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:


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 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?)



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). 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:


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.

Mummy (and Daddy) blogs

Last week, Mediawatch* talked about “mummy bloggers” – women who’ve had children and blog about it. Technically I am one. Unsurprisingly, as I cut down on writing and spend way more time with bodily fluids, my list of blogs that I read is switching from predominantly literary blogs to predominantly parenting blogs. Here are four that I like so far:


blue milk – very much a feminist blog; often M rated for that reason. Australian. It really makes me think about the choices I’m making in my marriage and motherhood.

crappy parenting – illustrated by self-described crappy pictures – all about the hilarious (and often highly disgusting).

How to be a dad – written by two dads (from different families). You know their attitude when you see the blood spatter on the front page. They do mention sex occasionally.

Daddy Doin’ Work – This blog oozes with respect for women.




*This is a fifteen-minute show on the ABC that basically comments on ethical (and often grammatical) issues in Australia’s press.

Less and More

From next week, I’ll be reducing this blog to two days a week – Miscellaneous Mondays (anything from a rant on equal rights to a picture of a cat) and Louisette Wednesdays. I’m hoping this will result in an increase in quality. Either way, I’ve been blogging faithfully for many years as I wait for a book deal to come my way – knowing all the while that it could happen at any moment.

But it hasn’t, so far, and I finally have something better (hint: see Wednesdays) to do. Literally for the first time in my life. So I’m powering down the writing obsession, and delightedly replacing it with the (far healthier and more rewarding) obsession of looking after a little person (that I MADE) – combined with the heady excitement of actually having paid, moderately reliable work. It is the simplest thing in the world to power back up my writing career at a moment’s notice – right now, my best shot is the steampunk novel, which is currently sitting on the desks of three large Australian publishers, all of whom are reading it in full already. 

As I power down, the famous slushwrangler “The Intern” has a real actual book coming out. Her blog is now “Real Actual Hilary” and it’s better than ever. In this entry, she writes about the final edit of her precious book. I definitely understand the obsessive joy of writing. And the pain of it, too.

“In my determination to put everything I had into this last chance, I lost my sense of taste and smell. If you asked me which clothes I was wearing, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. If you asked me which plants had blossomed by the back door I barged in and out of several times a day, I wouldn’t have been able to guess. My body hurt, and by the eighth or ninth day a profound exhaustion made it harder to work for longer than an hour at a time, although I was wary of straying more than a few feet from the stack of paper on my desk.”



The long, long road

I know better than most how long it takes for publishers to make a decision on a book that is reasonably well-written and therefore difficult to reject. Right now I have books at two of Australia’s big publishers. One has been there for almost a year; the other has been there for literally years. Even when a book is accepted for publication, there is a lot of editing, proofing, and maybe even illustrating to do.

This is an article about how long it takes to go from acceptance to publication.


Don’t be an idiot (warning: some swearing)

The real title here is: Don’t be a shit.

If you want to be a professional writer, be polite. No matter what. This article by Chuck Wendig (who has a potty mouth with occasional vivid sexual references – but he sure is worth listening to) is worth reading and obeying.

Here’s a bit:

Editors and agents have it tough. They get a lot of shit for being gatekeepers, but here’s what happens at the gate: they stand there, arms and mouths open while a garbage truck backs up (beep beep beep) and unloads a mountain of submissions upon them daily. And, spoiler warning, ninety percent of those submissions won’t cut it. Hell, a not unreasonable percentage are toxic enough that I’m surprised Homeland Security doesn’t show up with hazmat suits and flamethrowers. So, when you annoy them with constant emails, unedited manuscripts, work that’s already been self-published or with crazily presumptive tweets, well, it just puts them one step closer to a water tower with a rifle. I’m not saying every editor and agent is a shining example, but they don’t deserve you acting like a grit of sand in the elastic of one’s underoos.


Read the rest.


Ebooks are a huge deal, it’s true, but in my opinion the appeal of the “Hah! Take THAT, traditional publishing!” story leads to misinformation and exaggeration. Here’s a collection of articles on ebooks. – ebook reality vs hype AND AND AND (which I think is an example of some of the extremely rare people who are doing ok – while still not as good as print publishing)

As you may have noticed (but I clearly did not), yesterday was Friday. I’d post your weekly book review, but I plan to write up “Red Dirt Diary 2: Blue About Love”, and that’s not going to happen for a few days yet. I’m basically better now, but still sleeping a lot and moving very little.

The Imaginary Self

Here‘s an article by John Scalzi about the odd experience of being famous. Any published writer is, a little bit, public property (ditto any parent of a baby).

“I think she’s essentially correct when she notes that the fictional version people have of you in their heads in more about them than it is about you; everything gets filtered through their brain and how people fill in the blanks is by sticking in bits based on their own experiences, sometimes from others but mostly from themselves.”




I’m toying with the idea of self-publishing one of my books online, and I’d welcome your thoughts. It needs to be one that is good, but has been rejected by at least six publishers (sadly, that still gives me a choice of book). Realistically, self-publishing is just a new kind of slushpile, with an even smaller statistical chance of success. Still, I may as well try something new – it’s not like I don’t have an online presence!

This is why it will cost readers more than ninety-nine cents.


Are you almost there?

A lot of writers laugh indulgently at the pile of rambling grammatical errors that is their first book, and try hard not to think too hard about whether or not their current work in progress will be just as eye-rollingly embarrassing a little while down the track. For those who’ve been around the traps for a while, here is an article on some signs that actually you HAVE made progress. The Intern (who knows her stuff) reckons these are strong indicators that you’re close to success (“close” being a somewhat relative term). Here’s one I think is particularly pertinent (given my plaintive cries to the world of, “If you don’t enjoy writing, DON’T WRITE”):

4. They value improvement for its own sake.
The soon-to-be-agented writers get just as excited about the prospect of finally nailing that subplot/scene/ending/character as they are about the possibility of getting an agent and book deal. The manuscript isn’t a means to an end (“get me an agent and a book deal and faaaame!”) but a thing worth perfecting in itself, because it is right and proper to do your craft well.
Love for the craft is a strong indicator of future success because it means that the writer in question is more likely to carry on in the face of the inevitable stumbles and disappointments—to hang in there long enough to get to the “agented” stage.
Read the rest here. Number five is particularly good.

That First Chapter

 Chuck Wendig at his blog says:

. . . the first chapter serves as an emblem of the whole. It’s got to have a bit of everything. It needs to be representative of the story you’re telling — other chapters deeper in the fat layers and muscle tissue of the story may stray from this, but the first chapter can’t. It’s got to have all the key stuff: the main character, the motive, the conflict, the mood, the theme, the setting, the timeframe, mystery, movement, dialogue, pie. That’s why it’s so important — and so difficult — to get right. Because the first chapter, like the last chapter, must have it all.


I read the above just after writing this myself:

The best opening gives you an immediate and normal-life-of-your-protagonist goal that showcases the active agency of the protagonist, something of their character, something interesting (hopefully) about their normal life (eg the minor incident is harnessing a dragon). . . while simultaneously being so simple that no exposition is needed to follow what is happening. Oh, and something goes wrong in the minor incident that will lead you into the major goal of the book.

This is, of course, why novelists go mad.

Small Press: Hero or Villain?

I’m linking you to Lynn Price at The Behler Blog yet again, because she just keeps making so much sense. This time she discusses how, in the migration of definitions, you can figure out whether your “publisher” deserves the quote marks or not.

This section alone is why the world needs more blogs like this one:

Instead of guessing and pondering with a friend who isn’t well-versed in publishing, you should be asking your prospective publisher who distributes their books. If they say IPG, Perseus, Consortium, NBN, IPS, then you know they are working on all cylinders because they have to have a certain amount of $$ coming in to even qualify. They are a proven quantity.

If they say Ingram and Baker and Taylor, then they do NOT have distribution. These entities are fulfillment warehouses. They don’t have sales teams out there pitching their catalog to buyers.

Cook your novel

This is one of my favourite blogs, and it’s Australian. This post on how many points a fiction submission gets – or loses – made me laugh several times, but sadly every single point made in the article needs to be said. But most of all, dear reader, pay attention to Agent Sydney’s final plea to make sure your novel is fully baked before it gets sent.

Here’s how it goes:

1. Write novel. Edit if you must.

2. Wait several weeks/months.

3. Edit. Edit again.

4. Use beta readers – and not your mum, spouse (unless they actually criticize you, and do it well), or best friend – and edit again.

5. Send.




When they come to you, ask yourself why

PS This is several hours early because CJ and Louisette and I will be travelling to Hong Kong tomorrow, and our housesitters have enough menial tasks to do without posting my blog for me.


Here is an article from an extremely helpful website, Writer Beware. It’s solid advice, because it is all too easy for us wannabes to fall for scams.

“I don’t often write posts like this, because it’s really like shooting fish in a barrel. And there are so many red flags here that savvy writers may wonder why I bother. But there are a lot of new writers searching for agents, many of whom are probably new to Writer Beware, and may not yet be clear on what to watch out for. I also think it’s important, every now and then, to emphasize the basics of author self-protection–because as cataclysmically as the publishing landscape is changing, the basic warning signs remain the same.”

Too funny

This article by the foul-mouthed Chuck Wendig isn’t so much writing advice as an example of what awesome writing looks like. Ah, who am I kidding? I’m linking to it because it’s about a baby and it’s utterly hilarious. The man has quite a gift for the original metaphor.

This is a fairly polite entry, but there is still some swearing.

Chuck Wendig on his son’s eating habits:

“He’s like a wood-chipper.

It’s as if his stomach is a molten core, and any food poured into that fiery space is burned away to meager char and ash the moment it touches the walls of his gastrointestinal furnace. You know how some adult human beings can subsist on, say, a small yogurt and a banana for breakfast? Our nine-month son can eat more than that. Just yesterday we had to feed him four meals. You get through one container of pureed food and Baby Jabba over there is suddenly all BOSHUUDA NAY WANNA WONGA BLUEBERRY YOGURT which means it’s time to go seeking a new food source before he starts eating his high-chair.

And you think I’m kidding. He gnaws on his high-chair like a starving badger.”


Pictured: not a starving badger.

Crappy First Drafts

Speaking as someone who once wrote a 50,000 first draft in three days, I’m a big fan of the “just get it on paper and fix it later” strategy of writing. So is Lynn Price, as she writes here. When my students have to write a short story for school, I’m constantly telling them, “Stop thinking and write.”

Lynn says: “When I’m doing a first draft, I don’t worry about pacing and flow because I know I’ll hit that up once I have a solid foundation in which to build upon. For now, I simply need to barf it out there.”


Hook and Line

It says plenty that I’m still following this blog. Here is a great article on hook and title. She says that your hook is the answer to the question, “What makes your book viable and unique?” And remember that controversial is good.

If you’re like me, your hook is what makes your book interesting to YOU. Remember that first moment of joyful inspiration, when you thought you’d never thought of anything so brilliant – and make sure that flash of genius came through in the finished novel.

Titles these days are short, but they tell the reader plenty. You want to convey genre and style – fast. So do spend those hours brainstorming until you find something that works – and then accept that the publisher may change it. That’s life.

Random cat pic (and yes it’s mostly baby. Sue me):

A time to write

Every so often I meet a moron. Here’s how it goes:

Them: You’re a writer? me too!

Me: Oh, what do you write?

Them: Oh, anything really.

Me: What are you working on at the moment?

Them: Wellllll. . . . at the moment I’m studying/working/waiting for inspiration.

To which I say (silently): Bah!

And I’m not the only one.

If you don’t WANT to write – don’t. If you don’t have the time to write – don’t. Live a happy and productive life. Just don’t pretend you and I have a major life purpose in common.

Writers write. Mostly because they can’t help it.

Right now, for example, I should be feeding my infant. Excuse me.

The Steampunk Scholar

The Steampunk Scholar is a brilliant in-depth resource on all things steampunk fiction. He’s doing a PhD, so the “scholar” part is not just for the alliteration.


This is his post on the best of 2011, and this is the best part (I’ve unlinked things, so you’ll have to click through to the post to know what he’s referring to):

  • Steampunk! – Candlewick anthology edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant – check out my review at Tor.comto see why.
  • Heartless by Gail Carriger – I’ll be writing a series of posts leading up to the release of Timeless, the final book in the Parasol Protectorate series. In the meantime, I’ll simply say that anyone who has naysayed Carriger’s inclusion in the steampunk fold due to a lack of technofantasy should be reviewing their crow recipes. This is the best book of the series since Soulless, and was a delight to read.
  • Curious Case of the Clockwork Man by Mark Hodder – read my reviewto find out why Hodder is one of the strongest voices in second wave steampunk fiction.
  • Goliath by Scott Westerfeld – check out my retrospective on the Leviathan trilogyfor why this was such a satisfying ending to one of the best steampunk series, and why it shouldn’t be dismissed simply for being YA.
  • Empire of Ruins by Arthur Slade – another YA novel you shouldn’t be avoiding, and the reasons why.


I am a huge fan of Gail Carringer, Scott Westerfeld, and anyone who can see YA as a genre worthy of adult reading. As soon as I’ve posted this, I’ll be ordering every other book on this list from my local library. If they’re there, I’ll read and review them for you.

All about agents (PG swearing)

I had to link to this article, because one of the blogs I follow was  recommended by another blog I follow. Chuck Wendig is a naughty, naughty man and his language and metaphors can be M/MA at times. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. The man has a wicked way with words.

Here’s some snippets from a doubly-great article:

Agents have seen it all. They are the first line of defense in the war against Bad Books and Shitty Storytelling. It’s a wonder that some of them don’t just snap and try to take out half of New York City with a dirty bomb made of radioactive stink-fist query letters and cat turd manuscripts.

. . .

It’s easy to imagine agents as iron-hearted gatekeepers guarding the gates of Publishing Eden with their swords of fire: marketing angels serving the God of the Almighty Dollar. Most of the agents I know and have met are readers first. They do this because they love this, not because it pays them in private jets and jacuzzis filled with 40-year-Macallan Scotch. They like to read. They love books. Which is awesome.

And here’s your weekly cat pic: