To Tell the World a Story…

Well, after probably two years, I’m doing it again: I’m writing an online story.

If you want to just go read the thing and not listen to me yammer about it, head over to the site I’m writing it on. I guarantee you it’s not what you expect. It’s even illustrated with Lego renders.

This new online story of mine is very different from my previous, not merely in its tone but also in its format and general nature. Heretofore (what a fun word that is!) all my stories have essentially been serialized novellas: Long narratives cut up into arbitrary parts and posts based on the character limits of message boards (the Lego Message Boards, to be exact). This new story of mine, which frolics under the absurd title of TEJFAF, is written in self-contained episodes, and has no particular planned ending in sight. It will simply go on, rather like a webcomic or something along those lines; meandering along in a mishmash of episodes.

Unlike any other stories I’ve ever shared online, TEJFAF is not meant to be some sort of display of my abilities. I mean, heck, I named it TEJFAF. That doesn’t even mean anything. Well, it does—actually it means two things—but I’ll leave that for you to find out about should you read it. The point is, TEJFAF isn’t a portfolio item; it’s not a grand epic or exercise of narrative skill. It’s simple, ludicrous, shabbily written, and accompanied by poorly rendered illustrations made of out virtual Legos. I’m not taking it seriously, and it’s a rollicking good time.

Anyway, should you feel the need to read some absurdist sci-fi with Lego illustrations, head over to the TEJFAF site and see what you can see.

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Kingsfield Trotter

In retrospect, I should’ve posted this a month ago when I made it, but after posting it here, here, and here, I was rather all posted out, so to speak. I think it would be pretty cool to start posting Lego creations here, in the spirit of some of my earliest posts, but we’ll have to see if that actually happens, considering all the other Lego communities I’m trying to frequent. Not to mention the fact I rarely build anyway these days.

Regardless, here’s the first thing I’ve built in awhile: the Kingsfield Trotter.

Kingsfield Trotter.png

This is the Kingsfield Trotter, a lightweight reconnaissance walker used on the outskirts of the Highborn Empire, primarily in the Wide Wastes and deserts of Pzjim (because worldbuilding). Though usually disdained by the Imperial Forces for its lack of heavy armament, the local militias and mercenaries of the Wastes make great use of the Trotter in their patrols, its twin anti-infantry gatling cannons being perfectly suited to dealing with the disorganized outcasts, bandits, and monsters of that region.

First off, let me clarify something incredibly important—I did not render this. I am by no means skilled enough to pull something like this off. Because I was not well enough to easily access my rendering computer at the time I built this, I asked a friend of mine by the name of Brickman to render it. If you want to see more of his stellar work, check out the new Lego community he’s running here on WordPress: Bricklab. The man’s a rendering wizard.

Also, while I’m at it, the posing and a lot of the design of the ‘fig is all Brickman, too. The original minifig I’d cooked up didn’t run through Mecabricks, the bit of online magic that turns LDD files into something Blender can read, so we had to change him up. I think this version is a lot better, actually.

Moving onto the build itself, I quite like how this turned out, though I feel the design sort of stalled after the legs were finished. My original idea for the body was that it would terminate in a roofless circular platform, in the style of one of my favourite things I’ve ever built, but unfortunately that didn’t work in the slightest. So instead I had to completely redesign the body, resulting in what you see above. I think it might’ve turned out for the better, but I’m still unsatisfied with its comparatively lower detail and general chunkiness.

Anyway, that’s about that. As usual, I feel like I really should build more.

Worldbuilding Adventures

In my (relatively) recent post on my inspiration in creative writing, I mentioned that I “didn’t worldbuild.” And, to some degree, this is true. I never worldbuild for my stories (not anymore, anyway), or try to set them in any engineered or planned worlds. They just sort of unravel on their own, revealing facts about their worlds as they get written.

However, to clarify, I do actually worldbuild, and have been worldbuilding since I was very young. I’ve built loads of worlds over my lifetime, or at least loads of languages and cultures and races that were tacked together, and had a great deal of fun creating planets and peoples with my brother. However, I never seemed to manage to set any stories in the worlds I made, mostly because that simply doesn’t seem to be how I work. If I just make a bunch of languages and cultures and creatures, they don’t really provide me with any leads for a story.

And the trouble is, it’s the stories I really care about. Sure, creating a world with all its creatures and things can be good fun, but the novelty soon wears off, and if there’s no stories or characters involved I quickly loose interest. And, when you mostly just build languages and peoples, you don’t really get characters, let alone proper stories.

It’s because of this that I’ve steered away from personal worldbuilding more in recent years, focusing instead solely on my stories. But, as a life-long worldbuilder, I’ve missed it, and while I’ve worked on some communal projects with my brother, I’ve been having this slow desire build up in me to make a world that is my own, like I used to when I was young. And then, just awhile ago, I remembered a worldbuilding project of mine that had lasted for well over five years, and only stopped because of difficulties in a transition between computers.

This project was called Legends, and, honestly, if you’d asked me about my past worldbuilding projects, I probably wouldn’t’ve thought to count it until recently. See, it wasn’t an amalgamation of languages or cultures—it was a game. If I’d know what tabletop RPGS were when I created it, it would’ve been a tabletop RPG, but since I didn’t, I guess it doesn’t quite count. Essentially, it was a sort of sandbox roleplaying game where people could wander around this world I created and more or less do as they pleased. The combat was shallow (players basically just won every time) and the few rules the game had secondary to fun of the players, but people did enjoy it, and I absolutely loved running it. The thing that really made it interesting was that I constantly added onto it, adding new locations and elements and characters, so that the world actively developed and grew and was fleshed out. And because people were playing in it and buying dragons and exploring mazes and usurping kingdoms, it was constantly creating stories. And not only that, but because it had NPC characters that populated its towns and wizard towers and so forth, I had hooks to hang my own narratives on, and I ended up creating everything from history books to literal wars that players could watch transpire.

Admittedly, Legends was a horrible mess, as it wasn’t thought through in the slightest and wasn’t governed by any real systems or rules to keep it consistent and interesting. But it was good fun, and what it became in its final days was truly something I’m proud of. And it occurred to me—why not do it all again? Why not make something like Legends now, when I’m a high school graduate and not a nine-year-old? Sure, I’ve made attempts to create Legends-like games in the past, but instead of just focusing on developing a cool world, I always ended up getting bogged down in the format I’d used for Legends (which was literally just a chain of folders and files on my computer representing locations and entities). Why not just develop a cool world that, rather than being linguistic or literary, is just a really cool playground and backdrop for people to roleplay in? Considering Legends lasted over five years without me ever even being tempted to abandon it (something I can’t even dream of saying about a story), the format of a world for a tabletop RPG obviously works very well for me.

So that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m developing the backstory, mythology, religion, politics, and structure of an entire city, all the while with the intention that people will be experiencing it from the level of actual characters on its streets. And somehow this angle is working beautifully for me, just like it did with Legends years ago. In fact, it’s working so wonderfully I want to share its development with you all. I’ve created a Collection over on Google Plus (yes, I’m one of those people), and I’m going to be sharing all the material for this world of mine in posts on there, including any changes or overhauls I may make to it. So far it’s already been great fun, and I highly encourage you to go check it out. I’m not going for top quality with my writings about this world, but it’s still not half bad.

So, if you like, go hop over to the collection—it might interest you, or at least give you a laugh.

 

A Few Meditations

A couple weeks ago I wound up in a pseudo-poetic mood, and since I wasn’t feeling up to writing any actual poetry (keeping track of meters can be a headache), I just jotted down a bunch of random phrases that occurred to me instead. I daresay they’re not particularly good, and honestly I’m not actually sure if I agreed with most of them, but they sounded nice and so I thought I’d share some of the better ones. A few of them are probably rather trite and cheesy—inspirational beach sunset poster fare, like as not. But, then again, perhaps you had some inspirational beach sunset posters wanting captions.

“The world is a mystery, and I am but a puzzler wandering these weary wastes; alone in thought and deed, a voice of reason trapped inside the body of a weak man.”

“There is a fairyland beyond it all where ideas are born; nourished and raised on the sweet nectar of inspiration and gifted with wings immaterial to alight upon the thoughts of the mortal mind.”

“If I was a tree, I would not grow upwards to rear above the rest and touch the mighty sky; but rather I would grow outwards, and give to all my welcome shade.”

“Tears are the seeds of change.” Now that was a cheesy one. Probably shouldn’t’ve bothered posting that one.

“If I mourned the loss of all things, and filled the rivers of time with the weeping pieces of my broken heart, would I have time to feel any joy?”

“Hatred burns hottest in the heart of the hater, and it is his heart that is consumed for fuel.”

“If I cried a tear for every sorrow that I saw in a single day, I would be washed away; but if I cried one for every joy I left unnoticed, I would drown.”

“It is precisely the people who have failed who will say you cannot succeed.”

“A broken window is a sorry sight, but it is also a way out.” I’ll be honest, I have no idea what that one means.

“If there is no way out, it is because you are beating the wall and ignoring the door.”

“To be is to cry and to laugh and to give it up for someone else.”

“A book is like a sailboat: the words are the wind, but you have to provide the sail.”

“A story is useless without readers, and beauty is nothing without eyes.”

“Many people want to be strong, and many others want to be beautiful, but few want to be good.”

“If I dreamed a dream of reality, would it be a dream at all?” Now that one is trite.

“If I sound wise and speak in rhythm, can you help but feel inspired?” Sometimes I can’t help a little self-parody.

“Just as a picture is marred by a streak down its center, so is society marred when it is divided by a wall; and just as a picture is nothing without the lines that give it shape, so a society is nothing without the boundaries that give it meaning.”

“To wish upon a star is nothing; to believe a star can grant a wish is another.”

“If I ran a thousand miles to find you, would you think me a fool or a saint?”

“Something is weird if we do not understand it in the slightest, or if we know it all too well.”

“I cannot abide people who sit around complaining when they have the tools to make a difference, while many sit by unable to lift a hand and yet are fired by an inspiration they cannot harness.”

“Ultimately, there are two feelings in life: Loss and meaninglessness. Which would you rather have?”

“If everyone died, would anyone notice?”

As you can see, the last few get progressively darker, but that tends to be the way of things in my writing. The lattermost actually had a variation that went, “If we all died and went to Hell, would anyone notice?” but that was frankly just stupid. A nice little bit of poetic ranting against the miseries in the world, but just stupid in its blindness and intellectually foolery.

Honestly I don’t really know what the point of this whole post was, but I’ve made a resolution to just post what I actually write and not worry about it, so that’s that. I hope at least one of these stirred something vaguely poetic inside you. At the very least, I hope you found a nice caption for your inspirational beach sunset.

Oh Ho, the Glory of War

Okay, so, I probably shouldn’t share this online, but I’m doing it anyway. Carpe diem and all that.

I happen to quite like writing satire, even if I’m not very good at it, and I whipped up a little poem / song about war, because that’s apparently the sort of thing I do in my spare time now. It’s anything but subtle, but I rather like how it turned out in a dark sort of way. My entire life the US has been at war with somebody or another, so this probably stems from that. That and my general disgust with the Arms Trade and so forth. You get the gist.

Obviously this poem is satire (even if it’s a very on-the-nose kind of satire). I don’t actually think war is glorious in any capacity. Quite the contrary, hence the satire. And obviously, this isn’t targeted at the brave men and women who fight in the armed forces, but rather the arms industry and the glorifying of war and all that jazz.

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Oh ho, the glory of war!

What joy it is to mop the floor,

With heaps and heaps of blood and gore,

The glory is so bright and true,

It makes heroes for me and you,

And shows they’re true men through and through!

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Trample the weak and blow the house,

Sweep the trench and trample the mouse,

The world may laugh, the world may cry,

But it’s never better than when the bullets fly!

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We send our boys n’girls away,

Over the hills and faraway,

To kill and die the righteous way,

So we can live our nice lives,

And never care who lives and dies,

‘cause we’ll have cash up to our eyes!

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Trample the weak and blow the house,

Sweep the trench and trample the mouse,

The world may laugh, the world may cry,

But it’s never better than when the bullets fly!

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Sure we’ll make a few mistakes,

Everyone has growing aches,

Profit’s what the war machine makes,

Even if we blast some things,

Belonging to some foreign fiends,

Doesn’t make much difference it seems!

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Trample the weak and blow the house,

Sweep the trench and trample the mouse,

The world may laugh, the world may cry,

But it’s never better than when the bullets fly!

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A bullet’s a dollar sign,

Missiles my ride on a cruise line,

We’re getting richer all the time!

One day they’re bad, next our friend,

Ever’y war is just a trend,

And we’ll never, ever, ever let it end!

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Trample the weak and blow the house,

Sweep the trench and trample the mouse,

The world may laugh, the world may cry,

But it’s never better than when the bullets fly!

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With that over, I’m going to go throw up now. Even if I’m blatantly mocking it, dealing with this sort of mentality makes me feel ill. I would say I hope you enjoyed, but that makes absolutely no sense, so I guess I’ll say I hope you didn’t enjoy.

What is this “Inspiration” thing, anyway?

So, recently, I came across an article by a writer talking about their writing struggles, and being a writer myself, I gave it a read. I figured it’d be a nice bit of catharsis to hear about someone else’s writing problems and so forth, but, unsettlingly enough, I found some of the struggles listed to be completely foreign to me. Sure, some of them were fairly commonplace and empathizable, but others completely befuddled me. Things like finding published books unnervingly similar to your own, or having your creative tank run dry. I mean, sure, I fight with writer’s block a lot, but “filling my creative tank” has never been the answer. Reading great writing does help me improve in a general sense, but it doesn’t refresh me creatively. I don’t have a sort of creative stamina bar that runs out if I write for too long. If I get on a roll, it usually lasts until I physically have to stop, while if I can’t get going, no power in heaven or earth is going to get me going.

And all of this finally brought me to the unusual realization that I don’t get inspired like other people seem to. I don’t read a great book and go, “Man! I should write a story like that!” At least, not consciously. Sure, when I was much younger I’d prance around after watching Star Wars and weave little tales of spaceships and lasers, but those never became stories. Not that I wrote. And sure, when I was really young my stories were essentially just ripoffs of other things, but I quickly over-compensated and instead became neurotically obsessed with originality. Granted, even nowadays I may hear a phrase or something that gives me an idea that feels like gold, and I’ll jot that down, but I don’t have any recollection of ever using some of this “gold” in a story. Not if it was inspired by anything that didn’t come from my own head.

And yet, despite this, I talk about inspiration a lot, and depend upon it utterly. If i’m not inspired, again, no power in heaven or earth can make me write. I can’t simply write whatever and whenever I like, even if I have a great idea. If I’m not inspired to write that thing, it will not be written. I can try all I want, but it’s like juicing a lemon with a pillow. It just doesn’t work.

But, if I’m not inspired by books or movies or anything along those lines, what is this magic inspiration that I depend on? And where does it come from? The answer is I have no idea. The only thing that maybe slightly inspires me is visual art like paintings, and even then I don’t decide what that art inspires me to write (it’s rarely even tangentially related, if I’m honest). And I really don’t think I ever get any real inspiration from other writing. At least, as far as I’m aware. There may be something deep down in my subconscious that pulls together tiny bits of other people’s ideas and then presents me the result, but I wouldn’t know if there was. My inspiration just sort of feels like a tap in my head, and moreover a tap I don’t have real control over. Sometimes it’s on and sometimes it’s off, and most of the time something’s always dripping out of it.

I never decide what comes out of this tap, it just comes. I don’t have a “creative process.” I don’t sit down and consciously, intentionally invent characters and worlds. My writing isn’t engineered. I don’t think any of it through, and I haven’t knowingly grabbed bits from other things and tacked them on since I could ride a bike (at least as far as I can remember). Most of all, I never flesh out details. I never “worldbuild”, not for my stories. I can write the first ten chapters of a story and never know the color of my protagonist’s hair, only to find out randomly one day in the middle of an unrelated sentence. I never “flesh out” my characters; I just sort of get to know them as I go along. I don’t create them, they just show up.

I have a little fancy that in my head somewhere there’s a sort of super-dimensional office that characters come to from fairyland (or Faerie, if you want to sound more grown-up) to interview for a role in my stories. Frankly, though, this metaphor is hardly accurate. In reality, there’s no interviewing. The characters just barge into my office and won’t go away, and they bring their stories and their worlds along with them. I have practically nothing to do with it.

I used to try to make outlines for my stories, to try to get a better idea of what I was doing ahead of time, but, once again, the outlines just sort of made themselves up. I never followed a formula like The Hero’s Journey, and I doubt I really could if I felt like trying. I had enough trouble sticking to the outlines I created myself. Honestly, my “outlines” would kind of end up turning into narrative and description anyway, the story just writing itself despite my intentions to create a framework to flesh out later.

I don’t plan ahead for my stories anymore, because I never exactly know what’s going to come next. I mean, I have a rough jumble of ideas in my head, but if I tried to write them out I’d either end up just writing the story or squeezing out a useless shell that I’d end up ignoring later on. Or worse, I’d expend all of that precious inspiration and be unable to revisit the idea because I already incarnated it into that outline. I have loads of outlines on my computer for stories I never wrote, and, sadly, will probably never write. I had the ideas, but instead of making a story out of them I made an outline, and then the inspiration tap shut off and that was that.

Once again, I can’t write something just because I want to. I probably can’t even come up with a simple character or a plotline unless it shows up in my head ready-made, or at least ready to be explored and discovered through writing. It all depends on that stream of inspiration.

I’ve never, ever sat down and made a character based on a pile of pre-requisites or advice. I almost never make a character because they are necessary to the plot, and the one time I did in the past few years it was so disastrous it destroyed the entire story. I’ve never put together a backstory for a character or come up with a motive. All that sort of thing was already part of the character. Generally speaking, I can feel why a character would do something and how they would act without thinking about it, and I learn where they come from, once again, by just writing them. I don’t plan, I don’t prep, I don’t worldbuild, I don’t invent, I just write.

Now, I’m not trying to brag, or even say this is a good thing. If anything, I think it speaks very low of me. I call myself a writer, but I can’t easily control what I write or when I’m “inspired” to write it. It’s like I’m a sojourner in Faerie, finding things I cannot fathom and being gifted graces I cannot fitly use. I have millions of ideas and characters and worlds, and they never stop coming, but I can’t plan for them and I definitely can’t accommodate them all.

My real question, though, is not why I have all of this stuff in my head, or where it comes from, or why on earth it picked me out of all the writers in the world, but if anyone else has this same experience. Does anyone else write like this, or meet their characters like this, or discover their worlds like this? Or does everyone follow those online writing guides and meticulously plan out their characters and what they mean and how they appeal to popular culture?

Maybe most people write like I do and they just don’t talk about it. Or maybe I’m an odd duck. Or maybe I’m raving mad. Who knows? Seriously, do you know?

I’m genuinely curious.

Podcastification

I’ll keep this short, because I don’t feel like writing a long ramble, but I was on the Geek Questioner Podcast! And it was awesome! You should give it a listen—it’s a great, nerdy podcast about nerdy things! I had a blast, though I probably talked slightly too much.

Here’s the link so you can give a listen and subscribe if you enjoy. Charlie Hoover does some really epic stuff with it and so it’s a good thing to keep tabs on. He also does lots of cool geeky stuff in general, so go check him out.

That’s all I really have to say, but it’s pretty big news. Getting interviewed on a fairly big podcast is just awesome. Really honoured.

Stay awesome, everyone! And geeky too, for that matter!

Giving In To the Old Temptation

I did it—I made yet another new blog. But it’s not going to be a replacement for this one, thankfully. No, I’ve had this lovely blog for too long to give it up—it’ll still remain as my (theoretically) primary writing blog. All the important stuff is gonna be here, more or less.

Nonetheless, I am making another blog, and I thought I’d link to it. It’s no mystery to most people that I have a lot of health issues, and this blog is primarily concerned with that. It also gives me a chance to write in a more comedic tone, and also just talk about my personal life in some fashion, so it’s going to be rather fun. However, I recognize ninety-percent of people are not going to want to hear about all the crud wrong with me, so such things will be isolated to this new blog. Think Deeply, Dream Lightly will continue in its usual vein of talking about a little of everything and nothing in particular, and I honestly won’t ever expect you to visit the new site.

However, if you are among the ten percent of people who might be interested in hearing about my struggle with chronic illness (and how I don’t really like that word) and other bizarre health issues you’ve probably never heard of, as well as reading my amusing thoughts on life in general (particularly my own), I would direct you to my new blog. Just Pretend You’re Dancing.

With that thought out of the way, we will now return to our irregularly scheduled programming.

Marketing Creativity – An Article For LEGO’s Marketing and Design Departments

Quick memorandum: This post is intended as a direct address to the marketing and design departments of the LEGO company. As such, I will be dropping my usual narrative voice and speaking solely in terms of marketing, sales, et cetera. There are plenty of other angles that could be taken on the issues and ideas I will put forward in this article, but I will abstain from taking them for the sake of effective communication. LEGO is a business, and as this is intended as a fully serious set of comments and proposals concerning its marketing and design efforts, I will be addressing LEGO in business terms. I personally care about a great deal more things than sales when discussing company practices, but LEGO’s sales departments revolve around sales, and so will this article. I will be taking the obviously wonderful effects of imagination and creativity for granted, and focusing on why incentivizing them and catering more to them would be profitable to LEGO. Obviously MOCers need no encouragement to create MOCs, but if LEGO incentivized it more I think it would be better for everyone.

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It is without question that the products of the LEGO company are inherently creative. LEGO sets can be reconstructed and recombined into an endless amount of things, the only limit being the builder’s imagination. This being evident, the benefits of marketing LEGO products creatively are conceivable. I do not use the term “creatively” to indicate using creative approaches and strategies—that is intrinsic to marketing any products—but rather to propose the idea of marketing LEGO products as a creative medium. To market creativity itself, so to speak. This is no easy task, and not one yet undertaken by any other company I can think of, but considering the obvious creative nature of LEGO products it is rather surprising it has not yet been attempted at any considerable scale. If LEGO products were properly marketed in this fashion, the results could be incredibly lucrative for the company and beneficial for all concerned.

Currently, LEGO’s primary marketing strategy could be summed up in the maxim, “Collect Them All”. These words have been the go-to slogan for virtually every toy line ever sold, from Beanie Babies to the cheap miniatures provided in happy meals. Presenting your products as collectibles is a classic and effective strategy to motivate consumers to purchase a great many of them. And, in many cases, it has served the LEGO company well. The epitome of this can be found in the LEGO Minifigures theme, which revolves entirely around collection.

The trouble is,”Collecting Them All” is not a particularly creative exercise, and only engages consumers until they have “Collected Them All” (or at least as many of them as they happen to like—since LEGO products do not tie into a game or larger scheme of engagement like Magic: The Gathering cards or Webkinz, there is no real reason for consumers to purchase products whose looks don’t particularly excite them). In order to making collection a valid sales incentive, there has to be a continuous stream of things to collect, and that stream has to remain endlessly interesting. This is no easy feat, even for a theme as simple as LEGO Minifigures.

Not only is collection a difficult incentive to maintain when there is no larger metagame or purpose to said collection, it hardly works at all outside of LEGO themes like Minifigures. LEGO Minifigures sets are relatively cheap, and can be easily purchased en masse. The majority of sets from other LEGO themes are quite expensive (especially in the world of children’s toys which the LEGO company claims to belong to) and do not lend themselves to easy collection. Buying a LEGO Ninjago or Creator set is an investment, and sometimes a considerable one. While I have been encouraged as a consumer to collect all the Modular Buildings and “build an entire town”, I have never felt it remotely realistic to do so. Even the LEGO fans I have known (and I have known many) who owned several Modular Buildings sets never gave the impression they purchased them to “Collect Them All”, but rather because they thought they were interesting, well-made sets.

This is the real problem: LEGO is marketing creative products as collectibles, and doing so when few of their consumers are interested in collecting. As I stated at the beginning of this piece, LEGO products are inherently creative, and, because of that, people purchase them for creative purposes. Most consumers of LEGO products are not interested in collecting them and lining them up on shelves, despite LEGO’s encouragement to do so (and subsequent criticism of doing so in The Lego Movie, which is oddly conflicting with the company’s current business model). People buy LEGO products to build with them. Even if they follow the instructions to sets that LEGO provides (and not everyone does, some serious fans and dedicated purchasers being more interested in the bricks), the sets thus built are usually taken apart and repurposed fairly quickly.

To reiterate: Nobody collects LEGO sets—they build with them.

So what do I suggest LEGO do differently? The “Collect Them All” strategy is arguably somewhat successful, though not necessarily apt or particularly effective. What would be the benefits of switching marketing strategies, and more importantly, what marketing strategy would be the most effective and preferable?

Well, obviously, a creative one. LEGO sells creative products, and marketing them as such is the obvious choice. Marketing creativity, so to speak, instead of collectibles. Encouraging consumers to build new things with what they buy rather than simply put them together and display them. The advantage of such a strategy is that it encourages consumers to engage quite heavily with the product, and even promotes a lifelong commitment to it. While playing with the flick-fire missiles on a LEGO set is not something you’re likely to see an older teenager or adult doing, building enormous, grandiose LEGO creations of their own design is. Older fans in general actually build more seriously and more extensively than younger ones, on average. Building with LEGO bricks is nowadays considered a perfectly grown-up activity, while playing with them is not. And this means that, with creativity-oriented marketing, LEGO can not only approach their consumers in a more fitting and effective way, but also engage older individuals and more age groups in general; the obvious business advantage of this being these individuals will continue buying more sets over their lifetimes.

And LEGO has tried this to a limited degree, but not necessarily in the right ways or to any great success. A prime example of this is the LEGO Classics theme; a lineup of sets composed solely of building bricks. You could easily argue this is selling creativity rather than a collectible, and rightfully so, but you could also easily argue these sets are poorly composed and marketed. Once again, dedicated and serious LEGO builders are primarily teenagers and adults—these are the LEGO fans who have years of building experience and are even part of large, building-oriented communities. One only has to look at sites like MOCpages or Eurobricks, or at the LEGO communities on sites like Flickr, or even at books like Beautiful Lego, to see that the serious LEGO building community is far older than LEGO’s target demographic. And, more importantly, it is far older than the demographic sets like those in the Classics theme are marketed towards.

If you look at LEGO fan-made creations (or “MOCs” as they are called, MOC standing for My Own Creation), you can see they universally use a wide range of complex LEGO elements and techniques. However, all of the building-oriented sets LEGO has sold in recent years, LEGO Classics included, do not contain most of the complex LEGO bricks and elements serious builders use. I could not buy a stack of LEGO Classics sets and build a dragon or spaceship to the level of detail and complexity I would expect out of a MOC, or even a LEGO set from themes like Ninjago.

In short, the LEGO company almost never markets their sets as creative opportunities for builders, and when they rarely do they market them to young children who are more interested in playing than building. This, to me, seems like a critical error, and I would like to propose an alternate strategy.

Suppose there was a line of LEGO “building kit” sets that were marketed directly to builders, and designed especially for builders. These sets would not cater to the chunky, childish building that is found in the Classics theme, but rather to the creation of complex, detailed MOCs. I can imagine a “Spaceship Builder’s Kit”, or even a more expensive line containing such sets as the “Ultimate Castle Creator’s Kit”. Even licensed kits like a “Star Wars Builder’s Kit”. This would allow the LEGO company to tap into the serious builder (or “MOCer”) market, which would be incredibly lucrative. These MOCers buy in bulk, and they buy regularly. If, after the proper research and with the proper marketing, LEGO could begin selling to this market, the profits would be considerable. MOCers make it their business to build extremely regularly and acquire as many LEGO bricks and elements as they can afford, and selling to such individuals would be highly desirable and profitable to the LEGO company.

The problem with selling such “building kit” sets targeted directly at MOCers is obviously that LEGO has never done it before, and MOCers have no reason to think LEGO would start doing it now. LEGO has a set a precedent of making all their creativity-oriented sets incredibly childish and and generally unhelpful to serious building (with the possible exception of some of the Creator sets, but there is actually very little creativity encouraged even in their marketing, and even the admirable 3-in-1 sets simply provide three possible sets of instructions to follow, and don’t actively market creative building to the consumer except in the theme’s name). However, with the proper marketing push and presentation, I think it would be entirely doable and highly profitable. MOCers already often buy sets for the sake of their bricks; releasing sets tailored to these purchasing habits could be a remarkable sales opportunity.

But there is certainly more that could be done to tap into this massive, remunerative, LEGO-exclusive market. MOCers love their bricks and pieces, and will go to great lengths to procure just the right ones (which is yet another reason why sets containing generic, chunky, ordinary bricks not tailored to any particular or serious kind of building are not very popular, at least among MOCers). A prime example of this brick-hunting can be found in the fan site of Bricklink. As it has shockingly never been especially catered to by the company whose products it is so obsessed with, the MOCing community has solved its own LEGO brick-hunting problems by creating their own online marketplace called Bricklink for the resale and purchase of LEGO bricks. While it is rather daunting to use and was only recently upgraded to look like anything more than a site from the 90s, it is nonetheless the largest of such online LEGO markets in existence, and is used by nearly every serious LEGO builder. I would not be surprised if millions of dollars were moved through the site every year. And yet LEGO has made little effort to get in on those millions, despite being in the perfect position to do so, and to do it better than anyone else.

There is Pick-a-Brick, and Pick-a-Brick is surely a good start. But, just like those Classics sets, it is incredibly limited and not really well marketed. As a MOCer myself, I’ve never considered Pick-a-Brick as a valid option for purchasing large amounts of LEGO bricks, mostly because of its limited selection. The entire purpose of shopping and searching for particular LEGO bricks is to get certain, special, potentially rare LEGO bricks. Pick-A-Brick offers very few such bricks, and I’ve never been under the impression it offered a great deal of opportunities for bulk purchases. Of course, I may be wrong, but unfortunately the online version of Pick-a-Brick is so under-marketed I wouldn’t know if I was. I would wager at least 70% of LEGO fans know nothing about the online version of Pick-a-Brick, and I’d wager 90% of that lucrative, bulk-purchasing MOCer community doesn’t use it. And why would they? Even aside from the limited selection, Pick-a-Brick doesn’t use simple things like search keywords, and there are entire search categories that are completely empty. With a little polish, a lot more selection, and the right amount of marketing, the online Pick-a-Brick service could be a potential gold mine, but at this point neither consumers nor the LEGO company seem to remember it exists. Even if it simply had a few more bricks added and a better search engine implemented, I could see it taking off. Consumers of LEGO products are willing to pay out of pocket for international shipping insurance to buy certain LEGO elements off Bricklink—surely the LEGO company backed Pick-a-Brick can contend in that market.

This is all well and good, and should such ideas be instituted it is likely LEGO would profit heavily, but I do believe more than this can be done. Marketing creativity need not only mean catering directly to building MOCs, and probably cannot be limited to it. Because LEGO fans have been so bombarded with the “Collect Them All” mantra and are used to flashy, licensed, action-oriented sets, the full potential profits of a creativity-oriented business strategy may not be easily accessible in the current market. Because of LEGO’s current marketing, plenty of children and younger consumers may not be particularly drawn to mere boxes full of bricks. Since LEGO has not been marketing their sets in terms of creativity and imagination, and because it has been leaning so heavily on licensed product lineups, some consumers (especially younger ones) may not be thinking along the right lines to be interested in building whatever they want out of a simple box of bricks (strange as it may sound, since that is really what LEGO products are all about). In short, children who are used to flashy box-art and awesome-looking sets may not immediately see the appeal of a building kit. Nonetheless, it would be highly advantageous for LEGO to encourage them to build creatively, if only in the hopes they buy the MOCer-oriented kits and even eventually join the MOCer market that could potentially be so lucrative to the company. Everyone who plays with LEGO products does build to some degree, but not everyone ends up building complex MOCs or making LEGO-building a hobby for the majority of their life.

So how can the preexistent set-oriented market of LEGO consumers be sold creativity? Well, one obvious route would be to just market building kit sets more like sets, showing things that could potentially be built with them. This would probably require instructions on how to build said things to be included, though, and unless special care was taken to encourage consumers to deviate from said instructions, these building kits might end up being little more than Creator 3-in-1 sets. Not bad things in of themselves, but not particularly creativity-oriented in their marketing or different from current sets.

My proposed answer? Modular sets.

If there was a lineup of sets that focused on modular construction, this could encourage recombination and construction even in the youngest LEGO product consumers. Not modular construction like the Modular Buildings, of course, which simply can be stuck together if you “Collect Them All”, but modular construction more along the lines of the original Blacktron sets. Modular sets would be composed of vehicles (and potentially even buildings) made of sections that could be recombined into whole new vehicles (or buildings), or even combined with other sets to make even bigger creations. Such modular design is not necessarily difficult to do, would appeal directly to creativity-loving LEGO fans, and mesh perfectly with a creativity-oriented business model and the fact LEGO sells inherently creative products. And, if through this emphasis on creativity LEGO consumers end up joining that dedicated MOCing community through a love of creative building, it would mean a great deal of profit for the LEGO company.

My Problem with Tropes

It is shocking how common it is in today’s artistic landscape for people to place so much  emphasis on tropes. It doesn’t matter what medium they’re talking about; it can be movies, or books, or video games—anything so long as it tells a story. People distill everything into tropes, and obsess over the tropes stories share. Everyone seems to be stark-mad over whether or not something is cliché, and utterly convinced that, at the end of the day, X story and Y story are just “the same story”.

For those of you that may be unaware, a “trope” is the term for any concept that occurs within a story. For instance, a Damsel in Distress is a trope. So is a Big Bad Baddy of Badness, or a Sidekick, or a Comic Relief character. A cliché is simply a trope condemned as overused. Just about everything is a trope, or an example of a trope, because a trope is basically just any piece in the grand mosaic of Story.

Of course, tropes aren’t bad—they’re unavoidable, like atoms in a molecule. However, I am confused as to our obsession with tropes, and our emphasis upon them. Sure, tropes are there, but are they really even that important? Is it actually useful to think about our stories in the context of tropes? As a creator and a writer, I rarely think about my stories as assemblies of tropes, and I’ve never really heard another writer do so. If I have a comic relief character named Joey, I don’t think of him as my Comic Relief character, but as Joey. Why then should readers and critics think about him in any other way?

I was brought about to this question when reading On Fairy Stories, that inexpressibly excellent essay by J. R. R. Tolkien. In it, he says some very interesting, and fairly unpopular, things about the analysis of stories using what we would now call tropes (and I quote directly from an actual book I dug up and poured through without the mercy of find function or copy-paste):

“Such studies are, however, scientific (at least in intent); they are the pursuit of folklorists or anthropologists: that is of people using the stories not as they were meant to be used, but as a quarry from which to dig evidence, or information, about matters in which they are interested. A perfectly legitimate procedure in itself – but ignorance or forgetfulness of the nature of a story (as a thing told in its entirety) has often led such inquirers into strange judgements. To investigators of this sort recurring similarities… seem specially important. So much so that students of folk-lore are apt to get off their own proper track, or to express themselves in misleading ‘shorthand’: misleading, in particular, if it gets out of their monographs into books about literature. They are inclined to say that any two stories that are built round the same folk-lore motive, or are made up of a generally similar combination of such motives, are ‘the same stories’.

And Tolkien has a problem with this, as he elaborates:

Statements of that kind may express (in undue abbreviation) some element of truth; but they are not true in a fairy-story sense, they are not true in art or literature. It is precisely the colouring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of a story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot, that really count.

And, after reading this, I had a sort of revelation. I’d never been one of those people to say two stories were somehow “the same story”—in fact that sort of thing always greatly bothered me—but, up till reading this again, I’d always sort of been a fan of tropes. To parse stories into little nice-sounding pieces and organize these pieces in scientific ways is quite a satisfying process. Tropes are wonderful as analytical tools, and, to be honest, they made me feel rather smart. But the trouble is, they’re just that—tools created for analysis, not creation or consumption. Tropes are scientific, not artistic.

And how can we, as people who claim to specialize in the criticism, analysis, and enjoyment of artistic work, make use of a system of dissection and classification that is so entirely unartistic? How can we anatomize stories into tropes that take the elements of said stories entirely out of their own context? How can we, as consumers of art, hope to benefit in examining stories by taking them to bits and leaving the actual story behind? How can we appreciate Gandalf if we just consider him another faceless Guide Character, or a stereotypical Old Wizard? How can we see films like Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers for what they are we if just classify them as both stories about “teams of extraordinary people uniting to fight an enormous, unthinkable evil with a vague motive?”

And, most terribly of all, we consider this completely irrelevant and unfitting system as professionalAs academic. We judge stories as assemblies of these unartistically and arbitrarily defined parts, as if the quality of paintings could be determined by the sort of paint they used rather than the use of this paint. How is this in any way useful or beneficial to us, as consumers of art; or to the stories, as artistic works?

Once again, I’m not trying to say tropes are necessarily bad—I just don’t see how they’re supposed to be useful. They make for fun analysis, but this sort of analysis does not serve either the consumption or the creation of art. Sure, you could argue that a knowledge of tropes could help a writer or creator in their work, and it could potentially be inspirational to them, but I’m not really sure this is the case as much as people seem to think. The best way to use tropes in writing is to think of ways to invert them—in other words, to make them less tropey. It’s like how the best compliment you can give fish is that it’s not fishy. If you don’t want things to be tropey, why even bother with tropes in the first place?

And then there’s the fact that the tropes stories contain don’t really mean anything, insofar as the story is concerned. Even the most overused clichés can be refreshing and excellent if they are properly pulled off within their own context, and the most new and fascinating ideas can be insufferable if poorly executed. Why then bother taking stories to bits in pursuit of tropes in the first place? What does it actually accomplish for us, as creators and enjoyers of art?

Personally, I am going to give tropes a wide berth in the future, if I can help it. I no longer see any value in analyzing stories outside of their own context, or pretending it’s impossible to be creative because all the tropes have already been used. Just because we’ve invented bricks doesn’t mean we can’t continue to make new buildings, and just because we have tropes doesn’t mean all our stories will inevitably be terminally similar.