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

Writing a Game

A controller for videogames

You may have spotted that I’ve been banging on about games for the last few posts. That’s because I’ve been playing a lot of games. In fact I’ve been doing a lot more of that than reading books. And I’ve been thinking about how narrative works in games. Which has led to the obvious conclusion of trying to write a game.

So that’s what I’ve been up to.

And will be up to for a little while, because my joyful enthusiasm for writing a game has been met with the actual reality of writing a game.

Because games have code.
And graphics.
And sound.
And all kinds of other shenanigans, as well as the, y’know, fun bit of writing some frippery.

But I’m giving it a go and will post the result here when I’m done. First off though, here’s a few initial thoughts.

How the arse does one start making a game? The good news is that there are a shedload of tools available for free these days. Including some pretty impressive pieces of kit. Like the Unreal Engine.

That’s the engine that games like the next Shenmue and Psychonauts sequels are being built around. It’s bona fide triple A. Also, hurrah for Psychonauts 2! So, being a rookie game developer, the engine responsible for massively ambitious games seemed like the very best place to start.

Yeah. Right.

There are plenty of tutorials knocking around (of varying quality – one was by a chap who had no idea how to use it, but decided to upload a tutorial anyway. Weird), but I swiftly realised that it may have been just a tad ambitious. Particularly as I was missing the most important thing: an idea.

Stupid, huh? I wouldn’t start writing a novel or short story or play without a decent idea of what I was trying to accomplish, so how on earth could I start fiddling around with game design without a plan.

So I had a bit of a think about the games I’ve enjoyed the most recently – Life Is Strange, Witcher 3, The Stanley Parable to name a few – and what common themes I could glean. I’ve also, while looking for some light relief, been trying Wolfenstein: The New Order. It’s a standard linear shooter; very well put together, but I really have struggled to engage with it as it’s so… well… linear. So there’s the answer: I wanted to make something with options and choice.

An idea formed, and after a frank discussion with myself about my art skills (C at GCSE was bloody generous) I settled on an engine called Gamemaker Studio. There have been big games made with it – Undertale and Hotline Miami for example – but it seems a bit easier to get to grips with. There’s also a massive tutorial community on YouTube which is great and much needed.

And so for the last few weeks I’ve been teaching myself the basics of coding, getting increasingly lost in ‘if’ statements, plus learning about pixel art. And somewhere in there I’ve written a load of dialogue and recorded half of it in a variety of silly voices.

Watch this space.

But don’t hold your breath.

@BornToPootle

 

Link

firewatch_150305_01

Sunsetwatch would be a more apt name for my playthrough

I’ve been playing an awful lot of games recently, which has been rather nice. And since ‘finishing’ the mahoosive Witcher 3 I’ve turned my attention to shorter games with a focus on the narrative. Stand up Firewatch, Life Is Strange and Tales From The Borderlands. That’s got me thinking about endings, whether videogames approach them differently to other media and whether that matters.

Before we get any further – there are some SPOILERS ahead for Firewatch and Life Is Strange. And Mass Effect 3.

It’s impossible to think about game endings without mentioning Mass Effect 3. So great was the outcry against the ending for Bioware’s brilliant space opera that they went back and created a more in depth version. The things is, I completed it before they fiddled with the ending; although I have started a replay of the whole trilogy, I haven’t got to the third instalment yet, let alone the end. For me though, the original ending was fine. It was a relatively simple and abrupt choice, sure, but so what? The Mass Effect trilogy are huge games, full of memorable ohmygod moments.

What sticks out most in my playthrough is the fate of Tali. She was my lover and I damned her to death through the complicated moral choices surrounding her race and the sentient robots they’d created. I named my laptop after Tali (uh huh) out of a sense of remorse, though still sure I’d made the right choice. And I’m sure for other people the genophage plot line or the mighty Garrus will be the stand-out moments. For me, the ending couldn’t ever live up to the impact of the Tali moment. Think of that as being the focus of my Commander Shepard’s plot and everything else the background detail. Sure, the universe was at stake, but that was always going to feel less personal.

Life Is Strange offers a similar ending in a way. The game follows teenager Max ‘literary reference’ Caulfield through a week in which she develops minor time manipulation powers, reunites with her former bff and gatecrashes the cool-kids’ party (may not sound like much, but it’s a grower and worthy of all the praise). It’s a game of choice and consequences and, despite being smaller in scope, is no less impactful. Ultimately though, it comes down to ‘press this button to be magnanimous, this button to be selfish.’ Some argue – vociferously, from the message boards I’ve seen – that it renders the whole game pointless; all the previous choices are inconsequential given the ending. I disagree with that. Sure, you can argue about the logic of her time powers and what she’ll remember, what was ‘right’ for the character, but I don’t think that’s the point. During the course of the game, I saw characters who seemed like sketchily drawn archetypes become fully fleshed out people. One of the main characters, a seemingly typical rebellious teen managed to grow into someone I felt I understood. Brilliantly, the writers seemed to know that the character came across as a clichéd rebel – that was her mask to face the world and when they allowed us little glimpses beneath it paid off. What really sung for me though, was that after 15+ hours of choices, I knew the characters so well that, when the final choice presented itself, I found I didn’t really have any choice at all.

Although I loved Life Is Strange as an overall experience, some of the plotty bits – particularly in the last chapter – didn’t quite grab me. I had the same experience with Firewatch. Perhaps unsurprisingly though, considering the team were in part responsible for Walking Dead Season 1, it’s the emotional punch that ties it together more than the plot. As a narrative game (rather than an action or puzzle game) it seems odd to think of the plot being second-fiddle, but that’s how it felt to me, and I reckon I’m ok with that.

Within 3 minutes of the start of the game I was in tears. In that respect, It’s the Up of videgames (no talking dogs though, more’s the pity). Through a very simple but incredibly effective text adventure at the beginning, the main character’s background is fleshed out with a few tricky and devastating choices. What consequences that has on the plot is minimal. But on how you play the game it’s quite the reverse. Your character, Henry, is a firewarden up in Wyoming, all alone in a large area of national park but for his supervisor’s voice on the radio and a few glimpsed-from-a-distance guests. A plot slowly unfolds, starting as wonderful paranoia and ending as melodrama. Throughout it all though, you’ll be chatting to your supervisor. Or dodging personal conversation topics. Or flirting outrageously. You see, Henry hasn’t gone into the forest to find exciting plotty things, he’s gone to find himself. I felt that I ended the game with Henry ready to face the world again, shaped by the experiences that led him to seek solitude, but no longer defined by them. And that is massively satisfying in and of itself.

These games have all had their endings scrutinised and criticised, but I think that’s judging one medium by the standards of others. Games aren’t films; done well, there’s an investment in the characters that simply isn’t possible in other media. Sure, a hugely satisfying ending is something to strive for, but sometimes the journey really is the most important thing.

Discovery Day at Foyles

Today was Discovery Day at the Foyles book shop on Charing Cross Road. What that means is that a load of agents from Conville & Walsh and Curtis Brown had foolishly agreed to meet a massive load of authors and listen to hundreds of novel pitches.

I’ve written a fair bit about pitching generally (and specifically) while touting my novel A Calling-on Song (update: it needs a bit of a redraft and is waiting in my queue of projects to work on). What I hadn’t done to date though, was pitch my novel to an agent in person. Bearing that in mind I prepared a pitch for the novel I’m currently working on, which is roughly 50% complete and 50% drafted/plotted.

The Discovery Day Setup

Foyles

The view from the queue

I had been allotted a time slot, so was allowed into the queue (long, but well managed don’tcherknow). Awaiting me at the top was an agent looking for two things: a 30 second verbal pitch, and the first page of my novel. That’s all they were after.

I heard someone in the queue likening the experience to an X Factor audition. I think that’s a little unfair – X Factor seems predominantly about revelling in other people’s misery, humiliation and lack of self-knowledge (I’m not a fan). This, as the blurb promised, was more like speed dating. No-one would witness my soaring success or crashing failure apart from me and the agent, and maybe, just maybe, a long and fruitful relationship would come out of it all.

30 Seconds Of Glory

I reached the front of the queue, clutching my pitch notes and first page in an increasingly sweaty hand. Then it was time and I was led across the room to sit opposite an agent. Her surname was the same as one of the most famous/infamous magickal figures of the last couple of hundred years, which I took to be a good omen – my novels tend towards magick with a ‘k’ after all. We introduced ourselves and then it was showtime.

As I’ve written before, distilling a novel full of odd characters, weird cults and all sorts of dramatic goings on down into a handful of sentences is both gut-wrenching and necessary. This is what I came up with for this event, though I think it’s a bit on the long side in hindsight:

“When a teenage punk trio sell their souls to the wrong devil, the fate of all music hangs in the balance. Reuben James was the original guitarist with We Are The Scene, back before they were famous. Now he’s the most hated man on the planet. Blamed by tabloids and fans alike after the death of We Are The Scene’s singer, it’s time for Reuben to reveal the truth behind their stratospheric rise and tragic fall. This isn’t sex and drugs and rock and roll; this is small town toilet venues, revenge and ancient magick.”

Once that was done, the agent asked me a few questions: was it my first novel – nope, but would be my first to be published. Did I think it was stronger – yup, a much more active main character for starters. Where did the idea come from – mashing together some of my favourite things, together with a great deal of time spent at the Tunbridge Wells Forum in my youth, both watching and playing. That sort of thing.

And then?

She read the first page. Asked if it was a horror novel (more urban fantasy with horror elements than out and out horror I’d say. So I did). Then told me it wasn’t really her sort of thing and wrote down an agent who was building a SF/F list and bade me farewell.

That was it?

Not quite. I had been hoping for a little feedback on the pitch – was it on point or waffly etc, but there wasn’t any of that. I headed downstairs and joined a table of five other pitchers chatting to a different agent. This was more about the industry and process generally, not specifically about our individual pitches, but was a nice informal group. Following questions, the agent talked about his slush-pile process, trends in literary and women’s fiction and the like.

And that was that. Nerve-wracking and certainly an interesting experience. It was a bit of a shame there wasn’t really any feedback from the agent I pitched to – as with letters of rejection, the more feedback I get from the industry the more I can work out how to approach things in future. But talking about my novel to industry types was great practice which could prove invaluable, and I’ve got the name of an agent to approach once the novel is done. Now to ride up and down in Foyles lifts until one of the agents is trapped in there with me… All I need is 30 seconds!

@BornToPootle

Link

Due to that all-too-frequent excuse of life getting in the way, my writing has taken a back seat for a couple of months. On the plus side, both me and my wife have nifty new jobs that involve writing and analysing others’ writing respectively.

Now that’s all settled I’ve been trying to get back into a writing rhythm but struggling. The main reason is that I’m at a bit of an impasse with a couple of projects and at the early stages of another where it’s hard to pick it back up  again just like that – it’s not ingrained in my brain enough yet.

Fortunately I received an email from some newsletter or other I’d signed up to about a short story competition and something sparked in my head. Check out Create50 – they’ve got a horror comp on at the mo and it’s a variation on the usual. While I’ve submitted a short story (max 2000 words) they’re also open to creepy music and art. The panel, and they seem like a high profile one, will pick their top 50 and that amalgamation will be published together. Quite how that works with music too I’m not sure, but I like the idea.

In addition to being open to other media, there’s a great community vibe going on. As part of entering you have to pay (a fiver) but you also have to provide feedback on at least 3 other entries. This feedback can then be used by the author to redraft their submission once or twice if desired.

It’s a cool system that seems like a good way to build a community around the Create50 projects. So far I’ve received two bits of feedback on my story, both of which are really positive but highlight the same element as a weakness – that of course gives me a great idea for how to redraft and resubmit.

There is the potential, as there is in any crowd-based idea, for things not to work out. If many people highlight the same weakness then how can you be sure they all read the piece rather than copied an earlier review? 2000 words is pretty short which should encourage people to do it properly, and I get a supportive vibe from looking through profiles and the like.

Also, what if someone’s mean about my story? Well, the likelihood is they’re also a creator themselves so it’s more likely there’ll be some kind of constructiveness in there… right? We’ll see!

Another odd thing is the star ratings – when leaving feedback you have to give the piece a star rating out of five. I’ve received two 4s so far, which is nice, but it’s hard to know what they really mean. According to the competition blurb, the judging panel disregard these ratings which is good – otherwise it could turn into a popularity contest with social media campaigns trying to get chums to block vote. The idea of the star ratings is under discussion by the Create50 team at the mo, so perhaps they’ll disappear.

I’m going to take a look at a few submissions tonight and give feedback, so hopefully I’ll discover some nifty new horror.

The comp is open until November so there’s plenty more time for submissions and redrafts – I’ll let you know how I get on. If you’ve entered then let me know and I’ll have a read of your submission. Or a listen. Mine’s called The Cut if you fancy taking a gander.

Alternatively, if you’ve entered this kind of thing before let me know of any great or terrible experiences in a comment below.

@BornToPootle

A Professional Critique of my Novel

This is the latest in my series on trying to get my first novel published.

A little while ago I wrote about sending my manuscript off to a professional critiquing service. I chose one of the most reputable (based on my own research) – Writers’ Workshop.

I was happy with my manuscript, but had sent it out to a number of literary agents without luck. During the many drafts I had critiques from a few brave and trusted souls – trusted to give honest feedback rather than glowing praise, that is – but I’d put some money aside and thought a pro critique would be a good idea. After all, this is the first novel I’ve got to a stage that I’d call finished. I’m working on a number of other projects which are at various stages of completion, so if there are important lessons to learn or delusions I’m under then best to find out now.

Writers’ Workshop are frank on their website: they won’t sugarcoat bad news. So it was with some trepidation that I sent my manuscript off. They let me know the name of the chap who would be critiquing the novel. I looked him up (of course) and found out he had a massive number of books published. Most of them are children’s books, but also a fair few that seemed to fit with my novel’s genre and market.

I waited. I held my breath. I twiddled.

An email from my critiquer dropped into my inbox (in very good time, I should point out). Despite being under the weather when the email arrived, I opened it straight away. On a side note, there isn’t a really satisfying way of opening exciting emails. Not like tearing into an envelope or using that weapon of a more civilised age, the letter opener. Oh well, progress.

Now, I knew to keep my expectations in check. I’m self-taught as a writer and haven’t previously had anything looked at by a ‘proper’ author. That said, and if I’m entirely honest, deep down a tiny little part of me really did think the opening sentences were going to be singing the praises of the finest novel of its generation.

Sadly that’s not what awaited me.

First the good bit: he liked my writing style. That’s a biggie. If it turned out that I really can’t write that would be a rather large blow (though not career-ending, judging by a couple of obvious recent bestsellers).

There were major problems though. The critiquer thought the pacing / plotting wasn’t right and, even more crucially, hated the main character – particularly his passivity and refusal to engage. There were other things too (as well as a number of things he really liked), but these seemed to be the biggest issues that will require major work to fix.

Now this is interesting.

Very interesting.

Because after the first draft I noticed these problems myself. Over the following redrafts I tried to fix them with tweaks here and there (alongside other overhauling work), but I never tore out the root of the problem. I thought I could polish the issues away and hoped I’d succeeded. Apparently not.

And this is great news. Not as great as if I’d written the Finest Novel Of Its Generation of course, but great nonetheless.

Why?

It means I can trust my instincts. That’s a fantastic position to be in. I may not be hitting the bestseller lists any time soon, but if I can trust my writing, trust my instincts and keep plugging away then who knows where I’ll end up.

If you’ve had any good or bad experiences with pro critiquing then let me know in the comments – it’d be great to compare notes.

@BornToPootle