Writing Tech Ideas #2 — Canonicity

As a software developer who also writes fiction, I find myself occasionally coming up with software ideas for writers. Honestly, I’ll probably never put in the effort to make these things a reality, but I am curious if anyone else would be interested. Let me know in the comments if this is something you’d use.

The Premise

Writers are often depicted as quiet loners, toiling away in hours of solitude in front of a typewriter or computer. That may be true for some, but many writers seek each other out. There are many vibrant writing communities.

Not only that, but many writers love collaboration—whether it be co-authorship, shared worlds, TTRPGs or fan-fiction. Yet there are surprisingly few places where writers can gather to indulge in these communal writing activities.

Canonicity would be a website and community built around collaborative fiction and shared worlds, where writers from anywhere can work together to create ever-growing fictional universes.

Creating a Universe

The process starts with one or more authors creating a new shared universe. As the creators of this universe they are the admin(s), but they are also opening up their world as a playground for everyone else to come in, look around, and play.

The admin can publish stories, novels, art, and other world-building documents (collectively called stories) in their universe. They also have certain privileges, such as the ability to add other users as admins and mark stories as “canon.”

Collaborating

Other writers can come into a shared universe as participants. They can make their own stories in the admins’ universe. They can use characters and settings that already exist, or invent completely new ones that integrate with the previously created stories.

People can also simply join the universe as readers. Readers can comment and up-vote stories within the universe (whether they are marked as “canon” or not). They can add “tags,” which are short little descriptors of the story to help other readers find what they’re looking for (a bit like Steam tags).

Admins can pick other participants’ stories that are especially high quality or especially well integrated into the existing universe, and mark them as “canon.” This allows the admins to curate a core collection that they feel represents their shared universe. However, users can also sort by votes, view counts, or tags to get more of a community opinion of the best Stories in a shared universe.

Tags can also be used by the community to identify offshoots of the curated “canon” universe, when it grows large enough to have its own identifiable alternate universes.

Monetization

Even as a website that’s primarily serving text, there are going to be costs to keep a live service like this up and running. Monetization offers its own challenges, including more scrutiny of copyright issues. Fan fiction, which should arguably be transformative fair use, is a copyright claim magnet. Even if those claims are spurious, as soon as lawyers have to be involved, things get expensive. Not to mention the kinds of trolls who will happily upload someone else’s bestselling story just to cause trouble.

There are a lot of ways Canonicity could be monetized, but the most effective would probably be to allow authors to monetize their stories and take some percentage. Paid stories (or a paid token system) would be a monetization route that many other fiction services use. Typically the service takes a cut, and the remainder goes to the author. Another strategy might be a subscription service that splits the monthly fee among paid stories based on readership.

If we wanted to avoid paywalls, there are options like running ads alongside story content or paid aesthetic improvements like custom avatars, story backgrounds, themes and emojis.

That’s It

What do you think? Would you be interested in opening up your worlds for others to write in? Would you be interested in writing within universes that others have created?

Writing Advice from Lemony Snicket

I recently reviewed a book by Lemony Snicket called Poison for Breakfast. It’s a delightful little book that has much to do with writing and stories, and as such, Snicket manages to sneak in a little helpful writing advice for authors.

Here are Lemony Snicket’s three rules for writing a book:

It is said that there are three rules for writing a book. The first rule is to regularly add the element of surprise, and I have never found this to be a difficult rule to follow, because life has so many surprises that the only real surprise in life is when nothing surprising happens.

The second rule is to leave out certain things in the story. This rule is trickier to learn than the first, because while life is full of surprises, you can’t leave any part of life out. Everything that happens to you happens to you. Often boring, sometimes exhausting, and occasionally thrilling, every moment of life is unskippable. In a book, however, you can skip past any part you do not like, which is why all decent authors try not to have any of these parts in the books they write. But few authors manage it. Nearly every book has at least one part that sits on the page like a wet sock on the ground, with the reader stopping to look at it thinking What is this doing here?

Nobody knows what the third rule is.

And as a bonus, advice for writing a good sentence:

Almost always, shortening a sentence improves it. A nice short sentence feels like something has been left out, which helps give it the element of surprise.

Genuinely helpful writing advice, or confusing nonsense from a silly book about bewilderment? I’ll leave it for you to decide.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 5.1

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

The people followed the river for days as it descended through the mountains. The great ice that filled in the cracks of the world was here, as it was everywhere. They could often see fields of ice filling the low places. Sometimes it was milky white, sometimes it was the deep blue of the sky just before nightfall. Even though winter was fading, the wind still cut like sharp flint, and the nights were bone-numbingly cold.

Early spring was a dangerous time. The reserves of dry meat, fish and berries that had sustained them through the winter were nearly gone, but the land was just beginning to awaken. There would be few edible plants to find, and nothing would fruit until well after the next full moon. Some animals were still in their long winter sleep. What few could be found would be lean and tough.

The river was a lifeline, not only because it gave them a path to follow, but because it kept them close to the river spirit, who could watch over and protect them. The tribe made good speed after the mild winter in the valley, but they were uneasy. They spoke little as they walked. They had suffered already this spring, and everyone was waiting to see if that hardship would lead to better days, or to more troubles.

God-Speaker felt the weight of their stares, saw them looking away when he turned. There were some who had grumbled when Makes-Medicine had adopted God-Speaker as family. The grumbling was quieter, but no less, when he had heard the stone god speaking and Makes-Medicine had announced that he was a shaman and spirit-talker. Now that she was gone, they were getting louder again. God-Speaker heard the whispers, and he could guess what was being said beyond his hearing.

There was no question of Makes-Medicine’s authority, at least while she was alive. She was beloved by the people, and a hard loss to bear. Now, the unspoken order of the tribe was unsettled. Despite Makes-Medicine’s blessing, God-Speaker was young and untested as a shaman. The tribe had not yet seen proof of the powerful visions or the deep understanding of the spirits that Makes-Medicine had shown. And God-Speaker knew there were some who expected him to be a failure. The grumblers were eager for Braves-the-Storm to lead. He was Makes-Medicine’s brother, now the eldest of the tribe, and wise by all accounts. And he had been a great hunter in his younger days.

Still, the people were a community that worked together. Respect had to be given to those who earned it. For now, the questions of leadership would remain open, and the people would watch and judge everything that God-Speaker did and said. God-Speaker had never wanted the burden of leading, but he had been chosen by the stone god, and by Makes-Medicine, and now he was trapped. When the stone god had first spoken to him, it was thrilling. For once, he felt useful. Now, he wondered if it would have been better for him to have not been chosen.

Three days into the journey, a storm crept over the mountains, dumping heavy, wet snow on them. Travel was slow and miserable, and there were no dry places to sleep. The tribe’s mood worsened, but they continued to descend, following the river and hoping to get clear of the snow.

They came to a place where the river wound back on itself, running between a series of ridges. He heard talk at the front of the group: some of the hunters, men his own age. They were talking about climbing the nearest ridge to see the lay of the land and the course of the river below.

The stone god had been quiet for days, only whispering wordlessly now and then. Now it spoke to him clearly. Go up.

Two of the tribe’s best hunters, Far-Seeing and Finds-the-Trail, were already scrambling up the steep, slippery ridge. It was icy, and covered in loose rock that skittered down behind them.

God-Speaker wanted to back away, into the group that was settling in to wait. Instead, he stepped forward and took a deep, shaky breath. He set down his pack of personal belongings next to the packs the hunters had left behind. Finally, he adjusted the second pack, the one that held the stone god, and began to climb. He heard a few whispers from behind. Nobody had expected him to go up. They did not hear the stone god. They did not feel the compulsion that gripped him.

The slope was shallow enough that it could be walked, if it weren’t so slippery and loosely-packed. God-Speaker kept his hands out, sometimes for balance, sometimes scrabbling on all fours. He slid and scraped his knees and hands. He slowed. The other two continued up the slope above, getting further and further ahead. One of them looked back down at him and grinned mockingly.

To God-Speaker’s surprise, someone else came up the slope behind him. It was Braves-the-Storm. Unlike the younger men, he was clearly taking his time, picking each step and hand-hold carefully. Despite his age and his deliberate movement, he soon caught up to God-Speaker and began to move ahead. As he passed, he nodded to God-Speaker, his face showing no emotion beyond the strain of climbing.

God-Speaker knew he could not catch the hunters, especially once they had seen him coming up behind. Unlike them, he had never earned names praising his strength or hunting prowess. He had always been weak and clumsy. But it was embarrassing to be unable to even keep up with Braves-the-Storm, no matter how strong the old man was for his age.

The two hunters reached the top of the ridge when God-Speaker was only halfway up. They turned back and shouted offers of assistance down to Braves-the-Storm, but he only waved them off. They looked past him to God-Speaker, but said nothing more and walked out of sight.

By the time Braves-the-Storm reached the top, God-Speaker was struggling. He was hot with exertion and freezing at the same time. The cold wind turned the sweat to ice in his hair and beard. His back burned and his hands and arms were shaking with effort. For a moment, he thought about stopping, letting go and sliding back down.

The stone god whispered and hissed. He kept going.

Braves-the-Storm sat at the top of the ridge, catching his breath and waiting for God-Speaker. He offered a hand and pulled him up the last few feet. They sat for a moment, together, looking down on the rest of the people at the bottom of the slope.

Before God-Speaker could calm his breathing, Braves-the-Storm stood with a grunt, giving him a light slap on the shoulder as he turned and followed the two hunters. God-Speaker wanted to sit until the shakiness left his limbs, but he stood and followed.

“We wondered if you would make it,” Far-Seeing said, and both men smirked.

Braves-the-Storm did not smile. “He carries a heavier burden.”

“Heavier than the seasons you carry?” Finds-the-Trail replied. But his smile faded in the face of Braves-the-Storm’s stoic stare.

There was a smooth outcrop of rock at the top of the ridge. Far-Seeing and Finds-the-Trail stood side-by-side, looking down at the land beyond. God-Speaker and Braves-the-Storm stood beside them. From where they stood, the land fell, and fell again down bare stony ledges. The river twisted and turned before pouring into a canyon crusted with ice. It was narrow before the falls—narrow enough that the people might be able to cross it. It was clear that they couldn’t follow the river down. They’d have to pick one side of the canyon or the other.

It was the moment God-Speaker had dreaded. They could no longer follow the river. They might be able to stay close and find it again below, but they had to make a choice now.

“Which side of the river looks best?” asked Finds-the-Trail. He was clearly thinking along the same lines as God-Speaker.

“Even where it’s narrow, it will be dangerous to cross,” Braves-the-Storm replied. “We should not take that risk without good reason.”

“We could stay on this side for now,” God-Speaker said. “We may follow the canyon down to that far ridge and see more of what lies ahead.”

The hunters both narrowed their eyes, as though annoyed that God-Speaker would involve himself in their conversation.

“Yes,” said Braves-the-Storm, “but the path is rough with rocks and ice. It will be slow. We may spend a day or more getting there, and if the trail ahead looks bad, then we will have to come back to the narrow place.”

“Whichever side we pick, we may not find a good path,” Finds-the-Trail said.

Their voices faded from God-Speaker’s ears. At the top of the ridge, the whispers of the stone god grew to a roar. They clung to him and made him itch. He felt compelled to kneel on the flat stone. He swung the leather pack around in front of him. His shoulders throbbed as the burden was removed. The outside world dulled and blurred. He opened the pack and gently slid the stone from it. It was all he could focus on. He cradled the god in his lap, and they surveyed the land together, like a parent cradling a child.

God-Speaker could not tell if the others were still talking amongst themselves. Everything close had become hazy, but the land in the distance was bright and clear. God-Speaker couldn’t hear his own breath. He couldn’t hear the wind scouring the ridge or his companions’ voices, but he could hear the rustle of trees across the river. He could hear the water far away as it quickened down its narrow channel, falling into the canyon in a foamy rush.

Away, beyond the next ridge, before the river dropped from sight, there were other noises. A dull thumping, as of hooves on hard ground, and then a deep bellow. The low groan rose into an eerie trumpeting that echoed among the rocks. It was a sound like elk or deer might make, but strange enough that God-Speaker wondered if it was some other, stranger beast the people did not know.

“Have you ever heard such a noise?” he asked.

“What noise?”

The fog fell away. Once again, the far-away ridge and the river and the woods were distant and muted, and the rock was hard beneath him. He could hear his own breathing again. It was slow and steady now. He shivered as the sweat of the climb dried on his neck and face.

The others stood nearby, looking down on him. The hunters wore their familiar irritated expressions. Braves-the-Storm was impassive.

“You were in a trance,” he said. “We heard nothing but the wind. Did the god speak to you?”

“Not with words,” God-Speaker said. He pointed toward the patch of forest. “I heard hooves on the other side of the river, beyond the ridge. Maybe among those trees. I heard bellows, too.”

“Deer?” asked Finds-the-Trail. He looked interested, in spite of himself.

God-Speaker shook his head. “I don’t know. They were strange, not like deer or elk I have heard before.”

“We should be wary,” Braves-the-Storm said. “It may be some new kind of deer, or a predator.”

“Deer meat would be worth crossing the river for,” Far-Seeing said.

The people still had some of their winter fare. They dug up what edible roots and plants they could find as they traveled, and Far-Seeing had killed a hare with a well-aimed sling-stone, but something as large as a deer could feed everyone.

Finds-the-Trail nodded. “We should cross if there is a chance of deer.”

Braves-the-Storm crossed his arms over his chest. “What do you think, God-Speaker? Did the God show you anything else?”

God-Speaker looked down at the smooth stone head. It was silent now. Even the whispers had quieted.

“Nothing,” he said. “I think it must have a reason to let me hear this, but even Makes-Medicine said that signs from the spirits could often be interpreted in many different ways. I think we should cross, but we should watch carefully for animal signs.”

They said nothing more, but stood for a moment, looking out over the land and holding as much of it in their memories as they could. The hunters seemed caught between their irritation with him and the hope of fresh meat. God-Speaker slid the stone god into its pack and pulled it onto his aching shoulders once more. They all went down together, the hunters again leading the way.

Far-Seeing and Finds-the-Trail moved among the group to explain what they had seen ahead. The people began walking again, with Braves-the-Storm leading the way. God-Speaker walked in the middle of the group. He heard mentions of deer here and there in the group, but nobody approached him to ask what he had seen or heard on the ridge.

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Writing Tech Ideas #1 — Struggle Writer

As a software developer who also writes fiction, I find myself occasionally coming up with software ideas for writers. Honestly, I’ll probably never put in the effort to make these things a reality, but I am curious if anyone else would be interested. Let me know in the comments if this is something you’d use.

The Premise

There’s a truism in art: “constraints breed creativity.” Wide-open, endless possibilities make it harder to make something good. Humans tend to follow the same paths of thought when faced with a familiar situation, but unusual constraints force us to think in different and more creative ways.

Struggle Writer would be a tool that embraces this philosophy in a writing prompt generator.

Pick Your Constraints

Struggle Writer would come with lots of built-in constraints, such as:

  • Write from a specific POV:
    • 1st, 2nd, or 3rd
  • Limited word count:
    • 100, 500, 1000
  • Finish your story in one hour
  • Particular genre (from a list)
  • Include a particular word (chosen randomly from a dictionary or list)
  • Use a word you invent
  • Someone dies
  • Someone is born
  • Include a mystery
  • Include something scary
  • Include magic
  • Include death
  • Include a birth
  • Include an animal
  • Include a natural disaster
  • Include a flashback
  • Include a joke
  • Time of day: morning / evening / late at night
  • Use a literary device (chosen randomly from a list)

You can probably think of many more possibilities, which is why Struggle Writer would include a simple interface for adding custom prompts, or removing prompts you don’t like.

Mix and Match

Depending on how much challenge you want in your writing prompt, you would pick the number of “struggles” you want the tool to include. Then you click the button, and the tool selects that many to build you a randomized prompt.

Don’t like the result? Click the button to re-roll for a new prompt with the same parameters, or change your criteria before trying again.

I could even imagine an interface where you can “lock” specific results and re-roll the ones you don’t like, although that takes away a little bit of the randomness.

Bonus Features

While I think the tool would work pretty well as described above, some other, higher-effort additions might help to spice things up. These could include:

  • Randomized images
  • Randomized sound prompts
  • A connected website to:
    • Share prompts and templates
    • Share custom criteria
    • Share stories with their prompts
    • Upvote the best of each of these

That’s It

It’s a simple idea, but I think it could be a lot of fun for people who like to use writing prompts. The ability to add new options and remove old ones would keep it fresh.

What do you think? If it existed, would you use something like Struggle Writer?

Reblog: How to Study the Craft of Writing — Priscilla Bettis

As I’ve mentioned before, I read a lot of books about writing and the craft of storytelling. Along with regular reading and writing, I think this is one of the keys to improving as an author.

I find I can usually take at least a few good things from any of these “how-to” guides, and I synthesize all of it into my own mish-mash of writing process. However, I’ve always done this very informally, mostly just reading, absorbing, and seeing what sticks.

Bettis suggests a much more rigorous form of study, and encourages us to take notes. Notes let us come back later and get the executive summary of what we read, but perhaps more importantly, they allow us to better retain all those juicy tidbits of advice.

As I’m reading a book or article or even listening to a YT lecture, I jot down key ideas in the left hand column, and then (this is the important part) in the bigger area I immediately apply each concept to a work in progress. If you zoom in on my notes, you might see items about a character named Wang and how I could develop an emotional core for Wang’s story.

I also make little boxes with published examples. In these notes, the published examples are from Moby Dick.

When I’ve filled up the note-taking area down to the bottom section, I stop and get out my yellow pen to highlight the main points of what I just studied. Then (this is another important part), without looking back at the notes so I’m not just copying, I summarize what I’ve learned in my own words at the bottom of the page.

She even includes an example page from her own notes, links to the note-taking method that she adapted, and an article explaining why note-taking can provoke deeper learning.

Check out the full article over at Priscilla Bettis, Author…

The Try/Fail Cycle

Many authors feel that the most challenging part of writing a novel is the middle. It makes sense. It’s easy to bring lots of enthusiasm to the beginning — all the ideas are exciting and new. The end is usually exciting because you’ve fought your way through and you’re finishing the damn thing. But the middle…well, that’s the place where that early, irrational exuberance is fading and you start to discover all of the challenges that the book will require you to overcome.

The middle is often the least-well-defined part of the book. In terms of typical 3-act structure, it’s also the longest. It can be a dangerous mire where the story slows to a crawl, and neither you nor your characters are quite sure what they’re doing.

Luckily, there are some great tools for navigating the squishy center of a novel. I happened to learn about these ideas from the Writing Excuses podcast. One of these principles is the M.I.C.E. quotient, which we talked about previously. The principle I want to talk about today is the try/fail cycle.

Characters Need Goals

Conflict or tension in a story typically comes from characters with goals, and obstacles that prevent them from achieving those goals. It’s a wonderfully simple idea that can be executed in myriad ways.

These don’t have to be explicit goals. The character might know exactly what they’re looking for (e.g. a fantasy quest for the magic sword) or they may have vague needs or wants (the abused orphan who just wants a feeling of belonging and family). However, it’s extremely hard for a character to stay interesting unless they have some goal, some desire, that they’re striving to fulfill.

Try, Try Again

From this first idea (characters with goals are interesting) we can derive more simple yet powerful principles.

  • If a character has a goal, they will try to achieve that goal.
  • When the character unequivocally succeeds (or outright fails) at all of their goals, they stop being interesting.
  • If the character tries and partly succeeds, or partly fails, they will try again.

These are the basic principles of the try/fail cycle. In general, if the character gets what they want, or it becomes impossible for them to get what they want, their story is over. Characters can have multiple goals, and resolving goals or introducing new ones can make for interesting inflection points. In most cases though, the character shouldn’t outright succeed or fail in their biggest goal until the climax of the story.

Luckily, for most interesting character goals there are many possible outcomes. Success and failure are two ends of a large spectrum. Many good plots are full of characters trying to achieve their goals over and over again, each time facing setbacks or only partly succeeding.

The idea of partial success or partial failure are often described as “yes, but…” or “no, and…”. Partial success (“yes, but…”) means that the character gets something they want, or moves closer to success in a goal without outright achieving it. Perhaps the fantasy hero finds an old map that will lead them to the sword, or the orphan makes a friend who seems to have some ulterior motives. Partial failure (“no, but…”) is a setback that can still be overcome or that introduces a new opportunity. Maybe the hero finds the secret tomb, but the evil henchmen already took the magic sword, or the orphan’s friend betrays them, but only to save their kidnapped family.

Consequences and Complications

One of the important things about the try/fail cycle is that each outcome (each “yes, but…” or “no, and…”) should change the status quo. While the character is trying, they are on a path. After their partial success or partial failure, they have to change course before trying again.

These outcomes can be split into two different categories: consequences and complications. A consequence means that the situation has changed, but the character’s goal remains the same. The hero still wants the magic sword, but they need to get it from the henchmen instead of from the secret tomb. A complication introduces a new goal or desire for the character. The orphan still wants a friend, but now they need to help save the kidnapped family as well.

It’s important to be careful when adding complications. In terms of M.I.C.E. threads, adding a complication introduces a new nested plot thread. That thread now needs to be pushed forward and resolved appropriately, while still managing the character’s original goal. Complications literally complicate the story — they add more complexity! A story where every try/fail cycle ends with a complication can quickly spiral out of control, as the many different goals and conflicts collapse under their own weight.

Tightening that Middle

If we break down a story by the M.I.C.E. quotient idea of nested threads, then any long-running thread can naturally be composed of multiple try/fail cycles. Each cycle will have consequences (changing the status quo and advancing the plot in some way) or complications (introducing new goals).

The natural shape of many stories is to introduce one or more major goals (and main M.I.C.E. threads) at the beginning, ramp up the complexity and introduce new goals (via complications) in the middle, and then resolve those complications one by one approaching the end, saving the resolution of the most important goals for the climax.

For a story that’s dragging in the middle, this is a great framework. Do the characters have goals that they’re trying to achieve? Are their try/fail cycles changing the status quo? Are there too many or too few complications to make the story interesting?

This kind of writing craft naturally appeals to me as a planner, but even if you’re more of an exploratory writer, it can be nice to have these sorts of frameworks to use when inspiration is in short supply. That novel’s difficult middle isn’t so intimidating when you’ve got the tools to work through it.

Lemony Snicket Proves I Can Love Literary Fiction

This is a review — a word which here means, “an excuse to write about a book that I like” — for the book, Poison for Breakfast. This book was written by Daniel Handler, who sometimes calls himself Lemony Snicket when he’s writing books. He mostly uses straightforward language, and when he doesn’t, he likes to define the words he’s using, as I just did, above.

Poison for Breakfast is a book that takes its time getting where it’s going, but it does get there. So I’m going to take my time getting where I’m going in this review. I’ll start by talking about music and books.

How I’ve Felt About Music

I first recall really paying attention to music, beginning to realize that I might have opinions about music, in middle school. Those opinions were mainly whether I liked a particular song or not. For some music lovers, there is a particular genre they fall in love with, and it becomes a lifelong passion. I had no conception of genre, at first. That came sometime later.

When I did develop opinions about genre, they were mostly vague and negative ones, influenced, if not outright parroting, my parents’ tastes. I recall “hating” techno, rap, and country music, or at least saying that I did.

As I grew into an adult, I made it a point of pride to seek out opinions and ideas that challenge or conflict with my own beliefs, whether that be in politics, religion, or music. I’ve been an adult for many years now (a shocking number, when I stop to think about it), and I’ve sought to listen to a wide variety of music. Luckily, we live in a world where there are still a few independent radio stations and innumerable streaming services, not to mention Bandcamp, YouTube, and all the other places where artists can make their work available to the world without much interference.

I’ve learned that there is no genre of music I truly dislike. The trick is to find a single song that I can appreciate. From there, I always find more. Rather than genres that I “hate,” it turns out I just have genres where I’m pickier.

A Little Cognitive Dissonance

From a very young age, I’ve been attracted to genre fiction. I loved books about aliens when I was a child. Around the time I was discovering opinions about music, my mother’s co-worker introduced me to The Lord of the Rings, and from there I was thoroughly hooked on fantasy as well as sci-fi.

As I grew and my tastes in music expanded, so did my tastes in literature. Once again, all it takes is finding one book to serve as a gateway into a new genre. While I once may have eschewed non-fiction or romance, I’ve discovered a love of all sorts of non-fiction in recent years, and a few romances too (even if they do have a sci-fi bent).

I just talked about how I like to keep an open mind and expand my interests. It might seem absurd then, that I would shy away from any genre of literature. But the absurdity of it doesn’t make it any less true.

Literary fiction, which oddly has become as much a closed-off genre as sci-fi or fantasy, has long left a bitter taste in my mouth. Since this is a label more controversial than most genre labels, I’ll provide my own controversial definition: “fiction that is more interested in playing with words than in telling a compelling story.” This is a definition that encompasses quite a lot of “traditional” Lit-Fic, while also allowing something like Vandermeer’s Dead Astronauts, which many people might exclude, to perhaps straddle the border.

I might trace my early dislikes in music to my parents tastes, but I have a harder time tracing my literary dislikes. I’m sure it didn’t help that school foisted onto me some of these lit-fic “masterpieces,” like Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby, without adequate context and certainly before I was mature enough to appreciate much about them. I have gone back to a few of these books in recent years, and discovered that they at least have something to offer, even if I didn’t fall in love with all of them.

Literary Fiction

Writing a review of a book that barely mentions the book itself is considered bad form by many people. With this in mind, and having now taken a leisurely drive around the metaphorical block, let’s return to where we started this somewhat strained music/literature metaphor.

This is one of those books that, by my own definition, qualifies as literary fiction. And I enjoyed it quite a lot. Not only that, but what I enjoyed most was the words, rather than the story. I enjoyed it because it was literary fiction.

One could argue (with good supporting evidence) that this book does have a plot. It begins with Snicket, the narrator, who is told by anonymous note that he has eaten poison for breakfast. He spends the rest of the book trying to solve this mystery, though his methods mostly involve meandering around town and becoming lost in thought. It’s a tiny plot, but also a tiny book. This little bit of story is just enough to let the book focus on what it really wants to do, which is play with words.

Poison for Breakfast is so full of delightful sentences that I started marking the bits I liked with little scraps of paper. By the time I finished, there was a nice, thick ruffle of scraps sticking out. The book is full of anecdotes and asides that seem like non sequiturs until you read a bit further and find that they’re referenced again and again; linguistic winks and nods, like inside jokes with the reader. It wraps back around on itself. It pulls disparate threads together and twists them into delightful and surprising shapes.

There are motifs, like sets of rules that turn out to really only be one rule from a certain point of view, or that a good story must be bewildering, or the contents of the narrator’s breakfast, left-justified like poetry with each individual food on its own line:

Tea

with honey,

a piece of toast

with cheese,

one sliced pear,

and one egg perfectly prepared

And there is death. This is a book that mentions brutal prison camps; and death by starvation, and old age, and of course, poison.

Winks and Nods

A book about being poisoned might not sound like a child-friendly book. And perhaps it isn’t. Like Snicket’s other books, this is a book that observes the world with a child-like wonder, and discusses it with mostly simple and straightforward language. It’s a book that seems to understand a child’s perspective. It is more of a child-understanding book. It feels like the sort of conversation you might have been lucky enough to have as a child, with an adult who spoke seriously and honestly, and didn’t sugar-coat the truth or dumb-down the complicated. An adult who understood how to speak with children as equals.

By virtue of being both author and narrator, Snicket places himself where he can freely talk about his love of language and literature, and the books, poems, songs, and ideas he likes, while also illustrating that joy in his own words.

The second-to-last chapter takes all the little callbacks, the little winks and nods, and ties them all together in a neat little bundle. It’s the big reveal at the end of the magic show. And in the final chapter, Snicket sets to work writing the story you are in the midst of reading, making the whole thing feel like the cycle of chicken and egg (which is itself another repeated motif from earlier in the book).

Poison or Antidote?

Poison for Breakfast reminded me that I can love literary fiction, even if it’s not the first section I visit in the book store. As an added bonus, this is a book ostensibly for children, so I will get to enjoy it a second time when I read it to mine. With any luck, they won’t spend years thinking that they dislike whole categories of things when they are, in fact, just a little bit picky.

Reblog: Crutch Words – the Word Police — D. Wallace Peach

Today’s reblog is a helpful reminder of some words that can feel good when you’re in the process of writing, but don’t pull their weight. I know I have my own list of personal “favorites” that I search down and excise from early drafts.

Crutch words are words that add nothing to the meaning of a sentence. They’re hollow words that we automatically insert and frequently don’t notice. We want our writing to be tight and sharp. Too many crutch words will slow down the pace and dull the impact.

An interesting thing about crutch words is that we often have favorites. You may never use some words from the list below and use others more than you want to admit!

Read the rest over at Myths of the Mirror…

Games for People Who Prefer to Read — The Stanley Parable

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to personify different types of media for a moment.

Literature is the eldest. From flash fiction to the longest novels, it has been thoroughly explored. Comfortable in its tropes and standard structures, but permitting all kinds of experimentalism. Home to derivative commercial fiction and plotless literary meanderings.

Cinema, and its fraternal twin, television, are mature adults, but perhaps not quite as well-explored as their venerable older sibling. With the advent of ubiquitous streaming, we’re seeing new and exciting forms that break the strict boundaries of commercial viability that have constrained them for so much of their history.

Finally, there are video games. Just blooming into their teenage years, they have realized with a thrill that they can become something more than what they currently are, but are still not quite sure what they want to be when they grow up.

The Stanley Parable

The Stanley Parable is indicative of these teenage growing pains, grappling with the questions of experience and participation that we’ve discussed here before. The game is nearly a decade old, and the narrative ideas that it pioneered have been expanded in other games since then. However, a new expanded edition is coming early next year, so now seems like a great time to talk about it.

The game begins with a black screen and cheerful, perhaps cheeky music plays as we zoom slowly through a very dull office building. We land in a particular drab office, facing the uninteresting back of a man in front of his computer.

The very British narrator sets the scene:

This is the story of a man named Stanley. Stanley worked for a company in a big building where he was employee # 427. Employee # 427’s job was simple: he sat at his desk in room 427 and he pushed buttons on a keyboard. Orders came to him through a monitor on his desk, telling him what buttons to push, how long to push them, and in what order. This is what employee 427 did every day of every month of every year, and although others might have considered it soul rending, Stanley relished every moment that the orders came in, as though he had been made exactly for this job. And Stanley was happy.

And then one day, something very peculiar happened, something that would forever change Stanley, something he would never quite forget. He had been at his desk for nearly an hour when he realized that not one, single order had arrived on the monitor for him to follow. No one had shown up to give him instructions, call a meeting, or even say hi. Never in all his years at the company had this happened, this complete isolation. Something was very clearly wrong. Shocked, frozen solid, Stanley found himself unable to move for the longest time, but as he came to his wits and regained his senses, he got up from his desk and stepped out of his office.

At this moment, when the player first gains control of Stanley, the game has already hinted at its objectives. Stanley has been made exactly for this job. He has been frozen solid, unable to move, as he waits for the player to finish the cut-scene. The player and Stanley have exactly one way to proceed: get up from the desk and step out of the office.

It is this interplay between the player and The Narrator that The Stanley Parable is all about.

The Meta-Narrative

A single play-through of The Stanley Parable is short and strange, and not especially profound. It might elicit a few chuckles. It might be a bit uncomfortable. And then the scene fades and Stanley and the player find themselves back in the office, starting over. The game is not in the play, but in the replay. The peculiarities of The Stanley Parable only become apparent when playing the game over and over again.

As the player, you soon discover that you can make choices that change the story. In fact, your choices have such a radical effect on the story that it is completely different and often contradictory between playthroughs. Strangely, this mish-mash of alternative stories makes any one version of it seem less and less significant. You may like or dislike particular stories, but the game doesn’t tell you how to win or lose. As a player, the most obvious goal is to explore and discover all the different ways to “complete” the game.

In this way, the narrative becomes unimportant. It’s the meta-narrative that matters.

Through playing over and over again, you also discover that you can interact with The Narrator himself. He does his best to describe what you’re doing, and what you’re going to do. He explains that you’ll go left at the fork, and the you can make him a liar by choosing to go right. He explains that there’s nothing of interest in that broom closet, but you can choose to sit there anyway, much to The Narrator’s consternation.

And yet, this is a false rebellion. The Narrator is just another character in the story. Even if you fight the story he has planned for you at every juncture, you’re still choosing from options that have been meticulously planned by the developers of the game. You can foil The Narrator, but you’re still playing into the hands of the developers.

You have choices, and those choices have consequences…for a little bit. Then the game starts over. The world begins anew. The Stanley Parable asks if those choices—choices pre-defined and wiped away after each reset—have any meaning. Can any choices in a video game have any meaning when they only have consequences within the game, and perhaps, within the player?

A Light Touch

These are heady questions, and a lesser game might find itself mired in dull philosophy. However, The Stanley Parable couches everything in absurdism. It alternates constantly between the bizarre and the mundane. Kevan Brighting’s voice acting as The Narrator provides dry wit and hammy over-acting in equal measure.

The game is enjoyable even if you only pay attention to the surface-level silliness. But it gives the player the opportunity to dig deeper, if they so choose. Chances are good that some of the well-hidden story paths will slip by even a dedicated player without a guide, giving the impression that the game just keeps getting more subtle and strange as you invest more time into it. A quick google search for “the meaning of The Stanley Parable” will make it clear that plenty of players have chosen to dig very, very deep into the game. Honestly, maybe a little too deep.

And Even More?

It’ll be interesting to see what The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe edition adds to the original game. This is a game that really affected the landscape of narrative games in the eight years since its release, but that also means that it’s no longer necessarily on the cutting edge.

The marketing copy suggests there will be “new endings and new choices,” which again is merely the surface-level experience that the game offers. More interesting to me will be any new directions the developers take the meta-narrative ideas of the first game. Will it be derivative of the original, or introduce something new?

Getting the Game

The original Stanley Parable is available on PC via Steam.

Despite several delays, the Stanley Parable Ultra Deluxe is expected in 2022, on Steam and consoles.

Restarting A Writing Project

This past week, I started working on Razor Mountain again after taking about a week and a half off. It wasn’t too tough to get back in the swing of things, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t take me longer than usual to finish that chapter. And it was really a struggle getting that first sentence out. This particular break was a much-needed rest, and it helped me to recharge and get excited about writing again. It also got me thinking about coming back to old projects.

I have to admit, consistency has never been my biggest strength. I’ve tried to develop a daily writing habit many times, but I doubt it has ever lasted more than a month. I’m the kind of writer that vacillates between periods of productivity and…well, not productivity.

I often find that getting the motivation to write is as big of a challenge as the actual writing. As many authors have said, I don’t always like to write, but I like having written. That motivation can be even harder to find when I’ve let a project falter in the middle. Whether it has been a day, a week, a month or longer, it can be a struggle to pick up where I left off.

Tips for Starting Again

In some ways, the challenge of coming back to a half-finished project is just a very specific form of writer’s block. You may have forgotten where you left off, you may be uncertain where you want to go, you may have forgotten the names of all the minor characters, or you may simply have a hard time getting excited about the thing again. Each of these blocks can be overcome.

Read/Edit the Story So Far

This may seem obvious, but one of the easiest ways to get back into a story is to read what you already have. This can be daunting if you’re halfway through a novel, so you might start with the most recent chapter and see how you feel.

When I reread my work, especially an early draft, I have an immediate desire to edit. That often isn’t the most effective use of time when the work is still unfinished, but in this case it may be a desire worth indulging. Editing is still writing, and it can be a gentle way to ease back into the process. Once I’ve read through the most recent chapter and edited out all the ugly phrasings and typos that popped out to me, I find myself at the end of that chapter, all warmed up and ready to start filling the next empty page.

Read Your Notes

If you’re working on a large enough project that you were taking notes on the side, these can be a much better way of getting back into that “author headspace” than simply reading the story itself. I like to think that my important themes and ideas are going to be obvious on the page, and I’d immediately pick them up on re-reading, but the truth is that most of my first drafts lack that sort of detail.

A few notes on a character’s obsessions or their back-story might be more helpful than the most recent chapter or two. You’ve already written where the characters have been. To move forward, you have to focus on where they’re going.

Start Somewhere Exciting

Sometimes, the place you left off just doesn’t excite you. If that’s the case, don’t be afraid to skip ahead or back-track. Ask yourself if the story seems to have gone off-track, or if you’re just more interested in something you know is coming up. It’s okay to jump to the exciting part to get back into writing mode.

This may feel weird if you’re not used to writing out-of-order, but it can actually be good practice. Just think of it as a non-linear story. Jumping ahead doesn’t mean you can’t go back and fill in the blanks later. You may even find that something from the “future” of the story makes going back to write the “past” more interesting.

Ask if It’s Good—or Why You Stopped

On that same note, being bored with a story can be a warning sign. If you stopped because the story wasn’t holding your interest, and you come back to find that you still don’t want to write that part, it may just not be good. That faint sound you hear is Maud Newton in the distance, trying to tell you “Don’t Write the Tedious Thing!”

Try to remember what drew you to these ideas in the first place. Instead of struggling to finish the story you don’t actually want to write, take the time to find the story you’re excited about, and get back to writing that.

Don’t Be Afraid of Breaks

When I took my (relatively short) vacation from Razor Mountain, I was worried about pausing, about losing momentum. The truth is that it was a much needed break, and I felt remarkably refreshed afterward. It took a bit of effort to get started again, but once I had, I found that the words flowed just as well as they always had: sometimes easily, sometimes haltingly, but they were still there to be found, somewhere just above and behind my eyeballs.

If you’re worried about “falling off the wagon,” it helps to have practiced. I happen to be an expert starter-and-stopper, so I know that it can be painful to start again, but I also know that I can. I’ve done it many times before.

You might be able to make it easier on yourself. You can plan it out like a writing vacation, with beginning and end dates. You can leave yourself an exciting spot to start back up, in a scene you love, perhaps even mid-sentence, instead of waiting for some painful sticking spot to take a hiatus. You can leave some notes for your future self to remind you of all the wonderful threads you’re in the process of spinning.

In the end, it’s important to remember that writing is a physical task as well as a mental one. You put down one word after another. Finish a sentence and start the next. If you can do that, you’re writing again.