Reading My Reviews

It’s no secret that I read my reviews. I enjoy an enraged negative review, as a rule, and I pay attention if the same criticisms come up more than once.

Tin Man Games has an app called “Choices that Matter” on iOS and Google Play, which is an interactive serial story app. I wrote about half of the first story (“And the Sun Went Out”) with Alyce Potter and KG Tan, all of the second story (“And Their Souls Were Eaten”, set in the same universe as all my steampunk fantasy), and I’m editing the third story (“And Their Heroes Were Lost” by Phill Berrie). Google Play has a LOT of reviews, so I spent literally hours last night getting up to date. I made a collection of some of my favourites.

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR “AND THE SUN WENT OUT”.

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It warms my writerly heart to hear that interactive fiction is making people get back into reading. We hear this a lot!

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I love the poetry of the first one, and the insight of the second. Gonna make sure KG Tan and the others see these ones.

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This just amused me. More than once.

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I kinda like it when people get hysterical with need as they wait for updates. ‘Heroes’ is still going strong, just slowly.

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I adore making readers cry.

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Chosen because it’s fun to see contrasting opinions right next to each other.

 

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“Action-packed, intelligent stories shrouded in mystery” is quite the poster quote.

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Yay, more crying readers. Love it.

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Poor, tormented reader.

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It’s amazing how positive and negative reviews say exactly the same thing (except in reverse).

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I love interactive fiction for its inclusivity, particularly on gender and sexuality.

 

 

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I love a detailed compliment. It’s always fascinating to see how people see the characters I’ve played a part in writing.

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I wish I could reply and let them know that there IS a villain path in the third story.

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That’s startlingly deep.

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I love it when people favour “Souls” because of course it’s my baby.

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I just love that last sentence. And yes, that is a sentiment expressed quite often. Yay?

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I agree 🙂 Phill and I both have novels published.

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It’s funny how many people want to turn stories (my novels, too) into movies. I think “And The Sun Went Out” is unfilmable because of Moti, but my steampunk novels could easily be a movie someday (if they caught the right person’s eye, which is vanishingly unlikely).

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“And The Sun Went Out” makes a LOT of people cry, so hearing that “And Their Souls Were Eaten” had that kind of impact is absolutely wonderful.

The way it tells you how common your ending is, is a really cool & unique thing in this app. Kudos to Tin Man Games.

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I love it when readers play a story over and over to get different pieces of the story or different endings.

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Aw!

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A LOT of people (including the writers) want a Moti-con. I like this review because most people automatically default to male with gender-neutral characters, but Wendy has defaulted to female. Yay!

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I do write books! Comments like this are both great and frustrating, since I can’t immediately sell them a pile of my novels.

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It’s funny (and good) how many people have an awareness of the game developers needing to be paid.

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“Not epic” is a perfect burn. And then the next review is totally different.

 

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*love*

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Turning people gay is *takes off sunnies* what I do.

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It’s funny to eavesdrop on a discussion of story methods.

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Same. We writers are just as in love with Moti as the readers. And yes, we cried too. And we badly want our own Moti-con devices.

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I am also human *wink*.

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Not MANY children could write a 600,000+ word branching narrative, but sure. You do you.

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Lol, that’s certainly an up side to interactive fiction.

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I love that she assumes a female writer, and reckons my novels would “storm the shelves”.

I get WAY more reviews (literally thousands more) for my interactive stories than for my novels. It shows how lucky I am to have been born in the right moment to flourish in the digital interactive fiction sphere.

The Woman Tax

Last night I crashed my car, because I am a woman.
 
On Tuesday last week another creative Australian woman, comedian Eurydice Dickson, was killed in a park as she walked home from a gig. Like me, she sometimes takes slight risks in order to live her life and have the career she has.
 
Last night, I went to the University of Canberra for a writing session, taking 6 year-old Louisette with me because I don’t have any other options. The UC Writers’ Group has been so helpful I named them in Silver and Stone as one of the reasons my second steampunk book was finished on time. These writing sessions are a lifeline. They also take place at an awkward time of day when my kids are with me, and it’s dark.
 
As always, Louisette was slow and silly getting into the car, and I was quietly frightened—hiding my fear from her, as always. (She’s six. She doesn’t yet know to be frightened, and I don’t want to teach her—yet. I will teach her soon. All mothers teach their daughters to be afraid. We have to.)
 
Like most universities, UC has underlit places, and I was uncomfortably aware that I needed to do a 3-point turn in order to get out of a small carpark that I chose because it’s near the door. My 6 year-old daughter and I were in danger (probably very little, but perhaps not), and I had to get us out as quickly as possible.
 
So, expecting Louisette to scream, “My seatbelt isn’t buckled yet!” at any second, I backed up. I hit a gate hard enough to tear our back bumper.
 
Because I’m a woman.
 
Would people be holding a candlelit vigil for Louisette and I next week if I hadn’t driven away quickly? Almost certainly not. But maybe. Because I’m a woman, and she’s just a girl.
 
This is how women live every day. Should I have stayed home? Well, no. The majority of murdered women are killed in their home.
 
There is no safe place. I live with this fear every day.
——————————-
I arrived home from crashing the car and found a speeding ticket for $279. The ticket shows that I was driving 88km/hr in an 80km/hr zone—so not speeding MUCH, but certainly speeding.
It was dated 9 June 2018.
That was the day I ran two parties for my son’s 4th birthday (the entry directly before this one is about the cake). Why two parties?
Well, read on. . .
Chris, TJ, my brother, and my nephew all have their birthdays within about a week. Last year and the year before I’ve organised ‘group’ birthday parties at inside playgrounds. Inside playgrounds cost money (bad, but makes them a special occasion, and I tell everyone to pay for the playground instead of buying gifts). June is Winter, so outside isn’t really an option.
Why do I organise the birthday? Simple. In the above list of birthday boys, there are two obvious women: the wives. Since my brother’s wife is only related to the rest of us by marriage, the birthday duties fall on me. (The other obvious option is the matriarch aka my mother, but she lives in Gundagai so she’s already making a 5-hour round trip just to show up.)
Could a boy organise a family event? Lol, no!* When a man and a woman get married, the man no longer has to remember his own mother’s birthday—that’s what a wife is for! The woman, of course, is now responsible for two extended families instead of one.
I don’t make the rules.
So this year my extended family didn’t like the idea of going to an inside playground for a group party, so I needed to please both TJ and the numerous relatives somehow.
Hence, two parties in one day.
The party in the morning was kid-oriented, and the party in the evening was adult-oriented (we all put in $20 and got Chinese…. I kept it as simple as humanly possible… with ice cream and leftover dino cake for dessert).
I asked my sister to come to the kid party and help me with the cake. I don’t see her often so it was a great opportunity for our kids to play together while we could chat and be silly over icing and sprinkles.
Nope. She was busy.
Mum said she’d come to the kid party. Great!
So here’s what happened on the day:
Mum decided at the last minute that making sure her DOG wasn’t lonely was more important than showing up, and she was 45 minutes late. Thanks mum! (No really, thanks—if she hadn’t show up when she did there wouldn’t be a video of the cake, which was what I really really wanted.)
The (single) mother of TJ’s best friend (I literally checked the date with her before booking the party) was deathly ill so Chris and I needed to pick up her two kids.
So I think you can see why I was going a whole 8km above the speed limit that day.
But I did all the things. I made an epic cake. I made sure TJ’s best friend was there. I gave TJ an awesome day/week and also arranged an awesome day (totally different day) for Chris’ birthday. I stayed on budget and gave all my extended family a fabulous get-together in the evening—making sure it started early so my parents could drive back to Gundagai in enough time to get a good night’s sleep. (Not a single guest arrived on time, either. My family can be pretty rude.)
Because I’m a woman. When it comes to family events, and homework, and school stuff, and family health, and remembering important things, and household cleanliness. . . the buck stops here, with the woman.*
What a shame the value of a woman’s buck is only seventy-three cents due to the institutionalised sexism of gender-based pay discrepancies.
But that’s another story.
*Obviously there are exceptions.

Murder for Kick(starter)

Last Saturday at midnight, my first ever Kickstarter Campaign ended, raising funds via pre-orders (and special rewards) for “Murder in the Mail: A Bloody Birthday”.

Mistakes were made.

One of my main mistakes was that, after looking at the Australia Post web site, I thought an A4 envelope thinner than 2cm would cost $1.

Turns out they cost $2.

Ouch.

Another was that I sent out my review copies too late. Only one actually arrived in time to get a review during the campaign (and that was mainly because I literally delivered it to her door here in Canberra). You can read that review here, and listen to her interview here.

Other review copies went elsewhere in Australia, to New Zealand, the US, and Canada. Last I’ve heard, NONE of them have been fully received yet. I do know that the first envelope took almost a month to reach Canada.

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(Review copies ready to get their postage on – John Scalzi is on top because his address is public.)

So, as I mentioned, the Kickstarter is over now.

I mentioned “Murder in the Mail” on a few forums when the Kickstarter began (int-fiction and choiceofgames.com, which I’m fond of), and there was a clear bump in US sales as a result, and a little bit of conversation in those forums.

But asking $40 for a thing that doesn’t technically exist yet is a lot! Even though this is dramatically cheaper than anything else similar.

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(That pic is review copies getting put together)

I also didn’t realise in my planning that Kickstarter’s maximum time for a campaign is 60 days. I’d been planning a three-month campaign (which included Melbourne Supanova, as well as giving the writing team more time to get certain bits and pieces done in time for those review copies). So that was… unhelpful.

I also named an extra-high amount because… oh, I can’t even remember properly. I need to sell around 100 copies to break even, but there are so many tiny expenses (seed envelopes, special pens, etc) that I would have to audit myself to figure out the actual cost (as opposed to the estimated cost).

That’s not quite true. I’ve been careful to record everything over about $2, and I do know how much I’ve spent. I’ve just ordered a bunch of stuff printed in batches of 100, so after that invoice comes in I’ll know what the actual total cost per 100 turned out to be (approximately; I bought larger quantities of some of the items because it was cheaper that way). Plus I know Kickstarter can take up to 10% (depending on… stuff I don’t understand enough to calculate) so I figured 100 x $40 = $4000; eh, let’s make it $5000. It all seemed so shiny and easy back then. NB: I don’t have to sell 100 copies during the Kickstarter to break even. Didn’t remember that at the time.

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(Louisette and I making up hand-written packets of sunflowers that we harvested from our own garden. If the reader plants them in late Spring/early Summer, I think they’ll actually grow.)

Ultimately (and very much saved by the loving support of extremely trusting parents and in-laws) the Kickstarter was a success.

I am VERY relieved, as you can imagine! Kickstarter has a rather exciting rule that if you’re not fully funded by the end of the campaign period, you get nothing. All the pledges already made simply vanish into thin air!

So that didn’t happen, but my parents & in-laws are unlikely to save the day so dramatically in future.

So…..

There WILL be a new story. This one will be fantasy, called “Magic in the Mail: Feuding Fae”. It will have 3 parcels instead of 8, and although it’ll have a Kickstarter Campaign the goal will be much smaller.

I’ll also be selling special boxes/folders of “Murder in the Mail: A Bloody Birthday” at all the conferences I attend this year.

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(An array of pretty containers for the story.)

Specifically, these:

Melbourne Supanova (April) in the Artist Alley stall “Aussie Spec Fic”
Nimmitabel Steampunk Fair (May)
Sydney Supanova (June) in the Artist Alley stall “Publisher Obscura”
GammaCon Canberra (August) in Artist Alley
Canberra Launch (probably as part of the Canberra Writers’ Festival) August
Conflux Canberra (September-October)
Goulburn Waterworks Steampunk and Victoriana Fair (October)

There will be limited quantities of the packaged version, so email me in advance if you’d like to reserve one.

You can of course also give me money pretty much whenever (at conferences or online) to get a copy posted to you over the normal 8 week period (or in a single parcel if you absolutely insist).

There will be one “lot” posted out in June-July, another in September-October, and then… more mail-outs sometime after that 🙂

“Murder in the Mail: A Bloody Birthday” will be officially launched in August 2018, and will be available to buy until September 2019.

“Magic in the Mail: Feuding Fae” won’t be finished until 2019, although if you specifically want to order THAT story then just make it clear when you email me (and/or email MagicintheMailStories@gmail.com). Keeping in mind it MIGHT be cheaper than $40. I’ll probably have a price in a couple of months. I already have some REALLY COOL STUFF AND ART AND THINGS.

The simplest way to get the story is to email me at MurderintheMailStories@gmail.com with your ADDRESS, EMAIL (in case things go wrong), and PAYMENT DETAILS (eg “I just deposited the full payment into your account/PayPal, under the name “Bob Flibbertigibbet”).

Make sure to label your payments with something unique to you (your name and/or the name of the recipient). Labelling things “Murder in the Mail” will NOT be helpful.

PayPal: MurderintheMailStories@gmail.com

Bank details:
Commonwealth Bank (Australia)
06 2692
3320 8197

And here’s a spot the difference game. If you’re very familiar with the Odyssey list, you’ll be able to tell which author was recruited at the last minute from these two pictures.

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Many many thanks go to Shauna O’Meara, the artist, for altering that pic more than once after it was finished. And to A Certain Writer for enthusiastically jumping on board when one of the other writers had to drop out.

Both will most definitely be involved in the next story!

(PS I don’t think anyone actually will solve this picture. There’s a LOT of stuff in it.)

Monsters

Spoilers for The Shape of Water.


(And highly unrelated pictures, because I’m hazy on copyright law for movie stills.)

Last night, I saw The Shape of Water, which recently won an Oscar and (more importantly in my world) has been talked up by The Mary Sue.

I walked into the movie saying to Chris, “I have no idea why a movie about fish sex just won Best Picture.”

I walked out saying the same thing. I still don’t get it.

The Shape of Water is a fantastic movie. No doubt about that. So I watched a brilliantly written and acted speculative fiction movie and… the more I think about it, the less I like it.

I certainly do appreciate that this is a movie for and about freaks: a fishman, a mute orphan, a black woman (possibly an atheist), an older gay man, and a Russian scientist. (The villain is an oh so heterosexual white man.) It’s also really cool that the film doesn’t suffer from the “male gaze” problem that so many films do (there’s a “normal” sex scene which made the audience audibly horrified, and sexy scenes with Eliza and the fish man focus on her pleasure via her delighted smile). Guillermo del Toro was very careful to give the fish man a lean, muscular body (and especially butt) for female audience members to appreciate (seriously; he consulted regularly with his wife and others) but there aren’t any lingering shots of the fish man either. It is, in short, not a film that’s all about being sexy to the audience.

However, the movie makes it abundantly clear that yes, Eliza (the main character) and the fish man definitely have sex. In her extremely interesting video on Monster Boyfriends, Linday Ellis says The Shape of Water finally took the monster movie “where scores have women  had wanted it to go for decades”.

I am just not one of those women. I’m a little disappointed in myself, to be honest. Surely my imagination and empathy aren’t letting me down right here in my favourite genre?

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I really like Lindsay Ellis’s take that “Beauty and the Beast” stories are a way for women to talk about their anxiety—and hope—when facing the daunting spectre of arranged marriage. I’ve spoken to quite a few Indonesian people who are in happy arranged marriages and it’s a topic that has fascinated me for years (and that I’m not necessarily opposed to… except of course that it gives men even more power than they already have, with the inevitable awful results in way too many cases).

Elliss’s video has changed my view of the entire “Beauty and the Beast” concept, except of course that (a) Most of the audience is NOT facing arranged marriage, so there’s clearly something else at play (b) The idea of a super-virtuous female changing a bad man into a good man is so awful. First because that’s a classic inverse of famous abuser lines (“I love you, but sometimes you just make me so angry I can’t help it.”), secondly because it relies on fundamental personality change for a relationship to work, which is both patronising (don’t ever go into a relationship thinking you can mould someone to your specifications) and dangerous (false hope and false reality, both of which aren’t healthy).

I DO think that a healthy relationship improves people, but in a mutual and mutually beneficial way. I like a romance where people are partners, and I hate a relationship where someone (pretty much always the woman in a hetero pairing) is the parental figure—either disrespecting their partner, doing more than their fair share of the work, or constantly nurturing someone who doesn’t nurture them back. (This is a topic very close to home as my husband has inattentive ADD, which causes a lot of behaviour that appears childish in a grown man. Luckily-?-my own anxiety and bad health causes a lot of childish-like behaviour in me, too.)

The adjacent idea of “Men will do anything for a pretty woman” is also super problematic. It’s linked to rape culture as well as the infantilising of men (which then links to men not doing their share of household chores, which isn’t good for anyone). I do understand the appeal of that idea. I like the idea of women being powerful, even if only because they own a pair of boobs.

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Ellis’s video also talks about King Kong and other movies, and the shift from hatred of monsters to sympathy. She says that, overall, monsters tend to represent the anxieties of whatever time they’re written in.

Which brings us to King Kong. Unfortunately, any kind of primate tends to represent (unconsciously or otherwise) black people, and it’s no coincidence that the darkest/hairiest monsters tend to be paired with the whitest possible females (Sally Hawkins is incredibly white, and her fish man is dark—another problematic element of The Shape of Water). King Kong isn’t a romance (or is it?) but a story of how a white woman is more powerful than a black man (and/or monster). Which is appealing, even to me, but also deeply messed up as I explained above.

On reflection, I think the romantic “monster” of modern books/movies is all about the “bad boy” thing. (Or, in some cases, a case of “Us freaks have finally found each other” crossed with “OUR romance is special and unique”. Both of which I’m actually fine with.)

I have a really close friend who I respect deeply (and who is an adult, mother, and wife) who loves both Twilight and Beauty and the Beast. Both of us are married to very stable, reliable men. Her life is quite stable and responsible and adult-like because her husband has a stabilising influence (it’s not boring; they can do really cool things with their whole family because they actually do planning and budgeting and stuff); my life is risky and chaotic and exciting because I know my husband will be there when I fail. So I think that might be at the heart of things. The bad boy appeals because he is exciting; ditto monsters. To me the bad boy has no appeal because I am already wild and destructive and risky. I am the monster, so I don’t look for those qualities in a partner.

Yep, I think that’s it. Okay! I feel better about monster movies now.

So what about the movie?

First, let’s talk masturbation. The Mary Sue web site loved the fact that Eliza’s life was perfectly content—she didn’t need a man (amphibious or otherwise). She was sexually satisfied by pleasuring herself, and her daily routine was exactly what she wanted it to be. When I watched the movie I wasn’t sure what the purpose of showing Eliza’s masturbation was—why have a masturbation scene, when it clearly wasn’t to titillate the audience?

I think a lot of it was just to say, “Yes, this is set in the 60s, but people were sexually active then too”, so that it felt more natural for her to have a sexual relationship with someone (the fish man, in this case) that she hasn’t known very long.

And I think it was also to hint that Eliza wasn’t necessarily entirely human herself. She was a foundling discovered by a river, with what looked like knife slashes on her neck that later turn into/turn out to be gills. She masturbates in water because she’s part fish person herself. (The fish man is clearly very comfortable mating with a human, so it’s entirely possible fish people have been interbreeding with humans.)

So that’s fine. I found it slightly jarring that Eliza’s face is quite old for a romantic lead (why, she’s over forty! Which is lovely) but her body is VERY young. Not a wrinkle, freckle, sag, or blemish.

Eh, I’m probably just jealous.

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I mentioned earlier that the film is all about freaks, which is lovely. (A mute woman, a gay man, etc.) But I hated hated hated that the gay man’s crush was on a twenty-something. The actors are about forty years different in age, and the crush was framed in the film as sweet and life-affirming and charming. I just found it creepy. I would have found it creepy in any much older person crushing on a much younger person, but so much homophobia is based on the idea that homophobia = pedophilia, and although that’s nonsense, having a huge age gap like that in a film is really unhelpful.

I was surprised and disappointed at how little time was spent developing the relationship between Eliza and the fish man. To me, you get to know someone and have a deep connection with them, then you have sex. In the movie, the fish man learns how to say “egg” and “music” and… that’s it. It’s clear that time is passing and there’s more to their growing friendship that we the audience don’t see, but they never actually have a conversation. Couldn’t we have a scene where Eliza and the fish man actually talk to each other? It doesn’t even need to be in words (or in sign language, or whatever). Although having said that, how about they learn one another’s names? Or invent names for each other?

It just didn’t seem to me as if there was much more to the relationship than a bit of sex and a rescue (which is noble and exciting, but doesn’t make a relationship). Clearly the movie portrays sex AS communication/connection.

Okay, fine. Sorta.

It also disturbed me very much that the fish man was child-like in some ways. That’s never not going to make me hate a romantic pairing. I’m fine with someone having fun and being silly, but I’m not okay with someone having the intelligence of a child and then having sex.

Much is made of the fish man’s intelligence, but he doesn’t behave like an intelligent adult. He behaves like an intelligent child.

Ew, ew, ew, ew, ew.

And I have one more big problem with the movie (an issue linked to the slightly-off choice of a speaking woman actress for a mute character—when it would be so much better to use a mute actress). I feel like the movie contradicts itself. Eliza appears content from the beginning of the movie (in her rather ordinary life), and she has two excellent friends who don’t see her as a mute woman but as a person.

But then she gives an impassioned speech about how the fish man is happy to see her, and doesn’t see her as incomplete.

Sure, that’s nice. But she already has at least two friends who don’t see her as incomplete either. She’s doing just fine. So what is that speech doing there? There are so many other things she could have spoken passionately about at that exact moment.

Then, in a scene that a lot of people love, she is sitting across the table from the fish man knowing she soon has to let him go, and she sings to him and has an imagined dance sequence with him (much like the TV she loves to watch). So she longs to talk—and sing. Fair enough.

Except… she was so content until then. So it’s as if the fish man brings out her unhappiness, making her life and sense of self seem poor and shabby when they were fine before. No relationship should make you feel worse about yourself or your disabilities (a passing moment of wistfulness, sure—but not an iconic movie scene, weighted with meaning).

I would have been so much happier if her impassioned speech was about something—anything—else. The character is so much more than her disability, yet the movie treats her muteness as her most important character trait in the two most emotional scenes. I hate that.

Maybe the masturbation was all bout Eliza longing desperately for a romantic relationship—the one thing her life lacks most (other than a nicer apartment and job, two things that apparently never bother her). But a romance is so much more than sex. In my opinion.

 

And, finally, the body horror of the bad guy’s injured fingers is a total cliche, in my opinion, and something rather unworthy of a film that treats a fish man as beautiful and a mute woman as the hero. Yeah, I get that the bad guy is… well… bad. So does that mean everyone with a physical deformity is bad, too? So muteness is fine but physical disability = evil?

I really wanted to like this film, and there are so many wonderful and original things about it. But I don’t have a thing for monsters, I don’t think adult-child romances are ever cute, and I don’t think being mute is the most interesting (or the most tragic) thing about Eliza.

Dear Star Wars: Here is Your Script

I don’t often write fan fiction.

So this kind of happened as I wrote my thoughts after seeing “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (I had so many feels it took me days to write and is 3000 words long.) It’s a VERY interesting  film for writers, and so of course I analysed it in that vein.

The full (very spoiler-y) article is here, on a shiny new forum I’ve set up for the “Murder in the Mail” series. You can read the article immediately, but you need to register to comment. (If you register, you’ll get about three emails a year about the “Murder in the Mail” series, unless you unsubscribe.)

The “Murder in the Mail” series is a set of cozy mystery stories (one story so far, to be released in August/September 2018) told entirely through letters, postcards, objects, and art posted to the reader over the course of eight weeks. The forum is for fun (discussing things like Star Wars, and so on), and also for readers to talk amongst themselves and try to figure out the identity of the murderer before the final letter arrives.

There is (arguably) a VERY mild general character-based Star Wars spoiler below.

Basically I figured out the One True Way to resolve all the possible romances of the current Star Wars trilogy. Because I am a genius.

Insert anti-spoiler kitty!

 

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Rose: *Takes Rey to a storage area where they can talk privately* So you’re a big hero, just like Finn. I guess you guys are… you know…
Rey: Um. *blushes furiously* Well I might sort of kind of think of him a little tiny bit that way. Maybe.
Finn: *Emerges bleary-eyed and shirtless from under canvas, and clutches it around his hips so the girls don’t see EVERYTHING* Rose? Rey? What are you doing here?
Rose and Rey: *wide-eyed panic*
Rey: You. . . heard us talking?
Finn: Me? Nope. Nuh-uh. Didn’t hear a thing. *Accidentally-on-purpose jabs his elbow into the canvas*
Poe: *Emerges bleary-eyed and shirtless from under canvas, clutching canvas around his hips, and hastily donning That Jacket* Oh, hi Rose. Hi Rey.
Rose and Rey: Ohhhhh! Er, we’ll just be going now.
Rose and Rey: *become best friends*
Finn and Poe: *adopt half a dozen children and live on a porg farm forever*

What I earned this year

Full-time writers in Australia have an average income of around $12,000 (I know, yikes). In Canberra, which has a lot of good public service jobs, the average income is around $52,000.

I just did my taxes, and worked out that I earned just under $20,000 last financial year while working full-time. 100% of that came from writing (the vast majority from interactive fiction). So depending on one’s perspective, that’s either really impressively awesome, or shockingly awful.

If I was healthy and single and childless, I could probably survive on $20,000 a year. It wouldn’t be easy, but I’ve lived on the edge before. (I once spent $5/week on food for several months—but that was certainly not sustainable, even for a young and healthy person during friendly weather.) On the other hand, if I’d been babysitting for the same number of hours I spent writing, I’d have earned at least twice as much.

So, again, whether it’s awesomely good or awesomely bad is a matter of perspective.

It should be noted that I’m not healthy, or single, or childless. I keep a complicated house running fairly smoothly, and I look after two little people (and, in some respects, Chris—he is my carer in many ways, and I am his in some ways too). I am overwhelmingly not a healthy person, and some days I barely function at all.

So. $20,000. It’s both a huge and a tiny amount, and it’s $20,000 more than I earned for most of my writing career. Plus I can say “writing career” without sarcastic quotes these days.

It’s in my nature to always push myself for more. I’m sure that if I earned $100,000 last financial year I’d be looking for ways to earn more, or work less, or something. A lot of creative people look at others and think, “Wow. If my career was where theirs is, I’d be so satisfied!” I definitely remember specifically aiming for the impossible amount of $20,000/year at some point—a point at which $20,000 was as laughable as $100,000 is now.

I also have a book published—two, in fact, and at least four more on the way. I’m so famous that people seek me out at conferences, waiting for my latest book. I get fan mail quite often. I get people—quite a few people—saying “This is the best story I’ve ever read”. I even get actual reputable game companies emailing me to offer me work (I have two REALLY COOL projects on the go at the moment that I can’t talk about). My income doesn’t even cover our mortgage (or the medical expenses of this year), but why should it? I’m the closest thing to a stay at home parent our household has, so I’m doing a bunch of important and often difficult work before I earn a cent.

Have I convinced you that I’m not just messing around with this writing thing (after more than twenty years of devoting myself to the craft)? More importantly, have I convinced myself? Maybe a little bit. Certainly it’s time to pause and celebrate how far I’ve come, and to shift some of my pile of insecurities into the “irrational” pile.

So, yay. Much yay. And I suspect this financial year will be even better!

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Artist’s impression of a life of leisure.

Like Mother, Like Daughter

One of the gifts my parents gave me was the belief that writing is not a job, but a hobby. I didn’t write full-time until I was unable to do any other work (and I’m still not making minimum wage, even though I’m well above the average Australian full-time writer’s income of $12,000/year)

I am giving Louisette the same gift, assuring her that her stories are excellent and at the same time teaching her that if she’s a writer she’ll be something else as well.

It happens that she really is a good storyteller, with an epic imagination. At one stage she had had about thirty imaginary friends, puppies, horses, and relatives (including imaginary parents), as well as a range of vehicles to bring them all along with us.

She also has a great mind for science and engineering, which I loudly and unconditionally encourage. Last Christmas we bought her ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER, which she loves, and which led to her winning a school prize for a House-Car-Plane device this year.

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This year one of her gifts is this building kit, which includes its own motor! How cool is that, for $25ish!

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But I digress.

Today, for the first time, she pointed out a plot hole in a TV show (specifically, “Why doesn’t the yellow dog go with the blue dog to make the fence? They’re both builders.”) That warmed my writerly heart.

But then I read her the first chapter of THE MONSTER APPRENTICE, bracing myself for my harshest review ever. Not only did she like the story and immediately care about the outcome (phew!) but she understood and extrapolated the universe of the story.

Rahana is a fairly low-tech world (although their ships are more advanced than the rest of their tech due to the fact that the world is made up of thousands of islands), and in the first chapter of THE MONSTER APPRENTICE an isolated and defenceless island wakes in terror at the news that a pirate ship is approaching.

I asked Louisette what she was worried about in the story. She said she was worried about the pirates coming, because Dance and her family, “don’t have swords or shields or anything”.

Here’s the thing: I never mentioned any kind of weapon in the story. She figured out the technology level because of her knowledge of history and/or the conventions of fantasy fiction!

I’m misty-eyed just thinking about it.

THEN she blew my mind a second time by suggesting, “Maybe they’ll invent electricity and that will help them fight the pirates.”

She’s five years old, and she’s a master of military tactics. That’s my girl.

 

 

Pictures worth thousands of words

I’m not a visual artist, and I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of influence I was allowed to have on my books covers (Odyssey Books has a top-notch cover game).

It’s a good thing they go through a few drafts, too.

Can you see what’s wrong with the first draft of SILVER AND STONE?

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Thank goodness for Chris, and for my fellow ‘Oddies’ (we Odyssey authors are constantly talking book stuff together), who noticed what I didn’t.

So that was changed.

I was SO PROUD to finally have the finished cover, and to be able to put the two covers side by side on facebook. Only to realise (due to facebook’s arbitrary cropping) that half my followers were wondering why I’d called my first book “Fart of Bras”.

Does one’s underwear usually fart? If so, why? And how?

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In unrelated (but still vaguely visual) news, I was amused by the juxtaposition of these two reviews on the “Choices That Matter” Google Play app. The first made me laugh out loud, and the second was just icing on the cake.

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That’s an excellent screenshot summary of the review-reading experience.

There’s reviews on iOS too, but barely any (and they get deleted every time there’s an update). I gather it’s a lot easier to leave a Google Play review, since there are several new ones every day.

Conflux 13: Day 3 (& ChoiceScript)

Today, Sunday, was my Big Day. Not only did I have a Book Launch at 2pm…

Silver and Stone cover

…but I also ran a three-hour interactive fiction workshop in the morning.

Which was seriously awesome. (So was the Book Launch. If you haven’t seen the trailer, it’s here.)

The workshop was very biased, naturally, since it is all about my own notions regarding interactive fiction. This article, which I wrote last year, is an excellent summary of the IF scene (as I see it, having stumbled across it very recently).

This article focuses on the different elements of writing interactive novels as opposed to regular novels.

Today’s workshop was brimming with people who’d already written novels, which was quite different to last year. Last year we focused on Twine, the free tool that makes a useful map as you write and is the most user-friendly tool ever. This year we focused on ChoiceScript, which is a lovely elegant engine, also designed for non-programmers, made by Choice of Games. It’s easier to write longer works with ChoiceScript, because it’s set up for that (you can write longer pieces on Twine, but it’s trickier to do anything clever). More on that in a bit. FYI I’m not associated or affiliated with Choice of Games in any way.

I believe I promised a pic of yesterday’s outfit. Here it is (next to an ad for the excellent “Sentinels of Eden” series which I also mentioned yesterday).

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I’ve spent the rest of the day in Conflux mode… that is, hanging around talking to interesting people. My love for the venue is only growing with greater familiarity. Apart from anything else, they DO have special free conference wifi. And SO many power points, just everywhere *swoon*. The staff continue to be absolutely excellent. The food is pretty good but expensive and the menu is fairly limited. Huge portions.

A lot of local people are unhappy Conflux is at the airport, which isn’t great for most Canberrans (especially those who rely on buses—the special shuttle to or from Civic has been helpful). Next year’s venue is TBA. Parking underneath the hotel costs $6 for up to two hours but over $20 for a full day. For people that validated their ticket at reception, a whole day costs $14. There was plenty of space.

People like me (ie with a disability card) can park in a funny little 2-hour carpark that’s on the right as you drive around the hotel on your way to the front door. There are no designated disabled spots but with a card you can use public 2-hour parking for a full day for free. So the key to Conflux parking is to have a disability card but still be able to drive. For me, it was a breeze, and much much nicer than anywhere in civic.

And it’s pretty.

There’s a moment at sunset when everyone in the foyer suddenly has a golden halo. When the moment passes, the brass lamps all come on (not these ones; other ones). It’s quite lovely.

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The banquet was suitably glorious, and a very fine evening. Each item on the menu was linked to fairy tales. I ate a Goose’s Golden Egg for dessert (filled with panna cotta).

 

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There’s a Trivia Night tonight, but I shall be going home to sleep.

Thus endeth today’s Conflux Report.

I promised to write out a few very useful bits of code for those who are learning ChoiceScript. This is reinventing the wheel to a large extent, since the official ChoiceScript guides, including a free link to download it, are excellent.

So is the wiki, which has had many years to be refined and expanded. The Twine documents are improving, but they’re newer and trickier, and there are significant changes from Twine1 to Twine2.

When you download ChoiceScript, it has some very basic intro scenes, choices, and statistics set up for you. When you want to start writing, you can just delete a bit and begin.

HOW TO WRITE A CHOICE:

To “play” the example game, follow this path (it works on PC or Mac):

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It works best with Firefox, but most browsers are fine (other than, oddly, Google Chrome).

It’s fairly ordinary-looking visually, but it is immediately obvious how to progress the story (Click on a choice, then click on ‘Next’). Your text will be different to this image, because I’ve long since replaced the example with my own.

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To see the code behind the story, follow this path (using a text editing program—I recommend Notepad++ for PC and Sublime for Macs):

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The right-hand column above shows the startup file for the story I’m currently writing (so nobody look, okay?)

Don’t panic when you see a bunch of words and symbols. It will be okay.

NB: Each chapter of your book will be in a separate text file. You can name them whatever you like.

You can switch between the browser and the text file to see how the text file alters the story that you’re reading in the browser. The best thing to do is to just put your own words in, and you’ll be able to see them immediately fit the playable ChoiceScript format.

So if you write exactly this (at the END of the startup file, replacing the kingdom bit):

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Then you go back to the index.html file, it will look like:

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The * and # symbols are vital, and so is the spacing at the beginning of your lines. You can use either tab or spacebar to indent what needs indenting, but you have to pick one and stick to it or the game will break. Those three keys are the heart of your writing from now on.

If the reader picks “I choose option one” above, the line of text will appear, saying, “You chose option one.” Your story works—but so far you haven’t told the program what to do next (thus, the game will break immediately after that line).

Some structural info:

Many stories have a “branch and bottleneck” structure. Choices (often a whole series of nested choices) branch off in different directions, then different directions again… and then there’a a point at which they all come together, and then the choices branch out again from there. Here’s a diagram example using twine:

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As a writer, the hard part isn’t branching your story; it’s bringing things back to bottlenecks (so you don’t end up with literally millions of utterly different stories). One handy way is with time, eg:

“The sun is setting. Enough mucking around. It’s time to…”

“Mucking around” is non-specific enough to cover all the possible adventures the character might just have experienced. Or you can leave out that sentence altogether.

Back to your basic ChoiceScript thing:

A lot of choices within a story bottleneck immediately, which is written as:

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You can name your label whatever you like. Use lower case, avoid special characters, and remember each label must be different.

This is a simple choice structure that works. You don’t actually require the “goto” and “label” stuff unless you’re nesting choices, so a lot of the time it’s even simpler.

Whatever you write after “*label bottleneck” will be seen by all the readers, no matter what choice they made beforehand.

Anything that’s on a line marked with an * will not be seen by the reader.

If you want, you can write an entire story like this. The lines of unique text above (“You chose option one/two/three.”) are only seen by the readers that chose that option. Those lines can be expanded into literally any length, and can have other nested choices inside. ChoiceScript authors don’t have a wall diagram with string going everywhere; they have a ludicrous number of indentations as they write choices within choices within choices.

But you can also just bottleneck after each choice. That’s what smart authors do (for most of the choices, but not all of them—after all, you want your reader to have a unique experience). That’s how authors stay sane.

But how to make the choices matter in a deeper way?

[Tired? Breandead? Stop here and write some scenes. Come back later. This is where I stopped for a day when I was learning ChoiceScript.]

Choices have long-term consequences because of stats. Stats don’t create work; they are a brilliant and cumulative way of making hundreds of choices matter without writing a million-page book.

The two main types of statistics are personality based and skill based. So as your player makes their choices and has their adventures, you’re also noting what kind of character they are creating (think of them as a co-writer who’s in charge of the main character’s personality), as well as building their skill set (for later challenges that can be won or lost).

In ChoiceScript, you make your own unique statistics. The more unique the better!

One of the most distinctive & fun things about the ChoiceScript tool is that it often uses opposed statistics—so for example, you might have ‘Tactfulness’ versus ‘Straight Talker’. If a player chooses to be tactful, their tactfulness stat will go up and their ‘straight talker’ stat will go down.

HOW TO DO STATS:

First, go into the startup file. After the *scene_list but before the story begins, write this:

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You can set any number of (single, lowercase) words as beginning stats.

Your Tactfulness versus Straight Talker opposed statistic will all be expressed (code-wise) as + or – tactfulness.

Your name stat will be a one-off choice (and the players can enter their own; instructions here).

Your strength starts at 0. It will grow with strength-based choices, and it will be tested at later choices.

The “show stats” button on the browser version of the story (that the players see) appears automatically.

To make the stats page look good, go into the choicescript_stats file (which you already have in the same “scenes” folder as the “startup” file), and write this:

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It will look like this to the player:

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The numerical values will change as the player makes choices.

The ! makes sure that a word is capitalised (it’s also useful for pronouns—which we’ll talk about next—when they’re at the beginning of a sentence).

Here’s your first-choice example, with stats added:

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Now players who choose Option One have Tactfulness 60% (and Straight Talking 40%).

Players who choose Option Two have Straight Talking 60% (and Tactfulness 40%).

Behind the scenes, opposed stats are really just recording one stat going up or down, but they’re displayed with a red/blue bar for the player.

If the player chose Option Three, then “Bob” will appear after “Name:” in the player’s stat screen, AND their strength will be 5.

In the line “*set strength %+5” the % symbol is the key to avoiding maths. I have your attention now, don’t I? Long story short, if you use “%+” and “%-” for your stats, you will never get under 0% or over 100%. Is good.

Congratulations! You’ve written a functional choice that doesn’t break the game and that makes a difference to your statistics.

HOW TO DO GENDER:

In your startup file, write:

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Then have a choice (early on) like this:

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As you may have noticed above, you can put the stats and the text in any order. Since the player doesn’t see the stats (until they click on the button to see the stat page), it doesn’t make a difference. But consistency is a good idea.

Once you’ve done that, you can use pronouns, like so:

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This text will appear normal to the player, but will have the right pronouns, eg:


 

You hear two people talking about you.

“What do you think of them, really?”

“They’s okay I suppose.”

“Really? I hate their dog.”


 

There are two important things to note here. (Okay, three.)

-You can write an entire novel without player-character (PC) pronouns if you’re determined (as I’ve done for “Choices That Matter” stories on iOS and Google Play via Tin Man Games).

-‘They’ is grammatically distinct. You probably noticed the painfully incorrect “They’s okay” above. If you include they/them pronouns, you will need to be very careful to avoid a similar grammar fail. But it’s worth it. The IF (Interactive Fiction) community works hard to be inclusive, especially with gender and sexuality.

-Using he/his/him as your “base stat” in the startup file works well because the three forms are distinct (unlike for she/her/her).

Erm, it’s just occurring to me that it might work better to use they/their/them as your base. I’m not smart enough to check the idea is sound without writing a novel to check, but I THINK it’ll help a bunch with both Point #3 and the Point #2.

 

WELL that was a long blog entry. Are you still here, dear reader? I’m off to eat dinner and have a lie down.

PS Guess what! It’s October! Who knew?

More Conflux tomorrow!

PS Two more super-useful sites for when you’ve finished that brilliant interactive fiction game.

Dashingdon hosts ChoiceScript games, and Philime.la hosts Twine games. Both are free, and both allow you to show your game to a select few (editors) before uploading/publishing a finished version.

Novels Versus Interactive Novels

This is a post written for Games Versus Play.

I write both novels and interactive novels, and I’m fascinated by the style differences between the two.

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(This is how fascinated I am.)

When I write novels, I often write in first person (“I don’t deliberately make things explode”), and sometimes third person (“She doesn’t deliberately make things explode”). It is extremely rare to find a published novel written in second person (“You don’t deliberately make things explode”). Most people find second person very jarring. The famous exception is “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels, and I’ve seen a couple of modern children’s books written in second person.

The great thing about first person is that it’s easy to use a quirky writing style, and to see inside the main character’s head. In my opinion, it’s particularly good for young adult or crossover writing, when internal thoughts are often an important part of the plot. On the down side, you can’t see the thought processes of other characters, or any information the main character doesn’t know (such as, there is a bushfire coming).

Second person is favoured by a lot of interactive fiction, because it emphasises the reader’s involvement in the story.

It’s also common to have a different style for the text of the choices themselves. For example, Choice of Games uses second person for the main text, and first person for the choices (which is reversed in the Tin Man Games “Choices That Matter” serial story app).

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The overwhelming majority of novels use past tense (“Quit it!” said Bob), but quite a few interactive novels use present tense (“Quit it!” says Bob). When I’m writing a first draft, regardless of the form, I tend to switch back and forth between the two, which is always the most obvious thing I have to fix when I edit. It’s never okay to release a story like that.

This blog entry is in present tense. It feels more immediate to the reader—more like a face to face conversation. That’s useful for interactive fiction, which is a more conversational reading experience than novels. Quite a lot of writers fall into present tense in a first draft (whether they mean to or not) because they’re watching their own story as it happens in their head.

A story in its simplest form involves an interesting character with a serious problem who faces obstacles and then either succeeds or fails in solving their problem. The crucial structural elements are:

  1. How to make a character interesting. Flaws? Features? Quirks? Relate-ability? Pain (physical and/or emotional)? Unusual skills? Danger?
  2. What is the problem? It needs to be serious to the character, so it can be as simple as being thirsty or as complicated as saving the universe.
  3. What are the obstacles? They need to appear unsurmountable, and costly. The most difficult part is often having the character attempt to solve the problem in a way that should work (so the character doesn’t come across as an idiot) but instead backfires (raising the tension in the story). It’s a tricky balance.
  4. An ending must feel satisfying, even if the character fails or the problem has grown worse.

There are plenty of other elements to the story—worldbuilding, themes, scenery, subplots, etc etc—and of course other characters.

The greatest difference between a novel and an interactive novel is #1. The main character of a book is entirely under the writers’ control. They grow and change during the story. A crucial issue for any interactive fiction writer is how to make an interesting main character while also giving the reader control over the story. Often the solution is to make the main character a “Blank Slate”, an effect that works very much like a prototypical “Mary Sue”. That is, the reader can project their own personality onto the character.

Companies like Choice of Games work hard to allow the reader to fill in the blanks—choosing their own gender, sexuality, personality, and even the type of story. A single story with the same general ending can tell multiple stories eg a story ending with a prom can be a romance (the main character gets the girl/guy), horror (Carrie), action (Buffy), or tragedy (the main character doesn’t get the girl/guy) depending largely on the climactic scene. This means the writer needs to be able to think of their own main character and plot in several contradictory ways, and write their scenes accordingly.

A good interactive story writer also needs to think about the tangled fictional ethics of non-player characters. This is especially true in stories with a romance. Most interactive stories offer several romantic options, which immediately begs the question, “How are so many different people all attracted to one person? And is everybody bi?” NPCs really ARE just pieces on a board designed to make the player feel good, but good writing makes them feel like living, breathing individuals.

In the “Dream Daddy Dating Simulator” one of the potential romances is doomed no matter what the player does. This is frustrating to experience, but also makes the game more satisfying, because—as the creators point out—not all romances end well.

Some writers use statistics to block or allow romance, eg Kevin is only attracted to players who have shown high levels of empathy. Others have different sexuality for different NPCs, eg Kevin can only fall for male characters. That can be problematic, because far too much entertainment is pitched to a straight male setting. In my opinion, it’s better to have all bisexual NPCs than to give players less choices based on their gender.

The other tricky style element of interactive fiction is the dreaded “block of text”. In general, interactive fiction writers often aim for less than 300 words between choices. That means long passages of description or dialogue are a no-no. There are always exceptions to the rule, but in general readers want a LOT of choices, and will get bored with lengthy prose (no matter how beautiful or profound). IF can be beautiful and profound, but it needs to use less words to do so (or to use the same number of words, but break up paragraphs with choices).

The experience of reading an interactive novel is both more and less involving than reading a book. As an interactive fiction reader, you can have a huge amount of control over the story—who to love, who to kill, what to learn and how to use your skills—but you are also constantly breaking the fourth wall as you pause to consider your choices along the way. I tend to read non-interactive novels at night, because the decision-making process of reading IF is too stressful.

Whether you’re writing, reading, or playing… good luck!

News about “Choices That Matter” story app.

Eep, I really haven’t written for a while.

In my defence, I am in a whirlwind of writing as I finish “Choices: And Their Souls Were Eaten”, write the sequel to “Heart of Brass” (it’ll be a trilogy by the end of next year), and research and write [redacted] for [redacted], which is terribly exciting.

First things first, the Tin Man Games story app formerly known as “Choices: And The Sun Went Out” (after the first story, which I also co-wrote) is now known as “Choices That Matter”. It’s still on iOS and Google Play, and the finished tales will eventually show up on Steam.

So, I co-wrote the first story, “And The Sun Went Out” (from arc 4 onwards)

I wrote the second story, “And Their Souls Were Eaten”

I shall be editing the third story, “And Their Heroes Were Lost”.

All in all, KG Tan and I have made sure our fingerprints are all over all three stories. (For those not in the know, KG Tan is the project head of both “Choices That Matter” and “Miss Fisher” and he wrote rather a lot of “And The Sun Went Out”. He’s the last line of defence when it comes to editing, especially coding errors, and he is a spectacularly gifted person as well as a genuine friend.)

Phill Berrie was the first-line editor for “And Their Souls Were Eaten” and he is the writer of “And Their Heroes Were Lost” (which is seriously excellent!)

 

So let’s talk “And Their Souls Were Eaten”, since it’s my big beautiful baby. It had forty updates over 10 months, and the final update will come out within days. The final word count is around 377,000 (which is impressive until you compare it to the 15-month “And The Sun Went Out”, which came in just over 600,000 words).

YES in case you were wondering, it is connected to my other steampunk stories (they’re all connected). It takes place in 1836 Europe, well before any of the other stories, and the central problem of the story is different to all the rest.

Whenever I write interactive steampunk, I decide one one version of the story that is the “canon” version—the least contradictory version. When it comes to “And Their Souls Were Eaten” the canon version is as follows:

 

SPOILER SPACE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. The character is male (or appears to be), and after eating the soul of Charles Dickens they ultimately “become” the Charles Dickens that we know from “real” history (minus the horrible behaviour toward women, because I want to like him and it’s my story dammit). He writes all the Dickens stories just as they exist in our real world. The character might just show up in the novels (as “Charles Dickens”). He certainly shows up in “Stuff and Nonsense”.
  2. The soulless problem is 100% dealt with and although a few people continue to build anti-soulless towers and to keep an eye out in case any soulless escaped, by the time Emmeline Muchamore (hero of the novels) is causing trouble it’s rare to hear “soulless” or “Great Ones” even mentioned. In fact, they don’t come up in the novels at all (conveniently for those who read the novels but not “And Their Souls Were Eaten”.
  3. Activated gold is discovered during “And Their Souls Were Eaten”, and a few other magical metals are discovered in the 1840s, before the novels begin in 1853.

“Stormhunter” flounders as Satalyte falls to Earth

Most small publishers stop running within two years. Which is not surprising, when you consider that the large publishers make a loss on the vast majority of the books they produce. It’s the occasional bestseller keeping everyone afloat. People just don’t read enough books.

With that reality, small publishers deserve more credit rather than less. They know they’re probably going to fail. In my experience, publishers are greater dreamers than writers—writing, after all, costs very little.

Satalyte Publishing accepted my novel “Stormhunter” some time ago, but ultimately has just decided to close their doors. It’s not an easy choice, but I became friends with the couple running the show, and I’m glad they were smart enough to step away from their beautiful dream before it became a nightmare.

So, the fate of “Stormhunter” is once more a blank. It certainly eased my concern that I have SO much paid writing work to do already, and that “Heart of Brass” is safely published and in the hands of readers all around the world.

Despite an unfortunate end to our professional relationship, I have gained several good friends and quite a bit of useful knowledge from my journey with Satalyte. The publishing house is no more, but those friendships will last forever—and all the more because of a shared experience of grief.

Like many small publishers, Satalyte deliberately published the kind of books that are excellent, but not considered “marketable”. They made publishing better forever, and I’m grateful to them as both reader and friend.

Little Miss Helpful

For those who aren’t up to date on their classic picture books, “Little Miss Helpful” is about a person who’s always trying to help people and ultimately makes their lives much, much worse. One of her friends is sick and trying to rest, so she shows up to help. She wakes him up over and over again in the process of attempting to clean for him (destroying his kitchen in the process), and ultimately both are injured and I presume the friend gets pneumonia and dies. (I’m extrapolating from the fact that he ends up in a pond.)

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(Pictured: An unrelated children’s picture book.)

So this week I’m struggling to accept the fact that an introverted kid who is not mine doesn’t get to sit next to her best friend (aka my kid) six hours a day (but is still able to play with her multiple times a day). Her mum is long since over it but I’m still in overprotective mode.

Today I have a brand new drama that also fits the “Felicity Banks clumsily attempts to help a person/people who would be much better off if she didn’t bother” narrative.

The oversimplified version—also the version that I’m emotionally responding to—is that I wanted to write a story with a protagonist who was disabled, in part because that’s one of the many groups suffering from Trump’s power… but it has become clear that I’m not smart enough to cause more good than harm.

Like most oversimplifications the above is not entirely true, but has an element of truth in it. It was mostly a structural issue that caused me to need to drop that particular aspect of my protagonist. Still. . .

It’s hard for privileged people to learn how privileged we are. It doesn’t matter how many advantages you’re born with, life is hard. Stuff happens. And when someone points out that an aspect of their life is harder than yours, it hurts. It feels like your own struggles are less legitimate. When you’re trying to remember whether “gay” is still a insult or not, and then you find out that intersex is a thing that you also need to understand and learn about, it feels like people are just taking offence no matter what you do.

Those feelings are knee-jerk reactions, and they’re not actually true. There’s a really thoughtful article about emotional exhaustion here.

So yes, privileged people also have struggles. But part of being a decent human being is to get past that knee-jerk “Arg too hard!!” reflex and realise that it’s vitally important to acknowledge other people’s struggles, and to use what power we have to help others.

I’ve been passionate about discrimination against people who are LGBTIQ since before I knew that one of those letters applied to me. I’m a Christian and have felt since my teens that Christians treat gay people and Muslims poorly—which is exactly the opposite of what Christian behaviour should be. But even thought I’m disabled myself, I’ve never fought for the rights of people who are disabled. (Partly, if I’m honest, because I’m still coming to terms with it in my own body and mind… after fifteen years.)

The term “Social Justice Warrior” is an insult, but since Trump was voted in as US president the world is badly in need of exactly that kind of warrior to mitigate the damage he is doing to pretty much every vulnerable minority group anyone can think of.

 

When my daughter found out about Trump, she gave up her allowance for months so she could donate it to kids and communities in the third world. I thought about what I could do and realised that financial help and/or things that involve me leaving the house (like protest marches) are rarely an option. But I still have a working brain (sometimes) and I have two powerful resources at my disposal: my imagination, and my readers. If I write interesting and diverse characters, it will help all of my readers to understand and empathise with people who are different to them. And it won’t feel like work.

I can’t earn a living wage; I can’t walk or stand or march without pain; I can’t vote in US elections; I can’t run to Nauru and singlehandedly gather up all the innocent children and bring them safely home with me; I can’t roam the streets making sure non-cisgender people aren’t getting beaten up; I can’t teach manners to Islamophobic trolls; I can’t stop Australian politicians from stoking racist fears in my own country—but I can write.

Here is a music clip (technically an ad for last year’s Paralympics):

 

 

I watch this all the time. It’s one of the greatest music video clips ever made. I actually have a real-life problem with Louisette being jealous of people with physical disabilities because of this clip (specifically, she wants to have either one leg—so she can do a kick-ass hopping high jump—or no arms so she can be an awesome drummer). I have to keep explaining to her that if she wants to have the amazing abilities of these musicians and sportspeople, then she has to train like they do.

Unlike most inspirational stuff (which is nauseating at best, and insultingly incorrect at worst) this actually works for me. I know that every single person in this clip has thought, “My life sucks! I can’t do anything! My body is holding me back from the life I want to have! This is so unfair!” at least once. I’m technically disabled physically, but my depression usually bothers me even more than the physical side, so getting told to look on the bright side or cheer up (by healthy, not-depressed people) often actually means, “Stop bothering me with your pain.” The clip above makes me feel good with the music, and means more to me than any other song because every person in it still has big parts of their life that suck. It hits the exact right place between pity and awe (both of which are foolish reactions able-bodied people often have to people who are disabled, ie “Oh, poor you!” or “Wow, you’re SO brave!”). Actually, people who are disabled do have unique challenges, but they’re also just… people. (There’s an interesting article about the social pressure to be the “perfect” disabled person here.)

The clip cleverly erodes the patronising pity I might feel towards people who are physically disabled in various ways. There really are certain elements of physical disability that are wicked cool. These are my two favourites:

  1. Prosthetics. The whole field of prosthetics is evolving so quickly that it’s incredibly exciting. Those curved “running legs” sportspeople use are actually faster than normal legs. There are other prosthetics that also do certain things better than nature. I’m with Adam Hills (who, incidentally, has one leg): Instead of calling people “disabled”, he says we should call them something that reflects how freaking cool their bodies are. Hills suggests “mutants”. Like, X-men style. Obviously that’s not going to happen, but there’s truth in the comedy.       Now that I think about it, I actually had a one-legged romantic interest in “Scarlet Sails“, just because piracy does rather lend itself to non-standard body shapes. She even has a slightly-awkward sex scene due to my remembering Adam Hills talking about how he always needs to remove his prosthetic leg before sex. And in “After the Flag Fell” the main character almost certainly loses an arm—not just because steampunk lends itself to cool prosthetics, but because he’s an actual historical figure who lost an arm due to a battle wound.
  2. As a failed linguist (literally; I failed my second semester at uni) and a retired cross-cultural missionary (also literally; for ten years I worked towards a career in Indonesia teaching English etc to kids in the slums), I’m fascinated by the deaf community. Sign language is such an interesting set of languages, and the community itself is just that: a community. A lot of deaf people who could have their hearing restored through technology choose not to, because their deafness is as much a part of their culture as breasts are to a woman (As a breast owner, let me explain: So what if I’m not breastfeeding and never will? So what if my breasts require expensive specialised clothing and constantly get in the way? They’re mine and I’d be VERY upset if they were removed).

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(Picture: Would YOU waste time looking at her wooden leg?)

So as I was working on the outline of an interactive story, I had an idea. I could have the reader choose a disability for the protagonist from three options:

  1. Someone with a double above-the-knee amputation. This is a significant disability in the real world, but in my world the character lives in an enormous floating city (influenced by, among other things, the Bajau people, a refugee people group who live almost entirely on water and have extraordinary abilities as a result) so I wanted to write that they had the usual prosthetics (cosmetic, running, practical, “shorties”, etc) as well as a prosthetic tail that makes them look like a real-life mermaid—including a superior swimming ability. I’m already jealous of this character’s ability in my mind, despite the fact that they’d also have significant disadvantages.
  2. Someone who is mute. Originally I wanted to write a character who was both deaf and mute, but a writerly friend pointed out that not being able to describe sounds would cut back on sensory immersion (a vitally important aspect of writing; my writing isn’t good enough to make up for it) so I toned it back. The protagonist’s city is made of transparent spheres, and getting from one to another is slightly awkward. I’d already designed it as a place where everyone uses sign language every day to chat through the glass during that awkward transition from one sphere to another. As I was thinking about the real-world deaf community, I developed my setting into a place with a large minority of deaf-mute individuals (not such a surprising thing, given a recessive gene for a condition causing people to be deaf-mute, combined with a relatively small population). That way I could develop a whole bunch of different and complementary sign languages (slang, trading, one-handed, something specifically for talking underwater, something specifically for the protagonist to talk privately with their best friend, etc). It would be such an interesting and fun world! Languages are fun! I’m also borderline bilingual (Indonesian) and have lived in Indonesia with Indonesians for six months, and observed firsthand the way language changes the way I thought about things.
  3. A phobia of deep water. This is actually one of my own (extremely numerous) phobias (making research a breeze), and of course would be very difficult when the protagonist lives in a floating city. Unlike depression, it’s specific enough (and has so little effect on my actual life) that I could write about it without getting depressed myself (I’ve written a story about the real-life experience of depression, but it’s…well, depressing). Although I wouldn’t recommend an anxiety disorder to anyone (duh), it DOES have the positive side effect that I deal with fear every day, so when something really scary happens (like having a baby, or having Chris in hospital with a rare disease that is both incurable and potentially paralysing or deadly… yes, that happened; he got better) I actually handle it quite well. It also means that the character would adjust more easily to the time they spend on land (the Bajau people get badly landsick, and so will my non-player characters—but less so if they choose option #3).

So now that everyone is dying to read my nonexistent book, here’s why it probably isn’t happening:

Good intentions are not the same thing as good results. Obviously, my aim is to write a positive, enjoyable, interesting story that also gives people with certain disabilities a chance to play a character who actually shares that aspect of their life. And a story that helps people who don’t have any of those conditions to feel that classic “oh they’re just like us” moment that we all need to have about… well, everyone who is not our physical & psychological clone.

However.

One of the places I started my research was in the “Choice of Games” forums. “Choice of Games” is a hugely influential American interactive fiction company. (I am not associated or affiliated with them in any way; but I’m a huge fan and a Hosted Games author several times over.) They work hard to be inclusive, and it shows. The forums are a friendly, welcoming, helpful, and diverse place. I have accidentally stepped on people’s feelings there in the past (again, helping where help was not wanted) and people took me aside privately, and politely taught me how to be a better person. I was also forgiven by the people that I hurt.

I have genuine friends there that have made my life better, plus a really cool arch-enemy (you can read about him in the special features of Starship Adventures), and even someone I’ve since met in real life. Some of them are very different to me in various ways, and some are very similar (poor things). But I knew that I needed to research deafness, muteness, and the lives and feelings of amputees in order to write about them in a way that did more good than harm. I also knew that my research needed an extra layer: I needed to find at least one beta reader from the groups I was trying to represent. They would pick up on dumb mistakes I made. The forum was the perfect place to start looking for those beta readers.

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(Pictured: Not a suitable beta reader.)

So I started a new topic, called something like, “Looking for beta readers who are deaf-mute or double-amputees”. I winced as I wrote “deaf-mute” and “double-amputee” but even someone with one leg has a very different life to a person with both legs amputated, so I needed to be specific.

Within 24 hours people had already replied telling me they’d thought (based on the title) that I was deliberately trolling the forums, and an admin had changed the title (with my belated blessing) to be less offensive.

So as quickly as that, I screwed up. Alarm bells began ringing, and they continued ringing as various people talked to me via the thread, communicating (gently) how very uncomfortable they were that someone so ham-fisted would be writing such a story.

I immediately googled the terms I’d used, looking for less offensive words to mean “deaf” “mute” and “amputee”, while also asking the people in the thread. I found that the correct words are (wait for it) “deaf”, “mute”, and “amputee”. I also found that it’s preferred that people put the “person” first, ie I should say “A person who is deaf” rather than “a deaf person”. But clearly the title I used for the forum topic was still deeply offensive.

So I’m already at a loss. How can I write about this set of disabilities when it’s apparently not okay to say the words aloud? Someone (rather brilliantly) suggested that hey, it’s a fictional world, why not make up words? The only problem is that I then have to explain that “sffhuiwe” (or whatever…) means “deaf”. So we’re back to square one.

I have since worked out that (a) The thing that’s offensive is that my attempt at brevity made it seem like the disability was the most interesting part of the character, which it definitely isn’t, and (b) It’s easy enough to describe the actions of the characters without using any of the words that may be offensive to some people.

Now is a good time to mention that Australians have much more casual manners than Americans. It’s actually something I love about Australia. I find it more honest and open and straightforward… but I’ve run into trouble at least once before because people thought I was being rude when I thought I was being friendly. So that complicates matters, especially since the vast majority of my readers are from the US.

In the meantime, someone I deeply respect (especially in the field of interactive fiction) pointed out that if I had the reader choose one of those three options, it was structurally saying that all three options (I called them “quirks”) were comparable. Which is just not true (even though it’s true within the story).

So that’s almost certainly the nail in the coffin for my “pick a quirk” idea. Which is sad, but a far better fate than having me write 200,000 words that made the world worse.

So that’s what I’m crying about today. I really wanted to represent disabled people in fiction, but my own limitations (and privileges) make it a terrible idea.

Having written all the above, I’m no longer sure that giving up is the right option (even though it almost certainly is) so I’ll think some more, and talk to some more people, and make my final decision after that. But before I make too much of a nuisance of myself.

Well, probably.

As always, the questions that matters most to me is, “Will this cause harm?” but the second most important question is, “Will it make the story better?” It’s clear to me that these aspects of a fully realised and interesting character absolutely DO make the story better. That’s not an easy thing to give up.

Procrastination Technique #452: Reviews

I’ve written about reviews before, and I’m always fascinated, whether the review is positive or. . . not so much.

The Tin Man Games app “Choices: And The Sun Went Out” (including the second story, my steampunk fantasy, “Choices: And Their Souls Were Eaten”) has just under a hundred reviews (mostly just stars) on itunes and has just passed 600 reviews on Android.

Android apps have a cool feature where they say how many people have installed an app, and this app, our app, has been installed over 50,000 times! It boggles my mind that so many people are reading words that I write, and it makes me evil laugh when I read the desperate pleas of addicted readers hanging out for their weekly story fix:

Mario Zalout wrote:

Love it It’s hard for me to find games like this. I constantly crave the story, wanting more. However, I’ve caught up with And Their Souls Were Eaten about 3 times, and I always hate the break I have to take in between. And The Sun Went Out helps with that though, and since I know it’s considerably longer I work at it whenever Souls needs an update.

Theresa Budd wrote:

Great game but… This is a really great game but I wish they would update the bear version. I was having so much fun playing it and now I’ve got as far as can but they need to update it so I can finish the story please.

Zachery Fitzpatrick wrote:

You’ll love the story …..untill you get a nice distance in…. then the book shuts itself on your fingers and then throws itself into a fire and tells you wait for a update.

Trevor Veltema wrote:

So good Honestly the best game I’ve played, I was on it from 12am to 7 am, it’s very addicting

Johannes Haler wrote:

UPDATE MORE PLEASE The story And The Sun Went Out is easily one of THE best stories I’ve ever read. The plot about how the sun disappesring and stuff is just amazing! Please, I’ve reached the part where update is needed and I NEED MORE! Thank you Tin Man Games, for making reading fun, and making one of the best books I’ve read!

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There’s a whole sub-group who are angry that you have to pay (or watch ads) to read the whole story. Since I know exactly how much I earn (hint: not an enormous amount), I’m not entirely sympathetic to these:

Alper Can Buyuk wrote:

Ad-fest So you need “choice-tickets” to make decisions and progress the story. The only way to get these is either purchasing them, or buying a pass which allows you to progress through the app. The other option is watching a 30 second ad for a measly 3 tickets, completely breaking the immersion. Shouldn’t be a free app in the first place if this is the way the devs are gonna go about it.

Franz Airyl Sapit wrote:

TOO PRICEY. NOT WORTH IT. In my local currency, two Story Pass (needed to play this,”pay to play”) of this game is worth as much as Dragon Age Origins, a PC game. Imagine that.

Kaneki Ken wrote:

Money-grubbing morons. Whoever is the developer(s) of this game is seriously an annoying one. Not only do you deem it, unfavourable to have a narrator. To continue the story, you force us to give you money? How cheap is that of a practice! You don’t deserve money of you’re too lazy to have a voice actor!

In their defence, ebooks are sold in a much simpler system. There’s a big yellow button that says “free sample” and it’s easy to understand that the free sample is specifically designed to suck you into buying the book. These story apps are exactly the same thing, but app stores list them as “free, with in-app purchases” which isn’t deliberately misleading but it feels like it is.

Sadly, there are sometimes bugs and those reviews are always awful. The only up side is that bug-fixing horrors are someone else’s job to fix. Yay?

I love it when reviewers give useful information (and even more when they rebut the “I don’t want to pay/watch ads” reviewers).

DERPING Dubstep wrote:

Worth the read Don’t expect this to be an adventure game with managing inventory and fight enemies. If your looking for that you better off getting something else but don’t let that deter you from this experience. Like it is described by the developers the story is really choice based. I noticed how different the story was when i looked at the screen shots and compared it to mine, i was surprised. (And their souls were eaten seems really interesting hope we get an update soon)

Kat Hargis:

Amazing Currently reading The Sun Went Out- and the story is compelling and leaves me craving more. It is definitely worth to purchase the Story Tickets pass or whatever it’s called. Not only does it support the creative geniuses behind the story, but it also keeps me satisfied with long reads rather than short ones. Compared to other choice-based novels, this one is probably my top pick, beating even TellTale games. Once again, definitely worth that I initially spent. Looking forward to the updates on the story!

krazykidfox wrote:

Fantastic I’ve read both stories up to date. They’re both fantastic, and I’m eagerly waiting for more content. Pick this game up, hands down. While yes, you do have to either watch ads or buy tickets to progress through the stories, it’s honestly a very fair and generous system that stands out from all of the Free-To-Pay mobile games out there. Props to you, devs. Get this, you won’t be let down.

I don’t have a name wrote:

Awesome (Currently reading “And The Sun Went Out”)Intriguing, mysterious, smart and a bit dangerous. I love the fact that, although the choices you have are both natural and logical and not extremely different from each other, any choice you make has a huge impact on the story, changing it in major but still subtle ways. The only downside, in my opinion is the fact that you can’t redo a choice. You have the option to start the whole story from the beginning but I don’t want to repeat everything just for one mistake

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I really love that people are passionate about the stories!

The first story has been running over 14 months and is well over 500,000 words altogether (although each read-through would be about 100,000 words – the length of a regular book). 

The person known as “I don’t have a name” is going to love the stuff that happens towards the end of the first story, when literally hundreds of seemingly insignificant choices have the power to save the world. . . or doom it forever.

The final final final piece of the story will be released roughly on Christmas Day. If you want to read the whole story from beginning to end—possibly several times, so you get different experiences—then this is your moment to jump on board!!

Getting into the reader’s mind

NB There are structural spoilers ahead for “Choices: And Their Souls Were Eaten”, and more mid-level spoilers in the comments.

Regular readers will know that I live and breathe “Choices: And The Sun Went Out”, a serial interactive story produced by Tin Man Games. (It’s a massive story app available on Android or itunes, with new sections every week and the ability to choose where the protagonist goes and what they do.)

Although the app is called “Choices: And The Sun Went Out”, it contains two stories (so far!)

I was hired as a co-writer on the original story, and I have literally one section left to write. After FIFTEEN MONTHS and SIXTY updates, the story is ending. It’s an amazing feeling for everyone involved. Do buy the app as a Christmas gift from you to you. It’s a lot of fun.

But that’s utterly not what I’m writing about. The second story in the app, “Choices: And Their Souls Were Eaten” is my own project, set in the magical steampunk world of my novel and various other stories.

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Here’s one of the unique things about the entire “Choices: And The Sun Went Out” app: every four weeks there is a super-significant choice, usually a choice of which location to go to next. The reader gets to pick where they go… and then a dial appears to tell them what percentage of readers chose to go to the same place.

The writers can also see what all our readers are choosing.

So. Confession time.

Each super-choice is meant to be equally appealing, but at the end of Arc 1 it became clear to me that almost all of my readers had chosen one particular path. (I’m going to go back and edit the Arc 1 text to make the other choices more appealing.)

Arc 3 has just ended, and I was dying to find out what choices people made there. In Arc 3, the player chooses their animal form. They can shift into their animal form at various times during the rest of the story, and it’s often useful (or just fun and awesome). Certain animals have certain skills (did you know rats have an absolutely amazing sense of smell? Research, baby!)

There are five possible animal forms, but the reader was given a choice of only two animals, based on two of their previous choices. For example, if they had chosen to avoid physical conflict as much as possible, and to stay in the forest rather than seeking out people, they might be a deer. If you email me privately to ask for more detail, I’ll tell you more.

The five animal choices were: Sparrow, Otter, Deer, Greyhound, or Rat.

The statistics were always going to be skewed due to the Arc 1 choice, but here are the results:

Greyhound: 53%

Sparrow: 19%

Rat: 18%

Deer: 9%

Otter: 1%

All I really wanted to say was that if you’re an otter, you have read quite a different story to everyone else. Congratulations.

Introduction to Interactive Fiction

I thought I’d better write an entry today in case someone is a-googling after hearing my interactive fiction interview on 666 ABC Canberra at 7:25am this morning (wheeee!)

Hello and welcome.

I write both novels and interactive novels. Other people find interactive fiction via the gaming community, so there are usually elements of game play (for example, skill bonuses that are tested later). You can “read” an interactive “book” or “play” an interactive “game”. I use the terms interchangeably.

Within interactive fiction, there are two main forms: Choice-based interactive fiction (the reader makes choices from set options) and Parser interactive fiction (the reader types commands to move the story forward and/or solve puzzles). I’m strictly on the choice-based side, which is definitely more accessible for newbies. The list below will make it immediately obvious that I was drawn to interactive fiction via Choice of Games. It’s not a bad place to start. This is what games always look like on the inside:

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You pick one of the options, and click next. Easy!

Interactive fiction is almost always digital (the obvious exceptions are “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels, and the Windhammer Prize), and almost always released as a phone app on the itunes and android stores (and more, for Choice of Games).

If you’re curious about interactive fiction (IF), here are some good places to start learning more:

To learn by playing

Interactive Fiction Data Base This link takes you directly to my page, which has links to all of my games. My games are usually accessible to newbies, since I am one myself. There are a LOT of games and reviews on IFDB, and you can find lists (such as “Games for new players”) to sort through the mountain of stories.

The Interactive Fiction Comp is hugely popular, and all the games are free to play. Judging season is in October and the first half of November each year (right now!!) Usually about half the games are Parser games. Some games are a lot easier to download than others so if you get stuck just move on.

Birdland came fourth in the IF Comp 2015, and is a funny game using Twine. Free.

Choice of Games (CoG) is an extremely successful company with a clear in-house style.

Choice of Broadsides is a short CoG game that’s a perfect introduction. 

Choice of Robots is an excellent scifi CoG story.

Community College Hero is an excellent teen superhero CoG story (Pt 1). It’s not an official CoG game, but is released through their Hosted Games label.

Creatures Such as We has a more literary style than most CoG games. It’s also free, and placed second the IF Comp in 2014.

My own CoG Hosted Games (I’m not associated or affiliated with CoG in any way) are the Australian steampunk adventure Attack of the Clockwork Army, the piratical romp Scarlet Sails (which also placed 7th in the IF Comp 2015; this version was improved after the competition which is why it’s not free like the original version). I also wrote and edited for the retro scifi comedy Starship Adventures, which has a bunch of behind-the-scenes special features.

Cape is a beautifully written Superhero origin story, where you can add detail by choice. It’s a hypertext story, meaning that you click on bolded words rather than choosing choices from a list. It placed fifth in the 2015 IF Comp, and is free.

Tin Man Games releases what they call “Gamebook Adventures”. They range from the mostly-text scifi serial story “Choices: And The Sun Went Out” app on itunes or android (the European steampunk tale “Choices: And Their Souls Were Eaten” is the second story inside that app; I’m a co-writer on #1 and writer on #2) to the recent Warlock of Firetop Mountain which takes the famous Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone novel and turns it into a video game (including a fight system). They are internationally respected and an Australian company.

To learn by reading the blogs of reviewers (who also write games and talk about stuff)

Emily Short

Sibyl Moon

Jason Dyer

Sam Kobo Ashwell

 

To learn by joining a community

Be aware that the IF community is a small, welcoming, diverse, and kind group. Don’t be a troll. Don’t write when someone (especially a reviewer who is adding to the community with their comments and not getting paid for it) has made you feel angry.

Embrace different genders, sexualities, abilities, and nationalities.

Choice of Games forum

The Interactive Fiction Forum is very lively during IF Comp season (October/November).

 

An excellent book on Twine and writing, pitched for beginners to both

Writing Interactive Fiction with Twine by Melissa Ford

 

If you’re quick, you can probably catch me at Conflux today between when-I-get-there and 1:30 (when my workshop starts – it’s booked out already, but just email fellissimo@hotmail.com if you want to arrange something else workshop-ish). I’ll most likely be in the dealer room, since my publisher has a table (the publicist is actually hiding in this shot – can you see her elbow?)

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To learn by writing

Twine is certainly the easiest; it actually automatically builds an (adjustable) map for you. It takes about thirty seconds to learn, or ten minutes on your own. 

There are LOTS of online resources, including lists here and here about finding the authoring tool that works for you. You certainly don’t need to be a computer programmer! 

To get paid

Choice of Games pays advances of up to $10,000 for novel-length stories based on an approved outline and written with their tool, ChoiceScript. I know from personal experience that a story written for their less-exclusive “Hosted Games” label earns a respectable amount purely through royalties. Mine have earned around $1000 each, but there are no guarantees (and no limits!)

Sub-Q magazine pays for short fiction (they can be quite literary).

itch.io is a vibrant community that’s specifically designed to let indie creators sell their games on their own terms. It has loads of game jams that you can join, and some jams are competitive (which is a handy low-stakes way to see if your writing is appealing to others.

Contests pay a little (often not in money) but are hugely important to the community and to gaming companies, who sometimes even approach entrants to offer paid work. All the contests are publicly reviewed and judged, which is an intense emotional experience for any writer. Don’t ever interact with reviewers until after the competition is finished (and even then, always thank them regardless of what they said—every review is a precious gift, and the harsh ones are often the most useful).

Your stories must not be published, and they must be publicly available after the contest for free. Although the judging is public, they are NOT popularity contests, but based on judges being as neutral as possible in their ratings.

IF Comp is the biggest and best, but it’s NOT for beginners. Reviewers can be harsh in order to be more entertaining, or due to assuming you’re trolling the contest).

Windhammer Comp is printable (and short, and Australian) and high-status. First prize is $300, within runner-up prizes of $50. Not bad for a short story that doesn’t require learning a new tool! 

IntroComp (for games that aren’t even finished)

Spring Thing (called the Fall Fooferal if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere) is particularly welcoming to newbies, including a “Back Garden” where you can indicate that you’re new and reviewers should take that into account. It’s deliberately placed in a part of the year when the IF Comp is far away.

 

I won the Windhammer Prize in 2015, and my publisher included that story with my novel:

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Full disclosure: I have some kind of connection to pretty much everyone on this list, but every single connection is through reading their work and liking it.

Emily Short has a fantastic Intro to IF here.

Weak Words

I haven’t posted any writing advice in a while, possibly because a lot of my work is out there now and anything I say is likely to be hypocritical and I’m scared of people pointing that out.

But here is a great, simple, well-explained infographic on words that should be dragged out and shot. Take a look!

http://writerswrite.co.za/5-weak-words-to-avoid-and-what-to-use-instead

Choices: And Their Souls Were Eaten

I’ve been working very hard on this story app for Tin Man Games all this year, and I’m incredibly proud of it.

The beginning is free, and the rest costs a few dollars (or a LOT of ads if you choose that option on Android).

It’s a subscription story that releases a new section each week. There are between 2 and 7 strands happening at any one time, with both delayed and instant branching.

Some of you are already subscribed to the award-winning “Choices: And the Sun Went Out” (I’m a co-writer there). In that case, you’re already subscribed to “Choices: And Their Souls Were Eaten”. (Congratulations!)

The original story, the near-future scifi game “Choices: And The Sun Went Out” will end in December this year. The second story, “Choices: And Their Souls Were Eaten” will be “medium-length”. Ultimately it’ll work out to be around half a million words.

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On Apple, a subscription to either story gets you a subscription to both.

You can choose to have certain character/s speak to you through your apple watch, if you have one. (That, the music, and the sound effects can all be switched on or off – I like the music off but the sound effects on.)

On Android, you can buy (or earn by watching a LOT of ads) Story Passes, which can be spent on either story.

“Choices: And Their Souls Were Eaten” is my project from the start; a steampunk adventure set in 1830s Europe when Queen Victoria was a teen princess and strange monsters roamed Europe. It uses the same magical steampunk universe as my novel “Heart of Brass2” and the ChoiceScript game “Attack of the Clockwork Army” but there aren’t any spoilers.

One of the features of the subscription system is that the writers (I have paid editors who happen to be excellent writers as well, and I encourage them to add cool bits) can adjust the story based on suggestions from readers. I’ve been known to add pirates, name characters after fans, and so on—all based on what people seem to like.

Place your random requests here, if you like!

Dancing, Duelling, Delicious: The official book launch for HEART OF BRASS

You know what’s cool? Nurofen tablets are sugar coated.

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HEART OF BRASS had her official Book Launch yesterday as part of the inaugural Canberra Writers Festival, an absolutely huge event. I was written about (with a cover image) in Canberra Weekly magazine (96,000 readers!) and in the Canberra Times, as well as various other places.

The launch took place in the National Library of Australia (pictured behind the kids and I), in the Ferguson Room. The Ferguson Room overlooks the foyer of the National Library, which gives it a grand air and means one can watch guests coming in. That was particularly fun for me, since I’d encouraged steampunk/historical garb and was well rewarded for my efforts. My kids loved it too. Louisette got to talk into the microphone before anyone else showed up, and she imitated my own test speech by saying, “I wrote a book”—which in her case is quite true (if you haven’t read “The Adventures of Pirate Captain Louisette”, just scroll down a couple of entries).

 

I’m usually a very confident public speaker, but I was intensely nervous (enough to have patches of time when I was breathing funny) before this event, even though I was rationally confident it would go well.

The best and most important thing is people.

I was very lucky in that regard. The Ferguson Room is meant to seat forty people, which is rather a lot for a debut author—but within a day of setting up the facebook page (and SMSing and emailing various people to invite them personally), I knew I had at least twenty people. The phrase “book launch” is haunted by the horrifying spectre of a desperately awkward room of four people sitting in a sea of chairs and wishing fervently that they were elsewhere (none more miserably than the author). By the time the big day rolled around I was slightly nervous that the room would be unpleasantly crowded or that we’d run out of books for people to buy (what wonderful issues to have!) I estimated 50-60 guests beforehand, and I was exactly on the money. Someone had added a few more chairs to the room, which was useful. We sold a very healthy number of books without selling out altogether (my publisher and I both had extra stashes of books just in case). I would have liked to sell more, but this means that the National Library bookshop still has copies on the shelf (excellent promotion in itself).

50-60 people is a lot. That’s a larger number than any event I’ve hosted before (with the exception of my wedding), and it was in a location I didn’t know well.

I get panicky in new places. The National Library as a whole is somewhere I’ve been to many times, and I visited the room before the launch to get a sense of the space, but the technical equipment was new on the day. It all worked well (strange but true), including the book trailer and the dancing music. I really enjoyed the location and I wish I could start over so I could have that confidence from the beginning. Bring on Book 2!

Robbie Matthews is a friend, a writer, and a generally charming and funny person who’s well known to the Canberra writing community. He was MC at my wedding, and I was very pleased with myself for thinking of him again for the launch (especially as it prevented me from haranguing other authors who I don’t know as well).

At my wedding reception one of the tables was “the minion table”—full of people who’d helped decorate, give lifts, take photos, etc. As MC Robbie was on that table and he made friends. Then he made a highly memorable speech about the wide range of colourful threats I’d made to all my sweet innocent minions in order to let them know what would happen if they didn’t do their assigned jobs. I vividly recollect how impressed I was at the time that I’d subconsciously tailored original threats to each person.

As the book launch drew closer I wondered what Robbie would say about me, since I hadn’t threatened anybody this time. He got up and explained how we’d met: We did Live Action Role Playing (LARPing is like a play where all the players have a general character and plot outline and then improvise to amuse one another), and I was his fictional daughter. “By the end,” Robbie explained, “she was wearing my spine as a necklace.”

Oh yeah… I’d forgotten about that. (To be fair, my character was under a lot of stress at the time.) One may draw one’s own conclusions about my general mental health…

A lot of book launches are introduced by the writer’s publisher. It’s a very neat way to do things, but I always felt it was a bit sad since the author and publisher are the people who are the most desperate to sell the book. Having Robbie meant that we had a disinterested party recommending the book (which he read before the launch). That made me feel much less like a grasping novice.

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I realised belatedly that the reason I was so nervous was that I was, in the most literal sense of the phrase, “selling something” (and to an audience that was trapped for the duration, too). It’s impossible for a writer to truly know if a book is good or not (although being published certainly helps) and that’s why I always find book launch speeches so horrifying. I acquitted myself well enough, I think.

I’d described the launch to Louisette in advance, and she said she wanted to help with my speech, so when I got up I summoned her as well. She is an adorable child and was adorably serious about the entire process—but she stood bravely (by herself, because I needed to stay near the podium microphone). She was very pleased afterwards with her own courage. Hopefully this will lead her to be a confident public speaker, rather than turn her into a full-time writer (creative jobs have a high personal cost that I wouldn’t wish on anyone).

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Clothing is tricky while I’m still waiting for my stomach muscles to be put back together (not helped by weird sensory overstimulation stuff that tends to give me panic attacks if I wear new clothes), but I’d had an idea (on Friday) to adjust a favourite skirt, and that very much improved things for me.

My other main panic was that I’d simply forget to bring something essential. I started putting things in the car last Thursday, and although there were certain things I meant to do and didn’t, all the important pieces (such as a copy of the book to give away to the best costume, and having my kindle prepped on the podium for my reading) were in place.

This was all very much complicated by the fact that I’d gotten overenthusiastic and decided to write and run a Live Action Role Play game inside Questacon after the launch. But that’ll need its own entry 🙂

The tea duelling and catering was complicated by the fact that no outside food was allowed, and no food was allowed in the room. That meant paying a huge sum to the cafe (which reserved tables for us and did a great job from beginning to end) and having biscuits that were fresh and delicious but not the right kind for duelling. Although the cafe staff were excellent and the location classy, the lack of ability to bring in a pack of plain dry biscuits was annoying. Still, it was entertaining and it looks great in pictures (useful for media coverage, which is useful for selling books, which is the point). And even though we under-catered, most people were so distracted by the duelling that they didn’t eat or drink at all.

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The waltzing was a huge highlight. I had one couple primed to lead the way, and Louisette is an enthusiastic amateur. I figured I’d waltz with Louisette while my dancers hopefully lured a couple or two to join them over the course of the piece.

Actually, I danced with Chris the second the music started, and several other couples willingly took to the floor in an instant. The space was perfect (everyone moved the chairs back); roomy enough to dance without feeling either crowded or lonely.

It’s been a long time since Chris and I waltzed, and it was a lovely moment for both of us. I found out later that one of the other people dancing was stepping out (invited by a nearby acquaintance because Canberra is like that) for the first time since major surgery, and it made her realise she might be healthy enough to dance regularly again soon.

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Adrenalin does wonders in carrying my wreck of a body through things (in fact that’s probably part of why I do things like this—for a while, I feel normal). My muscles were freaking out last night as the adrenalin wore off, and today I’m weirdly sore in a dozen places (hence the nurofen). Luckily I’m not involved in the rest of the Canberra Writers Festival so I don’t need to do anything more strenuous than writing and napping for the rest of the day.

I still can’t quite believe how many people came.

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The launch was as close to perfect as it could be. The festival, venue, and volunteers were all top notch. Ultimately I wouldn’t change a thing.

Tick, Tick

I’m counting the hours until the launch, and desperately hoping I sleep through most of them.

It’s been a crazy few weeks (not even a month!) since HEART OF BRASS was released.

There are hundreds of moving parts to the launch, each with their own unique quirks, and my publisher and I and the Canberra Writers Festival organisers have been sorting out an array of minor complications (no food allowed in the room; multimedia backup systems; dancers and duellers and minions galore) and right now I’m walking through the day mentally, checking everything’s in order (it is).

The average number of people at a book signing is 4. Fortunately I’ve been connecting with readers and writers and generally cool people for many many years, and I also have great support both personally and professionally. This has led to an enviable problem: My room isn’t big enough.

The launch begins in the Ferguson Room at the National Library of Australia, which seats 40 people. I have significantly more RSVPs than that, and that doesn’t account for the people that don’t know me well enough to RSVP but are still coming. Then there’s the swirling maelstrom of Canberra Writers Festival advertising that’ll bring in even more people.

Speaking of publicity, Canberra Weekly is the biggest magazine in Canberra, and they featured my book cover in an article (including quotes from me!) on page 60 of the August 25 issue. That was yesterday.

Today two different friends took pictures of my book “in the wild” – that is, in a bookshop. Specifically, the National Library Bookshop, which is stocking books for the launch. Dymocks Belconnen also has copies.

So this is what it’s like to be a debut author. Between panic attacks, it feels pretty good.