness that the threat is always, always, always there. And that’s good fun. It’s good writing, and it’s why I love Borderlands 2.

Plus, you know, butt-stallions.

Ian Keeling is an author, actor and owner of a half-decent beard. His day job is teaching improv and sketch at The Second City, in Toronto, Canada, which is, you know, pretty cool.

 His first novel, The Skids, will be published in October 2016 by ChiZine books, and is a full-throttle cross between the video game Burnout, the Hunger Games, and the Matrix. Which, hopefully, is also pretty cool.

You can follow me on Twitter @KeelingIan, or my website

Keeling Me Softly With His Words: An Interview with Ian Donald Keeling, Author of "The Skids"

They're called the Skids. They've got three eyes, tank treads, and a bucket-full of attitude. They play the games and the few that don't get vaped in the first weeks still die at five years old. Game over, thanks for playing. Johnny Drop's the best skid the Skidsphere's seen in generations, but he won't get to enjoy it. Because his world is going to die.

Gef: What was the impetus behind The Skids?

Ian: This is going to sound ridiculous, but…it came to me in a dream. No really. About 20 years ago, I woke up and wrote down what I identified at the time as the first chapter of the weirdest novel I was never going to write. Sometime not long after that, I added a second chapter on a whim. Those two pieces are the bones of the first two chapters.

Then I didn't even think about it for a decade, until I hit a period where I didn't have any new short stories to send out for submission. I dug through my files, found The Skids and realized that the first chapter was actually self-contained and just needed a little world-building to make it a decent short-story. And while I was doing that world-building, I realized that I kinda liked the world I'd built. So that sat for a while, I wrote couple of other novels, and then one day—again between projects—I realized I wanted to actually write the novel. So I did…and here we are.

Gef: With a debut novel under your belt now, how would you gauge your progression as a writer thus far?

Ian: Ha. Well, I started pursuing this dream when I was 12 and now I'm 45 and I'm finally releasing my first novel, so, uh…slow? ☺ No, really, I'm thrilled to finally hit this milestone. It's been a long road—I wish I'd worked harder when I was younger. If I had any advice to young writers, it's this: work hard, then work harder. This isn't an easy career, but it's worth it.

Gef: Who do you count among your writing influences?

Ian: Whew…lots of people? My first was Gordon Korman (there's a bit about that in the acknowledgements of the book). Douglas Adams was a huge influence when I was younger—my first novel is basically a Hitchhiker rip-off. Guy Gavriel Kay is my favourite author and a big influence, but really, it comes from all kinds of places. Authors from Neil Gaiman to Robert Charles Wilson; screen-writers like William Goldman, Aaron Sorkin, or Charlie Kaufman. A lot of graphic novelists: Alan Moore, Frank Millar, Brian Michael Bendis. Heck, video games. I hope someday I write something as funny as Borderlands 2.

Gef: How much emphasis do you place on setting as character?

Ian: I tend not to think of setting that way, although I think setting is huge and influences everything. I like to give the reader enough to inspire their imagination, but that's it, especially when it comes to world-description. Still, with The Skids, the setting often drives the narrative, and yeah, you could argue it's a character.

By the way, you asked about influences in the previous question: I gotta give a nod to Tron, new and old. It was a big influence on how I perceived the setting.

Gef: Is theme something you have in mind when your writing the story, or is that something that kinds of reveals itself later in the process?

Ian: I usually don't have any idea of theme for the first draft, I'm just trying to tell a story. During the second draft, I start to get a feel for themes that might be present and then I might start trying to make some connections here and there. I try not to be heavy-handed when it comes to message, I really am just trying to tell a kick-ass story, first and foremost.

Gef: What do you consider to be the biggest misconception of YA fiction?

Ian: That it exists? That probably seems weird given the novel I'm putting out, but I'm a bit old-school, so I remember when The Hunger Games would've just been a great science fiction novel. I get that labels help the market and also can help readers find books they might like, but sometimes I feel that it can also get in the way of a book and a reader finding each other. In YA, the misconception is that the writing is only for teens, and I think that's so wrong.

Gef: What is the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?

Ian: That there are ways you shouldn't write. I hear it a lot at conventions; the one that's affected me the most is that you're only supposed to write in the 3rd person, past tense. Don't use 1st person, and don't even think about writing in the present tense—which I like to do sometimes in my short fiction.

To me, there are only two rules with regards to what style you want to use in your writing. 1) Be aware of the current trends and respect them: if you're going to write outside the norm, you better get darn good at it. Also don't think you're re-inventing the wheel if you do, everyone thinks they're a genius when they discover something for the first time. 2) If you do know of a particular editor or publisher who hates a particular style, then respect that. Don't try to change their mind. Send them your best thing, great, take the shot. After that, respect their choice.

But however you want to write, give'r. You can write a novel in the 2nd person, past-future tense if you want, with every character named Stanley The Firth. Just make sure it's a really good book.

Gef: Do you have any guilty pleasures when it comes to books or movies or whatnot?

Ian: Craptacular movies. If a movie establishes early on that it's just going to take the rules and say screw it—especially if it does it with verve—I'm in. Armageddon, Reign of Fire, Road House…so good.

Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

Ian: I'm working on the 2nd draft of the sequel to The Skids now (the third book terrifies me), so that's the big thing. I'm terrible with social media, but I'm working on it. You can follow me on Twitter at @KeelingIan. My website is a work in progress, but it's at,

The original interview can be found on "Wag the Fox" at