I’ve Published a Thing. Or Two.

When I started this blog, part of the purpose was to keep a record of what I was doing writing-wise, both for myself and for anyone else at a similar (beginner) stage with their writing. So there have been posts about redrafting, sending manuscripts to literary agents and, swiftly afterwards, rejection. What there haven’t been many of is posts about successes, or getting something published. So I’m slightly baffled as to why I’ve published two things in quick succession recently and not mentioned them here.

Whoops.

Longtime readers will know that I’ve been working on three or four different novels over the last few years. A couple of years ago I posted about trying to write a game (I play more games than I read novels at the mo, so it seemed sensible). Unsurprisingly that involved learning a lot of new skills as I was trying to do it all myself, including art, animation and sound. After playing around with it for a while, I realised any finished piece wasn’t actually going to show off anything good writing-wise. Because I was struggling so much with all the other bits, the actual writing itself was almost an afterthought (which is something that could be extrapolated out to a sizeable percentage of actual games, now that I think about it). I was aware of software like Twine that can be used to make primarily text-based games (or Interactive Fiction depending on who you ask), but after a few cursory experiments I got distracted by novels again.

This summer however, at a bit of a crossroads with my various projects, I went on a week-long Twine summer school at the British Library and it’s kickstarted a few new ideas. I went to the course knowing what story I wanted to work on – it’s a horror story about people living in a squat and an ancient evil under the streets of London. I’ve been wondering what to do with it for a couple of years and couldn’t quite decide if it was a novel, a script or what. So taking it into a different medium seemed like a good way to actually get somewhere with it. Halfway through the course I realised that it was too big a project to actually utilise some of the techniques we were learning in the given time, so I swapped to something a bit lighter. And a few weeks after the course finished I published my first game.

Understudied places you as the understudy in a rock musical version of Macbeth. It’s three hours until press night and the star is ill. You must step up to the role having not rehearsed, and try to muddle you way through with generally pretty disastrous results… It takes about 15 minutes to play and is available here.

Now, that was pretty pleasing. I’ve been working on novels for a fair few years now, and not had a single thing published. While I’m not snooty about self-publishing, it’s not something I’ve wanted to pursue myself just yet. But with the Twine projects it feels a lot more free to finish (and test) it, then hit publish. And then it’s out there and, hopefully, able to be enjoyed.

But the title says I’ve published two things. Because with unerring timing I published Understudied a day before I looked up IFcomp, an annual interactive fiction competition. And one of the rules of IFcomp is that the entry can’t have been published previously. I love a deadline though, so with only six weeks to go before entries had to be in I decided to make my second game. Ostrich is altogether a less upbeat affair than Understudied. You start out as an advertising compliance officer for the government. But after a populist party rises to power the advertising rules start to tighten up, and then it’s not just adverts that you have to amend… And in the background you can choose how to spend your evening, get a sense of what’s happening in the country and, most importantly, decide how you will get through it all. Do you have a line in the sand, or is your head buried in it (ooh, that’s a better tagline than I’ve had for it so far)? That, along with more than 70 other entries, is available here. Judging is open to anyone who plays at least five games, and there’s some great stuff in there.

So there we go. It feels very strange to have two bits of creative writing finally published and able to pointed at. So strange that I have neglected pointing at them!

You may also remember me posting about a short film that I wrote and starred in. Well my partners in crime/doofusing have finished up the edit and it is 100% complete. I can’t share it yet as I’m planning on entering it into a few film festivals (like IFcomp, most festivals frown upon a film being available to the general public pre-festival). I imagine it will be the talk of Cannes soon enough. It’s silly and fun, and hopefully another thing that I can point to as an example of my writing.

This year feels like a few things have really come together and projects have gone from being things that I work on indefinitely with nothing tangible to show, to being out there and available and, of course, utterly nerve-wracking. But that’s part of the fun I guess.

What next? Well there’s still that horror game I want to write, and I’m thinking of using the structure of Understudied as a shortcut to making some more games. And now I’ve self-published games, I might take another look at one of my novels and see if that’s something I’d want to self-publish too.

If you have some spare time and haven’t tried Understudied or Ostrich yet, I’d love to know what you think.

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Just Fucking Doing It – An Update

Covering clothes in blood for a short film

Back in January I posted about my own writing for the first time in a while. One of the things I mentioned was a short film I had written, and I hoped to have some sort of update by the end of the Easter holidays. Well schools went back today (I can tell because my commute took twenty minutes longer than last week) and I suppose I’d better come clean about how little I’ve achieved…

Psych!

For once in my life I have actually knuckled down and got on with something properly – largely thanks to the director/co-star helping keep things ticking along. What that means is that on Saturday the two of us plus camera and sound chaps popped round to a friend’s house and spent the sunniest day of the year cooped up in a kitchen making a film. Oh, there was a little time in the sunshine covering clothes in fake blood.

Through a combination of ambition and laziness we were aiming to make the whole film (about 9 mins) one single take. Ambition because it was my first script, Kellie’s first time in the director’s chair, and I for one haven’t done any acting in seven years. Laziness because neither of us know that much about editing, so it should make that a lot easier.

I’ve been on set for short films before, but purely as an actor. It was a very different experience this time – as writer and, I guess, co-producer as well as actor (not to mention joint costume, prop, hair supervisor) it felt much more stressful. Fortunately Kel and I had rehearsed a fair bit over the previous few weeks as acting became about the last thing on my mind while sorting out all the logistics and keeping one eye the time.

Anyway, with some great assistance on the technical side we’ve managed to get something in the can. However it turns out I’m pretty pleased to have actually done something.

And that begs the question why was I doing it? If I’m honest I’d quite forgotten while I’ve been rehearsing. Partially it was an excuse to work with Kellie – she’s always been top of the long list of actors I worked with that I really wanted to do something with again. And with her leaving the country for good later this year (boo) there was a deadline (yay). Also, I’d had a ‘what if’ setup going round in my head for a while that I wanted to do something with, but it didn’t feel like a novel. I have finally remembered the other reason…

I want something I can point to for evidence of my writing. I’ve got novels at various stages, but none published, a couple of sketches that were used by Newsrevue a while back, but nothing tangible that I can direct people towards.

Some time ago I mentioned that I was trying to write a game both for my own edification and as a means of approaching the games industry with something tangible. I got a little bogged down in the technical side of things and realised that the writing in the game was suffering because of my lack of technical expertise. Since then I’ve also read that having theatre or film scripting experience can prove useful. So bam, one film I’ll be able to link to when it’s finalised. Hopefully.

I’ve also just booked on to a week long interactive fiction class at the British Library over the summer. By the time summer is over I should have a film and a couple of Twine projects to shout about.

And the novels? I had said that I intended to get a redraft of one and the synopsis of another completed by the end of April, with a view to sending both off for a professional critique. I’m just about on target at the moment, over three quarters of the way through the redraft and with a little more brain space now the filming is done.

So. Just fucking doing it is just fucking doing it for me at the moment. Maybe I should have been just fucking doing it all along.

Finding an Ancient Manuscript

This week I’ve come to understand how all those Victorian explorers must have felt plundering Egyptian tombs and ancient temples. And not because I’ve started taking laudanum.

I posted recently about just fucking doing it, and in that spirit I dove back into planning a novel that I was working up a year or two ago. But at the same time I remembered that I had a whole manuscript sitting in a box that, upon completion, I’d never read. And so I read it.

And so I read it.

When I first started trying to write a novel I entered NaNoWriMo 2009 and ended up with my first ever beginning-middle-end longform story. It was called Hello Summertime and stretched to about 50,000 words (on the short side for something that might actually get published). And it was, of course, a right old mess. At that point I was a dedicated pantser, someone who thought planning a novel would kill the fun of writing. These days I’m quite the opposite because frankly, the plot was godawful.

Anyway, I wrote a few other short bits and bobs, and the first drafts of a couple of other novels. Along the way I did more research about how to plan a novel, plot structure and all that good stuff. So when I was letting a draft of a different novel sit, I started planning and then comprehensively rewrote the whole of Hello Summertime from scratch. The (sort of) second draft was 95,000 words. And then I put it to one side. That was in 2013 or thereabouts.

I’ve just finished rereading the manuscript and that’s where the explorer analogy comes in. Some of it I remember, some not at all. It’s like delving through the mind of me from 5 years ago and looking at what was occupying my thoughts, what themes were on my mind…. and what words I was overusing (anything involving walking/moving/stepping/heading and looking/staring/gazing fyi).

There’s a lot in there that’s reminiscent of themes in other stuff I’m working on. I once heard an interview with Emma Thompson about her dad, the Magic Roundabout creator. In it she said that people often write where they need healing, which is something I think about a lot. Is that why Stephen King often has alcoholic father figures in his books? I’m pretty sure that’s why my themes go the way they do (which I may talk about in a different post, but I’m not drunk enough today).

Anyway, like those Victorian explorers (or Indiana Jones, just to mix it up a bit) I must now decide whether the manuscript belongs in a museum, or whether I should try and flog it to the highest bidder. And it’s tricky. The novel is in rough shape in places, but seems pretty fixable. The language is very basic and full of repetition, but polishing the language is a job for further down the line. It’s the flow of the plot and characterisation that is more pressing.

As an aside, one of the reasons I let it sit originally is that it’s on a topic that was suddenly pretty overwhelmed a few years ago. The first draft was about a zombie apocalypse, though in the rewrite I got rid of the zombies. My heart wasn’t in it, so to speak. I was (and am) more interested in the emptiness of the world after a plague or similar rather than the shambling hordes. And it’s always people who are the real baddies in zombie stuff anyway.

But do you know what else is interesting? The new novel I’m planning full of ghosts and psychedelic cults. So I’ve come up with what I think is an alright plan… I’m going to spend the next couple of months doing a mild redraft of Hello Summertime to fix some of the glaringly obvious stuff. I’ve put together a bit of a writing schedule for myself as well as a deadline, as otherwise nothing will happen. I’m also going to dedicate a few spots of writing time to working up a one page synopsis of my new project. Then I’m going to send both off for a pro critique, see what the feedback and let that help me decide where to spend my time.

So I’ve come up with what I think is an alright plan… I’m going to spend the next couple of months doing a mild redraft of Hello Summertime to fix some of the glaringly obvious stuff. I’ve put together a bit of a writing schedule for myself as well as a deadline, as otherwise nothing will happen. I’m also going to dedicate a few spots of writing time to working up a one page synopsis of my new project. Then I’m going to send both off for a pro critique, see what the feedback and let that help me decide where to spend my time.

I want to be done with the redraft by the end of April at the latest, so hopefully I’ll have a better idea of how I want to spend the rest of my writing year in May.

The only fly in the ointment is that I’ve had an idea for turning the first part of Hello Summertime into a one man stage show and am Quite Excited about it. But that can wait until May, right?

Writing About Writing (For Once)

One of the original purposes of this blog was to document any successes or pitfalls I had as I tried to get a novel published. You might have spotted that more recently it’s been a lot of film review stuff (though I like to think the Chain Reaction Film Club posts end up saying more about me than the films themselves) and some noodling about video games. That’s because I’ve fallen into the deadliest pitfall of all – not actually doing any writing. Why haven’t I been writing? I dunno. A combination of factors from the risible to the more serious. Partly I blame Southern Rail.

I changed my commute about two years ago because Southern became too unreliable. I used to write on my way to and from work – somewhere between an hour and an hour and quarter of beautiful writing time. But that’s not possible on my new commute. Also, I shared a pro-critique of the novel I thought I’d finished a while back. And while it was positive in places, it also confirmed some things I feared about the manuscript. And I think it probably knocked me back a little further than I let on. Hey ho, that’s the creative life isn’t it.

And the novel I have been working on in the interim, the one about the teenage punk band and the devil, well… the second half is really not coming together for some reason. I’ve got what I think is a kick ass first half, somewhere around 60,000 words but… Well. I’ll work it out at some point.

But it’s a new year, and I’m pissed off with my lack of creativity. So instead of bang my head against The Judas Tattoo (or We Are The Scene or whatever I end up calling it) I’m turning my attention to one of the other books I’ve had in the back of my mind for a couple of years. I read though most of my notes today, a form of archaeology of the self, and got quite excited about it – there’s a more coherent plot than I remembered for a start.

When I started planning it the main character was intended to be a trans woman. Over the last few years since I started it’s become increasingly clear that there’s a bit of trans tokenism going on (I work in TV advertising, so I’ve seen the tokeniest, believe me). And while I do think my character was more than tokenly trans, I also don’t think I want to try and appropriate that experience out of something akin to pure curiosity (and empathy). So I decided today to have a cisgender female protagonist which will be a sort of first for me. Somewhere I’ve got a second draft of a zombie novel which is about 60% male POV, 40% female, but I haven’t read it since finishing a few years back.

It’s about ghosts, psychic terrorists, a kick-ass photographer of derelict spaces, judgement, death and guilt. And there’s stuff set in the 60s psychedelic revolution as well as present day. And some really creepy mummification. But the cutesy version is that it’s Chloe Price (from Life Is Strange) vs Edith Manning (from The Invisibles) vs John Dee (from beyond the grave). That’s all very exciting to me, and I may write more about it here as it develops. We’ll see.  It means I get to read lots of esoteric nonsense, which always makes me happy.

On a completely separate project, I may be doing a thing. I’ve written a short script for a two hander play or film, and the person I’m working on it with has very sensibly stuck a deadline on when we’re going to do something with it by. So hopefully by the end of the Easter hols I’ll have some news about a short film (that doesn’t involve ghosts, magick or other esoterica for once). Everything’s too scary until there’s a deadline, then you just have to work and fucking do it. So here’s hoping I just work and fucking do it.

@BornToPootle

 

There But For A Lack Of Ambition Go I

Punchdrunk are brilliant. I went to see their last London show a couple of times and was blown away (in different ways) each time. I’ve even compared their style of immersive theatre to what some videogames are getting up to.

Their latest show, which I haven’t been lucky enough to get tickets for, is on at the mo. In pairs people are led on a tour across London with a story and myth unfolding around them. It’s an alternate London, a psychogeographical twist. Apparently it takes in a major London landmark, and other lesser known spots. A handful of actors move things along, but half the game is not knowing who is an actor and who isn’t. In one review the critic spent a merry few minutes chasing after a random stranger and listening in in people’s conversations hoping for clues.

For halloween two years ago Lyd did something along these lines for me. We started in Highgate cemetery and went on a sort of choose-your-own-adventure across London. Instead of actors we used our imagination – at times purely imagining ghost figures in front of us, at other times picking members of the public to follow. We both agreed it was a fun idea and, given the number of actors we know (I trained and worked as an actor for a few years, Lyd started acting training but realised it wasn’t for her, and also worked in a drama school) discussed the idea of taking it a step further. Get a few mates involved, bring a few other friends along as punters and see how it goes, maybe then get some actual paying customers to come along.

But we didn’t do anything about it. Last halloween there were quite a few events on that, for once, we spotted in time to book for them. So although the idea crossed our minds again we didn’t do anything about it. 

This year it was my turn to lead Lyd on a trip through an alternate London. I recruited a couple of friends to handwrite some notes for Lyd to find, but that’s as far as the extrapolation has gone. It was just the two of us, dashing between events and landmarks that I had tied together in an occult conspiracy. We started at a mummy unwrapping at the National Archives, looked for clues at tombs in Westminster Abbey and St. Pauls, chased a suspect actoss St James’ Park and ended up eating Elizabeth I’s mummified flesh in Kensal Green cemetery at the climax of a concert.

And I can’t help but think about the lack of ambition that means it’s still just the two of us taking part. Neither of us has much in the way of entrepreneurial drive – we’re both ideas people, and although we often follow those ideas to their immediate conclusions, that’s where we leave them. Scattered novels, workshopped play scripts, immersive tours, cabaret sets… 

A little splash of ambition and who knows. Oh well. One day. So many hurdles leapt, and so many more to go.

Still, I realised that NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow and using that as a bit of inspiration got back to a novel I’ve been wrestling with (without writing anything) for a year or so. Managed a 587 word lunch break, which is ok by me.

So.

Here we go again.

The Most Unsettling Thing I’ve Ever Read

I’ve lost a little bit of my writing mojo of late, probably for a few reasons – I’m working in two different jobs so it’s harder to get into a routine of writing; my commute has changed and is less conducive to writing; I’ve been learning Japanese which has taken up a part of my brain that I think writing used to take up… and there are probably more reasons besides. Anyway, to try and get back in the groove I bought a couple of books on esoteric subjects. Most of my stories revolve around magickal goings on in an otherwise ordinary setting, and there’s nothing like having a read of people actually doing (or thinking they’re doing) that stuff to help get inspired. But I discovered something really horrible.

Previous contenders for ickiest things I’ve read are probably sections of Timothy Taylor’s incredible The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death (well worth reading as long as you have a strong constitution) and, in fiction, Poppy Z Brite’s Exquisite Corpse (less worth reading). I used to keep a copy of the latter in my bag at school and try to get my friend Barry to read a section where a serial killer scoops out the lungs of a victim described in erotic detail.

For the new batch of books I went to Treadwell’s, an esoteric bookshop near the British Museum (so close to where John Dee’s scrying mirror, amongst other things, resides).  I came out with two slim volumes: a primer on chaos magic rituals, and a sort of autobiography of a ghost healer. It’s the latter that has caused me concern.

Autobiography isn’t quite accurate, it’s actually a series of short recountings of times the author investigated or healed ghosts. He was a man of the cloth, and his healings involve performing a Eucharist.

Some of the healings are on the vague side – in one case the author sits down in a cottage that keeps having its electrics turned off, and thinks with the homeowner about who might have lived there in the past. Maybe someone used to sit out the front (where the electrics are), and maybe they were an elderly woman and maybe people thought she was a witch. Just to be clear, this wasn’t researched, they just thought about it and extrapolated. And then performed a Eucharist for the imagined witch, and lo, all was resolved. Others are more detailed though and based on reportings of historic happenings.

And then I came to the anecdote in question. A military base. Some Satanic goings on. The chaplain had been arrested because two young girls had reported him for spanking them. What then follows is, in a nutshell, a confession from one of the girls that she was sexually abused by her father and the Chaplain. And the author smugly recounts how he was able to quash her story as a fabrication.

It’s told so briefly that there’s next to no reasoning given for the outcome. Simply that the second girl couldn’t corroborate her story. Given that the perpetrators would be likely to try and cover their tracks, that’s not the sturdiest reasoning. The anecdote ends by saying that the Chaplain in question was moved elsewhere 6 months later because of all the ‘tittle tattle’ about the case. Moved on, covered up, and free to continue.

And that’s it. There are no horrendous details of what went on. Just the impression that the author helped abuse continue. It’s really shaken me up. Perhaps at some point it’ll provide the basis of a villain in something I write, but to be honest I’d rather not have it in my brain at all.

The book is Healing the Haunted by Dr Kenneth McAll, and based on my experience with it I would strongly recommend not buying it.

 

Life Is Strange – The Secret To Its Success

life-is-strange

There are a huge number of things Life Is Strange does brilliantly (and perhaps a few that aren’t so great, shaka brah) but the more I think about it the more one thing stands out. No major plot spoilers ahead, but if you haven’t played it and want to go in fresh, maybe check back after you’ve finished.

So, what’s this amazing thing? No, not the tenderness with which it deals with a huge variety of sensitive topics. Not the casting of the player as the geeky girl rather than the geeky guy pursuing said geeky girl. Not even making the main character a photographer, mirroring the player’s sense of watching events unfold with varying degrees of powerlessness (incidentally, we’ll be talking about all this plus subtext, gender, sexuality and more on the next episode of The Conversation Tree Podcast).

Nope, the best thing about what is, with hindsight and distance, rapidly becoming my favourite game of all time, is the very central core mechanic. It’s Max’s time manipulation power.

Games are stuffed full of characters with superpowers. Look at Geralt and his ability to set things on fire, create magical traps and a shield. How about Commander Shepherd and his/her biotics? Corvo, The Inquisitor, Booker DeWitt’s fistful of crows… Even supposedly normal characters often have superhuman abilities – Nathan Drake can definitely absorb more bullets than the average chap, and shrug wounds off with astonishing ease.

No, a mild bit of time manipulation is not the most earth-shattering addition to gaming culture. Not in general terms at any rate. But who has gained this power? A socially awkward teenager. Which is perfect.

Who gives a monkeys that Booker DeWitt can summon a watery tentacle to fling foes off a flying city – sure it’s fun, but it’s rootless. It doesn’t mean anything. Max’s time travel means everything. It’s the one thing that a socially awkward teen might conceivably most want. Rewind that conversation and be less of a dork next time. Rewind that meeting and don’t trip on the way through the door. Just like the powers in The Incredibles (still the finest of superhero films) Max’s power is directly related to an aspect of her personality.

Not only that, but gaining the power is the inciting incident for the plot. Without that power the rest of the story couldn’t happen. It seems obvious, but happens surprisingly infrequently. Booker could still murder his way through Columbia without his vigors. Geralt might have a tougher time with  just a silver sword, but could give it a good go. The Inquisitor’s glowing hand may be more integral to Dragon Age Inquisition, but it ends up just one of a range of stupendous abilities.

So the power perfectly fits the character and is central to the narrative. Great! I’m sure there are other examples of this though. Life Is Strange’s power has another benefit though…

Ever since choice became a hot topic in games I have had a struggle with myself. I know in Mass Effect what Shepherd did and who he (yup, Shepherd is forever a dude to me) was. I started a replay at some point, and tried to make different choices but… that wasn’t Shepherd. But was there any point replaying if I just want to do everyhing the same way?

I’ve played The Walking Dead season one twice. Season two once (though I reloaded the ending). SPOILERS AHEAD. SKIP PARAGRAPH TO AVOID! I definitely want to replay both but… what’s cannon now? When the third one comes out, who is Clementine? Did she kill Jane? Is Kenny still out there? It’s muddled. I can’t separate out my ‘true’ playthrough from the one where I just wanted to see what the other options were.

Life is Strange gives the player the best of both worlds. Being able to rewind time means being able to make a different choice, to see how events might play out differently. And when you’ve tried all the options, seen what could be, you can make your choice. What would Max do given all the information? It’s not some weird omniscient player reloading to try a better option, it’s an integral part of the fiction. It’s the fabric of the story. There are of course unforeseen consequences. How some scenes play out will affect things much further on, so there is still an element of needing to replay to see everything. But that’s why I think it’s the best of both worlds. The player gets enough curiosity sated to not need to constantly reload and simultaneously there are enough palpable changes that you still wonder what-if. You can still see your impact on the lives of other characters.

Not only that, but this also enables better immersion in the game. Exhausting conversation trees in rpgs and talk-em-ups can sometimes feel very strange. Why does the other character suffer through your incessant questioning, particularly when you start looping back through questions to get to different sub-questions? In Life is Strange you can try out all the conversation options while still remaining in the fiction. Super-Max can simply rewind time and try something else.

Effectively this all comes down to obstacles. As a player, using the time power to try different options removes an obstacle to immersion and developing a fully rounded sense of character. As a character Max uses her power to overcome  her own personal obstacles. And not just the big plotty stuff. Max starts crippled by self doubt and shyness. By the end of the game she’s confident. She’s a badass. That’s how to weave game mechanics into a narrative and that’s one of many reasons Life is Strange may well be my favourite game.

@BornToPootle

@TheConvoTree

Conflict-averse protagonists

It’s been a little while since I wrote about my own writing – sadly that’s because I haven’t been doing a huge amount of it. I’ll get back in the saddle soon I’m sure.

One of the problems is that I’m a little stuck in all of my usual go-to projects, and I don’t want to start something new as I’ve got so many juicy (albeit stalled) things under way already.

I can’t remember what I last posted about my novel A Calling-on Song so I’ll do a quick catch-up: I had it all nice and finished, sent it off to agents with no luck; I paid for a professional critique from one of the market leaders in such things; feedback was very useful and identified a few things which I’d been sort-of aware of and hoped had been buried beneath awesomeness.

The main issue highlighted was my main character, Robin. He still came across as too passive or stand-off-ish. One of the things this meant was that it’s unbelievable that the people who tag along with him and lend assistance would actually bother. This stems from the very initial draft and, rather than pluck the problem out and solve it, I wrote around it. I came up with motivations and reasons to excuse it all that fitted neatly into the narrative. Four drafts on and it’s much more daunting to tackle!

In the mornings before work I watch 20 minutes of a TV show. Over the years its been everything from an episode of The Simpsons or Friends to a smidge of The Wire to a variety of costume dramas. Right now I’m part way through a rewatch of Pushing Daisies, half-episode at a time. If you haven’t seen it I can’t recommend it highly enough – it’s not a big commitment as there were only 2 relatively short series. Just like Firefly it left me wanting much more, and just like Firefly it’s excellent.

The general premise is that the MC, a piemaker by trade, has the power to bring anything back to life with a touch. A second touch will permanently kill what was brought back. If something or someone is brought back for more than 60 seconds then something else close by will die in its place. He uses the power to help a private detective solve murders (obviously). The whole tone borrows very heavily from Amelie and it’s a lovely, romantic, funny and touching confection.

Anyway, the reason I bring it up is that the MC is very risk-averse, both physically and emotionally. He is stand-off-ish and often reactive rather than proactive. He wants, by and large, a normal life and to be left alone. And it works very well. This desire for a smooth ride causes tension among the other characters and, due to his use of his power, leads to secrets and intrigue. The characters that surround him are all very proactive, from the private detective starting new cases to the MC’s brought-back-to-life childhood sweetheart who wants to make the most of her new lease of life.

I’ve tried for a similar set up – my MC keeps the causes of some of his strange behaviour to himself, hoping his life will return to normal. Around him friends and colleagues poke and prod and investigate and suppose as they try to help or further their own agendas (or both). 

So why isn’t it working for me? 

A couple of considerations: maybe the critiquer is ‘wrong’. This is a dangerous door to open – disregarding what someone thinks of my novel is not something I intend to do, particularly if they’re a professional in the field! And it’s something I was deep down aware of to boot!

Perhaps its down to likeability? Despite his stand-off-ishness The Piemaker is very likeable thanks to a combination of both the script and performance. I may need to work on my MC, as I don’t have a top actor to rely on…

Another consideration is that the viewer doesn’t solely follow the Piemaker in Pushing Daisies. My novel is 3rd person, but we only follow the MC. Is this too much of a halfway house? Maybe committing to 1st person or pulling the ‘camera’ back to follow other characters would bring the dynamic that I’m lacking.

The Piemaker is pulled into scrapes partially because of his work with the detective. And he is only useful to the detective because of his power. My MC doesn’t really have a power or useful quality that his friends are lacking. So maybe that’s a key. They should need him for something as much as he ends up needing them…

There’s always the possibilty that it doesn’t work in Pushing Daisies. I mean, I love it of course. But it was cancelled after 2 short seasons so can’t have been wildly popular at the time. Could it be that I have a predilection for these kinds of characters, but popular appeal isn’t there?

And one final thought – maybe these kinds of characters are better suited to a visual medium. Characters who are ‘numb’ generally work better in film than on the page. Perhaps it’s the same for the risk-averse.

If you’ve got any suggestions of books featuring stand-off-ish characters trying desperately to cling to a normal life do let me know.

@BornToPootle

A Sketch and A Podcast

I’ve got a couple of exciting developments to report, which makes a nice change!
It’s an oft-used mantra that creativity comes from adversity. I haven’t really noticed a direct correlation in that for myself, other than a bout of songwriting while I was deeply unhappy in my late teens/early twenties. However, that’s all changed!

Like many of my friends, I’ve been bemoaning the recent political developments in the UK. So much so, that I put pen to paper and wrote a few topical/political sketches and songs. After a couple of non-starters I sent some sketches over to NewsRevue.

If you’re unfamiliar with NewsRevue, it’s a theatrical topical sketch show at the Canal Café Theatre that has been running for two decades. Every couple of months the cast and director are refreshed, and sketches are chosen on a weekly basis, or more often depending on what’s going on in the news. I even had an unsuccessful audition for their cast many moons ago! If you’re London-based I’d recommend heading down, it’s always a fun evening.

Anyway, the first bit of good news I’ve got to report is that one of my sketches was used. So now I’m a performed comedy writer, which is pretty cool. Just one sketch for now, but it’s a nice boost in what’s been a relatively unsuccessful year writing-wise.

On to the second exciting thing – I’m co-hosting a new podcast. You’ve no doubt noticed that my most recent few posts have been about videogames. Well rather than hijack my blog to be primarily about games, I’ve set up The Conversation Tree Podcast with my partner in crime Lydia Palmese.

We’re both narrative junkies and will be focussing more on analysis than reviewing per se. We’re particularly interested in how games reflect society and vice versa and will be looking at mixture of old, new, and upcoming titles. Given that we’re avid cinema-goers we’ll also be tackling films in the same vein to a degree, and even some of the odd events we pootle to around London town.

You can find the first episode of the podcast here or over on iTunes. Over the coming weeks I’ll work on getting it up in a few more places besides. You can also follow @TheConvoTree on Twitter if you’re feeling sociable (as well as my @BornToPootle account if you haven’t already). New episodes will be up every fortnight and feedback is more than welcome. We’re both new to podcasting, so tips will be gratefully received.

How on earth do you write a game?

Notebook next to laptop, ready to write a game

If you read my last post you’ll know that I’m part way through making/writing/developing a game for the very first time – doing everything from the art to the coding to the VO myself. So just to manage any expectations: the title of this post is a genuine question. I don’t have the answer…

I’ve written for a fair few different media up to now; not with massive success, I’m the first to admit. I’ve got a completed novel that’s done the agent rounds (dig into the previous articles if you want to read up on that process), other novels at varying stages of completion, short stories, a couple of play scripts gestating, an experimental TV episode, even a few scenes for a rom-com film script. All of these share one key feature (other than lack of publication): they’re not interactive.

Even though writing for the stage is very different to writing a novel, there is that lack of interactivity tying them together. When a play is performed the actors and director will of course find different things in there, in just the same way that a novel will tickle people’s imaginations differently. They all begin, have a middle and have an end. The actions between the beginning and end are utterly predetermined.

There are exceptions – the Alan Ayckbourn play that changes on the toss of a coin; Fighting Fantasy style adventure books; Punchdrunk-style immersive theatre… But that’s not the kind of territory my writing has taken me into so far.

So. I repeat my question. How on earth do you write for games? And I’m thinking here of narrative-driven games more specifically.

Maybe the big con is the illusion of non-linearity? Some games don’t try to escape the linear – I’ve been playing through Wolfenstein: The New Order and the Uncharted trilogy recently and they’re fairly straightforward. Cut scene, interactive shooty (or climby) bit, cut scene, interactive shooty (or climby) bit and so on and so forth.

Alternatively, there are games like the Walking Dead where choice forms the central interaction (well, choice and quick time events). This is more the style of game that I’m interested in making, so I’m going to ponder a little deeper.

There’s a trick in this kind of game, which isn’t a criticism – I absolutely adore Telltale’s style and what they’ve done for narrative games. Having replayed a couple of their titles, the impact of the choices is sometimes less than may be imagined. Huge SPOILERS coming for The Walking Dead Season 1…

Whatever you do as Lee, whoever you sacrifice or save, the game will still resolve in pretty much the same way. You’ll go to the farm, then the coast. Clementine will be taken. Lee will get bitten. Clementine will wind up on her own. That said, the emotional journey Lee and Clementine (and the player) take will be different each time as the choices change.

This is interesting, and starts to move the narrative technique away from other media to a degree. In writing fiction, one of the big lessons is to ensure thatthe plot spirals out of the characters’ actions. If in a game the characters can take various different actions but the overall plot remains the same then how does this work? Why doesn’t everything feel contrived in Telltale games and their ilk?

I think the answer is a combination of a few things: firstly, on initial playthrough the player can be unaware of which actions are causing which consequences. So there’s the potential for pulling the wool over a player’s eyes. There’s a great example of the opposite happening in Witcher 2, by the way. Half way through the game you get to choose between following Roache or Iorveth. This takes Geralt and the player to a radically different area – a whole massive chunk of the game and narrative won’t be accessed by players who only play through once. Well done CD Projekt Red! Both options are well worth playing through, if you haven’t already.

I digress though. The second point to consider is which choices the player is given. And how that fits in with the various levels of plot. Is The Walking Dead a game about a man finding a young girl alone following a zombie outbreak, falling in with a group of survivors and doing what he can to protect the girl and the group? Or is it about the relationship between the man and the girl? The plot for the former is set largely in stone, with a few minor tweaks along the way. The latter though is completely mutable and up to the player.

Firewatch (which I’ve written about before), created by some of the team that worked on The Walking Dead, is an example of this to the nth degree. The plot is utterly unchangeable, and there isn’t really the illusion of choice about it; instead the interaction hinges on the relationship you build with a voice on the other end of the radio. Having chosen the protagonist’s backstory at the beginning you then get to decide how this affects his social interactions. At the end of the game you’ll have a character that may feel completely different from someone else’s, but will have gone to all the same places and ‘done’ all the same things.

Last thing to consider – the quality of the writing. Telltale’s Tales From The Borderlands is worth a mention here. Playing through, it felt like the choices were fewer and for the most part less dramatic than The Walking Dead, but by gum it’s great fun. That’s not to detract from The Walking Dead of course, which also features top quality writing. Tales… just elevates things even further. I wouldn’t really have cared if it wasn’t at all interactive – I loved the characters, the premise, the dialogue, the acting (another big plus). And it features the very finest gun fight in the history of everything – without a single gun.

So perhaps linearity isn’t necessarily as old hat as I thought. This is good news, as the game I’m making features a straightforward objective – the protagonist has to escape a ship that’s crashing – but how they achieve that could vary. The main interaction is in three branching dialogue scenes with different characters in our hero’s way, and the options chosen will lead to success or failure. It’ll all be over in a few minutes, but hopefully will be worth a replay to see what other options lead to. Also, worth mentioning that I am in no way comparing the quality of what I’m working on to the games mentioned above. Mine is a doodle that those developers could knock out in half an hour. But it’s a start.

Where the trick lies is remembering all the standard narrative plot structure stuff and lacing the interactivity around that. It’s not something I’ll manage this time around, but definitely useful for the future.

@BornToPootle