No-lah, or, A History Of The Golden City Of Monsters.

So there is a thread going around Twitter right now, in which an RPG designer looks at maps of New Orleans and lists all the things that he would find fault with if this were a map handed in by a freelance cartographer for a worldbook he was editing. All of these things, of course, have sensible explanations, which mostly boil down to “it’s the least terrible place to put a port near the mouth of a river that drains 1/3 of an entire continent, and the land has changed a lot due to us no longer letting the river wander back and forth across its delta”.

My opinion of this hot take on my home city? Don’t say that the place is too weird, too dense with complicated history to fit into your idea of a fantasyland formed by third-hand imitations of the maps in the endpapers of The Lord Of The Rings. Embrace the weirdness. Look at the reasons the city is and land is like it is; transform them into something magical, and use this as the basis of a far weirder city than you would have otherwise.

And then I decided to have a go at this myself.


Ages ago, the gods all died. This much we know. They fought amongst each other and laid much of the world to waste in their wake. We have only the faintest rumors of who they were and why they fought, spun from the shredded memories of generations busy scraping out a living in the lands that escaped the worst of their wrath.

Six centuries ago, the Elvish explorer Lemoy-ville followed the many rivers of the fertile North to the place where they join into one mighty torrent and drain into the Gulf of Monsters. Legend says the Gulf was formed by the three overlapping imprints of the Foot of the Thunderer, as she crushed the Worm of the Stars before surrendering to its venom; all we really can say for sure is that the Gulf of Monsters is full to bursting with strange bones and stranger objects, many of which have found surprising uses in modern hands.¹

Lemoy-ville planted a golden flag at the closest to the Gulf she dared set up a semi-permanent camp. But by the time prospectors followed in her wake, drawn by her tales of the ink-black beauty of the Gulf, the rich bounty of strange beasts, and the handful of iridescent crystals oozing more puissance machicx than any found in the North, the miasma that drifted in off the Gulf every winter had tarnished it to a sort of greenish-purplish iridescence. And thus was the seed that grew into the city of No-lah².

Over the decades, No-lah grew. From a tiny camp of thrillseekers and fortunehunters, to a small town of inns and shops for those, to a place sprawling past the borders of the benevolent influence of the clear waters of the mighty River ‘Tchafallayall⁴, to a bustling city of the descendants of fortune-seekers both failed and successful, refugees from the wars of the North, and outcasts. Its architecture came to incorporate strange hints of the buildings of the vanished gods, drawn from treasures found further and further out in the muck of the Gulf of Monsters, built in part with the puissance machicx cracked from the bones of the Serpent Gods who perished in the god wars.

Despite the regular intrusions of strange gibbering beasts that crawled out of the Gulf, No-Lah became a successful, lazy city.

And then, three hundred years after Lemoy-ville stuck a flag into a benighted hump of land near the Gulf of Monsters, the man who would be known as the Weather Witch-Lord came into possession of the Heart of the Star-Worm. Pulled from the middle of the Gulf, somewhere along a four hundred mile long coiling underwater rise, it drew the dark syrupy liquid of the Gulf up the ‘Tchafallayall with it. Rendered into powder and sprinkled along the banks of the ‘Tchafallayall, it stopped the river’s wandering far better than any previous efforts. And most notably, after much effort and pain, after cracking it open and learning the secrets of its center, it… it summoned something, a nameless, seemingly-mindless shape that rose up from the river and mirrored its Gulf-tainted curves, its head high in the sky above No-lah, its tail fading out somewhere over the Gulf it came from.

We called it Katrice. Or, more precisely, Nashro’ber, the Weather Witch-Lord of No-lah called it Katrice, and everyone who wished to remain on his good side did the same. Other city-states making tentative footholds around other parts of the Gulf of Monsters called it other things: the Devistaciour⁵, the Skrt’t’xa⁶, and, well, within a decade pretty much everyone within three week’s ride around the Gulf was calling it Katrice, and regularly paying tribute to the Imperial City of No-lah, because that was better than what happened when Nashro’ber decided you were insufficiently respectful. Mine towers sprung up in the Gulf, digging for more of the Heart of the Star-Worm, and whatever other miracles they could find along the way. The banks of the ‘Tchafallayall between No-lah and the Gulf became armored walls, sprinkled every year with freshly-powdered Wormheart mixed with the blood of some of that tribute. Every year, Katrice grew thicker and darker in the sky; every year, the city celebrated with a party that grew along with the ghost of a god that moved to the city’s bidding.

After two hundred and eighty-seven years of this, Nashro’ber, the Weather Witch-Lord of the Fourth Golden Empire⁷, died. The official record of his last words is lost; the rumor around the city is that they were, simply, “Run”.

Four and a half weeks after that, Katrice laid waste to fully two-thirds of No-lah. Half of the Weather Witch Corps perished before one desperate Witch tore the Heart of the Star-Worm from its resting place in the half-embalmed skull of Nashro’ber, stole a skiff, and vanished into the Gulf. Katrice scattered into a thousand thousand wisps of heartbreak-colored cloud, and has not been seen since. Nor has that heroic, unnamed Witch.

Surprisingly, none of the former client states of the Fourth Golden Empire came in to finish what Katrice started. They didn’t lift a finger to help rebuild, either. Not without demanding a heavy price first, at least. Not without laying claim to whatever prizes they desired from amongst the city’s richer refugees.

It is twelve years later. The city’s population is, at best, half of what it was. Some of it is changing, made strange by the backlash of the power beneath the Gulf. Some of it is still in ruins.

But Lemoy-ville’s flag still glistens purple, green, and gold in the center of the Elvish Quarter⁸. And we still throw one hell of a party every year, even though the riverwalls are mere rubble along the course the ‘Tchafallayall took before Katrice changed everything.

Welcome to No-lah, o adventurer. What wonders will you find?


1: As well as the fairly unsurprising use of fighting the numerous monsters that give the Gulf its modern name.

2: Literally, “Tranquil Rest”. Lemoy-ville and her Company participated in a long explorer’s tradition of giving the least hospitable places of the world inviting names with this one; unlike their name for the Gulf³, this one stuck.

3: Sigs-bee, lit. “Mirror-to-the-sky”.

4: corrupted from the language of the local wood-fey, our best guess is “Don’t drink that you idiot, can’t you see the god-rot not ten feet up the bank from here”; sadly, little of their oral tradition survived the Storm of the Horse and the subsequent “land reclamation” push that saw No-Lah triple in size.

5: Orkish, lit. “Rain of Filth”

6: Spinnerish, lit. “Opener of the Myriad Carapaces”

7: Much ink, blood, and ichor has been spilled on the tenuous connection, or lack thereof, of the Fourth Golden Empire to the previous three. For now, let it suffice to say that even the most ardent supporter of this claim would gleefully proclaim it to be “pretty complicated” before attempting to simplify the argument with the aid of such conceptual aids as a board with strategically-placed nails, or a godsrot-tarnished rapier.

8: Which is largely high-arched Draconate work, built after the Storm of the Melody razed the city for the first time.

ringworld, at twilight

Slowly, the dapples of light beneath the trees become half-circles. The sun dims.

The stars begin to appear – but there’s a black bar with one end where the sun used to be. Massive shadow squares, sliding across the sky, giving you the semblance of night.

Perhaps you can see the faint glints of the sun-side of one or two of the shadow squares giving night-time to places widarsins and deosil of where you are. Perhaps not. Model the situation in a 3D program if you want perfect accuracy; I’m going to go with the option that lets me wax poetic about the way the Sun’s rectangular companions take a little bit of it through the death of the night, and give it back every morning.

One might even craft the shadow squares with different shapes. Every night is a differently-shaped eclipse. Perhaps even a second ring that rotates a little slower, slowly precessing against the world-ring on a year-long scale, rather than days. Dim the light a little, create some seasonal variance. If you want to. Watch the wolves drift inexorably across the sky to eat the sun and shit it out again.

The Turquoise Legacy

Here’s a bit of NSFW fiction I just free-associated into a text window. First draft, very much about ‘things that make me horny’, probably owes a lot to Anne Rice’s version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and maybe something to admiring the fashion sense of the heavy of Disney’s version as well. Seriously don’t read this if you don’t want a thought-dump of the dirty fairy tales I tell myself while I’m touching myself. Also contains a smutty drawing.
A story, my sweetlings? Gather round, and let me tell you of the Cerulean Emperor.
Ahem.

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How To Write Gooder

A while back someone on Tumblr asked me how to get better at writing. This is what I replied.

It’s been sitting in a text editor window ever since. I decided to post it here before closing it and consigning it to the aether forever.

—-

Read.

Read great stuff. Read garbage. Read stuff everyone says is garbage even though they sell a ton. Read stuff everyone says is great that you think is garbage. Read stuff everyone says is garbage that you think is great. Read your favorite genre. Read other genres. Read that tedious shit they put in the New Yorker where nothing ever happens except for some white people not quite getting a divorce. Read stuff you think is great now that you’ll think is garbage in ten or twenty years.

And don’t just read it. Think about it. Ask yourself why the stuff you think is great is great, why the garbage is garbage, what appeals in the terrible best-sellers, what appeals in the great best-sellers. Develop a sense of what makes writing, plotting, characterization, and storytelling good or bad. Then apply that sense to your own writing. If a piece doesn’t pass that test then fix it until it does, if you think there’s something worth salvaging in it. If you don’t know how to fix it then ask how one or another of your favorite authors would fix it.

Read that book you loved ten years ago and read every few years and still love. But don’t just read it. Get a paper copy of it and start *dissecting* it – take notes in the margins. This bit supports this major theme of the story. That bit is an awesome grammar trick you didn’t notice until the third time you read it. This bit is just fucking amazing writing. This bit touched something important in your budding pre-teen sexuality. This bit contradicts that other bit (intentionally?). Here’s a major turning point in the story; here’s a major turning point in this particular character’s story. Flense the story’s skin and muscle off its bones, think about how one supports the other and how badly it would work without some part.

(Doing that is why the last third of Rita is shaped the way it is – I picked up *Use Of Weapons* to re-read as a way of saying goodbye to Iain when he died far too early; I started asking myself how and why he twisted the timeline into knots in that story, and what he had to do to make it work, then applied that to my own story.)

There’s lots of books on How To Structure A Story. Some are shit. Some are great. Read some of them. Personally my current favorite is the one Film Crit Hulk wrote a while back. Be warned: if you’re reading screenwriting manuals, do not try to fit your seven-act story into the Procrustean bed of a three-act screenplay. Let your story be the shape it needs to be. (But keep in mind Vonnegut’s dictum to respect the reader by starting the story as close to the end as possible; you have to *earn* the reader’s attention if you want to tell the six hundred years of Madeupistan history leading up to the point you want to make.)

Do not get lost in “worldbuilding” and “backstory”. Do not skip it, either. Stories and characters grow out of them. But it doesn’t all need to be on the page. I’ve seen the metaphor of an iceberg: maybe 10% of the shit you come up with for a novel ends up on the page. The rest? Save it for the RPG worldbook.

Getting lost in TVTropes is part of your job. It’s a great resource of common building blocks of stories. But you can’t just mindlessly put tropes together; think about which ones work, which ones you should bend, which ones you should avoid entirely, in service to the *theme* of your story and the *characters*.

Having a theme helps a lot too. Whenever you’re stuck for the next thing to aim the narrative at, you can ask how you can bring the theme(s) back to the fore.

The hardest part: figuring out how people act. I mean fuck I’m an involuted freak who spent twenty years of her life hiding from any and all social interaction and learning how to draw and program. The best background is nothing without characters, full of dreams and goals and successes and failures and foibles. Give them things they want, put obstacles in their way, and then story occurs.

Some people will divide writers into “planners” and “pantsers”: one makes elaborate plans of how the whole plot will unfold before they write a single paragraph, the other just starts writing shit and just goes where instinct takes them. Personally I tend to go back and forth; it’s worth noting that both Stephen King and George R R Martin describe themselves as firmly in the “pantsers” camp, and they’ve sold a fuckton more books than I’m ever likely to. Pantsers tend to be about dropping a bunch of characters into a situation, and seeing how they work their way out; this can involve going down a lot of dead alleys as the characters try things that don’t work out.

Personally, Rita started very pants-y: here’s this robot lady infiltrating a building, why? An assasination, apparently. She’s talking to someone, who? Carol. What’s their relationship? I had some vague ideas for visual tricks I wanted to pull with the multiple-story trick but no real clue of the story; it didn’t really start to come together until a random obstacle I dropped in to stop a Relationship Conversation from going on forever opened his mouth and said he was Rita’s psycho ex, and shattered her reality for her. Then I knew a lot more of how it was going to end; once I knew that, I could say “okay, I’m here, and I want to get here – what’s a midway point?” Then repeat: what’s about midway from the latest page to that midway point? To there? Eventually I get down to having a handful of sentences describing what needs to happen in the current chapter, then to what needs to happen in the next page or two, and then I just start plopping words and doodles onto the page in Illustrator. Absinthe’s been similar, albiet much slower. Parallax is super-planned – we’ve turned to TVTropes, we’ve got a list of Common Star Trek Episode Types we made, we’ve spent a whole year kicking back and forth a framework for a multi-season TV show.

It’s okay for first drafts to be terrible. Now you have something to fix, and that’s a lot easier than having the story burst forth fully-formed like Athena from Zeus’ brow.

If you find someone who you collaborate well with, hold onto that for dear life. I would not be half the writer I am without Nick there to help me. We broke up during Absinthe, then got back together during Rita, and now we’re collaborating both on Parallax and Absinthe. Having another pair of brain hemispheres to toss ideas back and forth is wonderful; they’ll bring in a similar-but-different set of references, loves, inspiration, and knowledge.

But mostly: read a lot; turn off your internal censors and write some absolutely terrible stuff. Then either fix it, or write some more terrible stuff until you have something worth fixing.

Also: go ask someone who knows more about writing than me, 99% of my longform writing output is volleying crazy smut fantasy paragraphs back and forth over a furry muck until someone came, fell asleep, or had to go to work the next morning. honestly I’m not sure they’ll have that much more to say, I mean King’s “On Writing” is basically him saying “read a ton, good and bad, and write a lot while applying the critical eye learnt from your wide reading to your own stuff” plus an assortment of anecdotes from his much longer writing career, just do it again and again until people are willing to pay you for it or you give up.

dubstep and dragons

It was dim in the dragon’s lair, but warm and pleasant. The inhabitant got up to greet her visitor warmly before returning to her lazy sprawl in a nest of cushions atop her hoard.

She picked up a magic mirror lying nearby, and tapped at it. Ethereal music filled the air, as if a host of angels were hidden in every corner of the cave. And the dragon frowned.

“Fuckin’ Spotify,” she said. “That’s not supposed to be on this playlist.”

a writing resource

Got some characters looking for a story? If they work in fantasy realms, your search is over: hit up Project Gutenberg for a complete set of the Andrew Lang [COLOR] Fairy Books. Read at random until a story catches your fancy. Replace the main characters – or supporting ones! – with your characters, and see what kind of a delightful mess they make of it.

Bonus points: mix in some bits of other stories. Hey presto, people will start praising your “originality”